Last week, I wrote about how being in France is starting to feel normal to me. But with that, the smaller details about what makes it unfamiliar are starting to emerge. I am beginning to realize what I miss among the things that are widely available in Minnesota but do not seem to be here — or at least not among the people around me.
Now that the initial shock is gone, the differences are no longer coming as exciting, energizing thrills, but as small let-downs. Instead of giggling, I let out a sigh when I remember the pharmacies close early or that there probably is not a drinking fountain anywhere around here. So I thought it would be better to channel those sighs into a list of things I miss so that maybe I can let them go and get on with enjoying the new things.
I will tell you now: this list is mostly food. Many of the staples I always assumed to be in the cupboard at home, the items I always grabbed at the grocery store, are making their absence known as I enter my second month in Paris. And I’ll admit, one of my major activities here is eating. Shoving enough fruit into my mouth before taking the métro to my language class, buying pavé tradition when I’m out and about, having fish and roasted vegetables for lunch with the girls on school days, and cutting tomatoes or putting a tarte in the oven for dinner. And, of course, goûter (a snack, literally, “taste”) during the afternoon. My days revolve around meals, and my thoughts sometimes stray to what is not on the table.
1. Honeycrisp apples
There is no denying it is fall now. When the trees change and the afternoon sunlight seems a bit yellower than normal, I habitually reach for my favorite apple, which channels a fall afternoon into edible form. Honeycrisp apples were developed at the University of Minnesota, my alma mater (It feels weird that I can say that. Alma mater.), so it makes sense that I have yet to come across one here. I just cut up a Granny Smith, and its sharp goût (another form of the word for taste) threw me off as I took in the fall sunshine. I never thought an apple could give me so many feelings.
2. Wheat bread
To tell you the truth, there is plenty of wheat bread here. But the baguette dominates, and it is always the cheapest (and probably tastiest) thing to buy here. When there is not freshly-baked traditional loaf in the house, I am often left with brioche (tasty but quite sweet) and “American sandwich bread.” I use quotes marks because the white sandwich bread I have been eating here is unlike any I had in the states. It is larger, denser, and comes in perfect square slices. All of this white bread makes me want to go full-on Pumpernickel for a while.
3. Filtered coffee
I spent too much time at Starbucks in search of wifi last month, and to my surprise, even the chain could not deliver an OK cup of plain ol’ drip coffee here in Paris. Café filtre, or coffee black, as I ordered, putting a fake French accent on the English words, is not Europe’s favorite way to wake up. Ordering café at any café will get you a small cup of espresso. I have enjoyed countless cups of café au lait while out with friends, but the intense, dry and still pretty small drink has left me nostalgic for a bigger, more liquefied cup.
Nescafé has come to the rescue on this one. Always available in my host family’s kitchen, the instant coffee is sweet and flavorful — a wonderful break from the bitter espresso. It is easy to adjust the concentration depending on how awake you need to be, and it is all too easy to heat up water throughout the day when you might just need another cup.
But wait a minute, this is still not real filtered coffee. What is going on here? Why don’t the French people around here drink drip coffee?
I shared my search for a good cup of java with my friend Talia, who found a good article explaining this. France historically shipped in beans from French colonies because it was less expensive, and Parisian palates are used to the cheaper, harsher-tasting beans. But some roasters around here are trying to change that.
I have so far only had one cup of real drip coffee, made from flavorful beans that were ground and put into a filter. This was at Café Lomi, and it hit the mark perfectly. Next stop is Belleville, a roaster that gives out free cups of coffee on Saturdays to educate the public about good coffee. It reminds me of something a brewery or an urban farm might do in my hometown: “here, have a free taste of the good stuff. You’ll probably realize it’s what you have been missing.”
Yes, there is water in France. Plenty of it. You can drink it straight out of most taps. But venture outside your home, and it can be difficult to find. There are few public water fountains unless you are in a park (although the other day on a walk along the Seine I came across a drinking fountain spouting bubbly water!). You can ask for it at restaurants, but I made the mistake of asking for a bouteille the other night and out came a 4,50-euro bottle of Evian.
A few days ago at Le Victor Hugo, a waiter brought water with our cafés, which has not happened a lot. The glasses were the size of a shot. My new friends from school, who come from Spain, Denmark and the Faroe Islands, asked me a question to test my American-ness: “Does everything seem smaller here?” Looking at the glass, I could not help but answer them literally: “yes. Everything is smaller here. This is a shot of water.”
The French do not drink much water. They drink less than I thought people had to drink throughout the day. Few drink it at restaurants, and I do not see many people carrying water bottles with them. Their bodies are used to the lack of public water, so a few hours of dehydration are no sweat. Literally. I do not think they can sweat. Maybe that’s why they don’t drink water.
5. Peanut butter
Need I explain this one? I used to snack on peanut butter by the spoonful back at home, though, so I should probably be thankful that the French do not eat it. (Fun fact: A spoonful of peanut butter is about a hundred calories. How often did I just have one of those? Not very. So yes, this separation is probably a healthy one.)
This is the only non-edible item to make it on this list, and if you have been keeping up with this blog, you know that I have just not been able to get my hands on wifi (called wee-fee by the French). People’s signals are simply not as strong here. Some cafés have free wifi, but I see few people chilling with their laptops out in public (another reason why Café Lomi was alluring — laptops all around! Also beards and thick-rimmed glasses). Paris offers free public wifi during the day, which I have capitalized in outside at the park. But when I really want to connect, right before bed when the work is done and my family and friends are awake, even the brand-new router’s connection is often lost.
Aussi les gens
I have spent a lot of time talking about things I miss. But I assure you that I also miss the people I left back in the United States, whose mornings are full of drip coffee and whose fruit bowls are brimming with Honeycrisps right about now. I think of you all of the time, and hope everyone is well.
It is already time to refill my water glass.