You can’t find chocolate chips in French markets. This is what I’ll tell Piper one day, our firstborn who grew up in between two languages, two cultures, and two countries, with a French father and American mother who floated back and forth in between trying to figure out how to give her both. This is the story I’ll tell her each time we make cookies together, and each time her dad walks in from the office, smells the chocolate in the oven and falls in love with me again, always giving me the first kiss before the kids. This time it’s just practice, making sure I have it all right, because one day soon she’ll be old enough to start hearing it.
If you do possibly stumble across a bag, I promise you that they will be small, and so is the bag. Not enough for a cookie recipe, or at least not the one my mom taught me how to make, yielding seven and a half dozen melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookies. She makes them for my dad, and he steals them hot off the pan with a boyish grin on his face every time. I made them the first time your dad fell in love with me, on a sunny early spring day in the Paris countryside. Or at least the closest I could get to them in a country with kitchens that don’t function in the same language.
The flour in France doesn’t have the same texture, sugar comes in packaging so small it makes you feel like a glutton when you need to use the entire box for one recipe, and butter isn’t measured in cups, it’s measured by kilo so good luck trying to make sure you have the right amount for a good home-cooked comfort recipe. And my mom’s beloved kitchen aid stand mixer that I didn’t think it was possible to make cookies without, they’ve never heard of it. Eggs, thankfully, are still the same size and shape so at least I recognized something. It all makes importing something from home seem a bit futile, except to someone in desperate need of a small touch of normal, even if it doesn’t taste quite the same. Sometimes it’s in the process that we find the comfort, not in the result.
Asking for powdered sugar was one of the first language mix-ups I had, the very first time I tried to cook in France, well before I had even gotten to the cookies. When the words are translated literally it becomes sucre en poudre, which is normal old-fashioned sugar. If you think about it it’s a powdered form of sugar as well, so it does make some sense, but sucre glacé was what I was actually searching for. Those two are definitely not interchangeable in cooking, even when it’s in a kitchen that functions in a different language. Try coming up with a way to explain that you’re looking for a different type of a sugar that is also in a powdered form; it took a while. Literal translations were no longer an option it seemed.
A month later, a very proper older French woman once asked me from across the table at a formal dinner if I was a virgin. I choked on my water, subtly (or so I hoped), and then realized she had said the French word for “Virgo”, as she proceeded to tell me excitedly that she was one too. The sign, I realized and swallowed in relief. A word I had never learned even in English because I had never followed that calendar before, so why would I need to know the translation? It’s the things you don’t think you need to bother to learn that you actually do, because otherwise you just might miss out on some of the best conversations about parenting with the mother-in-law you never expected to have who speaks no English. I don’t think diaper or nursing as in my high school French curriculum, and unfortunately they’re two of the words that I still stumble over most. Shortly thereafter at dinner I spilled the pitcher of water all over the table when I lost my grip on it, making sure I didn’t leave without being thoroughly embarrassed and always remembered as the American girl who came to dinner one night.
I moved to the outskirts of Paris when I was seventeen, a week after I graduated from the tiny school in suburban Virginia I had been at every Monday through Friday, September through June for the past thirteen years. I moved to a little cottage style house, surrounded by a tall fence of evergreens that just barely let you see the tip of the town steeple poking over, and fields for miles on all sides of the tiny town, well kilometers more precisely. I lived in a in a little back corner bedroom, with faded Versailles pink wallpaper on all four sides, a low bed that took up all but one of my European size 41 feet of the space around it, and a window with a quaint little flower box and a ledge wide enough to curl up on. Oh that window. It opened wide with wooden shutters just like you’d imagine, the ledge perfect for a book and a cup of tea on a sunny day. He fell in love over chocolate chip cookies, I fell in love sitting on the edge of that window. An unassuming seat with chipped concrete an pockets of dirt, but I still dream of having a window like that again. It’s the first thing on my list for what makes a house my home, but unfortunately windows like that don’t exist where we live now.
It was a little house, with no working oven, filled with a family of four. They hadn’t had one for years; there wasn’t an electrician they trusted enough to fix it. The oven was simply an extra storage cabinet, one that I peeked into frequently, looking past the piles of pots and pans, willing it to work for me, silently begging. I needed something to be the same in this unfamiliar but strangely recognizable place.
It ignored my pleas every time and sent me off to get to know its counterpart across the kitchen, a little broiler that plugged in, open on three sides with all three ceiling coils functioning at different heat levels at the same time. It wasn’t Fahrenheit, it wasn’t even Celsius; it was an art, a rather difficult and one I was fairly unsuccessful at, figuring out how to cook something evenly.
The white and blue chipped linoleum floor was where I stood daily, usually barefoot enjoying the coolness, as I learned to cook during the months before your dad walked in the front door and I felt the smile on my face grow so big I had to hide before facing him to not embarrass myself. In the winter, the wood burning stove was in the corner to keep the five of us us warm, in the summer we opened all the doors and did a daily wipe down of the little black moucherons that filled all the little corners of the house, flying in on the wind from the nearby wheat fields. I can’t remember how many times I went through every drawer in that kitchen, searching for a measuring cup or a recognizable tool; they didn’t exist. “Measuring cups”, they asked me, “why would you need one?”
Gone were the safe recipes, the things I could fall back on. The things that my mom had taught me. Here I was dependent on skillets and stovetops, and uneven roasting, with never a guarantee that dinner would ever work, or the word I was using when I looked for the right spice to cook with was saying what I needed it to say. Yet somehow it did, night after night. I cooked for my family of four, who in exchange for my mostly edible blend of recipes from my mom filled with whatever the closest equivalent ingredients I could find were, became my other parents and my younger sisters and introduced me to your dad. Thankfully they also helped me import a bag of chocolate chips so I could attempt to bake for him, well, open-air broil.
In the House Where We Met, Part 1
Katherine spent a year living and working with a missionary family in Paris, France immediately after high school. It’s where she met her husband, fell in love with wide open windows and flower boxes, began to find what truly inspires her as an artist and designer, and where she decided that one day she would write a book. (It’s also where she buys her fancy schmancy favorite tea!) Paris and its creamy colors, its stunning architecture, and its sense of classic are just a few of K’s favorite things and she loves traveling back to wander through France any chance she gets. (Especially now with her bilingual littles in tow!) Thanks for following along with K on the Paris Travelogue + City Guide, as she shares her stories and memories from the last 9 years of a love affair with France.