My last visit to Montreal, Quebec, was over fifteen years ago. A high school friend and I had decided we would go for a short four-day trip – we’d see some friends who were going to McGill University, relive past memories (our high school art class had went to Montreal as a consolation trip instead of the original choice of New York due to 9/11), and pretend to be grown-ups. We took the Greyhound bus from Toronto to Montreal, a solid eight-hour ride, with a stopover in Kingston. I remember it was cold, damp, and a little lonesome. I don’t recall if I actually felt lonely at the time, but these days when I look back much of it feels tinged with loneliness, and with the benefit of aged wisdom I wonder if that is simply the baseline state of my heart, and that’s just how it is.
I can’t remember much of the details or where we stayed, but I remember spending many hours of the day walking up and down rue Sainte-Catherine, trying to find independent art galleries, and feeling embarrassed by my impoverished grasp on the French language. I remember a lot of grey skies and dark streets. Though the time of year was cold, I remember the warm thrill of tasting independence, of being 20 and going on a trip alone with a friend, no parents, just us.
One evening we had arranged to meet our high school friend at her dormitory and then walk out to dinner. She had a roommate from California: a bright, bubbly blonde beauty who seemed entirely out of place in the dark caverns of a Montreal winter. We spent barely an hour together, squeezed into their room with clothes and books strewn around, but I remember thinking, “This is how I want to be: light, confident, relaxed.” In contrast I felt uptight and somehow swollen as well, bloated with angst and emotional repression. Making my first steps out of a protected childhood, I was struggling to figure out how to move through this world, how I wanted to see it, and be seen. As we took the elevator downstairs, I resolved to have a good time that evening.
At our friend’s suggestion, we walked out to a French restaurant in St-Denis, where you were allowed to bring your own bottle of wine and they would uncork it free of charge (the only civilized way). It had gotten colder, and our bodies slanted against the wind as we trudged over cobblestone streets. We met more friends at the restaurant, which specialized in various types of moules et frites. The place was bustling and brimming with chatter, diffused by soft yellow lights and white tablecloths. Waiters expertly glided between jammed chairs to pour wine and set down towers of mussels and fries. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, just the feeling of well-being: safely tucked inside, amidst friends and good food. I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to find the place again; in fact I wonder if I had stepped through some sort of vortex that evening, into a world of effortless sophistication and rosy joie de vivre.
A day or two later, we were back on the bus heading home to Toronto. The bus was so empty of passengers that we each took up two seats, with me sitting behind. There is nothing like getting driven for hours towards your destination, with cold rain beading on the windows, to help with digesting your thoughts.
Across the aisle were two young women, probably a bit older than us, doing what seemed to be the same – at least, in their seating arrangement. Like us, they barely spoke on that trip, perhaps because of tiredness or mutual pensiveness.
Though there was an ember glowing inside me from the St-Denis evening, I still felt small, scruffy, and self-conscious. For a brief pause I had been absorbed into a sanctuary of ease, with all of the things that protect us from the harshness of life gathered close, creating a cozy blanket of comfort. With the bus barreling down the harsh concrete highway, I wondered how I was to feed this little fire inside, to keep it glowing and warm.
As I sat with my legs curled up, lost in thought, I glanced over at the two women across the aisle. One of them had stirred from their inward starings, and was rifling through her bag. She took out a bar of Lindt chocolate, and two of the whitest, most pappy-looking hamburger buns. If they weren’t Wonder Bread, they looked like Wonder Bread. With the chocolate still in the foil, she brusquely broke the chocolate into two halves with her hands, peeled off the wrapping, and stuck each half into a bun. She passed one to her friend sitting in front of her, who took it with barely a word, and they ate.
I was transfixed. What was this? Where did they get this idea? Who taught them this?
My closest chocolate-and-bread experience thus far had been Nutella on toast – which is pretty fine, if you ask me, but this felt like a new peak. Using REAL chocolate?! But what about the commercialized, homogenized, denatured bread?! Then again, its bland softness was the perfect pillow to absorb the shards of bitter dark chocolate.
On that cold afternoon, sitting in a bus that smelled of plastic and weariness, it was a revelation.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege to eat many a chocolate-and-bread concoction. Of course, there have been the pains au chocolat – from small boutique bakeries to chain grocery stores, from as far from home as Japan to just down the street from my apartment. There have also been the hard chunks of baking chocolate stuffed into baguettes – a merienda (afternoon) snack at a camp in Spain where I was volunteering, teaching dance to local tweens between their English lessons. I’d watch the kids pinch out bits of bread so that the ratio of chocolate-to-bread would increase. Clever chicos.
In the years since, the Greyhound bus company has had to cancel its services across Western Canada – bus travel isn’t what it once was, perhaps due to the truly disturbing killing of Tim McLean in 2008, or the preference for private vehicles by the well-heeled, or the worship of an idea of convenience that one should get to leave for a destination at the time they want without being beholden to something as undignified as a bus schedule. Further to that, the company has had to completely cancel all of its services nationally due to an almost total drop in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Times are tough. The winds of ill-fate still howl and moan, and I feel my teeth clench and body tighten to brace against it. Respite is hard to come by.
Doggedly, I search for relief. It is reflexive to turn to food: its familiar smells, its comforting textures, its required preparation that demands pause, even if sometimes it only involves quickly tearing off flimsy packaging.
I am, perhaps to the point of embarrassment, eternally grateful for chocolate and bread. They are small pleasures that shield against the frictions of the day. Now as spring begins to emerge and there is a lightening and loosening of the living world, my breaths become easier. I hope for more creative possibilities.
Today, as the mid-morning light shone through the window, I had a stroke of inspiration: to take a croissant purchased from the grocery store, slit it three-quarters open, slide in two squares of Lindt chocolate, and toast it gently in a cast iron skillet. I slipped a lid loosely over the skillet to help with melting the chocolate, and when I could hear the light sizzle of the bottom of the croissant toasting, I used two fingers to deftly pinch its end and flip it over, turned the heat off and let the other side coast to completion.
Alongside a mug of black tea with a dash of evaporated milk (a favourite drink of my Hong Kong born mother), it was as close to perfection as this dark and terrifying world allows.
Easy pain au chocolat
Serves 1, maybe 2 if you’re feeling generous
Of course, the even easier thing would be to buy a pain au chocolat, instead of a plain croissant – but the point here is to take the time to assemble this and let it come together. I have also found that most pains au chocolat contain innards that are an oily, overly sweet facsimile of chocolate, some sort of chocolate-esque composite thing, and I have weathered too much suffering to stand it anymore. I demand the real deal.
On the other hand, you could make your own croissants, but the idea of this sounds arduous to me, I want this experience to be comforting, please note above bemoaning of sufferings endured, etc, etc.
One plain croissant of decent quality
1-3 squares of Lindt chocolate, at least 70% cacao (I prefer the semi-elusive 78%, which contains my ideal balance of bitterness and smoothness)
Using a serrated knife, carefully slit a three-quarter opening lengthwise in the croissant – you could slit it completely, but it’s nicer to keep the ends intact. Slip in your chocolate in one layer, using more or less depending on your taste and the size of the croissant.
You can toast this in a toaster oven, but since I don’t have one and it feels wasteful to heat a whole oven for one croissant, I toast mine in a cast iron skillet. I also find this method to prevent the croissant from getting too dry. I prefer my croissant to be warm, slightly deflated and chewy, as opposed to crispy with shards flying in all directions.
Turn the heat on to medium-low, and gently lay the chocolate-filled croissant in the dry pan bottom side down. Cover loosely with a lid. Let it gently toast, for about 5 minutes, or until you hear a bit of sizzling as the fat from the croissant begins to melt. With your fingers or a spatula, carefully flip the croissant, turn the heat off and remove the lid. Let it sit for another couple of minutes to finish heating through.
The chocolate will be very melt-y, so to avoid too much of a mess you’ll want to completely focus on the task of eating this – and well, this is part of the delight, getting totally absorbed into the tender sweet layers of chocolate-soaked pastry. Bon appétit.