Thursday, December 10, 2009

Buying a Little Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But also:

Whenever Launa goes, then she is.


  1. Deep sigh. Nice, Launa, very nice.

    What a wonderful family sabbatical in France book this is all going to turn into. Together with visa advice, immunization advice, recipes, homeschooling abroad recommendations, expat gathering spots, and market hours...

  2. sigh ....
    thank you for helping me figure out what the questions are. and for so impressively role-modeling a way of starting to answer them.