Thursday, November 22, 2007

Une action de grace

The New York Times today includes an article on the psychological benefits of gratitude. Turns out that being grateful and saying thank you, even making lists of things for which you are grateful, can actually make you a happier person--and not just on Thanksgiving Day, which is what today is, but all the time. I would describe myself as generally happy with a chance of late afternoon irritation, but in the spirit of the our first Thanksgiving in France, here is my list.

Thanksgiving is not a noun in French but a phrase: it is une action de grace, literally, an action of grace. So here are some actions of grace for which I am particularly grateful this Thanksgiving day:

Alice and Wendy, curled up at my feet in my warm kitchen, while chicken stock simmers on the stove and rain falls outside. They keep thinking they want to go outside, but when I open the door and they see the rain, they look up at me in horror and go back to the rug.

M. LaChaix, who just phoned me from a traffic jam in Paris to say that I should absolutely feel free, not hesitate one half minute, to use the refrigerator in his house up the hill to store our Thanksgiving overflow. He does go on, but inside the bossy Parisien exterior there lurks a kind heart.

Olivier, who, last night before he went home, gave me two large bottles of eau de cologne, made at the parfumerie where his wife works. One bottle of lavender water, the other of a lemony, light scent, and when I thanked him he said, Non, non, c'est normale.

C., who took me to the hospital last weekend for stitches in my hand after I dropped a tea cup, who found his way to the hospital on the far side of Grasse in the dark and with a bleeding and woozy wife in the front seat beside him. Who figured out where to park the car--which was not evident, pas du tout--and made me laugh. Who stood beside me holding my hand for the whole event; who, even though the sight of blood makes him faint, never paled.

E. and G., who have held my hand every night this week while C. changed my bandage, even though there hands are so small in mine that I am afraid I will hurt them if I squeeze too tightly.

A. and L. and Paris. Oscar Wilde said that when good Americans die they go to Paris; I have not been particularly good, but nevertheless the universe afforded me sufficient grace not just to go to Paris again, but to go with my two best girlfriends. We walked down the Avenue Victor Hugo at dusk, and as we looked at the beautiful cakes in the windows at Le Notre, the trumpeter in a strolling Dixieland band rolled out the first few notes of "Hello, Dolly." His confreres joined in as we gazed in at the pink and green macaroons stacked up into a baroque festival of a patisserie, and then the band followed us as we strolled down the street towards home, where there were people we loved waiting for us, and good food and light and warmth.

Pas mal, as the French say. Pas mal du tout. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


La Bastiole is a new house, and when we moved into it a few months ago, there were still odds and ends remaining to finish. Our landlord, M. LaChaix, assured us that all would be completed quickly and efficiently, and work continued after we moved in, albeit at a decidedly summer-in-Provence pace. At the end of the summer, as our landlord was closing up his house and preparing to drive back to Paris, he told me not to worry. Instead of having Olivier finish all the work inside the house, the landlord's own favorite carpenter, M. Duc, would be coming. From Paris. For a week, in October, to finish all the odds and ends.

The local equipe greeted this news with much rolling of eyes and shaking of heads. He has to have a carpenter from Paris, you know, because of course we don't have any carpenters around here, said the gardener at the villa below us. From Paris? Un menusier Parisian? Violette stopped just short of spitting. C'est typique. Luigi, the Italian man who comes to help Olivier sometimes, sighed and shrugged. Parisians like Parisians, he said, in his Italian-accented French. And Olivier shook his head. C'est ca, c'est M. LaChaix. The work that M. Duc from Paris was to do for us was not complicated or involved or even particularly skilled--there was some sanding to be done here and there, a couple of missing screws to put in, a trap door to fit. Nothing that could not have been done by Olivier, or Luigi, or any of their friends and colleagues in the village. But, the Parisian menuisier it was to be.

Before he took the autoroute for Paris, M. LaChaix came down the hill for a final look over the house. He took me and Olivier down to the basement and pointed to a heap of old kitchen cabinetry in the corner. This, he showed us, this was going to become shelving for my laundry room. He directed Olivier to help him sort the cabinets out, talking the whole dusty time about how the cabinets could be placed, arranged against the wall, to help me put--and here he glanced pointedly at the detritus of our moving--everything in order. M. Duc would do it; he would understand exactly how it was all to be done. The cabinets were old, but they still had a lot of use left in them.

Olivier leaned over to me, unnoticed by M. LaChaix, who was in full voice on the subject of arranging the cabinets, and said in perfect English, These are good for firewood.

Eventually, after a lot of phone calls from M. LaChaix in Paris, the day came when the menusier was to arrive. The night before, I had a long conversation on the phone with our landlord, and we made a list together of what M. Duc's priorities would be. He was driving down from Paris with his apprentice, and would be at our house the next morning at 8:00.

And he was. M. Duc is approaching 50, with thick grey hair and an impressive moustache, and the beginnings of a serious paunch. When he came into our kitchen, his pants were held up by a length of cord looped through the beltloops. The apprentice, Mathieu, was skinny in the way that only 20-year-olds with a heavy dose of attitude and multiple body piercings can be.

I took out my list and began to go over it with M. Duc. He nodded, puzzled, and I continued, using my best French, trying to make myself understood. But no, language was not the problem. After I continued for a few minutes, M. Duc stopped me. "C'est M. LaChaix qui me dirige, Madame. It is M. LaChaix who is telling me what to do, Madame."

I retreated behind southern graciousness and left him to his business. Later on in the day, I saw Luigi and Olivier outside, working on the mysterious septic pipes. We compared notes on the Parisien arrivals, and I allowed as how I had been put in my place. There was some shrugging and rolling of eyes--no accounting for foreign manners, and for once I was not the foreigner under discussion--and we went on to talk of other things. When the locals turned and knelt back down on the terrace to put their heads in the septic pipes, I thanked them for working on the septic. It's not a pleasant job, and they were at it day after day, resigned but cheerful. Olivier popped his head back up. He grinned. "C'est M. LaChaix qui nous dirige. It's M. LaChaix who tells us what to do."

The week progressed slowly, as M. Duc and Mathieu unloaded an entire carpentry workshop from the hatchback of their Peugeot and set it up on our back terrace. The temperature hit 65, and Mathieu took his shirt off, affording all of us the opportunity to wonder how exactly one decides to have the back of one's neck pierced, and the opportunity to hope that Mathieu's hips, skinny as they were, would be sufficient to hold up his low-slung, baggy blue jeans. The knot in the cord holding up M. Duc's pants held, and, after a few days, he even managed to be somewhat friendly to me, in a distant, cool sort of way. I suppose that if you pay a carpenter from Paris to install second- or third-hand cabinetry in Provence for a week, some hauteur comes with the territory. I coped with the attitude and the hauteur and the sawdust pretty well, thinking about the end result: cabinets, such as they were, installed in the basement, fewer loose doorknobs, and, ultimately, the hatchback gone back to Paris.

Wendy never warmed to M. Duc, though. She detested him on sight, and still detested him five days later when he was packing up to go. Luigi and I were in the kitchen with Wendy when M. Duc came in. Wendy barked her best GO AWAY NOW bark and retreated under the table.

Elle ne vous aime pas, Monsieur, I said. She doesn't like you.

Mais non! Dogs always like me, see? M. Roy went towards Wendy and made vaguely soothing sounds. She barked louder and finished off with a growl.

Non, Monsieur, c'est vous. Elle ne vous aime pas. I shook my head and smiled. No, it's you. She doesn't like you.

Luigi, always softspoken, looked up from his sanding and smiled. Elle n'aime pas les Parisiens.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ecurie, again.

This is a story about horses and dogs and Abraham Lincoln.

First, horses: Another lesson yesterday, and another daughter off a horse.

We missed two lessons during the school vacation. E. and G. were quiet at the prospect of another lesson, and got quieter as we drove to the stable and lesson time approached. Once in the ring on their horses, they both seemed fine. I stood in the gallery above the ring with two other mothers--one Italian, one French--and we consoled each other while our children took their horses, or while horses took our children, over low jumps.

The Italian mother brings her two Golden Retrievers with her to the stable. Her way of managing anxiety is to walk the dogs up and down outside the ring. The French mother copes by smoking. I cope by trying to call the States on my cell phone, one of those tricks that theoretically my cell phone can do but at which it sometimes balks. By the end of the lesson, we have exhausted our coping tricks and just stand and watch.

G.'s horse yesterday was not unlike my phone: theoretically, it knew how to take jumps and was capable of it, but sometimes it just balked. On the first balk, G. fell off but did so so slowly as to make it look like an awkward but capable dismount. She landed on her feet, grabbed the horse's reins, and put out her hand to touch his muzzle. I think she was reassuring him. She got back up in the saddle and came around again. This time, the horse took the jump but came back down with a lurch. G. lost both stirrups--France, Italy, and two dogs leaned in towards me--and went over the left shoulder. She landed on her knees, but caught the underside of her chin on a plastic cube that was dividing the large ring in half.

I played it cool up in the gallery. We all leaned over a bit, none of us breathing, and watched the monitrice come over to G. and put her hand on G.'s shoulder to keep her from standing up too fast. Not until the monitrice who had been teaching at the other end of the ring stopped her class and came over to G.--a full, count them, 25 seconds or so after she fell--did I go down to the ring. I walked over to where the monitrices were telling G. to breathe.

Ca va, she's fine, she's fine, don't worry. The monitrice for G.'s class reminds me of one of my aunts who, if flames were spouting out of the Lincoln Tunnel, and we were stuck in traffic with theatre tickets and dinner reservations, could say, it's all fine, don't worry, and I would believe her. I patted G. and checked for tears; she was completely collected. Her breathing was shaky but when the monitrices asked her questions, she responded in perfect French.

Then I realized that there was blood--not much--and that G. had about a centimeter-wide split under her chin where she had hit the cube. The monitrices saw it at the same moment I did. Did I know the pharmacie down the road? It was open until 6--half an hour from now--and I should ask for a particular type of bandage, and have the pharmacist take a look at it. Probably no stitches...but we should go right now. And, by the way, if G. vomited in the night or complained of headaches, she should see a doctor.

What you do not want to hear from your child's horseback riding teacher is the phrase: if she vomits tonight after hitting her head in a fall, take her to the doctor.

The French mother appeared with a bandage to cover her on the way to the pharmacy, and the Italian mother looked on sympathetically. The girls and I rushed off to the car and to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist handed over a bandage--two euros--and told me not to worry. We came home, treated the patient with a hot bath and chocolate, bandaged the wound, and are now engaged in trying not to worry.

And it's not about the injury, really. It's not very bad; there will be a small scar, but it's under her chin and will be hard to see. It will make a good story for her to tell, and I can imagine her telling it: I was taking horseback riding lessons in the south of France... What we worry about is our responsibility. We're the ones in charge, making the decisions, trying to find a way that is "reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future,"--here's Lincoln in his second inaugural address--"no prediction in regard to it is ventured."

Now dogs: Last weekend we took the dogs and the girls on another Sunday afternoon walk up on the plain of Caussols. The dogs were happily off leash, and we heard sheep bells in the distance. Rounding a hill, we learned a critical fact about sheep bells: the sound they make is easily distorted, and what sounds like it is in the distance can in fact be as close as the next curve. Wendy and Alice saw and smelled what must have been 500 sheep--a glimpse of heaven for them, I imagine--and bolted towards them. Out of nowhere appeared two of the biggest white dogs I have ever seen. They were more like polar bears than dogs. As we watched, they stopped our little terrier-poodles in their tracks with a few firm but surprisingly gentle and tooth-free nips, and within seconds, probably about 25, Wendy and Alice were back at our sides. E. and G. both thought it was a great adventure.

But what about next time? What if the next polar dogs are not so gentle?

Last night I dreamt about Abraham Lincoln. (Stay with me here.) I was with a group of people from different places in my life. We all knew that Mr. Lincoln was in danger of being assassinated, and together we came up with a plan to protect him. It was a good plan; I don't remember what it was, but I remember the feeling of satisfaction after we had hatched it. Some of us were going to go to Ford's Theater, and others were going to take the president somewhere else, somewhere safe, and then we were going to meet later. The plan worked--everyone did what they were supposed to do--but at the end of my dream, someone shot President Lincoln, and he died.

So here's the moral, as revealed by my subconscious. Even if there's a really good plan, sometimes good presidents get shot, even if they're already dead and memorialized. Sometimes dogs get into trouble, and sometimes girls fall off of horses. What we have to do--back to the second inaugural--is bind up the wounds our charges get, and try to hold firm in what we see to be right, and"do all which may achieve and cherish" lives which are "just and lasting."

If I were to venture a prediction for the future, though, I do not think it would include a lot more horseback riding lessons.