Friday, December 19, 2008

Bonnes fêtes, et à bientôt

Tomorrow morning, well before dawn, C will take me to the airport to begin the three-flight journey to my hometown. He and the girls will follow the next day. The dogs are going to spend the holidays with Madame Puppies (who just got a new puppy; I expect Wendy and Alice to sleep for half of January). I've cleaned off the terraces--put away the porch furniture, tucked the gardening tools into their chest, cut back the geraniums. I've got three more errands to run this afternoon. And, oh, yes, I've got to pack.

We've not been Stateside for well over a year. It's lots of longests: the longest we've ever been abroad continually, the longest we've ever gone without seeing C's family (not the whole time; just the last six months), the longest I've ever gone without staying in my mother's house. As long as it's been for us, it's longer, proportionally, for E and G, a longer stretch out of their shorter lives. E is so excited she can hardly finish a sentence. Myself, I haven't slept through the night in days. I wake up around 4 and listen for the church bells, and run through lists until I doze again. We're looking forward to being with our famille éloignée, of which there is a lot, we hope to have a moment with everyone.

One of the disorienting things about living overseas is that, although you're living, in our case, at least, in a place saturated with history, your own history fades a bit. The places that inhabit your memory are out of sight, and the people who remind you of your past are missing. Of course there's our immediate family, but they are immediate, of the present, now, what's the right verb form for this sentence and do we need buttermilk? There's not a lot that reminds us of our past, and the present demands our full attention.

This week, L's grandmother died. She was of a venerable age and has been failing for a long time. I've been on the phone and in email contact with L more since her grandmother died than in the last six weeks, sorting out travel plans and funeral arrangements. The service will be where L's grandmother lived, in my hometown which is also L's, and, through this trick of fate, C and the girls and I will be able to attend it. I've known L's family since I was the girls' age, even before. Many of the people I'll see at the service that day, and at dinners and on walks and over cups of tea on the other days, will have known me since I was my daughters' age, or before. They'll remember things about me that I've forgotten myself. I'll remember things about them, too, moments from two decades ago when they knocked over the dessert table while reaching for the banana pudding (you know who you are), or when they went on vacation and left the front door open (note to self), or when they said to me and my husband and my babies: Come see us any time. We'd love to have you. Away this long from my identity and history as the daughter of a Southern family in a Southern town, I'll walk back into it, like putting on a coat that already has lip balm in the right pocket.

The French, you know, are famous for taking their vacations. C's colleagues have weeks and weeks of vacation every year, six or seven or eight. His office here will close, computers off, lights out, doors locked, for the span of the holidays. Taking vacations is serious business. Following the French method, I'll be closing up La Bastiole for a couple of weeks. I want my extended family to be able to relax around me and not worry that I'm going to write about them later that day (I'll wait a while, and change the names). But I'll be back, long about January 5. Whatever you celebrate between now and then--and I hope you do celebrate something, regardless of what you believe, even if you don't believe; it's dark and cold outside, and it's better to be inside in light and warmth, and better still in light and warmth with people you love and someone's family recipe for something--I hope you celebrate it well. We'll be marking Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year's, a lot of occasions, but then, we've a lot to celebrate, a lot to say thank you for.

And I'll be back in January. Come by any time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I listened to the church bells strike seven this morning and knew it was almost time to get out of bed. In a couple of minutes, they struck the hour again, and I threw back the comforter. When we first moved in to La Bastiole, we were puzzled by the church bell phenomenon. It was strange enough, we thought, that we could hear the village church striking the hour, every hour, every day; why, though, did we hear the hour struck twice? Seven strikes, or twelve, or two, two or three minutes, and then, seven or twelve or two strikes again.

For a week we were certain that we were hearing two different clocks. La Bastiole sits on a hillside below one village and along from another. Each village has a church with a tower, bien sûr, and so we decided that the two clocks were not quite synchronized. Then one day we walked up the hill to our village and heard the bells strike, then, turning back towards home, we heard the same hour struck but from the opposite direction. The sounds were distant enough from each other that we realized that we could not be hearing both clocks from our house.

That left one explanation: the same tower was striking the hour twice. Seven o'clock; two minutes; seven o'clock again. It suggests a different notion of time, n'est pas? C is forever setting all of our clocks, watches, computers, ovens, telephones to the atomic clock, or Greenwich, or some international official this is what time it really is clock. He will wait until the second hand is at 59 and then ease the minute hand over, and then give a satisfied nod: one piece of the universe controlled. We come from people who are terminally punctual. They arrive on time. Our lives in America were punctual lives. Five minutes earlier or later was the difference between sitting an extra half hour in traffic.

So the matter of seven o'clock happening twice was mind-bending. It can only be seven o'clock once. Which time is correct? If you miss the first chiming, then won't your hour end up with only 58 minutes in it? While I find that my hours often have more or less than the standard 60 minutes, I did find it puzzling that the clock should strike the hour twice. And it wasn't just the clock we could hear: I found that in other villages the church clocks did the same thing.

I asked Olivier. At first, he looked confused at my question. Pourquoi les cloches sonnent-elles deux fois? Why do the church bells strike twice? He looked a little suspicious, like I might be trying to trick him with this silly question. Then he remembered that my French wasn't that good. In his best imitation of Yves Montand, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged. C'est comme ça, he said. It's like that.

I've never gotten another answer, and I've asked the question many times. I don't wonder about it so much any more. These days, when I hear the bells chime, I sometimes forget to count all the way to the end. Then I wait until they sound again, and start over. It's about nine o'clock. Time to think about taking a walk.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Douce nuit

I sing in an English choir--English language, and, pour la plupart, English passports. I've sung in choirs off and on for years, in college and graduate school, and then an interval of working and child rearing, and now again. It's something that I often can muster no more than ambivalent feelings about, and yet I keep showing up at rehearsals. I think it's the distraction--when you are singing in harmony, you can't make grocery lists or worry about Detroit's Big 3--and the people--second sopranos tend, in my experience, to be solid, dependable, generous sorts--and then the moments when all the parts come in at the right time and in the right key and you are for a moment inside the music, inside the sound.

The Christmas concerts were this weekend. The Christmas carols that the choir sang this year were English (Here We Come A-Wassailing) and more English (Past Three O'Clock), with a couple of French (Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agréable, which means just what it sounds like it might) thrown in to show that geographical respect. The concerts were in the local village church, built in the early 1200s: plain, unadorned stone, a few windows high up in the walls, almost Shaker in its simplicity. The combination of stone and ridiculously high ceilings would make any music sound full and soaring.

Saturday night C and the girls came to the concert. We all know the more obscure English carols, down to the third or fourth verses, because of a Christmas party we've gone to in my hometown for all of the girls' lives and more than half of mine. At that party everyone brings food--and in our memory, it's the same food every year, brought by the same people: fudge from the University chaplain, pound cake from the retired superintendent of schools, ham from the political science professor. After drinking--spiced cider and wine---and eating, it's time to sing carols. Not just the standard American ones, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and O Come All Ye Faithful, but ones you don't hear constantly, Good King Wenceslas and Of the Father's Love Begotten. The hosts are teachers, and so everything proceeds according to lesson plan. The carols have been photocopied, collated, numbered and stapled. The guest who is a piano teacher takes her place and numbers are called out. The same carols, every year. The same jokes, the same silliness, the same people who take the harmony at the same measure.

Our plane won't land in time for that party this year, and so this Christmas concert was our chance to sing all those carols. Silent Night was on the list, sung in French and in English. I've never liked Silent Night. The melody isn't interesting, and the words make me think of the third-rate art on grocery store Christmas cards. As the congregation stood and the opening bars reminded them of the tune, I looked down the aisle of the church and saw a little girl slip out of a pew towards the back and stand, shifting from foot to foot, watching the choir and the congregation. Her mother had careful hold of the strap of the little girl's pinafore dress. The child--four or five years old--had blond curls to her shoulders, pinned up and away from her forehead in a sparkly barrette. She danced a little unevenly to the music as everyone began to sing.

My girls were up front, where I'd saved them seats. When they were that child's age, I had, more than once, set them out into the aisle so that they could see the choir, buying a little more time that way, keeping them entertained a little longer. Now they stood seriously by their father, reading the words as they sang.

Douce nuit, sainte nuit.
Dans les cieux l'astre luit.

Le mystère annoncé s'accomplit.

Cet enfant sur la paille endormit,

C'est l'amour infini,

C'est l'amour infini !

For a moment all the Christmases were present at once, when I was my girls' age and singing this carol, when they were babies and little girls in the aisle, all the years of pound cake and spiced cider and our friend Jonathan singing Good King Wenceslas in his exaggerated bass voice, and this very Christmas, in the old church in the old country, all of us and all of those Christmases together. T. S. Eliot calls it "the accumulated memories of annual emotion." The melody built, and I took a breath to finish out the chorus and swallowed my cough drop whole. Tears leaked out of my eyes and ran down my cheeks: tears that come from a lot of eucalyptus flavoring stuck in your throat all at once, but also of all those accumulated memories.

The carol ended and everyone sat down. C found my eyes and asked if I were okay. Yes, I gave a small nod. Yes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Let my foie gras go

I've been out doing our Christmas shopping this week--nothing too grandiose; the good thing about going back to the States for Christmas is that I could give dish washing soap that was lavender scented and had a label written in French and it would look chic--and I have observed that, along with all the hanging Santas and lopsided light displays (which I love; they feel so much less like an attempt to open my wallet) this: there is an awful lot of foie gras for sale. Foie gras and champagne. And chocolates, big flat boxes of assortments, named after Parisian sites. The box someone gave us is a Champs-Elysées. I've also seen a Place Vendôme.

But that's a query for another day. Today is foie gras day here at La Bastiole, because this morning I heard a story about The Origins of Foie Gras.

Before I tell you the story I heard, think about where you think foie gras came from (and I mean that culturally, not in terms of Jemima Puddleduck and Lucy Goosey). Have you ever thought about it? I think that, if pressed, I would have devised some origin myth about the court of a French Renaissance king, somebody like François I, and it might have included a farmer who was ennobled after he served the king...etc. etc.

I would have been wrong. Here's the origin myth told me today as gospel truth by an actual française. It wasn't the French at all, and it was long before the Renaissance.

It was the Egyptians. 7000 years ago. They discovered that migratory birds tasted better when hunted just before their migrations, and that, en plus, their foie tasted really, really good then. Aha, thought Hamenophtet. This is because the birds have stuffed themselves to last the journey. And the reason the liver tastes really good then? Because it made the birds more aerodynamic if they ate lots of food that caused their livers to engorge, thus making the liver, at the center of their bodies, heavier, and their bodies more evenly weighted. (Foie gras: the result of millennia of evolution.) The Egyptians figured out that they could force-feed the migratory birds on figs to get pre-migration quality foie gras year round, corn not yet being available since, remember, it's 7000 years ago and no one's sailed across the Atlantic yet. (No one knows about the Atlantic yet, much less about maize, which is what the French use now.)

So the Egyptians went swanning along, force-feeding their geese and ducks, for a few centuries. And then one day there was a slave uprising and several unpleasant events, like a plague of locusts and frogs falling out of the sky--and then the slaves, they upped and left.

And do you know what those slaves took with them, according to my friend? (This is my favorite part.) Not just the matzah. Les juifs ont pris la recette du foie gras, she said. Tu sais, le foie gras, c'est casher. The Jews took with them the recipe for foie gras. You know, foie gras is kosher. Like that explains everything.

All those years Moses was growing up in the Pharaoh's palace? It wasn't just grapes and olives and roast pheasant. He was having a little foie gras as an apéro.

Moses trying to get the Israelites to leave the land of bondage: Really, come on, come with me into the desert, I know it's all going to work out, just trust me on this one. If we come with you, will you show us how to do that thing to our geese?

And when he came down from Mount Sinai, was it just with the tablets, or did he sweeten the deal a little? Maybe a little foie gras poêlé for everybody who agreed not to covet their neighbor's ox?

Okay, I'll stop now.

What I love about this origin myth--and who am I to call it a myth? maybe I'm just the last person to hear about it--is that the French never give any one else credit for anything. Democracy? French. Metric system? French. Religious tolerance? French. Internet? French. (Really.) Minority rights? French. Denim fabric? French. (It came from Nîmes. De Nîmes.) Photography? French. Anything innovative or interesting or important, you'll find, always, the French at the front of the line, saying, Us, oui, us, that came from us.

But foie gras, that cornerstone of French civilization, for that they do not take credit. (I guess that would be like saying that Jesus was actually born in Béziers, and that Bethelem is just a corruption of the original French word.) Foie gras is too important to have been stumbed upon by some chef outside Chambord 400 years ago. Its origins had to have a deeper explanation, a richer and more profound story. And how much more profound does it get than the flight from Egypt? It's interesting that my friend's story doesn't credit the Egyptians with disseminating foie gras. It credits the Jews, and links the spread of foie gras to what is arguably the moment when Judeo-Christian civilization was born: the moment when the Israelites stopped being a bunch of slaves from the next desert over and began to think of themselves as a people.

A people with a set of commandments and a really good recipe.

Of course, the French do claim credit for perfecting it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I passed my driving test.

It took me two tries. The first time, two months ago, I prepared for days--months, actually--and was in a state of grim panic for the test itself. Then I failed. You're allowed to mix up to five out of 40 questions; I missed six. As 'Arry said when I saw him afterward, It's like that sometimes.

This time, I spent the morning taking practice tests. And failing them. 32, 34, 33 out of 40. The practice tests I was taking--from the new dvd of practice tests that the School of French Driving has issued--had questions like:

If I am driving in heavy traffic and my car is approaching an intersection at which the cars entering from the right have priority, and there is a car sitting in the road to my right (where it would normallement have priority), but the driver looks for all the world like he has come to a complete stop and is even reading a map--do I: A. stop (and yield to the driver on my right, who's stopped his car and is reading his map, and, in stopping, run the risk of the car that is immediately behind me rear-ending me) or B. keep going (since the car to my right is practically parked, I mean, he's reading a map at the wheel, for god's sake)?

Yep. A.

So after lunch I walked the dogs and then drove over to Charm City, the depressed market town where the driving test is given, to take the test. I parked in the garage where, when I leave the car there, I feel marginally less likely to be mugged, and which smells less like urine, than the other parking garage in the centre ville. I walked up the hill and through the unmarked doors that lead to the corridor and the staircase to the Salle des Augustins, where the test is given.

It's called the Salle des Augustins because the building it's in stands on the site of a former Augustinian monastery. The room is miserable in the way that bureaucratic rooms the world over are miserable: it's dirty, it smells like anxiety and cigarette smoke (and French teenager), the dropped ceiling has large water stains, the curtains are askew and don't close properly. In a weird nod to Provence, the walls are yellow and the curtains are blue. It's like provençal hell.

Augustin, the church father who gave his name to the Augustinian order, had particular theories about humanity and salvation. He believed that there was nothing that we could do on our own initiative to be saved. The only route toward salvation, toward living a holy life, lay through divine grace. We could read, write, struggle, study for days and weeks--but only if God reached out to us, extended grace to us, could we hope to be saved.

Thirty or so teenagers and I filed into the exam room. The proctor explained how the test would be administered, and warned us that if he caught us cheating, or appearing to cheat, we would be forbidden to take the test for five years. Then he turned out the lights and turned on the computer, and the questions were projected on the screen.

These were easier questions than those in my practice tests. If it was a question about yielding to traffic entering from the right, for instance, then it showed the driver of the car on the right leaning forward, making eye contact, poised to enter the roadway. I answered each question, inhaled, exhaled, pressed the key to validate my answer, and then answered the next question. Forty times.

And then it was over. The woman from the School of French Driving met our cohort (me and six teenagers) outside in the equally grimy hallway and gave us our results. Two of us had failed. The rest had passed. This time, I was in the second group.

After I failed the test the first time, I had thought about the Salle des Augustins, and about the bizarre theological cum bureaucratic appropriateness of taking the épreuve théoretique in a room named for Saint Augustin. 'Arry had told us, several times, that he would count himself lucky to find 35 questions that he could answer correctly on any given test. We could prepare and prepare, he said, and still there could be one question too many that we got wrong.

I took the inverse of that advice for my guide, the second time around: I had prepared for months, and it didn't matter if I prepared any more. Either I would find 35 questions I could answer or I wouldn't. It was, to a disorienting degree, out of my control. But the Augustinian god of French bureaucracy smiled on me this time, extended his ball point pen of grace in my direction, and I passed.

This time. Now I have to take the road test.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Christmas billboards are going up: the pépineries are advertising Christmas trees, the hardware stores are advertising drills, and La Halle, a Targetesque department store, is advertising lingerie. On the billboard across from the Collège des vignes, in considerably larger than life size living color, a woman with dark, flowing locks poses in a black satin bustier, matching panties, and stockings held up by matching garters. She gazes frankly--the standard model blank stare--into the camera. To her right is the price: €14,99. In the lower corner is the name of the store and their Christmas slogan: Et si c'était vous qui rendiez le monde plus beau? What if you were what made the world more beautiful?

We leave the house for school in the mornings at 7.40. It's been cold recently--coats, gloves, scarves--and of course this time of year, the sun is just coming up. Traffic backs up outside the school as the gendarme stops traffic for the kids to cross the street, so that gives us plenty of time to contemplate the woman in her bustier. For me, it means that I think about women's images in the media every morning before my tea has had a chance to kick in, and I worry, beyond whether the girls have remembered all their books and notebooks and done all their homework and prepared for all their interrogations, about whether I'm giving them the tools they need to cope with these kinds of images.

When C and I were in the car going to town for Christmas shopping this weekend, we passed another billboard from the same series. This one shows a woman in bra and panties, holding her hair up on the top of her head while she kneels inside a clear Christmas ornament ball. (This ensemble is cheaper, only €7,99.) I mentioned the billboard by the collège, and C said he'd seen it. He took the girls to school the other day, and it's hard to miss.

Did you talk about it? I asked, hoping that he would say that they had, and he had said all the things that my Women's Studies professor would have wanted him to.

I said I thought she looked cold.

What did the girls say? I really wanted there to be more to the story.

They weren't paying attention.

Are they paying attention? Or are they, too, thinking over their homework and backpacks and lunch and who's going to sit where? Do I point it out, pull the car over and give them five minutes on the objectification of women, or do I let it go? If I let it go, is that condoning it, letting my daughters think that it's fine for women to be Christmas ornaments? Or is 7.55 on a Thursday morning not the time to talk about sexism?

I think--though I'm not sure--that you only get it when you're ready to get it, that you can only hear the answer after you've asked the question for yourself. Until the girls run smack into the wall of sexism--and they will--all I say to them about the woman in the bustier will sound like so much Mom talking. They'll listen, they'll take it in, they might even file it away somewhere, but it won't mean much.

Maybe. Two more weeks til the Christmas holidays, so I don't have to decide yet.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Piping him in

Our neighbors down the street are the most English couple in the world. He used to be on Fleet Street, which is English for he was a journalist, and she was a midwife in Kensington, which is like being a midwife on the Upper East Side, if wealthy American women used midwives.

But I'm getting away from myself. Their house, which is very southern French on the outside, all peach stucco and wrought iron and clay roof tiles, is all English on the inside: the family silver sits out on the family sideboard, porcelain figurines decorate side tables, and the bookcase in the sitting room (not a living room, a sitting room) is full of first editions of Orwell and Waugh.

I frequently pass Horatio in the lane. He walks their dog, ZsaZsa, at around the same times of day that I take the girls to and from school. Horatio cultivates a persona that stops somewhere just this side of eccentricity: in the spring and summer, he sports a weather beaten panama hat and a blazer with bermuda shorts, lace-up dress shoes, and dark socks. He always has a quick word and a pun at the ready.

Last weekend Horatio went back to the U.K. for the funeral of an old friend. When he came home, I passed him and ZsaZsa in the lane and stopped. I put down the car window and asked how the funeral had gone.

Oh, we gave him a good send-off, Horatio said. There were more than a hundred people at the service, and afterwards, the newspaper association gave a buffet lunch. But the service was really lovely. We piped him in, really nice.

Piped him in? I tilted my head a little, trying to sort that particular English-ism out. Perhaps the service had been at a crematorium, and they had sent the casket down the chute during it? But wouldn't that be piped him up? Or out? And wouldn't that be...strange? Or maybe they had had a recording of the dead man's voice, and they had piped that recording in during the service. Also, though, a little...strange?

Horatio saw my confusion. With bagpipes, my dear, he said, and promptly did a credible pantomime of a bag piper, complete with pumping arms and a low drone.

Two peoples divided by a common language, indeed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The patron saint of Thanksgiving

I volunteered to run a weekly atelier d'anglais, an English Club, at the Collège des vignes. The club was to meet for forty minutes during the Monday lunch break; 17 children signed up. The first meeting was scheduled to take place the Monday before Thanksgiving.

So I prepared a Thanksgiving lesson. I made a list of Thanksgiving vocabulary words; I found paintings and photos of Thanksgiving activities online and in books; I read through stories of the first Thanksgiving. I planned to give the kids a lesson in American culture (15 minutes), teach them some vocabulary (another 15), and then do a Thanksgiving word search (10).

All 17 of the children showed up. Desks were lined up in rows the width of the room. At the front of the room, the teacher's desk sat on an elevated platform in front of a white board. I took my place on the platform. The children looked at me.

I spoke in slow, non-idiomatic English. Do you know what holiday Americans celebrate this week?

Blank looks. A few whispered comments in French.

I tried again. In America this week there is a holiday, une fête. Do you know what it is?

The French word seemed to get their attention, and they knew the word America. America, holiday. A few suggested, timidly, Noël?

I gave up and translated: Savez-vous quelle fête célébreront les Américains cette semaine?

Now they understood, and it was clear they had no clue. (10 minutes gone.) I decided to move on: C'est Thanksgiving, I said. It's Thanksgiving.

Ah, oui, le Thanksgiving, they said, nodding, like it had been on the tip of their tongues the whole time.

And what does Thanksgiving celebrate? I asked.

Hands went up. At last I was getting somewhere, I thought. I called on one of the younger boys in the class.

Le Thanksgiving, he said, tripping over his words in his eagerness to show what he knew, c'est pour célébrer quand le Saint Patrick a chassé les serpentes d'Irlande. Thanksgiving celebrates when Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. He subsided, pleased with himself for giving what he clearly believed was a perfect answer.

I smiled encouragingly, although I imagine I looked a little bewildered, and said, No, it's not for Saint Patrick. Does anyone else know?

An older boy raised his hand. Mrs, Mrs, he said. (French schoolchildren, when they want their teacher's attention, say Madame, Madame instead of the American Ummmm. My student was translating.) I called on him and he spoke in clear, non-idiomatic French.

Le Thanksgiving, he said slowly, articulating each word carefully for my non-French ears, célèbre le travail du Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick a chassé les serpentes d'Irlande.
Clearly, he seemed to think, the first boy's French had been too much for me, because otherwise, why would I have dismissed the well-known origins of Thanksgiving? He was merely restating the obvious.

I shook my head. C'est pas le fête du Saint Patrick, I said. It's not the feast of Saint Patrick. It celebrates--il célèbre--the first harvest--la première récolte--of the Pilgrims--des Protestants.

C'est quoi, someone said, les protestants? What's a protestant?

I began to despair of ever getting to the word search.

I was the only person in the room getting a lesson in culture. While, statistically, most of these children did not come from religious families, they had spent their lives in a culture that was imbued in the traditions and presence of Catholicism, from the village church towers that struck the hour to the firemen's calenders with their saint's days to the school canteen that served fish on Fridays. French holidays either commemorate a national event--like the fall of the Bastille, or the end of World War II--or mark a day in the church year--like Chandeleur, or Pentecost, or Christmas. In the French national story, everyone is French. And in the residual Catholic culture of the country, everyone is Catholic.

The notion that I was trying unsuccessfully to convey, of a national holiday that commemorates an event held by a specific and minority religious group--leaving aside, of course, the relatively minor problem of language--was unthinkable for these kids. Holidays are holy days, and a fête is a feast day, and for a feast day and a holy day, you have to have a patron saint. That's the way it works. Nothing else made sense to them. There was nothing in their experience that they could draw on. Where Saint Patrick came from I have no idea, unless it's that Miss Clavell, English teacher and head of the Section internationale, has a thing for Ireland and has been known to throw parties for Saint Patrick's Day at school. In March. They knew that there was a holiday for Saint Patrick's Day somewhere in the anglophone world, so that must be what I was talking about. And as for protestants: that was truly beyond the pale. What's a protestant?

I went home and wished, for a while, that the brain cells that store all that information about the Reformation had, instead, something to offer on teaching English to French children.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Encore des jumelles

When we watched the Bastille Day fireworks with our friends S and G from the beach in Nice this summer, we joked about the possibility that they would end up as the fathers of twin girls. S and G met our girls 12 years ago; they were talking about children of their own then, and I remember the fascination and delight with which they watched E and G toddle around, and all the questions they had for us. While we picnicked on the beach in Nice, their surrogate mother was at home in California with her family. S and G would go with her for the first sonogram when they returned home. This Thanksgiving weekend, S and G welcomed their identical twin girls. They've had a long journey to get to this birth. Our journey, by comparison, was ridiculously easy.

We were finishing graduate school. C found a fellowship that would give him work to do in France, so that I could be in France to carry on with my research. When we arrived, I was a few months' pregnant. The plan--we have always been big into plans--was to have the baby and tote it around Europe in a back pack for a couple of years before we went back to the States and dug in to our grown-up lives. I needed an obstetrician, of course, and one was referred to us. I made an appointment and one afternoon we drove into Nice to meet Docteur Xavier.

His office was in a grand belle époque building, brass name plates on the doors outside, a winding marble staircase leading up from an elegantly proportioned foyer. The office was up a flight, and, inside, the waiting room was sleek and modern, deep rose leather banquettes lining the walls, soft lighting, lots of mirrors. C was the only father to be in the room; everyone else was female.

Until Dr Xavier came to get us. He was in his late forties, greying, in a tailored tweed jacket and those wide-wale corduroys that look frumpy on American men but make French men look like they just got up from a long morning settling the château's royal accounts. He ushered us into his high-ceilinged office. There was a soft carpet on the floor, lamps throwing flattering light, and a huge window looking down into the street. Da Vinci prints and tasteful photographs of the doctor's children lined the walls.

C and I sat down in Louis XV armchairs in front of the doctor's antique desk. He took my medical history and then got up and led me into the small, state of the art examining room that opened off of the office. I undressed, put on the robe (I remember that there was a robe, or, at least, I don't remember that there wasn't one), and laid down on the examining table. He began the routine as C stood beside me.

Then the doctor stopped. He shook his head. Your dates are not right, he said. You are much further along than you think you are.

I frowned. How typically French, I thought, to assume that I do not even know how long I have been pregnant. I said, No, I think I'm right about the dates. (What else do you say at that point?)

He shook his head again. We shall make an échographie to know.

Dr Xavier rolled a small sonogram machine over to the examining table and turned it on. I had never had a sonogram before.

He ran the wand over my belly. A blinking image appeared on the small screen. It showed a mirror image, what I took to be the right side and the left side of a 16 week old fetus. How clever, I thought, that the sonogram can show both sides. I wonder how it does that.

That was the last thought of that part of my life.

Then Dr Xavier said, with a touch of satisfaction in his voice, There are two babies.

C reached out and grabbed a stirrup. I had the advantage, as I was already lying down. C said to no one and everyone: Are you sure?

The doctor looked at me. Sure? he said. What is sure? Our conversation had been in English and in French, and we had just reached the limit of his English.

Certain, I explained. Vous êtes certain?

Certain? Mais bien sûr je suis certain, he said. This is not the first échographie I have made.

While I was getting dressed, Dr Xavier took C back out into his office. They sat down across from each other, C in his fauteuil and the doctor behind his desk. Then he leaned forward and said to C: Sometimes, there are three.

Suddenly our plans were changed. We spent the next week wondering if this was going to be one of those times--I mean, if there can suddenly be two babies, the universe can surely bend enough for there to be three--but the radiologist Dr Xavier sent us to see was certain there were only two. Jumelles, twin girls, deux filles, he announced, it not having crossed his mind that we might want to keep the gender a surprise. We didn't. At that point we wanted to know everything we could. We had always been good students, and thought that more information would somehow give us more control over the situation. We were wrong, of course. We were now in a process and regardless of what we knew or found out, the only way out was through.

Which is what I remembered when I looked at the pictures of S and G's girls Saturday night. Two little girl babies, wrapped in the same American hospital receiving blankets that our own little girls babies were swaddled in. American blankets, in the American hospital where they were born. We couldn't figure out a way to carry two babies around Europe in backpacks, and so, after a few more months, we went home.

And then we came back. It took over a decade, but we found our way back, and nothing has changed and everything has changed. Everything--the images on Dr Xavier's screen can now empty the dishwasher and speak two languages--and nothing--we are here, lighting candles for the supper table, making plans and trying to figure out how to gather enough information to exert some control.

The French say bonne chance et bon courage. The first is easy to translate: it means good luck. The second is harder to translate: it's good courage, literally, but it's also be brave; in my head, it echoes the Psalmic be of good courage. Good luck has had a lot to do with getting our girls this far--all the trees that didn't fall over, all the planes that stayed in the sky, the researcher who invented Augmentin--but so has good courage, what Garrison Keillor calls the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. It's what I wish for S and G and their little ones: bonne chance et bon courage.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Lying to the Mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Et vous êtes anglais?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Firemen's Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

L'huile authentique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2008


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

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

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

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

And what, dear reader, is a betterave?

It is a sugar beet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beet, I said.

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Goodly creatures

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Civics lesson

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

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

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

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

This means that workers can form unions, I translated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

At the caisse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Olive harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Château Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2008

Even Better than Napoleon's Death Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

Done in Bonaparte family hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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