Sunday, June 21, 2009

Paul Harvey en Bruxelles

...the rest of the story is that I saw Stella again eight months later in a petit cafe in Bruxelles. I was in a corner table when she walked in. The gray wool pea-coat and the silk pashmina fit the weather, but the maroon camisole was purely for style. As she unwrapped the scarf, she threw her hair back over her shoulder, and her face was ruddy and glowing. She walked to the counter, ordered a cup of black coffee, as was her tradition, and took her tasse to the patio outside. Normally, I'd be out there, but I had wanted to read without the wind interfering. Neither of us had ever minded the cold; still, as she sat, she flipped the scarf back around her neck. It was a brisk March morning.

From where I sat, I could watch her with little chance of her seeing me. She sipped the cafe and sat back in her seat as if she were queen. She just sat there; she watched people walk by; she looked up at the clouds and rubbed her cheeks with mittened hands. For about half an hour I sat, transfixed by this simple scene. It was as if I was in the bedroom and she in the salon, drinking her morning coffee. She always used to get up earlier than I. I would usually wake and watch her for a few minutes before I went to meet her. I've never known if she knew she were being observed, but if she did, she never let on.

So here we were again, a few blocks from the Broodhuis, in the middle of Belgium, sharing this intimate, quiet coffee. When the moment had passed, Stella picked up the cup, took it back inside to the counter, mumbled a "Merci," and was gone into the streets. I sat staring at the the corner she turned, on her way north to who knows where. After a few minutes, I stood, put on my coat, nodded to the woman at the register and walked outside. I turned south and meandered past the square. Renaissance and Baroque edifices gave way to small shop fronts and fecund smells. I wasn't paying much attention to the shops until I spied a quaint little confiserie. If you have ever been to a chocolatier in Europe, you know what a sensory paradox it is. The smells are muted-- rich, but not sweet. They tantalize with the subtlety of a stockinged ankle jutting from beneath a calf-length skirt. Simultaneously, the deep, rich colors of the chocolates warm the body as you gaze upon them. The bright, shining glazes of raspberry and mint and orange jump at you from the mini chocolates, daring you to taste them.

I stood for a moment, trying to think of the French word for caramel, my eyes pouring over the hundreds of choices. Eventually, I stepped to the counter, pointed to three sets of chocolates and said, "Deux, trois, deux." I didn't really know what flavors they were, but they were works of art. Equipped with a wax paper full of bonbons, I stepped back into the street. I bit into the first candy and found a strawberry jelly. The dark chocolate off-set the sweetness of the preserves.

Looking down too much at my prizes, I bumped into a passing Frau with sensible, padded shoes. "Pardonnez-moi," I said, pretty sure she understood me. She looked shortly at me and pushed past. "Ah--" I said. "'Caramel' is caramel in French," and I walked on.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sweet and Sour

I went to the candy aisle today to get some Sour Starburst, and I thought they were out for a minute, but as if left there just for me, a package with the word "sour" sat to the side of a large shelf hole where its compatriots used to be... or so I thought. For I found later, upon eating the first blue-wrappered candy, that this was not my sour blue raspberry tasty. No, as I came to realize after fulling reading the package, this was a "new" flavor, no-marketing ploy, no, flavor, I guess: the "sweet raspberry." And the name was perfectly descriptive. The chew was sickly sweet, a treacly abomination, especially for one expecting the satisfying bite and teeth clinch of a sour Starburst.

The Offender.

You see, Mars Corporation, to try to expand its already diluted line of over-stretched brand- I mean candies- has added this new half sweet, half sour package where you get 3 "sweet blue raspberry" candies, three "sweet strawberry" ones and 3 each of the sour watermelon and green apple Starbursts. The package says "Starburst Sour," but to the side of that, it says "Sour 6 chews / Sweet 6 chews." I did not read this part.

Now, I am all for brand development if quality is not sacrificed. A diversified candy world is a great world. However, Starburst mostly has two great fruit chew packages and a slew of trash. There are the original, which are top ten in the candy pantheon, and there are the sours, also very strong. And, granted, their Gummy Bursts and Starburst Easter jellybeans (Joosters) are very nice. Solid additions to the brand. The rest of the fruit chew line, however, is for dilettantes dabbling in the sweet science. Berries and Creme chews? I think not. Am I eating yogurt or candy here? Icy Bursts? What the hell is a Kiwi Snowberry? Where is that grown? In the Arctic Tropical regions? Soda Slammers? Yeah, that's what we've been waiting for: chewable soda.Like I say, these are quite solid. This kind of expansion is fine: take the original flavor and change the vehicle.

Listen, Starburst (Mars), you guys are great-- nobody's saying that you aren't great. But all these perversions of a great product are diluting your brand, not enhancing it. Also, can I have my dollar back? You clearly are marking these packages abstrusely so that people like me will accidentally try these nasty bits you are marketing now.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

We were in the car for a long time that day. Or, at least, so it seemed. When you're young, you don't like any rides more than twenty minutes or so. You've all seen it in the movies. Hollywood really nailed that whole "are we there yet" bit. Spot on.

But eventually, I started to recognize some familiar sites. The dizzying turns on those mountain roads began to straighten out, and my nausea subsided slightly. When Dad pulled into that convenience station, I eagerly jumped out to feel the solid ground beneath my feet. The station was one of those small, old-time places, with Coke in 12-ounce glass bottles, off-brand pork rinds and individual beef sticks. But my sister and I weren't interested in any of that; we headed straight for the candy aisle.

We rarely asked if we could get anything, because we had been trained to know that the unasked question often got the desired answer. Sure enough, just looking down at the Bazooka Joe gums, the Atomic Fireballs and the Fun Dips did the job. Dad came up to us and told us to grab something so that we could go. My sister quickly grabbed a roll of SweeTarts, as if she was sure of her choice, but I was more hesitant. I had not had most of these candies before, and I did not even know what a SweeTart was. The one thing I did know was that I did not want to miss out on what my sister seemed so keen on; well, that, and that the SweeTart roll gave the impression of containing the most candy in its class. That roll was way longer than the Rollo one, for instance. So, I, too, grabbed some SweeTarts, and away we went.

Simple. Classic. Elegant.

When I tore open the end of that roll in the car, I noted the color and asked my sister what color hers was. I don't remember her being interested in comparing. But before I could eat the first one, I had to count the candies so that I could ration them. Through the taut paper wrapper, I marked the end of each candy with my thumb and counted 26 lines. That made 27 pieces. Astounding. I could not believe that my Dad had let us each get so much candy. Usually, it was watermelon and yogurt for us. Occasionally, an individual tootsie roll or the like, but nothing like this. I wanted to clutch the roll to my stomach and double over so that it would be impossible for anyone to get at my stash. 27 candies. Sunshine brand became a god to me that day.

I ate the first SweeTart and was even more enamored of my treasure. It was a pink one, and man, was it sweet. I quickly ate the green one that was next, and had to stop myself from scarfing through half the pack. By the time we got to the lake, I had stopped at 3, leaving 24 candies to go. The lake was one of our favorite places, because someone had put up a water-slide that went out into the deeper water. It was just a regular slide that had water running down it. None of these crazy whirli-gigs that are all the rage these days. Just a lake and a slide. I was a little afraid of heights, so climbing up that slide was a bit terrifying, but the ride down was awesome.

The view from below.

That day was a blur of climbing up the slide, shooting down into the luke warm water, running to the car to eat a candy and repeating the whole process. I splashed my Dad and sister in the water and ranked the SweeTarts flavors. I rushed about with the energy of the sugar and felt the sun on my face. I laughed with my sister and wished she was always like this.

Eventually, we tired ourselves out and started the ride back as the sun set. I climbed over the backseat into that station wagon place where a trunk would be and I slept the sleep of the just: with half a pack of SweeTarts clutched in my hand and the sweetest of dreams dancing through my head.