Friday, August 29, 2008


We've found a pizza place the next village over; you drive back behind the Mairie and the local Michelin one-star restaurant, past the memorial to the war dead, and it's tucked in next to a real estate office. Two rooms, one of them with the kitchen opening into it--and it's not some LA open-kitchen MBA-designed see-the-chef-set-things-on-fire kind of place, it's a place with a large hole in the wall between the kitchen and the dining room because it gets hot in the kitchen and the cuisinier wants some air.

It's called L'Éléphant for reasons that remain mysterious, except that there are three or four elephant figurines lined up on top of the wine refrigerator and the menu stand. It seems equally likely that the restaurant is called The Elephant because the owner had some elephant figurines that he had gotten from a great-aunt and his wife didn't want them cluttering up the family room anymore, so she killed two birds with one stone--naming the restaurant and clearing off a shelf--or that the owner took a dare: the most ridiculous name for a pizzeria that his boules buddies could come up with. And then, once the sign was painted, they started giving him elephants. In any event, there's no elephant on the menu; nor are there any dishes that seem to have originated in places with elephants as long as you don't count the National Zoo and the pizza stand opposite the Elephant Pavilion.

These are the kinds of conversations that C and I have when we are waiting for our pizzas to come. We always sit at the same table, which we suspect is designated as the foreigners table, in the corner just across from the kitchen. From there we have a good view of the front door and can watch the extended families coming in to get their Friday night marguerites and reines and quatre saisons. We can see the owner, too, busy at the oven, and we can speculate as to whether the lone waitress is related to him by blood or marriage or neither. It doesn't matter; they both seem to know everyone who comes in, even, after a visit or two, us.

Last time we were there C decided to depart from our usual quarter carafe of vin rouge (I know; we really should cut back) and order a beer. There were two choices on the menu: Heineken, in a bottle, and Kronenbourg 1664, on tap. He chose the latter. Ordinarily, that would be the end of this story. He would have placed his order, had a beer, and we would have gone on with our evening. But not so in la belle France.

As with so many things in France, sometimes a thing is known by the word on the label and sometimes it's known by another word entirely. Take--for instance--the Kronenbourg 1664. Sometimes it's listed on menus as Kronenbourg; sometimes, as 1664; sometimes, both. Are they always the same beer? Probably. Without some serious study, though, it's difficult to say. It matters because, having decided to order one, C had to figure out how to identify it, what name to call it.

My endorsement was early and strong: order a Kronenbourg, never mind about the date. C had higher ambitions, though. He wanted to order it by the date: mille six cent soixante-quatre, one thousand six hundred sixty-four. We practiced it til the waitress came. Mille six cent soixante-quatre. Mille six cent soixante-quatre. Try saying it fast, and casually. I'll have a mille six cent soixante-quatre. You can try it in English if you want to: oh, yeah, and I'll have a one thousand six hundred sixty-four, frosted mug if you've got one. It's difficult to sound nonchalant.

He had gotten it down pretty well when the waitress finished giving the bises to the newest clients and came over to take our order. I ordered my usual reine--ham, mushrooms, olives, cheese--and a glass of house red. C ordered his quatre saisons--artichokes, mushrooms, olives, peppers, and, of course, ham--and then he said: Je voudrais une bière, un mille six cent soixante-quatre. He acquited himself of it pretty well, I thought, especially the bit around the x.

The waitress glanced at him over her pad. Excusez-moi? The way she said it was the French equivalent of, Come again?

He smiled a little sheepishly. Un mille six cent soixante-quatre? This time he ended on an up note, and I could see him thinking that maybe just saying Kronenbourg would have been easier.

She looked at him for a long moment, pencil poised a centimeter over the paper. We both had time to wonder if C had just reminded her of her first husband, the biker dude who left her broke and pregnant, or if he had just accidentally told her that he was an agent of the revenue service and would be needing to see the books. Then her eyes cleared as light dawned.

Ahh! she said. Un seize soixante-quatre, a sixteen sixty-four!

We all laughed--foreigners, they are so funny when they are speaking themselves the French, non?--and off she went. She brought the beer back a couple of minutes later and set it down with a flourish in front of C. Voilà, un seize soixante-quatre, monsieur, and she gave us another smile.

Now we know what it's called, and even I, who am not a big fan of beer, order it sometimes. Pour moi, un seize soixante-quatre, s'il vous plaît, and every time I do, I expect to catch sight of myself in the mirror and see someone impossibly chic and confident, maybe Coco Chanel, looking back.

Friday, August 22, 2008


The wild blackberries are ripening now. It's that moment when summer is at the very peak of its peak, and in another breath, with one more breeze, it will begin to coast downhill, away from the heat and the cicadas and the long twilights. Our last guests have gone home. We don't expect anyone else until the end of October, which is--shh--a record for us here. It will be the longest time we've been alone, the four of us and the dogs, in this house.

The girls and I took down the kitchen calendar and counted up all our visitors. It's a 16-month calendar that began last September, so that's when we started our count. I had noted, as I do, the comings and goings of everyone to be sure to have supper cooked and clean sheets on the beds and a plan, or at least a vision, and we used my notations to count up. The total: 157 days of houseguests out of the last 365. We were impressed. It had felt like a lot of company, but we didn't know that it had been quite that much. Almost every other day, if you spread it out. That's a lot of laundry, a lot of meals. But also a lot of conversations and walks.

We're not used to visits like this. In our other life we had quick dinners or weekend visits which had nothing like the intensity of an extended house party. When people come to visit us here, they're not just coming to visit us: they're coming to France. This is a trip overseas, a trip generally long- and carefully-planned, costly, involving the purchase of guidebooks. We are hosting them not just in our family but in this country, showing them our lives here and showing them the place itself. And we need to do that at the same time as the girls are doing their schoolwork and Olivier is replacing roof tiles and we're running out of flour mid-recipe. It's a delicate balance to strike: the local mill for A.O.C. olive oil and the local chain supermarket for Special K.

The only model in my experience for this sort of visiting is the visiting that went on among Jane Austen's characters. Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood went on journeys that took several days of hard travel, with bad food and missed carriages, and then stayed with friends for several weeks, seeing the local sights, yes, but also sitting around doing the mending. They did not pop in for a night. They came to stay. This kind of visiting means a slower rhythm, one in which every quarter hour is not accounted for in advance, in which an afternoon can wind away in reading or a long walk instead of in a tight series of appointments and obligations.

Elizabeth and Elinor went all that way and stayed all that long because, in a world without email or commuter flights, that was the only way to keep up with their friends and relations. If someone moved a hundred miles away, in those pre-autoroute days, they were gone for good unless you went to visit. Now we've moved an ocean away and we find ourselves in the same situation: an overnight visit is not an option. The only way to keep up, to be together, is to come to stay.

And so the wild blackberries are ripe. They are all around, like the wild asparagus was a few months ago, except there's more of them, and they're easier to spot. The first day or two I took a colander up the lane with me and picked enough to bring home. But ten minutes off the vine they don't taste as sweet. Now I've stopped taking a colander. We go and stand and graze, picking the ones that look likely in one spot and eating them, right there, until we go on a few steps and pick a few more. There are several vines in our own hedge--just next to the fosse septique, I'm afraid--and those berries are especially full and large and sweet. Our dog Wendy is perpetually eating whatever she finds on our walks, and now she and I stand and munch together, although she's not terribly interested, herself, in blackberries.

Over the weekend, guests came with their toddler. We took him up the lane, and he went up on his father's shoulders for safe-keeping. I picked berries and handed them up until his cheeks and fingers were purple and it was time for lunch. It's a slower way of being in the world, standing by the blackberries and sampling. It's not about accomplishing anything, or putting anything by for later. Just about right now, in the dappled shade, tasting summer, together.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Paris je t'aime

We are just back from celebrating G and E's 13th birthday with L and her family in Paris. The girls' birthday wish was to take a bâteau mouche down the Seine to finish off their birthday night, so after cake and kir royale (and fizzie apple cider for the girls), we walked down to the Trocadero and crossed the bridge to the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

There are all sorts of boats that make the tourist trip up and down the Seine: covered ones that offer dinner and dancing; uncovered ones that shine their own colorful lights up at the monuments. The boat that we always take is the plainest: no dinner and dancing or lights, just some recorded commentary. The commentary is faintly ridiculous--the English sounds as if it was translated directly, maybe with a free Internet translator, from the French, and the French sounds as if it was translated directly back from the English. The sentences dangle. But it doesn't matter. As the boat pulls away from the dock on the hour, the lights come on on the Eiffel Tower, and it starts to shimmer and twinkle. This summer, it's lit in blue, to honor the French presidency of the European Union. And the tower is huge: an obvious thing to say, I know, but you see a thing so often, you forget what it really looks like, and it becomes just an image on a postcard or a tshirt. When you see the tower up close, though, it's astonishing. Huge and gangly and absurd, and graceful and beautiful and touching. And, every hour on the hour, sparkling.

The girls and C sat on the bench behind L and my mother and me. It was C's first trip down the Seine, and from up front we heard them talking and laughing and pointing things out. The girls kept leaning up and touching my shoulder, asking questions, pointing things out, wanting me to settle bets. The three of us on our bench were quiet. We watched the monuments float by us: the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, the Institut; Henry IV on his horse, the Conciergerie, Notre Dame. And then back: Samaritaine, Châtelet, more Louvre, the Tuileries, the fairy lights in the trees just before the Pont d'Alma.

It's one of the most touristy things to do in Paris, take a cruise on the Seine. But it doesn't feel cheap and tacky and like someone's just trying to make a euro. It feels like a privilege. Here we are, living through times that, even to my historian's long-term eye, look pretty damn dark; and here we were, on the birthday night, looking down the barrel of the girls' adolescence and our own--dare I say it?--inevitable middle age, and getting ready, too, to say goodbye to L's magical time in Paris, as she and her family go back to America at the end of the month. And yet building after beautiful building scrolls by, each one perfectly proportioned, each one, despite and even because of the foolishness of the people who built it and lived in it and around it--each one so perfectly situated, so perfectly at home. It feels as though Paris was ordained to look like that, like at the beginning of time, right after figuring out DNA and moon pies, God said, and then let's have a city on a river, with boulevards and quais and one, no, make that two, islands in the center, and we'll call it Paris.

It's reassuring, that beauty, that solidity. It makes me think that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, beauty and truth and balance and proportion matter, and that maybe, just maybe, they last longer than all the other stuff. Even the Eiffel Tower--it's ridiculous, useless. But there it is, a testimony to our ability to create whimsy when we want to, a witness to our ability to create beauty. And if that were not enough, it twinkles: earth hath not anything to show more fair.

Every time I leave Paris, I like to think about how it goes on without me. Driving out of the city in a taxi when the girls were smaller, taking them home after their first trip to the city, I watched the shopkeepers raising their shutters, the market vendors setting out their cabbages, and I thought, this will happen the same way tomorrow, and the next day, and every day after that (except, of course, in August, when everyone goes on vacation), until I come back. On the birthday night we didn't talk much on our bench, we just watched as Paris went by. I was feeling a little melancholy, with all the changes of birthdays and departures in the air. But as we sat there listening to the laughter behind us I began to feel grateful instead, gliding through this wondrous lit-up city with people I love. I wondered how I managed to be set down in this life. And I knew, then, as much as you can ever know these things, that the city would be there waiting when we made it back.

As the boat returned to its mooring, a dinner cruise drew alongside. In a glass-enclosed room, couples leaned together over round tables, sipping champagne in tall flutes and gazing out at us. We gazed back. There was a small deck at the end of the boat, and a young couple was standing on it--actually, she was sitting; he was standing. As they drew alongside us, the young man threw out his arms and called, in an accent that made it clear English was not his first language, I love you Paris! He didn't pronounce the 's', so it was Pareee, and the vowel echoed across the water.

Our boat docked and we lined up to get off, and then walked back across the bridge. The tower began twinkling again, and we could see its lights reflected in all the windows of the boulevards as we walked home.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Hungry Heart

We've been loyal customers of the concrete block pizza hut at the rond-point since last summer. It really is built of concrete blocks, and it sits in the middle of the parking lot. You pass it if you're on your way to the service station and the car wash, or if you're stopping to add air to your tires. It's painted a faded yellow, with a open counter, covered by a shutter during the day, on one of the long sides, a door on one of the short sides, and a wood-burning oven on the other. The preparation area takes up the back wall. It's the size of a large SUV, no more. Across the top is a neon sign: Pizza Pierre, it says, in wavy letters that suggest heat, and with two tiny flashing pizzas to dot the i's.

The neon comes on every evening around 5, and the shutter over the counter goes up. Smoke has already been rising out of the chimney for an hour or so. Bar stools appear, a bottle of rosé or two sits beside the takeaway menus on the counter. Usually there's an old man who sits and nurses a beer, his own brought from home or bought there I'm never sure; there's no beer on the menu. Nor does he ever seem to be ordering or picking up a pizza. He's just there.

The pizzas are standard local fare: about 12 inches around, very thin crusts, toppings ranging from green peppers to smoked salmon but mostly cheese and tomato sauce and olives and--remember we're in France--ham. They're pretty good. Especially if you've not had the habit of cooking every single night of the week, or if it's Sunday evening and you realize you forgot to get provisions at the store before it closed Saturday afternoon.

We took L to Pizza Pierre when she visited in September. We ordered the pizzas when we got there, so we stood in the parking lot and waited for a little while while Pierre made them. At one end of the lot, Pizza Pierre's teenage son folded pizza boxes out of the back of his open Peugeot 105. His friends kept stopping by on their motocyclettes, their girlfriends sitting on the back wearing cheap stilettos and too much eyeliner. The old man was at the counter, as usual. A woman came up with her two children and ordered. The kids were young--6 and 8ish--and tow-headed and skinny. She could have been 25 or 45: running to heavyset, dyed hair, poured into her office clothes. She smoked a cigarette while they all waited and tapped out her ashes about an inch from her daughter's scalp. Over by the car wash, a woman got out of her minivan and stepped up on the chassis to brush leaves off the top of the car. She was wearing zebra-striped pants, a tight red tank top, and 4-inch cork-soled sandals.

L and I took all this in, and then took our pizzas home. In the car she turned to me and said: I think everyone in southern France who could be a character in a Bruce Springsteen song was in that parking lot. It was all there: adolescent longing on the motos, midlife struggle in the face of the mother, a determination not to give in to the odds. We laughed about her observation and it stuck.

A few weeks after that, Pierre went away--on vacation, we figured, to recover from the summer crowds--and Madame his wife took over. Pierre was a runner, with the elastic tanned compact build of a marathoner. He was always friendly; one time he gave C a bottle of the hut rosé (drinkable only with a view of the Mediterranean). Madame was also small and wiry, but pale where Monsieur was tan. She doled out smiles carefully and rarely. Pierre was gone for a couple of weeks, and then a couple of weeks more, and then just gone. I was pleased to think of telling C and L that it appeared that Pierre "had gone out for a ride and never come back," like in the Springsteen song. Then we didn't think about it any more.

Until yesterday. The quilting ladies came, and between talking of which stand we bought peaches and lettuce from, talk turned to Pizza Pierre. I wondered idly what had ever happened to Pierre. Martha, our English neighbor two blind curves up the lane, knew the story, as she seems to know most stories in our village.

First, Pierre wasn't Pierre. The original Pizza Pierre was a postman who retired on disability and opened first a pizza shack and then, when the euros began rolling in, a pizza hut. Then he retired again, for good, and the man whom we had thought of as Pierre bought the business. He had been trained as a restauranteur, and, before coming to our rond-point, had worked in large hotels on the coast. He and his wife ran the hut together for several years and did a pretty good business. Then things went south between them, and he left. Martha said she'd seen him working in one of the restaurants in the place in the next village, but now she's heard he's back down on the coast, working in one of the seaside bars.

Meanwhile, his wife stayed on, and she's the new Pizza Pierre. She's bought a potted palm that she rolls out every evening beside the bar stools. The words to the song about heartache and hard work are just about there already; if I knew a few guitar chords, I could maybe have a hit. We travel, as much as we ever do, within the context we have. And while I can't look out our windows and see a white boat off the coast of Antibes without thinking about Auden's expensive delicate ship sailing calmly on, I won't, either, order pizzas from the hut again without hearing a little Bruce Springsteen.