Friday, August 22, 2008


The wild blackberries are ripening now. It's that moment when summer is at the very peak of its peak, and in another breath, with one more breeze, it will begin to coast downhill, away from the heat and the cicadas and the long twilights. Our last guests have gone home. We don't expect anyone else until the end of October, which is--shh--a record for us here. It will be the longest time we've been alone, the four of us and the dogs, in this house.

The girls and I took down the kitchen calendar and counted up all our visitors. It's a 16-month calendar that began last September, so that's when we started our count. I had noted, as I do, the comings and goings of everyone to be sure to have supper cooked and clean sheets on the beds and a plan, or at least a vision, and we used my notations to count up. The total: 157 days of houseguests out of the last 365. We were impressed. It had felt like a lot of company, but we didn't know that it had been quite that much. Almost every other day, if you spread it out. That's a lot of laundry, a lot of meals. But also a lot of conversations and walks.

We're not used to visits like this. In our other life we had quick dinners or weekend visits which had nothing like the intensity of an extended house party. When people come to visit us here, they're not just coming to visit us: they're coming to France. This is a trip overseas, a trip generally long- and carefully-planned, costly, involving the purchase of guidebooks. We are hosting them not just in our family but in this country, showing them our lives here and showing them the place itself. And we need to do that at the same time as the girls are doing their schoolwork and Olivier is replacing roof tiles and we're running out of flour mid-recipe. It's a delicate balance to strike: the local mill for A.O.C. olive oil and the local chain supermarket for Special K.

The only model in my experience for this sort of visiting is the visiting that went on among Jane Austen's characters. Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood went on journeys that took several days of hard travel, with bad food and missed carriages, and then stayed with friends for several weeks, seeing the local sights, yes, but also sitting around doing the mending. They did not pop in for a night. They came to stay. This kind of visiting means a slower rhythm, one in which every quarter hour is not accounted for in advance, in which an afternoon can wind away in reading or a long walk instead of in a tight series of appointments and obligations.

Elizabeth and Elinor went all that way and stayed all that long because, in a world without email or commuter flights, that was the only way to keep up with their friends and relations. If someone moved a hundred miles away, in those pre-autoroute days, they were gone for good unless you went to visit. Now we've moved an ocean away and we find ourselves in the same situation: an overnight visit is not an option. The only way to keep up, to be together, is to come to stay.

And so the wild blackberries are ripe. They are all around, like the wild asparagus was a few months ago, except there's more of them, and they're easier to spot. The first day or two I took a colander up the lane with me and picked enough to bring home. But ten minutes off the vine they don't taste as sweet. Now I've stopped taking a colander. We go and stand and graze, picking the ones that look likely in one spot and eating them, right there, until we go on a few steps and pick a few more. There are several vines in our own hedge--just next to the fosse septique, I'm afraid--and those berries are especially full and large and sweet. Our dog Wendy is perpetually eating whatever she finds on our walks, and now she and I stand and munch together, although she's not terribly interested, herself, in blackberries.

Over the weekend, guests came with their toddler. We took him up the lane, and he went up on his father's shoulders for safe-keeping. I picked berries and handed them up until his cheeks and fingers were purple and it was time for lunch. It's a slower way of being in the world, standing by the blackberries and sampling. It's not about accomplishing anything, or putting anything by for later. Just about right now, in the dappled shade, tasting summer, together.

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