I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been enjoying the notifications on my phone of photos from past years. Yesterday, the 27th of March, popped up with photos of our first day in France 2014, during our year as nomads, like this shot in Paris of an unexpectedly open door. Seems practically a metaphor for the whole amazing experience.
Then, since our “year” lengthened to nearly thirteen months, there were also photos of March 2015 in Memphis, one of our last adventure weeks on the road home to Colorado.
It was a bit like seeing the whole grand adventure bookended. Then with it being the 27th of the month, I suddenly realized David had been gone exactly three years and three months. It felt, I don’t know exactly, but sort of important, worthy of note somehow. But not as painful as the early — even monthly — anniversaries were.
So I’m feeling nostalgic (again), but also optimistic. I’ve had my first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine and will have the second on the 6th of April. We’re all deep in plans and prep for Brittany and Andy’s wedding late July at Lake Sunapee. So even though nothing is back to “normal” and Brittany is still facing months of medical challenges, there are finally not only memories to treasure . . .
France and my friends there are never far from my thoughts. I’m terrible at writing to them –Je suis vraiment désolée Pascale et Jacky ! I need to remember they probably don’t care if I make mistakes. I have resumed my French lessons with Natacha via Skype once a week–J’adore !
**Pascale, Jacky, on peut se parler de temps en temps sur Skype, peut-être?
The other day during my lesson, since Thanksgiving is upon us, I was trying to explain a recipe, the broccoli casserole we have at nearly every holiday meal, and a few minutes in, we were both laughing so hard we could barely speak. I lacked the vocabulary and Natacha lacked the experience with a recipe that involves broccoli and a bit of minced onion, baked in a casserole dish with Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup, mayonnaise, sharp cheddar cheese, topped with Pepperidge Farm Stuffing. She could not imagine the result would even be edible, let alone a long-time family favorite. It had mayonnaise but was hot? It had soup but wasn’t soup? Soup out of a can for a favorite recipe? It had stuffing that wasn’t stuffing, but wasn’t exactly croutons either? All we could do was laugh. My French has definite limits. Still, so much fun.
In October, I drove down to the Monet exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, hence the photos of my visit to Giverny this past July. I’m afraid I don’t have a great shot of the famous arched green footbridge. The day I was there, it was always groaning under mobs of people, not at all looking serene like in the paintings. Oh well, the waterlilies were in bloom and the gardens were stunning. Don’t even know what this flower is, but isn’t it gorgeous? No wonder Monet couldn’t stop painting!
For the past few months I’ve been taking a few poetry classes. Here’s my poem about living in France:
La Vie en France
I’m a different person in France, in La Rochelle.
It takes a few days to acclimate, to slow down, to breathe,
to allow myself to see, rather than photograph,
to be, more than do.
Of course, these days I know
not to make eye contact in the street,
to never let my hands drop below the table during a meal,
to count thumb first, palm in, to bag my own groceries.
I know to greet my friends pressing cheek to cheek,
right, then left, with a warm smile and a firm grip of hands—
or upper arms, if one is very moved—
rarely a hug,
but I have to remember, when I’m out and about,
to save smiles for a moment shared,
instead of launching them abroad like a blast
from a confetti cannon on the unsuspecting crowd.
I have to resist touching the produce,
displayed like art at the marché,
I have to remember to know exactly when I will eat it and with what
and to trust the expertise of the vendeur.
It takes a few days to stop bellowing wide Anglo-Saxon vowels
and instead to shape my mouth like a kiss
to greet clerks and servers and bus drivers with a soft bonjour,
to whisper the faint V of voilà that is almost not there at all,
to feel the grounding of the slight gargle of the Rs in au revoir, merci,
to hear and think and feel and dream in French. But once I do—
I stand taller. I walk further. I stride with purpose like a local,
though no one thinks I’m a local—I’m too blond—
maybe English, possibly German, but I am in some ways Rochelaise.
En France I taste my food. I notice it. I sip my wine.
I take my meals in courses, even alone at home.
I do not read as I eat. I do not hurry.
There are no snacks—maybe an espresso and
a morsel of chocolate at exactly four o’clock.
Dinner’s at eight, as is breakfast, lunch by one,
mealtimes and customs regular as the tide,
which soothes me somehow, like the shush of sea on sand,
the drift of clouds over the wide blue ocean that calls to me—
Reviens—Come back— from both shores.
(Written in loving memory of David, who made it possible.)
Wishing you wonderful times with family and friends and delicious food to eat, even if you can’t quite explain the appeal of your favorites!
Another questionable adventure was to join Pascale, Jacky, and friends for a grilled-eel BBQ out in a field east of La Rochelle. Pascale said she was hesitant to ask me, since it was a bit la France profonde, which basically means in the middle of the countryside where tourists rarely venture, with regular, village people who might have an accent or way of speaking that I would have trouble understanding. I was undaunted. Well, maybe a bit daunted about the eels. I didn’t take photos, since that felt like it would have been rude and intrusive during their annual multi-village gathering, but I had a great time. The hardest part was pronouncing the name of the village!
Most of Pascale and Jacky’s regular crew of friends were there–one couple, Jean-Marie and Jocelyne, had grown up in neighboring villages that were participating in the BBQ, which is how we were invited in the first place. It was row after row of picnic tables under a big tent. Benches were planks on iron supports, not always ideally positioned. At one point a man got up from one end of his bench, which threatened to unseat the elderly woman just behind me. Fortunately I was able to grab the bench before she toppled. It was all over in less than a minute, but Pascale and friends teased me that I’d be the next headline of the local newpaper, “Une Américaine a sauvé Madame” (roughly, American Woman Saves Madame).
Of course it was a huge, traditional French multi-course meal. First the guys disappeared over to the bar tent for pastis or some other scary-strong apéro. Then as they drifted back the actual apéritif course was served (little crunchy nibbles with champagne, I think — it all blends together a bit). Then halves of the small round melons like cantaloupe, filled with Pineau des Charentes as a first course (a revelation–WHY do we not eat it this way in the states?). Then the grilled eels, which are scarier to look at than to eat. They just taste like fish, since that’s basically what they are. More wine. And bread, of course. Then cheese, more bread, salad. Then dessert and a bit more wine! (By the way, penalties in France for drunk driving are VERY severe. There is always someone who drastically limits their wine or does not drink at all.)
We capped the day with a detour to play a bit of pétanque.
We had three couples, plus me, obviously extraneous, but they insisted I play anyway. I redeemed myself with my last throw, a completely random lucky shot that hit the little cochonnet and launched it away from the boules the men had so skillfully thrown and over among the boules the women had thrown, resulting in a win for the women. “Jamais encore !” Antoine vowed. (“Never again!”)
So plenty of smiles and laughter, the best kind of day.
I’ll save my other reluctant (but excellent) adventure in France for another post. Even writing about these happy memories has cheered me up, and of course snuggles with baby Beckett, time with friends, and making plans for future events help too.
I’m having a hard time lately–really sad and missing David like crazy–but I did promise more about France, so maybe this will redirect my thoughts for a while. It’s all day-to-day and learn-as-you-go, this grief thing. The 29th of August was the three-year anniversary of the day we learned David’s diagnosis was terminal. Certainly all the anniversaries have their own sting, but that’s one of the worst. And unfortunately, you can’t count on the sorrow magically shutting off when the calendar changes to the next day.
So . . . (deep breath) . . . in an effort to focus on the positive, I’ll tell you about a couple of adventures in France I was not at first sure I would enjoy.
I shouldn’t have doubted. Pascale ALWAYS plans excellent adventures, but when she suggested driving down to Royan to see a 1950’s concrete cathedral, I was skeptical. Fortunately I know better than to turn down anything proposed by Pascale and Jacky, so the morning of June 9th, we were on the road again.
The church is an impressive feat of engineering, so huge I never really got a decent photo, but here’s the best I’ve got. It’s a moving story of building something great after senseless tragedy. On January 5th, 1945, Allied forces launched a heavy bombardment, believing it was a final stronghold of the Germans. Sources differ on the exact numbers, but all agree the bombing raids killed many more civilians than German soldiers and 95% of the town was destroyed, basically for nothing.
But Royan rose again. It’s very different from La Rochelle and most of the other French cities I’ve seen, so well worth the trip. I loved the wide flat beaches that made me think of long walks with David on Folly Beach . . .
Then we headed down the road to charming little Talmont-sur-Gironde, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, where there are beautiful little details like this . . . .
Their church is pretty much the opposite of 1950’s concrete, ancient and barely hanging on to the edge of the cliff. The access to take the cool scary photo from below is now so dangerous we weren’t allowed down there.
Definitely a lovely, interesting day, but the best part was simply spending time with my friends, who with unflagging generosity, share the beauty of la belle France every time I see them.
So glad I said, “Oui, merci !” Even writing about it is making me smile. Thanks again, Pascale and Jacky!