Tales from abroad: Paris
A friend of mine once told me that the most important moments of my life always occur around food, and this last summer was no exception. While at the French capital, I rode on the Parisian metro, walked my way through Paris, drank champagne on top of the Eiffel Tower, and tasted all the meals as if they were a dream.
I spent my time at École Centrale Paris, a French version of the California Institute of Technology, and I didn’t speak French then and still don’t speak it now. First of all, the name of the institution is misleading. There is nothing central about the location of the school, and it is situated in a town called Châtenay-Malabry, in the south of Paris.
École Centrale Paris is an engineering school and the alma mater of famous engineers, like Gustave Eiffel and Andre Michelin. But to the French, engineers are not just highly skilled technicians; they are entrepreneurs, managers, and much more.
For this reason, the engineering curriculum at Paris includes such diverse subjects as philosophy and fine arts. During my time there, I took international business classes with other American students, and yes, the classes were in English.
There were some downsides to life in Paris, though. For example, there were no air conditioners in any of the school buildings (aside from a tiny hallway heading to the underground computer lab), and, for some reason, the French do not use deodorant, making situations uncomfortable for obvious reasons.
But what I liked least about French lifestyle was the breakfast. On campus, breakfast was served between 7:30 and 8 a.m., while our classes began only at 9, and what made it worse was how the French enjoy having only bread and coffee in the morning. To be fair, they served baguettes and occasional croissants, along with coffee and juice, but these breakfast shortcomings were easily overcome by the delicious French cuisine.
At the first dinner hosted by the program, the school took us to a fancy restaurant. It was a French-Italian place, and the meal began with an appetizer of fresh, mild, and soft goat cheese sitting on a bed of rough tomato puree. The main course was pan-seared chicken on lentil risotto and the dessert was a mouth-watering amber apple upside-down pie served with coffee ice cream. Our professor asked us if we would like to have some wine because, at 20, it is legal for me to drink wine in France. Bread, wine, and cheese — what more do you need in life?
Wine in Paris is actually quite cheap. For four to six euros, you can buy some splendid wine. Once, I walked out of a fromage store — a French cheese shop — with fragrant bread, non-industrialized cheeses, and a bottle of red wine for less than 5 euros in total. A French lady taught me that you always get red wine with cheese and you should drink it at room temperature. I’ve never drunk wine aside from sipping wine from my parents’ glass, but now, every time I sniff a glass of Côtes du Rhône, the perfume reminds me of my time in Paris.
In France, my life flowed at a different pace. According to my schedule, class started at 9 a.m., but I could wake up at 9 and still be in class by 9:20 a.m. without missing anything. On the days I had class, the lectures were all three hours long, meaning that by four in the afternoon, I would have sat through six hours of lecture on the same topic. In this respect, I missed Carnegie Mellon. Lunch hours were different, too, stretching much longer, as the French are famous for their lunches.
I went to a restaurant called L’Ami Jean on the left bank of the Seine, and there I spent two hours having a glorious French lunch. At this small restaurant owned by the respected Stéphane Jégo, the bread on the table was a great sign because, from my experience, good bread promises excellent food.
I started my meal with caramelized foie gras on a bed of seasonal mushroom with seared baguette. This foie gras was the best thing I have ever put into my mouth. It was not too fatty and was packed with flavor. The generous slab was lightly dusted with sugar and torched with fire, and the caramelized taste and salty aroma of the foie gras was heavenly.
The lady who served me was running around the little place trying to serve everyone else, too. Still, she patiently gave me a tour of the menu and recommended a sweet white wine to go with the foie gras. While I was waiting for my main course, a gentleman at the table to my left saw how I was beaming while eating my meal and struck up a conversation with me. I also had a conversation with a Canadian couple on my right when they saw me take photos of the food. Good food opens people’s hearts, bringing them together.
For the main course, I had lapin — French for rabbit — which had an intense flavor with various herbs seasoning the meat and the sauce. The French man who served me told me to “dig in,” and I used my hand, feeling the meat and the bone with my fingers, and savoring the experience. To finish off my meal, I had a delicate vanilla rice pudding, cooked to perfection. Every time I think about that meal, my heart beats faster, and I am reminded of why I love food as much as I do.
Like French food, the French are complicated, ornate, and effortlessly elegant. They don’t streamline, mass-produce, or industrialize their cuisine, their life, or their view of the world. The respect the French have for food, not just French cuisine, is the same kind of respect they have for their life. I am, truly, in love with Paris.