After exchanging emails, letters and phone calls for 8 months with a French guy I’d met online, it was time to go to Paris to meet him face-to-face; time to look one another in the eye and discover if our long-distance chemistry would hold up in the flesh. I’d been in Paris one other time, 7 years before, but this time was different. This time, I wasn’t a tourist.
This time, I was on a crazy, international, first-date adventure that would last for 2 weeks.
Olivier picked me up at Charles de Gaule airport. We went to his apartment in Montmartre and listened to April in Paris. Because funny enough – it really was April and we were in Paris.
He told me he’d planned a road trip for us and that he wanted to introduce me to some of his friends. After talking every day for almost a year, I knew quite a bit about most of his friends already, so I was interested to meet them, too.
“Christophe is coming over for brunch tomorrow, and bringing his girlfriend,” he said. Then he opened his tiny European fridge. A rank odor wafted out and slapped me in the face. I imagined a damp sack filled with dank, sweaty feet sitting on a refrigerator shelf. I tried to act as though an invisible demon of stink hadn’t just invaded the room. Then I thought to myself, “Aw… this dude’s been living alone for so long, he hasn’t even bothered to clean out his fridge. Ever.”
The next morning, Christophe arrived with his girlfriend. Since she didn’t speak English and I didn’t yet speak any French, we didn’t talk much. The four of us sat around the kitchen table. Olivier poured the wine and began removing several little paper-wrapped packages from the fridge. Now the stench of a sack full of stinky feet was right in front of me. There was no sack of rotten feet, only a sack full of delicious cheese.
“It’s time for Cheese Class.” Olivier took my empty plate and proceeded to fill it with about a dozen different types of French cheese.
Luckily, I was already quite fond of cheese and am not skittish about trying new food. One by one, I tried them all while Olivier and Christophe explained which region each one came from, how it was made, the type of cow or goat or sheep the milk came from and every other detail that made each one special.
Every time I put some in my mouth, they leaned forward, eyes wide and expectant. “So? How do you find this one? Is not too strong?”
None of them were too strong and aside from one incident where I tasted them out of order (no Roquefort before Saint Nectaire, or you’ll fuck everything up) it was no big deal. I confirmed that I really love stinky French cheese and made a good impression on the trio of French people sitting around me.
Another 8 months went by and I was living here. I tried every stinky fromage I could get my hands on. I learned more about what came from where and how they were made because when you move to France, learning the language and the metric system isn’t enough. You also have to learn wine, cheese and every other thing remotely related to gastronomy and terroir.
Eventually, the most dedicated students become the teacher. I became fluent in fromage. This is why every time an American friend visits Olivier and I at home, I gleefully announce, “IT’S TIME FOR CHEESE CLASS!”
Most people, they’re interested; they’re happy to see the display of fromages laid out before them. They’re willing to learn. They’re curious and ask questions. Most people, they get through our Cheese Class just fine… provided they don’t try the Roquefort before the Saint Nectaire.
Although… it has happened where we’ve had to explain, “No, you do not pile on cheese and charcuterie on a piece of baguette like it’s squeeze cheese and summer sausage on a fucking Triscuit cracker. There’s a big difference between the two.”
Then there was the time when one of my friends was visiting from Colorado and the three of us took a trip up to Normandy. We sat around a large table at a chambre d’hôtes with several other guests. Everyone else was French, so the two of us chatted in English, catching up with one another in our own little American world while Olivier made small talk with his people.
After dinner, we moved on to cheese.
I tore off a piece of bread and placed a chunk of cheese on it. “Take a bite,” I said. “Then take a sip of wine after and hold the wine in your mouth for just a moment… to really get the taste.”
I turned my head toward all of the French conversation going on, then back to my friend.
“Whattaya think? They compliment one another, right?”
He scrunched his face a bit and shrugged. I noticed that he was still chewing. He swallowed. “It’s quite a bit of taste all at once.”
“What? Dude. You’re supposed to sip the wine after the cheese. You need to swallow the cheese first.”
“You didn’t tell me I was supposed to swallow first! I had my mouth filled with this wine-cheese mush that tasted like weird boozy cheese and I didn’t understand why you were telling me to do this.”
“I thought you knew to swallow the cheese!”
“HOW CAN I KNOW TO SWALLOW CHEESE IF YOU DON’T TELL ME.”
“BECAUSE WINEY CHEESE MUSH IS NOT GOOD EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.”
“YOU SAID: BITE, SIP, SWISH.”
“BITE, SIP, SWALLOW, SWISH, GODDAMMIT.”
By this time, we’d attracted the attention of everyone else seated at the table. Loud, giggling Americans at the end of the table, getting boisterous about cheese. We caused a scene, but at least we provided some comedic entertainment for the natives.
Hey, I said I was fluent in fromage – I never claimed to be able to go out among the humans without making an ass of myself.