Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Le portail secret

The movers left at noon. The temperature was approaching 90 degrees, and there was enough humidity in the air, and enough clouds on the mountain horizon, to augur for more heat and an afternoon storm.

This morning the movers came earlier than they had on the previous two days; they were here a few minutes after eight, and the father--our moving crew was a father and his two 30ish sons--was running down the path by the house to open the secret gate and let the moving truck into the garden.

La Bastiole has two gates. Houses in our commune are only permitted one. We have one that leads into our small parking area--that's the legal gate--and one that leads directly from the lane into the garden. That's the illegal one. (We call it the secret gate; secret sounds so much nicer than illegal, don't you think?) The one that the mairie has told Jules that he has to take out. The one that Jules' good friend le maire told him that he could only leave in if he camouflaged it with plantings on the street side and never, ever opened it. The one that Jules opens every six weeks on average to bring in the bob or the tractopel or the load of gravel that is supposed to solve our septic problem.

The one that Jules said the movers were not, under any circumstances, to use.

C'est illégal, ce portail, et je n'ai pas le droit de l'ouvrir, he explained to C. This gate, it's illegal, and I don't have the right to open it. The movers, they can just put the truck in the parking, it's not a big deal, you know, these ouvriers, they're always just trying to take the easy way out, but in Paris, people are moving into and out of apartments on the fifth floor all the time and the movers, they do it and they don't complain.

Our legal portail--the one that leads into the parking--perhaps this is the moment to say a few words about that one. La Bastiole's driveway--in the middle of which stands the legal portail--is vertical in both directions. To turn into it in a manual transmission car, it's necessary both to downshift and to get a running start, both of which are difficult to do given that the lane is, itself, more than a little steep. (Some of our visitors won't even make the turn. They prefer to continue along the lane, through two blind curves with a seven foot drop on one side, to turn around in the slightly wider spot and come at it the driveway from the opposite direction.)

Once you make the turn, you have to turn the wheel sharply to avoid a wall on the left and then sharply, again, to correct for the wall on the right. These are walls made of large, uneven stones. Having threaded that needle, you find yourself at our gate, and then you put on the brake because you are now about to lose all the altitude that you just gained. And watch out, because there's an olive tree in the middle of the parking. When you've got the emergency brake on, you can leave the car and walk down the gravel path to the house, descending a half dozen uneven, wide, low, gravel-covered steps that are set into the terraced hillside. You can then enter the house either by a steep set of uneven stone stairs or continue around to the front of the house by way of more (and still descending) gravel.

When we moved in to La Bastiole two years ago, the movers used the (then not-so-) secret gate. Jules was feeling flush with having rented an unfinished house to Americans, and the mairie had not yet broken the news to him about the second gate being illegal. So it was pas de problème for the movers to back their shuttle truck in and unload our worldly possessions.

This time Jules' attitude was different. The movers' was not. When I met with M. Morin, le responsable, for the first time, he took one look at our driveway and said: We cannot get a truck in here. I do not know how we are going to do this.

And I said, Oh, pas de problème, Monsieur, on peut utiliser le portail secret. And I explained all about it. From the secret gate, it is but a few level and grassy steps to the terrace and the wide kitchen doors.

He was reassured.

Then we told Jules.

And Jules said--what he said (see above).

And C and I thought about the movers bringing their truck in through the legal gate. I remembered the scene in How the Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinch's sleigh is balanced at the pointy tippy top of a mountain, a chasm on one side and a luge run on the other.

Jules talked to M. Morin on the phone several times, rehearsing with him all the reasons that it was impossible to use the portail secret. M. Morin came to see me again on the first day that the movers were here. We stood in the kitchen in a sea of newsprint and boxes while the movers packed around us.

I spoke with your propriétaire, he said. His eyebrows said the rest.

Ah, oui? I said.

He said it will not be possible to use the portail as we discussed.

Ah, oui, I said. (It's all about inflection.)

I'm not sure what we will do. Again with the eyebrows.

Ah, non? V0tre propriétiare, Madame. Il habite où, normalement?

He lives in Paris, Monsieur.

And is he in Paris now, Madame?

Ah, oui, Monsieur, I said.

Alors-- he began.

Monsieur, I interrupted. Sometimes, I am not understanding the French very well, you know. People, they are saying things to me, and I am not really understanding what they have said when they say what they are doing.

Ah, oui? said M. Morin.

And so today the movers left at noon. The house is empty save for a few beds and chairs, and a table and some lamps. We've got enough kitchen goods--plates and cups--to manage with, and a pot for boiling water and a pan for making tomato sauce, and of course my tea kettle. It took the movers two trips in their shuttle truck between La Bastiole and the large truck, the container truck, that the driver parked in the lot down by the rond point. The papa and his sons moved all the boxes out onto the terrace, and thence into the open truck.

Jules arrives on Sunday for a few days. I hope we get some rain between now and then. The grass at the edge of the terrace, near the portail secret, is looking a little worn.

Monday, June 29, 2009


We can now legally move.

I went up to the Mairie Thursday afternoon. I took with me the folder in which we keep: a recent bank statement; our French taxes; copies of both of our passports; our cartes de séjour; and the traduction officielle of our marriage license. (We just keep this folder lying around; you never know when, in the course of French life, you're going to need these documents.) When it was my turn at the counter, I explained to Madame la receptioniste that we were, malheursement, moving out of the village, and that I needed a certificat de démenagement.

We knew we needed this because Nathalie, our responsable at the moving company, mentioned it in her list of items that we would need to give the movers so that they could waft our household goods through French customs. Two inventories, signed and dated; two affidavits stating that we are not exporting either firearms or Picassos; and a certificat from our town hall stating that we have stated that we are moving. Now, usually at this point in our conversation, I would explain to you all about the history of this particular piece of paperwork, how it started, what it signifies, its relation to some broader themes in French culture. But today, reader, I have nothing for you. It may be the fog of moving, or the fog of age, or just fog, but I am at a loss as to the meaning of this piece of paper.

But back to Madame la réceptioniste. She nodded efficiently when I explained what I needed, and listed the documents she would need in order to make me a certificat. A pièce d'identité for each of us; an official document showing our local address; another document showing the address to which we were moving.

I had the pièces d'identité--that's child's play to anyone initiated into French bureaucracy--and handed them over. To show our local address, I handed Madame the bank statement. She paused.

Don't you have a copy of your rental contract? Clearly the bank statement was not the document normale.

I didn't. I decided not to go into all the irregularities of our rental contract--how we actually rent from Jules' daughters, who live outside of France, and how, really, if you read the fine print closely, we don't (in the strictest of French legal terms) rent at all, we just borrow the house and, out of gentilesse, pay some of Jules' bills for him--and tried, instead, our French taxes. This was printed in red ink on pink paper, with a sketch of Marianne in the upper left hand corner. It looked very, very official.

She nodded. It would do.

And now, a justificatif stating your new address?

Justificatif is one of those words that I doubt I would be able to pronounce correctly and at speed if I spent the rest of my life in France. So I said to Madame, I don't have a justifica...(it's always along about the fifth syllable that my willing suspension of disbelief that this could actually be a meaningful word gives out) but I do have a carte de visite that shows our new address.

I showed her the business cards that I had printed up last week to hand round to our friends here. It lists our names and our American street address and phone number.

She frowned. She shook her head.

Where exactly are you moving, Madame? It clearly beggared belief that I could be moving to a place that did not provide stacks of justificatifs.

We're moving to America, I said.

Her face cleared. Ah, she said. Les Etats-Unis. Bon. Of course, that explains the situation, her attitude suggested. They probably haven't developed justificatifs there.

She took the carte de visite--up til now, she'd left it sitting between us on the counter--and began to read it. She got to the name of our town and asked what it was. I told her it was the name of our town.

Then there was a two-letter abbreviation after that. C'est quoi, ça?

C'est l'état, Madame.

C'est quoi, un état?

C'est la section des Etats-Unis où on habite, I said, hoping that that would work.

She asked me to write out the name of the state. I did.

Friday morning, Madame called to tell me that my attestation was ready to be picked up. I resisted the temptation to say that I needed a certificat, not an attestation. I decided to roll with it and see if, this time, they turned out to be the same thing. (I know it sounds loopy, but once you've had to write down the number of paper clips that you are taking out of the country, you don't take anything for granted.)

On my way to collect the girls from their last day of school, and buy sandwiches for the movers who were wrapping everything they could reach in several layers of newsprint and stuffing it into boxes, I stopped in the village. Madame was at the desk. She handed me an envelope.

I opened it.

République Française, the paper says across the top, above the date, and just barely above the coat of arms of our village. Then, in bold capitals: Certificat Administratif.

I the undersigned, the mayor of this village, certify that Monsieur Mari, (and then his birth date, and nationality) and Madame Marron, son épouse (and my birth date and nationality, and have I ever mentioned to you that even though I did not take C's name, I am listed on every single French document we have under his name? Because that's the way it is in France. C'est comme ça. To continue:) have told us that they are moving out of the Commune, and will therefore no longer live at their current address, from the 15th of July, 2009. And that they will, henceforth, reside at: and then our American address.

All impressively official and bureaucratic, and our mayor's name and title below, and his signature (with a flourish; wouldn't you assign a flourish if you were the mayor of a small French village?) and a stamp showing Marianne looking unusually like the State of Liberty--pointy crown, torch, toga and so forth.

And so we have one more document to add to our dossier, one more piece of the paper trail of our French life.

I wonder if I could get a Moving In Certificate from our mayor in America. It might provide some closure.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ruban de caution

The movers come Friday morning. They'll spend Friday and Monday packing us--the blessings of working for a multinational company--and then, Tuesday, the truck will take it all away. Even though we're not packing ourselves, I've spent the last week and more sorting and arranging and discarding. I tell whomever asks (or doesn't) that the more organized the household is when it is packed up, the easier it will be to unpack on the other side, but that's only part of the reason for my activity. The rest of the reason is that it distracts me. If I can control the towels, I can control the world.

We've got a combination of stuff in the house: ours, friends', Jules'. When M. Morin, the responsable commercial of the moving company, came to discuss our move, he suggested that we would need to separate those things for the ocean shipment from those for the air shipment from those which will go in our suitcases--and then, of course, all that from things which will not go with the movers at all. I've been puzzling out how to do that without putting the household it total disarray since his visit more than a month ago.

The solution came to me in the wee hours on Monday. Later in the day, I paid a visit to our local Briconautes and bought a role of red and white striped caution tape. I've tied pieces of it around everything that the movers aren't to bother with: the lamps, Jules' chairs, the pulls of the kitchen drawers that still have groceries in them. Since we'll stay in the house for nearly two weeks after the truck departs loaded with our ocean-going shipment, we're leaving our clothes in the closets, and those closet doors all have red and white ribbon tape on their knobs.

I had thought that all the ribbons lent the place an incongruously festive air, but when G came home this afternoon she pointed out that it looked like nothing so much as a fractured relay race. Like the participants were supposed to race from the chair to the table to the lamp to the bed to the closet to the kitchen, not touching anything but the tape. It's like living inside a race course, she said.

And, now that she mentions it, I see her point. The race starts Friday morning. I'll be on duty with the movers all day, explaining about my ruban de caution and assuring them that no matter how ferociously they bark, Alice and Wendy won't bite. You may not here from me til Monday or even next Wednesday: but I'm not gone yet. Check back.

Monday, June 22, 2009


In our commune (and, for all I know, in every French commune), the mairie has the right to widen the public thoroughfare--that's road to you--when a new house is built. And they get to charge the owner of the new house for a portion of the widening costs. They can't widen it a lot--no super-highways going in where there used to be a goat path--but they can widen it up to one meter from the preexisting edge of the road. Our house was built two years ago, which qualifies it as new.

And thus it came to pass that last weekend Jules came down from Paris, hired two day laborers, and dug a ditch along the edge of the chemin alongside our house.

In the dark hours when Jules lies in bed, counting over all the people who are scheming to part his sous from him, he apparently remembered this law and realized that it was possible that his good friend the mayor of our village might decide, one day, to pave an extra meter of ground on our side of the road.

When this thought came to him, Jules did not turn over and drift off to sleep, to dream of legislation repealing the TVA. I imagine that he sat up in bed and put on the light, woke Madame, and together they hatched out a plan to prevent the commune taking any of their land.

Our lane is about eight feet wide, and bordered on both sides by either a sheer drop of several feet into an olive grove; an equally sheer stone wall, rising straight up for much higher than I can reach; or impressively tall, dense hedges. We have a hedge. Between the edge of the paved road and the hedge there is a few feet--a meter, if you will--of packed earth and rock.

Or there was. Jules and his hired men spent the hottest weekend we've yet had this summer digging up that packed earth, making a ditch where the edge of the road had been. As ditches go, it's not terribly deep--not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve, as Mercutio said, when he contemplated the damage that would result from driving his Citroën into it.

Now, if M. le maire takes it into his head--Jules explained it all to C; he was very proud--to widen the road, the measurement will be from the edge of the pavement and not from the edge of the packed earth. And Jules won't have to move his hedge.

Canny or illegal? We're not sure. But we suspect.

Friday, June 19, 2009


School is winding down now, and although it officially continues for another week, that week and this are a mix of half days, day long fêtes, and, here and there, no school at all. Yesterday I picked E and G up at noon. We went to Antibes, the port town a half hour away, to run some errands and have a wander through the vieille ville, looking for shade in the narrow pedestrian streets.

We sat in a bar on the Place Nationale and ordered tomato and mozzarella sandwiches and a pitcher of water. Afterwards we did our errands: some fabric for me, a book we'd ordered from the English bookshop, the shoe store for sandals for the girls. The shoe store experience was a bust and, by the end of it, we were all annoyed with each other: nothing major, just what happens sometimes when expectations run afoul of reality.

Our next stop was at the Gelateria del Porto. C and I found this hole in the wall ice-cream shop the night that we arrived in France two years ago. Jean-Marc makes all of the gelato himself, and it's everything from chocolate to mango to caramel beurre salé. The night that we found it we sat on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville with our cones, and watched the Saturday night parade of couples strolling. We could hardly believe that we had gotten here, everything packed and sent and the house ready for the renters and a meeting with the realtor to find a French house on Monday morning, and here we were, eating ice cream at 10.30 in the evening in a French seaside town.

Yesterday E took one of the benches outside the gelateria, and G and I went in to order. The shop is open to the narrow sidewalk and street, and consists simply of the windowed counter that holds all the glaces, a menu above, and the kitchen, with all sorts of interesting-looking equipment, behind. When G and I walked in, the place was empty not only of customers but of employees. We took our time choosing and, in a minute or two, Jean Marc arrived. He had been having a drink with a friend in the bar opposite. We ordered mango for E, nutella for G, and watermelon--in French it's pastèque, so much more exotic--for me. He used a small spade to shape our glaces into flowers whose stems happened to be ice cream cones.

We sat in the shade and ate our cones, and then walked down the hill to the public fountain (put up in the reign of Louis XVI to honor one of his admirals, the engraving at the top tells you) and washed our hands and faces. Surely the public fountain is one of the pinnacles of civilization. Clean, drinkable water, available in every (or nearly every) parc and place in France. And the fountains themselves, more often than not, beautiful things carved out of stone and worn with age. While we took our turn at it, two young women, dressed to the nines, stopped on the other side to fill their water bottles. Old men sat in the shade nearby and watched us all.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the last two years, and what they've meant for us, how they've changed us and not. It's part of the process of leaving, and I promise I'll try to spare you too much of it. But yesterday, going from the plastic expensive uncomfortable shoes in the chain shoe store to the humanity of homemade gelato, sold to us by the man who made it, the man who's passing the time between customers across the street with his friends and a mid-afternoon coffee, posed such a contrast. The chain store with its poorly made goods and disinvested sales clerks; the local artisan with his shop and his craft, a craft he's proud enough of to carve each serving into the shape of a rose.

Well. It brought us back to ourselves, is what it did, and we went from being a mother and two teenaged daughters, caught up in the roles of impatience and annoyance and disagreement, to being a family on an outing. We went from the too-big picture (how are we ever going to get through all the times we're going to have to go shopping together) to the splendid detail of an ice cream rose. How wonderful, we said to each other, may I taste yours? And then we washed our hands in the fountain.

These two years have given us a lifetime's number of moments of grace, of humanity, like that one. We came with two girls, and we are leaving with two teenagers who toggle still between girldom and young womanhood. Every moment is its own miracle.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Blanche and Gilbert came for drinks the other evening. They work at our bakery, or maybe it's more correct to say that we buy bread at theirs. Blanche's nephew is the owner--an elected member of France's national order of patissiers, merci beaucoup, and the gâteaux au chocolat to prove it--and it is a family business: there's Gilles, who is up the hill baking; Madame his mother, a little deaf and with orange dyed hair, but always smiling; her sister Blanche, ten years younger; Blanche's companion Gilbert; and assorted nieces and cousins whom we know by sobriquets such as the nice lady with glasses, the stern lady, and the one with the nose ring.

Anyway, we'd invited Gilbert and Blanche up for drinks so that C could give Gilbert the yarmulke he bought for him in Jerusalem. Gilbert is Jewish--his support for Obama hinges on his certainty that Obama is, in fact, half Jewish--and, when I mentioned to him that C was off to Israel for a meeting, he requested a yarmulke.

What color? I needed to find out if he really wanted one.

I don't care. Any color.

Do you want a pink yarmulke? A green one? I realized that he was serious.

Of course not. A blue one, blue like the flag of Israel. And crocheted, not cloth. Do you understand?

I did, and I told C, and he came home with one.

We gave it to Gilbert and he tucked it into his breast pocket, very pleased, and told us about Obama's Jewish heritage.

Blanche rolled her eyes at me. But you know, I've always loved Americans, she said, patting my knee and taking another bite-sized pissaladière from the plate E offered her.

I remember when the Americans came at the end of the war. I was only a little girl, and all through the war, my father, he had a little cardboard suitcase with all the money and valuables in it. Every time there was an alarm, any danger, I don't know what, I was just a little child, he would take the suitcase under his arm, and my brother in one hand and me in the other, and we would go and hide under the lavoir.

A lavoir is a large stone trough with a spigot. It usually has a shelter built over it, so that the laundresses can work in the shade. Every village has one, and every farm of a certain size. Blanche's family owned much of the valley below La Bastiole; it was to their own lavoir that they ran.

When we heard the news that the Americans were coming, I remember my mother burst into tears. We are saved, she said, and she cried and cried. Then they came, in their jeeps and their uniforms.

She fell silent. I wanted her to go on, but I didn't want to interrupt her thoughts. After a moment, I asked: What do you remember most about the Americans?

Then she smiled, a huge, radiant, girlish grin. They gave me chocolate, she said. I had never tasted it before.

Monday, June 15, 2009

One month

A month from today--a month from right now--we'll be on a plane bound for the New World. The girls and I are taking off a day before C and the dogs: we're traveling directly (if you can call three flights direct) to my hometown, where we'll recover from jet lag and the first bumps of cultural re-entry. Meanwhile, C, Alice, and Wendy will go directly (only two flights) to Washington.

If you've ever traveled by plane with your dogs, then perhaps you know that American carriers refuse to transport animals too large for the passenger cabin if the temperature forecast at either the departure or arrival airport exceeds 85 degrees. That's because the animals in their crates go out onto the tarmac when the luggage goes out. And if the luggage has to wait a bit, so do the animals. (Beagle brochette, anyone?) Hence the policy: over 85 degrees, Fido goes the next day. Air France has no weather policy because the animals go on at the end, while the passengers are boarding. Et voilà, the weather doesn't matter so much; Fifi travels with maman no matter what.

My hometown--have I told you where it is? I can't remember--does not sport an international airport. Thus: if they traveled with me, the dogs would have to fly domestically. And the 85 degree rule would be invoked. And there I would be, at a pay phone in O'Hare, leafing through my address book and hoping that I still have my college adviser's home phone number so that she can come and get my dogs for a sleepover.

And why are C and I not going to the same place? The answer is so much less interesting than you may be imagining. He's got to go back to work. The girls don't start school until the end of the summer, and I won't even look for a job til September or October or maybe let's just keep checking those unemployment figures...so we are going to profit from our relative footlooseness by having a nice long old-fashioned family visit.

Also our furniture won't arrive in Washington until the middle of August.

And then, Washington is, for us, Real Life. Were the girls and I to go directly back and move, with C, into Grandma's house while we wait for the boat with all our furniture to come, then we are all pretty certain that the summer would look like this:

1. Worry about the start of school.

2. Worry about finding a job.

Repeat as necessary until bedtime.

So C and the dogs will land in Washington and the girls and I will land farther south.

C, you'll have deduced, clever as you are, will be flying Air France. Nice to Paris, Paris to Washington. Champagne and movies on demand the entire way (even for the dogs).

The girls and I will be flying Aer Lingus. Nice to Dublin, Dublin to Chicago, Chicago to home. When I mentioned to an Irish friend that we would be on the Irish airline, she stopped what she was doing and turned to me.

You know Aer Lingus is a low-cost airline, she said.

Well, they were the cheapest tickets we could find, and even though the company is paying for it, all the other tickets were thousands of dollars and had terrible connections...

She looked at me pityingly. No, she said, I don't mean they have cheap tickets. I mean you have to pay for your food.

I got it the second time around. While C sips champagne and catches up on this summer's blockbusters, E, G, and I will be spending our last euros on microwaved meat pies with cabbage, and headphones that will let us listen to the film version of The Price is Right as the video is shown on the front wall of the cabin.

Maybe my friend was wrong. (I hope so.) Maybe overseas flights are different. (Fingers crossed.)

Or maybe we'll just be that much happier to touch down.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Chez Ed

C's colleagues are coming tomorrow for a farewell picnic supper. This morning I went to buy the groceries. Violette is doing the cooking for us: she'll make roast chickens and lasagna, and the équipe will bring salads, quiches, desserts, and so forth. We're expecting in the neighborhood of three dozen men, women, and children of various nationalities. Our oven attends family reunions every other year with its Easy-Bake cousins, and the ovens all sit around and tell stories to each other about all the full-size casserole dishes that they rejected. To put it another way, our oven, he is small.

To put it still another way, the idea of cooking for several dozen people of assorted dietary regimes made my eyes cross. It was only when I remembered that Violette sometimes cooks for Jules and Madame that this picnic supper became more than a twinkle in C's eye. I inquired; she consented. She stopped by and made me a grocery list. We agreed that I would buy the groceries and she would cook them. Then C sent out his invitations.

And so this morning found me at Ed. It's the discount chain of Carrefour, which is one of France's largest grocery store chains. A word about French supermarkets: while they are absolutely the place you want to be if you're doing any French cooking (E. LeClerc, our local hypermarché, has four aisles devoted to fresh dairy products, everything from butter to fresh mozzarella to aged chêvre to chocolat pots de crême), they are pretty bare bones affairs to an American eye. There is no track lighting. The floors are linoleum. There is often a smell that combines overripe Camembert, fish, and the wine that spilled last Tuesday. And maybe today's paella.

And that's in the non-discount stores. So you can imagine, perhaps, what Ed is like. The aisles are close together--a chariot and a half wide, so you can practice your manners while you make your way--and they don't seem to have a lot of help shelving. To wit, flats of sugar or coffee or canned cassoulet sit in the middle of the aisle. In the produce section, fruits and vegetables are heaped on the counters, at the end of the counters, and in boxes under the counters.

Then there's the boucherie. Madame told me the first time we ate dinner together--when she was giving me her tips about the area--that Ed was the place to buy meat, and I've heard it often since. I dutifully went after Madame recommended it. We had pasta and vegetables for supper that night. The butcher counter at Ed leaves nothing to the imagination. Sheep brains. Tête de veau. Racks of pork ribs. Whole rabbits, their forearms raised in surrender. Quail wrapped in bacon, with their heads still on. Slabs of beef. And a half dozen butchers in white coats and hats and aprons, taking orders, wielding knives, weighing and wrapping and bantering non-stop.

It was all a bit much.

But Violette told me that I should go to Ed for the meat, and since I knew she was going to see the wrappings on the meat and thus know where I had bought it, and since I am a coward at heart, and didn't want her to scold me for not having done as I was told, this morning found me at Ed. Before I go on, let me tell you how to pronounce Ed à la française. It's not Ed, like your uncle. It's euh-day. Euh-day. In my hometown, the neighborhood where the tobacco barons had built their homes in the 1920s was called Buena Vista. We said byoona-vista. Some people took Spanish in high school, and some transplanted Yankees, got all high and mighty and used the proper Spanish pronunciation, but usually they had to say it a few times before anybody knew what they were talking about. Byoona-vista. Euh-day.

Apparently everyone in the region is having their colleagues over tomorrow for a picnic supper, because they had all gone to Ed to shop this morning. The chariots at Ed are the size of a small Citroën (the better to buy more low cost food), and I took nearly the last one. I made my way through the produce section without international incident (though there were some close calls) and lined up at the meat counter. No numbers to take; the group simply decided whose turn it was next. When one of the half dozen butchers asked someone for her order, she looked around at her neighbors and, if no one seemed at the point of objecting, she went ahead. I waited a few minutes--long enough to see that the poulets fermiers were still sporting their feet and heads--and then it was my turn. I looked to the woman in front of me; she nodded. I looked to the woman in back; she nodded.

5 poulets, s'il vous plaît, et 3 kilos de viande hâché. We're expecting a lot of people, and leftovers would suit as well.

Madame la bouchère sent me to wait at the end of the counter while the poulet man took away the more vivid parts of the chickens and she herself ground the meat. I watched them both, and the line, and then, since taking off all those heads and feet takes a little while, I fell to perusing the contents of the counter in front of me. I had fetched up in front of the pork and, beside it, the charcuterie, the cold cuts, preserved meats, pâtés and so forth. There was a stack of pork roasts, ribs, loins, chops--everything pork. (And a sign from the French pork council explaining that swine flu had nothing whatsoever to do with pigs.) In the charcuterie case, there were a couple of varieties of head cheese, one with parsley, the other with asparagus and olives. Some squid in vinaigrette. Pâtés in ceramic boats trimmed in blue--the boats, in fact, are for sale, 8 euros; I mused on that for quite a while--and rillettes de porc.

It was somewhere between the pâté and the pork chops that it happened. I began to feel hungry. It was coming on to noon, and I'd been doing some heavy shopping--I'd been to another store, and wrestled with another chariot, before Euh-day--but there, in front of the butcher counter, I got hungry.

I don't know of a better marker for adjustment. I don't cook meat as a rule--chicken, yes, fish, sometimes, pork tenderloin, now and then--because I've always been too squeamish. Blood. Tendons. Death. You know. Start down that road, and well before dinner you're already on to global warming and planetary catastrophe. Although our house has been the family gathering place for Thanksgiving for years, I have almost never been able to cope with the turkey myself: a little too much nature, thanks very much; I'll work on the sweet potatoes. And yet there I was, this morning, wondering idly if the head cheese was good with asparagus.

Not that I bought any. But I did think about it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dinner with Maigret

L and I treated ourselves--really, the whole trip was one long treat--to a proper dinner out on our last evening in Paris. She'd cut an article out of a budget travel magazine on a restaurant that turned out to be walking distance from our Charming Apartment in the Heart of the Marais. The article said it was an Authentic Neighborhood Bistrot with Regional Specialities from Throughout France, and featured a photo of the smiling chef standing in the dining room holding a few plates of plats, main courses.

Now, I imagine that there are some among you who would not dream of going to Paris without a list of restaurants to try. A list, maybe even cross-referenced with wines and the chef's employment history. We are not that kind of travellers. It's not that food is not central to our experience. Rather it's that the restaurants that turn up in foodie magazines often seem too cool for us, or too expensive, or too fancy, or too far from where we're staying and who wants to change metro lines late at night after a good dinner? Or all of the above. Anyway, the fact that this one was in a magazine aimed at the less wealthy traveler, and its proximity to our neighborhood, were both points in its favor. So off we went.

We walked through the door at 7.45. The chef--we recognized him from the photo--was sitting at a table in front of the bar with a glass of wine, looking at his fingernails. There was no one else in evidence.

C'est un peu tôt, mesdames, he said, barely looking up. It's a little early. We're not quite ready. Come back in, oh, maybe 15 minutes.

We backed out onto the street. We looked at each other. Early? 7:45? Dinner is sometimes but a distant memory by then. Go away? I know you are paying customers and all, but I need to finish my pre-opening verre?

We were impressed. This was taking the clash between American ideas of customer service and the profit motive versus French ideas of the dignity of labor and working to live to a whole new level.

We wandered around for 25 minutes. (No way were we going to be the first ones to be seated, and no way were we going to be turned away again.) Why didn't we go to a different restaurant? We thought that any chef with the presence of mind to send away customers--well, we thought it would be interesting.

And it was. There were two other tables of customers when we went back: a French couple murmuring to each other in the corner, and three Americans in sweatpants and logo tshirts sustaining a dull, but good-tempered, roar opposite them. We ordered from the chalkboard that the hôtesse brought. Asparagus in vinaigrette, ricotta flan with herbs for the first courses. Lamb cutlets and brandade de morue for the second. Then we looked around.

The restaurant was small--perhaps a dozen tables--and the walls were unfinished stone. White lace café curtains hung in the large front windows. A wooden partition four or so feet high divided the room, with a small bar on one side and a few dining tables, and the rest of the tables on the other.

At the back of the room, in the corner opposite us, there was a table for two in front of the partition that divided the dining room from the kitchen. A brass plaque hung over it. Dedicated plaque enthusiasts, we got up to read it.

Georges Simenon, 1903-2003, it said. And, below, in a smaller script, Ici vous êtes assis à la table d'Inspecteur Maigret. Here you sit at Inspector Maigret's table.

All the bistrots in all of Paris, and we walked into this one. We've been reading Maigret since we were kids, both of us, first in English (they had a whole shelf in the Reynolda Manor Branch Public Library) and, lately, in French (ooh la la). We toasted Simenon, and Maigret, tried to figure out whether it had been Simenon's table in reality or Maigret's in fiction, and, about the time the first courses came, decided it didn't matter.

The chef delivered the asparagus and the flan. He asked who was having which. We explained we were sharing.

In that case, he said, eat the asparagus first. Its taste is more mild, and the ricotta and herbs would overshadow it.

We took his advice. The asparagus was wonderful--what you imagine the asparagus wrapped in a purple rubber band that you buy at the grocery store is going to taste like, and what it never does. Chives figured in the seasoning--chives, which grow in our garden and go to seed because we never know what to do with them--both the stems and the flowers.

The chef asked us how we liked it. We praised his work to the skies, and asked about the chive flowers.

He responded with a two minute discourse on the making of the dish. While we couldn't recreate either--the dish or the discourse--we were moved by his passion. Anyone who can wax eloquent on the marriage of mustard, vinegar, and asparagus is someone at whose table we want a place.

The lamb and the brandade came out next. M. le chef offered a little extra olive oil with the brandade--we were getting to be friends now. Brandade is, by the way, salt cod mashed with olive oil and milk. It is so much better than it sounds. Really. Comfort food. I promise.

We ate away, watching as the restaurant began to fill up with regulars. We were pretty sure that the table opposite ours was occupied by a French film star of a certain age (and a certain amount of Botox about the lips) with her daughter. Next to them sat an older couple who had brought their own bottle of wine because I never know if you're going to have anything drinkable, monsieur joked with the hôtesse. When we were nearly finished, a photographer came in, bearing his camera bags and lenses, all in black except for his shock of thick grey hair. He made the rounds of the regulars' tables, shaking hands and air kissing, and then walked through to the kitchen. He met the chef, hands full of plats, and stopped him to discuss each one.

Then he installed himself at Simenon's, or Maigret's, table.

It was time to order dessert. The chef came to take our request: a moelleux au chocolat, a crême brulée, a tarte tatin, or a fromage blanc with raspberry sauce?

We took the fromage blanc. The chef nodded in satisfaction: we had passed this, the final test. We'd shared entrées that complemented each other. We'd ordered the brandade--something off the beaten path of most foreigners. And now we had passed up both the chocolate and the twin sisters of French desserts for the homely fromage blanc.

He brought it to us; in a flat soup bowl, with the coulis poured over it, it looked like a camellia blossom. You can google fromage blanc and get plenty of sites that explain what it is, but this is all you really need to know: fromage blanc is what God intended dairy products to be. When God made cattle, it was because he had a hankering for fromage blanc.

This serving was appropriately divine. The chef came to check on us again while we were eating it. We praised it and him and, really, at this point, the whole world. He nodded, accepting responsibility graciously. Comment dit-on fromage blanc en anglais?

On dit fromage blanc, we said. There's no other word.

You know, he said, they don't even have fromage blanc in England. He said it in a way that made it clear that that fact alone explained so much about the other side of the channel.

We don't have it in America, either, we said.

Ah, said the chef wistfully. He who brings fromage blanc to America, that man will be a billionaire.

We didn't take coffee afterwards, or a tisane. We paid the bill--it was, if not exactly budget, well worth every centime--and stood up to go. The chef appeared at our side.

Take these postcards, he said, and give them to your friends in America. He handed us each a half dozen postcards bearing the restaurant's coordonnées. And come back again, anytime. He opened the door for us. We turned to say goodbye and thank him, and he shook our hands.

Merci, monsieur, we said.

Mais non, mesdames, he replied, c'est à moi. Merci à vous.

Monday, June 8, 2009


More than once in my career as a professional nerd (historian, archivist, curator) I have been delighted to come across an inventory. A French one, from 1793: how many books did the marquise own? how many pocket handkerchiefs? An American one, from 1954: how many framed photographs? how many record albums? They are a wonderful source, inventories, for getting at the texture of life, for furnishing the mental picture.

Until you have to undertake one.

When we left America two years ago, U.S. customs wished us a pleasant journey and reminded us not to bring our nail scissors on board. Les douanes françaises have a different idea. Our furniture and--what is the term? household effects--came to France with us. And will return with us. And there's the rub. French customs requires an inventory of our personal effects.

This inventory--which runs to 12 printed pages of Excel spreadsheet--exists right this minute on my computer as a bilingual list of household objects. All we have to do is write down how many of each item we own, its individual worth, and its collective worth. Confused? How's this: under the heading Children's Items, the list goes: Bassinet, Bicycle, Boards Games (sic), Bottles, Car seat, Child's Vehicle, Cradle. After each entry there is a column for the quantity of Bottles that we own; another for their unit value (in euros); and a third for their total value (in euros).

Perhaps you are not convinced of the difficulty of this task. (Perhaps you've never moved house; perhaps you and your laptop live alone on a desert island, using solar panels for battery power and eating coconuts.) Let's take a look at the Home Office Equipment & Supplies category. There, we find Calculator; Computer Software; Copier; Envelopes. A little further along: Laptop; Modem; Notebooks; Notepads; Pencils; Pens.

Quick: how many pens do you own? Notepads? Bonus question: what's the difference between a notebook and a notepad?

Now, C and I are seasoned enough in the ways of the French Mind to suspect that there must be a way around counting our pens and estimating their value. So we called up our responsable de déménagement, Nathalie, and asked her to square the reality with the form. Did we need to count and value our envelopes, or could we just make a guess?

The French customs are requiring that you list all of your household items, came the response, but do not worry about it. It is not a big thing, just a formality.

So do we need to count the envelopes?

You must fill in the inventory with the number of items you possess, but their value, you do not need to be so exact.

So if we were to write down, 150 envelopes, worth 5 euros total, would that be adequate for the customs agents?

I do not know how many envelopes you have, of course, so I could not say. But it is not a big thing, you do not need to worry about it, they are not checking the forms all the time very carefully.

There is here the official, capital-letter Truth (French customs requires an inventory of personal effects leaving the country in an ocean shipment), and then, it seems to us, an unofficial, lower-case truth (the inventory can be approximate as long as it is credible). What is difficult is finding the sweet spot of credibility, the number of envelopes and notepads and, while we're on the subject, staple removers, toilet seat covers, model cars (adult), and pantry items, that we are likely to own, that a douannier could rubber stamp. Of course, we could count all of those things (staple removers, two or three unless we need one that minute; no toilet seat covers or model cars (adult), whatever those might be, and as for pantry items, I though we weren't allowed to ship foodstuffs?), but that does not seem like a good use of our time or sanity.

Although the professional nerd in me is curious about how many books and pocket handkerchiefs we own. I almost feel as if we owe it to posterity--to the professional nerd of generations hence who is writing an article on the material culture of American expatriates in France in the first decade of the 21st century--to do a proper count. (Three laundry baskets; one hamper; one sofa; one dining room table; one kitchen table; six night stands; one rocking chair; 19 candle holders; seven rugs; two teapots; five beds; 15 wine glasses; 10 quilts; 744 books...)

Almost. But not quite.

Friday, June 5, 2009


It would be only a slight overstatement to say that we chose our Charming Vacation Apartment because of its proximity to L'As du Falafel. If, after all, you can choose between an Authentic Parisian Small Building two metro stops away from falafel, or an equally Authentic place a mere two minutes' walk away, I think the choice is clear. I have been making the Falafel Pilgrimage for almost two decades. C has gone with me many times; we've taken the girls (they, at age 9, chose a hot dog instead; as a good mother, I've forgiven them their youthful waywardness). L and I have gone regularly over the past few years. The visit that stands out--the visit, I think, that marked me as a Falafel Lifer, was one that we undertook with the girls' Aunt A. That time, we elected to take our falafel around the corner to a park. It's not a big park, or a particularly notable park--sand and gravel, a play structure, a very small boules pitch--but it provides the closest park benches to the falafel window.

We installed ourselves on a bench, falafel-filled pitas in hand. It was A's first pilgrimage to the rue des Rosiers, and I had been talking of not a whole lot else the entire day. We'd had a late breakfast and, what with one small child and another, not gotten out the door til past noon. Although it was only an hour or so since our morning tartines, I suggested that we go directly to Falafel Land. Lunch, after all, is lunch.

A and L demurred. No one was hungry--when pressed, I had to admit that I wasn't either, actually--and they both wanted to visit the Centre Pompidou. You know, the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in France. Magnanimously, I agreed, secure in the knowledge that if, once inside the museum, either showed a reluctance to proceed, after a reasonable art-viewing period, to the rue des Rosiers, I could always strike out on my own and make it back before they'd finished discussing Number 26 A.

Eventually--post cards bought, Pollocks perused--we headed over to L'As du Falafel. It had been several months since I'd had my falafel fix--several months of herbes de provence, lamb, fresh pasta, cheeses, and salads--and I was ready. Perhaps you've never had really good falafel, and don't know what I'm talking about? I'll defer to a proper food writer, the Times' Mark Bittman, to explain:

The sandwich contains the requisite super-crisp, garlicky chickpea fritters, with creamy hummus, lightly pickled red cabbage (something between slaw and kraut), salted cucumbers, fried eggplant and just-hot-enough harissa. This is all piled into a pita in such quantities that eating it is an adventure in napkin management.

Each sandwich has four or five fritters in it, layered with the other ingredients so that each mouthful brings a mix of tastes and textures. We sat down on our bench, extended our sandwiches away from our laps, leaned forward, and bit.

One of my falafel fritters escaped the pita. It rolled out of my lap, along the bench, and dropped onto the ground.

Don't eat that! L used the tone that she usually reserves for when a small child has just picked up a piece of raw chicken from the floor of a public restroom, has opened his mouth and is looking at the chicken with avid curiosity and hunger. It may be that I had reached to pick up the fritter from where it had rolled to a stop, just between a cigarette butt and an empty Ricola box.

I looked up. The aunts looked back at me and started to laugh. I couldn't quite see what was funny: here I was, down one fritter out of five, experiencing my own personal crise du falafel, my falafel investment down 20% before I'd even taken a bite. L wiped away a tear while A tried to hold her sandwich upright while she doubled over laughing.

It's just that you looked so griefstricken, said A.

Well. Since then, I eat inside at L'As du Falafel, sitting at a table, and with a knife and fork. What it lacks in excitement, in the edginess of dining al fresco, it makes up for in the virtual certainty that all of the fritters, and even the last bits of eggplant, will reach their destination.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


We arrived in Paris on a Sunday afternoon; it turned out to be the Sunday afternoon of le week-end d'Ascension which we would have understood had we stopped to think about it. We knew it, of course. But we didn't understand it. L'Ascension--the day in the Church year which marks exactly what you might think it marks, Jesus' ascension into heaven--fell on a Thursday this year and France, being a bedrock secular country, took the day off. And, since it was a Thursday, also took the day following. Which meant, had we but taken the time to consider, that arriving in Paris on Sunday afternoon was the close equivalent of arriving in any major American city on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. In short, a bad idea for the traveler.

And a worse idea, it turned out, for the traveler needing to collect the key to a rented holiday apartment. We had rented an apartment for our few days in Paris through one of those agencies that rents holiday apartments to Americans. You know the ones: they serve as middlemen between French apartment owners who have found a way to bring in some extra euros and eager Americans who have found a way to Live Like a Parisian in Paris. The agencies themselves always seem faintly shady, as though, when you send off your credit card number, instead of getting, in return, an apartment in a Classic Parisian Building in a Quiet Street, Walking Distance to Place des Vosges and Convenient to Métro, you get dunned for a thousand or so dollars.

We'd sent off our credit card number and emailed the agency our arrival time for the Sunday afternoon. M. Gaymard, the propriétaire of the Charming Studio Apartment with Mezzanine in the Heart of the Marais, was to meet us at the apartment with the key. He had our flight information. We copied his phone number into our cahier.

The flight was an hour late. The baggage arrived forty-five minutes later. The Air France autocars into Paris were running a reduced schedule. We phoned M. Gaymard (1) while standing beside the baggage carousel; (2) while waiting for the bus; (3) from the bus; (4) while standing in front of the gates to the courtyard through which we had to pass to enter the Classic Parisian Building where our Charming Studio Apartment waited; (5) while standing outside the door of said apartment (after someone had kindly buzzed us through the gates). Each time we left a message in which we stated where we were (airport, bus stop, bus, gates, corridor) and how dearly we would love to catch up with him on this fine Sunday afternoon.

After phone call number five, we thumbed through our cahier in search of other Paris addresses and phone numbers and, finding a likely one, rang up a friend of a friend and explained our plight. Could she--if M. Gaymard did not turn up (was, perhaps, even now enjoying a holiday in the Seychelles on our credit card), as looked increasingly likely--put us up for the night? Mais bien sûr, came the blessed words down the line. Absolutely! How awful! Stay here in any case! Come right over! Or she would come to us!

We decided to hang on for a little longer to the dream of the Charming Apartment in the Heart of the Marais. It being nigh on five o'clock, and one of us having started her journey well over 18 hours earlier and on another continent, we went round the corner to a café and ordered a meal.

The rosé had just arrived when our phone rang. It was M. Gaymard.

I am calling about the apartment, he said, in correct, accented English. Was there anything in particular that you needed?

Yes, we said. The key.

Ah, bon. We could see him nodding. En fait, in fact, I am just finishing lunch with my family, and now I must take my mother back to her house. Perhaps I could meet you at the apartment in--oh, perhaps in two hours?

I had a professor in graduate school who used routinely to stand me up for appointments. She had two offices on campus, and no matter which office I turned up at, she was never there at the time we had agreed on. Sometimes she showed up in a half hour or so; more often, never. She never apologized and never explained. It's an enviable skill. M. Gaymard possessed it in spades.

An hour and a half later, we rolled our suitcases back around the corner. In front of the gates, standing still in the middle of a sea of sunny Sunday evening strollers, was a man who resembled a middle-aged Christopher Plummer, if Plummer had been cast in the role of a bourgeois French gentleman. Neatly pressed linen pants, a striped Façonnable shirt, a navy linen jacket slung--slung? no, draped--over his shoulders, his hair carefully swept back from his brow, M. Gaymard greeted us by our first names. We greeted him as Monsieur.

He had been at lunch, he explained. Had our flight plans changed? Had we been supposed to arrive today?

Clearly the idea of arriving in Paris on a Sunday afternoon, the Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend, boggled the mind. And it was beyond boggling--unthinkable, really--that there could ever have been an expectation that one would interrupt one's Sunday lunch en famille to provide a key to tourists. And after lunch, of course, one had to take one's mother home, and settle her for the week. There is no reason to apologize when one has behaved comme il faut.

The apartment, once we breached its defenses, was lovely. Its meters-high window looked down on a hidden garden; the building was steps from one of our favorite streets in our favorite city. We shook hands with M. Gaymard as he handed over the keys and vaguely answered our question about whether or not the electricity and hot water were turned on, and then we closed the door behind him. We looked at each other and shrugged. A holiday weekend, a French gentleman, and his Sunday lunch: we should have booked our flights for Monday.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Speaking in tongues

Today is the Monday after Pentecost, the day after the Church marks the beginning of the Apostles' ministry, the beginning of the spread of Christianity. The story goes that almost two months after the Crucifixion and subsequent Events Jesus' band of followers was still hanging around trying to figure out what to do with themselves. After dinner one evening the Holy Spirit came to them, and they all began to speak in tongues, to speak in languages they had never spoken before, and yet (here's the miracle) they understood each other. So they decided to hit the first-century Mediterranean lecture circuit and, 2000 years later, here we are with the day off. Because it's a national holiday in France, this Catholic country where separation of church and state is a bedrock of the Republic.

Lots of possible renters have been coming to look at La Bastiole for the last few weeks: French people, Dutch, some Finns, and, a couple of weeks ago, a American couple who were moving from the States for a couple of years. Jules and Madame were here for that visit and came down the hill to supervise. Danielle the agente immobilière came, and Christine, the Americans' agent, brought the couple. We all met up on the terrace. English was the common language and, since the couple was from America, the French all decided that I should give the house tour. I led the couple through--the kitchen was small, the refrigerator smaller, there wasn't a real dining room, and what about screens on the windows?--and they took pictures. When we got back to the terrace, Husband asked Wife if she had taken photos of every room.

Not of the bathrooms, she said, as though bathrooms were a self-evident thing, something that didn't need to be remembered.

Trying to help them understand what they were up against (toilettes à la Turque, anyone?), I put my hand on her arm. These are really nice bathrooms, I said. They're bathrooms for Americans.

The couple looked at me like I was crazy. Bathrooms are bathrooms, their expressions said.

Ours was the first house they had seen in France. The bathrooms at La Bastiole are airy, tiled in grey and blue, have lots of storage, deep bathtubs, and shower stalls. We even have one bathroom in which the toilet shares the room with the sink and bathtub, a rarity on this side of the Channel. La Bastiole's septic system may leave something to be desired, but the bathrooms look like something out of Architectural Digest.

In any case, Danielle the agente later told me that it was not the bathrooms that kept the couple from taking the house.

Ta maison,
she said, elle est trop Catholique.

My house is too Catholic?

We had to go through several iterations of the tale before I understood. It emerged--quickly from Danielle's machine-gun French, slowly into my consciousness--that the couple were Jewish. The couple had told their agent that all the Catholic objects in the house had been troubling for them, and that they didn't want to take the house for that reason.

We're not Catholic--C, for the record, was bar mitzvahed, and I am a lapsed Episcopalian--and so it took me some time to come up with what might have offended the visitors. Then I thought of the Camargue cross that was a gift from friends. The symbol combines an anchor (for hope), a cross (for faith), and a heart (for charity). It hangs in the guest room and reminds us of the day we spent with those friends (another mixed-faith family) in the Camargue.

Once I had absorbed the bare facts, Danielle editorialized. This is why we have wars, she said, because people aren't tolerant of other cultures. France is a Catholic country, she went on. No one goes to church, but still, it's who we are, it's our tradition. If they won't live in a house because it had a cross on the wall, how will they ever adjust to life here?

The message that Pentecost often carried when I was a regular church-goer was that of going out into the world to preach the gospel. It's a message that always made me squirm. I'm not good at selling things--Girl Scout cookies, magazine subscriptions, wrapping paper: our family always sold less than anyone else in the girls' elementary school--and Pentecost felt a little too much like a sales pitch. And then, there's the whole Talking about Faith with Strangers issue: really not my calling.

What I've come to love about the Pentecost story is something else. It's how, suddenly, everyone could speak a foreign language (a miracle in itself) and understand each other. As though our common humanity was all that we needed, as though we could cast aside the barriers of language and culture. As though all these possible renters--Dutch, Finns, French, Americans--could walk through La Bastiole speaking our own languages and yet communicating. (And the bathrooms: they'd understand that these really were designed à l'Américain.) Language--spoken and cultural--is a hard thing to learn, and the idea of a linguistic miracle speaks to me. Living in a foreign country and culture, that is the miracle (after world peace and an end to global warming, and Camembert that doesn't make the whole house stink) that I long for most. We all need to speak in tongues, to communicate our common humanity beyond and above our different languages.

I hope the couple found a house that was cross-free. And I wish for them their own miracle.