Coasting on the bicycle down Pentonville road, it was cool, but certainly not cold. The early sun painted deep orange onto the red brick spires and turrets of Saint Pancras train station. It would be plenty warm for the afternoon, when the train arrived at Paris Nord station, which was good, because Paris is a town made for the warm, or at least the sunny. London is a town that knows what to do with gray, but Paris can’t find itself without a clear sky. Its brasseries under awnings and its sidewalk cafes with the tables and wicker chairs all pointed to the street only work when the sky is clear.
I was headed to Paris to spend the weekend with Mike and his girl Courtney. They were on the later train on account of knowing they would have been out at the parties the night before. They weren’t wrong, and at ten o’clock I had got a message telling me they were just waking up and getting packed.
I was anxious to get to get to Paris, mostly to eat, and also to walk the wide Hausmann boulevards that we don’t have in London. I decided that there was no need to wait for the eating at least. In London, it is always easy to get on and do the London thing with a paper cup of coffee and a triangle shaped sandwich of soft bread and mature cheese and pickle. But I had decided that my Paris eating would begin right there under the long, vaulted glass ceiling of Saint Pancras, with the hollow echoes and the muffled train announcements soaking into the colonnaded walls.
There was a bakery built into a brick arch in the station that smelled of rising dough and in the window was a very good rendition of a pain integral. There were of course baguette as well, but they had thick, chewy looking crusts. So I bought the pain integral, and a pain aux chocolat just in case I had a craving for sweet at that early hour. I had to go to a different stand to get the coffee I wanted.
I walked to the coffee stand with my bread under my arm, wrapped warm in the same kind of flimsy white paper that the boulangerie gives you in the Pigalle. I rested the loaf and my elbow on the zinc countertop of the coffee stand and put one foot on the low rail and ordered a café au lait which was served in a low wide bowl that I had to pick up with two hands. The trick to a good café au lait is in heating the milk to get it creamy without scalding it.
The short guy that worked the stand I knew to be a Frenchman. He always had his dark hair slicked back with pomade and he always wore a blue and white striped apron with a clean white towel tucked into the belt of it. He muttered things in French as he worked the batches of milk with the steamer, occasionally flicking his head sideways to move a curl of hair from his eyes.
I was right in getting the pain au chocolat and I ate it right there at the coffee stand, dunking the corners into the bowl of hot, milky coffee. The coffee stand guy asked me was I not going to Paris.
“Of course” I said.
“Ze perfect day for it” he said flicking his chin out and rolling his eyes upward to indicate the blue sky that was visible through the curved glass ceiling panes high above us. Then he reached behind the counter and – like a magician, or a confidence artist – slid his right hand across the bar in an arc and in its wake left a small package of grease-proof paper tied with string.
“What’s this?” I asked
“In case you need to have your picnic now” he said
“je ne comprend” I tried.
“Pâté … For your picnic to begin here, on the train, in London.” He neither smiled nor scowled, but rather looked at me, then quickly looked away as if he were handing me contraband.
I started to count out pound coins onto the zinc bar and the man shook his head and made the tut-tut sound that the French do, wagging a finger. Then he waved his hands and the transaction was done. We both looked up when the speaker announced the boarding of the train to Paris. I still had to walk down the metal stairs to the main floor, then through the customs gate, then up the ramp, back to the boarding platform where the train waited.
“I had better go.” I said. “It would be a sad thing to miss the train on this day”.
The man smiled with only the corners of his mouth and patted the parcel of pate.
I ate half of the pâté on the train near Ashford, spreading it onto wedges of the pain Integral with my folding Opinel knife. The pate was very clearly home-made, with flecks of green peppercorn and coarse bits of liver. It also had a strong kick of cognac. I ate the remaining pate near Calais once we had come out of the Channel Tunnel and the scenery turned into flat, even rows of yellow rape flower and in the background at a distance, always a pointed church steeple passing by.
I met up with Mike and his girl later in the afternoon and we took a cruise on the Seine. I told them about the gift of the pâté and they were determined to get pâté of their own. We did find some, later, but it was nowhere near as good as the stuff from my picnic, although with Mike and Courtney, we had good, dry Champagne to wash it down.