Monday, May 25, 2009

Tender mercies

In the summer of 1991, I went to Paris to do research. I had just finished my second year of graduate school, and the common thing to do at that point was to go off to your country of specialization--in my case, France--and begin preliminary dissertation research. I rented a room in a foyer, a boarding house for jeunes filles, that was run by a not terribly friendly order of Lebanese nuns. My room overlooked an interior courtyard and had a bed, a desk, a hotplate, small fridge, sink, and bathroom. Tiny, spartan, adequate.

It was my first time living in a city. My first time living alone overseas. I knew no one. My advisor had given me an introduction to an American scholar who lived in Paris. When I met him for coffee one day across the street from the Bibliothèque nationale in the rue de Richelieu--it was a decade or more before the Bibliothèque de France--he told me my research topic would never work. There was not enough material, he said, unconsciously mimicking Woody Allen, and too much had already been written about it.

I was miserable. I missed C dreadfully. I hardly spoke French. The métro smelled bad. I was too shy to buy a roasted chicken from the traiteur. I didn't know what I was doing there. It was in the days of postcards and those flimsy blue air-mail letters, and calling cards in phone booths. I was, in short, alone and lonely and increasingly unsure of myself and my purpose, wondering why I had ever thought I wanted to study France.

Then a postcard came from a former student of Madame Mère, another transplanted Southern girl who was travelling through Europe. She would be passing through Paris; could she stay a couple of nights with me? She'd be with me the last few days that I was in Paris; her dates fell just at the end of my--now foreshortened--stay. I had intended to stay the entire summer but, one day in the depths of gloom about my prospects as a French historian, I had walked by a travel agency and had what I now know was a coup de foudre, a sudden insight: I could leave. I was having a lousy time and I could do something about it. I walked in and changed my ticket. Then I walked down the street to a phone booth and called C: I was coming home a month early.

A week or two after that, the former student's visit coincided with that of friends from college who had--of all things--a car. I cleared my desk at the B.N. and we went off for a day at Fontainebleau. While my friends napped in the shade of the forêt, the traveller and I sat on the edge of Henri IV's canal and talked. And talked. Later, we stopped in a village for dinner. The only commerce was an auberge that backed up to the Seine. We sat in the garden next to the river and ate coq au vin and drank red wine, and I began to remember why France had beckoned me. The next day my new friend helped me move out of my room and got me as far as Montparnasse station on my journey back to America; she added my jar of Nutella to her backpack and went off down the rue de Rennes to her next adventure.

You won't hear from me for a few days this week because I'll be meeting up with that friend in Paris. Husbands, children, doctorates, houses, and several cross-continent moves later, L is one of the great constants, and tender mercies, in my life. And so, it turns out, is Paris.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Under the bed

Last week, Madame Mère helped me begin sorting things for packing. I hate packing. I'm terrible at it. I find it overwhelming, unsettling, uncentering. I'm worst at packing a suitcase--how can I possibly know which sweater I'll want to wear Saturday? and if we're going to hike, I'll need to bring two completely different sets of clothing, are you sure we're going to hike?--but not a lot better at packing a house. When we organized the house to move to France, more than once I found myself standing in the living room holding a book--one book out of hundreds--and weighing whether or not to bring it. Should I bring the collection of Colette's stories that I've carried around for 30 years and never opened? (I brought it. I still haven't read Colette; maybe I'll repatriate her.)

I thought to take advantage of Madame Mère's calming presence by starting to sort the cave. It's where everything that we brought from America and didn't need in this house ended up: casserole dishes too big for our French oven, framed odds and ends that didn't fit on our mostly-window walls, the box of C's camping stuff that I packed in 1999 in California. And so I began sorting things into piles: giving away, throwing away, moving back. Madame Mère fetched and carried and stacked and nudged me along when I got stuck on the thermoses from the girls' first grade lunchboxes.

Wendy, our grey dog, watched. She followed me and sat at my feet, toes turned out, nose in the air, keeping track of my decisions. When we pack for a trip, she stares mournfully at the suitcases and has even been known to heave a sigh. It's not that she minds going to visit Madame Puppies, which is what happens when the suitcases are closed up and loaded into the car. It's just that she'd rather stay home and avoid the change. This looked like packing to her. She stayed close.

A day or two later we noticed Wendy had taken up residence under E's bed. Wendy's regular routine centers around following me upstairs, downstairs, outside, and back. Now, we noticed, she was missing for large swaths of the day and, when we called her, it was a few minutes before she came. The puzzle came clear when I was in E's room one afternoon and heard a scratching sound coming from the bed. I lifted the skirt and voilà, the grey dog. She looked at me. I looked at her. She went back to sleep.

I cope with the stress of leaving La Bastiole by making lists. I have a list of food items to bring back to America (tea; fleur de sel; olive oil; herbes de Provence) and of errands to run when we get there (Ikea for curtains for the girls' rooms; the library to renew our cards; the grocery store for pantry staples, and hasn't there been an article in the Times in the last six months about staples? Add finding that article to the list). I know why I keep the lists: it's to stave off the panic over moving, leaving, loading suitcases into the car, that can wake me early and have me forecasting disaster and misery well before breakfast. To stave off panic, and to distract myself from the weight of the damp, drippy sack of Sad that is slung over my shoulder. It's not tragic that we have to leave this beautiful life on the hillside: tragic would be if we hadn't ever had this life, or loved it. But it is sad. It's sad to leave a place where you've been happy, where life has felt beautiful and magical and right. And it's fine to feel sad, but I find that a good thorough list, maybe even alphabetized, certainly categorized, can make the weight more bearable.

Wendy seems to have come up with her own solution, and it doesn't require a note pad. If the world gets too big for you--too much sorting and organizing and packing and why doesn't she just sit down for heaven's sake?--then (her solution seems to be) make the world smaller. Under E's bed it's quiet. No one's moving anything or going anywhere. It smells like home.

She may be onto something.

Monday, May 18, 2009


We spent the weekend with friends on the Ile de Porquerolles. It's one of the Iles d'Hyères, which I seem to remember is a crossword-puzzle phrase, off the coast of Toulon. The Porquerolles is a national park, with minimal development and (in theory) no cars. (The cars, and really, there aren't many, are mostly in the village, of which of course there is one, this being France.) The rest of the island is divided between forests and vineyards and hiking trails. And of course beaches around the edges.

Our hotel was next to the church, on the village square. The village went something like this: church, hotel, hotel, restaurant, postcard stand, ice cream stand, corner store, restaurant, town hall (we've come halfway round the square now; the mairie is opposite the church), hotel, restaurant, ice cream, postcards, restaurant, bar, bike rental, bike rental, bike rental, bar, restaurant, swimsuit shop, postcards, filmy lineny blouses shop, restaurant, bike rental, bike rental, hotel, and here we are back at the church. The town was one block deep and one square wide; it looked like a stage set. If Humphrey Bogart had turned up on the terrace at the bar, we would not have been surprised.

The center of the village is taken up by a wide unpaved square. A playground stands in front of the mairie; at the church end, there's a paved step down into the place. A row of eucalyptus trees holds down the other two sides. Saturday evening I took my book and sat on a bench to watch the action. Whiffs of garlic and fish came out of the restaurant behind me as the chef got dinner started. A wedding had taken place at the mairie an hour or so earlier--we'd seen the wedding party having their champagne outside the town hall while we had our ice cream--and there were still stragglers from the group parading up and down in their finery. Daytrippers were hurrying to catch the last ferry to the mainland. Parents were sitting on the benches around the aire de jeux, and their kids were racing in circles around them.

But the main show was the boules matches. While I was sitting there--and I was there for an hour or so--there were never fewer than three matches going on in different parts of the square. The ground was uneven (sloped would not be too strong a word) and grassy in some places, stony in others. The players weren't troubled, though: if they preferred the manicured courts of cities, or even the mostly level ones of villages, they didn't act like it.

The group playing closest to my bench was made up of five old men. They were the central casting version of Provençal boules players: grizzled in varying degrees, leathery from the sun, dressed in outfits ranging from the downright natty (loafers, linen pants, polo shirt, a sweater tied over the shoulders) to the grab bag (grocery store espadrilles, worn, baggy dark Adidas sweatpants, and an equally worn, baggy tennis shirt in a clashing set of stripes). Each man had his own set of boules, of course, and they were all worn to differing degrees. One man--baggy sweatpants man--even had a magnet on a string that he used for picking up his boule. It kept him from having to bend down, presumably, and if it psyched out his opponents, surely that was no more than an added bonus.

Their game moved, after a bit, so that it was directly in front of my bench. When it did, the older man who had been watching them and providing color commentary relocated from his bench (up the way a bit) to mine. May I sit next to you, Madame? he asked. You have nothing to fear from me, he said, I am much too old.

C had joined me by this point, and we made room. The man's dog came along with him and sat down at his feet. We all watched the game intently; the players affected not to notice.

Are there two separate teams? I asked, after we watched most of a round.

No, there is only one team, he said, but there are two who play with three balls and three who play with only two. The ones who have three balls, their job is to use the third ball to knock the other balls out of the way.

Now, I could take a hundred or so words here and explain to you something about the way that boules is played, tossing the ball so that it comes close to the cochonnet, knocking other players' balls out of the way, and so forth, but even if I told you everything I know about boules (which is not much), that would still not help you understand what the man had just told me. The fact that I even understood the French--the words, I mean, not their meaning--was triumph enough for me.

He seemed to recognize that C and I were not up for the finer points of boules, and he changed the subject. Vous êtes anglais?

Non, Americain, we said.

Ah, American! But you speak French very well for an American.

Oh, no, I said, as I always do, not really. Sometimes I have good days of speaking, sometimes, not so good. Because there would be no point in saying, Yes, even though I am American, I am not a complete idiot and I have, by dint of years of study and reading and memorizing, gotten to the point that I can carry on a simple conversation with you. Because when an old Frenchman says that, in a genuinely surprised tone, he means it as a compliment.

He ascertained that we came from Washington and that America is a very big place, and that we were living in France now. Then I felt it was safe to ask him about himself: he had been born on the island and grown up there--he remembered when the Americans came, he was 15--but there was no work on the island; he'd had to leave, and had worked in the douanes, customs, for 40 years before coming home to retire. The island wasn't what it had been. Too developed. Too many people.

Then the subject returned to boules, or, as he called it (and many do), pétanque. If you meet a Frenchman and he takes a shine to you, you'll know because he'll begin to instruct you in something. My friend who sells cheese at the market--we call him the Cheese Man at our house--always has a new hike to tell me about. Jules is forever explaining to us the finer points of something rudimentary but which, to his mind, we are unlikely to know. And we knew we had impressed our boules benchmate when he began to tell us the history of pétanque.

His version went something like this: in a village on the coast, between Toulon and Marseilles, many years ago there was a game played that was very like boules. The best player in the village was called up to war, and when he came back, he had lost a leg. He could no longer play boules the way that the rest of the village did; he could not walk, only stand still. And so he would sit on the bench at the side, watching.

His comrades, though, knew this was not right. And they came up with a new version of the game: the players had to stand still to throw their boules. No more taking a step forward to toss the ball. The feet--the pieds--had to stay together. Piéds-tianque, he said, as though the words were self-explanatory. And from that, the true Provençal name for the game, came the bastardized French word, pétanque. Et maintenant, he went on, people play pétanque all over the world. The best players aren't even necessarily French. Some of the best players in the world come from Madagascar.

We listened and made the appropriate sounds of comprehension. Of course--fine French-speaker that I am--there was quite a bit that I didn't quite catch; this was miles away from school French, a long way from Parisian French, a fairly good distance even from the French that I hear in our village. But I think I got the gist of the story, and we all sat there together, when he was finished, watching his friends play until, a round or two later, the church bells struck the hour. They all picked up their boules and shook hands all around; our bench mate stood up and explained that he was very tired, he'd been doing some construction at his house all day, and he needed to go home now. He bowed to us, wished us bonnes vacances, and went away. His dog followed.

Then C slipped into the hotel. We'd noticed earlier that there were boules sets in the sitting room for guests to borrow. He brought a set outside, and we played a round or two of pétanque ourselves before dinner.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Made in China

So Madame Mère and I were doing her Christmas shopping yesterday (bought and wrapped, thank you very much; the floor may be covered in dust lapins, but we are Good at Christmas). We had made our choices--I am not, for obvious reasons, at liberty to tell you what those choices were--and I handed them over to the shopkeeper, an intense and tiny woman in her late 20s. I've been a periodic customer in her shop for a while now, enough so that she recognizes me.

I handed her our choices; she took them and then paused.

Je dois vous dire, she said, que ceux-ci sont Made in China. I have to tell you that these are Made in China. That's how she said it: Made in China in carefully enunciated English.

Really? I said, not completely certain of what the appropriate response was, or where this conversation was going.

They are. They used to be made here, in France, locally, by artisans, by hand, but then the company was sold, and now they're all Made in China in factories. See, on the bottom, it just says, Hand-Painted. They can't put Hand-Made, the way they used to, because they're not Hand-Made anymore.

I see, I said, beginning to have a glimmer.

But they're being sold at the same prices now as they were before, and people don't realize, they don't know that what they're buying doesn't have the same quality. The man who owns this shop--he won't post a sign, he won't speak the truth about what he's selling. And then foreigners come in here, and they think they're buying something unique, something artisanal, something made in France, and they pay a lot of money but they have something that is Made in China. See--she took me to look at the pottery display--all of this is Made in China (a display of kitchen doodads festooned with plastic baguettes and tiny bottles of red wine) but all of this (the signs of the zodiac in rough clay) was made in France. You can see, it has a completely different spirit.

And it did. I mean, if you went in for a largish ceramic Virgo painted in faded blues and greys, you needed to look no further.

But people, foreigners, come in here, and they don't know what they're buying. They buy the cheaper stuff that is Made in China, because they say that the other things are too expensive. But it's better to have fewer things but things that are of quality, that have their own spirit, than to be surrounded by soulless cheap mass-produced tourist crap.

That last bit was a pretty loose translation, but I promise you that that's what she meant.

I was following along with Madame's logic completely--local, yes, factories on the other side of the world doing it cheaper and with less character and undercutting the cottage industries that have been the life blood of the region for centuries, no--but I still had the small problem of the Christmas gifts that she was holding in her hand and gesturing with as she declaimed. I cleared my throat.

But are there any of those that are not Made in China? I ventured.

In fact, there were, and they were on sale, because the shop owner didn't even understand that they were so much more valuable, being hand made by local artisans who were carrying on the tradition of their parents, than the other, newer ones that had been (all together now) Made in China. And, yes, she would sell us those.

Relieved, I put the Made in China ones back and took the local ones instead. We paid for those, and she sent us out to take a little walk through the village while she boxed up our purchases. When we were outside, I told Madame Mère, who had caught only the vaguest gist of the conversation, that the shopkeeper had given us 5% off on everything.

But why? she asked.

The only way I could explain was to talk about the patrimoine--the French notion of their national inherited culture, its intrinsic value and meaning--and the equally (though not exclusively) French fondness for Sticking It to the Man. (You can take your boss hostage, or you can shut down the national rail system, or you can charge customers who are sympa 5% less). And whether it's parking your tractor on the Champs-Élysées to protest McDonald's, or insisting that the only Champagne comes from Champagne, or calling mass-produced tourist crap mass-produced tourist crap, it's the same cultural instinct. Up with the small, the hand-made, the human; down with the giant, the mass-produced, the impersonal.

When we went back a few minutes later to pick up our purchases, she had boxed each and wrapped everything in brightly patterned Provençal paper. She handed the bags to me with a conspiratorial air and we went on our way.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Sunday we observed American Mother's Day with a visit to the Villa Rothschild. I like it because it feels familiar, like another museum I know well, and because it is ridiculously beautiful, sitting on the saddle of Cap Ferrat, with views of the sea both east and west. This time, we took a guided tour, which allowed us to see the second floor of the mansion, and even more porcelain and delicate French furniture than are in the downstairs rooms. In the Louis XV room--two rococo marquetry desks, one with porcelain inlays; a suite of chairs from Louis XVI; an Aubusson rug; bits of Sèvres--he pointed out one of the 200 year old Gobelins tapestries hanging lining the walls. I'm not that much of a tapestry girl, I'm afraid, and I know that that is a mark against me in the Book of Culture. But something he said made me take notice. For a weaver at the Gobelins factory to finish one square meter of tapestry--all this is two centuries ago, mind you; it's what made by hand means--took one year.

This tapestry covered one entire wall in a large room.

We are in the middle of High Visiting Season here at La Bastiole. Two sets of (old, dear) friends have come and gone in the past six weeks; significant branches of my extended family were here last week; Madame Mère is with us now; in two weeks' time, the girls' aunt L will be here. She'll be our last visitor: when she leaves, on the last day of May, we'll have six weeks of packing and savoring and preparing and sorting before we close the gates.

We've been lucky in our visitors to La Bastiole. Our immediate families have been, almost everyone more than once, as well as many of our chosen family. And old friends, from different parts of our lives, people we've known at different times and in different places. They've all made the journey--a long journey of multiple flights and time zones for most of them--to see us, to sit at our table, walk our dogs, look at the olive trees, listen to our stories and tell theirs.

It has sometimes seemed like a lot of laundry and grocery lists. But now that I am on the tail end of all the visiting I see it differently. These connections have been a part of the warp and woof of our life for a long time. We've woven, by the Gobelins count, two square meters of tapestry since we've been at La Bastiole. Our visitors have helped us to weave it: although there are new colors in these squares, the old colors show up, too.

Now, without laboring that particular metaphor much more, let me say that, by our guide's reckoning, it must have taken the anonymous weavers of that tapestry as long as a decade of their lives to finish it. Ten years out of 60 or, if they were lucky, 70: births, deaths, marriages, wars, flu epidemics, economic crises, bad harvests, feast days and fast days. Ten years at the loom. We've been here for two, and it feels like a lifetime. It's not, thank goodness. If, as my grandmother used to say, the lord is willing and the creek don't rise, we've got a lot of square meters left to weave. What I am grateful for today is all the help we've had with these two squares, these two years: all the people who've come to see us, who've said to us, we love it here, it's beautiful, we're so glad we came to see you.

When we get back, when we start our next square, there will be new colors again. But also some of the same: colors that have been part of our story, our tapestry, for decades, part of our beginnings and part of these two years and, if we're lucky, part of many yet to come. For that, for all who have been part of these two square meters--for all the expense and jet lag and airplane food and ziploc bags of toiletries, all to come here and bear witness to our lives--thanks. And thanks.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Going Beyond the Daffodils

Sunday morning in Liverpool we arrived at the Albert Dock just in time to climb aboard the bright yellow minibus for the National Trust tour of the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The four of us took seats in the back; in front of us were a group of women in their 60s, a 60ish couple, and a mother (60ish) and daughter (30ish, 7 months pregnant). When the driver put on his seat belt he asked if we were all Beatles fans. E and G looked at us plaintively while everyone else mumbled a dutiful yes. Then he started the music.

We drove through Liverpool in the bus--covered in photos of the young John and Paul--to the strains of She Loves You and Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and Imagine. The bus let us out at Lennon's home. Colin, the caretaker who lives on site, met us in the front garden and gave us what turned out to be a cultural history of postwar Liverpool and the Lennon family: the bombings in 1940 during which Lennon was born; the father who ran off with the merchant marine; the aunt who took in boarders to afford the middle-class house. We went into the kitchen and it was stocked with old tins of PG Tips and Heinz baked beans. The good china was locked up in the cabinet in the front room; there were chrysanthemums in cut glass on the window sill. Colin the caretaker told us how cold the house would get in the winter, how young John's aunt disapproved of George Harrison's Elvis pompadour and Liverpudlian accent. At Paul's house--smaller, shabbier, more working class--the caretaker told funny stories about other visitors and family stories about Paul and his father and brother.

Two days later we were in Grasmere. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Wordsworth and the French Revolution (nerds are us), and so visits to the Wordsworth houses--Dove Cottage, where he was a bohemian rebel, and Rydal Mount, where he out-Establishmented the Establishment--were the main items on the agenda.

At Dove Cottage, our docent had taken on the depressive atmosphere of the house. It was dark, low, cold, and damp. She was likewise. She recited her lines in each room with little or no elaboration and--E pointed out later--no hand gestures. The cottage smelled of the coal fires that still heat it (or don't). Atmospheric, yes. Informative, not so much. Rydal Mount was much the same: atmospheric--a pleasant, sunny house with views of the lake--but not terribly informative. Labels were glued to the wall under portraits: This copy of a painting in the National Portrait Gallery shows the Poet as a young man. This painting is of the Poet's great-great-great-granddaughter.

And so--we have come to the part where I lay my cards on the table--I have been thinking about storytelling. About how we tell stories, what we put in our stories, and what we leave out. What we think everyone knows, and what we think everyone ought to know. One evening in Grasmere we got behind a regional bus that ran between Windermere and Keswick. It was covered in advertisements for Dove Cottage. Go beyond the daffodils, ran the tag line, playing on Wordsworth's poem. Visit Dove Cottage.

Now, I have been beyond the daffodils. I can tell you stories about Wordsworth and his buddies that I would defy many other self-respecting poetry geeks to have at their fingertips. And I heard not one of those tales retold at Dove Cottage, or at Rydal Mount. The story they told was not of a young man who, by luck and chance and some measure of hard work but mostly being in the right place at the right time, ended up becoming A Famous Poet. Instead it was the story of How The Poet Sat Here, In This Spot Where You Are Now Standing, And Would You Like A Postcard With That.

In Liverpool--in our silly yellow bus with the giant black and white photos of Paul and John--we actually heard a story about how these young boys, or--as they said without a trace of self-consciousness, something I'll never master--lads, had the good luck to become the people we know as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. How they weren't terribly good students, and drove their parents crazy, and probably made an awful racket rehearsing.

Touring the childhood homes of the Beatles felt a little silly. After all, we're talking about our lifetimes, or our parents' (or, for E and G, their grandparents'), and I'm not even a big fan. Going to Wordsworth's houses, on the other hand, felt like a Proper Literary Pilgrimage, something I've been meaning to do for ever. And yet: it turned out silly was a gift. Silly meant that somebody at the National Trust had to think about what these house tours were going to be about. They couldn't be about Great Men: John hasn't been gone long enough, and Paul is still around, and neither of them found a cure for cancer (or wrote Tintern Abbey; we'll see how The Long and Winding Road holds up.). They had to be about life as it was lived there and then, how it felt and tasted and smelled. Up in Grasmere, the feeling seemed to be that the story would tell itself, that everyone already knew all about Wordsworth & Co, and that simply being in the Presence of the Poet's Life Mask (of which there was one; I was delighted, and confirmed in my suspicion that perhaps the Poet took himself just a tad too seriously) was enough. Would I visit both Wordsworth houses again? Absolutely; no question. Should the houses be on anyone's Lake District list? Yep. (Don't miss the lock of Wordsworth's hair upstairs in the back bedroom, overlooking the garden, at Dove Cottage.) Could the story told be more interesting? Yes. (But I'm not the one who has to figure out how to cycle thousands of people through those buildings. It's easy when you're sitting at your desk, difficult when you've got a busload of tourists who need to use the bathroom and will be in York by nightfall.)

And, for the record, I bought the postcard.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Friday afternoon found us on Easyjet heading south from Liverpool. For those of you who are not enjoying a Bank Holiday today, you should know that our English cousins are. And our flight was full of Liverpudlians (a word that it's just not possible to say too many times) who were determined to enjoy their Bank Holiday Weekend in the sunny south of France.

In the rain and chill and damp-induced fog that I was in when we boarded the plane, I did not grasp until most of the way through the flight that our flying compatriots were all English weekend-trippers. It began to dawn on me that something festive was up when, just before the drinks service, a voice behind me called Mimi! up the aisle. It was a young male voice, a voice redolent of (what I imagined to be) warm beer and snooker (what is snooker?) and football (not American style) and baked beans on toast. A younger version of Andy Capp.

When the flight attendant got to young Andy, he asked her what sort of sandwiches were available. Ham and cheese? he suggested. Oh no, love, said the young woman. Ham and cheese was only available on flights that originated in France. For this flight, he'd have to look in the flights originating in England column. And they had extra sandwiches, too, this time, a hot bacon baguette...

She pronounced the a in baguette to rhyme with hay.

I'll have that, please, love, said young Andy. A hot bacon baguette (again the hay). And a hot coffee with milk, and a Stella lager, and do you have any croissants?

No croissants, I'm sorry, but we do have some blueberry and chocolate muffins.

He chose a chocolate muffin to go with his hot bacon baguette, coffee, and beer, and as the flight attendant (twentyish herself; pink and white complexion; dyed blond hair pulled back into a knot, with the front section back-combed to suggest a bouffant) went up the aisle in search of the hot sandwich, he called after her: Could you just bring me another packet of ketchup please love?

I think it was the idea of adding ketchup to the hot bacon baguette that made me start taking notes. The man across the aisle from me, who was carrying twins, had just finished a plastic box of pasta salad that looked for all the world like egg noodles mixed with mayonnaise. In front of him was a man in his mid-40s wearing a black leather jacket and new blue and silver running shoes with a Chevrolet symbol on the heel. His salt and pepper hair was thinning in front, and he hadn't shaved that morning; he was reading a book called The Secrets of Sit-n-go, with sections called Playing a monster hand post flop, Playing a weaker draw, and Playing top pair, no kicker. His girlfriend sat across from him, in front of me, a slight blond in a blue hand knit sweater with small red wire-framed glasses.

Meanwhile, a strawberry-blond toddler staggered up and down the aisle with a plastic drink stirrer in his fist. His cheeks were chapped and his tshirt--I am the little brother, it said, in childish print--was stretched tight across his belly. His mother, or grandmother--older than I am, unless she had had a particularly hard life--was in loose jeans, a baggy linen jacket over a (proportionately) baggier cream-colored sweater, and I have no idea, none, what her cup size was. She followed him back and forth, up and down, and, proving once again that God looks after fools, the child made it all the way over the Massif Central without putting his eye out with the plastic stick.

Behind me, young Andy bellowed up to Mimi a few more times, and, in between, carried on an unbroken conversation with his friend across the aisle who had foregone the hot bacon baguette and chocolate muffin for a beer and a 7-Up and vodka. While I could follow most of what young Andy Capp said, I could only make out odd syllables of his friend's conversation. There, or food, or out, a bit of shut eye, whatever. After he was paged a few more times, Mimi--it turned out he was a beefy young man, not a tubercular soprano--turned around and threw an embarrassed grin in the direction of young Andy. I watched as he explained to the people around him--he was six or seven rows up--about his friends sitting back in steerage.

As the plane made the turn to cruise along the Riviera, everyone craned their necks to look out the window. Flashes went off as people took pictures of the view. My neighbors all looked like they'd been on the inside of a laboratory for the past six months, possibly even in cold storage, in petri dishes, part of an experiment to determine what would happen if humans were deprived of sunlight and fed a steady diet of hot bacon baguettes and pasta mayonnaise. I was in my travelling black and still feeling cold and damp, but they were dressed for the sun in capris, tshirts, and new tennis shoes, sunglasses at the ready.

There was a holiday spirit to the cabin. These English strangers demonstrated a level of intimacy in public that it's difficult to imagine French friends, much less airplane passengers, displaying in public after decades of life together. Any French man who yelled his friend's name up the aisle of an airplane--well, it's just unimaginable. Unless there was a dire emergency. Even then. It simply isn't done. And if it were done there would be a collective resettling, a recrossing of legs, shaking out of newspapers, an imperceptible drawing in and away, that would make it abundantly clear that it should not be done again.

The plane landed, and everyone leaped to their feet. They compared return flights--when are you leaving on Monday? maybe we'll be on the same flight--and then, slowly, they filed off. We watched them at baggage claim. Young Andy Capp--it turned out he was called Carl--was wearing black nylon cargo capris that set off his white legs and a pale blue knit sweat jacket. His Pumas were shiny white. He was standing with his unintelligible friend and Mimi, eyeing the French women standing across from them while they waited for their bags. The women were swaddled in various layers of white lycra--34Cs all around, no secrets there--and tight denim. They looked as though they had steered clear of the pasta mayonnaise. Or maybe it's just the red wine.

I hope those women let them down gently.