Thursday, July 17, 2008


Olivier was here the other day, advising about this and that and fixing things. The girls and I were awash in apricots and plums--bins, litres, gallons, pounds of each (about which more later)--and I was trying to figure out how to make jam in French and in France . Olivier's visit was really about the (still open) trench at the bottom of the garden, and the ground water that has collected or seeped or wandered into it, but while he was here, and since he is the source of most of my reliable information about the mechanics of daily life, I asked him about the jam.

Comment fait-on de la confiture en France? I asked.

He tilted his head and looked quizzically at me. Comment fait-on de la confiture aus Etats-Unis? he replied.

I explained about cooking the fruit, adding sugar, boiling it, and putting it in sterilized jars. He nodded his head at each step, following my pantomimes. And then you take the jars, screw on the lids, and turn them over to seal, yes? he said.

Exactly, it's the same process, we do it the same way. But where do I find the jars?

He shrugged. Clearly he was not the person in his family who bought the jars; he was just around for the cooking. At the supermarket? was all he had to offer.

I nodded: I had been to the supermarket, and there were no jars--but there are other supermarkets, and I envisioned passing my afternoon in making a tour of them. Still, I was ahead of where I had started out, so I thanked him, and he turned to go.

Then he remembered something he had wanted to tell me, and turned back.

Speaking of Violette, he said, although we hadn't actually been.

Oui? I said.

Je pense qu'en anglais, on l'appellerait une redneck. I think that in English, she would be called a redneck. Roll the r, give the d a nice strong echo, and come down hard on the k and you'll just about have it.

I laughed, taken aback at this sudden influx of colloquial English. Bien sûr, I said, that's exactly right.

Olivier laughed, pleased with himself. Mon fils--Olivier's son spent a few years studying in Florida--told me that I should tell you that word for Violette, and that it would make you laugh.

Tell him he was right, and thank him for me. Violette--lifting the dead sanglier into the trunk of her car, wearing her rabbit-fur trimmed jean jacket, and speaking without opening her mouth--could, as L pointed out, be dropped straight into the middle of a Flannery O'Connor story and, without a whole lot of linguistic difficulties, be crochetting pastel Barbie-doll dress toilet paper covers in about six months.

Olivier shook my hand to say goodbye, picked up his tools, and went back up the hill.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Market day

Yesterday morning we took our current guests to the market to collect picnic supplies. Melons from the organic farmer down the road; tomatoes, salad, and peaches from the reserved but cheerful woman next to the rotisserie chicken truck; mushrooms from the shy mushroom man; eggs from the egg lady. She's missed the last two weeks at the market--her eggs have been there, sold by someone else, a younger brother maybe, or a cousin--but she was busy having a baby. Yesterday she was back, with the baby snuggled deep in a sling across her shoulders.

I wanted to buy some cheese for our picnic, and we walked down to the far end of the market to find my cheese man. He lives in the Var, an hour or two away, and does the market circuit--our village market Mondays, Valbonne Friday, I imagine others in between. He always has a few words for me--he meets almost all our guests, makes recommendations about where to take them, tells me about his favorite beaches. We compare notes on life here versus life in the States: we agree that, in general, it's awfully nice here. We both have high hopes for the election this fall. I look forward to buying my crottin de chêvre each week. He's kind about my French, eager to laugh, gracious, kind. This winter, when I brought three different guests on three successive Mondays, he shook his head and said to me: "C'est un hôtel chez vous. You're running a hotel at your house."

But Monday he was not there, so we got in line at the other cheese man's stall. I don't like the other cheese man. Occasionally when I've had to buy from him in the past, he has spoken English to me. Now, my French may not run to long wine-infused dinner parties, but I can buy cheese, and it offends my pride to get English back when I offer French. He also sells all sorts of charcuterie--sausages, hams--and varieties of bread--olive, fig, walnut. He jokes loudly with customers, and calls out to people as they pass his stall, drumming up more business.

C, along with me because it was Bastille Day, pointed out that cheese from the market, even cheese from the wrong cheese man, was still good cheese. And a lot of other people agreed: I waited at least ten minutes. At the market, there's rarely a line in the American sense of the term, everyone neatly, tidily lined up one behind the other, no breaking, please. It's more of a free for all that relies heavily on eye contact and small nods. I made the eye contact after a few minutes, and still it took a while before my turn arrived.

While I waited, a svelte and bleached blonde grandmother arrived beside me, market basket bulging on one side, granddaughter on the other. The granddaughter reached just below my waist, waiflike, with limp ponytails and hot pink plastic-rimmed eyeglasses. La petite was fascinated by the flies on the cheese and sausages, and began commenting on their numbers in her lovely high child's voice. "Mémé, regarde les mouches sur le fromage! Granny, look at the flies on the cheese!" The fromager heard her and reassured her: "C'est normale, c'est normale, les mouches, n'inquiète pas.'' The little girl was mollified for a moment, and then, when the next customer was up, she said: "Il y a des mouches sur le saucisson! Mémé, regarde! There are flies on the sausage, Granny, look!"

I could tell that my turn was about to come up--it's a sixth sense you develop--and I was figuring out which kind of tomme to buy (cow's milk, goat's milk, or sheep's milk--I always end up just choosing randomly). The fromager handed the little girl a tiny, finger-sized sausage to eat, no doubt to silence her observations. He turned to me: deux crottins de chêvre and un morceau de ce tomme-là. Turned out it was brébis and expensive; also very good. As I handed over the money and took the cheese, I felt something touch my derrière and turned, startled, to see what it was.

La petite looked up at me, saucisson in one hand while she brushed at my dress with the other. "Madame," she said, ''il y a une mouche sur votre fesse. Madame, there's a fly on your butt."

I'm fairly certain that her grandmother's turn came next.

Friday, July 4, 2008

At the Préfecture

It was time this week to renew our annual long-term stay permits, our cartes de séjour. Getting hold of one of these cards is not that easy--it's not designed to be easy--and so C's company, which sponsors us here, employs someone to manage the process. Madame Tie is short and solid and, for a Frenchwoman, stout--a lot out in front and a fair amount out in back. She bustles. I can't decide whether she is more like the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria in full sail or a high Victorian grande dame whose corsetry you can hear creaking from the next room: suffice it to say that Madame Tie is a Presence.

Here is what you need to bring with you to the Préfecture, the administrative office of the département, in order to secure a carte de séjour:
  • three copies of your passport;
  • three copies of a letter stating that you are gainfully and legally employed in France, and likely to remain so;
  • three copies of your bank statements for the past six months;
  • three copies of your latest paycheck stub;
  • three copies of a document attesting to your having health insurance;
  • three copies of an electric bill that lists you as the resident and bill-payer at the address to which it was sent;
  • three copies of your marriage certificate, translated into French;
  • three copies of your birth certificate, likewise;
  • three identity photographs.

We had all that, thanks to Madame Tie. In fact, we've actually been here long enough, now, that we just have copies of all those bits of paper lying around. I can prove at the drop of a hat that I was born, got married, and have a bank account; we even have copies of all of those papers for the girls, too--not the bank account or the marriage license, of course, but the birth certificates and the passports.

The office that handles requests for cartes de séjour opens promptly at 9:00 a.m. We arrived, marshalled by Madame, at 8:52. Upwards of 100 people waited outside the locked doors. Madame Tie took us in by another set of doors, past two security guards who nodded, almost smiled, and wished her a good day. Thence into a large and grimy lobby--with Madame kissing or shaking hands with every fonctionnaire we passed, addressing them all with the familiar tu instead of the more formal vous--and to the far side of the lobby, where the beginning of a low-ceilinged, narrow corridor was marked with a painted yellow line on the floor. We stopped at the line. Down the hall we could see signs for each of the administrative departments: permis de conduire, driver's licenses; cartes grise, vehicle registration; étrangers, foreigners. That was ours.

When the hands on the clock in the lobby clicked over to 8:59, Madame stepped over the yellow line and briskly down the corridor. We turned in at Etrangers--a smaller grimy lobby, with stanchions set up to manage the people waiting--and went straight to the desk. Madame perfunctorily took the numbers that the fonctionnaire handed her, asked after his new baby, and directed us to sit down in the foremost row of chairs. She took our file and proceeded to the first window. Blowing some good morning kisses to the woman sitting behind the window, computer screen and stapler at the ready, Madame sat down and drew out the papers.

A minute or two later she beckoned me to come and sit down beside her. I watched as she put our papers in order, all the while chatting with the lady behind the window about children, families, the new office design, the heat. They passed papers back and forth through the slot at the bottom of the window; Madame Tie wrote my name on a form, with my address and a line of text underneath, and handed it to me to sign.

When C and I were married, I did not take his name. I went from Mademoiselle Marron to Madame Marron, but, for a whole host of reasons with which I could fill a college Women's Studies seminar, I chose not to be known as Madame C. I explained that once or twice here in France. When I told our family doctor as he entered me in his list of patients, he nodded. Of course you may call yourself anything you like--it sounds less brusque in French--but here we file everything under the family name. When we told Jules that my name was different from C's, and that our post box should include it, he asked if we were really married. It was all the same to him, and we could tell him the truth. (I'm still not sure if he believes that we are.)

So, officially, in France, regardless of what my passport says--and it says, simply, Madame Marron--I am known, officially, as Madame Marron, épouse C--and the C trumps the Marron. It hasn't changed here in centuries: I've handled passports, cartes d'identité, ration books made out the same way, the words scratched in quill pen onto vellum. And, maybe for that reason, it doesn't bother me much. Being called Mrs. C in our other life, even when it was in the context of being my daughters' mother, got under my skin like little else. I can let it go here, maybe because C's name sounds better than mine in French, maybe because being the épouse C connects me to all those women whose centuries-old papers I handled.

I signed the paper that Madame Tie gave me and passed it back to her. She nodded and smiled, and switched to English for me. This paper says that you will not work in France, that you are here only with your husband.

Another bit of identity messed with: from independent professional woman using her own name to someone's wife forbidden, because of foreigner employment laws, to work. It's a lot to handle before lunch.

I finished my turn at the guichet and went back to my place next to C. While my back was turned, the room had filled. Dozens of people now filled the rows of fixed metal chairs. Dozens more waited in line. None of them, so far as I could tell, had the help of a Madame Tie. There were no other Americans there that I could spot. A few eastern Europeans, from countries that have not yet been admitted to the European Union, clustered together. Most of the rest were North Africans, the women in headscarves and the men wearing skullcaps. Everyone, grâce à les flourescent lights, looked old and wan and tired. The atmosphere in the room was one of anxiety. Babies cried. Strangers compared notes. People watched for the "now serving" number to change and then rushed to the windows. Do I have to have that? But no one told me. I cannot come back tomorrow. or: When did that become the law? or: He will not sign the paper for me, but it is true, I promise. Or, worse than anything else, silence from the petitioner when the fonctionnaire finds the flaw in the dossier, and shuffling away.

We sat for perhaps half an hour while Madame Tie, the only native Frenchwoman on our side of the glass, conducted our business for us. When I was a child, my mother took me to New York City. Our friends were to meet us at the Port Authority bus terminal--we had taken the bus in from my grandparents' house in New Jersey--and we arrived a little before the appointed time. I stood there, close to my mother, and surveyed the room. It was the mid-seventies, so I can only imagine what the bus terminal denizens looked like. We're the only normal people here, I said to her. And, in the family story, my mother responded: Do you know what that makes us? Not normal.

I thought of that yesterday. C and I were the only people there who looked like people like us. Most of the others looked like they had worked hard to get here. Not like a multi-national company had sent someone to pack up their porcelain on one continent, and unpack it on another. Not like they even owned porcelain. I wondered if we looked as startling to them as they did to us, if we unnerved them as they did us.

Madame Tie ushered us out, back into the main corridor. We walked along in her wake. A woman followed us, walking quickly to catch up with Madame. She was wearing a long flowered pale pink robe and a white headscarf. She put out her hand to touch Madame on the arm. I need someone to help me with my dossier, she said. I will pay you. Will you work for me as well?

Madame shook off her hand and shook her head. The woman tried again. Please, Madame, s'il vous plaît.

Non. Je ne peux pas. I cannot. The woman fell back then, and Madame opened the glass door to the outside. She held it so that C and I could follow.