When Bill got back from Hyeres, it was Christmas morning, and I was Santa. Finally we could open the Fed-Ex boxes I had packed with such care back home. I got to hand out toys to good little children, and books to eager little readers. "Greenwitch!" Grace exclaimed, then "A Wrinkle In Time!" She took an armload of summer dresses, shorts, paints and books back to her room and spent the next hour organizing and folding and putting it all away, feathering her own little nest. Bill took a big box to Abigail's room full of her American girl dolls, with all of their historically accurate accessories. Abby started brushing their hair, undressing them, and cooing sweetly to them, their mother and their best friend all at once.
And then it was my turn to open presents. I first pulled out my favorite t-shirt, a dark purple girly-cut one from Skinny Legs in St. John. I found the chunky black heeled sandals, which I haven't worn since Amherst reunion back in May. The sandals still have a little bit of dry Memorial Hill grass clinging to the heels. There were three summer dresses I can wear nonstop for the next several weeks, and orange bottles of fancy moisturizers from my sister. The sparkly shirt I had lost faith in the day before turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. All little talismans and bits of home.
We also have three boxes of wool sweaters, heavy pants, and warm fuzzy hats packed in reserve for whenever it stops being 90+ degrees all the time. The question everyone asks us is about the existence of central heating in our rental in Aups, so we know we will need them eventually. I suddenly felt very proud of how well we were taking care of the little family, almost as though these boxes of effects were fresh tomatoes and beans we had processed and canned and shipped. While Bill wisely chose to leave all his extra clothes in their box (we still have two moves ahead before the end of September), I was glad he has hiking boots to take him to higher ground whenever he needs to go.
Speaking of high places, tonight we added another most excellent town to our list of places to love. On the generous advice of a friend back back in Brooklyn, provided through Facebook chat, we drove up a long, winding switchbacked road for dinner in Tourtour.
(A propos of nothing, our dinner together followed my particularly successful solo trip to the supermarché. This time I kept a strict poker face at the Casino, not smiling at anyone at all, aside from a cute American girl who smiled at me first. I was very proud of myself, and felt, if not French, perhaps almost Canadian or something else halfway between.)
Perched at the top of a lonely hilltop, Tourtour's stone church and walled buildings look out over a ring of valley towards the far hills beyond. Cars were parked everywhichway around the town center's walls. We walked past Rue de Lavoir, where a stream of water coursed over a long shallow stone trough of water -- presumably everybody's washing machine from a hundred years ago and more. Just where all this rushing water is coming from is totally unclear to us. It hasn't rained in forever, as far as we know, yet the waterfall near our house is full, and there is water burbling up sweetly in every town center, in fountains you can drink from when you're hot, which we so often are.
There was a big private outdoor party at the many-towered Mairie, which looked over a big sandy petanque field, with its silver boulles lying in little piles. The petanque courts in turn looked over the valley in a half circle sweep. We chose an outdoor restaurant under a big London Plane Tree, the same tree that shades 361 1st Street back home. At the next table was an Italian family who got the giggles partway through dinner. A few tables over sat a group of sophisticated British teenagers, drinking wine and little bottles of beer and exclaiming wittily to one another. Our waiter was super charming and spoke great English, although we soldiered on trying out our French. Bill called me "ma femme" while ordering my lasagne, which I believe translated as "my woman," making him sound very macho and protective. The pizza the girls ordered was delicious.
As far as I could tell, nobody actually lives in Tourtour. We were all guests from one place or another, even the sharp and savvy waiter. All around us were happy families on vacation. The French tradition of La Rentreé, a nationwide back-to-school, end-of-vacation bad mood, had not yet settled here. The sky slowly darkened, and live music of a kind I could not quite identify started up at the party at the Mairie: lots of drums and spangly horn sounds, combining Spanish flamenco and African polyrhythms. Children were climbing a stone wall above the petanque courts, and running around playing tag. Slim, tidy men with close-fitting slacks and sweaters draped over their shoulders clustered in little groups, smoking and talking. The women, as usual, looked absolutely fantastic in bright printed tops, white pants, and smart dresses.
The heat broke while we were sitting on the terrace, and a few dry leaves dropped in the breeze onto our table. We sat there for hours, slowly eating up the pizza and drinking water. The check was not pressed on us. Nobody wished for us to move. Eventually the girls worked up the courage to order their own ice cream "Une boulle de vanille," Abigail practiced over and over. It was delicious. When it was gone and Abigail got a little antsy, she and I went to the sandy courts to play tag, and I loved watching her run and dance. We didn't get home until 11:00, and the girls fell asleep in the car on the way home.
For the first time in a few days, pools of chilly air again swept into the rooms during the night. Perhaps because of the change in the weather, the visit to beautiful Tourtour, or the early Christmas Bill brought us yesterday, we're all changed. Grace today is happy as a clam, enthusiastic to be in France, and even excited about school. She is full of jokes and clever observations, and even spent an hour doing math problems this afternoon. I have never seen her so diligent and calm in tidying up her own room and brushing her hair. Abigail has voluntarily turned off the ipod and is reading a book of fairy tales in her room. This morning I made a huge pot of Ratatouille, using a recipe book with handwritten cursive script as its font, sort of like a French Moosewood, but with meat. Bill went to the market in Salernes today, and bought us strawberries, enormous blackberries and giant sweet peaches so juicy that we have to eat them over the sink.
We're gathering up energy for our own Rentreé, which for us should more accurately be called L'Entreé, our first entrance to the French world that lies just over the border with September.