Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Le ramassage d'escargots

We are settled in, now, almost a year into our life here. Most of the time, I remember that shops will likely close at noon before I get there to find the shutters closed; most of the time, I remember to take my grocery bags with me to the store. Most of the time, France seems like any other place, our corner a beautiful one, but not so terribly strange or different or, aside from the wildflowers right now, wondrous.

This weekend C and I went up into the mountains. We left the girls with their grandmother--they were all eager to get us out of the house--and drove up the Route Napoleon to Castellane, a market town a couple hours' drive away. We walked along the edge of France's answer to the Grand Canyon which is, not surprisingly, smaller and more convenient to fresh bread and good coffee than the one in Arizona. We found a village that had been left to tumble down two centuries ago, and that now belongs primarily to several troupeaux of goats. In this new life of ours, though, none of these things--canyon, ruins, even curly-horned goats--were too terribly strange. We hike, we visit ruins, one of the English ladies even keeps her own goats.

Then Sunday morning we woke to a downpour. We looked at the map and, since hiking was out of the question and, it being Sunday morning in la France profonde, everything was closed except the local boulangerie (open til noon or they ran out of bread, whichever came first), we found the smallest roads we could to carry us home. The car could hike if we couldn't. We set out on a road that rapidly dwindled to one lane, no guardrails, as it wound and swerved through the mountains. No one else was out (downpour; Sunday morning; la France profonde) and so it was more a beautiful drive than a harrowing one.

The mountains gave way to high meadows, and then the road dipped down into a national forest. We passed a sign that announced we had left the département de Haute Provence and entered the département du Var: a government-issue metal sign. A few yards later was another, and C had to back up so that we could read it closely.

In stencilled letters on a piece of plywood, someone had written: In the Department of the Var, the Picking of Mushrooms, Harvesting of Snails, and Collecting of Fossils is Forbidden by Law.

Just when a place starts to become just a place, the authorities forbid you to collect snails.

A man, a dog, and a Pouilly-Fuissé

We went out for a birthday dinner the other night. I remember choosing restaurants in our American city on the basis of no more than a review in the paper, or a tip from a friend. Here, it is more involved than that. We talk to friends--the hiking ladies, C's colleagues, the English ladies, parents of the girls' friends, as wide a net as we can manage. We look up restaurants online. We check our guidebooks. We do a couple of drive-bys. Then, if more than one or two sources recommend the same place, we drop to the next layer of research. Is there likely to be something on the menu for our American palates? (We're not yet to the pieds et paquets stage of assimilation.) How much will this evening take out of the general funds? And, are they open the night or the week or the month in question?

If the menu looks promising, and the price does not cause us to catch our breath, and if someone answer the phone when we call, then, at least a week after our restaurant selection process has begun, it is finished. Otherwise, we begin again, or, occasionally, just go out and buy a chicken to roast.

Last Friday we went to a restaurant recommended both by one of the hiking ladies and by our Swedish neighbors, with the added bonus of having been a favorite local haunt of Julia and Paul Child several decades ago, albeit under different owners. Our reservations were for 7.30 and, as usual, we opened the restaurant. Just the five of us and the six staff. All the staff were young, their degrees and certificates in restauranteering freshly minted, except for the maître'd cum sommelier. While the others wore dark pants and jackets, he alone was in his shirtsleeves, a red apron tied nattily over his starched white shirt. He was a ringer for Sean Connery.

We studied the menu carefully. The room was silent except for our American voices. Once it was clear that we had made our choices, M. Connery approached the table with a flourish. He spoke to us in careful English, and we responded in our careful French.

He switched. If you are going to make the effort to speak French, he said magnanimously, then of course I will be delighted to speak French with you.

We murmured gratitude and C ordered a bottle of wine.

Ah, monsieur, he shook his head. If I might suggest, for the difference in price, this is a much better wine. He gestured to the menu. C agreed--what else could he do?--and off M. Connery went.

He was back a few minutes later with the bottle. The drama of presentation began: opening it, pouring a few swallows into C's glass. C swirled the wine around in the glass a few times, and M. Connery seized his opportunity. He held the candle up to the glass; showed C how to tilt the glass just so over the candle; how to look at the wine's color. Then more swirls, a sniff, and a taste. Much praise for C's willingness to follow the process. And then: All that matters, really, is the swirl and the taste. All the rest is a performance, is simply le drame.

He walked around the table, pouring wine. The other day, he said, I went to a wine tasting at the Hotel Carlton in Cannes. The Hotel Carlton is one of the grand old places across from the beach, full up these last couple of weeks with fancy people in town for the festival. People were there from all the best restaurants in France, some of the greatest sommeliers in the country. And some of the best wines. Two of the finest sommeliers were tasting a Pouilly-Fuissé--this is a famous wine, the kind that Gatsby would have bought by the case, to go with his silk shirts--and everyone else was watching to see what they thought of it. The first one tasted; the second one tasted. Then the second said: This wine tastes like a wet hunting dog. And the first one responded: Yes, but what breed?

We all laughed--some because we understood, others because we mostly understood, others because the rest of us were laughing, and M. Connery radiated the satisfaction that comes from having told a good story well--and, glasses filled, he retired to the other side of the room. The girls sat patiently by while I translated as best I could. Then E said: It's like being in a Peter Mayle story. Peter Mayle, our neighbor a few hours to the west, who has published a whole library based on the trope of a foreigner's encounters with French characters.

And it was. There must be a word for it, for the feeling of finding yourself inside someone else's story. A word for what it feels like, as a traveller, to stumble into an experience that is so closely aligned with something someone else has already described. And yet, to find the experience wholly genuine. Here we were, in this country-elegant restaurant, deciphering the menu as best we could, feeling a little out of place. I am sure that our sommelier had been to countless wine tastings over the course of his career--maybe not at the Hotel Carlton last week, but certainly someime, and I expect that the hunting dog joke has been making the rounds for quite a while--but he told the story well. And in telling it he drew us in, made us feel part of a circle that shared the same reference points, made us feel less foreign and more at home.

Which is not to say that M. Connery was not playing a role--the gracious host--or that we were not playing a role ourselves--the well-meaning foreigners. But in the absence of a mother tongue and mother culture to connect us, warmth and kindness and a story about a man and a dog could fill the bill. We laughed together and then settled into the always-serious business of a proper French meal. As Peter Mayle would say, Merci, Provence.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Leeks and freckles

Sad news out and about in the world lately, the earth cracking open and the sea heaving up and thousands of people, whole villages, just gone. If we were living in the time before the printing press and the Reformation then we would all go on pilgrimage someplace, leaving our wooden shoes behind and slumping barefoot through the spring mud to some saint's shrine to ask her to intercede, save us, protect us, make it go away. Some of the sad news touches our own family: natural disasters on a smaller scale but disasters nonetheless, disasters that serve in an odd way to point up the larger ones. See how you suffer? That's what it's like, now, elsewhere, for so many people at once. You feel sad and confused and angry that this could have happened, that this did happen? Think about those other people, and how they feel as they sort through the rubble looking for their child's pencil case. These disasters that leave us powerless and angry and sad.

I have no saints to visit barefoot and muddy, but today I chopped leeks and they were so white. The white gave way gradually to the softest of yellows and the yellow to a green that no paint color calling itself spring green could ever match. It was so beautiful that my heart tightened in my chest. All this sadness and I look at G.'s freckles as she bends over her dinner plate, and they are so present, so tangible, and so frail that I have to look away before tears come. Potatoes boiling in salted water: the bubbles are exactly what bubbles want to be, and I find myself staring, reading them for clues. Outside, storms pass and repass over us, but in the distance I can see a boat sailing along under clear skies, and it is like being dropped into a painting.

For years a poem by Marge Piercy, If they come in the night, hung over my desk, but in the taking down of our stateside life I had forgotten it. Today the words came back. She writes: I like my life. If I have to give it back, if they take it from me, let me only not feel I wasted any, let me not feel I forgot to love anyone I meant to love, that I forgot to give what I held in my hands...All this meaningless loss of life makes me sad, but it makes me angry too, an anger whose fierceness takes me by surprise. How can anyone step away, and how awful to be taken away, from a world in which leeks can be so white, freckles so perfect, bubbles so true, ships sailing on a such a sea? I want it all: I want to chop mountains of leeks and watch those freckles age, cook potatoes for everyone I know and watch summers full of ships. I want to sit outside under the stars with people I love, and eat and drink and laugh until I have to catch my breath. What I count, my rubies, my children, are those moments wide open when I know clearly who I am, who you are, what we do, Piercy writes, with all my senses hungry and filled at once like a pitcher with light.

Hungry and filled at once, like a pitcher with light. That is what I would ask my saint for, if I had one: the grace to be like a pitcher that is empty and yet full of light. That could help ride out the sorrow.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


One of Jules' first acts as our landlord was to assure us that we did not need a gardener. There's practically nothing to do, he said, as we all sat in the real estate agent's office. A few rows of lavender, a little rosemary, it will take care of itself. And besides, tending it will be amusing.

Dazed by jetlag and the rapid-fire French, we nodded. We had seen the house once, for about a quarter of an hour, and all we remembered for certain was that we liked it more than any other we had ever seen. And in the garden...there were lots of trees, weren't there? And some beds of perennials? We signed.

Then we moved in with our suitcases and children and dogs and mother. 35 olive trees. 12 rows of rosemary, the longest four the length of the house, the other eight the length of the pool: easily over a hundred rosemary plants. 11 rows of lavender, the width of the house: again, approaching 100. Assorted shrubs; grass of a sort; four wisteria vines climbing the terrace.

We mentioned to Jules, racing around the property in his summer uniform of unbuttoned linen shirt and khaki shorts, that this seemed like rather a lot. Mais non! it was nothing. A little weeding here and there and we would have it all under control. The olive trees were not an immediate concern--things that live for hundreds of years can stand a little neglect. But the rosemary and lavender had been planted a few weeks before and weeds were already sprouting. Jules' arrosage automatique--automatic watering system--came on three times each day and watered not only the drought-tolerant herbs but also the weeds that were thriving around them.

Once the furniture arrived and we found our sheets and towels and dishes and books, I looked at the perennial beds, at the thriving weeds. My mother and I--mainly she--made a valiant attempt at weeding, but it was more than a person could do. Especially if that person were not possessed of a truckload of tools and a bigger truckload of patience. In the evenings we would sit on the terrace and gaze down at the piddly amount we had weeded that day, and try to think of ways to combat the weeds.

To preserve the family honor, I should say that these are no ordinary weeds. Olivier told me, privately, of course, that Jules had discovered this wonderful new grass several years ago and planted it throughout the property. It spreads, both above and below ground; is tolerant to heat and cold, rain and drought. Olivier rolled his eyes and shrugged. Now it's everywhere. Partout, partout. We can't get rid of it. And he says it's my fault. But don't tell him I told you. The roots of this grass--which was partout the beds--go more than a foot into the clay soil, and can be as thick as my finger. They branch off, so when you think you've gotten one section out, you find that what you've actually dug up is an octopus of a root, with tentacles shooting out God knows where.

I tried--forgive me--herbicide. It did virtually nothing. The weed took a little of it every day, like Mithridates, and found that a little poison now and then suited it just fine. I tried digging it out, but I felt like Sisyphus, pulling a little out only to have it sprout back stronger.

Then one day I thought: what would I do if this were happening in my garden in America? And the answer came to me: mulch. Of course. It's what we do best in gardens in my city, or at least most reliably. Every spring and fall the streets smell of shredded tree bark, and on Saturday mornings we all fill our trunks with bags of bark, shredded and un, and sometimes we even order truckloads. We rake it under and around all of our plants, and, look, Ma, no weeds. Or not many.

I looked up mulch in the dictionary: paillis. I suggested to Olivier that I might put some paillis down in the beds. He frowned. Quoi?

Paillis, pour éviter les mauvaises herbes.

He narrowed his eyes. I explained. With us, where I live in America, it is normal to place something around the plants, and that makes the weeds not be there.

Olivier tried a different tactic. Why wasn't a gardener included in the contract with Jules? I have always thought that strange.

Because Jules told us we wouldn't need a gardener. He thought taking care of the weeds would be amusing.

This got a bigger shrug as Olivier's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He shook his head. Wrong, all wrong. Another example of Jules' wilyness, I could see him think. You should not worry about the weeds. It will be all right.

And that was the end of the conversation. I asked other people, French and English, about mulch. Everyone had much the same response: they looked at me as though I must be confused about what paillis was. I started to doubt myself. Maybe there was something different about plants in France, or the ground. Maybe mulch was some strange American custom, like Pentecostal churches and modest bathing suits, something that just didn't translate, was untranslatable.

Then a few weeks ago a French friend showed me her vegetable garden. We were looking at her newly set out tomato plants, and she leaned down and picked up a piece of straw. This is some of the paille from last year, she said. I have to go and get some more.

I caught my breath. She had used paille--straw--to mulch her tomatoes. And she was going to get some more.

Trying to sound offhand, I said: Oh, you use straw around your plants?

Oh yes, of course, every year.

Hmm, I said. Then I went in for the kill. Where do you get straw?

At the cooperative agriculturel, of course. The next town over.

I found C. and the girls, ready to leave the party that minute and go buy a trunkload of straw. C. pointed out that the coop was unlikely to be open on Saturday night at eight o'clock, so we stayed on for dinner. I was at the coop on Monday morning, though. The gates were closed. No hours were posted. I parked in front of the gates for a few minutes, just in case they opened promptly at 9.20, but no luck, and eventually I gave up and went home.

The next day I was lucky. The gates were open and there were people bustling around. I explored the terrain: flats of vegetables in front of the main barn, where the caisse is; odds and ends around the caisse, everything from wooden clogs to wine corks to raffia to magpie traps. No straw. I went up the hill and found another barn. No one was around, and I wandered in.

The smell of straw and hay was potent. Suddenly I was back in the barns of my childhood, barns where there were always kittens to play with, sunbeams coming through openings in the hay loft, the reassuring warmth and lowing of the cows down below. I stood and inhaled for a minute or two, touching the bales of straw. Here I was at the end of my quest. I could take the straw home and scatter it under my lavender and rosemary and, finally, évite the weeds. It wasn't shredded bark, but it was better: its smell and texture took me back further than my last garden, all the way to the first garden I remember, my grandparents', and their rows of strawberry plants that I believed were planted every year just for me.

I turned and walked out of the barn to inquire at the caisse about the price. The perfumery next door to the coop was working, and sending up the smell of church incense, musky and rich and heavy, so strong that I could almost smell, under it, the old church smell of damp stone.

At the caisse I told the man that I wanted to buy some paillage. He rattled off on his fingers five different varieties of paillage.

I want the kind that comes in squares, I said. The kind in the barn.

He looked over his half glasses.

I sketched out with my hands: paillage, in a square, like this.

He handed me a pad and a pen. I drew a barn, and, in the barn, rectangles. He looked at it and shook his head. Allez, madame, trouvez un de mes collègues, et montrez ce que vous voulez à lui. Il peut vous expliquer le mot.

I smiled--my prize was still in sight, after all--and went to find the colleague. He was loading bags of manure into an elderly lady's elderly Twingo. I waited at a respectful distance until she had driven off. Then he turned to me and I smiled.

I would like to buy this, but I do not know the word. I smiled again. This always helps when I find myself in this position. We went into the barn and I pointed to the first group of bales. This. I would like this.

This is for goats, for eating, he said. He held his hand to his mouth, miming a goat eating hay.

I looked down at what I had pointed to. Then I smiled, again, and said, But I do not need this, of course. Another smile. I do not have any goats.

We both laughed at my joke.

Then I pointed to the straw. This is what I would like.

Of course, madame. De la paille. Some straw.

But what do you call this? I need to tell your colleague at the caisse.

It is paille, madame.

Yes, I smiled. But in this shape. What do you call this shape?

Ah. C'est une balle. Une balle de paille. Paille en balle.

I laughed, and this time it was not to be charming. C'est le meme mot en anglais, monsieur. It's the same word in English.

I went back to the caisse and explained what I wanted: trois pailles en balle, s'il vous plaît, monsieur.

But of course, he said with a smile. Paille en balle! Monsieur rang up my order. You should not worry, madame, he said. If I were in England, I would have the same problem.

And that is how I bought three bales of straw. I've put it out around the plants, and I like how it looks. If anyone asks me about it, I'm going to explain that this is normal, with us, in America.

Monday, May 5, 2008


We are in the middle of two long weekends: the first, for Mayday; the second, for Armistice Day. Both national holidays fall on Thursdays this year, so that means that everyone, or almost everyone, took Friday off, too. In French you don't take the long weekend; you faites le pont, you make the bridge. From the holiday on Thursday to the weekend beginning on Saturday, you build a bridge out of the day between, so that you can connect your days off. It is one of my favorite idioms, not least because it is one of the only idioms I feel confident enough to use.

As I was about to say, though, before language butted in, we are going to take a trip for the second long weekend, and drive over to Fontvieille. We've found a hotel that has what they bill as a chambre duplex pour famille, and we're going to stay there and then venture forth to see the rock outcroppings and ruins at Les Baux, the Roman Arena at Arles, and go horseback riding in the Camargue. A perfectly Provençal weekend.

I went into our local traiteur Saturday afternoon. Madame was busy when I came in--four people ahead of me--so I settled in to wait for a bit. Madame has a word for everyone, and lots of words for most. She and her mother do all the cooking for the shop--daube à la provençale, boulettes à l'agneau, legumes farcis, lasagnes--and she has a devoted clientele. By dint of many lasagnes purchased, I am one of her clientes, and we always talk when I go in. (In fact, the lasagnes themselves are sometimes incidental to my visits.) Saturday was no different. We talked about the LaChaix's visit this week, and about another cliente of Madame's who had just been introduced to them; we talked about the weather; we talked about the holidays. Madame is warm and gracious and ebullient and has one of the thickest local accents I know, so my conversations with her are a point of pride. For both of us, I think: for me, of course, because any time I can gossip in French I feel triumphant, and for her, I think, because she feels that she is contributing to my progress in the language and culture.

So when Madame asked me how we were passing the days off, I told her that we were headed west to Fontvieille.


It's a village, just a dot on the map, really, I explained. It's near Arles.

More puzzlement. Où?

Arles. The city with the Roman arena.

Ah. Nîmes. Comprehension and relief.

No. I could feel my confidence start to slip. The other Roman arena. Near Nîmes, between Nîmes and the Camargue. Where Van Gogh lived.

Ah! Arles! she said.

Yes, Arles.

I smiled. She smiled. Then she began trying to teach me to pronounce it correctly. We stood at the caisse and pronounced Arles back and forth to each other until the next customer came in. It seems that there is some throat action around the r sound, a tossing back of the tongue. Not quite guttural, but not exactly rolled, either.

Later that afternoon, C. and I were back chez Madame to pick up a bottle of wine. She told C. that she had heard about our planned trip, and, smiling over the counter at him, opening her mouth widely, said, Arles.

C, who was prepared, responded. Arles.

She smiled and shook her head. Arles.

I tried. Arles. C. tried again. Arles. She demonstrated, again. Arles.

There we stood, smiling and saying Arles at each other, until the door opened for the next clients.

Being corrected is part of our life here, and not a bad part. Our French friends do not correct us, as Olivier explains, pour se moquer, to make fun of us, but to help us. It's a difficult language, as we all know, and, C. and I, our minds are not as supple as they used to be, and neither are all the muscles we never even knew we used to pronounce words. The cheese man whom I see at the market most Mondays and Fridays encouraged me the other day, after a gentle correction: French people make mistakes with French all the time, and we understand when foreigners do it, too. It's charming, he said. The corrections are almost always good-natured, cheerful, and helpful. And they feel like an investment: Madame, and Olivier, and Monsieur le fromager, all correct me because they want my French to improve. To improve, because all intelligent, interesting people should be able to converse in their language, and to improve because, I can't help thinking, they like me. As the apostle wrote in his letter to the Hebrews, Whom the Frenchman loveth, he chasteneth.