Read about "Josey" (from our former stomping grounds of St. Maximin) in today's story... and don't miss a photo of Smokey's Ma and Pa at the end of this edition.
to keep oneself busy
Italian Josephine made homemade pizza the size of a hamburger patty, only there wasn't any viande, just a bony anchovy and a meaty olive or two. When she had the energy, she delivered her Italian pies and stayed to watch you enjoy them. And she never charged.
"Ça m'occupe." It keeps me busy, she would say, simply. As I ate, she would sit facing me with her cane, her knitted shawl, and her buckled shoes, and reminisce about an American friend, whose name she shared, and the adventures they had back in the '50s along the Côte d'Azur, when one ran an Italian épicerie and the other ran away from Paris. I listened, but mostly I studied Josey, whose dark eyes, once dull, now sparkled.
The last time Josephine showed up at my door with one of her trademark mini pizzas, she was carrying a black-and-white photograph.
"I have something to show you," she said. We sat at the table, I in my one-size-fits-all dress (weeks away from giving birth to my second child) and Josey with her shawl and cane and buckled shoes, the black-and-white photo between us. The scratched and faded image revealed the two glowing Josephines: one "café," the other "au lait." The women were dressed in satin kimonos and holding umbrellas, smiles as big as the complicity they shared. I studied the old photo from afar when suddenly my Josey mentioned that her friend loved to sing and dance....
Sing. Dance. Josephine! That's when I grabbed the photo from the table and viewed, up close, the veritable, the one and only Josephine Baker—the celebrated American danseuse (and sometime secret agent) known to appear at the Paris Folies in nothing more than a jupe made of bananas, her pet leopard, Chiquita, in tow.
My excitement was cut short when Josey told me that she was moving to Saint-Raphaël, that her daughter could no longer look after her here in Saint-Maximin. I quietly set down the photo and looked at my friend as a lump formed in my throat. C'est toujours comme ça, I thought bitterly. Just when you meet someone—the kind of person you can just sit with and say nothing to and not feel awkward, the kind who makes a little pizza pie for you because they are thinking of you in your absence—they up and move to a faraway city!
Before Josephine left, she pushed the photo across the table. "C'est pour toi," she said in her soft voice. I tried to tell her that I could not accept her photo, that she should keep it, but she insisted. I couldn't take Josey's only photo of her with her legendary friend...unless...unless it wasn't the only one? Perhaps there were others? Yes! There must be others of those "girls" in the good ol' days—other snapshots—with leopards and banana skirts and maybe a feather boa or two!
I watched as my Josey padded out the door, little steps with her big-buckle shoes. So fragile, she seemed, that you might have taken her for a broken-winged bird, but for the leopard-printed tracks in her wake.
After his hearty lunch of poulet rôti, spicy eggplant ratatouille, and rosemary potatoes (and seconds of all three!), I suspect that my son is brimming with health and not at all as sick as he claimed to be when the alarm clock rang this morning. ("Aïe! J'ai mal au ventre!" he complained. Feeling sympathetic, I let him stay home from school for the morning.)
"Well, well, Max, you certainly seem to be feeling better! Maybe I could take you to school now and you won't miss your afternoon classes?"
"Mommy," Max pleads, "I need a whole day off!"
"Well then, you'll have a lot of class work to catch up on, so don't come crying to me!"
Max offers me a disarming smile before asking what's for dessert. I bring out a bowl of aromatic garriguettes—strawberries so sweet you'd swear they were sugar cubes blushing in disguise. I pass Max the can of whipped cream, figuring that he might as well enjoy his sick day even if he is guilty.
As he eats, he reviews which classes he has missed: J'ai loupé les maths... J'ai loupé la musique... J'ai loupé la téchno...
Listening to my son's losses, I try to balance the debit. Though Max missed math, music, and technology, he didn't miss doing the dishes (this, without my asking), he didn't miss making me a surprise cup of tea ("C'est bien chaud!" he announced, his shining eyes carefully steadied on the steamy surface of the tea lest it spill as he walked), and he didn't miss collecting a handful of roses (after he slipped out to the garden, scissors in hand). Finally, he didn't miss selecting a vase (our best coffee cup in the cupboard) and arranging the flowers into an attractive bouquet before delivering them to my desk. "For you, Mommy," he offered.
"J'ai loupé un peu d'histoire." I missed a bit of history, too, my son admits as I poke my nose deep into a pink blossom. Learning about another "louped" class, I feel slightly annoyed. Then I get to thinking about Max's history book and all the "important stuff" that is recorded inside for students to study and recall. Why shouldn't this moment, too, be memorized? How unworthy of note one boy's stolen day may seem to historians, who will never document the sweetness of this tea, or record the gift of a tender heart.
le pouletrôti = rotisserie chicken Aïe! J'ai mal au ventre! = Ow! I have a stomach ache j'ai loupé les maths = I missed math j'ai loupé la musique = I missed music j'ai loupé la téchno (technologie) = I missed technology c'est bien chaud = it's very hot J'ai loupé un peu d'histoire = I missed a little bit of history
:: Audio File :: Listen to me pronounce the word "louper" before my daughter reads the following quote: Download MP3 or Download Wav
Il ne faut pas louper le coche,* mes amis! We musn't miss our chance, my friends! --Henriette Chardak *coach, barge; rater le coche = to miss the boat
. Terms & Expressions: louper son cours = to miss one's class louper son bus/train = to miss one's bus/train louper le coche = to miss an opportunity, to miss one's chance louper son coup = to miss one's chance A ne pas louper! = Not to be missed! (program, event...)
Verb conjugation: je loupe, tu loupes, il/elle loupe, nous loupons, vous loupez, ils/elles loupent => past participle: loupé
A Day in a Dog's Life... For the next 10 days Smokey and Braise will be vacationing at a chambre de chien, a doggy equivalent of une chambre d'hôte. We'll be dropping them off a the B&B (Bed & Bark?) in Rochegude, on our way to Serre Chevalier. Smokey, pictured left, doesn't look very happy about this... (you should see Gramma K's face, which is even longer!) but there will be no room for dogs in the little Alpine chambre that we will be renting. While we're away, French Word-A-Day will continue, with selections from the archives. (There will be no posts on the 9 and the 12th.)
Rue de la Paix (Peace Street) in Les Arcs-sur-Argens. More about war and peace in today's story column.
At Cafe de la Tour I found a seat close to the porte-fenêtre for a nice view of the village square on market day. The serveuse cleared away the dirty ashtray and demitasses before I set down three baguettes, my purse and my keys, and nodded bonjour to the strangers on my left.
Jean-Claude, the former patron (his daughter Sophie now runs the place), was seated at the opposite table with two burly locals. The three retired men had their noses in a pile of black-and-white photos and that is when I noticed for the first time that Jean-Claude owned one, a nose, that is. He had shaved off his legendary mustache! Gone was the dramatic white flip which swooped up and out at either end. The once soft, uniform curl was like a giant eyelash that batted as he spoke. So long was that mustache that it curled right up over the tip of his nose and covered it.
"What? You didn't know?" Jean-Claude turned to greet me, and share about the little accident he had had along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, where he had had an inspiration while watching the young freestylers. That is when the idea struck him to borrow one of the boys' BMX bikes... only to quickly discover that he, Jean-Claude, had a fear of heights!
Dangling over the edge of a mini ramp, Jean-Claude's fall was imminent, and he landed smack on his shiny head. Thirty some odd stitches later, he still hasn't lost that radiant smile--although he did lose all of his front teeth—which explains the "bald spot" above his upper lip, one that now matches the smoothness of his head, the mustache having been shaved off when the dental work began.
"That must have been traumatizing!" I said of the well-known mustache, thinking about the loss of what could surely be considered a limb. Jean-Claude looked at me blankly before that beaming smile returned.
"Ce n'était rien," It was nothing, he said thoughtfully, his eyes returning to the pile of old war photos.
Changing the subject, Jean-Claude handed me the black-and-white images, explaining that the photos were of the Libération, taken when American solders arrived in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, freeing the village from German occupation. I recognized our town's square; only, instead of the realtor's office there was a little boutique with a wooden sign that read "Mode."
The men seated beside Jean-Claude were now recounting war stories. As Jean-Claude and I studied the photos, I heard bits and pieces of the burly men's conversation: "...the parachutists landed...the maquisards fought...a soldier fell right out front..."
"Look at the hats!" Jean-Claude cried out, loud enough to muffle the voices next to him. He began pointing to a photo in which a crowd of men stood in the village square, their heads kept warm with those stylish newsboy caps. While J.-C. and I looked at '40s fashions, the men seated next to us continued commenting and I picked up scraps of their grim dialogue—
"...the Americans captured the Germans...prisoner of war...chained to the soldier..." but Jean-Claude's well-timed exclamations drowned out most of the sad and violent images.
"Look at the children! So many children!" Jean-Claude piped back in, this time pointing to a photo in which some little kids were seated on the church steps, but I found it hard to concentrate on the image. Instead, my ears were trying to tune in to the table beside us, where the men continued their remembrances:
"...the prisoners were marched off... blood..."
"Ah, the platan tree is still there! Do you recognize it?" Jean-Claude enthused, but the men's bleak commentary continued: "...American soldier shot down by the train station, died right there...the American and German were hit, killed by the same blow!..."
"That's Pascal," Jean-Claude chimed in, his back now to the men seated at the table next to ours. I looked at the photo of a skinny, grimy-faced kid, shorts rolled up, socks falling down around his bony ankles.
"His family still owns the carrosserie down the street," he added, ignoring his tablemates. "Ah, wonderful man! He must've been 6 or 7 years old in this photo." Jean-Claude shook his head, but there was a gentle smile on his face, that is, until I voiced a lingering question:
"Can you tell me about the war?" I asked, trusting Jean-Claude to paint a sensitive portrait of life here in Les Arcs-sur-Argens during WWII. Instead he threw me another one of those famous blank stares.
"C'est intéressant... la guerre," I said, saying anything to fill in the silence. "No, war is not interesting!" Jean-Claude said, swatting me several times over the shoulder with the photos, in mock condemnation.
"Look at that gun!" I said.
"Ah, the chewing gum!" Jean-Claude replied, cleverly evading the subject, and ignoring the photo that the men beside us had just handed over. "The Americans and their chewing gum! The soldiers, who were often called 'Joe', loved their chewing gum!" he said with that contagious smile.
And like that, I sipped my café-au-lait and watched Jean-Claude point out rosy details in the old, dark photos. He was seeing the children's smiles, the fashions, the beautiful trees, as well as hearing the whir of wheels riding up the seaside ramp and his own freestyle foray into...well, never mind the crash. On he went, painting his own postwar portrait of Provence and, though not erasing the past, he expertly drew blanks over the pain.
French Vocabulary la porte-fenêtre = French window la serveuse = barmaid le patron (la patronne) = business owner la Libération = the freeing from foreign occupation la mode = fashion le maquisard = "man of the maquis" (wild Mediterranean scrubland) or French resistance fighter hidden in the forests and mountains during WWII la carrosserie = automobile body shop
Thank you for alerting me to any typos or formatting problems, in this story! Click here to access the comments box. Note: the first 30 comments in the comments box are not edits; they appeared when this story was first posted.
La Commémoration du 8 mai
Today, May 8th is a French National holiday:Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation for Those Who Lost Their Lives during the Second World War. Do not miss the video at the end of this edition, in which students portent le flambeau, or "carry the torch" of remembrance via song. You'll hear excerpts of La Marseillaise and le Chant de Partisans (second video), and witness the touching and humble reconnaissance of France's youth.
Note: if you are viewing this edition via email, you might need to click over to the blog (try clicking on the title at the top of this letter) to view the videos. Don't miss them!
PS: many thanks to readers for submitting these book recommendations:
End quote: La guerre, un massacre de gens qui ne se connaissent pas, au profit de gens qui se connaissent mais ne se massacrent pas. War, a massacre of people who do not know each other, to the profit of people who know each other but do not massacre each other. --Paul Valéry
:: Audio File :: Download guerre.wav Listen to Jean-Marc pronounce French words in the following Proverb: Qui terre a guerre a. / He who has land, has war.
Terms: la guerre classique = conventional warfare la guerre chaude, froide = hot, cold war la guerre sur terre = land warfare la guerre atomique = atomic warfare la guerre planétaire = global warfare la guerre de rues = street fighting ...more terms and expression at the end of this letter
Expressions: de bonne guerre = legitimately un nom de guerre = a pseudonym être sur le sentier de la guerre = to prepare for combat faire la guerre à quelqu'un = to criticize someone à la guerre comme à la guerre = to take the rough with the smooth partir en guerre contre quelque chose = to go to war for something s'en tirer avec les honneurs de la guerre = to receive an honorable discharge
Le Chant des Partisans Ami, entends-tu le vol noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines ? Ami, entends-tu ces cris sourds du pays qu'on enchaîne ? Ohé partisans, ouvriers et paysans, c'est l'alarme ! Ce soir l'ennemi connaîtra le prix du sang et des larmes. Montez de la mine, descendez des collines, camarades, Sortez de la paille les fusils, la mitraille, les grenades ; Ohé les tueurs, à la balle ou au couteau tuez vite ! Ohé saboteur, attention à ton fardeau, dynamite ... C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux du lit font des rêves Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue, nous on crève. Ici chacun sait ce qu'il veut, ce qu'il fait, quand il passe ; Ami, si tu tombes, un ami sort de l'ombre à ta place. Demain du sang noir séchera au grand soleil sur les routes, Chantez, compagnons, dans la nuit la liberté nous écoute.
English translation, and history behind this song, here.
Three Random Words: un casse-dalle (m) = (from the slang "dalle" = hunger) = snack aneth (m) = dill le caoutchouc (m) = rubber (caoutchoucs = galoshes)
A little bar/restaurant in the bay of Locmaria, on the island of Groix.
Just off the coast of Brittany, on a small island habitée by Groisillons and teeming with French tourists on wobbly bicyclettes, there is a quaint port called Locmaria, where The Drunk Boat overlooks the bay at high tide (and low, for that matter, but for the purpose of this conte the marée shall be high, high as the curious individual bathing in its shallow waters)....
"Ah, nature fresh and free. Yes, freeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
I can just hear his French words echoing across the sandy beach, translating themselves in midair before reaching The Drunk Boat bar on the boardwalk above, near to which a red-faced tourist stands hesitant. Red-faced, not because she is a native of the desert, which she is, but because her Frenchman (he who bathes in shallow waters) has been caught, once again, en flagrant délit with Dame Nature. Yes, caught red-handed (and mud-in-the-hand) as you will soon discover.
It isn't the first time he has been found courting La Dame; take him to the powdery depths of the canyon at Roussillon, and he'll brush red and yellow ochre across his stubbled face. "A tradition," he explains (the earth-smearing, not the stubble). Bring him to a crowded beach in his beloved Marseilles, and he will inhale the salty waters beyond (via a noisy nose gargle). "Good for the sinuses," he exclaims. Cart him off to the wild garrigue and he will begin chewing on the local herbs (good for the gums, I wonder?). Go where he may, and he will find a way to press the earth unto himself. He's Monsieur Nature.
Back at the bay in Locmaria, it is another day in Paradise for Monsieur Nature, who can be found applying mud—sloshing it on from neck to knee—only, he calls it vase (pronouncing it "vaz," as if a neat word would render his act less, well, filthy).
Standing knee-deep in the ocean, he scoops up the smelly vase, slops it on his arms and across his chest before a vigorous scrub-down, oblivious to the audience now gathering before him: there are the seagulls, beady eyes bulging, and the little crabs looking on, astonished, and even the mussels—clinging to a nearby rock—have opened their shells for a look-see. "Get a load of this," they clatter, their long, salmon-colored tongues wagging.
This, dear reader, is my mud-faced conjoint and that curious behavior of his, in a clamshell, is the difference between him and me; the difference, I now realize, between really living life and poetically lusting after it from the boardwalk above.
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EDITS HERE PLEASE. Click the previous link to point out any typos or obvious ambiguities in this story. Thanks!
habitée (habiter) = inhabited les Groisillons = inhabitants of the Island of Groix la bicyclette = bicycle The Drunk Boat (Le Bateau Ivre) = the name of a bar along the boardwalk le conte = tale, story la marée = tide pris en flagrant délit = caught in the act la Dame Nature = Mother Nature la garrigue = wild Mediterranean scrubland la vase = slime, mud, mire le conjoint, la conjointe = spouse
French Pronunciation: Listen to the word "conjoint" in the following sentence: Je vous presente mon conjoint. Please meet my wife (or husband). Download conjoint.wav.
Missing a little French in your weekend? Love photos of France? Check out Cinéma Vérité.
This week we reunite with three characters from the archives, French personnages who have touched me in one way or another. I hope they will touch you, too. Note: a sound file for today's word, and more, can be found at the end of this letter.
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The man in line in front of me wore pantoufles two sizes too small. His swollen calves, riddled with eczema, hung over his ankles, which disappeared into his shrunken slippers. As usual, he wore sweatpants that rose mid-calf.
I often see the man in pantoufles hanging out of a village poubelle. He is passionate about garbage and is forever reaching for it. His backside, with the vertical line peeking out from the center of his waistband, is a familiar sight in our village. When he isn't dangling (and flashing) from a trash barrel, he is hunched over, collecting litter from the street, careful to put the waste where it belongs. We have a tidy village thanks to this man, who appears to both love and abhor trash.
Standing in line at the Crédit Agricole, the man wearing pantoufles waited for his turn to visit the bank teller. He had that same blank look on his face, the one he wears while hunting for garbage: expressionless, transfixed by trash—or troubled by it, you never know.
From behind the counter, the pretty guichetière inquired:
"How much today, Jean-Pierre?"
J.-P. stepped forward and replied, "Vingt euros."
"Il n'y a pas. You don't have that much," she answered. "How about fifteen?"
Jean-Pierre nodded, fixing his eyes on a ballpoint pen chained to the comptoir.
"Here you are. And don't spend it all at the Bar des Sports, okay?"
Jean-Pierre remained unresponsive to the guichetière's charm and humor. Though the carefree cashier and the catatonic garbage-picker had this same exchange every day, I stood there, ill at ease about overhearing the limits of J.-P.'s fortune. Not that I didn't know even more about him—and his family (everyone knows everything about everybody in this village. Or so they like to think they do).
Take, for example, J.-P.'s sister, Agnès, who hangs out the clothes to dry along their apartment's tiny 2nd-floor balcony. She does houseworkin her underwear. The only time she is dressed is in the winter or when she walks her dilapidated dog. She has the exact same corpulent frame as her brother and looks identical to him; only, she wears teal-green eye shadow, caked black mascara and red lipstick when she drinks. Drunk or sober, her hair is a nid d'oiseau. When she's not hanging out clothes, she can be heard a kilometer away, barking orders to their elderly mother.
"J'en ai marre! Mange! Mange! I'm fed up! Eat! Eat!" she says, waving a spoon before her mother.
My own mom, Jules, who lived for a while in a third-floor studio across the street from Jean-Pierre and his family, encouraged me to not be so quick to judge Agnès (pronounced ON-yes).
"She has so many worries," Mom explained. "Poor thing. She has to spoonfeed her mother, who sits there, mouth clamped shut, stubborn as can be. When she does get a spoonful in, her mother just spits it right back out! Then she's got all that laundry. She never stops!"
I tried not to judge Agnès, but I did find myself avoiding her, and I crossed the street at the sight of her and her porto-enflamed cheeks. Something about her seemed déséquilibrée.
One day, while walking to my mom's studio, I saw Agnès slumped over her doorstep. I noticed she was dressed. From her eyes poured two black rivers, down her face, across her red lips and onto her thin, soiled shirt. My mom sat next to Agnès, her arm around the sad woman's shoulder. In front of the women there was a flurry of French paramedics, beyond, a narrow stretcher covered with a long white sheet. My eyes locked on the bundle in the center, beneath le drap blanc.
That evening I saw Agnès' brother snapping up litter from the uneven cobblestone paths of our village. His pants were on straight, and the unsightly crack had disappeared. Gone were his predictable pantoufles. He wore white, canvas tennis shoes, his puffy heels hanging out the back. His face remained expressionless, though his lips sunk a bit at each end. His hair was combed, parted. And just like the garbage collector's shoes, the village was pristine the night they carried Agnès's and Jean-Pierre's mother away.
The trash man may never understand the beautiful bank teller's humor, but Life's comedy is something he knows: as with the never-ending reach of litter, the trick is to keep moving, to keep after it. Life, that is.
le personnage = character la pantoufle = house slippers la poubelle = garbage can le Crédit Agricole = the "largest retail banking group in France" la guichetière = the bank teller vingt euros = twenty euros le comptoir = counter le nid d'oiseau = bird's nest déséquilibré = unbalanced le drap blanc = white sheet
More about today's French word pantoufle...
un(e) pantouflard(e) = a homebody
The verb "pantoufler" means to leave a government job to work for a private corporation (speaking of a civil servant).
Expressions: passer sa vie dans ses pantoufles = to live a secluded life raisonner comme une pantoufle = (to reason like a slipper) to reason foolishly
And a charming old expression (sadly, not used anymore): "Et caetera pantoufle" or "Etc. pantoufle" used to end an enumeration. "In our refrigerator we have milk, eggs, butter, sour cream, etc. pantoufle."
More characters on the way, in the Wednesday and Friday editions! Meantime, don't miss some of my favorite personnages in my book: Words in a French Life. You'll meet "Madame Richard," "La Petite Souris", and one persnickety priest ... among many other French characters. And if you already have a copy of "Words", why not buy another copy for a friend? You might just ignite the love of French life in another, and there's no telling where this language adventure will take them. I still can't believe where it has taken me!
Three Random Words: desseller = to unsaddle empoté,e = awkward, maladroit, clumsy fâcher = to make angry, to vex
Cruisin' through the Tuscan Vauclusian countryside yesterday... My husband still gives me driving lessons (from the passenger seat). I tell him I've been behind the wheel for 23 years. Apparently, says he, it's time to learn to shift gears.
to drive .
In the winter of 2001, I left work at the vineyard each night to drive myself to driving school, careful to take the back roads and to park several blocks from the Auto-École Rivière. Though I had driven for ten years in the States, and another six in France, I had failed to exchange my Arizona driver's license for a French one, having had two years to do so. Time and again, Jean-Marc assured me that I had the right to drive in France (convinced that my AAA International Driving Permit was enough, never mind the expiration date), until one day he realized that his wife was driving without insurance (!!!); that is, should she get into an accident, the insurance contract would be void ($$$) without her having a French permis de conduire.
Having spent weeknights at driving school, attending class with would-be motorists half my age, and having finally passed l'épreuve théorique, or written exam, in the town of Fréjus, I would soon be navigating the streets of Draguignan... with a stone-faced inspecteur seated beside me.
On exam day, I shared the test vehicle with a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old who had just been ordered to pull over and get out. "Out! You are a danger to yourself and to others!" the inspecteur shouted. Seated in the back of the car, waiting my turn, I tried to understand just what my unfortunate classmate had done wrong, but was jolted out of my pensées when the inspector resumed his tirade.
"FAILED!" the inspecteur barked. He shouted a few more insults before the French kid got into the back of the car, at which point I was ordered into the driver's seat: "A vous, madame!"
"Allez-y!" the inspecteur commanded, checking his watch. I said a prayer to Saint Christopher, patron saint of safe travel (not knowing who the saint was for driver's-exam scoring), put on the left-turn signal, and drove out of the quiet neighborhood into the chaotic streets of Draguignan at rush hour.
"You don't need to be so obvious!" the inspector snapped when I threw my chin left after turn-signaling. Moments ago I'd signaled a right turn and thrown my chin over my right shoulder for good measure. We had been warned in driving school to exaggerate our gestures during testing to show the inspecteur that we were aware of those dangerous "angles morts" or blind spots. "Et les vitesses!" the inspector grumbled after I'd ground the gears once again. "Oh, but aren't cars automatic in America?!" he snickered.
Though I had been stick-shifting for sixteen years, seated next to the inspecteur I felt like I was operating a vehicle for the first time. Having completed the twenty-minute parcours through the center of Draguignan, where the unpredictable French pedestrian is king and capable of jumping from sidewalk to street center in the blink of an eye, I followed the inspecteur's instructions, pulling up in front of the American cemetery, which seemed like a bad omen to me. The inspecteur sat silently, filling out paperwork, before announcing it was time to check my vision. He ordered me to read the sign across the street. Squinting my eyes, I began:
"World War II Rhone American Cemetery and Memor...".
Before I had even finished reading, the inspector scribbled something across the page, tore off the sheet, and mumbled "Félicitations."
Ornery as he was, I had the urge to throw my arms around the inspecteur and plant a kiss beside his angry brow; only, the commandant was no longer facing me, but looking out over the quiet green fields dotted white with courage, lost in another place and time.
Auto-École Rivière = Riviera Driving School le permis (m) de conduire = driver's license l'inspecteur (l'inspectrice) = inspector la pensée = thought A vous, madame = Your turn, Madam Et les vitesses! = And the gears! le parcours = driving route les félicitations (fpl) = congratulations le commandant = captain
Un critique, c'est un homme qui connaît la route, mais qui ne sait pas conduire. A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car. --Kenneth Tynan
:: Audio File :: Listen to my daughter (9-years-old at the time of this recording) pronounce the French word for "to drive" in today's quote: Download conduire.wav
Un critique, c'est un homme qui connaît la route, mais qui ne sait pas conduire.
Terms & Expressions: un permis de conduire (m) = driver's license conduire un orchestre = to conduct an orchestra conduire une affaire = to manage a business se conduire = to behave se conduire bien / mal = to behave well / badly se conduire comme un âne = to make an ass of oneself
FYI:A remembrance poem was posted yesterday, "Poppy Day", don't miss it. Also: a reminder to UK readers: Jean-Marc and I will be at Barbican Centre in London, next week. We would love to meet you there. Click here for more information about this event.
......................................................................................... French Verb Conjugation: conduire je conduis, tu conduis, il/elle conduit, nous conduisons, vous conduisez, ils/elles conduisent ; past participle: conduit
A cat in the china closet (the bowls think it absurd). Shop window in Brittany.
noun, masculine look alike
The man approaching me said, "In Hollywood, women pay good money to learn to walk like that!"
I remember being a little confused by my neighbor's greeting, as we crossed each other while out for a Sunday walk. Was I to take that as a compliment?
It can take me weeks, even months, to get over unsolicited feedback and sometimes a biting remark never loses its sting....
"You look about my age," a woman once confided. I later learned that she was ten years older than I.
I have been told, "You look a little serious," and I think "Really? Me? Seriously?"
Most often I am informed, "You look like someone I know!" With this, the speaker invariably elbows their partner, "Hey, doesn't she look like so-and-so?" I wonder what so-and-so looks like?
"Tu as l'air fatiguée..." close friends say. Apparently I look tired, too....
"She looks like grandma!" the little boy at the beach shouts, and I want to stomp on his sandcastle. Enough is enough is enough!
My neighbor, Mr Hollywood, tells me he possesses the unique ability of being able to look into the mirror and see himself objectively. I wonder if this is possible? Can one see oneself as they are?
Unique abilities aside, I decide to give it a try. Staring into the mirror I search for "So-and-so" and for "Serious" and for "Tired" and for "Grandma". I squint and strain and stare. But it's no use. All I see is me.
tu as l'air fatigué(e) = you look tired le sosie = look alike, double
La vie, on sait bien ce que c'est : un amalgame saugrenu de moments merveilleux et d'emmerdements. Life, we know very well what it is: an absurd amalgam of marvelous moments and hassles. --Roger Martin du Gard
Without a modicum of foi, life can be a three-ring circus.
My daughter says that books are like cigarettes, une mauvaise habitude, and would I please put the reading aside for one night?
"Of course, Sweetheart," I promise, returning the book to its shelf. Is that a tremble in my arm? Sweat on my brow?
"And the cahiers and the pens—put them away too!" Jackie insists.
My head starts to pound and the twitching begins. I leave my hard- and soft-bound drugs, feeling the first symptoms of withdrawal as I walk away from words. I tell my daughter that I got the habit from her Mexican grandmother, Wholia, and that one day she'll need a paper-and-pen fix too. It runs in the family like flat hair and latent fury.
I don't tell my daughter that her Mexican grandmother, Jules, is really American, but leave it as Jackie's told it time and again. It is her story and not mine, and she gets that storytelling gene from Wholia, or Julia—make that "Jules".
At the dinner table, Jackie asks, "Why does Grandma Jules dress up for dinner?"
I sit there in my felt slippers and pajamas, thinking up an answer. "Because people like to look at pretty things when they eat, and don't we love looking at Grandma Jules?" My daughter agrees.
When Jackie says, "Let's do like Grandma Jules!" I prepare to get up, walk to the powder room, and put on some lipstick. Instead, my daughter reaches for my hand, closes her eyes and says:
"Dear Lord, thank you for this food."
It is no thanks to me, nose deep in a book, fingers curled around another cartouche, that my daughter learned to pray. But tonight we'll take Wholia's example, and hope that, like fury and fine hair, faith runs in this family—if not always in stride.
Terms & Expressions: digne de foi = reliable, trustworthy (witness) être de bonne foi = to be sincere, honest la mauvaise foi = dishonesty avoir la foi = to have faith perdre la foi = to lose one's faith sans foi ni loi = to fear neither God nor man avoir la foi du charbonnier = "to have a coalman's faith" (simple faith) avec les yeux de la foi = "with eyes of faith" = to believe sight unseen
Church in Cairanne. In today's story: a tart, a church, and a twist in this tale....
On Friday, the lendemain of Jean-Marc's fortieth birthday, a florist's van pulled up to our front gate. I watched as the driver handed over a lipstick-red ceramic vase with a single orchid inside. Halfway up the exotic flower a hummingbird clung, its delicate wings poised for flight.
When I noticed Jean-Marc smiling as big as Le chat de Cheshire, I ran out to meet him, curious to know who was sending him flowers. It had to be a female. Probably my sister Heidi, I reasoned. Who else could it be?
"C'est qui cette garce?" "Who's the tart that sent you the flowers?" I teased, with mock jalousie, not at all referring to my sister but to an imaginary rival. The birthday boy took his time reaching into the vase to retrieve the gift card.
"Aha...!" he exclaimed, adding to the intrigue.
"Who is it from?" I insisted. The quiver in my voice belied the confident smile on my face.
When Jean-Marc named his former petite amie, my face turned as white as the dress I wore at my wedding. The same dress that the Other Woman had once sat scrutinizing.
The Other Woman is she who appeared on the scene when I came home to America having just met Jean-Marc. (We'll call her "Owch" for the Other Woman [after I] Came Home). Owch and Jean-Marc dated, broke up, and dated again before breaking up for good. Sure of his decision, Jean-Marc invited me back into his life, also "for good" (I hoped).
On the morning of my wedding day Owch called her Ex (my Future) for directions to the church, and, in so doing, managed to pee on my parade. (I hope that the reader will excuse any verbal crassness and instead conjure up an image of one woman's (Owch's) attempt to both mark her former territory and cloud up an otherwise bright day). And so my wedding day began with Owch and, as you will soon see, ended with Owch for a double wedding whammy. Indeed, Owch was a thorn in my very swollen side.
Owch, with the shiny black bob, did not show up this time in painted-on-the-body black leather, but wore two dresses on my wedding day: one to the church and another shorter, plungier, blacker number to the wedding feast. Big as I was (or felt), I didn't have another "little number" to change into, as Owch did. What with my growing girth... it wasn't an option. And so I stood, not in a fitted dress like my rival's, but just fitting into my gown with its fat cloth buttons riding down my back like cellulite. And though I should have been thanking my lucky stars that the wedding dress fit at "five weeks," I could only think of how frumpy I looked compared to Mademoiselle Owch, the Parisian panther.
At around two in the morning, I found myself face-to-face with Owch, in her clingy dress and concave stomach. We were seated at a table next to the dance floor, where Owch had spent the evening shaking it up, uP, UP! With the rise of her skirt I noticed her legs, which were taut, tanned and untamed by nylons as she crossed them on the chair before me. My own legs were covered in opaque white stockings and hidden beneath some increasingly constrictive crêpe de chine.
Owch took another drag from her slim cigarette before aiming dead center between my eyes, which crossed in disbelief as I followed the train of smoke that escaped from her pursed lips. A thick ashen wall of defense now separated us. From the opposite side of the front line, the enemy spoke.
"So, when is the baby due?"
I was too stunned to answer. My eyes dropped to the floor, but not before catching on Owch's blood-red nails, which curled like claws around a glass of champagne.
* * *
Fast forward now... My own fingernails, trimmed short and unpolished, crowned insistent fingers that snapped the gift card out of my husband's hand. I studied the fake hummingbird that accompanied the flower. I felt an urge to swat the delicate creature as one would a fly.
Before I could learn the true answer, Jean-Marc assured me: "I was only kidding you!" Reading the card, I saw for myself that the flowers were not from Owch. Ahhh....
They were from someone else!
Do forgive me if I do not tell you just who sent the orchid. For, like a well-covered woman (whether in crêpe de chine or plain ol' cotton), it is the mystery that adds to the allure. And it is the allure that endures.
One last note, this time to my son: Max, your father and I were married in a civil ceremony—two months prior to the religious ceremony—in Marseilles's magical Bagatelle. You can put your calculator away now, Honey, and know that God was on our side, even if the French law sometimes wasn't. (I'll tell you about your mother's stint as an illegal alien when you are a little older. For now, do as I say and not as I do and remember your great-grandfather Gordon's words of wisdom: When you are around trouble, you are in it!)
le lendemain = the next day Le chat (m) de Cheshire = The Cheshire Cat la jalousie = jealousy la petite amie (le petit ami) = girlfriend (boyfriend) Bagatelle = the name of the town hall in Marseilles's 8ème arrondissement
When Max came into the kitchen announcing, "Papa a acheté un sapin," I folded the dishtowel, set it down and took a deep breath. I knew the Christmas tree would be trunk-size—all the better to fit into the back of an economy car—and not tall, like the spruce my mom used to whisk home (space limits were not an issue... Mom had the tree tied to the top of her '68 Camaro).
"Cela suffira," I reminded myself, hoping to have finally learned a lesson. The tree, whatever it is, will be just what we need, and failing that, it will at least be real! Only, when I saw what my husband, The Nonconsumer, brought home this time, every nerve in my body became a live wire.
There in the center of the salon stood the most abominable tree that I had ever laid eyes on. I knew better than to open my mouth lest the bassesse of language, French or English, should spew forth. Meanwhile my nerves began to short-circuit, and it was only a matter of time before the sparks reached my tongue, causing it to ignite.
"How much did you pay for it?" I questioned, teeth clamped.
"Twelve euros," Jean-Marc answered, jaws relaxed.
Twelve euros! That's 15 dollars... about how much he would spend on a decent bottle of wine—one that we might share in a single night. But a Christmas tree—that's something we could have spent a little more on, for we would enjoy it for an entire month!
After a moment of silence so thick you could hang tinsel on it, Jean-Marc challenged me: "You can take it back if you don't like it." His remark was delivered with the coolness of a peppermint candy cane.
"It is not for me to take back. YOUtake it back!"
My husband's next response was to slam the door. I watched the ripple effect as the tinsel fell to the floor.
I looked down at the artificial arbre. A Christmas tree should be at least as tall as a child, I reasoned. Staring at the sapin de Noël, I noticed its mangled branches and its missing foliage. It was a fake fir, one so cheap that it came with its own styrofoam ornaments! And was that "presto tinsel" stuck to the branches?
I thought about the nine-foot-tall Colorado spruce that was Mom's joy to decorate. The ornaments were not automatically glued to the branches. They were handmade! One year Mom covered the tree with white colombes and pheasant plumes. She took the ordinary blue boules and dressed them up with peacock feathers (using only the fancy tops, or what she called the "eyes" of the feathers). Her zeal for holiday decorating didn't stop at the giant tree—she had those doves "flying" from the branches to the front door!
My eyes returned to the bedroom door, which had just been slammed shut. I looked back down at the Christmas tree. The longer I stared, the uglier it appeared.
"It is the ugliest tree that I have ever seen!" I declared, and pulled off what decorations Jean-Marc and Jackie had put up. I yanked apart the tree and shoved it into the stupid bag from which it came. Still smarting, I returned to the kitchen and slammed the dirty pots and pans around in the sink, the sink without a garbage disposal! Only in France!
"You're so complicated," my Frenchman used to say as I struggled to adapt to his country, to his ways, to his small-treed holidays. Over the years, I began to suspect that he had a point. Indignation turned to industry as, little by little, I began ousting the surplus and the superflu—learning the difference between want and besoin, all the while simplifying, simplifying!
The sum of all that effort now stood before me, concrete in form, via this, the simplest tree.
"But I want a COMPLICATED Christmas treeeeeee!" I cried out, shoving the sponge back into the pan as I scoured and glowered. "I want a showy, superfluous, SUPERCALIFRAGILISTIC spruce!"
Just then I heard the rustle of faux branches and a whisper....
"Il est beau!" Max was saying to his sister.
"Oui, regarde," she agreed, softly.
I listened to the clanking of aluminum bulbs.... Peeking around the corner, I witnessed the scene. Max had pulled the tree back out of the bag and reassembled it. The branches, still tordues, now had a colorful array of bulbs, some chipped, some dusty, some new—all carefully hung. There were so many decorations that the empty parts, where branches seemed to be missing, were now filled in.
Jean-Marc was on his knees searching for an electrical outlet. Finding one, he plugged in the tree lights, but when he turned to reach for the switch.... my hand was already on it. Our eyes locked.
My husband smiled as I flipped the switch. When the tree lights went on, the room came to a swift hush. In the silence she appeared: La Joie—an étincelle here, a sparkle there—happiness filling the room, its presence so real, so palpable, you could hang tinsel on it.
Papa a acheté un sapin = Papa's bought a Christmas tree çela suffira = that'll suffice le salon = living room la bassesse = baseness un arbre = tree le sapin de Noël = Christmas tree la colombe = dove la plume = feather la boule = ball le superflu= superfluity le besoin = need il est beau = it is beautiful (tree) oui, regarde = yes, look tordu(e) = twisted, bent la joie = joy une étincelle = spark, sparkle
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