It was fall, and school was starting again, but for the first time in my remembered life, I wasn’t going. I’d graduated the previous spring and headed to Europe that summer to do whatever it is that privileged kids do when they backpack around Europe for a couple months. Soak up some culture, make some memories? Figure out what I was supposed to be doing with my life? Delay my entry into the real world? All of the above.
I’d hit Paris for a few days at the very beginning of my trip, and now I’d looped around on my way back home to Chicago. I was burnt out on cathedrals and art museums. I was completely overwhelmed. The architecture, the lights, the music that seemed to fill every charming, winding side street–it felt like I was in a movie. I spent a lot of the time just wandering, being lost in a beautiful place, not able to make my brain work well enough to formulate much of a plan. All I had it in me to do was walk and sit and drink coffee and walk and sit and write and walk and sit and walk.
It was during one of my walking phases that I went past a patisserie that had these beautiful, round little cookies in the window. They were stacked in neat pyramids: one chocolate, one vanilla. They looked to me like extremely fancy Oreos, because I’d never seen a macaron before.
I was a little hungry, but more than that, I was intrigued. They looked delicate but also rich, and, like almost everything I ate in Paris, they were probably completely delicious. I went in and, in my terrible French, stumbled through ordering un petit gateau chocolat et un petit gateau vanille while pointing and smiling. (I do most things in a foreign language either while pointing and smiling or yelling and glaring.) The lady put the cookies in a bag for me, and I walked down the street to a park and found a bench to perch on.
I bit into the chocolate one first and immediately wished I’d bought a dozen of each. They were simultaneously crumbly and moist, and intensely, darkly flavored. I forced myself to eat them both in tiny nibbles to savor them. I licked my pinkie and dabbed up the crumbs that fell in my lap, all while watching schoolchildren run around playing some kind of magical French game. I assumed this was a special treat only to be found in this one Parisian patisserie, something I would never be able to have again.
After cupcakes and before doughnuts, macarons briefly became the hot dessert in town. They were too fancy and expensive for me to enjoy on a regular basis, so I never really became a connoisseur. The other night, however, I was killing a little time in Logan Square and stopped into La Boulangerie, intending to only get a coffee. However, there in the case were a variety of macarons and I thought, eh, what the heck. They only sell them in threes, so I was forced to try a caramel, a key lime, and a chocolate lavender.
I sat in a very authentically Parisian wicker chair on the sidewalk and tasted the chocolate lavender first. The texture was perfect, exactly what I remembered. The flavor was… maybe a little too interesting for me? But the key lime was, if not traditional, then certainly delicious. And the caramel was amazing, easily my favorite (although I’m not above going back to try the many other flavors they make). With those few small bites of dessert, I was thrown back to another continent, another decade, another life. I flashed on that memory of eating my first macaron, which I otherwise haven’t thought about at all in the years since it happened. So many things–a piece of music, a certain fragrance–can trigger a memory, but for me, the closest thing we have to a transporter and a time machine is not a madeleine but a macaron.