Why I’ll always chose the Croque Madame over the salad.
Returning to Paris as an adult and staying big means not giving a f*ck about whether I’m wearing the right thing. It means speaking French with an accent I once felt self-conscious about and not caring if I make a mistake or throw in an English word or two — or five. It means eradicating expectations about what my trip will be like. It means seeing all the beautiful French women — I mean they are STUNNING — and being in awe of them instead of comparing myself to them. Paris is a new experience this time. I’m an adult. A real “I pay my own rent and (mostly) have my shit together” adult. The last time I was here was 2009 for a few days for work and before that was my study abroad spring 2005 and before that a study abroad summer 2003. That summer started my love affair with the city: the food, the wine, and the men (actually, just one man). So when I first stepped foot on the Metro after taking the RER commuter rail from the airport, the smell immediately brought me back to the many metro rides I took with friends to make it to a bar, already warmed up with a gentle buzz from the 3EUR wine we pre-gamed with at home because, who were we kidding, we couldn’t afford most of the places we were going to.
The smell of the subway reminded me of museum hopping that summer, wondering what kind of trouble we’d get into, and being slightly irresponsible 20-somethings. It brought me back to French house parties and driving past le Tour Eiffel lighting up the night. My petit ami (my guy) was a DJ and he had friends. And his friends were single and looking for girlfriends for the summer and it all came together so perfectly: we got to party and drink and eat a lot for next to nothing. And we had the time of our lives. I remember the party where I licked red wine dripping down the side of my glass and a smelly Frenchman stuck his nose up and told me how rude and unladylike I was. I remember being terrified of making a mistake when I spoke French so I would often resort to English or half-ass my French accent even though I knew damn well how to pronounce everything. I was terrified of judgement. The judgement was already there though – it was my own. It lay in my own rules that I couldn’t make a mistake and had to be perfect. Heaven forbid I sounded stupid speaking French.
I learned many things that summer. I learned how to take care of myself in a foreign country (with only a few stumbles here and there), how to navigate Paris’ intricate metro system, how to make a quiche with my host mom, and how to have an eating disorder abroad. I learned and perfected the ability to sustain and hide my eating disorder in one of the most glamorous cities in the world.
I have a memory embedded in my body: the memory of being in Paris the summer of 2003 for study abroad and amongst all the friends, the partying, the museums, the dancing, the men, the food and the wine I lived through a food calculator and made myself throw up wherever and whenever I ‘needed’ to. I was so unstable and unsure of myself that whenever I went on a date, I downed a glass of wine to settle my nerves and feel a little more confident. Before leaving the US I made a promise to myself that I would not throw up in Paris.
Rule #1: NO THROWING UP IN PARIS.
I broke my promise only 4 days after my arrival when homesickness set in and I “felt fat” after a big dinner. I returned to my host family’s empty apartment (my host mother being a very successful lawyer was almost never home) feeling terrible about myself and sweating my ass off because it was summer and most Parisians don’t need their homes to feel like the arctic circle by blasting AC. I put on my sleep shorts and tank top, felt my belly had grown a little since my last meal and decided I had to take care of this. I had to fix myself, immediately. I went into the lawyer’s bathroom which had an ornate antique clawfoot tub and a hanger for my intimates drying overhead. It was in the bathroom where I made myself throw up — in the ornate antique toilet — over and over again. The smell of the bathroom was unfamiliar at first but as the summer progressed that smell caused a gut reaction (no pun intended) to purge.
The shame I felt: here I was studying abroad in Paris for a summer. Having the time of my life and making myself puke. All that good food and wine, gone to waste. People just don’t DO that, right?
At the end of my summer I spent a few nights in London with my mom and sister. We shared a hotel room which meant we also shared a bathroom. After one very indulgent dinner, I made sure I was the first one back to the hotel room so I could purge in private. Immediately after, I felt awful, but also felt the comforting emptiness that accompanies the act of purging. I put on my PJs and crawled into bed. When my mom returned to the room, she must have seen some residual throw up in the toilet and asked if I was feeling ok. Mortified. I was mortified. I buried my head in my pillow and muttered ‘yeah I’m fine, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I fucking flat out lied.
Now, 12 years later, I am in Paris with my mother, sharing a hotel room, and a bathroom. I will be honest, I sometimes revisit my small fear that if I eat all this bread I’m going to turn into a cream puff. But am I really that worried about all the pain au chocolats I’m eating during this special week away? Nope. Am I afraid of all the butter in all the things? Not one bit. Can I put the fear away and simply enjoy myself? Can I say “Bring it Cream Puff, I’m also going to dive into this grand marnier soufflé and enjoy every morsel. And when I wake up tomorrow, I’m going to start my day with another croissant and not give it a second thought.”?
The answer to that question is a resounding YES.
Because in the end even if I do turn into a demi-baguette, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. I chose to go on this trip to spend time with my mother, to eat the food, drink the wine, soak up the culture, and be in awe of all the beauty that exists in this great city. I did NOT come here to poke at my midsection and ponder “how can I fix this? Should I eat the boring salad or the croque madame?”
A new rule is established: Always chose the croque madame.
Not only do I keep a big picture in terms of what I eat (go for what I want) but because I care less about being perfect in my body, I care less about speaking perfect French. Now I can say “can we please have l’addition?” (“The check”) without being self conscious that I am blending the phrases while perfectly pronouncing ‘l’addition.’ Because really what is there to be so afraid of? The worst case scenario is someone doesn’t understand and asks me to repeat myself. Ok no biggie! And best case: they get it, they understand, and respond in French. Boom!
If someone told me to “Stay big” 12 years ago in Paris, the word big would have scared me, made me squeamish, and want to run away and retreat. Now there is still some residual shame and fear of “messing up” or not wearing the “right” thing. But my guiding voice in my heart consistently reminds me to Stay Big. When I let my heart lead and stay big I order the croque madame in my best possible somewhat broken French and have a cream puff for dessert because I’m only in Paris with my mom so many times in my life.