When cookbook author and former Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz arrived in Paris to live, there was plaster hanging from the ceiling of his apartment and a stained futon on the floor. His landlord hired a painter but the job — the refreshing of a small one bedroom apartment — took weeks. He stayed with friends in the meantime, but could not find solace in the collection of beloved cookbooks he had shipped from the States. The box never arrived and La Poste, as you might imagine, was less than sympathetic.
This was not an auspicious start.
I will readily concur that Paris isn’t easy. On my first trip, with family back in 1999, I developed a case of…it wasn’t food poisoning, exactly. It was something I now think of as fat poisoning, and I blame the sauces. The second time, four years later, I arrived for a 10 day sojourn full of romantic hope, all my heart’s eggs in one basket that was promptly tossed out the window of a top floor apartment on the Ile St. Louis. A few years later I took myself to dinner to celebrate the first night of a two month stay, and promptly chipped my tooth on a stray bit of oyster shell. I remained determined, though, and returned the following year to experience the great displeasure of a stolen wallet.
David persevered, and plunged himself into Parisian living. He got to know shop keepers, poissonniers, and chocolatiers. He did not lose faith in his ability to learn the language, as I’m sure I would have, even after mispronouncing “vierge” as “verge” over and over at a dinner party. Lucky for us, he has documented the experience — with recipes! — on his blog and now in his book The Sweet Life in Paris.
He has mastered the art of line jumping, perfected the strategic basket block, dared wonder aloud why more French showers don’t have curtains, and cracked the steely facade of many (but not all, you’ll see) a vendeuse. He has embarrassed himself plenty of times, but has nonetheless managed to endear himself to many seemingly impermeable Parisians.
First, David learned the rules: Paris is a city of codes, a city of manners, and to acknowledge this is an enormous step toward successful (or at least slightly less frustrating) Parisian living. The trouble is that the codes are not always logical, and the manners are not always polite. Parisians are capable of what feels like barbaric social cruelty: Lines are, at best, a theoretical concept, help must be earned, and even les enfants have mastered the cold stare of visible disdain. But it is we who are, in their eyes, the barbarians, and they are right: Barbarian means “foreigner”. In other words, do as the Parisians do, even if it means dressing up to take out the garbage.
Secondly, though perhaps more importantly, David unleashed the power of chocolate.
A signed copy of one of his cookbooks and a batch of brownies, it turns out, can melt the heart of even the pettiest, most arbitrary French bureaucrat.
It also explains why people like David are drawn this city: Food matters in Paris. To be a part of that tradition, to have perfect baguettes, an astonishing diversity of charcuterie, cheeses and wines, stunning chocolates and a shop that specializes in butter at your doorstep, all of this makes life very sweet, indeed.
Even if the coffee is merde.
DavidLebovitz.com David’s popular, award-winning blog.
The Sweet Life in Paris on Amazon.