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The Wrong Groceries

August 3, 2014

Oscar and I studied abroad after our first year of law school. We shared a flat in Lyon with a Frenchman named Luc. The whole place couldn’t have been more than 400 square feet, including the loft. Between the three of us, personal space was limited. Arguably, it was nonexistent. But for the two months we lived there, we made it work.

That we entered into such an arrangement should evidence what a shoestring budget we were on. Dicking around Western Europe each weekend wasn’t cheap. So every euro we saved here was one more we could put there—towards another bottle of wine drunk in the shadow of some dumb church or another 2:00 AM kebab gobbled up in some medieval town square. In other words: we had priorities.

Long before we ever left the States, we daydreamt about waking with the sun and sipping caf√© au lait whilst reading the paper and eating pastries each morning before class. In reality, this was terribly impractical. Because money. Also because, after being out until well past 2:00 AM, we’d invariably wake up late and have to rush out the door.

And so it was, that on the third or fourth day after our arrival in Lyon, we ventured down to the supermarket for a few breakfast items that could be consumed on the go. Unfortunately, neither Oscar or I spoke French. So upon returning to the flat, I was dismayed to find out that what I thought was a jar of peanut butter and a bag of ground coffee actually turned out to be a jar of Speculoos and a bag of chicory instant coffee.

Oscar and Luc laughed at me.

The Speculoos was fine. I loved it. The chicory, though, was a different story. For those who don’t know, chicory is a flowering plant whose roots can be baked, ground up, and stirred into hot water. It isn’t really coffee, but instead, a coffee substitute. It’s popular in the Mediterranean region, South East Asia, South Africa, and New Orleans. Plenty of people like it. But I turned out not to be one of them. It’s atrocious. And it took me all of half a sip to come to that conclusion.

I could have tossed it out. But financial circumstances considered, the wastefulness would not have sat well with me. The exchange rate being what it was back then, if my math is right, that bag of wood chips probably cost around $50. So I kept it. And I decided that I would drink it anyway.

Luc called me stubborn and uncultured. I called myself an American.

You see, the act of making coffee as soon as I peel myself out of bed has been a longstanding ritual of mine. We find our rituals comforting. They’re central to who we are. And I wasn’t going to let a grocery-aisle screw-up get in the way of one of mine. So each morning, I would heat some water, stir together a mug full of that nonsense, then march myself to class. I hated every sip—which Oscar could attest to, because I complained about it constantly—but I always drank every last drop. That, itself, became a ritual.

Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t thought much about those mornings. Nothing of note ever occurred during the short walk from our flat to the university. So as all of the other surreal experiences from that summer built up, those seemingly mundane ones were buried beneath. Forgotten.

This all changed one July evening earlier this year. I was riding in a cab through Washington D.C., and as I passed in front of a long row of eateries, the subtle scent of chicory wafted in through my cracked window. It hit me like a cold fist to the face.

As human beings, our visual and spatial memories are impressive. But our olfactory memory is absolutely primal.

In that instant, I was back—to the din of traffic crossing Pont de la Guilloti√®re; those early morning smells, recently hosed sidewalks and fresh bread; yellow light crashing through the trees along Quai Claude Bernard; sometimes silence and sometimes Oscar and I both reliving the night passed. And all of it, so vivid.

Because I drink buckets of coffee every morning, I know exactly what the bean juice smells like. Don’t get me wrong: I like it. But as a daily ritual, it could never otherwise become intertwined with a specific time in my life. Had I been paying attention three years ago as we wandered around the supermarket, under no circumstance would have I have purchased a package of that chicory trash. And in not doing so, I would have sacrificed a bittersweet and visceral response to a particular smell that I’ll probably have for the rest of my life.

So try not to get bent out of shape when you buy the wrong groceries sometimes.

© 2014 Joshua J. Doguet