My True Mistress

My French publisher's office: cute, on a courtyard, trees, rustic, yet in the heart of Paris

The offices of my French publisher, Cherche-Midi, off an interior courtyard in an ancient building on, wait for it, le rue Cherche-Midi.

I had planned to reside here in Paris secretly, and not tell my French publisher, but then I thought, why be a jerk, a thought that comes to me all too often and in fact a thought that comes to my friends quite often when they think of me. So, I revealed my presence, and my publicist here in Paris, Sabine, was delighted. She also taught me a new word. She said I was a “cachotier.” I looked it up with considerable dread. It means, “secretive person.” Exactly. I am indeed a cachotier. I will have a T-shirt made to that effect. And, in case you wondered, my Larousse French-English dictionary defines the english word jerk as “abruti.” Though, when you turn to the French part of the dictionary, it states that “abruti” means moron. Our cultures will never truly understand each other.

Sabine has been completely cordial. “Très sympathique,” or “très sympa,” as the French might say. She immediately arranged a variety of lunches and interviews. Although I tend to shy from such things, I agreed, because I wanted maximum contact with France, the French, and French culture. And so, the other day, I found myself at a fantastic restaurant, La Cigale Récamier, in the 7th arrondissement, just around the corner from my publisher’s offices, and, incidentally, just around the corner form the hotel where, during the occupation of Paris in World War II, the Gestapo had its headquarters. I spoke at length with a TV reporter who is also a fine historian and proprietor of a history website, and an expert on the war photographer Robert Capa, but, call me shallow, what really knocked me flat was my lunch. For my main course I ordered veal liver, done “à point,” meaning medium rare, though the literal translation is, “just right.” I’m a liver fan from way back. Chicken liver. Calf’s liver. Buffalo liver. Duck liver. Eagle liver (that’s culinary humor). Liver and onions. Pâté de foie gras. Pâté de foie anything, frankly. When I was a kid my dad would from time to time make the most wonderful breakfast of thin strips of liver, heavily salted, of course, and fried in butter. We did not in those days know the word sauté, nor had we any inkling that olive oil even existed. It was my favorite breakfast, after fried chicken hearts. There is an explanation for all of this. My parents were from South Dakota, home of lutefisk, a fish cured in lye and very useful for cleaning the engine blocks of old cars–the fish that is, not the lye.

But this dish I had for lunch was wonderful. Really. I just wanted to let my head sink down onto the plate and loll around, though I suppose afterward my beard would have been a funny color. I felt briefly like M. Reynaud, that character in the movie Chocolat who finally comes to terms with his love-hate relationship with chocolate and sexy French actresses (Ms. Binoche) and gypsies played by Johnny Depp. But, and here’s the miracle, what topped even the veal liver was my dessert. I’m not, as a rule, a dessert guy, as many of you know, but, since this restaurant is renowned for its soufflés (the Obamas once ate here) I decided I had to try one. So, I ordered a chocolate soufflé. Oh. Mon. Dieu. (O.M.D!) Diabolical. Forget Carla Bruni (for the moment). This was perfection. I tried to lure the soufflé back to my apartment, knowing my wife was attending a medical meeting at a remote conference venue which required a Metro trip and a brief boat ride. But, my soufflé had other plans. And so, despair. I walked the streets alone, under a bleak drizzle, consoled only by the two baguettes I acquired at the boulangerie two doors down from our place, and a glass or two of Faugères, which is a nice smooth red wine of an appellation that I’d never heard of before coming to France.

I write letters now to my soufflé, but I get no response. It is very sad, but this is Paris, and one cannot remain sad here for very long, unless of course one is allergic to cigarette smoke or meals made with tripe, in which case I suppose one can be very unhappy indeed.

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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