Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Plus poétique

Every child in the girls' year in French school, having completed their week long internship in a business or stable or boulangerie or, in our case, several museums, has to write a report. At the Collège des vignes, that report must be 12 to 20 pages long. And, to clarify, in French.

The girls have labored and wept over this project--show of hands: can any of you who are non-native speakers drop and give me 20 pages in French?--but, the week before school let out for the vacances de printemps, each of them gave Madame Bovary, their French literature teacher, a draft. She had told them, you see, that if they gave her a draft on Tuesday she would correct their grammar and return it to them on Friday so that the students could perfect their rapports over the holidays.

Madame Bovary would be played, in the film version, by Margaret Hamilton. Don't remember who she was? How about this line: I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too! Still not there? How about: Surrender Dorothy! If you still don't know (and you probably don't, if you didn't grow up with The Wizard of Oz, look here. There is actually a certain resemblance, sans the green skin. Picture her if, instead of wearing her witch outfit, she was wearing stilettos, fitted white jeans, and a lacy black blouse over a sequined camisole, with several gold bracelets and necklaces.)

She is, to clarify once more, not real warm. All the guidance she gave the class on this report was a single page that listed the information that had to be included in the report. There was no indication of how that information should be presented: short answers? paragraphs? epistolary novel? Nor was there any discussion of how, exactly, one goes about writing a long paper. As in, first you gather information, then you organize the information, then you write an outline, then you write a more detailed, none of that. Just the one sheet of paper.

She did, in any event, correct the grammar and style on the girls' drafts and return them by the end of the week. There were lots of corrections, which I know took an age for her to make. The girls spent all day Monday putting them in to their drafts.

I asked E if there were any corrections that she hadn't understood. No, not really, she said. But something Madame had said was puzzling.

What was that?
Hoping that it didn't have anything to do with one of those inscrutable French verb forms, passé simple in conditional voice or something like.

She said that my style needs to be more poetic.

More poetic? Her rapport de stage was supposed to be long, in French, and poetic? I took a breath. How so?

Well, she said, I had written that, before we went to the Horniman Museum, I hadn't expected to like it very much, but that, after we went, I liked it a lot. She changed that.

How did she change it?

Well, she said, and took her own deep breath, instead of saying, j'aimais bien l'Horniman, which is what I'd written, she changed it to read, j'étais séduit par l'Horniman.

Séduire, for those of you who have forgotten, means to seduce. Thus: seduced by the Horniman.

More poetic, indeed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Grand Tour

Having made some Large Statements about my intentions to slow life down and appreciate the daily routine, I feel honor-bound to let you know that, for the next several weeks, I'll be doing no such thing. Tomorrow we depart for Points North: off to see family in Liverpool, which I'm sure is more scenic than I'm imagining, and then to the Lake District for hiking, tea, and Wordsworth's grave (please oh please let there be a death mask, or something made out of poetic hair). When we come back, we'll collect another branch of the family from the airport and deposit them at our friend's cooking school for a week. Meanwhile, other guests arrive to spend a few nights with us during the same week. Then, cooking school over, Madame Mère will stay on for ten days at La Bastiole, and, two days after she leaves, we'll go to Geneva for one of May's many long weekends. (Why Geneva? It's complicated.) I'll go directly from Geneva to Paris to meet up with another of the girls' aunts, and we'll spend three days in Paris before we come back to La Bastiole to sit on the terrace and drink tea til it's late enough in the afternoon for kirs royales.

And that brings us, loyal readers, to the beginning of June.

Which is all by way of saying this: I have the best of intentions about keeping you supplied with thrice-weekly updates from the world of La Bastiole, but we all know what paves the road to hell. So bear with me, please, and if you don't get your dose on a Wednesday, do check back in on a Friday. Or a Monday. Or, better yet, you can subscribe and then you don't have to remember. If you are a subscribing sort of person, which I know you may not be. I understand.

Now you know, though, and I'm sorry to dash your illusions, that I won't be watching the shadows lengthen during long afternoons, or eating local strawberries daily, or even spending many evenings en famille with my book. Life at La Bastiole is sometimes more about aspiration for me and my own life than it may be for anyone else. What I'll be doing instead--let me hasten to say, before the phone starts to ring and emails start to fly--will be just as wonderful: what a delight to see those we love. (And then, there's the possibility of the death mask.) But the month will look a little more like the Grand Tour, and a little less like Hanging Around at Home, than advertised.

And now I'm going to go and plant some basil.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Nothing on earth but laundry

The sun is back. We've not seen much of it recently: a long succession of magnificently cloudy skies. Rain in all its variations (averses, orages, pluie forte, rafales: as Steve Martin said, the French have a different word for everything) has fallen almost daily for the last month or so. And when we've seen the sun, it's been cold.

But this week warmth arrived. Full sun. Blue skies. Warm.

While there are plenty of poetic reasons to be pleased about the warmth, we have, in our house, a more prosaic reason.

The laundry dries faster.

We'd never hung laundry outside to dry before coming here. (If you don't count one ill-fated experiment in California when the girls were babies, and the laundry, once hung out, stayed hung out. For a week.) When we arrived at La Bastiole, there was a washing machine but no dryer; I bought a drying rack as a stopgap measure until Jules provided us with a dryer, believing then, the French ink on my U.S. passport barely dry, that the absence of a dryer was an anomaly.

Three months later, the dryer showed up. A month after that, Olivier connected it. By that time, the drying rack was a habit. It helped, too, that the dryer did not dry clothes so much as it rendered them less wet. (An hour or two hanging up usually did the trick.) Electricity is expensive in France, and practicality is cheap, so everywhere you go, you see laundry hanging to dry.

We've had our share of house guests who gallantly offered to help hang the laundry, offers which we, of course, accepted like the gracious hosts we are. Then we (and I confess that here it is the royal we) flinched while we watched them take a dish towel out of the basket and pin it on the rack along its long side instead of its short side, landscape instead of portrait. Really. And without shaking it out and smoothing the wrinkles. Then the undies would come out and be hung on the extreme end of the drying rack, in the place, the only place, where something long (one of C's tshirts; the girls' jodhpurs; a smallish bath towel or largish hand towel) could fit. Camisoles draped over two rungs instead of pinned; socks hung pell-mell all over the rack instead of in pairs, all together, in the lowest spot (where nothing else fits), so that, when they're dry, it will be quicker to take them down and ball them up. Well. You will understand that after a time we would send our guests inside to make the hollandaise sauce instead.

Like most housekeeping tasks, hanging the laundry is both an art and a science. For us, the socks and undies and small things go in the center of the drying rack; the larger the object, the further out it goes. (Our laundry rack, oh you who just toss the wet laundry in the Kenmore and wander off, is a collapsible A-frame with two long arms that extend from the top.) Items too large for the rack (pants; sheets; bath towels) get hung, in the winter time, along the plastic-coated wires that form the trellis above our terrace. (See illustration above.) Summer, or when the year has advanced enough for our back terrace to get full warm sun for much of the day, the larger things and some of the larger small things (place mats; napkins; wind pants) are hung on the (glorious!) retractable clothes line that Madame Mère imported from North Carolina last May, and that it took two American men (who shall remain nameless) and one supremely competent Frenchman (Olivier) to install.

I am cautiously optimistic that we will soon be able to put the retractable clothesline back in service. C's already tried it once or twice without much luck; the weather was not warm enough, the sun not persistent enough. (When C hangs the laundry, I have found, it is best for all concerned if I am the one who goes in the house and makes the hollandaise. The clothes will, after all, dry eventually.) But today when I came home from the stables with G, E had already changed out the clothes on the drying rack. The load we'd hung only two hours earlier was dry. Now--I've just checked--the faux-shearling lined sweatshirt (which takes so long to dry that I often check several different weather forecasts before I even put it in the washing machine) is, after an hour and a half--just an hour and a half!--nearly dry.

It is a minor miracle, this drying the clothes in the sun. Laundry, to paraphrase, calls us to the things of this world, to the seasons and the length of days and when was it we last changed the sheets. When they no longer smell like sunlight, it's time to change them again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


The girls came hiking with the ladies and me this week; they started their vacances de printemps Monday. Lunch was a special birthday picnic. Everyone brought food to share: smoked salmon rolled up in flat bread with horseradish sauce and crême fraiche, guacamole with vegetables, tomato salad, onion tarts, Spanish tortilla, homemade bread, prosciutto and butter on brown bread. And then dessert: carrot cake, English fruit cake, coconut macaroons, chocolate chip cookies (the girls made those). And champagne, of course.

After the picnic it was time for games. One of our number, a retired hospital president called Georgiana, had brought along clothespins, which she passed out, one for each. She put a small box at either end of our picnic ground--and perhaps I should say here, to help you imagine it, that we were 800 meters up, on top of a mountain, in the shadow of a ruined château and with the entire coastline spread out below us--and, to get back to my story, divided the group into two. Half lined up behind one box, half behind the other. Georgiana then instructed them--she'd run out of clothespins before she got to me; I was on the sidelines--to hold the clothespin between their knees and travel from one end of the field to the other and back again before dropping the clothespin into the box. Ready, steady, go, she said, in her proper English voice, and pandemonium broke loose.

Two dozen women of a certain age, and two 13 year old girls, who have had a good lunch and are given a silly goal, can make an amazing amount of racket. There was a great deal of hopping and jumping and shrieking and dropping of clothespins, and even a little multi-lingual cursing, and within a minute or two the field had dwindled to three. Those three were not jumping or hopping or doing the funny little shuffle-skip that had led to the downfall of the other 23. They were, slowly and steadily and with great concentration, walking or, more honestly, waddling, toward the box.

Jon Carroll had me thinking this week about time. The clock, he wrote, is an opportunity. The clock will tell you what you need to do.

There are different schools of thought on how we should spend our last few months in France, how we should run down the clock. There's the Eurail pass school, which doesn't necessarily advocate the purchase of a pass but does imagine a trip to Major Capitals, a sort of condensed Grand Tour. Picture photographs of la famille Marron in front of an ever-changing green screen of Cultural Meccas. Then there's the Weekends in Provence school, which has us packing up every Friday and setting out for another charming village, preferably the ones near famous abbeys or vineyards, guidebook and map in hand. The green screen in this scenario features boules courts, antiques markets, and out of the way restaurants.

And then there's another school, which, if you're planning on placing any bets, I'd give good odds. It looks a little like this: we walk the dogs. Nice evenings, we drink a glass of wine on the terrace while we watch the shadows lengthen. We all sit together in the salon and read. We buy strawberries from Marjolaine and eat them right out of the barquette. We talk to each other about inconsequential daily things. We eat as many meals as we can outside. Maybe we go to the beach once or twice; we definitely go up into the mountains, and if we can, we look for wild mushrooms. If the opportunity presents itself, we sit in the place and watch the village go about its business.

What the three clothespin winners--because they were the only ones who got their clothespins to the box--had grasped, and that no one else did, was that there was no rush to finish. They had all the time they needed to get across the field. When we'll be in Europe again as a family, or in Provence, I don't know. But I think what I know is that it's not about being in Europe. It's about being a family. So what I'm going to try to do is take small, focused, present steps until, come mid-July, I waddle across the line, clothespin firmly pinched, and see what happens next.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Real France

Colette took us up to her friends' goat farm last weekend. It's a few miles outside a village, down a series of roads that get smaller with each turn. The farm--house, dairy, barns, sheds--sits on a plateau that backs up against the mountains.

We are on a perpetual quest for authenticity, C and I, for evidence of human endeavor and dignity and creativity. I think it's part of what we were looking for when we came to France: small shopkeepers, local produce, people whose profession was book selling or bread making or flower selling, and who were not just passing the time behind the cash register. It's a hopelessly romantic notion, no doubt, and a naive one--France has more big box stores than any other country in Europe, I've heard--but, nevertheless, it's our notion.

And so it was with great anticipation that we drove up the series of smaller and rougher roads to the goat farm. Local farmers, local goats, and, Colette had assured us, we would be able to buy some local cheese. It was all too authentic for words.

Madame la fermière answered the door to her farmhouse and one of the first words out of her mouth was merde: she had meant to ask Colette to bring a book up to her from the village. Ah, yes, we thought, French people cuss much less self-consciously than we Americans do. (I have a theory about that being tied to Catholic culture and the sacrament of confession--cuss a blue streak all week, confess on Saturday, start over with a clean slate on Sunday--but I'll spare you the details for now.) But points to madame la fermière for authenticity.

Our first step was the dairy, where the farmer explained how they made goat cheese--milk, enzymes, rinsing, molding, not necessarily in that order--and showed us the room where they age the cheese. Wooden shelves laden with tiny rounds of cheese covered in various shades of mold. Then to the goat barn: dozens of brown and black goats shouldering each other aside for a better place at the trough. Goats, who look so clean and smell so bad. We walked up and down among them, pointing out the kids.

Then the sheep: even more, less clean and smellier. Madame la fermière and her husband sell the lambs for meat, meat that is sold in Italy. Why Italy, we asked. The French don't care about local foods; they'd rather go to a grands surfaces and buy cheaper lamb from New Zealand than support local farmers, was the response. We nodded sagely. We knew about the grands surfaces stores; we come from the place that invented them.

As we came out of the sheep barn, madame put out a warning hand to stop us. Shhh, be still, she said. Down the lane were coming hundreds of sheep--400 or so, she told us--herded by dogs and followed, several minutes of sheep later, by their shepherd.

We were thrilled. Dairy, goats, sheep barn, and now an authentic troupeau returning from a day in the mountains, and with their own shepherd en plus.

Once the dogs had herded the sheep into their paddock, the shepherd stopped to talk with us. He was in full shepherd gear: old baggy camouflage painter's pants, worn boots, multiple layers of sweaters and vests. A bamboo staff. A canvas messenger bag slung over his shoulder. He could have been anywhere from 40 to 70: his face was tanned into crevices. And he wore a navy beret at a rakish angle. The only way he could have looked more French is if he had had a baguette and a tricolor hanging out of his satchel. It was, for us, the icing on the cake.

He cast an appraising look over C and me. Alors, vous êtes des vrais américains? he asked. So are you real Americans?

We are, we assured him. Real Americans.

The shepherd cleared his throat. Well, it's a good thing I wore my beret this morning, he said slyly. I didn't know I was going to be meeting real Americans.

Ah, authenticity. Apparently it cuts both ways.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Jules and Madame are here this week, and what do you think they want to talk about? (Aside from the perfidy of the locals, and how the glycine is not growing fast enough.)

The Obamas. And their dog.

When I came home the other day, Jules was in the garden. He'd arrived from Paris after lunch and changed immediately into his country duds--old Façonnable shirt, faded jeans, Tod's loafers, and a dark green merino wool sweater flung nonchalantly around his shoulders--and was haranguing the man driving the bob. Which means, in Jules parlance, any tractor-like vehicle that can move things around and may have been made by, or look like something made by, the Bobcat Company in North Dakota. (It took us a while to figure this out, as he pronounces bob in the French way: not bob like the yellow sponge with the square pants, but baub like the first syllable of bauble.) The man at the controls was using the bob to move large rocks back and forth. There were also pieces of plywood involved. And mud.

When I came out, Madame and Madeline, their granddaughter, had walked down the hill to join Jules. While Madame pointed out wildflowers and the swimming pool to Madeline, Jules muttered to her about the impossibility of getting anything done right by anyone other than oneself. Then I drew level with them.

Ah, ma petite! Jules did the bises. Then Madame did the bises. Then three year old Madeline did the bises and said Bonjour, Madame. Nobody greets like the French.

Once we had all kissed, Jules said: Et alors, Obama, he came to Europe!

Yes, I heard, I said.

And he was vraiment formidable! Jeune, beau, intelligent--

Madame interrupted. Vraiment formidable!

While Jules took a breath I leaped into the fray with a small joke. I see that you've put a belt around your sweater, Madame, just like Madame Obama.

But of course! I only wish I could look more like her. But I've given up alcohol and chocolate, and if I could only start an exercise régime--

And the dog! Jules grabbed the conversational wheel. T'as vu le chien? Have you seen the dog?

Have I seen the dog? I am the household expert on the dog, thank you very much. There is no Internet clip of the dog I have not seen, no article I have not read, and I even have a few theories about why we all--even the French--care so much about le premier chien. (It has to do with hope and normalcy, and I know you're shocked, shocked, to hear that I've been giving it some thought.) Mais bien sûr, I assured him.

Il est marron--so cute, the dog! And you know, Jules said, slowing down the French as he does when he's about to make a joke he wants to be sure I understand, le chien, he is black and white, black and white, tu comprends? Do you get it? Just like Obama! He looked to see if I'd gotten it, or if he needed to repeat the witticism.

I nodded. Yes, the dog is black and white. I understand.

Madame stepped in with a bon mot of her own. He is called Bo, et il est beau, comme le président. And she smiled.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Planned obsolesence

G and E are tall enough to reach the upper rail in the Underground trains. You know, the railing suspended from the ceiling. They've been on the Washington Metro, the New York Subway, the Paris Metro, and, as of a few weeks ago, the London Underground. Their first trips on the Washington Metro were in strollers. Then there came a day when they had stamina enough to leave the strollers at home. And now, about two weeks later, they're standing next to investment bankers and Asian tourists loaded down with bags from Harrod's, holding on to the high bar and casually swaying with the rhythm of the train.

What I learned in London was how near my job is to being done. I watched as my girls interviewed the directors and assistant directors and heads of departments of various museums you've heard of. They took out their Clairefontaine notebooks, pulled their chairs up to the tables, and led suited-up men whose next meetings involved arranging tours for the G 12 first ladies through a list of questions about the museum profession. I kept track of their coats.

After one of these interviews, their Aunt A and I were sitting with them in a café on the Embankment. A asked what they thought they might like to do when they grew up.

I'm not sure, said G, except that I know I want to do something that helps.

We've tried to teach them to recycle, to buy seasonal produce, that it's possible to read a novel and cook dinner at the same time. To take the dogs for a walk. Separate whites and colors. Fertilize the geraniums. Keep up with friends. Eat three meals a day and get enough sleep. Help the person with a stroller. Watch movies. Hold the door for the next person. Tell stories.

What they don't know yet are some of the mechanics. How to read a subway map. Wear your purse over your shoulder, across your body, in the city. Put your change away before you leave the cashier. Be aware of your surroundings. They're the skills that my mother taught me, began teaching me on our first trip to London. They're the skills that made me feel competent and capable when, not that many years later, I was in London and New York and Paris on my own.

It seems to me that planned obsolesence is the goal of parenting: to bring up your children not to need you to bring them up any longer. When G, sipping her hot chocolate, said casually that what she wanted to do was to help--and that she wasn't sure, exactly, how she was going to do that, only that that was the thing that mattered to her, helping other people, making things better--A turned to me and said: I think your work here is done.

Almost. We walked down into the Underground and I reminded the girls to hold on.

Monday, April 13, 2009


C and I went to dinner at L'Éléphant Saturday night. We were among the only people there who were not locals--if locals means that the waitress greeted you with the bises, the kiss on both cheeks. We didn't get the bises, but the waitress and the chef do recognize C, and they always seat us at the same table. So I think that gives us the status of respected outsiders. Which, let me hasten to say, is not bad.

We had ordered our pizzas--one reine, one quatre saisons--and drinks--a seize for C and a petit pichet, the smallest denomination wine comes in (but it left me with a headache most of yesterday quandmême) for me--when an older woman came in. She did the bises with the waitress, the chef, and the father and son at the table beside ours. Then she hovered until the father and son got up to go, when she took their table. They were finished--the food and drink were gone--but the time between finished and leaving is a fairly elastic thing in France. Anyway, they got up to go and she installed herself.

She draped her black velvet brocade opera coat over the back of her chair. Under it she was wearing a black tulip skirt with alternating matte and satin panels; a black blouse with long sleeves in illusion fabric, the bodice mostly illusion as well but backed up by a lacy black camisole. Pearls. Black stockings. Black velvet pumps with gold trim. Short spiky black hair, dyed to match. And large black tinted glasses trimmed in rhinestones.

She was pushing 70.

Her daughter came in and sat down with her shortly. Daughter was also in full black, but trending more to the denim and biker boots end of the spectrum. From which I think you can deduce that Madame her mother was the only person in L'Éléphant who, if Maurice Chevalier had put his boater round the doorjamb looking for someone to go dancing with him someplace where the lights were low and the champagne was flowing, would have been ready to slip into her opera coat and sally forth.

Now, I have been clear recently about my preferred footwear, and about my predilection for wearing clothing in which you cannot tell my bra size at first glance. However. Madame Rhinestones reminded me of a Department of Homeland Security advertisement that ran quite a lot in the bad old days. We can be scared, it went, or we can be ready.

Madame Rhinestones wasn't going to see retirement age again. Keeping her hair that black probably requires a fair amount of coiffage. But she is in the game. She's not in house dresses or sensible shoes or even comfortable jeans and no-iron knitwear. If aging scares her, she's keeping it under her (no doubt also black, maybe with a sequin detail) hat. She has not given up. If Maurice Chevalier shows up, she's ready.

Friday, April 10, 2009


There's a wisteria tree on my route to the Collège des vignes. That is, it's not actually a wisteria tree; it's a tree that's been taken over, overrun, by wisteria. This week when spring has burst upon us, the entire tree, all 20 or 30 feet of it, is covered in purple blossoms. It's quite a sight.

It caught my eye today on my way to collect the girls. Wisteria is a plant about which my family has nothing kind to say. As in, it will take over everything. As in, if you're lucky, it will give out. As in, if you plant it and know what it is, you deserve what you get. They're not much for vines, my family. Too many days spent pulling morning glory vines out of cotton fields. I've always liked it, though, doubtless because I never had to get rid of it. I like how it survives, and how it's purple, how it will go anywhere and make a splotch of color.

When G and E were small, my grandmother still lived on the family farm. My second-eldest uncle lived there with her, and with my grandfather, too, until Granddaddy died. This uncle was a polarizing figure in our family: on one pole, my grandmother, who thought he could do no wrong, and on the other pole, everyone else, who, most of the time, just tried to be civil. He was the son for whose medical school education the family sacrificed. And he was the son who, once he had his degree, rarely came home. Birthdays, Mother's Days, Christmases all went by without acknowledgment from him. When he did parachute in, there had generally been a crisis--unspecified--and he had come home to improve his humor by criticizing the rest of us. That he was living with my grandparents at this point was the result of another crisis whose source remained forever unknown: one day, when he was in his early sixties, he called to say he was moving home. The next week, he had taken over the front room.

This is the good memory I have of this uncle: one day, when the girls were small and we were at the farm, he led us out across the field, through the woods, to a ruined farmhouse. It was covered in wisteria. The vine showed where the house had been--starting at the edge of what would have been the front porch, shooting out across the collapsed tin roof. The house had been abandoned for decades, but the wisteria had gone on. As the pines and wild laurel had crowded in and taken the sunlight, the wisteria had shot out long tendrils along the ground, finding the light it needed to survive.

We all stood there in the clearing and marveled at that wisteria. We wondered about the family who had lived there--I think they were some connections of ours; most families in that part of the world are--and about what they would have to say about their wisteria vine. How it had outlasted the house, and maybe the family as well.

That uncle died last week. He was as polarizing in death as he had been in life and we--who treasure our family, who look after each other, who prize our connections to each other more than most anything else--we are left marveling at the absence of grief. We're hopeful that some sadness will come with time. In the meantime, we're trying to uncover some good memories of this man. Or at least some good memories in which he played a minor role.

The wisteria today was my first one. It's called glycine over here, and, to hear Jules talk about it, it's the ultimate vine. There are four planted beside our front terrace and they are coming along, slower than you might expect. Madame Mère, when she's here, shakes her head at them. If Jules is lucky, those vines will die, she says, and then she goes back to nurturing some other plant, or grandchild, along. I disagree, though not strongly. I like to think of someone walking along the lane, years hence, and seeing a house nearly covered in purple blossoms, and wondering about the family that was here when those marvelous wisteria vines were first planted.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Danielle the immobilière brought clients to look over the house yesterday. She'd called the day before to make an appointment with me; we settled on 5 o'clock, but she arrived an hour early. I was taking the sheets down from the clothes line when I heard her white Saab convertible pull into the parking, and, sheets bundled over my arm, I went up to greet her.

She took my hand and kissed my cheeks. Look at you, she said, you're practically French! It was hard to see what she meant by that: I was in loose jeans, a looser knit shirt, and clogs. Also small earrings, no necklace, and no makeup. Danielle, en revanche, was in a deep rose cashmere turtleneck (I'm going with 32C, push-up), tight jeans with ample rhinestone trim, and black 4-inch heels with a pointy toe and rhinestone detailing (to match the jeans). Drawn-on eyebrows: check. Blond hair the color the girls' was when they were 2: check. Cloud of perfume: two checks.

The clients were following her in their Volvo station wagon. Our driveway is nearly vertical and gravel en plus, so if you are unprepared for it and driving a manual car, it often takes more than one pass. It did for these ladies. After Danielle and I had encouraged them and waved our hands around sufficiently, they managed to bring the car to a level spot and decant themselves. Two of them: maybe sisters, maybe friends who saw the same hairdresser. Long straightened black tresses; thoroughly made-up eyes; lipstick. Tight peasant-style blouses(I know, it seems like a contradiction in terms, but trust me) open to a level that would have sent even Marie Antoinette back into her boudoir for a scarf (both push-up, probably one 34C and one B). Assorted necklaces bearing assorted pendants. Bracelets. Tight jeans. And then shoes: one set of black pointy stilettos trimmed in gold ribbon, one set of peep-toe Lucite stilettos revealing (of course) a set of well-painted toes. They each moved in their own perfume clouds.

I went before them down the hill and into the house, stashing the sheets in the guest room, alerting E that we had company, quieting the dogs, and tidying the kitchen counter. It meant that I missed seeing them descend the gravel path in their shoes. They examined the garden--or, more accurately, field--in front of the house, looked down towards the pool, and took in the dead olive tree being held up by a plank. (I missed Danielle's explanation of that.) Then they came inside and Danielle led them through the rooms while E, home with a cold, stood next to me and tried not to giggle.

As soon as they had disappeared into the bedrooms, she let out a snort. Did you see their shoes? she said, while waving her hand in front of her face, trying to waft the perfume somewhere else.

We composed ourselves in time for the ladies to emerge from the chambres. I chatted with them while Danielle took a few photographs for her website--yes, we were from America, yes, we had been very happy here, yes, we had wanted to stay, no, the furniture did not come with the house, it was going back with us to America--and then, with much kissing and shaking of hands, the three of them clacked out and made their way back up the hill.

I read somewhere once, or maybe someone told me, that shoes reveal nationality. Germans: sturdy, fashionably ugly (or just ugly). Italians: fashionable, elegant. English: sturdy, practical. Americans: practical, comfortable, often featuring a swoosh or the latest in air-cushioned technology. And French: not practical, not comfortable, aggressively fashionable, a certain kind of completely impractical elegance. I adopted clogs from a Danish friend a decade ago, so while I'm not sporting a swish, I'm a long way from stilettos. A day even in plain flat shoes--some practical loafers, maybe with a nice bow detail--leaves me cranky. I do own a few pairs of heels, but they're the sort you'd wear to meet with the board of directors, not to seduce them. I can no more imagine putting on a pair of 4 inch heels to go look at rental houses than I can imagine walking on the ceiling. No matter how good my French becomes, my shoes will always give me away.

Monday, April 6, 2009


We ate lunch today at the crêperie in Biot. It's one of our favorite places, though we've only been there a few times. That village is out of our way, and the crêperie has what you could generously call limited hours. You could also say that it is closed more often than not. The result is that we never make a plan to go there--we plan either on one of the cafes with tables in the place near the fountain, or the boulangerie with its sandwiches and plastic chairs. So when the crêperie's door is open, it's always a pleasant surprise, a welcome change of plans.

There are only a few tables--maybe 10 tables for two, but most are usually pushed together for groups, so it feels like only four or five. The ceiling is held up by old beams, the walls decorated with silk flowers and small slates with notes about the menu: the kir maison is made from hard cider with a shot of myrtille liqueur; the vin chaud comes at 2 euros a verre, or 4 for a pichet. The kitchen is across the back wall--tins of herbs ranged on shelves, wooden spoons, bottles of olive oil and vinagers, and crème de menthe for drinks competing for space. What takes up the most space is the crêpe stove, the large, round cast-iron griddle on which Madame makes her crêpes. More than likely, that's what you'll notice first, because when you come through the door, Madame will sing out a welcome from where she's standing at the stove.

Madame seems to be about six feet tall, though likely she's shorter; it may be that it's just a small room. She's blond and lean and pretty, and yet manages to be more maternal than anything else, laying her hand on your arm to welcome you, rearranging the furniture and finding some extra cushions so that everyone in your party can sit comfortably, passing out menus before retreating to the stove. Today we were with our visiting friends--their last stop before their next stop--and so there was extra bustle as she got us settled and then went to find colored pencils for the kids. And, a minute later, an eraser and a pencil sharpener.

Traveling with kids is hard. The food is different, and in a village miles from most places, there's not a lot of choice. Our friends' patience was endless, even when their kids ran out of patience with the strangeness of it all. It's a helpful mirror for us: to see what feels strange and, by that reflection, to see what has come to seem normal to us. We don't notice, anymore, the smallness of the spaces, the sharpness of the flavors, the torrents of French. It's what we see, every day, what gets reflected back to us. Visitors give us the chance to turn the mirror a little and see what it's like to glance into our borrowed world. I think it can feel magical, but it can also wear a person out.

At the end of our lunch--C had a salad, I had a crêpe, and there were various omelettes and salads and crêpes besides--I availed myself of the toilette. It's the kind of restaurant that is heavy on the silk flowers, as I think I mentioned, and the charming signs. Still, though, I was unprepared for the decoration above the sink. Framed by a wreath of pink ivy was a translation of Rudyard Kipling's If, translated into French:

Si tu peux rester calme alors que, sur ta route,
Un chacun perd la tête, et met le blâme en toi...

If you can keep your head when all about you,
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...

It's an awful poem, in any language. But as I washed my hands it made me smile. I thought of Madame printing it out, framing it, and hanging it on the wall. I wonder how many visitors have come through her crêperie--how many sibling meltdowns she's seen from behind her stove, how many jet-lagged families who needed nothing more than a good meal in a comforting place. She's so nurturing and warm and welcoming, and she infuses her food with the same spirit--but I wondered if she thought that, even with her singsong French and her extra cushions, there wasn't still more to be done to buck up her guests. Like maybe a poem that they could read, in private, that could offer some encouraging words. If you can fill the unforgiving minute / with sixty seconds' worth of distance run: maybe that sentiment, she figured, could just about give all those footsore and worn out tourists the strength to make it to the next stop. And--en plus, perhaps, she thought--it sounds better in French. I stopped by the stove to thank her on my way out. But of course! she said. And then, with a smile, bonne chance.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mapping the reality

Friends arrive for a visit tomorrow. They'll rent a car at the airport and drive up to us. Earlier this week, when I offered to send C to meet them, they replied with assurances that they could find their way and a copy of the map of our neighborhood provided by their GPS.

The map was wrong.

It wasn't wrong in the broadest sense--the red dot representing La Bastiole was in approximately the right place on our lane. But it was wrong more narrowly, in that it showed La Bastiole as sitting at the corner of our lane and another road, a road that wrapped around La Bastiole and, somewhat further down the hill, met up again with our lane.

There is no such road.

Now, to be fair, there is a disused road behind our house. It's the path that the dogs and I take to the village most days. But it leads up the hill, not down, and it meets up with a different lane entirely.

Our friends' GPS is not the first instance of satellite confusion we've run across. The village had maps printed up recently--glossy brochures showing exactly how little there is in the way of commerce--and on that map, too, this mystery road appears.

I pointed out the discrepancy between reality and satellite imaging to C, who believes in technology more than I. His first response was that the phantom road must be the path up to the village. It may be that I made a sound like a snort at that juncture. We've been on that path a hundred times, and we know where it goes. Then he mentioned the path below our house, the one that goes across the hill to the next village. C thought maybe that was what the GPS was showing as a road. Neither, though, does that path follow the map's outlines. And heaven help the person who tries to drive a car along it: mud, stones, and a spot where there's a blackberry bramble on one side and a 20 foot drop on the other, where you have to go single file and where the dogs cast doubtful looks over their shoulders at me every time.

How hard it is to believe the evidence of our eyes versus the certainties of a global positioning system. Our whole sense of the world, these days, is staked on technology being right. On the Internet being able to link us to truth in under 2 seconds. Even as I write this, I wonder if I'm not somehow misreading that map, misunderstanding its representation of the lane that I drive up and down every day--wondering if, if I just turned my head a little, I would see that, in fact, there is a road where the GPS says there is. After all, there must be, mustn't there?

Apparently there's a village in England that has had similar troubles with the GPS. Wedmore's lanes are too narrow for sidewalks, yet they turn up as the shortest route to the Bristol airport. 15,000 vehicles a day go down it nowadays, passenger cars as well as camions. Villagers have had their front gates sheared off, lost their mailboxes, found the side mirror of their cars snapped off on the ground. When asked, the spokesman for the GPS guys said: We map the reality. We cannot change that reality in our database. Who are we to make a change and say, ‘You cannot drive in that road’ if, in reality, you can drive in that road.

Except for when you really can't, not if you've got more than four wheels. Or if the road, like our phantom, doesn't exist.

C's going to meet our friends at the airport and lead them home.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Naming the horse.

I just dropped E at the écurie for her weekly lesson. Since January, the girls have been riding at a small stable down the hill: close enough to walk to from home, if only the road they would have to cross didn't have two blind curves and no shoulder. They have leased a horse, which means that someone else owns the horse and they are paying--we are paying--for a weekly ride and private lesson. The girls alternate weeks and, on fine days, they both like to hang around at the stable helping out, grooming the horses, feeding them, moving bales of hay from one corner to another.

One of their favorite pastimes at the stable is taking the miniature ponies for a walk. The stable sits at the end of a dirt road in the valley, surrounded by fields and here and there houses. If you walk down the road a bit from the barns, you can look back and up into the mountains. It's what people mean when they talk about the country.

They'd been going to the stables for a few weeks when they mentioned at supper one night that they'd taken Nazi for a walk that afternoon.

Who? we perked up.

This sweet little pony called Nazi. There followed the kind of description of a miniature pony that only a horse lover can give. When I am confronted with a dozen horses, they all look brown to me. When E and G see the same horses, they see a dozen different shades. I imagine it is not unlike telling identical twins apart. Except since these horses aren't mine, I can't.

A few minutes later the description of Nazi the sweet little pony came to an end. I had spent the time not in listening to whether Nazi's sweet little mane was blond or chestnut but in reviewing what I knew about Sylvie and Gérard, the stables' owners. They hadn't seemed like war criminals, or proto-fascists.

The girls showed signs of moving on from sweet little Nazi to equally detailed descriptions of other horses. I put him in his stall right next to his friend Gold, said G. It was so sweet, they touched muzzles right away.

Gold? we said. Nazi's stall is right beside Gold's? Curiouser and curiouser. Proto-fascists with a sense of humor? What were the girls learning down the hill?

The girls rolled their eyes. It's not Nazi, it's Nazi, E said. Her second a was ever so slightly flatter.

They wouldn't call a horse Nazi, Mama, G chimed in.

We looked at each other, at a loss. Maybe you could spell it, C said.

Nazi. N-u-t-s-y, G said.

Nutsy! we said.

That's what we were saying, they said.

They'd learned the name of the proto-fascist pony from their friend Virginia, who had, in turn, learned it from (perfectly innocent) Sylvie and Gérard. Sylvie and Gérard had called the horse Nutsy, an English word even though they don't speak English, and then had pronounced as French people would. Nootzie. Virginia, in turn, had taken their French pronunciation and put it through her aristocratic English accent: Nautzie. And then along came our girls, who heard Nautzie and, because their forebears came across the waters, their au came out as a flat a. Et voilà: Nazi the pony, who hangs out with his good friend Gold.

We were relieved.