Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lasagne Party

There are many reasons to have a lasagne party.  You might owe somebody some lasagne, for instance, because they gave you such nice grilled sausages and lamb at a picnic a few weeks ago, before you really even moved to town.  Or maybe you had been to someone else’s house and had mistakenly been a party to the maiming of their rabbit, just before they served you an unbelievable spread of homemade paté and sweet quince wine.  Or maybe you have new neighbors, and you figure if they’re going to be listening to your not-very-quiet family yell at one another all year long, you might as well get to know each other first.  Maybe you’ve scoped out the local citizenry, and discovered a few people you’d really most like to get to know.

If all of these reasons are true simultaneously, then you might, as I did, end up cooking dinner in a foreign land for sixteen people (eight of whom are under the age of ten.)  To do so, I did my very best impression of a capable Franco-American housewife (and no, not the kind that heats up that brand of gravy and pours it on her Rice-a-Roni.) 

Back home while Bill and I were working full time, all of our best social events involved a restaurant or pot-luck or else found us entirely reliant on the goodness of a friend who did have the wherewithal to get a party off the ground.  I am nearly 40 years old and have never cooked and served a real holiday meal in my own house.  There are sacrifices that mere mortals must make when they work full time and raise kids at the same time.  Unless you are one of a very few superhumans who don’t ever yell at their kids and crochet their own Christmas gifts and also run a successful company, you really can’t do everything well.  So it’s all about choosing wisely what to suck at.  Before this year, I had just decided to sacrifice my credibility as any kind of serious hostess or cook, and instead aim to be the kind of jolly guest who gets invited back to people’s houses anyway.

But this year I don’t have to split myself.  Whole days go by when there is really only one thing that must get done, and thus I can do it with all my heart.  Just weeks ago, when Abigail turned eight, I became the sort of person who bakes and frosts a birthday cake from scratch.  Now I was to become the kind of person who sets the table in advance, who makes the recipes she learned in her mother’s kitchen way back when, who has exotic aperitifs on hand, who serves several courses at two different tables, who puts out a course including goat, sheep, and super-stinky cow’s milk cheeses, and then who remembers to make and pour the coffee at the end of the meal.   Old Launa might have been able to manage some of those tasks individually, but had literally never had the luxury of six hours when the kids were at school and she was at home in which to plan and execute such an endeavor.

So I really had to work up both confidence and energy to get myself up to speed on just the typical behaviors required of a regular old American hostess.  But there was an additional degree of difficulty with this particular high dive I chose for myself: entertaining in French.  This meant not just learning how to give a dinner party, but also figuring out what exactly makes French people happiest at a dinner party.  Our guests were all parents of young kids themselves, completely devoid of pretense or snooty attitude, so I wasn’t concerned about impressing.  I was, however, eager to make them feel as at home in our house as they had all made us feel in theirs. 

The menu cornerstones were easy to devise: lasagne is one of only two things I make reliably and well for crowds, and it is still too warm for stew.  Grace wanted apple pie.  I’m not much of a cook, but I certainly know how to make lasagne and pie without a recipe, having made them since I was a kid in the kitchen with Mom and Gaela.  (For the record:  Gaela’s apple pie is way better than mine, although Mom’s rhubarb custard might just have us both beat.) 

The rest of the meal would be pulled together from all the little French touches I’ve gleaned from watching my friend James cook and from eating here for a month and a half.  To buy the ingredients, set the table, make the food, and worry assiduously about whether I would be able to pull it all off took most of the day.  I first threw all kinds of cheese, tomatoes, vegetables and butter into the shopping cart, but really it was full mostly of alcohol.  I wasn’t sure what my guests would want to drink, and decided it might just therefore be best to have a lot of each.  There would be three different colors of wine to serve of course, but also drinks before dinner.  For that I would need to have on hand pastis, rosé, white wine, crème de cassis, and a few more obscure things like fig wine.  I didn't buy beer, as I would have back home, as was pretty sure I would be the only one to choose a Stella as a starter beverage.  She and her tiny little buddies just sort of stake out the back of the fridge no matter what, so I was covered if someone said, "I'll have what you're having," however that sounds in French. 

To figure out just what is meant by “aperitif,” I consulted my favorite fake book, Joie de Vivre:  Simple French Style for Everyday Living.  This book, a gift from Bill’s colleagues on his departure, was written by Robert Arbor, the chef of the Le Gamin chain of restaurants in New York. His tone is pretty much insufferable, but the book is full of direct and practical information and great simple recipes.  He generously decided to take all the mystery out of the daily routine of French people – and I’ve found by following it that he’s actually telling the truth. Now when I’m puzzled by what exactly I should be doing, eating, or thinking about as I visit the market, drink my coffee, or gaze off into space, he is my go-to-guy.

With the aperitif drinks we would have salty little snacks, like thyme-flavored pepper crusted sausages, and little bitty cornichons.   Following Chef Arbor, I also scrubbed off some very pretty pink radishes, put out a bowl of soft butter and another bowl of salt, and watched my guests rub the first in the second then dip them in the third.  

If I had been back at home, this would have been when my potlucky guests and I would have wallowed around in various cheeses (OK, not exactly literally wallowing, but I am awfully fond of cheese.)  But in France, no cheese for hors d’oeuvres: the cheese deserves its own stop on the culinary highway.

While we sat and drank and ate little treats, the kids ran around and screamed their heads off. They fought with plastic Star-Wars light sabers, played tag in and around the garden, and had to be separated and forced to apologize now and again when things got a little too physical.  French and American grownups may do a lot of things slightly differently, but kids are kids are kids.

Americans invented fast food, dining and dashing, whole cookbooks for just microwaves, as well as the pre-theater and Early Bird specials.  But France tends to take its time generally, and moves even more slowly if there is a table involved.  We sat outside and drank and ate little treats for nearly two hours as the day turned to full-on night and the lasagne was baking.  After awhile I fed the kids some takeout pizza (why waste good lasagne on kids who aren’t going to eat it anyway?) at the big solid kitchen table, then went in to get everything ready for our grown-up dinner in the Moroccan-themed dining room. 

I then faced my first hostessing dilemma.  With the lasagne now cooling on the table, and our French guests smoking and enjoying themselves on the terrace, and my own limited command of French, I couldn’t quite figure out the right moment or sequence of words that might indicate to my guests that dinner was served.  I would wait for one cigarette to burn down and be snuffed out, and suddenly there was another lit at the other end of the table. The French men drank glass after glass of pastis, a milky-looking awful tasting sort of anise-flavored poison.  The women (and Bill) drank kir – white wine colored ruby with crème de cassis.   Nobody looked even remotely eager to move on to eating anything but buttery salted radishes and little rounds of wild boar sausage.

When the rules between cultures are dramatically different, you can make some fair-sized social faux-pas without having anybody hold it against you too awfully.  Here, I couldn’t quite figure out the proper unfolding of time.  Being the sort of person who rushes through too many things anyway, I couldn’t quite get the rhythm of an evening unfolding in my (borrowed) house on someone else’s (only-partially- adopted) cultural timetable.

After a few false starts, we all gathered around the table.  I provided the tiniest bit of structure of the seating by asking the women to choose the orange napkins and the men to choose the aubergine.  This meant that I ended up with women at both heads of the table, probably wrong in both America and France.  Tant pis number two for the night. 

Serving and eating dinner turned out to be the easiest part of all – just a big old pan of lasagne and a multicolored salad with lots of little Provençal herbs mixed in.  Here in France, they cook all the beets before they sell them to you, making the salad part even simpler.  Thus I assumed that our only challenge would be to keep the wine glasses full all night long.

But then I hit cultural faux-pas number three.  While I was rushing around getting the kids’ plates cleaned up and Bill was serving squares of melty-cheese and pasta goodness, I neglected to sit down at the table and give the proper “Bon Appetit,” which is French for, “Gentlemen, Start your Eating Engines.”  Our guests sat, just sort of looking at their food longingly.  Soon Bill figured out that something needed to take place, and tried the “Bon Appetit” himself.  But without Launa at the table, the magic words were useless.  Until my butt was in the seat, no eating could be done. 

Where are the damn Cliff’s notes to this stuff, folks?

Added to my high dive of hostessing, with a double somersault for making stuff I knew French people would like, I added the twist of ESL:  entertaining in a second language.  So I was juggling plate and cups and remembering to put out the olives while also trying to follow a conversation that zoomed in high speed French between familiar subjects (the rambunctiousness of four-year-old-boys; the difficulty of finding a good contractor; our kids’ crazy teachers; sibling rivalry and what to do about it) and totally new and complicated conversational territory, including a lengthy discussion of criminal cases in which the Mistral wind had been accepted as extenuating circumstances.

Over dinner, I offered my little opinions and jokes when I could – and earned at least three unforced laughs by my count.  I could hold forth most effectively when both the subject and the language were in my areas of strength, so I did my most impressive communicating with the children, using the imperative (“Ne fait pas ça avec le sabre du lumiere!”) or asking them questions (like “would you like plus de lasagne, mes petits?” and “veux-toi du salade?”)  When the adults got on that familiar topic of rambunctious four-year-old-boys, I could effectively reassure the mothers in attendance that yes, most teachers misunderstand four-year-old-boys; (not so back at my school!) and yes they will grow up into perfectly lovely little boys, and no, their kids probably wouldn’t get kicked out of nursery school.

Twice Bill and I landed on a topic of conversation that created firestorms of controversy among our French guests:  grammar and pastis.  First I asked, as innocently as possible, about the intricacies of determining whether to use “tu” or “vous” when meaning “you” as opposed to “y’all.”  According to one guest, you use the formal “vous” at work, both up and down the chain of command.  According to another, you “vous-voir” your mother-in-law no matter how much you think she really loves you, just to show your respect and deference.  One member of our party asserted that he is above or below no man, and therefore he can “tu-toir” everyone he meets.   I wondered briefly how his mother-in-law feels about this.

(Interesting fun fact:  while using the web to search for the proper spelling of the words “vous-voir” and “tu-toir” – I still don’t think that I have them right – I stumbled over an enormous group of about 25 different blogs, each focused on their “unique family journey” taking off for the South of France for no particularly good reason for a year or several.  Hmmm.  Wherever I go, there someone else already went.) 

Then there was near-shouting on the topic of the correct ingredients for making homemade pastis (which is illegal.)  Apparently politeness and aperitifs get French blood boiling in the same way that real estate and the endless discussions of public and private schools get New Yorkers really worked up.

The cheese course was served, during which I had what I think might have been my final faux-pas of the night: cheese courses require a separate knife at each place, like the extra salad fork at an American party.  Kids got out of control, then corralled again with yet another movie.  Grownups took their smoking breaks out on the terrace, adding yet more scads of open and happy talking time to the evening.  By and large I managed to follow the thread of the conversation at the most general level, until I got too tired and my brain got way too full.  At that point in the evening, we had poured many, many bottles of wine into our happy guests, so it is entirely possible that they also were making a little less sense than usual. 

By the time I served the pie and got some espresso on the stove in an enormous pot, I had worked out an important announcement for my guests:  “C’est ne pas un tart tatin,” I told them imperiously.  “C’est American Pie.”  I don’t know why it was so important for me to assert the American-ness of my dessert, to distinguish it from the loveliness that is Tart Tatin.  I had done so well in keeping them all happy, in (mostly) sitting down when I was supposed to, and (by and large) keeping everyone’s wine glass full and (even) keeping my cool when the kids poured nearly an entire giant-size bottle of Orangina soda on the chairs and the kitchen floor.  (My flip flops were sticking before they flipped or flopped for the rest of the night.)  I think just I wanted them to know that this wasn’t a bad Tart Tatin, but a really great American pie.  I could accept that they might have wondered about the hostessing skills of this new American in town, but not about my pie baking.  While I certainly flubbed some aspects of my entertaining, the pie simply wasn’t one of them.  

By the end of the night, all the kids were in various states of breakdown, exhaustion, and or flat out asleep on the sofas and the floor of the living room.  Nearly every napkin, plate, glass, bowl and platter in the house was dirty, with a mixture of tomato sauce, red wine, beet juice, vinegar, incredibly smelly streaks of melted Epoisse cheese, and little bits of honeyed apple.  There were bits of pie crust and crumbled pretzels on the floor, and a big sticky orange-smelling mess on the floor of the kitchen.  Nearly every glass in the house was glazed with just the tiniest bit of residue of pastis or kir or Cinqueterre or espresso, but there were no partially-full glasses; apparently in France, it’s all good till the last drop, no matter how many drops were poured. We put away the food that we hadn’t eaten or mangled, got a full load of dishes in the machine then crashed into bed.

We all slept in until after 9:30, then it took us most of Mercredi Libre to clean up.  Without somewhere else we had to be, we could take our time, brew some coffee, share the washing and drying and putting away, nibble on leftover bread and cheese, and get the wine stains out of those placemats with salt. Usually after a big party, I have to spend at least part of the next day worrying that maybe I said the wrong thing after one too many glasses of wine. Since I’m now in France, I hardly speak at all, so I didn’t have to worry no that score. Even with all those dishes to do, we enjoyed being together, and we both felt awfully proud.  

Our new neighbor, an incredible sweetheart, had told me that my French was really just fine, and that it had been a “bonne fête”:  a great party.  We had been reassured that yes, with this group, we were among friends, and therefore “tu” was the only way to go.  I had laughed with a new friend about the American habit of smiling all the time, and he told me that among friends, one can’t help but smile – with a big grin on his face.  We had gotten our fill of incredible stories, new perspectives, tales of the Mistral and Mountains and Mothers-in-Law.  Nothing like a good lasagne party.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Being Wrong. And Happy About It.

Last week, before our idyll at Grenouille, I met a goofy young Brit and a polished and serious middle-aged American on two consecutive days. The Brit was quick to praise me for finding and living in Aups for the year, while the American came at me with a series of questions that quickly put me on the defensive. He saw through my “sabbatical” story and pressed me on what I was really up to. I found myself once again at the back of the field, desperately trying to keep his shots from hitting the goal.

Mainly in my own defense, I decided that he was just another work-obsessed American, all button-down shirt and shiny shoes. Unlike the American, I was freeing myself to a new and higher calling (oh the holy purity of nothing doing.) Unlike my straw man, I was seeing the true Europe, while he could only visit for his two week required vacation. And I put it up on my blog, all lip-smacking with the righteousness of the truly at ease.

You will hear it here first: Boy, was I wrong about him. Could not possibly have been wronger.

And the ways I was wrong taught me, once again, you can’t judge us Americans by our covers.

Far from being achievement-driven and obsessed with work, he turned out to be a John Entwhistle-loving, David Foster Wallace-reading, kid-appreciating, magic-trick doing uber-grandpa of four or five grandchildren who positively adore him.

Here is how I found out. When we went to do our little Monday morning shopping excursion, we walked past the outdoor café where he, his wife, and his friends were having a cup of coffee. We missed him on the way out of town, but on the way back, he saw us first, stood in the middle of the street, and asked me how my day was going. Was I still successfully up to nothing? Did I do my vegetable shopping everyday? Where could he and his friends get a decent breakfast around here, anyway? His friend joked, “Yeah, like an egg McMuffin.” At least I was pretty sure he was joking.

Up until this point in the conversation, I was hanging on to my initial impressions. But then the talk turned, slowly and with lots of warm smiles. Would we like to see his sketches from the day before? He had drawn his first cat, sitting under the plane trees with his friend Larry all afternoon.

“Trés mignon,” I told him – very cute – and he asked if mignon was cat. Had we been inside the Convent, the beautiful place in the center of town where they were staying? No? Well we would absolutely have to see it; it was unbelievable. Then wouldn’t we like to come over at six? And bring the girls? Please, it would be their absolute pleasure.

He also asked if I had had success with the blog the day before, and he hoped that I had written about them. I was instantly stricken, having in fact done just that, but not with such a mignon portrait – more a caricature of a much uglier American than the one I was facing now.

I realized that the posture I had taken as combative – all those difficult questions – was instead truly, fully curious, and perfectly friendly. He wanted to know even more today about our year away. His friend Larry was ready to move right into town, and having spent the afternoon at the café and thought over mine and Bill’s plan, he thought that idea wasn’t half bad.

I dashed home to futz a little with the blog, taking out the more hostile sentences and softening my impressions. I wondered about the ethics of what I was doing – not only smearing a complete stranger for my own purposes, but then going back later to cover my tracks with a sweeter portrait as I came to see a little more clearly. Are there rules about this kind of stuff in the blogosphere? If so, are they on some URL someplace?

At 18:00, just after we had finished an enormous after-school snack and an exciting hour of totally confusing French homework and internet math practice, we put a bottle of rose in a bag with some ice cubes and wandered over to their big wooden door. My American and his Larry were actually waiting outside for us, eager to usher us inside and show us around.

We got the grand tour, and the girls were received like princesses of the realm. Grace’s “Nice to meet you” stunned me with pride – her directness, the sweetness of her smile, the confidence in her tone and the openness of her eyes. She had transformed since last week – either because of the see-saw aspect of her relationship to Abigail (Abigail had been quite the pill of late) or because of the lingering positive effects of a weekend of being loved up by Clementine, Spot, Zaro and Gareth.

The wives of the two couples could not possibly have been nicer or more generous, welcoming us to poke around all the many, many rooms and asking us gentle, friendly questions about our plans and our experiences.

The longer I spoke with the American, the more I saw myself in his questions and his half-teasing, fully-generous curiosity. Aren’t I the one always asking the too-direct questions with an expression of total innocence and curiosity? Don’t I often skate straight over polite and into more dangerous territory without a second glance? We bantered about his children, our trip, our children, his thirty-year friendship with Larry, the beauty of the Convent. While we all shared our grimaces about the weakness of those puny sad little dollars relative to the more solid Euros we were spending, nobody referred to work, or one-upped anybody else.

The easy story of our trip is that we got here and realized that everything here was different, and so much better. The food, the schedules, the schools, the philosophy, the people. Americans are dull and boring and midwestern closeminded. It's the story that ex-pats tell themselves all the time, and often write in their romantic memoirs. The real story I'm finding myself within is much more complicated for any either-ors to really find purchase.

The longer we stayed, the more comfortable the girls got with all of their new grown-up friends. Abigail started up a game of tag with Larry and the American, causing Larry to wipe out and fall right down on the grass. The American showed the girls great magic tricks with a Euro, and Abby didn’t hold back on her giggles or her eye rolls.

Part way through the evening, my American took me aside and asked me, disarmingly and quite in earnest, if honestly our children weren’t really quite remarkably bright. He praised their self-assurance, their vocabulary, their sunny and friendly and direct way of being with adults. He was fascinated by them and spoke with them without a trace of that condescension of adults talking down to a mere kid. If he hadn’t won me over before then, I was suddenly putty in his hand after that remark.

A big long table was pulled out under an enormous spreading plane tree in the courtyard. Everybody got a glass of icy pink wine and sat down over bread and cheese. The girls plopped themselves on the laps of their brand new acquaintances to sip their Orangina. After awhile, the girls, then the girls and the grandfathers all got up and ran around while we women talked about upcoming weddings, past vacations, and our mutual dislike of too much fuss at the holidays. If we all just squinted our eyes a little bit, we could have been their children and grandchildren, and they our proud and doting parents, with somewhat more midwestern accents.

Soon the girls and their new grandfathers were playing a spirited game of boulles together under the trees. The girls would tease the grandfathers, and they would tease back, only a little more gently and warmly. The grandmothers told me stories of how wonderful Larry and the American are with their grandchildren – how the American has been telling an ongoing story to his grandchildren for the last ten years, and only now is the oldest one, at age 12 and on the cusp of adolescence, getting too old for it.

I gazed over at Grace, still grinning at the American’s magic trick with the Euro. How many more years will she be perfect like this – caught just on the wire between goofy little kid and too-cool-for-school? If we are lucky, she will somehow take her store of experiences like this one and launch herself directly and confidently into the adult world without that awkward “adults are lame” stage. Or perhaps even while she is finding me and her father unspeakably lame, overbearing, and horrible, she can still connect to the Larrys of the world: grownups like her grandparents and her teachers and her aunts and uncles, like her new friends Zaro and Gareth, who remember to talk with her directly, to take her seriously, to find her as compelling as she truly is.

I’ll say it again. I was wrong about this American, and I'm probably wrong about a lot of us. Particularly those of us who don't live in the few closed off little places I have found myself and established the walls of my comfort zone. Funny that by coming here, I'm learning a whole lot more about all the places I'm from, and what my suppositions and changing perspectives can teach me.

I like being wrong the way I’ve been wrong recently – thinking the worst of a situation or a person or a place, then having grace descend and learning that the thing I had feared or mistrusted was there to catch me all along. I know that our Americans won’t be here at their Convent for long, but I can’t help but hope we run into them again, and that they will ask me the hard questions that show they are really paying attention. I’d like to offer them another glass of rosé and hear their further impressions of their visit, just to tide us over until the real grandparents visit in a few weeks.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Dogs, Houses, Stories, Friends

The drive to Grenouille-de-Saut this weekend was just so beautiful. We passed the fields of slaughtered sunflowers, followed the lines of plane trees to Barjols, then twisted and turned ourselves onto the A8, super-road of all things fabulously Southern France. "Autoroute of the Sun" it calls itself in places, with no undue modesty. We drove past Aix-en-Provence towards the Roman city of Nimes, also the original home of denim fabri, "de" meaning "from" giving us our 501 "de-nimes."

You never know what you're going to learn reading this blog, and who knows: that little fact might be helpful in your next appearance on Jeopardy or your next game of trivia.

The sun dropped lower and burned itself redder and larger directly on the southwestern horizon, while a waxing half moon rose on our left over the Camargue, the low-lying lands full of flamingos and wild horses at the mouth of the Rhone.

And, even better, we were making this exciting road trip in our sturdy, spunky, super clean little electric blue car. Bill managed to insure it just in the nick of time, and I could zoom zoom it around the curves and up the long straightaways. I loved the car more than I thought I even could.

Diesel Liesel has also turned out to have quite an impressive sense of direction, courtesy of her GPS navigation system, although her imperious and somewhat mechanical circa-2005 tone leaves a bit to be desired. The newer Garmans with their multi-lingual directions sound in contrast like real people trapped inside your dashboard. On those systems, you can choose a prim British Lucy, a hearty Aussie Bruce, or a plain Jane Midwestern sweetheart to direct you from place to place. Presumably you can also choose to be directed by equally pleasant individuals in Swahili, Arabic or Aramaic for that matter. One would guess the cabbies of New York City make good use of several of the more obscure options on their trips between Park Avenue, Astoria, and the Lower East Side.

Liesel couldn't quite find the tiny town we were heading towards, but got us close enough, to Quissac, and we could use good old fashioned paper and pencil directions to make the last few turns. "Serrez a gauche," she would insist at an intersection, and I couldn't help but do what she said. Unlike a typical backseat driver, however, she never lost her patience when I got something wrong. Instead, she would merely insist, with precisely the same directness, that I take the "fourth right" at the next roundabout, heading myself back from whence I came.

Following Liesel is easy enough, despite the language barrier. However, I wonder at this point, so early in the trip, if I really could actually take the fourth right if I needed to. When we were leaving Brooklyn, I made Bill promise that if we were miserable, we could come home after a few months. But having come this far, it's hard even to imagine the route that will return us from whence we came. Like Claudia and Jamie in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, we will go back different – changed – even if we take exactly the same route home.

A right in Quissac took us onto one of my least favorite sorts of French roads. It is the kind that is so narrow as to drop the center line altogether. For most French drivers, that center dash serves less as a rule than as guideline; they zoom along in the middle of things, then swerve back to their side of the road only at the last minute when they have to share. On this road, even that last false hope had disappeared and I had to hope and trust that someone driving south might take pity on my little car and my little family. The road also had that nice deep ditch along each side of it, there to catch my wheel should I sneeze. But many of the most beautiful things in the world are on the backroads of this life, and we drove on expectantly.

But as we drove up the hill and towards Zaro and Gareth's house, I wasn't quite ready for what lay in store. As we drove into their big blue gate and onto the pebbles of the driveway, we could see a table set just outside an outdoor kitchen, with pretty china plates and glasses and candles galore. Several different big stone and old wood buildings rose up around the pebbles. Zaro and Gareth came out smiling, waving their hands and directing us into the right parking spot. They share three bisous for each, so we had two dozen just to welcome us.

The girls, of course, only had eyes for the dogs, their friends Clementine and Spot. Clementine is an excellent correspondent and keeps the girls apprised of the dogs’ activities on the hill at Grenouille-de-Saut. Grace had a rough week last week, spending the very last part of one evening actually moaning for Samson, she was so sad. Somehow, despite all of her best efforts that day, simply everything had gone badly, and she was beside herself with misery. Now, with the shepherd puppies Clementine and Spot to cheer her up, she was beside herself with joy.

Abigail had been sour and cross for the last hour of the drive, all "when will we get there-s" and complaints about all the ways in which her awful parents had done her wrong. It had been a long day (their first French lesson in the morning in Lorgues, then Bill's bass lesson in the afternoon) and we were all tired. When we arrived, we were just happy to be settling in with our new/old friends. The fact that the house was stunning was only a bonus.

As they settled us into the rooms where we would stay, I realized that I might have made a tactical writing error in proclaiming La Bastide such a house of wonders. For Zaro and Gareth's home was yet another level of amazing. I know that one should never compare one's children or one's friends, but I hope nobody's feelings will be hurt if I compare the qualities of the two houses. La Bastide is baroque and stuffed full of strange and beautiful tiles, gilded paintings, whimsical quilts, bright chintzes, quirky artwork and strange Moroccan wooden implements. It looks as though somebody has piled a crazy painted box full of the most Carmen-Miranda pile of fruit you've ever seen. In contrast, Grenouille appears effortlessly, beautifully composed, like a striking arrangement of incredible and rare just-picked wildflowers in a beautiful handmade glass bowl.

Zaro has collected incredible antique quilts that cover the beds and decorate the walls, and in and around all the geometry and texture of the quilts are big sturdy antiques and modern pieces. The hearth of the indoor kitchen's fireplace was full of fresh vegetables and even an enormous pineapple.

Outdoors, every surface was growing with pansies or lavender or big green hydrangea flowers. Roses climb up the sides of the outdoor kitchen, and strings of little lights mark the paths up and down and around to all the places you would most like to go. Back in the far corner of the square of buildings, they have built a tiny eight-sided cabin, clad in wood like an Adirondack camp. Although they have several big bedrooms and salons and perfectly tricked out kitchens in the central spaces, this tiny abode is their actual home for all the months of the year (which is to say, most of the year) when living nearly outdoors (with a big deep bathtub in your cabin) is the most pleasant option.

Gareth's paella was both bountiful and delicious, filling up our hungry little tummies after such a long trip. The girls and Bill told their favorite stories, tumbling over themselves in their desire to get everything out and fill in every gap that had opened up in the weeks we had been apart. Our host and hostess gave us boulles de glace and little cookies shaped like cigars, and filled us in on the miracle that is Armangac. The air was chilly and sharp, but the liqueur warmed us from within. We were tired and a little slap-happy from our drive, so we protested only the tiniest bit when our friends forbade us from lifting even a finger to serve, to clear, to clean up.

We fell into wide beds with soft sheets and were out before we knew it.

The next morning, we awoke to get to see what had been invisible in the dark: the tidy lines of the kitchen garden just below the dining table, then beautiful open fields below the edge of the yard. In the distance were enormous rocky mountains, scrubbed down to softened mounds over eons of time.

We lingered over café au lait and croissants and fruit for hours, while Gareth showed the girls how to do tricks with the dogs and Abigail and Grace bounced on the trampoline dubbed the Hip Hop House. We told more stories and caught up on the friends and experiences we share back in the bigger cities of the world.

Eventually we drove off for a little walk in Sauve, yet another strikingly beautiful ancient hillside town, this one with a murky emerald-green river running alongside. We walked over the "new bridge," built 900 years ago. We had a dorm like this at college, called "New Dorm" for years even after it got its real name. But not nine HUNDRED years.

Zaro took our trip's second series of all-family photos on the bridge, some with dogs, and some without. We got to the market just as it was folding itself back up. Our own market in Aups is a touristy affair. In and around the delicious vegetables and incredible sausages and to-die-for roasted chickens, you can also find lots of cheap running sneakers, ugly t-shirts and products promising easy ways to remove excess hair. This market was light on the tourist garbage, but heavy on the many kinds of goat cheese, the fresh baby potatoes, the tiny round aubergines and the just-pulled carrots.

We had an enormous stir-fry for lunch, with tons off fresh ginger and all of the vegetable ingredients hopping out of the fireplace and into the fire of the wok at Zaro's behest. The girls watched a few movies (Zaro and Gareth's collection is even deeper, and certainly much more kid-friendly, than the one that so stunned me here) while Bill and I fell into a deep afternoon sleep.

At dinner that night, after a glass of rosé or two, I told our friends that this house felt a lot like heaven to me, or at least as close as we're likely to get. Bill then asked Zaro whether, even after years of living at La Grenouille, she still had to pinch herself to believe she was really in such a place. We were just guests there, and well-pampered, well-fed ones, at that. We don't have to change the lightbulbs or worry over the water pressure or the local politics. So Bill's question was to wonder whether all the dross of reality would eventually get in the way of being even in the most beautiful places of this world.

She told us no, and I believe her, in part because she and Gareth are some of the most enchanting and enchanted people I know. Both of them appreciate the world’s most remarkable gifts, but also create practical magic -- in their writing, their storytelling and their cooking. But their magic is perhaps most obvious in their renovating a falling-down farmhouse into something transcendently beautiful and comfortable for themselves, their lucky family, and their even luckier friends.

Lately, since moving to Aups, and pinching myself with excitement all the time, I have started to wonder the same thing revealed in Bill’s question. Both Bill and I have periods in our lives when something that had appeared all sparkly and new has shown itself over time to be dull and everyday -- or worse, a trick of smoke and mirrors that left us bereft.

As I am never one to just let the good times roll, a little voice in my head wonders just how long in this newly enchanted place the best parts of the enchantment will last? Will we find ourselves merely infatuated with Aups, and tire of the whole thing in a few months, hungry to return to more solid reality? Or is our time in this incredible old house like a sturdy and well-fortified marriage, there to hold us up and enfold us when life throws rotten eggs and tomatoes our way?

When it gets dark and cold in the winter, will we see past the inevitable challenges of real life to find our ways, over and over, back into deeper kinds of love than we knew before?

And when we return back to the grid of all those streets and avenues, and that big tall house back home -- what will they feel like to us then?

The rest of the weekend drifted along in the nicest possible fashion. Zaro and Gareth have a wonderful way with the girls, and were both patient and funny with them no matter what kid-style obstacles they produced. Abigail spent the weekend dressed up in a box of clothes that Zaro provided: scarves and skirts, old hats and bags and even a tiny wallet with an old AAA card so she could play at shopping for even more finery. Grace is still young enough to dress up while just old enough to be transforming into a real thinker, a muser, and a beauty. She could move back and forth seamlessly between offering to clear the table to pulling on a silly hat to asking an incisive question about something a grown-up had added to the conversation. She stayed up late without getting cranky, and said her pleases and thank yous like a champion.

I enjoyed the sense of being fully absorbed into a new place and a new series of confidences and stories. When you get to know a new friend, and re-tell your life story, new truths emerge in the telling. It's like writing, and re-writing, looking for the truths that endure as the words and the days and the years unfold. I very much liked the story this time around – certainly the characters and the setting. Although I am still working on the plot, let’s plan on a happy ending of one sort or another.

As we were leaving, we asked for yet one additional favor, and Zaro read us all a chapter from a long book she is writing about the charmed animals of La Grenouille-de-Saut. Grace and I had heard an older version of the story over a year before, when she read to all the children back at school. But Grace insisted, and I had to agree, that the newly tweaked and edited version was even better than before, bringing out all the voices of the animals with even greater specificity. Grace can't wait to read it in hardcopy.

We were so sad to drive away, and I had to promise Abigail the moon and the stars to get her into the car. She had been happy there in a fuller and deeper way than she has been elsewhere, and I could say the same for the rest of us as well.

As we drove off towards Avignon, we left with many more treats than we had arrived with. There was a big bag of Zaro’s fanciest dressup clothes, some sweet tomato puree, and a big bunch of drying Verbena in the car. We had, stored on the laptop, a new family photo that I will likely frame and keep forever on a wall when it's time to get back home. We had memories of the chilly air and the setting sun and the way the dogs flipped backwards when they played. But best of all, we had new old friends, and a promise to see each other again soon.

"You Live Here?"

Grocery stores are turning out to be fruitful places for nearly all of my most important revelations. On Thursday, the girls and I pulled an old children's cookbook off the shelf of the library, deciding together to make some Quiche Lorraine and French onion soup to eat for dinner. Abigail and I would make the quiche (Grace hates quiche) and Grace and I would make the soup (Abigail doesn't really care for the soup, thank you very much) so we would cook separately then eat together to accommodate both girls. Before I picked them up from school, I walked into town to the tiny market to buy enough butter to accommodate both recipes. Yummy French butter, which bears almost no resemblance to Land-O-Lakes.

While I was waiting in line, a sunburned man in a t-shirt and board shorts was using serviceable yet poorly accented French to ask the woman at the counter when the butcher shop next door would be open. Apparently there had been quite an awful injustice, in that there was an "ouvert" sign, but nobody there to sell him any meat. And for this, the woman at the grocery store would apparently have to pay.

Our dear girl at the grocery store just looked at him blankly. There was no commerce between his question and her comprehension, and the fact that he merely repeated the question, louder, was not producing the response he desired. I decided to help both of them, first in French, then in English, telling them I thought it would likely open in ten minutes, just after school let out. I had seen the butcher's wife picking up her child at school, and then seen the shop open up again afterwards.

My little comment broke their stalemate, and when I spoke to him in English, he thanked me in British. That explained his rudeness to the French woman. As much as the English seem to love to vacation here, I've seen more than a little hostility on both sides of that particular cultural divide (Who knew? I thought the new European Union had solved all that!) I cautioned the British man, revealing in confidence a complaint I would never make in French in front of the shopkeeper (it's a small town and I would hate to burn any bridges so early): "You'd be amazed; it's hardly ever open."

The young man turned to me and asked, wonderingly, "So you live here?"

I learned the answer to this question, quite by accident, by hearing myself answer it: "Well, yes, I do."

He looked at me completely wide-eyed, and said with a kind of awed and completely friendly envy in his voice: "Well that's BRILLIANT! However did you manage to pull it off?" I blamed and credited Bill both for the idea and for the execution, then confided once again, "The best part is that we're spending the whole year doing next to nothing!" He congratulated me heartily on this impressive anti-achievement, and went back to not buying his meat while I joined the butcher's wife in waiting up at school for the kids to be released.

So now I see it. Often the most obvious things escape me, and I was pleased to know that our exchange had revealed a new and important truth: after quite a long time of staying places, here we are, living somewhere.

This summer, after we moved out of our house in Brooklyn on June 29, we planned an absolutely crazy summer having adventures and seeing as many people as possible in and around New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. In doing so, we stayed in a succession of completely dreamy and different places: our downstairs apartment in Brooklyn, the Temple family Farm, Bill's parents' at 1 Parkway Lane, our friends Mandy and Jordy's well-named Love Shack, Nona and Pops's Meg Bell Farm, my childhood summer haven Camp Fowler, the Zealand Falls Hut on the Appalacian trail, Katie's Cottage on Lake Ontario, back to the Apartment for Toni's birthday party, then the Dublin Bed and Breakfast at No. 31 Leeson Close, The Tower at Les Baumes, and then our Hobbit Hole, the Cottage. But now, we're living somewhere. It's Aups, our funny sometimes-picturesque, sometimes merely down-at-the-heels little village.

When I taught composition classes, my first writing prompt was always, "So, where you from?" It dropped the verb, wasn't even really a full sentence, but was meant to get across that conversational way we start to get to know someone. I was inviting my students, with that sentence, to start to dig deep and tell me stories, to start to get to know themselves as they began to type. A lot will change in me now that my answer to that crucial question has gone from, "Brooklyn" to "Well, for now, Aups."

We've gotten a lot of praise (not to mention flat-out envy, named overtly as such) for this brave Slip-Out-The-Back-Jack little trick of changing locations and changing our lives. But not everyone is so impressed with our bravery, or even sees it as a good idea.  

On Friday I slid back in to town to pick out a little hostess-prezzie for our friends Zaro and Gareth. They had been our first guests at Les Baumes, and now their home a few hours away in Saove would be our first overnight roadtrip. We had settled enough that we could once again take our show on the road.

Again just before school pickup, I ducked back into the grocery store to buy the girls a little snack to tide them over on the long drive. There at the counter were three Americans, revealed by something unmistakable in their dress: the cut of the chinos, the button-down shirt, the shiny shoes. We all imagine we look simply like ourselves, but really we are more strongly marked by our nations than we would imagine.

Apparently the grocery store will become the best place for me to go to get to talk to strangers in English rather than broken French. When one of the three spoke, and I could be sure of his U.S. bonafides, I said, "Oh, you're American. It's so nice to speak face to face with an American. I haven't done that much since we moved here."

He averred cautiously that yes, he was American, but looked a little guarded, needing to place me before taking the conversation forward. He was quick to pull out the few rigorous questions that we Americans are programmed to ask (usually right after "Where you from?") in order to cut to the chase:

So what was I doing here?

Ah, sabbatical. Really?

Well then, what is it that I do back home?

The story of our trip has gained a title for situations like these: we now refer to "our sabbatical year," even though that wasn't what we originally called our plain old year off and away. It's a nice shorthand, and while nobody has officially granted it (I resigned my job as head of a lower school, while Bill has a leave of absence from his legal non-profit) the term confers the positive connotation of doing something marginally useful within a career somehow related to the life of the mind.

Our American, of course, was a wise man. He wasn't buying my bill of goods quite that easily. Rather than praise me for my brilliance in electing to live for a year in such a beautiful place, like the young Brit in the board shorts, he gave me a knowing look. "Ah, so you're an academic. So what is it that you're supposed to be doing, then?" He gently chided me, with a friendly smile, "Are you really getting anything done?"

Instantly I was snapped back to a New York memory. For almost a year, I found myself persistently unable to effectively the question that New Yorkers asked us hundreds of times when we spoke of our plan to come here: "But what will you do?" As though without at least one job to anchor us, we might become babbling lunatics or lose all purchase on our right to continue to inhale and exhale the world's dwindling supply of oxygen. New Yorkers generally use doing, rather than being, to define a life, and couldn't imagine that anything would "get done" without paid work being involved. As we were leaving, it seemed doubly sinful that we were choosing to give up perfectly wonderful positions at exactly the same time that scores of people we knew were losing their jobs against their will.

I had a hard time answering this question, not because the question was unfair, but because I felt so uncertain, and so guilty myself.

"Seems like very little work gets done here," my new friend went further, and I had to agree that he's completely right.  If any Americans have even heard of Sarkozy's plan to start measuring a nation's success by the length of its lunches, vacations and naps, we aren't letting on.

But then I remembered to defend my adopted home, saying, "Yes. It’s quite wonderful." I then offered something about posting on a blog fairly regularly, but I might as well have told him I was spending the days making then burning a succession of paper kites without ever getting one into the air.

My new American friend was merely speaking the question I asked myself so many times. As we move from one place to another, we move from one self to another, and we ask ourselves different questions.  When we change our where, we change our how and also our why. 

Back home, the question was always about work. The self I left behind on June 30 spent hours sorting computer files, paper files, working hours past when I was required to in a frenzy to get it all done. How could I make things better? How could I get more done? How could I solve the insolvable problems? How could I leave room for the girls to have their own? I worried all those nights, wished I could have done simply everything better. Somehow the laundry got done, food found itself on the table. But so much was poured into doing that we forgot to leave much time for being.

Here, the questions are all entirely different. What vegetables are freshest at the market? What sort of wine might go with that? What should we make for lunch in order to cozy the girls through yet another challenging day of blah blah recess blah? What will I write? What sort of person am I becoming by asking all of these new questions all day long, instead of my old familiar ones?

And so, I ask you, dear reader, where you from?  

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

In Which We Discover the Link Between Dirty and Tidy

Reader Warning: While the previous R-E rating has been lifted for today's post, things do get pretty weird.  Can someone tell me how pornography has become a running theme of this otherwise chaste little blog?    

During our last three days in Sillans-la-Cascade, Bill became obsessed with the project of finding and purchasing a used car.  There really aren’t an awful lot of subways here in the Haut Var to help us get around, and we quickly realized that our schedule, as simple as it was, would require a second voiture. 

Additionally, our special lease on the Renault can only be 180 days.  That seemed like ages at first.  I wasn’t counting before, but I just did, and we’ve been here 43 days already.  That’s a lot of baguettes down the hatch, and a lot of days without doing all that yoga I promised myself.  I could have been so buff by now. 

But when I went to count, it occurred to me that not only am I not crossing days off the calendar, I am actively wistful to see each and every sunset.  It’s amazing how good my head feels now that I’ve removed the giant anvil of overwhelming responsibility that I had been balancing so precariously up there.

Following the vein of this sort of hedonistic mindset, (I will wear no anvils for a whole year!!) I was hoping for something exciting by way of a second car.  My goal was to have a lust-worthy automobile for the sweet short time we are here; not like a Porche or something crazy like that, just a sweet and sensible cute German machine like the ones my sister and my sister-in-law drive.  Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, but I sure as heck coveted both of their cars. 

Back home, I’m totally fine with having a super-practical car that Bill can easily fit inside. Well, maybe not totally, but certainly resigned to what is reasonable, and there are few cars more reasonable for a family like ours than a RAV-4.  But this year, when the rules all add up to unreasonable, why not give in to my baser automotive desires?

Bill had his own goal: to lose as little money as possible in the short span between purchase and resale.  As he frequently points out, with impeccable logic, a dollar saved is way better than a dollar earned, since you pay no income tax.  

After we looked at a few used cars in Draguignan (remember the used Jaguar?  Mmmmm.  Purrrr) he found the French version of the U.S. Bluebook – here called Argus – and started looking up prices. Once we realized that the standard dealer markup on a used car in Europe was positively ridiculous, Bill quickly turned to the internet, source of nearly everything good in our modern society – rogue angry e-mails from frenemies, time-sucking social networking sites, ads for phone sex, blogs.    

To describe not only how he found Diesel Liesel, but also how she came to be parked in our driveway, I will once again interview Mr. Lienhard.  During today’s conversation, he was no longer lounging in bed, but rather more industriously stretching for a run.  He was wearing his bright red Gorilla coffee shirt, which he wears to keep the local hunters from shooting at him any more than they already do.

Launa:  So I’ve been getting a lot of requests to hear more about how you found Diesel Liesel.

Bill:  Well, I was instantly irritated with the markup on used cars that was applied by even decent used car dealers.  At one place, the guy instantly added 2,000 Euros to our maximum price and only showed us cars that cost more than we were willing to pay.  The second guy slapped 6,000 Euros on the Argus price.  I tried bargaining with them, but they didn't come down much at all.

So then I locked myself in our Hobbit Hole for three days and used our spotty internet service to set up a cage match among pricing, availability, and options.  I took numbers from and cross referenced them with “Autos D’Occasion”  (which sounds really fancy, but is just French for “Used Cars.”)  It lists and sorts tons of car by area, brand, or price.  My goal was to use this cage match to find a car that you would like but that was as close as possible to the Argus price, so that when I resell it in eight months, the spread will be as small as possible.

That is, of course, how I ended up calling Chanson.  And his wife.  I actually spoke to her first, but got flustered and called her an Audi.  I don’t think I made a great first impression.  

Launa:  You mean those super-strange strangers who showed up in our courtyard, took your check, and then left Liesel in our driveway?  The guy with the white jacket that looked like a marching band uniform, with decorative safety pins down each sleeve?  The teeny woman with the spike heels and the gold-plated cell phone that made the sound of a music box when people called?  The guy who made everything he touched suddenly look like stolen merchandise? The guy who kept taking calls from x-rated video stores and looking up prices in his notebook during our conversation?

Bill: I wouldn't refer to them as strange.  They are a lot more like us than you would like to think.  They may not act like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, but they were really incredibly helpful.

Launa:  I’m sure those video stores find him awfully helpful. 

Bill:  Good point.  But really, they were really nice. When I called, Chanson was perfectly lovely on the phone, very patient with my French, and took great pains to enunciate clearly.

I really came to trust him, but it took me awhile to see past his exterior.  Chanson insisted that I meet him at a random parking lot, which was the first thing that made me nervous. He wanted to meet me at the cooperative olive pressing place rather than at his house.   When I couldn't find the cooperative, I parked at a wine store and had him meet me there.

Chanson was a few minutes late, and I was a little nervous.  I thought the women in the wine store might think that I was stalking them, so I pretended to talk on my iphone.  When he didn't show up, I started to get worried that the store’s staff would call the gendarmes.  I’m pretty sure that the beneficence of French civil society does not extend to their police force.

Then Chanson rapped on my window, and I started to worry about other things.  Suddenly having cops around seemed like a good idea.   

The thing that made me go from regular old car-buying nervous to full-on panicked was the fact that his rainwear had a snugly cute kitty cat theme.  In my opinion, items with cats on them are just wrong for a man his age to be sporting:  especially on an umbrella.   I have a thing about cat people, especially kitties where they don’t belong, like near an extremely tall, angular, super-fancily dressed middle-aged man.  I also noticed with a little alarm that that his hair was a bottle auburn, and both very thin and very done.  If there were a sign on his head, it would have read “sparsely populated," but each hair was in exactly the right place.  That level of tidiness makes me nervous.

Launa:  Right.  We know.

Bill:  His shoes had a pointy toe that came to a severely acute angle. I couldn't stop staring. If you just put a little ball on the end of them, they would have looked like jester's shoes.  Except they were black leather.  He smelled of cologne and wore all kinds of necklaces. 

But I went and sat in his car anyway.  He showed me all the gadgets, of which he was very proud.  They all seemed very high-tech for 2005.  There was a DVD player in the dashboard, an automatic navigation system, and a thing that plays MP3’s from a sim card.  He was really psyched that everything in the car was absolutely automatic.  There was even an automatic setting to give you the feel of driving a 7-speed sportscar.  He liked how the cupholders came up and then turned up at an angle.

He asked me if I wanted to take it for a test drive, and thinking of the narrow spread between his price and the Argus price, I said, “Oui, bien sur.”  But even though I really liked the car, I wasn't feeling so “bien sur” about Chanson himself.   

As weird as I felt about Chanson’s excessive tidiness in his own dress and grooming, I liked the car because it was beyond clean inside.  Like there was not one speck of dirt.  He was also the only guy on the whole used car website who took a picture of the engine.  He later told me that his wife is a "maniac" for having everything spotless. 

Launa:  Wait, why did you like that car for being clean so much, since our cars invariably become filthy?

Bill: I resent that statement about our cars, and I am going to refuse to answer that question.

There followed a slight pause in the interview before Bill's enthusiasm got the better of him, and he continued.

OK, fine; I will tell you, because there is a good answer.  I liked seeing such a clean car because it made me think, “maybe this guy is super uptight, and therefore the car is in great shape."  I was looking for the car that would have the highest possible resale value of any car.  I also loved the electric blue color, and knew it would please Abby and Grace.  Which it did.

But anyway, back to Chanson.  As we drove along, the first thought that entered my mind as we left the parking lot was, “Oh my God, I’m going to be murdered and left in a French ditch.”   Scenes from The Vanishing ran through my mind.  I realized that nobody, not even you, would know where I had gone to if I did disappear. 

To get rid of this feeling, I started nervously chatting with Chanson.  First of all it turned out that this was not his real name.  It was Jean-Paul.  He was equally confused when he realized that my name was not “Bill” but “William."  But then our conversation gave me a few other things to worry about.

It turned out that the car was not actually from France.  The car was bought in Belgium, the plates were from Germany, and it was only insured in France for two weeks.  I couldn’t quite make all those pieces add up.  The ideal explanation is that this is just how things work here in the E.U.  But the worst case scenario was that this car was not only hot as in pimped out with gear, but hot as in actually stolen.  As in hotter than a pancake.

Then, breaking the sacred rule of all good tourist-residents of France, I asked him what he does for a living.   There was a long pause before he told me that he is now expanding the operations of his sex toy and adult video company here into Provence.   He told me that’s why the car has so many miles on it, because he drives a lot for work.   It was really the only time that I saw him look anything but totally self-assured.

Launa: Bill, do you really want me to put in the blog that the car we will now be driving has uncertain national heritage, is possibly stolen, and was sold to you by a man who also sells things we tend not to discuss in polite conversation?  Unmentionable things that might at one time have actually been in that car?  

Can I remind you that our parents and our friends are not only going to read this, but will also ride in the car when we go pick them up at the airport? 

Bill:  I wish to state for the record that I had no reason to believe it was stolen.  Nor do I know whether the car was used to transport merchandise, whether legal or illegal.  I was merely describing the facts as I heard them.  You draw your own conclusions. 

As it turns out, once he told me what he does for a living, everything fell into place in a weird way.  For some reason, realizing this allowed me to see him in a whole different light, and made his kitty cat umbrella seem less weird.  I realized that he was just coming from a place I don't know much about.  Probably in the sex toys and porn video world, he’s known as a really stand up, super-organized and great guy.   

I also discovered that he was not only really kind, but also willing to talk me through the insane bureaucracy of registering a car in France.   He immediately produced six of the seven documents that I would need to register the car. 

I was for a while worried about the one form that he was missing.  Since this paper, the Certificate de Non-Gage, shows that the car is not stolen, and is in the hands of its rightful owner, AND since it has to come from the local prefecture, I assumed that the whole Germany/Belgium thing might mean that he wouldn’t be able to get it.   I left the ball in his court and assumed he might not call me back.  

So when they did call back, I didn’t at first recognize who was calling.  A woman’s voice said something about a bank check and I assumed it was HSBC bank calling.  I’ve been trying to get them to give me a new interest rate they are advertising, so I immediately launched into a tirade about why wasn’t I allowed to have one.  They had told me it was not for existing customers, so when I thought it was the bank calling, I really lit up. I told the woman on the phone that if that was really the case, I’ll just close my account, and I won’t be an existing customer anymore.

After I got done with my tirade, there was dead silence on the line for awhile, and then the voice said, “I think you need to talk to my husband, Mr. Jean-Paul Chanson.”  So first I called this woman a car, and then I called her a bank.  I was not making any points with the Maniac.  

Nevertheless, Jean-Paul continued to be inordinately kind to me.  Or perhaps just desperate to unload the car before his two weeks of insurance were up.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference when you’re in a new place talking to someone from a totally different line of work. When I told him I would go get the check, he said he and his wife would come the next day to drop off the car.

When they drove up here, they were a little put out because it was so hard to find the house.  I apologized to him, then apologized to The Maniac.  I told her that I was sorry I had called her a car, and sorry that I had screamed at her as though she were a bank.  She seemed a little tightly wound, or maybe just her pointy high heels made her unhappy.

Launa:  They were very high heels.  But it was his shirt that really blew me away.  I didn’t know that they could even make fabric in a shiny black alligator print.  And it’s also possible that her dress was a just little more like lingerie than I am used to seeing in the middle of the day.  On our beautiful rented terrace.  

Bill:   There you go again.  These are superficial differences.  You have to admit he was very very nice, and awfully polite.  He printed out all those forms for us.   But I was still freaked out by how tidy they both were.   Her signature was the tiniest one I had ever seen.  

Who knew: dirty movies can be sold by tidy people.  

But you gotta admit, Launa.  I got us a really great car. 

Bill was just about 100% right about this trip.  And now, once again, I state for the record that she is a really great car: if we do get arrested for owning our little electric blue German, she may be the nicest car I ever get to drive.   Time will tell, but I think he may even be even right about Chanson and his Maniac being two of the most stand-up members of the adult entertainment industry. 

While Bill and I do not always (ever?) think alike, and it often takes me awhile to admit it, I love finding the method in his madness.  His decisions are governed by a logic all their own.  And when you get right down to it, he’s right: based on his completely sensible decision-making process, we got a great deal on exactly the car we had hoped to find.   I would have dumped way too much at the dealer with my squeamishness about negotiation, then lost even more on resale.  When you're buying a car using your business mind, it really doesn’t matter how strange, or how tidy, the strangers are who had it first.  

So welcome to the family, Diesel Liesel.  Expect your future adventures to be strictly rated G. But while there will be no more dirty movies in your trunk, your life is about to get a lot less tidy.