Friday, November 28, 2008

Lying to the Mayor

A few weeks after we signed the lease for the house, C came down the terraces from Jules' summer house with a funny look on his face. We sat down in two of the five chairs that we had borrowed--our furniture was still at sea--and C told me that Jules wanted us to pay our rent in cash. The day we had signed the contract, we had agreed to send the rent to his two daughters who live abroad, an arrangement that C thought demonstrated Jules' devotion to his children. I thought it probably demonstrated something else.

And when word came down the terraces that he wanted the rent in cash, I was proved right. It's a time-honored tradition in France: defrauding the government. It goes back to the days in which tax collectors for the crown went door to door and window to window, making lists of all the tangible property they could see (wardrobes, tables, tankards, sacks of flour, barrels of wine) and then presenting the owners with a tax bill. It's why French houses have shutters: you could only be taxed on what the collector could see, and if your shutters remained closed...

Jules explained to us that we were not to worry about this arrangement. It was completely normale and, besides, it was nobody's business, it was a private matter between us. If, he said, dropping his voice, we were to meet the mayor of the village, we should not say that we were renting the house. We should say that we were friends of Jules, and that he was lending us the house.

We nodded, laid low by the torrent of French. Later we laughed at the notion that we would ever meet the mayor and, should we meet him, have occasion to discuss our living arrangements.

That Saturday evening we took ourselves off to a chamber music concert on the opposite hill, part of a series of summer concerts put on by the village in an old chapel. After the concert there was the traditional pot d'amitié. Everyone had a plastic tumbler (or two or three) of rosé and stood around in the courtyard chatting. We had no one to chat to, since we'd only been in the village for a matter of days, so we sipped at our wine and then slipped out of the courtyard.

A man followed us. He was of a certain age, tallish, with thick greying hair, dressed for the part of a country gentleman. When we stopped at the Roman ruins just in front of the chapel, he caught up with us.

Vous habitez dans le village? Do you live in the village? he asked.

Oui, yes, for only a few days we live in the village, since Wednesday, we said, not worrying much about tenses or parts of speech.

Et vous êtes anglais?

No, no, American, we explained. We went through our story a bit--it has been a pattern of our lives that when perfect strangers approach us we come straight out with our life stories, up to and including address, phone number, and, if asked, social security numbers. It is a character trait that makes some of our relations anxious.

Ah, he said. Then, to show reciprocity--his story for ours--he said, Moi, je suis le maire du village. I am the mayor of the village. Welcome; I hope that you are happy here.

We were startled, immediately on our guard. What if he next asked us where we lived?

And he did: habitez-vous dans le village? Vous êtes locataires? Are you renting a house?

I flipped through all the French verbs in my brain and luckily came up with prêter, to lend. We live, I said, at La Bastiole. I described where the house was.

The mayor nodded. Vous êtes chez Jules? Are you staying in Jules' house? It's a small village.

Yes, we said. We are friends of Jules. Il nous prête la maison. He is lending us the house. We looked (nervously, I'm sure) at each other, relieved to have told the tale successfully.

The mayor nodded, to indicate that he had understood our French, that what we had said made sense. And then, to indicate that not only had he understood the surface but that he plumbed the depths, he did something else. He winked, an exaggerated stage wink.

Then he smiled, clicked his heels together, gave a small bow, and wished us a good evening and a good life in the village. He went back to the pot, and we went to our car and drove home through the cool night air, shaking our heads and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Firemen's Calendar

One evening last week, just after C came home from work, the portail phone rang. C answered it and sounded puzzled. He turned to me and whispered: It's the pompiers.

I was puzzled for a moment, too, then I remembered: it's calendar season. Last year I bought calendars from the firemen and the postman and I don't remember who else. It's organized tipping. Instead of leaving a photocopied letter in the mailbox or delivering the mail at dinnertime, French postmen and firemen and garbage men and anyone else who wants a Christmas tip print up a calendar.

C went up the driveway with the folding money last week, and came back with our 2009 calendrier de pompiers. I think that, if you really want to carry through on the ritual, you have the pompier / postman / whomever in for a drink, but last year, I was home alone when the fireman, who was about 25 with bedroom eyes and a warm and friendly smile, all decked out in his well-cut fireproof suit with reflective stripes, knocked on the door. My imagination just couldn't stretch to sitting this man down at the kitchen table and giving him a pastis. This year, it was dinner time and the girls had a raft of homework. So, again, money and no drink. (Maybe next year they'll come on a Saturday afternoon and we'll manage the drink as well.)

What we get is, technically, a calendar, but it's different from the heating oil company calendars that used to hang in my grandparents' kitchen. The ones with a photo of Scenic America (covered bridges; Mount Rushmore; the Golden Gate Bridge) each month on the top half, and the calendar marked out in neat squares, with plenty of room to note when you planted the peas and your doctor's appointments, on the bottom. The calendrier de pompiers lists, on the left side of each month's page, the days of each week, by initial (in English, it would be S M T W T F S), the date of the month, and the saint whose feast day it is. (Today is Saint Delphine, if you didn't know.) Then, to the right of the list, there is a photograph of the pompiers in action.

On our 2008 calendar, the photos showed the firemen lined up in different uniforms: here are the firemen in their hanging around the firehouse clothes; here they are in their water safety gear (there's a lot more to firefighting in France than you might think); here they are in the uniforms designed by Dior for making end of the year calendar calls. This year, the photos show Firemen At Work. I leafed through the calendar when C brought it into the kitchen. The photos may have been taken professionally, but if so, the photographer should probably consider a less visual line of work. More likely, they were taken by whoever remembered to pick up the camera on the way out the firehouse door: there are a lot of elbows that haven't been cropped out, a lot of blurry bits, sometimes a few spots of rain on the lens.

In February, you see the pompiers standing around in their orange reflective vests, presumably conferring about the best method for moving the Renault that has just backed through an iron gate and up onto a heap of concrete blocks. (I didn't think a Renault could do that.) May brings a photo of the firemen--orange vests again--roping in a car that has gone off the road and is resting precariously on its side at the edge of a significant drop. (Where's the driver?) In June, a twisted bicycle is on the pavement in the foreground, with another Renault stopped at an awkward angle nearby while--really--the pompiers wheel the bicyclist, who is strapped onto a gurney and wearing an oxygen mask--away to the waiting ambulance.

It's the calendar equivalent of dead chickens still wearing their heads and feet in the butcher's case. Here is a dead animal for you to eat; here are firemen responding to traffic accidents and fires. There's nothing coy or sentimental; the chicken breasts are not packaged so that you can forget where they came from, and the firemen are not shown as either neighborhood heroes in the Labor Day Parade or as saints with sooty faces. They're guys doing their job, and sometimes it's a difficult job, and sometimes it's dangerous. The calendar isn't about selling the firemen (and they are all men, by the way) as saints or heros. It's about men working, working men, who'd like a tip at the end of the year.

And who wouldn't turn down a pastis with madame.

Monday, November 24, 2008

L'huile authentique

We gathered 55 kilos of olives from our trees--actually, 57, if you include the ones we didn't take to the mill for oil, the ones that are downstairs in glass jars curing (or possibly spoiling) in brine. Last year I took the olives to the Nightingale Mill, which I pass every day on my way to and from the Collège des Vignes. This year, the Nightingale isn't turning on the presses until December 11. All the other mills in the area will only take 200 kilos or more of olives; they don't have time to mess with the weekend harvesters like us. Except one, which would weigh your olives and exchange them, for a small charge, for the amount of oil the fruit would yield. I pass that mill every day, too.

The River Mill has a mixed reputation in the neighborhood. On the one hand, it's got a fantastic shop that sells provençal tablecloths, napkins, those funny little square fabric-covered bread baskets, salad bowls and cheese boards and serving spoons and pepper grinders made of olive wood, local pottery, soaps and lotions, bags of herbes de provence in every denomination you can imagine, and, of course, olives and olive oil. It is one-stop shopping for all of our visitors: everything from 2 euro lavender sachets for the preschool teacher to olive wood baskets for your sister's wedding gift.

On the other hand, there are dire rumors about the oil. Violette, our sometime housekeeper, has said of the mill: those people are thieves. I've heard, too, that someone saw a truck with a Spanish license plate unloading olives at the River Mill one evening. My informant leaned in and lowered her voice when she told me, it was such a scandalous rumor. Olive laundering. Taking olives from one country--implicitly, of course, inferior olives--and passing them off as French, local--implicitly superior--olives. It would be, I am sure, actionable even in a French court, were I to publish these accusations, name the mill, name my sources.

So it was with ambivalent hearts that C and I loaded up our olives and took them down the hill. Three weekends, more or less, of harvesting, and we knew our olives would go into the common stock and we would get the common oil. C put the bins on the loading dock when we got to the mill, and one of the workers put them on the scale. 55 kilos. He handed us a receipt and we took it into the office, where we paid about 3 euros per liter of the 9 liters of oil that the mill's formula estimated our 55 kilos would yield. The man in the office gave us another receipt, and we took it and our oil cans into the mill itself. There, one of the workers filled our cans with oil that came straight out of the presses. He let each of us have a turn filling the cans and we took pictures--it was all very friendly and warm--and then we came home.

For dinner that night we had baguettes and chèvre and poured out little dishes of the mill's oil. Not our oil, maybe not all of it even provençal oil, maybe some of it not even from French olives. But it tasted good, green and spicy and smooth.

Violette came by this morning for coffee. She says that if we harvest 180 kilos--which she swears would be the work of a day or two at most--then we could take it to the mill she uses, up in the mountains, and they would press our olives and we would get from them our oil. Liters and liters of it. I am tempted.

It's a funny thing, the quest for authenticity. We harvested our own olive trees; we exchanged them for oil from olives pressed that day. We paid--if you don't count our labor, which I tend not to--far less than I would pay at the hypermarché for oil that came from god knows where. Still, it's hard to let go the sense that we went the easy route, that we missed the road that was more French, more local, more authentic. Another 130 kilos, and we would have had our own oil, and from a mill that doesn't also sell bath salts. We want to squeeze every drop out of our experience, to store up liters and liters of what it feels like to harvest French olives in our French garden and dip French baguettes into French, into our oil, so that someday, when we are sitting in traffic and all we can see is brake lights and strip malls and suburban sprawl, we can draw a little of this experience out and savor it. Spicy and green and true.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I went to driving school the other day to take a practice test. When I got there a few minutes before the hour--the practice tests are given on the hour--Madame le sécretaire and the teenagers who were also there to take the test were all standing outside smoking. I went in and took my place in the front row of red plastic chairs (once a good girl, always a good girl).

In a few minutes--after the hour, but really, what's time when you're the secretary of the driving school or 17?--they finished their cigarettes and came in. Madame started the test dvd. We rolled along through questions: speed limit here? pass in this instance? how many points off your license for smoking pot before driving?

I circled my answers and was coming along fairly well. No language difficulties, and I was remembering all the rules of priority, and whether a white arrow on a blue ground in a square meant the same thing as a white arrow on a blue ground in a circle. (It doesn't.) Then we got to this question:

I was at the wheel of the car, and through the pare-brise I could see that I was about to enter a curve. At the side of a road was a triangular sign, the danger shape. The pictogram on the sign was of a car with swerving lines of tire tracks, the universal sign for slippery surface. So far, so good. The pannonceau, the smaller sign under the main sign, that gives specifics of the situation, was what brought me up short. It read: betteraves.

And what, dear reader, is a betterave?

It is a sugar beet.

The sign was warning me that the road ahead might be slippery on account of sugar beets.

Now, there's another sign in the French répertoire for bumps in the road, and those bumps in the road are called dos d'ane, donkey's backs. A dip in the road is called a cassis, which means a black currant. So I wondered if perhaps there was another type of bump or dip that was called a betterave.

The next time we saw 'Arry, our driving instructor, I asked him about it. Ah yes, he said, I remember that question, absolutely. Betteraves. Did you answer it correctly?

I had, actually. The question itself had asked whether the sign applied to me only when it was raining. The answer to that type of question is always: No, the sign applies always, not just when it is raining. Unless of course the question is phrased: Does the sign apply to you if it is not raining? Then the answer is, Yes, the sign always applies. Lesson: slow down and check the grammar.

Yes, I replied. But what did the sign mean about betteraves? Is a betterave like a cassis?

Harry frowned a little, puzzled. Then: No, it is a vegetable, not a fruit. It is, what you call it?

A beet, I said.

Yes, it is a beet. And it can be very slippery if it falls out of a truck onto the road.

So my question is: are there signs for all fruits and vegetables? Or are beets particularly dangerous? What about cabbages? They could get a little slippery. Artichokes: now, you'd notice if you were driving over a spilled truckload of those. And then, what about bananas? I know they're not grown in France, but they do come off of boats and get loaded onto trucks, and what if, what if, they fell off?

At the wheel of my imaginary car, I could look into the rétroviseur and see the sublime receding rapidly into the distance while I drove on into the ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Goodly creatures

G got into the car yesterday when I picked the girls up at school. Their class had spent the afternoon with a visiting priest who runs an orphanage in Sri Lanka. We found out the main difference between here and Sri Lanka, G said. It's that, in Sri Lanka, you don't live with anyone before you get married. And, if you have a baby out of wedlock, it's a really big deal.
Those are not the first differences between the South of France and Sri Lanka that had immediately come to mind. Let's see: civil war; poverty; disease; infant mortality...couples living together before marriage.

It reminded me of something E had said a few weeks ago. The four of us went to see Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona--the one, as L helpfully put it, with a three-way. (You took the girls? she laughed. The choice of American movies is not that extensive in our corner of the world.) We came out of the theater afterwards and E said: I think Scarlett Johansson should have stayed with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. They were all three happier together than apart.

C and I grew up in extended families in which living together before marriage was, if not an outright sin, then at least something that you didn't talk about. We both remember when Dan Quayle called out Murphy Brown's unmarried pregnancy and the religious right yammered on and on (and on) about it. And as for a ménage à trois--I'm not sure I even knew what that was until college, if then.

Our girls are growing up in a different culture. It's not just because we live in France now--our Stateside life featured plenty of unmarried cohabiting couples and single parents (although no ménages that I knew about)--but living in France doesn't hurt, either. It means that C and I get to cherry pick American culture: yes Jon Stewart, no Bill O'Reilly, yes The New Yorker, no Teen Vogue, yes Woody Allen, no High School Musical 18 (well, they have seen High School Musical, but only once or twice, and no product tie-ins). And it means that the world they walk around in is one that rejected John Calvin and all his uptight teachings on the evils of sexuality, in which outside every pharmacie is a condom dispenser.

I know, of course, that E and G will still have plenty to sort out about their upbringing. (Can you believe she used to write about us? Oh my god, that was just wrong, I can hear the phone conversation between them when they're 30 right now.) But they already live in a world where there is less shame, and less to be ashamed of, than our world when we were their age. A world in which more things are possible and fewer things are judged. They carry with them an easy confidence, a belief in the efficacity of love and hope. I take no credit: most of the time, I'm just running through my list of laundry and dinner and making sure they've done their homework and have the dogs been for a walk? But I'm so proud and grateful. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Civics lesson

So yesterday afternoon it was time to help the girls with their homework. C and I had spent the morning in an olive tree--this one was big enough and roomy enough for both of us to climb, so that we could harvest the olives from the inside branches of the tree instead of standing on the ground and whacking at the branches with bamboo stakes--and I was sitting at the table on the terrace separating olives from leaves and twigs. E and G appeared with their civics lesson.

At our house I am the designated humanities and social sciences tutor, while C handles science and math. I pretty much surrendered my math credibility the night that I assured the girls that long division was something that, once they finished school, they would never need to know again, and C, at his end of the table, said, actually, he used long division every day. (I'm still not sure I believe him.) That conversation happened when the girls were in third or fourth grade, and since then, I've stuck to my strengths. I mean, which is more useful, really, long division or being able to explain the Reformation? I find that the latter comes up in conversation all the time.

But I digress. The girls had told me that they were learning about analyzing documents in their civics class at school. They clearly found it a little mystifying--while they are pretty good at sorting out literary texts, working with nonfiction documents can feel like a different ballgame. They brought their textbook out to the terrace and showed me the lesson. It was called: Les Droits de l'Homme: les droits du travailleurs (The Rights of Man: the rights of workers).

The lesson was about the right of workers to assemble and to form unions. It drew on four documents which, taken together, led the students through the establishment of the right to unionize in France through to the role of unions in French society today. I started going over it with them, beginning with the first document, on the right of workers to assemble.

This means that workers can form unions, I translated.

They looked blank. Then G said, You mean, they can have dinner together?

It was my turn to look blank. No, I said, they can have meetings together about their working conditions.

G looked at me, and I saw her remembering all the conversations with colleagues from work that I've ever had about office politics over our dinner table. We were at a standoff.

Then the obvious hit me. My children didn't know what a union was.

I guess that while we were busy not talking about Air Force One and presidential lore at the dinner table in America, we also missed out on talking about the rights of workers. (But just ask my girls about the Reformation.) Apparently, it doesn't come up in American school curricula before junior high.

C came out and we spent, together, half an hour explaining the idea of labor unions--organizing for the common good, all for one and one for all, the kind of rosy, Pete Seeger-y version that I'm sure you would expect of us--and then C wandered off and we went over the documents.

I wasn't taught about unions in school. A family friend took me to see Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds, and afterwards told me stories about people who had tried to unionize the tobacco industry in the '30s. It all felt very mysterious and noble and secret, the sort of thing that it was risky, still, to talk about in the tobacco town where I grew up.

G and E are going to be quizzed on unions today in school, asked about the limits which striking worker must respect (no kidnapping; no hijacking ferries; other than that, it's pretty open), and asked to trace the history of the right to assemble. In France.

Education, I suppose, is largely about making the world a more textured and complicated place, a place where there's always another layer beneath the surface. When we are in the States at Christmas, I'll ask that same family friend to tell the same stories to my girls that she told to me decades ago. I wonder if the stories will feel mysterious to them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

At the caisse

One of my proudest accomplishments as a resident of France is my competence in the check-out line at the grocery store. (It's the little things.) In America, of course, you unload your groceries onto the conveyor belt and then, if you're me, you stand there and eavesdrop on the conversation behind you, or watch the woman wrangling with her two year old in the aisle, or work out what time the sitter's coming and if you should get movie tickets in advance. Meanwhile, someone bags your groceries and puts the bags back in your grocery cart.

Not here. One of the most stressful things about visiting France before we moved here was the trip to the grocery store for picnic supplies, or chocolate and biscuits to take home. I would unload my cart onto the belt. The checker would run each item over the scanner and slide it down the ramp, where it would join its fellows in a jumble. I would take out my grocery bag--at least I knew I was supposed to bring my own--and frantically try to load everything up without putting the eggs and the bananas under the jar of Nutella. Meanwhile, the checker would finish, call out the amount in thick impenetrable syrupy French, and wait, no doubt tapping her foot impatiently under the counter. I would toggle between loading the groceries and digging out my wallet, all the while trying to remain calm as the line lengthened behind me. One time, I remember, I bought a leaky bottle of Badoit, and the cashier sent me back to the Water Aisle to replace it. My French held up for that exchange, but that I remember it at all suggests that it was the event of the day.

The first months that we were here the grocery check out continued to be stressful. I would unload, walk through the scanner that was making sure I hadn't pocketed a tin of foie gras or a magnum of Lafitte-Rothschild, open up my grocery sacks and begin hurriedly bagging. Invariably the lettuce and the brioche loaf would come down the belt first and the canned goods last, which meant that I had to choose between putting the lettuce and the brioche at the bottom of a bag, where they would be crushed by the heavy cans of tomatoes, or putting the light, fragile items in their own bag and the heavy things in a separate bag. Neither solution was satisfying: either I'd end up with bruised vegetables or a bag I couldn't lift.

Then one day I noticed that the woman in front of me in the check out line did not have any grocery bags. La pauvre, I thought. Is she going to carry all those groceries to her car? How awful to be new to a country and not know how things work. She unloaded onto the belt and then--and then--she reloaded the groceries into her chariot. (Aside: how plebian is a cart, how regal is a chariot, even if its wheels all roll in different directions.) I was intrigued. Then I fell behind in my own unloading procedure and forgot about it.

When I got to the parking lot, though, I saw the woman again. She was standing by the open trunk of her car. The trunk was full of grocery bags. She was calmly bagging her groceries, putting the heavy things in the bottom of the bags, the fragile things on top, distributing the weight evenly, sorting and ordering her groceries.

It was a revelation. I went right home and called C at the office. He was only moderately impressed, since he is the sort of person who is not overly concerned about the time it takes to bag groceries and doesn't notice the weight of a bag full of nothing but orange juice cartons and bags of flour. But the next time I went to the store, I left my bags in the car. I put my groceries on the belt, pushed my chariot through the detector, and put my groceries back in the basket. Instead of looking out for the lettuce, I just put everything in the basket as it came through and then, leisurely, took out my wallet and paid. I pushed the cart back out to the car and slowly, carefully, methodically sorted the groceries into their bags--cold things together; fragile things on top--while standing at the open trunk.

It's what happens, I guess, when you put a mind that is used to identifying problems, researching them, categorizing them, into the life of a French ménagère. I approach the Problem of the Grocery Check Out in the same way that I used to approach the Issue of Servant Life in America Between the Wars, or the always-delicate Debate About What Porcelain to Exhibit for Christmas. Identify the problem--stress at the caisse. Research solutions--open the bags in the cart? use boxes instead of bags? aha! bag at the car. Now I'm to the refining stage, making my system ever more elegant. I put the heavy items together in one part of the cart and keep the light, small or fragile items in another section. When I unload, I unload like with like. The caissière sends like with like, then, down the ramp, and like stay together in the reloaded chariot. And then I load at the car, and have bags that I can easily carry, with things that belong together in each.

It is, I know, a small thing, but like so many small things about living in a foreign county, mastery of it makes a difference. I'm not waiting anymore for the cans of tomatoes to come through before I bag. I can relax and watch the woman in the next aisle with the toddler, and speculate on the nationality of the older man with the chariot full of gin behind me (probably English). I can even eavesdrop a little and, maybe, if the cashier's feeling friendly, engage in a little small talk. It's one more step toward feeling at home.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Olive harvest

The olives are ready. At least, the first batch. La Bastiole sits in the middle of 35 oliviers, and above us, on Jules, our propriétaire's land, are at least that many more. Last year I harvested 27 kilos of olives, working with some help from the girls and some from Luigi but mostly on my own. This year, C has taken the lead. I was still recovering from the five batches of apricot jam, 4 batches of plum butter, and 3 batches of fig preserves that I made over the summer--not to mention the vegetable garden, which was more or less a bust. So the idea of working with the olives (emphasis there on working) had lost some of its romance for me.

Enter C. Our Swedish neighbors up the hill told him that they had harvested I don't know how many hundreds of kilos of olives from their trees, and had more than 50 liters of oil to show for it. I could see his mind start to work. Then Violette's husband told him how many hundreds of kilos he and Violette expected from their 85 trees, and, furthermore, that the real secret to increasing the take was to pick up the olives that had fallen from the tree, he had gotten several dozen kilos just like that.

You mean, Maurice crawled around on the ground picking up olives out of the grass? I said, incredulously.

He got 25 kilos just like that! C was excited: no ladders, no poles, no nets, just picking up olives off the ground.

I pointed to the ground under the trees. There they are, sweetheart. Go for it.

What he did instead was go up to Jules' garage and bring down a dozen or so large green nets to spread under the trees. We brought out the ladder and the bamboo poles. I put nets down around a tree and walked around it, tapping the branches with the former tomato stake, knocking the olives onto the net. C took a bucket and sat under another tree, picking up windfall olives.

We spent a day thus--C eventually gave up on the windfall and went up the ladder himself, and I took a bucket and went round a picked what I could reach from the ground. We're both still fascinated by the idea that food is just lying around, waiting to be picked, whether it's wild thyme in the mountains, blackberries, figs, grapes, rosemary, all of it just growing, sustenance waiting to be picked. Olives, however, are small. Our 27 kilos last year got us 5 liters of oil; 27 kilos of apricots would make enough jam for a village for a year. Our 5 liters I have measured out in coffee spoons, using it sparingly, offering it only to people I knew would appreciate it.

So this year maybe we'll have more than 27 kilos. I think we may already have almost that much, spread out on burlap in the basement. This weekend we'll harvest more, and the weekend after that we'll finish. Maybe this year we'll have more than 5 liters of oil, and I'll be able to measure it less carefully and maybe even share it with people who don't know what a treasure it is.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Château Obama

Here's the thing: if you put down your glass of champagne next to the sofa, and then you go check on the supply of food on the table and when you come back in the living room your glass is gone, if you accept the new, full glass of champagne that your husband hands you--if you do that a couple of times over the course of an evening, you'll wake up with a headache that even a dose of Tylenol and two cups of tea won't completely fix. But if you have that headache while you're reading about the various Rhodes Scholars that are helping President-Elect Obama begin to put our house in order, here's the other thing: it won't bother you much.

We had our election party Saturday night. Wednesday C and I put our list together--30 or so people from the office, from hiking, from coffee, from quilting, from school, from our daily walk to the village--and sent out an invitation: join us to toast our new president.

Yesterday we put the party together. I went to the hypermarché for champagne and salmon and olives and endive and eggs, lots of eggs. The chef of the wine section, when I explained to him why I needed a dozen bottles of champagne, congratulated me on our elections in French and then, just to make sure I got it (I had, after all, muffed the subjunctive in one sentence), again in English. In the afternoon we made deviled eggs and salmon spread and hummus and pissaladière. We chilled the champagne. We pushed the dining room table against the wall and covered it with a quilt my grandmother made decades ago. We put election music on the Ipod: A Change is Gonna Come, and Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and The Rising, and (because I have fond memories of 1992), Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow), and other songs that made us glad to be American. We put out all the Obama goods that A brought us last month: the bumper stickers on the doors, the rally poster on the mantle, the Obama action figure on the table, the yard sign (she flew across the ocean with an Obama / Biden yard sign in her luggage; she's a good friend) out by the gate.

And everyone came. English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, French, even a few Americans came. Some of them had already had engagements for the evening and rearranged them so that they could be here. They found the Obama stickers that I had left out on the table, and passed them around to each other while I was wondering which was my champagne glass; I came into the kitchen and everyone was sporting an Obama sticker. When it was time for me to Say a Few Words (I'm the person in our family who does that; C stands beside me and makes me think I can), I told a story about a cross burning in my family, and about how my grandmother, whose not very distant ancestors were slaveowners, had voted for a black man for president. Then we all raised our glasses to Hope and to Change. I was told later that a couple of grown men almost cried.

That's all right, though, we've all been crying, all week. Good tears, relieved and proud and happy tears. Last night there may have been a few misty eyes, but mostly there was a lot of laughing and telling stories and comparing notes. As I moved through the house, I kept hearing the same conversation: Where were you when you found out? What were you doing when you heard?

M and her husband, English friends who have followed this election almost as passionately as we have, arrived bearing a bottle of champagne. They had found a photo of Obama waving and smiling to the camera against the backdrop of an enormous American flag. Across the top of the photo they had typed Château Obama, and then they'd printed it out and taped it over the label on the bottle. We drank, the 30 of us, a dozen bottles of champagne last night, but not that one. We're going to keep that particular vintage around for a while.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Even Better than Napoleon's Death Mask

We docked in Ajaccio at about seven a.m. last Thursday morning after what was, at least in our minds, a rough crossing. I am not a boat person, it turns out. I used to think I was. I was mistaken. In the middle of the night C and I both woke up when the boat's tossing suddenly tossed my toiletries from the shelf at the end of the bunks up into the air and upside down onto the floor. Certainly my fault for having left it unzipped...but nevertheless. Life is uncertain enough without air born bottles of lotion in the wee hours.

We passed a couple of hours walking around in Ajaccio and taking in the street market, which was just setting up, and the statues of Napoleon, Ajaccio's favorite son, which were plentiful and without exception generic. When the first dose of caffeine began to wear off, we stopped in a bakery for coffee and pastries and whiled away the time until the Maison de Napoléon opened.

I spent eight years studying the French Revolution, and, though the Revolution left plenty of intangible monuments (the metric system; the rigid division of church and state in France), it left precious few monuments. The revolutionaries were too busy reimagining the world and doing away with the aristocracy to have leisure or funds to put up buildings. And so when, in our travels, we come anywhere near a site that has some clear connection to the years immediately after 1789, we make a detour so that I can take it in. That's why we began our Corsican trip in Ajaccio: I wanted to pay my respects to Napoleon.

The world and history being what it is, there is almost nothing original in the house where Napoleon was born: his family didn't even live in most of it during his lifetime, and he himself passed little time there. Nevertheless, city fathers being what they are, the house has a large stone plaque over the front door, claiming itself as Napoleon's birthplace, and the inside is a museum. Since there aren't any Napoleon artifacts to speak of, some clever curator has filled the house with an exhibition on the Bonaparte family and Napoleon's life before he became Emperor, a few rooms on the history of the house itself, and--hang in there, I'm getting to the good part--a collection of Weird Napoleonic Memorabilia. (That's not what it's called.)

So we worked our way through Napoleon's early life and Bonaparte family history. I found a copy of Louis XVI's signed order for Napoleon's army commission in 1791, and showed it to the girls--see the king's signature? see the signature of the king's secretary? later that family emigrated to New York and ran a dairy farm (I'm either a really good person to see a history museum with, or a really bad person, depending on your history threshold)--and we admired the collection of family portraits in miniature. Then came the wallpaper room--bits of wallpaper that used to be on the walls in the house--which did not take C and the girls terribly long to peruse. Finally we descended one more level and got to the Memorabilia room.

Even that was only mildly interesting: Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie stopped in during their rule, and there were a number of bits and pieces commemorating their visit. Then a copy of the laurel wreath that Napoleon commissioned when he wanted to dress up as a Roman emperor. Then we came round a corner and saw it: the Bonaparte family tree.

Done in Bonaparte family hair.

The label (I copied it into my notebook) read:

Arbre généalogique en cheveux de la famille Buonaparte (family tree in Bonaparte family hair)
cheveux et papier découpé et peinte (made of hair, cut paper and paint)
etiquette manuscrite (with a handwritten label) :
fait par moi Elise, fille du docteur Polazzi, Corte (made by me, Elise, the daughter of Doctor Polazzi, in Corte).

The piece dated from the 1850s. It was large--a couple of feet in height--and impressively detailed, showing all the descendants of all of Napoleon's siblings, their husbands and wives. Each branch of the tree was labeled in carefully elegant schoolgirl handwriting, with lots of swirls and curls, and each branch was made of human hair. (If you're wondering, all the Bonapartes seem to have been brunettes.) It was mounted on heavy paper and framed in a suitably Victorian gilded wooden frame.

C and the girls were appalled. I believe that the word 'gross' might have been used. They took a perfunctory look at the death mask, just around the corner, and then headed downstairs to the collection of exhibition posters from the 1990s. I stayed in front of the family tree.

Sometime in my schooling, someone taught me that the best way into the past is not by the front door with all the wars and great men but through the window in the second best bedroom, the one that only gets opened up when the first guest room is already full, and maybe the important guest has brought along an insignificant cousin who needs putting up. Or else it's the bedroom that the unmarried daughter uses, the one who stays up late reading god knows what. It's through that window--through what seems strange and unfamiliar and even bizarre--that we can find things that make history come alive, that make history matter. This family tree made out of hair was absolutely the window in through the second best bedroom.

I imagined Elise, the bourgeois doctor's daughter, in her father's house in Corte. None of Corsica is really on the beaten path, but Corte is in the center of the island. In the middle of the 1800s, you would have had to take several overgrown paths just to get there. But her father was the local doctor, so the family probably had some status. Maybe her father had treated someone who knew one of the Bonapartes, and so she wrote a letter and explained that she wanted to do something to honor the great son of Corsica and his family, and, do you think you could send me a few hanks of hair? And then: one day the hair arrived. Did it come by post, on a donkey? Or did someone who was visiting Corte bring it from Ajaccio? How long did it take Elise to make the tree? And once it was finished, did it sit on an easel in the family's front room, to be commented on when company came to call?

And what did Elise do afterwards? Did she stay in Corte? Did she open a business making and selling arbres généalogiques en cheveux? I don't know, and it would be hard to find out. Here's what I can say, though: this tree took Elise a long time to make. She had to make sketches, she had to practice working with the hair (all right, it's a little icky for us, that part), she had to find the right sort of backing paper and the right sort of wax to use on the hair. This was creative work that took time and patience. The Bonapartes must have mattered to her. Napoleon must have mattered to her: this little swarthy Ajaccian who went off on a boat one day and conquered almost all of Europe before he started losing battles and was disgraced and sent off to die on another island. But he and his family mattered to Elise, a generation later in her father's house in Corte. She wanted to be connected to that story, so she made this family tree.

Now it hangs in the Maison de Napoléon, and she is part of the museum's story, and, now, after I went on about it to my family for an hour or two, and bought postcards of it and sent them to my girlfriends, she's part of ours, too. We'll all forget the wallpaper samples, but this bizarre testament to Napoleon's island legend will stick with us.

What we'll remember about Napoleon's house is not so much Napoleon himself as young Elise from Corte, bending over her work in the second best bedroom. She sets her work table in front of the window, where the light is best, and maybe she hums a little while she separates the strands into smaller and smaller bits, designing first trunk, then branches, then twigs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Home again.

We didn't stay up all night. Yesterday morning we woke up at 5, drove the two hours (in hard rain) from Calvi to Bastia, and boarded the car ferry for Savona. Four unsteady hours later, we disembarked and drove two more hours (more hard rain) home. So while I was tempted, sorely tempted, to stay up all night and click around til the moment arrived (our television doesn't run to CNN), we went to sleep.

Each evening of our trip, we toasted the campaign: first the managers and all those folks who have sent me so much email, then Hillary, who wasn't part of the campaign but has been a big part of our lives, and then Michelle, and then, Monday night in Calvi, Obama himself. It was the end of the season in Calvi, and we were eating in about the only restaurant that was still open. There were three couples in the restaurant besides us. We had seen no news--and I mean no news--for five days. I knew we were going to be off the grid, but I had no idea how far off the grid. While we were there Corse Matin, the island's daily paper, featured articles on the weather, on a car accident, and on the man whose job it is to maintain the Serbian cemetery near Bonifaccio, but virtually nothing on the American election. The only paper we saw that featured it was on Saturday morning in Piana (population 430). The Courrier International, a weekly newsmagazine that is a subsidiary of Le Monde, put a close-up photo of Obama on its cover with the question: Oseront-ils l'élire? Will they dare to elect him? We bought it; the cover story was a selection of articles from the American press translated into French. I had already read most of them.

Last night, we ate at home, pasta we had stopped to buy from a traiteur in Vengtimillia and pesto sauce from the freezer. We opened the bottle of Corsican wine G and I had bought the day before from the last remaining open shop in Calvi, from a vineyard named after Calvi's most famous son: Christopher Columbus. We toasted to hope. We were feeling pretty hopeful, and the girls picked up on that and began asking us questions. Does the president ever travel overseas? Does he have his own airplane? Is it his own, or does the government provide it?

They can conjugate French verbs in the passé simple, but they don't know about Air Force One. They don't know that kind of Americana. They were three years old when Clinton was impeached. Five years old when the 43rd president was chosen. They know plenty about the difference between what we value and believe and what those House Republicans valued, and what number 43 believes, but they know--it turns out--almost nothing about the presidency itself. We've never taught them about it. We've never wanted to talk about it. Last night we realized that this could be about to change.

This morning, C and I checked the New York Times while we were still in bed. I came downstairs to find that the girls had already done the same thing. We watched the BBC coverage a bit--they showed the beginning of his speech; we wept--and then made breakfast. The Courrier International was sitting on the kitchen table, still asking its question: Oseront-ils l'élire? G walked by it, and then came back with a pen. Under it, in capital letters, underlined twice, she wrote OUI.