By the time I made my first trip to France, I was already an adult married lady, not the free-wheeling, junior-year-abroad backpacker I had imagined I would be. Somehow, that whole rite of passage escaped me. Instead, almost ten years later, my husband and I took a train from San Sebastian to Bordeaux so I could at least get a glimpse of France and have a meal or two before we returned to the US.
'Poof!' shrugged the talkative Parisian who shared our seating cubby. 'Why go anywhere but Paris?' Nonetheless, I was very excited, so curious and antsy. Not about the art or the architecture or my terrible French. What I wanted to know was: What would my first meal in France be like? You see, I had read — practically devoured — Mmes Child, Fisher and David and I knew one's first meal in France was an absolutely pivotal experience.
I imagined a civilized lunch in a little bistro with white linens, a stuffy waiter and several courses, including one that would be an omelet and another consisting of a whole fish. We would drink lots of wine and eat fruit and cheese for dessert.
My nervousness grew as we crossed the border from Spain into France. Bordeaux was a famous wine region — surely this meant the food would be amazing, too? We pulled into Bayonne for a brief scheduled stop...and stayed there for several hours. The train needed repair, and we were all asked to disembark.
So I stumbled off the train, and into the train station and my first ever meal in France: a baguette cut in half, smeared with pate, dotted with crunchy cornichon and served up by a skinny, stiletto-heeled waitress with dark circles under her eyes and a deep, flirty laugh. My legs dangled off the high stool as we sat at the counter of the Bayonne train station's cafe. We were surrounded by French train yard workers, dressed in their dark blue coveralls, smoking cigarettes and drinking their mid-morning glass of wine.
It was perfect. It was heaven. It was, after all, my first meal in France.
To this day, whenever I want to touch the feeling of that moment — the excitement, the adventure, the joy of that meal and its unpredictable outcome — I just buy a decent baguette, spread it with some pate and cornichon and sit at my San Francisco apartment window, my head filled with memories. The only thing missing is Colette the waitress and the smell of cigarette smoke...and my husband.
(Image: Dana Velden)