Monday, March 30, 2009

Violets from Marjolaine

We came home to rain on Saturday night. We'd left rain, too, in London, but of course it was a different sort of rain: cold, windy, even icy. The rain that led us up the hill from the airport and along to our village was gentle and, if not quite warm, then several degrees away from cold.

The big news of the week was that Madame Marie, at Pizza Pierre, has lost her lease on the concrete pizza hut in the parking lot. She's moving up the hill, to the next village, where she's taking over the lease on a storefront that has housed a sandwich shop and tea room for the past six months or so. The tea room lady is moving on, and Madame Marie is moving in. There's already a pizzeria in the village--L'Eléphant--so, Madame told C, she's going to have to improve la qualité de son produit.

C had cooked all day Saturday and we came home to applesauce, meatloaf, and butternut squash, nourishing, homey food after our week of pork pies, fish and chips, and as much Asian food as we could work in. He'd gotten the fruits and vegetables from Marjolaine at the rond point, along with some striped tulips. And Marjolaine had sent along a violet nosegay for me, a little cadeau to say welcome home.

Home is what it feels like, coming back here. This morning the pharmacist recognized me and spent five minutes comparing face lotions with me. The sisters who run the café where I meet the English ladies for coffee tsked with me about the rain, and when my friend the cheese seller came in to return his café au lait cup, he waved to me from the counter.

Home is a funny thing. Today's New York Times reports that San Francisco's Chronicle newspaper may become a casualty of the recession and the iPhone, and, even though I haven't subscribed to that paper in more than a decade, I felt a pang. I've read Jon Carroll's column in that paper for nearly twenty years--first in print and now, for years, online--and it has kept me connected to a place that still feels, in many ways, more like home than anywhere we've lived since. On other trips to England, I've felt a sense of familiarity, of home: all the months of my life given over to reading English literature resulting in a visceral sense of belonging.

This time, though, England, London, felt foreign. Of course it's awfully easy to speak English with everyone you meet, and be able to grasp, pour le plupart, the jokes in the ads in the Tube. But in two years village life has changed us. All the people, all the energy, the sheer scale of the city: exciting and wonderful, yes. Overwhelming and bewildering: that, too. When we got out of the car at La Bastiole Saturday evening, it was dark and the air smelled of rain and woodsmoke and green. We were home.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Family Life

Maybe you've heard about 6 milliards d'autres, 6 billion others, the newest project of Yann Arthus-Bertrand? This new work of the photographer and artist who, several years ago, made La terre vue du ciel, The Earth from Above, large-format photographs taken from a helicopter showing beautiful and alarming vistas, was on at the Grand Palais, in Paris, this winter. Beginning in 2003, Arthus-Bertrand interviewed and filmed 6,000 people in 65 different countries. He asked them questions about their lives: family, experiences, sorrows, what made them laugh. And then he put it all together, a portrait of humanity in the world at our moment.

Miss Clavell, the girls' teacher, went up to Paris and saw the show at the Grand Palais. She was inspired. She came straight back down to the Collège des vignes and told the international class that they were going to do their own version. They'd collect the email addresses of all the kids they knew in different countries--from Thailand to Bolivia to Finland to South Africa--ask for a photograph and send them a questionnaire. When it all came back, they'd put on their own display.

G and E caught Miss Clavell's excitement. We spent an evening clicking around on the website, listening to different voices talking about the same things in different ways. (It's a website that makes you think, The Internet: On the Whole A Good Idea.) And we thought of all the people we know in different countries and found their email addresses.

Last week, Miss Clavell led the class in thinking of what questions to ask. School? Parents? Religious education? Music? Someone suggested that there be a question about family life. What kind of family life did the respondent want to have in the future?

G (she told us about it that evening, at the supper table) thought about that for a minute. When she and E were in fifth grade, in America, their teacher did a unit on sex education. It was called Family Life (and we had to sign a permission slip for it). G sat in class the other day and wondered how many schools in the world call their sex education unit Family Life. Would the kids on the other end of the email think that they were being asked what kind of sex life they wanted to have in the future?

So did you say anything? C and I asked.

I decided not to. G shrugged. I mean, it's hard to explain to a French teacher that Americans can't say sex without blushing.

The girls have had sex ed this year at school, and it's not been called Family Life (and there was no permission slip). The first chapter was called Reproduction, and the second, which they're on now, is called Contraception. If asked, they'll tell you what the three most popular forms of birth control are in France today, in order of popularity and efficacy. They have to memorize it for the test.

So did the question make it onto the list? we wanted to know.

Oh, yeah, said G. I guess anybody who thinks it's talking about sex will just assume that the questionnaire came from a French school, and the French are like that.

Indeed. I hope I get to see the responses.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


The morning chorus woke me at 6 again this morning, the third time this week. As soon as the sun looks like it will rise again, the birds wake up and fly into our olive trees. Someone pulls out the pitch pipe, they tune up, and the singing begins. If I must be woken at 6, then there are worse ways.

The birds are here, of course, to let us know that it is spring. Wildflowers are popping out everywhere: the terraces under the old oliviers are covered in tiny white daisies whose petals have purple undersides that show off in the slightest breeze. The wild iris--I know, it seems unlikely, and yet there are large and small iris colonies everywhere, around utility poles, by the side of the lane, on our path to the village--the iris that are so omnipresent that no one could have planted so many are beginning to bloom, shooting up their stalks with all those buds of promise. Hellebore, wild orchids, flowers and bushes and shrubs I can't name are all blooming everywhere.

Marjolaine is back. We saw her at the rond point on Sunday, her pink scalloped umbrella shading tables of fruits and vegetables and flowers. She'd been away all winter, a latter day Persephone, having both of her knees operated on. (It says something about the French health care system that the fruit and vegetable lady at the roundabout had the same knee surgeon as the retired upper crust English schoolmistress who lives in the village.) Now she's better, back on her feet, and, while she hasn't got any of her own produce to sell, she's still driving down to the organic wholesale farmer's market at 5 in the morning, three days a week, to bring back goods for her stand. Sunday there were tiny bunches of spinach, broccoli, potatoes, apples, onions, and a few bouquets of ranunculus for good measure.

When we came up to the stand, Marjolaine was reading Une année en Provence. Peter Mayle is popular in French as well, and apparently Marjolaine is a fan. We traded favorite parts--she likes the description of the mistral as actually flattening the world--and, when we told her we'd just been and found the house, she wanted the directions. One of these days, now that her knees are fixed, she's going to drive over there and find it. Even though he's not from here, she said, he understands what Provence. I told her that I had always thought that Mayle exaggerated his characters. Then I came to live here, I said, and--she interrupted me. He writes about us exactly as we are, she said. Il n'exagère pas.

That night we had fresh spinach for supper. Soon there will be wild asparagus, and morels from the forest, and then the first strawberries, and cherries. How shall we ever taste it all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Signs of the times

When we used to drive in France, before we became experts thanks to the School of French Driving, we were frequently puzzled by road signs. The white circle with the black slash. The yellow diamond on a white ground. The red-rimmed triangle enclosing the black x. But no other sign was quite as puzzling to us as the exclamation point. A triangle trimmed in red, sometimes with a white background, sometimes with a yellow, and, in the center, a large, emphatic exclamation point. We would pass it on the road and think, ! . What now? What do we look for? What does it mean? It would leave us with a lingering sense of unease.

Then we went to driving school and they gave us--well, we bought--a copy of the Code de la route, the French driving rule book. (Insert here joke about there being a rule book for French drivers.) The first few pages were devoted to signalisation, to signs. And there, on the bottom of page six, the last sign to be explained, was our ! triangle. What did it signify? Dangers, said the code, for which there are no corresponding signs.

In other words, when you find the ! sign on your route, it could mean anything. Godzilla could be around the next corner (there's no monster crossing sign), or a bit of road could have washed out in this morning's rain, or someone could be pruning the hedge alongside. Slow down and watch for monsters. Make sure the road is still there before you continue. Look out for guys on ladders with chain saws.

It is a useful sign, the !, it seems to me. Especially these days, when it can feel like there are so many dangers for which we have no corresponding sign. How do you signal a failing economy? Global warming? Health care crisis? And that's just the front page news. It doesn't include all the domestic crises, the ailing relatives, the thousand small crises that unspool in a life. This morning as I drove along the upper lane in the village on my way to French class, I passed a ! sign in the road. It had a yellow background, which denotes, in code de la route parlance, that whatever it was referring to was a temporary danger. That this, too, shall pass.

Friday, March 20, 2009

In praise of aunts

E and G -- along with every other student their age in France -- have to do a stage d'entreprise, an internship in which they learn about a business or a profession. Every 13 year old in French school will spend a week going to work every day--in a stable, on a golf course, in a boulangerie, with a veterinarian--seeing what it's like and thinking about whether it's the kind of work they might like to do someday. Then each one will write a report (12 to 20 pages, illustrated).

It's a big deal. We've known it was in the offing for over a year. The other kids talk about it, and the teachers started talking about it in the fall. We wondered what to do. Our connections here fall into three categories: C's colleagues, our village friends who are nearly all retired, and our shopkeeper friends. Sending the girls to do an internship at C's office seemed uninspired, and asking Gilbert if one of them, at least, could come along to work at the boulangerie would mean waking up awfully early.

That's where the girls' Aunt A comes in to the story. I was talking to her one day about what we might do--thinking about sending them back to Washington for a week--and she listened. Then she called me back. What if we took the girls to London, to work with A's museum colleagues there for a week? They'd have a tour of the museum profession, see the other side of exhibition galleries, find out a little bit about the kind of work that A does and that I used to do. A would come along, of course, and we'd have a week together in London.

We said yes, please, and thank you. And we're going next week.

Now, here's the thing you need to know. A is not really their aunt. By which I mean, she's not my sister, or C's. But she's watched them and enjoyed them and cut out valentines with them and gone to movies with them--she's loved them--since they were small. Now she's drawn up a week long internship with her museumy friends, and is taking a week of vacation and flying across the ocean, to hang out with them and help them out. Aunt-like behavior if I've ever seen aunt-like behavior.

A few weeks ago I read this and it reminded me of all the women who've looked out for me--my family aunts, my extended family aunts, my aunty friends--and it made me think, too, of the girls' aunts--family, extended, and otherwise. The kindness and generosity of A and her consoeurs makes me catch my breath with gratitude. We are some lucky girls, E and G and I.


We'll be away, but I'll still be posting thanks to the miracle of writing ahead. À très bientôt!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The sill of the world

The girls have passed a virus back and forth all winter. E had it earlier this week and stayed home from school. The main symptom is a low fever that goes away with some medicine--as long as the ibuprofen is working, the fever is gone, and she feels fine. Or not completely fine, but functional.

Of course I worry when either of the girls is sick. But I have to confess that having one of them home during the day is a side benefit. When I was working, when they were younger, rearranging my schedule to stay home with a sick child was stressful and frustrating. Now that they're older and sick less often, and I'm not working, I like the quiet hours we spend with the under the weather girl under a blanket in the big chair, reading, and me puttering, cooking, reading, coming in and out. I like the quiet time together.

Yesterday E stopped on her way through the kitchen to say that some of the kids in her class are exactly like the mean rich kids in books. The kids who make fun of the new girl, the main character, she said. In those books where the main character goes to a boarding school where she doesn't know anybody, and she's not like anybody else, and these rich kids pick on her. That's what the kids in my class are like.

She said it not with a sense of injustice. I don't think she's the one they're picking on. Being identical twins inoculates the girls to some degree--there are two of them; they look just alike: it gives bullies pause--and so, I think, does their American-ness (they're the only ones with two American parents, which makes them exotic). And then, they're fairly savvy socially: they can both read the dynamics and figure out where not to be standing.

So when E told me this it was in the manner of a social anthropologist reporting on field research. I've read about groups like these in novels, and now I'm seeing how they play out in life. She knows how the popular girls move, how they hold themselves differently. She knows how social power plays out: when the queen of the rich kids was called to the board and ridiculed by their math teacher, the class was silent. If it had been one of the unpopular girls, E explained, the class would have laughed.

The girls' class of the International Section at the Collège des vignes has about 30 students. The group she's talking about makes up around a third of that number. And she's right: they really are rich. Many of them come from families in which neither parent works, parents that moved here from England because it's easier not to work here, as one of them explained to me. The children have a different attitude toward school. They don't study much and have the grades to show for it. They bring their ipods and iphones and other bits of technology to school to show them off. They ignore their teachers. And their parents have a different attitude: most of these kids take the regional bus back and forth from the stop at the train station down the hill from the school. The bus leaves at 5, so the kids stand around outside the train station for anywhere from 15 minutes to 45. There's a grocery store cum newsstand cum betting parlor across the street, and the kids buy candy and sodas and stand around in clusters.

I see them when I pick up E and G, as I do every day. The girls are in miniskirts or tight jeans and expensive boots, their hair blown straight, eyes heavily outlined in makeup. The boys have gelled their hair straight up, or else wear it hanging down in their eyes; their bluejeans are slung so low they defy gravity. The North Africans who live in the neighborhood steer around them, the women in their headscarves pushing strollers with a toddler holding on to their skirts, the men with their dogs, sitting on the low wall by the bus stop. And I pick up E and G, the three of us acting out our own suburban American ritual, just as out of place in this French market town as the dissipated aristocrats in training and the immigrants. Which means, maybe, that none of us is out of place. If no one belongs, then everyone does.

This started out, though, about E, and her talking about her class. She is taking it all in, watching, observing, weighing. She knows where she stands in the pecking order, and she's begun to speculate on how her sister's and her departure will effect the social strata in the class next year. And I'm sure, too, though she hasn't mentioned it, that she's wondering what the social order will look like next year, in her American school. I wish her a lucky passage.

Monday, March 16, 2009

La vieille gloire

The local collège had its annual vide grenier this weekend, and Sunday morning C and I walked through it. It means an empty attic: a vide grenier is when you try to sell the stuff that wound up in your attic to someone else, for their attic. In other words, a garage sale. I have never been a garage-sale goer in the States--and I distinguish, here, between a flea market, which features people who deal in particular types of salt and pepper shakers and so forth, and a garage sale, which features card tables on a suburban lawn.

Here, vides greniers are never individual concerns but rather community productions, held on the village boules court or in the school yard or the communal parking. There's usually a mix of stands set up by local folks selling their no longer needed baby gear and children's books and then those set up by professional grenieristes, to coin a term. The grenieristes seem to travel from village to village with their wares, the poor and somewhat shady cousins of the brocantistes who set up in the marchés d'antiquités and brocantes that make the tour books.

Business was brisk at the collège when we got there Sunday morning. Cars were parked on the main road and a steady stream of people were walking up the hill to the school parking lot where the tables were set up. We were--I was, really--in the market for a ceramic water jug manufactured by a pastis company. Which is not as arcane or uncommon as it sounds: every bar in the south of France sells liters and liters of pastis. There are various brands: Ricard, Pernod, Pastis 51 are the most common. Pastis drinkers have favorite brands; you'll drink your pastis out of a glass with that brand's name on it. And you'll cut it with water, unless you have solid steel insides. You'll pour the water from a pitcher that is sitting on the bar, and that pitcher will, just like your glass, have the name of a pastis maker on it. And that's what I'm looking for. Not because I like pastis--can't stand the stuff--but because I like the idea of filling that jug with water and setting it on our table.

We didn't find it today. We did find a handful of fèves. One dealer there was a specialist in fèves, the favor that is hidden inside of the galette des rois that everyone shares during Epiphany. She had baskets and bowls of the tiny porcelain figures, 50 centimes each. The fèves used to be characters from the nativity story but, in this last days, they're more likely to be characters from kid movies. As of Sunday, we own six Harry Potter fèves: Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Hedwig the owl, and--I was really tickled about this one--a very small, very purple Night Bus.

While I was trading three euros for six fèves, C walked away to reconsider his marriage vows. I caught up and we made the circuit of the vide grenier looking for my water pitcher. There was a second-hand shoe stand; a specialist in perfume bottles; someone selling the 1993 questions de l'année edition of Trivial Pursuit; and Madame Marie, from Pizza Pierre, looking for buyers for baby clothes. Also a table lamp whose base was a model of a passenger liner in the act of splitting apart on an iceberg. I said it was the Titanic; C said the scale was all wrong. He demands verisimilitude in his shipwreck lamps.

We were coming down the last aisle of odds and ends when a familiar pattern caught our eye. At the edge of a table crowded with old clocks and mysterious kitchen tools was a folded up bit of fabric. All we could see was white stars on a navy ground. I picked it up and turned it over: red and white stripes. I set it down again and turned away.

An American flag, here, in the village? What a strange thing, we thought.

It was all cotton, I said. Usually they're nylon.

We walked past another stand. This one had books. Maigret, Tintin, a couple of guides to good health through herbs, and Les Rèves de mon père in hardcover.

If we were going to fly the flag, I said, that would be a flag with a story.

We stopped.

How much do you think?
said C. Five euros?

Ten, I said.

He went back. I hovered.

In a minute he was back. Five, he said.

I slipped it into my purse, next to the Harry Potter figurines.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Parking Annoying

When I came back to the car after meeting friends for lunch in another village the other day, there was a notice under the windshield wipers. Stationnement Interdit et Genant, it read, in capital letters. But not today, it hastened to explain: on the coming weekend, during the annual village fête.

No Parking is the dictionary translation of both stationnement interdit and stationnement genant. You see both versions of the sign, and they mean the same thing.

Except they don't, really.

If something is interdit, it is forbidden by law. It is interdit to smoke in the épicerie. Interdit to throw trash out of the car. Interdit to stop on the autoroute (unless you are having car trouble, in which case you can stop, but only in certain areas).

Genant, however, means annoying. The girls' profs at the Collège des vignes are fond of telling the kids how genant they are. Mothers at the end of their rope in the cereal aisle tell their toddlers that they are genant. The guy in the car in front of you who's had his turn signal on for the last kilometer, and slows down to 20 kilometers per hour at each driveway: he's genant.

No parking signs are about equally divided, in my highly unscientific poll, between interdit and genant. So my conclusion is that to be annoying is just as méchant as to do something which is forbidden. They're both illegal and could get you anything from a fine to a trip to the impound lot (though I've never seen an illegally parked car ticketed, and I've seen a lot of illegally parked cars). They appeal to different parts of the psyche. Maybe you don't care so much about ignoring the law (stationnement interdit), but surely you don't want to annoy the boulanger (stationnement genant). An annoyed boulanger, with a car parked where he likes to take the sun between customers, might sell you yesterday's croissants, or an over baked baguette.

It is--and bear with me here--another example of the French habit of thinking about the community, and the good of the community, more than of the individual. Annoying parking is different from forbidden parking. Forbidden parking doesn't require an object. It's just forbidden. Annoying parking asks the question, who is annoyed? And that question implies other people. It implies community.

So if you go to the fête des violettes this weekend, don't leave your car in the village parking. Not only will it be forbidden and get you in trouble with the law. It will also be really annoying to the folks who live there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Repas à l'école

E tells us that, next year, she's going to pack her sister's and her lunch for school every day. She'll make roast chicken sandwiches with lettuce, tomato (when it's in season, she points out), cheese, and mayonnaise (she likes mayo). She's a little concerned about the bread. She knows we won't be able to get baguettes every day, and she's not a big fan of regular sandwich bread. I think she's still mulling over that part of the equation.

We haven't had the school lunch conversation while we've been here because lunch is part of the deal at the Collège des vignes. We pay an additional fee--it averages out to a few euros per girl per day--and they eat lunch in the school canteen.

Here's what that looks like:

There's a guy in a toque (and he's not being cute; he's a chef, and that hat is his uniform, it's how you know he's the one in charge), some sous-chefs, a kitchen (stoves, ovens, sinks, prep counters, pots and pans and heat), and a cafeteria line. The kids line up with their trays. They take an entrée, a plat, and a dessert. The first course, the entrée, could be some grated carrots with vinaigrette, or it could be a boiled egg with a little mayonnaise, or some sliced beets, pâté, or a green salad. The main course, the plat, ranges from spaghetti bolognaise to boeuf bourguignon to couscous, which is not just the grain but a thick meat and vegetable stew. Dessert? They can have a piece of fruit (kiwis are popular) or a yogurt or, once in a while, a beignet. Of course there's also sliced baguette for everyone, and cheese. The food is all prepared on site. Everyone drinks water.

As far as I can determine, it is a Styrofoam-free environment. The meals are served on plates made out of something like Corelle; the kids eat with real cutlery, and drink out of heavy plastic cups. The only thing disposable is the paper napkins.

The children sit at round tables, eight or so at each, and serve each other from the water pitcher in the center. A surveillant or two keeps order--these are junior high school kids with pitchers of water: the possibilities of chaos are pretty high.

Morning classes end at noon. Afternoon classes begin at 1.30. The entire school cycles through the canteen during that hour and a half--about 700 students--eating in half-hour relays. Before and after they eat, the kids are outside in the courtyard, playing games, doing homework, fiddling with their cell phones.

We spent kindergarten through sixth grade packing lunches almost every night for school the next day: peanut butter and jelly, or mini-bagels with cream cheese, or egg salad on challah. Baby carrots or cucumber slices. Raisins or fruit cup. Occasionally a couple of Newman-Os. A day or so a week the girls bought lunch: Chips Olé, which I'm fairly sure is trademarked by Exxon, or pizza. It was a treat for us not to have to pack lunch, but thinking about the girls eating something that had been prepared in an industrial kitchen god knows where, shipped frozen to the school, microwaved, and plopped onto a Styrofoam tray--that really about outweighed the extra ten minutes on the sofa that not packing lunch bought us. Every day they bought cartons of milk to drink: plain or chocolate or strawberry.

At the girls' elementary school, the kids had about 20 minutes to eat, followed by 15 minutes on the blacktop.

So we've relished not packing lunch for these two years and hearing from the girls that they prefer paella with shrimp to pork, that the lamb in the couscous was pretty good today, and that the kiwis weren't quite ripe enough today but should be good by Friday.

And need I mention that I've never seen a pudgy kid at the Collège des vignes? Which is of course not just about the school lunches--but it's not not about the school lunches, either.

I read this a few weeks ago, and that's what precipitated the conversation that led to E planning the chicken sandwiches. Their high school--they'll be in high school next year--has an open lunch policy, which means that the students, beginning in their second year and depending on various factors, can eat lunch off campus. What's the nearest restaurant they can walk to?


If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen putting a chicken in the oven.

Monday, March 9, 2009

À peu près

We drove up to the mountains late last Saturday afternoon. From La Bastiole (50 degrees) to Valberg (30 degrees) it took just under two hours, the first hour on the autoroute, the second up an increasingly narrow road through a canyon whose rocks hung with car-sized icicles. It was the middle Sunday of our region's vacances de ski, and we were prepared for ski traffic, families going up, like us, for a few days' skiing.

There was none. Unless you count the five cars that we passed waiting to turn left onto the road at the bottom of the gorges.

After we had unloaded the car at the apartment and bundled up, we walked down the hill to the local pizzeria. We should have made a reservation, C said. It's going to be packed. Saturday night, middle of the vacation, and it's the only restaurant in the village. What are we going to do when it's full?

I guess we're going to walk back up the hill and drive someplace else, I said.

It's going to be a long walk. We should have called.

We got to the Sapin Blanc at 7.15. There were two cars in the parking lot. When we walked up the steps to the door, the owner put his head out and said they didn't open til 7.30.

Could we make a-- C said as the door closed.

I should have called before, he said. Dejectedly.

I looked around at the empty car park, across the snowy field towards the cross-country ski hut and the village houses perched above it. There were no car headlights anywhere, no lights to detract from the one house that had strung itself with flashing Christmas lights.

I think it's going to be okay, I said.

At 7.30 we went in. Wherever you want to sit, said the owner. Choisissez-vous.

We chose a table by the window. We ordered. A little while later, another family came in. Then a couple. Then two families together, with a sulky teenager.

The next morning C and the girls were up early--for us--and left for the ski lift a little before nine. It's going to be busy, said C, and we have to get our lift tickets and look at the map and figure everything out.

I went off to buy provisions and rent raquettes--the only place I waited was in the boulangerie, where everything I bought was still warm--and met up with the skiers again at noon.

Was it crowded? I asked.

The girls answered. There are no lines anywhere, Mommy, they said. We never waited at all and there's hardly anyone on the slopes.

I looked at C and he shook his head. I don't know where all the people are, he said.

We are city people. We expect to wait in line, to need reservations. We used routinely to buy our Saturday night movie tickets online Saturday morning, or even Friday night. Even, truth be told, Thursday. And our parents before us expected to wait, and taught us, early and well, to make reservations. Figure out where we're going to leave the car. We're genetically and environmentally disposed, because of all that training, to be early. In my family, we allowed at least fifteen minutes to get anywhere, and likely more. If we were early, then we'd just park down the block and wait til it was the stroke of on time to appear. C's family leaves early, too: look around any grandchildren-centered event, and, at least 20 minutes before it's due to begin, you'll find a couple ambling about outside, reading the notice board and checking out the third grade's Lewis and Clark posters.

My own small act of rebellion is to be late. Not late, late--that will be for my descendants--just five or, maybe, ten minutes. (Truly radical. I know. My mother wonders where she went wrong.) I don't like being early, sitting in the car, standing around. What that means is that I wait til the last possible moment to get ready to go somewhere and then, because I'm rushed, forget something and have to go back in the house. This can be, on occasion, a point of marital stress. But at least I don't have to wait when I get there.

The French have an expression: à peu près. It denotes approximation. More or lessness. If you arrange to meet for coffee à peu près 10.00, then one of you might come at 9.45 and the other at 10.15, but it won't matter: you'll wait inside with your café crème and your paper and, if you finish the café crème, maybe you'll run up the street for a few groceries and then come back. And have another coffee with your friend.

And you can do that--you can be à peu près--because this is the country. What happens in Paris I don't know. But here, in our corner of the world, there just aren't that many people. You don't need a reservation, and, when the ski lift opens at 9.00, the line will not have formed. In fact, the only people around will be the lift operator and his dog. If there's a line at the bakery at 10.00, well then, that's because everyone knows that that's when the second batch of the day comes out of the oven. But if you miss that, it's okay, because at noon there'll be the third batch coming out. You can go up the street and have a coffee while you wait.

We're learning--slowly--to relax. That we don't need to call ahead and that there will be plenty of parking, some of it even legal. But it goes against our grain, and I'm afraid that by the time we begin to organize our lives around the à peu près principle, we'll be back on the East Coast and find ourselves forgetting that we needed dinner reservations only to arrive late to a sold-out movie.

Maybe we'll move to Montana.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Finding Provence

While we were in the Lubéron last week we went on an expedition to find the house Peter Mayle lived in when he wrote A Year in Provence. He's moved house since then, which made me feel marginally less like a stalker and more like a curious pilgrim--curious in both senses. Looking for Mayle's house would, I reasoned, give us a reason for a walk. (A walk is more satisfying if there's a mission involved, even if it's just mailing a letter.) It would take us to a village. (Always good to see another village.) And looking for the house would perhaps give us a sense of place, of what it is like to take a walk in the Lubéron, what it feels like to look out over vineyards and limestone and fallow fields. And this particular walk would, as an added perk, provide a mystery: which mas was the Mayles'?--and, if we were lucky, a solution: this one.

G and I went through our copy of A Year in Provence and made careful notes. The house was on a country road between Ménerbes and Bonnieux. It stood at the end of a dirt track that led through grape vines and cherry trees, with the Lubéron parc régional behind it. It was, in the oldest part, two centuries old. There were established shade trees near the house, as well as a stand of cypresses, a few amandiers, and a hedge of rosemary. The house had three wells.

It was ten miles or thereabouts from the house to Bonnieux, which meant that the house stood closer to Ménerbes. We started the research drive in Bonnieux. We'd make the drive, we thought, and then, once we'd scouted, go back on foot. We drove to the top of the village and found, after only one spell of turning around on a narrow road with a hilltop's height drop on one side and a medieval fortification on the other, the road that led to Ménerbes. Off we went, winding along the crest of the hill, the valley on our right and the Lubéron range on our left. About ten miles out of the village we started slowing down for every farmhouse on the left and reviewing our list.

Every mas matched.

They all stood at the end of a dirt track. They all had vineyards and cherry orchards. Rosemary hedges. Cypress trees. Hard to tell about the wells, of course, but every one had its fair share of outbuildings. Which is not to say that they were all the same; they weren't. Some sat closer to the road, some farther back. Some had the shade trees in front, some around to the side. Sometimes the cherry orchard took up the entire frontage; sometimes it was just a few cerisiers. But a provençal mas is like a Gothic cathedral, or a Shakespearean sonnet: unless you know a lot about what you're looking at, they all look pretty much the same.

We retreated to the hotel and to our book. On a closer reading we found a passage where Mayle had written that it was a two kilometer walk to Ménerbes along the trail at the back of the house. Et voilà. Now we had only to find the trail to the village and work from there.

The next morning we put together a picnic and went in search of the trail. The Lubéron, being a national park, is crisscrossed with trails that lead to villages and ruins and outcroppings and, some of them, to nothing at all. We found the trail that ran along the base of the mountain in the direction of Ménerbes and set off down it. But, an hour later, we hadn't found Ménerbes. Then, when we finally found Ménerbes--using the Sierra Club-recommended method of there's a village over there that might be it, and if we follow this dirt road maybe we'll get to it; of course we hadn't remembered a map--we lost the trail. We stood on the village's ramparts with our binoculars and tried to read road signs several kilometers away.

Eventually we walked back along the road in the direction that we thought the car might be in. It was not shaping up to be one of our more successful expeditions. We'd lost our way and walked a kilometer or so uphill through a forest, only to have to turn around and walk back down, never good for morale. We had had to walk on the road at more than one point--and while walking on a country road in Provence is hardly a hardship, we prefer the unpaved. We'd picnicked on a bench in the village, looking out over the vineyards and the Lubéron and trying to figure out exactly where we were in relation to the car, never mind in relation to Peter Mayle's house. And so when, a kilometer or so outside of Ménerbes and an hour later in the day than we had planned to be, we found an old sunken unpaved road leading off through the vineyards towards the mountains, we got out the binoculars before we veered off.

What we could see through those was, we were fairly certain, the trail on which we had begun, the trail we had thought would lead us to Ménerbes, which had led us instead up into the forest until we turned around and started finding our way by sight instead of logic. We took the turn. An orchard on one side, vines on the other, and when the road stopped, we were at the trail where we had started in the morning. And on the trail was a signpost pointing the way to Ménerbes along the route we had just come. 1.8 kilometers, it said. We'd missed it before, seasoned hikers that we are. We retraced our steps to the car and dropped the pack. Let's just look, I said. Just a few meters, it won't make us that much later, let's just see.

Back a little further along the trail from the dead end where we'd left the car, and there was a house with a pool at the back of the property and, between house and pool, a large enclosed courtyard. It was this one, the house. We had found it.

It was an awkward feeling, finding the house. We felt somewhere between literary pilgrims and stalkers. We were consoled by the fact that the Mayles have long since moved to another mas outside another village and so, while we were certainly taking surreptitious photos of someone's house, we weren't taking pictures of someone in particular. We weren't snooping on the house's residents but on the house. It was just a house, the way that any house is just a house, but also the way that the Bronte parsonage, or Carl Sandburg's Connemara, are just houses. A place that you knew in your imagination and never knew if you'd see. It was a goal, a destination, and we had--a half day's walk up and down hill and road, through pastures, and across vineyards and a village--reached it, a hundred meters or so from where we had begun.

Why do we go on pilgrimages? The pilgrims who crossed the Lubéron valley hundreds of years ago were on their way to the shrine of Saint James at Compostello. If they could get there, they believed, they could get that much closer to salvation, or to health, or, maybe, to hope. We weren't looking to save our souls. But instead, maybe, to feed them. To show our souls that the imagined can be made real, the word made flesh or, in this case, stone and vine and tree and path. To show our souls that we can, if not dwell in the imagination, well, we can take a walk alongside it. We can sit on a bench in the sun with our sandwiches, and look down at the vines growing in their orderly rows, vineyards stretching as far as we could see across the valley, and, as Saint James' brother put it, receive from the fullness of it all grace upon grace. It was a good walk.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Not easy being green

Whenever we go somewhere, we look for an Asian restaurant. There's one place we can get Chinese-esque food nearby--twenty minutes away on twisty roads--and it is the all-too-usual French variation on a Chinese restaurant. Platters of food are arranged behind a glass counter, dumplings, wontons, spring rolls at one end; main courses in the middle; desserts nearest the caisse. You point and say how many portions of the poulet au curry or porc au gingembre you would like, the counter guy scoops it into a plastic box that he then heat-seals using the little machine on the back counter, and off you go. For the four of us to have dinner from our local Asian Palace it runs about 60 euros. And by the time we get it home, it has congealed.

We ate a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food in America. Chinese restaurants were our travel standby when the girls were younger: we knew that we could always find some stir-fried vegetables that they would eat, and some chicken, and there was the added interest of the restaurant's interior design. We are particular fans of the photograph of the waterfall that, when lit from behind, appears to be flowing. The food wasn't always particularly good--you try finding a good restaurant off of I-95 in Virginia--but it was interesting and gave us something to talk about.

Good Asian food: certainly on my list of things to look forward to about moving back to America. I remember a dish of scallops that I ate at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, in 2002: spicy, garlicky, a hint of sweetness. Then there's the walnut shrimp we used to get at the fancy Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto, the shrimp lightly battered and fried, a white sauce that you barely noticed, candied walnuts. And the dumplings from our everyday Chinese place, and the sizzling rice soup. Then there's the dish of cellophane noodles with crab meat at The Slanted Door, in San Francisco. Words fail me.

When we travel here in the land of seasonal local eating, we are always on the lookout for an Asian restaurant. We found one that was not bad in Maintenon, in the Loire, last August. It sat across the place from the château gates, sandwiched between a brasserie that served beautiful salades composées (we walked by several people eating them on our way into Au Royal Maintenon) and the village Bar / Tabac. There's a sushi place near where L lived in Paris that did California rolls that served as a pleasant reminder of what a California roll tasted like. Last Saturday, walking down Cavaillon's main street, we passed a Vietnamese restaurant. C and I gravitated towards it, but the girls had already spotted a boulangerie next door that offered lunches. On closer examination, it turned out to be the boulangerie that Peter Mayle called the best bakery in the Lubéron. So we ate there: roasted chicken, homemade mayonnaise, tiny purple lettuce leaves on fresh baguettes for G and E; mesclun salad with tuna, olives, tomatoes and a light mustardy vinaigrette for us. The baker himself came out and talked to us for a while. It was an excellent lunch that could only have been improved by a plate of steamed dumplings.

The Relais was outside of Apt, which is a large market town. Aha, we thought: perhaps there will be an Asian restaurant. We dropped the girls at the hotel after a day of hiking and went to scout. It was Sunday evening, a risky time to look for a restaurant in France. Everyone who was going to eat out has already eaten out at noontime, and nearly every restaurant that was going to open on Sunday has already opened at noontime, and the proprietors are now at home, enjoying their Sunday evening, maybe thawing out some frozen pieds et paquets in the microwave.

We parked on the main street in Apt. One of our guidebooks listed, but did not describe, an establishment called Le Restaurant de l'Ho. Sounds vaguely Asian, no? At least, not terribly French? So off we walked to find it. It turned out to be across the street from--what we learned for certain the next day, and suspected at the time--a crime scene. Gendarmes were interviewing neighbors and red and white tape blocked off a portion of the pavement. Men with white paper suits over their street clothes were going inside the house. Tragedy may have struck en face, but we were busy looking at the menu of the Restaurant de l'Ho which turned out to be a. closed and b. regular French. We turned down a pedestrian street (all shutterd storefronts, just us and a cat or two) and, a block or so away, saw a sign that was unmistakably Asian in aspect. We quickened our steps and examined the doorway: it was Asian, and it would open for dinner in an hour. We looked at the menu posted beside the door.

There were all the standard starters: soups, dumplings, spring rolls. Then a small poultry section. A small fish section. A small beef section. But the largest portion of the menu, the delicacy that was clearly closest to the chef's heart, was the section devoted to grenouilles. Each item was helpfully translated into English. You could choose between beignets de grenouille (frog fritter); grenouilles au curry (frog curry); grenouille au gingembre (frog with ginger); grenouille au citron et à l'ail (Lemon and garlic fried frog); and, last but not least appetizing, grenouille à la sauce aigre douce (frog with sweet and sour sauce).

Now. If my friend Marie-Claire invited me for dinner, and she put a platter of grenouilles on the table, even grenouilles fritters, I like to think that I would tuck in with an open mind and plenty of baguette and red wine. However. It seemed to us, standing on the deserted street a few blocks from where a murder had been committed earlier in the day, looking in the window at the saggy houseplants that were the dining room's chief decoration, that Kermit should wait.

We retreated to the hill town of Bonnieux, where we found an open brasserie: cuisine traditionelle à base de produits frais régionaux, said the menu. Traditional dishes from fresh local food. The bartender promised us that he would stay open long enough to give us dinner. We collected the girls, and then we sat in front of the fireplace and ate vegetable soup and steack frites. A meal that, I like to think, could only have been improved by a few cellophane noodles.


I'll be away on Wednesday. Still the school vacances, and we're going up to the mountains for a few days. See you on Friday.