Thursday, February 18, 2010

Welcome to France. But we’re Fermé.

When I invited Stephanie and her family over to visit us in Aups, I really really hoped they would come, but couldn’t really believe that they would be able to make it. Unlike in France, where pretty much everybody goes skiing in February, and pretty much everybody can count on seven weeks paid vacation, family vacations are a precious commodity in the U.S., not to be easily squandered.

But then again, friendships like mine with Stephanie don’t just happen every day. They take decades. Stephanie and I became friends when we were the same age as our two youngest girls are now. She remained my very best friend, whether or not I deserved it, through all of middle school, and every glorious and awful day of high school. We passed notes in class, marched together in our blue polyester band uniforms, we shared details of every new life-altering crush, or every crushing social defeat.

Throughout my life, we’ve been on parallel tracks. We both left our little town for the colleges of our dreams. She ran fast; I sang loud. Both of us the oldest girls in our families, we always maintained at least the appearance of doing everything right (even when we were happily indulging together in some well-deserved mischief or another.)

We both met our eventual husbands early in our lives, then were married within a year of one another, wearing bridesmaid dresses of a very similar blue in photos both taken in Congress Park. Miracle of miracles, we eventually ended up in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, living even closer to one another than when we were kids.

When Grace was born, eleven years ago, Stephanie – also pregnant with her first child – was there to help me through the final, deeply awful hours of labor. And then, when Nicholas was born, three months later, I drove her and Jason to the hospital, and stayed to do what I could to help her as she had helped me. Our second children were born just ten days apart, weeks after September 11, 2001. And now our husbands and both pairs of kids have formed their own friendships.

All of this sounds very heavy, I’m sure – and we have certainly born not just children, but also some pretty heavy burdens together. But mostly when I think about Stephanie, I think of how hard we have been laughing – always together, and loudly – for over thirty years now. For Stephanie is not only one of the best mothers, and friends, I know – she’s also one of the most consistently joyful and grateful people I’ve ever met.

She and Jason flew to Paris last Friday, with Nicholas (10) and Sydney (8) in tow. They would spend three days in Paris, then take the TGV down to Aix-en-Provence to spend three days with us. What is the French word for “Yippee!!!???”

So today I am once again at the big oak kitchen table, interviewing Stephanie and Jason about their adventures here in France. We’re drinking French tea (menthe and verviene), and nibbling on French bread, and trying to make sense of a world that is just about opposite to the one we left in the city that never sleeps.

Because back home, everything is for sale, all the time. Restaurants will even deliver just about anything you might want, at any time of the day or night. But since Steph and Jason arrived here in France, everything seems to be closed. Fermé.

Launa: So Jason, maybe you could tell me about your time in Paris.

Jason: No, have Stephanie start! Tell your McDonald’s story!

Launa: Oh, you mean when first every single one of the crepes stands were closed? And then the McDonald’s, too?

Stephanie: No, the McDonald’s was open! Everything else I went to on Tuesday morning was closed, but the McDonald’s was actually open. I remember on our school trip to Paris when I was fifteen being so excited that we could order beer at the McDonald’s, and I wanted to go back.

Launa: For a breakfast beer?

Stephanie: No! Just breakfast. So the cashier took my order for Trois Eggs McMuffin, on which I expected trés bon bacon.

Jason: “Jambon,” you mean.

Steph: Yes. Tres bon jambon. So I gave the order, and the cashier started to put it into the computer. But then, out of nowhere, a man – un garcon – came sweeping over to me. He was this little guy, but definitely had a sweeping presence about him, and he said, sweepingly and definitively and certainly, “FERMÉ!”

Launa: This was what time?

Stephanie: 9:30. In the morning. Around the time you have Egg McMuffins.

Jason: And it was a week day. A Tuesday morning. Not even a weekend.

Launa: Was there any explanation? Was there a jambon strike? Did the hens stop laying McEggs? Did the French finally decide to close all their McDonalds permanently in an attempt to get rid of all the American tourists?

Steph: No. Nothing of the sort. Or at least nothing I could figure out. I gave the universal shrug and hands up , and repeated, totally incredulous, “Fermé???”

And in unison, they both now said, “Fermé.”

But I had another question:

(You will notice, as I did early on, that Stephanie is not one to just let things go…)

I said, “Quelle heure Egg McMuffin?

And I got, once again in unison, “Fermé!” But this time they turned, in unison, like some despotic French drill team, and walked away. There was nobody else in the store, so it seemed pretty final to me.

Launa: But France is such a hospitable, clearly-organized, friendly and sensible country! There couldn’t have been anything else closed, or difficult to get into! That would be so strange!

Stephanie: Well, as we learned, the restaurants on Valentines’ day were also pretty darn fermé.

Jason: When there was nobody in them, except for one other table.

Stephanie: Based on our unfortunate experiences, I highly recommend a reservation in the City of Love on St. Valentine’s Day.

Jason: Even when – no wait, especially when -- the restaurants are trés empty.

Launa: How many did you visit?

Stephanie: We were coming from the Louvre, and we were cold, hungry, and tired. Eight of us. We had met up with another family from Brooklyn, and we were determined to use our guidebook, which was part of the problem. We were going to find something on the list. I mean, we’re New Yorkers. If it was on the list, we needed to go to it.

Jason: And our friend Joe, in particular, insisted on Le Grand Colbert, because he likes Steven Colbert.

Launa: Wait, Is Steven Colbert French?

(This was news to me.)

Jason: Well, yes. Or at least his name is.

And here Jason whipped out his Blackberry to read me a text message. Jason’s colleagues will be gratified to know that his Blackberry never left his side, even in our most festive and debauched moments over wine-and-cheese…

Jason: Here is the text message from our friend, who finally got in: “Went to Colbert last night, and words can not do it justice. Lucy ate her pasta with escargot tongs.”

Stephanie: I think they could not handle the fact that we did not have a reservation, because they can’t move people in and out in an hour and a half. There was definitely a misunderstanding in our purpose: we promised “Vite! Vite!” and they still said “Non. No reservation.”

Launa: Wait. You must have gotten some food eventually! The suspense is killing me!

Stephanie: We went to about six restaurants. And in each one we got the same very sad faces. Well, actually they weren’t that sad – just matter of fact. No reservation? Fermé.

Launa: Well, fermé to you at least. What did you eventually get to eat?

(You will notice that Launa is not one to let things go easily, either…)

Stephanie: We went to a German Restaurant…

Jason: (correcting her) Alsatian. It’s the French part of Germany. Or the German part of France.

Stephanie: OK, Alsatian. I don’t think our high school French teacher taught us that. But in lots of other things, Mr. Allen taught me well. Like I knew exactly what they meant when they said “Fermé!”

Launa: Oh really? Care to comment specifically on things you remember from French class?

Stephanie was extremely quiet for a minute, as though she were searching for the nicest way to say something potentially not very nice. Then she said, “Well, I remember you questioning Mr. Allen and Mr. Allen sneering back at you, super irritated. But then again, you did that to a lot of teachers.”

I then decided we’d had enough about me. Back to the Alsatian dinner.

Stephanie: I stuck with the Risotto. But Jason was much more adventurous.

Jason: What did I order? It started with a “c.” Not cassoulet.

Stephanie: You called it heart attack on a plate.

Jason: I thought the c-word meant “Quiche,” or casserole or something which is what I thought I was getting. With sauerkraut.

Launa, (incredulous): I know your family is French and German, but you ordered a sauerkraut quiche??

Jason: I knew it wasn’t quiche, but I thought it was a casserole. Joe got the same thing, but with fish. It looked better. Mine was one big pig knuckle, plus three different kinds of sausages. Tres grands sausages. And the French bacon. I’m not a big fan of French bacon: way too thick. No human could eat the amount of food that was there. I didn’t even touch the pig knuckle.

Stephanie: It was a pretty ugly knuckle. Did we take a picture of that?

(The picture had, in fact, been taken. Ugly, as charged.)

Launa: OK, So at least today you had a peaceful experience heading to our local church in Aups. Right? I mean, Bill went to the Mairie, like a good host, to ask about how you could get ashes on Ash Wednesday, right?

Stephanie: Well, today is what you call a holy day of obligation. Because today is Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church. And Catholic means “Universal.” So I assumed I would go to a Catholic Church and get ashes on my forehead.

And, yes, our very nice host, Bill , had gone in the day before to ask about Ash Wednesday, and the woman behind the desk at the town hall said, “Something very special was happening on Wednesday , at 3 PM.”

And here, I must break away from this interview to include the entire text of the e-mail that Stephanie later sent to her French friends, her family and mine, and the advisor of her Parish’s religious education program. Because it is just so much better coming straight from her:

To All (French friends, family, and Oratory advisor)

We are all having quite the adventure in this medieval southern French town. As I look out I see buildings dating back to 1200, olive trees, vineyards, wild thyme, rosemary, and terraces of cultivated land. It's hard to believe I have a computer in front of me and can ask this question instantaneously to anyone who knows....

What is worse to crash in a foreign country - a wedding or a funeral?

Today Jason and I walked to the village church at 2:45 PM, looking for ashes, thinking that Catholic traditions were universal -- even in medieval towns in southern France. We followed an elderly woman in a purple beret right to the church where others were wandering in.

I thought, how interesting! All things are universal, and we are all heading to the same place for ashes. (But then, Uhum, I thought. Why so many bouquets of flowers in the back of the church?) Jason noted that everyone in the church was not only over 80, but also that they fill the church from the middle of the church to the back, just like in the US. We had some interesting glances/stares at us sitting in the back and way to the right, even though we thought we were out of the way and won't be noticed. At 2:50 the music started.

I wondered: music on Ash Wednesday? Next was the procession of all the townspeople. The front and back of church and standing room area are filled.

Then, next: a casket with bouquets. I was fascinated – what an interesting commemoration of the death of Jesus!

Then as the procession continued flowing in with people wiping their weeping eyes it hit me- WE ARE NOT HERE FOR ASHES. WE ARE AT A VILLAGE FUNERAL. Of course our French is not bien enough for Jason and me to have figured this out earlier, but yes we were at a funeral. Les enfants, la mere, the familie and Jason and I, right here in this ancient Catholic Church.

Oh Mon Dieu!! Where in God's name were the ashes for this Good Catholic Girl and obedient husband who escorted me to town on our vacation?

But I still had high hopes. We couldn't ask the 90 year old with cane and three umbrellas to move so we could run out of the church. So we sit it out for the entire mass. I tried to receive communion (why not, we were there in God's good graces), but I was boxed out by an elderly French woman.

But we knew when it was time to go: when the entire village went up to sprinkle oil on the casket. That was the limit for me (and Jason, who could have sortie a la port from the beginning.)

Outside of the enormous church double doors and across a tiny street at the cafe/bar were all the rest of the townspeople who could not fit in the church during this service. Perhaps because there were intruders taking up valuable sitting space?

But I just couldn't stop there. I had to know where the ashes were. There was not one forehead marked with the sign of the cross in this village. Nada. No one. The priest(s) I was going to ask were leading the procession of villagers and a casket in a flower adorned, merlot-colored VW minivan through the town to the burial place.... so that was out.

The villagers were spilling out of the church. Some remained in the procession and some headed over to the bar across the street. But I was not about to give up on the ashes. I asked a policeman, two elderly, two middle aged people, a shop-keeper, and finally a mom with two small boys about “Ashes du Mercredi” in my best French possible. And from them all I got was a very blank stare and “Je ne sais pas??” They had no idea what I was talking about. Blank stare after blank stare. Then one said, "You speak Englais?" "Oui," I said, eagerly, thinking I will get my answer and my ashes. She replied, "Oh, I don't know. And I don't go." (to church, I’m sure she meant.)

Back to the house and Wikipedia. We learned that it's actually “Mecredi des Cendres” translated properly. In a text from our friend Jeanmarie, back in Paris, we learned that ashes do not exist in any part of France. She even tried to get them at Sacre Coeur in Paris!

Any one have any info for us?

Amen if you do!

(And here, we will return to the interview…)

Launa: (wiping her eyes with hysterical laughter) Oh, I wish I had been there.

Jason: So she was laughing in the middle of Church.

Launa: (still laughing, though not in Church) When did she start laughing?

Jason: When she saw the coffin. And the people crying. There comes the casket! And I said, “Oh, Mon Merde!”

Stephanie; I think that means “Oh My Shit.”

Jason: You know, just about everyone in town was there. Bill had noted everything was “Fermé -- They were all at the funeral, that’s why. Except you!

Stephanie: The guy in front of us was a 80 year old man whose jacket said Lucky Jeans.

Launa: Maybe he felt lucky not to be dead. Because that other guy? Talk about Fermé.

So Welcome to France, my dear friend. No Egg McMuffin. No reservations on Valentine’s Day.

And, I’m sad to say, no ashes on Ash Wednesday in France.

1 comment:

  1. I am laughing out loud alone in my office.