There’s no question. When you are an outsider, you must be careful in the messages you send and receive.
Only, how do you figure out what it all means?
Through making mistakes, of course.
I go outside at 9:30 to wait for the bread lady. My next door neighbor, the adorable, wonderful Madame Marie-Rose (not her real name, but it is of the genre) comes out as well. She is friendly, inquisitive. She likes that I speak some version of French. She groups visitors around here into those who do and those who don’t.
I ask about the village notice announcing a forthcoming Fete, a celebration. I tell her I would like to go and she is delighted. She invites me to her house. I glance around, quickly, trying not to take in too much detail. It is very traditional, with dark wood commodes and tables. I tell her it’s lovely.
It is modest, nothing fancy, she says, searching for a piece of paper to write down the Fete information.
On June 10th we will go down together. It is by the Mairie (every village and town in France has a mairie, where records are kept and bureaucratic nightmares are resolved).
It is for young people, but we all come.
With each point, she touches my arm, my hand – it is the way of people here. Everyone touches.
You know about our boucherie-charcouterie?
He comes in a truck, Thursday, today, at 2. He has everything! Meats, sausages – such sausages! Everything.
I really did not imagine myself to be cooking up a meat storm, here in my tiny kitchen of my tiny castle corner, but I want to project gratitude and friendliness and so I express great joy in this.
I will come get you when he is here. He comes right outside my door.
At once my afternoon plans are changing. No longer am I going to be down in St Chinian eating a hearty lunch at Mme Suzanne’s, I will be here, with Mme Marie-Rose buying meat. The price of friendship.
I pause in my work to amble down to the Thursday market. I need cherries, strawberries, tomatoes, one of those sweet tiny French melons, I check off mentally items to look out for, pick up my basket, park the car outside the city center and walk over.
The market is smaller on Thursdays and far less crowded. The British are visibly absent. Maybe they eat pasties and mashers other days.
By noon, the farmers are anxious to unload and get going.
my veggies man
my cherries and tomatoes duo
I wait in line for my turn at the weigh-in and a friendly guy with a fantastic moustache and a gold chain around his dark neck turns to me and shows me the enormous head of garlic he is purchasing.
It’s healthy! You should buy one. You mash it up, mix it with oil, cook up fish, potatoes, fantastic!
I smile, mumble something and turn to the vendor.
But it strikes me that he is right. These garlic heads here are huge and most likely extremely flavorful. And so I purchase one.
I walk away from the stand and think – what the hell am I going to do with a garlic head this size? I’m not going to chomp on raw garlic cloves. I need stuff with them.
And so I add eggplant, zucchini, onion, tomatoes, and then of course olive oil. And I pass this stand:
my fish guy
… and so I purchase some of those as well.
One head of garlic later, my basket is full.
As I leave the market, I encounter my garlic pusher.
I wave and dangle the garlic, indicating that I listened.
He scoots right over and talks about the virtues of garlic. He is a furniture maker and, along with his son, he is selling chairs.
I admire them. I do find them pretty. Had I a house that needed chairs and I lived here, I would consider buying one. But I don’t and I tell him that transporting said chair to America would be a project.
America? You are from America? Are you with a group?
Imagine the improbable: a tour bus full of Americans in little St. Chinian. Imagine, me on that bus. Horrified at the idea, I tell him:
No, I am not! I’m alone! (mistake no.1)
He whips out his card and shows me where his furniture workshop is located. His accent is so thick that I can barely understand him. He appears to be saying that I should visit his workshop. He underlines the name of the village it is in. Not too far, he assures me.
I smile politely and explain that I do not know where it is and besides I do not really live here, I am in Pierrerue.
He looks puzzled. Pierre-what? Write it down.
Pierrerue is a mouthful. Locals must say it differently. I write it down. (mistake no.2)
He goes on about his furniture, explains that the card is his son’s and his name is really Felix. He crosses out his son’s name and writes in Felix. And then says:
I am sure that we are politely exchanging names after a protracted conversation about garlic and furniture and so I write down my name (mistake no. 3; indeed, I have singularly violated my motto of the other day).
I will come visit you!
A look of horror crosses my face. I am in possession of my wits. He asks for my phone number, I tell him I do not have a phone. Nor a street number.
But really, everyone in Pierrerue knows of me. To find the American staying there, alone? Tres simple!
I retreat, believing that Felix is not actually going to drive his truck over to Pierrerue and inquire about the sole American living there, but I have to wonder how our casual conversation turned into this.
I walk hunched over, feeling like I did on the day I lost my passport. I goofed. The oomph is out of me.
I pass a mail carrier. In her twenties, she is spry and lively, bouncing from door to door with her deliveries. As I pass her she says the obligatory “bonjour madame!”
She looks at me and asks: do you have far to walk? Can I help you carry those?
My God! The mail carrier has just offered to take my bundles for me! I best put zip back into my step.
But I know it’s not that – it’s the hierarchy of village life. A woman my age is treated with respect, with deference. Her impulse was exactly right. She would, without hesitation, interrupt her work to assist someone older than her.
In the afternoon, Madame Marie-Rose is climbing over the fence at the back of my stone hut, trying to find me, to let me know the meat truck is here. I am glad I decided to stay for it.
She buys meat for the week. It is clearly a staple of her diet. She buys more meat than I eat in a month.
Madame studies the meats
The seller could not be a sweeter man. He sings loudly about love and a broken heart as he chops steaks and sausages. Marie-Rose says he is Dominique and has been driving his truck for decades.
I admire photos plastered to the back of his truck. Dominique is dressed as a cow and he has toddlers in his arms.
Grandchildren. Marie-Rose explains. Dominique is a very young grandfather.
Dominique winks and laughs and when I take a photo, he puckers his lips and throws kisses my way. Innocent to the core. I buy calamari and local dried sausage (I know, I know, what are you gonna do), I leave.
my sausage guy
In the evening I stop work. Before I hit the tiny stove I take a walk to the village further down from Pierrerue. The sun is warm, the air is fragrant, the wind has settled to a mild puff here and there. I have my camera, nothing else.
a few steps away from Pierrerue
looking at Pierrerue (halfway up the hill), from across the valley
I pass a house where a man, considerably younger than me, is working with cement. He is fixing his steps and cracks on the house wall. The house is simple but nice. There are roses everywhere.
I have never seen a guy wear such short cut-offs in my entire life.
He shuts off his cement machine and smiles.
Out for a walk?
He continues speaking: I see you take photos. So it is a photo walk? His grin is a foot wide.
Yes… I hesitate, wanting to say more, but change my mind and walk on.
And so I have to sort this out: the vendors, the customers, the men, women, neighbors, postal carriers – they all have a code. Most every exchange is a sign of friendliness and respect. Except when it’s not. Me, I am only learning it. Sort of.
Back at home I cook up my cloves of garlic, with trimmings.