Jules

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When I first read Julia Child’s memoir six years ago, I was transported.

“What a towering personality and colossal wit,” I wrote. “Most people would probably love to sit and talk with Julia Child about food, but I must admit: I would love to just sit and listen to her tell me stories about her cats! Or, of course, to talk to her about France. I adored reading her accounts of the streets and vendors and markets, the people she met and the bureaucratic nonsense she encountered, the personalities and challenges and delights. This book is a must read for anyone who even remotely fancies themselves a Francophile.”

Julia on the terrace at La Pitchoune.

Before I left for France at the end of May I debated what books to take with me. I knew I would not have much time to read, but nevertheless I scanned the shelves, looked on my wish list at DCPL, and perused my to-read list on Goodreads. I finally settled on My Life in France.

It’s quite nearly a perfect book. Julia’s intelligence, verve, tenacity, and humor shine on every page. She delights in everything: adventure, food, work, and people. I was gutted this time around by the final bumpy trip down the driveway at La Pitchoune. But Julia wasn’t. Always one to look forward, I appreciated her lack of sentimentality – whether for the end of an era in Provence or the death of her father. After his ashes were spread, she responded with characteristic straightforwardness, a straightforwardness I tried to emulate on finishing her book: Eh bien, l’affaire conclue.

And yet, for Julia there is no sense of an ending, it’s merely on to what’s next. After closing their house in France, Julia, in her late seventies, writes, “Now I was moving forward again, into new experiences, in new places, with new people. There was still so much to learn and do – articles and books to write, perhaps another TV show or two to try. I wanted to go lobster-fishing in Maine, visit a Chicago slaughterhouse, teach kids how to cook. I viewed our recipes as a sacred trust, a set of rules about the right way and wrong way to approach food, and I felt a duty to pass this knowledge on. In short, my appetite had not diminished!”

In a letter Julia received from her editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, Jones writes about “an essential flavor of French life.” She’s talking about charcuterie, but still, I would say the same about Julia’s book. It is essential reading, and I won’t, as I did before, even qualify for whom. Not just for francophiles, or cooks, or food lovers, or old fans of her show, but for everyone. It’s that kind of book, and it’s that good.

While reading My Life in France I was reminded of Helene Hanff’s voice, and her admonishment of people who never read a book more than once. I’ve now read this one twice, and having finished it a second time, I can’t wait to read it again.

Up next: Dearie.

Le Mistral

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It’s been a common response, whenever I’ve asked people whether they’ve experienced le mistral, to hear: I’ve read about it. That’s what I would say, too: in textbooks, traveler’s guides, Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. One of the most colorful descriptions is this one, from Julia Child’s delectable memoir, My Life in France:

WHOOOOSH! As we detrained in Marseille, we were almost swept off our feet by a piercingly cold, dusty, savage wind that howled out of Siberia, across the Alps, along the Rhône Valley and down our necks. Boxes, barrels, crates, garbage, and newspapers sailed through the air and banged up against houses. The incessant wind tore away roof tiles, blew down chimneys, and ripped shutters off their hinges. The sea in the Old Port was sloshing and foaming, as hundred-foot-high walls of spume writhed across the harbor. Boats were huddled together like sheep; the masts of the fishing fleet leaned way over, and the rigging moaned like a train whistle. Paul and I had to squint and hunch our shoulders against the blast, and we barely made our way along the quay. When we finally reached home, we found that the windows of our apartment, six floors above the street, were completely frosted over with salt from the sea spray.

“This was our first true mistral, the notorious windstorm, and it was so exhilarating it was hard to think straight. It was as if we were under bombardment.

“The next day there was no wind at all. It was unbelievable. Our necks and ears were still black from the sideways-flying dirt. At the end of the harbor, guys with big rakes skimmed the water to clear away great mounds of seaweed, planks, oranges, and other flotsam piled up there. We kept bracing ourselves for a new onslaught – the way, after a picnic full of ants, you feel them crawling up your leg even when they aren’t there.”

 

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Eavesdropping is a great way to study a language, and when we were on the TGV, training from Lyon down to Marseille, there was a group of men in business suits sitting nearby. I tuned in and out of their conversation, and I couldn’t help overhearing the word mistral said three or four times during the short train trip. I could tell the wind was blowing, but when you’re traveling at 194 kilometres an hour, it’s difficult to know what’s the wind and what’s just your own blurry perception of the world outside. When we stepped off the train, however, I felt much like Julia in her description above.

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Fighting my way against the wind, with the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde at my back.

Later Julia writes about another time when “a mistral roared up. The sky was brilliantly clear, but the temperatures suddenly dropped from about a hundred degrees to the mid-sixties, and a crazy howling wind buffeted the city all day and night. Yaaaah! Whoooeeeeoooowh! The air was filled with whirling dust and sea spray again, and the wind ripped and smashed and flattened things with an insane force. …

“One afternoon, Paul and I fought our way through the gale to a rugged point of land to watch the mistral beat the sea into foamy whitecaps. It was exhilarating but exhausting. The wind ripped open the hem of my skirt; then it untied Paul’s necktie, flipped his trouser cuffs inside out, and turned his hair absolutely white with sea salt.”

It may be difficult to tell from these photos, but le mistral is a magical, mind bending, communication flustering, madness inducing, fierceness. It really did feel like it might rip the clothes off our backs. I could barely hear anything apart from the constant roaring of the wind, and it seemed like no one could understand me when I spoke. I became flustered as we sat down for a drink at a bar beside the old port. The wind whipped around tables and chairs, slashing through shirts and scarves and sending napkins and glasses flying. The locals seemed to be taking it all in stride, so that’s what we tried to do. When the server brought us two of everything we ordered, I shouted at Jeremy over the roar, Why doesn’t anyone understand me today?! Ever cool and level headed, he replied: I think they understood you fine; according to that sign over there, it’s two for one happy hour!

The next morning it was bright and calm, the sea still. We were having breakfast in the hotel when the cute, friendly concierge came to our table to give us information about a boat we had hired to take us out to see the Calanques. I asked him about the previous day’s weather, and whether or not it had just been particularly windy. He looked at me with grave sincerity and said mais non, monsieur, THAT was the mistral.

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A Year In the …

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Merde.

Stephen Clarke has been described (it might even be on the book jacket?) as the anti-Mayle. I read A Year in Provence more than a decade ago, and I have fond memories of it (in particular Mayle’s literally hair raising descriptions of the madness inducing mistral). Having finished reading A Year in the Merde, I have to assume that maybe Clarke is the anti-Mayle because he’s caustic and not afraid to take a piss at the French? It’s unclear. The most anti-Maylean thing about him seems to be his character’s lack of interest in getting to know or wanting to understand the French. If memory serves (and maybe it doesn’t), Mayle dives in headlong, and the humor in his book is derived in part from his genuine desire not just for experience, but to belong. Clarke’s character, on the other hand, just seems down to fuck.

There were definitely some funny moments – his description of French bureaucracy made me both nostalgic for my time in France and SO glad I don’t live there anymore. In fact it was a story I was telling about my own attempt to procure a carte de séjour that prompted a friend of mine to ask whether or not I had ever read A Year in the Merde.

One passage that I loved describes the morning noise of the family who lives upstairs: “At 7:00 a.m. the alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers’ boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone the kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen. They grab their chunks of baguette and go and sit in front of the TV, which is always showing a cartoon about people who do nothing but scream at each other and explode.” Having lived for a time with a French family with small children, this seems to capture it well. And yet, there’s nothing about it (except perhaps the baguette) that’s typiquement français.

The main character, Paul West, does manage – at times – to express genuine affection for Paris. Passages like this one kept me reading, because in some ways it captures how I have felt the past few years when I’ve gone back – moving from the airport terminal into the bustle of the train station and then zooming off on the RER into town. “I was glad to arrive back in Paris. … Just getting off the train and stepping into the rush for the metro, I felt reenergized. It’s a city that pulls you along with it. I knew that I could now get served in cafés, barge my way to the front of lines, infuriate people just by shrugging. It was like being good at a particularly tough computer game.”

But on the whole I found myself distracted by how hard the main character tried to convince – and then incessantly remind – the reader that he’s a real man, a real straight man, a bonafide heter-OH-sexual. There are some downright Jamesian (alas E.L., not Henry) feats of language, too:

The place had long sofas, so we were able to snuggle up cozily, alternating talking, drinking, and other more intimate mouth activities.

Shall I? Mouth activities?!

And this: Sex for her was like a business model.

We did some swift, efficient asset stripping, carried out the required amount of research and development, and then I was invited to position my product in her niche market. I did my best to satisfy her high demand with as much supply as I could muster. After a period of violently fluctuating market penetration, the bubble finally burst and we sank back, our sales forces completely spent.

While I appreciated the character’s struggle with the French language, there was little to appreciate about the author’s struggle with English. And even in the story itself, there never seemed to be a real attempt to make sense of the nuance and the beauty of the language, only to capitalize on his confusion and use it as an excuse to make fun of what he did not understand.

One reviewer on Goodreads expressed surprise that there was a plot, which I found funny. Despite really struggling through passages like the ones above, I thought the plot was fine. My main takeaway from the novel, however, was that the protagonist is an insufferable douchebag. And yet, it was still fun to read. I decided to read it last week when I got home from spending more than three weeks in France, and in that way it served its purpose. It worked for me, not because of anything having to do with the book itself, but because it kept France close; it made the transition back to real life feel a little bit easier by helping me imagine that I was in France just a little bit longer.