I am in Paris with my husband. I have convinced him that he wants to accompany me to one of the city’s legendary flea markets. It is way, way out on the edge of town, a lengthy pilgrimage on the Métro, past stops with names like La Fourche (the fork, as in a road, which it is), Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, Gaîté, Plaisance. Eventually we arrive.
I shop; he watches. After nearly two hours of this, even I–the indefatigable seeker after the old and unusual–get tired. We exit and collapse onto the low, narrow concrete ledge in which the hefty chain-link fence that separates the market from ordinary life has been embedded.
We are both exhausted and the sun is turning brutal. What’s more, we’re both hungry, a state that can lead to cranky in a matter of minutes. (Has anyone ever studied the effect of low blood sugar on intimate human relationships?) The two of us sit there gathering strength for our next move, which should be lunch–a croque monsieur and a beer, say, if we can find a café that’s not too seedy. Meanwhile, my husband has closed his eyes and retreated into the semi-comatose state of men haplessly extended beyond their tolerance.
Suddenly, some 200 yards away, I see a woman walking toward the market. She’s nibbling on something she holds in her hand. If we were in the States, I’d assume, from the look of the thing, that it was a hotdog roll. But we are not in the States. We are in the land called Delicious.
As the woman comes nearer, I realize that it’s pastry she’s holding. Even nearer: Pastry of a lightness and flakiness that are the province of French baking. Very close, just about to pass us: The sublime pastry is coated on top with a gleaming stripe of icing the color of café au lait and filled with a silky-looking cream a shade paler.
“Come on, come on,” I say to rouse my somnolent husband. I’m standing now, tugging at his hand, pulling him to his feet. “A coffee éclair! It looked fabulous! We’ll just walk in the direction she came from,” I urge, pointing to the woman now visible to us only from the back. “The bakery can’t be far away.” And it isn’t. Just about two and half blocks.
“How do you know these things?” my husband asks wearily, as if his question were rhetorical.
“I know everything about things like coffee éclairs,” I reply with considerable–if somewhat defensive–dignity. I may not know much about math or science, but I do know literature and dancing and coffee éclairs.” (I choose not to reveal to my husband that, as an Agatha Christie addict, I’ve deduced that the point of purchase must have been close enough for the pastry not to have been fully consumed when the woman passed us.) My husband just shakes his head as we enter the fragrant shop.
Since I’m in charge of French in our marriage, I do the ordering: a coffee éclair for me, a chocolate éclair for him. He dislikes coffee, but I knew chocolate would be available, it being the default mode for éclairs. He pays. He understands foreign money. When I’m alone, I just cross my own palm abundantly with silver and extend it to the seller, hoping he’s honest.
Not surprisingly, this is the most delectable éclair I have ever tasted. And it continues, in memory, to hold first place to this day, despite the passing of so many tastings and so many decades.
© 2008 Tobi Tobias