Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Les flâneurs

We went up to the Alps last week, and while the girls and C. skiied, I wandered around the village and followed hiking trails. Sunday morning I walked up a snowy trail that ended, as it turned out, where several ski runs of varying difficulty came together into a broad piste that led down the mountain. I was wearing my warmest boots--Bean boots that were designed for milking Maine cows on winter mornings--and so I stood there and watched the skiers for a while.

The traffic on the slopes was steady. Our region was ending its first week of the two-week vacances de ski that every school in France has in February, and Paris and its region had begun its vacances a day earlier. A word about school holidays: French school vacations are staggered, with the country divided into three regions. Over a four-week period, every school child in France has two weeks off. Region A has the first two weeks, then beginning at the end of Region A's first week, Region B has two weeks; when Region A goes back to school and Region B begins week two, Region C begins week one of its vacation. And every year the order in which the regions have their vacations changes. Brought to you by the people who put 100 centimeters in a meter.

Meanwhile, back on the mountain, it was more crowded than it had been a day or two before. Not only had Parisians arrived on Saturday, but schools in Britain had begun their vacation as well. From where I was standing--well to the side of the slope, out of everyone's way--skiers came down the mountain from three directions. I watched for a while, guessing who was French and who was English (not hard: the French are better dressed, even on skis), guessing who was going to fall, guessing who was together.

Then I heard French voices close at hand, and not skiing voices. Walking voices. I turned, and three couples were walking down from the nearest ski lift. They were of a certain age--the men were mostly grey and the women mostly carefully tinted. They were not carrying skis; they were in their tenue de ville: street clothes. The women were sleek in tight jeans, turtlenecks, tailored down jackets, and boots dripping in fur and shearling. The men were in street shoes, jeans, and cashmere. Two of them had corduroy blazers slung over their shoulders. And there they all went, along the center of the slope.

This is why nonchalant is a French word. Like a good Calvinist, I was following the rules I thought existed, standing well off to the side, making sure not to get in the way of anyone's skiing, and dressed--well, at least I wasn't wearing my circa 1991 Easter-egg blue bell-bottomed nylon pants. The Bean boots were warm and sturdy and utterly lacking in style. If I had worn them into a French dairy barn, even the cows would have rolled their eyes. I had on my purple parka that is one size too big, a faux-shearling hat from a New York street vendor, hand-me-down gloves. But these French, they were strolling along as if walking down a ski slope in loafers and cashmere was the most natural thing in the world.

As I watched, they came to a steeper bit--it was, after all, a ski slope--and there was a little giggling among the women as they picked their way down it. Two of the men did not even break stride as they turned, put their blazers down on the snow, sat down, and slid down to the less steep bit. All the while talking, talking, gesturing, probably about the economy although, maybe, just about lunch.

They moved out of sight for a few minutes, and I was distracted by someone falling further up the mountain. When that person had found her skis, though, I turned back, and moved a little so that I could see where the walkers were. I figured they would have moved to the side of the slope--lower down, it was full of skiers, some of whom were going pretty fast. But when I looked, they were ambling down the center of the piste, chatting amiably. As though they were walking down an allee in the jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Skiers, meanwhile, who had started a half mile or more up the mountain, were swerving around them on either side.

In French there is a verb, flâner, which translates as to stroll. Except that it doesn't really translate. Americans--I can't speak for the English--have a hard time strolling. It is so...aimless. So unfocussed. We need to have a place to go, a destination. Even if we make one up, we still have to be going somewhere. Our history does not encourage strolling. We are a nation of Calvinists who must not squander our time, and of immigrants who have to chase down the next opportunity. If we do stroll, then we are self-conscious about it. We are rebelling against our parents, our teachers, our history books and Sunday-school lessons.

But in France you see flaneurs all the time. Whole families on Sunday afternoons, out for a stroll, children running ahead, grandmothers lagging behind looking at the neighbor's delphiniums, young couples hand in hand. Fathers and grandfathers often get left behind at the boules court, which seems to me to be an entire sport organized around the principle of strolling back and forth. Unself-conscious. Breathing the air, right now, and being present, right here. Nevermind the skiers and their tight turns. It's a lovely morning, there's snow in the Alps, the sun is shining, there will be good things for lunch. A good time to take a stroll.

I thought about it for a while, and then I turned and walked back down the way I had come up. Small steps.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Saint Honorat

The girls came with me hiking today. Since September, I've hiked most Tuesdays with a group of women from the international women's club: women older than I am, sometimes by a generation, sometimes by a few years, from England, mostly, but also France and Germany and Scandinavia.

These are women whom it is easy to imagine standing up in their horse's stirrups and calling the hounds. Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia comes to mind. Sturdy, practical, the sort of women who would not hesitate to take a gadabout nephew--or husband, or friend, or country--to task, who, in between trips to look after ailing parents or grown children in crisis, meet up on Tuesday mornings for a day's hike and picnic. If there is a birthday, expect champagne.

I joined the group on the recommendation of a Swedish neighbor who, having made the suggestion, went back to Sweden to look after her father and whom I have not seen since. I--who am not a joiner--disciplined myself to go the first few times, reasoning that the exercise was good, the fresh air even better, and that I could learn the area by hiking. All of that has turned out to be true, of course. The bonus is this: that these women have taken me in, and drawn me out, and made a place for me among them.

So today E. and G. came along. They are at the beginning of yet another school vacation, the vacances de ski. I asked the leader of the hiking group--a woman so formidable she would make Bertie's Aunt Dahlia wilt on the vine--if I might bring the girls along, and she, having ascertained that they had hiked before and had appropriate shoes--agreed. I bought two small backpacks for them to carry (something new always helps), and we packed one of our favorite picnics: roast chicken, camembert, baguettes, and fruit. And they baked chocolate chip cookies to bring along to share. We managed to wake up, get dressed, run the dogs, pack our packs, and arrived in Valbonne on time at 9:00.

Our hike was in the coastal mountains. Red rocks loomed above us, the Mediterranean lay below, with the Iles de Lerins in the bay out from Cannes, and occasional sailboats wafting along. The sun was strong today, at least, strong for February. We started uphill, and first Sue walked along talking to the girls. Then a stop for water, and, after, Maggie. After Maggie: Rosalynde. Then a long and steep uphill, back and forth around the mountain, and Maggie, again, making bets with G. about when we would arrive at the top. Arriving at the top, and lunchtime: Annsofi had kept a place for us and we picnicked together. There was a birthday, and champagne; Pauline had just come back from Scotland, and brought shortbread to pass around; Judy distributed almond cake from a friend's patisserie; G. and E. circulated the chocolate chip cookies. We sat in the sun and feasted.

Down steep and narrow stone stairs from our picnic spot was a shrine, a cave in the rock's face. More than a thousand years ago Saint Honorat sheltered there. It was in a time before Christianity established order in the area, and after the Romans and their order had fallen apart. Saracens threatened from the sea, and unknown barbarian tribes from the north. Life was probably as hard on this coast then as it has ever been. Honoratus had started off in the north of Gaul, the son of a well-to-do family, and had converted to Christianity and headed south, aiming for the Holy Land. He got there, after assorted misadventures, and then headed back towards France, probably for the baked goods. Arriving here, he was well-respected in some circles--but reviled in enough that he climbed up this trail and sought sanctuary in this cave for a while. And now it is a shrine.

We ducked to enter the cave. Along a low ledge at the back were offerings to the saint: plastic flowers, notes, a book or two, a Byzantine-looking triptych with Jesus in the center, flanked by two saints, one of them presumably Honoratus. There was a photograph of Mother Theresa, and other photos, too, of ordinary, unknown people, even of a soccer team: Saint Honorat, pray for us, 2006. It was cold and damp and though it did not feel holy to me, I could feel that it was holy for all the people who had come here searching for answers or help or peace.

Today was primary day where we come from. We sent in our ballots last week, voting absentee, of course. We have liked being an ocean away from this election. The last eight years have been hard years to be American--probably part of the reason that we find ourselves here, now. We came looking for a pause from American politics. A moment of distance and detente. A regrouping. And so we read about this election, so important, from afar, and we try to explain what we think about it to each other, and to our French friends, and to our girls. What we feel, mostly, is proud. And we dare to hope. And, then, we feel anxious: what if, what if, what if.

So I imagine young Honoratus climbing up this hill and hiding out and waiting for the time to be right, maybe for the local priest to change, maybe for the Saracens to sail off, maybe for the rain to come, or the rain to go. When he came down from his mountaintop, Honoratus sailed out to the Iles de Lerins and founded a monastery that became, in time, the most powerful monastery in Provence.

We walked back up the stairs, joined the group, and walked down the hill. Annsofi decided the hike was going on too long, and started singing songs with E. and G., and telling stories and laughing. The girls were happy; we were all happy. The mimosas and the rosemary were blooming, and even a little early lavender. We wound down the hill, a colorful procession of women from 12 to 70. These women are kind. Sturdy and strong willed and impressionantes, and kind to children and newcomers. Sanctuaries come in different forms.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Olivier is back. And just in time: two toilets sound like decompressing scuba divers when they are flushed, and the kitchen door knob keeps falling off in my hand. Our house, which Violette, the femme de menage, has taken to calling "la maison catastrophe," is clearly not ready to be weaned of a more or less full time caretaker.

Olivier was away because his mother died. Jules was here when it happened and informed us breezily. She was 85, it seems, and in poor health. C. immediately asked about funeral arrangements, and Jules said, But no, of course we didn't need to go to Olivier's mother's funeral. It simply wasn't done. Now, when he, Jules, died, that would be another story. We should come to the funeral and then come and drink champagne afterwards.

We were not so sure. In America, we would go to the funeral, but I remembered reading somewhere in my foreigners-in-France research that funerals were really only attended by family and close friends. Which we were not: just fond and grateful acquaintances of the bereaved. C. disagreed. We could play the American card, he thought: go to the funeral, and if it turned out that we were the only outsiders present, well, everyone would understand that, after all, we meant well. For my part, I pictured a coffin, Olivier, his wife and children, a priest, and us, lurking behind a column. We agreed that we would ask around.

C. asked his French teacher Monday morning. She pulled out her Nice-Matin, turned to the funerals page, and read the announcement. The time and place of the funeral were listed. Colette reasoned, thus, that we could appropriately go. That it would be the right thing to do. C. phoned in her verdict.

I asked my French teacher. Before I even got to the end of my question, Marcelle's NO came through the cell phone. She hadn't gone to the funeral of her best friend's grandmother. On no account should we go to the funeral of a woman we had never met. French people simply didn't do that. I hung up and then phoned C. back.

He was unconvinced. I asked the gardienne at the College des Vignes. The funeral had been announced in the newspaper; we were quite fond of our caretaker; should we go? She patted my arm. Of course we should go, the family would appreciate it, it would be so kind.

The score was two to one. I phoned Violette. Should we go?

No! Of course not! Did M. LaChaix tell you you had to go to the funeral? Absolutely not.

I hung up the phone meekly. It rang again. It was the French mother of one of the girls' friends, and I explained the situation to her. Hmmm, she said. She had never actually been in this situation before, but she would consult her etiquette books and call me back.

My American self always knows exactly what to do when a friend has a crisis. I bake cakes, make coffee, send flowers, write notes, show up and sing soparano loud on all the hymns. I absorbed all those skills with the recipe for macaroni and cheese, and how to thread a needle, and how to find a book in a library. But: new country, new culture, new customs. Olivier has been so kind to us that I wanted to do right by him. I did not want to play the American card. I wanted to play as French a card as I could.

My friend phoned back. She had a report from her etiquette books. Since the family had announced the time and place of the funeral, it was understood that people outside the immediate family circle were welcome to attend.

Okay, I thought, then we'll go.

But, she said, it is sometimes customary for those attending the service to wait outside of the church until the family arrives, and then follow the family inside. Alternatively, sometimes only the proches, the extended family and friends, waited on the sidewalk for the immediate family to arrive, and everyone else waited in the sanctuary. Unless the extended family and friends waited at the back of the church, and the immediate family formed a receiving line when they arrived with the coffin, and all the attendees greeted the family before entering the sanctuary for the service.

Oh. I thanked her for her research and we hung up.

When C. came home that evening, I suggested that we send flowers. With a note. And he could ask Colette what to write on the note: I had learned all I wanted to know about French funeral etiquette for one day.

C. reported the next day that he had sent the flowers. I had wondered how to sign the card: la famille -----? Would Olivier remember the names on the mailbox? As it happened, C. simply signed our first names, a very un-French way of doing things, but, there it was, the American card.

That was last week. We thought of Olivier on the day of the funeral, and were glad for him that there was sun. Then, over the weekend, the house began to creak a bit, and the toilets began to sing, and yesterday when the poignee came off in my hand I began to hope earnestly that Olivier would be back soon.

E. stayed home with a small cold today, and this morning the dogs and I took her out for a walk up the lane. We met Olivier and Luigi coming along in the car on their way to the hardware store. Olivier had the passenger side door open before Luigi stopped the car; when Luigi did manage to pull the car over into a wider spot, Olivier was out of the car and thanking me before the engine was turned off.

We, my family and I, were tres, tres touches by your gracious gesture. It was very kind, very kind indeed, and we were grateful. It was very, very gracious, very gentil of you.

He shook my hand, and, while I tried to keep from going over the edge of the road and down a terrace--the dogs had spotted a cat and were pulling me towards it--kept on thanking me.

No, no, I said, trying to recall the right words that would accept and also turn away gratitude. It was a formula that I had heard more than once, and it was just at the edge of my mind. Then it broke through.

No, no, I said. C'est normale.

It was what Olivier said to me when I tried to thank him for kindnesses. And it worked. He stopped, and smiled, and turned to speak to E.

I had played the French card.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Jules was here the week before last. I stepped out of the kitchen door to pull a few more weeds out of the rosemary bed, and he was striding down the terraces. I walked up to meet him.

We went through our standard embrace--a kiss on each cheek--and then he remarked that although he had not seen me in a month, I was as beautiful as ever.

I was wearing my red rubber boots from Ikea, dirty jeans, and a 10 euro pullover. My hair was pulled back in a ponytail and I'm fairly certain it had a few small weeds in it.

Jules wants to learn Spanish, because that is his grandsons' first language, and he always has updates for me on his struggles with the language. He had a new theory--he usually does--and it was one he had tried out, he told me, on Caroline, his wife. What he wanted to do, Jules said, was go and live in Spain for six months with--he beamed down at me--une jolie fille comme toi, a pretty girl like you. Then his Spanish would be perfect, n'est pas? And why should Caroline worry about that? Hein? I should go and tell Caroline that she would have nothing at all to worry about, rien du tout. He elbowed me and waggled his eyebrows.

Just as I was trying to stop blushing and put together a pithy response, Jules checked his watch. Mon dieu, Caroline is going to be very angry with me. She is making lunch and it will be hot and if I'm not there in time that will be the end of it for me! Jules beat a hasty retreat back up the terraces, but not before a farewell embrace. After all, it might be as long as an afternoon before we saw each other again.

The flirtatious impulse must be instilled from birth in French men. That same morning I had been in line at the hardware store--not some charming quaint old-world place with shelves going up to the ceiling and a sliding ladder, but a box store in something very like suburban sprawl. A small elderly Frenchman, dapper in a hat and tweed jacket, was in front of me, and when he turned away with his purchases he dropped his receipt. I picked it up and called to him; he turned back, and, as he took the receipt from me, smiled, held my hand for a moment, looked up into my eyes, and said, Merci, mademoiselle.

On the downslope from 70 and reflexively making eyes at a woman young enough to be his daughter: it's admirable, really.

I've talked to other women, French, American, and English, and it's the same for all of us. We can hardly step out our kitchen doors without a man--the electrician, the man in line at the store, the butcher, the baker, no doubt the candlestick-maker, too--flirting with us. It's charming; it's fun; it's flattering; it's also, for me, a little unsettling. I teethed on Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and spent the first two decades of adulthood correcting people when they referred to women as girls. Now suddenly my native feminism is hors sujet, as French schoolteachers say. It's off topic. Irrelevant.

It is another kind of cultural dislocation, like shops closing for two hours in the middle of the day and being able to buy rabbit in the supermarket. In America, at least in the life we led there, femininity was a costume my friends and I could put on and take off. We could decide: today I'm going to be noticeable and flirtatious; today I'm not. Here it is not a decision, not a choice but a constant. Red rubber boots and a sloppy ponytail are nothing to hide behind, and a pretty girl, of whatever age, is always worth the detour.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


On Thursday a sign went up on the wall at the bottom of the steps leading to the bakery: Crepes, Face Painting, and Free Hot Chocolate on Saturday. It was, I'm sure I need hardly mention, hand-written on poster board, the letters loopy and uneven and surrounded by someone's idea of festive squiggles. I thought it a little mysterious--why have a celebration this Saturday instead of last, or next?--but accepted it. Crepes and hot chocolate are never a bad thing, and a good way to start February.

Then yesterday I had coffee with an American woman who has several French decades under her belt, and she mentioned that Chandeleur was this weekend. She recalled making crepes for fete, and a game where you held a coin in one hand and a crepe pan, with a crepe in the other. If you could flip the crepe in the pan successfully without dropping it or the coin, then you would have good luck in the coming year--at least in your crepe-making endeavors, she added wryly. That explained the crepes at centre commercial.

My American friend didn't remember what Chandeleur was about, besides the crepes, so I looked it up: it is the Catholic festival of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Jesus. Which means: Christmas is about six weeks ago, and that would make Jesus six weeks closer to sleeping through the night and Mary closer to feeling like a human. So that was the religious story. The parallel story had to do with winter, and light, and warmth. I found a list of French proverbs: À la Chandeleur, l'hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur. At Chandeleur, winter stops or strengthens. Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte. Snowcover on Chandeleur, forty days lost--probably until crops could be planted.

It seems wrong to complain about winter when we live on the Cote d'Azur. The ground is not frozen, and the world is turning green again because of all the rain, and now the mimosa trees are blooming, great masses of tiny yellow blossoms. So it is hard to define this as winter.

But it is dark. Since December, our alarm clocks have been going off in the dark. We have eaten dinner in the dark. C. has not needed his sunglasses to drive to and from the office: it has been dark both going and coming back. I am conscious of how much further north we live here than in America. And, even without the usual winter cold, I feel that familiar February impatience, restlessness, longing for warmth, and longing for light.

When I read the French proverbs for Chandeleur, I realized that our crepes at the rond-point were the second cousins of Punxatawney Phil. It's French Groundhog Day. Somebody went off to America a few centuries ago and maybe they forgot their crepe pan, and now, here, we have crepes and are grateful not to have snow on the ground, and, across the ocean, people look out for groundhogs. It is the same impulse: needing a sign that winter will end and light will return. It's like finding out that the stranger you just met is actually the person your friend was telling you about the other day.

With due respect to Mary and Jesus and getting through the first six weeks, I have a feeling that the need to mark this day--seven weeks, after all, after the winter solstice--may reach back further in time. Chandeleur became part of the liturgical calendar in about 500, but it had been winter at this time of year, and dark and cold, a long time before that. Maybe the Gauls were restless and eager for light, too; maybe by this point in the season, they needed a fete to pick up their spirits. Maybe Chandeleur, like so many of the churches in our area, has pre-Roman foundations.

E. and G. and I went up to the rond point this morning and shared a crepe. The commercants were taking turns at the crepe stand and, while the girls waited in line, I went over to the presse to buy a newspaper. The man next to me grumbled about the headlines, gloom and doom, as always, he said, but he seemed to be grumbling for form's sake. It was sunny and, if you stayed out of the wind, warm. The smell of warm crepes was in the air, and little children were walking around with rainbows painted on their cheeks, and the headlines seemed like they were happening a long way away.

The girls and I sat down on a bench with the sun warming our backs and shared bites of the hot crepe, the chocolate oozing out and getting on our fingers and coats despite our best efforts. People were standing around in small groups, greeting each other, shaking hands, watching the children. The sun was shining and the sky was almost cloudless. Winter may not be done with us yet, but it will be soon. There is cause for optimism.