Murder on the Île Sordou

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51zzozesm7l-_sx325_bo1204203200_There is a good deal of happiness that comes from finishing a good book; from being twenty-four hours home from a lovely two week vacation; from sipping a light salmon-colored rosé from Provence; and from enjoying all this on my back porch under a brisk summer breeze. Murder on the Île Sordou is the best yet from M. L. Longworth. She does such a great job, especially in this one, of capturing people doing the things I best associate with France – savoring food, wine, conversation and, in the South, sunlight and the sea.

I love the silence here, and the breezes, Verlaque says at the end. And the smells, Bonnet revels. Part sea and part plant. The days and nights on Sordou reminded me of the two weeks I spent in Provence last summer – minus the murder which, as a testament to Longworth’s priorities here, doesn’t come until more than a hundred pages in. In addition to the intrigue, even more so, we get to savor Longworth’s affinity for fine wine and cigars; her descriptions of dinner menus so colorful they invite hunger and make the characters tear up; scrumptious drink recipes you can almost taste on a hot summer afternoon; lunch poems; delightful conversation between island guests you can’t help but wish you were one of, even though you know one of them surely must die. And before it’s all over, an entire chapter inspired by Babette’s Feast!

Longworth’s fourth book is like one of the meals she lovingly describes. There is so much going on, so many different delicious ingredients, and like a true chef de cuisine she manages the complexity of her art to produce something exquisitely simple, and deceptively sweet.

Up next: The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne.

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Middle Saturday in Provence

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It was several years ago that I discovered the brilliance of a two week vacation, and my two favorite words in the English language: middle Saturday. I’ve been in France for four weeks, but am just now beginning the second week of vacation in Provence.

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What I love is the quiet. It’s loud with an abundance of birdsong in the trees, all manner of birds I couldn’t begin to identify – doves for sure, because I can see them, their fat breasts puffed out, sitting like little Buddhas on the branch above the terrace, cooing. There’s what I like to imagine is an owl, although it could be any number of other things. It’s this silence, this full, vibrant, noisy silence that I love – devoid of all the things I spend my normal days hearing: sirens, endless horn honking, telephones buzzing and beeping and ringing. One night, the first we slept with the windows open, we heard what we imagined was the sound of sangliers rooting through the garden. I fell into a peaceful sleep.

The wind races over the hills behind the house and sounds like the roar of interstate traffic as it picks up speed and bends through the trees. This happens in the afternoon while I’m sitting beside the pool reading and drinking a beer. I worry that the umbrella might fly away, reach out and steady it, and then the wind calms down and I turn the page as church bells in the nearby village start ringing up through the valley.

There are singular pleasures to be appreciated here: the simple elegance of local women strolling through the Friday produce market with their baskets hanging from one elbow while they squeeze a tomato or kiss-kiss a friend they meet on the street. From one end of the basket drapes a gorgeous deep purple bundle of lavender while a warm baguette peeks out the other. I could never get away with it at home, taking my Provençal market basket to Whole Foods. But I still might try.

Since we arrived I’ve learned the words for bat, fly, ant, mosquito, and crickets; the difference between a côtelette and a brochette; what daube de taureau means; and the pleasures of sauce à l’échalote.

The changing colors over the Massif des Maures are more of a spectacle than anything streaming on Netflix – the pink gradients that suddenly appear low in the evening heat and then slowly but dramatically rise, leaving the massif to float below, bold and gray in a ribbon of blue. No wonder so many painters and artists have been inspired by this place. It’s a different picture with every passing quarter hour, bright and soft at the same time, and so richly textured it seems like you could reach out a hand and feel the mounds of paint.

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The mattresses are unfamiliar and my back aches; the sun is baking hot and it’s in the 90s by eleven; the drivers are crazy and the winding roads narrow and frightening; and the GPS is often unreliable. But none of it matters – because of the way the light hits the leaves and lands in a big shimmering bowl beneath the hills; how it rolls in glassy waves over the rounded roof tiles and bathes the lush green valley beneath our Mas, sitting grandly on its terraced hillside. Enough bread and butter can also fix anything. And the wine. Chilled local rosés, light and dry; crisp, minerally whites; round, chewy reds. I’ve come to realize that my days are arranged around where I’m sitting and what I’m drinking – early to mid AM: front terrace with coffee; mid AM to mid PM: pool with beer; mid PM to early evening: front terrace with Champagne Rosé; dinner on back terrace with a white or red. Repeat.

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At the end of the chapter, “June,” in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, he writes, “The sun was a great tranquilizer, and time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.” So we may go visit other villages or we may not. We may go shopping in Marseille or we may not. We may make it to Aix, or Arles, or Draguignan, or Grasse. Or we may not. With the view and the bells and the bread and the wine, it doesn’t matter. I’m being still. I’m luxuriating in the quiet and the light.

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Mary

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Twenty years ago I read Margaret George’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. I’d just started dating the first boy I ever kissed, which was a milestone and came, as difficult as it is to believe now, as something of a surprise to me.

It was a terrifying time, trying to balance this new discovery, this whole other person, the most important person in my life, who I was afraid to acknowledge when I saw him on campus but with whom I would clandestinely make out in the darkened language lab when no one was looking – trying to balance all the raging, delightful feelings with everything else, with what I thought of as my normal life. The closet does that. It makes you think – really believe – that you can go back and forth like that, which is impossible; which is why the closet is a killer.

He insisted that I read Mary. It’s the most amazing love story, he said, before reading me what had to be the most depressing poem I’d ever heard:

The wind doth blow today, my love, and a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true love, in cold grave she was lain,
You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips, but my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips your time will not be long.
Tis down in yonder garden green, Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen is withered to a stalk.
The stalk is withered dry, my love, so will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love, till God calls you away.

No surprise that he turned out to be an ass.

We never spoke again after I broke up with him three years later. He told me that life was like a chest of drawers, with only so much room. In order to accommodate new friendships, new love, old clutter had to be removed. At the time I thought it sounded callous, but with no self-confidence and even less experience, I convinced myself it made sense. Imagine my surprise when, re-reading Mary twenty years later, I came upon this dialogue, between Sir Francis Walsingham and his chief agent, Thomas Phelippes: “`And do you know what happens to something when there’s no place for it any longer?’ He jerked open one of the drawers and pulled out a letter. `This is outdated. Its contents are of no relevance.’ He tossed it out the window, where it landed in the street. Three horses in a row stepped on it and ground it into the mud. `That’s what happens. It’s very simple. We have to keep our drawers neat, Phelippes; we have to get rid of the useless.'”

So not only was he a dick, but also totally unoriginal.

Anyway, it was with no small amount of irony that, afraid though I was that someone would find out the truth about me, I spent the better part of a semester wandering around my tiny college campus carrying a 900 page novel the size of cinder block with a big queen named Mary on the cover.

It took me a good five months to get through that year, and maybe it was something about the symmetry of time – twenty years and all – that, last December, I decided to read her again. It took a little longer this time, with other commitments and distractions along the way, but I once again finished her story, her long winding saga, at the end of May. Shortly thereafter I was off to church camp to work as a counselor for the summer, and now I finish it just in time to return to France – Her adopted country, the country of her mother, of her favourite language, her sensibilities, her dress, her memories. I leave tonight, for five weeks. Back for new adventures in the country that nourished a queen.

Marseille

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“Marseille’s hot noise was so different from Paris’s cool sophistication.”
— Julia Child —

Some photos from our time in Marseille back in June. We arrived in a mistral, and set off to explore the Vieux Port.

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Marseille’s Vieux Port with Notre Dame de la Garde on the hill.

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This one might be my favorite.

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Fort Saint Jean

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Cathédrale la Major facing the MuCEM (Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée)

On the following day we hired a boat to take us out to see the famed Calanques.

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… and the day after that we picnicked and hiked around Niolon.

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“`I always forget between visits what a raucous, colorful city this is,’ Paul wrote. `There seems to be 10 times as much horn-blowing, gear-clashing, shouting, whistling, door-banging, dropping of lumber, breaking of glass, blaring of radios, boat-whistling, gong-clanging, brake-screeching, and angry shouting as anywhere else.”
— Paul Child —

And in response to all that, Marseille, we say … cheers and merci !

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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.