A pigeon snatches up flakes from the apple tart I’m savoring as I sit in Boucicaut Square, a small park in the 6th arrondisement, or district, the heart of my old neighborhood. Women of varying ages sit on the park benches, enjoying a late lunch in the shade.
Over 20 years have passed since I strolled these streets to and from class. The wealthy and chic have infiltrated the once faded belle époque buildings. Yet, the dorm run by retired teaching nuns where I used to lived still provides students a home. Many of the shops also remain the same, even though they may have changed hands—the butcher shop where I used to buy one veal scallop that I’d sauté and drown in a sauce of mushrooms, garlic, dill, lemon juice and crème fraîche, the hardware store with every household necessity crammed onto shelves that run from floor to ceiling, and the Poilâne bakery.
I’d often walk past the bakery on my way to class, but never dared step in. Sometimes I’d stare longingly into the window at the crusty breads, then tell myself they were a luxury I couldn’t afford. Poilâne was famous, I thought, and therefore, out of my price range. I didn’t know the bakery’s large sourdough loaves made from dark flour and baked in a wood-fired oven would stay fresh longer than the traditional baguettes and pains I usually ate, making them more economical.
Today I was determined to overcome my trepidation and cross the threshold of this prestigious bakery, located at 8, rue du Cherche-Midi, the same address where Pierre Poilâne founded it in 1932. I’d read an article that any true connoisseur of baked goods must try the traditional loaves, or miches, that I had passed up for so long as well as their apple tarts. I took a deep breath and stepped inside the shop, it’s façade and interior the color of a perfectly baked crust.
“Bonjour,” said a diminutive woman of a certain age wearing a crisp white apron, tongs in hand.
“Bonjour,” I responded.
I took one look at the giant loaves of round miche, each weighing in at 1.9 kilograms and knew I couldn’t go through with my plan. How would I eat even a quarter loaf before it went bad? I simply could not justify the expense. My eyes darted around the shop in search of something else I might buy. Behind madame I spied two wicker trays of rolls. I’d get one of them and a small apple tart.
“Un petit pain au levain, s’il vous plaît,” I said, pointing to the rolls.
Madame picked up a roll with raisins and began to wrap it.
“Je m’excuse,” I apologized. “I meant a sourdough roll,” and explained that I must have mispronounced my words.
“Not at all,” she smiled, replacing the roll and picking one up from the second tray.
“And what else?” she asked.
“Une tartelette aux pommes,” I answered, pointing to the palm-sized, free-form tarts in the window.
Madame chose a tart from the middle and set it on a sheet of white paper, folded the paper lengthwise, and then twisted the ends. She placed the wrapped roll on top of the tart and stepped over to the counter.
“3,75 euros, s’il vous plaît,” she said and handed my ticket to the cashier. I fumbled in my change purse for the money. Instead of counting out the exact amount, I handed a 10 euro bill to the young woman at the register. The cashier smiled and handed me the change. Both women waited while I shoved the coins back into my purse.
“Au revoir, madame,” said the lady who’d waited on me.
“Au revoir,” I answered and turned toward the door.
“Bonne journée, good day,” both women said in unison.
I looked at them and returned their smile.
“De même, same to you,” I said, heading back out into the sunlight toward the park where I now sit.