May 17, 2011 I should start out by saying that I am not Julie Powell. Despite my rather quirky and wonderfully food-filled semester in Paris, love of writing, and possible resemblance to Amy Adams, I do not fancy myself the protagonist of “Julie and Julia,” nor have I spent the last five months of my life in a mad attempt to recreate everything from the pages of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” That said, however, I must admit that Julia and I have been together for this entire adventure, pretty much from the very beginning.
My friend Lindsey lent me a copy of the legendary cook’s autobiography, “My Life in France,” right before I left, and I added it to the stack of French-themed books over my bed in my Parisian apartment (there were eight or nine, ranging from maps of Paris to from the Michelin guide to France to “A Woman’s Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl”). I began to read it by lantern after I had turned off my lights and climbed under my burgundy covers, and in those early, cold weeks, her glowing descriptions of sunny boulevards, smoky cafés, and that perfect, magical first Sole Meunière, made me smile, and push harder to make Paris feel like home.
As days wore into weeks, I began to find my stride, stopped falling off of trains, learned how to say “that works!” (ça marche!) and “but of course!” (mais bien sur!) in French, which remain to this day my most-used phrases. I learned which metro lines to take for classes, exactly which spots to stand on the platforms for the best transfers. I traded my purple wool sneakers for simple, black flats (though was still judged the other day by uniformed soldiers with machine guns, who smirked at my tevas on the metro), and stopped worrying about how I tended to mouth the words to songs on my iPod. I took notes in my previously-incomprehensible Sorbonne classes, made friends, started laughing again. And of course, I fell deeply and irretrievably in love with French food.
I have always been a “foodie” (even the word makes me smile), and spend far more money and time on what I eat than any normal person. When I first came to France, I feared gluten-free French eating would be tragically limited, but should not have been surprised to learn that, while the French do not really understand life without wheat, the gluten-free food they do produce is a hundred times better than what we have back home. I dove into the world of macarons with a fiendish intensity, began sampling every one I could find and comparing flavors and brands (contrary to popular belief, the best do not come from Ladurée or Pierre Hermé, but from Gerard Moulot on rue de la Seine, which makes a salted caramel flavor that will make you want to die on the spot). Kylie and I found a gluten-free crêperie in the Marais and made it our Sunday night destination (the waitstaff all know us by now as the two girls who need buckwheat dessert galettes!). Lucia, my food soulmate from Brown whom I met through my Medieval lit class, and I began meeting in between our two classes on Tuesdays to seek out the very best lunch spots in the 5th, and on other nights wandering from the 2nd to the 19th, sampling mojitos and cream of artichoke, laughing and stuffing ourselves as the sun set behind the boulevards.
I bought my very own copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” brought home artichokes, meat, raw stalks of rhubarb, and white asparagus, not having any idea what to do with them, and read Julia’s careful, occasionally sassy instructions as I tried to mimic the glories I had sampled in restaurants. Anna and I went to La Defense to get ingredients for chicken dishes with olives, onions, and wine. My kitchen filled with smoke and laughter. And all the while, golden beet season turned into that of white asparagus, and finally perfect, soft red strawberries, and somehow I began to grow up. It happened little by little, imperceptibly at first, and not without pain or embarrassment.
Last Sunday, I woke up at 9, put on my Royal-Wedding white-and-black dress and donned Marielle’s “le specialiste du tofu” canvas bag, and boarded the metro for the organic market in Raspail. This had been on my bucket list since the very beginning, and it was entirely worth the wait. I wandered down the long, colorful corridor over and over, picking up cups of thick melted chocolate and fresh fried potato cakes with fromage. I came home with a heavy bag and a rueful grin. I did not even question my decision to dress up for what was essentially a grocery run. It was quite simply French, and I loved that it felt right.
My mother, Rosemary, one of the most wonderful people on Earth and a fellow foodie, came last Tuesday to visit me, and we spent the most marvelous week together eating, laughing, and being crazy. She, Lucia, and I took a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu, the French school Julia Child made famous, and as I bit into my perfectly roasted cod with tiny, minced ratatouille and grinned like a five-year-old, I could not help but feel it was the perfect ending to my food adventures in France. I am almost done now, have two exams, three classes, four days, and way too many sights to see left.
For my last dinner with Marielle on Thursday, she is making us Sole Meunière, as I have been obsessing over it since January, and the normal version has flour in it. This is so very wonderful, as I know she is not a huge cook, it is therefore a gesture of affection. I tried to cook her an authentic American meal earlier this semester. But I chose chicken fricassee, which was one of my mother’s specialties, and is, of course, French. I took this as a sign, and conceded her food culture would always be better than mine!
You will hear from me again before I go back; this is not quite goodbye yet. I still have to climb the Eiffel Tower at night, eat that last crème brulée à la pistache, take everything off of my walls, pack my life into suitcases, and say goodbyes. This feeling of finality is oddly familiar, but somehow this time it is not quite as sad. Some of that may have to do with the fact that I am going directly from France back to Hamilton for graduation, will be in on a 9 pm train Saturday night, and utterly overjoyed to see everyone again. But I think the fact that there is more sweet than bitter in this last week has more to do with me, with the fact I have learned goodbyes are not final, how to meld memories with hopes, how to find that perfect, soft macaron in heaps of croissants. Somehow, this time, I am ready.
This afternoon, over our last, fabulous Tuesday Lunch, Lucia looked up from her nougat crème brulée, raised her glass, smiled, and in two lines perfectly summed up the past five months of my life, and what I will take away once all of this is over. “Here’s to the three great F’s.” She declared, looking me straight in the eye like the French do when toasting. “To food. To friendship. And to France.”