By Sue Sanders
I pulled open the door to the boulangerie and it hit me at once — a yeasty aroma mixed with the tang of burnt sugar that tickled my nose. I held the heavy glass door for my 4-year old daughter and as she entered, she inhaled deeply, a smile slowly spreading across her face. We stood in line and waited, oblivious to the conversations around us in French, studying the display case in front of us. When it was our turn, we chose two almond croissants, still warm and dense and dusted with powdered sugar. I remembered the last time I’d bought these pastries in Paris.
In the late 1980s, my first husband and I paused during a trip around the world to settle in Paris for a year. He wasn’t yet my husband — we’d met in college and had only been out a few years. Convinced marriage didn’t apply to us, we playacted bohemians in our tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a timbered eighteenth century building. I found a job teaching 4 and 5-year olds English and he wrote, filling spiral notebooks with stories and poems. We made friends — other expats and Parisians — and stayed up late, drinking bottles of red wine and eating meals we’d painstakingly prepared with friends in their small kitchens. We walked home late at night on cobbled streets, the Eiffel Tower lit up in the distance like a Christmas tree.
We were so very young. Years later, after the marriage and the baby, after his mental illness and the hospitalizations and my hope that he’d stay on his meds and get better had evaporated — I left, a newly single mom with a just-turned three-year old. Somehow, Lizzie and I got through that first year, surrounding ourselves with friends and extended family. I kept us busy so I wouldn’t have to think too deeply about anything as scary as the future.
When Lizzie turned four the following February, I wanted to do something special, determined to make her first birthday in our new, smaller family an unforgettable one. She was fascinated by Japan and France. It was a lot less expensive to fly to Paris than Japan. Besides, I wanted to make the city mine again — to make new memories with my daughter to build upon the older ones. In a way, ghosts brought us to Paris — I wanted one of my favorite cities to be filled with living recollections, and to exorcise phantom memories of the past. We’d create new memories, but with almond croissants instead of madeleines I scraped up money for airfare and found an inexpensive pension near my old neighborhood. Lizzie spoke “French” to her doll as I packed.
Our first morning in Paris, we woke on the sagging double bed, still jet-lagged but excited. Although it was winter, it wasn’t the Parisian weather I remembered — gray and drizzly, with a dampness that crept into my bones and lodged in my marrow — instead, the sun shone brilliantly. Lizzie grabbed her Madeline doll, and we went downstairs for coffee and hot chocolate. She carefully placed Madeline on the chair next to her, which screeched across the hardwood floor as she pushed it in. She broke off bits of baguette to feed to her doll, wiping its mouth with the white cloth napkin after she’d eaten her fill. Petit déjeuner finished, we were ready to explore. Holding her hand, stroller strung over my shoulder like a shotgun, we meandered through the streets, no destination in mind. We flitted in and out of small museums and cafes, stopping to frolic whenever we saw a playground. Lizzie hopped into her stroller when she got tired, and it bumped along the cobblestones.
Some sort of automatic pilot brought us to my old neighborhood. Although it had been more than fifteen years since I’d lived in Paris, some part of me seemed to know just how to find it. My old street appeared smaller than I remembered — it was actually an alley, Cité Dupetit-Thouars. I wondered which of my other memories were also smaller in reality. The apartment building looked scruffier and less well-kept than my mental snapshot. Seeing it helped bring my remembrances of life back then into focus, unlocking thoughts I’d carefully sealed away after our marriage sickened and died. Lizzie seemed uninterested in my old apartment and my life before her, and started to fuss that she was hungry. I turned around and found the boulangerie — our old boulangerie.
So there we were, in my old bakery, inhaling new memories. The shopkeeper carefully placed our almond croissants in a crisp white paper bag that he handed to us in exchange for some Euros. We left, wandering to the park across the street and settling onto a wooden bench. My daughter’s legs were too short to hang over the edge, but she kicked them in anticipation of her treat as I opened the bag and let her pull out a pastry. Powdered sugar rained from it. I took the other out and we clicked them together — a sort of “Cheers.” I watched Lizzie’s face as she tentatively took her first bite. She slowly chewed, looked delighted, and quickly took another bite, rapidly finishing her pastry. I took my time, savoring mine, remembering all those years ago when my ex and I used to eat almond croissants as part of our Saturday morning ritual. I’d gather up francs and head to our boulangerie while he would make the strong black coffee we loved, heating milk that transformed it into café au lait. I’d pick up the International Herald Tribune, a splurge, and two croissants and walk home. We’d sit, cross-legged, on the floor pillows we’d sewn from fabric we’d found discarded in the garment district, breakfast and newspaper spread out on the low Moroccan table, the smell of freshly brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the sugary pastries. We had all the time in the world. It was perfect.
That February afternoon, after my daughter ran off to play with French preschoolers on the jungle gym, I finished the last bite of my croissant. It tasted exactly the same as I remembered, even though everything else was different. I smiled, as I watched Lizzie chasing a new friend. Paris was mine again — and now it was Lizzie’s, too. And it was perfect.
Author’s Note: I wrote this essay to show how revisiting Paris helped me reclaim a place and an experience I thought I’d lost forever. Traveling with Lizzie made the city new again — and I loved seeing it through her eyes. She’s thirteen now and, although she’s outgrown playgrounds and carousels, still loves almond croissants.
About the Author: Sue Sanders’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Parents, Babble and other local and national magazines. Her first book, Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore, a collection of essays about parenting her preteen/young teens, will be published in May 2013.