Friday, January 30, 2009

Oui, on peut

The model in the bubble on the billboard near the Collège des vignes has been replaced a few times since I last mentioned her, with ads for Christmas tree sellers and hardware stores and, for a week, an ad for a restaurant that actually left off the restaurant's name. Location, check; new menu, check; photo of a chef and waitress who looked more like a female Peter Lorre than might have been entirely relaxing over dinner, check; name of restaurant, oops.

Yesterday when I took the girls to school there was another new ad, and I had to check with E and G to make sure that we had seen the same thing. The billboard is advertising a Chevrolet SUV, a Captiva. The big black diesel guzzler was prominently pictured, and, across the top of the sign, we read: Jusqu'au 28 février, le TVA disparaît. The TVA is a hefty tax that the French pay on most purchases; if it's not applied for the next month, as the sign says, that could be a big savings. The next line on the sign was printed in large red letters and it said: Yes we can.

That's when I asked if they had just seen what I saw. They had. It was in English.

The folks at Chevy France have hopped on the America-is-cool-again bandwagon. Can you imagine a French Chevrolet ad campaign in 2003 using the tag line Mission Accomplished? Neither can I.

But the question is: yes we can what? Yes we can save money on our quatre quatres? Yes we can be just like the Americans and drive great big cars? (Has anybody, anybody at all, at Chevy France read the economic news recently? Any articles about, oh, maybe, Detroit? It's hard to get a driver's licence in France; surely people who do are smart enough to sort these things out.)

Of course the point is not SUVs or emissions or gas prices. Chevy France is using Obama's campaign slogan to convey optimism, a fresh approach, the willingness to change. Buy this car in the next month, and you, too, will be cool, new, hopeful; hell, you might even be handsome. Yes we can is a profoundly American sentiment. If the French tried to say something like that, it would come out as: Maybe we will, but first we're going to have a cigarette. Or, We might want to, but it won't work out. Or, We could, but it would involve unseating thousands of government employees who would then all go out on strike and bring the country to a standstill, so let's have lunch instead. (In fact, there's a grève this week in France--protesting some of the changes that Sarkozy wants to make in the way the country works--that is so widespread and well-organized that is has its own website.)

Les Rêves de mon père is number 34 on the Amazon France bestseller list, right between one of vampire novelist Stephenie Meyer's lesser known works, Les âmes vagabondes, and the Guide officiel du film Twilight, which is probably not the strangest place that the new president is ever going to find himself. Just before the inauguration, a French edition of Obama's latest came out. I came across it at the store the other day and it made me smile. Not just because it was a book of the president's in French--though that, too--but because of the way the title translated. Le Changement: nous pouvions y croire. The Change: we are able to believe in it. Which may be why Chevy France went with the English on their ad.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Jules is here for the week. He and Madame have come down from Paris to escape the cold and to look after some work that Jules is having done in our garden. He's often having work done in our garden. His pattern is: begin a project; change his mind midway through the project about what he wants the men he's hired to do; decide the project is too expensive or the workers are too expensive or the weather is too bad or he doesn't have the proper permits; pile the project debris in the corner of the garden; wait one month and begin again.

This week's projects include finishing the pool house, finishing the stone wall, fence, and hedge at the bottom of the garden, and redirecting the drainage from the house around an olive tree. Four men, more or less full time, one small- and one medium-sized backhoe, a couple of large trucks, a brouette méchanique, which is a motorized wheelbarrow, do we have those in America? --and Jules, helping. Helping looks like this: Jules in his oiled canvas coat, green wellies, slouch hat, corduroys, old Façonnable shirt, and work gloves, telling the ouvriers where to dig the trench and non non non non! attend attend attend! wait wait wait! you have to be careful, mon dieu, watch what you're doing there, you'll screw up the whole thing. Arms wave. Hands wring.

It's not easy working for Jules. Eventually everyone whom he hires talks to me about it. Olivier and I made friends over the fact that we both had to put up with Jules; at the end of last summer, though, Olivier had had enough after 15 years of being told that he was heavy, lazy, and slow--Jules' standard characterization--and took himself off. The current set of workers are new to me, though not to Jules, and we are still sussing each other out.

One of the 35 olive trees in the garden died about six months ago. At least, to the unschooled, non-Julesian eye, it looks dead. No leaves, brittle branches, but what do I know? Maybe olive trees routinely resurrect themselves. Jules spent a good deal of time messing about with it last summer, when it was perhaps dying and not yet manifestly dead. He sprayed it with various poisons. He dug a low trench around it. He had the ouvrier who owns the small backhoe, M. Loglie, dig a meter-deep and foot-wide trench leading down the hill, away from the tree, because Jules had decided that the problem was the tree was getting too much water.

I found M. Loglie standing in the trench one day, with Jules shouting into his cell phone nearby. When I raised my eyebrows at M. Loglie, he grinned. This is how we work here. We do a job, then we undo, then we do it again. C'est un vrai cirque. It's a real circus.

The trench didn't help, and while Jules was here over Christmas, he spent a couple of afternoons circling the (now clearly) dead tree. I lurked in the kitchen. If he sees me, that's at least half an hour gone. He was hatching a plan, and this week, he has carried it out.

First, M. Loglie, his son, and their friends dug a large trench from the side of the house near the olive tree, the olivier, to the edge of the garden. Huge piles of thick mud; you may have heard that there's been some rain in France recently. Jules walked back and forth along the trench in his country squire outfit, directing. More there, less here, what are you doing, non non non not like that. When he was distracted, I slipped out to go to the grocery store.

When I came back, the olive tree was laying on its side, dug up. Oh, I thought, how sensible. He's given up on the dead tree, and dug it up so we won't have a stump.

I was out hiking all day yesterday. The girls and I came home after the ouvriers had left for the day and Jules had gone back up the terraces to Madame and his scotch. I noticed when I came in that the trench had been filled in and the mud distributed more or less evenly around it. Then, walking back and forth in the kitchen--mail, groceries, answering machine, dogs--I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

It was the olivier, replanted. In the same spot, but, if you looked closely and remembered well--if you had, in fact, spent some time walking around the tree and listening to a discourse in rapid French on whether or not the tree was dead--you would notice that the tree was planted less deeply. More of the trunk was exposed, a good six inches more. Other than that, same dead tree, same spot. It was like a Steven Wright joke: someone dug up the tree in my garden and replanted it in the same place.

An hour or so ago, I saw M. Loglie's son when he came back to work after lunch. Ça va? he said.

Ça va, ça va, I replied. No rain today.

Non, non, il fait beau. We both looked up at the blue sky.

And, I said, no trees to replant today?

He met my eye then, and twinkled. Not yet, he said. But you never know. Maybe this afternoon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Foreign Relations

I am talking to Gilbert, at the boulangerie.

Why weren't you in Washington this week, for the inauguration?

My invitation was lost in the mail, I say. (My level of French has progressed to being able to make feeble jokes.)

I order my baguette--don't say, pas trop bien cuite, say, pas cuite, Gilbert tells me--and, while I'm counting out change, he looks over my shoulder and says to the squat elderly lady behind me that Madame est Américaine, and La Poste lost her invitation to the inauguration.

Américaine, she says. Et vous êtes contente?

I glance back at her and nod, Mais oui, très contente, very happy, and finish counting out my change.

The floodgates open. Moi, je suis trop contente pour vous, pour nous, pour le monde entier. I was 14 years old when the Americans came, when they liberated us, and I have always loved America, loved Americans. They saved us, you saved us. But these last years, they have been atroce. We did not know what had happened to America, where it had gone. This man, Bush, he was un catastrophe, un désastre, pour vous, pour nous, pour le monde entier. And after Clinton had left everything très fort, l'économie et tout, and then Bush came and the economy is ruined, there are wars, the environment, c'est un catastrophe partout, a worldwide catastrophe. But now Obama, il est si beau, si jeune, si intelligent, et maintenant, j'ai encore de l'espoir. Now I have hope again. Félicitations, madame. Je suis trop contente.

Gilbert has gone long since to help the man behind my new friend, and I am standing in front of her listening and trying to follow. She is a short woman with hair dyed orange, in a house dress with a hand knit cardigan and a jacket over that; a striped scarf, also hand knit, is looped a couple of times around her neck. She peers at me out of plastic-rimmed glasses, and around her slightly magnified green eyes there is a quantity of pale green sparkly eyeshadow. She carries her sturdy leather pocketbook in one hand and her straw market basket in the other, and leans forward, toward me, while she speaks, so intense and emphatic in her bearing that I wonder if she's going to throw her arms around me.

I have been weepy all week but manage this time not to well up; it's probably the effort of concentrating. I think of this woman as a young girl, only a little older than E and G, living through the Occupation, and I think of the fear that she must have breathed in and out every day, the neighbors who disappeared, the men who didn't come back. I think of her in her mother's kitchen when the neighbors come with the rumors in August 1944, and I think of them peeking out from behind the lace curtains, afraid, anxious, and yet thinking, maybe, maybe this time. And then the sound of the soldiers in the distance, the jeeps, the boots, and finally the sight of the soldiers themselves, and this young girl with the green eyes standing on the roadside and watching as these men come into her village and dispel the fear while they pass out chocolate and hope. And how all her life she's carried this memory, and now she feels hopeful again.

Merci de me dire tout ça, Madame, I say. Thank you for telling me this.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Do you know David Sedaris' essay In the Waiting Room? If you don't, you can (and should, it's funny) read it here. In the essay, Sedaris writes about what it's like to live in France and not speak the language fluently, about how you can find yourself in situations that you did not entirely foresee.

One day last winter I sat down to work on the baby quilt that I was making for the birth of my second filleul. It was already late: the baby was a week or two old. I had managed to finish quilts for my niece and my elder filleul well before they were born, and I had been working and commuting and volunteering raising girls who were younger and needier than they are now and generally running around quite a bit more. Nevertheless. Having less to do meant taking more time to do it in, and I had not yet finished Baby B's quilt. So I sat down with my four inch squares of fabric, many of them already sewn together in strips, and began laying them out on the table in front of me in a pattern.

The squares had come from half a dozen or more different fabrics, each of them with a history. One or two came from a batik dress that Baby B's mother wore in college. Another came from the remnants of a fabric that went into E's bed quilt, that I made for her when she was a toddler. Another came from G's bed quilt, same vintage. One came from my grandmother's stash of quilting fabric--it was one of my favorites, blue printed with cowboys and cacti, clearly printed at the peak of Bonanza's popularity. And there were new fabrics, too, some provençal prints that I had bought here. The fabric in the quilt would tell Baby B stories about his family, about how he was connected to the world.

As I sorted the squares and the strips I saw quickly that I had not cut or sewn them all evenly. The squares were all roughly four inches by four inches, but the emphasis there should be on roughly. (I am not a straight line person; I cut the fabric to get the fabric cut so I can move on, perfection and right angles be damned. This is sometimes frustrating for the engineer who lives with me and believes that 90 degrees should be 90 degrees and not 103 or 86.) As I sorted, I trimmed here and there, where a square was truly lopsided or veering towards the not at all square even if you squinted.

Violette, our sometime housekeeper, arrived about then. We chatted--she spoke locally-accented French without moving her lips and I tried to follow--for a few minutes, and then I showed her what I was doing. Instead of nodding and moving on to the vacuuming, which I what I had expected, she sat down opposite me at the table.

The squares aren't square, she said.

Yes, I know, but when I sew them together, it will be good enough.

She humphed and said something quickly while looking down at the not-square squares. Not being able to see her expression robbed me of any clues to what she was saying, so I went with Hmmm.

Then she picked up the scissors and ruler and began to trim. It won't do. You have to start over.

I was startled. But I reviewed my options. I could contradict her and point out that I had made quilts before, I knew what I was doing, and she should carry on with the housecleaning. Or I could agree that the quilt needed some work (which, really, it did) and start doing it. My French was not then, isn't now, and probably never will be fluent enough to win an argument with a native speaker. Violette was certain that this needed to be done, and I knew her well enough to be sure that I would not dissuade her from it.

And that is how I came to pass the afternoon sitting with my housekeeper and working on Baby B's quilt. Violette instructed me to pick out the stitches while she began recutting the squares. (The vacuuming--what vacuuming?) After a couple of hours, she needed to leave to pick up her husband. I began putting things away, and so did she. When we were finished, she picked up the sewing bag and announced: I'll take this home and finish it, and bring it back next week.

Oh no, I said, c'est pas nécessaire de faire ça. You don't have to do that.

Non. I'll do it. (Having seen my work, Violette clearly didn't think much of my abilities.) I'll bring it back Monday.

And then, like David Sedaris, I heard myself say, D'accord. Okay. It's the most useful word in the French language, because nine-tenths of the time, the conversations that people have with you don't really require you to offer your opinion or even give any information. People are generally more than content to have you simply agree with them. If they need more information, they tend to find a different way to phrase the question; if they've asked you whether you want the meat or the fish and you've just said okay, then they'll ask you if you want the fish. If you keep saying okay, you're all set.

So I said to Violette, D'accord, and off she went with the quilt, and off I went to clean the bathrooms. The next week she came back--to get more fabric. She'd laid out the squares and found that there weren't quite enough. Off she went with my box of fabric bits.

Two weeks later I saw her again. She came in carrying my sewing bag and the box of bits. She set everything on the table and then, slowly and ceremoniously, pulled the completed quilt top out of the bag. She had recut the squares to be truly square, sewn them into straight strips, and assembled the strips into a rectangle. Everything was plumb. It was lovely.

I admired it, taken aback, of course, puzzled, bien sûr, and touched. She had made this for the pleasure of making it, but she had also, it seemed to me, made it out of kindness, gentilesse. I didn't have a mother or an aunt handy to show me how to do a proper job, so she had stepped in.

Violette was pleased that I liked her work, and it was only with difficulty that I prevented her taking it away again to finish. She wanted me to give her the trim, the batting, and the backing fabric, and was looking forward to putting the quilt together herself. What finally persuaded her to leave the quilt with me was my telling her that it was for my second godson, and I wanted to have done the work on it myself. Once I managed to convey that in my faltering French, she gave a short nod and acquiesced.

Then she spent the next two months asking me, every visit, how the quilt was coming along, if I'd finished it yet, if she could see it. She advised me--a lot--about the borders, and about the backing, and clucked a little over my decision to quilt it simply and without an intricate pattern. When I finished it, she inspected it carefully and pronounced it satisfactory. Next time, you'll quilt a design, she said, shaking her finger at me. But this, c'est pas mal. Pas mal.

Which is about as good as it gets, coming from a French person.

The quilt now hangs on the end of Baby B's bed in America. He's a year old this week. When I began his couette, I thought that the story would be about the fabrics, and my having made it in France, the country where he was born. But the story unspooled differently than I had foreseen, and what we tell him now will not only be about the fabrics coming from California and Washington and North Carolina and France, not only about our families being together in all those places. It will also be about Violette, and speaking French, and how you can communicate without many words. And how it helps if one of those words is d'accord.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Here again

Sixteen winters ago I was doing my dissertation research at the Archives nationales in Paris. My apartment--calling it an apartment is being generous--had no television, and the Internet was still not much more than a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. I did not think that I would be able to see Bill Clinton's first inauguration. C, at home in California, had been planning to record it on our VCR for me to watch later. But the morning of January 20, he called me to say that our VCR had been stolen, along with his car and, oddly, several pairs of shoes. I remember being as distressed about the loss of the VCR, and thus of the planned tape, as I was about the break-in.

Off I went to the archives, then, and to my 200 year old trial records. Midway through the morning, one of the other American graduate students stopped by my desk to ask if I were going to watch the inauguration. I explained.

Come to my place, she said. Her apartment had more than one room (a real luxury for graduate student housing in central Paris), and she had a television with cable.

We all left the archives early that afternoon--the noontime Washington ceremony happens here, of course, at six. I remember it being a large group, but can't remember who was in it. I can't even remember the name of the person whose apartment it was, or where the apartment was. All I remember are two things. I remember toasting the departure of the outgoing president--I still know where I was sitting in the room when the screen showed the helicopter taking off from the east side of the Capitol. We were all young and, in the innocence of youth, thought that George Bush's invasion of Iraq had been imperialism of the worst sort, and that he was hopelessly, impossibly unhip and inarticulate.

The other thing I remember happened on the way to the apartment. Our pack of budding historians had left the archives and we were strolling down one of the main streets in the Marais. The plan was to pick up one more fellow-traveler on our way to the metro station. She was the companion of an older student, and an Ivy League professor whose books I had read as an undergraduate. I was intimidated at the prospect of meeting her. I had gone directly from my undergraduate college to graduate school, and I was still in awe of faculty.

The professor was sitting outside with a drink at a café, reading a newspaper. When she saw us coming down the sidewalk towards her, she jumped to her feet and came towards us dancing--dancing, on the Paris sidewalk, a short, middle-aged American woman, wearing drapey dark clothes and an exotic patterned scarf--and singing, in full voice, Happy Days Are Here Again.

Which is what I thought about last night when, during President Obama's speech, a friend sent me this link. The four of us were sitting together around the fireplace, watching the inauguration on BBC World, drinking champagne and eating chili and cornbread. A few minutes later, the phone rang. Family and friends were together watching and wanted to touch base. When I answered, the voice that came down the line said: Happy day.

Happy day, I responded. Here's to many more.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Not so much about France today.

Today, dear readers, I am going to reveal to you that our home in America is in Washington, D.C. When we moved to Washington from California, years ago, we were excited about living near all the national monuments and museums. With time, we began to consider our home conveniently located for protest marches. We were there for the Million Moms; we were there for the marches against the war in Iraq; we were there for the March for Women's Lives. E and G are old hands at marches. They know where all the best museum bathrooms are on the National Mall.

We haven't raised our girls in the church, or in a synagogue. We have tried to teach our daughters to respect the dignity and value of human life, and to believe in love and hope, and to be kind and compassionate and thoughtful. I told my driving instructor, 'Arry, recently that, instead of bringing the girls up in a church, we have brought them up in the Gospel of Bruce Springsteen. (He liked that.) One time E and I were walking along in front of the White House, in one of the war protests in the winter of 2003, and she was singing Springsteen's song, Into the Fire. (She was eight.) She stopped singing mid-chorus, looked up at me and said: Strength, faith, hope, love. Mama, why doesn't Mr. Bush believe in those things?

He just sees the world differently, I said. At least, I hope that's what I said.

Last night C used some perhaps not wholly above board software that he got from a friend to fool our computer into thinking that it was sitting in the United States and thus able to pick up the signal for HBO's broadcast of the Obama Inaugural Concert. We had been raquetting--snowshoeing--up in the mountains in the morning. We came home and built a fire in the fireplace. C connected the computer to the television set, fiddled around a bit, and, miracle of miracles, there was the Lincoln Memorial.

We sat in our French salon for the next two hours and watched and listened. So much hope and goodwill. Living abroad, it's not obvious to me how to show my girls what a moment this is for our country. Were we in the States now, we could have taken them to the Mall yesterday, could take them tomorrow, and show them the thousands of other grateful, joyful people. We could be volunteering today for Dr. King day, instead of just taking a bag of outgrown but still good clothes to the local semi-equivalent of Goodwill. (I know it's not much, but it's a nod toward community service.) Here, though, few of their English and French classmates are even aware of the inauguration, and their teachers don't have much to say about it. Our friends are French and English: they are happy about the change in administration, but it's not their country.

How do we show our girls that this is different from the other times, and that we've not seen the like of this before? This Land is Your Land is one of the songs they learned as babies. It's a car song in our family, as it probably is in many. In our family it comes with a conversation about Woody Guthrie, and the Great Depression, and folk music, and how you sing to protest and to mobilize and to try to change the world, and sometimes it works but often it doesn't. The girls know the scratchy, fading Woody Guthrie version, and the hoarse, minor key Springsteen version, and, this fall, I started slipping the Pete Seeger version, all earnestness and singing along, onto the iPod. Because it's more than a car song; it's a song about what we aspire to mean when we say we're American. It's a song about "the country we carry in our hearts."

The Lincoln Memorial is the first memorial we took the girls to when we moved to Washington, and the one we've visited most often. We used to go and talk about slavery, about the Civil War, about Dr. King, and about strength, faith, hope and love. And so last night, when Mr. Obama spoke, standing on those steps where we've stood and talked about our country, that would have been enough. I think the solemnity and power of it would have sparked a connection. But then the set changed, and there was music, and not just any music. This Land is Your Land, with two of the singers and thinkers and activists who've helped us get our girls this far. And the country we have carried in our hearts all this time seems closer.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Got wine?

So the other day I was trolling the Internet, continuing my Serious and Highly Intellectual cultural history research on the Obamas (when are they getting the puppy? what's she going to wear Tuesday night?), and I came across a photograph of Obama, the Current Occupant, Clinton, Carter, and the first Bush at lunch. The Current Occupant sat at the head of the table (it's still his house, after all), with Obama on his right and Clinton on his left. Carter sat beside Obama, and the first Bush beside Clinton. The photograph (I've looked all over the NYT website and can't find it again, so you'll have to take my word for it) was taken from the foot of the table, looking towards the C. O. The presidents seem to be midway through their main course.

Here's what caught my eye: next to his plate, Carter had a glass of water and a glass of iced tea. Across the table, the first Bush had a glass of water and a tall glass of milk.

Milk and iced tea.

The photo's angle was such that I couldn't see what the others were drinking. (Believe me, I tried.)

But imagine, if you will, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac sitting down to lunch together at the Elysée. (I know they don't like each other, but I'll bet it's happened.) Are they going to be drinking tea and milk?

I don't think so, mon ami. If Sarkozy tried to serve Chirac a nice soothing glass of cold milk (good for the bones, and you know, Jacques, at your age, you can't be too careful), the insult and breach of decorum would be all over the toile mondiale in about three minutes. Non, merci, a light white with the fish course, please, and then a tasty red with the meat. Perhaps a different red with the cheese, and then we'll finish with a sauternes over dessert.

Were the American presidents actually having wine with lunch, but set up the photo with prop glasses so as not to offend the teetotallers among us? Or did these five adult men of broad exposure to the world sit down to lunch and not have a glass of wine? (I know the C. O. is a recovering alcoholic; a nice glass of Badoit for him, maybe.) And what does it say about me that I find the first option more reasonable than the second?

French people cook with milk, they put milk on cereal (when they eat it, which is not that often), but they don't drink a lot of milk. Even schoolkids don't drink milk at lunch: the girls and their classmates drink water at lunch, and the teachers, in their dining room next door, drink water and (of course) wine. (So that's how they get through the days teaching French middle school.) Wine is what adults drink, every verre, every glass, another link in the chain of civilization.

Americans don't have a long history with wine, but they do have a long history with cattle. (Try growing chardonnay grapes in North Dakota. There's a reason they graze cattle there.) And a long history with some of the more dour Protestant sects, which, as L said recently, were Where Fun Went to Die. Meanwhile, back in the Old World, standards have not always been all that the local sanitation inspectors in their hairnets might like. For several thousand years, drinking anything that wasn't fermented, milk included, could kill you. So there are a whole host of cultural reasons that could explain why Carter and the first Bush were drinking tea and milk, and as many reasons that that could seem bizarre to someone outside of America.

Our third day visiting my family last month, my daughter G asked me why no one was drinking any wine. I must have looked puzzled, because she elaborated. We've had three meals out, and no one has had any wine. Where's the wine?

She was right. My family is one generation away from a bedrock belief that demon liquor is the first step to eternal damnation, and although wine might show up quietly on the table at smaller family gatherings, we haven't gotten there yet with the Christmas luncheon. And many restaurants in my hometown don't have a liquor license, for much the same reason: old laws made by men who were certain that the road to hell was paved with empty Boone's Farm bottles, and equally confident that only Yankees would take a drink in front of a lady.

Whereas, of course, G's experience here is that everywhere we go, there's wine. You wouldn't think of inviting guests over and not opening a bottle of wine. On the rare occasions when we go out to dinner, C and I always order a pichet of the house wine (it's cheaper than bottled water); nearly every night at home, we have wine with dinner. Every local fête has wine for sale with lunch. Village events--concerts, parades, even the 5k run last June--all end with a pot d'amitié, red or rosé, and a snack of pissaladière or tapenade on toast. You don't have to stand in one line to get an i.d. bracelet and then in another line to get your little glass of wine. It's offert, free, go get it. It's a way for the village to reaffirm its identity, its community, its history. We are French; we drink wine.

As opposed to: We are American, we worry about our health and have family issues with substance abuse.

I told the hiking ladies about this photo the other day. We were walking around one of the local caps, with the mountains on our right and the sea on our left, a cloudless blue sky overhead. It was the 70th birthday of one of the ladies, and so, comme normale, we were having champagne with our picnic lunch. They laughed at the idea of the presidents' club having tea and milk with lunch. Then they all shook their heads--the American cousins, what can you say?--and opened another bottle of champagne.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Birthday boy

Today is the third birthday of mon filleul ainé, which translates literally as my elder godson but accurately as one of the two boys who is almost mine. Why hasn't our language come up with a word for this? G is the son of my dear friend. To refer to him, though, as my friend's son misses the intimacy of our relationship. He is, quite simply, one of my own, a part of my family and my heart. When he saw me last month for the first time since August, he was in his grandpa's arms. And he reached for me.

I had to put him down after a minute, though, because he's one of the tallest and strongest and biggest and squirmiest three year olds you'll ever come across. G runs a life full tilt. He's spent the balance of his short life in France, and that has meant that we've been lucky to have lots of time together. So here, in honor of his birthday, are my favorite G in France stories.

When G and his mother visited us at La Bastiole for the first time, we mothers went with him down to the piscine. (Every new house in our région is required by law to have a pool; the water is handy for the pompiers in the event of forest fires.) We set G to wander around on the deck, and his mum and I sat at the corner of the pool and dangled our feet in the water while we talked. G walked up and down and around and around, and we cautioned him to stay away from the water's edge. He walked around singing his tuneless toddler song and we talked some more. Then he walked by us and fell in the water. Right between us. We both plunged our hands in, grabbed a body part, and fished him out. Then we laughed: two of us, fully grown, responsible, respectable, and one waterlogged 20 month old.

A few months later, he visited us again with his mother, this time for a week. It was the nadir of his life thus far. He was on the edge of language and profoundly frustrated at not being able to communicate the subtleties of his needs: so he did a fair amount of yelling. That he was sick--one of those full-on snotty colds that only small children get--made matters worse. His mother and I spent the week trying to find something to make him happy, or, if not happy (we gave that up pretty fast), at least not screaming miserable. One morning towards the end of the week we took him to the park. The setting for this park is beautiful: it's between a country lane and a stream, with an old mill on one side and a thousand year old church on the other. Birds were singing, the stream was burbling, and G stood in the middle of the playground, in the shadow of the pirate ship playset, howling, Mommy, No! at the top of his small but powerful lungs. We tried to console him--hugs, the slide, the climbing bars, applesauce for snack, more hugs--and, when he was inconsolable, we retreated to our bench and ate the applesauce ourselves.

A few months, again, and the language has come along and allayed some of his frustration. I am visiting in Paris, and when I come in the door of his apartment, G attaches himself to my leg. We read stories together. He introduces me to his stuffed animals and to his matchbox cars, and I give him his bath and put him to bed. When I think he has fallen asleep and get up to leave his room, he stirs, and says, from that place next door to sleep, Stay with me. I do.

Another visit to the south, and our families have gone for a walk. G and one of my girls fall behind the rest of us. When we turn to look back at them, G has found a walking stick twice as tall as he is, and my daughter is walking beside him, slowing her steps to match his and trying, with partial success, to avoid getting hit by the stick.

And then it is our last visit with G's family in Paris, before they return Stateside. It is our girls' birthday. We have a family birthday dinner all together, and G gets to stay up late. We've finished the meal and the beautiful cake, and C is teaching G how to make scarey faces. C drops his jaw down, rolls up his eyes, sticks out his tongue, and raises his arms over his head. G is suspicious until C returns to normal. Then he laughs. C makes the face again, and G copies him. They waggle their heads at each other, making lurid monster sounds, until G laughs so hard that he falls over.

One more visit to our house, and then they will be gone. G is sitting on his father's shoulders and we are in the lane behind our house. I pick blackberries and give them to him and he fills his mouth, his tongue and lips purple, tshirt, cheeks, father's head--a riot of blackberry juice.

And so, happy birthday, my boy. Bon anniversaire. I can hardly wait to see what you will do next.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Shalom, Obama

I stopped by our bakery the day we came home from our trip. M. le boulanger came out from behind the counter to wish me bonne année et bonne santé with a kiss on both cheeks. Vous avez passé des bonnes fêtes aux Etats-Unis? he asked. Vous les avez célébré avec Obama?

But of course, I said. We went to Hawaii and celebrated with him there.

Gilbert--I'll tell you his name; we've been on first-name basis for a while now, which is not a minor accomplishment--inclined his head conspiratorially. You know, I've changed my mind about Obama.

Gilbert was the only français we knew who had supported McCain. I had extrapolated from that--and from a few conversations about immigration--support for all sorts of political stances, none of them similar to my own. But that's the beauty of a foreign language and culture: we could agree on fresh bread and pastries and leave politics out of it.

He pointed out the window of the shop, towards the newspaper stand. Prominently displayed was a copy of the current Tribune Juive, the monthly magazine of the Jewish community in France. Its headline, under a flattering photo of the president-elect, was Shalom Obama. The baker nodded in that direction.

I bought that magazine, and I read the article. He turned back to me. I'm Jewish, you see.

Really? I was genuinely surprised. The Jewish population of France is small, the Jewish population in our region, microscopic. C is Jewish, too.

You never told me,
he said. Now we have to shake hands. You must tell C that although I liked him before, now I like him even better. He came out from behind the counter and shook my hand before continuing: I read the article about Obama, and did you know that most of his advisers are Jewish? In fact, I think that his mind is almost a Jewish mind. He thinks like a Jew.

All I could come up with was: Vous croyez? Do you think so?

Mais si. Bien sûr. So now I am supporting him, with you. Nous sommes tous démocrats. We are all democrats.

And so it came to pass that Gilbert, the only Frenchman we know who would have voted for McCain if he could have, changed his mind. Shalom, Obama, indeed.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Road Food

Colette, C's French teacher and our friend, lives in a village up in the mountains, the last village on my mental map before the mountains edge out everything except ski resorts. She is cheerful and practical and sensible, and one evening a few weeks ago (this is the story she told C), she was driving home and saw, along the roadside, a rabbit that had been hit by a car. She pulled off the road, got out of the car, and went to check the rabbit. It was dead but still warm. So she picked it up and took it home for dinner. Her American husband was, she related in a tone that was fond but a little puzzled, distressed to learn that he was enjoying--in a wine sauce, with raisins and onions--what we in the States call roadkill. Colette confided that the lapin had been a little tough, which she attributes to her having been in such a hurry to make dinner that she didn't hang the carcass in her larder to age.

This is not the first roadkill for dinner story we've heard; in fact, it's the third. There was Violette, whose car collided with a sanglier, which she then put in the trunk and later packaged up for the freezer. Wild boar stew, sausages, and steaks all winter long. And there was Marcelle, the main course of whose Christmas dinner last year was built around venison from a deer that her father had found, likewise, newly dead by the road.

We are told that it is illegal in France to pick up and take home a dead animal that you yourself have hit with a car. (Violette is a fugitive from the law.) It is difficult to resist speculating on how that law came to be required, exactly. Were French people waiting until dusk every day, and then getting behind the wheel and going out to aim at animals as they crossed the road? Were people hitting deer and wild boars and rabbits and, it's France, god knows what else, on purpose? You have to admit that it's easier than going hunting, doesn't require reflective clothing or artillery, and can be done while listening to Johnny Hallyday on the radio. Of course, it's easy to get around the law if you are a two-car family: the first car finds dinner, the second car brings it home.

We dined out on these stories while we were Stateside and our friends and family had reactions that ranged from Aren't the French wonderful wistfulness to But that rabbit could have been diseased! They might all have contracted rabies from eating it! disdain. It was universally inconceivable, regardless of where our audience fell on the reaction spectrum, to have scooped up a rabbit from the side of the road and eaten it for supper.

Then we came home to France and told Colette about the banana pudding that my aunt made for Christmas dinner. She's been making it for decades; here's a recipe similar to the one I think she uses. You will note that the recipe calls for boxed vanilla pudding mix, whipped topping (which advertised itself, last time I checked, as non-dairy), and vanilla wafers. The wafers she uses are called Nilla because they don't actually contain any vanilla, and advertising them as such would be like calling the whipped topping cream. Colette laughed long and hard at the notion of eating such a concoction, and that was even before we mentioned the Velveeta that also figured in a few of our American meals. Is it cheese? she asked. Well, it is, and it isn't. It comes closer to being cheese than whipped topping comes to being cream, but not by much. At all.

It's a conversation about cultural differences. How processed do you need your food to be? How far removed from nature, red in tooth and claw (and fender), and how far removed from the chemistry lab? We've not been offered a dinner of freshly hit meat, and I'm not sure what our response would be if we were; it would probably have a lot to do with whether there was adequate red wine on offer. As for the banana pudding and Velveeta, I have to say, first, that I had always loved both. Okay, not loved. Enjoyed ambivalently once or twice a year may be closer to the truth. Loved eating the food that my family had made for me, loved feeling cared for. Wished, though, once I was grown, that my family loved to make something else, something that had less of a plastic after-taste.

I think part of our relationship with France is rooted there, in that wish that our families--disclaimer: whom we love and would never trade in--were more like the families in Madeleine L'Engle's books, where the parents are both Nobel prize winning physicists who read poetry aloud at the dinner table and teach the children to sing in four-part harmony while they're spending summers hiking in the Andes. And that our country concerned itself less with figuring out how to manufacture a cheese that had a shelf life of a century (and giving it a handgun to fend off any other cheeses), and more with protecting small things, like the local farmers who might make a little extra money making their own cheese and selling their own cows' cream. Or with making sure that people don't just go out and aim their cars at wild animals as an easy way of getting dinner.

If, however, you've got a friend to drive behind you, remember to hang the lapin for a few days before you cook it. It'll be more tender that way.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Shepherd redux

We saw the shepherd again today. It had been a frenetic morning at La Bastiole. Jules is having a stone wall built at the bottom of the garden, and there are trucks and backhoes and piles of sand and cement mixers in the parking, and men to go with all that, men who start arriving for the day at 7.30. Which is when Alice starts sounding the alarm. Then at 8.00 Jules phoned C to discuss with him some of the more arcane points of Paying For Everything in Cash, and, before we really knew what was what, he was at the back door with a list of reasons that the bank should hand over wads of cash to C to pay our--now what would we be paying in cash? and why would Jules interest himself in it? I'll leave that to your imagination. On his heels came Marcelle, our French tutor, ready for her weekly hour and a half with E and G, and alarmingly awake and bright-eyed. Alice barked throughout.

So I finished my tea, checked online to make sure that the clock was at 13 days, and then left the house with the dogs. We walked up the path to the chemin du Moulin and towards the village. Wendy found all the olives that were still semi-whole on the ground, dipping her head to scoop them up in her mouth, and Alice sniffed every tuft of grass. There was quite a bit of snow on the Pic de Courmettes. The wind was blowing, and the clouds were coming down quickly: the mountain was disappearing as we walked.

About halfway along the lane, a man stepped out from between two olive trees and began walking along several yards in front of us. He was shorter than I am by half a head, and had legs much longer than his torso. He looked mismatched, like a child had put two different dolls together. He walked with a wooden stick that reached his shoulder, and wore dark green wellington boots, dark green pants, and several bulky pullovers. No hat or gloves. It took him several paces before he heard us coming behind him--Wendy and Alice's collars jingle a little--because he was singing. Not loudly, but not under his breath, either; not humming. Singing something that I could tell had a tune, although that wasn't what he was singing, exactly. It sounded like the baritone line of a chorale: hum hum hum, a bar to meet the melody, hum hum hum, a little more melody.

When he heard us coming, during a lull in his melody, he turned around and wished me good day, but did not lose his place in the chorale. For whatever reason--and my city self wonders at it--my Crazy Person hackles did not go up. I didn't recognize him, as I do many of the people I meet on our walks, but he seemed so perfectly at ease that I just accepted that he belonged there.

And then I saw the sheep below us, on the upper terrace where the lane bends to go up to the village. They were grazing around the olive trees, butting each other along, doing their sheep thing. When we reached the bend in the lane, the singer turned down a little path towards the herd. He glanced back at me before he did, nodded and even seemed to bow, formally, a little. Then the melody line came back to his part, and he went off singing towards his flock.

Monday, January 5, 2009

In France

When I started graduate school, I heard lots of stories about a fellow Williams alum who had started his history doctorate a few years before I did. Apparently he had arrived on the West Coast and promptly and continually compared everything and everyone to his undergrad experience. At Williams, he would say, professors invited their students over for dinner with their families. At Williams, he would say, the shopkeepers on Spring Street knew the students by name. At Williams, he would say, every season was beautiful and there was never any traffic. At Stanford, my fellow graduate students didn't think a whole lot of my fellow Eph's attachment to our college. After all, Stanford was not without its charms.

We're back from two weeks with our families in the States. I think we saw nearly everyone we meant to see; certainly we saw everyone we had time to see, in the time that we had. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year's with family, extended family, and friends. We ate and talked and walked and then ate some more. Most people we saw we hadn't seen in nearly two years. They asked us about our life here; we said it was a good life. And that was generally the end of the conversation. At least, it felt like that to us. Maybe to everyone else it sounded like we were going on endlessly, obnoxiously, about the baguettes and the views and the sangliers and the weather: In France, we eat fresh bread every day. In France, there are no strip malls. In France, almost all our food is locally grown--but to us, it felt like we said, we're happy there, and then the conversation moved on.

And really, there's no reason it shouldn't have. It would have been boring at best, and boorish at worst, to bless every one with a lecture on Being an American and Living In France in 2007-08, or, France and America: Similarities and Differences. (After all, that's what La Bastiole is for.) What was disconcerting was that our friends and family accepted us back, just as we are, or were, or had been. We stepped back into our American life with barely a ripple, as though we had been away for a few days and not a few years.

That was probably a good thing. The alternative--stepping back in and getting sucked under by the tide, not feeling any connection with the people we care about--certainly holds no appeal. And yet we feel changed by our life here, and uncertain about how we will ever live our life again in America, and whether we want to, and what that means. That feels profound to us. To others on the outside it probably doesn't. The feeling is probably mentioned, and explained, in the penultimate chapter of most books on living abroad. How, though, to go about living through it is something we have to figure out.

Meanwhile, this morning, I look out my kitchen window and think: In France, I look over the olive trees to the sea.