Friday, March 8, 2013

A belated Happy New Year

I have been on hiatus from my blog since last fall, in order to complete a manuscript. During that time, both the Jewish and the Gregorian New Year happened. So here is a New Year’s story, with a few important facts you should bear in mind as you read: 
  • Shanah tovah” means "Happy New Year" in Hebrew.
  •  Ça va” in the interrogative means “How are you?” in French; in the declarative it means, “I’m fine.” A series of them – Alors, ça va? Ça va, ça va; ça va, et toi? Oui, ça va, ça va – is a typical casual conversation in French. 
  • The Ardèche has no major highways, train stations, airports, or Jews.
            The French, for the most part, are extremely discreet about religion. I grew up in the Bible Belt, and so I find this cultural specificity rather restful, but every so often it can lead to what (as you may recall from French Vocabulary Number 3) the French call a quid pro quo.
One morning last fall, I walked past the Alba grocery store and saw Marco, the owner, standing outside with an older lady and her cellular telephone. He motioned me over.
            “Miranda, maybe you’ll know,” he said. “What’s the country code for Israel?”
            “Off the top of my head, it’s either 972 or 942," I told them. "Why? Who are you trying to call?”
            Madame here is trying to call her cousin,” Marco said. “And she can’t get through.” Marco did not require any rhetorical flourishes beyond his own eyebrows to convey that Madame did not possess the technological know-how necessary to operate the mobile device she was holding in her hands.
            “I’m so sorry to bother you,” said Madame. “She’s a long lost cousin – she found us doing research on our family, and she’s supposed to come visit, and I can’t figure out how to get through to her.”
            “No trouble at all,” I told her, my thoughts whirling. A cousin in Israel? Could it be true? Were there actually two Jews in the Ardèche? “Are you…” I trailed off. I was in a quandary – what Americans call Jewish Geography the French call indiscretion. Not wanting to seem rude, I decided to stick to innuendo and eyebrow wiggles: “So you’re…” I trailed off, and nodded my head in what I hoped was a politely Semitic fashion.
            “Oh, yes,” she said, smiling beatifically.
            I smiled. “Wow, me, too! How did you end up here?”
            “My husband,” she told me. “Funny, isn't it?”
            “I’ll say!” I said. “Look, I have to go,” I went on, “but Marco has my number. If you give me a call this afternoon I’ll find you the dialing code for Israel.”
            I didn’t hear from the lady for a week, so I figured she must have gotten through to her cousin. Then, the day before Rosh Hashanah, the phone rang. It was Madame. I was tickled pink – after all these years in the Ardèche, someone from our neighborhood was finally calling to wish me a happy new year. “Shanah tovah!” I exclaimed.
            Ça va, ça va,” she said. “Et toi?
Before I could try again she rushed on. “I was wondering if you could help me with that country code,” she said.
            “Sure,” I said. “I checked; it’s 972.” Still not wanting to violate any rules of subtlety, I said, “But you might want to wait to call until after the holidays.”
            “What holidays?”
            “You know, it’s Rosh Hashanah tomorrow.”
            “I’m sorry?”
            “The New Year. It’s the Jewish New Year tomorrow.”
            “Oh goodness, dear,” she said. “I wouldn’t know about any of that. I’m Catholic.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

The knife sharpener

Once a year, when the weather gets cold, a small man of indeterminate age knocks at our door. He is not a prepossessing person. His black watch cap is too small, his weathered blue parka is too large, he has fewer teeth than nature intended, and he is clutching a handful of knives, poorly concealed in a plastic bag. “Need anything sharpened?” he asks.

The first year he came I only gave him two little Opinels, in case he decided not to come back. But he did, and now I wait for him, and I hand him all the knives and scissors I can find, and he spirits them off for ten or fifteen minutes, and when he brings them back they are sharper than when they were new.

His name is Jean-Baptiste, and he likes to travel. Not for the scenery, because one village is just like another, but for the people. He likes to talk to people. Alba is just like any other place, for example, but it stands out in his head because the people here have a sort of a cultivated way of talking. I ask if he enjoys that, and he says no, it is tiresome. 

Toulon is where Jean-Baptiste was born and it is the place he names when asked where he’s from; Le Teil, down the road from Alba, is where his six kids live; and if he had his druthers he’d settle down in a town he calls Ameragues, which I have never heard of and cannot find on any map. He assures me it is calm and restful there. He spends most of the year on the road, in a little caravan hooked to the back of his truck. Every six months or so his truck breaks down and he plies his trade on foot until he’s raised enough for repairs.

Sharpening knives is what he does, but poetry is what he is. He likes poetry because it is beautiful, direct, and natural: it just comes to him, just like that, an inexplicable gift. He doesn’t write it down – doesn’t know how to write – but once the poetry is in his head it stays there, and he carries it with him.

I ask him what it’s like to be a Gypsy in France today, since Gypsies are in the news all the time over here; French policy and public sentiment have been particularly angry and inhospitable to them in the past few years. I ask if things have gotten harder, if he encounters any distrust or hostility, and he is very tolerant of my question and its boring lack of imagination. Lightly, he says that there are all kinds of Gypsy, then finishes his coffee, stands up, and leaves me with a battery of sharp knives and a poem about a rose.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In other news

Exotic, art-nouveau-inspired decorations are starting to sprout in our house, and Julien has completed the brick wall in our future living room.

Our future kitchen.
Our future living room.

The flashing and waterproofing on the terrace are complete, and Julien just laid the tiles (you can see one of them on the far left) that will go under the big bay window.


The end may still be a ways away, but it is in sight!!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Circle games: la rentrée and la vogue


France has five seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and La Rentrée. 
Our neighbor's grape harvesting machine emerges from its shed.

La rentrée means “the return,” and refers to the period during which economic, educational, and professional activities start up again after the summer holidays.  

La rentrée is a nebulous, liminal time.  In Alba you know it has begun when the food stands outnumber the souvenir stands at the Sunday market, and you can find a seat on the terrace of the café at 11am. That following week you see the vintners drag their harvesting equipment out of the sheds and barns, and the pharmacy marks the sunscreen for clearance. 

The rentrée is something of a relief, because it’s tiresome to wait in line at the grocery store while a tourist in flip-flops buys the last carton of your favorite ice cream to take back to a camper that’s parked in your spot in the parking lot of La Roche. It’s also a bit sad, because you know that life is about to get much colder, and much quieter. 

The rentrée is a fleeting season, which ends as soon as the air starts to smell of fermenting grapes and the sycamore leaves take on a silvery sheen. It’s then that a troupe of white, unmarked trucks inches into our village like a silent invasion of furniture deliverymen, filling up all the parking spaces and blocking the views of the houses on main street. If you peer beneath the trailers’ flaps, which are half-lifted to let in the light, you’ll see they’re not actually full of furniture, but rather of carnival people lining up rows of stuffed animals, BB guns, lava lamps, beach balls, and toasters; filling gambling machines with piles of glittering tokens, tubs of plastic ducks with water, and frying vats with grease; and unfolding machines for people to whirl and spin and bump around in. The occasion of this invasion is the vogue, also known as the fête votive. 

Vogues are a traditional event in our corner of southeastern France, and their two names indicate their two purposes: fête votive because they celebrate a village’s patron saint (votive from the verb vouer, to promise, to vow, to devote, to consecrate), and vogue because they are organized for the benefit of a village’s youth (a vogue describes the forward motion of a boat, made through the coordinated effort of multiple rowers). Long ago, vogues helped raise pocket money for the young men departing for their military service; now they’re a kind of going-away ritual for the kids who graduated high school earlier in the year. Each year’s crop of eighteen-year-olds raises money by going door-to-door selling pogne, a sweet, eggy bread flavored with orange flower water, and then, during the vogue, by selling drinks at the buvette. For that one weekend, Alba is transformed into a glittering array of frivolities, and though adults and children frequent the vogue, too, it truly belongs to the teenagers. It’s their last interlude of giddy freedom before the rentrée and adulthood begin.

During the day, a vogue offers various ways to demonstrate strength and skill, ranging from bumper cars and petanque competitions to donkey races and tractor pulls. After 9pm, you’ll notice that it’s difficult to move your limbs at a normal pace, because the air is laden with a mixture of fry grease and sexual tension. The official drink of the vogue is marquisette, a mixture of white wine, rum or vodka, carbonated lemonade, and chopped up citrus fruit. As the night wears on and you drink more and more of it, someone is sure to remind you that the vats of marquisette are mixed by foot, and someone else is sure to tell you a story of an unsavory thing that took place in the marquisette vats the year of their vogue.


Each village’s vogue takes place on a different date in the summer, and Alba’s is the last of the season in our region. Even though it’s a festival of departure, in many ways it is really a celebration of eternal return: no matter how many years you are away from home, when you come back again, the fête votive will be the same. The same families of carnies return every year with the same stands and the same rides. On the carousels, children grab at the same pompoms their parents grabbed at a generation ago. When the disco balls come out at night, the songs, with few exceptions – I Told the Witch Doctor is now played in a dance remix – are the same as they always were, too.


Alba’s vogue is one of the region’s more sedate ones, but it is still a raucous, unruly event: it lasts into the wee hours of the morning, and when day breaks the village is full of stink and debris. Flowerpots get broken, trash gets strewn, people urinate in unseemly places. Half the village flees the weekend the vogue comes to town, and last year the town council voted to move the whole thing to an unpaved parking lot outside the village. But though you might be able to displace it or flee from it, the vogue in Alba isn’t a phenomenon you can escape. 

Love it or hate it, behind the brash music and the flashy lights and the cloying sweetness of the marquisette, the vogue in Alba is the ultimate symbol of the rentrée, the ever-recurring return: the grapes will ripen and be picked, the last of the blackberries will harden on their canes, the figs will soften and fall to the ground, and children will head to school on Monday with memories of merry-go-rounds whirling in their heads. And this year’s crop of eighteen-year-olds will start rowing toward adulthood knowing that wherever the vogue’s forward motion takes them, there will always be another rentrée, and another vogue. For them this was the year everything was different, and next year it will be exactly the same.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sad words: faire son deuil

August 21 was the seventh anniversary of the passing of my stepfather, Robert Moog, who was what the French would call "mon papa de coeur" (my "heart-father"). This is in memory of him.
 
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Deuil comes from the Latin dolor. Until the fifteenth century it signified the pain caused by a death. After that it began to refer to the outward signs of grief. In the 19th century, when mourning was all the rage, the expression “faire son deuil” was born. Now it means to go through the grieving process, to mourn someone or something, to resign oneself to loss. Pop psychology has overused the phrase to the point that it now borders on tacky: “faire son deuil” is something people do for junked cars, no-good relationships, and full fat milk in your coffee.

Nevertheless, it’s a verbal phrase I’m quite attached to, because I find it so expressive. It seems much truer to life than its English equivalent. In English you are “grieving,” or “in mourning.” Outside certain religious traditions, it is a nebulous state with no beginning our end. “Faire son deuil,” on the other hand, uses the active verb faire, “to do,” and the possessive “son:” it is yours to do, and no one can tell you how or where or when. It is your grief, not anyone else’s. In my synaesthetic head the word deuil is the color of violets and cream and egg yolks, opaque, mottled like a bruise, and more or less cubical. Doing your grief is a real puzzle, exponentially harder than the melted Rubik’s cube I see when I say the word.
When my husband Julien and I came back to Alba after the death of my beloved stepfather (the man who drove me to school, fixed my breakfast, and sat up with me at night when I was sick), I was at the outer edge of all the grief I had to do. Scenes from his illness flickered constantly in my head. From time to time one of them would pop into sharp focus and wreck my attempts to get on with life. I recoiled when those scenes appeared; I did not want to remember my father with sunken cheeks and strangely livid skin, a man so full of life stricken flat by a tentacular brain tumor. But I was afraid to ignore them, for fear that if I let go of them, all my memories of him would float away, too. I felt exhausted and confused, whacking and tapping and tugging at the Rubik’s cube of my grief.
The week after we came home was the fête votive (more on that next week), and though I didn’t much feel like partying, Julien and I went out for a late-night stroll around the village to take in the flashing lights and have a drink with friends. We stood around the plane trees by the buvette (which is what the French call anything outdoors that sells things to drink), and I tried to enjoy myself. I watched the crowd and felt oppressed by the hard sides and sharp corners and ugly complexities of my new deuil, angry that no one else could even see it. And then a childhood friend of Julien’s leaned over to me. Under cover of many drinks and a particularly loud disco song, he said, “I know what you’ve been going through. We’re all thinking of you.” 

 And that right there is one of the great advantages living in a village where everyone knows you. People actually can see your funky Rubik’s cube of grief. They know you’re working on it. That this feels comforting may seem counter-intuitive, given how intensely private grief is, and given that one of its hardest corners is how exposed and vulnerable it can make you feel.
I mentioned this seeming contradiction to a friend of ours whose baby had died in utero in the last weeks of her pregnancy, and whose grace with her own giant Rubik’s cube of grief was immense. “Mmm,” she said, putting her hand over her mouth and shaking her head the way some women do when they are recalling a thing for which words do not come easily. “The first time I left Alba I thought I would collapse,” she told me. “I went to get my hair cut in Montélimar and suddenly realized that no one in the hair salon knew. I almost bolted. In Alba, I could forget my shoes or start crying in the middle of the grocery store and I knew it was fine – I didn’t have to explain myself.”
“But wasn’t it a relief,” I asked her, “being in a place where no one was inspecting you for signs of falling apart?”
“I thought so,” she said. “I thought it would feel good to get away and not be me for a few hours, to stop being the woman who’d just lost her baby.” She shook her head. “But when I got to that hair salon, and realized it was invisible,” she trailed off. “How do you even describe it?” 
How do you? It may be your grief, but it turns out that the long puzzle is a little easier when everyone knows it’s there.
          
Grateful thanks to Daniel Stolle for permission to use his illustrations. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A rare word: conjurer

You probably know the joke about the Jewish Robinson Crusoe who, showing his rescuers around the island, points to the two synagogues he has built.
“Why two?” they ask, and he replies, “This is the one I pray in, and this is the one I would never set foot in.”
Alba has two cafés. There is the café everyone goes to, and the café no one ever sets foot in. The café no one goes to has a checkered past. Years ago, no one went there because it was a hangout for members of the extreme right. Then it was bought and cleaned up by a nice respectable couple but no one went there because before it had been a hangout for members of the extreme right. The nice respectable couple sold the place to a man who acquired a reputation that involved stabbing, which tends to drive off your clientele. Recently it changed hands again, but no one goes there now because why go to a café that was once owned by an alleged stabber when you could go to the perfectly good café you’ve always gone to on the other end of the village? 
The café everyone goes to is called the Bar du Château. Recently they got a new awning and we all noticed it was actually called the Café du Château, but everyone still calls it “le bar.”
The bar is owned and run by two brothers, Alain and Serge. Cafés and bars in rural France are purely utilitarian, they serve a social function in the same way the post office and the bakery do, and the décor in the Bar du Château reflects that: there is a zinc-topped bar, some wooden chairs and tables, a linoleum floor, and a room in the back with a pool table. The lights in the back room only go on for special occasions, so if you feel like playing pool, you have to do it in the dark. The beauty in the bar is on the terrace, which is shaded by four sycamores that were pruned by Alain and Serge’s father so their branches would grow into one another to form a living canopy.
But I’m not actually here to tell you about the bar. I’m here to tell you about the time I baked a chicken à l’etouffé and scalded myself as I pulled the dish out of the oven. The backs of my fingers swelled with ugly white blisters the size of dimes. I ran to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist gave me some cream and bandages and told me to watch out for infection. “It's going to leave a scar,” she warned me.
“We should go to the bar,” Julien said, when I came home and related this to him. “I should have thought of it sooner – they can conjure it for you.”
The word conjurer is nearly a thousand years old, and you won't find the definition that I'm about to give you in the dictionary. Most French people have never heard of it, and indeed the verb “to conjure” has mostly gone out of use in the land of the Enlightenment. If you employ it these days, it’s probably because your exasperation has risen to a fever pitch and you find yourself in a lather of erudition: you can conjure someone not to park in front of the mailbox, for example, or to quit interrupting you, or to leave the toilet seat down.
But at the Café du Château, or, more precisely, in Alain and Serge’s family, the word means something else, and has for generations. When Julien and I got there the day I burned myself, Julien held my bandaged hand out for Alain to see, and Alain pointed to his oldest brother, who never said much and is now long gone. “Come into the light,” he instructed. He took my hand in his and gently unwrapped the bandages. “You should have come sooner,” he told me. “You should have come right away. Does it hurt?”
I nodded.
Still holding my hand, he circled his thumb above the burnt skin, moving his lips almost imperceptibly. “There,” he said, when he had finished. “You’ll feel better in a few minutes.”
“Should I put the bandage back on?” I asked. “The pharmacist said I’ll have a scar.”
Alain’s brother shook his head. “You should have come sooner,” he said again. “But I don’t think so.”
He let go of my hand and walked back to his seat at the far end of the bar. I called out a thank you, but he didn’t reply.
Within a few hours, the blisters were gone, and by the end of the day my hand didn’t hurt anymore.
Alba doesn’t have any synagogues, and attendance at its little church has been dropping steadily since the mid-nineteenth century. Signs of the sacred are few and far between in our village, but if you’re looking for succor, I recommend the bar where everyone goes. Since my own adventure with the oven I have seen conjuring help burns from chemicals, radiation, scalding, sunshine, and chemotherapy. And even if your skin is unscathed, a cold drink on that shady terrace at the end of a hot August day is enough to soothe even the most scorched of spirits.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sour grapes

Grapes grow everywhere here.
In early August the grapes hide from the harsh sun
rolling out over the vineyards every morning.
Snug in the shade of their thick leaves
they're rounded, not yet ready,
packed in tight clusters,
pendant, sightless, tart.
Later, the taste of them will be good:
dusky and sweet, with lightly bitter seeds.
You can steal a few from along the road
when the time comes.
They're not grown for eating of course,
not for your teeth to bite
through the dusty, honey-sweet skin,
not for you to brace your tongue
against the tempting, puckery sour.
All these grapes will be trampled down to their hints,
to swigs and swallows, to berry, oak, and flower.
In the summer I feel great kinship with those grapes,
sitting with my dusty feet, my shiny, muddy mind:
someone spray me down, let me ripen on the knobby vines.