tel quel, telle quelle (tel kel) expression
: just as it is
Sound file: hear the French words "tel quel": Download Wav or MP3
A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse
"Telle Quelle" (Just As She Is)
I am reading the label on a jar of hazelnut confit. The instructions say to spread the smooth mixture on toast or, and here's the fun part, simply to enjoy it "tel quel" or "as is"—no toasted accoutrements necessary. I immediately picture a French woman plunging a soup-sized spoon into the jar. It is a gesture that some would find impensable, truly unthinkable, after all: French women don't eat beurre by the biteful!
But my break-all-the-rules sister-in-law would. She's the one who gave me the jar of hazelnut butter. I told you about Cécile in an earlier letter and I've written about her exploits in the past: taking books to children in Africa, traveling with a circus (as a mime, or as a circus-tent engineer), chauffeuring a punk rock band through eastern Europe, making moonshine, or setting up shop as a serigraphist in an abandoned tannery—along with her amies. Indeed, commune living is part of her lifestyle, has been for over twenty years. Thanks to Cécile (& company), we have plenty of wine harvesters each year--and their giant tattoos, pink hair, home-sewn halter-tops, and humming hearts fuel an otherwise grueling grape season. (More than that, they're efficient!)
(photo of Cécile and my mom, Jules's paintings. The one to the left is being prepped...)
Cécile's the one who rigged a gas tank to the back seat of her bagnole* in order to make it home for Christmas: to our home, that is, where she showered us with homemade gifts (an industrial steel nightstand for Jackie, a throw-rug for Max (and even one for Braise-the-Dog!), a bottle of moonshine for Jean-Marc, and a signature serigraph for me (the subject: a Kung fu fighter fille!). She also gave me a cheeky checkered apron (cheeky for the imposing HATCHET seriographed to the giant front pocket). When I put on that "alternative" apron, as I love to do, more than rock star—I feel like Calamity Jane: just reckless enough to reheat the leftovers.
It's recklessness that others sometimes see, when looking at my itinerant in-law. But it only takes a closer look to see the softness inside Cécile. I do not know a less judgmental person. And talk about generosity: apart from the presents, she also gave our family a small box of conserves, including local olive oil, miel, and homemade quince jam. As for the honey, I smile each time I see the handwritten label on the jar: "Miel Delicieux", it reads, and none of that chichi "Five Flower Feng Shui" marketing, just your down-to-earth (oh-so tongue in-cheek) "Delicious Honey". "What kind of honey is it?" a guest asks. It's "Delicious Honey!" I answer, admiring my sister-in-law's anti-the-establishment humor.
I think about "the establishment" or, the establishments which have laid off my friends, as of late. Over the weekend, we had news that two more of our friends have been let go, or "licencié" as they say here in France. As we watch fall what my husband refers to as a fragile "château de cartes"*--an economy based on credit (baseless all along, as revealed by the one "card" being pulled and the "house" comes tumbling down)--and as we watch our friends lose their jobs, I notice how my sister-in-law's lifestyle is looking less and less "alternative" and more and more suggestive, suggestive of what the future might hold: community, helping one another, and fending for ourselves on the food front. And forget fancy labels, whether on a T-shirt or on a jar of honey. It's what inside that counts.
As I plunge my soup spoon into the jar for another serving, I think about some of the flak that my fend-for-herself sister-in-law has received over the years: "How can she live this way?" (...out of her truck... [but *what* a truck!]) "Just how long will this lifestyle suit her?" (She'll turn 40 this year...)
"And, to think, she used to be so "classic"... and she was THIS CLOSE to getting her travel agent certificate!" (That's probably 'round about the time she "took off"!)
I have never known my belle-soeur* to be "classic," if classic means fitting in with the middle-, upper-, or any other class. She is content to fit in only with herself, pink hair and all. I'd say "herself" suits her just fine.
As the house of cards continues to fall, across America, over the pond to France and beyond, more and more of us (I imagine...) will join my own hell-raising rebel mom, Jules (who jumped ship for the jungle years ago... leaving a six-figure job, the back-stabbing business world, and "busyness" behind); yes, I imagine more of us will join Jules, who, though she's left corporate America... still secretly wishes to run away to the "circus" with Cécile, to where life is further peeled back, to the core, enough to see each other "tel quel": simply as we are... with hearts that hum and pink hair, if we so fancy.
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Comments, corrections, and stories of your own... always welcome in the comments box.
PS: here is a book that Cécile recommends (nothing to do with France...) Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
le confit (m) = a garnish made from fruits, vegetables... or nuts!; impensable = unthinkable; le beurre (m) = butter; un ami (une amie) = friend; la bagnole (f) = (slang for) car ; la fille (f) = girl; le miel (m) = honey; le château (m) de cartes = house of cards; la belle-soeur (f) = sister-in-law
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