Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Maurice the Farmer

I have known Maurice almost ever since I moved to this town. He's the man who delivers my firewood, and also the one who has taught me much about the French ways of life on a small French farm, food preservation, animal husbandry, and the ways they've been doing those things since forever. I have learned to raise and kill, cook and preserve, all manner of edible animal, thanks to Maurice...although I don't always do it his way, when I'm on my own.

When it comes to gardens, however, Maurice likes to think of himself as a modern farmer, and laughs and mocks my 'green' ways, while refusing to listen to my ideas as he merrily broadcasts fertilizer around his vegetables, mostly ignoring the rich cowpoop just meters away. He has never heard of Ruth Stout and her method of mulch and compost, not will he ever want to.

When I first met him, Maurice and his widowed mother were the only ones left living in the small building that serves as both house and barn. The old, old farmhouse, with its big rounded door in the center, big enough for the tractor to get into and park, had been made of stones recuperated from an ancient Protestant Temple, long crumbled to rubble and forgotten somewhere within the forest that grew around and over it. The house is named for these stones, and is called what translates into 'Saved by God'.

Through the stone-arched doorway and into the central part of the house is where the toilet and the bathroom have been built in recent times in small added-on rooms by the big white sink. The washing machine and the freezer are there, too, just underneath the hanging hams in their cheesecloth bags lined with bayleaves and the drying sausages that are cut to slice thinly and serve with bread and butter and drinks as an aperitif before a meal. The hayloft is just up an old wooden staircase, and any small stray wisps of hay that might have fallen on your way to cut off a hunk of sausage is swiftly and neatly swept up by Maurice, and the compacted dirt floor is always as clean and shiny as a new pin.

The cows are tied up in a close line in a small and dark room over to the left, which is next to the tiny door into the granary where feedcorn is taken off the cob by an old hand-cranked machine, to be fed to the animals or sold to people like me. The granary door is kept ajar for most of the spring and the summer, as there are swallows nests stuck to the low beams, and the birds fly in and out with worms and bugs for their babies to eat. Once the swllows migrate south for the winter, Maurice will close the door. This is about as human as I have ever seen him towards animals.

Next to the granary is the point in the farmhouse that's the most northernly, and therefore the coolest, being furthest from the heat of the sun...this is where the provisions are kept. It does the heart good and is always such a pleasure to go in and review the rows of canned goods, baskets of eggs, earthenware pots of confit topped with lard or of coagulating blood, potatoes, apples, and onions, perhaps a cooling and aging hare or mutton strung up by its feet, cooling beer, wine, and bottles and bottles of preserved, home-made patés and bloodpuddings, pork crackling, greenbeans, tomatoes, and piperade.

Maurice's mother, Alexis, bless her kind heart for she's dead now these past few years, never hesitated to tell me how things were done on their small farm, or in her open-fireplaced kitchen that was always a little bit smoke-filled because of the draw of the chimney. She would make me a cup of coffee, and, if the fire was lit, prop up a piece of baguette against the iron firestanchions to make toast for us both, and we'd sit and catch up on the gossip or she'd tell me about how to duplicate whatever happened to be cooking on the big stove, as one of us would almost continuously feed small bits of wood into the fire or stir the ashes.

Maurice keeps the small bits of wood for household use, and it is rare that I see a big chunk of wood in their fireplace. Maybe at night, during the coldest of winter dark nights, there might be a big log or two, to keep the cold at bay and make the fire last til morning...but I don't know, I never thought it polite to ask. He never eats his calves, either, but prefers to buy veal from the local supermarket, where it is cheaper per kilo that what he sells his baby cows for.

Sortly before Alexis died, they had put in one of those closed in fireplaces, the kind with glass on the front, where you could see the fire, and the whole place turned out warmer for it, with even a small morsel of wood lasting ages. Then Alexis spent most of her day cleaning the glass front, which wouldn't last long before it got black from the soot all over again. The room was a lot less smokey with the new fireplace insert, but Alexis and I missed our fireblackened toast.

Before the insert arrived, we'd have to crack open the door that led to the barn side of the house, in order to let in a draft so that the chimney would burn a bit better. It was a bit cold that way, plus we were in a dirct line to view the pale, big butts of the dozen or so Blonde d'Aquitaine cows that were tied up just across from the door, where they'd been brought in for the winter, into the dark corners of the interiour, to sleep on thorny bracken and have their early spring babies, which then end up being taken on the long truck journey to Italy, and being fattened as 'Baby Beef' for the plates of Italian gourmets.

The calves are taken at birth and locked into even darker corners of the barn, and when there is a newborn, both the calf and the cow moo so loudly and so often, that the door has to stay shut because of the clamour, and so Alexis and I would sit in a haze of smoke as we drank our coffee. Alexis had pores on her face that were permanently blackened by the smokey haze of the chimneyfire, little black specks on her nose where the soot had become ingrained, and her eayes were forever teary from either age of smoke, I couldn't tell.

It was a small place, the one room with a fireplace being the kitchen and the dining room where any and all guests sat at the big wooden table covered with a plastic tablecloth with scenes of hunting dogs and ducks on it. There was another small room at the back where Alexis slept, with a TV and a telephone on an old, beautifully-carved dresser. Off the kitchen was a closed doorway that led to a staircase, to the added-on upstairs bedroom where Maurice slept. There had once been six children in that family, with one or two of them sleeping down the road at an aunties house, where there was more room.

Alexis had been born in the small hamlet of about a dozen farmhouses, her people had once lived in the house that now belonged to the American woman and her Spanish lawyer husband, who lived in London and came down during the childrens school holidays. Alexis has one sister that had married within the small community, and two of her daughters have married two sons of Alexis, but both of those families have since moved up to Bordeaux and now only come down during the holidays, as well.

One other son and a daughter have married and moved to other towns, one in the countryside and one over at the coast. One brother still lives in the aunties house down the road where he'd slept as a child. Maurice is the only one left at home, and the only one that had chosen, or had it chosen for him, to be a farmer. He's never been married, and has been celibate for all of his life. After Alexis died, Maurice hired a housekeeper to come in a few times a week to clean and prepare meals for him, but, as she was a married woman, he remains as celibate as ever.

I don't think it was from lack of trying, though...as I have to fend off gropes and innuendoes each time that I go to visit. It was easier to deal with when Alexis was alive, as I would be able to put a stop to things, at least for a time, by threatening to go and tell her what a pig her son was. I've learned very quickly to not trap myself into a corner when I am alone in a room with Maurice, and also that a slap across his face sometimes does the trick. After all these years, we can, sort of, joke about it...but there have been times when I have sworn to myself that I will find another, less bothersome, supplier of firewood and feedstuff. One that I don't have to be polite to for community or mutual friends sake.

Besides the beautiful Blonde d'Aquitaine cows, Maurice raises ducks. He'll get in about forty or fifty day-old ducklings at the end of the summer, and by midwinter, those ducks will have been turned into foie gras, maigret, and confit de canard for Christmas tables. These duck products are one of the areas most productive and lucrative industries, with small farmers doing as few as a dozen, to industrial places doing thousands, and whole farmers markets devoted in the winter months to almost nothing but dead ducks hanging by their heads in rows with their bellies cut open and exposed, enlarged livers portruding and being haggled over.

Fois gras and confit are not simply expensive because they are delicious. It takes time and skill to raise a duck and force-feed it three times a day for three weeks before the slaughter date with hard feedcorn, lard, and salt, soaked and then boiled til tender. Each duck has to be taken and almost sat on or put in a special restrictive cage and then have an instrument that looks like a funnel with a coil inside and a small handle on the outside stuffed down its throat, with the hopper filled with the prepared, cooled, corn in it. Then, all the while restraining the animal, the little handle is turned, the coil turns inside, and the duck force-fed by the coil pushing the corn downwards. Sometimes the coils are turned automatically by an electric unit, but either way, one still has to be quite careful to get the funnel down the duck's neck without injury to the duck. Or to the operator.

The body of the duck reacts to this force-feeding by getting quite a lot fatter, with layers of beautiful and delicious tasting yellow coloured fat which must be the best thing in the world to fry potatoes in, and the liver of the duck gets enlarged...'foie gras' actually translates to 'fat liver' in French. After three weeks of this treatment, it can be possible for the liver of certain ducks to come out weighing more than two kilos at slaughter.

Whenever I mention foie gras to friends that don't live in France, their immediate response is 'paté do fois gras?'. Ha! Paté is for those who don't know any better, or can afford no better...in this region of France, we eat the stuff pure. We eat it half-cooked with fried apples or blueberries or raspberries, or we slice the cooked stuff and serve it on thin slices of melba toast or plain baguettes and drink sweet white Bordeaux Sauternes wine with it, or we serve it sparkling with cubes of aspic scattered over it like jewels, or we wrap the fatted breast of the duck around the foie and roast it to rare perfection. There is no other way to eat it but pure.

And, when we can it, we don't follow the USDA rules, but simply put pieces of the previously cleaned, bilesac removed, soaked-in-salted-water-overnight foie into a small canning jar to which we then add a sprinkle of pepper, a small bayleaf, and a splash of armagnac, then close the jar and give it a 45 minute boiling-water bath in the canner. Try to not open the foie gras for a few weeks, in order to let the flavours mellow and ripen.

The lovely yellow fat will have risen to the top of the jar, and you can scrape it off or leave it on, as you wish, when you cut into the foie gras and take some of this creamy delice to spread onto your toast. Keep any uneaten jars in a cool and dark place...not that you'll have any uneaten ones. Perhaps it is best to hide them from yourself.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How to Kill a Guineahen

When I first came to France, I came under the impression that everyone here would be an excellent cook and that I'd learn no end of things about cooking, especially cooking from scratch. I imagined that the French only ever bought their foodstuffs from the open-air farmers markets that were held once a week in small towns, and every day in the bigger cities.

This is and isn't exactly how it is. Most people can critique food, and most people can make an excellent vinaigrette or roast a chcken deliciously, or make up a nourishing and beautifully presented meal with simple ingredients...but many, especially the younger 'townie' ones, have never made pastry, cassoulet, or even a good sauce, from things found in their kitchen cupboards, but prefer, instead, to buy these things chilled or frozen at the nearest supermarket or delicatessen.

At first, I was disappointed, to say the least. I'd had visions of learning to make tiny appetizers, sumptious gateaux, and sauce by the panful...but no. Aperetifs that are served with before dinner drinks are usually run-of-the-mill peanuts, pretzels, olives, and imitation cheetos. Gateaux are bought in individual miniature form or by the slice or whole at the nearest patisserie, expensive but delicious. And, as far as I can tell, cassoulet is only available in cans or sometimes in the more fancy glass jars.

I couldn't understand what or why or how, in a country that did not have the aisles and aisles of convinience foods that I'd been used to in America, people purchased the things they did to eat, much less how they sought to prepare and serve what they bought. It took me ages to learn that the simplicity of a meal prepared with a few good ingredients, where each course had its own presentation, generally served on its own, individual, plate, was a world away from the patchwork platefuls of muliti-flavoured, heaped high, brimming abundance that I had been used to. Sometimes, less can be more.

Not that I have fogotten completely the ways in which I was brought up. For me, that's the beauty of it. I take what I know and present it in the French manner, and then find the appreciation in a dish. I adjust or 'tweak' a French recipe to perhaps take on a few of the tastes of where I've been before, and surprise myself. I'm forever going into the kitchens of the people I visit and lifting pot lids for a peek or tasting what's inside the casserole dishes, and I don't hesitate to ask for the recipes or find out the procedures for duplicating what I've found in a roasting pan on top of what is often a woodburning stove in an old farmhouse.

French women are generous with their cookery skills, and will almost always give me the recipes for what I'm after, or explain to me how to get there. I'll rummage in my backpack for a scrap of paper, and they'll go into the hall or over to the top of the chimney in order to find a pen with which to write it down. I used to reciprocate, and offer ideas on how we might alter or change or serve the dish in my own country...but they never want to know, and are laughingly scornful, or at best, politely dismissive.

Lunch is the big meal of the day in France, a time where everything stops for two hours or so, and workers go to restaurants and families get together for what is most often a meal that begins with a soup or an entree of vegetable salads and cold meats and sausages, continues with a morsel of meat or fish and something starchy or a vegetable dish (not usually both), a cheese presentation, sometimes served with a green salad tossed in homemade vinaigrette, and then a gateaux, yoghurt or a piece of fruit to finish. Coffee, served black and very strong in tiny cups, is never served until the table has been cleared, and the crumbs of the ever-present baguette have been swept off, and usually is joined at the table by the metal box that's perfectly shaped to fit the cardboard supermarket package of sugarcubes inside it.

It's a funny thing about those supermarket packages of sugarcubes. The pink and white boxes of the 'SugarDaddy' brand (I love this play on words), that can be found in every French supermarket, are all exactly the same fit-in-the-decorated-metal-box size, but the sugarcubes in them are not always the same size. When buying a box of sugarcubes, one has to be careful to get the size and shape of the cubes right, as they come in a range of assorted little blocks, from small squares to medium rectangles to very long rectangles. The trick is to note the printed code at the side of each box, which is the clue to the size of the sugarlumps within.

In France, there's never any question of 'one lump, or two?', when you happen to be lingering over a cup of coffee after a delicious lunch at a friends house, instead, you must look, first, into the metal box and then determine the sugarlump size and then plan accordingly...sometimes having no choice but to have oversweetened coffee, or unsweetened coffee, rather than impolitely breaking a too-big lump into two and leaving an uneven morsel lying haphazardly, like a wounded and mutilated battlefield victim, with the remaining lumps lined up in formation like good soldiers.

Of course, there are ways around this situation. For instance, it's perfectly acceptable, should you wish for sweetened coffee, but find the lump too large, to simply just not stir the coffee very much, so that a sugarsludge is left at the bottom of the cup. This is a common occurence, and the hostess knows that any hardened sugar dregs will have to be soaked in the sink before washing the cup properly, and accepts the situation as her lot in life.

Another solution is to drink the coffee down without sugar. While French coffee is rather strong, there is not a lot of it, as the small cups aren't able to hold more than a few delicate sips or a gulp or two, at the most. And there is no need to fear that you will be offered a second cup, as most hostesses will ask which of their guests want coffee before making it, and then measuring out exactly as much ground coffee into the filter, and exactly as much water, as required for one dainty cup for each guest, no more, no less.

It is considered impolite to stop and visit friends at lunchtime, although it's quite acceptable, and expected, to be asked to join the family for coffee after the meal. If you should happen to drop in during the repas, you will not be invited in, but asked to return later for coffee...or if very fortunate, for dessert, and then coffee. Suffice to say; come after lunch or better yet, call and arrange a time to present yourself.

All the same, I generally do not call ahead, mostly because if I should stop by, it's only because the kids and I have been out in the countryside, seeing the sights or running an errand, and find ourselves close to the house of one friend or another, and decide to pop in for a visit. I know better than to show up hungry for lunch, however, and prefer to drop in for the coffee part of the meal....plus, if it's just after lunchtime, whatever there was on the table or in the stove is still available for me to stick a spoon into, taste, poke with my finger, or lick and then get the recipe for, as I say my hellos and catch up on the lastest, while the coffee is being readied.

This is how I came to be at Amandine's farmhouse. Amandine and her family run the farm where I get the hay for my animals, and I had gone to pick up thirty-odd bales of hay. Usually it's Maurice, Amandine's husband, who delivers the hay for me, but, on that particular day, he and his sons were to take delivery of thirty new Blonde d'Aquitaine beef cattle, and had to be at home to do the last minute preparations while waiting for their new livestock to arrive. So I had called ahead and was, as I expected to be, asked to come after the noonday meal.

A business transaction on a French family farm is never simply an exchange of money and goods. There are rituals to uphold, both before and after the trading of the day. First of all, the buyer and the entire family of the seller goes into the house for a coffee or a digestive, which is usually a Ricard, the ever-present anise flavoured alcohol served with a glass of cold water with which to mix it in. If that's not to your taste, there's often a whiskey or a glass of Porto or fortified sherry. The children are offered a sweet syrup and water based drink, usually in mint or grenadine, bright green or red.

The conversation around the table begins with news of the town you've come from, and news of anyone in the town, should you be from not too far away, who is known or related to the seller. The talk goes from there to local and national politics, and then on to farm news, beginning with the farmers you are visiting and going on to local farming news, and then to regional or French-wide farm practices. European news about farming is studiously avoided. French farmers, from what I have seen, care not a hoot for what the European Commission has done for and to their livelihood, and certainl do not want to discuss, or even to think, about what those beurauocrats up in Brussels have done to forever ruin the French countryside and the French farming industry.

After a time, the business at hand is concluded with the exchange of monies and, if wished, a hand written bill of sale. The economy being what it is, not many participants in the deal want a documented bill of sale, most people around the table, both buyer and seller, prefer that the deal is not spoken of outside the room, and will sometimes make a veiled reference to this, should it not be already perfectly clear and understood. In France, this is called 'en noire', which translates to 'in black'. 'Under the table' being an English name for this type of transaction.

After the deal has been concluded, and things are visibly more relaxed, the actual taking delivery of the product happens. In my case, Maurice and his sons went over to the barn and began to load the haybales into the truck that I had come with, while I took a tour of Amandine's vegetable garden and cherry trees, and she and I, with he kids helping us, picked a big bowl of ripe, red cherries. Well, Amandine and I filled the bowl with the ones that we picked, and the kids filled their mouths with the ones that they did. Then it was back to the kitchen in order to write down a recipe or two for cherry clafoutis and cherries in eau de vie.

I, of course, went straight over to the woodstove to see what had been for lunch, and picked the meat off of the carcass of a roasted bird and popped it into my mouth for a taste. It was delicious, but with a very strange, almost exotic taste. Amandine was watching me from the sink, where she was rinsing the cherries, before packing them into a container for me to take home with me. She knew I was wondering just what it was that was in my mouth, but waited until I had swallowed and asked her to tell me.

It turns out that they'd had pintade, or guineafowl, for lunch. I'd eaten pintade before...usually at Christmas Eve dinner, where it is as popular as turkey or ham might be, back in America...but I'd never tasted anything like the meat from the carcass on top of the stove. The meat from the bird that had been served for lunch had an almost fruity taste, and left an interesting aftertaste in the mouth. I must have had a funny look on my, for Amandine was laughing as she told me her secret.

The secret to the delicious roasted pintade was in the way that the bird was slaughtered. It had to be slaughtered by being drowned in a glass of armagnac. Amandine said that if there was no armagnac available, then cognac would do, or, at a pinch, whiskey. I'll admit to being somewhat shocked. I had heard of this way of slaughter, but had always imagined it to be an old way of doing things, and no longer in practice. In spite of myself, I asked her to describe how it was done.

And so, I'll repeat it here, for those who might be curious enough to want to know how it was done, as I was. As morbid as it might seem. Please understand, even though I may not condone or understand or even imagine to try some of the things that I have seen done in various French culinary, gastronomic, and animal husbandry practices, they do exist. Right or wrong, ethical or unethical, some of the things that I've seen done or described have been in pracice for centuries, like it or agree with it or support it, or not.

To recreate the recipe, you'll need one live guineahen, preferably farm raised, one cage, a big glass of armagnac in a somewhat wide glass, such as a whiskey tumbler, a length of strong string, a sharp knife, one roasting pan, a bit of olive oil, three or four slices of streaky bacon, a peeled clove of garlic, and some salt and pepper.

The procedure begins two days before the fowl is wanted for the table. Put the guineahen into the cage, without food or water, and leave her for twenty four hours. This will work to clease the intestinal tract and make the job of gutting the bird easier. leave the bird in a quiet place, so as not to alarm or stress it any more than needed.

The next day, fill the tumbler with armagnac and stick the bird's head into it. Be sure that you have got a good grip on the animal and on the glass, or you will merely have wasted good drink and have a very angry bird on your hands. If done in the correct manner, the bird will have breathed in most of the alcohol in the glass, and have drowned itself. Amandine didn't say what happens if the bird is not dead and the armagnac is used up, but I suppose you could have another go, so keep the unopened bottle handy nearby. Or wring the half-drowned bird's neck as a last resort. Then tie the feet of the bird with the string and hang it up to age in a cool, dimly-lit place, far from flies.

There may even be some alcohol left in the glass after the evil deed is done. If it were me, I'd drink any left-over armagnac myself, both from what's in the glass after the bird was finished with it, and from the bottle, in order to calm any loose nerves. 'Waste not, want not', as I've always said. I never asked Amandine what she did about that part of the recipe.

On the morning of the eating, pluck and draw the guineahen, saving the heart and the gizzard, and place it in the roasting pan breast side up, having first rubbed the bird all over with salt and pepper, and stuck the peeled but still whole garlic cloves into the body cavity. Open and wash out whatever might still be stuck in the gizzard, and then put it in with the heart into the roasting pan. Drizzle olive oil over the fowl, and lay the bacon slices on the breast of the bird.

Put the pan, with the prepared bird in it, into a cold oven, and then turn the oven on to 200°c (400°f). After about 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 190°c (375°f), and roast until done, which will be about an hour and a quarter or an hour an a half, depending on the size of the guineahen. During the roasting, be sure to baste the guineahen often with the cooking juices in the pan. If you want an extra-crispy skin to enjoy, then add a bit of salted water to the basting juices, some ten minutes before the roasted bird is done, and baste once or twice more.

When the bird is done, turn off the oven and let the bird sit for about five or ten minutes, in the oven with the oven door slighty ajar, before presenting it at the table. You might want to remove the bird from the roasting pan and put it onto the serving platter while it sits in the oven, and then you can spend a few moments making the delicious sauce to serve with the meal, as follows..

Place the roasting pan onto a burner on the top of the stove, turned to medium high. Tip the pan slightly and spoon out most, but not all, of the top layer of oil and fat that's floating on the basting liquid. Cook the remaining jus, adding a bit of water if needed, and scraping up any burnt bits from the bottom of the pan. Perhaps a splash of armagnac, added at this point, would be an affront to the bird?...use your own judgement. Serve this simple sauce with the pintade, au jus.

The Fishmonger

The fishmongers wife had died, and he was looking glum. He could be found walking into town, or at the local betting shop with his face looking drawn out and sad. He'd lost weight, and looked pale and almost ill, compared to the jovial and almost flirty man that made it a pleasure to do business with, and who would throw in a free lemon, with a wink and a smile, on the days that fish was on the menu and you stopped by to choose a fresh fish of one sort or another for dinner.

The fish shop had closed for business, and was up for sale. Because, as sometimes happens in families, that the wife's aunt and uncle didn't get on so well with the fishmonger, there was nobody else available to run the fishshop, once she had died and the older couple were disinclined to come in to work.

The wife and her old aunt had done most of the real heavy-duty work in the shop. They were the ones who prepared the cooked platters and take-out meals, and most likely also the ones to do the cleanup, afterwards, too. French women are generally the ones in charge of cleaning and things such as childcare, shopping, and the likes, and it didn't seem as if it were any different in this family. In fact, it seemed to be even more the case, as I never saw the fishmonger do anything but wield his big fishknife and raise his eyebrows at the women clientele. Even the cash register was manned by the aunt's husband.

The family were 'Pieds Noires', decendants of French Colonnial immigrants who had gone to Algeria, only to have left in a hurry after the war, and come back to the motherland to finish out their lives in reasonable, non-sectarian calm. It does seem, however, that many of these returnees had come back with attitudes towards women that must've been adopted from their previous hosts, along with the pride that is often par for the course for any member of a ruling elite.

The fishmonger, who was called Jean Bernard, worked in the customer part of the shop, smiling and talking to the people who came in to buy fresh fish, and cleaning out the innards for those buyers who showed the slightest signs of squeemishness, slicing and filleting the orders, weighing and bagging. He would even doublebag, so that the smell of the fish wouldn't get transferred to anthing else that you might have picked up at the marketplace that day. He was a talkative and friendly sort of person, always ready with a recipe for the whole turbot you were considering buying, or a helpful 'astuce' with preparations. It seemed such a shame to find him a completely different person after his wife died, of an aneurism, in her early fifties.

There were children, but they had grown and flown the coop. One had gone to London, where it seemed she was gone to stay for good, only returning once or twice a year with her English boyfriend and his family, the all-but-the-details in-laws. Jean Bernard was very proud of his daughter, but it must've been hard for him to know that she'd gone away so far and wouldn't ever be back to stay, especially after his wife died, when he seemed to be so isolated.

The son was a gendarme in Paris. 'Gendarmes' translates to 'armed men', and are military police, used also as the local police in the small towns of France. I imagine that this system serves a useful purpose in being able to better control the populance, with a national pool of officers rather than local people, who may or may not be easier to bribe and corrupt...but that's just how I see it. I never met Jean Bernard's son, but heard about how he'd sent his father a gendarme keychain to use for the keys of the car, and how it had saved his father on numerous occasions from being given any sort of traffic violation ticket...just present it when stopped by the friendly officer, and then go on your merry way. So I might be wrong about the 'corrupt'.

It's habitual to say 'Bonjour' to people that you pass in the street in villages and small towns. And to stop and shake the hands of people you know, and if the people you pass are more than merely aquaintances, to do the double-kiss-on-the cheeks thing. Down here, in the SW of France, it's customary to do a double kiss...go further north and you get three kisses, even further and four kisses, one cheek at a time; back and forth and back and forth. My thinking is that you'd need more kisses the further north you go and the colder, it gets. In the bigger towns and the cities, there are no bonjours for anyone you don't know, although you will get one from a shopkeeper, as well as an 'Au Revoir', when you leave.

Jean Bernard and I had gone from the handshake to the double kiss, as the days and weeks after his wife's death went by, and we happened passed each other in town. We'd stop and chat, and he'd ask me how the garden and the kids were and I'd ask him how he was and what he was doing to keep himself busy and not brood too much. I suggested to him that he ought to plant a garden, the trials of doing so were always outweighed by the good results, plus cut flowers and salads and vegetables were useful things to have around, especially as he was single and perhaps not always inclined to shop or to cook well for just himself. He told me that he'd think about it.

He said the same thing, every time I saw him. But so did I. And, as he wasn't looking any more happy, I kept saying it. He said that he didn't want to bother digging and weeding and watering. And I said I had the solution for that.

Time passed, and the winter came, with its grey and its cold. I passed Jean Bernard on the street and suggested waiting for spring for his garden, and said that if he was stuck, I'd come and help him out with ideas, come the end of worst of the cold, when I could begin to show him how to prepare the soil without too much work on his part.

I am a fan of the little-known-in-France method of 'gardening by mulch' that had been pioneered by Ruth Stout, back in the seventies. French people often find this method to be strange, and tell me that the French want to see the dirt (and the weeds) between their plants. They also often say that Americans have too many ideas in their heads, which may or may not be true, depending on how you look at it, but the gardening method is one that works, and one I was sure would work for a depressed Jean Bernard.

As for what the French think of my various methods; I am sure, had I lived here a few hundred years ago, that I would've been burned at the stake as a witch or tossed into the river at Sauveterre, as used to be done with suspect witches, and then said a belated 'sorry' to when I drowned or burned when I didn't. There are negatives and positives to both old and new ideas, although for the most part, the isolated country people of deep France don't much like the newer ideas, especially when suggested by a foreigner.

Spring was just around the corner when I again ran into Jean Bernard in town, and we decided that I was to come over and visit his garden, finally. He gave me directions on how to get to the house, and on the day, I went over with my Ruth Stout Handbook, a garden catalogue, a mesh bag of seed potatoes, and a few packets of seeds in hand. I was feeling fine, for although I no longer had a garden, being as we had had to move back into the center of town, I was able to help someone else have one, as well as be a part of their getting back into the swing of things with their life. I felt that I was doing my little bit for the community and the society of the town, as I hummed a cheery little tune to myself on what looked like a fine end-of-winter day with bright, warm sunshine and the beginnings of buds on trees.

I arrived, was invited in, and offered a cup of coffee. We chatted as we drank the coffee, and Jean Bernard told me about how his life was as a young man in Algeria, and how difficut it was for him to have had to come back to France, where his parents had been born but he had never visited, after the war. He spoke of the difficulty of being on anti-depressants and the long days and even longer nights since his wife had died. I got the impression of a man that had no idea of how to cook or clean or keep house for himself, and also of one that had never had the time to make good friends and now was suffering from the lack of them.

The fishshop had been closed because he wouldn't have been able to run it without the help of his wife and her family, and he didn't want to have all the social charges and fees that went with the hire of outside help, as well as the fact that training outside help was not something he was prepared to be doing at his age and temperment. Jean Bernard wasn't yet at the retirement age, and all the money that might have been available to live on had been put into the shop, which was for sale but hadn't had a nibble from a buyer as yet.

And, mostly because of his old Colonnial style of pride, Jean Bernard did not want to go and find another job, which at his age might've meant one of working in the nearby pig slaughterhouse or picking kiwis or working with the almost unemployable men for the Town Hall jobs of roadclearing and tree trimming. So he spent most of his days at home, watching the television in his pyjamas, or, when he did venture out, to walk down to the local betting shop bar and joining in the wagers on the horseracing in the hopes of not only company to talk to but perhaps a small win to cover the cost of the coffee or the beer consumed there. There was a car available to him in his garage, but I suspect that the gas and the insurance were difficult to find the money to pay for, so he walked, and it was probably better for him to get out and get some excercise and clear the cobwebs from the brain, anyway.

After the coffee, I got a tour of the house, which, for the French, is highly unusual. It's possible to have longterm friends in France and have never been invited for a tour of the house, even if you are and have been a regular visitor to the house for years. You might know where the toilet is located, and the kitchen or the dining room, but never have visited the more private rooms in the house. This is such a difference to life in the US, where first-tme visitors are not only invited, but expect to take a look through all he rooms and closets and insides of cupboards, as well as being told the price or the value of both the house and the furnishings within.

Jean Bernard showed me his bedroom, and then he showed me his wife's bedroom. I remarked how sad but poignant it was that he felt he could no longer sleep in the bedroom that he had shared for so many years with his wife, now that she had died. He didn't say anything. The whole tour felt rather unusual, and I wasn't sure of what role I was supposed to be playing, but shrugged the feeling off, thinking it to be only the results of Jean Bernard's mourning and depression.

We went back into the kitchen, me jabbering on about Ruth Stout while I picked up the coffeecups from the table and went to put them into the sink, in preparation for explaining all about how a garden could be easy, simple, and enjoyable. I put the cups and saucers into the sink with the dishes that were already piled up in there, and found myself grabbed and turned around, pressed aginst the sink, and given a deep, very nice, very sensual kiss, and then felt one of Jean Bernard's arms around me, holding me extremely close, with his fingers in my hair, while the other hand busied itself between my legs.

Well! I must admit that the first thought in my head was that this man probably knew perfectly well how to do the thing that he seemed intent on doing, and that he probably knew very well how to do it perfectly. This could certainly be easy, simple, and enjoyable, possibly even more so than gardening. I caught myself just as I felt my body responding to him, and neatly slid out of his grip and managed to sit us both down with the big oaken kitchen table between us. Besides the obvious, I had to know just what was going on.

Whew! With I'm sure what was a flushed face, the rest of the flushed me being, thankfully, hidden beneath winter sweaters, I asked him what he was playing at, since I thought that I had come to cheer up someone with a spot of gardening, and that I had not come to plant his carrot and than the sowing of his seed was not the deal. I used exactly that language, as corny as it sounds, in order to create some kind of break in the atmosphere and try to laugh off the incident. Boy, sometimes I am SO dumb.

It turns out that gardening was the furthest thing from Jean Bernard's mind. In fact, he had never thought that gardening had ever really crossed my mind, either. It turns out that the man had spent the past twenty years seducing every woman that crossed his path, and thought that I was simply going to be another one to add to his conquests. He had the good graces to look slightly sheepish, when I convinced him that I was there because I felt sorry for a sad old man who had lost his wife and looked so glum, and had thought to kindly help him feel better,but not in the way he'd had in mind.

This time it was me that served us each a cup of coffee, and we spent the next hour or so talking about his life and the fact that he'd been almost on the point of a divorce, right before his wife had died. And that it had all been his fault, as she had been fed up with the endless parade of recently-seduced women coming into the fishshop in order to make another rendevous for more of the same from her husband. He did say that, each time after a discretion, he'd felt remorse and regret within twenty minutes or so, but could simply not stop his urges to continue, especially as his wife had never been the same after the children had been born, when it seemed that she wasn't as available sexually as she had been before their births, when lovemaking on the floor in front of the chimney had been the norm, rather than the exception.

It wasn't that he was sad to have lost his wife, although her dying so young was a shame, it was that he was sad to have lost his busines and his name in the community as a shopowner...along with the opportunity to meet, flirt with, and seduce the female clientele. He missed his wife and was depressed bacause of the loss of status and income, as the plans for the divorce had been to keep working together at the fishshop, but live their separate lives in private. Now he was well and truely stuck, as the house where he had been living during hs entire twenty years in France, the house that the divorcing couple planned to stay and both live in, albeit separately, was not his, but belonged in name to the old aunt and uncle of his wife that refused to come and work for him in the fishshop, after the death of their niece, his wife.

If it hadn't have been so sad, it might have been funny. I could see the poetic justice in Jean Bernard's predicament, but I could also see that he really did have absolutely no clue as to which direction to head in. And to top it off, he had chosen some very strong medication as a form of anti-depressants.

I again suggested gardening, which provoked a rueful laugh. But I meant it, and meant well, and so Jean Bernard took it in the spirit in which it was offered, and we came to the conclusion, as I prepared to go home, that he would think about considering gardening, and I would think of him as a friend. We shook hands and I collected my seeds, potatoes, my Ruth Stout book, and wished him well on the road to happier times.

As I stood up to take my leave, I once again felt myself being taken into his arms, with the offer still standing of something more than gardening. More than likely, I recall thinking at the time, an offer having something to do with the floor in front of the fireplace. I have to be honest and say that I seriously considered taking Jean Bernard up on what I was sure to be a very good offer...he had a way with the style and mode of caresse that held such delicious promise...and to this day, I think that, should I ever be really and truely in need...

I still run into Jean Bernard in town, every now and then. He seems happier, his face isn't the drawn and sad one of years ago. I sometimes pass him by the betting shop, where he's often laughing and talking animatedly with his friends. He looks as if he's doing okay, now. We stop and do the double-kiss thing, and now, there's slightly more to it, and his hand will linger on my shoulder or on my hip, or he'll tell me off for gaining weight. And then...his eyes are the key, they look for response, they follow me. What can I say? It's nice to feel alive.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Well...Only the Once

Julian used to come by and visit, back in the years when we lived in our little house outside of town. He'd have been going to, or on his way back from visiting his mother. I suppose he was visiting with his father at the same time, too, although he never once, in all the times he visited, mentioned his father.

It wasn't as if he didn't see his father...the father lived in the same house as the mother did. But then again, his mother lived with both her husband and her lover, and had done for several decades, so perhaps Julian never mentioned his father because he wasn't sure which one of the two men his faher was....perhaps it was never very clear to him, or perhaps it was that the definition had blurred over the years, I never could really tell, and I never asked.

He'd simply stop by, in his shy and rather quiet manner, and we'd sit, watching the fireplace in the winter or outside at the table under the shade trees during the summer. Julian didn't say much, and when he did, he had a sweet, funny little way of repeating himself, especially if he felt strongly about a topic, or if he was recounting something that had happed to him. At those tmes, he became quite animated, and stuttered a bit, along with repeating after himself.

I'd offer him something to drink and whatever was available in the cookiejar, as nobody bakes their own cookies in France, and, in fact, the only kind actually called 'cookies' here are the chocolate chip kind. Every other kind of thing that I might've called a cookie is known here as a petite gateaux or a biscuit, or, less commonly, a gateaux sec.

So, we'd just sit. Julian never really had too much to say, and even when he did, it was difficult to get into too much of a deep conversation with him, and the talk, if there was any, centered mostly on the weather or his job with the Town Hall, where he was with the group of unemployed men that were hired by the town to do road clearing and tree-trimming and such. I learned some things about road clearing that I'd never known before. And tree trimming. And about the perils of drink.

Julian had been an alcoholic, but hardly ever fell off the wagon, anymore. He never said much about his drinking days...he was young, at the time we lived at the little house, about 35 or so...but he had quite a lot to say about the drinkers in his family. Especially about his sister's ex-husband, Joseph, and the lessons he had learned from watching Joseph about why not to drink.

It's true that Joseph was an extraordinary drinker. The bad of it was that Joseph was a real filthy drinker...drinking so much, that it got to the point of smelly clothes, vomit, and urine. And sometimes it got worse than that, and came to blows.

Often abusive and violent, Joseph had bullied his ex-mother and fathers-in-law to keep him and feed him and care for him, once the divorce with their daughter had been declared, and the daughter had moved away and eventually remarried to a more sober man. This situation lasted for over fifteen years, and one can only imagine the scenes around the big farmhouse dinner table at family reunions, such as Christmas, when all the family would be there.

The mother, father, mothers lover, grown children with spouses and grandchildren might've all gotten on well, but it couldn't have been easy with a drunken Joseph at the same table as his ex and her new husband. Maybe Joseph didn't come to the table, but chose to remain in his bedroom that was just off the big main room. Maybe he stayed in the big bed with its tangled sheets and his assorted tools and, once, with the chainsaw he'd promised to fix for me and didn't, which I then had to go and look for and found by asking the old woman where it was and being led into the room and finding it under the bedclothes, next to a sleeping, drunken, Joseph.

I'm sure that the situation had bothered Julian, who was a gentle and kind soul. It seemed that he was very close to his mother, and to family values. He'd been married once, and had a son whom he rarely saw. At one point during his visits to me, he told me that he'd found a girlfriend, but seemed so disappointed when I was happy for him, that I wondered if perhaps it wasn't true, and that he had invented one in order to provoke some kind of response from me that he didn't get.

When the topic would be about the evils of drinking, he'd start getting excited, and then the repeating would begin. He really was adamant against drinking. One time, the conversation went round to accidents while under the influence, and how fast they can happen. Julian kept saying to me, "You could have an accident, you could have an accident. You never know, you could hit a wall or something. Something like that". He was most purturbed, poor Julian was. I tried to calm him down and offered more cookies, but he went on and on.

"You might be drunk and hit a wall and a pedestrian and kill someone". Well, yes, you might, I suppose. "You might be so drunk that you never even saw the pedestrian". Or the wall. "I've never done that". No, neither have I. "I've never done that. Well...only the once." Oh.

Some Farmers Love Their Animals

Some farmers love their animals. Some farmers love their animals more than others. Some farmers REALLY love their animals. This is a story about the love that dare not bleat, baa, woof, whinney, or otherwise speak its' name. I really don't have a clue how prevalent this practice is, here in the isolated, rural depths of deepest France, but jokes and anecdotes about the practice abound, and there doesn't seem to be too much shock or disgust in the telling.

Of course, perhaps this is because the French tend to not treat their animals as household members or pets. This is true for both the non agricultural Frenchperson, who is perfectly capable of leaving their pet, and their granny, abandoned during the summer holidays, and of the farmer who counts on his animals as the means to his income. Animals are generally thought of as objects that one uses to decorate, please the children, or kill to eat or sell.

In recent years, however, this has slowly begun to change. Small animal 'pet' vets are just now beginning to realize that there may be money to be made in pets, by convincing people to treat them as family memebers and be willing to pay for more than merely simple food and basic care. Even in our own local clinic, the difference between today and just a few years ago is a sight to behold. Our own vet has a newly-added, quite flashy corner of the waiting room, where dietetic petfoods and flashy accessoris are on display. If an animal comes in healthy and hearty and only for a vaccination or two, five tmes out of ten they'll walk out of the clinic with one of the 'added on sales' items from the display.

A few years ago, you'd bring in a sick dog and the the vet would say to take him home and let him die quietly, in comfort, next to the warmth of the open chimneyfire...and then you'd see the smelly old mutt banished to an old rag on the floor of the garage, halfway in a coma, until the end of its' life, after which it would be sometimes buried in the garden but usually thrown into the river or stuffed into a feedbag and dumped during the night into the big trash container by the end of the road. Paying real money to put an old animal down was almost unheard of, and done only for those animals that were in agony or whose owners didn't have a gun or a stick or a big rock to do it themselves, had they even thought to do so.

Go into that same veterinary clinic today with a sick dog, and you won't get out for under several hundred Euros, and if the dog should die, in spite of it all, the vet will ask you if you don't want a doggy funeral or cremation...for a price, of course. Or, failing to get the client to stump up for an actual funeral, the dog might end up waiting for the renderingplant truck, in the big freezer at the back of the clinic...for a price, of course. I'm not certain that, nowadays, you would be even allowed to leave the clinic with the body, to be disposed of at your leisure in the privacy of your own home.

Of course, that's for the small animal pets, the farm animals still get treated as much as they have been for the past centuries. Conceived, born, raised and produced in small cages or in the dark windowless corners of a damp and drafty barn. Overcrowded in dirty pens and taken for long, stressful rides in open trailers to other countries to be slaughtered and eaten. Kept from their mothers and fed unnatural diets in order to grow more quickly to marketweight. Tied up on a short chain next to others for months during the winter, with hardly any room to lie down or with mucky bedding full of thorns. Slaughtered without benefit of stunning, and left to bleed even without the prayers for the soul that the scorned Muslim Halal meat merits. The list goes on and on, and this is only the small family farmer...heaven help the animals that are produced on the big industrial factory farms.

This kind of animal husbandry is one of the main reasons that we raised our own creatues for food, back when we lived in a little house on a big parcel of land, just outside of town. By then, I had learned enough about how to raise animals and kill them to feel confident about doing it for myself. I was determined to do it in a better, more humane fashion that that of some of people around here...and for the most part, I succeeded.

We were carnivores then, and we are still carnivores now, and although I really do prefer my meat to arrive in the headless, hideless, anonymous supermarket package version that in no way resembles the animal that it used to be, I want to know how the meat that I am eating has been raised and fed and cared for and killed and prepared. So I set out to learn, and found myself a few French farmer friends to teach me the basics.

Once adept (depending on who you ask, for my farmer friends still now laugh at my efforts), I set up shop, filling the place with livestock of any and all varieties... Chickens, guineafowl, ducks and geese wandered freely around, the roosters irritating me when they took to crowing from the top of the plane tree, just as the baby, who was taking a nap in the playpen that had been nailed to the table underneath, was sound asleep and I could get a break and have a quiet cup of tea and a cookie to myself. Rabbits and guineapigs were housed, under the shade of the old appletrees, in clapiers made of recuperated palletts and chickenwire. The dog kept company with several cats. There was a pig that was named Denise, after my ex Mother-in-Law, slowly fattening himself on tablescraps and unsold fruits and vegetabls from the market. The goats and I held a running battle to see who would be the first to harvest anything from the vegatable garden. A couple of ponies and Bunny, the donkey grazed in the field and sometimes escaped through the forest to visit the neighbors. It was a wonderful place to be.

Nearby was an old folks' home, and sometimes the residents would come by with old bread and scraps for the animals, as well as candy and sweeties for the kids. There were always loads of kids...I had four and the place was a perfect haven for all of their friends. Mothers would drop off their children and sometimes not come back for a week or ten days, or even a month, during the holidays, knowing perfectly well that the kids would eat, sleep, and play all the whole day long, and be put to bed with bedtime stories and singalongs in English, and might come back home with a few bilingual phrases to get them thinking about English as a second language. One mom said to me, 'I know they'll have to be steam-cleaned and sterilized, once they get back home, but they are so happy to be here'. Gee, thanks.

One particular old man came more often than most of the visitors from the retirement home. I didn't mind, because he usually never really bothered with the kids, preferring to stop and visit the animals, instead. I figured that he was shy. He'd generally be there whan we got back from an outing, and leave soon afterwards, reinforceing the shy idea. One of the other residents told me that he'd been a farmer, so I figured that he simply missed his old ways and came by for a souveneir of his younger days. Little did I know what it was that he was missing.

One day, we drove up to find this old man seemingly urinating. He pulled up his zipper as we were driving in the gate. I never had a second thought about it, after all, French men will pee anywhere, and not always against a wall with their backs turned towards you for politeness, either. I did think it rather strange that he was peeing so close to where the pony was, and it almost seemed as if the pony was curiously reaching out with his nose to sniff...but I waved away any 'peculiar' thoughts on the matter. The strange thing was, was that when I stopped the car, he hurriedly began to shuffle away. And when I put out my hand, in order to politely shake his, he looked almost surprised at my gesture, and very nearly didn't return the handshake, as he was in that much of a hurry to get away. Once again, I thought he was just a shy person.

A few days later I was having a coffee with a friend at the table outside, under the plane trees...the table was long enough to have a place to sit, AND to leave the nailed-on baby playpen in place. The baby loved being in that playpen on the table, because he could pull himself up and watch, all day, as the tractors and trucks, that belonged to the the Town Hall, came and went, dumping their loads of dead leaves, rocks, wood, and various building materials onto the propert right in front of us, which was the local depot for the town. It might not have been the prettiest place to live, but it certainly was th most fun place to live for the kids, with that big, ever-changing, adventure playground right there, seemingly made just for them. To this very day, that boy wants to be a truck driver.

The woman almost spilled her coffee, as she jerked upright and said 'What the hell is he doing?!', so I looked, and there was the old man, sitting on a cement block, apparently offering his penis to the dog. The dog didn't seem to mind, and was sniffing away...or at least, that's what it looked like from the distance we were sitting, and I found myself feverently hoping that sniffing was all that the dog was doing. I had to hope it wasn't what I thought, as a half dozen small kids were playing in the gravel, not yards from the scene.

The old man must've noticed us watching him, or heard us yelling, for he got up, zipped up, and went over to a tree by the stream, where he 'finished his business' without the benefit of an animal partner, and walked back to the old folks' home. At that point I knew that something had to be done, and went over to see the people in charge of the home the next morning. I wasn't sure how to present myself, or if I'd be believed, or even understood, as at that time, my knowledge of the French language...especially those particlar terms of the language...wasn't too strong.

I was invited into the office, where Madame la Directrice listened attentively to my story, and then asked me to come out into the corridor and take a peek at the clients in the sitting room. She pointed out the old man, and asked me if it wasn't him that seemed to be having these 'problems'. It was him, all right, and I confirmed it. She told me that this had come as no surprise to her, and that the office had already had a complaint or two about the old man and another resident's dog, and then made the comment that, 'Wasn't it sweet to know that the urge is still there, at that advanced age?'.

She went on to say that it turns out that the old guy really WAS a retired farmer, and, after seeing his sexual proclivities in action, we had to understand that as he'd never been married, this is what he was used to. And not to worry, she said, the doctor would be called in and the old farmer would be given regular doses of bromide, which would nicely take care of things. I asked if it wouldn't be more kind to buy the poor sod a stuffed animal.

Les Oeufs Mimosa

To make for yourself, the delicious Eggs Mimosa, that were served at the buffet luncheon after Sarah's funeral, boil older eggs (new ones tend not to peel nicely) until hard boiled, then steep in cold water, changing the water as it gets warm from the heat of the eggs. Peel the eggs, cut them in half lengthwise, and scoop out the yolks. Reserve the yolks for the moment, while you make, or buy, a nice mayonnaise, and then fill the cavities of the boiled, emptied, eggwhites with the mayonnaise. Place the filled eggs onto a platter, somewhat close together, and grate or shred the reserved yolks over the top...thereby making the platter look so much like the yellow flowers of the Mimosa tree, as it blooms in the early spring. Voila! There you have it, the French version of stuffed eggs.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sarah's Funeral


As Funerals go, Sarah's was a wonderful funeral. It was a very un-French sort of affair, with a lovely cold buffet lunch and drinks put on for the mourners, after the church service, in the dining room of one of our small local hotels. The room had been decorated, if that's the word for when there's a funeral, with pictures and mementos of Sarah, when she was still full of health and before the brain cancer that had been discovered a year and a half earlier finally killed her off.

Sarah's close family, her lovely, kind, and devoted husband, along with her grown children and their families and friends who had come from England, who had come to France from Britain for the end and the funeral, were still a bit red-eyed from the service at the church, but the overall feeling was that the sad part of the day was finished with, and we could all be relieved that Sarah was no longer suffering, but finally gone in peace to be with her maker. After the somber church service, luncheon was more a celebration of her life than of her death.

Most of the guests were English ex-pats of a certain age and wealth, with a few of us assorted other anglophones, and a handful of French guests as well. The conversation was mostly in English, with the French who knew the language joining in, and the ones that didn't trying their best or being translated to. The wine and spirits and the good conversation helped us to forget the bad and remember the good, about our own lives and fortunes, as well as Sarah's.

Patés, rillettes, saucisson, with tiny, whole, too-vinegary cornichons awaited us. Mounds of paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham, platters of cold roasted chicken, pork roasted with slivers of garlic poked into the meat, and the most rare and bloody of thinly sliced, very tender beef. The food was beautifully presented, and a giant river salmon, poached whole and served in aspic with a creamy dill sauce, was the star of the repas. A rainbow of salads; grated carrot with garlic, beetroot and chopped onion, potato, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with green onions and Basque peppers, shredded celeryroot and mayonnaise, eggs mimosa. Crispy baguettes with sweet butter, and a dozen assorted cheeses. Then there were small, individual French apple tarts, profiteroles, croissants, pains au raisins, chocolatines, and strawberry mousse cake, served with strong hot French coffee or English tea.

Cases of the best Bordeaux wines, as well as some of the best of local ones, were served along with a bubbly Champagne and hard, sweet cider. It was lunchtime, but there was also whiskey, Porto, and pastis, and sherry or fortfied wine for the ladies. I recall a good afternoon spent in agreeable, polite, and interesting conversation, stuffing myself with the delicious food, and, much later, weaving my way home on foot in the sunshine of the afternoon, slightly tipsy and thinking 'Cheers, Sarah!', in my head.

French funerals, at least the ones that I've had the honour of attending, are not at all the same. Sarah's funeral was as different as night and day to the one I went to in an old farmhouse, where the open wooden casket was propped up on chairs in the one big room with the only fireplace, that served as both a dining room and a sitting room. The mourners standing, their backs against the walls, with their hard, somber faces and their tired eyes trying not to watch as the widow of two days draped herself, crying, over the casket. The old granny, mother of the dead, stayed shut in her bedroom off the big room, under the goosefeather blanket in her bed, not being able to face any of it.

Then the hearse came and the friends of the dead helped to carry the coffin out through the narrow door and down the garden path, past the hounddogs and the milling chickens, over the iron fence and into the vehicle. The service in the church was a short one, then the friends again carried the coffin, to the cemetary, where there was a gaping, unevenly dug hole waiting, with the excavated earth piled by the side. Ropes were wrapped under and around the casket, with hands helping to lower the dead into the grave, the coffin tipping, slipping in tipped-up and sideways and the helpers losing their footing in the crumbling earth at the edge of the pit, while the barren, childless wife wailed and cried out the name of her husband over and over, until she finally fell into a faint and had to be taken into a car to recover, carried in much the same manner as the coffin had been, and by the same friends.

There was no buffet luncheon after that funeral, no conversation or fond remembering of the dead. Only getting into the car and driving back to the farmhouse to make sure the the granny was okay, and then going back home. Weeks later, while at the farmhouse to visit, it could be seen that, while the widow was managing, the old granny was not, and had almost overnight become elderly and frail and weak. She'd come out of the bed, where it seemed she'd been staying since the funeral, to join us at lunch, but all she could think to speak about and lament was that her son had been taken to an early grave by an accident whith a truck so big that the driver hadn't even noticed or stopped after killing her son. She didn't last much longer, and died soon afterwards, leavng the widow with only one old spinster aunt for company in the house and help to milk the cows and force-feed the ducks.

By contrast, Sarah's end had been long and drawn out and painful, full of uncertainties at the prognosis and dashed hopes, when she didn't really get any better for any great lengths of time. The family, however, saw the brighter side of things, and were grateful to have just having had come over from Britain to France to live, and where the diagnosis of brain cancer was pronounced. The way they saw things, with the state of the British medical system as compared to the French one...Sarah had had eighteen months of excellent hospital and home care, and had been able to do many of the things that she had always wanted to do in France, whereas had she been diagnosed in Britain, she would've been lucky to last four months. A glass half full, rather than half empty.

The church service, too, was a study in contrasts, with the local French Vicar sharing the alter with the Family's English one, who had been flown in for the occasion. So it turned out to be a bilingual, bicultural mass, with the best of both traditions and customs being practised in our lovely old church. There were eulogies spoken by friends and family members, mostly in English, and we were taken on a trip of sarah's life, from the time she was conceived as an illegitimate baby, between wars, and left on a doorstep...through to her marriage and years of being a homemaker and then a student...all the way to her finally fulfilling her dream to live in France, where she'd been for only a month, before the caner was diagnosed.

The congregation of mourners were mostly the same ones that went on to the luncheon, afterwards. However, there were three little old ladies, sitting together on the hard wooden pews and clutching bibles and hymnbooks, that were unknown to most of the people at the funeral. I knew who they were; one of them was a retired nun who lived at the retirement home, one was a lady that spent most of her time 'helping' the vicar at the church, and one was a lady that sold vegetables at the local farmer's market on Thursdays, but I didn't know why they were there.

The three of them, dressed in the most severe of black, including thick black stockings and black lace shawls, with the one that used to be a nun wearing a thick silver cross on a chain around her neck, were sat on a pew about halfway down from the altar, right at the end, by the aisle. They had been among one of the very first mourners to have arrived, and many of the others in the church, including Sarah's family, looked at them with a puzzled glance as they walked past to take their seats. I was just on the other side, slightly behind them, in the perfect position to watch not only them, but the reaction to them being in the church for this particular funeral.

The ladies were enjoying themselves, watching everyone as they passed and seemingly (I couldn't hear them) making remarks amongst themselves on the clothes and colour choices of those attending, and they looked a bit confused at the order, and languages, that the mass was celebrated in. Their hymnbooks were in French, and ours were supplied in English, which caused a stir among the three of them, and a bobbing of heads all around, but soon all were getting the hang of singing, them in their native tongue, and us in ours...after all, the music hadn't changed, just the words.

After the service, as everyone was standing around outside the church, watching as the casket was being loaded into the hearse, one of them came up to me and worriedly asked why they were taking the body away and where was the burial going to be. When I explained that Sarah had wanted to be cremated, and was being taken to the crematorium, she looked so disappointed. She then went back to where the other two ladies were standing, a bit apart from the crowd, and explained, and then they all looked disappointed.

I understood, then, that the old women came to any funeral that happened to be going, simply as a form of entertainment. It made me remember the stories of paid mourners in the old days, who were paid to come and cry, in order to buck up the attendance and make the dead person look more popular. But I didn't feel it was my place to invite them, as payment, to the luncheon behing held just down the hill. During the repas, Sarah's husband came up to me and asked, 'Just who WERE those little old ladies?', so I explained. He never mentioned them being invited to the meal, either, so it was good that I hadn't asked them to join us, I guess.

What happens in France, from what I can gather, is that funerals for people who wish to be cremated happen AFTER the cremation, when the mourners gather, together with the urn containing the remains, for a funeral mass, after which there is the actual funeral, or placing of the urn in the crypt, if that's what is to be done with it.

Meals such as the funeral luncheon that we had don't seem to be the done thing at French funerals, either. Although sometimes the mmediate family will invite especially close friends of the deceased back to the house for a coffee. In a way, it's a shame that these old ladies didn't get to come to the lunch at the restaurant, it would've kept them talking about and entertaining themselves with the memories of it for years.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Cat Lady

Mathilde was my friend. She was someone I would go to visit each evening, if only to check up how she and the cats were doing, and if they needed anything, such as being taken to the vet or perhaps fetched another bag of catlitter. Or maybe I was needed to hold down one of the cats while it was being given a shot or dosed with one or another of the various veterinary or home-made purges that seemed to be SOP in the household.

And it was some household. One very old, very gnarled and bent-over lady and some thirty five cats, plus or minus a few. Some cats were groundfloor cats, some were locked-in-a-bedroom cats, and others were upstairs, living in the attic rooms as under-the-eaves-cats. The ones in the attic has a screened-in balcony. The balcony was not so much to protect them from escaping captivity by going along the old clay-tiled rooftops from house to house, joined up as the old houses are in this town, but more to keep the ever present pigeons from becoming meals, and thereby making feather messes all over.

Once a cat had been lured or invited in, they only ever came back out dead in a sack, to be taken to the vet and disposed of in the big freezer that was in the wooden shed at the back of the clinic. The living cats were very well taken care of, because Mathilde would go without, in order to make sure that the cats had whatever they needed. Mathilde was a spinster, with no close kin, and so those cats were her babies. She spoke to them and cared for them as if they were her family, which, in fact, they were.

When I first knew her, her cats had small cans of top brand, gourmet catfood, in all the flavours available, plus real chicken breasts bought from the butcher and cooked to order and fish filets from the fishmonger who came all the way over from San Jean de Luz by the coast on market day. The heating used to be on day and night, winter and summer, thoughout the entire three floors of the house. Sometimes during the summer, because the windows were always closed against the cats escaping, the smell of cat pee was enough to make the eyes water.

There used to be an old dog, too. The dog and Mathilde would totter along on their daily walks, he in his doggy overcoat that she had sewn for him from an old raincoat, back in the days when her old treadle machine, and her eyes, had worked...and she in her cashmere sweater, overcoat, and pearls, with the stick in her hand that I could never quite make out if it was a walking stick for her, or a correctional stick for when the dog sniffed at curbs or lifted his leg at the forbidden cornerstones of the houses along the way. The dog was as well cared for as the cats, and he lived to be an exceptionally old dog, in perfectly good health until the day he died at a documented twenty two years of age.

I thought that Mathilde would die when the dog did....we all did, the entire neighborhood. He was her only compagnion, the only one that could put up with her gossiping and meddling ways. Her sharp tongue had driven away most of the rest of the neighborhood since she'd come down from Paris to the southwest, with her forty cats, to live near extended family, some twenty or more years ago. The only people who used to be able to put up with her had died off, leaving her isolated and loney. Even her remaining family kept their distance, moving further away to a distant town, and visiting only at Easter and Christmas.

Mathilde knew the old dog was on his last legs, and had been preparing for his demise, and her own, by making arrangements and paying the local vet in advance to have all the remaining cats put down when it finally happened and the smell of her death would bring in the authorities to see how much of her remained after the cats had got done with her. She knew what cats were capable of. But her worry was that the ones locked upstairs wouldn't be able to come down and eat, when the inevitable came to pass.

She'd been a nurse during her working days, and lived on the small retirement that almost fifty years in the profession brought. It wasn't a monthly sum, but only paid three times a year in, so she'd have to budget very carefully, in order to make ends meet from one payment to the other. Most things, such as taxes, electricity, and heating oil, were paid out in a monthly payment of ten times a year, wih the balance being paid off, or refunded, in the highly unlikely event that too much had been paid, once the meter had been read at the end of the year.

The problem was that prices kept going up and up and up, while the small nurse's retirement pension hadn't. After several decades of this, Mathilde's nest egg was eaten up, and making ends meet, while perhaps being enough for her own small needs, didn't stretch enough to cover the cost of keeping all those thirty five or so cats fed, clean, and healthy. Mathilde was much too proud to ask for any kind of help or charity.

The first thing to go was the bowl of catfood that was kept outside on the windowsill for neighborhood strays. And this ecomony was soon negated because Mathilde then brought in the hungry strays to be housecats because she couldn't stand seeing them meowing at the windowledge. Next, the luxury brand catfoods and litter were replaced by the cheaper brands, and later by the even cheaper ones, finally finishing with the cheapest of the bulk buys that were available from the discount store in the next town over...IF someone could be found to drive her there to buy it or pick it up for her. There were no more choice morsels of fish or chicken from the market, the catlitter was only changed when it was really needed, and the vet was called upon only in an emergency.

And the house paid the price, too, with dripping taps unfixed, and shutters falling off hinges, peeling paint, cracked walls and creaking staircases. We all tried our diplomatic best, stopping by with plates of food or cakes and jars of homemade goodies. But she was a stubborn old woman, and mostly the gifts would be refused at the door, with her claiming that she could no longer eat those sorts of things, due to an unhealthy digestion.

Mathilde and the house weren't the only ones to suffer from neglect, for the cats began to fall ill, too, with tooth infections and coughs, some of them dying, some of them hanging on as tenaciously as their mistress. Even our lovely town vets tried their best, often popping in 'just to visit' and giving her 'free samples' for use in taking care of the cats' illnesses. Bless their hearts, they tried, but things weren't getting any easier for Mathilde.

One day, Mathilde approached me with an idea. She wanted me to find her a buyer for her house, any rich English person who wouldn't mind making the unusual deal of buying the house for a low price, with the stipulation that she and the cats could stay until the end of their days without any further cost to her. It had to be a foreigner, and it had to be done at the Notaire's ofice, with all the paperwork signed and legal. On the outside, it seemed like a good solution to her financial problems...and for how much longer could a frail eighty five year old woman live, after all?

So I listened to her and then agreed to try to help. I soon found not one, but several interested buyers. One I dismissed out of hand, as I thought they were not to be trusted, and one backed off after speaking to his accountant. One of them she didn't like the looks of, and one couple seemed to be the ideal buyers.

They came and measured and poked about, without mentioning the smell of the cats or the damage caused by them to all of the woodwork and wallpaper in the place. There was plenty of wheeling and dealing done, and all parties soon agreed to a payment of roughly half the value of the house in cash, with Mathilde and the cats staying on, rent-free, untill her death, at which time the cats were to be handed over to our local vets to be euthanized. The furniture and personal items got consigned to the faraway relatives, to be dealt with upon vacancy.

I was happy to have helped my old friend to find calm until the end of her life. The cats were happy to once again find gourmet catfood in their bowls, which Mathilde had bought in anticipation of her soon to be wealth. Even Mathilde seemed to be happy...I went by one evening, to find her roasting an entire chicken for herself, with the big oak dining table in the sitting room set nicely for a diner of one, with china plate, silverware, and chrystal goblet all ready for when the bird came crisp-skinned and aromatic, out of the oven. I felt it was a magic time.

Until one day, during the following week, when Mathilde began to consider her rights as a sitting tenant. The thing is...France is very big on tenants...you can hardly kick them out if they don't pay, and you must make sure that their home is up to standards. If the tenant doesn't like something, they are perfectly able to take the landlord to court and get things fixed, at the expense of the owner. If you want a tenant out and they don't want to go, it is almost impossible to win. And Mathilde knew all that. And was ready to invoke it.

She began to tell me how much heating oil she would be able to save, when the new owners would be putting in the double-glazed windows. And the attic insulation. And the new fuel boiler. The hot water heater. I heard all about the new plumbing that the owners would have to be putting in...and the replacemnt of the entire house's worth of electrical system, as the old one was at least fifty years old and was not in the norms for rental habitation.

Mathilde was also certain that, were she to have to go into an old folk's or a care home, she'd be able to lease or rent out the house to another tenant and claim the income to pay for her care. After all, she had the rights to the house until her death, did she not? I tried my diplomatic best to tell her that the intended owners were not going to sign under those circumstances. But she waved her hand, saying 'allons, allons, allons', saying too, that there were plenty of other fish in the ocean for me to find for her, if these fish didn't want her good deal.

So, with a heavy heart, I went to see the 'fish' the next day, and advised them against the deal. And so Mathilde is back to being a very poor old lady, and I am out one friend. Oh, we still speak, when we run into each other at the market, and I still call her to ask if she needs anything, whenever I go into the next town over...but it's not as it was, before. And that makes me sad.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Angelique

News travels fast in a small town. Sometimes it travels so fast that it seems, as the old saying goes, that you could die and be in heaven before the Devil even knows you're dead. In this small town that's almost always exactly the case.

I was having a coffee at Screemie-Meemie's house (our family calls her that, because all she ever does all day long is scream at her kids), when the the streetsweeper passed by the open window. That was André, the man hired by the town to walk along the alleys and lanes in town with his little wagon and broom, sweeping up any dead birds, cigarette butts, general litter, and dogpoop. The French haven't quite gotten the idea of rubbish cans and throwing things anywhere but on the street, yet. I suppose that this comes from having had a few generations of 'guest workers' from Algeria to do their dirty work for them.

The job of a village streetsweeper isn't such a difficult one, all that really has to be done is to go around the town and make sure that all the alleys, lanes, and little cobblestoned roads look nice and tidy. Just the streets, nothing else. The light blue flowerboxes all over town, ever filled to overflowing perfection with a rainbow of chorographed blooms, are taken care of by another department...this one a team of gardeners whose only job is to set out the plants, come by with the watertruck or the wateringcans in those allyways where the truck can't fit, and to replace any stolen, dead, or finished-blooming plants with even more perfect ones.

This is what comes of being a town that's in the annual French national competition for the prettiest and most flowerful village of them all. It draws the tourists, but it can sometimes feel as if we residents live on a set in Disneyland. During the winter, when life is hard and poor because no tourists come, life gets back to some semblance of normality, and looks a bit more like a lived-in house, dirty dishes and piled up laundry, and all.

In the winter, the streets are not quite as pretty, not quite as clean, although you can be sure and certain that once winter breaks, the town sends out an army of employees and the spring cleaning campaign begins. Then, there is even an auxilliary streetsweeper brought in, as well as heavy equipment in the form of hoses to wash down the streets, sprayguns filled with nice-smelling disinfectant to wash down the urine-scented walls of the hidden nooks and crannies in the patchwork collection of centuries old added-on to buildings, and a small group of painters armed with brushes and buckets of the light blue paint that's been chosen as the official colour of the town.

Being the townstreetsweeper has it's benefits, if you like gossip. And André certainly does. If you want to know who is being seen with whom, who hasn't washed their windowpanes or is still dressed in pyjamas after lunchtime, how many bottles of wine Madame DuPont has recently had delivered, or even what the Mayor and his council officers had for lunch at the last Town Hall meeting...then Andre's the man to ask. He visibly throws back his shoulders and puffs up with pride, he is so proud to be asked and able to recount all that's been going on in this small, village-within-a-village that is the center of town.

If nobody is around or bothers to ask, then Andre will stop you and let you know all about current events. Which includes stopping by open windows in order to make his announcements. This is how I found out all about how Angelique's father had died, when I was sitting having a coffee with a quiet Sceemie-Meemie. She was quiet because the older kids were at school and the baby was upstairs in his bed, sound asleep.

Poor old Mr. Duclos had dropped dead not an hour before, at a church meeting where he was an elderly, but active, member. He'd heart had simply stopped beating, and he'd toppled over from the chair he was sitting on, to the floor just after remarking how everything was going so well at the meeting and how lovely it was to have the get-togethers and see everyone. I suppose you could say he had a good end.

The ambulance was called and when they arrived, they announced to all present that the old man was dead and took him away to wherever it is that a person gets taken to between the end of their life and the funeral. Of course, this being the kind of town that it is, or maybe human nature being the kind of thing it is, anyone that happened to be passing while the ambulance was parked outside the church and while Mr. Duclos was being loaded up into the back of the now transformed hearse was now free to spread the news. Including André, who wasn't actually near the church when all the excitemant began, but had been sweeping the lane over by the butchershop, heard the siren blare from the top of the Town Hall and had followed the sounds of the ambulance, scurrying over to the church, dragging his rubbishbin cart behind him, as he figured out where the emergency services were parked.

Soon, André had added the title of Town Crier to his job discription, and had come by the window and filled us in on all the detail. As I walked back to my own house a few minutes later, reflecting on the issues if life and death, I met up with a friend and we walked together the rest of the way, stopping by my front door to finish our conversation. Naturally, the topic of conversation was Mr. Duclos' death. He had been a widower with two children, one of them a spinster daughter who had spent her life taking care of both of her parents until the day they'd died, and today was one of those days.

The daughter, Angelique, took that moment to walk past. As is the habit in France, she stopped to give the usual two-peck kiss, one on each cheek...or rather, in the air in the general vicinity of each cheek. Custom has it that you murmur 'comment ça va?' or 'bonjour', or some such thing as the kisses are being done, so I thought it only polite good form to say to Angelique, 'oh, Angelique, I'm so sorry to hear that your father has died'.

Well, that was a mistake. Anglique gave out a big scream, yelled 'Salope!' at me, and ran off in her high heels towards the direction of the church. Salope is the French word for Bitch. My friend and I just looked at each other. She said, 'what the hell was that?', and it slowly dawned on me that parhaps Angelique hadn't yet heard the news about her father. If I hadn't have been so concerned with polite and correct greetings, then I might've realized that she was on her way to the church as she passed us, going to fetch her father and walk him home from the meeting he'd been to. After all, he'd only been dead for about an hour.

So it seemed that Angelique's dad had had a better ending to his life than Angelique had with it. And to top it off, from that day foreward, the poor woman would be reminded of this, each and everytime she saw my face. I did what I could for damage control. I called a good friend of hers and relayed the news of the death and the events surrounding it. The friend, Juliette, was able to coma and stay with Angelique during the period of mourning, right up until a few days after the funeral, which was a blessing, as Angelique didn't really have anyone else, except for one brother that lived somewhere else and that hadn't been so immersed in the aspects of caring for the parents.

Juliette had her work cut out for her, as Angelique could be quite a stubborn and willful woman. As Juliette tells it, the worst part of it was when it came to the laying out of Mr. Duclos' body in the front room of the family home. This pre-funeral custom is fairly common in France, or, at least it it is the older familes, or where older members of a family are still alive. Maybe in the newer, more modern families it's not so often done anymore, and the dearly beloved deceased is sent straight to the cemetery from the undertakers.

Anglelique didn't just want her father laid out in the parlour; she wanted him laid out in his own bed in the parlour. So, that evening, when the body was brought back to the house for the wake, she insisted that the deliverymen not put her father, who was already neatly placed in his coffin, onto the special table provided for the occasion. She insisted that his bed had to be brought down from the ustairs bedroom, frame, mattress, bedclothes and all, and set up, then made up, with the dad changed into his pyjamas and put into bed and positioned as if he were not really dead, but only asleep. Grief has many faces many ways of coping with the fact.

Thinking about it, though, I've come to the conclusion that Angelique was simply doing something that has always been done in this small French town, and perhaps in all of the wold where isolated communities had to deal with death on a personal and real level, as opposed to today's way of quick, sanitary disposal and quick sanitary grief counselors. It wasn't until I got to this place that I saw widow's weeds and old people dressed for the rest of their lives in black.

I recall a very old man once showing me a picture of what I took to be a sleeping child in an iron-grilled bed, surrounded by carefully placed and spaced long-stemmed roses. The picure was an old black and white one, with ragged edges and crease marks. He'd pulled it out from his wallet, where it had probably been since the day it was developed, probably more tha half a century before. The child's eyes looked sunken, and at first I thought it was ill, and didn't realize at first that it was a deathbed photograph that I was looking at. A dead child in a bed, made up to look asleep, with a circle of flowers carefully placed around the child. No wonder Angelique argued with the men who had come to set up her father in the parlour, until he was positioned as she wished. Nothing has changed, only the years have passed.

As the ambulance service in this small town is voluntary, the good men and women who take on this job are not exactly professionals...that is to say that they are trained in the job of trying to save people, but perhaps less so in the diplomatic and tactful parts of the job. All the same, I can't for the life of me comprehend why on earth the ambulance services told the people standing around the body, as they loaded poor old Mr. Duclos onto the ambulance, that he had died. It would have been so much more kind and diplomatic, not to mention professinal, to have said that Mr. Duclos was simply ill. Then, when the next of kin had been informed, things cold have been made public. They could've waited untill the ambulance doors had shut before pulling the sheet over his face, after all.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Marcel

Years ago, I was never like this. I used to leave the door open, wide open, whenever I was at home. I never even used to lock the door when I went out or up to bed, either. There were years at a time when I never even had a lock for the door. But now it seems that I've changed. I close and lock the door, even when I'm in the house. It's quieter that that way, but sometimes I miss the ways of old. And sometimes not.

Those were sometimes quite exciting times. Sometimes they were scary times, sometimes sad ones. Waking up in the middle of the night to a friends' husband sitting on your bed, crying and complaining about his wife, your friend, is never really easy. It can be hard to know what to do with the poor sod, except to firmly remind him of his husbandly responsibilities while at the same time making it perfectly clear to him that you are to be considered nothing more than a platonic sort of 'Dear Abbey'...even if you are a single woman who has no visible means of supportive sex.

At these times one has to be hard, and be prepared to go for a gentle cup of tea in the morning with the wife and act as if it is perfectly normal and reasonable behavior for her husband to be making these nocturnal visits and then to ask her to remind him gently to consider that I am a single mother of babies who needs her sleep and doesn't appreciate being woken under those cicumstances. This approach tends to work, and you don't see the husband again. Of course, you don't generally see your friend again, either.

Or when a complete stranger walks in the door, thinking that this place is a curio or junkshop, and demands the price of an 'item', before looking a bit confused and then asking if he hasn't made a mistake and is he in a private home? That used to happen a few times a week; this is a tourist town and I guess it is difficult for people to realize that these quaint old houses and flowers and charming little alleyways also serve as homes and family places. It's not as if we dress up in period costumes, or anything. Sometimes I understand how fish in an aquarium must feel. Life in a fishbowl.

Of course, anyone who stopped by the door got invited in for a cup of coffee. It took me years to realize that an invitation to someone of the opposite sex for a cup of coffee is often, in France, a euphenism for an invitation to eye someone up sexually. I just thought that the myth of the French lover was real, and none of them could keep their hands off anything feminine. It took years, I tell you, to even begin to understand these people. Years.

When I first came to this town, I was recently divorced. I'd bought a monster of a house, and had begun renovating it by taking a sledgehammer and knocking down every single wall in the house. I can't tell you how good this was for my confidance and morale...having the courage to even think about doing such thing, not to mention the confidence (call it optimistic ignorance, if you will) to really go ahead and do it. Taking a sledgehammer and knocking down a wall is also an excellent way to take out frustrations after a divorce.

I'd put the kids to bed and then work like a maniac until well past midnight. Or give the kids to the ex for the weekend and then get myself all dirty and stinky and tired out with the job of it. Snday afternoon I'd take a swimsuit and go over to the thermal hot saltbaths to get a wash, a swim in the pool, and melt in the eucalyptus aroma of the steamroom for an hour or so. There are advantages to living in a curist town, I can understand why people come here from all over France for the benefits of a hot saltwater soak.

Little by little, the house began to open up. The neighbors would often walk past my open door and peer into the dark interior of the house, then walk away, clucking and shaking their heads. They though that I would end up with the house falling down onto the top of my head. Houses don't fall down for taking out interior walls, not if you leave the sturdy old oak beams that hold the ceiling in place. I did remove the old mud-and-straw packing material that was between the main beams and the crossbeams, though. There is a limit to rustic.

The man from the next lane over used to walk his little dog past my house late at night. This was before the little dog got run over and Marcel got himself a big doberman that he couldn't handle when he was too drunk to walk. Marcel would stagger down the lanes between the old houses, little cobbled paths that were just wide enough for him to hold out his arms and balance himself on each side while inching along the stone walls with the little dog's leash hooked onto his wrist.

The little dog never used to pull him over, but the big dog did. It got to the point where he simply let the doberman run loose for an hour or so at night, and we all learned to bring the cats in and to not let the kids play outside after a certain time in the evening. If you'd forgotten the time, you could always tell when to do that, because there would be Marcel, yelling at the dog to come back, 'Fifi, vien ici! Couche toi! If he was too drunk and had passed out, we still had a chance, and would be alerted by the sound of the bells that were attached to the doberman's collar. The cats figured that one out real fast.

Marcel would peep in and say 'Bonsoir' if he was passing by on his nightimes walks. As long as I wasn't busy up a ladder or wielding an electric appliance, I'd stop what I was working on and stop to return the salutation. One night I asked him if he would care for a cup of coffee, and he came in, shutting the door behind him, and sat himself down at my table. The shutting of the door should have alerted me, but I was pretty naive back in those days, and it only flashed through my mind that it was a funny thing for him to have done. Silly me.

I didn't speak the language, in those years. I pretty much got by on smiles and hand signals. Whenever someone said something to me that I didn't understand, I'd simply smile and nod my head, politedly saying, "Oui, oui.". So when Marcel began to speak in a somewhat earnest tone, over his unfinished cup of coffee, I did just that. Then, when he took my hand and began to stroke it gently, I felt the alarm bells begin to ring. And when I understood that he was making hand signals to say that, as he was an old man, he wasn't too certain if he could do the job...or at least, I THINK that's what the droopy finger gesture meant...I knew that I had to get him out of there, and fast.

Like a dummy, I'd been doing the nodding encouragingly, smiling and saying 'oui, oui' during the entire cup of coffee episode. And like a bigger dummy, I kept on doing it, as I diplomatically manoeuvred him to the door....all the while cursing my gentle ubringing, with its emphasis on polite good manners no matter what the situation. Nobody had ever told me that not everyone had been raised in the same manner.

Once at the door and outside in the lane, Marcel refused to give up. He kept on repeating the same phrase over and over, and I kept on smiling and repeating mine over and over, as well. I had another mindflash when I realized that he was flattened against the wall of the house, almost whispering, and making furtive glances at the windows of my neighbors. But, in the end, he went without a struggle.

I took myself upstairs to go to bed, chuckling at the incident, wondering what it was he thought so urgent to repeat again and again...'Vous me plait, vous me plait'...and it wasn't til I got to the top of the stairs that realization of what it was sunk in. Oh my gosh! He was saying 'I like you, you please me', and all the while, like a big idiot, I was nodding and smiling and saying 'yes, yes'.