January 12, 2007

Paris: Bittersweet chocolate

As soon as we landed in Paris, I knew my experience would be different from the other students I’d flown across the Atlantic with. Their host families were waiting for them at the airport, smiling, shaking hands, offering help with luggage. My family didn’t show up.

After hours of waiting, the exchange program’s liaison tracked down the ex-husband of the woman I was to live with, and he came, grumpy and unwelcoming, to pick me up and deliver me to her apartment. He tore through Paris traffic, making no attempt to disguise his annoyance at being called away from the office. He hurled unforgivingly fast French at me, a 19-year-old college student who’d never been abroad. It dawned on me in those 75-kilometer-per-hour moments that I might be spending the next five months in survival mode. To show Monsieur that I wasn’t the easy target he assumed, I hurled the fastest French I could muster back at him. It wasn’t very good, but it was good enough to make my point. He stopped talking, and we never spoke again.

At the apartment, the first complete sentences my hostess uttered to me were, “Lori! Que faites-vous dedans la? L’eau coute comme le vin! – Lori! What are you doing in there? Water costs as much as wine!” This through the bathroom door as I washed my hands and face after my 10 hours in transit. Not 15 minutes inside my new home, I began coveting the other students’ families. Like Barry’s. While I was fated to having my tap water consumption monitored, Barry, lucky boy, scored a family that had greeted him at the airport with news about a Citroen and Normandy farmhouse they’d put at his disposal.

My hostess, as she would soon tell me, took in students only for the money. She got a stipend from my college, and for that, in addition to a room, she was to supply a minimum of two showers per week and 1,800 combined breakfast and dinner calories per day. That is exactly what she supplied.

She set up domestic devices designed to keep me from consuming any more water or food than she was required to provide. On every morning of the week save two that we agreed upon in advance, Madame would lay a mesh drying rack across the bathtub and cover it with sopping, just-washed laundry. She’d go to work confident that I couldn’t penetrate the clever barrier and steal a shower. To prevent me from helping myself to more than the prescribed caloric minimum, she’d lay out my breakfast – a roll, dollop of jelly, one tea bag and two sugar cubes – the night before. I had only to boil water, already measured out in the teapot on the stove, and pour the milk, also measured into a tiny carafe waiting on the top shelf of the fridge. At night, we took our dinner in the living room, in front of the television, and whatever was on my plate when I sat down was all there would be. To make clear her position on seconds, Madame kept the kitchen door closed until it was time to clear the table.

The hours I spent in my classes on art and history and literature were my best hours in Paris. When my mind was busy, I didn’t dwell on how lonely and dirty and hungry I was. So hungry that I took to lifting two or three cookies a day from Madame’s countertop jar, careful to remove the top cookies, take my few from underneath, then replace the top layer exactly as it had been, in case Madame had memorized the layout before she’d gone to work.

A raw January rain brought me to the Monoprix for the first time. My umbrella had blown inside out, and I had to replace it, cheaply. Whether I bought an umbrella that day I don’t recall, but I left with the first of what would become 20 eventual, precious bars of chocolate.

I’d looked at chocolate before, in other stores, but the price per bar was about four francs, then about a dollar, three decades ago a considerable sum for a student with no money and five months left to make it last. There in the Monoprix, on the lower level, one aisle from the shampoo and soap, sat rows of chocolate bars, including a stack in deep pink paper, stamped with a picture of ripe raspberries, and wrapped around a glittery skin of gold foil. These cost one franc, eighty centimes – less than 50 cents. I held one, ran my hand over its wrapper, brought it to my face and inhaled, imagining what it would be like to break off a piece and let it melt on my tongue.

From that day, the raspberry chocolate from the Monoprix basement became one of two positive constants in my Parisian life, the other the silent splendor of Notre Dame, where I’d often escape the city and sit in a back pew to watch the play of light through the cathedral’s soaring stained glass.

I allowed myself one chocolate bar a week, savoring it and making it last as long as I could. I’d break off the first square – one of the little pillows that held the raspberry cream – and celebrate the passing of another week. One more down, only so many to go. Then I’d fold the gold foil over the chocolate, slide the pink wrapper back on, and place the bar in the outermost pocket of my book bag, on top, where it wouldn’t be crushed.

Some days, I’d carry my chocolate to Notre Dame. Sitting in a quiet corner, folding back the gold foil, smelling the butteriness before I took a taste, I felt peace, and sometimes joy. I was in my sanctuary, bathed by the color streaming from my windows, relishing my raspberry cream and the brown richness that wrapped it.

Thirty years later I can taste it still.