Monday, September 04, 2006

In absentia...

My posts have been dwindling over the past week, as I took a much needed vacation to Mexico with some family and friends. Sadly (and happily) there were no bakeries to be found there and no bakery hunting endeavors to engage me. I say happily because this is not the sort of vacation in which anyone involved engages in any way with outside civilization. (As everyone who has ever lived in the vicinity of Los Angeles can attest to, this momentary alienation can be a relief).

We retreat to a house by a fairly remote beach with a beautiful ocean view, barricade ourselves in with little more than food (mostly dozens of avocados, chips, all the makings of guacamole, and several cases of Corona), tequila, and a reading list that we look forward all year to completing with no interruption. No phone calls, no network news, nothing.

Since I couldn't go to bakeries myself, I decided to live vicariously through my growing collection of European travel novels, which I gathered to devour on my trip. I am determined to read each and every story about Americans who have moved or traveled to Europe, particularly the ones who definitively and openly share my love affair with France and/or Denmark.

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik has become one of my immediate favorites. Gopnik writes so beautifully about his family's stay in Paris that I do not even fight the urge to make excited notes in his margins, constantly agreeing with his observations and sentiments about living abroad. (This is why I loathe borrowing books from the library, because I don't get to make enthusiastic notes in the margins. Plus, when it comes to novels written by expatriates, you better believe I am keeping detailed records of where to visit when I finally get back to Europe.)

Anyway, Paris to the Moon is a treasure (you should buy it NOW), and I am in love with several quotes from Gopnik's commentary (see citation at end of post). Like myself, Gopnik appreciates the details that arise when visiting the small shop owners of Paris. These details are immediately apparent to a first time Paris visitor, at least to the visitor who pays attention. The best way to describe the experience of the small French shop is that it feels like a real human exchange, wholly devoid of the usual corporate flavor of your local strip mall bakery in Typical, USA. The French small business is without any robotic customer service behavior-- it does not seem to be influenced by an employee handbook with catchy marketing slogans and reminders to greet customers with a pre-formulated "how can I help you today?" statement (that is most likely delivered half-heartedly by the person behind the counter because this greeting is mandated). It has no rules about singing a corny song if someone throws their change into the tip jar, in fact, it does not even have a tip jar. You get a friendly "Bonjour!" with no hidden intentions, no motives, no countertop tip jar coercion to speak of. It certainly does not sell apparel for dogs, the bakery insignia strategically placed across the canine's torso. (Readers who are interested can note my prior blog entries about the maddening trend of 'dog bakery culture'). Furthermore, there are no customers holding up the line by yakking on their cell phones, yelling at their child's nanny that 'NO, she most definitely cannot have Tuesday night off to take her mother to dialysis, your husband's gala event is on that same night, you have a million things to do, and the children mustn't be forced to endure the traumatic transition of a new babysitter, and on such late notice too'. There are no French people who would put up with that crap, only in Orange and Los Angeles County I tell you! People are missing out on the daily quirks of life-- our cell phones are so glued to our heads that we feel the indentation of the rubber keypad upon our cheeks more often than we feel the human touch of a handshake or appreciate the value of a sincere hello while in public.

The French bakery has warmth and character, and Gopnik captures this perfectly in his analysis. Gopnik writes the following, in harmony with this concept of warmth:

"There is hardly a day when you are not wild with gratitude for something that happens in the small shops: the way that Mme. Glardon, at the pastry shop on rue Bonaparte, carefully wraps Luke Auden's [Gopnik's son's] chocolate éclair in a little paper pyramid, a ribbon at its apex, knowing perfectly well, all the while, that the paper pyramid and ribbon will endure just long enough for the small boy to rip it open to get to the éclair." (pg 103)

This passage says it all, and although I do not know Gopnik personally, I feel confident in assuming that he was not on his cell phone while Mme. Glardon attentively and gracefully wrapped his son's pastry. Clearly Gopnik and I are on the same page when it comes to French bakeries, when it comes to life really. The small things must be appreciated, without a doubt. At the ripe old age of 22, this is one thing (and maybe the only thing), that I can truly say for certain.

My dream would be to move to Europe and spend huge chunks of time in Paris and Denmark training with the best of the pastry chefs there. Afterwards, I would bring excellence to the American people in pastry form, and I would have a blast doing it. I would probably never be as truly charming as a Danish or French baker, but hell, I could still try.

Gopnik inspired me once more as he wrote about a pair of Americans who left their lives behind in the academic field to live with a flock of goats and make goat cheese (pg 162). And it's Gopnik-esque anecdotes like those that make me think to myself, why not? If someone offered to pay me to make goat cheese and live with goats, I would be down for it. You just can't say no to something like that. Saying yes to goat cheese is like saying yes to adventure, to absurdity and spontaneity and random challenges--the stuff that should make up your life if you are lucky.

Other highlights include Gopnik "refining a long term plan" (pg 230) with his wife to have their ashes permanently placed atop the dessert counter at their favorite Paris restaurant. Moments like these make it clear that Gopnik and I are kindred spirits. They also make me regret having lived six whole years since Paris to the Moon's original publication date without discovering the treasure of this book.

For all this time, Gopnik was ruminating on the same European love affair that I was obsessing over myself, the one which led me to start this blog. Longing for Paris and Copenhagen has created an ever present ache in my life. Luckily I have a knack for discovering the happy distractions of French and Danish culture in the United States. For example, Netflix selections from the foreign genre section always seem to find their way into my queue. I have even taken to watching my Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD's with the French subtitles turned on (who knew you could do that!?). I have my first "Practical French" lesson tomorrow at our nearby community college. I admit to buying somewhat ovoverpriced language CD sets at bookstores, and then making the most out of traffic ridden commutes by practicing on the 405 freeway (Most likely this makes me look ridiculous to other drivers, but in the end I will have the last laugh when I can order the best pastries flawlessly in the baker's native tongue! Take that you freeway skeptics). Besides that, there are the typical food festivals, enclaves of European communities within L.A., the occasional Octoberfest here and there, the French owned bakery/restaurant I discovered in Silver Lake while dining out with a friend. There is the Nordic Fox in Downey, CA, which did not wow me with its food but had a Scandinavian themed interior/menu that charmed me nonetheless. I can always drive to Solvang if I'm really desperate. (There will never be better Danish cooking than my host mother, so at times it seems pointless to search). There are also some other European themed shops scattered across Orange County and LA. (My next conquest is a Danish furniture store in LA that I recently discovered online). And of course, this blog has allowed me to obsess on an even deeper, some might say scarier, level that my friends and family marvel at.

I'll leave you with my favorite quote from Gopnik, a simple one which seems to perfectly encompass my hopes and dreams of an adventurous European life-- as well as the inadequacy I feel in trying to describe why I need Europe in my life. Gopnik explains that "The hardest thing to convey is how lovely it all is and how the loveliness seems all you need" (pg 270). I don't think anyone could ever sum it up better than that. Don't take it from me, buy the book people! Or, just go to Europe and learn to make a little goat cheese, you'll see what I mean.

Gopnik, Adam. Paris to the Moon. Random House, 2001.
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