It was late afternoon in Paris, at the Café de Flore. I had just finished my junior year of college and was visiting my parents, who then lived on the Rue du Cherche-Midi, on the Left Bank. For several formative years as a child, I’d lived in that neighborhood, too, stopping by the Flore daily for a pain au chocolat and a chocolat chaud on my way home from school. The waiters there, who never changed, knew me and Romeo, my 125-pound Bouvier des Flandres, by sight.
On the afternoon in question, Romeo lay under my table, napping and occasionally lapping at a cup of milk one of the waiters had brought him, while I—ostensibly in charge—sat on a banquette hiding behind a copy of Le Monde, now and then peering anxiously through the vitrine at a table on the sidewalk, where two handsome men were having coffee. One of the men in particular had my attention. His name was John, and I had met him at a lunch the day before, but, being too attracted, had failed to say anything of consequence or charm. I had, however, overheard him telling a friend that he would see him the next day at the Flore. And so here I was. And here he was, too.
An hour or so passed. It was wonderful theater, in its way. Romeo finished his milk and began to snore. I ate my pain au chocolat like the girl I’d once been—breaking off piece after tiny piece of the buttery shell until the dark, bittersweet gold within was exposed. It took a long, delicious time, which was just fine with me, watching this man I wanted to know better drink his coffee on the sidewalk.
Of course, I didn’t talk to John. And he didn’t notice me—which was the point of the exercise, I suppose, though not really. And then he and his friend paid their bill and walked away.
I felt bereft—to the degree that only romantic failure can inspire. And, maybe because of this, I was hungry. It was a Paris sort of hunger, braced by sadness, nostalgia, and desire. Suddenly, I wanted all the tastes of my childhood.
I stood up. “Come, Romeo,” I commanded—although Romeo was not, in fact, a dog to whom one ever had to say “Come,” especially when the destination involved food. He, like me, knew every epicurean shop in the area with an intimacy that bordered on the obscene. We had grown up in this quartier together, and our memories ran deep.
Romeo led me straight to Barthélémy, the cheese shop from our childhoods and our dreams, tiny in size, gigantic in variety. We paused together in the doorway, like two addicts, simply to breathe in the aroma. I bought a small tub of homemade crème fraîche and another of hand-whipped Fontainebleau, and the saleswoman gave Romeo a thumb-size wedge of buttery Brebis. I couldn’t leave without a round of Boulamour, a triple-cream surrounded by sultanas and currants that Madame Barthélémy soaks in kirsch for a month. The name—“ball of love”—I believe needs no further description. I bought two little ones, popped one in my mouth for a burst of sweet and creamy delight and rashly saved the other for John, feeling a drugged, cheesy optimism that I might see him again soon. Who needed words when there was cheese like this in the world?
Turning down the Rue du Bac, we soon came to Ryst-Dupeyron, home to some of the oldest Armagnacs and best Ports and Calvados in town. The propriétaire ushered us in, poured me a glass of Armagnac, and gave Romeo a cookie. I was 11 when we moved to Paris, and it was only days after our arrival that we first found this 100-year-old shop. My parents spent what seemed like an eternity deciding what to buy, perhaps because Madame poured them glass upon glass of Calvados, each older, not to mention more expensive, than the last. Eventually she took pity on me and filled a bowl with Agen prunes plumped in Armagnac. I will never forget that first bite: the lush sweetness of the prunes, the wave of warmth that followed, and then a joy that seemed to inhabit even my toes. I finished the entire contents without anyone noticing and, being 11, began to giggle. At which point, my mother quickly ushered me a few doors down to Le Bac à Glaces, assuming a little ice cream might—what? Diffuse the alcohol? Well, we were an odd family. I ordered the chestnut for the sake of novelty. Something clicked in my sense of the world’s possibilities, and I suggested we return to Dupeyron so that I might top the ice cream with an Armagnac prune. My mother rejected this idea in no uncertain terms. And so it was nine years later that Romeo and I found ourselves with a container of chestnut ice cream and a jar of drunken prunes.