When Paris looks a little like Provence. Note the subtle details: the outside-the-window cloth blinds, the "pigeon discourager" (can you see those sharp little pins on the window ledge?) the peek inside the stylish interior...
mal barré (mal-baray)
up the creek, in big trouble, screwed
AUDIO FILE: listen to Jean-Marc read the French words below: Download MP3 or Wav file
c'est mal barré = it's not looking good
Si le mechant loup se pointe ce soir on est mal barrées!
If the big bad wolf arrives tonight we are in big trouble!
A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse
When I encouraged Jean-Marc and the kids to go on the ski vacation without me, I was looking forward to some time alone—even if the thought of staying on my own in this old mas in the forest scared me.
Why not have a friend over? I thought, only to realize that though I have a thousand friends they are all on the other side of this computer screen, reading this post, an ocean or a continent away.
Then my mother-in-law popped into mind, and soon I was speeding along the seacoast on my way to Marseilles to pick her up and bring her back here to babysit me! It might have occurred to me then and there, in the parking lot beside my belle-mère's apartment, that I had not chosen the best protector. But it was too late now. Standing outside the passenger side of my car, I reached past my mother-in-law, pulling the seat belt with me to buckle her in. I waited patiently as she pulled her tired feet into the car. "All in?" I checked, before gently shutting the door.
Back home I had Max's room all dolled up for my mother-in-law. I'd stolen extra pillows from all our bedrooms in order to make a cozy headboard for her to relax into as she read the gossip magazines Voici or Paris Match or her favorite fashion mag, Elle. "I've been reading this one for 50 years," she's fond of telling me.
Entering the TV room on our way to the stairs that lead to Max's room, my mother-in-law hesitated. "I think I'd better sleep here on the couch," she explained. Her eyes were fixed on those stairs. Looking over at the escalier I saw, for the first time, how steep those stairs were--and there was no handrail.
"You can take my room," I said, insisting when Michèle-France argued that the couch was just fine. As I helped her up the 4 or 5 stairs that lead to my room, I heard a noise and looked over my shoulder at the cracked window behind me. No one was there, but that vulnerable feeling returned. Maybe I should have brought my sleeping bag and camped out at my mother-in-law's? But her apartment is too tiny for a 4-day visit, no matter how appealing the thought of curling up in her armchair was just now.
That evening I spied my mother-in-law making our soup. She sat in front of her favorite feuilleton, or soap opera, having dragged the little side table into the room. She had set the vegetables on the table and the soup pot on the floor between her feet. I watched as she slowly peeled the pumpkin, letting the skin fall onto the table; next she cut off a little pieces of pumpkin, letting them fall into the soup pan on the ground below her.
As I walked into the room she startled, having been caught watching her soap—but it wasn't the feuilleton that upset me, it was the fact that she'd begun peeling those tough vegetables. I didn't want her to hurt herself. If you have ever peeled a French pumpkin, or potiron, you know how difficult it is to remove the skin without cutting off a finger in the process!
"I have my system," Michèle-France explained, and I smiled as I watched the vegetables drop into the pot. (Having taken a seat beside the chef, in order to try my hand at cutting up the onions, my pride was hurt when the pieces I cut missed the pot, landing on the dusty floor beside it.
"You need to work on your aim," my mother-in-law teased. Then suddenly her face looked pained. She explained that after her accident ten years ago, she cannot raise her arm much higher than the table, and therefore this gravity system works for her. I watched as a piece of carrot hit the pan on the ground below us.
When we finished the soup prep we carried the pot and the peelings (wrapped in the newspaper that had protected the table) back to the kitchen. My mother-in-law dragged her feet behind me and I couldn't help but fret over the stair she was about to descend to get to the kitchen or the old floor tiles that could trip her up at any time. Noticing me watching her she cracked a joke, as is her style; and then on a more serious note she said:
"I am not an old lady. I am a lady who is advancing in age."
Though my belle-mère did not mean to embarrass me, I was a little ashamed at how my watchful eye that followed her every step had not gone unnoticed.
At the kitchen table, we ate some pot roast along with our soup. My mother-in-law brought the cold rôti, along with a few other leftovers, including salade frisée, from her fridge in Marseilles. Only, seated there at the table, I noticed her difficulty in cutting her meat.
"Je peux?" I ask, hoping not to sound insulting.
"S'il te plaît," my mother-in-law appreciates the offer.
Reaching over, I cut up her viande into small pieces, as I used to do for our kids, when they were little.
Next, I got up to check the front door, making sure we were locked in for the night. Returning to the table I answered the telephone. It was my beau-frère, checking in on us.
"So how is your body guard?" Jacques snickered.
"What's he saying?" my belle-mère interrupted.
"He is asking about my garde du corps."
"Ah!" my mother-in-law laughed. "Well, if the big bad wolf shows up tonight, we are up the the creek!"
I look over at my bodyguard, who can barely lift her fork to her mouth, because of a troubled shoulder. True, she won't be fending off any thieves should we have the misfortune of receiving a visit tonight... worse, she may even be a liability (for how can I head for the hills -- jumping out the back window, without her? I couldn't leave her like that. I'd have to drag her with me!).
And yet, her very presence is enormously comforting to me. After dinner I say goodnight, leaving my mother-in-law to watch her evening programs. Shutting the door to my son's room, I crawl into his empty bed, beneath the covers. There, I curl up and the sound of the television and my mother-in-law's occasional response to it soothes me.
Michèle-France may not be a bodyguard, but she's no old lady either. Her feisty character and loving presence are all I need to fall restfully to sleep.
le mas = an old farm house in the South of France
la belle-mère = mother-in-law
un escalier = stairs, staircase
un feuilleton = soap opera (more here)
le rôti = roast
la salade frisée = curly salad
je peux? = may I
s'il te plaît = please do
la viande = meat
le beau-frère = brother-in-law (can also mean step-brother or half-brother)
How to properly pronounce French words? Read this inexpensive book!
Memoir update: bad news, I put the memoir project back on the burner last week. I didn't want to be glued to my computer during my mother-in-law's visit and, being an all or nothing person, it was easy to convince myself that I'd dropped out of the project once a couple of no-write days slipped by. à suivre (to be continued, I hope!) (Pictures, some other books I published over the years, including one house-published edition. I seemed to have so much energy, back then... Blossoming in Provence, not pictured, was the latest publication.)
Thank you for the time you've spent reading my column. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next story, please know that ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue doing what I love most: sharing these missives from France. Your support is vivement apprécié! Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment! Kristi