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Christina: Shopping in France

April 1, 2010

In any city, the French woman will walk with a shrewd sense of purpose until her eye happens to chance upon an enticing window display. Immediately, she will stop and all thoughts of arriving on time to her destination will dissolve. She will clasp her hands behind her back, her stilettoed feet will be perched together, and she will bend her back at a 90 degree angle, defying the stringent constraints of her woolen pencil skirt. Her nose will graze the glass as she leisurely moves her face from one end of the window to the other. The world might pass her by, but she’s engrossed in an activity that’s almost more valuable than the clothes themselves.

There are tenuous silk scarves that become translucent in warm spring sunlight, light cotton skirts that will sprout wings on a windy day, beautiful shoes with impractical heels, delicate broaches and earrings that whisper of elegance rather than trend. Life-size mannequins pose in the windows, wearing dresses that look like possibility: outfits that make the French woman believe anything could happen if she was wearing these clothes.

In French the term for “window shopping” is “lèche vitrine,” which literally translates to “window licking.” A casual stroll in the centre ville of any city reveals how well-suited the term is: shopping in France is an undertaking that requires nearly as much vigilance as a thoughtfully and tactfully executed five-course meal.

In Toulouse, a warm and friendly city two hours west of Montpellier by train, there is an impressive open-air market in the centre ville most days of the week. We arrived at the market on a balmy Saturday morning in March, and our first moments were spent in reverent silence as we took in the sights of all things strange and wonderful.

Before us was a bread stall stacked high with round, dusty loaves; oily croissants containing more butter than flour; and sticky sweet rolls still quivering with heat from the oven. The tired gray circles under the baker’s eyes were a tell-tale sign of authenticity: this bread had been baked in those indefinable hours that hover between night and morning, in a stone oven not far from where we now stood. I bought a baguette, knowing that what I held in my hands had only last night been the separate and seemingly unrelated entities of flour, salt, butter, and water.

My favorite food stalls in France are those that expose the most opulent of desserts without shame or apology. These are stalls that flaunt warm pastries rolled in spirals and dowsed in sugar; chocolate muffins that explode with Nutella after the third mouthful; thin, delicate pastry crusts topped with fresh strawberries, caramelized sugar, and shaved pistachios; croissants dripping with chocolate darker than obsidian; and petits macaroons that sting with the fragrant bite of molasses and ginger.

Inevitably, there will be a new dessert that I haven’t seen in France yet, so I will have to ask the vendor to describe it. In Toulouse, instead of an explanation I was offered a taste: “mademoiselle, goûtez…” One thing the French know well: words can only go so far in describing the intricate and varied pleasures of gastronomy. After I’d tasted everything, the vendor said with a wink, “mademoiselle, je vous écoute…” And like clockwork I walked away with a slice of gateau au chocolat, so dense I could feel the added weight of it in my purse.

Past the stand boasting quality wine from the backyards of Toulouse at five euros a bottle, we found a tiny stall run by two rotund ladies selling homemade jam. With a conspiratory grin, one of the women offered me a taste of her most curious jam: a mélange of sugar, water, and rose petals. Never in my life had I imagined something as frivolous or unnecessary as eating roses, but one whiff of the light, cheerful liquid, and I realized that the French had found a way to make even my humble breakfast of jam and bread feel romantic.

At three euros, the jam was a bargain, and after the jar was safely wrapped in plastic and tucked in my purse next to the weighty chocolate cake, the women continued to chat with us in their southern French accents, offering unsolicited advice about the best places to drink and eat in Toulouse.

And really, there is no better means for making new friends in France than over a shared discussion about the joys of food.

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