Wednesday, October 24, 2007

American English

The voice at the other end of the phone spoke perfect English, with a slight German accent.

Are both of you English?

No, no, I replied. Neither of us is English; we are both American.

But I spoke with your husband before, and neither of you sound American. You must have lived in England for a long time.

No, no. We have never lived in England.

But you don't sound American. Maybe your parents were English?

No, no. I thought I would turn the conversation a bit. Can you tell me more about the English Club at school that I am going to teach? How many students am I likely to have?

Oh, not so many, eight or 10. Eight or 10 native French fifth- and sixth-graders, once a week at lunchtime, for the remainder of the year. She went on: And they have English during their regular class time, so this is really just for practicing conversation, you know. 50 minutes, and it goes fast. I'll be there, too, I'll be in the next building, doing the ping-pong club, if you need anything.

It goes fast when you have prepared material for 100 minutes, in my experience, but I decided not to say so. Instead, what sort of things have been successful in other years?

Oh, you can talk about culture, sing a song or two. Talk about the Queen. Or--I guess--maybe not talk about Mr. Bush? If we really insist on being American, the hesitation tells me, then maybe I can't talk about the Queen. But maybe not Mr. Bush. Maybe you could find something to talk about in American culture? Or...your national anthem?

I have a vision of trying to hit the high G in the Star Spangled Banner in front of a room of French pre-adolescents. Not the Star Spangled Banner. Not Mr. Bush. Lincoln's Second Inaugural might be a bit beyond their English skills. Thunder Road might be hard to explain in a country that doesn't have screens on windows, much less doors. The Red Sox? Julia Child? E. B. White? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Town meetings? New York City in the snow? My moment to touch the future of France, and show these children an America besides the Iraq war and McDonald's, and it's hard to know where to begin.

If the 50 minutes gets long, I can always talk about the Queen.

Monday, October 22, 2007


The rental car company came and took away the Oldsmobile-Citroen the other day and left me with a Peugeot minivan, a Picasso. The name comes to us, I imagine, courtesy of the Peugeot linguists. I would like to have been at that meeting. What else, I wonder, was on the list of possible names? Other Spanish artists--could I be driving a Dali? (What would the clock in a Dali-mobile have looked like?) Or other ex-patriate artists who lived in France--Hemingway, maybe? (Probably not a name for a minivan; Hemingway was probably an SUV kind of guy.)

If Picasso had designed this car, it would be one of his late, intensely abstract works, when he had turned away from all those quaint art-school concepts like perspective. The control panel--odometer, tachometer, all those sorts of things--rests in all its digital glory in the center of the dashboard, a solid 2 or 3 second glance away from oncoming delivery trucks. A second glove box occupies the space between the steering wheel and the windshield. The heating and air conditioning controls are all to the left of the steering wheel, just above where the engine release lever often is, another 2 or 3 second glance away. The steering wheel has all sorts of controls on it--I am sure that one is about the radio, and I think that I could use another to make a phone call.

The car has no parking gear; instead, there is a parking brake lever in the center of the dash, centered under the control panel. To park the car, you put it in neutral and engage the parking brake. The gear shift is on the steering wheel shaft, just slightly above the controls for the windshield wipers (five settings, so that when you accidentally brush the wiper wand on your way to the gear shift there are five different ways you can startle your passengers).

And then there's the shifting itself: I require an automatic transmission. Our friends at Peugeot made the car automatic, and I do not wish to take anything away from their efforts. However, let me just say that on a good day I can shift from first to second to third gear as smoothly as does our friend Pablo. When we start up a hill and the moment arrives for a change of gears, there is a lurch and a bump and if you listen closely you can sometimes hear the engine curse softly. (The difference here is that I would swear audibly, and in English.)

The rental car company left me a key ring with the Picasso's vital statistics: registration number, type of transmission, and color. And there, in the color, is where, so far as I am concerned, the Peugeot linguists really earned their coffee break. My car is not brown: it is noisette.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Olivier has worked for our proprietaire, our landlord, for 20 years. To say that he is the resident handyman is not quite right, although he knows plumbing, gardening, carpentry, and I imagine he can take apart and reassemble most engines. To say that he is the estate manager doesn't seem right either, as our proprietaire's land is not enough to qualify as an estate, and Olivier does both more and less than manage: an estate manager has an office and tells people what to do. Olivier has a small green Renault Twingo and seems to find that the work gets done best when he does it himself. When I talk to French people about Olivier and what he does, they suggest that he is the gardien, which comes close in meaning to a steward. He is the person who looks after things.

For the past several months, he has been looking after us. He comes nearly every day, arriving a little before eight, disappearing for an hour or two midday, and leaving around five. On days when he is not mending something in our garden or showing a plumber or carpenter or electrician work that needs to be done in our house--it's a new house, so new that it's not quite finished--I sometimes only see him walking along the restanques on the way to the Bastide, the proprietaire's much grander house several tall, stone-walled terraces up the hill. But I know that he is around and about, and if I see him when I am coming or going, or if I meet him when I take the dogs up the hill to run, we always speak, and he is always patient with my French and happy to explain the latest developments.

Last week one morning C. decided to bike to work and left, kitted up in spandex, well before the girls and I had finished our breakfast. When it was time for me to take the girls to school, I sent them up the hill to the car and began to collect purse, phone, and keys. No keys. Not anywhere. I checked in drawers, dishes, pocketbooks, pockets: nowhere. Minutes passed while I went through the house touching surfaces and trying to remember where they were. Then it dawned on me: C. must have taken them. I looked in the kitchen drawer: C.'s keys. Aha. I would have to take his car.

I went up the hill to two girls who did not want to be late for school and we all got into C.'s little Volkswagen. I found the clutch and looked at the stick shift: it had been at least a decade since I had driven a manual-transmission car, but this moment had to come sometime. I put the car in reverse and it went forward so suddenly that the oleander hedge jumped back. E., in the front seat beside me, stiffened. I put it in reverse again and narrowly missed the olive tree that our proprietaire planted in the center of our parking area. (Charming, yes; practical, no.)

I realized that this was not going to be the morning that I relearned how to drive a manual car. But what to do? In a few minutes more the girls would be late for school, if I could get them to school at all. By the time C. got to work it would be long past time the 8:15 bell, and then he would have to borrow someone's car and drive the 20 minutes home, and then another 15 minutes to get the girls to school. G. and E. were radiating anxiety at the prospect of arriving late to their French literature class, the hardest class of the week, with the most alarming teacher. Our nearest neighbors are summer people, gone now until Christmas at least. I could phone the school and explain my situation and ask if someone could come and pick up the children, but that sounded a little farfetched and pathetic; I wanted to get them to school and retain a smidgeon of dignity.

I looked over my shoulder and saw the Twingo parked just outside our gate. I left the girls in the car and raced up the terraces. Olivier was just coming out of the proprietaire's garage.

Bonjour! Ca va? He shook my hand, as always.

Oui, oui, ca va, merci, mais on a une petite crise. I explained: C. was on his bike and had taken my keys, I could not drive a stick shift car, the girls had to be at school; could he help?

Olivier was already walking beside me back down the terrace. Bien sur, bien sur, he said, I dislike driving manual transmissions myself. I much prefer automatic; the car I do not drive to work has an automatic transmission. He was in the car now and pulling out of the driveway, heading down the hill and out onto the road to school.

As we entered the town Olivier began to talk. He had grown up here: his parents had worked in a perfume factory, a parfumerie: his mother had ended her career as an aromatiseur, someone who mixed flavorings, parfums, for ice creams, like lavender and strawberry and lemon and jasmin and rose. The factory where they had worked was gone now, replaced by apartment buildings.

Olivier's children all went to the College des Vignes, so he pulled expertly into a bus stop just across from the entrance and the girls leapt out of the car. I kissed them goodbye and climbed in the front seat.

When does school start? Will they be late?

Oh no, they'll be fine, they will be just in time. It was so lucky for us that you were there.

No, no, it is nothing, c'est normale. Of course it was normal only if you customarily went into burning buildings to save litters of kittens. We swung back into traffic and down a side street that brought us, within a few hundred meters, back into the countryside.

All of the land around here used to be farms, flower farms, Olivier went on. When I was a little boy my family would all help harvest the jasmin flowers for the parfumeries. You could smell the flowers in the air. There were no houses as there are now. We were coming along the main road connecting our village to the town. There were just a few bastides, a few large farms, that grew flowers. When I was a boy I would spend the summers with my grandparents, west of here, I can show you on a map where they lived and you could go there, it is very beautiful. When I was a boy I can remember going there and there were champs de lavande, fields of lavender, 7 kilometers in length. I remember seeing them. When there was a little wind, the lavender moved, and it was like the sea.

We were pulling into the driveway now. If you need to go out again today, come and find me and I will take you. It's normal, pas de probleme, pas du tout.

My keys were in the back door. The rest of the day, and since, when I close my eyes, I see an ocean of lavender.


A facsimile of a 1907 map of Union County, North Carolina, hangs over our telephone cabinet. We have two phones: one has a French number, and we use it to make local calls at a somewhat shocking expense, and the other has our U.S. number, and we use it to call everywhere else for free. My great-grandparents and their families in Union County a century ago would have been more than suspicious of such gadgetry and more than puzzled at our decision to come to a place so far from home.

The map shows an overwhelmingly rural world. The county seat is marked, with its two cotton mills, as are all the churches (of which many, some of them noted as "colored," and none of them Catholic; synagogues or temples existed only in the Bible) and school houses (not as many as churches, but a respectable number). "Land Owners Residences" are marked with a square, and "tenant houses" with a cross. The rural mail routes are listed. The place names are either geographic--Marshville, Lanes Creek--or biblical--New Salem, Olive Branch.

A hundred years later, Union County is a suburb of Charlotte. Almost all the farmland is gone; the land where my family farmed cotton and planted vegetable gardens for two centuries has been paved for subdevelopments and 7-Elevens. Extraordinary change in just a couple of generations.

On a walk the other day I met an old man who was collecting his morning copy of Nice-Matin from the newspaper box at the end of his driveway. We admired each other's walking canes and he told me he was 80 years old.

Have you lived here long?

He gestured to the tumbledown farmhouse, almost overtaken by blackberry vines, a little ways down the road. I was born in that house. I had six brothers and sisters, and my family farmed all this land, from here (the edge of the road where we were standing) down to the valley (his arm took in the side of the hill).

Olives? I asked, eager to keep him talking.

But no, not olives. My parents grew jasmine and roses, for the perfumeries in the next town. When I was a little boy I helped them. (Now he began to hit his stride and all I had to do was sound encouraging.) My brother and I would walk up the hill to the village school every morning, walk home for lunch, and then back to school in the afternoon. We had a few olive trees, enough to make oil for our family. In the fall we would harvest the olives and take them to the mill over there (he gestured to the far side of our hill; the mill still makes olive oil).

Was this road here then?

It was a path, between my parents' farm and the neighbors'. When the town decided to make a road, they took more of my parents' land than the neighbors. (He showed me, with his cane, where his family's land had stopped--two thirds of the way across the road.)

A car passed us. Those people, they are English.

I am from America.

Not England? American? He was startled, and for a moment I felt like part of some latter-day expeditionary force. But you speak French.

I try to speak French. It is very difficult, but it is a beautiful language.

He nodded, accepting the compliment as his due. It is the most difficult language to learn. Where do you live?

I told him, and he told me whose farm it used to be, and who used to own the farms around us, and what they farmed: jasmine or roses or lavender or olives. The farms are almost all gone now, broken up by the families to give a piece of land to each child, or sold off to Parisians or other foreigners for second homes. But my neighbor, this old man, remembered all their names, some of them his schoolmates, some relations, remembered some fondly and some less so.

I went home, watered the dogs, and read a little more in Braudel. He was talking

about the French landscape, how it bears witness to what it does not show,...helps to reconstitute the balance of former times, gives meaning to the remarks of travellers, famous or
otherwise, who have been there before us and seen almost the same things--ah, but it is that 'almost,' the often tiny differences that plunge us back into the life of the past. (Braudel, The Identity of France, 1985, p. 42)

The often tiny differences that plunge us back into the life of the past
: my neighbor drawing his family's property line from half a century ago on the road, the memory of that perceived injustice as strong as if the town was going to have a hearing about it that night. Now I follow that disputed line every day on the road. When I look at the map over the phone table, I see the jasmine that grew on the hillside. If I can find out how to harvest the olives on our trees, I'm going to take them around the hill to the moulin, and hope that someone is putting in a few rows of tomatoes in the yard behind her new house in Union County.

Friday, October 12, 2007


The first person who told us about sangliers had a low electric fence encircling her garden. C. and I couldn't imagine what the fence was for--it was too low to keep out a dog or a deer and too high to keep out a rabbit or a raccoon. When I asked about the fence, the lady explained that it was to keep out the sangliers.

I thought I hadn't understood correctly. Sangliers, like in Asterix?

Oui, bien sur, the same.

Then it was C.'s turn to doubt. Hadn't I probably mistranslated? Surely the beasts whom Asterix and Obelix hunted in comic-book Gaul were not currently threatening the lettuces of householders in southern France.

We turned to our family expert on all things French and he assured C. that I had indeed understood correctly. Sangliers--wild boars--are a menace to the French very like deer are a menace to American suburbanites. Like deer, if you imagine a deer that has long curling tusks, is built like, well, like a wild boar, and has some serious issues with personal space.

C. could hardly wait to spot one.

We asked around all summer about when and where we were likely to see a sanglier, so we built up a collection of stories. Our Swedish neighbors had to replant their lawn after a herd of sangliers had rooted it up. Our Belgian friends knew where we would likely come across a sanglier or two because they had been hiking there and had surprised one in the undergrowth. Two rond-points away from us there is a small roadside shrine to a driver of a moto who lost a battle with a sanglier there. It emerged that these wild boars were not some Disney-fied overgrown pigs but veritable wild animals, unpredictable, large, and potentially dangerous.

C. was delighted.

And yet, no luck. We kept asking around about sanglier, who had seen any and where, and the sightings were all distant, either in space or time. Still, we were hopeful that as the fall advanced we would have a visitation. Fall is, after all, the beginning of sanglier season.

One evening after dinner a few weeks ago I was driving down our chemin on my way to English choir practice. I met another car and pulled over into a driveway--the car going uphill has the right of way, unless I am driving that car, in which case the downhill car has right of way--but as I did so I saw several dark shapes just below the terrace across the road. When the other car had passed, I pulled back into the road and stopped, looking along the olive tree-planted terraces to my left. There were 6 sangliers: 3 adults, 3 babies. The adults were roughly the size of German shepherds, except with bigger heads and tusks. The babies were the size of lambs, but would have cast a pall on any Easter basket. We all looked at each other for a long minute, and then they turned and loped back into the trees.

I phoned C. from the car and he assembled the girls and rushed down the hill. Dangerous animals abroad? Let's take the children to see.

They caught a glimpse of the animals, but that was all. Still, at least it was a glimpse, and now C. is hopeful that the herd du coin will come one day soon and dig up our yard.

I told Violette, our femme de menage, about the sanglier sighting. She is built a little like a sanglier herself, absent the tusks: sturdy and low to the ground. Violette would, I am sure, have given Asterix pause. Turns out that Violette had her own encounter with a sanglier a few years ago. Early one fall evening she was driving along in the predecessor to the fire-engine red Fiat Punto that she drives now. Violette lives a village or two further up the mountain, around many curves from here. She took one of these curves and, bang! a sanglier.

The boar did several hundred euros worth of damage to the car. I made sounds of shock and horror--how awful, lucky you weren't hurt. Violette smiled. No, no, I was fine, she said, but the sanglier, he was dead. So I put him in the trunk, took him home, and we ate him all winter.

Asterix would be proud.


The dogs and I took our morning walk up the road one day last week. About three blind curves around from our house, where the road levels out for a straight bit before elbowing its way between two high stone walls, there is Boo Radley's house: set back and above the road, with long-unmown weeds almost but not quite concealing the broken down washing machine and the skeleton frames of several hard-used Peugeots. Guarding the house are three dogs, who lurk at the top of the bank and who, when they spot potential invaders, bark bark bark. They seem fierce, fierce enough that I commented on them to the gardener down below.

Did he know those chiens mechants up the road?

Ah, oui, bien sur. Those dogs are very bad. They are always barking, barking, barking. Then the gardener leaned in confidentially, as he likes to do when imparting some particularly useful or insightful tip. Those dogs are not very catholic.

When the protestant dogs chased me, Wendy and Alice, Madame Mere, and her (occupied) stroller down the road, I knew I had to do something. I couldn't really imagine hurting a dog, but then I thought about Boo Radley's dogs threatening the stroller and our dogs (who are still thinking about the whole catholic question). So I began looking around the house for something to carry with me just in case.

I did not look long before I saw my grandfather's walking stick. Granddaddy was a large man, well over six feet in his prime, and his hands--there is a photograph of him embracing me on my wedding day, and one hand covers almost the entire upper part of my back. He farmed cotton and cows and grew some enormous tomatoes, and when he reached a certain age he walked with a cane made out of knobby pine that had been polished to a high sheen. I remember walking beside him through herds of cattle and him using the cane to part the animals. Now the cane is in my umbrella stand.

And now I walk up the road carrying it. It is much too long for me to use as a cane, so I carry it horizontally; it acts as a counterweight to the dogs straining at their leashes in my other hand. The dogs from Boo Radley's have not bothered us since I started carrying the cane. I don't think I will ever need to use it as anything other than a counterweight. When I walk up my French road carrying my granddaddy's cane made from soft North Carolina pine, no mean dogs, whatever their degree of faith, can bother me.

Monday, October 8, 2007


Yesterday, after the girls had finished their homework, we drove up to Caussols. It takes about half an hour to get there in the car; we go north, leaving our village and heading up into the mountains. We go past Gourdon, one of the most dramatic perched villages in the area, and turn left, winding up still more, until we come to the mouth of a wide plateau: Caussols. We have been there several times with friends and neighbors and have walked along a wide, flat trail that leads through the valley. Each time I had seen a sign, though, that pointed towards a Voie Romain, a Roman road, that cut across the plateau and up into the hills. This is where we went yesterday.

The hills were all shrouded in clouds as we left our village and we were certain that this trip would end in rain and a rush to the car. As we ascended, though, the clouds turned out to be simply fog, and not even a damp fog. When we parked the car at the sign for the Roman road, we put on our jackets and went off down the trail, not yet a road, and the fog was distant. After a bit, we came to what was clearly a road built of stones. It was about two meters wide, with upturned stones on the edges, like very small and lichen-covered New Jersey medians. The center of the road consisted of stones worn white with age laid carefully in rows. Of course in places the stones had given way to the frost heaves of history and were no longer aligned or flat, but on the whole the impression we had was clearly one of: this is a road.

The Romans conquered this part of the Mediterranean coast in the 20s BCE, and stayed here until--well, until they weren't Romans anymore, until there had been enough intermarriage and time that they were just the people who lived here. That's not the official, textbook history--I'm sure that there is a proper date for when the Romans were no longer ascendant in our neighborhood--but I think that for the purposes of ordinary people cultivating olives and trying to stay fed and warm and alive 2000 years ago that that version is probably true. This road was part of a series of roads that linked mountain settlements, many of which still exist, perhaps under different names, today.

We followed the road up a hill, and plain gave way to forest and forest gave way to rock outcroppings. The fog dropped down until it was low enough for the girls to want to stay a little closer to us. I had expected to feel a sense of the profundity of time, of all the people who had walked or ridden this way, but my mind ran to lists instead, and C. and I talked about the coming week and our schedules.

The fog was thicker when we heard an animal calling from beyond a stand of evergreens. We weren't sure, at first, what it was, and C. and I both counted up the local species we knew and decided that, in the event that the eerie howl was not coming from a werewolf, its source had to be a dog. We leashed Wendy and Alice and kept on. Round another bend we heard distant bells, sheep bells, and soon came to a sign that explained that we were in grazing country, with flocks of sheep and their shepherd dogs looking after them.

It was time to turn back, then, and we never did see any sheep, just heard the gentle clang of their bells and an occasional admonitory bark, and, once, a man shouting. But it was a disorienting experience. We could see almost nothing of where we were--no more than 10 or 15 meters around us--and the sound of herds and dogs has a timeless quality. A Roman road, an invisible flock of sheep, and we were chiefly concerned by the question--also timeless--of what to have for dinner.

I have been reading Fernand Braudel's Identity of France, trying to dredge up what I once knew about this country. Today over lunch I came to a passage in which he describes hearing the sound of a grazing herd of sheep on a radio program. This passage comes at the end of a section where Braudel writes about how the relationship between space and time have changed in France. Journeys that took days in the past now take hours, and so everything feels closer together, which makes time go faster: when it took days to travel between cities, time moved more slowly. He writes that, as he sat at his desk in 1981 writing about the diminishment of distances, the radio station France-Culture (I was listening to it this morning in the car) broadcast a programme

about a shepherd and his flock in the Lozere: strange music, the sound of
sheep-bells, a dog barking, a man calling out commands, and the flock travelling
past, gradually moving away into the silences. All at the pace of bygone
times. France is still, for a while at least, a place where life can move
slowly, faster, or very fast. The fastest speed, impressive or threatening
though it may be, is not yet everything. And what a joy it can be, alone
on a mountain side, to rediscover and re-live...the time and space of
yesterday. (Braudel, The Identity of France, 1985, p. 123)

So here's to life moving slowly, and to recognizing the time and space of yesterday when we walk through it.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


G. and E. are taking horseback riding lessons at La Grande Ecurie, the stable with the cafe on the hill and the dashing proprietaire. We are about a month into the lessons, and although I have neither seen the proprietaire again nor set foot inside the cafe, I still hope for both, particularly the cafe. So far, though, the girls have required my presence in the gallery at the lessons.

The stable is enormous, with at least four different barns full of horses, some owned by the stable for lessons, some boarding there, and more rings and paddocks and trails than I can reliably count. The girls' lesson takes place in la grande manege, a really big barn, with horse boxes the long sides and, in the center, a covered dusty ring, perhaps half the size of an American football field. The ring is divided down the center, with a different instructor teaching at each end. Above the horse stalls runs an open concrete-paved gallery where the parents can sit on benches and oversee their chevaliers and chevalieres.

From this gallery, you can either look down at the action in the ring, or look out the open sides, towards assorted other barns and rings where the life of the stable is trotting along. I find it reassuring to notice how tumbledown everything is, everything except the horses themselves and what they require for health and safety and horsey happiness. The gutters on the barns: full of leaves and muck. The eaves: pre-war spiders thriving. Nets hung to catch pigeon droppings before they land on paying customers or, more likely cause for concern, valuable horses: attesting to a vibrant pigeon population. The gallery itself is lined with dirt and pigeon feathers and god knows what else. And yet the stable goes on about its business and if anyone is concerned about the cobwebs they do not seem to be losing sleep over it. It is as if the dashing proprietaire has found out precisely what must be done to keep entropy at bay and sees to it that what must be done, gets done, and the rest be damned. I think about these things when my daughters are riding animals that weigh roughly a ton and have brains the size of walnuts.

The girls started off in the wrong class. For whatever reason--the possibilities for misunderstanding being both cultural and linguistic--they were put with beginners. E. and G. have been riding for five years and although I would hesitate to call them accomplished riders for fear that a teacher would take me at my word and make their jumps higher, they do know their way around most horses. When I saw at the first lesson that the other girls were two or three years younger than they, I suspected that there had been some mistake. And then the girls mounted up: while one child hung on to the saddle with both hands while her horse trotted, another did a passable imitation of Yosemite Sam, frenetically pumping arms and legs as her horse did pretty much as it pleased, and the others sat hunched in their saddles, radiating terror and misery.

Things came to a head on the day that Yosemite was matched up with a nervous pony and, after it shied dramatically early in the lesson, all the other debutantes developed a case of nerves. In the gallery, I watched closely, leaning forward on the splintery bench, trying to guess which child might tumble and when. G. and E. were unaware of the other horses, concentrating on interpreting the French of the monitrice--happily, diagonal, galop, and trot sound about the same in French as in English. The other parents in the gallery were unconcerned. One sat grading papers, while others played games on their cell phones, returned calls, or minded younger children. The monitrice decided to have the girls canter their horses--faster than a trot, slower than a gallop. If it is your child on the horse, it is roughly comparable to watching her be launched in the space shuttle.

It was at this point that I remembered that I had never signed a release form for the girls' riding lessons. At our stable in the States, of course, I had signed a release form that indemnified the stable from everything that could possible take place while the girls were in the vicinity of a horse, from being sneezed on to trodden on. Here, though, no release forms, not ever. French society operates on an assumption of personal responsibility: evidemment, horseback riding is dangerous, you must have been aware of that before. One might think that having released the American stable from legal responsibilities, the American instructors would feel free to push the envelope a bit, to take a few risks with their charges, and that, the French stable not having even discussed responsibilities and damages in the event of a bad fall, the French moniteurs and monitrices would be a bit skittish, and there would be a lot of walking the horses around in a circle.

One would be wrong.

That afternoon, the debutantes' horses continued to nudge each other. They were like siblings: each horse seemed to know the thing that would irritate another horse the most, and continued to do it regardless of how many times he was told to quit it. As is foreordained in these situations, there was an explosion. Just before it--just before Yosemite Sam took her turn at cantering--I leaned down to G. and E. as they came round my side of the gallery and said: Stay away from the other horses. So they were well away when Yosemite was thrown and landed with an audible bump and began to wail. (It is a good sign when the thrown rider wails: people in a great deal of pain usually don't.) And they were well away when her horse bucked and spooked the other horses.

The next week, we moved to a more advanced class, reasoning that fewer debutantes with their horses running wild would mean a safer hour. In this class, the girls are all the same size and seem to have the same approximate capabilities of E. and G. Yesterday, the monitrice began the lesson with cantering. I was in the gallery with assorted friends and relations who were visiting from afar, and alternating between translating the lesson for the non-French speakers and explaining general horseydom for the uninitiated. It began to rain, and the sound of the raindrops reverberated off the roof of the barn. It was like we were going through an automatic car wash: bup bup bup bup bup bup bup.

Years ago my California monitrice told me that horses are simple creatures. French horses, it turns out, are like their Californian cousins. When the rain began a frisson of anxiety went through the horses: mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu what's that did you hear that what could it be mon dieu. Then it was E.'s turn to canter. As I and all of the friends and relations leaned forward on our bench, there was one raindrop too many, and her horse bucked, kicking out his hind legs and tossing his head, and E., into the air.

Later, after E. had taken a hot bath, we talked about it over chocolate eclairs. She told me that after she landed in the dust she had heard footsteps and had said to herself: that must be Mama coming to check on me. And it had been, of course. I had measured my steps across the concrete floor so that they would be quick but not rushed, and waited for her to see me standing at the end of the ring so that we could tell each other that she was all right.

The falls from horses, the ones that aren't bad, those are the easy problems. A hot bath, chocolate, footsteps: those are things I can provide. It may be a while yet before I go up to the cafe.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Baker

When we looked at houses in this area six months ago--or else a lifetime--we looked in at the local shopping district and I announced that this would not be the neighborhood where we settled. This shopping district consists not of a market street in a village but of a French interpretation of an American shopping center: long on parking and short on old stones. As usual, I have eaten my words, seasoned with herbes de Provence, and I now visit the Centre Commercial du Rond Point de la Font-Neuve (take that, Tyson's Galleria!) almost daily.

Two months into my regular visits to the boulangerie at the Centre Commercial, M. le boulanger asked me if I were English. No, American, I replied, followed by the usual doubletake. (When I told the girls' horseback riding instructor that we were American, and from Washington, D.C., she recovered from her doubletake to say "Washington, D.C.! Vous etes des vrais americains! You are real Americans!" I'd like to think so but sometimes I wonder.) The next day, M. le boulanger greeted me with:

Ah, Madame! How are things in New York?
Very well, I replied.
And how are things with M. Bush?
Ah, I said, they are not so good. M. Bush, he has very big problems.
That's true, said M. le boulanger, but it's your fault, the fault of the Americans who voted for him.
It's not my fault, I protested, I never, ever voted for him.
Ah, said M. le boulanger. I am going to write a letter to M. le President and tell him that you said so.

And so on. Every day a word or two of M. le boulanger's careful movie English (Good morning. How are you? Thank you very much) before we switch back to my shopping French: Good day. Two baguettes today, please. Thank you so much. Thank you. Have a good day. See you soon. (It sounds so much more sophisticated in French.)

This weekend I looked in on Saturday morning and M. le boulanger wanted to talk politics some more.

Your M. Bush, he said. He and Sarkozy, they are like this (interlacing his fingers).
Yes, they are, it's true, I replied.
I liked the other president you had better, he continued. Clinton (he pronounces it in the French way, CLEEN-ton). And I especially like his wife, HEEL-ary. I like HEEL-ary very much.
But yes, of course, I said.
(Here Mme la boulangere interjected: it's always like that, isn't it, the men like the women better, don't they?)
I said, My husband likes Hillary very much indeed. In fact, if he had to choose between me and Hillary, I think he might choose Hillary.
M. le boulanger tucked his chin in and looked over his imaginary glasses at me, shocked. No! You must tell your husband that if I had to choose between you and HEEL-ary, then I would choose you.

And he put his hand over the counter and shook my hand on it, as though we had agreed on a deal: if C. becomes the next Mr. Clinton then I will become the next boulangere. And then I paid for my two baguettes and went home.

Old stones notwithstanding, one could do worse than fresh bread with a side of gallantry.