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Sketches of France: Storefronts of Paris

“Artisan Boulanger” read the large lettering over the entrance on the deep blue worn paneling of the storefront. It was a simple, yet bold and confident expression of talent. Our local bakers literally consider themselves “skilled craftsmen.” We paid them a visit each of our mornings in Paris. A red awning jutting long over the sidewalk was scrawled in a thin flowing script with the proud artisan’s names, “Mr et Mme Dheilly.” Parisians, unlike any other people I know, take pride in the simple things and weave an artistic thread into the fabric of everything they do, from oil painting to bread baking. Mr. and Mrs. Dheilly are special but not unique.

There are many thousands of traditional local bakeries just like theirs in Paris. I’ve heard some claims that put the number as high as 30,000. That means there’s likely to always be one nearby. The vast majority are locally and privately owned. They are small corner stores with a counter, display case and baskets of bread behind. Usually the bakers serve the customers themselves. Some also roll out a lovely assortment of sweets and everyone has their speciality in addition to the expected traditional staples. No two boulangeries are identical.

My teeth sank into the crusty, buttery softness and my salivary glands ached from the sweetness. I was finally trying a pain au raisin, or escargot, that I had seen in every boulangerie from Paris to Burgundy. Its snail-shell-shaped croissant is studded with raisins and injected with a sweet custard-like filling. Boulangeries are as simple to navigate as they are ubiquitous. Walk to the counter and point. That’s it. Products are simple to identify and taste as they appear they should.

I looked at Lydia and a glob of glistening goo clung motionless to the side of her cheek. The dark chocolate innards of her overfilled pain au chocolat were being extruded from the croissant with every bite she took. Bobby’s had already vanished into his slowly chewing mouth with scarcely a trace left behind. The pain au chocolat is a French favorite and the first choice of Bobby and Lydia too. Amanda’s go to is the simple, perfectly flakey, buttery French croissant while Gianna, ever the trend breaker, tore chunks from a salty soft pretzel. Unlike a lot of things Parisian, it doesn’t take long to become an expert at boulangerie dining. It’s the quickest and simplest place to begin enjoying life like the French.

I took a second bite and the sweet paste hit my palate like a train. The sugar injected into my blood stream with dizzying results. The snail was rich and decadent and unfortunately would sour my stomach for the majority of the morning. Clouded by confection I was bombarded with nauseating visions, not of sugar and a sweet stomach, but by . . . rats, dead rats, hanging limp by crooked necks?

I froze mid-bite, mouth distended with cream, my brain trying to process what my eyes showed it. Examining the surroundings I found I was peering into a store window next to the boulangerie. Rows of rats hung from large mouse traps. Below them, four more in suspended animation embraced and danced in a sick and twisted rodent rapture. The classic Parisian sign above the green wooden facade read “DESTRUCTION DES ANIMAUX NUISIBLES,” or destruction of harmful animals. Translation: pest control. I couldn’t help but wonder how long this extermination business had been operating. And how long have those mammoth rats been hanging there? Can it be legal to display the rotting corpses, carriers of plague and pestilence, I pondered?

Almost immediately a familiarity of this place came to me. It took me a while to place it though. Ratatouille? No. Some old black and white film? No. Ah! I remember. In another moment of strange serendipity I recalled Anthony Bourdain standing in front of this very storefront. He obviously found it peculiar enough (if not repulsive) to find a place for it in his show. Of course his reaction was to see the humor in it, and he pretended as though it was the window of a rat restaurant. Not one serving hungry rats but one serving rats to hungry humans. For the second time Anthony Bourdain unexpectedly dropped in on our vacation. And for the second time it caused an unsettling sourness to my stomach.

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