Visiting a foreign country does one of two things: 1) introduces you to the little things that make it different from home, or 2) reinforces preconceived notions. While in Paris, I experienced both.
As to the first point, I noticed a couple things about the restaurants that surprised me. One, they don't use bread plates (at least in the brasseries and cafes), and they don't put butter on the table. I suspect that perhaps the reason for the first is that everyone just grabs bread from the basket on the table. As for the second, I suspect that they're thinking, "hell we've put so much butter in the food that butter on the table is just too over the top, even for us Parisians!"
Now, for my second point. We've all seen those iconic images of the Frenchman heading home with a baguette tucked under his arm or even tied to back of his bicycle.
This is one of my favorite photographs from one of my favorite photographers, Elliott Erwitt.
So, yes the French do scurry home from a hard day's work (Yes, the French do work, they just don't live to work!) with a baguette under their arms or in the basket on the front of their bikes or scooters.
Because I have a tendency to "go native" when I travel and like to adopt affected habits of the country I've just visited, I decided one night after work that I would grab a baguette—and only a baguette—on the way home.
Well, the first thing is that I had to get in my car, rather than stroll down a tree-lined Parisian boulevard. Not quite as picturesque, but oh well. Next, I had to find a parking space whilst avoiding getting run over by a soccer mom on the phone in her 4,000 lb Yukon.
At this point, feeling a bit frazzled, I made it into the grocery store dishabille that is Whole Foods. I then grabbed a baguette and nothing else. I didn't even bring by environmentally friendly reusable shopping bag! Now, keep in mind, that nothing will engender more curious looks in an American grocery store than one who is not pushing a cart around overflowing with stuff, even at a Whole Foods. After all, this is America, and we shop with gusto. Anyway, I paid for my $2.73 baguette with exact change, which took the clerk by surprised because I didn't use my debit card or a credit card.
I traversed back across the parking lot, narrowly avoiding the Prius with the "Eat Local" sticker on his car, most likely texting about locally sourced ramps. After fighting my way back through rush hour traffic, I brought my baguette into my kitchen where I poured myself a glass of wine and with Gallic gusto tore off a piece while I cooked dinner. Alas, something was missing. It just didn't seem as I thought it would. And then it hit me.
There is something about walking to get your food and walking to bring it home and hearing and seeing and smelling the world around you as you make your way home slowly without having to fight traffic—perhaps to think slowly about what dish you want to make to go with that bread and with whom you may wish to have that dish. Perhaps, this is why food from a farmers market always seems to taste better. It is the slow—no deliberateness—of the experience. Because at the end of the day food, cooking, and eating should be deliberate. This made me think about the Paris I had just left.
One of the things I will miss about Paris is more than just the food. It is good, but we make good food here too. It is how they have made food, and have cooked it, and have eaten it as a deliberate part of their lives.
So, if you have the urge to grab a baguette on the way home from work one night, walk, don't run, if you can. Take your time.