I visited Paris for the first time when I was 23. One of my best friends was living there. Our friendship was forged when we were still in college, during those anxious final months of senior year when we were supposed to be planning our lives. She’d spent her junior year in Paris and was eager to get back. We spent hours sitting in a dorm room with a map taking imaginary walks together through the Marais and Saint-Germain-des-Prés (this was before Google Earth could show you pictures of any world landmark with a single click) and inhaling the smell of imaginary butter wafting from the imaginary patisseries.
She got an internship, and then a job and papers and visas and an apartment, not in the Marais, but in the 11th Arrondissement, which was nearby and just starting to become cool, and of course I was wildly envious and pestered her for more and more details. Finally I managed to scrape up enough money for a plane ticket to go see for myself, and one afternoon in March, I found myself sitting happily jet-lagged in the Place de Vosges in the fragile early spring sunlight watching actual Parisians do actual Parisian things (sit on benches, smoke, pet little dogs, make out). At last, I was finally living!
My friend had to work, so I spent the days wandering Paris by myself, armed with a list of places I needed to explore and things I needed to eat. Near the top of the list was Mariage Frères, a venerable tea shop in the Marais that, my friend told me, was the best-smelling place I would ever visit. (There were other locations, but that was the real one, where the Mariage family had been selling tea since 1854.)
My previous experiences with tea had been sad: dusty little Lipton bags in a plastic bowl meant to look like crystal next to the coffee urn at the synagogue social hour after Saturday morning services. Under the influence of English novels, I gave it a go one week. It tasted like dirt. Never again, I vowed.
Nonetheless, I betook myself to Mariage Frères one rainy afternoon. Immediately I could tell it was a wonderful place to spend a rainy afternoon. It was authentically old (one of the qualities Americans most appreciate about Europe, I think), the walls lined with dark wooden cubby holes, each containing its own neatly labeled black canister of tea. But the most wonderful part was, as my friend had promised, the smell. Smells are notoriously hard to describe in a way that reveals any information at all. Please bear with me. It smelled like tropical flowers and warm spices and candied fruit with a darker undertone that was probably the tea itself, except it was good black tea, not Lipton crap. I wanted to box up that smell and take it home with me forever.
(And later I learned that I could, in the form of a candle that cost about $50. Which, unfortunately, was way out of my sad little postgraduate budget.)
I went into the tearoom and sat down and looked at the menu, which featured—literally—1,000 different blends of tea, and no hot chocolate, which was my preferred hot drink at the time. I stared at the menu for a very long time, and finally ordered mint tea, because the server told me it had a mild flavor, good for novice tea drinkers. I also ordered a plate of madeleines because of Proust.
It’s probably unnecessary to say that neither my childhood nor Proust’s came flooding back when I dipped the madeleine in the tea. But I was enveloped by the smell of mint. I inhaled mint. I swallowed mint. I realized that tea is really perfumed hot water. You put in crap, you get crap. You put in a carefully composed blend, you get a beautiful bouquet for your nose.
I realize this is not a revolutionary discovery. But when it comes to overcoming food aversions, there are some things you need to discover for yourself.
I sat in the tearoom for quite a while. Every so often, a server came by and added hot water. It was lovely to be able to sit in a place that was so beautiful without feeling like I was about to be thrown out at any time unless I paid more money. Paris, I discovered, was more generous about things like that. Maybe that’s why it has a reputation for being one of the world’s most beautiful cities: not the number of beautiful features, but the fact that everyone can enjoy it.
My friend kept several packets of Mariage Frères in her kitchen, including one blend called Marco Polo that, it turned out, had been the tea I’d smelled when I first walked into the shop. I drank a lot of it the week I was there, and when I returned to America, I stashed as many bags of loose tea in my luggage as I could afford. It wasn’t many. At home, I bought a tea infuser spoon. Whenever I felt restless and bored with my life—which was often for the rest of that spring—I got in the habit of brewing myself a cup of tea and sitting on my couch and dreaming of faraway places. There was nothing else that evoked imaginary travel so well.
Years passed. My friend left Paris (although she made sure to take a good supply of Mariage Frères with her). I became addicted to coffee, tea’s greatest rival. Still, when I learned there was one shop in Chicago that stocked Mariage Frères, I made a point of visiting as soon as I possibly could. It was not the same experience at all—the store was new and white and brightly lit—but it was the same tea, and it reminded me of how much richer and beautiful the world seemed, because I could travel, because I could smell it, and drink it. It’s a luxury, but, for me, an extremely worthwhile one.