As I strolled along the Rue Rambuteau on my way back to my rented apartment, I searched for a patisserie (a French bakery specializing in baked goods and sweets) to indulge my craving for a Parisian dessert. My obsession with all things sweet had exploded since arriving in the French capital- a city-wide buffet of hand-crafted, detailed and high-quality confections mine for the taking. Having experienced a significant struggle trying to adapt and find a way to blend in in this glamorous city, a ritual had begun to take shape which gave me great comfort- my daily ‘pastry runs’ as I called them. My only hang-up was my extremely modest grasp of the French language, a barrier that weighed heavily during my explorations.
Up ahead on my right, I saw a gleaming sign with the words Pain de Sucre and decided to stop. My French may be elementary, but I know the word ‘sucre’ was exactly what I was looking for. I entered the shop tentatively, as this moment of stepping away from the veiled anonymity of the bustling street and into the intimate specialty shops of Paris always gave me a pang of anxiety. There is a custom in France of promptly greeting the employees of a store when you enter and they will greet you back as a measure of acknowledgement and respect- it is seen as quite rude if you miss this step. However, this set me on edge knowing that my language skills would be put to the test momentarily. Behind the counter at Pain de Sucre, a clean-shaven gentleman asked me in rapid-fire French for my order. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks as I awkwardly gestured to the gleaming displays to indicate that I still needed to look around. I was instantly exposed as a tourist and felt a cold divide between us. I pointed to a lemon tart which he swiftly packaged in a specialty box for me to take home (‘a emporter’). After having to ask him to repeat the amount I owed more than once, he switched to slow, heavily-accented English and my mortification was complete.
On subsequent days, I always passed by Pain de Sucre on my way home and saw the same employee working inside. I felt an unavoidable urge to redeem myself in his eyes. I began practicing my French with more zest in the evenings, mastering certain phrases that were likely to be used in the bakery realm. When I entered Pain de Sucre a second time, my confidence had improved and I smiled and greeted the same shop worker. He did not appear to recognize me whatsoever. Our interaction proceeded much like the first, although I was able to anticipate the questions and had my answers, in still-shaky French, better prepared. I left still feeling as though I was an intruder on Parisian territory and would never belong.
Eventually, with subsequent visits, I started to notice a shift in our dynamic. On one occasion there was an unmistakable flicker of recognition in the shop employee’s face and a level of warmth in his greeting that did not exist initially; I felt thrilled and triumphant as I walked out the door with my selection of macarons. On another occasion he welcomed me back and asked, in French that I could now understand, about my visit to Paris. He smiled at me and proceeded to recommend a new pastry that I had yet to try. I left the shop that day feeling content and accomplished, a joyful energy in my step. I will always remember that moment of breaking through the cultural divide; that first feeling of connection and acceptance taking place at a pastry shop on Rue Rambuteau as a clean-shaven gentleman smiled at me and wished me a good day (bonne journée) before I hurried home with my packaged treat.