I lived in France for three years after college
. I just thought I had to figure my life out, or something. I tried to make it as a writer, some of the time; most of the time I was just hanging out. I told myself a lot of lies about being a tragic American expatriate
soaking up Left Bank
culture. How do you articulate the in between stages where you feel you're left hanging?
It's all kind of a blur now.
I was staying with my cousin Tara and her husband Michel, who had a big house in the 17th arrondissement. In exchange for free rent, they let me house-sit during Michel's frequent lengthy business trips and Tara's less frequent but almost equally lengthy dalliances with her lover. I could never figure out whether Michel knew about these; Tara handled everything. I barely spoke to him five times, I think, during my entire time in the country.
Their house was amazing. Fucking amazing. It had its own tennis courts. It had a wine cellar. The tennis courts seemed typical nouveau riche chic to me, after my years of soap opera addiction growing up, but the wine cellar blew my mind. I had never imagined such things outside of seventeenth-century gothic novels. And they didn't even keep wine in theirs! It hadn't been used in decades, even centuries for all I knew. All that was down there were a few spiders and some exquisite vintage dust.
I had been there a year before I really explored it. At first the spiders terrified me; then it was the imagined vampires lurking around every corner. But this one time, a friend from Utah was visiting some girl he met online under the pretense of doing a foreign exchange program or something, and the two of them threw this major party. I didn't want to come empty-handed, so I finally decided to see if there was some, like, five-thousand-dollar wine that hadn't seen the light of day since 1649, but all I got were more spiders.
And an inspiration.
It turned out to be a Halloween party, sort of. My friend couldn't get anyone to come in costume, but he'd brought these tons and tons of candy from the States. I think he saw himself as some kind of candy missionary, bringing "fun size" Snickers bars and bags of candy corn to the natives. I think a lot of it had already crossed the Atlantic, personally, and the rest of it seemed kind of gross to most adults, but the candy pretty much disappeared as people got more liquored-up.
There was one kind that he couldn't get rid of, though: the Peeps. They were kind of squished, they were weird colors, people were getting full, and anyway they were from the previous Easter. He let that slip when he thought no one was listening, but everyone heard. When I left, he pushed them on me - "Bill, you gotta take these. I can't fit them in my suitcase. It's gonna be full of French shit. C'mon."
At first I was kind of grossed out, but then he got me to try one. It was kind of chewy, and the sugar was crunchier than usual. I had always hated the repellent squish of the marshmallow in those things, but this was more like taffy - it was kind of nice. Maybe I was just drunk. I know he was. He kept trying to explain to me how they age well, how you have to keep them for a year or two and then they become just so great. Finally I just took them home and threw them down in the wine cellar on my way to bed.
But he was right. I forgot about them for months, until Michel and Tara threw their own party. Halfway through dinner I found myself absent-mindedly reading the wine label and I thought of the Peeps. I ran down there as soon as I could after dinner to try one. They were smooth, crunchy, a little drier, like a nice Chardonnay. I was totally crazy about them.
I brought some up to share with everyone; they seemed to like them okay, but I think they were just humoring me. Anyway, it's hard to understand the magical transformation that's occuring there unless you've grown up with year after year of sandy, soft Peeps being pressed on you by deranged friends. I guess it's kind of like you wouldn't think wine was so great unless all you'd ever had was that vinegary wine in a box stuff. At least I wouldn't. It's the chemistry that happens, the weird and wonderful transformation of a simple small object into something magical: crunchy, delicious Peeps.
I got my friend in Utah to send me some more that year, and I filled part of the wine cellar with them. I even made little labels showing what year they were from, and brought people down there for Peep tastings. I was heartbroken when I moved back home; I could only bring a suitcase's worth home with me. The rest of them are still in France, slowly aging their way through each miraculous year, back in what I will always think of as my peeps cellar.