Disclaimer: any resemblance between events described below and real life is hardly coincidental. In this, the Age of Trump, I take no responsibility for anything I say. Where I say anything out of bounds, I am either joking/being sarcastic or “telling it like it is”. I reserve the right to pout and throw tantrums and generally declaim against the unfairness of the universe.
Life. It’s about choices. This city or that; this job or that; this sofa or that; this lover or that. Sometimes the choice is no choice, as it is driven by forces deep within us: Snails or oysters, or both, or neither – a life of luxury or escape and oblivion instead? Sometimes a choice is no choice, as it is driven by forces all around us: a work environment marked by thwarted ambition, malignant lies and out of control tempers – to stay is to be crushed, so you “choose” to leave work and profession and city and country, to resettle 6080 km away to regain your sanity. And then there are choices that are false choices: you ask for a “bitter lemon” and what you get is a choice between tonic (no lemon) and “Schweppes Lemon” (no bitter) and a haughty “But you are in France” delivered with a shrug.
As we are not perfect, no exercise of choice guarantees a perfect outcome. A choice between imperfections requires compromise. Compromise in things we value; compromise in values. This is the human condition. The more challenging the conditions, the more compromise comes into relief; the starker the choice, the greater the compromise. Seven months after I left my house of eight years, my city of thirteen and my profession of two decades, and seven months since I landed in a new-old city to work in a new-old job and build a new-old life, the choices and compromises still stand in stark contrast, forcing decisions daily.
Life. It’s about choices. Choices require compromise. Compromises in deciding between imperfect options.
And so it was that on a bright sunny Sunday afternoon in the heat and the heart of July, mid-way between the national day of my old country and that of my new home, circumstances forced a decision, at a crossroads, between two options, each beguiling and beckoning in its own way, and yet each glaring with imperfections and implications both profound and facile. I was heading home on foot after four hours of hard work keeping myself reclined and my mind empty underneath a scorching sun, with an occasional respite only in the hard toil of a paddle-board on wavy water and some pinkish wine for moistening my parched throat. The path before me as I walked home, miles of uphill trudging; this being a Sunday afternoon, only a handful of options for diversion. And then there it was, the choice, the moment of reckoning, the compromise between imperfections; the colossal clash of values and, one could even say, value structures. I stood there, at the crossroads (Rue du 31 Décembre and Rue de Monchoisy), pondering. Even at this late hour, the sun was still bearing down hard; my backpack weighing heavy; the noise of traffic all around; sweat running down my brow, like L’Étranger I felt disoriented; indecisive; a moment of existential angst. What to do now? Where to go from here? How to choose?
An éclair or a palmier?
No metaphor this; a real decision to be made; a deceptively simple choice, simple in appearance but profound in its implications: Not simply a choice between two pastries, but of two different, well, lifestyles: they were, after all, available only in different cafés.
I stood there, pondering.
A properly-made chocolate éclair is not just a thing of beauty. From the first bite, it transports you outside of yourself, your troubles, life itself. The outer chocolate layer gives a false impression of solidity as you sink your teeth into it, but then gives way to a gentle chou pastry enrobing the heavenly softness of a chocolate custard filling. As you savor the first bite, you reflect on the next: how big a bite to take determines not just how much chocolate filling you line the inside of your mouth with, but how quickly you finish the éclair; intensity of sensation on the one hand, extending the joy on the other. There is the temptation to have a bit of coffee between bites: of course, you don’t want to drown the taste of the chocolate custard; but then, it’s incredibly satisfying to start each bite as if anew. With the last bite, the world takes on a whole different hue. Life is tranquil; you close your eyes; take in the sun; meditate.
A well-made palmier is the resident of a different universe, the denizen of a different time, the harbinger of a different season, the citizen of a different dimension. Where the éclair is squishy except for the chocolate covering, a palmier is solid. Semi-round (it is a stylized heart, thus coeur de France) and flat, it is made of thin strips of buttery sweet – but not too sweet – mille-feuilles wound tightly together and glazed with caramelized sugar. It gives the impression of being crunchy – and if you have ever had the store-bought cookie versions of it (shudder), you’d be forgiven for this heretical thought – but though firm, it lets your teeth to gently sink into it, almost but not quite like a lover’s shoulder. Where an éclair melts and dissolves and dissipates, the palmier is to be chewed; it lingers; it invigorates. You don’t decide how a bite; you don’t wait for coffee-sips in between; you don’t close your eyes. A palmier demands your attention to the sweet buttery end. After which, a simple espresso – never more than that – is enough to get you up and going. A palmier scoffs at meditation and mocks yoga; it is Trump to éclair’s classy Clinton.
Éclair or palmier?
Wish it were that easy, the choice, the compromise, the existential decision facing me at that corner. There were the venues to consider; the set-up of the patios; the wait staff; the comfort of the chairs; the clientele. To go or to sit down? At this late hour, do I still order coffee? Or a juice? What kind of juice? The one offered freshly pressed- and squeezed juice, the other overpriced processed ones in bottles. Do I sit in the sun, or find a shaded place? Inside or outside?
The patisserie en route at the corner has excellent palmiers (which they insist on calling coeur de France), but they over-milk the cappuccino (hence the espresso), and the only place they have outside is in the blistering sun, on the sidewalk, across the street from a motorcycle parking area with all the noise, pollution, tattoos and smoking that that implies. Well, a palmier is an action pastry; an inner-city corner café is how it should be experienced.
The alternative is far from alternative; it is a sedate lovely café by the name of Patisserie Mage, around the corner from where I live, a sedate lovely neighbourhood by the name of Champel; the café has a shaded patio overlooking a grand old building; it specializes in chocolates, cakes and, well, éclairs. As befits its location and its offerings, on Sundays it is populated by the local retirees who whisper when they talk, better to not hear each other through their hearing aids. The cappuccino is perfection itself, complementing the éclairs and the patio, delivered twenty minutes after your order – a risky proposition given the clientele, as none seems quite up to hanging on to dear life for much longer. The rest of the service is not much speedier – I have a dart gun handy to bring down a server when I spot her through the tall grass. This is the place you go to, to meditate and contemplate.
The trouble with choice, even with the most binary of choices – and it does not get more binary than éclair or palmier with me – is that however contained, the decision tree demands to branch out. Once you stand at a corner contemplating contemplation, you have no option but to start questioning your basic assumptions; down that path is heresy or apostasy, and having been one or the other all my life, I can assure you that nothing good can come of it. Éclair or palmier – obvious question to ask; which café, a necessary predicate. But … why not a gelato? Two scoops – passion-fruit and pistachio – in a rose garden?
The head spins. The sun starts burning through SPF30. Steady on, old man, I tell myself. There are compromises to consider; options to analyze; choices to be made; decisions to be taken. It’s already five p.m. on a Sunday; neither patisserie stays open past 6 – this is Geneva. And so I choose