Friday, February 27, 2009


Sunday morning we went to the brocante in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Brocante translates directly as a flea market--but it's a flea market the way that a shop that sells last year's couture with the tags cut out is a second-hand store. And the Sunday brocante in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the Platonic ideal of the type. Stands line the sidewalk between the village's main road and its canal for blocks, and when the road reaches the obligatory place and monument aux morts, the line of stands divides and multiplies, encircling the monument and place and then heading deeper into the village. Every stand is different, every dealer with his own specialty.

I've long been a denizen of antique markets and flea markets and antique flea markets in America, and have the odds and ends to prove it. The odd porcelain platter that matches my grandparents' wedding china. Small framed prints of a hot-air balloon in flight. A large rooster made out of old scrap iron. I love sorting through old stuff, the smell and feel of it, and, in America, I love the moment of connection when I find something that reminds me of a house I knew or a relative, or a novel.

In France, of course, I don't often have that moment of connection. What a French brocante lets me do, instead, is peek inside another world, another past. Kitchen tools whose function I cannot guess. Old boules, each with its own pattern of markings, so that the old man who used it would recognize it by feel even when the dusk had fallen so that all the boules looked alike. Sets of silver: to judge from most brocantes I've been to, there was a time in France when all households needed a set of silver or silver-plate fish forks and knives. And, also judging from the population of those fish services on brocante dealers' tables, that time has passed. Souvenir plates from Lourdes. Altar pieces and chipped statues of the saints. (Wouldn't a Saint Catherine look nice in the front yard beside my rusty rooster? I say to C. Are you kidding? he says, in a tone that makes it clear that he knows I'm not, and that he isn't, either.)

At Sunday's brocante, we parked in the first space we came to, put on all of our outer layers, and began the walk along the stalls. It was cold. Four degrees Celsius, 39 Fahrenheit, but the wind was blowing. The famous mistral that begins somewhere in Siberia and is going along at a pretty good clip by the time it gets to Provence, a wind that finds any chink in your clothing and seeps inside. We walked into it for a block or two and then, thinking to outsmart it and put it at our backs, we crossed the canal and walked in the opposite direction. It was still in our faces and blowing just as hard.

If it hadn't been for the wind, we could easily have furnished our imaginary mas in the Lubéron. Plates, cutlery, linens (linen linens, with lace edging), mirrors, chandeliers, candlesticks, kitchen scales, glassware (crystal, everyday, and several complete sets of pastis glasses marked with brand names), rugs, sofas, chairs, tables, garden furniture: a whole life, ready to be loaded up on a truck and carted off down a windy road to a stone farmhouse, where we would tend our vines and sit under the beech tree in the courtyard eating cherries from our trees, salad from our garden, bread from the village baker, and fresh chèvre from the farm down the lane.

But there was wind, and it was cold, and time for lunch. We bought a tiny set of silver tongs--E and G chose the ones with the more moderne design instead of the fancy claw-shaped ones--and went to find a café.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


We stayed at the Relais de Roquefure--and let me interrupt myself to say how much I love staying in small family-run hotels. There are probably thousands of them in France, in old town houses, châteaux, farmhouses, stables, a lot of them in old inns that have always been inns. The rooms, at least in the ones we can afford, tend to be small and the bathrooms smaller, but they are clean and comfortable and come with a sense of place and of individuality. The person who greets you when you arrive is not waiting for her shift to end; it's her hotel. She lives in the other wing. And these hotels are not precious, either, at least I've not come across one that is: that self-conscious homeyness of cheap antiques, pink wallpaper and dishes of potpourri that afflicts many small non-chain American hotels. These hotels are, I guess we would say, old-fashioned family hotels. In the best sense of the word.

And the Relais de Roquefure was a fine example of the genre. The building is a 200 year old bastide, a three-story main section bolstered by assorted connected former farm buildings, set on a few acres of land at the end of a country road that is part of one of the medieval Saint Jacques de Compostello pilgrimage routes. The innkeepers were a young couple expecting their first child. February is deep in the off season in the Lubéron, and so we were among the only guests.

As is often the case with hotels like this one, dinner was offered in the hotel's dining room. The husband in the couple was also the hotel chef. Our first two nights at the Relais we elected to eat elsewhere, partly because the chef offered only a menu. Which means, translated, not a menu in the American senses but rather a set dinner. To put it bluntly: no choices. First course, second course, cheese or dessert. Everyone got the same thing, and what they got was what the chef found at the market that day.

All very romantic and slow food and charming until the first time you sit down to dinner and find pieds et paquets on your plate. Pieds et paquets, for the uninitiated, is a popular Provençal stew composed of stuffed bits of sheep or cow stomach (the paquets, packets) simmered with blanched sheep's pieds, feet.

You know how much I love France. And French food. But that's my boundary.

I've never actually had the experience of pushing blanched pied du mouton around on my plate, and I hope not to. And that is why we put off dinner at the Relais until our final evening there. We wanted to have dinner in the large paneled dining room with windows overlooking the garden, we really did; we like nothing better than the idea of going down to dinner in the hotel. But what were we going to do if the main course turned out to be beyond our boundaries or, worse, beyond E and G's boundaries? They are adventurous eaters, but there are limits to any 13 year old palate, and we did not want to test them.

So Monday afternoon when we returned from our hike and bumped into the chef in the front hall, we reserved for dinner, feeling very brave indeed. Part of the experience, we said. We didn't mention our concern that dinner might be a long way from roast chicken to the girls. We didn't want to worry them or give them time to draw up a list of acceptable foods. We didn't want to give up the element of surprise.

Dinner was at 8. We took up our station in the dining room; the only other diner was the only other hotel guest, a Belgian woman who sat across the room from us with her book. The chef came out. Tonight's dinner: a salad with melted rounds of chèvre served on toasts; magret de canard with vegetables; a fruit gratin. The chef gave us a plate of thin baguette slices covered in homemade tapenade and went back to the kitchen. Our work began.

Magret de canard is duck breast. You know, ducks, those cute little birds that we were watching on the river this afternoon.

It tastes like dark meat chicken, and you like that, I said.

It's a lot like beef, C said.

Think how cool it would be to tell you friends in America about the time you ate duck breast at a country inn in Provence, I said.

The girls were unconvinced. Remember, cute little feathery creatures. Quack, quack.

We all enjoyed the salad with cheese. Then C and I went back on duty.

Just try it, is all. Just take a couple of bites, C said.

Don't think about what it is, I said. Just try it.

And then the plates arrived. A fan of sliced duck breast enclosing ratatouille and a roasted potato covered in a creamy mint and truffle sauce.

It tastes like beef, C said. Think of it as beef.

Just try it, I said.

The girls each took a bite. They chewed.

G was the first to swallow. It tastes like beef, she said with a twinkle, but better.

They both finished their portions. It was a success.

G had only one caveat. I still don't like foie gras, she said.

Duly noted.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Once upon a time in Provence

Vous connaissez les livres de Peter Mayle? I was walking with Olivier up the terraces to see Jules. He thought for a moment, frowning, then (probably having translated my American pronunciation into French), nodded. Jules est comme un personnage dans ses livres. Jules is like a character out of Peter Mayle's books.

Olivier chuckled. Exactement. C'est ça.

Peter Mayle's books on Provence have been among our chief references for the region and its culture; for conveying an outsider's sense of wonder and delight A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, and their confrères stand alone. G and E read the books when we first came, and have reread them since many times.

Mayle's characters are stock figures in our family stories. A few weeks ago, we took a day trip for C's birthday. We visited a couple of châteaux--wine making châteaux, not historic châteaux--in the morning (nothing like tasting a half dozen côtes de Provence to wake you up) and then, around noon, pulled into the village of Lorgues for lunch. As we got out of the car, G said: I hope we see some of those old Provençal men who spend all day playing boules and drinking pastis. Those guys are, of course, Mayleian standbys: the men of a certain uncertain age, between 50 and 90, pacing off the distance between the boules on the court across from the café.

And just as our steacks frites arrived at our table in the Hôtel du Parc, the men G had been talking about shuffled in. There were two of them, one short and stout, the other tall and ropey, missing their share of teeth, garbed in layers of flannel and wool and berets and sturdy boots, and they knew everyone in the place. We all looked at each other. There they are, she said.

We're not above using A Year in Provence as our travel guide. Last year, during one of the school vacances, the girls and I spent a night in Aix en Provence, and ate our dinner at the café Les Deux Garçons. Peter Mayle describes it thus:

The ceiling is high, and toasted to a caramel color by the smoke from a million cigarettes. The bar is burnished copper, the tables and chairs gleam with the patina bestowed by countless bottoms and elbows, and the waiters have aprons and flat feet, as all proper waiters should.

He doesn't mention the gilded mirrors that line the walls, or the leather banquettes, or the chandeliers whose soft light make everyone look like Audrey Tautou. We ordered drinks--a glass of red wine for me, Orangina and a Coca for the girls--and when the waiter (tall; black vest over white shirt; white floor-length apron over black pants; the tip of the third finger on his left hand missing, no doubt from a misadventure when he was in the Resistance during the War) brought the drinks, he picked up the bottle of Coca in his right hand. He put it over his shoulder and, in one movement, opened it with the bottle opener he had concealed in his palm, brought it back down, and poured it into its glass.

We would not have been any more starstruck if he had made a dove fly out of the bottle. It is now the standard by which all other restaurant tricks are measured. A waiter could balance a silver tray bearing an entire flaming roast turkey on one hand and we would cock our heads, consider it, and decide, upon reflection, that while it was no doubt difficult and quite clever, it was not, on the whole, as remarkable as that time the waiter at the Deux Garçons opened the bottle of Coke.

It's time for another vacances--they've been going to school steadily for seven weeks now, after all--and tomorrow morning we're off to Peter Mayle country. We'll be going to markets and visiting abbeys and hiking and eating and looking for old men playing boules and waiters who can do tricks. I doubt that we'll find anyone who surpasses our friend in Aix, but, after all, the pleasure is in the research as much as the discovery. We will be Internet-free for a few days, so, dear readers, I'll look for some good stories to tell you. And I'll see you back here next Wednesday.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Birthday Party

E called me from school midday last week. Harriet's birthday is next weekend and her mother says they live too far from school to have a party. Can we have the party at our house?

Generally, when I get these calls, there is a lot of background noise. Children screaming on the blacktop kind of noise. E's usually having another conversation at the same time that she's talking to me, and, more often than not, I hear G's voice break in at some point, elaborating on a point. The kids are allowed to use their cell phones at the mid-morning break and at lunchtime, when everyone is outside and everyone is excited in the way that only middle school children who are not in class can be. So I take a Special Forces approach to the calls: answer, take the important information, and hang up.

The important information that I got from E's question was, Can we have friends over this weekend? I checked my interior calendar: weekend free. Yes.

Thanks Mommy bye.

I hung up and replayed the conversation. Then I thought I must have misunderstood. Surely I had not just agreed to host a birthday party for a child I'd never met.

When I picked the girls up in the afternoon, I asked them. What is happening with Harriet? Is it her birthday? I thought if I didn't come out and say birthday party then maybe they wouldn't mention it.

It's her birthday and her mother says they live too far away to have everyone come over for a party so since we live close by we said we'd have it at our house. Like that, but switching between children.

I had known, peripherally, that Harriet's family lived an hour east of the Collège des vignes. While she figures in the girls' stories about school, Harriet's never turned up outside of school for a sleepover or a playdate--I guess they're not playdates any more, are they?--and this was always given as the reason why. Too far to go, too difficult to arrange transportation.

But a birthday party? When we got home from school I checked my parental job description. (I keep it in the top drawer of my desk; I find it's a useful reference, as in when I point out to E and G that, as of their arrival at age 13, it is no longer part of my job description to clean their bathroom sinks. You see, it's not in the description, I say, taking it out to show them. That's why there's a bottle of Monsieur Propre and a sponge in your bathroom cabinet.) There it was, just after Food, Shelter, reasonably un-embarrassing Clothing, Books, Music, and Conversation: Birthday Observance. A sub-heading explained that a full-on party with cake and candles was not mandatory but was, particularly during early adolescence, Strongly Advised.

Apparently Harriet's parents job description was not the same as mine. I briefly entertained the thought of telling G and E that it was absurd for us to throw a birthday party for a child C and I had never even met, and that they should go to school and tell everyone that there had been a misunderstanding, but then couple of other lines in the job description caught my eye. If you say you will do something, then you must do it if you can, it said. And just below: when your children are kind and generous, support them. So I put the job description back in the drawer and went downstairs to plan a birthday party.

Everyone who was invited came. I made spaghetti; the girls and their friend Virginia cleaned the house, made the beds, and baked a cake. There were birthday candles, singing, and presents. The girls slept over--yes, a birthday sleepover party--and, in the morning, C made three dozen pancakes, which they finished. (We made ourselves some toast.)

Throughout the planning and staging of the party, there had been no word from Harriet's parents. Nothing. We wondered at it: did they not know it was a birthday party? did they not know the party was happening at all? Maybe they weren't comfortable speaking English, or French, or just speaking?

Sunday morning the parents began to arrive to collect their daughters. Most of them we knew, some of them we didn't; we shook hands and kissed cheeks when cheeks were offered, and spoke a little English and a little French and smiled a lot. Harriet's mother was one of the last to come. She introduced herself; we shook hands; she came into the kitchen and looked around.

It was nice of your daughters to give Harriet a little birthday party, she said.

Oh, well, they did it all themselves, really, we replied, as we washed the breakfast dishes.

It's too bad that the children don't get to socialize much outside of school. For us, living where we do, it is just too difficult. Harriet takes the bus to school every day because it would take too long for me to drive her. Your girls must take the bus, don't they?

No, I said. They would have to get up much earlier, and walk down to the end of the lane, and it's only a ten minute drive for me to take them to school. Since I'm not working, it's easy.

Oh, said Harriet's mother. I work at home, but it would be too difficult for me to do the driving.

At the end of Babar and His Children, after Pom, Alexander, and Flora have spent the day getting into scrape after scrape, the elephant king sits down on his sofa. The children have finally gone to sleep. Truly it is not easy to bring up a family, Babar says. What I wanted to say to Harriet's mother was this: it is supposed to be difficult. Driving your child to school so that she doesn't have to leave the house before 7 every morning and sit on the regional bus for an hour is one of those difficulties that we sign up for when they're born. As are, by the way, birthday parties.

Calvin Trillin, when asked for his theory on child-rearing, tells people Your children are either the center of your life or they're not. That's up at the top of my parental job description. Sadly, though, there's also something in there about cutting other people some slack. So that's one of my exercises this week, along with being more patient, trying to see the good in the Republican congressional delegation (I'm nothing if not ambitious), and giving Harriet's mother the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, February 16, 2009

There'll Always Be An England

Darling, I have a horrid story to tell you. Just awful. Dahlia is talking to me. She is supremely English, a retired midwife who lived her whole life in Kensington, looking after well to do pregnant ladies. When she says her story is horrid, I don't know what to expect.

My dear friend Penelope rang me up last night, says Dahlia. Her daughter is at University in London and is penniless, absolutely penniless, and homeless, too. Essentially. And she had called her mum, because she was house sitting for a family, they asked her, Penelope's daughter, to come and stay in their house while they went on holiday, because they had two dogs and a cat that needed looking after. So, fine, off goes Penelope's daughter. And then she rings up her mum and she says, Mum, what am I going to do, the dog has dropped dead. And it had, the family's four year old Labrador, on the third day the daughter was staying there, why, he just fell over. Dead. Just like that. Boom.

Oh no, I say.

Really, nods Dahlia, just horrid.

So Penelope says to her, Darling, I'm in Shropshire, I can't do anything about it. You're just going to have to get the dog to the vet, and the vet will know what to do.

But Mum,
says the daughter, how can I take the dog to the vet? You see she had no car, no money for a taxi, nothing, there she is in this house in South Kensington, dead dog. And Penelope says, Darling, you're going to have to cope.

Penelope's daughter hangs up the phone and looks around the house. No money, none, for a taxi, and how's she going to get the dog to the vet, so he can get rid of it?

Really, Dahlia interrupts herself, just awful. Poor girl. Can you imagine? I mean really.

Then she sees one of those wheeled grocery trolley thingies, you know, like you have in the city, with a flap and a handle.

She didn't, I say. She couldn't have.

Dahlia nods. Yes she did. She did. She bundled the dog into the grocery trolley and off she went, down the street to the tube station.

Well she got to the station, and there were steps. You know the dog was quite heavy and off she goes down the steps with the trolley, bump bump bump. And then this nice young man comes up to her and he says, Oh, that looks heavy, do you need a hand? And she says, Oh, yes, please, that would be very kind indeed. And so he lifts up the back and off they go, down the stairs.

They end up getting in the same car on the train, and they're sitting together. He says to her, Your trolley is so heavy, what are you carrying in there? And Penelope's daughter, she has to think fast, so she says, I'm moving house, and these are all of my family treasures, things I didn't want the movers to take, so I'm carrying them myself.

Oh, right, says the young man. Then the train pulls into Penelope's daughter's station, and she gets down from the train, and it turns out it's the young man's stop, too. They--daughter, dead dog, grocery trolley--start up the stairs again, and the nice young man is helping her. He takes hold of the front of the trolley, and she is following along, and she doesn't really need to hold onto her end of the cart at all, he's carrying all the weight. And then he takes off with the trolley.

He takes off with the cart with the dead dog in it? I can't believe I've heard right.

Yes! Dahlia is hooting with laughter. Cart! Dead dog! Off he goes!

And the rest is up to our imagination.

Friday, February 13, 2009

En grève

C's company, Acme Unlimited, has been announcing worldwide layoffs since October. It's the kind of company that, when worldwide layoffs are announced, the announcement makes the crawl across the bottom of the screen, and everyone shakes their heads sagely and talks about how we live in difficult times. C still has a job. A third of his colleagues in France aren't going to be so lucky.

No one knows yet who is going to get laid off. Acme announced months ago that a third of their French workforce would lose their jobs but, because of the (to the Acme eye) peculiarities of French labor law, no one at the local office has yet gone home. There is a complicated series of negotiations that have to take place between Acme, the employees' representatives, and a French fonctionnaire or two before anyone can be selected for a pink slip. Questions have to be answered: how many dependents has the employee, is he married, does he own or rent his house. Each answer is worth a certain number of points, and those points are tallied. The one with the fewest points looks for a new job--while living on a severance package that comes from both Acme (several months' salary) and the government (up to two years of help).

Acme's employees in America--several thousand got their notices last week--took their pencils and went home the same afternoon as the announcement. C's email box was flooded with farewell messages, mostly, mercifully, from people he didn't know. They were, to a message, accepting of their fate, pleased to have had the opportunity to work for Acme, and would always look back fondly on their time there.

Such are not the prevailing sentiments in the French office. Every company in France of a certain size is required to have a Comité d'entreprise, a body which acts, in happy times, as the purveyor of discounted ski passes and opera tickets and which metamorphoses, in times like these, into the employees' union representatives. In this capacity, the comité wants to know, with all due respect (and not a hint more) why, when Acme is still turning a profit, are people being laid off?

We think it's a reasonable question, the same way that we think that all those points and all that severance are reasonable compensations. Why, indeed? It comes down to a philosophical difference between the notion that a company exists to make a profit and to further its own interests, and the notion that a company exists to provide for its employees. And so the members of the Comité d'entreprise are negotiating with Acme representatives, and meanwhile, back in the Home Office Park, the guys with the MBAs want to know why the layoffs haven't happened in France yet.

Rumors have reached American shores that the French aren't going to go without a fight. Last week there was a small manifestation--employee-protesters met up in the lobby of Acme's main building here, and marched outside and around the perimeter of the campus, putting photocopied notices of their intent to protest under any and every windshield-wiper that stood in their way. Friday last there were rumors of a strike for this week. The building was going to be blockaded (how do engineers do that?) and, outside, there would be some more marching about, and maybe some speech making.

The grève didn't come off--the comité called a meeting in the company lunchroom, and said that negotiations were ongoing, but that they were keeping the strike option open--and C has been in the office all week. His colleagues back in the Home Office Park are emailing him about the goings on over here. Their emails range from the disdainful (which you can pretty well imagine) to the concerned: do you feel safe in your office? are there going to be riots? one colleague wanted to know.

The answers were yes, and no. The Comité will continue negotiating, and Acme will, perhaps, make the odd symbolic concession. Then the MBAs in their cotton blend shirts will decide that they don't want to let their Microsoft Project calendars slip any more, and, finally, people will be sent home. It's not the workers' world any more, if it ever was; it's not even the workers' France. But lost causes can still be worthy ones. We're following the developments with interest.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I was taught, one time, about the Hudson River School. It's not an actual school (I mean, there probably is one, but that's not the one I'm talking about), but the name for a group of American painters in the 1800s. Here's one of my favorite examples, Thomas Cole's Home in the Woods; click over to look at it and then come back. I'll wait.

The art history professor who taught me about the Hudson River School said this about the painters' use of perspective: you have the foreground, in which the small details take place, getting out of a canoe, having a picnic, taking a walk; then you have the middle ground, which is the setting for the small details, woods or a lake or a cottage in the distance or, more likely, all three; and then--and here, generations of academic inbreeding resonated out over his bow tie--you have the sublime. The Sublime took the form of distant mountains, or a spectacular cloud formation, or a lake, or, more often than not, all three.

We're living in our own small Hudson River School painting right now. In the foreground, we're telling people that we're coming (or going, depending on what time zone you're in) back to America. That's all detailed and sharply focused, like when I told Dahlia, one of my favorite English ladies, and she shook her head and then bent over her quilting stitches. Or when E and G told their friends at school yesterday, and Virginia spent the rest of the day saying, You can't leave me: people, moving about, talking to each other, sewing, eating, walking, thinking. Then there's the middle ground, where C and I are thinking about when to leave, and how to patch together the time in the States before our furniture arrives, and where to send the girls to school, and what color to paint the kitchen in our American house, and my finding work: a fairly dense forest, that part is, with occasional shafts of sunlight and suggestions of clearings but, still, not the kind of forest you just walk off into without at least a water bottle and a snack.

And then, there's the Sublime. I thought of that when I received an email from our friends over at Organizing for America. Its subject line was Your economic crisis. Well, our economic crisis is what's looming over the back of the painting, the range of snowy peaks under a cloudy sky. It's the backdrop, but it's also the reason the painting exists.

The story of this crisis, the email said, is in homes across the country -- homes where a family member has lost a job, where parents are struggling to pay a mortgage, and where college tuition has slipped out of reach.

Share your story about how this crisis is affecting you and your family.

I read it aloud to C. Do you think we should respond?

Dear Friends, I could write,

The economic crisis is forcing us to leave our home in the South of France, where we live in the middle of an olive grove and look out over the sea, to return to our center-hall Colonial house in the inner suburbs of the nation's capital. Please hurry and get the stimulus package passed so that we can begin the kitchen remodel.

Amitiés, Madame Marron.

It is, as my art history professor taught us, all about perspective.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Prime Time

The profs at the Collège des vignes have their own theatre troop, and this was the weekend of their annual production. It's one of the handful of school events in the year that takes place outside of school hours and that parents are welcome, even invited, to attend. So yesterday afternoon found us at the final performance of this year's spectacle, Corneille en Prime Time.

The gist of the story, written by the teachers for the performance, was this: a travelling band of actors has fallen on hard times. Their repertoire is classical French drama: the works of Corneille, a seventeenth-century playwright who wrote epic tragedies and who, to judge from his plays, was considerably less fun than his portrait, above, suggests. From what I remember of French literature, Corneille makes Molière look like Jim Belushi. Just when the troop has begun to despair of ever again playing to a sellout crowd, they are discovered by a producer of reality TV shows and his équipe of designers. A long and detailed discussion that I think was about the ethics of reducing Corneille's drama Le Cid to a 15 minute reality TV sound bite ensues (but I'm not entirely sure; they were speaking quickly, idiomatically, without a lot of amplification, and they were, after all, amateur actors...), and ends with the troop signing on. They give Le Cid a happy ending, the crowd goes wild, and we are given to understand that everyone lives happily ever after.

We saw the third and final performance, and the theatre was full. Faculty and their families, students and their families, from babies in arms to grandparents. The audience clapped, laughed, even waved their arms in the air. We did all those things, too, we just didn't know why we were doing them. Watching amateur theatre in a foreign language is a surreal experience, even more surreal if the story is one you don't know. I could follow Romeo and Juliet in French; I could even follow the major plot points of bits of Molière, though I would miss the jokes. I think that watching this--replete with cultural references and in-jokes and clever asides--was similar to what a French person might experience watching, say, an old episode of MASH, interpreted by the local Little Theatre. Why is the main character wearing a bathrobe, and who's the guy in the dress?

At any rate, C and I had no idea what was going on. The high point of our discomfiture came at the end of the show, when the chorus gathered round the main players, held candles up in the air, and sang and swayed along to a (well amplified) recording of Elton John's Can You Feel the Love Tonight, translated into French. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be able to think of the name of that song, or who sang it. Since that melody was the only thing I could make sense of in the scene, though, I could devote the full two or three minutes that it went on to remembering.

My ears hurt when we got home. Not inside, but outside. It was as though I had strained so hard to listen that the skin around my ears had stretched. I had had a pretty good French week, too, bantered with strangers, explained the French Revolution, even read a little Marcel Pagnol. But the physics teacher in the yellow satin polyester toga reciting Corneille: now I know how far I have to go.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Eggs for supper

I canvassed the coffee ladies on Monday morning and they told me that I should put our truffle in a box with eggs and leave it for several days. The scent of the truffe would penetrate the eggshells and flavor the eggs with truffle, and then I should make an omelette.

I had heard this before--I think Peter Mayle wrote it someplace --but I needed to hear it from practical English ladies in sensible shoes to believe that it was more than a story about the strange foodways of the French, that it was actually something you could do with a truffle. Monday night, while C was doing the dishes, I took out a half dozen eggs, put them in one of our finest Rubbermaid containers, and then popped in the truffle. (In the picture, it's the thing that's not an egg.)

C sniffed the truffle and raised his eyebrows. Do you think it's spoiled?

Of course it's not spoiled. I sniffed and amended my opinion. Surely it's not spoiled, I said.

It had a strong smell, like something that you'd dig up under a tree, something that may have grown there or that, possibly, the dog had left there and was planning to come back for. It smelled like a mushroom in the way that the lettuce for sale at the village market in July is like the lettuce I can buy now at the LeClerc hypermarché: like a mushroom, but a thousand times more so. The texture, the feel of the truffle, was a cross between a mushroom and what I imagine a preserved brain feels like. More firm than squishy, but with a definite squish factor, and lots and lots of little curly and squiggly ridges. We wondered what had possessed people to decide that these were food.

Then we put the lid on the box and, after some deliberation, put the box in the refrigerator. The question was twofold: whether to leave it out on the counter (eggs aren't refrigerated in French grocery stores), and whether the smell of the truffle would leak out of the Rubbermaid and penetrate everything in the fridge (in which case we'd have milk à la truffe, orange juice à la truffe, maple syrup à la truffe...). We decided to rely on our American instincts towards refrigeration and our trust in the impermeability of American plastics.

Last night I read around the web and through our cookbooks for a recipe for truffle omelet. Everyone said pretty much the same thing: do the egg and truffle in a box trick, then make an omelet. You could add some truffle to the omelet if you wanted to. After about the fourth recipe it dawned on me that I know how to make an omelet (or how to try; see below), and that this was ridiculous. (Overthinking, again.) So I took out the egg box, cracked the eggs into a bowl, sliced about a quarter of the truffle thinly into the eggs, added salt, pepper, and a little cream (it was in the fridge, and, why not, what's it going to do, make the omelette à la truffe richer?), and whisked it all together.

I made a salad and put the minestrone soup I'd made earlier in the week to warm on the back burner. Then I got out my great-aunt's cast iron skillet and put some butter in it. I wish you could have known my great-aunt, whose interests in the decades I knew her were ceramics, chain-smoking, Whitman's samplers, and soap operas. (But she always shared the candy, and turned off the television--at the next commercial--when we came to visit.) I've been told that she had been a good cook in her day, but by the time I knew her, her cooking days were over. I thought of her in her farm kitchen in New Jersey, standing over this same skillet frying scrapple, as I poured my eggs and truffle slices into it.

My plans for an omelet quickly became plans for scrambled eggs, as my lack of an omelet pan ran up against my electric stove that doesn't heat the pan evenly (and then there's the not-negligible question of my patience for fiddling, or lack thereof). So much for a beautiful, tall, puffy creation.

I divided the eggs between the four of us and put the salad and bread on the table. (The soup was the next course.) We all took a bite.

They taste, and I don't mean this in a bad way, like dirt. Like the earth, said E.

And they did. Like loamy, dark, fertile soil, the kind that you think is in your garden when you're ordering seeds from catalogues in February, when the soil you have is actually more comparable to those mushrooms that come in blue Styrofoam boxes wrapped in plastic. Their taste was mild, but also deep and strong.

Well. We liked them, was the verdict. Score one more for the French.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Deux décas

The winter that C and I began dating, I decided to buy a toaster oven. We were both living in campus apartments for graduate students. The apartment kitchens came with a range and refrigerator; any other kitchen equipment was up to us. I had brought plates and bowls and utensils and, I think, a hand mixer West with me the year before, when Madame Mère and I had driven from the right to left coasts. Why I decided that I would acquire a toaster oven I no longer remember.

Why isn't important, because I didn't buy one. I didn't buy one because, on the day that C went with me to get one, he stopped in the kitchen appliances aisle, turned to me, and said: Why do you need a toaster oven when I already have one?

Just like Bogie and Bacall, I know. But when we began deciding that we didn't need duplicates of household appliances, that's when we knew, I think, that we were heading towards setting up housekeeping. That was 18 years ago.

We didn't bring the toaster oven (we had replaced it in the meantime with a newer model) to France because, of course, American kitchen appliances don't work in French kitchens. Different electrical current or voltage or, at any rate, a different-looking plug. (In our relationship, I'm then one who knows where the train is going; C's the one who understands how it gets there.) Nor did we bring a coffee pot. We're not big coffee drinkers--C has always abjured hot liquids, and I drink tea all day long. But what we found when we moved here was that we could order a petit déca--a tiny decaf espresso--in a café, or after dinner out, and that we enjoyed sitting over it, enjoyed the whole quiet coffee ritual.

So we started looking at espresso machines. There are about 139 varieties on sale, everything from gorgeous Italian-designed stainless models that do everything but hand you a fresh croissant with your coffee, to lilac plastic machines that take up less space on your (already small) kitchen plan de travail and stick to handing out espresso, neat. Last summer we made several trips to Darty, the French appliance store, to examine various models, and we talked to our friends for recommendations. It was a long process because C likes to make decisions carefully, and because we were espresso machine novices (how many bars? how much pressure? capsules or not, and if so, what kind?), and because the local Darty is 45 minutes away.

The summer turned into early fall while we were still trying to figure out bars and pressure and capsules. Another element began to sidle into our espresso maker conversations: the plug question. None of the machines we had seen would work in an American kitchen. They were all wired (or magicked, as I think of it) for European kitchens. So if we bought a European machine it would be inutile in our Stateside life.

We came over in the summer of 2007, after more than a year's worth of planning and conniving and cajoling. C's contract brought us for two years. The moment we arrived--from the hardship-posting heat of Washington, DC to the lovely dry heat of our hillside, with cool evenings and open windows and no mosquitoes--we learned that several of C's American colleagues had been able easily to extend their two year contract to four or even five years. Et voilà, we thought, and we settled in for the duration. Happily ever after in our village, at least until the girls could finish lycée and go off to university.

And then. The economy collapsed.

We stayed the course.

It collapsed again.

We did some figuring, and stayed the course.


And then we started rethinking the espresso machine.

We've struggled for months now with the decision. C's contract won't be renewed; he could stay on, but on very different terms, and there wouldn't be a job waiting in America when he got back. We would have to move house, move village. I don't have the right visas to work in Europe, and, even if I did, my collection of diplomas doesn't mean a whole lot in France. The girls will be ready to start high school next September; if we're going to make a move, this seems the time to do it. So we're going home.

We'll go in the summer, as we came, and try not to notice the difference in climate too much. Life at La Bastiole will go on til we close the gates and hand Jules the keys. We are sorry--no, we are heartbroken--to leave this good life. The saving grace is that we've had this moment, and that the four of us will have it to remember together.

Today is C's birthday. Later this afternoon I'll pick up the gâteau aux trois chocolats that I ordered from Gilbert at the boulangerie, and we'll have it tonight for dessert, after some salad and linguine with truffle sauce (wish us luck with the truffle). The first birthday of his that we celebrated together was in my graduate student apartment, without a toaster oven; after that year, and ever since, we've shared the toaster oven and everything else, and we've come, on our best days, to think the same thoughts without need of speech, and babble the same speech without need of meaning. Next year we'll mark this day on a different continent, in the same time zone and even area code as much our famille éloignée. But it will still be the four of us, and, even more, the two of us, at the table, and that thought is what makes leaving La Bastiole bearable. That, and knowing that if we start the research now, by next February we might have bought an espresso machine. Then after dinner we'll have deux décas and remember this.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Telling it slant

It has been brought to my attention that I may have made some uncharitable comments about Jules last week. Uncharitable, maybe; true, nevertheless. However, truth is a complicated creature, and so is Jules.

Friday Jules and Madame invited us to dinner. Don't come too early, he told me in the afternoon. He had stopped by the house to apologize for the power being out. But it's not out, I said, showing him the digital clock on the oven. You must have turned it back on, he said. Let me look at the fuse box.

It was futile to explain that I had not touched the fuse box and that the power had not so much as blinked. He was already kneeling on the floor in the electrical closet, flipping switches on and off. When he was satisfied that the power was in fact on, he stood up and backed out the back door, trying not to leave too much dirt (he had been out in the mud that surrounds the replanted olivier) on the floor. Don't come too early tonight, he said. We're not terribly organized.

We had been up to the big house for drinks after Epiphany, just before Jules and Madame went back to Paris. Jules is a different person as a host: warm, funny, expansive, gracious. It is bad form to talk dirt about the workers over a drink, so he tells stories about his grandparents, his trips to America when he was a young man, his daughters and grandchildren. And he tells us how remarkable we are and the girls are, which is always easy to listen to. When you came, you could not speak a word, pas un seut mot, of French, and now, look at you! Incroyable!

Then Madame chimes in with, And they know more about the area than people who have lived here for years. The way they have adjusted to living in a foreign country, and especially how they put up with living with the French, c'est vraiment formidable.

Leaving aside the decades of our lives that we have both devoted to studying French, it is nonetheless flattering. That night we talked about truffles--the truffle season is upon us--where to find them, how to buy them. C and I were planning to go to the marché aux truffes in the next village on the weekend. Jules and Madame asked us to buy them a truffle if we found any. And then we came back down the terraces, and Jules and Madame left for Paris early the next morning.

Friday night we sat down to dinner at 9.30 with Jules and Madame and another set of neighbors. The first course, served at room temperature, was a bowl of what looked like green beans tossed with canned tuna. Tuna and haricots verts are a familiar combination from salade niçoise, so, though I'd never thought to have the two on their own without the rest of the salade, I was happy to take a serving.

An aside: the risk, when dining en famille with a French person, is that something will end up on your plate that, while it is well within the parameters of the ordinary French diet, will require an American, even a fairly broad-dieted American, to move the goalposts back a bit. I was once served a whole barracuda which still sported its eyes and, more alarmingly, its teeth. Also, a pâté made out of cod liver.

So green beans tossed with tuna fish seemed pretty tame. Even though the tuna looked, well, it looked like cat food. The canned tuna spectrum is significantly wider in France than it is in the States. There is canned tuna that comes marinated in extra-virgin olive oil in a beautiful yellow tin with green belle-époque script and an etching of Marseilles, and then there is tuna that comes in a plain white and blue tin and looks, when you open the tin, like cat food.

But it didn't have teeth and wasn't known for its DocosaHexaenoic Acid content, so I took a bite.

It wasn't tuna. It was foie gras.

At that moment there was enough rapid French happening at the table that C could lean over to me--his place was across from mine--and say, What is this?

It's foie gras, I replied.

He took another bite. These, he said, are the best green beans I've ever tasted.

I did suggest to him shortly after midnight, when we had come home and were reviewing the evening, that you could mix foie gras with chex mix and that would taste pretty good, too. Or, for that matter, with cat food.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of poulet à l'estragon, rice, cheeses, chocolate cake, funny stories, and Bordeaux. At one point, after the cheese but before the dessert, Jules put on his 1950 Rock-ola juke box, choosing first a French song from the 1960s, Capri c'est fini, then a Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes, the Rolling Stones Satisfaction, and, to top it off, Janis Joplin singing The Rose. Jules and Madame took the plates to the kitchen, where Madame stayed, assembling the next course. Jules came back and forth, though, doing a few dance steps on each trip. C helped them while I talked over Mick Jagger to the other neighbors.

All three came back and sat down for dessert, and C threw me a look that said, More to come.

There was. After dessert we had tisanes and coffee in the sitting room and then, at a quarter to midnight, we stood to go. Jules disappeared into the kitchen and came back carrying a small, heavily used, paper bag. He passed it off to C with a studied, mischievous nonchalance. We all kissed goodbye, and the neighbors walked back up the hill while we walked down.

We had gone only a few feet from the door when I made C tell me what was in the bag.

It's a truffle, he said. They found a dealer.

And so, let it be said that Jules is a complicated creature. This truffle set them back a few dozen euros, not a lot compared to the cost of rerouting the drainage away from the dead olive tree, but a lot for something that a pig noses out of the ground. We'd talked about how we wanted to get one, try it, figure out what it was about truffles that made food people so excited. So when Jules and Madame bought truffles for themselves, they bought one for us, too.

C was up early Saturday morning to write a thank you note. I came down and proofread the French before handing it over to the real experts in the house, who corrected errors that neither of us had recognized. Then we mailed the letter up to Paris, where Jules and Madame had gone even earlier Saturday morning. And this week, in between wiping the mud off the dogs' paws and trying to find a place to park between the ouvriers' camionettes and brouettes méchaniques and tarps and piles of stone and the concrete mixer--in between all that, I'll be studying truffle recipes. I know we'll have an omelette scented with truffles, and I'm thinking about a risotto, maybe some pasta, maybe just a fresh baguette, toasted a little, with some of our olive oil and a few shavings of truffe. All courtesy of Jules. La vérité, she is so complicated.