Friday, June 19, 2009


School is winding down now, and although it officially continues for another week, that week and this are a mix of half days, day long fêtes, and, here and there, no school at all. Yesterday I picked E and G up at noon. We went to Antibes, the port town a half hour away, to run some errands and have a wander through the vieille ville, looking for shade in the narrow pedestrian streets.

We sat in a bar on the Place Nationale and ordered tomato and mozzarella sandwiches and a pitcher of water. Afterwards we did our errands: some fabric for me, a book we'd ordered from the English bookshop, the shoe store for sandals for the girls. The shoe store experience was a bust and, by the end of it, we were all annoyed with each other: nothing major, just what happens sometimes when expectations run afoul of reality.

Our next stop was at the Gelateria del Porto. C and I found this hole in the wall ice-cream shop the night that we arrived in France two years ago. Jean-Marc makes all of the gelato himself, and it's everything from chocolate to mango to caramel beurre salé. The night that we found it we sat on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville with our cones, and watched the Saturday night parade of couples strolling. We could hardly believe that we had gotten here, everything packed and sent and the house ready for the renters and a meeting with the realtor to find a French house on Monday morning, and here we were, eating ice cream at 10.30 in the evening in a French seaside town.

Yesterday E took one of the benches outside the gelateria, and G and I went in to order. The shop is open to the narrow sidewalk and street, and consists simply of the windowed counter that holds all the glaces, a menu above, and the kitchen, with all sorts of interesting-looking equipment, behind. When G and I walked in, the place was empty not only of customers but of employees. We took our time choosing and, in a minute or two, Jean Marc arrived. He had been having a drink with a friend in the bar opposite. We ordered mango for E, nutella for G, and watermelon--in French it's pastèque, so much more exotic--for me. He used a small spade to shape our glaces into flowers whose stems happened to be ice cream cones.

We sat in the shade and ate our cones, and then walked down the hill to the public fountain (put up in the reign of Louis XVI to honor one of his admirals, the engraving at the top tells you) and washed our hands and faces. Surely the public fountain is one of the pinnacles of civilization. Clean, drinkable water, available in every (or nearly every) parc and place in France. And the fountains themselves, more often than not, beautiful things carved out of stone and worn with age. While we took our turn at it, two young women, dressed to the nines, stopped on the other side to fill their water bottles. Old men sat in the shade nearby and watched us all.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the last two years, and what they've meant for us, how they've changed us and not. It's part of the process of leaving, and I promise I'll try to spare you too much of it. But yesterday, going from the plastic expensive uncomfortable shoes in the chain shoe store to the humanity of homemade gelato, sold to us by the man who made it, the man who's passing the time between customers across the street with his friends and a mid-afternoon coffee, posed such a contrast. The chain store with its poorly made goods and disinvested sales clerks; the local artisan with his shop and his craft, a craft he's proud enough of to carve each serving into the shape of a rose.

Well. It brought us back to ourselves, is what it did, and we went from being a mother and two teenaged daughters, caught up in the roles of impatience and annoyance and disagreement, to being a family on an outing. We went from the too-big picture (how are we ever going to get through all the times we're going to have to go shopping together) to the splendid detail of an ice cream rose. How wonderful, we said to each other, may I taste yours? And then we washed our hands in the fountain.

These two years have given us a lifetime's number of moments of grace, of humanity, like that one. We came with two girls, and we are leaving with two teenagers who toggle still between girldom and young womanhood. Every moment is its own miracle.


  1. Anything handmade is like a gift, isn't it? That's why it made a crabby day better.
    We love gelato too, especially when it is handmade.
    Hard to find here in Virginia, but I hear of some new outposts nearby where they make it by hand.