Monday, June 12, 2006

from Pierrerue: l’invitation

It’s midnight, Saturday. I’ve bunny hopped and discoed and cha chad at the Fete de Pierrerue and now it’s time to go home.

As I say good bye to the people at my table, Celine asks:
Will you come to the Sunday meal with my family?

I am flooded with good will and, soon after, panic. I had managed four hours of French conversation during the Fete, but let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to keep going when you have built in interruptions such as dancing and choking on a tomato.

And there are the obvious worries: what do I wear? If I overdress, I’ll look stupid. If I underdress, I’ll insult my hosts.

The gift, too. At home, there is no question: you bring wine. It is so much the norm that I think anyone who still neglects this custom must be doing it on purpose. But here, am I to bring wine to a family who has for generations made a business of it? Isn’t it like bringing chocolate chip cookies to a pastry chef? Here, I know you have perfected the art of baking Napoleons, but let me present you with some nice and chewy cookies from a recipe off of a Nestle’s chocolate chip package.

Marie-Rose offers to walk me to Celine’s house. Marie Rose knows that I cannot get the bread lady’s schedule straight nor swallow tomatoes properly and am, therefore, likely to lose my way even in this one street village. She is sweet to be concerned.

But indeed, I am thrilled to accept the invitation. It is both an honor and a pleasure for me. I will try hard. I will read up on the village life of a Catalan woman (see post below).

Sunday morning, I wash every last piece of clothing in case I decide to wear any of it. Then, off to the market. I pick up a good Muscat – the preferred aperitif here – and a bunch of roses. At 12:30, Marie Rose and I set off. I ask if she wants me to drive – Celine's house is at the edge of the village, a kilometer uphill, but she says no, it’s good for her cellulite to walk. It astonishes me that old-world Marie Rose worries about cellulite.

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Celine and Pierre's home

Marie Rose does not stay – she has her own 92-year old mother back home to attend to. Inside the gate, Celine is waiting. Her daughter shows off their garden and we go inside. The table is set, le dejeuner with maman, papa, fille and fils (though fils will be late as his summer job down at the village café will keep him running until 3) and grandmere is about to begin.

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I know, it was to be expected. The meal was wonderful, all four hours of it. Little pizzettes with the aperitif (I could have stopped right there, foodwise), salads, grilled meats and sausages (I had to try all four types), a potato cake (I had seconds), a tray of pastries (I ate the whole thing), melon with champagne (my cup runneth over), espresso.

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Certainly, I walked away with a new and improved idea of what it’s like to live in this quiet corner of southern France. Myths got debunked, but my respect and love for this village remains firm. I am, however, completely set straight now on the following:

- not all French eat croissants everyday for breakfast. Those baguette slices from the previous night’s dinner? Perfect as toast and jam the next morning;

- five weeks per year are the French vacation minimum, but not all is taken in the summer. Take Pierre, Celine’s husband. He hunts wild birds in the winter, along with his pals. Three weeks needed for that alone;

- time may have stood still in the Languedoc (this region of southern France), but yoga has come to the villages, at least to the one next door. Celine partakes, along with a handful of other women. She shows us some poses, turns pink, giggles, trips and sits down. Forget the meditation part, she’s after the feeling supple and looking great bit;

- a small village is not one small gossip circuit. An example of how little is known about others: they tell me Marie Rose is the village traditionalist. She prays a lot and has conservative ideas. But they know nothing of my other neighbors, the artists, even though these guys have lived here for more than five years. Marie Rose, on the other hand, knows the artists, but isn’t quite sure what he does for a living. A policeman maybe? No one knows much of anything about my English landlady. Until this day, when I invited her in to look around, Marie Rose had never even been inside my little apartment (no love lost between the two women) and Celine and Pierre were stunned to know that my landlady was the owner of the well known restaurant, Pourquois Pas;

- it is true, however, that women hanging around village cafés in the afternoon raise eyebrows and that women on a Petanque court are a rarity. Celine’s older daughter summarized it thus: Petanque is boring. Why would I want to do that anyway?

- It is also true that if you order a café crème (coffee with milk) in the afternoon, you will be pegged as someone with a weird digestive system. The French are absolutely convinced that mixing milk with coffee after the sun has passed its high point for the day will ruin you;

- A nap after a long lunch is a must. The grandmere, the fils and the papa all fell asleep before I left. That might lead you to believe that I overstayed my welcome, but no, I made every effort to leave when grandmere first let out a gentle little snore. But I could not do it. The women were engaged and engaging and only after a promise of future contact could I retreat to give them, too, a chance to exhale.

They tell me this part of the France is the last of the pays sauvage. I do not know how to translate it, but it does strike the right image: It is not wild, nor savage, or maybe it is both. It remains, most certainly unspoiled. Yes, they say that Johnny Depp bought a house near Montpellier and the entire province cannot stop talking about it. Over dinner, every day, in a leisurely way, until the last word has been said and the last sip of espresso finished.

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along the road, back to the village