The little piggy. And The Bear.

Being Italian and originally from New Jersey I am well familiar with the game of bocce, in which a target ball is rolled, then opposing teams try to roll their balls closest to the target. As played amongst our family the game consisted of much yelling, waving of arms, arguing, brazen attempts at cheating, and drinking of adult beverages. So when I was first introduced to the game of petanque at a family gathering here in France several years ago, I mistakenly thought, “Oh, I’ve got this.” It was, as they say, Similar But Not A Match.

Petanque, I quickly learned, is pretty much THE National Game of France. Everybody plays it, and I mean everybody. And they all play it well. At your own peril, go ahead and take lightly an apparently hobbled elderly lady who steps in to take her turn. She is about to embarrass you. And do not dismiss that tattooed adolescent; I am told a recent national champion was 17 years old.

Unlike bocce, which in our family was played on the nearest patch of lawn, petanque (pe-TANK) is most often played on a rectangular patch of dirt, with wooden rails marking the boundaries, although in a pinch any patch of dirt will do. Every town, every village, down to the smallest hamlet across this entire country has a petanque court, although I’m not sure you can accurately call it a court. Maybe a pitch as in soccer. So too, do many homes. Alex and Christophe have one in their yard. Anthony has one in Papi’s yard, across the street. When we spent our vacations in the village of Belveze there was a dirt patch where every every evening a game took place. Here in Luche there is a recreational area on the banks of the Loir, with a swimming pool, a bar, and several petanque courts. It was on those riverside courts that I became further absorbed into the fabric of this village, and into the petanque culture.

It began with a game at Alex and Christophe’s. A bunch of us were over there for a barbecue, and after eating everyone headed to the petanque court as if by wordless instinct, but not before grabbing another of their drink of choice. Who knew? In recent months Christophe has built a mobile bar that can be carried to the court–his Petanque Bar.

People started hauling out their own personal sets of balls (boules), steel or aluminum, each with a particuiar pattern on them for identification. And small towels to wipe off the dirt and dust, and a great little device….a very strong magnet on a string or tape used to pick up the balls to avoid having to bend down, and draped around the neck when not in use…amazingly handy!. We began to see that there was a lot more to this than our family yuk fests.

In theory, the game is simple: team A rolls a small object ball, called le cochon (which means pig, don’t ask me why), then rolls one of their balls to try to get it as close to the cochon as possible. Then team B rolls a ball, and keeps rolling, until they get closer, after which team A goes again. Simple–but the mix of technique and strategy is fascinating, and addictive. As I said, everyone plays and everyone is at the very least, very, very good. Some are deadly, because when someone from team A might be foolhardy enough to delicately roll his boule right next to the little piggy, there is very likely someone from team B who will respond by lobbing his ball high and hard into the air, drop it right on top of the offending boule, and knock that sucker right out of the court, voila!

The first time I saw this happen I thought, “Hmmmm. That was lucky.” Until it happened again and again, and I realized these people were able to routinely lob those metal balls and drop them like bombs on the opponent’s boules with astonishing accuracy.

So, about The Bear. Once, it was my turn and the other team’s boule was cozying up next to the pig. I was about to make a play, planning to roll my ball up to the other one and maybe knock it against it, when a burly, bearded fellow on my team , Christian, nicknamed “Bear,” stopped me with a motion that said,  “Hang on. I got this.” He lobbed one high into the air, and it came down squarely on the offending boule, knocked it into the next area code, and settled right next to the pig. With a sly grin, he looked at me and said, “come sa.” Like that.

Well as it turns out, both Beloved Wife and I really got into playing Petanque at Alex and Christophe’s place, because there was almost a daily gathering in the late afternoon of a group of folks I have come to call The Usual Suspects. We quickly acquired our own sets of boules and began showing up with some regularity, and they quickly started to call themselves The Usual Suspects. At the very beginning, we were the source of some amusement- “Look, Americans trying to play petanque! Ha Ha!” The bad shots were knowingly chuckled about, and the good shots greeted with some surprise and were somewhat patronizingly applauded.

Then things started to change. Almost immediately I got serious about it, and my game began to improve. I began to get consistent, and the good shots were less a surprise; more expected, and greeted with a knowing wink or smile from my teammates. Christian, who was at first intimidating and standoffish, not sure what to make of this American who thought he could play petanque, has become a chum. As teammates we can often go an entire game without saying a word to each other but exchanging a running dialogue of winks, nods, gestures and smiles. As opponents, it turns to trash talking and mutterings.

When summer officially came the game moved to the courts by the riverside, only a three-minute walk from our home. Now, I would get a text: “We are at the plage. Petanque.” It got to the point where I was counted on to be there for the game. Now, when teams were assembled I was one of the guys, and I didn’t feel like the team that had me believed they had a liability–the American-assigned to them. I began pulling my weight. Now, when strategy on a shot was being discussed I was involved, my input was sought. Now, instead of amused encouragement we exchange trash talk. We chirp at each other, although I often don’t understand exactly what is being said, I get the drift, and Christophe will often translate for me. We laugh a lot and we play seriously, and it is one of those things that has happened to us that makes me shake my head in amazement–absorbed into this intensely personal and communal activity, another way to be an insider in a world that is not often open to outsiders like us.

With the end of summer the plage, the rec area, closes. It turns out…and who knew?…there is a petanque club that plays year round in the next village. Christian, Bear, has told Alexandra that he’ll take me there. I am pretty good on the ground, but that aerial shot, which they call something that sounds like, Carrow, but I call Bombs Away, is completely beyond me, and I need to practice to get that into my repertoir. Hearing me say that, Alexandra said, “You and Karen can come over any time if you want to practice. We don’t have to be there. Just let the dog out when you get here if nobody is home.”

Such is life in the village.

Through The Glass

Many years ago on our first trip to France, as we passed through that first tiny, ancient village, and for more than a decade thereafter as we passed through hundreds and perhaps thousands of other ancient, tiny villages, I asked aloud, but to myself, “what is it like to live in such a place ?” And always, without fail, my beloved Madame Buzzkill would answer, whether or not I actually wanted an answer, “You would always be a foreigner. You would always be an outsider. You might live there, but you would always be alone.”

We are in our fifth year in the area now, our third year here in the village, and from the very first that expectation has proven to be a myth. In the shortest of time we became familiar to folks here in the village, and after a while, when it became clear we were not just passing through like some seasonal tourists, that familiarity grew into acceptance and friendship. Our circle of friends, our social circle, is stronger here than it ever was back in the US. A knock on the door, a text or phone call announcing a gathering or event of some sort can come at any time:  Let’s meet for lunch. There’s a petanque game going on. We’re having a barbecue.

One cluster of friends revolves around Alexandra and Christophe, a group I refer to as The Usual Suspects, separate from our family that revolves around Anthony and Celine. A few weeks ago the French national soccer team, Les Bleus as they are passionately called, played in the European Championship tournament. This is big stuff in France, probably only second to the World Cup, and Les Bleus have been the reigning World Champions (It’s called football here, but in an accommodating and perhaps a mildly condescending way, they sometimes refer to it as “soccer” to me, as if I didn’t know). Since almost everywhere we went people were talking about it, I was aware that France had won its first game, because I watched some of it on TV.

A couple of days later I got a call from Christophe inviting me over to his place to watch the next game, versus Germany. Sure, said I, expecting the two of us and maybe Alex and the boys to watch. What I was not expecting was the entire group of Usual Suspects and assorted other folks…about 20 in all. And although I should have, I didn’t expect a full-blown apero, followed by dinner that Christophe had whipped up in the kitchen during the pre-game show.

“We only have one rule here for these games,” said Christophe when I arrived. “When France scores you have to yell louder than the person next to you.” Got it.

This I discovered is the way they watch ALL French national team football games. It’s the French equivalent of tailgating at American football games. And when Les Bleus moved on to the next game on a balmy evening, they moved the big screen TV outside and the crowd watched the game under the stars.

I mention this because from the smallest of moments, like walking to the boulangerie each morning for a fresh baguette and an always-cheerful interaction with Sylvie, to the wave hello through the window, without fail, as I pass by Manu’s boucherie, to the social gatherings like the football game, I have to pinch myself to make sure this is real…that we we have absolutely become absorbed into the day to day life of this village. And yet, things happen that continue to touch our souls….

A lot of what happens here in the village seems to occur via word of mouth, jungle drums Karen calls it. And so it was that we learned that the village would be holding an event which we can only describe as a kind of pot-luck block party in the village square. Our task, according to Alex, She Who Knows All, and organized our table and invitation, was to bring a salad and some pate or rillettes. Translated by Beloved, that meant “Murican” potato salad (which has been known to make some of our French friends swoon), and pate, and rillettes, and some beer, and some wine. That’s how we roll in the shire.

On Saturday evening, under a positively brilliant sky, under canopies backed against the walls of a centuries-old church, the town place of Luche-Pringe was the scene of the most genuinely French experience we have ever had. It was seminal. Over the years we have characterized tourism for some people as watching the animals in a zoo…seeing them, but behind the glass, not interacting with them. Over the years that we have traveled through France we have tried to reach through the glass, if only briefly, to meet people and make friends. Last Saturday was a cosmic confirmation for Karen and me.

In that very small town square, in a tiny village in the rural Sarthe, a cluster of tables was arranged under canopies. At each table groups of about a dozen friends and family, each table jammed with an array of foods and drinks brought pot-luck style. Each table was supposed to be a separate gathering because of Covid rules, but, as I predicted, that lasted about ten minutes before tables were mingling. It was perhaps fifty people. The mayor was there, roaming from table to table, greeting everyone, sharing cherries from his tree; the village priest was there, sharing a drink and greeting parishioner and pagan alike. There was a feeling of insularity; this was for the village and we are included as friends. It was not for someone just passing through, not for campers vacationing in the campground by the river.

We made new friends. Alex and other Usual Suspects made sure anyone in the village who hadn’t already met us did so, and in the process they made sure they knew we’re Americans, not Brits. That revelation always produces the same reactions: 1. Learning we aren’t Brits, but Americans, faces lit with enormous smiles, and immediately, if they had any English, they would launch into it. 2. “You actually live here in the village?” they would ask. When we answered that we live two doors down from Manu’s boucherie, 3. Incredulous, they would ask, ‘How in the world did you two Americans end up in Luche-Pringe?” That, we assured them, is a long story.

There was music at this event that spoke so intensely and unconsciously of the French soul–a young man and three women, students, it turned out, at the conservatory in Paris, who were working with local schools. The young man played an accordion, an instrument supremely uncool in the US, now almost laughable in that culture. The accordion remains quintessentially French. Young people here do not laugh at the instrument, they embrace it, and last Saturday the young man and his accordion and the young women came to that tiny village gathering to play the soundtrack of France.

Perhaps it is embarrassing, because it may seem like caricature, but La vie en rose, the signature of Edith Piaf, has a special potency for me not only because it is so intensely French, so evocative of another time, but also for deeply emotional memories it holds for us. Last Saturday, above the chatter among the tables in the shadow of the church, in the most intensely, intimately French experience we have known, yes, I got a tear when a young woman sang the only song she could have sung in that time and in that place. And sang it beautifully.

The only song she could have sung that evening

Last Saturday evening tapped the soul of French life. Instead of looking through the glass we realized, more than ever, that we were on the other side of the glass.

Frites!

“You should go to Mac D’Nalds,  said Anthony. “No way in hell,” said I, although in truth, McDonalds…or, as the French say, Mac D’Nalds is just about the only place to solve the problem.

The problem is that I am in frite deficit. Frites, dammit. French Fries! Since the accursed covid lockdown of every restaurant and cafe in the country, le confinement, I have not had a single frite, and I am in need. Oh yes, Beloved has served up those oven fries, the frozen ones you bake in the oven, and we have tried to talk ourselves into believing they were nearly the real thing, “Mmmm, not bad.”

Well, not bad ain’t great. And frozen, oven baked frites are as satisfying as kissing your sister. Real frites, the hot, crispy on the outside, soft and yummy on the inside kind…are great. And I haven’t gone this long without a real frite in my entire life, I am quite sure.

Thing is, neither Anthony nor any of our other French friends are as distressed as me; they’ve been having frites uninterrupted throughout the confinement because very single household in France has a kitchen appliance virtually unknown in the US. Seemingly every single kitchen in France has a deep fryer for the express purpose of making real frites. The things are as ubiquitous as a coffee maker or microwave; in the US, people see a deep fryer in your kitchen as a virtual death sentence.

Last weekend, in the first glimmering hint that things may be moving toward normalcy, the next village down the road held a Fete des Artes…an art-themed street festival, a kind of small town event that is common here in France. It was a return to crowds of local folks mingling, chatting, and yes, eating street food. The sun was shining, the air was almost warm, there was a happy feeling everywhere as folks got to enjoy this kind of gathering for the first time in more than a year. And there, right there in front of the church, amid the artists and the craft persons, was a most thrilling sight, a frite tent…hot, fresh frites for sale! I could barely contain myself.

“Look! Look! They’re selling frites! “I practically yelled to Beloved, who was surprisingly uninterested.

“”Yes, I see. Go have some. I’m going to look at Jewelry.”

“But Honey, look! They’re selling frites!

“Nice. Look, there are plants for sale.”

“FRITES!”

“Oh, there’s pottery too.”

I could see this was going nowhere, so got my own darned frites, found a table and ended my Year of No Frites in hot, crispy bliss. I was so happy I even let her have one.

It was this episode, related to Anthony the next day, that prompted him to suggest I could have had frites all along, had I gone to Mac D’nalds. But the fact of the confinement and the closing of all of the restaurants in the area except for takeout, has resulted in absurdly long lines at the McDonald’s drive thru, extending out of the parking lot and onto the road, with waiting times, according to Anthony, as long as 45 minutes. To get take out. From McDonalds, which most Americans view as a last resort, but which the French continue to view as something slightly exotic and exciting.

I have, for more than two decades, avoided McDonald’s in France with a near religious fervor. But I must confess there was this one time. It was really more of a science experiment, so I believe I am absolved of guilt. We had been visiting France for several years, and one night while driving back from a long day trip, the hour was getting late, I was more than a little peckish, and there was nothing to be seen in the way of restaurants on our route, when we espied a McDonald’s. I slowed the car.

“You’re not going to go to McDonald’s, are you?” I heard from my immediate right.

“Yes, I’m really hungry and there’s no other option.”

Silence.

“Can I get you something?”

“”NO!” She sat there radiating an air of smug superiority as I headed in to the Golden Arches, where I was immediately stopped in my tracks by a young lady who approached me and asked me for my order. Well. That was new.

The menu was a bit of a challenge, but we were only talking about burgers, after all, and I successfully managed to order what passes for a double cheeseburger, and fries. Back in the car, the smug silence was eventually broken.

“So, how is it ?”

“The fries are excellent, thank you, as you should expect being in France. Want one ?”

“NO. What about the burger?”

“Honestly,” I  said, “it is better than what you get in the US. But in the end it is still a McDonald’s.” To which I heard an audible snort of satisfaction.

Thus ended my science experiment, for which I have been doing personal penance ever since. And there’s no way homey is waiting 45 minutes in the drive-thru line for frites, even if “Mickey D” is wearing a beret and smoking a Gaulois.

Uh, Anniversary?

Our anniversary is approaching, and Beloved Wife was scouring the Internet, as she often does, to see what the “Traditional Anniversary Gift” might be for this particular year. Ahhh, but what number year is this?

For many years we cited the day that we met, that very first moment, as our “anniversary date”, 31 years ago. Especially because after a few years of dithering about, when we finally got formally engaged we remained so for another 18 years, in stasis, while one of us waited to see if it was all going to work out. The date on which I finally made Beloved an official, honest woman was a mere 13 years ago, next month. Over the years I have defaulted to the the first date when anyone asks how long we have been together, and so you see the problem.

Beloved’s research revealed the appropriate anniversary gift to be exchanged between loving couples is Lace for the 13th year. But while she can still rock lace undies, the gift of Lace is a non-starter for me. On the other hand, it turns out the year 31 gift can be, and I’m quoting here :  “a timepiece of aluminum, or a gift wrapped in aluminum”.

Fantasitc ! She gets a Timex and I get a can of Dave’s Pale Ale !

Yeah, it is kind of an off year for anniversary gifts.

Teach Your Children

Tradition is enormously important in France, and nowhere is tradition more maintained than in the French military, with roots going back hundreds of years. Historically there is a French Army unit called the Spahi, which, like the Zouaves, was originally comprised of troops from colonial areas in North Africa. The Spahis were light cavalry troops who wore distinctive uniforms reflecting their North African culture and deployment. Over time those uniforms and the composition of the units has changed. Today there is only one Spahi unit in the French military, an armored unit comprised mainly of European French.

Almost every small town, village, and hamlet in France has some sort of memorial to that town’s war dead. Many of these monuments are four sided, with a side dedicated to the war of 1870 (what Americans refer to as the Franco-Prussian war); another side to WWI, The Great War; and one side for WWII. Often the fourth side is for Indochina…the French involvement in Viet Nam that ended in the legendary defeat at Dien Bien Phu and preceded US involvement in Viet Nam. Each side names the town’s dead of that war. Often the side dedicated to WWI has, by far, the longest list. Close examination of those names reveals the tragedy that these communities suffered, the devastation of the male population that is still felt in once-thriving hamlets and villages that have never recovered. You will see the same names repeated time after time–fathers and sons, sons and brothers.

Monument to the war dead of Luche-Pringe

At any time of the year you see fresh flowers on the monuments and flags flying. The French do not forget, and they make sure future generations remember, too. One day last week small flyers showed up in Manu’s boucherie and the boulangerie. News of upcoming activities and events is often spread by flyers left in these businesses. This particular flyer announced an event the following Thursday at the war memorial on the square near the cafe. The Saphis were coming to the village.

Shortly before 11 am on Thursday a small gathering of locals began to arrive at the monument. Many were elderly, a few veterans sporting military caps or medals. Shortly before the appointed hour a parade of small children began to arrive. Then a second. All the elementary school classes from the small school in the village marched to the monument, then settled on the grass in quiet anticipation of the arrival of the Spahis.

At the appointed hour a unit marched in–young, sharp, intense, and proud. These men were part of the only Spahi unit in France, an armored unit that has been most recently in Afghanistan, where several of the young soldiers earned citations and medals for their actions. On this Thursday they would receive those awards on the village square in Luche-Pringe. The officer in command of the unit read the citations and explained to the gathering exactly what those soldiers had done, and the children listened, enthralled at the story, in awe of the soldiers, and proud of their country and their flag.

As much as any experience we have had here in the village this was touching, intimate, and powerful for us. Feeling part of this village, yet watching as outsiders this elemental French experience infusing the next generation with a knowledge of the country’s history and a sense of pride in that past. All over this country similar scenes are played out countless times: a clutch of locals gather, a unit of the nation’s military arrives in a village, and the children are brought out to see, to hear the stories, the history, to see the soldiers, to honor the flag, and as they did here in the village at the conclusion, to join the soldiers when they begin to sing the national anthem, a capella, standing before the monument to the citizens of that village who died in service to their country.

As I stand among the crowd singing la Marseillaise, watching the children singing, flags flying around the monument, I’m struck by how good this all feels, how good it makes me feel to see children and old people together sharing the feeling of patriotism.

That hits home hard for both of us. Patriotism is still OK in France. In fact, it is better than OK, it is encouraged. Being American, knowing that expressions of grassroots patriotism like we saw in the village on Thursday morning are nearly extinct back in the US, we are both deeply moved. There was a soulful kind of comfort in this very small moment in this small village. We exchanged nods and hellos with friends, they wordlessly accepting us as part of this village community. There was a kind of warm familiarity, a feeling that this experience, like so many others we have had living in France, calls up–remembrance of our childhood in the US. We have a sense of our own past, from what feels like a simpler time, when parades and flags and pride in the country were part of life, when grandparents and parents taught their children, and children were proud of their country.

Here in France, patriotism is still in fashion and they teach their children. And that’s better than OK.

Diabolique

I suppose we should have realized we were dealing with a more sinister intelligence early on when he made off with that haunch of beef we had targeted for dinner that first week after his arrival, like the Bumpus Hounds for which he was thus named. Alas, we wrote it off as an aberration, an idea of which he has disabused us in the months since.

Cats, we know, develop unique relationships with each of their humans. In my case Monsieur Le Bump enjoys enhancing my reading experiences by depositing his not inconsiderable girth across any book, magazine, tablet or computer keyboard that has my attention, parked stern-to, covering it completely while presenting his afterworks for my viewing pleasure. But for the occasional claw swipe attempt to remove my hand from wrist…all in good fun, you understand…this is pretty much how The Bumpster and I roll in the shire.

Beloved Wife thinks this is quite charming because mostly he allows her to read unmolested. ” Oh. That’s so sweet ” she will say. ” He loves you. You’re his person “. Beloved Wife and the cat have a little more…oh, I don’t know, competetive ?… relationship.

Bumpus, you see, is obsessed with Beloved’s glasses. He is enthralled with them, but curiously, not while she is wearing them; he hardly takes note. But the moment they hit a surface…table, counter, nightstand…he is galvanized. From two rooms away he can sense those lunettes quietly placed on a table, and is on them in a nonce; whacking, grabbing, carrying them around, and chewing on the stems. Beloved is not pleased and takes defensive measures. A battle of wits begins.

Round One : Move glasses to another table. Oh, that works. A minute later he’s on the table going for the glasses.

“NO, Bumpus!” she intones, to which she receives a look, if it is possible for a cat to give such a look, which says,
“WHAT?”

Round Two : Out comes a small cloth drawstring sack that she uses for jewelry. Glasses go in sack, sack into her purse, and off to bed. Next morning the purse has been opened, the sack pulled out, and our feline miscreant is seen trying to get into the sack.

Round Three: Next night at lights out, under intense scrutiny by you-know-who, she puts the glasses in the sack and the sack into her nightstand drawer, sliding it lightly closed with a smile of satisfaction as she beds down for the night. But a few moments after lights out we hear a series of sounds ; scratching, then a sliding like noise, and a light thud. Lights on reveals Monsieur Le Bump has stretched up on his back legs, pulled open the drawer, hauled out the sack, and is last seen dragging the sack into the living room where he can play with the glasses in peace and quiet.

“Good Grief !”  said Beloved. “Did you see that ? No way.”

“Way,” said I, and off she went to recover the stolen goods.

Round Four (and you knew there was going to be a Round Four): Convinced she had not closed the drawer completely, she repeated the drill but this time, slammed the drawer as tightly closed as possible. Lights out, good night. And the room fell silent.

Well, mostly. Next, a thumping and rattling for what reason we could not imagine, until the lights came back on and there stood His Malignant Bumpess atop the night stand, pushing it away from the wall, trying to get to the back of the drawer to push it out. From the back.

“My God, ” said Beloved, “do you see this ? Do you realize how intelligent he is ? He’s scary smart ! He’s smarter than a small child !”

“Yes,”  I said, “but he’s litter box trained.”

“He’s diabolical ! “

To be honest, I’ve been a bit uncomfortable even passing this on. I mean, I’m not a “cat person”; not, unlike some who share the same mailing address as me, one who spends rapturous hours day after day burning up bandwidth oooohing and aaahing over cat pictures and cat videos, so I’m not really inclined to post cat stories. And I suppose calling “Beloved Wife vs The Bumpmeister” a battle of wits is perhaps unfair. Although I must admit that she has been closing the gap of late.

As for me, I have taken to making sure I don’t leave the car keys lying around when I go to bed. Just to be on the safe side.

Green Gold

I like asparagus. So does Karen. It’s without a doubt our favorite vegetable. Back in the US where it is available pretty much year-round, we eat it year round, perhaps a couple of times a week. We were understandably excited several years ago when we first arrived here, looking forward to local asparagus, and probably because the French do such things, some kind of asparagus festival.

Alas, we arrived in the fall. And, this being France and not the US, almost everything is seasonal and indeed t’was not the season of asparagus. That, we were told, would be in spring. So we waited, sans asperge, through the winter. But when the first warm breezes of springtime stirred the air along the Loir announcing the arrival of the Time of Asparagus, we were left a-wanting, deeply disappointed, and culinarily stymied by The French Asparagus Conundrum.

Asparagus, you see, to the French is not green; it is white. It is not pencil thin and green, oh no. It is white as an albino rat, as long as a rolling pin, and as thick as the grip of a Louisville Slugger. They positively love this stuff. They go ga-ga for it. When the season arrives you find grocery stores and markets with enormous bins of white asparagus; French folk voraciously fighting to get to it as if there was a lost lottery ticket at the bottom. Worse, it is almost impossible to find green asparagus anywhere. If you do somehow manage to find some after a long search, its is almost always a meager little bunch or two forlornly tucked away in a corner somewhere, like a mistake.

Down the road from us is an asparagus farm. Amid this white asparagus hysteria we thought we would go to the farm and at least there possibly find some green asparagus. Wrong. All they had was white, and God knows there were tons of the stuff and a line of people queing up to get at it. They haul it away in big bunches, with a desperation driven by a short harvest season, after which it is gone again until the next year. I say good riddance. We hate the stuff.

Well, OK. Maybe hate is too strong a word. But in the 30-plus years we have been together we have chosen to buy white asparagus to take home and cook, let me see now….oh yeah. Never.

We were at a clandestine barbecue at Alex and Christophe’s recently (covid, you know) and when we casually mentioned our preference for asparagus of the green variety a stunned hush fell over the table. When we told them back in the US we eat it several times a week, year round, they thought we were lying. When we told them in no uncertain terms we don’t like white asparagus, they thought we were mad, launching into impassioned descriptions of how yummy it is. What don’t you like about it, they asked ?

“Well,” offered Beloved Wife, ” just the taste and the texture,” pretty much covering all the bases and leaving the white asparagus loyalists shaking their heads. We have no idea why this is the case, but it is. They act as though green asparagus is some kind of luxury item or decadent indulgence.

And so it was that a few days later in a conversation eerily reminiscent of the Great Turkey Score of several years ago, our friend Celine, who knows of our strange taste in vegetables, sidled up to me and said, in effect, ” Listen, I know this guy who grows green asparagus and I think I can get you some. Are you interested?”

“I know this guy ” seems to be a major conduit of commerce in France.

“WHY HELL YES !” I was tempted to say I’ll take all he has, but I balked at the prospect of a black market truckload of green asparagus pulling up to the front door of chez nous in the middle of the night.

“A kilo ?”

” Sure, you betcha. A kilo is fine.” It was sounding more and more like a drug deal.

Nothing was mentioned about it over the next week or two that we saw Celine. Then last weekend when we were over for coffee she proudly presented us with two bunches of beautiful, glorious green asparagus. No questions were asked. Karen was so excited I had to restrain her from grabbing the loot and bolting for home immediately.

Beloved Wife is not given to hyperbole. Yet that evening, before I could utter a similar thought, she said, “This really is the best asparagus I have ever tasted. Do you think Celine could score us some more ?”

“I dunno. I’ll have to ask her if she can get in touch with the guy.

And now we wait. Word has been sent.

Signs

The French love road signs. Not advertising road signs, not “Eat at Jacques”; the kind that give you directions for driving. There are so many that I recently came across and bought an entire book of French road signs and their meanings. As purchase decisions go it probably came 20 years later than it should have, considering my only recent awareness of that most insane of all French driving protocols, the priority a droit, or as I call it, “Likelihood of Imminent Death Ahead”.

There are enough signs in the book to keep one busy for quite awhile, and while the majority are clear and make sense, the sheer number of them makes a person from a US state with a reciprocal agreement with the French on drivers licenses (that would be me) extremely happy to not have to take the driving exam which, I have been told, is monitored with ferocious attention to accuracy.

“A majority are clear and make sense.” I did say that. But then you encounter a square blue sign with a white arrow pointing up. ” Required Direction, But Not Necessarily a One Way Street” . Huh?

What does that mean ?

What, is this merely a suggestion ? Are there road signs now with suggestions of things that you might want to do but its OK if you don’t? Is this like Boston, where Beloved Wife says, “The lane system has never really caught on” and motorists form five lanes entering the Callahan Tunnel where three entry lanes are marked on the road ? Hello?

But it’s a sizable book, and I read on, arriving eventually at the Show Stopper. It is a triangular sign, mostly white with a red border, and in the middle, a black exclamation mark. It is a sign of warning.

“Unspecified Danger”

That’s it?

What ? What do you mean, “Unspecified danger ?”

It isn’t that they don’t know. It doesn’t say unknown danger. THEY KNOW but they’re not saying. “So, just keep going and be on your guard” ? Is that it ?

What could it be ? Has there been a volcano eruption and the road is closed by a lava flow ?

Has a trainload of man eating tigers been derailed and even as I read this they’re running loose, devouring small pets and children ?

Have the Germans invaded ? (Oi. What, again?)

Nah. They probably have a sign for that.

Barbecue. And Pizza.

We live in a second floor apartment. Initially we avoided the first floor space, but that didn’t last very long. Accessible from the shared entryway at the bottom of the stairs to our apartment, it seemed to be used by our erstwhile landlord Alain as his private domain where he stored things and occasionally turned up to potter around. It’s a curious space and great for entertaining; at one time it was a storefront. Now, the front windowed curtained, it contains a large dining room table, bookshelves, a comfy couch, storage area, and access to a walled-in back yard with space for a garden.

One day shortly after we settled in, much to the amusement of other members of the family, Alain announced, “You can have the downstairs too. Do whatever you want. You need to be able to get to the back yard so you can have a barbecue. Americans need a barbecue!” And they all laughed in agreement.

The French do barbecue. But, as is the case with so many things, their idea of barbecue is a little different from Americans. Barbecue to the French means grilled meat, whether over hot coals or on a gas grill. The concept of low and slow, 14 hour show cooked brisket and sausage, Texas Hill Country barbecue is almost completely unknown. And if it is known at all it is viewed as something wildly exotic, as is anything associated with Texas where the French believe everybody rides horses, packs a six-gun, and everyone says “Howdy M’am” the way they say “Bonjour”.

Another difference is that like almost everything in France, there is a proper time for barbecuing; from the time the weather first turns warm in the spring, through late August or early September when the first nighttime chill hits the air. After that the barbecues get mothballed till Spring. No formal rules here, just cultural memory. And finally, barbecues are largely used for things like family gatherings and entertaining. They are not viewed as everyday appliances, which is where the stereotype of Americans isn’t a stereotype at all, it’s an accurate observation. We really did want a “barbecue”….a gas grill.

And I had the perfect place for it. In our back yard attached to the main building is a rustic, shed-like structure that serves as the perfect summer kitchen; a place where rain or shine, in cold or snowy weather, I can sit in a camp chair, adult beverage in hand, and tend to my grill. The first time Alain saw it, decked out with my accouterments, he burst into a grin and said something like, “Ahh, your place, eh?” It’s a man thing that knows no international boundaries.

When I told Anthony I wanted to buy a grill he threw caution to the wind and decided he, too, would get one. As soon as I got mine I dashed out for a tank of gas and made ready to cook our first meal. As soon as he got his he stowed it away in his garage to wait for the appropriate time. This is when the stereotype of Americans became a reality.

“Anthony”, I said, “you don’t get it. We really do cook on the grill all the time. It’s a major appliance in our household. Summer and winter, rain or snow, two or three times a week; fish and meat and veggies. We cook them all on it. I’m not kidding; I have frequently shoveled a path through a fresh snowfall to get to the grill.” He still seemed skeptical, until I burned through my first tank of gas before he even christened his, while waiting for an opportune time to use it.

Then one day this winter I was ruminating on pizza, as I often do, when I came across an ad for a pizza oven to be used on a gas grill, and the wheels began turning. Over the past several years before we moved in here I had been learning bread baking back in the States, had been making some stunningly good baguettes. But me making baguettes here in Luche where the best bread I’ve ever had is just a few steps away makes as much sense as selling air conditioning in Alaska. However, I had also learned to make some pretty darned good pizza dough, too.

“Hmmmm,” thought I. ”I’ll bet I can buy some really great yeast from Sylvie at the boulangerie. And with some detective work and some help from Mauricio at the Proxie I bet I can cobble together ingredients to make a pretty good replica of a by-God, East Coast, New Jersey ‘Merican pizza. Now, about that pizza oven….”

And that’s when Beloved Wife stepped in and, in a not entirely selfless act, gifted me with it; a made-in-Germany (go figure) pizza oven for my gas grill.

I’ll cut to the chase here. A couple of experimental efforts to get the hang of the thing, and my dough in that oven was indeed turning out by-God, East Coast, New Jersey ‘Merican pizza; so good that we now felt ready to finally show our French friends what they’ve been missing all along. First up: Anthony, Celine, and their son, our informal French grandson, Elliot.

To say it was a success would be an understatement. The crowning moment: Celine, who will tell you quite honestly that she doesn’t really think about food or enjoy food all that much, ate three slices (!!!) and moaned, ”Oh, the crust! The crust!” And, there being no secrets in a French village, the next time I saw Anthony’s mom, Joelle, she sidled up to me and said, “I heard you made some really great pizza”. Translation: “So, when do I get some?”

Flushed with success, I began to think about gifting some folks with really good pizza. Like, how about Manu and Magali at the butcherie with a surprise lunch? How about doing the same for Sylvie and Guillaume at the boulangerie so she can see what I’ve been up to with her yeast? And what about Mauricio at the Proxie where I’ve been buying his Italian pizza flour? And Alexandra and Christophe! Why, the possibilities are limited only by my ability to make pizza dough.

But then, I thought, how would I transport the things for delivery? Why, I NEED PIZZA BOXES! And, internet search being what it is, it took me about ten minutes to find a place where I could order unassembled pizza boxes. And, clearly suffering the effects of a lengthy Covid confinement, I placed an order. For pizza boxes. Yes, I did.

Now, pretty much whatever goes on around here eventually gets to Alexandra. And along the way the play-by-play of my making pizza dough, buying a pizza oven, turning out kick-butt pizzas and now buying pizza boxes, was going from Beloved to Alexandra, after which God only knows where that news has gone. But it’s pretty likely that some word is out there in the village.

Last week we were at Alexandra and Christophe’s place for lunch and petanque with some friends. Christophe-photographer, cinematographer, artist and prankster said to me, “So, how’s your pizza?”

I replied with my best French combination of grunt/knowing chuckle, which loosely translates to, “It’s kick-ass, dude!”

Christophe then stunned me, blew me away, when he handed me a gift of his handiwork that is just one of the neatest things I’ve ever gotten; what can only be described as a framed sign to be posted on the front door of a business. And with it, a stack of identical stickers to be placed on the…you guessed it… pizza boxes. It was signage for a pizzaria, “Chez Cheche”

I’m not often rendered speechless, but all I could do was keep saying, “This is SO COOL! I Love this!” I told Christophe there would be no take-out for him; he and Alex will have table service.

I was at the Proxie for a few things today, including Italian pizza flour. Mauricio is going on a brief vacation and the store will be closed for a few days. I made the mistake of telling him I now have a pizza oven, and will be bringing him “the gift of pizza” one day when he returns.

“Hey, datsa fantastico. The Frencha pizza isa lousy,”said Mauricio. And then the wheels started turning.“Hey, you coulda maka anda we sella dem. We coulda getta ten euro apiece!”

“No Mauricio. I ain’t selling pizzas.”

“Butta you coulda get TEN EURO each!”

“No, Mauricio! I’m not selling pizza. I’m giving one to you as a gift. UN CADEAU!”

“Wella, ok” he said, with undisguised disappointment.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard the last of that though, especially after he tastes it.

Lagunitas, s’il vous plaît

Back in the early 1960’s, when I was too young to buy beer in New Jersey, but not on Staten Island in New York, I first tasted and fell in love with Ballantine Ale. On the green and gold label it said, “India Pale Ale”and it was, at the time, a true outlier among beers. You could travel the length and breadth of the country in those days and not find another India Pale Ale. Then, times changed and about the time that Ballantine disappeared its place on store shelves was filled with bottles of colored water with labels that say “light beer”.

Then, about 25 years ago, the world began to come to its senses and an explosion of boutique breweries occurred in the US and eventually around the world. Suddenly, the India Pale Ale…IPAs…became all the rage. And Ballantine Ale even returned. Now brewers are calling almost anything an IPA just to get some attention, but really? Blueberry IPA? Grapefruit IPA? (Sorry. Calling a beer with blueberry in it an IPA is like calling a Red Ryder BB gun and Assault weapon).

Which brings us to France, where for most of the past 20-odd years we have been traveling here, IPAs were not only impossible to find, but got you a funny look if you asked for one. And don’t get me wrong, I like all kind of beers, and there are hundreds of beers…wonderful beers… to choose from here in Europe. But I do love IPAs, and after a time here I get a hankerin’ for one. Especially one of my favorites, a Lagunitas; made in California and pronounced, as they say on the label: La-goo-NEE-tas.

So, one day my friend Quintin says lets go for a beer, and we head into La Fleche to the cafe/bar on the town square where he’s something of a regular. We sidle up to the bar and he introduces me to the barkeep, a young fellow in a black T-shirt with some fine tattoos and an earlobe ring the size of a silver-dollar dangling off the side of his head, Quintin making a point of letting him know I’m an American; completely unnecessary, since the first words out of my mouth will make that fact abundantly clear.

I was just about to give away my Americanness by ordering a Stella, as in Stella Artois, which is pretty much standard fare in these parts, when I spied the cooler behind Tattoo-Guy, and in it, not only an IPA, but what for all the world looked to be a Lagunitas.

“You have Lagunitas?” I stammered to the bartender. “Here?”

‘Oh, yes, “ he said, emphatically. Then he turned around to proudly display the back side of his T-shirt, with Lagunitas emblazoned in big letters. I was completely stunned.

“I can’t believe it”, I kept saying, “right here in town, in the cafe!”

“Yes,” he said, “You can get it LeClerc too.” LeClerc is the largest supermarket in the area, a kind of Wegman’s on steroids.

“NON!”

“Oui.”

I had no idea. I ‘d been through the beer section at LeClerc, but never saw Lagunitas, or any American IPA, although I admit I had never actively searched for it. Some time ago I had approached the manager of the town’s largest beer-wine-liquor store to ask about American IPAs and he said they carried nothing from the US; it had to do something about imports and distributors. So, I thought, case closed.

A couple of days later I went to LeClerc and by-God, there it was, a cluster of Lagunitas IPA huddled between a French alleged IPA and some Belgian ales. I bought them all. The next week I returned and the space was empty…not a good sign. But the week after that when I returned, Lagunitas was back, and again I bought them all.

Anthony thought this behavior was a bit deranged, until he stopped by one evening and had a bottle. A few days later he and Celine’s dad, Michel, stopped by for a beer. Michel is the most French person I know. His vocabulary is largely composed of those French sounds…not quite words…that carry intricate and explicit meaning. I handed him a Lagunitas. He eyed the bottle a little suspiciously, then took a sip. His head snapped back a bit and he gave the bottle a double-take, then looked at me and said…

Well, it wasn’t so much a word as it was a French sound, a kind of combination, “Mmmmm”, and “Whaaaa?” and “Bon!”

Before I could ask the obvious question, do you like it, he said, “What IS this?”

“That,” I said, is an American beer, called Lagunitas. From California”

“Ahhhh, Californie. Cest BON!” said Michel, as he took another enthusiastic slug.

Now, I have some mixed feelings about all this. On one hand I’m delighted to introduce my French friends to things they may never have had before and which they may like. On the other hand, I’m worried about the supply chain. I may be the only American actively looking for Lagunitas for 50 miles in any direction, and I don’t want to be proselytizing for a beer that is in limited supply.

Recently Anthony and I were some 50 minutes away in Le Mans at a huge hyper-market (computers or sushi, your choice), and in their massive beer section, sure enough, a tiny cluster of Lagunitas bottles. I bought them all.

Excessive behavior you say? A couple of days ago I got a text from Anthony on his way home from the office. “Throw a couple of bottles of Lagunitas in the fridge. I’m coming over.”

When he arrived he said, “You know, LeClerc is out of Lagunitas. I was looking there today”.

“I know,” I said, “I was there yesterday. I bought them all.”

Resistance

Each October the Tour de France announces the planned route for next year’s race. Every several years that announcement generates particularly intense excitement among fans, and some dread among riders, when it is revealed the race will include an assault on le Mont Ventoux.

Called The Giant of Province, Mont Ventoux is one of the two most iconic and daunting challenges in all of Tour de France lore; it is unique unto itself, and bizarre. Ventoux is the highest mountain in the region, rising stark from the rolling lavender fields of Province, the upper two thirds of the mountain utterly bald of trees. A narrow road scales past what for all the world looks like a lunar landscape, ending at a lone weather station at the top. It is always a mountaintop finish.

The mont was scoured clean of trees for shipbuilding beginning as early as the 13th century. Now barren and windswept, it presents a surreal appearance. On the day of the assault on Ventoux, most often in the third week of the Tour when they are already exhausted from two grueling weeks on the road, the riders will see it looming in the distance hours before they arrive at the bottom, warning of what awaits. They will ride out of the searing heat of a Province July, sometimes into snow, sometimes into hot winds. Winds at the weather station have been recorded at over 300 kilometers an hour. Days before, fans begin to arrive on the slopes, with tents and campers. On the day of the climb the slopes will be jammed with a quarter million or more, cramming the road so tight the riders barely have room to get through on the tortuous climb to the top, agonizingly inching their way up at walking speed.

To see Ventoux has been on my bucket list for years. For many cyclists climbing it is a lifetime goal. I have never been that capable a rider. For me, the bucket would be filled just to see it, just to drive up that road to the weather station, to travel over cycling’s hallowed ground. Several years ago the opportunity presented itself.

It was March in Province. Traveling south from the Alps towards the Aude we realized we could alter course for a day or so and finally get to see Mont Ventoux. The weather had begun to warm. Spring was coming. Far off in the distance, I caught sight of The Giant for the first time. We found a room at a small hotel in the village of Aurel in the valley below, had dinner, and made plans to drive up the mountain road to the weather station the next morning. But the next morning, unexpectedly cold and damp in the valley, snow and glaze ice had closed the road up le Mont. I never made it out of the treeline, nor did I the next day, or the next. And, after three days of failed attempts, we decided to move on, having only seen Ventoux from the valley below. Those attempts, though, were glorious, the trees sparkling with ice crystals on their sunless sides each day. Impossible (for me) to catch by camera.

Le Mont Ventoux from the distance

The morning we were preparing to leave I went for a walk around the village and came upon an elderly gentleman having a conversation with a fellow in a car parked by the road. He caught my eye instantly; there was a look about him that was perfect for this tiny French village. As unobtrusively as possible I unslung my camera and began shooting. There was something about that face.

The fellow in the car (as it turned out, the mayor) spotted me and waved me closer. We exchanged greetings, he, the cheerful elderly gent, and me. One thing led briefly to another. And then the man in the car pointed to his compatriot and said, with great pride, “He is Maquis.”

Maquis! The Resistance! I was thunderstruck. This elderly man with the roguish smile who stood before me, had been there. His was the face of The Resistance, the face of living history. What stories he could tell of the occupation right here in this village. I wished I could ask him for some of those stories. For my poor French, I had to settle for the photos and the memories.

Le Maquisard

The French are tough-minded and resourceful. Three invasions and the hell of occupation will do that. They know how to survive, how to get along. They know how to comply but not be subdued. Thoughts of that elderly gentleman come to mind these days. We are in the second year of the pandemic. After last year’s confinement, new restrictions, thought by many to be draconian and senseless, are now in effect, but for the French, this is not their first rodeo.

The new rules allow many stores, but not restaurants, to be open and people go about their business wearing masks, living life mostly as usual. Until 6 pm. There is now a nationwide, take-no-prisoners curfew in effect from 6 pm until 6 am every day. Presumably, the Covid, like a vampire, comes out at sundown and roams the streets seeking victims, but scurries back to its casket at daybreak.

Gendarmes patrol the streets, striking fear in the heart of M. Jean-Average Frenchman and you had better be off the streets and roads at 6. If you get nabbed at 6:01 it’s a 135-euro fine, because apparently 135 is just the right number for a fine. They aren’t kidding…last week in Paris 60,000 people were nabbed for curfew violations. A handy little moneymaker that is, you betcha. In one instance they nabbed 81 people at an orgy (swear ta god), presumably for failing to maintain social distancing at an orgy. Well how could you?

We have a friend, who will of course go unnamed, who lives in a tiny hamlet. There are no street lights, no traffic lights, only moonlight. She and her young son live perhaps 30 yards down the road from Grandma’s house. It is night time, It is dark. They want to visit Grandma.

Sticking to the shadows they peek out into the street, on the lookout for patrolling gendarmes. When the coast is clear they bolt for the house and, arriving undetected at the furtively opened door, they share triumphant thumbs up with Grandma before quickly ducking in, lest they be spotted by a collaberateur peeking out of a neighboring house.

It is a small victory for les Maquis de le Covid.

Vive la resistance!

Cat Toys

In the time since Beloved Wife and I have been an item she has been owned by six cats; each with his or her distinct personalities and quirks although, being cats, there have been more similarities among them than differences. Six cats. Thirty years. A pretty good sample size, you betcha, to get a handle on the very basics of cat behavior, no? She is, by any standard, “a cat person,” wise in the ways of cats, as any human can be, with years and years of experience. And yet.

Cat Number Six arrived not long ago in the person of Bumpus, AKA Monsieur Le Bump, prompting Beloved to spring once again into action for the uh, sixth time, announcing “We need to buy cat toys! We need to buy a scratching post.”

Armed with the wisdom of a long-married man, I shrugged off the feeling of deja vu, muttered something sounding like assent, and off we went to the big store in La Fleche, where we dropped a small mortgage payment on a scratching post and a fine selection indeed of cat toys. Now, if you have ever been owned by a cat you know exactly where this is going, and where it has gone for, oh, the last six cats that have owned us, and before that at least since the Egyptians.

Some will tell you that cats cannot speak, and if they do speak, they most assuredly do not speak English. Especially French cats. But I will tell you that after the scratching post was unwrapped, assembled, and presented to Monsieur le Bump, his immediate response was a clearly audible, “Meh.” Then he thanked us for all of the excellent draperies and door moldings we provide for his claw sharpening pleasure.

“We got him the wrong kind of scratching post! We need to get him that rampy kind of thing that he can scratch on.” (That was not me speaking.)

“You’re kidding.” (That was me.)

She wasn’t, and so we returned to the store, bought an even more expensive rampy kind of thing, and hurried home to present it to You Know Who. And you know what’s interesting? I think the French word for “Meh” is “Meh.”

Undaunted by the scratching post experience, Beloved was still anxiously looking forward to The Presentation Of The Cat Toys, which would surely provide Bumpus and us with a world of entertainment, and which, of course, it did not, as it did not for cats 1 through 5. Just as was the case for 1 through 5, Bumpus gave the toys a passing glance, groomed his groin in a Jabba-the-Hut-like presentation and moved on, looking for better things to play with. Apparently only one of the two humans in the room was not surprised by this.

Later that evening we finally presented The Bumpster with the Greatest Cat Toy Of All Time, his all-time favorite. He loves it. It is the bestest-ever toy a human could ever give to a cat…he told us that. He plays with them all day, and most especially, all night long. ALL NIGHT LONG. It sounds at times like he is moving furniture, or perhaps entertaining a visiting herd of cattle running laps up and down the hallway stairs.

We didn’t actually present it to him, per se. It was more a sort of fortunate accident. I was opening a bottle of wine, as I have been known to do here at chez nous, when the cork let fly, hit the floor, and I believe the clinical term is, he went nuts. We now have the world’s least expensive and most effective cat toys littering our floors. We open a bottle, we get the wine and Bumpus gets the cork. Everybody is happy.

I had an idea the other night that if we painted our used corks with cute mousey-looking faces, we could sell them for like 10-euro apiece on Etsy as can’t-miss cat toys. We’d make a fortune and the proceeds would pay for our drinking habit. Of course, if we were to have a Cat #7 enter our lives, I don’t think for a moment that would keep Beloved from yet again announcing “We need cat toys!”

Some habits are hard to break.

Assimilation

I have been to the doctor on several occasions while living here, but so far none has yet said, “Alor, Monsieur Cheche, are you aware you have a dent in your forehead?” But I’m sure it is coming, and when it does my response will be, “Of course! Its from smacking myself and saying, I don’t believe how we have been assimilated into the village! I can’t believe how much we are a part of life here!”

It’s not supposed to be this way. From the very beginning of our travels in France more than 20 years ago, we have driven through literally thousands of tiny villages, paused at cafes, had roadside picnics, or merely sat in town squares watching, catching the pace of life, watching the people, sensing the centuries of lives past. “What, I said on that very first, life-changing visit, is it like to live in such a place?”

Enter Beloved Wife, who, holding a Ph.D. in Speculative Rejection with a minor in Predisposed Negativity, quickly and with cheerful certainty announced, “You will always be a stranger. You will always be a outsider. The French never invite strangers into their homes, either.” She had apparently done her homework.

“Oh,” says I, “what lovely towns and villages! They’ll be so beautiful at Christmas.”

“Oh yes, they’re lovely. We’d always be alone, though. The French never take in strangers at family occasions like Christmas” replies Madame Buzzkill.

All of which held absolutely true until, like, our first ever road trip when we immediately discovered how universally, enormously friendly are the provincial French, and we began, almost instantly, to make friends, real Friends.

There is Sylvain, a young man I met on a photography trip to the Normandy beaches, a battlefield guide with a passion for history. We met, me as his client, departed as friends, remain in touch and visit when we can. Karen met him, fell in love with him too.

There is the family in Alsace, friends of friends who befriended us, and promptly invited us into their home for a gathering of their friends, with whom we remain friends and have been back to visit. There are our Belgian friends who own the B&B in the Argonne. Again, began as customers, became friends. And there is, of course, the miracle that was the entry of Anthony and the family into our lives.

Family is a word kicked around easily these days. Start a new job and you are welcomed to the “family,” until the downsizing gets you a pink slip; buy a new SUV and be welcomed to the Ford Family, or the family of new mattress and box spring owners. The French don’t seem to toss family around like that. Family is more tightly guarded here. It is a more insular, sacred thing, making it all the more unfathomable that we are privileged to have been welcomed into not one, but two distinct families; welcomed for the most private of events, family birthdays and holidays.

We repeatedly and self consciously offer easy outs for our friends. For Christmas, or a birthday, or any other family event we will say, “Look, it’s a family event. You don’t need to invite us…it’s family.” Anthony will respond with thinly veiled disgust.

“Shut up. You are family. Don’t you understand? You’re family. Now, coffee or wine?” We were as honored when Christophe asked us to join him for his birthday fete, an intimate gathering of only-best friends.

Beyond family, our simple day to day life within the village is just as astounding to me. I blather about it but it is true; the depth of social life and interaction here simply dwarfs what we had back in the US, in a very Mayberry USA kind of way. Truly not a week goes by, often just days, that we don’t have some spontaneous and unexpected interaction of friendship that confirms we are indeed of this village now.

A couple of days ago Cecile, the owner of the pharmacie, showed up at the front door. Turns out our erstwhile landlords Alain and Mary-Therese had accidentally left her critical medical card at the pharmacie by accident. Did we think we could return it to her? Easily done, since at that moment Mary-Therese was right there in the apartment with us. I was a little surprised Cecile knew where we lived to find us, but upon reflection realized that probably everyone of importance in the village knows.

That was brought home a day or so later when Alexandra showed up at the front door one evening, with her young son Antoine, who was swaddled in coat and scarf so as to be unrecognizable, looking like a mushroom with feet. With them was a gentleman I had never seen before, a charming gent who wanted to meet us, les Americains, and who Alexandra thought would be a great fit for a new friend. We chatted amiably and allowed as how it would be good to get together soon, when along came his wife, who, seeing her husband was chatting with les Amis, dashed up to introduce herself, telling me how very happy she was to get to meet us.

And then there are the texts we get; frequent, usually unexpected and often, well, really unexpected. Oh, for example just this week. From Anthony:

We have a huge piece of boar from my dad. He killed the boar today. But you may need to ask Manu to cut and prepare it. You should like it, its a filet. One of the best parts of the boar. Are you interested?”

And the answer to that, translated to English is, Oh Hell Yeah!

Next morning, Beloved trundles the haunch of boar a few steps away to Manu’s butcherie to ask if he would butcher and trim it. He offered to do it on the spot, but she told him no, I’ll be back later. When she returned he had not only trimmed it, he had put the massive filet into a roullade, wrapped and tied it for cooking…a good 3 full dinners worth. When she tried to pay him he waved her off refusing to take a centime in return.

It’s the kind of thing that has us saying, with startling regularity, “Ya know, ya just don’t see a lot of that back in Maryland.”

The List

Back in the previous millennium we would keep a list of things our friends in France would ask us to bring back with us from the US, like peanut butter. That’s off the list now, as peanut butter is readily available these days. Our American friends, likewise, would ask us to bring home Nutella, but that’s off the list now too, since Nutella is available almost anywhere in the US from grocery stores to car dealerships. We still keep a list but it’s mostly for ourselves, as living here and maintaining a household brings to light some very specific needs.

A previous post has already detailed the need for Genuine American Heavy Duty Trash Bags; French bags being, as the Brits would say, rubbish. Being neither heavy duty nor capable of handling trash, they forced us to take up precious weight allowance and packing space in our luggage to import pounds of plastic trash bags into the EU.

France is a country of enormous contradictions (which I’m sure the French can say as well about the US). Nevertheless, it is a head-scratcher. There is a deep cultural commitment to being “green”, to being ecologique, to using the absolute minimum material to get the job done (except for butter) to the point of self-defeating absurdity. You simply use twice as much, defeating the purpose. Anyone who has found an efficient, effective way to patchwork aluminum foil or plastic wrap, please tell me. Origami doesn’t count. So add plastic wrap and aluminum foil to The List.

Give credit where credit is due. I had no idea one could manufacture plastic wrap and aluminum foil so thin that it has only one side. See-through aluminum foil is something to behold, if barely. French plastic wrap, even what purports to be “heavy duty” has less tensile strength than a papyrus gingerly taken from a 3-thousand-year-old Egyptian tomb. It is so fragile as to be utterly, maddeningly useless. Just getting the edge of the stuff in hand to begin unwinding it can take hours, eventually causing you to give up in disgust (c’est ecologique). It clings to itself as if it was welded there. If you manage to get any of it off without shredding to confetti, once placed on the bowl or the leftovers you wish to preserve, it holds NOTHING.

The stuff is so completely unworkable that I have found myself in the kitchen cooking, or perhaps clearing up after a meal, muttering to myself, ”Oh please god, please don’t make me need to use plastic wrap”. I thought I was alone in having been driven that close to the edge, when Beloved Wife recently heard me and admitted she whispers the same prayer. None of this even addresses the packaging.

In keeping with the nanny state gestalt, looking out for you to keep you from hurting yourself or anyone else, the cutting edge that is a necessary part of the packaging of a roll of aluminum foil is universally incapable of cutting anything. Like, nothing. It makes a lovely crease in the foil, I’ll grant you, but that’s it. Which is astounding considering the stuff is practically see-through. And yet it does not tear in a clean line, oh no. It shreds. Hence, the Aluminum Foil Prayer, much like the Plastic Wrap Prayer. Note that such tearing edges eliminate the non-essential non-ecological use of metal—they are a serrated cardboard edge.

I believe the time will come in the very near future when I will find Beloved Wife standing atop the church, looking down on a gathering crowd of curious onlookers in the village square like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, raining rolls of plastic wrap and aluminum foil down on the crowd, shrieking, “I’ve had it and I can’t take it any longer!” A gendarme will approach and ask, “Madame, Qu’est que le problem?” to which she will shriek, “IT’S THE PACKAGING. THE PACK-AG-ING!” I expect to be beside her, handing her the next roll to throw.

While we’re at it, add ibuprophen to the list. And Tylenol and a host of other over-the-counter meds. In the US, you can purchase a two-pound jug of ibuprophen at the local CVS. Not here. Things like ibuprophen and a Tylenol equivalent and other such items are kept behind the counter, and are dispensed practically by the pill. They come eight or ten pills in a cardboard package with a lengthy bit of paperwork stuffed inside, and the pills individually encased in those pop-out blister sheets that require a cutting torch and chain saw to open, allowing the pill to fly across the room and under the bed. I do believe that if there is Karma in this world the man who invented this system is currently enjoying the fires of hell.

It is much the same for any prescription drug. I have a sizable list that I take routinely and re-upping the prescription entails a sit down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee for a pill-popping session, as I wrestle the little buggers out of their armor-encased, hermetically sealed cards and try to keep them from escaping under the fridge.

That’s if you can get the product without a prescription, or at all. Nexium or equivalent? Nope, prescription. Antihistamine? Prescription. Benadryl? Only prescription and only for veterinary use. OK for Bumpus the cat, but not for me.

“Say, Bump. Can I score one of your Benadryls? My allergies are acting up.”

And then there’s this: a one-month supply of meds as filled by the pharmacy is usually based on the premise that a month consists of four weeks. Seven days in a week, four weeks in a month, so a one-month supply of meds is good for 28 days, not 30. Even though only one month of twelve is 28 days. And when you are done, you ecologically conscious green warrior, you find yourself sitting in a large pile of cardboard boxes, redundant paper, and a mound of punched-out cardboard and armor-plated pop cards. If you have a lot of prescriptions, they all run out at different times. The solution is to BYO, remembering that long ago Anthony told us in passing, “If the package says “C’est facile a ouvrir!” just run away.

I’m in the other room, but I can hear it from the kitchen; a miasma of muttered oaths and Polish invective from which I faintly make out something about “that damned French packaging” from Beloved. Hoping to be helpful, as I always do, I call out, “Put it on the list!”

She offers an alternative place to put it.

Those Little White Vans

You don’t see a lot of pickup trucks in France. No Ford F-150’s, no big honking Dodge Rams, no Silverados. What you see is little white vans. They’re everywhere, the French equivalent of the American Pick-Up. Unmarked, families use them. Adorned with signage, businesses use them. And hunters use them; little white vans. During hunting season you can see rows of them parked along the side of country roads, hunters hauling out their gear and setting off into the woods en masse in search of their prey.

Once, on a trip through the Dordogne region we spotted a sign indicating a site prehistorique ahead. The sign pointed down a narrow country road. We almost always go off-road looking for prehistoric sites, usually a dolmen or perhaps a tumulus, remnants of the time when prehistoric man lived in this place. On this occasion we had one sign pointing down the road heading off into the woods, and before long we came upon a string of a dozen or more little white vans parked along the roadside. No sign of anyone, they clearly belonged to hunters who were already off into the woods.

A little farther we spotted another sign with a symbol indicating the site prehistorique, with an arrow pointing further into the woods, and nothing more. Not knowing how far it would be we set off down a barely visible path in the general direction of the arrow on the sign. The farther into the woods we got, the more noticeable became the sound of hunter’s gunfire. By the time we began wondering out loud exactly how much farther we needed to go, it was sounding like we were in the middle of a running gun battle. And there we were, not wearing bright orange or anything else that might indicate to the armed mob that we were something other than dinner on the hoof. That was when we saw the pheasant.

Sitting on a low-hanging branch no more than ten feet away on the side of the path was a pheasant; a big, fat pheasant. With the sound of a furious fusillade of field artillery close by, he sat on that branch unconcerned, wearing a look of supreme calm. We stopped in our tracks. The pheasant and I exchanged looks. He didn’t move. I walked a tentative few steps towards him, but he just sat there, watching me and, apparently, taking in the sound of gunfire in the distance. It was as if he was enjoying outsmarting the hunters.

Eventually, he drew himself up, dropped to the ground with a rather undignified thud and sauntered off into the woods, away from the direction of the gunfire. It was at that moment that Beloved and I discovered that yes, it is possible for a pheasant to look smug.

Those little white vans seem to be everywhere you go in France. Another common sight is the roadside rest area, a far more regular sight than in the US where truckers and motorists pull over to have lunch like clockwork at noon each day. There is one such roadside rest area on the road from our village towards the large town about 10 kilometers away. When we first arrived in the village several years ago it took a while, but after a time, traveling to town and back, I took notice of a little white van that seemed to always be parked in that rest area, and I never saw anyone there.

It was one of those things that you notice while driving and make a mental note to ask someone about, but then you get to your destination and forget it until the next time you pass along the road, see the little white van, make a note to ask someone about it, and then forget about it. Which I did the entire time we were there. And then we returned to the US.

Time passed. We returned to the village. Driving along the road we passed the rest area.

“Hey babe, look. That white van is still there. You think someone is living in it?”

“I don’t know,” said Beloved. “We should ask Anthony. He may know.”

But of course, we didn’t. We forgot to mention it the entire time we were there. And we returned to the US.

A year ago, last November, we returned to the village and sure enough, as we drove by the rest area we spotted…but wait! The little white van was not there. In its place was a small camper van. Whoever had been parking the little white van there for the last God knows how many years had apparently upgraded. NOW, we were going to ask questions. It was time to go to He Who Knows All Things.

“Say, Anthony. Are you aware that there’s a little white van that has parked in the roadside rest area for like, years?”

“Yeah.”

“It looks like its been changed to a camper. So like, what’s the deal? Is that a homeless person, or what?”

“Oh, that’s the local prostitute. EVERYBODY knows that.”

“Oh….”

La Joie de Vivre

I have fallen deeply in love with this village, Luche-Pringe; with the village, with the life we have here. There is the village–streets that radiate the feel of history, that fall into silence at night as lights go out and the village is wrapped in darkness and silence of near total sensory deprivation but for the skies, the spectacular starry skies unlike anything I have ever experience before, save when miles out to sea, far from land. But mostly, there are the people.

On most mornings I quickly dress and walk less than one minute to the bakery. Along the way I pass the boucherie of Manu. Nearly destroyed by fire in February, it reopened in August to a wave of heartfelt joy and excitement throughout not only the village but the entire region. Manu is open! People celebrated, people smiled, Manu and Magali were back in business! With the reopening–all new, better than ever–life in the village returned to normal. Each morning as I walk past, through the window I give a big wave, and Manu and Magali catch a glimpse, stop what they’re doing and wave a big, smiling wave back.

Manu and Magali happily reopen for business. And the village rejoices.

It is instinctual for us to smile and a wave as we pass by, but it is not something the French are inclined to do. Maybe it’s just us, maybe it is an American thing. When we first arrived in the village and gave a wave as we passed, I suspect Manu and his wife were a bit puzzled but wrote it off as it being The Americans. Then one day they waved back. Soon it was with a big smile and a wave. Now, even the customers will often wave back; where once we were The Americans, now we are Our Americans to many in the village.

A few steps farther, the boulangerie, where I am greeted by the irrepressibly cheerful Sylvie. In something of a game to her, she knows my usual baguette of choice–there are several kinds–and will reach for the “tradition” with a look over her shoulder to see if she’s got it right this morning. Sometimes they will all be gone and she’ll tell me, “I will have new at noon!” Her husband, Guillaume, is the baker. He is in the back making his magic, rarely makes an appearance, and when he does it is only long enough to bring out a new batch of bread or pastry, give a smiling “bonjour” and “ca va” and then be gone, back to his work.

Sylvie, meanwhile, will total up my purchase and, knowing that I, like anyone who is not native French, cannot fathom French numbers, turns her calculator to me to see the amount. Then we play the game of me trying to come up with the correct coinage to match the price. More often than not, I get it wrong, and she will reach into my hand and pull out the correct coins, and we both laugh. As I leave, wishing her “bonne journee,” or “a bientot,” she will proudly respond with what is apparently the only English she knows, a hearty “Bye!” and we both laugh. It is something of a daily ritual.

I feel it every morning now. Back out on the street, carrying warm loaves of bread, croissants, or pain aux raisins, it bubbles up and I think to myself, “My God, how I love this place. How I love these interactions, the feeling of being a part of this village.” I feel a surge of joy. It is as if a light suddenly went on in my head and my heart, and living here in this village, with the woman I love beyond words, I understand what it means to be truly happy. There have been happy times before, of course; things and times when I have been happy. But here, now, I understand what it is to know deep, soulful happiness. I revel in the thought as I return home, bread and pastries in hand, to linger over coffee with Karen, watch the smoke of wood fires rise above the roofs of the village, and think to myself, “What a wonderful way to start the day. What a wonderful life.”

Americans think wistfully of days gone bye, of life in a small town where people are friendly and life is good. It is a Norman Rockwell image, more myth than real, of times past and longed for. But here, in this village of Luche-Pringe, life is the quintessence of small town. It is our reality.

Karen and Alexandra frequently go to the village cafe, where Karen meets the mayor. It is that kind of village.

Cecile is the owner and manager of the pharmacie. Another pharmacist owns and works the organic farm a couple of kilometers outside of town. On Friday afternoons they open a stand and sell fresh produce to anyone who can manage to find the place. One Friday we showed up to buy some produce and when I walked up to the counter she recognized me and told me my prescription was in and I could stop by any time to pick it up. It is that kind of village.

Our arrival in the village the first time, a couple of years ago, turned out to be somewhat more of an item than either of us expected. It didn’t take long for word to get out that there were two Americans living in town. People took note. They were impressed when they saw Karen slugging down oysters and wine one rainy night at the tiny Marche de Noel fundraiser. They took note when they saw us at the park playing petanque with a bunch of locals: “Hey, the Americans play petanque!” Then we showed up in the newspaper.

Alexandra is a reporter for the daily regional newspaper, which covers a large area here in the Sarthe. One day she asked if she might interview us for a story in the paper about those two Americans who had, surprisingly to the natives, decided to live in Luche. Next week, in the Sunday paper (which apparently has the biggest circulation of all) the story of us appeared. And that pretty much blew our cover.

Now, we are aware that wherever we go, whatever we do here in the village, people recognize us as The Americans. Their Americans. Our friend Yveline, a genuine piece of work, did her part to make sure everyone knows. Not long after the story appeared in the paper Karen and I were at the cafe. It was crowded. Yveline showed up with the newspaper in hand and with great flourish, asked for our autographs. We reluctantly complied, telling her to cut it out, but she ignored us and then went around the cafe showing off the paper and bragging that she had gotten the autographs from The Americans over there, pointing to us the entire time. It is very difficult to hide behind an espresso cup.

It is the place of course, and it is the people. Of all the people who have made this place home for us, it is Anthony and Celine who have done so much, for whom we are most grateful and who we have come to love very much.

It is so improbable. Anthony and Celine have made this all possible, have done all of this out of their pure goodness of person. They have embraced us, first as friends, but almost immediately, as family. They and their parents…Yannick and Joelle, Anthony’s parents, and Michel and Genevieve, Celine’s parents…all of them, have embraced us, looked after us, offered us their help and support at every turn, in order to make this wild dream of living here in a village in France come true.

It all comes down to Anthony. Somehow, for some reason, something clicked instantly when we met that first time at the restaurant in Maryland. Since then it has been Anthony and Tom at every turn. Karen and I are older than Anthony and Celine’s parents; Anthony and Celine are younger than my kids. And yet, the four of us do everything together. We go to restaurants, take road trips, when there is work at their place I am there, when one or the other of us needs to go to Le Mans for something, the other will join for the ride. Karen cooks, and sends Thai food to Anthony; Michel sends cuts of sanglier…wild boar…to us. Two years ago Anthony and I fantasized about creating a team to go endurance kart racing, and now that team is a reality with our first season already behind us. Anthony’s mom calls us the playmates.

Anthony is simply one of the most good-hearted souls and best friends I have ever known. He is also a goof, and a source of much hilarity to us and his family. I routinely offer my condolences to Celine, “Madame Blot, I am so sorry for you and for what you must endure,” casting a knowing eye at Anthony. She will reply in equally somber tones, “Thank you, thank you so much for your sympathy. Yes, it is very difficult.”

Much loved and delightfully whacked, Anthony

Anthony’s mom, Joelle, has taken to calling us “Les deux idiots du village.” Even I, scant though my French may be, understand what that means.

Sharing a Vision

The heart of the downtown business district of Luche-Pringe, in the shadow of an ancient church dating back to the time when Romans ruled here, consists of two boulangeries lying side by side, one tiny epicerie, a pharmacie, an ATM, and, inconguously, a small photography studio, l’Autour de l’Image. Like almost everything else here, it is only a few steps from our front door. It is the place where, one day last year, in need of highly specific photos for another of the endless bits of paperwork required by French bureaucracy, we entered tentatively but left with two soon-to-be new best friends, Alexandra and Christophe.

The shop is Christophe’s domain; at times, I suspect, his Sanctum Sanctorum. When he’s not producing family portraits, school photos, or wedding albums, he is immersed in projects of his own. He is truly a professional, his talents dwarfing mine, but it took some time for me to understand how talented he is.

Folks in the US, when making a new acquaintance, don’t think twice about asking someone what they do for a living. It’s not judgmental; more than anything it is an opening for conversation. Is there a common interest? Is there something I might want to know more about, to ask about? No problem. But not in France.

We have learned, over time, that it is not the done thing to inquire about what it is a person does for a living. Of course, there are times when it is obvious; everyone in town knows Manu is a butcher. Mostly in our experience, what people do only comes out over time, as you get to know each other.

So here we have our friend Christophe, Master Photographer, and sometimes he’s not in his shop; he is, says Alex, away for work. He returns a few days later, and we’re sitting around chatting, and Christophe, who has both a wry sense of humor and a tendency towards understatement, doesn’t have a lot to say about his latest trip away for work, except for the traffic around Paris. I, of course, being me and being an American, keep asking about that trip, and it finally comes out.

Christophe is a cinematographer and camera man in the French motion picture industry, and when he is “away for work” he is most likely traveling somewhere in France on a movie shoot. Once he revealed that, he was anxious to share some clips of scenes he had shot in various films. On one shoot he was in the mountains in winter for many days, for a film about WWI. He’s like Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, blah blah blah, who changes into Superman in a phone booth.

He’s an interesting guy. He sports a big, warm smile and a mischievous sense of humor. I learned on July 4th and on Bastille Day that he likes setting off fireworks…blowing shit up as I described it to Alexandra. And, he is a petanque shark who keeps a low-key stream of French trash-talking going during a game, all the while wearing that sly smile.

I have also come to understand that Christophe and I share a feeling about the village. He, like me, feels the pull of history in this place. Like me, he feels the ghosts of the past when he walks the streets. He and Alex are compiling an ongoing collection of photographs of the town from the past; images of these same streets, these same buildings, these same homes and shops from before The Great War, Le Grand Guerre.

One evening, he asked if I wanted to see a little something he put together about the village. I was blown away. For me, it captures exactly the feelings I get from this place.

Full screen works too.

If you look closely in the third image, it shows Rue Creuse. Today that is Rue Verdun, the street on which we live. Manu’s boucherie is in the same location as the butcher in the photo, and the door to our home is exactly next to the triangular stop sign, near the ghostly image of the little girl. You can see the photography shop of the Master Photographer, Christophe, Autour de l’Image, too.

It gives one pause to think of all the lives lived in these spaces over the centuries, and to think of those that will occupy these spaces after we are all gone.

We Got A Cat

We had to. We’ve been here for nearly a year, catless, and Beloved Wife is in serious cat deprivation mode. I wake in the middle of the night, as men my age often do, to find her looking at cat videos on her tablet. We’re talking a need for an intervention here; she recently discovered an app that generates the sound of a cat purring. She says it relaxes her.


So we got a cat. We visited the local animal shelter, to be selected by a cat. And we promptly were; the moment we entered the cat display area, a handsome young orange chap walked up to me and announced, “You shall be my people. Take me. Now.” And we did.

So, what to name him? All of my suggestions were dismissed out of hand, and were rudely treated.

“Bob”? “No.”

“Earl?” “No”

“Frank?” “NO”

“Glen?” “NO. Stop it.”

“Eugene?” “STOP.”

“What?”

So we decided to name him Luche (loo-shay).

Luche-Pringe, is the name of our village, but folks call it Luche. We love the village, so we named him Luche, and our French friends loved it. It’s been a week now. So far he doesn’t respond to his name.

This evening, round about dinner time, Beloved took out a couple of small steaks for me to grill. Leaving the the steaks on the counter to make a brief visit to the powder room, as women her age often do, she muttered something unintelligible about keeping an eye on something or other. When she returned she said, “What did you do with the other steak?

I didn’t need to answer; the answer was there on the floor. Said Cat had grabbed a steak, hauled it down onto the floor and dragged it over to his food bowl, where he was eating it, not in guilt-driven haste. Oh no, he was dining.

“IT’S THE BUMPUS HOUNDS!” Beloved Wife yelled, “WE THOUGHT WE GOT A CAT, BUT WE GOT THE BUMPUS HOUNDS!”

We’ve scrapped “Luche.” Now and forever, he is “Bumpus.”

He’ll get over it.
I’m sure you understand.

The perp hides in the laundry basket.

Circus! Circus!

Americans have a cultural memory of a time in the 19th and early 20th century when The Circus Comes to Town. One night the caravan shows up on the outskirts of town and people wake the next morning to the magical site of a gaudy, colorfully painted tent–the Big Top. Animal wagons are clustered together, with a makeshift corral holding strange animals. All over town, light poles, fences, and store windows are festooned with posters announcing the arrival of the circus and show times. The Circus is here! It will only be here for a day or so.

There is excitement. Kids flock to the field, watching the circus coming to life, unfolding before their eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of, well something...maybe a peek inside the tent, maybe a clown half-dressed preparing for the show, maybe an elephant, or a tiger, or a camel. Maybe an offer of a free ticket for lending a hand. Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, after the last show the tent will come down and by morning the circus, the trucks, the wagons will have disappeared down the road to the next stop.

It’s all a fading memory now, something of a myth. These days going to a circus in the US means a trip to the nearest large town or city to the Arena, home of wrestling, monster trucks, and concerts. Not in France, not in Europe. Here, The Circus still Comes to Town.
If you spend any time driving around France you will inevitably come across a most strange site–wild animals, circus animals, grazing on a traffic circle or a roundabout on the outskirts of a town, sometimes in the middle of town. It is, to our amazement, not an unusual sight. It means there is a circus in town. Drive a bit further and you will come across it–the tent, the trucks, the animals, and the people–circus people.

It happens all the time. It is something we have witnessed regularly as long as we’ve been coming here. Not long ago Anthony and I were in Le Mans to do some shopping. We were in a heavily developed commercial area, when I looked out the car window to a small open area among the stores.

“Ah, Anthony, that is a camel over there, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is.”

“Thought so.”

One day recently Karen and I were having lunch at a restaurant…not in Le Mans…when I looked out the window to a field next to the parking lot, and there were two camels grazing, usually a sure sign a circus is somewhere nearby.

In a normal year lots of circuses roaming through Europe. Many seem to be Italian. Some are big, with massive, gaudily painted trucks, huge tents, and large companies of well-kept animals. Others, unfortunately, are poor. They are raggedy affairs with tiny tents, unhappy-looking animals, and only a few trucks. They and their posters are quick to let you know they are “for the children,” code for, don’t expect Cirque du Soleil.

Romanzo Italiano. A circus we came across along the way.
Molto Bello Romantico
The sky really looked like that above this circus for about ten insane minutes before sunset

Most surprising, when you happen across one of these circuses in preparation mode, the area they have taken over is largely open to the public. You are allowed, almost welcomed, to wander about as they prepare, to look at the animals, watch the work in progress, and to talk with circus people who mostly seem happy to interact with you. It is not unusual to see parents with kids wandering around the trucks and vans and tethered animals–camels, horses, emus, and other non-threatening creatures, or queuing up near the cage trucks with lions and tigers while the roustabouts go about their work.

Several years ago when we were staying in the Aude in a small village a few kilometres from the large town of Limoux, we came upon a circus being set up in what had been up until that day an empty field not far from the grocery store that was our destination. Sensing a photo op, we got out and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was busy setting up the tents. When he found out we were Americans he immediately began apologizing for his circus, saying it was “Not like Barnam and Bailey.” We assured him we were glad to hear that. Later that evening we experienced something magical in that tent, and we discovered the man we had talked with was the Ringmaster.

An unexpected evening of magical moments and images in a small travelling circus in rural France
Comedia del Arte juggler
Night Circus in the Aude

It is all uniquely European, and despite any misgivings about the nature of zoos and caging of animals, utterly charming.

“Ya know, that’s just something ya don’t see a lot of back in Maryland.”

Central Casting

A British friend of ours, a very funny guy named Ronnie, who lives in the north of England, tells a very funny and self-deprecating story about his one and only trip to the US. He had nursed a desire to visit the United States for years, and with much excitement, managed to convince a buddy to join him. They flew non-stop from London to San Diego (Good Lord).

Shortly after touchdown the plane stopped at the gate and Ronnie, face plastered to the window, spotted the ground crew jumping into action.

“Look, look!” he sqweelled, “”Look, Americans, AMERICANS!”

“Of course they’re Americans ya moron, “ said his buddy, “We just landed in San Diego.”

In a way, we have had similar experiences here in France, especially in the early going. We were driving through a small village in Normandy one day on our first-ever road trip, when we came up on an elderly gentleman (I know, who am I to call anyone elderly?), riding a bicycle, wearing a beret, with a baguette slung under one arm. The two of us swapped simultaneous double-takes and had the same reaction.

“Oh, my God, look at that. It’s like something right out of Central Casting!” It was like every caricature we ever had of what it was like in France. Old guy. On a bike. Wearing beret. With baguette. It was a moment that drove home the fact that yes, we were indeed in France.

But of course it wasn’t a caricature. It was every day France. And that became clear as, over and over, we saw the same sort of thing in different villages, all over France. At one point I even wondered, “Hey. You think it’s the same guy wherever we go?”

But then one day it all became clear to me.

“I’ll bet you French Department of Tourism is behind it. All over France they hire old guys to drive around on bikes, looking picturesque for the tourists. Every morning they show up at work, they get issued bikes, berets and baguettes and off they go. They get extra if they have a Gauloises dangling from their lips.”

I was kidding of course. But just a bit.

And Now For Your Viewing Pleasure…

France, we have come to understand, is a country fraught with contradictions. Nothing epitomizes that more than French television. Curling up in front of the TV for an evening’s entertainment can be both informative about French culture, and utterly baffling. It is, in the end, quintessentially French.

Sometimes, (quite often, actually) we get the feeling that the French do things just to be different from anyone else, whether or not it makes sense. Or kills somebody, like priority à droit. Sit down for TV one evening. You immediately discover that French TV shows don’t start at the top or bottom of the hour‒they start whenever they want. Ten minutes to the hour seems to be a fan favorite.

French TV shows don’t run for 30 or 60 minutes. They run as long as they want, because, like so many other things in France, there is just the right amount of time needed for this program and it runs as long as necessary. The Correct Amount of Time.

We have basic cable here, which gives something like 25 active channels. There are a few national channels, France 1 or France 2, etc. Then there are regional channels that are programmed for the area where you live, which for us is the Sarthe, along with some other nearby regions. To be honest, we tend to skim through the channels and when we watch TV at all it is during the evening, so I’m not entirely clear about programming differences among them, but evening programming on many channels seems to be a lot of panel discussions and talking heads over news footage. The regional channels are where contradictions flourish.

The French as a people are enormously, unabashedly proud of their culture and their history, far more than Americans are of theirs. It is part of French DNA. They have a pride in being “French.” They have a history that goes back two millennia. They remember and celebrate it, and actively work to teach new generations the significance of that history. They work to maintain “Frenchness” under assault from the onslaught of Americanisms and the English language. Virtually every night you find at least one channel, often several, showing programs devoted to French history‒documentaries about the middle ages, one of the World Wars, archaeologists unearthing a new find. And travelogs, wonderful travelogs promoting the enormous diversity of the regions of France and giving us great fodder for future road trips.

But immediately after one of those documentaries, right in the middle of “prime time,” you get a French-language dubbed, decades old episode of…wait for it, wait for it… “Columbo”! Or “Pawn Stars.” Or “Counting Cars.” Or “NCIS.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Our particular favorite is a TV show that is impenetrable but, like a train wreck, impossible to stop watching, called “Fort Boyard.” The show has been on since 1990, and variants of it are done in an astonishing number of countries around the world, all similar in theme to the original French version filmed in an abandoned fortress standing off the Charentaise coast.

It is almost impossible to explain this show. The short version is, two teams compete in a series of challenges to win money for a charity or some worthy cause. The things they must do are so dangerous, and often so politically incorrect by contemporary American standards, one would expect it to be shut down in a nonce by insurance regulations or a woke mob. Dwarfs (ok, little people(?), but now including women), dressed up in ridiculous costumes shepherd contestants through a series of challenges to obtain keys that will unlock the vault at the end of the show, where contestants have a small amount of time to rake in “gold” coins and escape through a gate before it drops and tigers are released into the room. Really.

But wait, there’s more: The Challenges! Catapulting a contestant off the top of the fort into the ocean, trying to hit a tiny target. Riding a bicycle on a wire stretched across the gaping courtyard of the fort, 50 feet or more below. Crawling through a room full of spiders, roaches, scorpians, and snakes, in the dark. And my personal favorite, a completely mad and hilariously funny “chef” forcing contestants to eat an entire plate full of a nauseating melange of “ingredients” in which the object is to keep it down and avoid blowing lunch. Worms, natto, durian, blood, feathers. Maybe some raw bass guts. Mixed together in a “bass-o-matic.” Great stuff! I could go on. There are wizards, and scantily clad ladies. Games of skill with fantasy Olympians and pre-adolescent martial arts champions. The details and wackiness seem to change each season. Everyone in France apparently knows “Fort Boyard.”

You sit there and watch this thing, and my goodness, it seems like its been going on for a while, and you look at the clock and realize this program has been on for two and a half hours, and they’re not close to the end! And there hasn’t been a commercial break.

That’s when you discover yet another convention of French television, something inconceivable to the American TV Executive: There are no commercial breaks in French television. All commercials run in a single block before and after the programs. The commercial block might be ten or twelve minutes long, but get thisevery commercial block is prefaced with a graphic that says “Promotion.”

They actually give you a warning that you are about to be hit with a block of commercials. It is sort of a “Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! Commercials Ahead!”

Not that French TV commercials are all that bad. They’re a fascinating contrast to what we see in the US, and an interesting glimpse of French culture. There seem to be two kinds of voice-over, no matter what you are watching. One is a woman (it sounds like the very same woman all the time), who breathlessly whispers to you about the product she’s hawking, be it frozen pizza or cleaning products. The other is a slightly manic male voice, trying to cram 60 seconds worth of copy into a 30-second spot, sounding like Crazy Eddie. We often look at each other and say, “I have no idea what that was about.”

The other thing you cannot help noticing is how much commercial copy and advertising verbiage, spoken or on-screen text, is English. You will hear a French voice rattling off in French, and then seamlessly work in “Fast!” “Quick!” “Amazing!” (sometimes an entire phrase in English) before returning to French. It’s startling, and I’ve often thought “When would you ever hear a commercial in the US where the announcer momentarily slipped into French then returned to English?”

There are fascinating contradictions in French TV, contradictions that mirror the contradictions in everyday life here in that tug of war between Frenchness and the invasive quality of the English language and American culture. But, predictably, there remain some constants, some immutable laws of nature that prevail, whether in the US, or here in France.

Like, Beloved Wife can’t work the remote here, either.

Evolutions

From our first arrival in the village acquaintances and friendships seemed to be extended almost effortlessly, some almost spontaneously. In moments of reflection we admit that, unbelievable as it sounds, we have acquired an ever-growing circle of friends, a circle larger and a social life infinitely more active than anything we had back in the States.

It sounds like overstatement, but it is true. We never know when our phone will ring, we will get a text, or someone will show up at the door with an invitation to do something: play pétanque now in the park, meet in half an hour at the café for a beer or coffee, meet at the guinguette for drinks, be at such and such a house for dinner on Saturday.

One day last December we found ourselves needing a passport photo for another bit of paperwork for the beast that is French bureaucracy. Reflexively, I suggested going into La Flèche to the big grocery store where they have a photo booth. Karen suggested going to the little photography studio just off the town square, about fifty steps from our front door. I resisted. It never occurred to me, even though we routinely stop to look at the window displays that change with the seasons.

Entering the shop we were greeted by a smiling bearded Frenchman right out of central casting. We launched Standard Operating Procedure for a conversation in a business establishmentapologizing for our French.

“Bonjour, monsieur. Je suis desolé. je suis Americain, et…”

“It’s OK. We speak English!”

To our left was a woman we had not seen when we entered, speaking English all right, fluent East Coast English. This was how we met Alexandra and Christophe.

Alexandra…she often goes by “Alex”…is extraordinary. She is multilingual. Born in London, having lived in Venezuela, Spain, the US, and France, she speaks fluent English, Spanish, and French (and probably more). She spent one year as a teen in Massachusetts, and speaks impeccable English with a Mid-Atlantic accent. She writes and reports for the regional newspaper. She is embedded in the local political scene, is on the village council, and if there is anyone in the entire village and environs that YOU want to know, it is Alex. She is wired into the community. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She is generous, caring, and funny as hell.

Meeting Alex was like grabbing the brass ring. She and Christophe have been a blessing.

Alex cooks; she loves food and cooking. Karen cooks and loves food and cooking. Alex and Karen are readers and they share many interests. In fact they share many remarkably similar interests. They like each other. They clicked from their first meeting, and that is a beautiful thing. What began as a tentative request by Karen for someone to tutor her in French (turned out to be Alex), quickly became friendship.

Alex is Karen’s missing link. The biggest thing missing for her in France is a soul-deep friend, a woman she can talk to, connect with, and feel kinship to. From the beginning I have had that with Anthony. Call it a male bonding thing, a deep connection. Karen has missed that kind of relationship all this time, and suddenly, with Alex, she has a completeness that was missing. She has a buddy. She has a playmate just as I have a playmate in Anthony.

Anthony has always fancied himself the guy who knows everybody in the two villages of Thorée les Pins and Luché-Pringé, but he didn’t know Alexandra and Christophe, and was mildly rattled when we told him about socializing with them and some of their friends. Somehow it didn’t seem right that these Americans knew people he didn’t. At one point he said to me, only half-joking, I suspect, “I wanted to keep you for myself.”

He kept telling me I had to introduce him to them and I kept telling him yeah, some day. They want to meet you, too. Then I’d go on and tell him about something else we did with them, just to give him the business.

Next gathering at Alex and Christophe’s place Anthony and Cèline were invited, and it was interesting to watch the initial interaction. It took a few minutes of cautious eyeing up of each other, and by the end of the first glass of wine they were all old friends, comparing notes on who knows who. The connection was made.

The two wings of our friendships have connected, and they are now friends as well. They have all been absorbed into our circle that never seems to stop growing. I have the added bonus of being able to needle Anthony that if he needs help meeting people in Luché, I can probably arrange an introduction.

Along the way, something extraordinary happened, something that struck Karen and me almost simultaneously. It was one of those moments when we realized with astonishment that we were experiencing the same thing.

The weather turned warm, flowers were blooming, and the village was stirring from the end of winter, the confinement, and the simultaneous arrival of Spring. Signs were posted that the park facilities along the river would soon open; bikes would be available for rental, along with canoes and paddle boats. The camping area along the river would open, after months of fear that the season would be lost. Luché-Pringé, a small quiet village most of the year, is a destination for camping vacationers, and normally the excellent campground fills up in summer, with “campers” drawn by the recreation area on the river bank, the pool, and the poolside bar.

Then it happened. One day, seeing all the signs of approaching summer, I felt it. For the first time in my life, I thought, “Oh hell, it’s going to be tourist season.”

I thought, “Damn. There will be more traffic in the village. Hell, I’ll have to get up earlier to get to the boulangerie in the morning, because they’ll sell out sooner because of the tourists. I’ll have to stand in line because of the tourists.”

Karen admitted she had been struck with the same thought. For the first time we had instinctively thought and felt we were on the other side of the fence. We now felt part of the us, and no longer one of them. We had that sense of mild intrusion on our normal routine the presence of tourists brings, and at the same time a kind of confirmation of being local, no longer an outsider.

It feels good!

INCOMING!

The French will tell you they don’t have flies and they don’t have mosquitoes (under duress they might admit to mosquitoes, but never on the second floor). They’ll tell you this with a straight face and absolute conviction even as they swat one away; even as stores sell fly swatters, fly paper strips, and those battery-powered tennis-racket bug-zapper things.

It’s hogwash, of course. It’s a belief system. And it is the foundation of another oddity: they don’t believe in window or door screens.

It sounds weird to say they don’t believe in window screens; it’s like saying someone doesn’t believe in ball pein hammers, but it’s true. You don’t find screens on windows. You find open windows, open to the world and to all the flies and mosquitoes that don’t exist in France.

Walk down a street in Paris or walk the streets of a country village and you will pass open windows. Big, wide-open windows. No screens.

Our friends who owned the cottage in the Aude where we stayed for a number of years finally got tired of the flies and mosquitoes that don’t exist (they lived with mosquito netting over their bed), and tried to get screens for their windows. They had to find a carpenter who would do it. They found one. He did it, reluctantly, apparently convinced it was an unnecessary extravagance by those wacky Americans. It took him several weeks to make them. Special order.

We sit here in our apartment with the windows closed, listening to the thud of flies and mosquitoes on the glass, looking across the way at our neighbors’ open windows and wondering, “How can they do that? How can their house not be full of flying insects? Do they just will them away?”

This belief that flies and skeeters don’t exist, which leads to no need for screens, is either concurrent with or the progenitor of something even more un-American: The French don’t believe in air conditioning.

It is ubiquitous in the USeverything has air conditioning. In France it is almost impossible to find. I have never been in a home that has air conditioning of any kind. In stores, restaurants, and offices it is exceedingly rare. If you’re hot, open a window. You know, the ones with no screens, because there are no flies or mosquitoes.

Air conditioning is viewed as some kind of super special luxury, so much so that if a business actually has it, there is a sign out front that announces it: Climatisation!

Restauranteurs believe the cure for being too hot inside is dining alfresco: eat outside, sometimes in the shade of an awning or canopy, sometimes under nothing except the sun.

Interestingly, while flies and mosquitoes do not exist in the mind of the French, they are quick to acknowledge and warn you of a charming thing called a Frelon, a hornet that shows up in mid-summer for a several-week long engagement.

These suckers have a buzz the sound of a small aircraft engine, and they’re huge. They could use landing gear and tail numbers. They get into the house through…well, you know where. When you draw the shutters closed you can hear them slam into them outside. And they will sting.

The only advantage you have is they fly slowly. They lumber. As aircraft go they are heavy bombers, not fighters, and so, armed with a tennis racket bug zapper, they’re moderately easy to swat down. Then you can pitch the corpses out the window, which conveniently has no screen on it.

Brake When Necessary

Say “karting” to most people in the US and they’ll think, “Oh, go-karts. How cute.”

Karting—the racing of “go-karts” is something less than a niche sport in the US; more a cult activity. Serious racers own their own machines, wrench them themselves, and participate in a very insular world of races in a scattering of regional tracks, very much below the radar of the general public. It is just about the most niche of all forms of organized motorsport in the US.

There are many Arrive-and-Drive tracks where the public can just show up, get into a kart and drive fast in 8- or 10-minute sessions against each other.  There are also tracks with Arrive-and-Drive leagues for people who wish to race seriously but don’t have the time or money to own and race their own machine. These are quite rare.

Having spent a major part of my career as a motorsports writer and broadcaster covering Indy Cars, NASCAR, and SCCA, no surprise that I have always wanted to race, but circumstance and finance made it nothing more than a pipe dream. An exhaust-pipe dream, I suppose.

A few years ago an indoor track opened about five minutes from our house, and I began spending a few hours a week running hot laps. Then an outdoor track opened with an Arrive-and-Drive league on what had been a parking lot on the outskirts of Baltimore Washington International Airport, also minutes away. Last year I finished eighth  in points in a league where I gave away more than 50 years and 100 pounds to the whippersnappers in the league. Which brings us to Le Mans.

During our stay here in France in the summer of 2016 I discovered what major league karting is really about. I had no idea.

In the US, almost all karting is similar to American short-track auto racing. Events consist of a brief qualifying period, then heats, and then a final, none much longer than ten minutes or so.  It is every man for himself.  That was karting for me. 

In Europe it is an entirely different beast. Karting is endurance racing, with races that range in length from 2 or 3 hours to 6, 7, 12, 18, and the Grands Mammus, 24 or even 30 hours. Drivers, pilotes in French, are in the cockpit for up to an hour at a time, and teams require as many as six drivers for a 24-hour event; race rules limit drivers to maximum driving time per shift, usually from 45 minutes to an hour.

This kart endurance racing is enormous in Europe, and especially in France, where Le Mans is an absolute temple in the religion of speed. It is difficult to process what big business this is, and how prominent it is in the public awareness. It is the portal to major motor racing and it is serious business. Every one of the greats, from Michael Schumacher, to Lewis Hamilton, to all of the other current drivers on the F1 circuit came through karting.

There are major-league style tracks all over the country, indeed all over Europe. On any given weekend there will be multiple endurance races all around France, with fields of 30, 40, or more teams in multiple engine classes. In the immediate vicinity of the Le Mans automobile racing circuit there are no fewer than three major karting facilities and on the same weekend there are often at least two events being run simultaneously. When I say major league, I mean it; pristine track surfaces, wide runoff areas, grandstands, restaurants, bars (!), and track-view table seating areas.

One day back in 2016 Anthony told me his close friend Ludo Voisin is captain of one of the top teams in France, the Le Mans Racing Team (LMRT). They were competing in the karting 24 hours of Le Mans that weekend, and we were invited into the pits. The Karting 24 Heures du Mans, the big apple. It was a seminal moment.

We watched. We soaked it in. I asked a lot of questions. Before we left the track that day Anthony and I had made plans to dive deep into the sport, with a goal of driving in the 24 Heures du Mans on the Le Mans International track. Make that a bucket list item.

Since that day we have come a long, long way. We have formed a base three-man team, Anthony, me, and Anthony’s dad, Yannik. Ludo Voisin has taken us under his wing as mentor, and has signed on to be a team member when LMRT is not in the same race. And, oh yes, along the way LMRT placed on the podium in the 2019 edition of the 24 Heures du Mans! Good Lord.

As soon as I arrived in November we began practicing at the Le Mans area tracks (alas, the Le Mans International track is only used for races so there is no practice availability). Through December, January, and February we ran on courses including the world-renowned Alain Prost circuit, in all weather.

Oh, forgot to mention. They race in the rain here, no rain tires. Slicks in the rain. Practice, baby, practice.

In February the team made its debut appearance. Behold, the Grey Wolves Racing Team, GWRT. We may not be fastest, but we are the oldest, and we aim to finish!

Armed with Ludo as our mentor/race captain, the first race was 7 hours, on a grey (how appropriate), rainy Saturday. RAIN! It was a hell of a way to introduce myself to endurance racing. Forty-five-minute shifts; on for 45, off for 90 minutes, then back on for 45, for 7 hours. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and addictive. I could hardly wait for the next race, and we were triumphant at the end. We drove clean, we didn’t finish last, and by the end of the event we had become something of the darlings of not only the race organizers, but other teams as well. One race into the season and we were already well known and recognized around the pit garages.

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Le Mans style start. Anthony, second from right in the rain suit,  sprints to the kart at the start.

Soon after, COVID hit, the confinement went into effect, and racing came to a halt, but by June things returned to a semblance of normal. Lo and behold, race organizers announced a 6-hour event at the Le Mans International circuit—the Bucket List track!

Six Hours, three drivers. Ludo and LMRT would also be in the race so we’d be racing against them, although racing against them consists largely of moving over as they blow past. Which, as it turns out is exactly what happened as I was running at top speed down the back straight to one of only two places on the track where you touch the brake. A kart moved inside me and I gave a wave to let him know to take the corner, and it turned out to be Ludo, who gave a thumbs up as he slipped by.

Unlike in February it was a glorious, sunny, warm day. Like February it was exhausting. But we were running at Le Mans International! And I was thrilled., especially when after the fact, Ludo told us the 10 top teams in France had been in the field.

Grey Wolves Racing Team is alive and well. In mid-August the season resumes with a 7-hour event in Alencon, about two hours away from here, followed by three more races over the next three weeks, including another 3-hour event at Le Mans International, all aiming towards the biggest event of this season, an 18-hour race in October. Our ultimate goal: next spring, the 2021 24 Heures du Mans. 

 

SONY DSC
Grey Wolves Racing Team at Le Mans : Anthony Blot, Yannik Blot, and me, with Celine Blot, the Team Manager                                                                                                         Photo by Ludo Voisin

The chronological age of the team members (Anthony is the young punk at age 43; Yannik and I are 72), while giving some people pause for admiration, has also given rise to suggestions for sponsorships because of our demographic. Like hearing aids, glasses, and (not funny) funeral homes.

To give you an idea of the reality of this, check out the link below. It is a team video from LMRT who finished on the podium in Le Mans last year. Full screen is good.

And no, we’re not yet this good, but we are building an infrastructure.

https://youtu.be/wiYArM2XOnY

Stairway to Heaven

It’s out there, lurking, silently waiting for the opportunity to strike. A silent killer.

We made contact on our very first visit to Paris, but everything was new and different, and we didn’t notice. When we launched into the countryside on rambling road trips all over France we came to grasp its omnipresence and threat. It is everywhere.

It is an architectural “feature” found throughout western Europea feature designed to maim, kill, or at least embarrass the innocent, the unwary, the American Tourist. It is a small change in the level of a floor…only an inch or two, not a full step, something more akin to a little less than half a step.

It will be where you least expect it, and where there is no reason for it to be. Unmarked, with no warning or OSHA-approved signage, it lies in wait.

You will trip if it is raised; you will stumble forward if it drops. You will never see it coming.

We once visited friends in Brussels in an apartment with a long, sweeping stairway full of normal steps, except for the final step, which was one of these man-killers. In the course of three days every visitor and some of the residents were tripped by that final step. We all went down. When I mentioned it to our host, she casually allowed as how, “Oh yes, we all fall there.”

And that was when we named itThe Belgian Half-Step. BEWARE THE BELGIAN HALF-STEP!

It will be there, in bars and restaurants, in shops, in offices, and in homes. We are now on perpetual guard, calling them out to each other like artillery observers. At a restaurant Karen returns to the table after a trip to the toilet.


“Belgian half-steps. One in the hallway, another inside the bathroom.”

“Roger that.”

We enter an establishment and I instinctively scan the floor.

Belgian half-step. Two o’ clock”

“Got it” says wife.

During the Occupation in the Second World War the mysterious deaths of hundreds of Nazi soldiers were erroneously attributed to the Resistance. It was the Belgian half-step. Germans don’t have half-steps. They have goose steps.

Even today, each year hundreds of Americans get up from their restaurant tables to go to the toilet and are never seen again; their crumpled corpses are quickly hauled away in unmarked hearses. It’s not good for business if they’re seen.

You can find dazed tourists walking the streets with pitiful signs and photographs of missing loved ones, “Have You Seen Bob?” they will ask the locals, who give a quick “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas l’anglais,” then scurry away. They know.

They don’t tell you this stuff in travel brochures.

The French Sound. Potato Salad. And oh yes, Explosives.

The French make a strange sound when conversing that sounds for all the world like someone imitating a fart. They purse their lips and push air through to make a sound like, “brrrrrp.” It’s a sound that carries meaning like a word, and is part of the vocabulary. It can mean pretty much anything, but you know what it means from “context clues,” a wave of the hand, a shrug, or a head shift that accompanies it.

We were making good time, then we hit traffic around Paris, and brrrrrp.” And you know what that means.

I owe you 50 cents. Here it is.” “Brrrrp.” Meaning: Keep it.

Is 6 o’clock too late for me to pick you up?” “Brrrrp.” Meaning: No problem.


“What did you think of the movie?” “Brrrrp.” Meaning: It sucked.

Our French has improved (on a scale of 1-10 it’s still like, -2 for me, and maybe 2+ for Karen), but we’ve found ourselves unconsciously inserting this French sound into our conversations…oddly, when speaking French or English. When it turns up while speaking French we silently congratulate ourselves on how well our French language skills are improving.

                                                                 —

If our marriage ever goes on the rocks it may be because of potato salad. Not long after we met, the subject of potato salad came up. It has remained a point of contention for more than three decades, with no give on either side.

I grew up with Proper ‘Merican Potato Salad. The right kind, with hard boiled egg, lots of mayonnaise ( let’s not get started on “Kraft or Hellmann’s”), onion, celery. Proper Potato Salad.

Beloved Wife, bless her heart, poor thing, grew up mistakenly believing what she was eating was potato salad when, of course, it was not. It was some kind of potato-salad-like thing that included no hard-boiled eggs (strike one), a mingy amount of mayonnaise (strike two), and a first wave of “vinaigrette”‒which includes mustard, sugar, and vinegar (“Strike three! You’re outta there!”). Clearly not Proper Potato Salad.

Over the years we have both become highly territorial about our recipes. If I’m in the kitchen peeling potatoes and boiling eggs, Beloved Wife will enter and suspiciously ask, “What are you doing?”

“Making potato salad.”

Want me to do it?”

“No!”

In my defense, I am treated just as rudely when I offer to help her get it right. In order to settle this dispute we have even resorted to dragging unsuspecting friends into the house to suffer a blind taste test.

Ok, no fudging here, none of this, “They were both wonderful” crap. You’re going to pick a winner, see?”

And they did. Mine won by acclamation and proclamation. Somewhat Beloved Wife says that is not so, that she won and is willing to call them up to confirm it. But I have no recollection of that. Not one bit.

Around the middle of June our friends Alexandra and Christophe announced that because of us they would hold their first-ever Genuine American Fourth of July BBQ. To make sure they got it right, they put us in charge of the menu. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Ahem. What are you doing?”

I’m making potato salad.”

Are you making The Proper Kind”

I’m making it the right way, if that’s what you mean.”

“Like with eggs and stuff?”

NO. I’m making my potato salad.”

But you can’t do that! It’s July 4th! We’re ‘Mericans. You need to make Genuine ‘Merican Potato Salad.”

I am.”

“But it’s our national holiday! You’re going to confuse the poor French with some kind of outlier, left-wing, pinko-commie, faux potato salad. Dear.”

She thought I didn’t see her reach for that knife, but I did.

Love You!” Love conquers all. Well, a lot

Ok, ok, I’ll do it your way this time, next time it’s mine.”

Ok.”

Came July 4th and all of the dishes Beloved Wife made were wildly successful, especially the Genuine Potato Salad. Alexandra’s teenage son Max hovered over the bowl, waiting politely for everyone to have some before snatching it away, announcing it would be his breakfast on the morrow. When I pointed out how much Max loved it, she gave me a “brrrrp,” a wave of the hand, and said, “He’s a teenage boy. He’ll eat anything.”

Later that evening we celebrated July 4th (and Proper ‘Merican Potato Salad) with a fireworks display orchestrated by Christophe. Ten days later we were at it again, and another border skirmish erupted.

Ten days later was Bastille Day, which is not what the French call it. They call it The National Holiday (sounds like some kind of political correctness has reared its ugly head). Once again Alexandra announced a celebratory BBQ, and would we bring more stuff like last time? Coming up: Round Two.

Whatcha doing, dear?”

“Making potato salad, and don’t start.”

What?”

You know what. I’m making my potato salad this time.”

They’re not going to like it.”

Nonsense. You agreed, remember?”

They’re going to be really disappointed.”

Shut up.”

What are you going to say when they complain it’s not as good as last time?”

Oh, for god’s sake, I’ll put hard-boiled egg in it, ok? Go away.”

And on the French National Holiday, we presented the gathering of unsuspecting French folks with a battery of delicious dishes, and somewhat-but-not-entirely Beloved Wife’s alleged potato salad.

During the meal I pulled Anthony over.

Hey, do me a favor, will ya?”

“What?”

“When you get a minute, slide on over to Karen and tell her you think the potato salad was better last time, and what did she do differently.”

But it’s good.”

I know it’s good. Just do what I said.”

But it’s good. Why should I do that? I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

Look, you’re a guy. I’m a guy. We need to stick together, Just do what I said.”

Oh, ok.” Heh.

A bit later Christophe hauled out the ordnance again, and in the glow of Roman candles I told Alexandra how much the French and Americans have in common.

We both like to celebrate our holidays by blowing shit up.”

During the pyrotechnics (better than the ones on 4 Juillet, by the way) I sidled up to Occasionally Beloved Wife.

So…Anthony said he thought last week’s potato salad was better.”

“Yes,” she said. “He told me.” She wasn’t pleased, and I started to laugh.

What are you laughing at?”

“I told him to say that.”

“You what?”

“Yeah, I told him to say that. He liked the potato salad.”


For a moment she said nothing, but gave me a truly magnificent malevolent stare.

“You see,” she said, “I knew it was a success. The boys cleaned out the whole bowl.”

Yeah, well” I replied. “They’re teenage boys. They’ll eat anything.”

Brrrrrrrrp.”

 

Balls

Beloved Wife is not a sports fan. Actually, she detests almost all sports, especially team sports. She loathes football, finds baseball inexplicably boring, basketball does not exist in her lexicon, and she claims in public to hate hockey too, but after more than two decades of living with me she has become a closet, if quiet,  New York Rangers fan. Probably Stockholm Syndrome.

This is a woman who has embraced a philosophy first introduced to me by a high school guidance counsellor many years ago: “Whenever I feel athletic I lie down until the feeling passes.” But it isn’t really the athletic part she hates, it is the competition; she swears she hates competition.

And so it was that today I heard her say words I never dreamed she would utter. More likely that I would hear her say, “Tom please drive roofing nails into my skull.” Instead she said, “Let’s go to the store, I want to buy petanque balls so I can practice.”

I’m sure it was her. I checked closely, and I’m certain it was her, but those sounds, those strange words emanating from her mouth were just so wrong. And yet, it was her. The lady wants to play petanque. I find myself saying it over and over to myself.

Petanque is played everywhere in France. It is, in a way, a national pastime. You can’t get a group of French folks together outside on a spring or summer day and not have someone decide it’s time to play petanque. Especially if there are adult beverages in hand, which of course there are, because it is France.

There are petanque courts everywhere, and you see them if you just know what to look for: rectangular, dirt or sand patches in people’s yards, in public spaces, often in small areas around town that aren’t used for anything else.

Petanque is played with metal balls that are rolled, tossed, or lobbed in an effort to get closest to a target ball, and, like shuffleboard, you can try to knock the other team’s balls out of the way. It is very similar to the Italian game of bocce, with which, being Italian and from New Jersey, I am well familiar. It is quite similar. There is much waving of arms, yelling and arguing, drinking of adult beverages, and, if you think no one is looking, cheating. Although, it appears the French game is a bit more subdued and honestly played than the Italian version. The mafia, after all, was Italian.

It turns out we have had a number of petanque experiences along the way and Karen, initially a reluctant participant, has become increasingly interested. Here in Luché there are petanque courts only a few steps from the apartment. On the 14th….what we call Bastille Day but the French just call the National Holiday… friends knocked on the door to tell us they were headed to the park to play petanque and we should join them. That, apparently, set the hook.

So, today we went shopping for balls. Shiny steel balls. Petanque balls. And, because she is a woman, even when targeting petanque balls, it could not be a surgical strike. Oh, no.

There they were, three shiny steel petanque balls in a nice zip-up canvas carrying case, with the necessary accessories. Ten euro, a slam dunk. I grabbed it.

“Perfect, babe.” Here, one set for you and one for me. Let’s get outta here.”

But no…

Next to the ten-euro balls, you see, was a display of petanque balls in a locked case like the ones that you see in the US to keep you from getting your hands on the razor blade cartridges. And on that display was a dazzling array of balls; some silver, some black, some with matte finishes, and with prices beginning at 40 euro and going up from there to close to 200 euro.

“Wait,” said she, and I knew what was about to happen. “Ooooh, this one is smaller!”

Yes it was. And it was black. And there were others, also lighter, and heavier, and different shades of black. We looked at them all. Several  times each, she handling them individually, then two,  one in each hand, then asking me to see which is lighter, and yadda yadda yadda.

“This one is lighter, isn’t it?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Oh, this one is smaller! It fits in my smaller hand, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, dear”

“I think this one is even lighter, isn’t it?”

“Yes, dear”

But to be absolutely certain, over she calls the Petanque Equipment Man, who hauls out a…swear ta God…a petanque ball scale, so she can see which is lighter. But the battery on the scale was dead, and it didn’t work, so he called over another guy who did the same thing we had just done–held one in each hand and closed his eyes to try to figure out which was lighter.

And when she finally, maybe,  had perhaps decided  on what she wanted, she called over the gentleman in charge of Petanque Equipment Sales, who hauled out the Petanque Ball Catalogue because that particular ball was out of stock.

We spent about 20 minutes in all, and when it was done she had placed an order for a set of petanque balls that cost 65 euro, wouldn’t be in for a couple of weeks, and I had to leave my phone number with him.

For a set of petanque balls.

For my wife.

I’m telling you, I can see it coming, like the headlight on a freight train highballing it down the tracks toward me on a dark night. This woman would make the perfect golfer. When she finally gets out there on the court, she’s going to blame her troubles on the equipment.

Quaint Traditions of France

For our first road trip since quarantine restrictions began lifting here, we took a brief trip to the coast and had one of the most unique culinary experiences of our lives.  We visited the just-offshore island of Noirmoutier, home of the world’s rarest, most unusual and expensive potato, the legendary Pommes de Mer.

Unique in all the world, these small, perfectly round potatoes grow under water in the shallows surrounding the island. As they mature they break away from their stems and, moved by the tides, roll along the sandy bottom, until they are a perfectly round shape.  The locals call them roule. As they ripen they begin to rise a bit from the bottom, and in the final two weeks of June each year, there is a frenzy of activity on the island.

This is when the world famous Potato Trappers of Bretagne go to work.  Sticking strictly to the traditional method of trapping with a hand-made mensonge, these hardy trappers, les menteurs, work furiously to catch the potatoes before the can roll out to sea with the tides, never to be seen again.

It is a hard life for them. For eleven and a half months they wait in a stupor of petanque and Pineau de Charente, then burst into no more than two weeks of frenetic activity. Sadly, it is one more wonderful tradition that is dying away, as fewer and fewer sons of watermen choose to follow in their fathers’ career footsteps, lured away to the mainland instead by the excitement of a resurgent aluminum siding industry.

We were uncommonly fortunate to experience the delights of these pré-salé delicacies when we chanced upon a small local restaurant serving the roule in the most traditional manner,  accompanied by filet of locally caught ocean fish, called rocque by the locals.

I know, it’s only rocque and roule, but I like it.

CRISIS

Things have taken a dark and ominous turn here, and there is a palpable chill in the air.  We feared this day would come, despite our best efforts. Accommodations for weight and space were made and the math was impeccable. We planned to return to the US in four months, in April, and allocations were made beforehand in anticipation.

But then came the corona virus and April became May, May became June, and now June has become July. Last night it all came home to roost. There was a baleful cry from the kitchen, “OH NO!”

I feared the worst but I knew, and when I entered the kitchen my worst fears were confirmed.

She stood there, Beloved Wife, a pathetic sight; a look of despair and, I am certain, tears in her eyes, holding aloft a single, lonely Black Beauty, she was barely able to say the words.

“IT’S THE LAST ONE!”

Indeed it was; the last of the kick-butt ‘murican Hefty trash bags. We are now left to an uncertain future, uncertain when we can return to the US, and doomed to live that time with nothing but French garbage bags.

Film at 11.

Language Mastery

We were staying in the village of Belveze du Razes in the Aude. Mike The Brit and his wife lived in Cailhau, the next village over, where he had his home custom built from the ground up. This, I knew, was no mean feat because he had to deal with a host of contractors, which can be daunting under any circumstances; doing so when you aren’t fluent in the language can be a nightmare. I told him I was impressed.

“Aw, mate,” said Mike, “It’s not that hard, really. You just rub your chin and mutter a bit. And frown. Yeah, frown.That goes a long way”.

I thought that was pretty funny. Funny guy, that Mike The Brit.

Not long after we were on a road trip and ended up in the city of Albi, where I parked in a pay-to-park lot. We entered without incident, but in order to get out we needed to pay one euro for a ticket, a sort of Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card that wasn’t free. Armed with my euro I went to the ticket machine and inserted the coin.

For a few moments nothing happened. Then the machine spat my euro back at me.

I looked closely at the machine, but found no message, no indication of why it was rejected, so I inserted it again. Again, it was spat out. As I retrieved the coin I looked behind me and there was another guy standing there, watching. Being a little flustered and not speaking French very well, all I could do was exchange glances with him, then look at the coin in my hand, which he did too.

He muttered something and frowned, so I did too.

I inserted the coin again, it spat back out, I looked at him, he looked at me, he rubbed his chin and muttered. I did too, then I frowned and so did he.

About this time a gendarme showed up.  Apparently having watched us, he looked at the coin in my hand, then looked at me, then the other guy, and he rubbed his chin. So I did too, and the other guy frowned and muttered something.

So far not a word had been spoken, when the gendarme took the coin from me, gave it a rub for good luck and inserted in the machine, which promptly spat it back into his hand.

The gendarme looked at the coin, rubbed his chin, frowned  and muttered something, then looked at me, so I frowned and muttered back at him.  I could hear the guy behind me muttering and I assume he was rubbing his chin too.

When I looked back I could see that now there were three people standing there, all of us looking at the gendarme and the coin, all of us frowning and muttering.

The cop reached into his pocket, pulled out another euro and slipped it into the machine, which immediately printed and spat out a ticket that he held triumphantly aloft and handed to me after pocketing the recalcitrant euro. All the while the crowd around me muttered in approval and nodded to each other. No one had thus far said a single intelligible word, but I had my ticket and was free to leave the lot.

Heading back to the car where sat Beloved Wife, unaware of the drama that had just unfolded, I couldn’t resist. Waving the ticket overhead, I called out to her with far greater excitement than warranted, “Honey! Honey! Karen, look, look, I’m bi-lingual!”

All she did was frown and mutter something. She’s more fluent in French than me.

And Give My Love To Rosé

A neighbor down the road in the next village over, when we spent time at the cottage in the Aude, was a British expat named Mike. Once, when the subject turned to wine and he heard what we were routinely paying in the US, I thought he needed oxygen. I allowed as how we figured a ten-dollar bottle of wine was good for a no-guilt mid-week meal, but a nice California cabernet was going to be about twenty bucks. I thought he was going to pass out. Mike was completely ignorant of California wines. He had never tasted anything from California. His wine experience was completely French.

“Mate,” he gasped, “I never spend more than four or five euros, max. Never!”

I was skeptical.  At the time, the exchange rate for a euro was about $1.10, so we’re talking four to five dollars a bottle. But he was right. There are wines that are never exported to the US, from regions of France the average American does not think of when talking about wine, producing perfectly drinkable wine that is ridiculously inexpensive.

The Languedoc produces more wine than any other region in France, but it is sold almost exclusively in Europe.  What isn’t sold in France as vin ordinaire, by the carafe in restaurants as “vin de pays”, winds up being sold in Eastern Europe. It’s not grand cru by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s perfectly drinkable, especially with food.

On our next visit the following year, I wanted to bring a nice, representative bottle of American wine for Mike. I brought a California Cabernet Sauvignon–a big, lusty cab. Karen often describes the French wines she likes best, in particular bordeaux, as Audrey Hepburn, compared to Mae West California cabs. I gifted the bottle to Mike, who was appalled at the price, around $23 if I remember correctly. Next morning I got a phone call.

“WHOA, MATE! That wine was In-Your-Face!”  I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting Mae West.  What I wasn’t expecting was how good the wine here is for the price, which brings me to rosé.

I prefer red wines, Beloved Wife generally prefers whites. Neither of us would buy rosé in the US, because in our experience they are overpriced and don’t taste very good. Rosés will cost anywhere from twelve to twenty dollars a bottle, and they mostly taste anywhere from “meh” to “truly meh.”  Yummy is not a word we’ve heard or said about rosés in the US, even the ones from France. Even our French friends living in the US have few good things to say about those rosés.

All that changed when we got here and I became a rosé slut. I discovered Rosé D’Anjou and Cabernet D’Anjou, two of the most delicious, enjoyable, dare I say it? yummy, rosés you will ever experience. It is the most delicious rosé I’ve ever tasted, and it sells for about four euros a bottle. Four euros!  It is unbelievable.

We really go through a lot of it. At four euros a bottle, we’re saving money with every sip!

At the epicerie around the corner I buy so much of it that the other day as I walked past the shelf, Mauricio told me, “That’s the last bottle of the rosé you like.” I didn’t know if he meant it was the last one I’d ever see again, or just until the next delivery, so I didn’t take any chances. I grabbed it. He meant until the next delivery.

We have to take our glass, cans and paper to the recycling station here in the village. I have taken to going at night when it’s less likely I’ll be seen hauling all of the empty rosé bottles, lest they think the Americans are winos. It’s kind of embarrassing.’’

The Joy of Cooking

My wife is a Chef.

Oh, she will demur and say something like, “I’m not a chef. I’m a good household cook,” which is like Mario Andretti saying, “Ah, I just like to drive fast.”

The lady can cook. She thinks about food, reads about food, and routinely turns out restaurant quality meals here at Chez Nous. We will frequently have a dish at a restaurant that we’ve never had before, and after contemplating it, she will announce, “I can do this.” Within the week the same dish will appear on our dinner table, along with her obligatory apology for presenting me with such swill. It’s the way she operates. We have friends who are top notch professional chefs, and she cooks with them for fun, as an equal in the kitchen.

When we first began to visit France, and for a number of years, we spent our time traveling like vagabonds, going from bed and breakfasts to logis, from here for lunch to there for dinner, rarely ever spending more than a single night at the same place, driving all over the country. Almost from the beginning, and especially whenever we came across one of the town markets that are so much a part of life in France, Beloved Wife would wax poetic about how nice it would be to have her own kitchen, to shop for produce at one of those markets, and to cook with the quality of ingredients that are available here in France. Sigh.

Then one day it happened; a kind of miracle. A long-time friend of Karen bought a small cottage in the south of France in the region called the Languedoc, and it became available to us to rent, almost whenever we wanted which, it turned out, was whenever we had vacation time.  For the first time we would have a place to stay for a few weeks; a place to call “home” and a base of operations for our ongoing road trips. But mostly, it gave Beloved Wife her first opportunity to cook in her own kitchen in France.

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The French tend to name their homes, and for some reason it doesn’t seem as pretentious as people in the US naming their places. This cottage was called simply enough, La Petite Maison, which is The Little House. It was located on the outskirts of a tiny village in the area called the Aude. It is what we call a “railroad house” because it was at one time the home of the railroad employee who worked there and his family. There are houses like this all over France, all looking much the same. The story goes that when the rail lines were shut down and many of them turned into bicycle and hiking trails, the railroads gave the houses to the employees who had lived in them. That’s how they got into the market. Today, almost everywhere you go in France, if you look you can spot them. Some look a bit dire, but many of them are well maintained and look quite charming. Such was the case with La Petite Maison.

Cottage interior

It opened up a new world of adventures; cooking in a telephone-booth-sized kitchen, converting temperatures from fahrenheit to celsius, shopping in a French grocery store, reading labels, deciphering cooking instructions (if the package says “C’est facile!” avoid it), even negotiating the purchase of produce from the greengrocers at the local market when none of them spoke a word of English, and we didn’t know the French words for certain vegetables. All the little protocols that go into daily life, that you never encounter as a tourist, suddenly rear up their ugly little heads when you try, if only briefly, to live a normal, settled existence.  It was challenging, but it was fun.

There are moments that I will always remember and treasure from our times here. One of them was that first evening, cooking that first meal in “her” kitchen. My beloved wife is not an easy smiler, but I have seen her smile spontaneously more here in France than anywhere.

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Cooking that first meal in a French kitchen

She was so enthusiastic about cooking in our vacation cottage that we invited a British expat couple in the next village to come over one evening for a bite to eat. They accepted, with a mention that “apero” would be fine. At the time, we didn’t know that apero means light snacks, a drink or two, maybe something salty, a bit of cheese perhaps. Karen was having none of that. She unloaded with both barrels. When Mike and Lynn (who had earlier described a more elaborate apero they had been served by a French friend) arrived expecting a simple apero, Karen presented them with course after course of full-blown dinner. There was a Spanish torta, pan-seared fois gras with home-made fig confit from trees in the garden, and the dishes just kept coming. They were, as the Brits say, gobsmacked.  By the end of the evening even she was having second thoughts, and as our guests left she said to me, “Do you think I overdid it?”  For dinner, no. For apero, well maybe….

In the years since, especially having been embraced by our French family here, Karen has gone through quite an evolution. The first time she was faced with cooking for French women she was genuinely unsettled. Everyone knows French woman are excellent cooks, routinely turning out four-course meals for ten on a bunsen burner, and she didn’t want to be embarrassed. Oh, she was mightily intimidated. She shouldn’t have been.

Almost immediately, from the first time she prepared anything for our French family and friends, she not only established herself as a woman who can cook, she earned their respect. They started shamelessly asking for recipes, which, while a badge of honor to an American woman, was also a problem as Karen doesn’t use recipes much, and had to convert all of her ingredients and cooking temps to metric amid much grousing to anyone present, which would be me.

I confess that seeing a burst of genuine happiness in Karen brings me enormous joy and gives me genuine happiness, she not being an easy smiler. And so it was, living in that cottage in the Aude in the warmth and quiet of the garden, a book in one hand, and a glass of wine in the other, I caught a moment when the smile was oh, so very real, and it makes me smile too.

Karen wine

The Town of Martyrs

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In a few days people in Britain, America, and France, especially those in Normandy, will observe the 76th anniversary of D-Day, June 6th 1944, the Normandy Invasion. Four days later, on the 10th of June, a far more grim 76th anniversary will go unnoticed in Britain and America. In France, there will be remembrances but there will be no celebrations.

Four days after D-Day a small, insignificant town in a rural area that had largely been untouched by the war was suddenly, unexpectedly surrounded and cut off from the rest of the world. It was sacked, its population murdered, the town burned to the ground by an SS unit that was ostensibly on its way to Normandy. The town was Oradour sur Glane. The destruction of the village was the worst massacre of a town in France by the Germans in WWII.  The ruins have been preserved, and today Oradour is called the Town of Martyrs.Oradour2To this day no one knows for certain why Oradour was targeted. Some speculate that it was in response to activity by French resistance, perhaps in retaliation for the killing of a German officer in the area. If so, it was the wrong town.

What is certain is that Oradour was surrounded and the population from the outskirts herded into town. Men and older boys were taken into barns and shot. Women and children were herded into the church, grenades thrown in and the building set on fire. At least one elderly person, infirm, lying in bed and unable to comply with orders to gather in the street, was shot in his bed.  642 people were murdered, among them some 240 children. Then the town was set on fire.

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It is horrifying to consider that the number of innocent dead in Oradour, nearly 650, is the number of villages that suffered a similar fate in Russia and the Ukraine at the same time on the Eastern Front.

Oradour3About 50 people, most of them children, were able to escape the massacre when their parents had them run into nearby woods and hide at the first sight of the Germans. Several years ago a friend who lives in Caen, and today guides tours of the Invasion beaches, startled me when he said his grandmother was one of the children who managed to escape.

Oradour’s ruins have been preserved, and a new town built across the road. Today you enter through a tunnel from an excellent visitor’s center, onto a street where a small sign says simply, “Silence.”

Oradour4It is not a hamlet. This was once a bustling, vibrant town. What remains is a ghost town of charred ruins and ghostly artifacts; the rusting remains of the Mayor’s automobile, children’s bicycles and toys, a sewing machine.

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Oradour6While the destruction of Oradour was taking place, a train arrived on these tracks. Everyone was taken from the train and died with the people of Oradour sur Glane.

Oradour7The French do not want the memory what happened here, and indeed in all of France during the war, to fade from their cultural memory. We have seen a troop of young French military cadets brought here and they, like everyone who has ever been here, walked in stunned silence, trying to grasp and make some sense of what happened. But it is different for them than for us. Their visit to Oradour has a deeper meaning, because it is to remind them not only of what took place in the past, but to instill in them their duty to never let it happened again.

Oradour8Visiting Oradour sur Glane is a sobering experience. It does not make for a happy day. But every time there is something new to see or to ponder. It is always silent. The place feels empty. Most often, the only sounds are footsteps. And sometimes, faintly, sobbing.

The Bridge Above The Clouds

It is astonishing to realize that France is only about 80 percent the size of Texas, but within that relatively small piece of real estate exist a variety of landscapes, vistas, forests and plains, towering mountains, and raging rivers to rival the United States.  Then there are  the historic sites that go back as far as the Neolithic age.  It is all packed within an area smaller than Texas. It is all relatively close, wherever you are. And that means everything is within striking distance for a road trip.

Road Trip! That’s what we do. It’s what we have done since the very beginning of our time here in France. We pick out a target, which might be a specific place, like Omaha Beach in Normandy, or we just pick a specific region, like the Jura, then off we go. My motto is, “I ain’t scared. I got gas!”

Now let’s talk gorges.

There is a region of France called the Tarn, where the Tarn river has, over millennia, cut deep, vicious slashes into the earth; gorges lined by sheer mountain cliffs that fall off a thousand feet or more into the river below, a river with sections of raging white water where canoers and rubber rafters play. A thousand feet above the water, hard by the sheer cliff walls, the Tarn river gorges are rimmed with a narrow road, narrow even by French standards. Narrow enough for one and a half cars to pass. Narrow enough for one Winnebago. Barely.

Driving along the Tarn river gorges is a quite unfair proposition. On one hand, Beloved Wife gasps in amazement at the stunning beauty of the landscape, the incredible beauty and the stunning site of the deep gorge and the river far, far below. She gasps in awe, her mantra, repeated over and over, “Oh, wow! Oh, that’s amazing! Oh, look, at that!”

Meanwhile, steering wheel clutched in a death grip, eyeing the edge of the road and the cliff just inches from the wheels of the car, in terror at the prospect of falling into the river far, far, below, I gasp as well. I keep telling her, “I can’t look at the scenery, I’m trying to keep us alive!” while praying there won’t be a car coming at us from the other direction. That’s when the Winnebago showed up.

Yep. Coming our way on this narrow thread of road, cliff walls to the right, drop off to death to the left, around the bend ahead came a Winnebago. My second thought was, “What manner of person in their right mind would try to drive through this gorge in a Winnebago?” The first thought was, “Oh shit.”

I was genuinely terrified. For a moment, I didn’t have a clue what to do. It was a Mexican standoff. I couldn’t go very much forward, the prospect of backing down this winding, narrow strip of road was too frightening to contemplate, and it was clear that the lunatic in the Winnebago wasn’t going to back up. Even Beloved Wife took a break from enjoying the scenery to join me in a chorus of “Oh shit.”

Salvation came when we realized, for the first time, that the road builders had thoughtfully chopped out small depressions in the cliff wall, large enough for a car to take shelter  (but certainly not for a Winnebago).  Both of us, Winnebago guy and me, spotted one such refuge mercifully lying between us, and I crammed my car into it as he edged past. At least, parked for a time in that nook, I was able to take in some of the scenery.

That is what driving through the Tarn is like, but that is not what brought us to the Tarn. We targeted the Tarn in order to see a bridge. Now, the idea of a road trip to see a bridge may not sound like the most exciting idea in the world, but this is not just any bridge. It is the Millau Viaduct.

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It is the tallest bridge in the world, spanning the Tarn valley in southeastern France, along a highway that connects Paris and environs with the southeast, Province, and the Mediterranean coast. It is called The Bridge Above The clouds, and it is worth the trip.  The sight of it will make you gasp; it is spectacular, beautiful, and breathtaking

Millau clouds

Alas, the clouds picture is not mine. We didn’t have a helicopter available….

Ironically, I thought it would also be terrifying to drive over, but you’re so high you can’t see anything but the road ahead of you, and even Madame Sightseer said there wasn’t as much of a sense of height as she expected. But when you are off the bridge and looking at it, well, the pictures tell the story. I think it’s fair to say that the Millau Viaduct is something once seen, never forgotten.

Burgers and Fries

The French really love their burgers, maybe as much as they love steak frites. Even McDonald’s is viewed as sort of exotic or at least a little exciting, rather than the last resort we think of.  French burgers tend to be big, juicy things, served in bars and  brassseries, as well as in white tablecloth restaurants.  And mostly they are really, really delicious.  Different, but delicious.

The burgers are often presented on the menu as “with salade,” but “salade” is the word for lettuce, and what you get is not so much a salad as Americans know it, but a morsel or two of lettuce, perhaps barely enough to cover the burger should you decided to place it there, which the French don’t, along with a couple of fine slivers of carrot. It is, more than anything, what they refer to as a “garniture.”

For cheese, as in cheeseburger, what shows up is not a slice of Kraft American, nor is it slice of cheddar, or pepper jack or swiss. It is not even Velveeta. It is often a dollop of what passes for Cheez Whiz, or perhaps queso.  And that’s ok. It’s tasty, if drippy.  But since the default French way of eating a burger is not to grab it with two hands, hunch over and have at it, those burgers are often so big and thick that people commonly eat them with a knife and fork.

Over time we’ve become aware of a culinary thing going on with burgers here in France that is a little puzzling.  At first we thought it was just a quirk of one particular place, but we have since encountered it in a number of dining establishments in different towns. And, loving potatoes in almost any form, let me add here that while finding it odd, I also find myself eating every last bit of it.

When your burger arrives at the table, you appear to be presented with a burger on a bun, with a hefty side of fries. But upon closer examination you see it’s not a bun at all. The burger is nestled, instead, between two hockey puck-shaped, bun-sized discs made of deep fried tater tot.  This in addition to your order of fries.

You can’t pick it up. It’s impossible. So you have at it with a knife and fork, and all the while you’re thinking, “God, this is weird, and that’s a lot of potatoes! And God, it’s good!” Then you finish it all and you have to go to confession.

Enter into this hamburger fray, the good folks at Frenchie’s Burgers.

A few years ago a group of enterprising youths from the area took leave of France and headed to Australia just for the heck of it. While they were there they hit on the idea of opening a burger place, which they did.  They called it Frenchie’s Burgers, and it was pretty darned successful; so successful that they decided to return home and open up in La Fleche. Which they did. And which Anthony told us had the best burgers in town.

By luck, wisdom, or both, Frenchie’s opened up right next door to a very busy bar that serves beer, wine, and liquor but not a lick of food, and they share a swath of sidewalk outside their doors where alfresco dining is in order.  The staff is young, enthusiastic, and dead serious about their burgers. And while they have a constantly changing array of variants, they are devotees of what Americans consider real burgers; each individually made to order, with buns purpose-baked at a nearby boulangerie expressly for the burgers. Every week or so they offer up new regional specialties, all with wonderful ingredients and “special sauces” that for some reason just work on a burger the way our American taste buds expect, without drifting over to tastes that just don’t seem right. Like, brie.

The first time we entered the place it took them, as is usually the case wherever we go, about ten seconds to peg us as Americans. In that instant there was a perceptible pause by everyone behind the counter. A few comments to confirm that we were indeed Americans, and then a fury of industry to prepare the burgers. They handed them over and I could sense them watching closely as we sat down to eat and dove into them with unconcealed enthusiasm. At that you could feel a little lift in the atmosphere.

One of the young guys looked at me and I just slobbered a thumbs up at him. When I could speak intelligibly, I told him these were the best in town. That elicited a chorus of smiles from the crew, and a noticeable easing of concern on their faces. It appeared that at least on the subject of hamburgers, at Frenchie’s Burgers the opinion of Americans matters.

Now when we enter the place you can sense a kind of unspoken “Attention On Deck! There are Americans here!”

And then there are the fries. The frites.

If you really want to put a Belgian off his feed, just mention the subject of “French Fries.” Hoo Boy. If there is anything that will agitate a Belgian, it is to suggest that the noble sliver of twice-fried potato called fries or frites should be prefaced by any word other than “Belgian.” To preface it with “French” is pure heresy. They’re really, really nationalistic about it.

Cross over the border into Belgium and you see signs for frites everywhere; it is the national dish. And they eat frites in a particularly Belgian manner, dipping each frite into a dish of mayonnaise on the way to their mouths.  Talk about gilding the lily. It’s a practice I find unappetizing not to mention unhealthy. I mean, the potato is already deep fried. Twice.
I’m a potato purist.  To me a beautiful French fry (sorry) perfectly cooked, with a bit of salt and pepper is just the way it should be. Yes, in moments of weakness or in the presence of a mediocre fry I will on occasion opt for a smidge of ketchup on the fries. But mayonnaise? No.

The mayonnaise thing has crept into France. I have seen Anthony subtly dip a fry or two, which, by the way, are eaten with a fork, into mayonnaise at a restaurant. Beloved Wife wants no part of it. I, once in a very great while…like every year or two…. will try to figure out why anyone would do such a thing, and will try a fry in mayo while Beloved Wife looks on with barely concealed disgust and asks, “So, how’d that go?” As usual, not well.

The question of mayo, ketchup, or nothing on fries appears to be wrestled with at most restaurant tables.  Management chooses not to take sides or get involved. Every order of fries includes a supply of plastic packets of both, ketchup for Americans and mayo for Belgians. Me? I’ll take mine neat.

 

The Village Has a Sign. And a Rock.

We have a nice working relationship whenever we’re driving around France. Or indeed, anywhere. Karen looks out the windows and yells for me to stop, and asks why I didn’t see “that,” whatever that may have been.  I respond by telling her I was busy keeping us from being killed by oncoming traffic. And so it was that we discovered the sign on the road into our village of Luche-Pringe.

Wherever you go in France you will find signs and markers about stuff that happened there. Lots of stuff happened and there are lots of signs. We’re living in what was the literal back yard of the Plantagenets. Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine were all over the place here. For all we know, Eleanor shopped at the epiceries here in the village. Who knows?

Thus it was no surprise to discover the sign on the road into the village, which says the following:

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 In the Hundred Years War, an English General defeated with his army in the woods of Vieil-Bauge had to make a fighting retreat. His mule stumbled on this stone on the road to Pierre-Michelette that crosses the woods of Thoree-Les-Pins, and the imprint of its hoof remained. The municipality decided to place the stone here in order to indicate the boundary of the provinces of Maine and Anjou before the Revolution.

Alrighty then. Sometime between 1337 and 1453 a mule stumbled on this rock, this here rock, and left a mark on it. Right here. This rock.

It just seems to raise so many questions. Like, “Really?”

And, “Pourquoi?”

I wonder if there’s a guy in local government whose job is to replace the rock when it gets stolen. Because I wonder how many college dorms around France have a student living there with the rock that the mule tripped over.

“Hey Jacques, while you’re out today, find another replacement for the rock on the road to Luche. We had another one stolen last night.”

Papi’s Hidden Treasure

Legal Disclosure:

What follows is a complete fiction. Not one word of it is true. Nope. Not one word. 

It’s no secret that I like calvados, it having been well documented in a previous post. Distilled from blends of apples, it is a powerful, potent, and vaporous ode to la pomme. Over the years one of our favorite pastimes was roaming the Norman countryside in search of local farms that produce the family of apple-based miracles; cidre, pommeau, and calvados. We chatted with the farmers as they invited us into their barns to sample their wares, and inevitably we left with several bottles. Each farm, each blend of apples, and so each calvados is different.

This is where Anthony came in.

It was a number of years ago, on our first visit to chez Anthony. We had arrived virtual strangers a few days before, and were very much in the getting-to-know-you stage. We were hanging out one evening, when he said, “So, do you want to see my cave?” Cave, as in wine cellar.

“Well, hell yeah,” said I. Who knows what lurks in the cave of a French guy living in a house that goes back to the 16th Century?  So, off we went.

We walked outside to the back of the building, and entered an ancient stone appendage to the house. It wasn’t a cellar, in that it wasn’t underground. But it was stone, cold as a cave, and dark, and when he turned on a light I was flabbergasted.

The room was filled with bottles. Case upon case stacked on top of each other, with other bottles lying randomly about. Off to the left was passage to another chamber, it too filled with cases and loose bottles. There were hundreds of them. Old, dust covered, most with no labels.

“My God,” was all I could say. “My God, Anthony, what is this?”

“Aahhh,“ he said with a dismissive wave across the room, “I gotta get rid of this stuff. There’s  too much of it, and It’s no good.”

What is it?”

“It’s calvados. But it’s no good. I use it to start my barbecue grill.”  That is what he said.

“But…but…. What? WHAT?  Where did it come from? What do you mean it’s no good”

“Yeah, my grandfather made it. It’s been sitting here for, oh, I don’t know….years. And see? The corks on a lot of them are bad, so it’s no good”

“Anthony, how long has this been here?”

“I don’t know, 40, maybe 60 years.”

At this point I was trying to get my head around what he just said. Calvados.  Forty,  maybe 60 years old. And he is using it to start his barbecue grill?

“Anthony, let me get this straight. You’re telling me these two rooms are filled with calvados that may be 60 years old?”

“Yeah, and some cidre and some poire William, too.”

“And you’re starting your grill with this stuff?”

“Yeah.  It’s no good.”

“Ahem. Anthony, calvados is a distillate. It is not like wine. If a cork lets in some air, it doesn’t ruin it. GET ME A BOTTLE.”

So he did. He picked up a dusty, no-label bottle and handed it to me. I dragged him and the bottle back into the kitchen where I had him scrounge up a coffee filter and an empty, clear glass bottle. When I tried to open the bottle with a cork screw the cork crumbled a bit, and bits of the cork dropped into the bottle.

“See, it’s no good,” said Anthony.

“And that is why we have the coffee filter,” I said as I decanted the contents into a new bottle.”

On first glance, it was beautiful to behold; a radiant golden liquid that was crystal clear.  Karen and I exchanged wordless glances in anticipation as I poured each of us a glass. Even before we could bring it to our lips, we were both hit with an aroma of apples, signature of a fine calvados.  When we tasted it, our eyes rolled. It was absolutely spectacular.  All from fruit from Papi’s own trees.

“Oh! My! God! Anthony, this is a treasure! This may be the best calvados I have ever tasted. And your grandfather made this?”

“Yeah, we don’t know why it’s here, but it’s pretty old.”

I grabbed him by his shirt. “Listen to me, DO NOT START YOUR GRILL WITH THIS. This is fabulous stuff.”

“Oh,” says Anthony. “Ok. I don’t like calvados very much.”

“Well, that’s just fine. I’ll take all of it, “I said, only half joking.

We returned to the US with a couple of bottles, and on our next trip we brought another bottle home. Then one day he emailed us saying he would be in the US for a few days because of work, and I quickly reminded him to bring a bottle, to which he replied, “Oh no, If you want more you have to come visit.”

“Rats!”

On our next visit, we got some really bad news.  I asked about the calvados and Anthony said someone in the family had come by and taken it away. Every single bottle.  And that was the end of that.

But it wasn’t.

Anthony’s grandfather, who everyone calls Papi, is 94 years old and still kicking. He has a girlfriend, still gardens and drives his car around town, and at family gatherings he is quick to raise a glass of whatever is being poured. He was a child when the Germans were here during the war, and he has apparently been making prodigious amounts of high-quality booze for forever. And apparently over the years he has stashed it in some long-forgotten places. For safe keeping?  To avoid the tax man?  Who knows?

One day I got a text from Anthony, with photos attached. It seems Anthony knocked down a long-ago sealed doorway in his 16th-century stone home, and on the other side was…you guessed it…another stash of Papi’s calvados, poire William and cidre. How long had it been there? Nobody knows, and Papi doesn’t even remember putting it there. It has been many, many years.

It was too good to be true! And when we opened a bottle of this calvados it was, just as before, brilliantly golden, clear, and perfect. It was, as before, maybe the best calvados Karen and I have ever tasted, maybe even better than the previous stash.  That’s not to mention the poire William and cidre, which are incredible.

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Were this a true story this is what some of Papi’s stash would look like. But of course, it’s not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few days later Anthony sent several pictures of the cases stacked up, with a message, “Do you want it?”

I replied, only half joking, “Yes. But can I keep it stored at your place?”

“So, he said, “I guess I’m not supposed to use this to start my grill?”

“No, you’re not, but,“ I added, “ keep looking for walls to knock down.”

A View From Across The Pond

Whenever some perceived contretemps, genuine or not, arises between the Unites States and France, count on a percentage of my fellow Americans emerging from the woodwork to post worn-out disparagement of the French military in WWII.  Such posts only illuminate their staggering ignorance, and of course their arrogance. For the disinclined, no reason to trouble reading history.

In France it is everywhere. It is not possible to drive very far without seeing the evidence of three wars fought across this country, all in a span of less than 70 years, each leading to the next, each compounding the toll in human lives. Imagine. Three times in one lifetime, should one have been fortunate enough to last that long, the country was invaded. Twice within 25 years the country was turned into a charnel house, costing the lives of millions, leaving vast swaths of countryside devastated and depopulated. Entire towns and villages simply disappeared, scoured from the map, never return.

For four years before the US entered the First World War France bled nearly to death. Millions of French soldiers died, and more were left incapacitated. France and England were close to exhaustion when the US arrived and provided the push to win the war.  When the guns went silent, much of France was left in ruins and the better part of an entire male generation was gone.

The math is easy. Twenty years later, guess who came knocking once again? This time there was hardly anyone there to answer the door–twenty years later is exactly when another generation would have been ready for the military, but there was barely a generation there.

Beyond the strategic issues, beyond the economics, the politics, and the diplomatic failures that led to what transpired, lay the fact that those who could have fathered a generation of soldiers to defend France in 1940 had died on the battlefields of 1914-1918.

You don’t need to read history. All you need do is drive through France. You don’t have to drive very far before coming to a military cemetery, one of the hundreds seemingly everywhere, or to stop in the town squares of thousands of towns and tiny villages, each with a monument to its own war dead.  The names for 1940 on those monuments are few, but the list of names for 1914-1918 often takes up several sides of a monument, even in the small towns. Fathers and sons died, and multiple brothers all from the same village.

It is a fact, a dark fact, that one of the reasons so many small villages throughout France today are so quaintly, charmingly quiet to an observer from elsewhere is that they have never recovered their population even now, after the two world wars.

Generations now living in the US, behind the seeming safety of oceans on its flanks and no centuries-long antagonist just across a land border, might be forgiven for a sense of invincibility, but not for arrogance or ignorance.  Sometimes it’s smart to read a little history.

Maurizio and The News

If there is a line between “news” and “gossip” in the village it is a fine line indeed, and mostly it’s just considered knowing what’s going on. Karen sometimes refers to it as “jungle drums.”  We got our first hint of it with the “Butter Shirt Incident.” Then, around Christmas, we left Manu and his employees at the butcher shop a small box of chocolates, a petite cadeau. Two days later, sure enough, Anthony says to me, “So, I heard you gave a box of chocolates to Manu,” proving the network moves in both directions.

After the fire at Manu’s, donation boxes turned up at local businesses. I surreptitiously slipped a generous offering into the box at the bakery one day when nobody was looking, and a day or two later after I made a purchase, when I pitched a couple of euros change into the box, Madame said, “No. No, it’s not necessary, you already gave!” I was surprised by that, and mentioned it to Karen.

“I don’t know why she did that, ” I said, “she doesn’t know we put that big donation in.”
“Oh, yes she knows,” said Karen. “Everybody in the village knows. Nobody in the village put in that much.”

Thus, a couple of months ago word circulated through town that the woman who owns the Proxi, one of the two small epiceries in town, was retiring and selling the place. Word had it, the Proxi was being bought by a couple from out of town.

The woman, they said, was British, and our spirits fell: Oh no! British food.

But, they said, her husband is Italian, and our spirits soared: Oh Boy, Italian food!

Call it prescience or just good luck for the owner, the sale was consummated early in March; call it bad luck for the new owners, they took over a couple of days before the Corona virus quarantine took effect. It is, in the best of times no easy matter for two strangers, a Brit and an Italian, to open a business in a small French village where change does not come easily, where loyalties are hard to make and harder to change. And this is not the best of times: people are quarantined in their homes, a virtual hall-pass is required to be out on the streets, and the supply chain for a small grocery store is uncertain.

My first visit to the newly reopened Proxi was, well, interesting. The new proprietor, a young man (hell, everybody is young to me these days) waited uneasily behind the counter when I gave him a cheery entry bonjour. When I got to the counter to check out my purchase, I had barely gotten out my first few words in French when he interrupted me and said, “You speak English?”

“Yes, I’m American.”

“Good,” he said, with a clearly Italian accent, “I’d rather speak English than French.”

We start chatting away, and he tells me his wife is English, he lived in England for a long time, and yadda yadda yadaa, and other folks are coming into the store for the first time, and I’m thinking to myself, Great, here’s an Italian yammering away to The Town American in English, in a village full of French people. I wonder how this is gonna work out?

His name is Maurizio, and it is apparently working out just fine. He’s a charming guy. He’s become increasingly chatty, at least with me, and he’s working hard to get whatever people are looking for. His wife, meanwhile, a month after the opening, is still a rumor. No sign of her yet, although Maurizio says she plans to bring in flowers, something that is lacking in the village, and would be pleasurably received in normal times. Not sure how flower sales will go in a quarantine.

But in a time of quarantine, news is at a premium, and there are a lot of unanswered questions. Take the post office and the mail. Nobody seems to know exactly what’s doing with the mail.

The thing is, in normal times the village post office is only open three days a week, from 9 am till noon. The office, conveniently located on Rue de la Poste, is a windowless building that requires you to ring the door bell and state your purpose into a speaker before you are buzzed in, although your purpose should be fairly obvious by your presence at the front door of the post office.

But these are not normal times, and on the door to the post office as well as on the door to the Mairie, there is a poster directing anyone who desires postal services to go to the post office in La Fleche, which is 10 kilometers away.

A couple of days ago, in response to my most recent post here in the blog, a much-loved lifelong friend offered to write me a letter, for older time’s sake, and I instinctively warned him off, as even under normal circumstances mail delivery, at least to us, has been well, a bit dodgy. Karen ordered something through the mail from a merchant in France in January of 2019, and it was delivered last January, as in this past January, 2020.  So, figuring that no matter how long this quarantine kept us from returning to the US, whatever he sent would likely arrive the day after we leave, I thought it best to discourage sending me a letter.

Which brings us back to Maurizio.

Being a foreigner here, like us, he is in a constant exchange of documents with various offices of the French bureaucracy. He needs to mail stuff. He needs a post office. And, he discovered, the post office in La Fleche is now also closed. He needs to go to Angers, which is roughly a two-hour drive. And, of course, he has no idea how long that letter will take to get where its going, nor whether or not there will be anyone there to deal with it when it arrives.

And that’s how we found out where to mail a letter.

From Maurizio. The Italian guy at the Proxi who prefers to speak English.

In Praise of the Comma

Life in the village appears to be going on as normal. The bakeries, epiceries, the butcher all are open, and people come and go throughout the day. After that first day following the announcement of impending quarantine when there was something of a rush to the stores, things have now settled back to a normal pace. This morning I made a quick shop that took me to the bakery and two epiceries, and in each case there were a couple of shoppers, keeping their distance, but carrying on normal conversations with the proprietor and other customers.

All is normal. Except once you have those groceries, you’re not allowed out of the house. Which leaves me sitting over my second cup of coffee watching the wood smoke rising lazily over the rooftops of the village, and thinking.

When my grandmother passed away, in the early 1970’s, I remember thinking that in the entire history of the world no one ever experienced a more amazing life span. When she was born in a rural village in Europe in the 1880s her home had no electricity. The simple act of going into a dark room and flipping a switch to bring on light did not exist.  Travel, if any, was powered by horse, or if a major journey, by coal or wood-fired steam engine. The notion of man flying was science fiction at best, lunacy at worst.  And yet in her lifetime man not only flew, he walked on the moon and sent pictures back for the world to see. Television, telephone, the automobile, refrigerators, and air conditioning all became the new normal, all in that one lifetime.

Now I sit here in this village where people have lived since before the time of the Romans, watching by internet Netflix or my NY Rangers, swapping emails and texting, buying books to read instantly at the press of a button, Skyping and Facetiming my kids and grandkids, seeing them on a whim from halfway around the world.

I know that by definition, I’m “elderly.”  I don’t feel old, but I can’t deny I am within striking distance of the age my grandparents lived.  My grandkids may well look at me and think that those of us who wear the now pejorative tag of “boomers” lived in as technologically primitive time as my grandparents.

And I wonder if my grandparents were as troubled as I by the unintended consequences.

Not so very long ago, hard to imagine, there was no internet. And then there was, and what could possibly be wrong  with that? Nothing, until the smart phone and tablet arrived, creating generations addicted to them, unable to disconnect even for dinner and conversation with someone in person, growing up with necks permanently tilted downward, and carpel tunnel syndrome in their hands.

Then came social media, which evolved into anti-social media.  The place where people communicated and exchanged ideas morphed into the platform for excoriating anybody with differing opinions–nobody changes anybody’s mind on Facebook.

Maybe more than anything, social media and the internet have diminished the written word. Nobody writes letters anymore. We wrote letters.

When I graduated from high school and went off to college, my buddies and I wrote letters to each other. I still have some of them. In a time when the so-called “long distance phone call”…that would be a call to another state…was darned expensive, my parents and I exchanged letters.  During the time when Beloved Wife and I were carrying on a long-distance relationship, we exchanged letters, long, thoughtful  exchanges of cabbages and kings.  I looked forward to those letters. I was excited when they arrived.  I would read, then re-read them, and think about what she had written.  I would savor those letters, just as I would savor the whacky stuff I got from my buddies.  I still have the letters she sent me, and I think it embarrasses her a little to know I kept them all. But I think those letters, and the experience of receiving them, and savoring them, and sitting down to write back, all contributed to my feeling that we had a great romance.

Letter writing made you think about what you were writing, and how you were saying it. Letter writing was a vehicle for thinking things out on paper, then offering them to a person who welcomed the exchange of thoughts and ideas. It made you careful, made you go back and be sure about what you put on paper and sent off  into the mail to be delivered a couple of days from now, careful about the spelling, the punctuation. You were, if only subliminally, aware of how it was going to look when it arrived.  Writing a letter was sharing a bit of yourself. I’m a bit sad that my grandkids won’t experience the excitement of getting a letter from someone and enjoying the sit-down to read it and think about it. Letters take too long now, email and texting get the job done.

Email and texting sounded the death knell for letter writing, for grammar and for punctuation. In exchange, we got instant send-off and instant gratification. Somehow, I don’t imagine anyone is likely to receive a long, thoughtful, deeply personal and well-written email that they will treasure and save for years.

No, these days words are replaced by fragments and emoji’s, and punctuation is an inconvenience.

Let’s eat grandma!

What Did You Do In The Quarantine, Daddy?

The idea of talking about “My Quarantine” seems to me a lot like old people sitting around talking about their symptoms. Nobody is interested, and everybody has their own.

So, here we sit in our apartment, in a kind of house arrest, locked downed by order of the French government.  As 70-plus-year-olds we’re theoretically not even supposed to leave our house.  We’re tucked away in this tiny village, and are probably in an environment safer than almost anywhere else we could possibly be.

No one is supposed to be outside without a “hall pass” of sorts, which details your alibi from a list of acceptable responses. Food shopping is one, going to the doctor, another. Exercise is acceptable, but not in groups, so the two of us taking a walk together is, in theory, a violation. Friends of ours who made an online-order from the big grocery store in La Fleche can only have a single person make the pick-up. Two people in a car together is apparently a no-no.

The good news is we have a supply of food and other necessities, and we have even prepped a small area in the back for a garden, as soon as the threat of overnight frost is over. The village has two bakeries still open every day, so our bread and ridiculously good pastries continue unabated right now. There are two small epiceries that remain open as well, each offering a limited variety of fresh produce; an assortment of dry, canned, and frozen foods; and lots of wine and liquor.  All of these establishments are just steps away from our apartment.

So, all is good for the time being.  Every morning I am out the door between 7:30 and 8 am, long before any kind of crowd shows up at the bakery, as it inevitably will. I’m almost always alone when I enter, and I get first choice of everything they have baked up in the early hours of the morning…all of it still warm.

Madame and I exchange a few pleasantries and chat a bit…something that would never happen when the queue has formed up outside, with people spreading out to acceptable social distance, and a slight tension fills the air. She is always cheerful , and remains so despite the anxiety of the virus. This morning she had added a screen between her and her customers, a wooden frame with what looks like plastic wrap stretched across it…a homemade but quite functional barrier to give her a little protection. When I told her I thought it was a good Idea, she said it was made for her by the town butcher; exactly the sort of thing one would expect in a little village like this.

We see in the news that in major cities like Paris people have been ignoring orders to avoid gatherings, just as is happening in the US, where the beaches in Florida were jammed with college students on spring break. Here we are in a bit of a bubble that seems, for the time being at least, able to provide most things residents really need, shielding us from the need to go outside of town, which we can’t do.  It may give all of us cabin fever, but it hopefully will keep us safe until the threat has diminished.

Our confinement has energized Karen. She has a Masters in Worrying, and so even though our food supply is excellent now, she is already taking steps to be ready for a time of scarcity. She’s been researching online and has, I think, come up with something akin to “Cooking for the family in a prisoner of war camp.”  This morning over coffee she rattled off four ingredients and said to me, “If that’s all you had, what would you do with them to make a meal?”  It’s starting to feel like an episode of “Chopped.”

And even though only individuals are supposed to be out on the streets for whatever acceptable reason, we may wait until late at night, 11 pm or so, when the town is locked down and quiet as a tomb, then the two of us will go out for a late night walk for some exercise. We may have to duck into an alley if a gendarme car approaches, but that’s pretty unlikely.  Not much need for a gendarme in a village like Luché in the middle of the night.

Oh, The Pain! The Pain!

In my fantasy of living in France I have images, tableaux, and little mental GIF files running in my head.

In one, it is morning. I throw on a sweater and scarf, step out into the street of a small village and walk a few steps to the local bakery, the boulangerie, exchanging  bonjours with passersby. Barely am I thorough the door when Madame, the proprietor, flashes me a broad smile of familiarity and we exchange the ritual bonjours and ca vas. Behind her on the rack is an array of wonderful breads–the basic baguette of course, and variations: the crusty dark rustique, the campagne, the multigrain, and our favorite, la tradition.

She is already headed for the tradition, and reaching for it, flashes another big smile and asks, “un tradition?”  Yes, I tell her in my bad but earnest French, but also this morning a saucer-sized pain aux raisins, please. Money is exchanged, cheery, ritual à bientôts waved to each other, and out I go, onto the cobbled street and back a few steps to home.

But it isn’t a fantasy, it is the reality of my life these days. It’s hard for me to articulate what a glorious joy it is, what a soulful happiness it is to revel in this small joy every day. And the reality is that I am bringing home what Karen and I agree is The Best Bread We Have Ever Eaten. Oh yes, it is.

This is a small village. In American-speak, this would be called a no-traffic-light town. We are ten miles from the nearest gas station. “Commerce” in this village consists of two épiceries (épicerie, French word for an American-style corner store, hardly ever open and guaranteed to not have what you want), and two flourishing boulangeries, located ten steps apart, looking out onto the town square, a mere 95 steps from our front door. I have counted.

Our favorite is the nearer of the two. But both have enough business to survive, if not flourish, as they draw patrons from outlying homes and enclaves, causing clusters of traffic in the square each morning and afternoon. Both are tiny. In our favorite, a queue of five people backs up to the door.  Every morning, long before I’m willing to wake up, Madame opens for business and stays open till midday. By then she will always be sold out…sometimes well before, so it’s good to hustle if you want your favorite, as I have learned from experience.   At 4:00 she will reopen, the racks re-loaded with another wave of freshly baked beauties, these gorgeous loaves of pain. Because that’s the French word for bread: pain, pronounced “pan”.

I am Tom, and I am a bread slut. I do not go to weekly meetings to acknowledge this weakness, but I freely admit it. And I now live ten miles from a gas station but 95 steps from bread that is so good it makes you moan. It’s not just good, it’s as good as anything in Paris, and obscenely better than anything in the US, outside of maybe Manhattan. I return to the apartment with beautiful golden baguettes, crusty crunch on the outside, still warm on the inside. Good enough to start munching on the way home and return with nothing.  With enough restraint to get home, a shmear of French butter will turn it into an eye-rolling, mouth-pleasuring experience.

“My GOD, this is good bread!” I will have said at least 365 times this year, because every single day I will re-experience the beauty of it as if it was the first time. It is that good. But wait! There’s more!

That loaf costs a euro, which comes out to $1.12 USD at the current exchange rate. ONE DOLLAR  AND 12 CENTS!

Are you kidding me, you might ask. But no, because the price of bread is controlled in France, and it has been determined that one euro is the price of a baguette. The best bread we have ever tasted is one third to one quarter of the price of what passes for baguette in the US! So, what’s a bread slut supposed to do?

Why, eat, of course! Eat in the morning, and eat again when Madame reopens in the afternoon. And, the more you eat, the more money you save! Why hell, that’s economics!

The only problem is, the closer we get to the time when we return to the US, the more cranky we get, until we’re actively pissed off by the time we leave, because we’re going to have to deal with the mugger bludgeon that passes for baguette in the US.

And THAT’S a pain.

Ignorance is Bliss

In retrospect it probably was an act of lunacy. After only seven days in Paris and a two-day train excursion to Normandy, I bravely proclaimed, “Hey, next time let’s rent a car and drive around Normandy!” I knew intuitively that if I ever had to drive on the left, as in Britain, I would be Dead Man Driving, so once I confirmed the French drive on the correct side of the road I figured I had it knocked.  I was good to go!

The next year my battle cry was, “I ain’t scared. I got gas!” I was wise enough to know I didn’t want to drive anywhere within the limits of Paris, and so we took a metro to the end of the line, and from there rented a car to head out into the wilds of Normandy, armed with approximately zero knowledge of roads, driving etiquette, and oh yes, The Law. And over the last twenty years and tens of thousands of kilometers, I have learned a lot, you betcha.

The first thing you learn is that almost all roads in France are small. Like, narrow. And on both sides of those roads, almost without exception, is a ditch lying inches off the edge of the road surface.  And although most European cars are smaller than the standard American car, trucks are not.  In fact, trucks on European roads are enormous, and they often move in what is called a “convoi exceptionnel” which means a string of really, really big, slow-moving trucks. On narrow roads.

There are only a few major highways, the A-route toll roads, all of which tend to funnel traffic towards Paris.  Most folks avoid these, and most truck drivers too. They stick to the non-toll roads, which tend to be those narrow roads. The major non-toll road between Paris and Tours goes through our area here from Le Lude, La Fleche, into le Mans.  It is mostly  two lanes, one in each direction, except for a small section every so often where it expands to three lanes with a passing lane in the middle.

Then there are roundabouts, or if you come from New Jersey, traffic circles. Back in the States roundabouts appear to be a dying breed, something of an oddity. In France, they are ubiquitous, a deeply embedded part of life on the roads. The French don’t love roundabouts–they cannot live without them. I don’t care where you are going, you cannot get there from here without encountering roundabouts. Lots of them.

This isn’t to say they’re a bad thing, especially when armed with a GPS or WAZE, as you will usually know well in advance which exit on the circle you want to take, and you can motor right along without slowing down for a traffic light. French driving etiquette calls for you to signal left or right as you enter to let the people around you know if you’re getting off at the first or a later exit. You keep flashing left until you approach the exit you plan to take, then flash right so they know you’re getting off. It’s quite civilized, really, and mostly avoids conflict.

What is genuinely irritating is the manipulation of speed limits. When you leave town, any town of any size, France goes rural. You find yourself on a 2-lane (well, 1 ½-lane) country road, slip your car into cruise control speed of say, 50 miles an hour, and you have barely settled in to enjoy the ride when you see a sign that drops the limit to 30km, because you are entering a small village. You slow down to 30, crawl through a hamlet of four homes, then see a sign that raises the limit to 50km, a few yards later, to 60km, until a couple of kilometers down the road you encounter another hamlet and it all happens again.  You find yourself perpetually going up, then down, then up, then down.

You had better slow down pronto when you see those signs, too, because the French have embraced the speed camera with a vengeance. You don’t see a lot of cops on the roads in France, but oh, those cameras.

They have this have this neat trick where coming out of a village where the speed limit is, say, 30km, and up ahead you see a sign that says 60km. So you speed up. But you get above 30 before you actually get to the sign, and BINGO! Off to the left you see a flash. You have been had! You will be receiving a 100-euro ticket in the mail.

But I suppose that’s better than the alternative. If a gendarme flags you over for a speeding ticket, you have to pay him on the spot. If not, you can’t continue your trip!

There’s good news, though. The French have a road sign that is a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card for confused and lost motorists almost everywhere, but especially in the middle of a strange city. It’s a sign that says, “toutes directions,” which means all directions. That seems a little odd, but in fact it means that if you follow these signs you will eventually wind up at…you guessed it… a roundabout, which will be festooned with other direction signs pointing the way to wherever you want to go. Trust me, it is a life saver. When in doubt, look for “toutes directions.”

There are other little gems you pick up along the way that would have been good to know from the beginning. For instance, it is required that you have a yellow safety vest, a gilet jaune, in the car at all times.  If you don’t, you’re in for a ticket. The cops will check for this.

I also learned that French police routinely hide and pull cars over for alcohol testing.  They check out the numbers on license tags, and if they see a car at night with an out-of-area tag, especially one from Paris, they’ll assume you might be a tourist on the way home from dinner (read that “wine”) and pull you over for a breath test. I don’t think the penalty is summary execution, but I know it’s severe.  I told one Brit I know that so far I had never been pulled over and he just brushed that off and said “Oh, you will.”

I’ve also learned that unlike in the US, a flashing of lights from behind does not mean “move over you asshole.” It is actually a courtesy to let you know they’re going to pass, and it is not intended to carry a negative or aggressive implication, because the French do, indeed love to pass on those narrow roads. Me, not so much.

So, I learned a lot over the years. I got pretty comfortable driving those French roads, managing my way through confusing toll booth exchanges on the A routes, avoiding speed cameras (well, mostly), navigating those roundabouts. Yep, I was doing real good. And then one day, after driving thousands of miles all over the country, after literally years of driving in France, I discovered that I had been avoiding death at every turn and had not a clue.

You see, there is a rule in France that is so crazed, so lunatic, so incredibly dangerous, it is a pure miracle that neither Karen nor I, nor in fact any number of French people I have never met, have not all been killed  by my ignorance.

It is called “priorité à droite” and it means the car on the right has priority. Now, follow me if you can.

If you are driving down a road…and it matters not what speed you are going, assuming that speed is at or below the legal limit…if there is a car entering that road from a side road, and there is not a line painted across that side road where it meets the main road, indicating that is where the car entering traffic  must stop, then it not only doesn’t have to stop, it has the right of way and you must stop to let it in.

Consider that if you please. Tooling along at say 50 miles an hour, you come across a car entering from a side road, and he doesn’t have to stop. He has the right of way.  Yes, there is much screeching of tires and slamming of brakes by the driver on the main road.  Unless, of course, he is aware of priorité à droite, and is actively looking for white lines on the entrance to side roads.

Which, for nearly 20 years, I was not.

I recently had this insanity brought to my attention for the first time. I thought it was a joke, and had to have it explained to me multiple times to make sure I heard it right. And while it is some consolation to know that the French government is kinda trying to phase it out, in the provinces it is still clung to tenaciously, mostly by elderly gentlemen in tiny cars towing tiny trailers, or by large farm vehicles. They exercise this unalienable right of way with absolute certainty that you will see them and comply. 

I became aware of priorité à droite  because I was being polite. One day I was on the side road, attempting to pull out into traffic, and no, I did not see that there wasn’t a white line where my side road met the main road. Who knew?

 So, I sat there, and waited for an opening, when someone coming from my left slowed to a halt and looked at me. Polite me, I waved him on.  After all he was on the main road. He had the right of way. I’m a good guy.

After several exchanges of waves, mine cheerful and passive, his increasingly, uh, irritated, the final one I got from him, accompanied by what appeared to be a lot of French being directed my way convinced me I should probably go ahead and make my turn onto the main road. I had no idea what had just happened.

When I asked Anthony about what the hell that was all about, he just said, “Oh. That’s Priority to the Right. I thought you knew. Crazy, huh?”

Verdun

It passed almost unnoticed this week, but 104 years ago began what was arguably the most terrible battle in the history of warfare, the battle of Verdun. The echoes of that conflagration continue to this day in France. A century on, the sheer horror of the  tragedy is felt among families decimated and about villages depopulated or completely eradicated.

Verdun is an ancient city on the Meuse river, dating back well before Roman times. This fortress city still held almost religious significance even in the early 20th century in a country that had long since proclaimed its secularism in the Revolution.

 In February of 1916 German military planners, believing the French would spare nothing in manpower and equipment losses to prevent them from taking Verdun and its network of fortresses, of which Fort Douaumont was the crown jewel, launched a massive assault, not so much to capture the city, but to create a human meat grinder designed to bleed the French army to death. The struggle turned a vast swath of France into a lunar landscape of trenches,  shell holes, mud, and human wreckage that lasted ten months. In the end it cost the Germans as much in blood and treasure as the French, a combined million and a half casualties on both sides. It left the French depleted, exhausted, but victorious. By the time the battle was over, one French family in ten had someone who served at Verdun, many of them to die.

Sunrise over Fort Douaumont

A dozen towns were swept from the landscape, foundations of their buildings all that remain today, with simple signs noting the site of a “village detruite” a destroyed village. At least one of those destroyed villages remains technically alive today, and a “mayor” continues to serve ceremonially.

One town, Vauquois, located on a rise called the butte de Vauquois, saw French and German forces dig in on opposite sides of that hilltop early in the war. For four years, at mere pistol shot distance, they dug trenches into the hill, and competing  tunnels under the town, setting underground mines in an attempt to blow each other away. Today the village and the top of the hill are gone, leaving an enormous, gaping hole that looks for all the world like a volcano crater. Inside the hill the tunnels remain; the German tunnels down as deep as 120 meters, cut out of the rock with jackhammers and picks. Inside were barracks, cooking facilities, and machinery. Men lived underground perpetually, shuttling between the tunnels and the trenches above. I have been in those tunnels to a depth of about 15 meters. Above the tunnels, trenches and barbed wire remain.

The German trenches at Vauquois today.

For more than ten months the French struggled to pump a never-ending stream of men and equipment into the meat grinder of Verdun. A road from the town of Bar le Duc to Verdun was the main artery. One could stand along the road for the duration of the battle and a truck would pass every 14 seconds, day and night. They came to call it Le Voie Sacree, the Sacred Road, and today there is a marker of remembrance every kilometer.

Along the Voie Sacree.

Above all, the great killer of the First World War, what Europeans call the Great War, le Grand Guerre, was artillery. The volume of artillery fired is almost beyond comprehension. On some days, a million rounds were fired along the West Front, and it went on day after day after day. It turned farms, fields, and towns into a lunar landscape, churned the earth into a muck of destruction and human remains, and poisoned the earth with chemicals, metals, and toxic gas. It is estimated that half of all the shells fired into the earth failed to explode, instead being sucked into the mud from which, for more than a century now, the shells come to the surface each year as farmers plow their fields. Many of the shells remain “live,” some spewing poison gas.  I know of one field  that recently was closed to further cultivation because gas shells had been found leaking into the soil. There are many others. Each season the farmers dutifully collect the shells and pile them along the road for the military to collect and destroy. It is known as the Iron Harvest. I thought it was a myth until I saw it myself.

The scale of the battlefield is matched only by the enormity of the carnage, evidence of which is everywhere. In the woods, the trenches remain. Unexploded shells and grenades lie about, with bits of personal equipment, empty wine bottles, and unidentifiable wreckage. I have come upon the bones of horses; tens of thousands of them died during the war, victims as much as humans to the incessant and pulverizing artillery barrages that vaporized man, animals, and equipment.

If you walk through the woods and find a downed tree, something that has grown up since the war, you will see blues and greens inside the wood of the tree. These poisonous metals and chemicals have seeped into the tree from the ground as it grew.  I have found human remains. They are still out there.

The Iron Harvest

The battle of Verdun sprawled over a series of hills, each with a name. One such hill, Mort Homme, or Dead Man, was blasted so incessantly that when the battle ended it was 50 feet lower than when the battle began. Nothing was left, not a tree, not a twig, not a blade of anything living. All across the area there are “Red Zones,” still off limits to everyone today because of the quantity of still-live ammunition in the ground.  And, of course, there lie also the remains of untold numbers.

There is another hill nearby, called simply Hill 304. Like Mort Homme, it was blasted alternately by both sides into near nothingness during the ten months of conflict. Since the war vegetation has grown up again. There are tall trees and lush green bushes. On a sunny spring day one might walk there now, not knowing what took place there a century ago. But something is strange about the place, and about Mort Homme as well.

At first, I was not sure. Then I realized what it was. One day I mentioned it to an elderly British fellow who, like me, spends time wandering the woods where the battle once raged. I mentioned it to him, and he stopped, and gave me a hard look. He said, “Yes! Yes! I have told other people and they say I must be imagining it.” But he wasn’t and I wasn’t.

On Hill 304, on Mort Homme, and in other places where the carnage of Verdun took place, the woods are eerily silent. Trees and flowers and shrubs are back, but not the birds. There is no bird song, ever. And there hasn’t been for more than a century.

The Bank Job

Deciding to live long-term in France was easy; making it happen was one of the most complicated exercises either one of us has ever gone through. It became clear, almost immediately, that this was not something we could do on our own, and we set out to find some help. That came in the form of a company, appropriately called Pleasehelp.France, and in the person of a charming Brit named John Dislins, whose company assists English speakers–mostly Brits, but many Americans too—to navigate the morass of Byzantine French bureaucratic requirements, some of which change unexpectedly and often unannounced. We’re here now, and we continue to move along in the process, but Karen and I completely agree, while we figure we have, between us, the combined brain power of at least one sentient, even sophisticated, human, we could never have managed this on our own. We would have given up in disgust and frustration.

The amount of documentation needed for the long-stay visa, the carte de soujour, is staggering and at times, seems ridiculous. It must be submitted in exactly the required format, and it must be translated into French.  Financial records, history of residence, driving records, marriage certificate, birth certificates, and more.  Much more.

The birth certificate is a beauty; they wanted an original. Ponder THAT for a 70-year-old. Not only did they want an original, they also wanted a document called an apostille…which is a document that says the other document is genuine. When we applied for this in New Jersey, there was consternation that the signature on my original birth certificate was not the current Registrar’s. It took some doing to get them to grasp that the original signer, some 70 years ago, had in all likelihood joined the choir invisible, but New Jersey would only issue an apostille for a birth certificate authorized by the current Registrar, so I got a current “duplicate,” discovering in the process that my last name had been recorded incorrectly in 1948. That had to be changed and certified. There’s a State money maker.

We figured that along the way we would need a French bank account, if only for the convenience of a checking account and ATM card. As he has done for so many little landmines, our man John set us straight.  Some things in France can only be paid for through direct debit of a French checking account (oh, say, a French cell phone account, required for many reasons), and thus the bank account was not something to be done “along the way.” It was needed immediately on arrival. Armed with a voluminous dossier of information, John arranged for a bank account to be ready when we arrived, armed with  our long-stay visa authorization. We had no idea what information he had provided the bank.  All we knew was that our account was ready and waiting for us, after we transferred some sheckels into it electronically. That’s when things got interesting.

The bank in question is HSBC, a well-known and respected institution, as much as any bank is respected anywhere. Problem one arose when we discovered there is no HSBC branch in La Fleche, or in nearby Le Lude. In fact, the nearest HSBC branch is in downtown Le Mans, smack dab in the old town center, a 50-minute drive away, where parking is, at best, a challenge. We don’t actually expect to spend a lot of time in our bank branch, but considering how many bank branches there are in nearby La Fleche it seemed ridiculous to not use one of those banks. In fact, on the main drag off the town square there are branches for at least five different banks, all on one street, the street where our local brasserie is located. We determined we would eventually switch over to one of those local banks, but we had to go ahead with the starting arrangements with HSBC.  That meant a trip to Le Mans.

Our visit to the HSBC branch was, well, curious. For a big international bank like HSBC, and a branch serving as large a geographic area as this one, a two-person staff seemed a mite slim. Of course we arrived right before noon, so everybody went to lunch, and we did too. When we returned, they just seemed puzzled.  We’re not sure why, except that maybe they were aflutter because we are Americans, and Yanks seem a novelty in this part of France. We had an account number, the account was funded, and really all we wanted was our bank cards and some checks, although there’s not much likelihood we will ever write an actual paper check.

We left with nothing in our hands. We were told we would receive bank cards, activation codes, and checks in the mail. We received none.  We had another trip to Le Mans to pick up the checks, printed (wrongly) with our US address, and we never got the cards. A long and difficult phone call to our “relationship manager” ended with his promise that all would be fixed, and of course, nothing happened.  Well, one of us got a “new” card, but no activation code.  The other card went to the US.

At this point we decided to go to a local bank and roll over our account to them. All of our acquaintances assured us this would be the way to go, and the new bank would handle everything to transfer our funds, switch over the debit billing we have for our French phone, and close out the old account.

Now, if you want to open a bank account in the US you pick a bank, walk in and tell them you want to open an account. You show them your driver’s license, sign a piece of paper, they check your credit rating instantly, and they let you hand over money.  You leave with debit cards and temporary checks. Not in France.

In France you make an appointment a week or two in advance. The paperwork starts again, just like the visa drill. Adventures in Banking.  Keep in mind that we already had a French bank account and we only wanted to transfer to a new account at Credit Agricole. We needed to provide them with, among other things, tax records from the US, our lease and proof our landlord owns the house and has the right to rent to us(!), proof of income, proof we are us, proof of our US address, etc., etc.  These take five days to validate.  They charge for everything one way or another, including an annual client fee.  We were even asked if we would like to contribute to the bank’s charitable support of its region (sure).  And get this.  If you pay by check the payee has 1 year and 8 days to deposit it.  If your account is deficient at that time, “you are illegal.”  We decided to buy the overdraft protection.

We learned all this at the meeting that took two weeks to set up. Then we were told we needed to make another appointment to follow up on all of this and sign contracts.  Shortly thereafter we got an email and a phone call asking if we could come in between the first and second appointments to sign “documents.” After that we would come back for a third and final meeting to complete the account opening.

Three meetings?  Really? When all we want to do is give them our money? Nah. 

We got John on the horn and explained the problem. He was baffled as we were with the Credit Agricole experience, and told us he would get us straight with HSBC, which he promptly did, and we cancelled the whole thing with Credit Agricole.  We may try again when we feel like taking on a new hobby with one of the five banks on the main drag in La Fleche.

Addendum

Three hours after the previous post, in which I laid out our case that the French not only do not hate Americans, but in fact like them, I sit here writing an addendum.

Shortly after posting today, Karen and I found our way to our favorite brasserie in La Fleche, the large town about 9 kilometers down the road. We sat over our drinks talking quietly, when a gentleman sat down at the next table with his coffee and a newspaper. After a time we exchanged glances and when we offered the usual bonjour, he replied with “Hi!”  He heard us speaking English.

Tables drew closer, a conversation ensued and it turned out he is struggling to learn English as much as we struggle to speak French, and we had a wonderful conversation that led, eventually, to an invite to meet right there at the brasserie on Wednesday evenings for drinks and a “let’s chat in English and French” session. Fantastic!

Somewhere along the line he said something about us being Brits, and when we told him no, we are Americans, the most amazing thing happened. Instantly, like a 100-watt lightbulb (and not an LED), his face erupted spontaneously into a genuine ear to ear smile, and he said, “YES! Americans! That’s better!”

We were gobsmacked. Cosmic confirmation!

Submitted without further comment.

Goose Town

We have all heard it a thousand times: The French are rude. The French hate Americans.

As for the rude thing, I’m guessing anyone who ever said that never got out of Paris if they ever visited France at all. Most of the French don’t think all that much of Paris or Parisians. And I’d guess a Frenchman would think the same of all Americans if he encountered a Bronx cab driver on his first and only trip to the USA.

And as for hating Americans, well we can say with absolute certainty that we have never, ever caught a hint of that.  Au contraire.  If an American wants to feel loved, they should go to Normandy. The French in Normandy still remember and wear their appreciation on their sleeves.

The truth is, wherever we have gone in France we have seemed to cause a little ripple of excitement when it was discovered we were Americans. The first assumption is often that we’re Brits. When we tell them we’re not Brits, but Americans, people light up and smile, often tell us they love the US, and then start to regale us about their trip to the US.  Oddly, after they all tell us they’ve been to New York, a startling number tell us they’ve been to Florida, of all places.

Here in the Sarthe that is exactly what has happened. At the local boulangerie I’ve become so familiar to Madame that when I enter she pulls out the kind of baguette I always order before I say the word. One day she asked if I was British, and when I told her no, American, she erupted in a broad smile, proclaimed her love of the US, and I got the story of her long-ago trip to New York.

Same thing at the local café. Not a Brit. American. Big smiles and tale of how the patronne longed to visit.

Generally speaking, Americans don’t know very much about what goes on in France, or Europe. The news in the US is focused on the US, with marginal interest on what goes on over there, except for major events like terrorist attacks or weather disasters. Brexit, of course, got a lot of play, as do the occasional riots that occur in major cities. Strikes, being the national pastime of France, get periodic coverage when they begin, but they fade out of the news after a while because of the short attention span of most media.  To be fair, the same is true in most countries, bar the sensational or a negative response to a perceived US threat.

In France and the rest of Europe, though, the average person is interested in what goes on in the US, but it is superficial knowledge, largely derived from the highly politicized US main stream media or the sewer of social media. So, you often find individuals’ opinions about the US wax and wane with the opinion of the US President held by the US media. We’ve been visiting France through the administrations of four US Presidents, and it has been interesting to watch French people-on-the-street.

In the final days of the Clinton presidency the French attitude towards Bill was kind of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and a knowing smile. The French love a good sex scandal, and our shock seemed to surprise them.  After 9-11, Bush was grand, but as the US media resumed their turn against him, so did the typical street viewpoint.

When Obama was in the White House, if someone saw we were Americans they would give us thumbs up, and chant, “Obama! Obama!” Now, not surprisingly, you hear a lot of “I love America and Americans. I just hate Trump.”

In fact, politics–American politics, is rarely mentioned among our acquaintances. It is most often mentioned in encounters with strangers, for whom American politics is the only thing they can hang their hat on in a conversation with a strange American. Among those we know, no one ever talks about US politics, and in fact they rarely discuss French politics with us except to explain the current strike and what it will mean for us as we go about our day-to- day existence.  On the rare occasion when a friend or acquaintance is in a conversation about French politics we just sit back and listen.

We had one interesting moment on a blustery, miserable, rainy afternoon in Brittany in November of 2000. We had sheltered from the weather in a quayside bar, where the local denizens were sipping their wine, transfixed by live TV coverage of the US Presidential election that would not go away, and the dangling chads in Florida. We unobtrusively sat at a table and watched, talking quietly. Not quietly enough, as the fellows at the bar quickly realized we were Americans. They said nothing, and we said nothing.  And we all, in unison, shook our heads and laughed.

Recently I have occasionally heard someone share an opinion about the current administration in the US with great certainty. My response is always, “I am not French. I have not grown up in France, I do not know the intricacies and nuances of French life and government well enough to have an informed and intelligent opinion about French politics. All I know is what I see in the media, and that isn’t enough for me to have an intelligent opinion.” It usually shuts down that thread of conversation, and we can return to arguing about which boulangerie in town makes the best baguette.

Not long ago we had to visit a French government office in Nantes, with some paperwork required for our long-stay status.  All government buildings have security guards stationed at the door, allowing people in one at a time after careful scrutiny. When we got to the head of the line the guard glanced at our paperwork, and with a curious look, asked, “Vous etes American? ”

Yes, we responded, and with a genuinely quizzical look on his face asked us, “You want to live in France?” Of course we said yes.  “Why?” he asked.  We told him we love France, we love his country.  His response was a broad smile that radiated surprise but also a pride that was something to see, as he opened the door for us and waved us in.

A short time later, on our way out, we had to stop at a counter and present our papers, which had been approved and moved us one step closer to residence approval.  It was clear we had been approved. When the young lady at the counter saw the paperwork she asked, in English, if we were Americans. When I said yes, she broke out in a big smile, and I jokingly asked, is that a good thing or a bad thing? She smiled, and said “That’s a very good thing. I love America and Americans.”

On the way out the door I caught the eye of the security guard–he gave me a conspiratorial grin, and made a thumbs up sign to us. It is not the kind of behavior one expects from a French security guard.

One of our favorite encounters happened somewhere along the eastern border of France, in Alsace. It is a region with a distinctly German atmosphere, largely because it has alternately been German and French over hundreds of years of wars. The regional dialect has a distinctly German quality, and Alsaciens who speak English often sound like Germans speaking English.

We had come upon a castle that looked interesting, had parked our car, and were walking towards the gate when a rather jolly, gray-haired fellow approached and in Alsacien French asked if we knew the time. We apologized and told him we didn’t speak good French, could he repeat?  But when he discovered we were American, his interest in the time disappeared and he launched into an animated and passionate tale of his recent visit to America, and what was apparently an Alsacien group bus trip across the country.

“Ja!, Ja!, ve vas on a buuus, und ve had a vunderful time, but ze driver voodent let us haff bier on ze buuus und zat vas bad.”

And then he said, “Ja, ve vas in Hollyvood, und ve saw ze Goose Town und it vas amazing!”

Uh, “Did you say Goose Town?”  “Ja, Ja, it vas ze Goose Town!”
Goose town? Goose Town? Karen and I wracked our brains trying to think of a town with geese.

“In California?”  “Ja! Zayr vas nobody zayr.”

A town with just geese? We wondered.  Then the light came on. “Do you mean a ghost town?”

 “Ja! Ja! A Goose Town. It vas Amazing!

Lest I offend, Karen insists I acknowlege that our French is equally impenetrable to most native French-speakers.

A Small Tragedy in a Tiny Village

Midnight in Luche Pringe is extraordinarily silent. Tuesday night at midnight Karen was asleep, and I had just slipped quietly into bed.  A violent explosion shook the house and a brilliant orange flash filled the room.  I bolted to the front window, opened it to look out, and there was a second boom.

Outside in the street I could see nothing, save a woman running from her house across the street, screaming something unintelligible as she ran towards the village square, then back towards her house.  I was getting dressed when Karen looked out the kitchen window in the back of the house, and called to me. There was an enormous fire two doors down, with flames shooting 50 feet in the air, maybe more.  It looked to be the butcher’s.

Out in the street, oddly, there was nothing to be seen when standing in front of M. Emmanuel Methee’s boucherie, but walking into the square and looking at the back of the building, it was a raging inferno, with billowing smoke and the sound of crackling wood.  It was out of control, and, living two doors down, we were in danger of being caught up in it.

The pompiers, the firemen, seemed to take an eternity to arrive, but I’m sure it was only a few minutes. When they did arrive, they needed to call out their hook and ladder truck with a water gun rising a hundred feet in the air, shooting high pressure water down into the fire.

In the street in front of the church people gathered.  Manu’s wife, in shock, stood in the Place watching, sobbing, “Chez nous, ches nous,” while Karen and other neighbors tried to console her.  Enormous clouds of smoke billowed into the night air.

It was miraculous; the fire was brought under control, and although there was some damage to the house next door, our place two doors down was unscathed, with only a trace of smoke scent in the lower floor, although we learned that pieces of the roof were blown as far as the bridge into town by the explosions. Manu’s business appeared a total loss.

The next morning, only a few hours after the blaze was extinguished, the cleanup had begun and although the back of the building was wrecked and the inside of the store was all smoke and water damage, the front glass windows and door were unscathed, and the curtains were drawn as they would be any time the store was closed.  From the street there was almost no sign of the fire, except for a small pile of burned wreckage outside.

No one knows what caused the fire, but the explosions were almost certainly from gas tanks used to fuel his cookers. No doubt he had them working overnight to slow cook specialties he would have displayed the next morning.

The fire is a tragedy for Manu, his wife, and the village. It is a disaster.  Manu and his boucherie are part of the village heart. For so many people he, his wife, and the shop are part of daily life. It was never clearer than this week. Manu on occasion, made burgers, but only on occasion, and by special order in advance. These are burgers from local beef, on special rolls from the baker, with all the fixings. For the French living in a somewhat remote village, this is a special thing.  Manu had five hundred orders for burgers for this weekend, Valentine’s Day. It was going to be a big day for a shop working on slim margins. You don’t get rich operating a boucherie in a small French village.

Now, there is uncertainty about the future and whether or not he will come back. We are told they lost everything, and the question of insurance and what it will provide is an unknown. But within 24 hours collection boxes appeared in the boulangeries and the epicerie,  donation boxes  to  help Manu and his wife repair and reopen.

Life in the village will be different, maybe for a time, maybe forever.  For us there is the lost convenience of Manu two doors down, always available for a last-minute decision about dinner. But it’s more than that. We will miss walking by every morning on the way to the boulangerie and back, with Manu and his wife looking out the window, waving back with a smile at the odd behavior of those Americans who always wave when they pass.  

Market Day!

History and travel books often make reference to European market towns.  As far back as the period we call the Dark Ages and beyond, even to the time of the Romans, certain towns hosted weekly or daily markets.  The arrival of farmers, artisans, and merchants of all kinds descending on these towns with their goods and news of what was going on in other, distant, places, drew in people from miles around for the half shopping trip, half social gathering that came to become known as market day.

Market towns still exist all over France, and indeed all of Europe. In cities like Caen, Saumur, and Angers, and large towns like Sarlat, there is a day (or more than one) of the week when a market takes place as it has for centuries.  No one knows how many centuries La Fleche has been a market town, but everyone in La Fleche knows that Wednesday is market day.

The market opens early.

Every Tuesday night, in a ritual with roots extending centuries,  on the roundabout entering town a sign goes up, announcing the road running along the Loir River next day is closed after one am. No driving on the road, no parking in the lot along the riverfront next day until one pm, because sometime around zero-dark-30 merchants begin arriving, and a bustling marketplace will pop up in the dark, early hours of the morning like a mushroom after rain. Before the sun comes up it is Wednesday, Market Day in La Fleche. It will bustle until noon, when quickly the market, the merchants, and all signs of them will be gone. The merchants move on to another town, another market, tomorrow. The street and lots are hosed down, cars resume parking in the lots, and it will be as if the market was never there.

As town markets go, La Fleche is small. Larger towns like Saumur and Caen seem to go on forever. Still, it fills two streets with an astonishing array of merchants, most in the same spot each week–fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and seafood of a quality unknown in most stores back home, prepared foods of all kinds, from couscous and roasted chicken with potatoes cooked in the drippings, sausages, meats, jams and honey, and preserves, to household items like kitchenware, pots and pans, utensils, clothing, shoes, and cheeses, glorious cheeses! Oh, and hot, fresh bread, pastries, and our favorite–chouquettes, miniature pate a choux pastries (that stuff around eclair filling) baked on the spot, then sprinkled with a special crunchy sugar bits. Always the first priority for us: find the truck with the chouquettes, $1.10 for six, but who buys just six?

Chouquettes waiting for us, with coffee outside the cafe, to watch the parade of folks at the market.

Surely the French are the most social people in the world, and market day is more than a shopping excursion. It is a social event. One dares not go to market to make a surgical strike at top speed, because the narrow aisles are clogged with groups of folks exchanging busses, bonjours and ca va’s, catching up on local news and gossip, amid the lines queued up in front of the merchant’s stalls, trucks, and tables.

Karen cruising the market in Sarlat.

We try to never miss market day unless the weather is totally dreadful, because it is just so much fun. What makes it so is the merchants. These people purely enjoy what they do. Their joy and enthusiasm is infectious. They laugh, they joke, they banter, and most of all they take enormous pride in their products and in their work.

The market in Mirepoix. We returned a year later and this knife sharpener and his friend were still there. And so was the same glass of beer.
At the market in Caen, Normandy. There are always interesting people afoot.
Interesting, interesting people….

If you want to buy two melons (speaking of which, I discovered the most delicious cantaloupe-like melon I have ever tasted. Called rouge-gorge, it is deep orange red inside and ridiculously delicious). The merchant will ask you when you plan to eat them, and you say, “one tonight and one on Saturday.” He will pick two melons, examine them closely, then mark one with a magic marker. “This one tonight,” he will say, “This one on Saturday.” He is right.

The cheese merchant, who we love, is a really funny guy who brings to market an astonishing array of small-batch cheeses, as Karen and I joke with each other, made from the milk of cows and sheep fed by hand, massaged daily by virgins. In reality, they are cheeses one would never ever see outside France.

The French numbering system is maddeningly difficult for English speakers to master, especially when numbers are being thrown around by fast-speaking merchants with a mind-numbing array of local dialects. The French largely know and understand this, so when a purchase is made and they tell you what the cost is, they also display the register tape so you can see it and comprehend. But our cheese guy sometimes says he’ll only charge us whole euros and not the change because it’s too hard for us. Then he’ll tell the rest of his customers lined up that he could charge us anything and we wouldn’t know…he winks at us and everybody laughs, including us.

A couple of folks in our French family only like cow’s cheese (go figure). We were buying cheese for a party and were specifically avoiding goat cheese on this occasion, when he looked askance at us. We told him our guests didn’t like goat cheese and he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Then they are not French!” We think he is hilarious.

Our spice lady, meanwhile, is just whacked, but in a nice way. She lays out a huge array of spices, and like a medieval alchemist, darts from one bowl or bag to another, assembling a witches brew of spices that she says, “This one is for  le soup, c’est fantastique!” or, “This one is spectac” with the chicken! It’s verrry good!” And you buy it and you love it and a week or two later you go to get more, and you swear that as she scrambles around from spice to spice that her recipe isn’t the same. She’s enormously entertaining, interspersing a little English with a local dialect from somewhere in France, us barely able to keep up.

I confess I had a moment that I thought was special and perhaps significant. Well, it was for me.

When we walk through the market we pass dozens of clumps of folks in small gatherings. They buss, they hug, and they talk. They hail one another at a distance, gather in a knot, and talk. As a visitor, one tends to see this and feel conspicuously an outsider. They are French, they are local, and we are not. We are just passing through. Over time we become familiar to some of the merchants, and we develop a little familiarity and relationship. But still….

Then one day, walking through the market, I hear, “Tom! Tom! Karen!”

 We turn and see Genevieve and Michel waving to us. We wave back, meet up in the middle of the market, exchange busses, and ca va’s and have a brief but enthusiastic chat. As we turn and go our separate ways I can’t help but feel something slightly amazing has happened. In a very tiny but significant way we have crossed a threshold. We were no longer just looking in on life in La Fleche. We were, if only briefly, a part of it.

Ice Cubes and Trash Bags

Walk into a café or restaurant and order a beverage…a coke or an iced tea…yeah, that’s a good one…order an iced tea. Garcon will give you a suspicious look and, sensing you are American, will ask you if you want ice with that.

“Why, hell no, I don’t want ice in that,” you think. “I’d much rather have my iced tea at room temperature!” But you don’t say that. You just smile and say, “Oui, merci.” Garcon walks away, and you swear you can hear him muttering something about “les Americains.”

Shortly thereafter, he shows up with your drink, and sure enough, there, at the bottom of the glass is your ice. One single, solitary, lonely ice cube, and if he’s really feeling wild and crazy, there are two.

Out on the town, or back at Chez Nous, you find the French have a weird thing about ice, and specifically, ice cubes. There is this underlying belief that ice is inherently dangerous, and too much at one time can cause death or injury. When you utter your first words in French and they immediately know you’re American, they also immediately know you’re going to want more ice with your drink than is healthy. They won’t actually warn you, but they will look at you funny.

Ice cube trays? Nah, not happening. You need to go on a hunting expedition to find ice cube trays, the rectangular devices that allow you to twist and set free up to a dozen of those little beauties in one fell swoop. Specialty items. Hard to find. These go on the list of “Things We Need to Buy In The US To Bring To France.”

And here’s where you run slam bang into one of the contradictions that make you scratch your head. The French, you see, are extraordinarily conscious of being ecologique. It is top of mind almost everywhere you go. Until you see how they deal with ice cubes, because the standard method for creating ice cubes in the French home is to use a blue plastic bag that is neither eco, nor logique.

You’re supposed to buy this plastic bag, purpose-made to create ice cubes, and then through a small opening, drizzle in water to fill a dozen small compartments. Once filled, you close it like a Ziploc bag, and carefully, hoping the Ziploc will hold, place this water bomb into the freezer. When you want a cube…or two or three, for two or three drinks, you have to tear open the plastic bag and fight with the cube, in much the same way you struggle getting those Individually hermetically sealed pills that are sold welded to a cardboard backing.

So, when you’ve wrestled out the last of the cubes, what do you do, with this shredded, single-use plastic bag? Why, you throw it away! C’est ecologique!

And then there are trash bags.

Beloved Wife Karen is much calmer of demeanor than me, I’ll readily admit. She is not of short fuse and Mediterranean temper. But if you wish to see Polish rage in full flower, watch her deal with what the French euphemistically refer to as a Heavy Duty Trash Bag. These things have the tensile strength of moist Kleenex, and tear open under the weight of table scraps. Thus, in order to just get them out of the trash bin you often need to use two or even three, and put one inside the other. C’est ecologique!

When I groused about “those damned French trash bags” Anthony nodded strong agreement.

“I know,” he said, “They are terrible, but I have something for you! I have a friend, he was in the Foreign Legion, and he gave me a bunch of their trash bags. I’ll give you some!’

Hot damn, I thought. Trash bags from Le Legion Etranger! They’ll be body bags! They’ll be great!

They weren’t.

Oh, they were a slight improvement, and you only needed two instead of three, but they sure weren’t going to be hauling bodies in them. Or even a lot of garbage.

And so we added another item to the list of “Things We Need to Buy In The US To Bring To France,” and on the next trip I stuffed a five-pound roll of Hefty trash bags into my luggage. I wasn’t all that concerned about the ice cube trays, but I was concerned about what French Customs might think about me hauling five pounds of trash bags into the country.

The Drink That Nobody Drinks

If you’re driving around France it won’t be long before you start to see faded paintings on the walls of buildings, advertising Suze, kind of like those painted barns in the US promoting Mail Pouch Tobacco. Suze is an aperitif, sort of sweet, sort of bitter. It has been around for a long time, since the early days of the 20th century.

We first spotted one of those Suze paintings not long before we tasted Suze for the first time. We liked it, and it quickly became a favorite for both of us; a tasty way to prepare the palate for dinner. These days we always have a bottle of it on hand, which is why what has happened over the years is particularly comical to us.

One evening  at dinner at the home of friends in Alsace, we were asked what we would like to drink, and both Karen and I said, “Suze.” The room fell momentarily quiet, then people started laughing.

”Oh really?” we were told, “Nobody drinks Suze!”

Uh, well we did. So they suddenly managed to produce a bottle of the item that nobody drinks, and we had our Suze, to the amusement of the gathering.

We continued our journeys, happily ordering and drinking Suze at bars and restaurants along the way. Then we rented a house in the Aude and continued happily buying Suze at the local grocery during our stays. Although…there was the time our British friends came over for drinks.  When I offered Suze to Mike he gave me a most quizzical look and commented that it was curious that we had it in our inventory. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

When we came to stay with Anthony for the first time and we asked for Suze, we heard it again…nobody drinks Suze. In fact, our family here found it…and continues to find it years later…a novelty of those wacky Americans who like Suze. Last time we arrived back from the States, Michel, with great feigned ceremony and a laugh, announced, “Tom, here is your FIRST Suze!”

Karen and I find this all quite amusing, since Suze is prominently on sale at the local grocery stores. But what is curious is that when you go into a café or brasserie and request  Suze, you will get one of two distinctly different responses. On one hand, you may have a Suze promptly delivered to the table. On the other hand, you may get a look like you have two heads, and a distainful, “We don’t have Suze” from one of those people who believes “Nobody drinks Suze,” and we shouldn’t either.  Ya just never know.

That Ain’t Pizza

Sometime around 50 BC Julius Caesar and a few thousand soldiers marched into Gaul, present-day France, and took over. The Romans stayed here for more than four centuries. They built towns and cities, arenas, temples, and plantations. Then, around 450 AD they up and left for Rome again. They packed up and left behind empty towns and cities, temples, arenas, and plantations. Apparently what they didn’t leave behind was the recipe for pizza.  The French have been trying…unsuccessfully, I might add…for some 1500 years to figure out how to make it. They are still trying.

Oh, every town and village has any number of establishments selling something round and flat that they call “pizza,” but…not to put too fine a point on it…it ain’t pizza, it’s crap. Or, as one poster, likely an American, wrote on a Trip Advisor review of one place here in La Fleche, “How can they get it SO WRONG?”

A fine question, indeed. One that is partly answered by the fact that the French have a specific world view of what pizza is. In most of the civilized world, or at least along the East Coast of the US from Boston to Washington, DC, the heart and soul of pizza is The Crust. If you don’t have a good crust, goes the premise, then you don’t have good pizza.  It is The Crust that people ooooh and aaaah over, savor and discuss like fine wine.

In France, the crust is merely a delivery system for what goes on top. It might just as well be a slab of cardboard. The crust is an inconvenience that must be navigated in order to get to the toppings. And what goes on top of a French pizza is so often, just wrong. For openers, allow me to inform you that when you order a French pizza you should be prepared for crème fraiche. And potatoes. And barbecue sauce. No kidding.

From the menu of one of the local “pizza restaurants” I can offer you The Rustique, which includes smoked sausage, potatoes and crème fraiche. Or The New York (they love to name their “pizza” romantically) with crème fraiche, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese, and ground beef, among others. “New York?” you may ask.  Indeed.

Then there’s the “Cap Horn” which includes raclette, crème fraiche, and tuna. Tuna! Yummm.

Or, one of my personal favorites, The Louisianne, with barbecue sauce, chicken, ham, and curry. To which one can only ask, “Pourquoi?”

There are more, of course, but no need to continue the misery. You get the point.

Sitting here thinking maybe they’re feeling The Purchase was a rip off, and the Louisianne is their response. It seems odd to me though, that of all of those Italians who immigrated to the US over the years, not a single one of them passed through France along the way to set the French straight on pizza?  If so, then I am holding my grandparents at least partially responsible

A Beautiful Silence

“It’s so quiet,” we whisper to each other; whispered countless times over the years, in hundreds of  towns, tiny villages and hamlets we have visited in our travels. It is nighttime in France.

The French are frugal, a cultural norm, and in the evening, after business is done, stores and businesses extinguish the lights. To do otherwise is a waste of electricity. Out go the interior lights. Out go the outdoor signs and billboard lights. In the hamlets and villages where the boulangeries and butcheries have already been closed for hours, only the scant street lights remain. Later in the evening, when the last stragglers have long returned from work and family life has resumed behind drawn curtains and closed shutters, even the street lights are extinguished. It gets quiet. And the dark arrives.

It is stunning; even after so many years, to step out into the nighttime darkness and experience a moment of near-sensory deprivation. There is no ground light. This is a soundless darkness with weight and texture. The dark is so deep I am reluctant to move for fear of walking into something. I can see nothing. I can hear nothing. And then, in two or three minutes as eyes adjust, as if a gigantic curtain is drawn, the nighttime sky reveals itself; a star-lit sky unlike anything ever seen, save the night sky at sea.; as if you can see into eternity. It is a breathtaking sight, a gift of the Gods, waiting outside my door every evening.

With the night sky and the darkness comes deeper quiet. More than quiet, it is silence, an utter lack of sound. I stand still for long minutes, enveloped in the stillness. Then, faintly in the dark, the whisper of wind in the trees, and nothing more. This is a deep, profound silence that gives flight to imagination.

This village where we live, this narrow street where I stand, no one knows how long people have been here. The Romans were here; they say the ancient Catholic church stands where a Roman temple stood. Armies of the Hundred Years War tramped through fields where farmers now toil. The Germans were here; they crossed that bridge leading in to town, and, I am told, they couldn’t get their tanks through town so they knocked down buildings to make room. What was it like that day?

I stand in the dark and the quiet, listening for the past; listening through history and wondering. Who lived here? Who passed through this space I now occupy? Who were the people here a thousand years ago? What were their lives like? What did they look like as they passed through this space I now fill in the dark?

It carries me away to different times; to The War, before that to the times of Napoleon, to the mists of medieval ages, always wondering, who were these people, what was their life like, what did it look like here, on this spot?

It is nighttime in Luche-Pringe. I step outside, sit in the dark on the bank of the Loir, listening for the wind to speak of the past, feeling a connection with history, dazzled by a night sky and peering  into eternity, holding tight to the moment, wrapped in a beautiful silence.

Travels With Karen

In the years before the miracle of the GPS, navigation on our trips to France was assigned to Karen. At first glance, that would be…well, at second and third glance too, that would appear to be as sensible as asking Superman to deliver this here package of kryptonite. Geography, you see, is not a strength; navigation, a mystery. And so, with no GPS it was to be Karen, Rand McNally, and the Rough Guide; the maps open across her lap, the Rough Guide in hand. We would hie off into the countryside, me and a woman who spreads breadcrumbs to find her way back to the bedroom. At home. Oh, and she likes wildflowers.

Actually she is a wildflower fanatic (but I say that with respect), with an encyclopedic knowledge of wildflowers, and the ability to spot a single, dime-sized wildflower from a speeding motor vehicle, at 500 yards.

“STOP! STOP STOP STOP!

So I do.

“IVE NEVER SEEN ONE OF THOSE BEFORE!”

Before the wheels have come to a stop, she’s out the door, crashing her way through high weeds and brambles. A few minutes later I can see her tiny figure out in the distance, two or three zip codes away, waving happily and pointing down. A few minutes later she is back, climbs into her seat, closes the door, looks at me and smiles.

“That was nice. We can go now!”

Once, in the Pyrenees, we were at the foot of Plateau de Beille and I was really excited.  Plateau de Beille  is a mountain with a ski station at the top. The road to the top is an iconic mountain climb from the Tour de France and it has to be the finish of a stage because there is only one road up; you can’t ride up and then go down. This would be my first physical contact with the Tour, of which we have both been passionate fans. And, because I was riding with a bike club back home, I was really interested in seeing what the ride up would be like.

We started up at the foot of the climb, and I guess for the first little switchback I stupidly thought, well this isn’t bad. Its only something like 15 kilometers, I might be able to do this.” Ha.

As the climb got relentlessly steep I told Karen, “If I could stop when I just couldn’t go anymore, I don’t think I could do this in a week. And these guys climb 3 and 4 mountains in a single day?”

So, I was busy being gobsmacked as we rounded a switchback, when it happened.

“STOP! STOP STOP STOP!”

I knew the drill. And as it turned out, the flower in question was right there by the side of the road. She looked down, and sat down next to it, looking at me, her back to a large hillside. The little flower was blue.

It was quite astonishing, I was told. This little blue flower was really, really hard to find, and this was a really  special deal, finding this lovely little blue flower, that I think she told me was poisonous if you put it up your nose, or something like that. I’m standing there on the side of the road, and enjoying the stop because, from the previous Tour de France I can see the fading names of favorite riders  painted on the road, which is what the fans do. And Karen is enjoying her blue flower. Then I look up at Karen and her flower, and behind her, a vast field, a great swath of blue. Yeah, blue flowers. Like, acres, dude.

“Hey Kar, you really should turn around. I’m Just sayin”.

So there we were driving in the Dordogne, getting on evening, looking for a town with a restaurant and hotel, and off in the distance what appears to be a castle, which is exciting, but not unusual, because there are castles and castle ruins all over. I was busy reading road signs in heavy traffic as we approached an as yet unnamed town. And the castle loomed larger and larger in the distance.

“STOP! STOP STOP STOP!

“What now?”

She had the rough guide in her hands, flipping pages, and the map was on the floor.

“Stop! I mean go! GO!  We have to go there!”

“Why? What are you talking about?”

“Eleanor!  Eleanor of Aquitane! She was…uh…uh..she was BORN there, Yes! In that castle! Uh, no…no, wait,..”

 Flipping pages made a breeze, while Karen muttered, “She had her first,…yes!, She had her first child! No, wait…”

The Rough Guide is beginning to emit wisps of smoke.”

“Oh, I don’t know!” she says in growing frustration, ” SOMETHING VAGINAL HAPPENED THERE!”

A Bottle of Calvados

Shade kept us from seeing the sign. The narrow country lane, devoid of traffic, meandered through farmland of the Cotinten bathed in glorious autumn sun, highlighting roadside fields of squat, manicured apple trees but intensifying darkness in the occasional stretch through a palisade of looming shade trees. It was a rough board nailed to a tree hard by the roadside. Stark, unadorned, it reflected the essence of Normandy. The sign said simply, “Calvados.”

We were a hundred yards beyond the sign by the time it registered and we spoke. My wife and I exchanged glances but I knew, from the look in her eye, the answer before asking the question.

“You want to go back, don’t you?”

“Of course, I do.”

“We have a lot already, you know. I don’t think we have the budget or the luggage space for another bottle.”

“We can make room, trust me.”

I slowed the car and turned back towards the sign. It was a U-turn that began more than a year before on a train ride from Paris.

Karen and I had been together nine years and were taking our first European vacation. She was experienced, having been to France, Central America, Italy, and Japan. I had never been overseas, and placed myself entirely in her hands as we laid plans for a nine-day trip to Paris. She kept asking what I wanted to include on the trip, but I had no agenda. All of Paris would be available to me for nine days, and I was willing to graze the buffet.

History is my passion, and I have always been an atmosphere kind of guy. For me, being in the exact space, walking the same ground, breathing the air where momentous events have occurred is what excites me. I was looking forward to just walking the streets of Paris, the streets where Napoleon walked, where not so many years ago Nazi occupation forces had marched; these were the things I looked forward to.

A lifelong interest is World War II. My father, who died a year before, flew 50 missions as tail gunner on a B-24. Most were over southern Europe, but he participated in the Normandy campaign, flying missions in support of the D-Day invasion. Shortly before he died, he was one of several hundred surviving US soldiers and airmen who received a medal from the French government honoring their participation, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Pierre Salinger presented the medal, of which he and we, his family, were enormously proud.

In part because of my interest in WWII, partly because of my father’s connection, and partly because of my total lack of sense of distances in France, I floated the suggestion when my wife persisted in asking what I wanted to see on our trip to Paris.

“Can we go to Normandy?” got me a bona fide double take.

“What?”

“Normandy. Can we go there? I want to see the landing beaches. I want to walk on Omaha Beach, to see the skies where my father flew. Is it possible? Can we arrange a side trip from Paris?”

We could indeed, and a two-day, overnight trip to the Normandy coast was set in motion. By train from Paris to Caen, a short train ride from Caen to Bayeux, a day at the cathedral to view the Bayeux Tapestry, an overnight stay at a hotel in Bayeux, ending with a day-long drive along the D-Day invasion beaches with a local guide, before a return train to Paris that night. It was a trip that had a changed our lives. When I boarded the train in Paris I was a tourist, enthralled with the city, thinking I would like to return some day. By the time we returned from Normandy I had changed. I needed to return. My priorities had changed. I knew I would do everything possible to get back as soon and for as long as possible.

It began on that train ride to Caen. Paris falls away quickly, surprisingly so, and almost immediately you are in countryside unbelievably quaint and pristine. The train rolls by tiny, ancient towns that appear little changed for centuries. The first one encountered is startling; soon, another. The stark, pointed roof Norman architecture, calling out from the Middle Ages, dominates. Each town a single main street, a cluster of ancient-looking Norman buildings in the shadow of a 900-or-1000 year old church, weathered, decaying, still a central focus of the community. One after another, after another, they fall away quickly as the train rolls toward the coast, each giving way to farm fields and orchards before, in the distance, another postcard town appears, flashes by, and disappears in turn. No fast food-joints line the roads approaching these tiny villages, no strip malls, no car lots, no neon signs and peeling billboards. The buildings are devoid of advertising, save the occasional ancient, faded pre-war advertisements for Suze.

I want the train to stop. I want to get out and walk through each of these towns, to wander through the cemeteries, to walk the streets; visit the churches; know, feel and taste the history of these countless nameless tiny villages. People lived here a thousand years ago, chain-mailed Norman knights rode these dirt roads, GIs and Tommies liberated these towns half a century ago. I want to know these places, up close. I know I must come back, I am almost certain of it before we arrive in Caen.

Now, Karen may be the finest traveling companion on earth, but she is, after all, a woman. And all married men know women have an almost pathological need for their mates to ask for directions given even the slightest hint of uncertainty about where you are at a given moment, no matter how familiar the terrain. Even driving through our hometown and, distracted by the conversation, should I miss a turn, Beloved Wife will suggest I ask for directions, for God’s sake, which made the episode on the platform at the Caen train station doubly puzzling.

We debarked from Paris, and with only a 10-minute window, needing to find the gate for the train to Bayeux, I volunteered to find a conductor to get directions.

“We don’t need to ask directions.”

“Excuse me?”

“We can find it ourselves, we don’t need to ask directions.”

“There’s a conductor over there, standing by that train. I’ll just go over an ask..”

“No, we can find it ourselves.”

Sweetheart, we’re in France. We have 10 minutes to catch a train, and there’s a man over there dispensing information.”

“Well, go ahead then,” says she, and I detected an audible harummpf.

“Bonjour, Monsiur! S’il vous plait, Bayeux?” The conductor jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the train behind his back.

“Oh, Honey! Yoo hoo!” I pointed triumphantly to the train. It was too rare, too sweet a moment to pass up.

The guidebook said you can’t get a good meal in Bayeux on Sunday night, but the guidebook was wrong. Skate, in a tiny restaurant on a Bayeux side street, was remarkable. It was a lovely dinner in a charming, comfortable restaurant, topped off with a glass of calvados that was stunning.

Calvados is a distilled spirit, an apple brandy indigenous to Normandy, known as the Calvados region of France. Calvados can be fiery in its intensity, but at its best it is as if the quintessence, the soul and spirit, of apple is condensed and multiplied in its vapors. A superb glass of calvados can be nursed for hours for the sheer pleasure of inhaling the aroma carried to the nose on the alcoholic updraft rising from the glass. I had my first calvados in Paris earlier in the trip, but the calvados that night in Bayeux explained the difference between large batch, commercially- produced brandy, and the locally produced, farm-made, one-of- a- kind product only available in Normandy.

Think of it like bootlegging, but legal. All across Normandy, across the Cotentin Peninsula, throughout the Calvados region farmers grow apples and distill those apples subject to their family’s individual and long-held recipes, into their own particular cidre- a hard cider; calvados, and pommeau-a blend of calvados and cidre. Each farm’s is as different as is your mom’s meat loaf or potato salad is from my mom’s, and it can’t be had at a store. You must visit each farmhouse individually, sample the wares and buy directly from the farmer, although in the two decades since, the European Union has managed to legislate many of these farms out of the calvados business. The calvados we had that night at the tiny restaurant in Bayeux had been made right in the neighborhood. If ancient Norman villages were calling us to return, so was the prospect of visiting those farms and tracking down the wild calvados in its native habitat.

Next morning our guide arrived at the hotel driving a small van. Frederick, at 24, exhibited a level of maturity and sensitivity not often seen in people his age in the US. He was born and raised in Bayeux, spent several years in England, then returned to Bayeux where he guides visitors across the vast Normandy region, tailoring his tours to the nationality of his guests. The invasion beaches stretch 60 miles along the coast, and his knowledge of the beaches, indeed the entire campaign area deep inland, was impressive.

Equally impressive, the depth of feeling the young man displayed. This was no rote presentation for tourists; Frederick, though only 24, radiated a visceral understanding and appreciation of the fact that his home had, a mere 50 years before, been a land enslaved. The invasion beaches and omnipresent vestiges of war had genuine meaning to him.

Those vestiges are omnipresent. Massive concrete bunkers, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, remain silent, ominous reminders looking out over vacation beaches and summer resorts. The skeleton of Fortress Europa is visible everywhere. Coastal batteries of reinforced concrete, enormous gun barrels still pointing out to sea, sit surrounded by the plowed fields of Norman farmers. We crawled through silent fortifications; gaping holes punched through the reinforced concrete by allied naval gunfire allow sunlight to illuminate the cramped, dank spaces where Nazi coastal troops sat and waited for years, then died on June 6th 1944. Surprisingly, graffiti is almost non-existent.

Visiting the American cemetery in Normandy is a powerful, and moving experience. The vast burial ground sits high above the beaches. It is American soil; France officially gave the land to the United States, so every American interred there lies in American soil. You enter the cemetery down a sweeping, tree lined path leading from the parking area. It is beautiful and peaceful. The walk is long enough, and the massive trees still lush enough in October that for the final moments of the walk your senses are overtaken by the green, the serenity, and the quiet. We walked with Fredrick who said nothing, gradually dropping back behind us a few paces. He knew, we did not, he wanted us to be alone, and did not wish to intrude as we turned the corner.

We round the bend, a massive monument comes into view, before an enormous reflecting pool. But to the left, what stops us in our tracks, what causes a gasp, is a sea, an enormous, vast sea of white crosses; row after row after row. Tears come. We  stand there with tears in our eyes, and for a time no one speaks.

Then the young Frenchman, old beyond his years, says very quietly, “For me, this is very sad. But very beautiful.”

The American servicemen buried in Normandy did not all die on D-Day. The cemetery is the resting place of American dead from all across the Western European Theatre. There are soldiers who fell on D-Day, alongside airmen who perished in the skies over Germany, or tankers who fell at the Battle of the Bulge. It is a chronicle of the war in Europe.

“Did you know,” Frederick says in a near whisper, “that all of the graves face due west, towards home?” I hear Karen sob, and the tears come again, unashamed.

It became a certainty that day: we must return. On the train ride back to Paris it was decided; we will come back next year, and we will spend time here. We had fallen in love with Normandy for so many reasons, and now we wanted to return to visit those tiny, ancient towns, to wander through the countless remnants of the war, to breathe the air, walk the ground, feel the throb of history and culture of this place where the past is so palpable. And yes, to visit farms, meet the people, and bring home their calvados.

A year later now, nearly a week into our return to Normandy, the U-turn sent us back toward the sign on the tree. We had already seen much, but not nearly enough. We visited tiny cemeteries, and ancient, out-of-the-way villages, walked small town streets, became flies on the wall in cafes, met locals in neighborhood bars in towns barely big enough to be on the map. We crawled through WWII ruins, and into a dripping, 6-thousand-year-old tumulus lit with a naked light bulb on a rainy, ominous, frankly scary afternoon. We visited enough farmhouses, met enough farmers’ wives, and sampled enough calvados that we were approaching our budgetary and luggage limit for bottles we might bring home. Still, this one beckoned.

“Farmhouse” is misleading if your frame of reference is farms in the USA. A farmhouse in France can be many things- it might be humble and rustic, or it might be a spectacular chateau. In Normandy, reflecting the mood of Norman architecture, some farms have a fortress-like quality. This one was definitely fortress-like.

Turning off the road at the sign, we crossed a bridge over a culvert onto a narrow stone path through trees that, until that moment, obscured the “farmhouse.”

“Jeezus,” I said, “some farm.”

A stone wall with turrets loomed in front of us, running a good 30 yards to either side, an ornate archway leading into a courtyard. Old walls with lichen splotches, the turrets may have been more ornamental than functional, but they caught my attention. Karen’s attention was caught by a large cat that appeared in front of us and led the way through the arch into the courtyard. Needing a cat fix after a week on the road, she urged me to follow.

The courtyard was a parking lot. Several old vehicles were parked on the fringes and the place had a very slight air of neglect. Once it had been spectacular.

I parked the car and was scouting the silent courtyard looking for an obvious place to find calvados, Karen scouring the area for the cat, when a door opened at the far side of the yard, and a tiny, elderly French lady came flying out the door, slamming it behind her.

“Bon jour, monsieur, et madame. Bon jour! Bon jour!” she called across the courtyard. Waving emphatically, she greeted us with an enthusiasm reserved for long lost relatives.

She was quite old, this buoyant and cheerful lady. She scampered across the yard, continuing to issue greetings, and I finally responded in my primitive and highly embarrassing French,

“Bon jour, Madamme. S’il vous plaît, avez-vous calvados?”

“Oui, Oui, j’ai calvados.”

She started to turn and gesture for us to follow, but stopped, paused, and turned back to me. She grabbed my arm, held it, and looked me in the eyes. Her expression turned serious.

“Etes-vous Américain?”

“Oui, madame, Americain.” She continued to hold my arm.

“Merci, monsieur, merci.” And the elderly French woman began to thank me. Thank you for what your people did for us. That is what she said.

I did not understand everything she said; she spoke quickly and my French is almost nothing, but we communicated. She thanked me not for me, but for my country, for my father, and for what his generation did.

Standing in the courtyard with this elderly French lady, I looked back at the arch under which we had passed, and so real I could see their faces, I saw my father’s generation, kids 18 and 19 years old, their helmets kicked back on their heads, confidant and cocky and victorious, walking under that same arch 55 years before, telling a young French woman, “It’s OK lady, those bastards ain’t coming back. You’re OK now.” I felt goosebumps

I told her my father had participated, had been an aviateur, that he had died little more than a year before, she understood and I saw sympathy in her eyes.

She wore a dowdy farm dress and an old sweater, and on the sweater, over her heart, was a tiny enamel pin. She pointed to her breast. It was, she explained, her late husband’s veteran’s association pin. She was very proud of the pin, and kept pointing to it. It was 55 years since D-Day and every day this elderly French lady still remembered the young American boys who set her free, and her husband who fought the Nazis. She had no idea an American would visit this day, unless, who knows, perhaps they visit often? But she wears that pin every day, and she remembers.

We bought calvados and pommeau. She thanked us again, and we thanked her, hoping she understood how very much it meant to meet her and share her story. I looked at the arch one more time before we got into the car, to fix in my memory forever that image of the GI’s coming under the arch.

We drove out onto the country road, saying nothing, processing the experience.

“We should have taken her picture,” Karen finally said.

“I know, I just thought of that. It never entered my mind while we were there. I wanted to hug her. I still do.” It was an extraordinary connection. Years later it remains the most cherished of our memories of France.

We nursed that bottle of calvados for several years, always toasting the memory of the elderly French lady. When it was gone we saved the bottle. The label had no address, but we saved it anyway as a remembrance, as if discarding it would be discarding a connection, hoping to visit her again on our next trip.

Almost every year since we have returned to France, and the conversation has always started with Normandy. But there is so much France, so little time. It has been the Dordogne, and Languedoc. And now we are living, at least for a while, in the Sarthe. But we always think of Normandy first, and revisiting the lady in the fortress farmhouse, hoping she is alive and well.

Perhaps, this fall…

This post, “A Bottle of Calvados,” in its original form appeared in the 2008 publication of the travel anthology, Travellers’ Tales. But it feels like it needs to be in this blog.  With apologies for the length….Tom

You can’t be hungry. Its not the right time.

You’re tooling down the road and notice that quite often you pass parking areas, some merely roadside pull-offs, others small picnic areas complete with tables and trash receptacles.  Then you begin to notice something else. 

Every day, around 11:30 to 11:45, cars and trucks begin to pull off in a dash to snag a space to park. Rows of big rigs pull over, park, engines idling.  Cars, some with a single driver, others with entire families swing off the road, claiming a table and unloading table cloths, baskets or sacks of food, maybe a bottle of wine.

It is Lunch Time in France.  Everything stops.

We’re talking EVERYTHING; office buildings, banks, mom-and-pop shops, and chain stores. If you are standing in a queue at the bank, next in line when the clock strikes 12, you know without even asking that you will be told to come back at 2. Oh, there are big chain grocery stores, usually found on the outskirts of town, that remain open. Almost everything else is going to shut down at noon and won’t be open again until 2, maybe 1:30 if you’re looking to conduct a little commerce and you’re lucky. So you might as well have lunch too, cause there’s nothing else to do. In fact, we’ve been run out of museums on more than one occasion when Lunch Time arrived and we were told, “Time to leave. You can come back at 2.”

The French take lunch very seriously. It is an integral part of daily life in France.  While the American curse of eating something at your desk while running in place at work may have crept in to the lives of people in the office towers of Paris, Toulouse, or other major cities, outside of town Lunch is still observed in The French Way. Which is to say, they DINE.

Some folks settle for a sandwich, and some boulangeries remain open to sell bread and prepared sandwiches. In bigger towns there is…horrors…often a McDonalds, pronounced Mac-d’NALDs, which still seems to be something of an exotic treat. But mostly, it is a full-blown sit down lunch with multiple courses–something we learned years ago in the very first minutes of our very first visit to France.

Shortly after checking into our room we headed for a brasserie. We were young! We were in love! We were starving! We were foolish! We ordered the daily special!

A large plate of charcuterie and baguettes arrived. We discovered the magic of rillettes, and devoured everything on the plate, as my father would say, like a pair of starving Armenians. We sat back feeling full, happy and sated.

And that’s when the chicken arrived.

A one-half, roast chicken.

Each.

With frites.

That is when we discovered we had only dealt with the appetizer; chicken was the main course. All of this was complicated by the fact that the appetizer in France is called the entree, whereas what we call the entree is called the plat. We were pretty embarrassed by our ignorance.

 But wait, there’s more!  Dessert was coming.

This is pretty much the pattern for a French Lunch, and you need to keep that timetable top of mind, because just as surely as there is a Time For Lunch, there is a corresponding time when it is Not Time For Lunch, and that would be right after 1:30 to 2pm, when the restaurants close and France gets back to business.

There is no such thing as a late lunch in France. You don’t decide to walk into a restaurant at 2:30 or 3, because restaurants aren’t open. In fact, that window is so tight that if you enter a small restaurant at 1:30 hoping to get seated, you may very well be told, “Sorry, we’re not taking any more customers, we’re closing at 2.” This is the voice of experience talking.

It sounds extreme but it actually turns out to be a pretty smart way of eating, because that lunch is often the big meal of the day, and it is followed by a return to activity. Then instead of a large evening dinner, you can get away with something light. I’ve actually been able to lose some weight with that kind of eating schedule.

So, the restaurants are all closed by 2, and because the French dine later than we are used to, restaurants aren’t open again until about 7, and they don’t expect people to start showing up until around 8 pm. But in that window, starting about 4 pm, give or take because there appear to be no set rules on this, and continuing until, well, God knows when, there occurs time for yet another uniquely French event called apero.

It can happen at any time in the late afternoon. It can happen when you least expect it. Sometimes it comes in the form of a one word question to everyone present; sometimes it is an announcement: Apero! Suddenly things start appearing on the table: salty snacks, sausage, baguette, all manner of finger foods, and adult beverages of a particular kind: aperitifs like Pernod or Ricard, Suze, vin rosé, beer. If it is a group setting, as it was when we were staying at La Boulaie, everyone breaks to neutral corners and returns with whatever they have. It’s a sort of spontaneous party, and it happens, well, a lot. In fact it happens so often (and we now have our own place, so it’s expected that we will be capable of producing apero at the drop of a hat just like anyone else) that we need to keep a supply of apero-appropriate goodies and beverages on hand at all times.

It is a genuinely charming feature of life here, completely natural and part of the wonderful tempo of life.  Funny, too, because of the way in which it is just so normal. One afternoon at chez Anthony I was wrapping up a brief visit—a visit that had already involved one obligatory glass of wine–and was headed for the door when Anthony got a phone call. He said to me, “My mother is on her way over and she says we should do apero, so you have to have another glass of wine.”  It is one of the burdens one must learn to bear when living here.

Let’s Buy a Car!

Once we had our Long Stay Visas, the first item on the to-do list? Buy a car, which shouldn’t be a very big deal. We had an adequate budget and our parameters were minimal: something used but reliable; a hatchback to make it easier for shopping and hauling things around; reasonably comfortable for road trips; buy it from a dealer, not some guy selling his car on Pierre’s List. Diesel  or gas? No matter, just basic transportation.

It probably wouldn’t be a Renault, because I long ago had learned the French have their car prejudices just as Americans do, and many of them do not hold Renaults in high esteem. I once arrived at Chez Anthony in a Renault rental, and he said, “Oh, a Renault! Here we have a saying: leave in a Renault, return on a velo,” velo being French for bicycle, if you get their drift.

That was confirmed not long afterwards when we arrived at a party, and when we pulled up the menfolk in a chorus, all moaned, “Oh, No, he’s in a Renault!”

Uh, oh yeah, and an automatic transmission.  Got to have an automatic, because Beloved Wife cannot drive a manual.

In retrospect, it is a valid question as to why it would have to be an automatic, since in the two decades of tooling around France and environs,  She Who Shall Go Unnamed has driven a grand total of…let me see now…ahhh  yes, ZERO kilometers. Not so much as a single turn of the wheels.  Nada.  But as we would be living here for long periods of time, it was wise to consider that if I happened to be struck and killed by a piece of falling space junk,  She would have to be able to get home with the groceries. And so, it would have to be an automatic.

“Ahh,” said our French family.

“Hmmmm,” says Anthony, with much chin rubbing and muttering.

“Tres dificile,” says Yanick. “C’est un problem”, they all muttered.

And so, early on we set out one Friday to scour the car dealerships in La Fleche, and at day’s end we had discovered a grand total of 0 cars that fit our minimal parameters. Oh, there were used cars in our price range, and cars that were hatchback; cars that looked quite reliable. But none that were automatics.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, when word got out to the family of what we were looking for, the menfolk set out that same weekend to scour every car dealership in Le Mans (45 minutes away), and their search turned up a grand total of 0 prospects. That would be Zero.

So we turned to the internet, and after gradually increasing the search radius we eventually came up with three interesting prospects, all of them in the area surrounding Angers, a nearly 2-hour ride from here.

If you’re sensing a pattern developing, you would be correct. Automatics are scarce as hen’s teeth in France; virtually everyone drives a stick. In fact, when you take your driver’s test, if it’s with a car that has an automatic transmission, your license specifically limits you to driving automatics. Ergo, the default in France is to drive a manual transmission. Automatics are seen as some kind of luxury option.

Come Saturday morning, Anthony and I headed off towards the two prospects in the Angers area, facing the additional time pressure to get there as early as possible because…get this…car dealerships close at noon on Saturdays. Can you imagine a car dealership in the US shutting its doors at noon on Saturdays?

As it turned out we got to the first of the two dealers shortly after they opened, only to discover our target vehicle had already been sold. But when Anthony asked the guy, “So, do you have anything else like that?” he pointed to a sweet little eye catcher and said, yeah, that one there.

Well. That One There was perfect. A red Citroen C4 hatchback diesel, a still-young 65 thousand miler that looked for all the world like it had been owned by the little old lady from Pasadena, and was only driven on Sundays. And so a deal was struck. I would take it as it sat there, for the agreed to price. But I couldn’t pay the man on the spot and drive it off because, next, I had to get insurance, which, it being France, would take about a week. And, said the dealer, he had some things he wanted to do before I took possession.

It actually took two weeks, and when we returned for me to take possession of the car, I was thunderstruck to learn that he had determined he didn’t like the look of the front two tires, so he replaced them with new. And he had ordered and replaced a part on one of the doors that he just wasn’t happy with, had gotten the car through inspection, washed and thoroughly cleaned what was already an impeccably clean car. Then he handed me a check for 20 euro, because he said I had overpaid him.  THAT was the French Car Buying Experience, with which I was pleasantly surprised.  And all for a used car with an automatic transmission.

Without further comment I wish to report a conversation I had some time ago with Anthony, who is an unabashed Ford lover. He lived briefly in the US, and while he was there he bought a Ford Mustang convertible, and had it shipped to his home in the tiny village of Les Cartes, where he is, understandably, quite the sight. The first time I got into said Mustang, I did a double-take when I looked down and saw the car was… an automatic!

“Anthony!“  I gasped, “You don’t have a 5-speed? It’s an automatic? That’s like putting champagne in a beer bottle!”

“Ah, said Anthony, with a dismissive wave of the hand, “Manuals are a pain in the ass. I don’t want to worry about shifting. I just want to enjoy the driving.”

Reveillon and Bad Santa

Family, for the French, is an enormously important word. It is almost sacred. There are tightly drawn lines of demarcation; one is family, or one is not, and entry into the circle of family is not casually given. Family events are wordlessly restricted to Family, and it is thus, understood by all. To be included in events of anyone’s family is, of course, a special gift; something to be cherished and not taken lightly. But the boundaries of family are so tightly drawn among the French that being welcomed across that threshold is of even more powerful significance. It is something for which one feels blessed.

The French celebration of Christmas is an event called Reveillon, which takes place on Christmas Eve, whereas Christmas Day tends to be a day of recovery.  And with good reason.  We learned this as we found ourselves, over the years, gradually welcomed across that threshold  by our beloved French family in the US. Over some 20 years we grew closer and closer, watching their two  daughters grow from charming young girls into beautiful women, celebrating birthdays and a wedding; through good times and some not so good. Then one day, with a sense that “Of course you will be there. Where else would you be?” we were invited.  We crossed the threshold into Family, and from that moment, we are now expected to be there, evermore.

Here, now, with our adoptive French family it is the same, and as much as we feel honored and blessed to be included in these intimate family gatherings, so too does the family feel as though it is as normal as night and day that we should be included. There is no question! They have told us, “You are family.” There can hardly be any greater gift.

And so we learned of Reveillon. On either side of the Atlantic it is the same; it is best to be prepared.

It starts deceptively slowly, sometime around 6 pm. There are hors d’oeuvres…wave upon wave of them. I expected the drinking to commence with purpose, but it was restrained at first, with a formal sit-down, plates of finger food, and a slowly sipped glass of champagne. Gradually, however, the pace increased, with an array of foods that makes cardiac surgeons smile with delight and guarantee they can make large, long-term purchases, as business will continue to be good.

There are discs of fois gras wrapped in smoked duck, house-made smoked salmon, myriad tasty bits of seafoods and cheeses wrapped in other tasty bits. There are oysters, incredibly delicious Bretagne oysters, briny and delicate, far more delicate than the fat Chesapeake Bay oysters we know. And each round of these delights is a separate event, each brought on individually and accompanied by a just-right wine for the course. The pace quickens.

It turns out the French don’t cook oysters; the concept of steamed or grilled oysters is unheard of, at least to these French folks in the provinces. So, a couple of days before, when we were told there would be 150 oysters for Christmas Eve and  Karen asked if they would like Oysters Rockefeller, she was greeted with blank stares. Undaunted, Karen volunteered to make oh, a couple of dozen for the group, to which they said, “Sure, go ahead. We have plenty.” Kinda felt like they were just humoring her, and they could afford to waste a couple of dozen to keep Karen happy. Well….

Karen prepped all of the toppings, and when we got there the oysters had all been shucked, so she assembled the oysters, placed them on a bed of salt, filled them with the topping of fresh spinach, herbs, butter, Parmesan and breadcrumbs, put them under the broiler, all the while scrutinized with intense interest and no small amount of skepticism by all of the women and some of the men. When the steaming, bubbly oysters appeared,  everyone at the table tried one, including three folks who said in advance that they  just don’t like oysters, but to be polite they would try one.

Well, let’s just say they were a success. Those three people who don’t like oyster?  Every one of them asked for seconds. And then several people asked Karen if she could make more, because we have more oysters! So she dashed off to the kitchen, and about 15 minutes later, appeared with another two dozen, which disappeared instantly.

At this point, Karen leans over to me and says, “I hope nobody asks for a recipe” because she doesn’t work with recipes, and if she does, she would then have to translate not only from English to French, but from American to metric measurements. She had barely said the words when Willy, an avowed oyster disliker, asked me if Karen could give him the recipe. Mission accomplished, Karen!

After the appetizers and the oysters would come the plat, the main course, followed by dessert–a buche de noel, and of course, a proper adult beverage for each course. The ostensible main course didn’t even start till around 11pm, and it would be somewhere between 1 and 3 am before the hardiest participants finally called surrender.

Meanwhile, Anthony had pulled me over and asked, would I do them a favor? Would I be Pere Noel for Elliott, his 3 year-old-son, for whom Karen and I are adoptive American Grandparents ?  And, he asked, would I do it for the child in the house down the road?

Good Heavens, Yes! Of course I would.  It would be an honor to participate at such an intimate level in such a private experience as a child’s Christmas in a different culture.

So, here’s how it works: The presents are secretly stacked outside the front door. Then Pere Noel (which would be me, dressed in the French Santa Claus costume they just happen to have stored away), knocks loudly on the front door, then walks away down the street as the child opens the door, discovers the presents, and sees Pere Noel walking away. He turns and waves to the child a couple of times as he walks farther and farther down the street and disappears as the child attacks the presents.

I did it twice; once for Elliott and once for the child down the street. It’s kind of magical, and I was thrilled to be asked to do it. I was also happy that the kids didn’t get to see old Pere Noel up close and personal, because to be honest, and maybe because of the adult beverages we had consumed prior, I thought I looked like a deranged homeless person living under a bridge, dressed up as Santa. The picture they took looks like a mug shot.

Cultural Stubbornness

Anyone who has ever been to Paris remembers that very first day, the first moments when you realize you are indeed in Paris. In France!  I know I do.

We had just checked in to a hotel  in the Marais, stepped in to the bathroom, and while Karen danced with delight, Happy Joy, Happy Joy, because there was a bidet (an excellent device for chilling wine, I might add), I was staring suspiciously at what was The Shower.  It was a glass cubicle, much smaller than a phone booth, with a shower head attached to a hose, hanging from a hook on the inside wall. I had my doubts. Next morning, my first experience with what the French call a shower didn’t go real well.

Now, I’m not exactly slim, but I certainly am not what you would call a large person.  I’ll go with “average in size”.  And this average-sized guy learned that it is not a good idea to drop the soap in a French shower, because when I did, I bent over in that tiny space to pick it up, and my ass pushed open the shower door, dousing the bathroom floor, an event that was to become a recurring theme over the years of travel in France. What I didn’t realize at the time was that would qualify as one of the better shower experiences we would encounter over the years.

It is positively mind boggling. The French have not yet mastered the concept of The Shower. This is a country with one of the most advanced nuclear generating systems in the world, an aerospace industry among the world’s best…Airbus and the Concorde; and yet, the simple logic of The Shower has completely evaded them. Worse, it isn’t just that they haven’t mastered it.  They have actively devised  innumerable ways to actually screw up the act of taking a shower.

Charles De Gaulle is reported to have once said, “How can anyone govern a country with 300 cheeses”.  Well Charlie, you should count the number of permutations of “shower” and get back to me.  At one point…no joke…Karen suggested I start taking photographs and do a coffee table book on French showers.  I should have taken her up on it.

It seems like such a simple concept, and yet….

A frequent offender is the old style deep bathtub, where the rim of the tub comes up to the middle of your thigh; not easy to climb in and out of under any circumstances, but downright perilous when wet. This unit comes with a hose attached to the bathtub faucet and about six feet of metal hose with a shower head attached. There is no way to hang the shower head. You are expected to hold it the entire time you are “showering”. Oh yes…there is never a shower curtain. NEVER.

The French don’t believe in shower curtains. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. What I do know is that shower curtains are not a default item in the French bathroom. Our French family seemed genuinely amused by the idea when we broached the subject while standing in two inches of water.

But here’s the deal. Assuming you managed to climb safely into the tub and get the water running at a  comfortable temperature, you have to  manage to soap yourself with one hand while holding the shower head in the other. If you put it down in the tub to do a two-handed wash and leave the water running, the shower head flails around in the tub, spraying the room.

You can try getting down on your knees and holding the shower head aloft, trying mightily to wash yourself, but as when you  are standing, one false move and that shower head turns roomward and inundates the floor. God forbid you want to give your nether regions a good rinse-the ceiling will come into play. It happens time after time after time, such that taking a shower becomes more a matter of not hosing down the room than getting yourself washed.   

One of us exits the bathroom and the other will ask, “How’d it go?” code for, how much water did you leave on the floor? And it eventually becomes competitive, “Ha! I left less water on the floor than you!”

That’s one variation on the theme and easily, not the worst.  That honor goes to a small hotel we stayed at a couple of years ago. The bathroom was extremely spacious by French standards. As you entered, the sink was closest to the door, and next to the toilet. But there was something odd, because the room was very large and there was nothing else there. Where is the shower? was the first impression.

On closer examination we discovered, at the far corner of the room, a slight depression in the floor, and a drain. And there, hanging on a hook was a shower head attached to a hose coming out of the wall. No sides, no curtain, nothing but a drain in the floor of an otherwise wide open room.

It has to be nothing more than cultural stubbornness. “That’s the way it was (with a silent “in the middle ages” at the end of the sentence) and it’s French, and that’s the way it should be.” Pure cultural stubbornness.  It’s a French thing, you wouldn’t understand.

Now of course, wherever we go, wherever we stay, the first thing we do when we enter the room is check out the bathroom. The conversation is always the same.

“Sooooo, what’s it like?”  

And even when you think you’ve hit the proverbial brass ring and you have finally found a rock solid shower, you can be victimized. We were staying at a B&B owned by friends near Verdun. The shower was a glass stall, but comfortably large, with a mounted shower head, a handy shelf for soap and shampoo, copious hot water and satisfyingly strong water pressure that left exit wounds. Perfect. Until we spotted a large round hole in the glass door, about waist high, that was meant to serve as a way to grab the door and open it. The hole was placed exactly where the shower head spray hit the door.

And who puts a hole in their shower door anyway?

When I confront Anthony about these things; when I itemize the ridiculousness of the French shower concept in detail, he nods in agreement and says “Yes, I know” with a shrug that says it puzzles him as much as it puzzles me. Then I go upstairs to his master bath, and guess what?

It’s a full-tilt boogie American shower.

Heaux, Heaux, Heaux!

At exactly the stroke of midnight, on the morning of December 1st, Christmas Season officially arrives in France. In every city and town, in every village and hamlet, as with one single switch, all of the Christmas lights come on. Oh, in the cities there are some of those commercial outliers who, like their counterparts in the US, begin their Christmas sale displays sometime around the summer solstice. But out of town, in the provinces, the good folk wait until December 1st.

Christmas in France. It is one of those bucket-list checkoffs that we had from our very first visit. In Paris and in other major cities the lights can be spectacular. And Christmas in Paris, just walking the streets and enjoying the chill and excitement in the air, there is a different buzz from Christmas back home.

In the provinces, in the small villages and hamlets, the lights take on a different tone. Rather than spectacular, they have a different feel.  They feel more personal,  I suppose.  There are lighted displays and overhead street lights.  And there are the houses;  often the lights  inside a home are placed in front of a window, inviting passers-by the catch a glimpse, and you find yourself actively looking towards the windows to see animated lights and fully decorated Christmas trees.

Even in a tiny hamlet like Thoree Les Pins or the outlying “suburb” of  Les Cartes , which is only a cluster of homes near a crossroad and where there is not a single bit of commerce,  there are street lights. And the thing is, they’re just so darned charming. No other way to describe it….they’re  just charming. And in a very real way the Christmas lights speak to a very real quality of life in France. It speaks of a simpler time, a time less frenzied, less commercialized, like the nostalgic feeling you get from watching the Jean Shepherd movie, A Christmas Story. As Karen says, “It is as if time stopped here in the 1950s.”

+-Christmas lights in the heart of the Thoree Les Pins commercial district

There is one curious and slightly whacked footnote to the Christmas lights. Often enough that it makes you aware that it’s a thing, you will see a Santa Clause doll hanging out of a window by a rope. Just hanging there. Usually it starts out as some kind of simple display. But the wind eventually gets to it, and the Santa gets swung around on the rope, and inevitably it looks like the Santa has been hanged by the neck until dead. And so, amid all of the quaint and rustic Christmas displays there  is often a Santa Lynching to be seen as well.

Joyeux Noel!

Granted, I may be an unabashed romantic, but there is no denying it….

It’s a revelation that cuts through all of the anxiety and stress of becoming settled in a different culture. And one day, like the proverbial light bulb going on overhead, you say it out loud and you realize that it’s true. It happened almost simultaneously for Karen and me.

People in France are just nicer. Civility is simply part of the culture, a part that, sadly, has dissolved into nothingness back in the US. And grasping that is potent. It brings things into focus and clarity. People in France are just more civil, and life here has an overriding pleasantness to it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are as many annoyances here as there are back home, but as is the case with so many things in life, we make trade-offs. Here in Luche we trade the inconveniences of life in Maryland for the inconveniences of life in France. There are plenty, and woe unto anyone who has to deal with French bureaucracy; ‘tis a fearful thing.  But the difference is that in all the interactions we will have here in France there is an underlying civility, a niceness that is missing in 21st century  America.

Sometimes it’s almost comical. There have been these well publicized demonstrations going on in France since November 2018, where people wearing those yellow safety vests, called gilet jaunes,  have been blocking road traffic in protest against the Macron government. If you watch TV you will see huge protests in major cities like Paris, Lyon, Nantes, and so on. The gilet jaunes set up blockages, disrupt traffic, and in the worst cases they set fire to buses and  police cars.

 Here in the provinces, in La Fleche, the largest town in the region,  it is all a bit different.  Like clockwork, the gilet jaunes show up every Saturday at the roundabout entering town. They will have, in advance, posted signs informing you exactly what time the protest and blockage will begin and when it will end, so you can plan accordingly. How civil!

And it has the feel of a community get together more than a protest. They have a bonfire going, and they cook over it, it’s one big social gathering. And when they block cars for a minute or two they hold up their signs and you hold up your yellow vest  (required to be in the car by French law) as a sign of solidarity, they give you a big cheer and wave you through.  One time when they had us stopped and wanted us to sign a petition of some sort, we told them we were Americans, in response they started to cheer, “Americans, Americans! And they waved us through with a cheer. It was the most convivial protest either of us had ever seen.

For two people who grew up in the 1950s there is a quality of life here in France that harkins back to our childhood, a simpler time. People are nicer. They are more civil to one another, and it makes you want to be nicer in return.

Walking down the street, an oncoming pedestrian  will make eye contact and offer a bonjour  as they pass. And you are expected to do the same.

Enter a shop with a line of customers waiting to be served, and you offer bonjours to the entire line as well as the proprietor. And when you leave, give an au revoir to everyone  and expect to get au revoired right back atcha. Everything, every transaction and interaction begins and ends with a pleasantry.

You might be sitting at a restaurant having lunch, and another customer who is leaving and passing your table might give you a bon appetite as he passes.

Karen left the dome light on in our car one day when we left the car at the Place by the church, and the patron of the boulangerie that looks out on to the square spotted it. Concerned that the light would drain the battery,  she left her shop unattended, walked across the Place and knocked on the door of the home in front of where we parked the car, to ask the owner if he knew whose car it was. He told her it wasn’t his car but he knew whose it was after trying unsuccessfully to get into the car to turn the light off.  In the interim Karen had remembered the light and returned to the car to turn it off.  Next day when we went to the car the owner of the house came dashing out to tell us the whole story, saying that he tried to get into the car to turn off the light because he was worried it would drain the battery, and he was so relieved that Karen had come back to turn it off.

A couple of nights ago I was in a contemplative mood, it was a beautiful night, and I went for a walk along the river. On the little bridge over the Loir I stood in the quiet and darkness, watching the moonlight on the water, deep in thought, enjoying the star lit sky and the quiet ripple of the water below. I was deep in thought and didn’t notice the approach of a lady whose house is just on the other side of the bridge. She startled me a bit, and asked me,  clearly concerned,  if I was OK?  I assured her I was just fine, but she asked again to be sure, was I OK? Again, I thanked her and assured her I was. And with a look that said she wasn’t 100 per cent convinced, she walked somewhat reluctantly back to her house, leaving me alone, in the dark, on the bridge.

We think we have become the village’s pet Americans. In any case it was yet another instance of an inherent niceness that has us so often saying, “Can you imagine that happening back home?”

The Butter Shirt

Michel is a meat guy.  A retired charcutier and avid hunter, he routinely heads off into the woods packing heat and hunting wild boar….sanglier, from which he turns out amazing pates, roasts and sausages.

One time I showed up for a family gathering with a big honking prime rib, a cote de boeuf, and he elbowed his way to the front, and in French loosely translated to “I got this,” grabbed the boeuf and headed off to the fire.  So as Karen was preparing her turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, Michel was an intensely interested spectator, looking over her shoulder at every move.

Michel just couldn’t stop watching while Karen was doing the cooking

When we told  him we had brined the turkey overnight he did a double take. This American woman, who had already established herself among the women of the family, was clearly doing some interesting things. Michel wanted to know more.

To roast a turkey Karen takes a length of cheesecloth and soaks it in melted butter. Then she wraps this dripping mass of cheesecloth around the bird, covering the entire turkey. The cheesecloth covers the turkey in butter, and there is no need to baste, and when the cheesecloth is removed you have a crisp, golden skin.

Michel and Genevieve are watching this. The cheesecloth itself is a mystery, and the process of melting the butter and soaking the cheesecloth has them completely baffled. Michele, who speaks no English, keeps pointing to it, “Qu’est-ce que c’est? Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” What is this? What are you doing?”

Karen, who is busy manhandling the turkey, floundering around in French trying to explain the concept, with little success.  Michel is still completely baffled about what this mad woman is doing, and finally, the best I could do was blurt out, “Michel, c’est  une chemise de beurre!”

For a moment it was stone silent. Then a look on Michel’s face like a light going on. His eyes widened, and a look of sudden, total understanding.

“Ahhhh, ‘ said Michel. “Oooo la la, UNE CHEMISE DE BEURRE!!! Genevieve, Karen fait une chemise de beurre!”

Well, that was the big event of the day in the kitchen. By the time the family was around the table Michel  had regaled everyone about the chemise de beurre, and it gave Karen and me a good laugh. The meal was a huge success, so much so that two of the other women used the same technique for their Christmas dinners, and all reported it was a huge success.

So successful was the turkey that Karen was asked if she would be willing to do it again for New Years, and of course, she said yes. But now, being The Time of Turkey, we didn’t have to do a drug deal with The Guy From Le Mans, we could just go next door and order one from Manu, to be picked up on Saturday. No problem.

Come Saturday, Karen and I walk into the butcher shop, make the usual exchange of bonjours to those in attendance, and when Manu sees us enter he gives us a bonjour and dashes off to the back, reappearing moments later with a large white bundle.  Then, to display what a wonderful fowl he is presenting and I assume to prove that it is indeed a turkey, he unwraps it and holds it up in front of us, by the neck, head and feet still attached. Then, after making sure we didn’t want those bits, he pulled out a cleaver and whacked off those appendages.  He had also removed a large quantity of fat from the bird and offered it to Karen, presumably to use for basting or a stock, but Karen just nodded no.

“Ce n’est pas nécessaire” said Karen.

And Manu leaned in, gave her a conspiratorial wink and said, “Ah, une chemise de buerre, eh?”

For a moment, neither of us said a word. Karen looked at me. I looked at her, and we exchanged a silent, “WTF?”

Manu cheerfully went about wrapping up the turkey, rang up the bill, and waved us goodbye, wishing a Bonne Anne. Outside we just stood there, incredulous and a little freaked out.

“Chemise de beurre? REALLY? How did he know?”

We never found out.

There are no secrets in a French village.

Talking Turkey

“Oh, good!  We’ve never had an American Thanksgiving, so you do Thanksgiving, and we’ll do Christmas!”

That was Joelle’s idea, Anthony’s mom. It was the deal we made as we left for the States, planning to return the following November.  While there we stocked up on some necessaries for a Thanksgiving dinner, including a can of pumpkin, since we weren’t certain it is something  you can find in France, but must have given pause to the TSA baggage search guy when he came across it.

We returned on November 15th, and any thoughts that the arrangement may have faded from memory while we were gone were dispelled  within the first 30 seconds we were greeted by Anthony.

“Hi”

“Hi. Is Karen still doing Thanksgiving?”

There would be 14 people for Thanksgiving, which in Thanksgiving speak translates to oh, an 18 to 20 pound turkey.  And that’s when the problems started. We had just stumbled into one of the most basic, elemental, intractable laws of life in France:

“There is a time for everything in France.  If it is not the proper time, then it shall not happen until it is the proper time.”  And as the French do not celebrate Thanksgiving, the middle of November is not Turkey Time.

 December first, that’s the start of Christmas season, which is The Proper Time, and suddenly turkeys are available everywhere. You can probably go into a laundromat and come out with a turkey, but not in the middle of November.  We learned we had problems when we walked into the butcher shop a couple of doors down, and told Manu we wanted a turkey. A big turkey.

Oh, his brow furrowed, and a troubled look crossed his face. He crossed his arms, and rubbed his chin, and muttered a few unintelligible things, but shaking his head in a most apologetic and sorrowful way we knew things weren’t going well for us.

“Ah, non,” said a deeply troubled Manu.  “Je suis desolet, mais  ce n’est pas possible” . Sorry, dude. Not happening. And when we further explained that we needed something in the 18-20 pound range, he gave us a look that was a bit unsettling, but said nothing.

And so, at this point the Quest For Turkey took on the feel of a drug deal, trying to score a turkey when it’s not the Proper Time.

Anthony: “Hey, my mother knows a guy.  In Le Mans,” which is the better part of an hour away. And, ya just  don’t expect to have to “know a guy” to score a turkey for Thanksgiving.

So, phone calls were made, secret handshakes  were exchanged, and  off went Anthony to score us a turkey, accompanied by a chorus of shouts from Karen and me, “Remember Anthony, UN TRES  GRANDE DINTE! TRES GRAND!

A word of explanation here.  In France  they don’t grow their turkeys or chickens with those big, Mae West, American breasts.  No, French poultry isn’t what one would call buxom. And the one we would be getting was one of the best-of-the-best, free range, bio, probably had individual feathers hand massaged daily on the thighs of virgins.  

So, when Anthony arrived the next day, proudly presenting his prized biggest-he-could-find , top shelf, “I know a guy” turkey,  it was not Mae West. Oh no,  it was a lean, mean, pecking machine that looked more like a game bird than the kind of lying-around-all-day, sipping-mint-julips-and-eating-chocolates kinda bird we have in the US. And his biggest-you-can-get turkey weighed in at a measly and disappointing  10 pounds. At which point we actively wondered if we needed to also do a roast chicken for 14 people.

And because  it was not Turkey Time in France, the price of that very special turkey was…wait for it….wait for it….

75-dollars American.

Oh yes, it was.

It’s a fair question…

And it probably should be addressed before we get too far along:

How the heck did this happen? How did it come to this?

The answer has convinced me that you simply cannot foresee what even the most insignificant occurrences can have on your life. And I’m not talking about pieces of falling space junk;  I mean the most mundane, everyday events that turn the path of your life in an unexpected direction.

We were “regulars” at the Cafe de Paris, in Columbia. Some would say residents. One night when we arrived, Erik Rochard,  le Patron, dashed up to us and told us there was someone we needed to meet in the bar.

“He’s French, you’ll love him” says Erik. And that’s when Anthony entered our lives.

Anthony Blot (strangely, for Americans, pronounced BLOW), sat at the bar, alone, early-thirties, a classic dark Frenchman. Turns out Anthony had been in the US for some time, and was just about to return to his wife in France.  Karen and I were still working, and our trips to France had been limited to two or three week vacations, during which I spent a lot of time on my photography in France, especially along the WWI Western Front.  Anthony wanted to know all about it.

Where did you go? What did you see? Where are you going next? And he told us about his home in France; oh, just some little place that goes back to the 16th Century.

We hit it off on the spot. And as he was about to leave, he said, “When are you coming next? You have to come visit us. Give me your email address”.

Well, that went well. So Anthony headed off to return to his wife, and we headed back to our work lives. But soon I started getting emails, “When are you coming?” Not, I had to tell him, for a while, because we can’t take vacation yet.

Next trip to France, the following year, we arrived in Paris, got our car and headed south, towards Le Mans, in the region known as the Sarthe. We were headed for a village called Thoree les Pins, about 50 minutes south of Le Mans. When we arrived he was standing outside, wearing a big grin that Karen and I have come to love.

Anthony greeted us like old friends, and his beautiful wife Celine, who had no idea who we were except that Anthony had told her two Americans were coming to visit, greeted us in the same way. It was an amazement. They just swept us up and made us part of the family. We had planned to spend a night, maybe two, then be on our way. Instead, we were there almost a week, and when we left to go to Normandy for a street festival we wanted to see (we had been there the year before and it provided some great photo ops), they decided to join us, get an Airbnb near where we were staying, and go to the fair together. And our stay ended predictably.

“When are you coming back?”

We came back, Over and over. And each time we were absorbed gradually into that most impenetrable of entities, the French Family. It just happened. We met Anthony and Celine’s parents, partied with them, played petanc with them, lord knows we drank with them, and it was all a bit confusing, because it’s not the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen…especially in a tiny hamlet in the provinces. Just ask anyone, and they’ll tell you the French are rude, they are not friendly to foreigners, and they never invite you into their homes.But they do. Our French is primitive, and with the exception of Anthony and Celine, none of the family speaks a word of English. And we get along just wonderfully.

Karen and I fell in love with the region, with the people, with our friends. We had already long since come to love France and the people. But this was on a whole different level. This was something special. And we talked about maybe finding a place to rent for months at a time somewhere  in the area.

Then one day when Anthony and I were hangin’ out, I said something like, “Anthony, you and Celine have  grown up here, your folks live here, your family has roots here. Surely someone knows someone who has a place that maybe we could rent for a few months at a time…”

He barely took time to draw breath.  “Oh yeah.”

“Oh yeah?  Like who?”

“Yeah, Celine’s parents.”

Celine’s parents? Like, what house?”

“The one you were in,” says Anthony.

I’m kinda stammering at this point, “What? What do you mean the house I was in? Where are they going?”

“Oh, Michel  is restoring another house in the village and they’re going to move in in May.” And so it was done.

Next  July we arrived for a 4 month stay in the house called “La Boullai”, replete with a garden, chickens and fresh eggs, and a host family that simply adopted us as their own, made us part of every family  event (and my Lord, the French have lots of events), and when we walked into the house that first day, there was a basket of fruit and vegetables, a bottle of Suze (that’s a story for another time), and a framed plaque that said, “Welcome Home Tom and Karen”.

We were retired at this point. It was a sunny, warm August day and we were in the kitchen at la Boullai. The windows were open, and we were both reveling in the day, when I said to Karen, why don’t we just stay? Why don’t we just do what we have to do to live here? And the lady said, “Why not?”

And so it happened. We returned home to the U.S, faced with an enormous task in obtaining the Long Stay Visa, but the die was cast. And delayed, but not defeated, here we are.

We think they view us as their pet Americans. And years later that plaque has a prominent place on our kitchen wall.

Rage Against the Machine (part 1)

Over the course of twenty years we have made the acquaintance of no fewer than four washing machines in France. French washing machines, which bear no resemblance in form or function to anything even remotely familiar to Americans as a washing machine.

Our first encounter, while staying in a cottage in the Aude, was with a bizarre little thing that looked for all the world like R2D2. And before I go any farther, let me acknowledge that over the years I have, yes, engaged in some hyperbole when telling stories; taking, as they say, some creative license in the name of good story telling. But this is straight reportage.

So, about R2D2. First off, forget everything…and I mean EVERYTHING… you ever knew or thought you knew about washing machines, because the French concept of washing machine is so entirely different from the NorteAmericana version as to be from not another country, but another planet. And not one from OUR solar system.

First off, you have to do your wash at night, because electricity, which many of the French seem to believe is actually more expensive than gold, is less expensive at night. And when you open up R2D2 to deposit the laundry, why lo and behold, you discover the inside of the thing looks nothing at all like what you were expecting. No, there is no center pillar around which the vanes swish back and forth. No, you open a trap door, and put the clothes into a cylinder that is on its side, so the clothes go into a space more akin to a spin clothes dryer without the front door. Then you have to figure out where to put the soap.

Nothing simple like, just dump the soap in the washer. There are multiple places for things to go, no indication which space gets which additive, and absolutely no indication anywhere on the evil little thing indicating how to start it, or how to set it. It just knows.

Ok, its like 9pm and we find a button that might make it start, and we push it, and of course, nothing happens. But, as we eventually discovered, it didn’t mean we got it wrong. R2D2 was just thinking about it a while. About 15 minutes later, after we had given up hope for the evening and were getting ready for bed, things started to happen.

Remember the movie Top Gun? Remember those fighter planes? Remember the sound of raw power as that Tomcat wound up its engines to a thunderous, gut shuddering roar when the afterburners kicked in? Well, that is what happened next. No kidding. Swear-to-god. And so we went to bed, laughing at little R2D2, that quirky little fella, and we fell asleep as the jet engine slowly whined its way down to a stop, and silence. Utter silence.

And about an hour later, without any warning, flight deck operations resumed in our kitchen, with R2D2 in full-throated fury. This sucker was alternating brief periods of complete silence and meditation with long stretches of Afterburner Antics, right through the night. All we could do was laugh, because every time we finally slipped off into sleep, the malignant little contraption would go to General Quarters again.

And the wash cycle? Oh, 4 hours. And by the way, almost nobody in France has a clothes dryer. so that four hour investment was just for a wash. Next day the clothes went out on the line.

That morning I happened to catch a look at the nameplate on the little miscreant. It’s name was MALICE.

Swear-to-God.

.