Sunday, December 20, 2009


I really shouldn't tell you this, because you might get awfully jealous, but our family belongs to a top secret society of intrepid travelers. The name of the society is of course top secret as well, and if I wrote it here for the cyberworld to see, I would have to kill everyone who has ever gone online. In that case, the only humans left on the earth would be a few aboriginal peoples living in forests and deserts, and somebody's Great Aunt Mabel. So I'll keep the name of our secret society firmly under wraps.

And I shouldn't really tell you this, either, but the way you enter this top secret society is by holding yourself together while traveling, no matter what. Ever been carsick while riding in a cab and had to throw up in to your backpack? That would be a good start. Run through an airport, shouting to your companions "No, keep going! We've got to get to Gate One Eighteen! This one is only Gate Eighty-One!?" That's pretty good, too. Survived six hours of paralyzing boredom in the cruelly plastic seating of any of the world's many woebegone waiting "lounges?" Well then, we'll be happy to take your application.

But don't expect things will be easy once you join us. For nobody travels with quite our mix of pluck, and luck.

Saturday morning began just about as inauspiciously as our travel-day mornings usually do.

Granted, we had been up way too late the night before at a truly beautiful Christmas party held at Jessica and Gerard's house. (Staying up too late and getting up too early are hallmarks of our wild and crazy travel style.) The party included twelve adults and their kids, just about equally divided between English and French speakers (although Jessica, who can translate faster than the people with the funny headphones at the U.N., should by all rights count on both sides of the divide.)

There had been a dusting of snow earlier in the day, Bing Crosby was on the stereo, and a big rangy tree was in the corner; so all of a sudden, it really felt like Christmas. The French don't overplay Christmas quite as aggressively as Americans do, so we hadn't been in the spirit before then. But after a day of feeling anxious about our upcoming travel, we loved the feeling of roasting ourselves by a roaring fire, drinking from a vat of mulled red wine, munching on delicious little red-and-green colored treats, and of course luxuriating in thin shavings of Gerard's amazing truffles on toast with olive oil.

We all took turns good-naturedly massacring one another's languages, toasting the holiday, and remarking on our shared great good fortune to have met one another. The kids (five French speakers, four English, and our two Americans, ages 2 to 10) dressed up in crazily colored wigs and got all the toys out and whooped and hollered and wrestled and made a big old mess.

All in all, it was a completely ideal way for us to wrap up Part I of the grand adventure.

But the next day, we woke up feeling just a little less than fully rested for the long schlep back home.

Because I knew that snow had been predicted for the Eastern Seaboard, I went online first thing to check out the forecast. With its usual balanced, calming approach, informed me of "crippling snow from the Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast." Never one to be happy traveling in blessed ignorance, I went on to read that this "dangerous weekend storm is powering a historic snowstorm that is snarling traffic and air travel in the East."

Well, so we had that to look forward to.

We of course left one too many things to do just at the last minute, and it took longer than usual to rouse Grace out of her cocoon of sleep. It's still cold in that big stone house, even when we crank the heat up to "Unaffordable," so we all love staying cuddled under our various comforters for as long as we can. Grace can just do it longer than any of the rest of us, and this can really test my pretty inadequate patience.

Bill got us some croissants, but I was too nervous and jerky to eat anything at all. I never eat when we travel, aside from a few twix bars here and there. This might in some way or another contribute to my exceptionally short fuse on said travel days, but my stomach really can't handle a single bite while it's moving at any pace faster than a walk.

We piled our few bags into the Renault, and drove south to Nice, where, after having rushed the girls out of the house, we arrived spectacularly, ridiculously, foolishly early. The only consolation was that we were rewarded with being assigned seats together on the airplane. British Air is one of several airlines, eager to find yet another way to eke out a profit, that have now started charging you for a seat assignment before the day you actually fly. I was loath to pay another fifteen Euros times four people times four legs of the trip -- just for the assurance that my eight-and-ten year olds would be seated with me! -- so we took our chances.

Despite my usual travel-day crankiness and anxiety, the first seven hours or so were only challenging in that way that surviving crushing boredom can be. The television in the waiting area was on, alternating between a typically ridiculous (and Christmas-themed!) French gameshow, and a tiny, elf-like little meteorologist informing us about just how awful the weather was in France, and just how many airplanes had been cancelled the night before.

Thus we were lucky that our flight was not canceled, although the first flight of the day out of Nice had been. We were lucky, too, that our seats were not only together, but all on the right side of the plane, so that we could see Nice and the crusty, crunchy, icy white Alps out of our window.

I will take advantage of this single quiet moment of the story to pause for a potentially sanctimonious digression on the nature of luck. I have come to believe that luck, like good parking karma, comes to those who earn it through gratitude, rather than good behavior. With parking karma (or carma, if you like puns) you earn good parking spaces in the future by being grateful for every single one you find in the present. Believe every space is a miracle, even if it's twelve blocks away.

It is the same with luck. We humans are usually given the precise amount that we are able to notice and appreciate. So if you get some, lap it up like warm milk, my friends, and thank the Universe or whatever else sent it your way. Don't get too greedy expecting more luck, and suddenly more unexpected luck will come spilling your way.

End of lecture, and now onto the parts of the story where our traveling pluck is most required, and our good luck keeps us alive. If only barely so.

When we landed in Heathrow, the nice man kindly added some stamps (even better than Girl Scout Badges) to our passports, then sent us on to the American Airlines counter. The ticketing agents were already in a holiday/weather delay frenzy, so when I mentioned to the sweet, beautiful girl at the counter that I was concerned our flight might be canceled because of expected bad weather in New York, she looked at me as though I might be jinxing her already cursed day. She was halfway through her little airline routine ("Did I pack my own bag, or did I let a terrorist do it for me?") when she stopped mid-sentence, and said, somewhat ominously,

"Why, that's odd."

Because, as you might have guessed if you lived on the eastern seaboard during yesterday's actually crippling -- though perhaps not "historic" -- snowstorm, our flight, AA 107, scheduled to arrive several hours into the predicted blizzard, was in fact canceled right at that very moment.

"How did you know?" She asked me, as though I were psychic. The truth is that if you're anxious enough about a whole lot of things, once in awhile you're actually right.

She was, however, challenged rather than daunted by this fact. As the other agents slowly started to grumble about the pain they were soon to feel (250 more displaced and angry passengers) she rallied, super-speedily typing us in as standby passengers on the flight leaving in 25 minutes. We jumped on the bandwagon right with her, treating her like the travel goddess she was, and trusted in her rapid-fire keystrokes and sense of purpose.

She looked us straight in the eye and promised that if we left now, she'd also try to book us on the next flight she could find, as a backup. There would be no guarantee the Standby status would work, of course, but maybe, perhaps, we just might get on. But it would be best if we run. Now.

The gate was (as gates always are, when you are running) the very last one in the terminal. I'm embarrassed to say that the other three members of our party arrived there first, but I wasn't all that far behind. The gate was jammed with actual ticketed passengers, and also a very disconcerting mass of people milling far too close to the ticket counter in the way that Standby passengers tend to do.

They/we clustered around the one middle-aged blond airline agent who seemed to be running the place. She was one of those charismatic Brits who are all about calling people "Love," and "Dearie" while having her way with them. She typed like the wind while simultaneously shouting to the other desk, directing the flight attendants and baggage handlers through a walkie-talkie, and answering a variety of desperate travel questions from the Standers-by.

Amid the chaos at the gate, all the angry and desperate souls grasping at her for a shred of her attention, she held herself above the fray, speaking aloud to herself and everyone else as a way of keeping the situation as calm as possible. She was one of those people that others gravitate to in a crisis: cool-headed, a few beats ahead of everyone else, and even a little funny in the middle of all of her frantic multi-tasking.

I deeply respected her skills. Despite the fact that she was being sorely tested by the weather and the situation, she was working as fast as she could to scour the passenger list, looking for as many spare seats as she could find.

But it was a very, very full flight. And we clearly weren't the only ones on standby.

It was beginning to look a lot like hopeless. Snow was blanketing the entire East Coast, and this was the last plane out of Heathrow to New York for the afternoon. The plane was full. Bill thought we should leave right then, and start scurrying around with all the other poor sops on our canceled plane to try to find a hotel, then reschedule a flight, maybe for Monday at the earliest.

But to me, it felt like one of those situations where we four shouldn't just do something, but rather stand there. The kind smart angel at the first airline desk had done all that fast typing on our behalf, and had had enough hope herself that she urged us to run to the gate. And now, this miraculous Gate 118 virago was whipping up another batch of good luck for somebody in the crowd.

And for a second time right in a row, would you believe it, Launa's travel intuition was right.

Because somehow, magically, our names were suddenly at the very top of the standby list. Imagine walking into Santa's workshop on Christmas Eve, and seeing there, at the very top of his records, your own name as the first delivery, with a little star and a reminder to leave extra candy canes. Not because you had earned it, but because he knew you would remember to feel lucky.

(And because we are imagining here, I have a question: does anybody ask Santa, before he flies, if he packed all his own bags?)

I won't ever know the name of that awesome ticketing agent who hooked us up so spectacularly, but she's totally in our travel society, if she's ever interested. For I'm quite sure that that beautiful, smart, and capable young woman got us the very last four seats on that day's last NYC-bound airplane.

Three of these seats were, of course, perfectly awful ones in the cramped and bumpy back of the plane, scattered around far away from one another. But as she handed us the boarding passes, the super-efficient gate agent took one look at our frightened children and said, "This boarding pass is your ticket to get a seat with at least one of your daughters: it's in the exit row. Treat it like a bar of gold."

This proved good luck both for Grace (who got to sit next to Bill) and for the woman who switched and earned herself a few additional inches of leg room. Abigail's seat happened to be next to a sweet 20-something babysitter type who instantly agreed to switch seats with me so that I could sit by my kid. (And without paying the thirty euros in advance! Now that's the cheap kind of luck.)

Or perhaps she switched with me to avoid an unpaid 8-hour babysitting shift with a potentially bad-tempered second grader. But I prefer the more generous interpretation, which was all about her heart of gold.

The pilots maintained that nice faux-calm that they tend to affect while pretending not to be flying into a blizzard. I generally appreciate faux-calm with a lot of confidence behind it, as I run my own anxiety-generator on extra high. The nice stewards brought me a dinner I couldn't eat, then sold me a few overpriced Hienekens. Abigail watched the television in the back of the seat in front of her for six hours, requiring precisely no babysitting, until she finally got too exhausted (it was by then 1 AM back in Provence) and fell sound asleep.

We won't speak of any of the turbulence in the air, as that might simply be unlucky to mention. But Bill later told me that the flight attendants clustered way in the back near his seat were pretty much united in their estimation that this was not exactly a smooth flight leading towards an obviously easy landing.

It wasn't, in fact easy, but rather the kind of landing after which every single person on the airplane applauds in appreciation and relief. I liked the attitude of the pilot, who did admit in advance that there would be "a few pretty strong wind gusts here and there," but promised to get us to the gate on time. I don't have any idea how he landed the plane in all that ice and whirling snow, but perhaps our plane had good snow tires. So, I guess it was not just a good, but a great landing, in that the plane didn't spin out of control or veer off into the ocean.

We touched down pretty much on time. But then the poor pilot to spend the next forty minutes inching the plane towards the gate, to keep it from slipping and sliding on the tarmac. It took him longer to get us from the runway to the gate than it had taken us to fly from Labrador to Long Island.

Savvier (read, less stupid) travelers would have realized that the roads would be significantly snowier than the jetway had been. We should have just gotten right on the train to the subway, but instead we believed the word of the super-agreeable taxi driver, who told us that the roads actually weren't that bad, and that he knew a good safe way to drive us to Brooklyn. I tried a few times to insist that we stick to the streets and stay off the highways, but he had that ebullient confidence I have a difficult time to gainsay.

This "good way" he had picked for some reason involved the Van Wyck expressway, which by now had become Wollman Skating Rink. The taxi would slowly fishtail one way or another, then sometimes slide to a total stop while other cars, trucks, snowplows and SUV's barreled past, beeping their displeasure. Things got steadily worse and worse, and the time dragged on and on. We were in a random part of Queens in a blizzard, with a driver whose driving experiences were more Bangalore than Bangor.

He was so darn cheerful and confident that it took us awhile to convince him to give up and let us out at the subway. Once that accord had been reached, it was still somehow another half hour before he could let us out, shivering and a little panicked, at an elevated 7 train station in Forest Hills, Queens.

We were shivering because -- as you might have imagined -- our bags were still in London. We had packed away our heavy coats back in Nice, certain we would be reunited, even briefly, with our luggage in Heathrow. As we stood under the overhang with the wind swirling around us, I pulled a thin little travel blanket over Abigail's head and Bill gave up his extra sweater to Grace.

As Grace pointed out later, we looked like an exhausted and displaced family of hobos. Which, in a way, we were, as we stood, at 10:15 at night, (4:15 AM back in Aups) in an elevated subway station in Forest Hills, with snow whipping around us in every direction. If only we had had a can of beans to cook over a nice warm trash fire, the picture would have been complete.

We were some of the most miserably lucky travelers in the world.

But nobody cried, not even me. Not when the express trains ran local, and not when we set our backpacks in a big pile of slush by mistake, and not when we had to stumble the last five blocks from the Union Street station through snowdrifts, wearing sneakers.

Both girls -- by now veteran members of our secret traveling society -- were total troopers. They ran when we said run. They didn't ask for dinner when they realized we couldn't get them any. They carried their own backpacks until they were too tired even to carry themselves.

And when I started to really freak out in the taxicab, Grace rested her head on my shoulder and rubbed my arm reassuringly, ever so gently. As she stroked and soothed me, I realized that I had done precisely nothing nice all day to deserve such a thing from her. But that's the way it is with luck. You can't deserve it, only appreciate it when it comes your way, in its most unexpected forms.

And then.

And then.

Twenty hours after locking the door in Aups, we opened the door to the tiny downstairs Brooklyn apartment, our home for the next two weeks. I had assumed it would be dark, and cold, and full not only of the detritus of our lives, left there in early August, but also full of the dust and grit of have been abandoned by us for four months.

But there was a light on behind the shutters, and the sturdy strong American furnace had filled the room with warmth. The apartment was spotless. Someone had tied little red ribbons everywhere, and hung swags of shiny paper chains from the ceiling. There were Christmas lights strung over the windowsills, and a big basket of fruit and bagels and Veggie Booty sitting on the table. There was bacon -- real sliced bacon -- in the refrigerator, and maple syrup, and orange juice and two (regular sized) bottles of Stella Artois.

And, there was an Amarylus, nearly in bloom. And fresh-baked Christmas cookies.

And a little tiny Christmas tree, decorated with lights and red bows and little ornaments. All to welcome us home after four months so far away.

What a journey between those two warm rooms with Christmas trees -- one in the dark starry night of Provence, and one in the dark snowy morning of Brooklyn.

Talk about lucky. We had somehow gotten on the last plane. We had landed safely in a blizzard, fishtailed it around Queens with the world's most misguided taxicab driver, and dragged our exhausted but uncomplaining children on three separate late-night subway trains and up five snowy blocks at what felt like five in the morning.

But what finally made me cry?

Not luck, but love, in the form of a three-foot Christmas tree with a string of white lights.

The fact that we can travel so far and so long, and still come home to our love -- for and from -- the very best friends in the world.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Index: a work in progress

New Knowledge: An index of things I did not know before now

(August to Christmas version; hyperlinks to follow. Please let me know where I've made mistakes or missed something crucial.)

Armignac: a potent and deeply flavorful afterdinner brandy that Bill and I first tasted in tiny little glasses at Grenouille-du-Saut late this summer. We were sitting with Zaro and Gareth at a candlelit table outdoors, looking into the depth of night towards hills of the Luberon we would not see until the morning. A little goes a long way.

Aiguines: particularly great medieval hilltown, site of Best. Day. Ever.



Avignon: still waiting for a bill from the broken-mirror incident. Maybe the Pope picked up our tab.

Biên-Être: Well-Being. The name of the hotel just outside of Villecroze where we had our first transcendent French meal. Also, the feeling didn’t know we were searching, but in which we have been steeped since we arrived.

Bisous: great concept. I just wish I could remember whether it's right left, or left right. The fear that I will get this wrong can be a little paralyzing, so it always makes me happy when I meet a French person who knows how to do it right and isn't afraid to take matters into her own lips.

Beaufort: Firm cow’s milk cheese made in the French Alps. Bill and Buck got a particularly pricey wedge once in the Frejus Market that tasted vaguely of pineapple and was so delicious it made us want to cry. If you like cheese, try a salade bergere (with goat cheese) or some creamy brebis (ewe's cheese.)

Beignets de Courgette: Fried zucchini flowers, but I prefer the more literal “flower donuts.”

Casino, Intermarche, Carrefour: Supermarkets that would blow your mind. Everything from motor oil to clothing to to-die-for-wine to thirty kinds of cheese.

Cassis: We still argue over whether this is boysenberry or girlsenberry, but it sure makes nice kir.

Celcius: It’s weird, but you get used to it. This morning there was frost on the panes and ice in the puddles, and the temperature was the lowest I’ve seen it so far (-2.5.) A few snowflakes filled the air and suddenly all the municipal offices were ready to shut down. Most days and most months in Provence, it’s a nice comfortable swing between about 15 and 25.

Chateau: Little girls dream of living in one. We dream of drinking from them. Our favorites: Chateau Mirval’s “Clara Lua” (but not "Pink Floyd”), as well as the relatively cheap but delicious red from Chateau Beatrice. Should you ever go wine tasting in this part of the Var, skip Chateau Berne, and hit Chateau Croste instead.

Confit: means something cooked and then packed in its own melty-licious fat. Smack those lips just thinking about it.

CNED: are you smarter than a French fifth grader?

Crêpes: Thank you, Mrs. Buck, wherever you are.

Daube: I had tried unsuccessfully before this year to make beef stew, but it turns out I was going about it all wrong. For “Supreme Meatatarians” like us (Abigail’s term) a Daube de Boeuf Provençal is the way to go. If you want meat that melts in your mouth, with the cartilage and fat gone all mushy and gelatinous (and I know that you do), here’s a method:

Marinate chunks of good beef, quartered onions, and big chunks of carrot for about five hours in an entire bottle of heavy red wine, a little cider vinegar, a bouquet garni if you can get one (regular old thyme, rosemary and bay leaves if you can’t) and a little pinch of grated nutmeg. The Provence recipe asks for crushed Juniper berries, but threw in cloves instead. Drain the meat, the onions and the carrots and save the marinade. Brown another quartered onion in 4 ounces of leftover goose fat (or olive oil, I suppose) then quickly brown the meat, onions, and carrots. Dump the marinade on top, add in a pint of warm water, another bouquet garni, two chopped garlic cloves, and the peel of an orange or a Clementine. Boil really slowly on the stovetop for at least four hours.

If you’re feeling really special, half-cook some macaroni, then mix in some of the stew juices, put baguette crumbs and grated cheese on the top, and bake. (see Yummy, below.)

Dinde: When you roast turkey on a spit for a very long time and call it by a different name, it just tastes better.

Draguignan: We had high hopes for this place until we realized that it’s not worth the trip. From anywhere.

Epoisse: Stinky, mushy, gooey cheese best eaten outside in August during a full-afternoon picnic.

Family, My. This year has brought me back to the heart of things, both with my immediate and extended family. You’d think I knew them all just fine, but all this time together has given all of us the time to come to love one another even more. Who knew that the best way to get close to your family would be to buy plane tickets and go very, very far away?

Fondation Maeght: the polar opposite of Draguignan.

Figue, Confiture du: really good with goat cheese. And just think of all these years I ignored figs like they were the unpopular kids in the back of my 8th grade classroom.

Foie gras: Grace now gets up in the morning and slathers this stuff on whatever breadlike substance she can find. Never has something so evil tasted so good.

“Guillard”: while I’m not entirely certain how this word is spelled, I think that it means strong and manly, in a very specifically Provençal way. If you are guillard, you can split fencerails, play boulles, and herd animals if necessary. You drink pastis, you hunt whenever you can, and you can find truffles under the right kinds of oak trees. Not to be confused with American macho, in part because even a really guillard guy is likely to tuck his sweater into his cargo pants.

Grande Gardiole: Yes, Virginia, Chateau-neuf de Pape really is better. This one doesn’t break the bank.

Gomme: means “eraser,” the throwing of which, at Grace, ended up being the last straw before we finally switched to homeschool and all got much happier.

Gorge du Verdon : Beautiful and dangerous in equal parts.

Gyptis is a white wine named for a woman in a legend of the founding of Marseilles. Our third-favorite inexpensive white wine, it's a little unpredictable.

Guy Savoy: Incroyable. Thanks, Loni.

Homeschool, particularly in a home like this one, is a pretty wonderful way to spend one’s days. Recent explorations have included a study of The Rights of Children, Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch, and adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators. Oh, and Bill has taught her to speak French.

Halloween: While we appreciate that the French make an effort, it’s just not the same outside of The Slope.

Hobbit: It’s become clear to us that when Tolkien was describing The Shire, he was talking about Provence. Just one of the great kids’ books we’ve read to the girls this year, all with the theme of big adventures. A nice way for us to return to our childhoods while shepherding the kids through theirs.

Internet: I didn’t know quite how sustaining information technology could be until I really needed my daily fix of The Times online, novels in English from, and emails from my friends and family in real time, right when I needed them. Blogging has also been a revelation, in the ways that it has helped me see the world anew, and build on old and new friendships. See also Skype.

Iphone: Whee! This is fun!

Jus du Carcasse: Translated literally, “Carcass Juice,” the delicious foamy crayfish sauce I once ate on pasta. Just one of the many pieces of evidence that in France, gross things can be delicious.

Kaki means “Persimmon,” just one of the many things still growing here. In December!!

Louvre: Where the kids finally stopped being irritated with us, and fascinated by the joys of France. Basically, France had me at “Bonjour.” But for our kids, it required a real mummy, a giant black stone tablet of Hamurabi’s code, Napoleon’s apartments, and an incredible meal at Café Richelieu to get their attention.

Lapin: It’s sad to watch a rabbit be maimed. But they taste so delicious in burgers. But it’s sad. But they taste good. (Repeat this dilemma endlessly.)

Lauve, Tholos de la: 4,000 year old gravesites on a rocky, otherworldly hillside. This makes for a great hike, unless perhaps hunting season just started.

Lavoir: Every adorable hill town in the Var has at least one, a series of stone troughs through which water runs year round, where you can (still) wash your clothes. A testament to the power of flowing water to really pull a community together.

Magrets des Canards: Abigail is of the opinion that Americans and other Supreme Meatatarians like us would be happier if they just ate more duck breasts. If searing then pan-cooking them seems too daunting, might I recommend to you a nice can of confit?

Maps: come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes need a little adjustment in order to fit reality.

Miel: honey tastes completely different depending on what flowers the bees have been so busy with. Miel de Garrigues is so heavy it's like a meal, while miel de lavande is light and full of sky.

Monty Python: OK, not French by any means. But Southern France is chockfull of Brits. And you haven’t really lived, as a parent, until you’ve seen your own children in fits of giggles quoting Life of Brian at the kitchen table.

Mouches: You can follow special little flies to find truffles if you know what you're doing. Or at least Gerard can.

Moulles Marinere: Olive oil and butter. Fry a few chopped shallots and some garlic. Add lemon rind, lemon juice, white wine, mussels (and their juice if you’re using canned) and cook till they open. Throw in your chopped parsley to cook at the end.

Nice: A big wide wooden boulevard, a port, a sunny market square, 99 flavors of ice-cream, and an incredible park on top of the hill. And people swim nearly all year round. A nice place to visit as long as you've got some cash to burn through.

Oie: Oy! Why roast a turkey if you can roast a goose? This could change Thanksgiving forever.

Olives to die for. Maybe even to kill for.

Portail: the schoolyard gate for which I had such high hopes. As it turns out, it still feels like a pretty unfriendly place – both for kids and for parents, and it's not as liberating just to drop them off there as I had hoped it would be. Today when I had to pick Abigail up at her French class in Lorgues, I was actually accosted by another French mother who thought I took her parking place. The town cop had to break it up, but not before I saucily "tutoyer-ed" her to show I wasn't afraid.

Pastis: Just don’t make this at home

Picard: Not all frozen food is the same.

Quinson: Musuem of Prehistory, and incredibly sweet Provencal hilltown. You can get your fill of looking at stone arrowheads and dioramas of super-hairy cavemen, then buy really good olive oil from a guy in his living room.

Radishes: take on a whole new meaning when you dip them in soft butter then roll them in coarse salt.

Ratatouille: The key? Cook the tomatoes, onions, zucchini, sweet peppers, and chopped/salted/drained eggplant separately in lots of olive oil for about 30 minutes. Then mix them together for another 30 minutes. NOW I get it.

Renault: there’s a damn good reason these aren’t sold in the U.S.

Romarin, or rosemary, grows wild on every hillside.

Rocket is the name of the white flowers that grow under all those olive trees in the late fall/early winter. Pick them and eat as you would arugula!

Rosé: I am sure that there is some sort of Rosé board or association or group someplace to which I can beg mercy for my many years of unfairly hating on Rosé wine. For now that I have drunk Blanche Nuits from Chateau Arnaud, and Cotes de Provence from Domaine Marchandaise, I have seen the light. And it glows a nice pale pink color.

St. Tropez has yet to catch my fancy like it did in 1985.

Salernes is where they make great pottery, and I take French lessons.

Saucisson: du figue, du canard, du porc, and yes, Corsican donkey. (Sorry, Jessica. I wish this were not true.) My favorite so far is pork with Roquefort cheese.

Sillans-la-Cascade: our home for five weeks of heaven late this summer. Waterfall. Dinner on the rooftop. Little tiny white snails on the wild fennel. Cypress trees in a row.

Skype: better than magic. Harry Potter would be jealous

Sunflowers grow in enormous fields, but at some point, somebody cuts them all down.

Taradeau Offidum: House white. Cheap, simple, light, delicious. House white. If they only sold it at intermarché, life would be perfect.


Tapinade: green or black olive paste, a good substitute for foie gras in a pinch.

TGV: goes really really really really fast. The U.S. should get us some of these.

Thym: see Romarin. Also grows just about everywhere.

Time actually moves at different paces in different places. Here, it’s slow and steadily luxurious, and I never need to cross a single day off the calendar.

Tome de Pyrenées: Abigail’s favorite cheese. Black, waxy rind, light, creamy and smooth.

Tourtour: the beautiful Provençal hilltown to end all beautiful Provençal hilltowns. Really, truly, gorgeous, but it seems that nobody really lives there. The road between here and there is a pretty close approximation of the path to heaven.

Truffes: When you walk through downtown Aups on Thursday morning, you can buy about 100 grams of this stuff for 90 Euros. But nobody charges you to just stand there and inhale.

Unfriendly: in a small town, it can take awhile to find out who will smile your way. But then it feels awfully gratifying.

Ursuline: The giant convent in Aups

Vaccinations: Thank you, French government.

Var: When we sing John Denver’s “Country Roads,” we now think of the Var. Zero glitz, rolling hills, and everywhere you look, the landscape is striped orange (earth), green (trees) and blue (sky.)

Vervienne: Put this herb in your teapot and add hot water. Soothes those edges when people aren't being so friendly.

Villecroze: Has great caves.

Vin: At lunch and dinner, and then sometimes a little more after that.

Visitors: Thanks to Jackie, Carol, David, Buck, Gus, Linda, Laura, and Finn for making the big transatlantic flight to visit us. Your visits were the highlights of the fall!

Visa Problem: Solved for the time being, by the brilliant and talented Bill Lienhard. A form was faxed to us the day before we needed to go home. Saga to be continued.

Wharton, Edith: my secret guide to all things French.

Yummy: what nearly everything is.

Zaro, (as well as Gareth, Paris Jessica, Nick, Gerard, Aups Jessica, Laurent, Mathilde, Eric, Nadia, Loni, Hillary, Jean-Claude, Ruth, Anna Maria, Dermot, and Megan, all of whom have had us as your guests, or who have been guests in our home. You come from many parts of the world, and speak English, American, and French, but you share an open warmth that has made us glad we came. It has been an honor and a privilege to share this year with you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Almost as powerful as its visual and gustatory delights, the scents of Provence really kick you in the pants. Most of the smells are so good and so French that you really can't believe your luck to be smelling them. Like the endlessly varied and gorgeous sunsets, and the overwhelming flavors, the smells of the herbs and the flowers turn your sense organs up a notch.

But then there are the equally astonishing funky, off, weird and horrific smells as well, just as pungent and just as much a necessary part of the place. In case you think we've gotten hopelessly hoity-toity, arty-farty and airy-fairy living here in the lap of Provençal luxury: let me break it down for you into first grade potty language: sometimes the airy actually smells neither hoity nor arty, but more toity and farty. Just as bad, and worse, as the bottom of the Brooklyn garbage can after the fourth of July. As rank as the pee smell in the subway. But different, and specific: even the bad smells are somehow specifically French, and feel more rankly personal.

For example, the smell outside of Aix-en-Provence as we were waiting for the train for our most recent trip to Paris. The train station is all open and glassy, with doors everywhere open to the outside. As soon as we drove up, we were overcome by a powerfully awful smell, the likes of which I have never experienced before. I had to assume that it was animal waste being spread as fertilizer on a field somewhere nearby, because it was impossible to imagine any other reasonably wholesome source for a smell as rank, deadly, and bodily as that one was.

When I was standing in line there waiting for our tickets, I couldn't get it out of my head that the man behind us had committed some awful crime against nature and had come to the station without having had the decency to shower. But as we moved away from him and the stench only intensified, I realized I had been unfair to blame this perfectly hygienic young man.

But worse, what if he had thought that awful smell it was coming from me? He could not possibly know that I am actually famous in our house for smelling good. Great even. About the million times that Abigail, Grace, or even Bill have nestled a head into my neck, taken a deep inhale, and breathed out, happy, telling me, "Ahh. You smell so good."

Yet back to the train station. The hundreds of people on the TGV platform just stood there, breathing calmlly it as though it were the most natural thing in the world for one's life to be suddenly coated in stink. It was all Bill and I could do not to gag and make childish faces at one another, but for some reason the French people were a lot more blasé. Perhaps Edith Wharton is right, and the whole French nation is simply more mature. About manure.

Or that smell just outside of Sillans-la-Cascade. During the very short week or so that Bill and I went on sporty little runs together, we would always argue over whether we would take the high road (and nearly be killed by some Italian tourist's speeding Mercedes) or take the low road, and be blasted with foul smelling air as we ran by the sewage treatment plant. When it's hard to decide between an oncoming car and a stink, you know that's some powerful smell going on.

But I know that my faithful readers will appreciate my returning to the sweeter smells of Provence. Like herbs. Abigail and Bill have spent the last two days collecting what they hope will become fairly legal Christmas gifts for our friends back home. They have wandered through somebody's woods with a pair of scissors and some ziplock bags, collecting little snippets of sensory experience to be opened on the other side of the world. In case you are one of the lucky recipients, I will leave the name of the clipped, mailed herb a mystery, but you might just want to get out your Joy of Cooking and look for things that taste best with really fresh herbs. Just in case they actually get there.

We all hope and assume that sending little snipped off branches across national borders is fully legal. And if it's not, well then we'll put that transgression into the pot with the Visa Problem, and let them lock us in the special offshore prison for homeschooling herb smugglers who say they are on sabbatical, but really just up and quit their jobs.

To learn more about why France smells so good, I interviewed Abigail and Bill tonight, again at the kitchen table. You may be seeing a pattern here if you are particularly brilliant: I tend to get out the computer and start typing right after a meal, at least in part because it gets me out of dish duty (despite how much I love the Verbena smell of the dish soap.)

Launa: Abigail and Bill, you guys seem pretty intense about smells. What can you tell me about why France smells so good?

Abigail: Well. Can I tell you something? France is the place with good farming, and for some reason, it's the part of the world that has hundreds of herbs. (She rasped the H in "Hundreds," inexplicably turning it into a French "R" as a nice little flourish. I guess when you can make that great R sound, you put it in whenever possible.)

And, can I tell you something? I bet that all herbs were really invented in Provence.

Launa: Why do you think that?

Abigail: Because it's the number one place for herbs. And herbs are great.

Bill: (unsatisfied) But why?

Abigail: (tiring quickly of the density of her grown-ups) Because it is. Well, anyway, there are just a lot of herbs around here.

Launa: So can you tell me about some of them?

Abigail: Well, there's Herbes de Provence, which smells good.

Bill: You know for the readers back home, we really should demystify Herbes de Provence. When you see them sold in those fancy little burlap packages, you might think that they are this rare substance. But here, it's just about everywhere: Marjoram, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage. It just grows everyplace, all together. Like weeds.

I imagine that the first guy who discovered Herbes de Provence was some sort of klutzy caveman proto-chef who was cooking just outside the cave right at the edge of a hill.

He probably looked away for a minute, kicked the spit by mistake, and the bird he was roasting rolled down the hill, through the grasses. But when he picked it up, along with whatever leaves happened to be there, he probably smelled it and said, "You guys have got to try this. This is awesome."

Bill very recently embarked on a cool new science project with the kids. Having discovered, like his imaginary caveman, that this part of France is literally covered in herbs, he spent the last two days wandering through the nearby woods looking for things that the kids could smell, and that we could eat without dying. He asked Jessica and Gerard for guidance, and they provided him with a guidebook, which he and the girls began to pore over like the Aups Amateur Botany Society. They spent the next day wandering up and down hillsides, becoming connoisseurs of the various kinds of rosemary nearby. It smelled like heaven when he brought it home, and I threw a couple sprigs into the spaghetti sauce with the sausage.

Once, while they were stumbling around stealing other people's herbs, Abigail went stock still all of the sudden. "I smell pizza!" she insisted. "That pizza smell! It's here! We have to find it."

Her nose is in fact quite remarkable. They soon found the oregano, and then a few different varieties of leggy, twiggy, spriggy things that smelled like dill, anise, and fennel all mixed together. They probably were just steps away from making illegal pastis without even knowing it. Add that to the ever-growing list of our crimes against the French.

But not all the smells were so wonderful. At the top of the driveway was a plant that Bill was sure was poison. It smelled like Mr. Clean, and Abigail couldn't get enough of smelling it. Although nobody in their right mind would eat it, she was sniffing it in like her nose was a floor that she wanted washed.

They also found a plant that made both of them instantly nauseated just by sniffing it.

Abigail: It smelled like carsick.

Launa: I don't think that's the name of a real smell.

Bill: No, she's totally right. I didn't think carsick had a smell, either but this was it.

Launa: I'm really glad you didn't bring that one home. Or put it in the pasta sauce.

Bill: You know, I've noticed, Abigail, that whenever there is lavender around, that you like to grab it and smell it.

Abigail: Yeah. I really like the lavender. Well, really I love the lavender. It smells great, and makes me feel great. Well, I mean, not bad. It's not like it's great like America great. Or like Adirondacks great. But I just love the smell.

If we ever trick Abigail into liking it here more than just a little bit, it will certainly be by winning her over through her nose. She loves finding new herbalicious smells, but her first olfactory love will always be lavender.

Once we were driving on this high plain from Riez to Quinson, and the kids were in a full-on riot in the car. In a fit of inspiration/desperation, I pulled over fairly suddenly in a lavender field, got out to steal a few stray flowers off one of the bajillions of plants there, and thrust them towards their noses.

I know, I know: it wasn't my lavender. But you'd steal a loaf of bread if your kids were starving, and you'd steal lavender if you thought it might shut them up for a few minutes, too.

And yes, more reasons to throw us in the clink and throw away the key. But it was worth my descent into petty crime. She spent the rest of the trip home in a sort of beatific silence, just inhaling and grinning. Since then, I try to spritz a little lavender water around when she's getting too cranky. Works every time.

Our path to school, the most prosaic of little country roads, bursts with smell as well. As we come out the door, we are sometimes greeted by the sweet smell of the plant on the terrace that blooms at random times. When it blooms, you might think that the whole world had been doused with a completely overwhelming sort of perfume. It's not altogether pleasant, and not altogether unpleasant, but inevitably reminds me of the teacher at my grade school who perfumed the whole fifth grade corridor with her own floral bouquet. Walking up the path, you then pass the Mr. Clean poison plant, and come out onto the road to be met by the dusty dry smell of the red rock on all the stonewalls.

Further down are two-story high juniper plants, whose fresh, minty, ginny smell is inevitable mingled with the unmistakeable smell of fresh dog doo. It's a cute little road, where everybody seems to like to walk their dogs. I just watch my step, and try to focus on the more junipery moments.

As you continue past the diesel smells of the idling Mercedes schoolbuses, and walk down into town on the medieval ruelles, a damp, moldy ancient smell emerges. By the foundations of the castle where all the dirty feral cats live, it is old and wet. No matter how hot the sun on a summer's day, the narrow streets never really get the light, holding tight to their musty history smell.

Going back even further in time, there is the smell of the caves nearby. They smell, as you might imagine, of moldy rot, of bats, of dank and must. When Buck was visiting, we dared him to walk deep into the one that smelled the most like a horribly dead animal. Because he was Buck, he did it, but the rest of us couldn't quite get past the fear we felt of whatever was so stinkily rotting in that dark and forbidding air.

For all of its really remarkable beauty, the house we are living in is a sort of cave as well. It is built deep into the hillside, so that cars driving past the living room sound as though they are driving just over your head. The entire East wall is a windowless fortress against the tiny juniper-and-dog-doo Chemin. So when you open up the cabinet in the back wall to pull out the 1970's British version of Monopoly, it smells like the friendly musty scent of somebody's grandmother's house. Because it is. Grandma's cave, with its regal broad back to the hill and its grand open face smiling wide to the Western horizon.

Southern France is to caves as New York is to tall buildings: you would think that nobody would like being in a cave, or living a dozen or more floors in the sky, but they do. There are varieties of caves, like there are different kinds of tall buildings in cities. And in each of the vineyards Bill has visited (I have yet to get to one, as enthusiastically as I actually drink the stuff when he brings it back home) there is a wine tasting cave.

The caves smell of old wood and spilled-wine. He described this cave smell to me as a "woodsy oakey, old grape smell." These are not musty caves, but rather smell as though for years people have spilled a lot of wine on oak, and left it there to dry in the sunshine. My wine-expert friend Nick recently got a job as a "caviste" in a very cool winery just outside the Paris Periphique. I have to imagine that his caviste duties are utterly different from those of a caveman. And I bet it smells really good there.

You may have noticed that I sort of dropped the interview format partway through this post. But more accurately, my subject dropped me. She calls spade a spade and a smell a smell, and had no patience for her parents' desire to get at more juicy, smelly details. As I sat and talked to Bill, Abigail skipped off to go and draw, but then a little while later, skipped back in to remind me of something I had clearly forgotten:

Abigail: Hey Mom. Can I tell you something? Let's talk soaps. Well, the soaps… well, France really likes mixing their smells and their flavors. Like they even have OLIVE smelling soap. (And then she skipped back out.)

As usual, Abigail was exactly right. It sounds weird, but France seems to like to mix soapy floral non-foody smelling smells with their food. And vice versa. Like olive soap, and olive oil ice cream, and the violet syrup they put in our champagne that magical first dinner so many months ago at the Hotel Biên- Être. And, more disturbingly, sometimes there are intensely animal -- or even vaguely human - smells in the food or the flowers as well. The floral scents and the food scents and the biological scents seem to get all up in each other's business, with some of the cheeses smelling like feet (and tasting like heaven) and others smelling like cheese, but tasting like pineapple. Soap can be cinnamon just as easily as desserts can be flavored with rose. I have yet to try something that is floral, food-al, and physical all at once, but quite frequently two of the three are mixed together to pretty remarkable effects.

The market is the most obvious place to get all of one's scents thoroughly jumbled just as Abby described. Next to the meat you smell find the sharp citrus of clementines, and little bundles of sage. The olives sit between the soaps and the wooly lanolin smell of the Nepalese sweaters, a few stalls down from the fish, the ewe's milk cheese, and the frying potato pancakes.

But the strongest smell of the town is just outside of the church, in the center square. I can't figure out whether the scent is the residue of some sort of remarkably pungent plant, or the lingering smell of the herb merchant, who usually sets up his dozens of enormous burlap sacks just there. It's powerful and earthy, but floral at the same time. It's one of those sledgehammers smells that you can't ignore unless you've got an awfully bad cold.

When I walk through that part of town, I look up at the entryway to the church. They're not so hung up here on the separation of church and state, so you look up and see the watchwords of the republic rather than "Our Lady of the Miracle of Thus-And-Such."

So now, whenever I smell that strong smell, impossible to define, to me it's the smell of Liberty. Of Equality. Of Fraternity. Of France.

But an equally powerful contender for the Smell of France may be a much more earthy, sexy, homely little entity: the homely black tuber melanosporum fungus that Gerard and Jessica brought to a dinner party so we could all eat it, thinly shaved, on toasted baguette.

Early on in our time here, an acquaintance told us about the place of Aups in the world of Truffles. According to this man, Aups is the Truffle Capital of the Var. And the Var is the Truffle Capital of Provence. And Provence, being what it is, is of course the Truffle Capital of the world. I'm sure that the well-informed gourmets out there will be happy to disagree with me, but there seems to be some objective opinion out there that would support his view. I just know that for now I'm happiest believing that we're living in the center of the universe of fancy fungi.

According to Gerard, there are three ways to find truffles. You can train a pig, and follow the pig around the bases of oak trees, les chenes. In the old days, you would have to be sure to get to the truffles before the pigs did, but now they just put little muzzles on their snouts. You can also find a smart and likely dog and teach him to do the same thing as the pig. This to me seems preferable, as you can also use your dog to do other stuff, like guard your house, make a godawful mess of your garbage can when you forget to put it away, or rest its jaw heavily on your knee. But then again, I'm a dog person, not a pig person, so of course it would occur to me that with a truffle dog, you're likely not only to find truffles, but also to know that you are loved.

But this one, this magical huge one he brought us to sniff and to savor, he found with the most challenging method of all: a la mouche, by following a specific sort of fly. Being a true son of the Provençal soil, he pretty much knows where to look, and when he is near the right kind of chene, he looks for a special fly to alight in just the right place. Once he saw the right fly alight in the right place, he dug down and pulled out the mammoth one he brought our way. Gerard is totally cool.

The truffle's smell, way more than its taste, was magical. It was distinct, and unsubtle and right on the correct side of the border between awesome and way too intensely scented to tolerate. According to Bill, a really great black truffle, sliced thin and set on a homely piece of toast, smells "like making out with your girlfriend. After you've both been running around playing flashlight tag until you're sweaty. On the first day of November. And it's after all the leaves are off the trees, and they're all wet on the ground. Like kissing the girl you really love, in the damp woods, while night is falling."

Like all that, and more.

What I Learned On My Not-Really-A-Sabbatical. The So Far Version

When the plane landed in Nice on August 14, we found ourselves dazzled and confused by everything we saw. It was Nice, indeed -- in fact a whole lot nice-r than any of us expected. The sun was so much brighter than we had thought it could be, particularly after the atomospheric gloom and chill of our few days in Dublin. The hills were surprising, and the plants lusher and more stark than we had imagined. Having never been here before, we found everything to be seriously new and terrifically exciting.

It was so new, in part, because we had barely cracked a guidebook before packing our four selves and six boxes of junk over here. Although we had spent well over a year carefully extracting ourselves from the jobs and lives that came before, we hadn't learned a thing about French geography in the old school sense: the landscape, plus the culture and language. And, as we are coming to understand, geography plus time multiplied by personality equals destiny.

Or, since I have now become a math teacher:

(G + T) X You = destiny

(Of course, right around cocktail hour, you can read "G plus T" as "G&T" if you wish. Throw a couple back and see how that makes you feel about things. As long as you're looking for a simple way to understand the meaning of your life, that probably works just as well as anything I'm going to tell you here.)

Geography plus time amplified by personality equals destiny. It's true in a short-term way for us this year. Living somewhere for a year is not the same as just being there on a long vacation. Once you're somewhere to stay, geography gets under your skin, starting to re-shape the life you had before. Not only do I no longer much need Liesel's GPS; I don't even really need the guidebook that I so stupidly forgot to read. France has now become part of me, a part of all of us, and being here has started to reshape our family.

But I think that my little equation is also true in a very, very long-term way. Think of the way that those smelly prehistoric nascent humans used this generous, forgiving, verdant and grottoed landscape as the setting for their long, slow crawl through evolution and into culture.

And then think about how that culture later became so highly evolved that it created things like Revolution, the Louvre, three-star restaurants and local supermarkets with twenty-six kinds of artisanal cheese. The remarkable geography and the equally impressive personalities of generations of French people thus share the credit for the capital D Destiny of this incredible nation, aided by the long march of time. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity don't just happen on their own.

In the four months of our adventure so far, we've been through any number of intense little stages and phases in our own development and evolution. So please indulge me as I overdetermine this imaginary link between the four months we have spent here and the four decades of my life up until now.

At first, we were amazed, overjoyed and a little afraid-- little children with our toy car, playing house in a borrowed castle. We learned the words for the moon and the mountains and how to ask for milk and bread and other sweet things. There were irrational tantrums, sure, and irrational fears, but also long lazy days and endless discoveries. And really yummy grape juice.

Then we set about somewhat more seriously to learn about where we were, and how to be in the world. The kids went off to school, and Bill and I set about trying to figure out who we would be, here. We were lonely and moody and despairing adolescents for awhile, firmly believing that nobody understood us. (Of course, since we were not particularly intelligible, they actually didn't.) Not long after, we pulled out of that tailspin, becoming all hopeful and industrious as we struggled to become responsible for ourselves and our kids in an entirely new context.

In the early twenties of the trip, I had a decided Talking Heads-style "This is not my beautiful house" sort of moment -- mainly because, in fact, this is not by any means my beautiful house. When the Dad of the house bought me my first (French) car, I went zipping around like the girl with the T-bird in the Beach Boys song. I will in fact have fun, fun, fun until he takes Diesel Liesel away, but relative to the life of this year, I've got decades of time left with her.

Most recently, we've become comfortable and all middle-agey in France, spending quiet nights by the fire rather than racing around trying to capture as many new experiences as possible. We know who we are here, we have learned who we can trust.

And if you are looking for proof that I am middle-aged -- both in terms of this trip, and in terms of my life -- today I made some dill-scented salmon wrapped in puff pastry. WITH A WHITE SAUCE. I dreamed it up around 1:15, and had it on the table at 2. And while it was delicious in the extreme, it wasn't hard in the least. Complicated food, plus a sauce, minus the drama: this kind of repast can only be prepared by a real grownup.

Bill's metaphor for the effects of time on our development is that we are seeing France through a series of different lenses. Each week, each month, each phase of being here has given us a new lens. We started out as tourists, then became visitors, then as all the visitors and tourists left town, and we hunkered down, into a life more steady and real, but also sort of ungainly and faux-permanent, when people started to smile our way.

The current lens makes it look as though we live here, but already we have to start thinking about where exactly we're going to go once the lease runs out. So no matter how much we get to know our new place, we are forever reminded that this is not permanent. Thus even though this feels real, we take in each new day with a lens tinted rose with anticipated nostalgia. We still photograph every incredible sunset.

This is the only December 13 I will ever have here. Whether I make the most of it, or spend the day being grouchy and reading The Times online doesn't matter in any larger sense. Aside from my family, three people who like it when I feed them and don't like it so much when I'm cranky, nobody at all is depending on me. No destiny aside from our own is affected by my slow swing back and forth between two modes -- between "living life to the fullest," and being irritated with myself for not having the right sort of personality to run on "high" all the time.

Even here, in Paradise, there are plenty of slow days. Because no matter what gifts the geography gives you, no matter how much time you have to enjoy them, those gifts of life are always multiplied through the lens of you -- and your shortcomings.

Which is a good reason to remember not to become less than the person you were meant to be -- because when you multiply geography and time by a fraction of a person, destiny shrinks to greet your foreshortened purview rather than grows to meet the horizon.

Each one of these months has brought us a full moon and a waning moon. Lots of high points and a few moments of panic and despair.

Or, as my good friend Kate put it in an email, speaking about life in general: "I've resigned myself to the fact that no matter where you are and what the circumstance there are happy/content moments and sad/anxious/yucky ones - sometimes within minutes of one another! I'm working on surviving the latter when they occur, and trying to the best of my ability to appreciate the former and create that state as much as possible."

Me too. She just said it first, and a whole lot better.

Right now, I'm in a funny anticipatory phase. If I were more religious, I would say I'm anticipating Christmas, but really it's a funny sort of gratitude for, and dread and acceptance of the big birthday quietly looming on the other side of the New Year.

I'm comfortable here by the fire, and here in Provence, and know my way from place to place without freakouts or even a lot of dissonance and discomfort. My French has developed from "seriously rusty" to "serviceable," and I can communicate just about whatever I need to just about whomever will listen. The merchants in the market tend to be the most patient and accommodating - for obvious reasons - but the rest of the world I encounter seems to understand me, and is able to make itself understood.

And my favorite recent pointless milestone, aside from the white sauce? Well, the other day, when a telemarketer called, I didn't instantly throw down the telephone and run to get Bill. He was sequestered in the library, finally returning October's emails, and so I managed to get across to Madame Whatserfrancer that while yes, I do live here, I'm not responsible for decisions regarding the house. I improperly conjugated the verb "louer," (meaning "to rent,") in several different ways. In trying to clarify what I was saying, she taught me its synonym, "vous etes location." But we eventually understood one another: I'm really still just playing house. The woman the telemarketer requested to speak with is not my beautiful wife.

In a week, I'll be back in the by-now dusty garden level apartment of our Brooklyn brownstone. Jet-lagged, confused, and excited as all heck. This will be our vacation from the vacation, the midlife crisis of our year, a disorienting two week swirl back into the world of cheeseburgers, big fat cars and artificial flavors. I will go to the mall. I will get my hair highlighted. I will bathe myself in a world where everybody speaks American-style English, no matter where they came from initially. It will be weird, and really really fun.

So it's time to let the fridge empty itself out in preparation for the few weeks we will be away. Time to start a slow fuse of pointless worry about the airplane flights. Time to figure out what to bring home and what to leave here; to sort the sheep of our possessions from the goats, and pack those sheep into a few pieces of luggage.

Because I am who I am, I've already started to make my little piles. Here is the pile of tiny little provençal Christmas gifts. Here is the pile of clothing I never wore, and the things that require dry cleaning. Here is the key to our (real) house and the cellphone to which I will add two weeks' worth of minutes upon our return.

And as I make these piles, and make plans with old friends over skype and email, the old world comes rushing back. The old geography will return to shape my destiny further -- or more accurately, I will return to it. And that return demands that I begin to sort this experience into what it has meant so far. I also can't help but guess at what part of the story -- of this year and of my life yet to come -- is yet unwritten. I do the math, I add it all up, I use algebra to determine what my destiny says about who I've become.

This is the math I learned on this not-really a sabbatical. This is the year that answered, so far.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In winter, there are flowers under the olive trees

Buying a Little Time

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, sleepy little Aups wakes from its usual quiet wintertime doze. The stores that had been shuttered all open wide, suddenly and with lots of extra merchandise set out for sale. The olive-wood carver puts out a bin of newly-carved walking sticks; the slipper store spills booties and socks out onto the street, and the olive oil, spice, and fleur-de-sel store stacks out intensely flavored gift-sized bottles and tins.

When we first got to town, the butcher and the fishmonger seemed to keep hopelessly random hours. But now we now know to look for the telltale signs. The butcher sets out a giant pig-headed chalkboard when meat is for sale. And you can know from the top of the hill that the fish store is open because the fishmonger's socially desperate black-and-white dog sits outside ready to snare anybody who will play fetch with him for a minute or two.

But that's just the street of regular stores. Beyond the main (one lane) thoroughfare, vendors park their little tables and awnings along the main road into town in front of the Mairie. Tables outside the café closest to the market suddenly fill up with families enjoying their breakfast beers and a few dozen cups of café crème.

It's as though the tired little ville suddenly recalls its summertime glory days, and puts on her fanciest dress, setting up a pink parasol for the gentlemen who might come calling.

As you might expect, there is invariably a lovely selection of local produce and products at the Marché. Honey from the Gorges du Verdun. Beautiful orange- colored girole mushrooms. Walnuts. Garlic. Jams and olives and breads and Clementines from Corsica. The rotisserie chicken man, my hero of dinner, roasts an array of birds, potatoes and sausages on a ladder of turning spits. The juice drips down from all the birds into a little trough of meat juice at the bottom. On Saturdays, he also sells couscous and paella, but our favorite treat, hands down, are the turkey legs he cooks up every now and then. He doesn't have them all the time, so we get one every time they're available, whether or not dinde was on our list.

The market is also full of things that smell good. You can buy soaps in just about any parfum you could imagine: strawberry, raspberry, lemon verbena. Cinnamon, vanilla, coconut, chocolate. Ocean, persimmon, olive oil, pine. And the queen of all the Provence smells: lavender. The soap-and-perfume tables are always Abigail's favorite, as she is a bonafide olfactory superhero. She hovers there nearly every week, slowly making her choices, trying to get the most scent for her euros, and breathing in as much free lavender as she possibly can.

But you wouldn't believe the variety of other items you can buy, should you want or need what is on offer at our funny little market. Rainbows of pashminas. Huge racks of grey and black acrylic sweaters, which will be replaced by similarly huge bundles of white cotton shirts and dresses come the summer. You can buy all sorts of trashy-looking Stevie Nicks style suede boots, or off-brand tennis shoes, or zip-up jackets made of polar fleece.

There are twenty-kilo wheels of cheese covered in black and brown mold. Tables of cheap made-in-Taiwan jewlery. A woman selling paper puppets that appear to dance in midair. Strange little towels in which you are supposed to wrap your wet hair after a shower. Dead, plucked ducks, geese, quail, and chickens. A glittery silver top made of something like mirrors. Bins upon bins of outdated mascara, too-shiny blush and concealer in colors nature never intended.

There are bouquets of flowers too beautiful to be believed, and bouquets so garish that that even the skankiest Brooklyn bodegas wouldn't dream of selling them. Tools for removing unwanted hair. Double beds. Knock-off watches. Single naked legs of mannequins with tube socks pulled half way up their suggestively shapely shins.  All of this mixed in with the raspberries, avocados, and zucchini in shapes I had never seen before this remarkable, life-changing year.

It's like the dollar store exploded inside the Greenmarket, and rained down its wares in and amongst food so delicious it sometimes makes me want to cry.

But here is the strange thing -- strange to me as an American and a New Yorker, at least. It's all temporary. Predictable, certainly, but temporary. The market arrives in its appointed time, then is gone hours later. If you want what's for sale, get it now or wait until next time.

There is no bodega. I will repeat this for my readers back in New York so that it can truly sink in: no bodega. No all-night anything whatsoever except the moon, and even she comes and goes as she pleases.

A sterile, reliable Walmart lurks on the edge of every town in America, open from 7:00 AM to after 9:00 at night, seven days a week. And when the Walmart is shut, there is always a Cumberland Farms open somewhere to feed you what you think you might just then need. Not so in Aups.

The Marché follows the rhythm of the life of its place. So you buy things when the market is open. And you stop buying things -- and do something else -- when it is closed.

While the times of the market are totally predictable, what is for sale is not. Aside from the ever-present lavender, honey, vegetables, chevres and soaps, you can't quite count on a particular thing, or even a particular merchant, being there from one time to the next.

But that means that on any given Wednesday, there are always surprises at the market. Today there was clothing for dogs, advertised by a small stuffed pup, missing one ear, wearing what looked like a leather jacket and zipped-up black leather boots. In his outfit, the little dog looked out of place in our market, and more like he belonged at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, or perhaps in a bar in the meatpacking district of Manhattan.

The wares at Walmart are pretty damn predictable, no matter which Springfield, U.S.A. you call home. But here, if you want a turkey leg some time other than market hours, or if the chicken guy runs out, or if he didn't feel like roasting turkey that day, you're a duck out of luck. Sometimes the friendly smiling woman with the nose ring is there, making potato galettes for you, and sometimes she simply is not. You might get the guy with rows upon rows of spices one week, and then not again for weeks to come. Today I did not need a double bed, or a dancing paper puppet, or that great Corsican Manchego we sometimes buy from the guy who also sells donkey sausages. Which is a good thing, because they were not to be had for love or money.

This morning, before we made our American pancakes (with Edwards maple syrup from home) and drifted our ways down to the market, Bill and I lay in bed, talking and enjoying a wholly undeserved break from our usual weekday routine. It was Mercredi Libre, our delicious mid-week weekend, and while Abigail and Grace had both gotten up earlier than they ever do on school days, they were leaving us alone to do our usual grown-up craziness of musing over the errors of the past and worrying pointlessly about the future.

We're flying back for a short trip to Brooklyn in ten days, and while we couldn't be more thrilled about the idea of being back in the world of our family, our friends, our native language, and our dozens of take-out menus, we can't quite get a few nagging worries out of the backs of our minds. The jet lag is the least of it: we also fear the culture shock of arriving back in our familiar old neighborhood after four solid months away.

Looking back, I know how lunatic I was to have worried so much before arriving here. Still, I can't be quite as sanguine as I would like to be about the weird concept of a "vacation" back to our regular lives.

I wallowed around in the worst of it earlier today, full of regrets about all the things we haven't yet accomplished. We haven't found a bosom friend here in town for Abigail and Grace, at least not the sort of friend who will invite them over to play. The poor kids are therefore stuck with us 24/7. (And, although it seems awful to complain of this, we are constantly stuck with them as well.) With a few vitally important and wonderfully kind exceptions, we haven't yet quite established the kinds of connections with people in town that we had imagined we might get to know.

And French. While all four of us are making reasonable progress in one or more areas of French, none of us is quite as fluent as we might have hoped. Abigail still can't understand more than a few scattered words, and I still get flustered anytime I have to use a tense more complicated than "I will (someday)" or "I have (already.)" Perhaps because many of our new friends here are Brits, we speak French less than I thought we might.

And yoga! And hiking for Godsakes. I haven't done more than a few dozen sorry little downward dogs in six whole months, and my hiking boots have sat unused in the laundry room. Why did I even bring the stupid yoga mat, and ship those heavy Merrills all the way to Europe?

As I lay there, the regrets piled one on top of the other, and then set themselves aflame, fueled by the threat and promise of the vacation we would soon be taking home, and the way it shifted my attention to the passing of time.

As of tomorrow, we have spent four of the nine or ten months we plan to be away. If each month we have been here could be said to represent a decade of my life, (and assuming, rather optimistically, that I am lucky enough to live to be 90), then tomorrow our trip will be 40. Perhaps it was time to go down to the marché and buy a flashy (toy) car to mark my mid-sabbatical crisis.

(It's sort of incredible the number of ways I can make myself really super cranky, even lying in a bath of sunshine in a beautiful bedroom in Provence, looking forward to a Christmas vacation with all of my family and friends. I really should be studied to determine the outer limits of human meshugaas. Which for you non-New Yorkers, is not French, but rather the most-excellent Yiddish word for craziness.)

Just as I was thinking myself to be an awful failure of a world traveler for not having achieved these particular milestones by this time in my life/this trip -- at least not yet -- Bill reminded me of a truly crucial point:

That this time is not like any of the other times in our lives.

This is the year that we eat real meals together three times a day. It is the year we make friends with warm, funny, generous British expats and drink Rhone wine together until late at night. It is the year for me to discover just how much I love to write, and to see what emerges when I give myself time to do so. It's the year when I have just two students, rather than a few hundred.

This is the year Abigail starts riding her bike, and Grace starts writing her novel. And it is also the year we are let the kids learn gradually to navigate the town and the market on their own. While I still can't read Le Monde, I suddenly have enough open time that I decided the other day to order a dozen or so of the list of NYT 100 recommended books of the year. Happily, sells lots of books in English. No yoga, but lots of slow wandering in and around on little walled roads. No skyscrapers, just the inevitable stripes of ochre earth, green growing trees, and huge blue sky.

Then a line from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God came zooming into my head, likely via a blog I found recently by following threads through A Design So Vast: "There are years that ask questions and years that answer."

(She didn't write, but could have, that there are other years that kick you in the teeth.)

For five years before this one, Bill and I were answering just two questions, again and again: Can We Do It All? And, if so, How? First we answered the first question in the affirmative. Then we answered the second, in every possible gory and exhausting and wonderful detail. But then another question appeared, early one morning March, 2008:

What might happen -- to all of us -- if we did something else entirely?

So, along with all the things that will happen, and all the things that won't, this is the year when we answer that question, and presumably allow the seeds of new questions to come floating on the wind through the doors and windows that are opening in ourselves.

So Zora's words came streaming in first, followed close behind by the interpretation: This is not the year for everything to happen. This is the year for some things to happen, and for others to fade away. It is the year when new things will be born deep within us all, although they will be so tiny that we may not recognize them for what they are for years and years.

And then, after Zora's line smacked me hard upside the head (don't say I didn't deserve it) I suddenly recognized something so startling and so richly poignant that I started instantly to weep. The very best thing that has happened this year is that we have taken the best two-or-so minutes of each of our Brooklyn full-time-employed days -- the two-or-so-minutes at dinner each night when all for of us would burst into shared laughter -- and stretched it out to long passages of leisurely time together as a family of four.

Here and now we can count on our usual tantrums and disagreements and spats over whose turn it is to do what chore. But we can also count on apparently endless time together. And real laughter every single day. What had seemed back home like an inconsistent and surprising little trickle of giggles, not to be relied upon for any real sustenance, has started to burble out of all of us -- all the time -- as though out of an artesian well with its source deep, deep underground.

There are times for lying in bed and having remarkable revelations about the joys that have been hiding in plain sight in one's life. And there are times for getting one's arse out of said bed and hightailing it down to the market before all the rotisserie chicken disappears. If in fact that chicken is even available today in the first place.

Because in France, you can't just pop down to the 7-11 whenever you'd like; when it's market time, it's market time. At first, this made us totally irascible, but one of the things we have realized is that we rather prefer the fact that times are clearly set-aside for particular purposes. You might not be able to get any food in small French towns between 13:45 and 19:00, but the fact that there are hours for eating and hours for not eating tends to remind you to eat a great big dejeuner, with cheese and baguettes and slices of pear afterwards.  Your job or your store or your school is closed just then, anyway, so you might as well.  And after a meal like that, you really aren't particularly hungry again until the national cafeteria opens once again. We have found that that great dieting advice, "Don't snack between meals," works great as long as you actually really eat your meals.

We got ourselves downtown and into the market in time for our own café crèmes and breakfast beers, served just at the hour that brunch would be in full swing on a lazy Saturday back home. (But today was our lazy Wednesday! Just think about it! I love this place!) The French aren't so keen on brunch, not to mention breakfast, which hardly exists, and is never, ever hot. We ran into Dermot and Anna Maria, and got to sit outside and watch our girls dart back and forth among the aisles of the market with their little purses full of euros, looking for just the right Christmas presents. The market is just big enough for them to get the tiniest bit lost, and just small enough for them easily to find their way back to us to show us the magical things that they've found. Today it was soap (as usual), but also two giant hunks of cheese.

Four months ago, I could hardly buy a box of cereal at the grocery store without a frantic meltdown. And now our kids have the independence, the language skills, and adequate knowledge of French cheeses to be able to choose, purchase, and savor relatively obscure varieties entirely on their own. Take that, silly morning-regretful Launa.

The sun was shining through the empty branches of the plane trees over the sandy boules court. It wasn't the beauty of a summer sky, or the color of an autumn sky. But it was gloriously, astonishingly, winteringly beautiful. I looked up at the lacy skeleton the branches made against the blue. And for just that moment, the past and the present faded away. To everything there is a season, and in this moment of winter, we were there, enjoying the market with our incredibly sweet new friends and their little girl.

When we came here, we left nearly everything behind. Our stuff, our house, and the two jobs around which we had built intricate and resonant and pretty overwhelming worlds. We found a place with new skies, new food, new roads, and new words. But the biggest change we discovered was a different way of experiencing time.

So here we are in the free Wednesday: the middle of the week, the middle of the year, and the middle of our lives. And we've somehow made time stand still for just a little bit so we can take a look around.

But in leaving, we also left Brooklyn's sense of time, and fell into a different rhythm of daily life. Not the New York rhythm of the City that Never Sleeps. And not the Suburban march, lit by all-night florescent lights down at the Wall-Mart. In this daily rhythm, when one thing is happening, the others actually stop.

So for a minute, because it was time to be in the market, I set aside all that we had done and all that we left undone. This day and this year and this lifetime.

Because in order to be there, to really be there, I couldn't be anywhere else. I couldn't be wrapped up in my own dread about what I had accomplished or failed to achieve. I couldn't be thinking ahead to Christmas, or even making a list of the gifts still left unbought. I couldn't be checking my email or planning my next vacation or fretting over how I hurt so-and-so's feelings without meaning to do so.

Wherever I go, there I am; I saw that as clear as day on the first evening of our trip, when I wrote my first diary piece and threw it out on a blog for the world to find.

But I was wrong to think that we were traveling only, or mainly, in space. I am who I am, and I guess I'm just the sort of person who mainly moves steadily back and forth between my house and one or two other places. Like school, and the market.

But I can't keep myself from moving in time. In this truly precious and remarkable time we have somehow carved for ourselves.

So it's not only wherever Launa goes, there she is.

But also:

Whenever Launa goes, then she is.