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Of Bread and Bottoms: Musings on a French Bakery

I stepped into the boulangerie and breathed deeply. The smell of fresh baked bread and other goodies coexisted nicely with my growing hunger and I was eager to sink my teeth into an honest-to-goodness French croissant. I was in Chartres, France, for a program centred on the stories the old Cathedral had to tell and I was doing this trip as inexpensively as I could. I was sharing accommodation with my friend, Tracy Benson, and there would be no fancy restaurant breakfast for me – a takeout café and some fresh-baked goods were all I needed.

Exploring the French Bakery

“Bonjour mesdames!” Monsieur Le Boulanger sang at Tracy and me as we crossed the threshold of his small shop.

“Bonjour M’sieur!” I called back. The initial greeting in a French bakery is a key part of the purchasing process – something akin to the puck-dropping ritual at the beginning of a hockey game. I’ve been to France upwards of 20 times in my life now, and I lived in the Montreal area for almost 10 years. I love languages and I love conversation so it would have been inexcusable for me not to have learned how to speak French somewhere along the line. I feel that learning a new language is like earning the key to a whole new kingdom. It opens us to the beauty of another culture and gives us understanding we might not otherwise have. It gives us access to the stories another culture tells about what’s important in life.

I remember walking into a bakery near my home in the West Island of Montreal for the first time, for example, and marveling at the array of different breads on display. One looked like a big circle that had been cut, but not very deeply, down the middle so there were two concentric balls of bread joined in the middle. When I saw the name of this type of the loaf—a “pain de fesse”—I burst out laughing, as this is the French word for “bum.” That’s exactly what it looked like, of course. My kids insisted we take one of those home. And I would have missed the joke entirely if I hadn’t been able to speak French well enough to understand the significance of the word.

The bakery near the Cathedral in France I visited last summer did not have a fesse on display, but its shelves were festooned with all manner of other delicious-looking gluten-based goodies. After some initial pleasantries and a mouth-watering review of Monsieur Le Boulanger’s baked goods we ordered a croissant and a chocolatine each. He efficiently tucked our goodies into little paper bags, chatting amiably with us all the while and we went off in search of a nice French coffee.

“Au revoir mesdames,” he sang as we walked out.

“Au revoir m’sieur,” I called back, ending the purchasing cycle as the little bell above his shop door jangled its good-bye. It felt wonderful to be able to communicate in another language and I felt like I had made a new friend. Not bad for my first morning in France. I couldn’t wait to see what was next.

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