On our first trip to Paris, we climbed the steps to the landmark Sacre Coeur Basilica. And finally, I saw what I had only seen in my French class textbooks–that pure white dome, the clusters of cool, chilled out students sprawled up and down the steps, laughing and chatting animatedly while rolling cigarettes with one hand. They were undisturbed by the gaping and camera-wielding tourists who, like us, carefully climbed around them. After leaving the Montmartre district, Elise, our host, then led us over a narrow wooden bridge that crossed the Seine. It was sprinkled with more students who had spread about books and pens and baguette sandwiches. They were so comfortable, as if they were part of the bridge, as if this exact spot was home. It was certainly the classic, textbook Paris. Charming, perfect, but something seemed to be missing… I wanted to dig deeper. But I realized that even as we strolled unhurriedly from point to point, I was indeed imbibing the “real Paris”, lingering at the ubiquitous book stalls delicately and temptingly set up on the sidewalks along the Seine. Almost all of the literature displayed here was in French, and the books were pleasantly worn from many a reader.
We walked to the Student Quartier, where Elise took us to her favorite (and budget friendly) spot for crepes. It was a Lebanese-owned creperie, crammed with people hurriedly eating their salty or sweet crepes on bar stools around tiny round-top tables. Trying to decide what kind of crepe I should have, in Paris, created by an actual Parisian, was tres difficile, indeed. I wanted to order in my basic French, but the crepe maker spoke English rather well, and I lost my courage, ordering a banana and nutella crepe in my hushed, I’m-not-really-a-tourist American accent. I stood and stared after he had taken my order, watching the crepe man vigorously shake a closed two-liter plastic bottle filled with crepe batter (the bottle probably had contained mineral water originally.)
Then I realized; this is what I had come here for. As he shook and shook, I knew that this (although I had not known exactly how it would happen) was the kind of moment that I had been waiting for. Each shake of the bottle was like the beat of the heart of Paris. After all, Paris is not Paris without its cuisine.
The crepe man, in his ease of expertise, poured out a perfect portion of batter onto a large round cast iron pan and my crepe was ready just a few minutes later. As we ate, Elise asked us if we knew the secret to a perfect crepe? Beer! she exclaimed. It was what made the crepes fluff up so delicately.
I smiled down at my warm crepe because I now knew what made it so good. And I smiled at Paris because I knew I had come just a little closer to understanding her.