It is actually possible to get tired of French bread, even very good French bread.
My longing for a change of diet, the need to find a permanent place to live, and the return of a minimal amount of courage, drove me to seek out the University of Grenoble’s one residence hall. The ground floor bustled with students who looked like they knew exactly what they were doing. I stood in the midst of all this activity and my face must have registered desperation. A tall, slender, blond girl came my way, a smile on her face.
“Can I help?” English. More welcome words were never spoken.
It was Jill, Jill from California, who had just completed a year in the U. of Grenoble’s language program (advanced class), and was off to the Sorbonne in a couple of weeks for a second year. She took pity on me. It could have been the tale of my bread and butter diet that got to her.
There was no place for me in the dorm, and I couldn’t have afforded it any way. Together we studied the board of ads posted by families willing to rent rooms to students. She came with me to meet Madame Leiva-Marcon and made sure we understood one another and the terms of my lodging – one dark bedroom in their modest third floor apartment, furnished with a wardrobe, vanity and bed – all huge and heavily carved – use of the single bathroom, and a daily breakfast to consist of bread, butter, jam and coffee.
Jill helped me register for classes and get the student card that gave me access to the AGE (Association General des Etudiants) cafeteria.
Cafeteria – the word doesn’t conjure up a gourmet menu, but having grown up on meat and potatoes, with salt and pepper the only sanctioned seasoning, the AGE cafeteria was a new world.
The broad stone stairs leading to the second floor cafeteria were packed with students every lunch and dinner, waiting for the wide doors at the top to open. The doors did nothing to prevent the escape of potent perfumes – rosemary, garlic, sage, tarragon – that alternated depending on the menu of the day, teasing the nostrils of famished students.
In this monastically plain space, furnished with long scarred tables and folding chairs, I first discovered flavors that opened more than my taste buds to the world’s possibilities. Aromatic stews, whole fried trout, the unlikely flesh of artichokes, eggplant in thick tomato sauce, heady with garlic and olive oil, fresh yogurt in individual glass bottles, apricot tarts, the fruit nestled on custard in a puff pastry shell.