Wednesday, June 23, 2010

passing through

The morning routine at the café bar goes like this:
I would like a large crème please. (This is my coffee request.)
And monsieur? (The question is directed to Ed, who typically doesn’t want anything and the waiter by now knows this.) Whiskey, right?

It is almost evening and we finally leave the beach at La Franqui (my favorite of the Languedoc beaches). We sit down at the same café we paused in last time. (Once you do something twice, I think it deserves the label of “routine,” no?) I order the same flavors of ice cream – dark chocolate and apricot and Ed has his favorite -- coconut. I add – and a noisette, please. (a macchiato on our turf.)
The waiter shrugs. We do not have any coffee here. I look at him, dumbfounded.
He breaks into a chortle and says the equivalent of “just kidding.” He retreats. He comes back with the noisette and ice cream.
I frown. This is a whiskey? I ask, implying there has been some mistake. He’s thrown off. I thought...
Just kidding! I answer. He slaps me on the arm, delighted at the back and forth and shakes his head at his own culpability.


The sun is low, the shadows grow long. Life at the café bars of rural France.

We are driving back from La Franqui and Ed is determined to get it right this time. Signs can easily misdirect you at the roundabouts and each time we are on the coast we end up driving significantly out of our way because of a missed turn.

His determination pays off. It’s 7:15 and we are almost at Sorede. We have just enough time to drive to the supermarket at the outskirts of the village. We want cheese for tomorrow, fizzy water, apple juice and toilet paper. This last item has been a source of much back and forth between the two of us. Our apartment came supplied with one roll and Ed estimated that this should suffice for two weeks (the market sells packs of 12 and though the cheapest pack is only1.7 Euros, he thought buying 12 is plain silly). It became clear this week that we will not survive and so he agreed to put the twelve pack on our short shopping list.

We pull into the parking lot at 7:22, delighted at the good luck. The supermarket closes at 7:30. Our success rate at pulling in before a store closing has been only at 50 – 50. This time we are lucky.

Or so we thought. The three cashiers are busy checking out customers, but the entrance gate (in France, everyone must enter the supermarket at the proper entrance gate) is closed. I point to my watch and ask why.
Sorry, we close at 7:30.
But it’s 7:24!
Can’t I just hop over and get something quickly? I plead.
What do you need? She asks.
Toilet paper! (I make it sound like an emergency and it elicits a grin here and there.) She waves us in. We split up. Ed runs for the cheese, I get the twelve pack of rolls and the six pack of lemon fizzy water and Ed's favorite apple juice. We’re back at the counter in less than a minute and leave the store as the final light switch is turned off at 7:29 and a half. Closed at 7:30 means, to the clerk, I’m out of here.

It’s Tuesday in Sorede. Market day again. We are surprised, because it looks completely different on this Tuesday. The vendors’ tables circle the square as before, but only the fruit and vegetable person is in the place she was last week. And new vendors have emerged. For instance, the basket seller.


I bought one such basket in Languedoc four years ago and I use it at every Madison market and it looks like it has another ten years of life left. In Sorede, people bring baskets such as these, but they also bring the more traditional wicker...


...and many these days bring the same recyclable bags we now use for grocery shopping.


(I have to smile at this last scene: our little grocery store is closed for the week (or longer: the posted dates keep changing), but these women still appear to treat it as a place to congregate. Ah, habits.)

Perhaps the basket vendor comes only once a month? Or once a year? So many details of village life remain elusive. And that’s okay. Many expats complain that in moving to a village in France, they never really blend into the fabric of the community. That it takes twenty or more years before villagers regard you as their own.

Me, I will never see myself as “belonging” here, even if I were to come back year after year to Sorede. Thirty years after moving to Wisconsin, I am only now feeling that I am truly from Madison. And I qualify that by saying that really, if truth be told, I am from Poland. To be from Sorede I should think would take an equally long span of time. Assimilation is a tricky thing when an individual (or a family) enters as a complete stranger, with no linkages to the enduring community.

In Sorede, as in other villages across France, you see a lot of older people. Even as Languedoc is growing as a region and the cities here are explosively expanding, the villages continue to shrink. It was a torrential flood of departures before the Scandinavians, Germans, and of course the English discovered the virtues of Languedoc countryside as well as its affordability and started to move here -- seasonally and even permanently. Cheap flights on Ryanair to Perpignan have sealed the fate of these rural places: they will survive because the northern Europeans love to spend their money here.

For the locals of course, this is a mixed blessing.


In any case, I know that I will be forever merely passing through.  Not one of them at all, but always on the outside, listening and watching. And maybe in thirty years, when I decide I have heard enough, I will choose a different place to visit. (I speak in rough approximations.)

For now, I am on the lookout for another place to stay (in the future). The apartment we’re in has a perfect location, but my tidiness instincts and my love for a pleasant aesthetic is a little ruffled here. I love the patio and the kitchen is quite decent and the rest is only okay. It’s a cheap place and sometimes (are you listening Ed?) you get what you pay for.

But let me return to the Tuesday story. We’re still at the morning market, having just bought ultimately the winner pain au chocolat and the winner baguette at the larger bakery. I know I praised to high heaven the shopkeeper at the smaller bakery, but the two ladies at this bigger (and I have to now say preferred) bakery are complete gems and jewels and they never fail to pick out the very biggest morning pain when they see Ed at the counter. And the smiles we get set the day ablaze.



At the market, we buy supper. Young potatoes, half dozen tomatoes (now down to 90 Euro cents per kilo), several endives, cherries, haricots verts, lovely carrots, artichokes -- all for a total price of 3 Euros.

And we stroll. Even in this little market, there are things to enjoy, to smile at.


At a charcuterie, we buy anchovies in olive oil and at the cave, -- wine. Such great joy in putting together a meal like this. The baguette, of course, is the binding force – the integrating element. It has to be good, because if it is not, then the rest will be also less well regarded. There are lessons to be learned there and I should note that the French, too, are constantly in the process of learning them – witness the horrible shame brought on by the performance of what has been described as the arrogantly individualistic (and those have been the kinder descriptors) French soccer team in the World Cup.

In the afternoon, as I said, we returned to the preferred beach.

Ah, change. The winds have rearranged the sands here. The inlet separating the village beach from the longer stretch of sand has grown deeper and as we park in the village this day, we struggle to find the shallower crossing point.


The wind, which has died down in Sorede is still gusting here and even though it’s warm and sunny, there are very few people out today.


Except, of course, those who worship strong breezes.


We settle in by what we think is a shallow stretch (you can see the color of the water change where it is more shallow). What I still cannot understand is how the water can look so agitated today when the wind appears to be blowing from the same direction as when we were here last week, when the water was so still that you could sit an inch (or so)  away from the water's edge and not be made wet. Today, the boundaries are not so fixed.


Ed, of course, loves the agitation and he is soon catching fragments of waves. And eventually I join him. The water is still on the cool side by my standards and I don’t stay in for long. The wind has this unfortunate habit of blowing a wave back at you so that after you have jumped and it has moved on, the gust will spray you even as you stand behind it with a fine mist of cold water.


We’re well covered in sun screen and so we stay on the beach for a longer while. The warm sand, the breeze, the perfectly blue sky all act to push away thoughts of anything too difficult or uncomfortable. The tensed muscles relax, the mind relaxes along with them.

A crab tumbles in a wave onto the shore. I want to photograph it, but it always rolls away from me when I aim the camera. Eventually it rolls into deeper waters. He has a job to do down there... Ed muses.


Supper on the patio. Missing from the photo is the dessert – endless good apricots from our neighbor, and nectarines as well now. Soon, she tells us, the peaches will be ripe too.