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Paris, 20 April 2016, along the Boulevard de Hausmann

Paris, 20 April 2016, along the Boulevard de Hausmann

Somehow, I always knew it would be the French—that they would have the answers to the burning questions about life and love. And, of course, they do. As I sit alone here in Paris, that liveliest and loveliest of cities, this wisdom came to me in an unexpected, artistic, nuanced, metaphorical and, therefore, quintessentially French sort of way. I learned it through pastries.

Women and pastries are about choices. There are lots of them. They are rich and lovely and, taken in quantity, potentially very bad for you—fatal, to be sure, even if you do go in a rather pleasant, somnolent, and satisfied condition, rising on dust clouds of powdered sugar to heaven. But if you don’t wish to die or become disabled and no longer able to function you cannot have them all. You must choose.

The thing about pastries and women is that you cannot try before you buy—at least not without a lot of shouting and unhappiness and recrimination and demands for payment of damages. You must choose before you try and damn well not complain about your choice after you do, because there won’t be another. Herein enters the need for a method of choosing. Some criteria. On this score, French pastry chefs make your job as difficult as possible.

First of all, the selections are behind a glass case, where they cannot be touched or smelled but rather only admired from afar. You look. You lust. You dream of what lies within that glistening, creamy exterior. But you do not know. Not really. And the pastry chef, who is conspiring with the pastries to deceive you and who in any event is French and does not speak your language, has no interest in telling you. Even if he did, words would fail him, because the experience for good or ill is beyond description. And so you stand there, looking.

P1000708Your eyes are naturally drawn to the most spectacular, exquisitely rendered, and shiniest candidates. These seem precious to you. A perfectly round lemon tart catches your eye. She is so very yellow, and the flourish of dark chocolate resting on top, in the middle, sets off her color magnificently. Her crust is even and unblemished. A shimmering glaze covers her filling. She calls to you from within her glass prison. You answer. “I’ll have that one, please,” you say.

You think you see a flicker in the pastry chef’s eye as he fills your order that suggests you haven’t chosen quite as wisely as you might, but you are too busy arranging the particulars of payment and delivery to dwell on this. Then, before you know it, you cradle the prize within your trembling hands. But soon, you experience the first taste. Then and only then is the truth known, the lesson, clear.

You have not chosen wisely, my friend. The lemon tart, while iridescent and beautiful, is bitter to the taste, a bit dry, with a crust that is not quite so soft as you imagined, and filling that is less substantial than you’d hoped. You look longingly behind the glass at the large, rough, and pleasingly misshapen croissant bulging with a soft, creamy middle, and she looks forlornly back at you. “You might have chosen me and been happy,” she says, “but alas . . .”

P1000709And so you and the lemon tart walk on dejectedly together. You do not bother to finish her. There is not enough café au lait in all of France to help you choke down that stale crust. All your thoughts are for the plump croissant. But even if the lemon tart is bitter, you are not. For this is Paris, where longing of the heart is a celebrated, national agony, where absence makes the heart grow fonder, and where great symphonies and literature of legendary magnificence have been written of the beignet that got away.