Nick and I had spent almost a month in Paris before we made it to the Canal Saint-Martin, which, according to every guidebook, is an absolute must-see. It wasn’t an intentional snub by any means; it’s just that our preferred mode of sightseeing is to wander around randomly, get lost, binge on pastries, and see what cool things we stumble upon along the way. We’d stumbled upon many amazing sights, neighborhoods, and croissants this way, but somehow, our ambling, carbohydrate-fueled path had never led us to the famous canal. But with our trip winding down, and our current apartment within easy walking distance, there was no excuse.
That morning we woke up early, got dressed, and started walking in the canal’s general direction. After two blocks, we popped into a corner brasserie for an espresso. We stood at the counter until the stern-looking man behind the counter nodded in our direction.
“Un espresso, mon soir,” I said, before Nick nudged me and I corrected myself, red in the face. “Monsieur!” I said authoritatively. “MONSIEUR.” The man eyed me with a mix of confusion and amusement (I hope?) and started pulling our shots.
Somehow on this trip I’d gotten it in my head that “monsieur,” the French word for “Sir” and a necessary formality when greeting any Frenchman, was pronounced “Mon-SWAAAHHH,” which translates to, I guess, “My eeeeeeevening?” It’s a very strange thing to say to someone who’s about to serve you coffee or cut you a piece of brie, especially in the overly dramatic, Quebecois accent I’d picked up from listening to Celine Dion.
Luckily espresso in Paris, even espresso ordered in a shameful deluge of mangled French, is always perfect. We stirred in cubes of sugar, looking around at the grandiose bar and admiring the old men sipping white wine and reading the morning newspaper. We left a couple euros on the counter and continued our trek. The weather was perfect – sunny, blue skies, pleasantly breezy. After a few wrong turns and a stop at a Turkish bakery for breakfast – fried balls of dough slathered in honey and rose syrup, because why not? – we arrived.
The Canal Saint-Martin was indeed beautiful, winding through a tree-lined neighborhood and criss-crossed with arched foot bridges that looked to be straight out of a fairytale. The view was breathtaking. The smell was breath-stifling. Judging by the odor, the “water” running through these canals was 90% urine. But who cares? We were in Paris on a perfect sunny day. Not even a suffocating urine smell could hinder our good moods.
Nick and I strolled along the canals, holding hands and noses, scheming, as always, about how we could move here one day. We took off our shoes and sat on the edge of the water for awhile, playing one of our favorite games, Senior Pictures, in which we take turns pretending to be a high school student getting their yearbook photo taken by an obnoxious photographer. (“Smile like you’re being crowned prom king! Gaze off into the distance and squint slightly like you’re looking into your bright future!”)
The shops and restaurants in this area had a much different feel than other parts of Paris. They were younger, funkier, a little hipster. Store fronts were painted hot pink, lime green, and bright yellow, and teenagers in skinny jeans and Ray-Bans smoked cigarettes while waiting in long lines outside trendy cafes.
We popped into a small boutique that caught my eye with a display of crocheted jewelry in the window. The inside was stocked with handmade accessories, art, and vintage clothes. Heaven, in other words. The woman who worked there smiled brightly when we walked in. “Bonjour!” she said with open arms.
“Bonjour!” we greeted back, and then she launched into an exuberant flurry of French, none of which we could understand.
“Je ne parle pas Francais,” I said with an apologetic expression. “Je suis désolé.”
“Oh, OK,” she said, still smiling. “I speak a little English.”
We chatted with her as we browsed the shop, trying on rings and picking up wildly printed vintage dresses. “You would look like Beyonce if you wear that,” she said, giggling. “Do you enjoy Paris?”
“YES,” Nick and I both said in unison. “We love it here. We want to move here.”
“I’m from Lorraine,” she said. “Do you know this place?”
We shook our heads.
“It is beautiful, and we grow a special fruit there. Mirabelle. Do you know it?”
Again, we shook our heads.
“Hmm…it’s like a cherry? But no. Like, peach? But no.” She held up a hand, motioned for us to hold on one second, then ran behind the counter and grabbed her iPhone. She typed something into it and then held up the screen to show us a what looked like an orange plum. “Mirabelle!” she exclaimed.
“It looks so good!” we said. “We want to try it!”
“It is THE BEST. I look at it and I want to eat my phone!” She said, pretending to gnaw on the screen. “You must try it. We make jam with it. You must buy some mirabelle jam.”
And that’s how we came to spend the next couple days searching furiously for a jar of mirabelle jam to bring home with us. We went to large grocery stores and specialty food purveyors, but there was no sign of mirabelle. I’m told now that it’s very easy to find in France, but for whatever reason, fate or dramatic effect, it wasn’t until our last evening in Paris that we were able to track down a jar.
The sky was getting dark and shops were starting to close up for the night. It looked like our mirabelle mission was going to be a failure.
“We cannot leave France without a jar of mirabelle jam!” Nick said, an edge of desperation in his voice. “We will push our flight back if we have to!” And then we saw it: a little gourmet food store on the corner a block away.
“Are they still open?” I said, squinting to see if their lights were still on.
“Who cares, let’s go!” Nick cried, and took off running. We sprinted up to the door and pulled the handle. It opened. Glory glory hallelujah, it opened. The shop was stocked with all kinds of glorious treats – chocolates, aged vinegar, sardines, herbs – and there, nestled onto a shelf of preserves, were 3 little jars of bright orange mirabelle jam. We danced in the aisle, then we bought them all. The next morning, we left for the airport.
Back home in Nashville, we opened the mirabelle jam and took our first bites. It was totally worth the effort. The taste was like a combination of apricot, plum, and mandarin orange. It was sweet and refreshing, with big chunks of chewy mirabelle. Nick made fresh baguette and we ate it with butter and mirabelle jam every morning, dreaming of Paris.
But alas, mirabelle jam, like all wonderful things, must come to an end. When we scraped the last bit out of the bottom of the last jar, we mourned for the traditional 3 month period, and then we were jonesing for more. Could we have ordered some on Amazon? Probably, but I thought it would be more fun to get it straight from the source. Since plane tickets to France weren’t in the budget, I sent a Facebook message to my friends Sarah and Shawn, who happen to live in France. Sarah is from there, and met Shawn while she was going to school in Oregon. They’d moved back to France together after getting married, and were currently living in Lille. I miss them.
I told them the saga of our mirabelle jam quest, how we’d found it, eaten it, run out, and needed more. Would they be interested in sending us some in exchange for some goodies from Tennessee?
They wrote back: “We have the mirabelle jam, but it’s handmade by Sarah’s grandma.”
Life. Dream. Status.
In another bit of serendipitous news, it turned out Shawn was coming to Georgia to visit relatives the following month. Mailing the jam from one state away instead of an ocean away would be much cheaper, so he wrapped up our jam and nestled it into his suitcase. That’s how it happened that one day we got a package in our mailbox, postmarked from Shawn’s family’s town in Georgia, with a jar of handmade mirabelle jam from Sarah’s family’s town in France.
We opened it up and set the jar of jam, adorably packaged and labeled by Sarah’s grandmother, on the counter in our little house in Nashville. Then we dug in with spoons.
Between talking about how this was by far the best jam we’ve ever had, and yelling at each other to “Ration it! Ration it, for the love of god!,” I thought about that happy lady from Lorraine in the boutique by the Canal Saint-Martin, the iPhone that let her show us a photo of her favorite fruit, the gourmet shop that was open late on our last night in Paris, the social network that let me ask my friends – half a world away – if they might send us some more, and the planes that had criss-crossed the Atlantic carrying people and memories and little glass jam jars.
All the things that brought us to this very moment, this moment of awe at the amazing world we live in. The moment I realized gratitude tastes like a mouthful of sweet mirabelle jam.