How to Eat a Pain au Chocolat and not Blow your Cover

F*&king chaos. The confusion has got to end. A warm oven…opened. A curtain. the scent of freshly baked croissants dancing out onto the boulevard in front of a Parisian boulangerie, dancing as they do and as they only know how to do with no discretion or yield to pedestrians or traffic or the morning routines of a million post-modern Parisians. It’s a must stop. No matter your arrondissement. No matter your destination nor your deadlines. No matter the consequences (damn the consequences!).

But then there is the choice you must make: to order a regular croissant, an original and buttery croissant. Or a pain au chocolat (loosely translated to croissant with f*&king chocolate because f*&k you non-French). And you won’t know before you sink teeth in this chocolate croissant if you will be able to handle the emotion. What are you to do? How are you to negotiate the treacherous political camps of croissants vs chocolate croissants (though don’t let the croissant camp here you calling the opposition that.)

If you do choose pain au chocolat, you’ll need a plan of action, a what-to-do-in-case-of-fire plan posted outside the stairs at your hotel because in the heat of the moment you’ll be too panicked. But don’t mistake me for one to take sides. Remember that code breaker in the last star wars who basically just went to the highest bidder because both sides, the first order and the rebel scum, were just part of a giant war machine selling people weapons. That’s basically where I am with the whole croissant empire vs. pain au chocolat rebellion. I go to the freshest, warmest side. The best offer. That’s freedom, my friend. True and honest.

First, I want you to know you’re not alone. I didn’t get to where I am with chocolate croissants overnight. I’ve made mistakes, learned, evolved. I’ve gone back and woken up at square one so many times I feel like I sleep in a go*&amn boxcar. trust me when I say I know how easy it can be to blow any cover of neutrality once your fangs slide in past the perilous sheets of slow moving flake, and fang strikes chocolate, and a look of wonderful surprise can, to the uninitiated, spread, betray, unveil your unexpected delight with a scream. “Warm croissant!” you’ll shout to the hushed Parisians, the initiated of the boulangerie. “Warm chocolate, too!” you cry aloud. “S#*t!” you cry aloud. And then, “tourist,” they, the initiated, will whisper.

Now is when you take a breath. Help is here, finally. for though the initial bite is perhaps the most delicate of the operation, if you’ve made a wise croissant choice (and by croissant I refer to the genre neutral, all-encompassing type of croissant to include both butter and pain au chocolat, and by wise choice I mean if you pass a boulangerie and they have fresh croissants you make the choice to stop), I’ll tell you how I do it because I’ve been there. The pain. The humiliation and flushed cheeks. I won’t watch anyone else go through what I had to go through.

I remember one particular horror-movie-come-to-life. It was the early nineteen-hundreds. Gosh, what was it? 27? 28? Seems like a long time ago but to Paris it was yesterday. The streets even look the same. Anyway, I tried to show up to the boulangerie a few minutes early for solitude and for peace. Sometimes the best way to solve conflict is to prevent it. But Paris, once you get to know it, is a small world. Especially once you get to know Paris.

On this particular sunny morning I was in Paris and as was my custom I was meant to have had my morning croissant with Hemingway and then my pain au chocolat with Picasso after lunch, the Paris morning is fickle and the owners of the Patisserie where I was supposed to meet Picasso left a week early for their summer holiday in Croatia and so there I was in line at the boulangerie with both Hemingway and Picasso and the cash register was not taking its time with the other customers.

“Oui?” said the Parisian woman working the boulangerie.

Hemingway and the Spaniard Picasso had been arguing about bullfighting, Hemingway trying to convince Picasso that the bull in a bullfight was the one true artist until he stopped mid-declarative sentence. Picasso froze his look of horror, or rather turned it toward me, in anticipation of my choice. It was choosing between a chocolate croissant and a regular croissant, sure, but some part of me knew I was choosing between friends. An irreparable divide. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse. “Yes?” Said the Parisian girl working the boulangerie. She had switched to English. “Can I help you?”

The night before I was offered a French menu at the bistro. That victory, my measurement of how well my Paris radar is working, evaporated with the early morning rain when she switched to English and then my precious victory never was.

“A croissant,” said Hemingway, “like Prose, is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. Be a man and order your croissant pure and honest like a bullfighter.”

“I am a bit of a toreador,” I said. “But then again. I can’t even imagine chocolate inside of a croissant. It’s my two favorite things combined.”

“Everything that you can imagine is real,” said Picasso.

“A child orders chocolate in their croissant,” said Hemingway. “I thought you were a man, Johnny. Next you’ll be standing there trying to decide between wine and grape juice.”

“Every child,” Picasso hissed through his indignation, “is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

“Don’t listen to this cartoonist,” said Hemingway. “He can’t even draw in a straight line. I always say a croissant is an ice burg. What makes it move gracefully is how much of it is beneath the surface.”

“Cartoonist!” cried Picasso. “I’d do your portrait, Ernest. I would prove to you I am no cartoonist!  But they do not make canvasses big enough for such a doosh.”

“Johnny,” said Hemingway. “Your croissant needs no props of chocolate like a movie with bad writers needs CGI.”

“You stifle him!”

“Not stifled,” said Hemingway. “Cut and therefore free of the unnecessary.”

Picasso scoffed. “Pain au chocolat. Pain au artist!”

Then like watching a silent film I was watching Picasso’s face twitch and hop and grow and contort like one of his paintings which I realized then were all self-portraits and I watched in the silent film as Hemingway’s face grew more stoic but rumbling beneath like a river, the big kind like the Mississippi or any other one you’ve heard of but I could no longer hear them for what was more deafening were the glares of the two croissants.

I once got a private tour of a research zoo and while the zoo worker spoke what was louder was the two Nile crocodiles who had slid with silence into the water, water shallow enough to conceal a man-eater. The eyes watching from the water were louder than the zoo worker in holding my attention though the two crocodiles did not fight over space. They did not pursue their prey. They did try to convince their prey to come to the water. Those arguments were used up and dried up a million years ago. A hundred million years ago. The croissants only sat there in the murky water of the boulangerie and their watching me was deafening. Get just close enough, they said, and I will pull you under before you know to gasp for your last breath, or don’t. I’ve got time enough for either, which you do not.

I could have wished for nothing in that moment except to have the power of Gertrude Stein, who set up a salon in her living room in the sixth arrondissement of Paris and let the artistic camps battle each other with her as the referee.

As for me I got through it with the standard old ploy of ordering one of each, with the excuse that it was for the purpose of comparing and contrasting. Though, the disappointment in their eyes was evident, and unforgiving.

But now we have technology, and we might as well use the day and age that we’ve got. So here’s what you do: set the alarm on your phone to a ring that might easily be mistaken for a phone call. Then, in case you are overcome with the unexpected chocolate in your croissant emotion, and you do not want to offend the perilous political camp of regular buttery croissant, you’ve given yourself an out, a built in distraction of emotion. A decoy, if you will. We’ll hide your chocolate croissant emotion in plain sight.

At the exact (and I mean precision) moment that you bring the chocolate croissant up to your mouth with one hand, with the other put your phone to your ear and say the following script because Parisians do show plenty of emotion on plenty or occasions and seeing somebody they know and love is one of them:

I leave you with your script:

Bonjour! (Then switch to English) Who? What! You didn’t tell me you were going to be in Paris! No it’s okay I have a phone plan over here. Of course I have a phone plan over here! Where are you? Rue de quelle? (An accidental slip into French.) Rue de what? Oh yeah that’s only about nine minutes from here! No just walk. Yeah it’s faster. Yeah. Yep. Yep. K. K. see you in a few minutes. Au revoir! Yeah that means bye. Ok. Bye bye!