Skipping Louis the Fourteenth

BreakfastBiting into the croissant, I realized it was the first I’d ever tasted. Those mass produced oil sponges I’d been eating all my life were mere imposters compared to this French morsel of delight, which was smaller, darker, and crunchier. The inside was dense and chewy and seduced my taste buds with a flavor so full it almost brought tears to my eyes. I sipped my petit café and smiled. Donna seemed to enjoy watching my blissful moment.

Coming to this small café had become our morning ritual – a getaway before the kids woke up. “Marit is joining us this morning.” Donna said, taking a sip of her café au lait. “As soon as she gets dressed and finishes her make up.”

That would take at least an hour, which gave me a good reason to order another croissant – or two. While waiting, we talked about Alex. So far on this trip, his demeanor had been like a roller coaster – happy and participative one day, then sullen and rebellious the next. He’d been in a funk for a couple of days straight. We’d spent the prior day at the Louvre, and I think that after seeing a hundred paintings they all started looking the same to him and his mind wandered to thoughts of home.

On our last full day in Paris, Donna and Marit were looking forward to taking the train out to Versailles to see the palace of Louis XIV. I didn’t want to spend another day sequestered inside a building. I’d rather walk around Paris without any plans and simply enjoy it. Donna thought that was a great idea for me and Alex, hoping it would help sort things out with him.

* * *

We escorted the others to the train station and saw them off. As anticipated, Alex was up for this plan and seemed happy.

On the streets outside the station, a heavenly aroma drew us toward a sidewalk croque-monsieur stand and I realized we hadn’t tried this classic French treat. Neither of us were particularly hungry, but it would have been a crime to pass up this opportunity (it smelled that wonderful). The woman running the stand looked older than me, was blonde, and had a calm and sophisticated air about her – she could have been an art museum docent as well as a sandwich griller. We lined up behind two young men that wore tight bright jackets and pointy shoes. They seemed confused about how much to pay and as they argued with one another I detected an Italian accent. The woman, clearly fed up, looked at us and rolled her eyes. Finally she grabbed some coins directly from the palm of the less talkative one and replaced it with a sandwich. As they walked away, she said Arrivederci. It was funny the way she pronounced it – Ah-reeeeeeee-va-diarchy – with such deadpan sarcasm. When our turn came up I was determined to be better customers. I mustered up my courage and deliver the phrase I’d been repeating in my mind: “Bonjur, un croque-monsieur.”

Her dark eyes moved back and forth between Alex and me – studying us. They finally rested on Alex: “He is your Papa?” she asked him, nodding her head toward me.

“Yes” he said.

She pointed to her face, then my face, then Alex’s face. She moved back to the grill and smiled, probably more a reflection of her cleverness than anything else. “Un?”  She confirmed, placing bread on the grill.

S’il vous plait” I responded.

She looked back up and started studying again. “Oh,” she said to Alex. “Papa speaks French.”

We stood against a nearby building to avoid the heavy pedestrian traffic. I unwrapped our sandwich and tore it in half. It steamed like a locomotive in the cool morning air. The cheese inside tasted like Swiss, but a little sharper which was a perfect compliment for the sweet, lean ham. Alex started laughing.

“What?”

Arrivederci.” He said. And we both laughed, reliving our experience with the woman, who continued her one-person show that we enjoyed as we finished eating.

This was exactly what we both needed  – a chance to savor the unique offerings of this marvelous city – to absorb it’s energy and let it totally engulf us. I felt optimistic that Alex would, at least for a day, forget about home.

“Hey Dad, look.” he said, pointing down the street. “A Starbucks!”

Next: Finding a Bit of Home in the Heart of Paris

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