Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Olivier is back. And just in time: two toilets sound like decompressing scuba divers when they are flushed, and the kitchen door knob keeps falling off in my hand. Our house, which Violette, the femme de menage, has taken to calling "la maison catastrophe," is clearly not ready to be weaned of a more or less full time caretaker.

Olivier was away because his mother died. Jules was here when it happened and informed us breezily. She was 85, it seems, and in poor health. C. immediately asked about funeral arrangements, and Jules said, But no, of course we didn't need to go to Olivier's mother's funeral. It simply wasn't done. Now, when he, Jules, died, that would be another story. We should come to the funeral and then come and drink champagne afterwards.

We were not so sure. In America, we would go to the funeral, but I remembered reading somewhere in my foreigners-in-France research that funerals were really only attended by family and close friends. Which we were not: just fond and grateful acquaintances of the bereaved. C. disagreed. We could play the American card, he thought: go to the funeral, and if it turned out that we were the only outsiders present, well, everyone would understand that, after all, we meant well. For my part, I pictured a coffin, Olivier, his wife and children, a priest, and us, lurking behind a column. We agreed that we would ask around.

C. asked his French teacher Monday morning. She pulled out her Nice-Matin, turned to the funerals page, and read the announcement. The time and place of the funeral were listed. Colette reasoned, thus, that we could appropriately go. That it would be the right thing to do. C. phoned in her verdict.

I asked my French teacher. Before I even got to the end of my question, Marcelle's NO came through the cell phone. She hadn't gone to the funeral of her best friend's grandmother. On no account should we go to the funeral of a woman we had never met. French people simply didn't do that. I hung up and then phoned C. back.

He was unconvinced. I asked the gardienne at the College des Vignes. The funeral had been announced in the newspaper; we were quite fond of our caretaker; should we go? She patted my arm. Of course we should go, the family would appreciate it, it would be so kind.

The score was two to one. I phoned Violette. Should we go?

No! Of course not! Did M. LaChaix tell you you had to go to the funeral? Absolutely not.

I hung up the phone meekly. It rang again. It was the French mother of one of the girls' friends, and I explained the situation to her. Hmmm, she said. She had never actually been in this situation before, but she would consult her etiquette books and call me back.

My American self always knows exactly what to do when a friend has a crisis. I bake cakes, make coffee, send flowers, write notes, show up and sing soparano loud on all the hymns. I absorbed all those skills with the recipe for macaroni and cheese, and how to thread a needle, and how to find a book in a library. But: new country, new culture, new customs. Olivier has been so kind to us that I wanted to do right by him. I did not want to play the American card. I wanted to play as French a card as I could.

My friend phoned back. She had a report from her etiquette books. Since the family had announced the time and place of the funeral, it was understood that people outside the immediate family circle were welcome to attend.

Okay, I thought, then we'll go.

But, she said, it is sometimes customary for those attending the service to wait outside of the church until the family arrives, and then follow the family inside. Alternatively, sometimes only the proches, the extended family and friends, waited on the sidewalk for the immediate family to arrive, and everyone else waited in the sanctuary. Unless the extended family and friends waited at the back of the church, and the immediate family formed a receiving line when they arrived with the coffin, and all the attendees greeted the family before entering the sanctuary for the service.

Oh. I thanked her for her research and we hung up.

When C. came home that evening, I suggested that we send flowers. With a note. And he could ask Colette what to write on the note: I had learned all I wanted to know about French funeral etiquette for one day.

C. reported the next day that he had sent the flowers. I had wondered how to sign the card: la famille -----? Would Olivier remember the names on the mailbox? As it happened, C. simply signed our first names, a very un-French way of doing things, but, there it was, the American card.

That was last week. We thought of Olivier on the day of the funeral, and were glad for him that there was sun. Then, over the weekend, the house began to creak a bit, and the toilets began to sing, and yesterday when the poignee came off in my hand I began to hope earnestly that Olivier would be back soon.

E. stayed home with a small cold today, and this morning the dogs and I took her out for a walk up the lane. We met Olivier and Luigi coming along in the car on their way to the hardware store. Olivier had the passenger side door open before Luigi stopped the car; when Luigi did manage to pull the car over into a wider spot, Olivier was out of the car and thanking me before the engine was turned off.

We, my family and I, were tres, tres touches by your gracious gesture. It was very kind, very kind indeed, and we were grateful. It was very, very gracious, very gentil of you.

He shook my hand, and, while I tried to keep from going over the edge of the road and down a terrace--the dogs had spotted a cat and were pulling me towards it--kept on thanking me.

No, no, I said, trying to recall the right words that would accept and also turn away gratitude. It was a formula that I had heard more than once, and it was just at the edge of my mind. Then it broke through.

No, no, I said. C'est normale.

It was what Olivier said to me when I tried to thank him for kindnesses. And it worked. He stopped, and smiled, and turned to speak to E.

I had played the French card.

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