This morning I learned the painful news that a dear friend and classmate, Emily List, lost her battle with cancer this Thanksgiving morning.
I was incredibly fortunate to spend a year abroad at the University of Reading with Emily, where we travelled with a group of friends to Prague, Munich, and all over the UK. We thrilled over cream teas and seeing Ewan McGregor in Guys and Dolls in London.
Her obituary describes the dazzling array of plays in which Emily starred or acted, her many accomplishments, and her ambitions. It’s an honour to have been in the same graduating class with Emily, to have travelled with her, and to have known such an incredible young woman.
Her heart was as golden as her hair; she shared joy and danced wherever she travelled, and she will be sorely, sorely missed. If you knew Emily, it was impossible not to love her. If we can enjoy even a fraction of the zeal for life which Emily had, we will be remembering her well.
I began my day by walking to the market in the village centre and ordering ‘un demi-poulet fermier,’ or half of a farm chicken. Verity highly recommends them. You order in the morning, and they roast the chickens in the side of this van with a rotisserie built into it. A few hours later, you come pick up your hot, roasted chicken (or in my case, half). While they roast the chickens, they roast potato wedges below the chickens, so all of the herby-greasy-chicken-fat bastes the potatoes. I learned you need to order those, too – I asked about the ‘pommes de terre’ and the woman said, ‘we don’t have enough, you have to order those, too – next week.’ (In French.) Not unfriendly, but matter-of-fact. So, next time, I will order my potatoes with my chicken.
So of course, I went home and mauled the chicken. YUM.
But in between, I went to church.
I’m enjoying the regularity of the Mass, the predictability of it as well as the variation. I still get completely lost when they sing and I don’t know the page number, and I think it’s quite interesting that there seem to be long pieces that everyone sings without looking in the hymn book, as well as bits which even I can figure out are the equivalent to the ‘Our Father’ recitations and those sorts of thing. There are certain parts where people cross themselves, and then other parts where they make little mini-crosses over their mouth or chest. At times, some people kneel, but not everyone, and at other times, everyone stands. I quite like not knowing the significance of all of it, and trying to figure it out, or just absorbing it.
It’s also incredibly sweet that at the end of the Mass, Marius says to everyone, ‘have a good Sunday,’ in French, and then says in English, ‘and Kelley, have a nice Sunday,’ and then, to the German girl who is visiting, in German, ‘have a good Sunday.’ (I can’t remember her name, but he remembers it.) And possibly my favourite part, at the end: When Marius and the alter boy kneel briefly and bow their heads towards the altar, Marius is holding a big glass jar full of sweets, which he then takes to the door and gives to everyone (mostly the kids,) as they leave. It’s just too cute. I chose some huge, pink, sticky, strawberry-flavoured thing and worried about my teeth.
I saw Ilona, and Gabrielle and Jean, and Francoise and Jean, and about four other people whose names I can’t remember but who remember me, and who ask after Verity, (who calls every few days for updates,) and I made sure my plans with Ilona were clear for later in the week, and figured out the times for Christmas Mass, which I think my mom would enjoy.
Then, I stepped out into the sunshine and tried to start my Vespa.
It takes awhile to start it from cold, and I’d only ridden it down to the church, so it wouldn’t start right away. I’ve begun to accept this, so I don’t get too nervous if it doesn’t start on the first kick (or fifth, or tenth) kick. It usually takes a few tries. Rather, if it does start on the first kick, I’m mildly ecstatic.
So it wouldn’t start. A gaggle of people from the church, who were chatting in the parking lot, turned to look. Some of them knew me a little, and I tried to reassure them – ‘pas probleme!’ – but they started murmuring amongst themselves, fretting. (The average age here was probably 80.) Some advice was given (in French). I took off my helmet, which inexplicably seems to help me start the Vespa. It’s probably because I can hear the engine better.
Everyone cried ‘Ahh!’ and burst into applause. I bowed.
It was only 11am, so I turned left out of the church parking lot, which I’d never done before, and rode down a gorgeous, winding road, over two little bridges, and then up, up, out of the river valley. When I got to where the road connects with the (ever-so-slightly-larger) N7, which would take me to Mandelieu, I turned around. Down, down, down, over the bridges, then up, up up…past the church, through the sunshine, and to the village centre, where I picked up my warm, roasted, demi-poulet.
By noon, I was back at the house, arms akimbo over my chicken whilst Gaston army-crawled across the table trying, unsuccessfully, to ‘sneak up on me’ while I ate. Even a 19-year-old cat just can’t resist the scent of roast chicken. He seemed completely gutted when I ate all of my portion (the rest safely in the fridge,) and whisked my plate away without giving him a nibble. (He’s now sitting next to me, but with his back decidedly to me, and it’s well past dinnertime!)
I settled at my little table outside in the afternoon sun, to thrash out a pantoum for the poetry play. I wrote two poems, grappling with the form of the pantoum, writing and re-writing and re-writing again. I’m still uncertain of the result. As I write this play in verse, and as the story moves along, I’m trying to weave in echoes of earlier poems with later ones, so themes come out, hopefully in eerie ways. I’m also interested in how difficult (or not) it may be to write the darkest poems of a tragic play when I’m in such a sunny, positive place. I might need to finish this in the gloom of London.
Finally, after sunset, I began to close up the house and the shutters. During the sunny, warm part of the day, I’ll turn off the heaters and open the windows to air the house out. Once the sun goes down it gets pretty chilly, so I’ll close the shutters and the windows and turn on the heater in the main room (living/dining room,) and my bedroom. As I moved to shut the window overlooking the valley, I gasped at a gorgeous sliver of crescent moon. The fingernail of light glowed, revealing the faint full circle of the moon. Jupiter shone bright beneath, over the dark valley.
After yesterday’s mix-up, which ended in success, I was clear that Valerie had not changed our initial plans – and thus, today, I walked to Valerie & Raymond’s for lunch. Or rather, I walked to the boulangerie, fully intending to buy some kind of gateaux (cakes,) for dessert, because I had said I’d bring ‘something’. And I ran into Raymond!
‘Bonjour, ça va!’ Kiss Kiss.
Isabelle dit: ‘ça va Kelley! En Francais!’ (How are you, Kelley – say it in French!’
We worked out that I wanted to bring something but Raymond was buying a cake for our dessert, so we agreed I could pop over to the ‘Petit Casino’ and buy some wine (du vin).
Good timing, then, or we would have ended up with a lot of cake!
We rendez-vous-ed at their house, which I knew how to find because I’d been there yesterday (I didn’t mention that,) and Raymond introduced me to two of their three children. Their son is 10 and their daughter is fourteen or fifteen. Emma and…I’m awful with names. But very sweet and well-behaved. It was an interesting mixture of Valerie wanting Emma to practise her English with me, and then everyone insisting that I practise my French. So the conversation was very mixed.
We had a detailed and inconclusive debate about when to use ‘bien’ and when to use ‘bon.’ ‘Bon,’ apparently, is for food-related things, but that isn’t the sole grammatical rule, so it’s a bit confusing. Also, ‘depuis’ (since) is challenging to translate into English – a lot of French people will make the mistake of saying ‘since’ rather than ‘from,’ because they would use ‘depuis’ for both in French. So they would say ‘since five years ago…’ rather than ‘from five years ago,’ or ‘five years ago…’ etc. At least I wasn’t the only one making mistakes.
But as I mentioned: ohmygodthefood.
I know this is one of those things about France: as Verity said, ‘food is a religion here.’ But yes. Wow.
We started by having peanuts & champagne on their sunny deck, overlooking the (covered) swimming pool.
‘Have you had foie gras?’
And so I had foie gras. Of course I know what it is, but no, I’ve never had it. I said I was happy to try it, particularly in such a setting. Valerie said she’d tell me what it was after I tried it, but I said I thought I knew what it was. It was delicious – like butter – but it did freak me out a little bit to be eating the liver of a force-fed duck (or goose). So I had one slice on a warm bit of toast, Valerie and her son each had a slice, and Raymond happily polished off the last two pieces.
Then we moved indoors, but all of the many doors were thrown wide open to the afternoon sunshine, so it felt like we were outside. It is unusually warm right now, for the time of year. Valerie explained that they always have sunshine, but for it to be so warm that we can eat outside – this is unusual. I’m typing this right now outside at my little table, squinting in the sun. Not a complaint.
For the main meal, Raymond had made a sort of stew with pasta, choritzo, thick gravy, veal, and sun-dried tomatoes. By pure chance, I didn’t get a chunk of veal in my serving, and I was silently relieved. I’d have eaten it – even been curious to do so, since I don’t think I’ve ever had veal – but again, eating tortured baby animals really isn’t my first choice. But again, the stew was delicious. And as a lapsed vegetarian (it was a phase (three years,) what can I say,) I don’t feel, if I am eating meat, that I can get snarky about what meat I eat. If you’re going to be a vegetarian, do it properly. If you’re going to enjoy meat, do it properly.
Throughout, we drank the rosé I’d brought. It was charming when Raymond poured his young daughter a tiny drop of the rosé- at her request – and she tried a sip, pulled a face, and gave the rest to her father. There was no mystery in it, no ‘forbidden to drink, you’re too young,’ drama. And she didn’t like it at all. It was also sweet when Raymond proceeded to finish both of his children’s servings of stew (‘I’m the bin,’ he said – ah, like any father,) and also ate the crusts from their dessert (along with his own full portions, I don’t need to say). In fact, I felt distinctly ‘grown-up’ when the children left the table during the cheese course and also when I thought, over dessert, ‘but the crust is the best part,’ which is something my mom has always said.
The cheeses were a variety of goats’ cheeses, one rolled in thyme, and one in curry – yes, curry power! And another that I didn’t make it to because I was just too full, and we still had dessert to go. We had red wine with the cheese, as well as a glorious olive oil from Florence, and bread. The olive oil was singing with flavour: it was sunlight distilled. If I ever have the opportunity to write a restaurant / gastro review, I promise I’d be more articulate: but ohmygodthefood.
Then, dessert. The cake, which I’d seen in the box at the boulangerie when Raymond was buying it, was an amazing, almond-crusted, powder-sugar-dusted confection, more of a tarte, really. Apparently it’s ‘the’ specialty of Isabel and her husband. It’s called a ‘squirrel cake’! Squirrel is ‘écureuil‘ in French. I guess because of the nuts on top.
We had a long discussion about what the French tend to make for Noel: Christmas. Valerie kindly offered to order me a certain type of chicken – basically a really big chicken, which makes me wonder if it’s a goose – for Christmas, when she orders hers. We talked about turkey, which they do have here. It’s called ‘dinde,’ but she recommended the other fowl for Christmas.
She also offered to buy truffes – truffles – for me when Raymond goes to a particular village to get those, and there followed a debate, wherein Raymond said truffles really weren’t that special, and Valerie said yes, they were, and that you should put one truffle amidst eggs for a few days, and then make scrambled eggs and shred the truffle on top, and the eggs will have taken on the flavour of the truffle…
Well, I have no idea, but I’m willing to try all of it. Then Valerie pulled out some food magazines and said a good way to practise French is through cooking. So, she lent me those, and now I’m thinking of what I’m going to order, and make, for my guests, (various family and friends from the US and the UK) when they come.
And, we have dates for me to come back for another meal, and for the children to come practise the piano at Verity’s, and for Valerie & me to go out to a market or shopping or something that hasn’t been decided yet. What absolutely wonderful people.
Finally, we had tea (for me) and coffee (for them,) and three and a half hours after I arrived, a very full and tipsy Kelley walked back to Verity’s house. My goodness, but the French know how to have a good lunch.
As I’ve mentioned, Gabrielle has – well, rather absorbed me – into her routine, so this morning I went to the swimming pool with her again, along with her neighbours Jean and Claudine. Claudine, who is probably in her early (maybe mid) thirties, has given me a swimsuit, and is interested in doing a home-swap with me so that she can take her family to London and make her children (ages four and ten) practise their English. C’est possible!
The swimming pool in Frejus is spectacularly placed right on the Mediterranean sea. So, everything about Friday mornings – meeting Gabrielle and her friends, practising my French, swimming for about an hour (I should note that of all athletic activity, swimming is, and always has been, my favourite thing,) and enjoying the view – has become a delight.
This Friday was going to be busier than usual, however. Whereas last Friday I settled in to write for the rest of the day, today I had a sort of date at 3:30 in the afternoon. The funny thing about this was that I wasn’t entirely sure who I was meeting.
To explain: a couple who know Verity, named Valerie and Raymond, stopped by a few days ago to repair Verity’s garden hose. Valerie invited me to come to their house for lunch on Saturday. All was well. I should note that Valerie teaches English, so she has pretty much flawless English, so we spoke in English, though we agreed I really should practice my French.
I find that with the people I’ve met who don’t speak English, it forces me to work on my French, whereas if I know they speak English, I’ll retreat to that if I’m feeling unsure of the words I need in French. So, the garden hose was repaired, and we had a date for Saturday. Voila!
Then yesterday, I had a phone call. It was kind of a rapid, slightly confusing phone call, entirely in French. I thought Valerie was saying that Saturday wasn’t going to work, and could I come over Friday at 3:30 for tea instead. So that was fine. But as soon as I hung up the phone, I started doubting that. I started thinking, why would Valerie, who has perfect English, insist on making the phone call completely in French? (But we had said I needed to practise my French, so maybe that’s why?) And, wait, doesn’t she work in schools teaching English – so would she be free on a Friday afternoon? (But maybe it was school holidays or something?)
I decided that the phone call might have in fact been from Ilona, who had said a few times, ‘I’ll call you.’ But I really wasn’t sure. So I decided to stop by Valerie’s (she’d told me where she lived,) and if she wasn’t in, or was in but told me we had not changed plans, then I would go to Ilona’s (Verity had described where she lived,) and hopefully one of those would work out.
Fortunately, then centre of Les Adrets is tiny, and both Valerie and Ilona live in the centre.
I walked to Valerie’s, or at least, I thought I did. I found a postbox with ‘Raymond’ on it, which seemed promising. She’d said their house had ‘a brown gate’ which really didn’t narrow things down. A very nice lady who was not Valerie opened the door. I’ve been keeping a little notebook with names, phone numbers, and French phrases in it. So I asked if she knew Valerie & Raymond. After some thinking – ‘Ah! Il y’un journaliste?’ (Raymond is a journalist,) we hit upon the right people. (Again, it’s good that Les Adrets is pretty small.) She pointed me in the right direction.
After a bit of wandering around, I finally found Valerie’s house (the postbox said ‘Valerie & Raymond’,) but no one was home. Zut!
So I walked across the street to where Verity had described Ilona’s house to be. After some searching (it’s great that they write everyone’s name on the postboxes here,) I found Marius’s name – Ilona and Marius are cousins from Poland, and Marius is currently the Priest in Les Adrets, and they share a house. So I rang the bell, and Marius answered. He speaks excellent English, which made things easy. And Ilona had gone to Verity’s to meet me! Oops! (Zut!)
So I hurried back to Verity’s, and I met Ilona on the way. ‘Je suis desolee!’ I’m so sorry! (I said that a good few times.)
I explained my confusion, and I think she was just relieved to see me and to know what had happened. All of this had taken about half an hour, so we weren’t running too late. I think there is a universal ‘girlfriend-radar’ that happens between young women of a similar age where they’re pretty forgiving of one another (I suppose that’s in my very lucky experience; I’m sure the flip side is beastly competition, but not in a situation like this). So Ilona invited me to go for a walk with her. One of the jobs she has in Les Adrets is to basically house-sit, not quite what I’m doing, but checking in on people’s holiday homes to make sure everything is secure and tidy, all the electricity is working, the post is collected, etc.
So, we went to a MANSION.
I would have taken photos, but I didn’t want to invade these people’s privacy. This house is set into the hills with a view of Cannes and the rugged Esterel laid out before it. You can see down to the ocean. Ilona had about 300 keys to this castle. First, she let us in a gate, and we walked down slate steps to the main door. (Because of the views here, the main entrance to the house always feels like the ‘back’ to me, tucked into the hillside, and the ‘back’ of the house, with a huge vista, feels like the front.)
Ilona pointed out an elevator – a shiny, metallic, outdoor elevator – and explained how she never uses it because one hot day she got stuck inside for an hour, and Marius was in Poland, and it was horrible. (‘Horrible – ‘orrible’ is the same in French and English.) We entered a living room with long, panoramic windows overlooking of the bay of Cannes. There was an open-plan kitchen and a deck, and a mezzanine style floor opening down to another level, with a huge stone fireplace, many sofas and a big billiards table. We went through about five bedrooms, and a garage with two motorcycles and a Vespa (!) Then we went downstairs to another deck with a massive swimming pool, and a completely separate chateau/cottage which is also the working studio of the lady who owns the house. She’s a sculptor of amazing sea creatures – lots of fish and manta rays. There were photos everywhere of the artist & her husband scuba-diving with sea turtles and tropical fishes. There was a separate bathroom for each bedroom, lots of bidets, and an outdoor kitchen (I mean a full kitchen) beside the pool.
And this house sits empty for four months out of the year, when the family stay in their other house in Italy, or their third house, somewhere else (I can’t remember where). And I’m willing to bet a great many houses in Les Adrets (“Millionaire’s Mile,” Verity calls it,) are the same way. With a sweet little lady like Ilona looking after it. One begins to think that one could make a full-time job of this…
Ilona talked. I understood most of it. Well, I think so, anyway – how can one be sure? But she told me all about how hard it is to be in Les Adrets, where most of the people are so old, most retired, and how Marius loves it there, but he’s invited to dinner all the time because he’s the priest, and she’s invited too, but his French is much better than hers, and she doesn’t understand it all, and it’s completely exhausting (you’re telling me!) … She thinks she might want to move back to Poland, where she teaches, but they have really wonderful opportunities to live in interesting places (because they are provided accommodation by the parish,) so she’s not sure what she’s going to do, but it depends on what kind of work she can find…And basically, she was really, really happy to meet me because we’re much closer in age (she might be thirty) than most of the people here.
I completely agree; in fact, that was the first thing I thought when Verity introduced us – hooray! someone close in age to me! And she said it took her about a year and a half before she began to really understand French, and that I form sentences and phrases really well and that my French isn’t bad at all. Which is very generous of her, but I did admit that I’d studied some French at school. And she asked me to explain Thanksgiving to her, because she’d seen something about it on TV, and didn’t understand at all. So I did my best, in a mixture of French and English, to explain. Neither of us know the word ‘turkey’ in French, so we decided on ‘un grande poulet’ (a big chicken). Close enough.
I found it heartwarmingly international that here was an American girl and a Polish girl walking around a French village communicating almost entirely in French, which is a the second language for us both, and it was working. Not without error, as noted above, but so what – it works!
Finally, we walked back to the village centre, because I needed to buy milk and bread (really,) and Ilona lives right in the centre, and we made plans to meet for tea: clear plans to meet at Verity’s house for tea, next Friday. Kiss kiss. Au revoir! Bon soir!
One reason I offered to house-sit for Verity: the intention to make the holidays as different as they could possibly be from last year.
Last year, for the last time, my family celebrated the holidays in the way we have always known. This tradition has been taking place, as far as I understand, since the family home was built about 200 years ago.
Last year, my family sat down to our great big oval dining table in the house that our Perry ancestors built. We had a Thanksgiving meal with my grandfather, my grandmother, and their friend Lois Collins, who was so close to the family that I’d always called her ‘Grandma C’. It was the last time my bedridden Grandmother made it downstairs.
My sister-in-law, an Occupational Therapist, was essential in helping move Gran to the table. Everyone was aware that Gran was hurting physically in an unbelievable way. She had very strong painkillers. And that amazing lady, in her stubbornness, joined us for dinner, still managing to preside over us, verbally running things, as she’d always done.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Lois died unexpectedly. Shortly after Christmas, my grandmother died in her bed. A few months later, Gramps died – the eldest of them all, at age 91, and not interested in sticking around too long after his wife had gone before him.
Now, the house is completely empty and up for sale.
My brother and his wife are bravely hosting Thanksgiving – and probably Christmas – to build a new tradition for their two little girls. And we’re all painfully aware that nothing will ever be the same.
Being in this tiny sunny village in Provence is allowing me to face these memories and, in a way, rebuild myself. It is a peaceful place.
Yesterday, I ventured to the boucherie in the village. I walk past it on my way to the petite magasin and the boulangerie, but I hadn’t stopped in before. Deciphering the sign posted outside, I decided ‘poulet au citron,’ which could only be ‘lemon chicken,’ sounded very nice.
I decided to buy something special – it was Thanksgiving, after all, and though the holiday does not exist outside of the States, and therefore I have no need, nor even any desire, to celebrate it (what a fraught and strange historical remembrance it is, anyway,) it was on my mind.
So I went in and asked for some poulet au citron. I was presented with a sort of vat of fine white chunks of cooked chicken meat packed tightly and stuck together with a clear, yellowish gelatine. I was somewhat intimidated, but said yes, and the girl cut me ‘un tranche‘. At nearly €7, I thought, this had better be good.
I set up a little meal outside in the blazing afternoon sunshine: a slice of the poulet, some bleu cheese, fresh slices of michette (bread,) a leafy salad and a glass of champagne. Bliss.
The poulet was lemony, the cheese was bleu, the bread was fresh. Everything was fresh.
I had to put on my sunglasses.
Later, Gaston joined me and voluntarily sat on my lap.
I wrote three sonnets.
May your Thursday, or your Thanksgiving, have been as peaceful.
Yesterday, Mercredi/Wednesday, I was invited on a walk up the highest point on the Esterel. Worn by erosion, Mont Vinaigre is 618 m or 2,027 ft. But as the Michelin Guide states, ‘In this mountain mass, the deep ravines and broken skyline dispel any impression of this being mere hills.’
So Gabrielle, Jean, Francoise, little Thomas and his grandmother and I, met up yesterday in glorious sunshine – unusually warm for this time of year, I was told – and went for un marche.
We started off at about 3 in the afternoon. The sun was deliciously warm, and a faint haze hung in the air. We discovered a ‘manti religieuse,’ leading me to say, ‘Elle mange…la tete…de la beau, apres…’ (she eats…the head…of her beau, after…) and my companions filled in the rest.
I spotted a coulemelle or l’epiote mushroom: apparently good to eat. We turned from the paved road to a jagged but well-trod basalt-shingle path, through pine wood and cheine bouchon – cork oaks. It takes seven years for them to regrow their stripped bark, and trunk after trunk of these wild, gnarly trees are blackened in their nakedness up to about 6 feet tall, whereupon the rest of the tree is perfectly brown and fully-barked.
I heard the tinny clangle of bells – goats, somewhere, in the hills.
We saw tracks of les sangliers – wild boar. Just before my arrival in Les Adrets, the sangliers had completely overturned Verity’s gardens. I thought the rains she’d told me about had caused landslides and flooding, but it had all been the boars. The prints of their cloven hooves are still dried into the mud in the back of the house.
As we ascended, the air became clearer and cooler. We reached the top for a spectacular panorama: The Cap d’Antibes, Cannes and La Napoule bay, Frejus, St-Raphael, all hugging a glittering Mediterranean Sea; Les Adrets de l’Esterel and Les Adrets du Lac; Grasse.
We could see the Alps.
And beyond the Alps, which we couldn’t see, Italy: my next destination after this adventure.
Rather than wear jeans and my caramel-leather jacket, for the first time I rode my Vespa wearing a grey dress, black tights and my long, wool camel coat. I felt deliciously European.
The church of Les Adrets is, as Verity explained last time, unusually, not in the village centre. It’s down a scenic, winding road which makes one realise how large Les Adrets actually is. There are so many tiny roads that I think are driveways, which in fact are extensive, with many nooks, cul-de-sacs, houses, and further roads off of those roads. If the description from the website of the Mayor’s office is correct, then 2,650 people live in Les Adrets, which is surprising.
The website gives an excellent history of Les Adrets, and explains that the current church was built (or completed) and blessed on 24 August 1648, under the name of Notre Dame Des Maures, “Our Lady of the Moors”. The Parish of Les Adrets was created on 10 May, 1745.
So I’ve been enjoying Mass in a church built in 1648. I suppose I can forgive the lack of heating.
One of the most charming parts of the church service is its small-town nature. There is one lady, Reine, who clearly runs everything, and it really does seem things would fall apart without her. This was my third time going to a service – the first time, upon my first visit, with Verity, when it was ‘Children’s Mass,’ and Reine (who had prepared the children ahead of time,) ushered each kid, whether age seven or age fourteen, up to the podium to say their little piece, and to help the child pronounce words as needed, while the parishioners (people in the pews?) sang bits in between.
The service was led by the Polish Priest, Marius, who has just completed his PhD in Theology. He was in Poland defending his Thesis last weekend, so when I went with Verity before she left for Australia, that time we had a French-Canadian Priest, whom I believe is taking over for Marius when he returns to Poland. Both Priests are spectacularly multi-lingual, both with excellent English.
This Sunday, Marius was back (with some applause for him on behalf of the Thesis,) and it was again ‘Children’s Mass,’ so again, all the little ones lined up and said their parts. Reine her work cut out for her, because, with Verity gone, there was a pianist standing in. Verity has been doing this for more than 30 years (I believe,) so knows things by heart: music, timing, pauses, etc. I think she & the rather severe but kind Reine, who is in charge (officially or not,) are an excellent team. There was really a feeling this Sunday of ‘shepherding,’ with Reine prompting the pianist, and prompting the congregation, and singing loudly to lead everyone, because it wasn’t as clear as it usually is. It was shepherding which I appreciated: the world needs good leaders, on the largest and smallest scales.
I love the Pagan qualities of the Mass: the warm, woody incense which the Priest uses to cleanse the spiritual centre of the building, the draped altar, the spangled robes, the bowing, the goblets, the wafers and wine. I love the music, especially when everyone sings together, and the (mostly high, clear, women’s) voices echoing off the curve of the ancient stone ceiling.
I love how confused everyone can become, such as yesterday, when half were standing and half were sitting and Reine had to basically wave everyone to their feet and point to the correct place on the notes so we could all sing.
I love the reverence of some of the older women, who are perhaps widows, or perhaps spinsters, who dress in boiled wool skirt-and-jacket sets, whose hair is curled and coiffed, who smell of my Nana’s power, who wave you to the correct page of the psalms, and who kneel on the hard wooden rests of the pews, even though it is clearly an effort to stand up again.
I love the wide-eyed, bewildered look of the freckled, ginger-haired alter boy who seems to wonder just what it all means when the silver incense burner is filled with great ritual, or when he is ushered to move a cup or take a bowl. And all the little children, bowing their heads and crossing their arms to their chests, queuing up to have the Priest press his thumb into their foreheads and say some words, and how they simply accept and trust this ritual. And the tiny, white-blonde toddler who completely disrupted the whole service by wandering around the isle with his gummed stuffed rabbit, who very nearly clambered up to the altar but decided it was better to return to his father and take a nap.
I spent a good part of the service staring at a dead, dried gecko on the floor while I listened to the French words being spoken and sung.
I spent a lot of the rest of it trying to figure out where we were in which book. But I enjoyed it all, in my atheist-yet-spiritual way. And afterwards, I had (very small but I believe comprehensible) conversations with three or four people who remembered me.
The simplest acts, accomplished in a foreign language, are great pleasures. This morning I went to the post office and sent a few things which Verity had asked me to post. Checking to see if the stamp I had was correct (Est-ce timbre exact?) and encountering the super-friendly postman, who wrote out numbers for me because those are the same in every language, made me smile. I was beaming by the time I walked across the street to the boulangerie.
‘Bonjour, Kelley!’ said the baker who makes it a point to know everyone’s first name.
‘Bonjour, Isabel!’ I replied.
Ilona, a Polish girl who is maybe my age, and the cousin of the Polish priest in les Adrets, was buying bread. ‘Bonjour!’ kiss kiss. Verity had introduced us a few times, and Ilona had helped me find the pages for the songs at church.
‘Oh!’ she said, ‘Beaucoup de travaille…’ (A lot of work…) …and I was lost. But that’s ok! Because everyone is so nice here, that it requires the use of lots of exclamation marks!
I bought an almond croissant, une michette (kind of like a baguette folded in half but a million times nicer, which is difficult since baguettes are already amazing,) and I walked home, in the sunshine, smiling. A lady passed by with her wicker basket (for bread, no doubt,) and we said bonjour.
I had a ‘squee’ moment of just squealing in my head – This is the most adorable place in the world! Everyone is so nice! I can’t believe it; this is the cutest place ever… and so on. Not great poetry.
I’m also beginning to appreciate the deep, religious import of BREAD. When Jean drove me home after I had tea with him & Gabrielle on Wednesday, I asked him what shops were in his little village, which is about five minute’s drive from mine, called Les Adrets du Lac. ‘Un petite magasin, et un boulangerie,’ he said.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Un boulangerie, c’est tres importante.’
‘C’est nécessaire,’ he answered, without hesitation, with the utmost gravity.
Because no matter how small, it is necessary that there is a bakery within walking distance. In fact, I actually pass a bakery that is just around the corner from Verity’s, in a tiny block of shops, but I haven’t been to it because Verity said that they don’t bake their bread on the premises. Quel horreur!
In Les Adrets, I have counted two small shops (one is a grocery store, ‘Petit Casino,’ like Tesco Express, and one is a ‘tabac,’ which is a corner shop,) and two bakeries (but only one is worth going to). There is a pharmacy, a post office, the Town Hall which also shows one film per week, a doctor’s office/surgery, a very small shop selling local honey (I must go,) and two estate agents. There’s some kind of massage therapy place, and a hairdresser’s. There appears to be one bar/restaurant, one pizza restaurant, and one bar/cafe which is right across from the church. There is a tiny library which I should peek into if I ever manage to go when it’s open.
And that’s it: all one could want.
I spent the first week here reading Orlando. What an amazing book: utterly cracked-out on love. It’s Woolf at her wackiest and most lighthearted; it’s truly a romp. I loved it.
I’ve just begun Ulysses. Ah, from the female mind to the male!
I’ve been writing some various prose, and yesterday began to work again on my poetry play. It’s awful that I don’t usually do this, but I’m finally reading stuff aloud. I’m sure the cats appreciate it. And for the play, which is poems written ‘for voices,’ to be read aloud, perhaps for radio, c’est nécessaire.
I’ve done a bit of yoga. I’ve been watching BBC World News.
I rode Vespa down the Roman Road to Frejus; a stunning drive, breathtaking in its beauty and treacherous in its curves. Going about 25mph on a scooter makes it a pleasure. Cliff faces rise up on one side while ravines plunge off to the other. Cork oaks and rough heathers glow a dusty green in the sun.
A couple of cyclists, awaiting their companions at the top of the long, winding, challenging road, applauded me as I ‘vrim-vrimmed’ past, pumping their fists and grinning, as if to say, ‘you can do it!”
Vespa was shiny clean and I sat upright, utterly composed and dignified, and finally made it past them (with a smile).
When Dani and I spent a long weekend with Verity a few months ago, I felt she’d introduced me to half of the village.
This time, over the few days between my arrival and her departure, she introduced me to the other half. She adopted me as ‘mon petite Américaine,’ a term of endearment, and we practised some French.
She helped sum up my journey – this is what I could say:
‘Je suis venue de Londres à Paris en Vespa. J’ai pris le ferry de Newhaven à Dieppe. Et ensuite, j’ai pris le TGV jusqu’à San Raphael, et la Vespa est venue en Train-Auto.’
It sounds so simple.
I love how the word ‘Vespa’ inspires people (almost always men in their 60s and 70s,) to reminisce. ‘One time I rode a Vespa from Nantes to Barcelona, 1,000 kilometres!’ (I’m an amateur!)
Verity’s friends decided it was ‘like Italian Holiday.’ We figured out that they meant ‘Roman Holiday,’ the film which served as Audrey Hepburn’s famous debut.
I went to church with Verity on Sunday. I’m planning to go regularly while I’m in Les Adrets. Though this is unusual for me, it is one of few opportunities to see people I’ve been introduced to, and I really like the music. I love listening to the words and working to understand them – though to be fair, at a Catholic Mass, it’s pretty easy to figure out what is being said.
A couple whom I met last Sunday, Gabrielle and Jean, have already adopted me. Gabrielle swept me to their house for tea yesterday (Wednesday,) and we spent two hours working hard at simple conversation. They were immensely patient, and we found common ground – one of their daughters lives on Reunion, and Dani & I honeymooned on Mauritius. Gabrielle served Vanilla tea from Mauritius, which is very familiar to me. Their English is definitely better than my French, but it’s something they have to work at too, which I am glad for. It takes equal patience and listening on both sides. After two hours, I was exhausted, but gratified.
Gabrielle also invited me to the pool – she drives to Frejus every Friday for a swim. It was the most gorgeous setting for a swimming pool I’ve ever enjoyed. The indoor pool has huge windows overlooking la mer – the sea. I was the youngest person there by, oh, about forty years, but no matter.
My next invitation is to join them for a walk/hike up the Esterel with G&J and another couple, Francoise and Jean. (I’m beginning to notice that if I forget a man’s name here, Jean is a good guess.) Apparently the second Jean likes to get pizza after his walks.
And I understood a joke! One of G&J’s friends who joined us at the pool (guess what? His name is also Jean,) said, in French, ‘He walks a kilometre and eats a kilo of pizza.’ And I laughed with everyone else, and he was pleased I understood. That’s immensely gratifying.
Of course, there have been some misunderstandings as well. For example, I said, ‘I bought a goat at the market.’ Fortunately they cottoned on that I meant ‘I bought goat’s cheese at the market,’ and corrected me.
At the boulangerie, I asked for a slice of tarte tatin and the baker said it was tarte aux pommes. I can forgive myself for mistaking one type of apple tart for another type of apple tart, but to a baker, the difference is night and day. (I’d say ‘the difference is apples and oranges,’ but it’s apples and apples, and that could get confusing.)
When we were discussing the pizza (le pizza,) and hike (marche,) Gabrille was trying to tell me that after the walk, they go back to the house and have ‘bee-yarr’. ‘Bee-yarr? Is the same en Anglaise?’ Some gestures.
Beer? I thought. She doesn’t strike me as the type to drink beer, but maybe the men do…Pizza and beer? Is that universal?
‘Bee-yarr’ more gestures. ‘In our ‘ouse.’ I thought back to the sitting room where we’d had tea. In which there was a covered-up pool table. Ah-ha!
‘Oui! Billiards!’ I said, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. (There was no way I was going to go into the fact that in American English, we say ‘pool,’ especially as we were returning from the swimming pool – la piscine – just then). ‘Je pense que tu bois…beer,’ I said. ‘I thought that you drink…beer.’ Jean cottoned on and explained in French, and we had a laugh.
It’s always said that immersion is the way to learn a language, and that is absolutely true for me. Goodness knows how I’ll be speaking when this winter is over.
Verity drove me to the Auto-Train at Frejus on Saturday. Vespa was outside the station, merrily standing out beside the cars awaiting collection. She was filthy! I guess the Auto-Train is open. Otherwise, all was well: I showed my ticket, and we were good to go.
Glorious sunshine! Warmth! Familiar roads (from my previous visit with Dani)!
This was why I’d insisted on buying a Vespa in the first place.
Following Verity’s car, I headed off to les Adrets. Or rather, up. The winding DN7, or ‘Roman Road,’ follows the route of the old Roman road, the Via Aurelia. It plunges and weaves up the Esterel, switching up and back and forth and up and up –
I’d warned Verity that Vespa does inclines, but at its own pace. Vespa has become, in my mind, The Little Vespa That Could. A loveable (albeit not cuddly) machine, shiny and pleasing and altogether capable. Within its parameters.
Vespa’s parameter on a small mountain is about 20mph.
So up we went. Steadily. Slowly.
To rip off a page from Verity’s Michelin Guide:
‘The Esterel between St. Raphael and La Napoule is an area of breathtaking natural beauty. One of the loveliest parts of Provence…The contrast between the busy life along the coast and the loneliness of the inland roads is extraordinary – the latter will appeal to tourists who prefer to leave the well beaten track for the pleasure of exploring on their own.
‘The massif, the Esterel, which is as old as its neighbour the Maures, from which it is separated by the Argens valley, has been worn down by erosion so that its highest point, Mount Vinaigre, is a mere 618m – 2,027ft. However, in this mountain mass, the deep ravines and broken skyline dispel any impression of this being mere hills….’
The Roman Road makes for a stunning drive. Rusty-red porphyric (volcanic) rocks create jagged cliff faces, while heathers, gorse, and lavender grow on the rugged hillsides. Cork oaks are carefully half-stripped of their cork, and the red of the bare trunks matches the dry, crumbling rocks. The air grows cooler as you ascend.
The road winds from sun to shade, and on a scooter I could feel every patch of sunshine and the shadows cast by each twisted tree. A few cars passed us; we passed a few cyclists. The air was drinkably pure, spiced here and there with hints of wood-smoke.
We passed through les Adrets, past the petit magasin and the boulangerie, which have, even over the past few days, become essential parts of my life here. Finally, I pulled into the sharp, steep slope of Verity’s drive: a driveway that intimidated the heck out of me when Dani & I visited; that he expressed great skepticism I could drive up, or down. I rolled down the drive without hesitation. Over the past two days, I’d gone from London to Paris, (almost entirely) on scooter.