Downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, looks a little too planned for this North-easterner. I’m absolutely not bragging about Philly, my nearest big market metro, but I’ll use it as an example of what I expect to experience downtown: winding, hilly, brownstone and rowhouse-crowded streets that test even the finest non-directionally challenged drivers, wisecracks and secrets thrown down at every turn, and cool little Mom and Pop food joints within an arm’s radius. In other words, unfiltered personality written all over the skyline’s wizened face.
So, when I drop into a city like Charlotte, NC, that feels, well, a little too neat for comfort, it reminds of a pancake face. Flat. Thick facade. Everything in perfect order, with a color-coordinated palate, precise lines, plump curves, and more than a few illusions. I lower my expectations at finding much below the surface, since it is the surface that is demanding attention. This is unfair concerning both people and cities–maybe–but upon first introductions, I look where you want me to look.
Perhaps that’s why it takes me four days to venture outside of my twice daily jaunt from hotel to convention center during a recent trip to The Queen City (ahem?). The first night we walk out into the moonlight, I gasp. The glowing buildings sit like strategically stacked, low-lit ice cubes: one neon blue suggests a giant martini glass, another as if it belongs to Gotham City, and though the mid-sized buildings project a more serious, demure demeanor, the varying heights are so proportionate to one another that I think, “This didn’t just happen. It all harmonizes a little too well.”
I sniff: too inorganic for me.
So, I ask around, and yep, most of Charlotte’s mid- and high-rises were built within the last five years.
Ah, ok, I get it. So, I dismiss the lovely Charlotte and make a rookie travel writing mistake: I fail to ask the locals where I can find that special cup of coffee–until the last day of the convention.
I’ve talked, walked and ingested information to the point of nausea, which is the norm for me at a national convention. I love it at first, then I hit a wall. So the last full day in Charlotte, I drag my fatigued self up the escalator in search of internet, minus the $15 a day Charlotte Convention Center fee. Frankly, I’m sick of Panera and Starbucks as a first choice, and yearn to find something new and fresh to resuscitate my senses. I crave something to startle me out of my conference slide and shuffle dance routine.
This is where Genie and John come into the picture. As I approach the exit (to the Outer Glass Queendom), their uniformed and cheery presence suggests I ask them for direction rather than wandering aimlessly. They, unlike me, are still perky.
“Hi, there! All finished for the day?” Genie asks.
Snort. “Ha, no. Tearing down the booth in a bit, but I’m dying for free internet and a really great cup of coffee. Suggestions?”
“Well, the closest place is Panera–oh, not interested? Hmmm, Starbu–. Well, if you don’t mind a walk there’s a fabulous little French bakery called Amélie’s (phonetically, it is ‘OM-ma-leez”).”
“So why do you recommend it?” This question usually digs up the most interesting tidbits per capita minute and determines whether I follow the scent.
Genie begins a full-on informative gush while John nods in agreement, “Oh, the bakery is scrumptious and they make their own caramel. It’s kind of a success story. When it first opened, it struggled. Then the owner decided to do something different and stay open 24/7 and it suddenly did very well. We think they were invited to the White House for a small business summit…”
I must brighten because once Genie finishes, John begins giving me point by point directions by street names.
Bless his heart (I say this with conviction), I’m female AND right-brained. I need landmarks and colors.
After a few silent, puzzling looks from me, he grins and adjusts, “Go across the street, through the green park with the fish sculpture (it’s a nice place to sit on a warm day), turn right on Martin Luther King Jr. (memorable, thank you), at the light cross the street going away from the convention center and look for a building with a red circle sign with an “i” in the middle. It’s in the building where you get information for Charlotte.”
“Yes,” Genie chimes in, “That’s where you’ll find Amélie’s!’”
“Wow. Must be good.” They stand together grinning like good subjects.
“Oh, and trust me, you want the Salted Caramel Brownie–and a palmier too!” Genie rolls her eyes in ecstasy and covers her mouth. “Yes, you do.”
I laugh. I love that look. Something about her grin convinces me those specialties are worth a short trek off the carb-restricted diet I usually adhere to, especially when traveling.
“OM-ma-leez. Om-ma-leez. OK, I’m on it! Thanks again!” Their perkiness revives me slightly.
You’ve got to love people who love their jobs. I know I do. Up to this point, I’m nodding a lot, tracing the walk in my head, rechecking my watch because I’ve little more than an hour–and if this place pans out as good as they’re promising–I need to hup two. With images of omelets floating my head, I get the names of my wonderful ambassadors–actually, Charlotte Crowne Guides–and stride toward the door.
Walk like a city dweller, Karen. No time to waste.
I talk to myself as I walk to Amélie’s: cross the green park, snap a picture of the fish and a nearby inscription “Kindness in another’s troubles. Courage in your own.” (Amen, Adam Lindsay Gordon), turn right, look for the red “i” and viola–wait. No Omeleez anywhere. An Amelia’s, but no Omeleez.
Groan. Yes, it is that obvious, but I embody convention fatigue in this moment. I press cupped hands against the window (and yes, I’ve lost all couth) to peer inside, a glittering chandelier and Little Boy Blue wink at me; that’s when I make the phonetic leap. Oh, I get it, Amélie’s, not Amelia’s. Very French, indeed.
My time ticks away at every delay, and the bottom line: as much as I love uncovering a cool cafe with an even cooler story, my original mission remains internet and caffeine. In either order. I snap pictures of the sign, the 24/7 anomaly, and the scintillating chandelier strung up close to the high painted ceiling. An amalgamation of yeast, sugar, and crushed beans greets me inside the door. Eclectic furnishings, a round table, a few velvet chairs, and a blue, blue wall of French paintings forms a backdrop to the coffee house Muzak (I think jazz) and murmur of life.
What I don’t hear is the whirr of an espresso machine. Only a few people sit inside. No one lifts a head at my entrance, but continues in conversation or silence. Even the barista seems unexpectant as she reads behind a small, glass display case laden with patisseries. I’m not trying to make an entrance, but it is a very subdued atmosphere. I find it interesting how absolutely absorbed everyone is: deep in conversation, scrutinizing their computer screen, reading a real book with real pages.
Hmmm…very Paris cafe.
Genie’s perky voice interrupts my senses, you WANT the Salted Caramel Brownie and palmier…trust me. So, I approach the counter with a big, double row of teeth and said, “Hi! So….your place is recommended for coffee and French pastries. Oh, and I write a little travel blog, do you mind if I take pictures?”
The usual response? A shy delighted look.
This girl looks at me sideways for a minute and says, “Well, I’m not sure. Are you from the newspaper?”
Oh, this is where it gets embarrassing for me.
“No, just a little travel blog…um, and I hear the Salted Caramel Brownies are amazing.”
“Yes, but I think you should call someone at the main cafe (I’m standing in Amélie’s Petite) and they can answer any questions you have. I’m sure they’ll help you.”
“I’m not Amélie.”
“No?” I smile, pondering my next move. Press on with the story or grab the internet, an espresso and maximize my writing minutes? I should just take pictures, scribble a few notes and cease and desist with the questions.
You see, I try to keep my steps from story to blog minimized. But if a writer only observes and doesn’t interact, the story only scratches the surface. And yes, I have a problem with surfaces. So, I order the brownie, then spot the palmier label, and since I studied French for five years, the girl understands. She carefully arranges the two delicacies in a box with tissue paper, then rings up my order–surprisingly inexpensive at $1.79 and .89 cents, respectively. Nice presentation. Nice price.
“Well, thank you,” I say. She nods and smiles slightly larger this time, still looking at me sideways. I move to a velvet chair. It sits low and deep as velvet chairs without arms do. I balance the box on my knees and pull out my MacBook Air to capture the details: high French chandelier (worth mentioning more than once), free wifi (it is intermittent but a second barista cheerily offers to reset it, which solves the problem), colorful palate, comfortable seating, striped blued painted walls, great muffled sound, frilly cafe chairs, dark woods, and a waspish nested cacophony of hanging pots (I believe this is decorative), bookshelves, and a mixed blend of mosaic art and pottery.
Pretty darn French perfect.
I munch virginally along the edges of my palmier (palm-ME-ay)–my first, sad to say, even after spending ten days in Paris last summer grazing through every bakery on the way to and from grad class. This luxurious treat is a crisp, looped puffed pastry that looks like baby elephant ears or the heart shape that all the girls make with their hands at a Taylor Swift concert. It has, at once, a smooth, crunchy mouth feel, butter forward, and abundant crystallized sugar on top. The palmier presents as delicate and robust, quick to melt into every warm crevice of your mouth. Very French. Very yum and worth the carbs.
The palmier demands a drink and I realize then that I’ve forgotten to order one. Wow, mind mist. I remove everything from my lap and approach the counter again.
“So, you’re not Amélie. What is your name?”
She hesitates, then smiles, “Andrea.”
“Beautiful, Andrea! (Laugh) I forgot to order my drink. Just an iced coffee, I think.”
“What kind of thing do you write? Is it on the internet?”
“Yes, nothing big, really. Just a travel blog and I love to find little cafes when I’m visiting a new place. Amélie’s is highly recommended.”
She smiles again. Wider. Andrea is beautiful, blinking like a flower that opens with the morning sun. She begins to tell me how she’s come to Amelie’s, at first to work on the cleaning crew, then one day she decided she’d like to work behind the counter as a barista. She says she loves it because they work like a real team and that she’s changed from not smiling much, not trusting people easily, to enjoying meeting new people. Her cleaning boss “hated to lose her,” but Andrea wanted a change.
To try to change.
I say, “You need to run after those kinds of changes.” She nods.
I stand riveted for the next minutes listening to her story and we exchange a few more truths.
Amélie’s, I believe, is more than a hip French cafe and patisserie in the middle of downtown Charlotte; it is a place of hope and renewal. It is written all over Andrea’s face. Andrea is the voice of Amélie’s on this day. Better than the Salted Caramel Brownie and Palmier combined.
“So, I want to take a drink to my roommate. What do you suggest?”
“Oh, the Caramel Latte! The caramel is homemade!”
“That’s what I hear. Of course, then!” I say. “I’ll take a tall and, if you don’t mind,
can I take pictures of you making it?”
Andrea muffles a giggle with her hand, then says, “Sure! But give me a minute.”
She returns sporting an official Amélie’s shirt and apron and proceeds to teach me the entire process. A real pro–and another person happy with her job. This might have been more inspiring to me than anything since I arrived in Charlotte.
I think I must meet this Amélie at some point.
I check my watch again, scribble as fast as I can while chewing tiny bites of the Salted Caramel Brownie (I think my eyes rolled like Genie’s). I have just enough time to capture the flavor of Amelie’s and recommend her to you.
Amélie’s is shabby chic, oh oui, c’est vrai, with that Parisian je ne sais quoi of not looking like she tries too awfully hard to be beautiful. And yet, Amélie’s is, indeed, beautiful.
The voice of this little French patisserie and cafe? It isn’t Amélie this day. You know it is Andrea. And it sounds exactly like it’s spelled. Andrea.
Oh, and the Salted Caramel Brownie? Worth. Every. Bite.
So, I haven’t exactly uncovered a hidden coffee house this time–unless you note my phonetic challenges when I first arrived at MLK Jr. & Tryon. I had to brush aside a layer of Charlotte-ease and ask the right people to find Amélie’s. Just beneath the surface of this perfectly manicured, shouting “white collar” from every street corner town sits a little coffee house gem. Amélie’s is, in fact, a favorite haunt of Hollywood actors and actresses, continuously wins many awards and accolades, and yes, has made an appearance at the White House (for more details). What I’ve done for you, instead, cuts through any city cynicism you might have (my blogging hands have been gently slapped) to land you right at Amélie’s Petite (or main) French Cafe the very minute your feet hit the wide pavement.
As I leave, Andrea looks up and smiles. I walk over one last time, “Thank you so much for the information and for sharing your story. Here’s my card. Give me a bit to write this, but I’d like to write about you, Andrea, when I write about this place.”
She glows and nods her head, suddenly shy again. “You should come back on Saturday. We have a group that comes through here–”
I shake my head, “I leave town in the morning.”
“Oh.” She is silent for a moment, then surprises me as she reaches out wrapping me in her arms. “I wish you didn’t have to go.” In this moment, Andrea’s face becomes the one I hope to find in every little town and every Charlotte.
I can’t even express everything I think, what I feel, about her words. I don’t have to. You either get it or you don’t.
So, if you visit Amélie’s Petite at the corner of MLK Jr. and Tryon, tell Andrea that Karen the travel blogger said, “Hi! And don’t you listen to anyone who tells you not to change.”
She’ll know what I’m talking about.
Notes: *From a marketer’s standpoint, the website is brilliant. Still curious about Amelie’s? Go to http://www.ameliesfrenchbakery.com.
*If Amelie’s Petite is a shadow of the main gig (it is NOT open 24/7 like the main cafe), that should worth a stop too.