Bread

     It was the loud buzz of a motor scooter, the tinny, ragged engine echoing between the shops and apartments rising above a narrow street, that brought a wave of recognition and told me I was in a city in Europe.
     I recognized too the tiny vans delivering goods, say a big brown sack with loaves of bread, to the shops and cafes that lined the street just wide enough for two small cars to pass.
     It was early evening and I was at the Bar du Central on Rue St. Dominique in Paris.
     It is a café with floor to ceiling glass frontal windows that were open wide. A block away was the Douceurs et Traditions boulangerie with brisk, lively women who served both excellent baguettes and a gamut of pastries, including croissants, pains au chocolat, and mini pains au chocolat.
     Sitting at a table at the Central, having a beer at the end of another day of sightseeing, I noticed the high percentage of people walking by with a baguette in hand.
     Dinnertime was approaching and almost one in three held in one hand the paper sleeve of a baguette with the end of the bread sticking out, often with the tip broken off.
     They had bought a baguette on the way home, and indulged in an immediate snack of the “bout,” the end of the loaf.
     That was another realization — understanding why my mom on the one hand always thought the crusty end of the bread was the best part, and why she was so frustrated with the food she found when she first came to California decades ago.
     I would go with her to the little convenience store near where we lived when my dad got his first job as a teacher at Pasadena City College. The only bread on the shelves was Wonder Bread, in white plastic wrappers, wondrous that it could stay on the shelf for so many days.
     Since then, bread has come a long way in California but it still is not the same as a light, crisp baguette from a boulangerie in France.
     My early morning task when I was a kid and our family lived for a year in Ormesson sur Marne outside Paris was to walk to the dairy with a metal container with a handle and pay for a fill-up of fresh milk. Then I would walk in the other direction to the boulangerie and buy two just-baked baguettes “bien brûlées,” meaning dark and crusty.
     After I returned from those frosty, early morning errands, my mom made chocolate milk, into which I dipped a huge piece of baguette, with a thick spread of butter. Cold and famished, that taste explosion of hot chocolate, fresh butter and delicious, crusty bread was a combination that I have not forgotten.
     And today, for lunch, in nearly every café, in airports, in the Louvre cafeteria, you can order a “jambon au beurre.”
     It consists of about a third of a baguette, split on the long edge, with fresh butter smeared on the inside, filled with thin slices of ham, and nothing else. I remembered that taste too and it was just as simple and good as I remembered.
     During a week in Paris, the long, thin form of French bread was eveywhere.
     On another overcast day, we walked from the Rue St. Dominique on the left bank across the Pont Alexandre onto the right bank and past the statue of Winston Churchill and along the front of the Petit Palais where we saw parked vans of the notorious CRS riot police.
     There were four or five vans with roughly six men in each, ready to roll on command towards a riot or a bomb, the violent guardians of order. These guys are the tough guys of the French law enforcement, reviled by students and criticized in a column Le Monde published while I was there for acting as President Hollande’s substitute for political discussion.
     They stood and talked in front of the vans, physically fit, with hard expressions, wearing black boots and the top part of their black armor, hard plastic with bubble joints, that encased their arms and shoulders.
     Towards the end of the day, after spending the afternoon in the Louvre and seeing portraits of medieval knights in similar but heavier black armor, we walked back along the same path in front of the Petit Palais.
     But now it was meal time for the tough guys.
     In the dim interior of the CRS vans, I saw them sitting with fold-out tables in front them. On the tables, in pale contrast to the black armor and the dark interior of the van, I could see their ration, long sandwiches made from the ever-present baguette.

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