Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Les vaches qui parlent

I hiked with the ladies yesterday over in the Var. We had been promised ocean to mountain views, but the clouds rolled in first thing in the morning, so we could see nothing beyond the next hill. Still, it was pretty. Wild crocuses are beginning to sprout here and there, white with the faintest touch of violet, and shocking saffron stamens.

After our usual picnic lunch, I fell in walking with three of the Frenchwomen. They all spoke English, of course, to varying degrees, but were speaking French together when I joined them and tentatively joined in. They were patient and kind, and I persevered, and we hiked together the entire afternoon.

I could not have carried on that much conversation a few months ago--not that we talked about anything more abstract than G. and E.'s schooling, the French names of plants, and, oddly enough, Julia Child. I am still a ways from politics or philosophy. But carry on I did, and they were encouraging.

Tu parles vachement bien, Marguerite and Rosalinde told me.

It's one of my favorite French words: vachement. Literally: cow-ly. You speak cowly well. Our dictionary translates it as damned, as in, You speak damned well. But when people use that word, the context doesn't usually feel, to me, like a damned context. It feels like a really context, a wow context, dare I say it, an awesome context. As in, Wow, your French is really good! Except that a French person, carrying the weight of Vichy and the Dreyfus affair and the Terror and the Wars of Religion and on back and back, could never be so unguardedly enthusiastic...and so it comes out tinged with irony. You speak as well as a cow would. And this, in a culture in which, historically, cows were a pricey commodity.

Of course, here's the thing. I don't want Marguerite and Rosalinde to tell me that I speak cowly well. In my ideal French conversation, my French person would not mention how well I speak the language, just the same way that, when I speak English, it is the rare person who comments on my grasp of that. I want to speak French with Marguerite and Rosalinde, and speak well enough, enough like a really, really, vachement well-bred cow, that neither of them sees fit to comment on it. I want to speak couramment, which translates as both fluently and commonly. I want to speak French as a common thing.

I sometimes feel that the more I learn of the language the farther the horizon of fluency recedes into the distance: the more I learn, the more I find that I don't know. A friend suggested to me that the higher one goes on a hill, the farther one can see, and the farther away the horizon seems. I like that. I like that I am getting high enough up to see the cattle.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chemin du Paradis

Today we went for a hike with friends, a school friend of G. and E.'s and her mother. They led us up a trail that we had heard about but never taken: the chemin du Paradis. It winds--winding is too gentle; it switchbacks--up the mountain from the village of Bar-sur-Loup to the perched village of Gourdon. Gourdon commands the mouth of the valley of the Loup River: it perches, high, high up on it crag, and is full of tourists in the summer, and shops selling gingerbread and perfumes and jam and olive oil.

The tourists arrive, mostly, by the busload. This morning it was just us and a few French families hiking up the mountain, switching directions every few yards or so. We started off at the edge of the village and followed the side of the hillside for a while, then began to climb, and then to climb some more. As we climbed up the valley below us opened and we saw, first a bit of the sea in the distance, and then Antibes pressing against the shore, and then we looked down at the wandering lanes of Bar-sur-Loup, and then, finally, directly down into the valley below: Pont-du-Loup, with its railroad bridge blown up during the German retreat in 1944, and up the gorges du Loup, the river canyon, hemmed in to the north by a granite face and guarded, to the east, by the solid, sturdy pic des Courmettes.

We came home and found, waiting for us, news of a long and well-lived life beginning to blink out across the ocean, and photos of another life wondrously beginning in Paris. It seemed cosmically fitting that we had walked the trail of Paradise today. At first, I had translated the name to myself as the trail to Paradise, the trail that led up towards heaven from earth, and I had imagined that the name derived from a time when Gourdon seemed as close to the heavens as a villager was ever likely to get in this lifetime. But then, I paid closer attention to the French and saw that it is the trail of Paradise. It's not going to heaven, the chemin a Paradis: it's the chemin du Paradis, Paradise, right now. It's not some distant goal; it's life at this moment, as you take this switchback. As the bones in your knees click, and your legs burn, and your breath is ragged, and the girls chatter behind you and the French families stop for water and biscuits, and you go up and up and the view opens until you can see up into the valley and down to the coast, as one person we love begins to turn loose of life and another we love just comes into it. Paradise. Here. Now. No waiting.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Madame Puppies

The vet put us in touch with a woman who boards dogs in her home. We've gone away a few times since we've been living here, and left the dogs at a Centre Canin. At this Centre Canin, they breed bergers allemand--German Shepherds--and teach courses in elevage, dog training. The dogs who board stay in kennels, and while the kennels are clean in a doggy sort of way, after I saw them I decided that we would have to find another option.

I asked the English ladies about someone to help with the dogs, and Lizzie down the lane said, oh yes, there's Sheila, she's lovely, ring her, my dear. I rang lovely Sheila and she did not ring back. I rang again, enough times that I hoped she did not suspect me of stalking her, and, finally, she answered. Yes, she sometimes looked after people's dogs. What kind did I have? Hmmm. Where did I live? Oh. Who had given her my name? Who? Oh. Yes. Well, she might be in my neighborhood in the next couple of days and she would ring me.

She may have been, but she didn't. So much for the English options.

C. and E. asked the vet for recommendations when they saw her for the dogs' annual visite de controle. There was a lady, she said, who lived up the mountain a bit in Bar-sur-Loup, who sometimes kept dogs for people when they went away, and we could call her. Her name was Madame Chiotti.

I called. She answered the phone on the second ring. What type of dogs did we have? And they were male or female? Two sisters? Quelle mignonne! Yes, she could keep them on those dates, but of course I should come to see her first. Monday afternoon? Mais bien sur! She would look forward to it. The directions were a little difficult, un peu complique, but she would be there waiting for me. A bientot!

Monday afternoon I cajoled and prodded Alice and Wendy into the car and we drove up the hill to Bar-sur-Loup, and then, once we got there, down again a long ways, and then up some more and around a few blind corners--what would an outing be without blind corners--until we reached the faded blue wrought-iron gates of Madame Chiotti's villa. I left the dogs in the car and looked around for a bell to push. It was, when I found it, the same faded periwinkle blue as the gates, and it rang inside the house.

Madame bustled out almost immediately. She stopped just short of kissing me, managing to shake my hand in such a way as to imply kisses. With her were two small terrier mixes, who jumped up on my legs and barked and then ran in circles around us. These dogs were staying with her now, said Madame, un frere et une soeur, et ils sont si mignons! they are so cute!

I followed her through the front garden into the house. In front of the door a blue and tan chenille rideaux de porte--a long curtain that acts as a screen in the summer, keeping flies out of the house--was knotted. We ducked around it and into the sitting room.

Two armchairs and a sofa flanked a coffee table in the front corner. Stairs, blocked at the bottom by a gate, led up to another floor. A large aquarium divided the room in half; behind it, I could see a table and a large secretary. There were occasional tables, end tables, a bookcase, and on every surface, dolls. Not fancy dolls, not with hand-painted porcelain heads and velvet dresses, just dolls that looked like they had been played with for a long time before being carted off to the vide grenier, the rummage sale. The chairs and sofa were draped in blankets, to protect them from dog hair, I supposed. The ceiling was supported by exposed beams, and on every beam a line of plates had been marshalled. Some beams had all green bordered plates, some, different varieties of flowers. A few plates had spilled over onto the walls, where they shared space with old prints of oil paintings with subjects like: Changing Horses at the Inn, or, Bringing Home the Flock, each portraying some notion of a rural life that was long gone before the painting was ever produced, much less reproduced in prints.

We sat down in the armchairs facing each other. Madame was small and sturdy, and of a certain age. She wore her hair in frizzy purplish henna curls, a dye lot I have seen before at the weekly market in the village. For our meeting she was wearing a sweater with a yellow dalmatian print--dalmations gamboled happily up and down her arms and across her poitrine--and had paired that with some pale mauve velour sweatpants; slippers completed the ensemble. The dogs immediately jumped into our laps, and offered up kisses all around, then jumped down, ran a couple of circles around the coffee table, and jumped up again. More kisses, more circles, occasional barking, and always jumping in or out of laps.

I realized that the purpose of this meeting was for Madame to size me up, so I started talking. I talked about bringing Wendy and Alice over here on Air France, and why we chose Air France instead of another airline, and how transporting our dogs had been the most difficult part of the move, and she nodded sagely and said, mais, bien sur, you must have been so worried. I talked about how we adopted the dogs, and how their mother had been hit by a car and then saved by a lady who rescued dogs. Ah! quelle bonne chance pour la pauvre! She shook her head at the tragedy that Alice and Wendy had so narrowly escaped. And then I talked about how we named the dogs, and where they slept at our house, and how Wendy liked to eat olives.

Half an hour later, my French was starting to wear a little thin when Madame took the dog out of her lap and went to get her calendar. What were the dates we needed? Ah yes, of course. That will be fine. She told me what to bring with the dogs--their French carnets de sante, their food, and their favorite toys and blankets--and, after assuring me that I could bring them at any time on the appointed day, or even the day before, it was all fine with her, she would be happy to see me whenever I arrived, she knew that things could happen, plans could change, not to worry! I judged that I could safely suggest that it was time for me to go.

Madame gave me her card and took me back outside. This time I looked around the garden as I walked behind her. It was filled with more turtle cache-pots and statuettes than I would have guessed existed anywhere, and with gnomes. Sitting, standing, leaning, chatting gnomes. And a few leftover Christmas decorations for good measure. When we got to the gate, she let me out and then peaked over it to see the dogs. Ah, mais elles sont si belles! And look at how they wag their tales at you! They are so lovely and I can tell they are such good dogs. I shook her hand over the gate and thanked her, and said how much I looked forward to seeing her again in a few weeks. Ah, but no, the pleasure is all mine. I drove away on a cloud of graciousness.

While we were getting out of the car at home, Olivier came down the terrace. I've been to see the lady who's going to watch the dogs, I told him. She has a collection of dolls, and a collection of plates, and, outside in the garden, a collection of gnomes, des nains.

Les nains sont les pires, Gnomes are the worst, Olivier said. Je deteste les nains. Olivier is a little cross, as the English ladies would say, because Jules is coming down from Paris this week. But then he smiled and chuckled. You had better take the dogs yourself, because if C. sees the nains, he might not leave the dogs with this lady.

I am agnostic on the gnomes, myself, and I'm trying to think of how I can arrange to make Madame Chiotti's house a stop for all our future guests. If I walked into her house in America, I might see nothing but shabby collections. But the gift of foreignness is that for me this house is just another place to try to understand. I don't bring anything to it, except what I've read about such places in the novels of Dickens, and those are not in the right language. And the gift of foreignness, too, is that I have to work so hard at speaking, at making small talk, that what is important to me in this lady with the eponymous name--un chiot is a puppy; she is, literally, Madame Puppies--is not her purple hair and her dalmation sweater but how kind she is to me, and to the little dogs racing around her. She never corrects my French, never finishes my sentences, never lets on that she has had more stimulating, and more correct, conversations with some of the dogs she looks after. Madame Chiotti is warm and gracious and kind, and I feel embraced and welcomed. I am certain that Alice and Wendy will, too.

And if I see any gnomes, I may bring her one.


Most mornings during the week the dogs and I walk up to Chateauneuf. We go out of our portail and then turn directly up the hill, and walk up a steep path that used, several decades ago by the looks of it, to be a paved road. There are bits of asphalt and large stones and pebbles, and leaves and acorns and sticks, and the path turns a few times as it climbs the hill. I let the dogs go up and, later, down, without wearing their leashes: all three of us need to watch our footing. Visitors tend to take this path with me exactly once, and then decide that another walk, along the road or across to Opio, will suit better.

But Wendy and Alice and I like this walk. We come out of the path in front of the LaChaix' portail onto their driveway, and that's when the dogs have to put on their leashes. There's asphalt, then, a proper paved road, wider than my arm span, and it continues uphill, with a tall stone wall on the left and a drop down into olive groves on the right. When we come out of Jules' driveway, the road gets a name: the chemin du Moulin. The moulin in question is on the left, but it's a long time since it milled anything besides fancy parties in the summer time when the owners are in residence.

The lane is flatter, now, and the views begin. Just in front of us, occupying the north-eastern horizon, is the Pic de Courmettes, the mountain at the mouth of the Loup river. When the lane turns a little left, following the lines of the hillside, we can see Chateauneuf in front of us, on top of the next hill. It is a proper hill town, with the church tower in the center at the highest point, and tall houses encircling it, descending the hill until they meet the olive trees coming up. Beyond Chateauneuf, more mountains, and on days after it has rained on us, there's snow on the tops of those mountains.

Some mornings our walk coincides with the morning jaunt of the sheep that live nearby. We can hear their bells clanging down at the bottom of the terraces, where the hill we're on stops and the village's hill begins. I can, if I slow down and look, sometimes see the sheep through the olive trees, but it's not easy. They camouflage, these sheep; they've evolved perfectly to fit their surroundings, with wool the same color as the olive bark in the sunshine and as the stones holding up the terraces.

One morning a week or so ago the sheep's bells sounded louder and closer. We came around a curve and I saw them: they were on the terrace directly beneath the road. It was a spot where there is wall on one side and, on the other, a straight drop of several yards, to a terrace and, then, another drop to the next terrace. The sheep were a few lengths of leash away from us.

Alice and Wendy smelled them before they saw them, of course; they always do smell them, but rarely see them, dog senses being what they are. This time they saw, and both of them stood up and walked along on their hind legs like trained bears at the circus. Their noses and whiskers were working overtime as they breathed it all in. They didn't bark; I think they were too surprised. Words failed them.

When I came around a cedar tree, I saw the shepherd. He was a Hollywood shepherd. He could have been 50 or 80: his face had that leathered thick look that men here who work outside in the sun all year acquire. He was compact but sturdy, wearing several warm shirts in assorted plaids and patterns, all buttoned up against the morning chill; sturdy work pants; boots; a cap. Here is what made me look twice: he was leaning on a crook. I've never seen anyone use a crook, besides bishops, or the Marx Brothers in a crackly old vaudeville routine. I think I had never thought about a crook being more than a prop, something whose original use had long since fallen away, and remained as a metaphor (for a bishop) or a joke (for Groucho).

Our shepherd was standing, legs braced, with both hands folded on the top of his crook, and his chin resting on his hands. He was standing so still that I doubted myself. I thought that maybe my imagination was getting carried away with the surroundings and starting to embroider a bit; maybe I needed to switch from tea to coffee in the mornings. So I spoke to the shepherd.

Bonjour, monsieur. It's very exciting for the dogs to see the sheep. It's difficult to be pithy when you are testing a hallucination.

He jumped, startled, and waved his crook a little in the air. He smiled broadly, the smile of a man who has not stood in the lavendar x-ray machine. Et bonjour, madame, bien sur! and then something in an accent so thick and with the words pouring out so fast that all I could do was smile and nod and continue on my way.

The sheep were gone when we came back from our trip to the village, and, while I've seen the sheep since, I haven't seen the shepherd. I wonder if he got a call from his agent, and has gone off to play the role of Provencal Shepherd in the next Spielberg movie. Wendy and Alice would be happy to fill in while he's gone.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


We were talking yesterday about family, and names, and what we call people: the names we give our relationships. We are lucky to have not only biological family as part of our lives but an extended family that is bound not by blood but by time and laughter and history. And explaining that extended family of friends in French is a puzzle.

Friends came to spend Christmas with us. In English, I could describe them this way: my second parents; college friends of my mother's; neighbors. In French, I cannot inflect those phrases with the nuances that I could find for them in English. So I chose, instead, to explain to people here that they were my godparents, mon parraine et ma marraine. C., I learned yesterday, had solved the linguistic puzzle by explaining that his aunt- and uncle-in-law were coming. Both solutions somehow came closer to truth than we could have come in English.

E. and G. were talking about the son of my dear friend, a child I refer to in French as my godson, mon filleul, even though I'm not officially his godmother in our ordinary American lives. E. refers to him as her godcousin: it comes closer to expressing the relationship than does "the son of her mother's friend." And G. has settled on just "cousin," for the same reason: that friend is somehow not close enough.

Living in a foreign country gives us the opportunity and also the task of explaining ourselves in a new way: in a new language, evidemment. But it's also a matter of new words. We do not have the facility with French to explain all the stories that have created these relationships, these friendships for which ami is not quite enough. So we use other French words, words that come closer to expressing the relationships we feel. Godparents: mon parraine et ma marraine. Godson: mon filleul. Aunt and uncle: ma tante et mon oncle. For once, this foreign language lets us express what we feel more accurately than our mother language does.

We are waiting, down here in the south of France, for a baby to be born up in Paris. He will be an American baby, born on French soil, and he will be a part of our family even though we are not related by blood. He will be my friend's son, my second filleul, E. and G.'s cousin, or godcousin. The words that we search for are words to express what is, maybe, in the end, beyond words in any language. How do you explain connection? How do you explain love? I don't know. But I am glad to have some French words with which to try.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Blue Danube

We went to the dentist this week. I had never been to see a dentist in France before; their brass plaques, marked Chirurgien-Dentiste, were always off-putting for me. My association with the French word for surgeon, chirurgien, is an eighteenth-century one. I picture someone with a closet full of hacksaws and anesthetic that comes from the bar on the corner. But C. felt strongly that we should do more than brush our teeth for the duration of our stay on this side, and, since the girls are a year into orthodontia treatments that are considerably beyond my powers of deduction, I agreed.

Both E. and G. took their turns with the dentist while I filled out our complete medical histories. None of us are pregnant; none of us have pulmonary disease; none of us smoke a pipe. Then it was my turn to have my visite de controle. It's not a checkup in France--a checkup is such a friendly, just looking in on your molars and by the way would you like root beer or grape flavoring in your polish? kind of word. This is a visite de controle, an inspection, an examination. This dentist wore ironed blue scrubs with rubber clogs; his wife, who ran the front of the operation, wore a white coat over street clothes, and I'm not sure whether she was actually wearing black spike-heeled leather boots or whether she just managed to convey that impression.

The examination room was space-age. A flatscreen panel was perched on an arm above the examining chair, and instead of a little tray with stainless shrink-wrapped dental tools laid out, there was a large panel that swung in front of the chair, so that the dentist could sit beside me and reach around for his tools, which were all electric and had specially designed spots where they rested on the panel. All well and good until the dentist began cleaning my teeth. Gone was the old-fashioned metal scraper I have been used to; here in the 21st century, there is a sonic cleaning tool that polishes and rubs and polishes some more, all electrically. The sound ricocheted through my head. It was like the computer Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey had moved in to my mouth.

When the cleaning was finished, it was time for an x-ray. The dentist gestured me towards a tall machine that stood against the wall. It looked a lot like the kind of hair dryer that my grandmothers used to sit under at the beauty parlor, except that you stood under it and put your chin on a platform, and then there were two panels on either side of where you put your head that revolved slowly around you. In front of where you put your chin was a mirror, the better to watch yourself being x-rayed. The machine was lavender.

The dentist adjusted my chin on the platform, gave me a plastic something or other to bite down on, and then turned on the machine and stepped out of the room. Slowly the panels began to rotate around my head, making little x-ray sorts of zips and zapping sounds. And then it began to play music, tinny, flat computer music, but music. Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube, to be exact.

There are moments living in a foreign culture in which the dislocation is particularly intense, in which the world as it is is so different from the world as you have always known it. Having an x-ray taken by a purple machine that plays The Blue Danube is absolutely one of those moments. The machine was technologically far more advanced than anything in our American dentist's office--but if that machine had been American, it would have been white, and it certainly wouldn't have played a tune. It seems a peculiarly French combination of technological savvy, an interest in style, and then that extra je ne sais quoi.

I've noticed that French women, when they dress, do not follow the style dictum that I have always been taught: before you go out, look in the mirror and take one thing off. So I emerge with either a pin or a necklace, either a scarf or a jacket. French women seem to do the opposite: look in the mirror and add one thing. So, necklaces and pins, scarves and jackets, chunky belts and high boots. I imagine the designers of the x-ray machine taking a look at their work. They've already decided to go with a soft lavender, and it takes a good x-ray, and then, you know, the mirror's a nice touch. But there's a little room left on the chip inside. Couldn't we do a little bit more? Isn't there a final uumph that the machine could use to really push it across, make it noticeable? How about...a few bars of Strauss?


It has been raining, raining, raining for the past three weeks. We will have two or three days of solid rain, and then a day or two of sun (which is good: I can hang the laundry out to dry), and then more rain. One night last weekend the rain fell so hard that it woke us up in the middle of the night.

Rain is different when you live in the country, or in the almost-country, as we do. Maybe what I should say is this: when you live in the city, you live with pavement. Water runs off the concrete and into gutters and then it is gone, and you walk along under your umbrella or, if you forgot that, under the shop awnings, and you try not to step in puddles. But aside from puddles and damp shoes, you are insulated from the wetness of the rain. The water goes away. It flows downhill, or, at any rate, into the sewer and out of your life. (Assuming, of course, that it doesn't enter your basement or your attic or your garage: but those are events that are outside of the ordinary rain experience.)

Here the rain is a force to reckon with. Not just the rain itself, falling so hard that it wakes us out of deep sleep, but the results of the rain. Rain is a cause and has effects. Our parking area is up the hill from our house and uphill from our lane--uphill in the sense of a vertical turn from the lane up and then only slightly less gradually down. Above our parking area is a once-road that is now a path leading to the village. When it rains as it has been doing, the path becomes a stream. You could play poohsticks in its current.

Our parking area and driveway are not paved; M. LaChaix, bless him, thought that pebbles would be ever so much more rustique. Well, rustic it is, and so is the inside of my car, filled with pebbles and clay that have stuck to our shoes. And so is the inside of the house: I have not yet found the doormat that will rid shoes and paws of mud and pebbles. The house is lacking in gutters--plus rustique, encore--and so when I and my muddy shoes arrive at the back door and fumble with my keys, large drops of water fall from the top of the house down the back of my jacket.

There's the laundry factor as well, with the rain. We have a clothes dryer, but it is not terribly efficace. It spins the clothes around dutifully for five or ten minutes, and then it takes a break; then starts in again; then, time for another coffee. When it eventually stops, the clothes are not so much dry as they are less wet. I haven't figured out yet if there is a button on the dryer that I could push that means, yes, REALLY DRY, please. What all that means--that and the cost of electricity and the mortgage crisis and the war in Iraq and the melting ice caps and the bottomless fall of the dollar against the euro--is that I hang our clothes outside to dry, which, thanks be to the Mediterranean sun, they do, quickly. But when it rains: ah. Then what. Then I hang the clothes in the basement, on the line that Olivier put up for me, and, two or three days later, they are mostly dry. It's given me an entirely new historical perspective. There's a dissertation out there that has yet to be written on The Problem of Wet Laundry in Early Modern Europe.

Tuesday morning I received a welcome jolt of perspective on my troubles with the rain. The gardener from the villa below ours on the hill knocked on the door.

Il y a un petit ruisseau, there is a little stream, he said, that is flowing from the terrace at the bottom of your garden down the hill into the olive grove and, after that, into the vineyard.

What he did not say, because he did not need to, was this: the petit ruisseau was issuing forth from the place where our epandage, our leechfield, lies. The little stream was not some natural spring flowing forth because of the excess rain. The stream was flowing out of our septic system.

I went and found Olivier. He went to the bottom of our garden and stepped down into the public right-of-way path that runs between our us and the next villa. The gardener was waiting. I stood under our olive trees and looked down at the two men as they talked and gestured, and I looked at the stream. This ruisseau had current, too, though you might not want to play poohsticks in it. It was several feet wide, and flowed from a hole in the side of the terrace that supports the end of our garden, across the seriously muddy path, under a half dozen olive trees, and then found a level spot under several rows of grape vines, where the runoff from the leechfield was pooling into several giant puddles. If they were to press these grapes, they could call the wine Cote d'Epandage, and sell it someplace where no one speaks French septic.

For those of you following along at home, you will remember this is not the first difficulty that our septic system has wrought. Olivier and the gardener stood and conferred, and I heard Olivier say that no, this time, after they had entirely reconstructed the leechfield, everything was, or should be, up to code, tout en regle. But still: should there be this much water flowing out from the system? And was it really for the best that it flow into the vineyard below?

The next morning the rain was back, and I saw Olivier go down to the bottom of the garden and meet a man in the path. They stood under their umbrellas for a while and watched the water flow. I asked him later if the plumber had come about the septic.

The plumber? He looked blank.

I reminded him. I saw you talking to him this morning, next to the ruisseau.

Ah, yes. That was not the plumber, Olivier smiled. That was the geologist.

We have graduated from plumbers to geologists. I don't know what can be done about our stream. There's been a lot of rain, and the leechfield can only hold so much water, and after that, well, water flows downhill. Downhill, in our case, across a public path and into a vineyard. But if anyone could make water flow uphill, then I'm sure it would be a Frenchman.

Monday, January 14, 2008


We live within an hour or two of several ski resorts--and not just bunny slopes, places where the Olympics have been held within recent memory. C. and the girls have gotten themselves all outfitted with ski gear and went off on New Year's Ever for a successful day on the slopes.

Yesterday morning they went off again. At about noon I answered the phone:

Hi, Mommy. E. had been deputized to call.

How's the skiing? I pictured them mid-mountain at the resort.

Oh, we didn't go skiing because of the avalanche. We went for a hike instead. We're going to have lunch now. Bye!

And then a dial tone. I sat down for a minute or two. Evidently they were all fine. Had the avalanche happened on the road? At the resort? On the slope as they were skiing down it? E.'s brevity, while admirable, did leave some room for questions.

Turns out that the entire resort was shut down because of an avalanche; the road itself was closed. They tried to go to another resort instead, but so did everyone else. The traffic was impossible. So they went for a hike, and stopped off at an auberge for French Sunday lunch (picture considerably more than a slice of pizza), and came home early. Tired, satisfied, with another story to tell. And if I had just a little more grey hair--it hadn't occured to me, before, to put avalanches on my list of maternal cares--well, I think it was worth it. Probably.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Scenes from the life

The other day I went with the English ladies to Frejus, a town on the coast an hour or so from here, and we looked in at the cathedral while we were there. The Cathedrale St-Leonce de Frejus was built in the Middle Ages on the site of an earlier church, which was, in turn, built on the site of a Roman temple, and chances are good that the Romans just threw up some columns on the site of a local shrine that was already there when they pulled into town. It is a textbook example, to my only slightly schooled eye, of Romanesque architecture. That means, for those of you who have left your art history textbooks in the next room, that the arches are round instead of pointy. Think about the front of Notre Dame, or, for that matter, of Duke Chapel: pointy arches = Gothic architecture, which came into fashion a couple of centures after Frejus' cathedral was already open for business.

I took a turn around the nave--the mandatory nativity was still set up, with Mary and Joseph and the baby in their stable tranquilly receiving the three kings, some shepherds, and local Frejusian dignitaries dressed in their provencal best--and then there were monuments to the fallen, and monuments to bishops, and a few large paintings made in the 1500s or 1600s. It was one of these last that caught my eye: an unsigned Scènes de la vie de la Vierge, Scenes from the Life of the Virgin.

The large oil canvas shows Mary seated at the center front, with the baby Jesus in her lap. Just behind Mary, over her left shoulder, an elderly Joseph is reclining on a fainting couch. At her right, her kinswoman and friend Elizabeth is perched, with her little boy, John the Baptist, standing in front of her. Behind Elizabeth a couple of ladies in sixteenth-century court gowns are looking on, presumably because they are the ones who paid for this painting; overhead, assorted cherubim flit through the skies. It's a standard okay church painting, better than some but a long way from Raphael.

I started to walk on by, but then looked back. Mary was doing something I don't think I've ever seen her do: she was reading. Or trying to, anyway. Jesus, at about seven months, was squirming in her lap, wearing nothing but his diaper--it had been that kind of day--and Mary was using her left hand to hold him in her lap and prevent him from reaching over and grabbing a big handful of John the Baptist's hair. Joseph, over her shoulder, was leaning forward with his left hand extended, about thirty seconds away from asking if she had seen his keys and wallet. Elizabeth, on the other side, was leaning up to Mary's ear; she and John the Baptist, who, at about 18 months, was clearly in his dressing up like a lion phase, had just looked in so that Elizabeth could tell Mary what she had heard down at the well. And John the Baptist was, with one hand, reaching up to pull Jesus down to the floor while, with his foot, he threatened to kick over Mary's basket of mending.

And, in the midst of all this, Mary had a book in her right hand. She was holding it open just in front and to the right of her face, and was looking, not at Joseph or Jesus or Elizabeth or John, but at the pages. She wasn't showing the book to Jesus--she wasn't the instructive, devout, listen-up sinners kind of Mary that so often turns up in portraits--she was reading, silently, to herself, for herself. And the look on her face said: just let me finish this paragraph. I'll find your keys and get the baby dressed and I'll do the mending and go in the kitchen and make some tea for our visit, Elizabeth, and the boys can play together, but just let me finish this one paragraph first.

Scenes from the life, indeed. I wonder if women, at least, those who were lucky enough to know how to read, nudged each other four hundred years ago when they saw this painting. The English ladies and I stood in front of the painting and laughed, and talked about it on our way home that afternoon. It was ever thus: we all had known moments exactly like that, when the whole world seemed to be clamoring for our attention and we just wanted another moment or two to ourselves.

I like to picture reading Mary going to the Nazareth public library and browsing the shelves, and coming home every week with a new stack of books to keep her brain busy while she looked after her little boy. And I like that she was finishing that paragraph.

Monday, January 7, 2008


The day before New Year's Eve we went to do our shopping. It was cold and rainy, and the barometric pressure was changing; my personal barometer, the one that I carry in my sinuses, was throbbing hard with the effort of recalibrating. The grocery store was busy with extended families--grandparents who live here, parents and their children who had just arrived to spend New Year's--and with vacationers. (If someone is dressed for the city and has more than two bottles of alcohol, not wine, then he goes in the rented-a-house-and-came-down-for-the-holiday category.) From the atmosphere, any American would have deduced that snow was predicted. There was a sense of urgency, of buy it now, of stocking up. But there was no snow in the forecast--just more rain, and a fermeture exceptionelle for the holiday. New Year's Eve--la Reveillon--seems as much an event as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; in fact, the stores are closed longer. And so the rush.

I left everyone in the grocery store and went next door to the bakery hoping for a little less jostling. The line was to the door. Strangers, mostly: a well-turned out woman in city shoes ordering all the pots de creme in stock in clipped, abrupt Parisian French; a German man pointing to the eclairs; English visitors ordering one of most everything. There were one or two locals, an elderly lady in her old cloth coat, sons or husbands who had run out for baguettes for Sunday lunch. Supplies were dropping; the bakery would close for the day within the hour. When it was my turn in line, the boulanger, my friend, took charge of me.

Ah, Washington. Ca va? He has taken to calling me Washington. Qu'est que vous voudriez? What would you like?

I ordered two baguettes and we both turned to look at the baguettes bin behind the cash register. Two overcooked loaves leaned in the corner, the only ones that remained.

The baker turned back to me. Do you have other errands to do? He checked his watch. The fresh bread will be ready in just a few minutes, you could come back...As he spoke, there was a commotion at the back of the shop, and the fresh bread came through the door. Our bakery does its baking up the hill, and so the fresh goods arrive several times a day by truck.

Ah, here it is now. The baker smiled. Vous voyez, madame, je pense toujours de vous. You see, madame, I am always thinking of you.

I smiled, handed over my coins, and took the baguettes, so warm that I felt their heat through my gloves.

Outside, I found C. He broke off the end of a baguette, tore it in half, and we walked back to the car in the rain eating bread that was half a hillside out of the oven. The weather was still changing--my sinuses still ached--but at least I was not a stranger. I belonged, in some fashion, more than the others, more, even, than the Parisian lady with her pots de creme. The baker, he is always thinking of me.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Christmas lights began going up at the beginning of November, and I expect they will come down next week, when school starts again and the holidays are over. But what lights they have been. We have been used to fairly effulsive Christmas lights and attendant decorations in America, from the tasteful and restrained wreaths (with bows that match the sofa inside) of our city neighborhood to the nativities shaped out of chicken wire in parts of my hometown. And, always, the flourishes that decorate lampposts and line busy streets: bells, stars, candles, the bells always silver or gold, the stars always white, the candles generally yellow but occasionally venturing towards red or green. Everywhere we've lived in America the decorations have been about the same, like they are all turned out by some company in Kansas that uses the same designers as Hallmark, and all the designers have agreed on the same model of a Currier and Ives Christmas.

We are not in Kansas anymore. Every village has its own set of lights and its own interpretation of the holiday, and I have not seen any repeats. Valbonne, across the valley and over the hill, has strung white and blue stars across its narrow pedestrian streets; the white stars alternate lighting up with the blue. Along the main road there is a string of white light bulbs that swings between the plane trees, and a sign over the road that wishes all who pass beneath it Joyeuses Fetes. Biot, on the far side of the valley, went Valbonne one better: its illuminated sign across the main road reads: Le Village de Biot Vous Souhaite des Bonnes Fetes, while Mougins, home to a lot of English expats, chose Mougins Vous Souhaite Joyeux Noel Happy Christmas, for those non-French speakers who don't have time to consult a dictionary while driving.

Up the hill in Le Rouret, the church is outlined in blue lights and the sign between the church and the town hall is trimmed in quantities of white tinsel: Joyeuses Fetes, but this time in block letters instead of the more staid and evidently traditional cursive. Opio, our nearest village, chose the tasteful, understated 2008 in lights over the first rond point, and Bonnes Fetes over the second. The Opio church tower is outlined in lights, and, at the top of the tower, there is a--probably it is a star, but really, it looks like an asterisk, or an enormous jack from a child's game, and each spoke lights up in turn until they are all lit, and then it flashes a few times before going dark and beginning again.

The merchants at the rond point where we are regular customers all pooled together for their decorations. They took plastic mineral water bottles and cereal boxes and wrapped them in red and gold shiny paper, and strung them from the evergreens. They covered the plane trees with blue flashing lights and fat red tinsel garlands. They hung Santas from every possible place-- windows, lamp posts, archways--an addition that is somewhat startling if your (American) Santa climbs down the chimney from the rooftop instead of up the house on a rope or a ladder, as does Pere Noel. When the nylon Santa dolls, clinging to their ropes or ladders, twist in the wind, it is hard not to think of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, and if you are looking for cultural dislocation, well, there you are. Figures of men hanging from lampposts, windowsills, sides of houses are just Santas in this part of the world, and, if someone lit a cross in their front yard, it might be for the light and warmth (I'll let you know at Easter).

The overall effect at our shops was of decorations done by slightly intoxicated preschoolers: irregular, awkward, asymmetrical, unselfconscious, joyous. Even the Santas. Wherever the merchants bought the first few Santas must have sold out, because they are all different, different material, different sizes, even different shapes. So I think that there was not a plan for this last July, or ten Julys ago. They went out and bought what they needed, when they needed it, and if they could get by without buying something, then they did. No Christmas decoration catalogue came in the mail from Kansas. No one with an MBA did a study that showed that we would all spend more money if there was an extra Pellegrino mineral water bottle wrapped in shiny red paper and dangling from a tree. Decorating for Christmas is an American import, I know, but it has changed into something very French: beauty and decoration for their own sake, not for profit.

All season the village decorations have been reminding me of something and finally last night I figured out what it was. The girls had gone to a friend's house for a slumber party, and C. and I went looking for a restaurant open on New Year's night. We walked down a street that was decorated in white and gold and red squiggles, all lit up and bobbing in the breeze, and I thought of Whoville. Such an American connection to make: Dr. Seuss's Grinch. Whoville in the Christmas cartoon of my childhood was covered in just the sort of random, bizarre, brightly colored decorations as we have enjoyed for the past few weeks. The decorations are Seussian--Seussian gothic, maybe, if you include the Santas.

I had worried a little about putting on Christmas in a foreign country, away from all of our usual traditions, worried that it wouldn't feel like Christmas. But I think it worked. Family and friends who are family came, and we decorated and cooked and talked and ate and talked some more, which is what we always do, and, what was different, we hiked and went to museums and open-air markets. And on Christmas Eve we went outside and looked up at the stars and drank eggnog, and came inside and sang carols that we knew by heart. So we honored the holiday.

And, as I think back over it, our holiday itself seems Seussian. Without all the parties and shopping and rushing around that have been such a feature of Christmas, we celebrated anyway. I have always loved the ending of the Grinch. When the Whos gather around the tree in the village place and sing Welcome, Christmas! come this way, my eyes always well up. And here, in this strange new place, festooned with beribboned water bottles and Santas hanging from the lamp posts, I have felt like a Who: Welcome, Christmas! Bring your cheer. Welcome all Whos, far and near. Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.