Monday, November 30, 2009

Why We Are Here


“The Average French Business man at the end of his life may not have made as much money as the American; but meanwhile he has had, every day, something the American has not had: Time. Time, in the middle of the day, to sit down to an excellent luncheon, to eat it quietly with his family, and to read his paper afterward; time to go off on Sundays and holidays on long pleasant country rambles; time, almost any day, to feel fresh and free enough for an evening at the theatre, after a dinner as good and leisurely as his luncheon. And there is one thing certain: the great mass of men and women grow up and reach real maturity only through their contact with the material realities of living, with business, with industry, with all the great bread-winning activities; but the growth and the maturing take place in the intervals between these activities: and in lives where there are no such intervals there will be no real growth.”

-- Edith Wharton, French Ways And Their Meaning, 1919

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Be Home By Dinner, Kids."


Reader Warning: Today’s post is not really so much about France. Oh, and it digs around in a can of worms that will probably make just about everybody feel uncomfortable, judgmental, judged and cranky about other people's parenting and their own. So enjoy!


I was eight years old, and running with a dime in my hand to the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man….

I'd sit on his lap in the big old Buick and steer as we drove through town. He’d tousle my hair, say, “Son, take a good look around.

This is your hometown.”

-- Bruce Springsteen, "My Hometown."


Abigail's second-favorite album, just after the mix CD Grace and Bill made for her eighth birthday, is our collection of Bruce Springsteen's greatest hits. She has started to listen closely to the lyrics, asking why the man in "The River" sounds so sad, or commenting that sometimes her heart feels hungry, too. But mostly she likes rolling down the car window and belting out the chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." She misses home and everything American so much more than the rest of us, who have started thinking of the Var as home instead.

It's hard to imagine how ridiculous it might look or sound from outside our car, to see a small blond child with a very serious face singing angrily about ending up “like a dog that’s been beat too much.” It’s probably a good thing that usually we walk through our new (home?) town, rather than drive. So when she really gets into singing this ironically patriotic anthem, we’re likely in a town where nobody knows us.

Of course, when we do drive through Aups, she does not sit on my lap and steer a big old Buick. Despite how cool it sounds in Bruce’s song, kids don’t steer their parents’ cars so much anymore, in France or in America.

We all know what happened to Britney Spears when she let the baby drive. So why is it that when another B.S. (Springsteen) sings about being wedged between his parent and the steering wheel, we all think wistfully and sweetly about how much we love our Dads?

When I was eight years old, there was no bus stop nearby from which I could purchase a paper for my old man; the nearest one was probably in Schenectady, twenty miles or more away. But Dad did let me steer his big red pickup through the hayfields or on the back roads. It made me feel powerful and strong, that vantage point of being the driver rather than the strapped-in passenger.

We also got to ride in the open back of the pickup. One of my favorite childhood memories is the feeling of the cold wind whipping around my head as Gaela and I sat in the back of the truck staring at the stars. We could yell through the little sliding window and ask Mom and Dad to take us for ice cream. And sometimes they would. It was awesome.

Gaela and I also spent all kinds of time outdoors by ourselves. We would go out to the barn, climb things and play with machinery; or get into the sheep pen and chase the lambs around, trying to catch one. We would wander around by the garden, careful not to touch the electric fence, and we certainly knew enough to leave the big nasty ram alone.

Mom was always somewhere nearby, either mowing the lawn or folding laundry or canning tomatoes or talking on the phone. We would play outdoors in the snow for hours, digging tunnels, and one time even skating on a particularly thick coating of ice that had fallen during an ice-storm. I’m quite sure that after that storm I skated, totally unsupervised, on ice that only partially covered a stream in the woods at my grandparents’ house. I know I was unsupervised because I remember pretending I was Dorothy Hamill, and created an elaborate skating routine up and down the streambed, carefully jumping over the part where the ice was rushing water. This is one of my very favorite memories of being a kid.

I know I was unsupervised, because I never would have done something that dorky if my parents had been watching.

And Mom, before you get too nervous about what I’m going to say, let me be awfully clear: that was a very, very good thing.

Back in the 70’s, my parents’ level of involvement and attention provided just about an ideal version of what the psychologist D.W. Winnicott called the “holding environment.” By being nearby, yet allowing us to be alone, they allowed us to be independent and to learn things on our own. We always knew where they were, but they weren’t all up in our grilles. We could make mistakes, but still feel safe, even ominpotent.

Like this other time, when my parents had hired somebody to dig a new well on the farm, and an enormous puddle of half-frozen black sludge seeped up out of the ground and spread itself into a deep and mucky puddle of chocolate-pudding consistency. I found this puddle when was out playing by myself, and I must have wandered around in it, spellbound by the consistency and the texture of the sludge, for at least an hour before I realized that my feet were cold and wet. My teeth were chattering uncontrollably, and my snowmobile suit was completely trashed. When I went inside, Mom was furious, and yelled at me, which was exactly what was supposed to happen.

It only occurs to me now, now that I am the parent of kids that age, how weird it is that I could get myself into that much trouble in the first place. How strange, and different from the way things are now, that I spent that much time alone and far-ish from the house, walking around in sludge for an hour or skating on top of nearly-frozen water.

How strange, in the context of the way kids and parents are now, that I could steer the truck. Or ride my bike alone along Route 67, where the cars zipped by so fast they made a whoosh of wind that sometimes unsettled my already unstable balance. When you think about it now, it’s even odd that little Brucie Springsteen could run with a dime in his hand and go get the paper.

When was the last time you saw an eight year old running outside alone to get much of anything for anybody?

For here is what has happened to children, since parents gave up being all chilled out and 1970’s style about things: kids don’t ever go anywhere on their own, much less steer cars or skate alone on thin ice. Not in America, and certainly not here.

And I swear, it’s not just my kids, although I fully admit that my sheepdog tendencies are way more intractable than most sane people’s.

I used to think that this was a stupid Brooklyn thing, this supervising the kids all the time. I assumed that outside of the dangerous city, kids still rode their bikes alone and played in the woods and ran around in crazy little packs after school. But then the signs started cropping up even on rural playgrounds: “Children Must Be Supervised At All Times.” Bill and I used to think these signs were funny, and would take ironic pictures of our kids hanging upside down or pretending to beat each other up next to them. Then we realized that the fact we were taking pictures of our kids at the playground felt weird too – does anybody have a snapshot from the 1970’s that a parent took of a kid on the playground?

But since there weren’t any other kids playing there unsupervised, it always felt wrong to let our kids do it, either. If you did send your kid to the playground unsupervised, she would almost certainly be the only one. Both you and your kid would stand out as wrong, and you would be exposed as deviantly uncaring.

I don’t always follow the posted guidelines, but I am pretty strongly attuned to what other people seem to be doing.

And when I realized that nobody ever really lets their kids alone, I became one of those parents as well.

But then, I reasoned, this was probably just a crazy United States thing. Surely in a small town in rural France, children still played outside unsupervised. They would romp in the lavender fields, and play tag in and around the grape vines. They would climb olive trees and ride their funny little European bicycles everywhere. I mean, the French love cycling and give their cyclists huge respect and a wide berth on the roads. Of course kids would ride their bikes everyplace. Right?

In fact, this fantasy was one of the things we looked forward to most about our year away, living in a small French town. We thought that at least in Europe, our kids could develop some greater independence. They could walk to school and back on their own, certainly. They might not go pick up a paper, but at least they could go get us a few croissants in the morning while we lazed around drinking espressos. And this wouldn’t be parental laziness; we would be encouraging them to do something really fun.

We also assumed that kids would run around in Europe more freely because of Bill’s endless England stories. When Bill was in 2nd grade, during his family’s storied sabbatical year in England, he rode his bike to school each day, a mile each way, alone. (His older sister wouldn’t have been caught dead riding with him.) He played outdoors from the end of school until his mother called him home, just before dinner each evening. And he only got in trouble if he stayed to eat dinner at a friend’s house and forgot to call.

He lost his bike with startling frequency, once set a fire in an open field. He got yelled at for being rude to Mr. Hobday and also to the lady at the store. Weirdos talked to him more than once, but nothing particularly awful ever happened to him, and to hear him talk about it, it was tons of fun. Back in the 70's, farms were fun. Towns were fun. England was fun. Being a kid alone in a pack of other kids (or even in a pair) was fun, and helped us develop judgment and independence.

So we posited that this year in Europe would be different. In France, we wouldn’t need to watch our kids all the time. They would start to watch themselves.

Abigail finally learned to ride a bike this year, once we had the time and the space in which to teach her. She’s gotten pretty good at it, too, although her steering tends to be pretty jerky, and she wobbles from side to side rather more than you would think it would be possible to do and still remain upright. She rides her bike a lot like she does everything else – without a lot of subtlety, and balanced on her knife’s edge of enormous confidence and equally enormous fear.

Had she been eight thirty-three years ago, or twenty years ago, or perhaps even ten years ago, she would have grabbed her bike and headed out the door without a second thought. Perhaps without even telling us where she was going. She might have worn a helmet, but then again, probably not.

Now, the bicycle riding for some reason always requires an attendant grownup. We walk down the driveway, shouting at her to slow down, to use both brakes. We follow her along the road, reminding her to stay to the right hand side of the road. She asks if she can go further this time, and we say yes or no, depending on how bored we are and what we have to do back at the house.

Of course, as I follow her, I feel quite necessary, telling her to slow down and stay right and don’t wobble and all that. I notice that she rarely looks when she turns onto the road, of course, and she also doesn’t use her hand brakes properly, usually squeezing just one rather than both of them. She could flip over the handlebars that way, like Matt Murphy did so spectacularly back when we were in the sixth grade. I remember that we all marvelled about how long he laid unconscious in the road before somebody came to find him.

So there I am, supervising once again. Children Must Be Supervised At All Times, even in rural France. Perhaps especially in rural France, where sightings of actual children outside of a house and not going to or from school seem quite shockingly rare. I know that the kids exist, as I see them being dropped off and picked up by their parents at the portail. So where do they go the rest of the time?

And here’s the other kicker: as I supervise, I take it another step further. I berate myself: am I really paying attention to her? Shouldn’t I be more interested? I disgust myself with how quickly I get bored and want to come back to the house to do something else, like make a pot of soup or fold the laundry or grab my camera, or write a blog about how cute she is on her bicycle.

Infrequently, I can get all zen and centered and present, for about two minutes, particularly when I’m practicing my new slow sabbatical amble. Perhaps I “help” her with her biking technique, or remind her to look both ways. Or I try to engage her in some sort of conversation. But my interest in her biking wanes after the first super-adorable five minutes.

And, to be perfectly frank, I can get pretty bored.

So here I am, totally unemployed, with hours of time on my hands, and I can’t spare the time to stand outside and watch while she bikes to her heart’s content. What a crummy mother I must be, I tell myself. Why can’t I just “be” with her, be present and engaged and loving and warm and available in that way “really” wonderful mothers are? Why can’t I cook with them more patiently, rather than trying to get the meal done “on time?” Or slow down and draw with them, or paint with them, or play a nice long game of Crazy 8’s until they are the ones to lose interest first?

Something has happened to the kids, now that we supervise them all the time. Kids feel more tentative than I remember: less free and more privileged. They are more like the over-tended Mary at the beginning of The Secret Garden, less like the sturdy and capable girls in Little House on the Prairie.

In the books our kids read, the young characters are not only unsupervised, but often halfway orphaned. The Boxcar Children, living so happy and resourceful in an abandoned railway car. Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin, flying halfway across the Universe in A Wrinkle In Time, barely overseen by three not-particularly-attentive or necessarily even corporeal witches. Digory, The Magician's Nephew, doesn't bring his Dad a paper from the bus stop; he brings his mother the elixer of life from the dawn of time in Narnia. Even Abigail’s American Girl series book Felicity stars a girl in colonial America who sneaks out of the house every night for a month to tame and then ride a wild horse, bareback and without reins.

All this when I know from experience that my own kids couldn’t possibly find the bus stop on their own. Instead, they ask us for everything. For permission and treats, and even supervision. When we tell Abigail that we think she’s ready to walk to school on her own, she will have none of it.

This is my fault, of course, and our faults, but also somehow feels bigger than any of us can really control. Because if I were to forcibly buck the trend, I would be the only one sending her off to school on her own. Where is the gang of kids for her to join? Would we have to apply?

It can’t be good for kids, all this supervision. But something has also happened to the mothers. Because we have come to believe that we must supervise them all the time (and most of us actually do.) If we turn our heads for just a minute, we’re risking the fate of the mother in A Map of The World, who lets her friend’s 2 year old drown in the first few pages of the novel (I couldn’t even read past this, so I have no idea what else happens in the rest of the book.) Our parents didn’t worry like this. It would have been seen as insane, abnormal, over-the-top. Just as weird as it would be for us to suddenly start sending them places alone. What kind of parents would watch their kids all the time? What kind of parents wouldn't?

Here's Bruce again in the same song, plus twenty-seven years:

I'm thirty-five, we've got a boy of our own now.

Last night I sat him up behind the wheel, and said, "Son, take a good look around... This is your hometown."

If we were to follow the adult Bruce's example, we would be giving our kid a rare glimpse from the perspective of an adult, letting them see the world they are to inherit. And then we would be promptly arrested for having a child under the age of twelve not strapped in to the back of the car. Of course Bruce is cagey on this one, perhaps to avoid the long arm of the law; he doesn't imply that the car in which they were sitting was actually moving.

But here’s the other kicker, which seems to apply more to moms than to dads. We also tend to believe that we can and must “be present” all the time – or at least more than we are ever pull off. However good we are at being present through all this deadly boring supervision time, it’s by definition not good enough.

And thus every time we are doing all the other stuff we need to do (making the soup or doing the laundry or supervising the other kid, who also apparently needs our watching) we imagine that we are doing something less than our kids deserve. And then what do we tell ourselves? That a more talented mother could do it all, while still being present and engaged all day long, providing the kids with more exciting art projects and gingerbread-house construction and even coaching AYSO soccer.

Bill and I could not possibly be more present than we have become for our kids this year. It has been tout la famille, tout les temps since we hired our last babysitter, which was back in August. August!! So if I am berating myself for not being "present enough," here and now, there's something wrong with the way I am measuring things.

I would have to say that this sort of weird new parenting ideal is simply not attainable. (And also know that I'm not the only or first one to say this. See also Free Range Kids, which says it way better.) It is certainly not Winnicott’s healthy holding environment, overseen by the Good Enough Mother. Rather, this mother becomes each child’s own personal life tutor, intervening at every turn. This is the parent who checks in by cell phone after every quiz, and then calls the teacher to complain if the grade isn’t good. It’s a slippery slope between being present and being ever-present, over-present, for making oneself into a decidedly unwelcome present.

And lots of us – particularly the best intentioned ones – are up to our ears in it.

Yes. We are keeping our kids safe. But, as Bill likes to point out with increasing regularity and decreasing patience, all of this supervision stuff has its own consequences: particularly a lack of confidence and competence among the kids themselves, who never get to make enough mistakes to be able to learn much of anything. Instead, they get a steady stream of suggestions and ideas and parental involvement that must eventually make us all sound to kids like we are Charlie Brown’s teacher.

If the kids aren’t with us, they are supervised and fenced in at school, or at some afternoon activity or lesson, or at their friends’ houses, where if they do something wrong, their mother will scold not them, but me, later on the telephone. I’m exaggerating here, but really not that much. We’ve all somehow trapped ourselves in each other’s presences, to the point where we need to find other ways to shut one another out in order to sometimes be alone.

Thus here is what I am beginning to wonder: What if all this watching that we now do really tends to use up the attention points we could use for other things. Like paying attention, when it really matters.

For example, if they left me to my own devices, and I left them to theirs for a nice long, say, two hour stretch of bike riding or tree-fort-making or skating alone or walking around in some sort of weird toxic sludge, I might just feel like a nice long game of crazy 8’s afterwards.

Playing outside, on her own. Is that such a crazy way to be eight?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Color




Getting Colder, Feeling Warmer


Nearly every sunset this month has been more beautifully flaming and camera-worthy than the last. Each evening we get a brand new combination of reds and oranges and blues found nowhere else in nature aside from the showiest of tropical flowers. You'd think we would get used to it, but still every evening while we're starting to cook dinner, we are drawn outside by a slash of red or fuscia or tangerine deep along the western horizon. We walk outdoors, and discover that the quarter sphere of sky we can see from the terrace is spattered in contrasts. Last night it was soft sea blue dotted with enormous pink stretchy marshmallows. The night before that the sunset was made of stripes of deepening oranges starting on the hills and fading upwards.

On Saturday evening, after we celebrated our early Thanksgiving dinner on the sunny terrace, we got in our cars to drive our guests up the bucolic hill above Aups and into the stark and shocking deep bowl of mountains on the other side. Rain was predicted for Sunday, the last day Bill’s parents would be with us, and we wanted to use the sunset lightshow to add a little drama as we took them on our favorite drive. As we drove up the pastoral Vermonty side of the mountain, the sun was a classic orange flameball sinking down in our back window. We crested the hill towards the stark Colorado side, where the sun painted the hillsides ahead of us in a pinky gold Alpinglow.

We drove as far as the bridge over the Gorge du Verdon, and hopped out of the cars to look at the deserted lake. But just as we closed the car doors, a cold wind swept up the beach, informing us in no uncertain terms that our lovely afternoon idyll was over. Time to go stoke up the fire.

We turned around and headed home. As we crested the hill to drop back down to town, the sun had sunk behind a miles-high gunmetal wall of cloud. There was a stark line in the sky at the edge of the cloud, behind which the whole world disappeared. It advanced on us, and we on it. By the time we got back to the house to eat a little apple pie and finish up the final round of the day’s dirty dishes, the stars and the little crescent moon had been blotted out entirely, and fat raindrops started to splatter on the stones tiles of the terrace.

The sky stayed overcast for the whole next day. (I know! Can you believe it? One whole day!) Since we arrived here in Provence, it's rained a few times, but simply never stays overcast and grey for more than the shortest periods of time. It's just about the direct opposite of these same months in eastern Michigan, where I spent three grim and dreadful gradual school winters under a sky that stayed resolutely dark until nearly 8:00 AM each day, and resolutely cloudy for what felt like weeks at a time. I used to feel like the clouds were hanging just above my eyebrows as I trudged back and forth to class.

It's no wonder I never felt like writing much of anything (certainly not a dissertation) while I was living there, and why I can't stop myself from writing now that I am here. Ann Arbor had killer delis and coffee, so it's obviously not just the food that shapes quality of life. It's also the sunshine, stupid.

After that one dreary day of grey, the mistral kicked up in the middle of the night, moaning and banging around in the chimneys of the house, sounding like distant thunder or artillery explosions. There are no flues on the chimneys here, making for some chilly rooms, high heating bills, but also some great creepy sound effects when the wind blows. None of us could sleep that night, anyway, since we knew that the alarm would be going off at 5:30 AM for Bill to drive his parents back to the airport in Nice. We had loved having Grandpere Gus and Grandmere Linda with us, and were all incredibly sad that they were leaving.

All those noisy sharp gusts of wind blew away the grey shelf of clouds and we woke up to our trusty old Provençal colorscheme: ochre hills, lush green growing things, and endless blue sky. Since it's fall, we also see yellow: turning autumn leaves, and great soft drippy golden light in the mornings. But even though the wind had done it’s duty of clearing out the heavy skies, it kept blowing anyway.

A mistral feels cold and hot at the same time. It's a very strange feeling for a New Englander, to have the wind and the sun battling it out to see which one can rule the day. With the wind blowing like mad and the sun shining so damn hard, you would think that the laundry would dry on the line. But instead the clothing just whips itself around damply for a few hours before I have to finish it off with twenty minutes or so in the tumble dryer.

After hearing how much fuel we had been burning with the heating system on, we decided that it might be prudent to simply leave it off, buy a little bit of firewood, and wear a few layers of sweaters around the house. Being a fan of enormous puffy comforters, I had already bought a few for the beds, so we are nice and toasty warm at night. But the house could be downright chilly during the day, unless you were basking in the direct afternoon sun coming through a window, in which case you were suddenly hot.

In fact, during the last few days, it was so windy and sunny that I kept getting extremely confused about whether I was warm or cool or downright cold. This is different from the confusing temperatures in Paris, where it can be so damp and bonechilling outside, and then so damply tropically hot and stuffy in the Metro. Whenever I am there, I spend the day irritated by my clothing, which can't seem to keep up with all the changes. I've often wondered how those stylish and self-contained Parisians on the trains can just sit there so calm and collected while I am dripping in icky sweat, and then look so breezy and comfortable and Autumn-chic outside when I feel like I’d like to put on a full-body snowmobile suit.

Here, the weather is still confusing, but more gently so, here you are lightly baked and air conditioned at the same time. It's a whole lot more pleasant, but still so different from any weather I’ve ever known before. You wouldn't think that something as simple as weather could be so completely different in different places, as there are really only four factors: temperature, windspeed, humidity and light. But then you travel somewhere new, and find your whole outlook totally changed by the specifics of the sky.

Strangely enough, the new chill in the air seems to be changing the way we are being received by our neighbors here in the little town. Two months into school, three months into our trip, I have mastered the flat French face and no longer smile and wave stupidly at total strangers. I even gave up on ever being spoken to at the school portail, assuming I would just spend the year enjoying the few people who had already been kind to us.

But then I suddenly discovered that we were suddenly being greeted fairly warmly by the townspeople who had been so distant at first. The other day, as our whole family was walking together down our little walled chemin, the lane towards town, a woman driving by in a little grey car actually smiled and waved. Not just a headnod or a tidy little perfunctory "Bonjour, Mesdames et Monsieurs," but an actual stretch-out-the-sides-of-your-mouth grin and friendly open hand.

The next day, as Grace was practicing her sprinting on the same little road, and I was practicing my own brand new walking speed -- an extremely slow and lazy sort of wander that I have developed this year -- we both greeted an older man with a teeny white dog on a leash. He, too, smiled generously, and even offered a few helpful suggestions on Grace's running form. He was an athlete himself, he told me, a sportif who enjoyed nearly every form of exercise. When I told him we were from New York, he told me all about his very favorite movie -- Eddie Murphy's midcareer masterpiece, The King of New York. He spoke about its genius the way a freshman undergraduate who has just discovered film studies would talk about Truffault or Ray or Goddard. I found my French skills more than accurate for us to carry on a legitimately enriching and pleasant dialogue for the entire remaining portion of my slow meandering back to our wooden gate.

And THEN, yet another neighbor stopped me to comment on how much she liked my shirt, and to question me about where I had gotten it, and perhaps where she could get one herself. I was wearing this crazy swirly print thing from Athleta.com, and I did a creditable job of spelling ah-tay-ashe-elle-uuh-tay-ah for her. We talked some more about our shared affection for one another's earrings. Mine were a gift from my Dad, swirling silver spirals bought from the artist who made them at a street fair in Aix. Hers were two different ones, for some reason she could not explain. But no matter: she was seeking me out, unprompted, and we were having a real conversation. We were neighbors.

Why now? Is the change in me, or in my steadily developing language skills? Perhaps now that I can say a lot more, I’m a whole lot less boring and panicked-looking. Certainly my new Provençal amble is more welcoming than my rushed New Yorker’s stride.

France has lots more reflexive verbs than does English. Rather than being bored, one “bores oneself.” Rather than being angry, one “angers oneself.” I have always liked the way that French puts the onus of these unpleasant feelings on the person having the feelings – rather than always blaming a flawed external environment. (Grace agrees, and in honor of the wisdom of the phrase “s'ennuyer,” has decided to call her own blog “I Do Not Bore Myself.”) So perhaps the reflexive verb "s'approcher," (to approach, to come closer) explains things. Perhaps it is not that I was being isolated, but rather that I needed to bring myself to approach, to find a way to bring myself closer.

Or, perhaps I got so used to being ignored and looked through in this small town, and in France more generally, that my old goofy American standards for what counts as “friendly” have been completely revised. Perhaps instead of seeing Aups as a flawed version of the social world of my old home, full of the people I know and love, I see it more as it sees itself, with its own rules, conventions, and personalities. Or perhaps now that I have actual people to greet and bisou in the streets, I don’t have to care so much that the rest of the town and I have decided to both stare blankly at and totally ignore one another.

My other theory is that as the weather has gotten colder, and our little family has not disappeared from town, we have happened to stumble over the magic invisible line that exists in all of the world’s tourist towns between the summer people and the real people. One does not need to waste one’s sparse supply of friendliness on the white-sheathed Parisians, Germans, Dutch and Italians here in August to soak up the sun and be soaked by the high prices at the market. Better to save it up instead for the people you might actually see more than once or twice.

At any rate, as the weather has gotten colder, the human climate seems to be getting a whole lot warmer. Perhaps this inside/outside business goes back to our evolutionary history in the grottes and caves nearby. Once somebody is part of our tribe, and the weather starts to get threatening, we feel a primal protectiveness. Faced with chilly winds and darkening skies, everyone pulls a little closer around the shared warmth of the fire.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Which We Cook Our Own Goose


Yesterday could have been scary. Not trip-to-the ER scary, or left-in-the-thunderstorm scary, but rather colossal flop embarrassing scary. I woke Saturday morning before it got light out, and reached over to pull the laptop from the night table where it sleeps. Unlike my car, the MacBook has neither a gender nor a name, but I like to keep it close by at night so that when I come up against a bout of insomnia, it can warm my lap and coax me through until the dawn.

I opened up the Times online, and there, courtesy of Mr. Perfect Face Mark Bittman, was a list of 101 ways I could prepare food ahead for the Thanksgiving Holiday. Because of the vagaries of our family’s travel schedule, and the fact that it was France, so it didn’t matter when we celebrated it, I was staring down my own personal Thanksgiving day right then. There was no more “ahead” left.

I had all the ingredients on hand (except for the last few that we could get at the Saturday market in town) but I had made precisely one dish: a somewhat burned and poorly-mixed pumpkin pie, which I knew I had yet to replace with a more serviceable one.

I suppose I could have counted the can of organic cranberry relish Gus had mailed to us as a “made ahead” dish, or the sausages and cheese (Epoisse, St. Nectare, Beaufort Comté) that some nice artisanal merchant had spent hours crafting on a farm somewhere nearby. Oh, and most importantly, the goose. Our friends – purveyors of the big fat goose, so enormous that it could no longer fly – had killed and plucked and cured and stuffed it with chestnuts and truffles and pancetta and all sorts of other yummies. Thus the centerpiece of the meal had arrived ready-to-cook the day before and was hogging the top shelf real estate in the refrigerator. But aside from the core and the nibbles, I was starting my own very first Thanksgiving feast entirely from scratch. According to Bittman, I was already way behind the 8-ball. Screwed.

And then, in the Styles section, I read another lengthy piece detailing all the ways in which families can be rude and insulting and horrible to one another during the big yearly eating extravaganza. Bill’s family tends to sit firmly on the mild, generous, and sweet side of humanity, but this article got me unnecessarily worried: what if things went suddenly and horribly awry? What if, disappointed by the failed dinner I imagined I might make, the whole family turned on me, turned on France, or turned on one another? We had already forced them to fly thousands of miles to see us. In the case of Bill’s sister Laura and our nephew, Finn, they had flown many, many thousands of miles, 13 hours on the plane from California. We had moved Thanksgiving five days forward and way, way East to an entirely foreign land.

It had better be good.

I addressed my (probably foolish) worries in a very predictable Launa-ish way: by making a detailed list. First I listed all the dishes (Thanks, Joy of Cooking), and then put in time order all the tasks and dishes and steps. “Set the table” came right after “wash the celery” and before “mash the roast squash with maple syrup and orange juice.” Bill's name for this approach is creating a "uni-recipe,” and as much as I laughed at the concept when he first employed it, I found that reminding myself of the actual steps involved tended to alleviate the worst of my Times-induced anxieties. (What is up with that, anyway? I leave New York, then let it make me crazy via the internet. Silly girl.) Generations of pioneer mommas have made Thanksgiving without the interference of the Times Online, or a “Minimalist” providing me with a hundred recipes for which I had none of the ingredients. If they could do it, I could, too.

As Bill explains it, with a unirecipe, you think of the entire meal as a single dish. When you make a unirecipe, it’s important to read all the individual recipes closely to be sure that you insert all the steps of the shorter recipes into the open spaces in the longest recipe. When I first read about goose in the Joy, I caught the first 1 ½ hour roasting period, but somehow missed the second one. Luckily, I caught my error before I ended up serving Grandpa Gus – a biochemist with a serious appreciation of the destructive power of all things germy – a raw and bloody mess of fatty goose skin and flesh. Once I charted out all the basting and flipping and resting and carving that good Mr. Goose would require of us, I could fit in the rest of the steps, including an apple pie made with Pink Ladies and sweetened with an intensely flavored forest-flower honey. Ooh la la.

Over the course of a few lovely hours, it all came into being. The crust, the pie, the squash, the goose, the celery, the salad, the potatoes, the beans, the nibbles were readied and heated and mixed and basted and coated with the big three of Provençal cooking: wine, olive oil, and honey. Since it wasn’t just the usual French meal, but also Thanksgiving, there was also a fair amount of butter lubricating things: a full-butter pie crust made in the food processor, plus butter in the squash and the potatoes and slathered all over the green beans.

It helped that I was cooking this meal in one of the most amazing kitchens ever. It has only the smallest amount of counter space, but is dominated by an enormous square table that serves dinner to eight just as well as it serves as headquarters for any major cooking project. I rolled out the dough there, and stacked up the ingredients. I used at least eight of the thirty knives lying around, including the enormous murder-weapon sized ones. I used the Creuset pots and the ceramic baking dishes and the whisks and wooden spoons and even the baster. I could find nearly any strange or quirky cooking tool I needed, (aside from a meat thermometer, which really would have made Gus’s day.) And as I cooked, Bill used the two deep sinks to stay a half step ahead of the most serious pre-dinner washing up.

I convinced Bill to chop off the grotesque long neck of the goose with the homicide knife, then we made a broth for the gravy out of the horrible long neck boiled in water with celery leaves, onions, a bay leaf, red wine, thyme and a lot of carrot chunks. I loved smelling it, boiling there on the stove for hours. Soon the potatoes and garlic cloves were sitting in water, ready to go. The green beans were snapped and lined up in a pretty blue pan, ready to be steamed in broth in the last few minutes. The kitchen was starting to fill up with the smells of goose and squash and maple, layered over the scent of the broth, the apple and cinnamon and all that happy dairy and olive fat. It smelled like home.

While I was cooking, I felt as though I were channeling every adult woman in my life, as well as my Dad and my father-in-law, as I had the dubious fatherly honor of taking responsibility for cooking a large hunk of stuffed poultry as well as all the sides. Although I have always been a reasonably responsible and effective adult, it has taken me longer than usual to find my domestic groove. It helped to imagine all of my culinary mentors dancing around with me to the R&B CD I was playing in the kitchen.

Like I said earlier in my account of this sojourn into this life as a stay-at-home-human, when you work full time and raise two kids, you have to let a few things go. This has been my year to get one or two of those things back. Watching myself juggle all the dishes and sieves and oils and vegetables of all colors and sizes felt a little like the first day I drove my car alone, or the first time I took a real exam in college, or the first time I taught an English class or ran a faculty meeting or belted out “White Rabbit” big and loud in front of a real band in a real bar. Whith is to say, I felt like a kid just pretending to be a grownup, but somehow pulling it all off.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bill and my inlaws were on hand to watch the kids and slice and dice things and cook the parts that I wasn’t so sure about (Laura was Johnny on the Spot for dish duty, Linda was totally clutch with the gravy, and Gus stepped in as the resident carver.) They all kept up a steady stream of encouragement and advice, and kept the pesky kids out of my short hair. Bill got the last minute groceries and picked up our mess of a house, then swept the terrace, set the long stone table outside with two yellow cloths, and put out the good dishes and silverware.

Yes, I said “outside.” For believe it or not, ye sad residents of New England, shivering under the chill of November’s Grey Sticks, we ate outside, in the sunny warm Provençal afternoon. Bill parked a big blue glass vase of irises at the end of the table, past which we could see the orange, green, and blue layers of the hillside, the trees, and the sky far beyond. It was a beautiful day.

And Bittman or no Bittman, it turned out that I had plenty of time and help and clear Joy of Cooking recipes all meshed together to get it all done, without ever breaking much of a sweat. And still sit outside with a few gobs of Epoisse, watching Grace and Finn place the last pieces in the jigsaw puzzle they had been doing all afternoon. And still take the time to hear Abigail outside with Grandpa on the driveway, zooming up and down the hill on her little blue-and-pink bike. I used to think that cooking was magic, or impossible, or otherwise somehow beyond me. Now I see that it is all about ingredients, and attention, and time. Since I had all three, it really wasn’t as hard as I had thought.

I cooked the goose until I was sure that it was good and done, and then loudly announced that I was giving it 15 minutes more, "just to be safe." I was weighing the value of easing Gus’s mind about potential microbes against the possibility of overcooking the meat, but I was confident that it would still be good, as I had basted and basted all afternoon, using a stainless steel baster to pour molten fat over the skin again and again.

(Sorry, squeamish vegetarians: I should have put a warning label on this post. But perhaps you should just assume that pretty much everything I will write from here on out will include foods made from at least half a dozen different sorts of animal products. As much as I have long worshipped the author Jonathan Safran Foer, even his newest book, Eating Animals, is unlikely to shake my deep, dark affection for eating things that used to be sentient….

((And speaking of JSF, the super-crushworthy young author of Everything is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I probably never told you my story about my close encounter with his genius at the French Consulate as we were preparing to come to France. During our second of three visits to the Consulate in Manhattan, we happened to line up just behind His Literary Excellency. I was nearly out of my mind, torn between my sick desire to find some brilliant and unusual way to tell him how much j'adore his writing and my other sick desire to play it cool and not bother the famous guy. The line was really, really long and boring, so I had over an hour to turn this dilemma over in my mind, and finally ended up leaving the poor guy alone.

It’s likely that I was in fact the only person in the room to recognize him. As supremely cool as he is, most authors are not exactly moviestars. But I have had awhile to work on this celebrity crush, since I saw so him frequently walking his dog in the Slope. He and his presumably lucky wife live around the corner from the school where I worked.

But now, as he was clearly moving to France just like we were, I would probably have him as a neighbor once again. He and his family would find himself, maybe even in Aups, without any English-speaking friends or neighbors, and when he saw me adorably addressing my cute children in English, he would invite me over for a pastis and let me have a first read of his next brilliant novel. Lucky girl that I was, I would become his new best friend, in France. Years later, back in Park Slope, we would continue to greet one another with bisous and “Salut,” and our dogs would romp together in the Park. Being the kind of guy who makes his own trips to the Consulate, rather than relying on his agents and handlers, he was clearly down to earth and cool, exactly the kind of guy who would be fun to hang out with in France.

In case you are wondering, I did have this weird and stalkerish fantasy totally worked through in my head during that hour long wait, although I was pretty sure that his visa would be taking him to Paris rather than to the French equivalent of Belchertown, Massachusetts.

But for reasons other than the more obvious ones, our friendship was not to be. For when he finally arrived at the counter, he had literally none of the proper papers copied or notarized. Nothing. He stood there with his passport and an application, apparently assuming that the French would be just as happy to see him as I was. As far as I can tell, the French are mostly happy about wine, olives, cheese, and the fact that they themselves are French. American wunderkinder are not on their list of things to get excited about.

He started pulling receipts and things out of his wallet, apparently believing that the necessary papers might have been stuffed in there somehow. Hadn’t the guy even looked at the visa website? Did he think this place was the damn DMV? When they refused to relent, he walked away, clearly seriously pissed off, but without ever pulling the “I’m a Fabulous Author, Give Me My Stupid Visa” card. I was very impressed with his restraint, but also reminded, yet again, that famous people can be just as spazzy and disorganized as the rest of us.

Or I should say, “as spazzy and disorganized as I would have been,” because of course I was there with Suave and Organized Bill, not with JSF, and thus suffered no similar embarrassment at the bulletproof glass counters. For Bill had been dedicating most of his spare brainpower to the Visa Problem for months before this visit.

In fact, recognizing the horrific difficulty of the Visa Problem, Bill had applied his full compliment of legal research skills to the project, rather than adopting our family’s usually laissez-faire attitude towards things involving papers and deadlines and rules. He had been documenting and gathering and translating like crazy, and probably had in his possession notarized triplicate copies of my fifth grade report card. While we didn’t get the visa that day, we did, pretty soon afterwards, with a minimum of embarrassment. The officials at the consulate even complimented him as they sent us away that day, in a sort of “We admire your skills” sort of manner.

The whole non-interaction had a dual effect: it seriously tempered one of my most enduring celebrity crushes, and also reminded me of yet another reason why Bill is so terrific.))

OK, apologies for the author-story digression from the vegetarian-apology digression. I can’t imagine that anyone else finds this celebrity story nearly as exciting as I do, and for that, my apologies. But to summarize and get back to the story: I love eating animals so much that even the ethical and literary brilliance of one of my favorite living authors can’t shake me. And then one time I saw him, when we were both standing in the same line. And now back to our irregularly-scheduled Thanksgiving food orgy.)

So, unless you are looking at our Thanksgiving dinner meal from the perspective of the goose, the story of my first major holiday meal is one of those potentially scary stories that wasn’t.

The goose itself was a total revelation. “That goose isn’t happy,” Finn remarked upon seeing it pulled from the oven, all dark and hot and bursting with little bits of bread and chestnut and pancetta. We all laughed at his unintentional joke, then Gus carved it apart into slices and drumsticks and crispy brown skin. With no disrespect to the all the turkeys I’ve loved before, I must say that Jess and Gerard's goose might have been just the tiniest bit better.

The stuffing was so delicious that we all spent the first several minutes after saying our Thankfuls merely sniffing it in amazement. The potatoes were buttery and light, all crème-fraichy goodness, and the squash was sweet and hot. I had basted the beans with the gooseneck broth and chucked in a nice hunk of butter to melt over them. The green salad started with mustard, white balsamic vinegar, honey and olive oil whisked in the bottom of a big wooden salad bowl, with beets and little pieces of white cauliflower put in it to marinate. I topped that with deeply colored lettuce, then let it sit in the fridge to wait for the end of dinner to be tossed and consumed. (As though a little vegetable on top of all that saturated fat would make it all better.)

There was a minor rebellion about the fact that there were only two drumsticks to be had (one of the three children in attendance, who will remain nameless, was really upset about this fact.) But other than that, I think we all really really loved being together out in the sunshine, eating delicious food and drinking a hearty red.

Or maybe that was just the rush of pride (and wine) to my head. For Bill’s kind and gentle and generous family praised my efforts and ate seconds and appeared to savor every single morsel. The sun moved around in the sky to shine on our table as dinner unfolded. There were lots of happy warm stories, but not a single cross word (unless you count a few sharp instructions to the kids to cease and desist their various kid shenanigans during the ramp-up to the meal, and the meal itself.)

We had the sunshine, we had good wine, we had France, and we had one another. Thankful indeed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Moitié de Vide (Half Empty)



Or, should you prefer, half full.



This has been our experience in this first part of our year away. We so often feel empty -- of Brooklyn, of our jobs, of our friends, of the old certainties. But we are also full -- of time, of love, of regret, of longing, of lunch.

This week, the school world we left behind is sending out report cards, and I can't help but be in a reflective mood, going back to try to figure out what I've been learning, and what I have not, yet. I've started quoting ambient temperatures in Celcius, although I still have to look up the correlation between 375 degrees and 190 for the oven. I have learned, with a new degree of certainty, that to treat two kids fairly, you often need to treat them (very) differently.  I can drive just about anywhere without getting lost at all, and I can cook well enough that my inlaws call me (with extreme generosity) "the French chef."  My French is improving rapidly, yet I still stumble through any conversations that are too much more complicated than Foux de fa fa.

In case you're just joining us, here are, in a sort of greatest hits mode, a few snapshots.

On the half that feels empty:

Nothing Doing
We May Need To Start Seeing Other People

Two posts about feeling full:

It's the Food, Stupid
Walking The Line

And two about the fact that you can't have one without the other:

Kill Farmer Brown
If It's Not Good, It's Bad

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thanks, Man. I mean it.

I was really unfair in running down Thanksgiving not even a month ago when I was trying to express how much we miss American Halloween. But now that it is on its way, I realize that I really love Thanksgiving. Unlike holidays that can get a little too fraught or commercial, or that make me feel bad about not being particularly religious, Thanksgiving is right up there with Halloween in the pantheon of holiday excellence.

One of the many unexpected benefits of this year away from home is that we are learning about why we love what we left behind in America. Southern France is a truly excellent place to truly live, and we are reveling in all the things I celebrated so happily in my previous post. But we are also coming to more deeply appreciate the things we can’t have here so easily: our friends, our dog, our block, our takeout, our Annie’s Mac and Cheese. Add to that Thanksgiving, which we will approximate this year, but not actually replicate. For the food-oriented reader, menu details follow.

But first I have a non-France related Lengthy Muse about why I love Thanksgiving so much.

First, Thanksgiving lasts just the right length of time. It starts on Thursday morning with the first celery sticks, and ends on Thursday night with one last turkey-and-stuffing-on-white-bread-with-mayo sandwich before you toddle on off to bed. Following one self-contained day of eating and happiness, if you are extremely lucky, you might even get the long weekend off afterwards. Those three days tend to feel even luckier in that they are free of holiday responsibilities, and generally even of holiday parties and events.

(Of course, talk about lucky, I started by taking the July 4 weekend off, then just kept going.)

Second: Thanksgiving is about as un-commercial as you can get. There is no such thing as designer pumpkin pie filling. (Don’t get any funny ideas, Martha Stewart; or, if you do, I want a cut of the profits.) You don’t see paper turkeys piling up in stores just after Fourth of July, or ads reminding you in panicked tones that you have only 86 days to purchase your cans of cranberry jelly. A big corporation may have to set aside some cash to sponsor a large helium balloon in the shape of Tigger for the Macy’s parade, but your average American doesn’t have anything in particular that he or she must buy. Sure, it’s a fairly expensive dinner for Grandma to make, but when you divide the cost out by all the people she is feeding with her cheerful slave labor, it’s a lot cheaper than getting everybody Chinese takeout.

Third: for those of us lucky enough to have families with Grandmas attached, it’s also a holiday that is all about family. It’s a great day for reinforcing those familiar and soothing old gender roles: none of that pesky feminism mars Thanksgiving day, as the girls pretend to enjoy bustling about making pies and doing dishes, and the men pretend to enjoy theatrically cutting the meat and watching the television. There may be some relatively minor conflicts over whether or not there will be new side dishes (In this corner, the Purists, champions of the candied yams; in this corner the Avant-Garde, bearing the Nouveau-Oaxacan chorizo-stuffed peppers.) But generally, everyone comes and goes without a lot of in-depth discussion that might get an otherwise happy Tolstoyan family into some awful Dostoevskian debacle.

Fourth: Tradition. At my family’ Thanksgiving, our own traditions were inherited from two sets of Grandparents’ houses, then evolved only very slowly over the years. First, we eat olives and tell off-color jokes, jokes for which Aunt Mary actively prepares for several months in advance; then Dad says a grace with lots of Thees and Thous in it, and we eat Aunt Bonnie’s oyster stuffing; and then, as a finale, everyone recovers from all that active socializing by taking a nap somewhere in the house – often on the living room’s wall-to-wall carpet. (As much as we love one another, we’re the kind of people who get a little overwhelmed in crowds; the nap really helps.) Always, between dinner and pie, we all remember how much we love and miss Grandma June, and the weepers in the crowd have to go find a Kleenex or three.

At Bill’s family’s Thanksgiving, there are fewer jokes, but a lot more chaos, inflicted by the six to ten children in attendance. Instead of grace, we have toasts where everybody clinks everybody’s glass and looks everybody in the eye. Speaking of toasts, there is also a lot more wine consumed than at my house (Prosecco with hors d’oeuvres, and Beaujolais Nouveau later on.) No oyster stuffing, but always tiny creamed onions and really excellent kinds of cheese. I really like the yummy wine, but I kind of miss the naps.

But on balance, it’s just as great as Thanksgiving at my house, without having to be better or worse. The turkeys are cooked slightly differently in the two houses, but both houses insist that their way is the best. And I agree. They really are.

Fifth: I love Thanksgiving because it is the one time in the year that Americans can go around with impunity expressing how grateful they are for their remarkable good fortune. It’s a pretty damn fat and happy country, America is, and by all rights everyone in the United States with a decent income and health insurance should probably be walking around on our knees with gratitude all year long. As it is, we rarely talk about our good fortune unselfconsciously.

There’s something self-righteous about being too overtly grateful. If you’re too damn thankful, you can risk coming off like one of those religious zealots loudly thanking their own personal lord and savior for their apparently deserved good fortune. This to me sounds as though the loud praying person is implying that He divvies out His Favors most generously to His Deserving Favorites, something I simply cannot allow myself to believe of any Supreme Being worth His salt.

Or a thankful tone might just sound tacky and braggy. “I am so grateful,” the tacky, braggy person might intone, “for my wonderful family and my beautiful warm house and the food on my table and the fact that my pants fit me so nicely.” This kind of nonsense probably sounds even worse when knitted into a blog. Yet this same sentence, uttered in the last week of November, sounds just fine, and culturally acceptable.

Worse than sounding self-righteous or braggy, being loudly thankful may mean that you just sound dumb (in that way that critical people often believe that being so darn grouchy makes them smarter than other people.)

Parisians, I have read, apparently take this to an entirely new level, also believing that complaining itself is evidence of how smart you are. I had lots of acquaintances in gradual school also firmly rooted in this system of belief, but maybe they learned it from reading too much French critical theory, or in their semester abroad at the Sorbonne. In this universe, a holiday like Thanksgiving would be not only stupid, but potentially so stupid as to be downright American.

Which it is, and which is the sixth and last reason I like it. Thanksgiving is all ours. Even Canada (that bunch of copycats) had the good sense to move their Thanksgiving a few weeks earlier, so as not to be in the way. The classic Thanksgiving menu is full of things that you can get easily in America, and only with difficulty elsewhere.

My new friends, Judith and Frederick, have actually made a Parisian livelihood out of this fact, feeding sad and lonely ex-patriots our comfort/fetish foods. At their store, (named, of course, Thanksgiving), they order pie filling and cranberries by the case, and serve as one of the most reliable sources for stuffable turkey in the Parisian metropolitan area. If for some reason you find yourself in Paris bereft of the proper supplies for a good old fashioned American TG, go there. (It’s also great for H&H bagels, Kraft Mac and Cheese, pop-tarts, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for the other 364 days a year. Plus really great catering, and weekend brunch.)

In fact, today’s post is inspired by Judith. A few weeks ago, she sent out an email asking for her friends’ Thanksgiving Plans to be posted on the store’s website. Which got me not only thinking about the menu, but also writing about why I am so happy Thanksgiving is on its way, and that we will likely celebrate it twice.

This week, on Saturday, our family will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s pretty strange to have Thanksgiving on a Saturday, but this was the time that Grandma and Grandpa could get away, and be in a beautiful house in Southern France with all their grandkids. After Grandma and Grandpa head home, real Thanksgiving will be a school day. I’m thinking that we’ll do a slightly more subdued version that night, possibly with a smoked turkey leg from the market.

But Saturday is the re-scheduled main eating event. To decide what to serve, I consulted the cookbook that I bought in Paris at the English bookstore just down the street from Thanksgiving: The Joy of Cooking. Because, as I revealed earlier, I have never actually cooked a holiday meal in my own house. I have been in a grandmother-heavy environment my entire life, (as opposed to a heavy-grandmother environment -- they have all been in great shape.) So while I sometimes peel the potatoes, or make a little salad or a pie or something, I have always lived too far away and been too self-involvedly busy doing other things to be of much use. So I will need a good guidebook to remind me not to leave out some of the crucial items that make people so aware of their good fortune.

So, to answer Judith’s question, what will we eat this year? Well, for starters, not Turkey. I know, sacrilege, a word I’m not sure I can even spell properly (Paris Jessica? You got me on the assist, girl?)

Instead, we will eat a goose, raised by Aups Jessica and Gerard, guarded by their sheepdog Alba, and fattened over many happy months in the Provençal sun on the top of a mountain overlooking the Gorges du Verdun. This goose is so free range that it actually chased and hissed at us when visited the farm. It has been years since I have eaten something that threatened me first.

Since Jess and Gerard know we’ve never cooked a goose before, they kindly agreed to kill it on Thursday, then pluck it and dry the skin and stuff it full of chestnuts and truffles so that we can just stick it in the oven and then enjoy. We toyed briefly with the idea of asking them to stuff the goose with rabbit, particularly once we enjoyed some yummy bunny burgers at their house a few weeks ago. But truffles are nothing to sneeze at, unless you’re allergic.

We have planned to anchor the goose with a combination of French treats and American side-dishes, in their most recognizable forms. The menu I am imagining feels a lot like that “something old, something new, something borrowed…” phrase for wedding days. But rather than just one of each, there will be lots of things new, old, or borrowed. And likely nothing at all that is blue. Unless I get Roquefort.

The most obvious “new” things are the newly-killed goose, stuffed with chestnuts, and the truffles. We’ll also have great cheeses (old to France, new to us), including fresh chevre, St. Nectaire, and Epoisse. (Bill’s family back home: I am sure that you will eat your hearts out on this score.) We will employ our new little French radish trick, dipping them in salted butter. If we can get our hands on it, we will have wild boar sausage, along with our new favorite white wine, Clara Lua from Chateau Miraval.

Usually at my parents’ house we get black olives in a can to eat in advance of the meal, and those of us under 45 years old stick them on our fingers just like we did when June was the presiding Grandma. (OK, it’s possible that I am the only one who actually does that.) There are no canned olives here, but I am quite sure we can improvise from the local supplies. So put olives in both columns: old, but new as well.

Sitting beside that new goose, we will have lots of things borrowed. I will borrow my cousin Carol’s trick for mashed potatoes, and put in lots of sour cream, although this year I will use crème fraiche (you’d have to teach me the difference, anyway.) We have the sweetness of Edwards farm maple syrup to give the roasted squash a taste of home. I will borrow Linda’s way of making dressing for the big green salad, and Mom’s and Gaela’s apple pie recipe, this time with Lavender honey from the Var. I will make the green beans like Aimé always did, with slivered almonds.

And what is old? How about the stuff that is as old as that Cape Cod Thanksgiving itself: pumpkin and cranberry. Of course, by that I mean pumpkin pie filling and cranberry jelly, both from cans. These cans are, however, coming to us via the French mail system, so maybe they will get here and maybe they won’t. So perhaps for old I will have to mix up some eggnog from the Joy of Cooking recipe, and think wistfully of the days when I could just drive down to a Stewart’s to pick up a quart.

I’m also hoping, since I am now suddenly the woman in charge of a holiday meal, to get a little of that old fashioned dishwashing help from some of the other women and girls in the house. I’m happy -- unabashedly thankful even -- to have the time for once to cook the bird and roll out pie crust and mush up root vegetables. I’m nearly 40, as I keep repeating, and it’s time for me to show it, with some cheerful slave labor and recourse to old gender roles, a new goose, some borrowed recipes, and runny blue cheese.

I have the menu planned, and a list of what I will need to buy at which market, and when, over the next few days. The demise of the goose has been scheduled. The beans we’ll get in Nice, and the sausages and honey and apples and radishes at the local market on Saturday. I will figure out the right order in which to cook it all, and I’ll probably use both ovens and all six burners – four gas and two electric. There will be some disaster or another with one or more of the things I will cook, and we’ll get lots of dishes dirty.

At the start of our meal, we’ll combine the two family traditions by first holding hands to say what we are thankful for (no thees or thous, but lots of gratitude) and then clinking our glasses, even the kids.

If all goes well, once the pigging out is done, and the tablecloth covered with pie crumbs, I’m going to leave the washing up to someone else, and curl up on one of the sofas. I will celebrate my great good fortune as an American in the south of France by lying down in the sun that I am sure will be shining through the windows, to take a good old fashioned Thanksgiving nap.

Sunday, November 15, 2009