Monday, April 28, 2008

Sunday outing

Colette, C's French teacher, invited us up to her village yesterday. She lives an hour or so north of here; the population of her village is about 400, but half of those are summer people. It is a lovely place, perched between a high granite face and a canyon, 50 or so small stone buildings sheltering together on a half dozen streets. There is a bakery, a bar, a crêperie, a school, a church, a château (in ruins), a town hall, and two fountains. And a monument aux morts: there's one in every French village, listing the names of those who died in the First World War and then, added on 25 years later, the names of those who died in the Second.

It was at the monument that the village had business yesterday. Colette had told us that there was to be a wreath-laying ceremony. She is newly elected to the conseil municipal, and so she had to go. The plan was for us to come along and then all go on a picnic and hunt for wild mushrooms. I am always up for a ceremony, and especially one outside in the village square, so off we went. C. didn't know exactly what the wreath was for--he thought maybe something about the war in Algeria--but we were up for anything.

The temperature an hour north and a hundred meters higher was colder than it was here, and it was cloudy. We met Colette at her house in the village and walked over to the monument together. A couple of dozen people were standing around visiting, gossiping, chatting about this and that. Mostly they were older people, people of a certain age, in solid, dark, sensible clothes, worn in layers against the wind. But there were children and parents, too, the children running around the village lavoir--the elevated pool in every village where everyone did their laundry for centuries, before Whirlpool and electricity--and squealing, the parents checking their watches and thinking about nap time. There was an umbrella set up on the terrace above us, and under the umbrella, a small sound system, with a man to operate it. A microphone stood on a stand in front of the monument.

The monument in Colette's village is little more than a small obelisk, set aside with a low wrought-iron fence and a couple of pots of marigolds. Two dozen names from 1914-1918 are inscribed on the monument: 24 young men from a village of a few hundred. It must have been almost the entire generation, and many of the young men from the same families. Fewer names from the second war, because France fell so quickly. There was a large spray of gerbera daisies, snapdragons, roses, and greenery, done up in a tricolor ribbon, and pinned with the carte of the florist we used when Olivier's mother died. The spray was resting outside the monument's enclosure.

At a quarter to twelve, the conseil municipal members walked over to the microphone, and the rest of the villagers fell back to a respectful distance. We stood at the edge of the crowd next to the village vegetable garden. The mayor stepped to the microphone.

We gather here on the fourth Sunday of every April for a terrible reason, to remember a horrible thing, he began. We remember today all those who were deported from France under the Nazi occupation, all those who were the victims of racism and oppression, and were sent from France to horrible deaths.

I could not get a lot of it: distortion in the microphone, and accent, and then, of course, it was in French. But I know the mayor talked about the horror of the Holocaust, and the shame of France, and he talked, too, about all those today who suffer under unjust governments, all those who suffer because of prejudice and racism and hatred. Then, after only a few minutes, he stopped. He handed his speech to the conseilleur behind him, and walked up to the monument and lifted the spray over the low wrought iron fence and placed it at the base of the obelisk. Then the mayor went back to the microphone and asked for a moment of silence to honor the deportees.

Behind the conseil, parapentes floated through the air, people attached to giant brightly-colored parachutes slowly coasting on wind currents to a gentle landing in the large fields at the edge of the village. One of the village children got the giggles, and his father shushed him. E slipped her hand into mine, and G leaned a little against my other side. At the end of the minute, the sound man turned a switch, and there was a prerecorded drum roll. Then--just as you would expect--there came the Marseillaise. The recording was a little scratchy, and it was of a man with a strong baritone voice singing. Not an operatic voice. Maybe it was Maurice Chevalier; maybe it was Charles Trenet, someone who played into the dramatic potential of the hymn. No one sang along--everyone listened soberly, the way you would listen to the soloist at a funeral--except for the elderly woman standing next to us. She was about E and G's size, with short white hair, thick glasses, thicker-soled shoes, a sensible skirt, sweater and blouse. She carried a handful of yellow roses, held together at the base with a damp paper towel and aluminum foil. She sang in a sturdy soprano and blinked a little as she did, looking straight ahead.

And then it was over. I walked over to look down into the village gardens and collect myself. E followed me. Write about this, she said. You have to write about this. And so here it is, E. But I can't say anything more about it than what it was. What do you say about such a great sorrow, what more can you say than Colette's friend the mayor said? You say it was a horrible thing; you say it was wrong; you say we must not let it happen again. And then you listen to one of the great hymns of liberty, and you collect the children before they fall in the lavoir, and you speak to your neighbors, and you go home.

We went on a picnic in the forest, and didn't find any mushrooms. But G found half a stag's rack of antlers, and Colette's daughter climbed some trees. Colette and C and I looked at wildflowers and listened to the silence, the silence that was interrupted only by our children calling out now and again, and the wind in the treetops, and two cuckoos calling to each other.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Country Spring

This week we are in the full blush of spring. I have been used to city springs: banks of azaleas in outrageous colors under specimen trees that bloom in glorious planned sequence from March to May, bulb gardens carefully laid out in colors and patterns that delight the asphalt-accustomed eye. Too much heat too early can bring it all on too fast; too much rain can wash it all away; a late snow can make everything look rusty. The city springs I know are fragile springs, like children of overprotecting, overcontrolling, overscheduling parents who nevertheless turn out to be nice kids--but you always wonder if they're going to make it. And then, one day the heat arrives and stays, and it's all over. I used to dread the lengthening of the days beause every longer day brought us closer to the heat and humidity of summer that would force us inside into the air conditioning. And much as I loved the technicolors of spring, the season was bittersweet, the beauty and color way stations on the road to mosquito summer.

Of course I have not yet lived through the transition from spring to summer here, but what I can tell you is that this morning on the last bit of paved road before the path down the hill to our house I counted 14 different varieties of wildflowers. Full disclosure: I'm including iris in that count, as well as dandelions. The dandelions because this version stands a foot tall, comes with five or six flowers on a stem, and grows in clusters by the dozen. So you see them and instead of thinking: WEED! you think: oh, look at all the yellow. And the iris aren't wildflowers, of course--except that here they just about seem to be. There are clusters of iris along every road I travel. The deep purple ones are finishing off now, and taller, skinnier, lavender ones are opening. It looks as though a French Johnny Appleseed must have wandered the countryside tossing down rhizomes years ago, and they have spread and spread. And with the iris and the dandelions, a host of other blue and white and red and pink blossoms, each one more spontaneous and delicate and uncultivated and indestructible than the last.

Then there are poppies everywhere, along roadsides, in fields, growing on top of the stone walls. Monet and his poppy field? He was just painting what he saw. Up in the village, snapdragons and tiny camomile daisies are growing out of the walls--and no one planted those flowers; they are just there. It's where they belong. All of the maisons de village have terracotta pots by the dozen in windowsills and on stoops, and they are overflowing with geraniums, jasmine, African daisies, nasturtiums, roses, dianthus. Pass a walled garden in the village and you are suddenly awash in the smells of lilacs and wisteria. C and I took a walk one evening and found a spot up the lane where a pink jasmine was climbing over an ivy-webbed wall, and fighting for space with a rose covered with thimble-sized yellow blossoms that was, in turn, anchoring on a tree blooming mauve. We just stood and looked.

I find myself doing a lot of standing and looking, or sometimes sitting and looking. There's a stone bench in the village that faces out across the valley towards the sea, and the other morning the dogs and I sat there and looked for a while at the overflowing flowerpots, and at all the colors of green and yellow between us and the coast. Then I was distracted by the swallows diving in the air above us: they are on their way north for the summer and have stopped in with us this week. A friend told me that swallows never stop moving; they even sleep on the wing. I am glad to stop and look. Summer is on its way, and I'm going to plant some tomatoes, and G and I have plans for a herb garden. Also maybe some canteloupes. I know there is heat coming, but we have outflown the clouds of mosquitoes.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lizards and other creatures

Yesterday I watched two lizards chase each other across the terrace. The lizards have been back for a few weeks. Our house faces south, and the exterior wall is partly stone, and there is a wide wooden terrace, perfect for sunning yourself if you are not concerned about melanoma. And word on the chemin is that lizards aren't.

My Guide Nature Pour Tous tells me that our lizards are lézards des souches, which can translate as either lizards from the roots, which has a nice Darwinian edge to it, or as the more picturesque stump lizards. They are, the book says, grey-brown, with stripes and blots in different colors. They can be up to 24 cm long (that's about 9 inches, which is A Lot of Lizard). Males when mating are green. (Our lizards are not mating. Yet.) They like fallow fields, hillsides, the edges of forests, and gardens: the first three absolutely describe the area around our house, the last, not so much. The Guide says that the lizards like to warm themselves up in the sun in the morning, and then, once reheated (I'm just translating here), they hunt insects. They make holes in the ground to lay their eggs, but, once laid, leave them to incubate in the sun.

A couple of weeks ago I found the first lizard in the house. It was a lovely warm day and I had left the terrace door open, so little M. Stump decided to venture in. I found him in a sunny spot in the kitchen. Instantly lizards went from being a charming cultural conversation piece (and, just think, we have lizards outside our door instead of flocks of mosquitoes!) to being right next to a rodent. With difficulty I kept myself from getting the broom from the closet and bringing M. Stump to an untimely end--not out of any compassion, really, for my reptilian cousins, but because if the creature were dead then I might have to touch it to remove it from my house. Instead I took out a Tupperware container and chased it around the kitchen on my hands and knees. Lizards move fast. He figured out that the best spot to avoid me was under the open shelves, so within a minute or two we were at a draw.

I looked over at Wendy, thinking perhaps that this could be one of those moments when her canine, protect the missus instincts could kick in. She sat down, turned her front paws out in first position, and gazed back at me. Blankly. I realized that unless I caught this creature and fried it in olive oil she was not going to be any help. Alice, meanwhile, was packing to leave: if somebody had told her that catching reptiles was part of her pet job description, she would have chosen another family.

Eventually, evolution, or lack thereof, won out, and M. Stump forgot about me and the Tupperware and crawled out, and I caught him, put him outside, and shut the door. L and I found another lizard in the house last weekend--a baby lizard, who had crawled up the wall and was contemplating some bugs. He looked like if you added water to him he would grow to 200 times his size. When we found him, we had just assembled the troops and were preparing to venture forth. Once our troops are assembled, it's best not to break the momentum, so we left Stump fils where he was, and when we came home, he was gone. Now let's just say that I'm opening drawers carefully.

There are also frogs, and if I find one of those in the house...well, I'm taking this new phase of la vie en campagne one step at a time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Les asperges sauvages

We dropped the girls off at a slumber party the other evening, and when we came home we took the dogs for a walk. It was just before sunset--we are in that magical time of year when you can actually feel the days getting longer in your pores--and the light was pink. The sky was clear, and when we came out of the path at the top of the ridge, the village looked even more like a postcard than usual.

An older couple was walking towards us on the road. He was wearing a baseball cap, a giveaway from a bank, and carrying a long walking stick, something it looked like he had picked up on the walk. She was smaller than he, wearing gardening gloves, and beaming at us. My internal proselytizer alarm went off as she came closer and held up her hand towards me.

Proselytizers where I come from don't usually begin by showing me a handful of weeds, so I stopped and wished her a good evening. She continued to hold up her weeds, and I looked at them more closely.

It was a handful of wild asparagus. And a strand of blooming periwinkle for good measure.

Ah, madame, vous avez trouvé des asperges sauvages, you've found wild asparagus!

She beamed some more. On a fait la tour de la colline, we've walked around the hill, up from our house and along the crest, and we found all this. Now I don't know whether to make an omelette or some soup.

The asparagus was matchstick-thin and long, and a green that was both deep and bright. They are rare; I've only seen them for sale twice. I had bought some at the market the week before, from the man who sells mushrooms, and had made, or tried to make, an omelette. Sauté some shallots in a little butter. Cut off the ends of the asparagus, and cut the rest into bits an inch or two long. Cook them with the shallots for a minute or two, and then pour in some eggs that you have whisked up, and if you can't get the omelette turned (I'm not always able to yet), then you have some really good scrambled eggs. Good enough to proselytize about.

The last week or so I had driven by people walking slowly along road shoulders (such as they are), armed with a grocery bag and garden shears, and had wondered what they could be doing. Now I understood. A slow walk down the lane and you could bring home dinner.

We talked to the asparagus hunters for a few minutes. They had lived in their house on the other side of our hill for 40 years. He was a retired maître plombier; he looked up at the village and gestured with his stick toward it: he had worked on most of those houses. She told us where they lived, and we told her where we lived, and then, wishing them a bonne omelette, we parted ways.

C. and I spent the rest of the walk examining the roadside for delicacies. We didn't find any--our neighbors had passed before us, after all--but we were still filled with a sense of awe. What a world it is when wonders lurk in hedges, and an evening's amble can yield an omelette.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Tea time

The quilting ladies came for the day last week.

Here is how it works: each week, the quilting ladies meet at a different house. The hostess of the week provides coffee and cookies, ahem, biscuits, when everyone arrives, usually around 10.30. The ladies settle in, take out their sewing, and work for an hour or two. Around 12.30, the French ladies decide that it is time for lunch, and take the sandwiches, salads, and leftovers that each has brought from home into the kitchen or dining room. The hostess, meanwhile, has opened bottles of red wine and laid out a cheese platter and a basket of assorted breads--as well as glasses, plates, knives for cheese, and napkins. She hovers while the French ladies eat, making sure that everyone has enough wine and showing them how to use the microwave. When the French are finished, the English ladies come next: same procedure. After lunch: coffee, again, and maybe a bit of chocolate. Then: more sewing. Sometime just past three, it will be time for tea and cake. The French ladies prefer thé ordinaire, the English, Earl Grey.

I had to borrow wine glasses and tea cups from Jules. I laid in a half dozen bottles of red and five varieties of cheese. I vacuumed and dusted and knocked the cobwebs down from the ceiling. I baked a cake. The French ladies colonized the living room and the English ladies took over the kitchen table, and I filled the sink with soapy water and washed coffee cups and then washed wine glasses and cheese plates. I forgot the after-lunch coffee service, which made the English ladies laugh. At 3.15 I put the kettle on for tea, set out tea cups on their saucers, and took the boxes of tea out of the cupboard. While I waited for the water to boil I put a teabag in each cup.

Agatha came to survey the field. She is about six feet tall and given to quelling, the residue of a lifetime spent first teaching French to English children and, latterly, English to French children. When she comes into a room she draws herself up to her full height and makes a Statement, such as, I was almost Swept down the Hill by All This Rain, and expects everyone to stand to attention. There is frequent dissension in the ranks of English ladies about this: there are insurgents who believe that conversations that, well begun, should in fact be allowed to continue and even be completed when Agatha enters, and those insurgents have been known to insist that anyone speaking carry on and disregard the commotion. But that is difficult to do. As annoying as it may be to be interupted mid-story, it is practically impossible to ignore the sense of importance and adventure that sweeps in the door along with her.

So there I was arranging my teacups and tea bags, and there was Agatha peering over my shoulder. Getting ready for tea, are we, my dear?

I mumbled something about it being tea time.

Agatha looked at the teacups and then around the kitchen, evidently missing something. But my dear, where is your teapot? You can't mean that you are going to make all these single cups of tea.

Yes, I explained, I am. I have a teapot, but it holds only three or four cups, so it would be useless...

Don't have a teapot big enough! She turned to the English ladies, who were, of course, mid-conversation. Girls, she doesn't have a teapot! My dear, Lizzie here has at least six teapots, and I know she would be glad to have you come and choose one, wouldn't you, Lizzie?

Lizzie looked up for her stitching and twinkled, divided between being irritated--she was in the middle of a particularly funny story about a vicar in a posh church who was drunk for Christmas Eve services--and amused. You have but to ask, my dear.

The water came to a boil just then, and I began to pour it over the teabags in their cups. Agatha watched. Are you using one teabag for each cup? Her voice almost cracked from shock.

Yes, I replied. Isn't that how you make tea, I thought to myself. Teabag, cup, boiling water, wait three minutes?

Oh, no no no no no, my dear. She turned to the English ladies, who had now given up on hearing about the drunken vicar and were riveted on Agatha and the tea cups. Girls, she's using one teabag per cup! This tea is quite strong, my dear, and it is really unnecessary to use one bag for every cup. One teabag will do nicely for two, even three cups, won't it, girls?

There were murmurs of acquiescence from the table. Oh, yes, one was enough for two, certainly, it did get quite strong quite fast, didn't it?

I began rearranging teabags, moving quickly before I ended up with too-strong tea. Agatha supervised happily, pointing out that, really, one would go through a whole box of tea rather quickly if one used so many bags at once!

I passed out teacups and slices of cake--American pound cake, filled with French cream and spread with English raspberry jam--serving Agatha first. She carried her plate and saucer back into the salon, where she was sewing with the French ladies. A minute or two later I followed her in, bearing more tea--ordinaire, of course--and cake. When I came in, Agatha had the French ladies in rapt attention. Elle n'a pas une théière assez grande! She doesn't have a teapot big enough! They all tittered politely and sympathetically: the French, they don't all have teapots big enough, either.

Back at the kitchen table, the ladies teased me about Agatha and my strong tea, and Lizzie finished her story about the vicar. I poured second cups and offered second slices of cake. Then it was time to wash again. Before I threw out the used teabags, I asked the English ladies if anyone would like to take them home to reuse. They laughed--and then Ginny said, gently, you know, if you reuse them later, the tea is very bitter. So out they went.