Little Shop of Wonders

It was December in Montreal, Canada, and the sidewalk on Crescent Street was one long, slick, slippery strip of ice, water and slush. My mother and I had to shuffle along on flat feet, doing what she called the Montreal Mambo. It was around four o'clock, almost sunset, and the Christmas lights were lit on the scrawny little trees and along the storefronts – little sprays of red, blue or golden light like raindrops frozen in the act of falling.

It was a quieter, more private street than brash St-Catherine's with its brightly lit megastores and sex shops; on Crescent Street, the houses looked older, narrower and as if they had been homes once before becoming bars, tattoo parlors, clothing boutiques or art galleries. I looked around as much as I dared; we were walking downhill and I had no wish to give an impromptu alpine skiing exhibition without the skis.

"I feel like having a nice cup of hot chocolate," Mom said wistfully as some snowflakes landed on her bobbed grey curls. "Don't you?"

That was when I saw the yellow plywood sign: Chocolat à Boire. Chocolate to Drink.

It was hanging underneath a larger sign, which was attached to a pole outside one of the little basement cafés lining the street. The larger sign showed a coat of arms, a rampant black bear with a crown against a red background, and the words Chocolaterie Pendulerie Suisse.

"How about in here?" said Mom, echoing my thoughts.

We went down a small flight of stone steps, opened a white door with a glass window inside, and for a few seconds, all we could do was stand staring in the doorway. The place certainly fit its name.

The front of the store was a chocolate shop, which was magical enough for a chocoholic like me – shelves of imported Swiss chocolate in every flavor, from bittersweet, walnut, nougat etc. to absinthe and edelweiss; round tins of something called Ovomaltine; packages of chocolate biscuits with luscious-looking photographs, and a counter displaying truffles and pralines, behind which a small, grey-haired, balding man was standing and nodding to us politely.

Behind him were – clocks. A grove of tall wooden grandfather clocks, their gleaming pendulums swinging back and forth with meditative dignity. On tables and hanging from the walls were smaller clocks, plain or ornate, some with wooden cases, some with metal ones, all with bright faces protected by shining glass. A tiny, silvery Big Ben chime rang out, announcing nine o'clock; apparently they were set at different times. Another ring, deeper this time. It was like listening to birdsong in a forest.

Clocks in a chocolate shop. Or was it chocolates in a clock shop? It was the most beautifully odd place I had ever seen.

"Hello," said my mother, approaching the counter with me following in a sort of wonder-struck daze. "An interesting place you have here," she told the man whom I presumed to be the storeowner, sounding charmed. "May I ask – why the combination?"

"First I was a clockmaker," he explained, "Now I am a chocolatier."

He said it as matter-of-factly as if changing one's career were as simple as changing shoes. He spoke with a clipped, dry, unplaceable accent – was it German, French or something else?

"Oh. Are you from Switzerland?"

"My family, yes. But I grew up here."

A typical Montreal story, like ours. We'd come over from Germany fifteen years ago, when I was a toddler. I wondered if he still spoke German; just to be safe, Mom went on speaking to him in English.

"The sign outside said you have hot chocolate?"

"Oh, yes." He gestured to the menu written in thin red letters on yellow cardboard, attached to a column behind him. There were about fifteen varieties of hot chocolate, divided into Dark, Bittersweet, Milk Chocolate and White.

"Wow," I said, slightly bewildered. "I can't decide!"

The storeowner gave an indulgent little smile, as if I were his niece or granddaughter admiring a new toy.

After a bit of dithering, I settled on the Noisette Crunchy while Mom chose the Chili, both of us with a piece of nut pie called an Engadiner Nusstorte. We sat down at one of four dainty little glass-topped tables, eating cake with real silver forks and slowly sipping the chocolate so as not to burn our tongues.

It was delicious, of course. In a place like this, how could it not be? Just sweet enough and not too sweet, the way we Germans - and the Swiss - like it. Chocolate with a cap of frothy white foam and a layer of hazelnut bits as crunchy as the name suggested.

"We have got to come back here," I told my mother, and she grinned.