Monday, December 31, 2007

La fosse septique

It started in the summer. We had been in the house for a few weeks when we began to notice, in the evenings at dusk when we were sitting outside on the front terrace, a smell. It came from the yard, and it was pungent and earthy. Not every night, but some nights. C. and I did not mention it to each other at first, because mentioning it to each other would mean that it was not in our imaginations. But, after a few weeks, we did own up to having smelled the smell, and then we began comparing notes.

It was not always the same strength, and seemed to wander a bit: sometimes stronger on the terrace than in the yard, sometimes stronger in the morning than in the evening. Another week or two and we confessed to each other that each of us had smelled it inside, as well, in the bathroom in the guest room. The room smelled at times like--well, like a sewer. Then one day one of us went downstairs to the basement and smelled it so strongly our eyes watered, and that was the day that we decided it was time to speak up.

I got out all of our French / English dictionaries and found that the lexicographers at most major presses do not see the need to discuss sewers in any useful detail. I had never in my previous life needed to talk at any length about sewers in English, and so figuring out how to do it in French meant starting from scratch. After comparing three printed and several more online dictionaries, the best phrase that I could come up with was mauvaises odeurs: bad smells. It did not seem, somehow, technical enough, but it was all I had to go on.

The next time M. LaChaix--Jules--trundled down our hill--it was August, and he and his family were in residence--I broached the topic with him. Sometimes outside at night and sometimes in the morning, we smell bad smells. And often in the chambre des invites there are bad smells. I hoped that he would understand that I was not talking about some bad yogurt.

A shadow crossed his tanned face. What kind of bad smells?

This was the response for which I had no French, and for which even my English, with my haute bourgeoisie Parisian landlord, would have had to rely heavily on euphemism. Since it was the middle of the day, I took him into the room in question and suggested that he smell for himself. He smelled nothing. Then we went downstairs. Still nothing. I was beginning to feel ridiculous--maybe we had been imagining it, maybe it had gone away on its own--and so, when Jules turned his attention to that day's growth of the wisteria that had been planted a few weeks before, and that he seemed to think would provide full shade on the terrace by the end of the summer if only we watered it enough, I let the matter rest. But before he went back up the terraces, he brought it up again. If you smell the bad smells again, tell me. It could be very expensive.

The bad smells were back that evening, and the next morning, and were strong enough in the guest room, where I had set up my desk, for me to move my computer to the kitchen table. This time when Jules came to smell he brought Olivier with him. We all stood around in the guest room breathing in through our noses, and this time we all smelled it. Jules and Olivier went into a huddle of rapid-fire French about the smell, going out to stand in the yard and gesture at various pipes and covers that I had seen Olivier working around. I lost the thread of their conversation after a sentence or two and wandered off, figuring that someone would fill me in later. They spent an hour or so coming in and out of the house, upstairs and downstairs, flushing toilets, turning on showers and baths, all the time gesticulating and talking and, when they saw me, looking as if there was nothing out of the ordinary happening.

M. Amavet, the plumber, came the next day. He was in his early 30s, a little plump, like he was still eating his mother's cooking every day at lunch, and very pink cheeks. His manner was courtly shading into unctuous: he bowed a little over my hand as he shook it, and then went off with Olivier and Jules to inhale here and there. Lots of gesturing and rapid French later, Jules found me and explained that it appeared that M. Amavet had routed some of the ventilation pipes for the plumbing into the basement instead of outside. That was the source of the difficulty, and M. Amavet would return the next day and rectify the error.

The next evening we were finishing dinner on the terrace when we smelled it again.

Didn't you say that the plumber came today to fix the smells? C. asked.

We looked at each other. When I saw Olivier the next morning, I told him the smells were still there. He frowned. But Amavet came yesterday to fix it.

I know. But we still smell the bad smells. More inhaling, more walking around.

This set the pattern for the next few weeks. The LaChaix went back to Paris, after Jules had come himself and smelled around for a while, and after he and Olivier had bent over holes in the yard. Jules told me to keep checking on the smells, but that they should go away with time, that they were normal, nothing to worry about. Olivier, standing there through the conversation, looked away. Once Jules and family had gone, his morning greeting to me became:

Bonjour. Ca va? Et les odeurs continuent?

And continue they did, throughout the month of August and into September. Every day, sometimes twice a day, Olivier came to check on the smells. They moved from bathroom to bathroom, sometimes stronger, sometimes fainter, but almost always present. Olivier explained to me that the smells were stronger at night because of the cooler, more humid night air. Humidity made the smells more pronounced. At some point in September it dawned on C. and me that our house was equipped with a septic tank and was not on a city sewer system: only two people who had lived their entire adult lives in American cities could move into a hillside house on a two meter-wide country lane in the south of France and not know intuitively that there had to be a septic tank someplace in the yard.

At the end of September, we had visitors for two weeks, visitors who, like us, were city-dwellers, people whose experience of sewer gas had been limited to travels in climes considerably more exotic than this one. Their visit coincided with the first rain of the season. All summer long there had been no rain. On the first Thursday our guests were with us, I watched a storm move across the valley that brought hours of rain in horizontal gusts. By that evening, the guest room smelled like someplace that Mother Teresa would have set up a hospital. And the next morning, a match struck in G.'s bathroom could have caused an explosion.

I watched for Olivier to arrive and brought him straight inside. He covered his mouth with his sweatshirt. Mon Dieu, this is the worst. He knelt on the floor of the bathroom, smelling first behind the toilet, then the shower drain, then the bathtub drain, and then doing the same in every other bathroom. I heard him on the phone with M. LaChaix, and then with M. Amavet. I knew that the wheels were turning when M. Amavet pulled up in his truck before lunch. Olivier brought him inside and we all inhaled sewer gas. Incroyable, said M. Amavet. I have never seen anything like this.

The phone rang with Jules on the other end. Is the plumber there? What does he say? Tell Olivier I am going to call him. Are you guests still there? Do they want to go and stay at my house instead?

They were; they didn't, although C. and I considered it ourselves. I took out my old copy of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence; I hadn't read it in years, and the last time I read it, I had thought that Mayle was exaggerating. No one's house adventures could be as absurd as he described his across the way in the Luberon. Now, I lay in bed at night rereading it and found that, far from being a fictionalized account, Mayle's book was a nearly scientific report on regional home maintenance.

I met up with the English ladies for Monday morning coffee in the village and told them of our plight: smells that would have made Jean Valjean decide to turn himself in, houseguests whose American sewer system's backups had backups, a plumber who professed never to have seen anything like this before, ever. For the next few weeks, whenever I saw any of them their greeting to me was, Hullo, my dear, how's your fosse septique?

Now M. Amavet visited every day. Olivier cut holes in walls, revealing pipes that he either opened or sealed, relying on a plumbing logic that escaped me but that I had to trust. Jules phoned us regularly: were the smells still there? was Amavet coming? tell Olivier he would call later...and Olivier taught me plumbing terms. Une fosse septique: a septic tank. Un tuyau: a pipe. Un siphon: the little curvey space under a sink, which keeps the septic gas smell from coming out of the drain, otherwise known, in English, as a trap.

Regardless of what Amavet and Olivier did, the smells persisted. Our houseguests packed up and went back to America, concerned about us and marvelling at how anyone could run a country this way. We lay in bed at night with the windows open inhaling sewer gas. This was all, for us, a little like an out-of-body experience. We were watching ourselves trying to figure out the situation, trying to learn French plumbing vocabulary, trying to make our way with our landlord and his equipe while settling E. and G. in school and getting our bearings in a new country. We didn't relish the bad smells, but, for once in our lives, we didn't obsess about them, either. There was simply nothing we could do besides give Olivier and Amavet keys to our house and hope for the best.

A day came when, after yet another failed experiment in containing the smells, Olivier and I went downstairs to the basement. There is a crawl space next to the laundry room, and Olivier climbed up there and stretched out under the tuyau that led to the toilet in the guest bathroom. He cut a hole in the pipe--the toilet itself had been disconnected for weeks at this point--and stuck his head inside it, inhaling deeply. Incomprehensible, he said. The smell was still there.

When the handyman / caretaker / jack of all trades lies down in your house's crawl space and sticks his head in a septic pipe, and pronounces the problem incomprehensible, that is when you know that you have reached the nadir of a plumbing event.

Shortly after that, Jules called from Paris. He had taken desperate measures. Tired of what he termed the ignorance and foolishness of the locals, he, Jules, had phoned one of the four accredited septic tank experts in all of France, and, at great personal expense, had engaged him to come to our house the following Monday to examine the fosse. He, Jules, would make a special trip from Paris for the event, coming down just for the day so as to supervise the event and make sure that the expert's time was well spent.

It needs hardly be said that only in France would there be actual accredited septic tank experts. The mind immediately goes to some ecole nationale superieure des fosses septiques, perhaps filled with students who aced their plumbing quals and wanted to pursue the next level of education septique. And only four accredited in the country: those are some tough exams.

I met Olivier in the yard the next day and we compared notes on our conversations with Paris. Olivier was annoyed. There are four things that all Parisians are experts on, he said. Swimming pools, olive trees, fireplaces, and septic tanks. That's because everyone in Paris has a pool, an olive grove, a wood-burning fireplace, and a septic tank off the landing in the apartment building.

He was just getting started. The reason, a mon avis, that there have been all of these problems is that M. LaChaix refused to have an adequate leechfield dug for this tank. He didn't want to rent the equipment and pay for the labor, and so what he had put in was a trench. Olivier was explaining all of this to me slowly, with lots of gestures, so that I would understand the difference between a field and a trench. The soil here has a lot of clay in it, so it holds onto moisture and the moisture doesn't evaporate, and that means that the trench is not enough for the septic drainage and evaporation. What will have to happen now is what should have happened before you ever moved in: M. LaChaix is going to pay for a proper leechfield to be dug, which is what I told him he should do before, but he didn't want to spend the money. Now they will have to dig up the whole yard and it will be a mess, but maybe finally you will not have the bad smells anymore.

I asked questions--where was the trench? how big would the leechfield be? how long would it take?--and Olivier unravelled the process for me as well as he could, drawing pictures in the air and trying, I could see, to use simple words.

The day of the expert septique dawned. Jules arrived; Olivier arrived; two men to drive the backhoes arrived; the expert arrived. I made coffee for everyone and left it on the terrace, and then surreptitiously took pictures from upstairs as they all conferred in the yard. M. Amavet arrived, with his father and an apprentice, and everyone stood in the yard and talked and gestured and climbed in and out of freshly-dug holes and talked some more. A dumptruck arrived at some point in the day, filled with gravel, and parked at the top of the yard. Olivier and Jules went around the yard, Olivier carrying stakes and stopping every few feet to debate with Jules about where he should hammer them in.

Late in the afternoon, Jules came to the kitchen door and asked me if I had a few minutes to spare for him. I came outside, and he asked me for pen and paper. I went to get both, and when I came back, Jules was seated in the center of the table on the terrace and was in the act of telling Olivier to sit down at the head. I stood between them, uncertain of whether I was needed beyond the pen and paper. Olivier, seeing me, jumped up and offered me his chair; I went around the table and sat opposite Jules, who was dialing up someone on his cell phone.

Tell her what is happening, he said to Olivier. Then the person on the other end of his call answered, and Jules began asking him for a price for clean sand to line the leechfield, wholesale, of course.

Olivier leaned towards me and said quietly: What is happening is, he is going to leave in a couple of hours, and then we are going to fix the problem.

Jules, seeing that Olivier had been quick, barked: Tell her everything.

Olivier sighed. We are going to dig a leechfield; we've staked out its borders, and will begin tomorrow with the digging. Then he told me how a leechfield was designed, and, if it ever comes up, I'll be able to dig my own, although I'll need a dictionary to translate the French terms into English. In the midst of his explanation, Jules interrupted Olivier:

You have to speak to her slowly, she doesn't understand that much French. Then he turned back to his paper and his cell phone.

I had never seen a man think so clearly about clocking someone as I did then. Olivier turned to Jules with an expression of disdain leaning towards contempt, an expression that said: I talk to her every day and I know how much she understands and how much she doesn't. But Jules was back with the septic supply warehouse, getting the best price on a load of sand, and he missed it.

I went back to the leechfield. Will this make the bad smells disappear?

Olivier shook his head.

But then, will we still have bad smells after this? Do we still not know the reason for the bad smells?

No, we know the reason. Olivier thought for a moment, working out how to put the explanation into basic French. There are two pipes that go from the house to the septic tank. One takes everything from the toilets, the other takes all the other water.

Okay. I nodded.

Several different plumbers worked on the system when it was being installed. And the plumber who installed the pipe that takes the other water from the house to the septic tank forgot to put in a trap. So there is nothing to stop the bad smells from coming back up into the house.

There's no siphon? I said, wanting to make sure that I had understood.

Pas de siphon. Olivier watched me for my reaction.

Ah. Well. I understand. That explains the situation.

Olivier nodded. Yes, it does. Now we will fix it.

We left it at that. There was no need for either of us to translate what we thought.

And they did fix it. For a week we had a hole the size of a second swimming pool in the yard, as well as assorted trenches that, when I went within six feet of them, whichever Frenchman was on duty at the time warned me away from, seemingly convinced that I would fall in and break my neck and then, being American, sue him for negligence. Then the tractors and the dumptruck and the backhoes left, and Luigi came to help Olivier. Amavet looked in every day or so, and there were more conversations and more gesturing. And, slowly, the bad smells went away.

We are still a little gun shy, or, maybe, smell shy. If C. or I pick up a bad smell anywhere in the vicinity of our yard or house, we stand around obsessively inhaling for a few minutes, and then we remind ourselves that Olivier said that a new septic tank can take as much as a year to settle in and get itself regulated. Septic tanks have taken on a cultural imprint for me. I realize that I think of them in the same way as I think of baking baguettes, or writing the number 1 with a little front upswing, or knowing exactly the moment when it is appropriate to switch to 'tu' from the formal 'vous' with someone who is becoming a friend: something that will never be obvious or intuitive to me, something that is indelibly French. But the baguettes are a daily miracle for me, and I'm working on my 1's, and I watch for clues about my forms of address. And I am learning to live with, and respect, our septic tank.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Mise en place

We went to the Christmas Market in Valbonne last night. It had rained steadily all weekend and we had all followed a routine of determined activity in the morning that faded into staggered afternoon naps. The meteo warned us that the weather could well continue into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I decided late in the afternoon yesterday, after nap, that we would all load up and go over the hill. Fireworks were scheduled for the early evening, to be followed by vin and chocolat chaud in the place. We didn't think the fireworks would go off in the rain, but decided to go over anyway.

Two curves away from the village traffic came to a dead stop and we suspected that there might be other people who had finished their afternoon naps too. C. let us out at the edge of the village and we opened our umbrellas and ventured into the market: G., E., and our Christmas visitors and I. Everywhere were families with umbrellas and hoods. On the village's upper terrace there were wooden pens enclosing sheep, goats, and poultry (the first time I have ever seen small farm animals on display for charm's sake, not for potential consumption), and, at the far end of the boules court, a miniature wooden chalet for Pere Noel. Between the animals and Santa were a few stands selling homemade jams and jellies and foie gras, and local olive oil, and even truffles. We stepped around the mud and the puddles, leaning under the tents as much to get out of the rain as to see the sheep and the truffles.

Turning back down into the village I spotted the socca stand. I had already talked about socca to our visitors, and the crisp chickpea flour cake would be a warm antidote to the weather. Sending everyone else on, I got in line for our socca behind two men who were already waiting. The socca man had rigged a tent over his worktable and firewood and created a little waiting space. Behind his stainless worktable he had an old kitchen chair, and as I got into line he was mixing his batter in something like a five-gallon bucket: chickpea flour, olive oil, water, salt. He stirred and added and stirred and added, oblivious to the men and to me. Once he judged the batter to be the right consistency, he put a lid on the bucket and set it aside.

It was when the socca man took out the second bucket of batter and began to make adjustments to it, as well, that I realized it was going to be some time before the socca was forthcoming. The men in front of me weren't waiting for their socca to come out of the oven; they were waiting to order. The socca man continued to adjust his batter, a little oil, a little water, and others began to gather under the tent.

I wondered if I should push on. This is a familiar problem: every time I stop to buy socca at a market, I find myself waiting and waiting and whoever is with me waits and waits too. Is it worth it? Shouldn't I just go on? But I am almost always entranced by the preparation of the socca. It is the street food, the fast food, of the region; it is peasant food, cheap and filling and probably fairly nutritious. The socca man drives from market to market with his wood-burning oven hitched to the back of his truck, or, sometimes, his motorcycle. Like New York hot dog carts, or pretzel carts, the socca cart provides a quick and warm snack.

But--and here is the cultural catch--quick means something different in the markets of the Cote d'Azur. Last night at least a dozen people had gathered under the tent and spilled out under their umbrellas before the socca man took the order of the men in front of me. He had adjusted his batter, added wood to the fire, and, finally, cleaned off his stainless steel worktable and then set his salt, pepper, paper napkins and aluminum foil just so. And there was no impatient energy from the line, no grumbling, no pushing, no angling for a closer position, just quiet chat while they waited. The socca would be ready when it was ready. New Yorkers would have left in a huff after saying a few choice words, and Washingtonians would probably have sued, but the Valbonnaises waited patiently.

I struggled, as I always do. My family were waiting, time was passing, what about the fireworks and the vin chaud? Then the socca man asked for my order, and in a second I decided. I would wait while he made two more socca for us. C. and G. appeared, ducking under my umbrella, and I sent them away again, just a few more minutes and I'll meet you in the place. The men in front of me were gone now with their four socca, and my socca was in the oven. The socca man kept checking it, adjusting it in the flat pan it cooked in, turning it a bit, pushing it closer and then farther from the fire, until, finally, he judged it to be just right. Then he took the pan out and put it on the stone trivet on top of the worktable and, using a tiny wooden knife, cut the round thin pancake in half and folded each half over again. He slid the halves onto pieces of aluminum and gently peppered and salted each one, then folded the aluminum down to make a packet and handed the two packets and two napkins to me with one hand while he took my two euros in the other.

I moved away from the rest of the line and turned down the lane towards the place. The lane was lined with tented booths--olive wood bowls, pottery, mushrooms, honey, the Corsican sausage man, and an old man dozing over his homemade nougat--and across the lane giant irregular snowflakes flashed in blue and white lights. A soaked red carpet down the center led the way to the place, and the crowds were smiling and happy and busy. As I walked past the fountain, a warning firework shot up over the place, and its white sparkles showed over the blue and white lights and the red carpet and the booths, through the rain. I came around the corner into the place and found my family, and we gathered at the edge of a tent selling dried fruits and nuts and looked up past the rain into the fireworks that went off overhead. And we shared warm socca.

Monday, December 17, 2007


This morning I set off for the marche only to find, when I had gotten a few hundred yards down our lane, six or seven men and at least that many trucks, tractors, and assorted other vehicles blocking passage. One of the trucks was engaged in backing slowly up the lane, so I stopped and waited to see what would happen next. The driver arranged the truck on a slightly slopped driveway to my right, and I took my foot off the brake to proceed. Then I looked up: a mound of earth at least as high as my car was neatly piled in the center of the road.

Our lane is, at its widest point below our house, not more than 10 or 12 feet wide. For most the journey downhill, we have a stone wall to the right and a drop of several yards to the left. At the bottom of the hill the lane broadens to as much as 15 feet, enough for two small and cautious cars to meet and pass. This spot was in one of the narrower bits.

The men, all nattily turned out in orange coveralls with reflective stripes, had gathered on the side of the road to watch my progress. When I hesitated at the pile of dirt, they eagerly, enthusiastically guided me to the left where, indeed, there was a pitted gravel driveway. Camouflaged by a stand of cypress trees and a few large orange earth-movers, it wound away from the lane and then, after a generous vertical dip, back up to it. I turned my car along it and drove slowly past one of the orange-suited men, who stopped me for a moment and leaned down to my open window.

Dans deux jours, Madame, vous aurez la route du Champs-Elysees ici. In two days, this will look like the Champs-Elysees.

I laughed, and he laughed, and so did all the other orange men.

When I came back from the market, I came along our lane from above the house so as to avoid the construction. A curve or two before our driveway I found two signs placed in the roadway. The first expalined that the road was closed in 400 meters. The second sign was an arrow, and it read Deviation. The arrow pointed to the right, into a sharply sloping thicket of bamboo and blackberry briars. I could only surmise that my friend from the Champs-Elysees had been there.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Moulin du Rossignol

I decided belatedly to harvest our olives. Up and down our lane people had put nets under their olive trees at the end of September, and, a few weeks after that, we started seeing ladders in trees and olives raining down. M. LaChaix arrived at the end of October and was horrified that I had not harvested the olives; I actually felt like I had been wasteful and idle, instead of just unknowing, after his scolding. I told Olivier about it and he teased: "Didn't you know? In France it is always the responsibility of the renter to harvest the olives." So I was laughed out of my guilt and spent a couple of weeks just watching Wendy eat olives off the ground.

Wendy's interest in windfall olives amazed the entire equipe. It amazed us, too, once we figured out what was going on. Our neighbors who had spread nets under their olive trees were catching the ripe olives as they fell. Our ripe olives fell onto the ground, and Wendy, each time she was outside, scooped up a mouthful and brought them into the house. I started stepping on olive pits, and when we vacuumed the rug under the kitchen table, the sound of the olive pits being sucked up the hose was a little like the sound of popcorn popping.

Everyone had an opinion about Wendy and the olives. The gardener down the hill maintained that they would make her sick. Olivier's son, Thomas, thought the oil in the olives would make her coat shiny. Luigi and Olivier shook their heads and agreed that they had never seen a dog eat olives before. If you go back to America, Olivier said one day, we will have to send you olives for the dog.

While A. was visiting, we decided that it would be interesting to harvest a few of the trees. Just one or two, we thought, and then we would brine the olives and make our own tapenade. I asked Luigi about it. He shook his head. These olives, they are no good for eating. They are for oil. I will help you. Oil was not what I had imagined; how much oil could the olives from a few trees make? But the light in Luigi's eyes made me ask more questions. How would we harvest them? What about after harvest; what happened then? Luigi explained the whole process: nets under the trees, bamboo poles to shake the branches, ladders to climb up into the trees to pick the olives that didn't fall. Then pick the leaves and twigs out of the olives and spread them flat to cure for a few days before taking them to the mill. We had two mills to choose from, and Luigi recommended the smaller one. You drive by it every day on your way to school, he said. The Moulin de la Rossignol, the Mill of the Nightingale. If you take the olives there, you will get the oil from your own olives.

I signed on. An hour later Luigi appeared with nets and poles and a ladder and we began. The girls joined us after school, and my one or two trees quickly became the entire garden, 25 trees. Luigi volunteered to come and help on a Saturday, and, horrified at the thought of his taking a weekend to help me, I finished the last trees on Friday afternoon. When I called to let him know that we had finished, his wife called him to the phone: C'est madame l'Americaine. He sounded vaguely disappointed. Make sure you spread them out flat to cure; they'll spoil if you don't. And take out all the twigs, otherwise the mill won't accept them.

We spread the olives on dropcloths in the basement, and I spent evenings picking out the leaves and twigs. Luigi looked in to offer more tips a few times; Violette came to clean and put in her two cents. She had harvested 140 kilos of olives herself, and took them to a mill near Cabris. I asked where I should take mine, the Mill of the River or the Mill of the Nightingale? Violette put down the iron so she use both hands to make her point: The Mill of the River, ils sont voleurs. Those people are theives.

When I finished picking out the twigs, I put the olives into two crates and carried them upstairs, ready to take them to the Mill of the Nightingale. Violette looked in the crates. Non. Non. Ca ne marche pas. That won't do. The noyaus have to come out. You must take out all the pits; otherwise, the pits will block up the machinery, and then the mill will charge you for repairs. We knelt together on the kitchen floor and began picking out the pits. The girls joined us, and Violette announced that this was children's work; she went back to the ironing, and I, not wanting to look soft, began making dinner. When the girls had finished--after Violette had supervised them and checked their work for accuracy--she told them to carry the crates up the hill and put them in the car. Off we went to the mill of the Nightingale.

Not able to allow this process to be entirely old-fashioned, I had googled the Mill of the Nightingale. Its website was polished, with photos of olive trees artfully fading into photos of olives, and then of olive oil in lovely bottles on dark wooden tables. The mill had been built in 1760, and had produced olive oil for almost 200 years without pause; in 1956, there had been a killing freeze in the area, mortal for many olive trees, and the mill had closed its doors. The Giorgis family had reopened the mill in 1980, and restarted the tradition. The mill not only produced olive oil, but it had a shop where you could buy oil, tapenade, and other artisanal products. I was ready to be a customer.

We pulled up the the mill late on a Wednesday afternoon. There was a rusting dumpster in front of the building; weeds were growing around it. Pots of cyclamen and pansies, and a full clothesline, decorated a balcony above a small unloading dock. As I parked the car, a face appeared in the doorway off the loading dock, and a man came out.

Do you have an appointment? You cannot just come, you have to call. Did you call? You have to call. You cannot just bring olives. He came down the steps to my car. Open the trunk. Where are your olives? You must make an appointment next time. He scooped a handful of olives up and smelled them. These are fine. Bring them in. My back is bad, I cannot carry them.

The man looked like Mr. Bean, the British comedian, if Mr. Bean were a Provencal moulinier: he was compact, sturdy, with a mop of dark hair and intense black eyes. He hardly took a breath between sentences, and his accent was so strong that at times I wondered if he were speaking French or some other language entirely.

The inside of the mill was taller than it was wide. The ceiling was several meters away, but the floor was almost completely covered in immense green machinery, and what little floor space there was was taken up by baskets of olives. The air smelled of olive oil; it even felt a little thick, a little oily. When you breathed in, the air tasted green and sharp. The mill's website said, Olive oil is a noble product which should be savoured, and which accompanies with happiness provencale cusisine. The olive tree being a humble tree, its products should be used in simple recipes.

The moulinier dumped our olives into wire baskets and weighed them. 27 kilos. Did you bring a bidon? You don't have a bidon? Not only did I not have a bidon, I didn't know what a bidon was; all I could be sure of was that I understood that he was asking me if I had something, and all I had was a car, a pocketbook, two children, and two bins of olives. None of those sounded anything like a bidon. He shook his head in resignation. No appointment, no phone call, and now, no bidon. All right. This is what you are going to do. You know the Agricultural cooperative? By some minor miracle I did. All right. You are going to go there, right now, and you are going to ask to speak to M. Girard. Who are you going to ask to speak to?

M. Girard, I said.

Right. And you are going to tell M. Girard that M. Giorgis from the Moulin du Rossignol sent you, and you need a bidon. A plastic bidon, five liters. What are you going to ask for?

A bidon of five liters?

Right. And then you are going to bring that back here, right now, and leave it on the steps outside, because I have to go out. Where are you going to leave it?

On the steps outside?

Right. Okay. I will call you when the olives are ready. Now what is your phone number?

I looked at him blankly. I had not understood his last words at all. He held his hand up to his ear, thumb and little finger extended to look like a telephone. I gave him my cell phone number.

I will call you. Do not call me. Leave the bidon outside. Who are you going to see at the cooperative?

Yes, okay, M. Girard. I went out the door and down the steps.

At the cooperative, M. Girard left his post behind the desk and walked past the aisles of rope, birdseed, canning jars, rubber boots, and wooden clogs. He came back with a plastic jug, the same sort of jug that C. keeps extra gas in for the lawn mower. I paid my three euros and went back to the mill. One of the girls hopped out of the car and left the jug on the steps; M. Giorgis senior, sporting an enormous waxed moustache, came out and stood on the balcony and watched as we turned the car around in the driveway and left. At the corner, Christmas lights were strung across the street, white bulbs interspersed with a yellow star, red bell, and a few green leaves. They blinked a little as we drove under them and turned towards home.

A few days later, Olivier came back from a trip, and I told him about my olive mill adventure. We were standing outside M. LaChaix's house, up at the top of the hill, and looking out across the valley towards Grasse and the sea. I know the family whose mill it is. P. H. Giorgis, Olivier said. Father and son.

I think we saw the son. Do you know the British comedian, Mr. Bean? Olivier nodded. The son looks like Mr. Bean would look if he had an olive mill in Grasse.

Olivier smiled. And the father, did he have a moustache?

Yes, a big one.

It's the last olive mill in Grasse. There used to be mills all through this valley, but that one, the Moulin du Rossignol, that's the last one.

I saw M. Giorgis fils at the market the next day, and asked him about my olives. His expression was blank. Remember, I prompted him, I didn't have an appointment?

Oh yes. Recognition dawned. Your oil is ready. You can come and get them this afternoon, after 5:30.

L. was visiting, and we went together to the mill. Mr. Bean was there and we had another impenetrable one-sided conversation as I paid him 13 euros for the nearly 5 liters of extra virgin olive oil that my olives had produced. As we left, M. Giorgis pere and his moustache came in. Let the oil settle for a few days before you bottle it, he said. But you can go ahead and taste some tonight, with a little salad. He smiled. His son asked how long we had been in France. Six months, I said. This is the first time we've ever harvested olives. The Giorgis, father and son, nodded and smiled as they shook our hands. Bonne continuation, they said. A la prochaine. We'll see you next time.

Violette says she'll help me filter the oil and bottle it, and I'm still looking for the right sort of bottles. But we did taste the oil that night on bit of baguette. It tasted green, and a little spicy, and strong, like eating it would make you live a longer and, chances are, a happier life.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Une belle dinde

The holidays, all of them, have snuck up on me this year. I expected the fall to last longer, somehow, but it didn't, and a few weeks ago C. started talking about whom to invite for Thanksgiving, and now that's past and we are rollicking on towards Christmas, not to mention Hanukkah, of which we are now in the midst and which I very nearly forgot altogether.

But back to Thanksgiving. A. was still here when C. began working on the guest list, and in her helpful way she asked where we would get a turkey. I realized that I had no idea, aucune idee, where to find a turkey. I had never seen one in the poultry section of any of the grocery stores where I shop. I don't go into butcher shops very often, but I realized, after thinking for a moment or two, that I could not remember seeing a turkey in any of them. No turkeys were ever advertised as being on special; the most evidence of turkey that I had ever seen was the occasional package of escalope de dinde in the poultry section. An almost endless variety of chickens, large, small and medium, male and female: but never a turkey.

Yet it was our intention to have a full American Thanksgiving. L. and G. were coming from Paris, and bringing us cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin puree, and (not without some guilt and ambivalence on my part, but to E. and G.'s complete delight) a bag of marshmallows to put on the sweet potato pudding. And so I would have to find a turkey.

On a cold morning two weeks before Thanksgiving I ventured in to our local butcher shop. I had bought a roasted chicken or two there before--most recently, I had bought a roasted chicken in the evening that had been roasted in the morning, and my willingness to do so baffled the butcher, who seemed to take it both as a personal favor to him (buying chicken that was not moments off of the rotisserie!) and to find it deeply puzzling (why would Madame buy a chicken left over from this morning's roasting?)--but I was far from being a regular, a cliente. The shop was empty when I went in. Chickens were roasting, quiches and tartes were arranged on the top of the meat case, and the case itself was full of an elaborate and bloody assortment of cuts of beef, lamb, veal, rabbit arrayed in carnivorous glory.

I asked for some chicken breasts and, while the butcher was wrapping them, I ventured my request. I would like to order a turkey, if that's possible.

Ah. Vous faites le Thanksgiving americain. You are making American Thanksgiving. The butcher smiled and wiped his hands on his apron.

I smiled back, encouraged. Can you get turkeys for Thanksgiving?

But of course. A woman in Valbonne ordered one the other day. It is what you always eat for Thanksgiving, no? Turkey farcis? Stuffed turkey?

Yes, yes. We will be 12 people; can you get me a turkey the right size for that many people?

We conferred a bit about what the right size was, and when I should pick it up, and he took my name and phone number. I had one last request.

When you prepare the turkey, Monsieur, can you make it very clean? The roast chicken I had bought recently had come with shins attached. Did you know that chickens have shins? They do. In a rare moment of courage, I had snapped the roasted shins off of the legs before I carved the bird and before anyone else in the household could see them and decide to commence vegetarianism that night. However, I did not trust myself to be able to come to terms with turkey shins, or feet, or any other parts of the turkey never reproduced as a Normal Rockwell illustration of Thanksgiving.

The butcher looked quizzically at me. I tried to explain: no gizzards, no organs, no shins, but my French failed me. I fell back on foreignness. Could you, Monsieur, prepare the turkey as though it was for an American lady?

Now he nodded. Do not worry, Madame. It will be all clean.

The day before we were to make our Thanksgiving americain, L. and I went to pick up the turkey. The shop was busy; two butchers were on duty, the one from whom I had bought the chicken with shins and the one who had taken my turkey order. The turkey order man was attending to three ladies of a certain age. The ladies were turned out in sunglasses, leopard prints, sleek black suits, heels, and gloves; they looked like they had just been transported from one of the more fashionable shopping streets on the Right Bank. They were ordering an assortment of items for lunch.

Meanwhile, the chicken shins butcher turned to us. I explained that I had ordered a turkey. Ah! Une belle dinde! He smiled, glad that this time I was not settling for a leftover chicken. A pretty turkey! He rubbed his hands together and went behind the counter, where he opened a large door. I had seen that door, of course, but had never wondered what was behind it, in the same way, I imagine, that we Americans can look at a piece of meat on white styrofoam wrapped in plastic and not wonder where it came from. Well, wonder no more. The door opened to reveal a walk-in meat locker easily half the size again of the shop itself. Entire sides of beef hung from hooks in the ceiling. L. and I both drew back a half step.

Three turkeys hung from hooks across from the sides of beef. Our butcher took the first one and brought it out into the shop to weigh it. It was a little feathery and--how does one say this?--obviously quite fresh. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to describe something else in its place: a turkey from an American supermarket, for instance. What I have always unwrapped, or asked someone else to unwrap for me, on the kitchen counter on Thanksgiving morning, has been a white, white bird. If there were organs, they were neatly wrapped in waxed paper in the cavity of the bird. No feathers. No suggestion that this creature walked around recently, and no suggestion, either, of what it might have walked around on. The turkey that the butcher happily began to wrap up for us looked like it had probably enjoyed a hearty supper the night before.

That's not her turkey; someone's already bought that turkey, the other butcher interrupted him. Go get one of the other turkeys for her.
Our butcher shrugged and went back in the meat locker. Meanwhile, the leopard ladies were still ordering. We'll take some slices of roast beef; it's rare, isn't it?

Their butcher took a slab of roast beef the size of his forearm out of the case. With an immense knife, he shaved off a few deep pink slices.

And some of these beignets, these little doughnuts. They're so good with coffee. The taller leopard lady turned to the shorter one and they bobbed their heads at each other confidentially.

Their butcher wrapped the roast beef in paper and reached up to the top of the counter for a handful of beignets. There was no intermediate step: wrap the bloody beef, pick up the beignets.

Our butcher emerged from the meat locker with a second turkey. This one was a few grams smaller and had fewer feathers. The leopard ladies went off with their bloody roast beef and beignets, and our butcher wrapped and bagged the turkey--5 kilos and change--and handed over the bill with a flourish: Ca fait 79 euros, s'il vous plait, Madame.

In years past I have hesitated, as I stood at the turkey desk in Whole Foods, over whether to order the organic, free-range, baptised turkey at $3.47 per pound or to order instead the slightly less well-cared for bird at $2.50 per pound. Those days are gone. Thirty, forty dollars for a turkey? I will scoff at Thanksgiving tables in the future. Why, I remember the year I paid over a hundred dollars for a turkey in France.
It was a good turkey, though. It tasted different from the Butterballs of my childhood, and from the organic Toms of the past few years, a stronger taste, a turkier taste. We were pretty sure, L. and C. and I, that this turkey had not been injected with anything, and we could see for ourselves that there had been no chemical solvents, unless you count water, involved in preparing it for sale. And, though I'm sure the butchers and the turkey farmer are not going hungry, I don't think there was a whole lot of profit injected into the price. There are fewer people wanting turkeys, and fewer turkeys to be had, so turkeys cost more. (A lot more.)

The distance between production and consumption is shorter, and is not shrink-wrapped. Feathers and blood are a part of life and death, and eating beignets that have been close to roast beef juices probably won't kill you or even make you sick. (At least if you don't think about it too much.)
Nevertheless, I think we'll give turkey a miss for Christmas. Lobster might be cheaper.

In the rue Servandoni

Last week I was back in Paris with L. and G. We went to lunch, L. and I, at a creperie in the rue Servandoni. The creperie--and as far as I can tell, that is its only name--is the size of a smallish American living room, with tables and benches at the front, near the plate glass window and the door, and an open kitchen at the back, with the crepe-making griddle jutting out into the center of the narrow room. Madame, a sturdy woman in late middle age who looks like she would be equally comfortable standing in front of a grill at an American lunch counter, stands behind the griddle, spatula at the ready. Her ancient Jack Russell terrier either sleeps in his basket in the corner or patrols the tables looking for scraps. There are two steps up from the street into the dining room, but, due to a trick of the pavement, three steps down, and either Madame or the young woman waiting tables will remind you when you leave to watch out for the third step.

E., G., and I found this creperie on Easter day in 2005, and I keep going back to it every chance I get. After I stopped weeping daily about the outcome of the 2004 elections, I thought about what kind of excursion would make me really happy. And I thought of Paris. It had been nine years at that point since I had been in France; we had always talked about bringing the girls to France when they were of travelling age. It was time. We made airplane reservations and found an apartment to rent that was near where I had lived as a student and around the corner from the Eglise de Saint-Sulpice and its beautiful place. Thus we came to spend Easter vacation 2005 in the rue Servandoni.

We arrived at the apartment in the rue Servandoni on Easter weekend. The street is a block long, and connects Saint-Sulpice to the Luxembourg Gardens. That much I knew from my dog-earred Michelin Plan de Paris. But the instructive plaques on the street--you cannot walk more than a few feet in central Paris without coming across a plaque on a building, telling you about a historical character who was born or lived or died there--told a longer story. If you sit at the table in the window of the creperie, as L. and I did last week, and as we did last March, and as I did a year before that, and, again, with G. and E. on Easter day 2005, then when you look out the window and across the street you see a plaque that tells you that William Faulkner lived in that building for several months in 1925. If you are a southerner and a reader then, voila, you are connected: from Yoknapatawpha County to the City of Lights before you even order lunch.

Finish your crepe--I recommend the crepe parmentier, potatoes and cheese and an egg folded inside a warm crepe au sarrasin--and, minding the third step, walk out of the creperie and to the right, up towards Saint-Sulpice. Another plaque appears. William Faulkner's neighbor, two doors up and a century and change earlier, was the revolutionary Olympe de Gouges. De Gouges took her revolutionary brothers' bet and raised them, publishing in 1790 her proto-feminist Declaration of the Rights of Women to match the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. Looked on as a novelty for a while, she eventually wore out her welcome and went to the guillotine, but not before she lived in the rue Servandoni for a while. She survives now in history books and dissertations--one of them mine. When I wrote about women in the French Revolution, her papers came across my desk in the Archives nationales across the Seine in the rue Rambuteau.

A little further up the street, and this time I saw a plaque I had missed before: Condorcet, one of the gentlest philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, and also one of the most unfortunate, had hidden in an apartment in that building for several months during the Revolution, after he had fallen from the good graces of the National Convention. My dissertation advisor--not a particularly nice or gentle man, but a good historian--wrote his first major book on Condorcet, and it sat on my shelves (reddish-orange binding, black letters) for years.

L. and I walked past these plaques and all their connections last weekend, and just as we passed the building where I stayed with my family nearly three years ago, my cell phone rang. It was C.: where was the cinnamon? L. and I had finished it off making pumpkin pie for our Provencal Thanksgiving. As we spoke on the phone L. and I turned the corner into the place Saint-Sulpice, where the booths for the Christmas market were already set up.

On my best days I feel part of a web of connections--connections of love and of the mind and of the past, my own and the world's--and it is so startling to me, so surprising, to find that web so dense on this little street in the Left Bank. The other day I found this, from Emily Dickinson, in my reading: To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else. I am very busy.