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 be 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.