I left the apartment in a bit of a funk this morning. The blue Paris skies had turned gray and drizzly. Brown curled leaves clustered on the sidewalks and Parisian necks were wrapped in scarves against the chill. And just like that, c’est l’hiver.
Fall in New England has been on my mind and I’ve been surprised by how much I miss it. Apple-picking, warm cider and sugared donuts, hayrides and pumpkins seem so far away. I’m not sure how to tell the kids that Halloween isn’t quite the same here. (They’re already planning their costumes, albeit with less intensity.) As much as I love Paris, I miss our little Boston town, decorating our house with cottony webs and carving jack-o-lanterns. I miss my friends, too.
To cheer myself up, I opted for a morning walk around the city, planning to stop for coffee along the way. After kissing the kids goodbye at the school entrance, I set off for nowhere in particular.
The typically hectic Paris morning was in full swing. Trench coat wearing commuters hunched over smart phones, merchants hosed down sidewalks and unfurled retractable awnings. Scooters and horns blared as boxy little cars fought their way through the morning traffic.
I found myself on the commercial boulevards around Montparnasse, not the prettiest part of the city but alive, gritty and pleasing all the same. Its bright signs, restaurant chains and movie theaters can feel more like Manhattan than Paris but sidewalk book stalls and funky not-quite antique shops quickly reminded me that I could be nowhere but here.
I stopped at a cafe for a croissant and a cafe creme. Its large terrace was mostly empty but I knew would soon be populated by Parisians having their first cigarettes of the day. I opted instead for a corner seat inside and slid into the red leather banquette facing a perfectly weathered table for two.
“Je vous ecoute, madame,” said the grinning waiter who convinced me to try “La Formule Coup de Coeur,” the French answer to a continental breakfast. With rain clouds gathering beyond the cafe windows, I decided to order the formule and maybe stay awhile. With free WiFi and jazz in the background, there are far worse places to spend an hour or two.
My copious petit dejeuner arrived in waves, starting with a freshly squeezed jus d’orange (served in a thin stemmed glass) and a perfectly frothy cafe creme. I swirled a packet of sugar into the heavenly foam and felt my spirits beginning to lift.
Next the waiter brought a small cloth-lined basket with two slices of toasted pain poilane and a golden croissant nestled inside. The meal was completed with a steaming soft boiled egg perched regally in a porcelain cup and a cluster of baguette slices arranged like plastic straws. A perfect round of lightly salted butter and dish of apricot jam finished it off.
It was all so tempting, I wasn’t sure where to begin. The top of the brown egg had been sliced to reveal its warm, creamy center. I grabbed a piece of baguette, layered on the butter and dipped it in the yolk — no doubt not the sanctioned French way to eat it.
The butter was so good, I decided it must go on everything — from the toasted bread to the already decadent croissant. (Is it even legal to put butter on a croissant?)
With a full stomach and rising spirits, I looked around the still empty cafe. With it’s aged tin ceilings and burnished wood bar, it was almost too picture-perfect Paris — the quintessential cafe that Paris brings to mind. Le Select is next door and La Coupole across the street — the cafes made famous by Hemingway and co. in the 1920’s. Today, they draw mostly tourists seeking a peek into Paris’s heralded literary past which of course, has long since moved on.
Authentic Paris or not, I didn’t really care. As long as there’s warm bread — and French butter to go with it — I’ll be one happy not-quite Parisian.