Observations from Overseas: France

[I spent a six-month sabbatical in France, from January through June, 2010. While I was there, I contributed to a blog called "Our French Files," offering observations about France and the life that my family and I were leading there. Here are some of these observations.]


Saturday, January 9, 2010

In which Mark returns a rental car in Marseilles and finds himself enduring a Homeric epic journey home to Cotignac

It occurs to me that if you skimmed the title of this post too quickly, you might have mistaken the word "Homeric" for "homoerotic." If so, you'll probably be disappointed when my story fails to deliver on that intriguing expectation. I can only imagine what you might imagine to be entailed by a homoerotic epic journey in Provence. Wild boar hunting in bondage gear, perhaps, accompanied by regular rubdowns with rosemary-infused olive oil, or something like that? Like I say, I can only imagine.

But no, my journey home from Marseilles was pretty much the opposite of erotic. And if it wasn't exactly Odysseyian, it was still unexpectedly long, circuitous, and fraught with frustrations. It began with a simple premise: After arriving in Cotignac with Quincy and the kids on Saturday, I would drive alone to Marseilles on Sunday to return our rental car, and then return myself home by train and bus. Train from Marseilles to Brignoles, I figured, and then the bus from Brignoles to Cotignac. Should be home sometime Sunday afternoon, I thought. But I thought wrong. Deeply, deeply wrong. Not only was I not home Sunday afternoon, I wasn't even home by Sunday evening. And instead of spending Sunday night relaxing with my family as we settled in for our second night in our new home in Cotignac, I instead spend an almost completely sleepness Sunday night alone in Aix-en-Provence, tossing and turning in a strange and costly bed, lamenting my lack of serviceable language skills, obsessively revisiting the false assumptions and wrong turns that had characterized this unexpectedly challenging day, paranoiaically imagining another surreal series of obstructions that might surely strand me again tomorrow, and flipping through the pages of my phrase book in rueful preparation for these possible privations. I felt sure I might need to know how to say, in French, "You mean there is no service on Monday either?" and "I've lost my contact lenses and cannot see," and "Please stop the bus because the coffee I drank this morning has affected my bowels in a way I had not anticipated," and--of course--"I am humiliated."

What transpired that grim Sunday to have delivered me to such a desperate and sleepless lonely night in Aix? I won't bore you with the details. Instead, I'll just say that I learned a few things firsthand that I really should have anticipated in advance, had I been better prepared and less willing to blithely trust my own ignorant optimism. I learned that, in France, even international car rental offices are liable to be closed for a two-hour lunch break between 12:00 and 14:00. I learned that, despite the physical presence of a passenger train station in Brignoles, there is no train that actually reaches there from Marseilles. I learned that there are a surprisingly large number of bus companies in France, each of which is decidedly regional and highly circumscribed in its scope of operations, and none of which seems to know or care very much about where the other companies drive their buses to, or when they do it. Also, I learned that bus services tend to be severely curtailed on Sundays, and that some buses--like the one to Cotignac--don't run at all that day.

I don't know why I thought it might be easier than it was. I mean, I've traveled by cross-country bus plenty of times before, even in countries where I speak the language well, and it's rarely transparent or straightforward or stress-free. I don't know why I thought it would be any simpler while jet-lagged and linguistically impaired. There was a time, back when I was a cringingly un-self-conscious 19-year-old reader of Kerouac and Ginsberg, when I indulged in a peculiar affection for the grim uncertainty of long-haul bus travel--the monotony, the delays, the missed connections, the overnight layovers in fluorescent-lit way-stations in some cold unsavory section of a city I didn't know, while some surly janitor mopped the floor around a snoring drunk sleeping two seats away from where I madly scribbled an endless longhand letter to a girl I'd dated a couple of times and who had already told me she wasn't interested in dating me anymore, and who certainly wasn't interested in my ten-page tedious sophomoric screeds about fluorescent way-stations, surly janitors and snoring drunks. Yikes. What the hell was I thinking?

So, anyway, I spent the night in Aix--a town that hadn't figured into my plans at all when the day started--feeling like a failure, and trying to sleep but failing at that too. I tossed and turned as the dark night crawled by. I unendingly rehashed the day's disappointments. I anxiously imagined ever more outlandish mistakes and humiliations that I might have to endure when morning finally arrived. As I lay there wide-awake all night, thinking that this was about as miserable as I've ever felt, I actually found myself indulging in the clichéed thought that maybe this whole hellish experience was all just a bad bad dream.

Now, somewhere in there, even if for just a moment, I'd like to think that I was able to take a step back and enjoy a little perspective on what I was being forced to endure: A night in a quaint hotel just off the famously lovely Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence. For many people, I guess, that's not exactly a living Hell.

Oh, and I guess I should mention this too: Once Monday morning rolled around, everything went just fine. I was back in Cotignac in time for lunch with Quincy and the kids.



Monday, January 11, 2010

Cote d'Azur: The land of ice and snow

Officially, we live in the Var administrative department of the Provence / Alpes / Cote d'Azur region of southern France. Now, I don't know about you, but whenever I've heard the words "Provence" and "Cote d'Azur," it has conjured up images of bright sun-baked landscapes shimmering under balmy Mediterranean breezes. Warm. Sunny. Dry.

Well, if you were looking out our windows this past weekend, you might have thought that it was North Dakota out there. Snow on the ground. More snow falling from a gloomy sky. People hunched against an icy wind as they attempted to navigate the slippery streets.

Of course, if you look past the frigid wind and whipping snow, it's pretty darn prototypically and picturesquely Provencal. Underneath the dusting of snow are the pleasing planes of red-tiled rooftops joining each other at odd angles astride stucco homes painted pastel shades of yellow and orange and brown. The houses are packed into tight terraces that march up a steep hillside that stops suddenly against the spectacular backdrop of a huge undulating face of a curving cliff. The cliff face is punctuated by holes and folds in the eroding rock, and abandoned caves, and an ancient fortress of some sort. And at the very top of the cliff, standing like sentinels at the edge of the looming plateau, are two large towers, hundreds of years old, slowly crumbling, but still an imposing sight to see every time I look out our living room windows.

It's sunny today, actually, but it's still freezing cold. So it's a bit of a relief that a man--wearing a beret, by the way--arrived today to pump 1000 liters of heating oil from his truck into the holding tank for our furnace.

Actually, I'll count that as a significant personal achievement. Not only am I more confident that we can keep this drafty house warm until more appropriate weather returns, but I'm practically giddy with delight that I was able to actually arrange for this fuel delivery, entirely in French, without the whole event going off the rails in some cascade of erroneous assumptions and linguistic faux pas. Quincy and I had a similar moment of emotional uplift late last week, simply as a consequence of walking out of a local Allianz insurance office, having successfully employed our limited command of French to buy some "l'assurance scolaire" for Jasper that, apparently, schoolchildren in France all must have. It's this sort of thing--somehow accomplishing in French something that I've never actually had to in my native language nor was anticipating at all when we moved here just over a week ago--that makes me think that, yes, we will manage.

My favorite part of that whole insurance episode was when we paid for the policy. Credit card? No, not an option. And so I pulled some cash out of my wallet, while the insurance agent reached under her desk to retrieve some battered-looking little metal box from which she made change. A crummy little cash box. That cracked me up. I mean, here we are dealing with one of the largest financial companies in all of Europe, and it's like we're buying a couple of cucumbers at a roadside stand.



Thursday, January 14, 2010

In which we attempt to adjust to a Francophone world, and Mark--to his relief--does not get arrested

The last time I took a sabbatical, we went to Sri Lanka: Civil war, chaotic traffic, wandering boars and flying bats and mangy dogs and malarial mosquitoes and water that we had to boil before drinking. But being in Sri Lanka was surprising easy because, hey, at least lots of people there speak excellent English. Not so much here in rural France. It's definitely an adjustment--for some of us more than others.

Take me, for instance. Yes, I've been able to struggle through some interactions with my amateurish deployment of French. But I live with the constant threat of being linguistically lost. There are a few contexts in which I feel confident--like when I'm buying bread or pastries (really amazing pastries) at one of the three bakeries that are within a five-minute walk from our house. But I feel very differently about the prospect of, say, answering the telephone when it rings. I did answer it once and was somewhat relieved when there wasn't actually a real person at the other end of the line; just an automated recording of some sort, which I didn't understand at all and which refused, as automated recordings are wont to do, to acknowledge my feeble requests to speak more slowly and with a more childlike choice of vocabulary words. No, generally, I leave the phone-answering to Quincy.

Maddox too struggles with the language. His knowledge of French was essentially zero at the time of our arrival, and he didn't have much chance to splash around in the shallow end of the linguistic pool before we plunged him directly into the deep end of full-time daycare at l'école maternelle. We've been trying to coach him a bit at home--teaching him French phrases for "Hello," "Thank you," "I'm thirsty," and stuff like that, and he is doing a great job of counting all the way to neuf--but he's clearly not happy with the language. The director of l'école maternelle, Madame Blanc, reported to us that he resists saying anything at all in French. He refuses to answer "présent" at morning roll-call, or to repeat even the simplest words in French when prompted. Intriguingly, his refusals aren't limited to just the linguistic domain. Madame Blanc also reported that he refuses to write out the letters in his name (which he's been doing since he was, like, two), and that he's unable to use scissors (which is crap, because I know from experience that he likes nothing better than to take a pair of scissors and turn any sheet of paper--no matter how indispensable it might be--into a pile of tattered strips). I'm guessing that his apparent dumbness at daycare is strategic. If he was older and, say, in prison, I suspect he'd be refusing meals and flinging feces in a willfully misguided attempt to attract media attention to some sort of idiosyncratic sociopolitical cause. But, well, he's four; and we're not worried. At the end of the day, when we walk him home, he always claims to have had some fun.

It's been a lot easier on Jasper, since she arrived here with an excellent command of French already. Still, she was anxious when we walked her to l'école primaire the first day, and was actually fighting back tears as we introduced her to her teacher that morning (which is pretty notable given how famously stoic Jasper usually is). She told us later that she spent her morning recess alone inside, just trying to get acquainted with her new surroundings. But this period of nervous adjustment was short-lived. By her second day of school, she was already rattling off the names of all her friends (Josephine, Jelena, Marie-Justine, etc.), and excitedly studying times tables and practicing how to write in cursive.

This quick transition, and the discovery that she could so successfully make that transition, seems to have emboldened Jasper more broadly too. She now insists on walking home from school unaccompanied by a parent, and she's excited to start exploring Cotignac on her own as well.

This past weekend, for instance, she was very keen to make a solo trip to a particular patisserie to buy some custard-filled sacristains for dessert. It's the furthest of the three bakeries, and although it's still an easy walk, Cotignac ain't exactly laid out on grid. The streets are curvy narrow alleys, and it's easy to lose one's bearings. I drew Jasper a map, and I told her that I'd be following her from a distance, just in case. She objected to that, but I insisted, and I assured her that I'd stay out of sight so that she wouldn't feel like she was being chaperoned at all. So she took off with map in hand and a couple of Euros in her pocket. I left a minute or two later, to make sure she didn't end up miles away. Should we be concerned about our 8-year old girl walking by herself in a town she barely knows? Nah. It's a small village and kids here go around unaccompanied all the time. It's safe. In fact, given the way that I was furtively following her--hiding behind the pale trunks of leafless trees, periodically flattening myself against peeling stucco walls in order to stay out of sight--the only suspicious-looking person in the whole town was me. Jasper's outing was a complete success, but I can only imagine what might have transpired if my apparent stalking behavior had caught the eye of the gendarme (there is one, exactly one, policeman in the village). It's one thing to buy a loaf of bread in French; I reckon it would be a bit more of a linguistic challenge to try to convince local law enforcement that I'm not, in fact, a pervert.



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Salissez mes chaussures, dit l'étranger

We're living in someone's holiday house in Cotignac, and there are lots of things here of the sort of that a family keeps in a second home. Random toys and tools, odd assortments of plates and bowls, a bunch of old bicycles rusting in the garage, that kind of thing. And bookshelves full of books: Gide and Camus and Saint-Exupéry, and translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Cent Ans de Solitude) and Philip K. Dick (Coulez Mes Larmes, Dit le Policier).

I amused myself last night by imagining how Camus might have blogged about our life here so far ("Aujourd'hui, Jasper a vomi. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas...").

Or Garcia Marquez, perhaps: "Many years later, when his own children were grown and he lay dying slowly and painlessly in an antiseptic room instead of succumbing to a tragically heroic fate as he had once wished, the fading sunlight slanting through the hospital window reminded Mark, for the first time in years, of that bright cold day in January when he first rode a rusted bicycle through the scrubby pine forests and olive orchards of Provence and, upon returning home in the late afternoon, he imagined, wrongly, that he would always associate his sabbatical in France with the sweet scent of wood smoke and rosemary."

Alongside the creaky bicycles, there's also a car that came with the house. It's a beater (an old Renault 5 with a shrill engine and floormats that are, mysteriously, always wet), but it's serviceable.

And it's not like we really need a car very much. Right in the center of the village, just a couple of blocks from our house, there are half a dozen shops that supply Cotignacians with basic necessities such as bread, cheese, wine, and entire skinned carcasses of rabbit, head and all. There's a bank with a bank machine (and that's handy because we're going through Euros as though they were rupees, or dollars). There's a hardware store where, among other things, we can get spare keys made. And these include not just the slim little streamlined keys we're accustomed to using in our modern doorlocks in North America, but also those elaborate cast-iron things with cloverleaf handles that look like the sort of oversized gimmicky prop brandished by grinning civic leaders in cheesy 1950s-style "key to the city" ceremonies. And there's a tiny, but surprisingly well-stocked supermarket of sorts--the one in which Jasper famously vomited on her shoes a couple of weeks ago--that sells pasta and milk and toilet paper and couscous and Nutella and little pots of thick tangy sheeps-milk yogurt that immediately became my fermented breakfast food of choice.

I don't have great confidence in our damp and belchy car, and I'm sure that it will, one day, leave us all stranded by the side of some picturesque rural road somewhere. But we did drive it to Brignoles (about 20 km away) last week to buy some things--like peanut butter--that can't be found in Cotignac.

The next day, Quincy went further afield to do some shopping in the larger metropolis of Toulon. Although, really, she didn't see much of Toulon. She spent her time in a mall, and at Ikea. She might as well have been in Burnaby. She returned home with a squishy plastic nightlight with an unpronounceably cute Swedish name, and a new cell phone. Which now brings the total number of telephones in the house to four--three of which actually work, two of which have French phone numbers, and none of which I intend to ever touch.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, we all had lunch in an olive garden. And, no, I don't mean one of those faux-Italian restaurant franchises of the sort that you can find dotting the suburban landscapes of North America (and, I assume, Toulon). I mean a real olive garden. We've met some people (Nathalie and Ollie--he's a plumber here in town--and their three kids) who live in an old farmhouse inside an olive orchard, and they invited us over for a lunch that went on for several hours. Beer and wine and bread and olive oil, muscat squash and rice and monkfish simmered in herbs and tomatoes, and salad, and three cheeses, and finally a cake--a galette du roi, with crowd-pleasing prizes baked into it, accompanied by crowns to wear on our heads.

Afterwards, while the kids were turning windblown branches into a sort of fort in the woods by a spring, I picked some twigs of wild rosemary that I found growing in the rocks nearby. I wandered into a hunters' shelter there by the spring, where I found a woodfire still smoldering. I tossed the rosemary into the embers and it smelled so good. I barely noticed all the fresh dogshit underfoot.



Sunday, January 24, 2010

In which a car succumbs to a predictable fate and Mark, laughably, takes up welding

Hemingway too spent some time in France, and he famously had this to say about it: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." I'm not sure how that might relate to our situation, though, because we're living a long way from Paris, and I ain't exactly a young man any more. Still, I do feel lucky. I think. Sometimes.

It's lucky, for instance, that our house here comes with a car.

It's unlucky, though, that the car is at least twenty years old and--judging by the fistfuls of pine needles and oak leaves that I dug out from under the hood the other day--appears to have spent most of its long life parked out in the lonely woods somewhere.

It's lucky that, after taking it to the local garage, the mechanic pronounced it to be in fine running condition. Of course, given the antiquity of the car, we were only guardedly encouraged by this opinion.

It's unlucky that, on exactly the same day that (in a previous blog entry) I predicted the car would "one day leave us all stranded by the side of some picturesque rural road somewhere" we were, in fact, stranded by the side of some picturesque rural road somewhere. We were chugging our way over the hills to Brignoles, on a narrow shoulder-less highway, when the engine just suddenly died. And not only wouldn't it start up again, there wasn't even the slightest encouraging sound when I cranked the key. But, actually, my prediction was just a little bit wrong: We weren't actually stranded by the side of the road. There was no side to the road. The car was sitting dead right in the middle of the motorway.

It's lucky that, despite being a complete mechanical moron, I was able to get my head under the hood and to diagnose what I thought was the problem: A loose of set of electrical wires. And, in a stunningly unlikely turn of events, after poking haphazardly at those wires for a few minutes, I was actually able to get the car going again.

It's lucky too that Quincy is thoroughly sensible in the midst of stressful situations. She smartly suggested that we drive directly to the local mechanic to get the damn thing professionally fixed.

It's unlucky, however, that I just don't listen.

It's unlucky that, buoyed by the semi-magical fact that we were suddenly unstranded, I somehow convinced myself that I could fix that wiring problem myself. In hindsight (and, really, even in foresight, if I had possessed such a thing) my self-confidence was completely preposterous. Not only because I'm a mechanical moron, but also because we have no tools at all--not even the simplest wrench in our possession.

It's lucky, though, that I have some training as scientist, and a desire to test hypotheses before plunging blindly forward. My tests--most of which involved pulling wires in and out of places that they either should or shouldn't be--appeared to confirm that the problem was, in fact, exactly what I thought it was.

It's lucky I didn't end up with a faceful of battery acid.

It's unlucky, but hardly unsurprising, that I not only failed to fix the problem, but also made the original problem much, much worse. Wires that once were merely loose became increasingly impossible to connect at all. Not only that, but my amateurish efforts caused another essential wire--which apparently was as brittle as the ancient pine needles that I continued to excavate from the engine--to break entirely in half.

It's lucky that I was home, so at least I had a familiar bed to lie down in that night. It's unlucky that the night passed as a sort of sadistic parody of my famously miserable night in Aix-en-Provence a couple of weeks before. I spent the night in an all-too-familiar sleepless torment, relentlessly rehearsing my errors and failings, and imagining the immense variety of ways in which any additional attempt to solve the situation would render it even more hopeless.

It's lucky that I don't really take those kinds of thoughts too seriously. It's even luckier that, although we have a nodding acquaintance with no more than 3 people in this entire town, one of those people--Ollie--is a plumber by trade, who drives around in a van stocked with an immense array of tools, including a substantial soldering kit that would come in very handy indeed. It's lucky too that Ollie speaks English with the near-perfect fluency of someone who was born in Holland, which he was. And luckier still that, despite the fact that I'd only met him once before (when he and his wife treated us--near strangers--to a sumptuous feast at their house in the olive orchard, so he certainly doesn't owe me any favors), Ollie was entirely willing to take time away from a massive plumbing project that he's doing at a bar here in town and to instead spend a valuable chunk of his afternoon rehabilitating the ruined wires under the hood of our car. And when I offered to compensate him for his time and effort, Ollie demurred, and suggested that we should soon go bicycling together instead (which we did, today).

Yes, it's freakishly lucky to have accidentally befriended someone so helpful and generous. In fact, just yesterday, Ollie and Nathalie invited us to their house to use their laser printer and fax machine. And, while there, for reasons that remain shrouded in the mystery of his impulsive munificence, Ollie put a welding helmet on my head and a power supply into my hands and invited me to try my luck at arc welding. And while I was amateurishly spraying hot showers of sparks all around, he proceeded to invite me to borrow his motorcycle and his chain saw too.

And, with that, I think that we've entirely transcended lucky, and entered the domain of downright scary.



Friday, January 29, 2010

In which Mark strenuously attempts to explain that a sabbatical is not a holiday

I was panting. I was sweating. I was cranking hard on the well-worn pedals of a balky bicycle, hoping that its rusty chain wouldn't snap. Meanwhile, gliding effortlessly on the bicycle beside me, a genial grape-grower with cigarette-stained teeth asked me a question that I have come to dread: "Are you on vacation?"

The simple answer, of course, is "Non". But that simple answer just doesn't seem to satisfy folks. Their skeptical squints demand that I explain more fully just exactly what I'm doing here in the south of France, if I'm not on holiday. I'm forced to find some way of convincingly articulating that fact that I'm actually working when, by all appearances, I spend my days sampling soft cheeses and noodling around on the internet.

And at this particular moment, I needed to do so while pantingly pedaling my way to the top of Le Grand Bessillon (which is the highest point for miles around and, even on days in which winter woodsmoke is shrouding the valleys in a sweet-smelling haze, offers a spectacular view). I was riding with Ollie and Jerome. Ollie is my plumber friend--although, really, it doesn't seem quite right to call him a friend exactly. Friendship usually implies a certain reciprocal give-and-take, and thus far Ollie's been doing all the giving and I've been all the taking. It might be more accurate to call him my patron or my benefactor or something. Anyway, I was riding with Ollie, who was popping wheelies on his fancy new top-of-the-line mountain bike, and Ollie's friend Jerome (the grape-grower) who was on Ollie's other mountain bike. As for me, I was astride the bike I found in our garage, with its creaky gears, balding tires, and squishy brakes that squeal like a terrified schoolgirl (and they would be squealing plenty, about an hour later, on the harrowing off-road route that Ollie chose for our descent down the side of the mountain).

I try to explain: "No, I'm not on vacation; I'm on sabbatical." And I'm fully aware that when I say stuff like that out loud--especially when I say it to rural tradesmen who work with heavy tools all day long--I might as well be saying, "No I'm not wearing a skirt; it's a sarong." And so, I press on.

But how exactly can I talk about my sabbatical without sounding like a slacker. Do I say that, although I teach at UBC, I only teach one or two classes anyway, and so it's no big deal that I'm just not teaching this term? Do I say that, although the main part of my job is to do research, it's not actually me personally who spends the long hours in the lab collecting data, and so it's barely noticeable when I disappear for six months overseas? Do I tell people that, on my sabbatical, I'm mostly expected just to stare at a computer screen and write?

Or do I take a different approach and assert that the objective of a sabbatical is not just to provide me with more time to write, but also to supply the sort of mental stimulation that will promote scholarly productivity for years to come? And do I offer the patently self-serving opinion that, in my case, that objective is partially satisfied simply by being here in the first place?

Yes. I do offer that opinion, and I truly believe it. Although I didn't say it exactly like that on my ride with Ollie and Jerome, that is why we're here: To shake our brains up a bit. And no, I don't mean "shake our brains" in the way that my brain was juddering like a jackhammer on that rocky ride down the mountainside. I mean that, in some eventual way, I benefit intellectually from the accumulation of all these new and unpredictable experiences. Whether it's an unexpected night of existential anguish in Aix, or the dizzying array of raw goats-milk cheeses at the local market, it's all part of the package of reasons why an overseas sabbatical ultimately pays off.

Which means that (and, again, I realize that what I'm about to say may undermine my assertion that a sabbatical is not a vacation) in order to fully repay the taxpayers' long-term investment in my overseas adventure, I really do need to do more than just stare at my computer screen. I need to struggle with the language. I need to get stranded by unreliable automobiles. I need to immerse myself in the weekly open-air market, where people are selling everything from cheeses and sausages and olive oils to hunting knives and chainsaws and queen-size mattresses. I need to spend a muddy Monday morning loading and unloading a truckful of aromatic oak branches that will, for the rest of the winter, smolder unconvincingly in our fireplace. It's not just an errand that has to be done. It's my job.

Just like, when someone invites me go bicycling to the top of a windblown peak, it's my job to say "Oui". And when Ollie chooses to plunge down a precipitous route for which neither my bicycle nor my aging skillset is suited, it's my job to fearlessly follow. That's what I'm being paid to do--to shake my brain.

My job is not, however, to flip my brain over the handlebars or to slam it ferociously against a rock-strewn slope. And, happily, I didn't. Despite the irresistible tug of gravity, and despite my foolhardy faith in a bicycle with wobbly wheels and howling brakes, and despite the fact that I'm no longer much of an athlete but am instead just another aging academic on sabbatical, I remained intact. Barely. There was a moment toward the end of the ride, after we had passed the hilltop chapel of Notre-Dame de Grâces and were hammering headlong down the rocky remains of the ancient Chemin des Pénitents--my thighs cramping, my wrists aching, and my brakes shrieking like a wounded weasel--that I came close to losing control entirely. But I didn't. Five minutes later, Ollie and Jerome and I dismounted our bicycles beside a fountain in the central courtyard of Cotignac, and sat down to enjoy an espresso outdoors under the winter sun.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In which Mark falls prey once again to self-parody, and France barely makes an appearance at all

Like most mornings, I woke up at 6:00, while Quincy and the kids were still asleep and the sun had yet to rise. I spent the next hour or so sitting on the couch with my computer on my lap, drinking coffee, and reading The New Yorker. Riveting reading, as always. A lot of stuff about J. D. Salinger who'd died just a few days before.

Laptop computer. New Yorker. Salinger. Yeah, I know: I'm not exactly ripping off A Year in Provence here. I'm not exactly inviting any lawsuits from goddam Peter Mayle. That's the thing about digital technology, I guess. We're living in a house that's hundreds of years old, but it's outfitted with a high-speed wireless internet connection. So, with a computer on my lap, I could just as easily be back in Vancouver, or anywhere else in the world.

Anyway, I got to thinking about Salinger and his writing that I like so much. I was reminded of how I was inspired to write a couple of Holden Caulfield parody pieces back in the 1980s, which actually found their way oddly into print (in the Daily Tar Heel and the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity--not exactly The New Yorker, of course, but, as Richie Brockelman might have said, what the hey), and which I wrote mostly to amuse myself and a few friends. I was reminded of how, when Quincy and I were first living together in Vancouver many years ago, I discovered that she'd somehow never read The Catcher in the Rye, and so I proceeded to read the whole book out loud to her as we lay in bed at night, with the rain failing softly outside.

And, naturally, I got to thinking about the very first time I read the book myself, on the banks of the Rio Paraguai in Brazil, when I was fourteen years old. It's pretty cool, of course, to have spent months living in the wilds of Brazil, and there was no internet then, that's for sure; so you'd think that the stuff I remember from that particular time would be unique to that particular place. Fishing for piranha. Leaning over the bow of a boat to lasso alligators at night. Eating a dinner my dad made from day-old capybara meat scavanged from a jaguar kill. That sort of thing. And I do remember those things. But I also remember, just as meaningfully, that I spent that summer lying in a lazy hammock reading and re-reading the same three books over and over again. One of those books was The Catcher in the Rye, and I read it the most of all. I must have read it about a hundred times that summer, if you want to know the truth. I'm not kidding.

It makes me wonder what exactly Jasper and Maddox will end up remembering most fondly from their half-year here in France. I'd like to think it'll be something uniquely Provençal. The local sacristains maybe, or stumbling upon vine-covered ruins in the middle of the forest, or our walks down the narrow alleyways of Cotignac, sidestepping dogshit while the church bells ring and the swallows and swifts dart in and out of the caves in the cliffs overhead. But I'm sure I'm wrong. They'll probably remember watching Speedy Gonzalez and Tom & Jerry over and over and over again on DVD.

So, really, much as I like to emphasize the exotic elements of life in France, life here is pretty mundane too. In fact, I'm tempted to make that point in a full-on Holden Caulfield kind of way. You know, something like: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where we're living, and what the food is like, and where to find all the famous fountains that tourists are always breaking their goddam necks to take pictures of, and all that Lonely Planet kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. That stuff always ends up sounding phony as hell. I'll just tell you instead about all this crumby stuff that happened the morning that Maddox woke up with the grippe, stumbling around like a madman, and coughing on my computer about a hundred times while I was trying to read the goddam Talk of the Town..."

But I won't. It sounds less like a loving homage to Salinger and more like a garish parody of myself trying to sound like Salinger. And, you know, given that I'm an Anglophone academic spending a sabbatical in the south of France, I'm already working the self-parody angle pretty hard.

I'll just say instead that, while reading The New Yorker online that morning, with pre-dawn light just beginning to illuminate the cliffs outside, I liked especially something that Adam Gopnik wrote, which reminded me in some weird way of something that John Cheever wrote many years ago when he heard the news that Hemingway was dead. Hemingway, who, like Salinger, I fetishized for a while; especially when I was a sophomore at Chapel Hill. It was in the spring of that year when I camped alone one night without a tent at the edge of a resevoir outside of town. The ground was uneven and at night it was cold but I didn't mind very much. In the morning the sun rose and it was warmer then. I sat in the sun and I ate many pieces of bread and cheddar cheese that I sliced with a pocket knife, and as I ate my bread and cheese I also narrated what I was doing in a manner that was as careful and exact as the way I wiped the blade of my knife clean on the tuft of grass beside the place where I sat. If a man was to have walked by and overheard me then he might have guessed that I was making a poor parody of Hemingway whose stories I had read many times and liked very much. And of course I was. Kinda like what I'm doing right now. See, I just can't resist the temptation.

Anyway, here's what Cheever had to say about Hemingway: "He put down an immense vision of love and friendship, swallows and the sound of rain. There was never, in my time, anyone to compare to him."

And here's what Gopnik said about Salinger: "no American writer will ever have a more alert ear, a more attentive eye, or a more ardent heart than his."



Saturday, February 6, 2010

Les adventuriers de l'arche perdue

Maddox has been sick pretty much all week. He's had that ugly cough for a while, and a runny nose; and then, a few days ago, blood seeping out of his ear. Not much fever, though, so I wasn't particularly worried. As I write that, I realize that you might wonder exactly what sort of secretions could actually pique my parental concern, if ear-blood (ear-blood!) isn't up to the task. You might wonder also whether to characterize me simply as "optimistic," or whether a better word would be "negligent" or "nuts." But we're getting off topic here. Besides, Quincy's here, and she decided to take him to a doctor, just to make sure.

Doctors are like bakeries here, in that there are several of them, but never all open for business at once. We've been told that they--bakeries and doctors alike--maintain some sort of strategically staggered schedule to ensure the greatest possible coverage of the public need for fresh bread and occasional health care. Still, it's a bit of a crap-shoot predicting exactly which one might be open on any particular day or time. As you might imagine, I was happy to let Quincy take charge the situation, since she's so much more sensible than I about things like this (see ear-blood, above). Anyway, Maddox is fine. He's taking some antibiotics and he spent a few days at home.

Jasper was home from school on Wednesday too. Not because she was sick, but because there's never any school on Wednesdays here. So while Maddox fell asleep after lunch (listening, for a change, to something other than Neil Young; he's been especially into Neil's jammin' electric early work with Crazy Horse--Down by the River, Cowgirl in the Sand, that kind of stuff), Jasper and I went for a walk to the waterfall.

It's a shockingly lovely waterfall--higher and louder and more impressive than I'd expected--and it's just a short walk through the forest at the edge of town.

Before we reached the waterfall though, we prowled through the overgrown remains of a ruined building (a long-abandoned mill maybe) that appeared suddenly in the middle of the woods across the stream. We first had to traverse a slippery tree-branch that had fortuitously fallen across the torrent, and then scramble through the thorny underbrush. And then the crumbling walls of the ruins themselves loomed above us like something you'd expect to find in a Cambodian jungle somewhere, like something out of Apocalypse Now or Tomb Raider, perhaps, only without any Marlon Brando or Angelina Jolie to liven things up. Although maybe this is a good time to mention that, actually, if we'd gone for a longer walk through these same woods, we might've substantially increased our odds of running into Angelina Jolie for real. Turns out that she and her pretty-boy husband rent a wine chateau in the neighboring village. It's the same chateau in which Pink Floyd, many years ago, recorded part of The Wall.

Unlike me, Jasper wasn't pondering pop-cultural references or over-wrought rock-operas about metaphorical walls. She was focused entirely on the real-life crumbling rocky walls in front of us--walls covered in wrist-thick vines that offered an irresistible temptation to climb. So she and I spent a good long time prowling through the derelict structure with its roof long gone and a thicket of trees grown up inside and an uneven earthy floor that gave way, in several places, to crevasses plunging down to a dark and mysterious cellar deep below.

I was reminded of those times when I was Jasper's age and my brother Eric and I roamed the wooded hills of Vermont. There was nothing more thrilling than the discovery, deep within the forest, of some junk-pile of old tin cans and wagon parts overgrown with wild blackberries, or some ancient automobile with a birch tree grown up where its engine used to be. Or that time when I was 11 and we were living in Pakistan. It was the Islamic Summit of 1974, and emirs and prime ministers from all over the Muslim world were in Lahore and security was super-tight, and a friend and I spent a day wandering past police lines and military barricades, peering with a homemade periscope into compounds patrolled by men with machine guns. It's the sort of thing I'd never do as a grown-up. But kids, you know, always think that they can get away with anything.

Okay, I admit it: As much as I want to encourage my own kids to experience the unmatched excitement of exploration, that wasn't the only reason that Jasper and I were skulking around these ruins. I was indulging my own inner Indiana Jones as well.

I also saw it also as an opportunity to demonstrate that, even though Maddox's ear-blood barely registers on my parental radar screen, I can sometimes be a responsible dad. Like last year when I showed Jasper how to use a magnifying glass to start a fire. "Responsible?" you scoff. "Isn't that just Mark being an incurable pyromaniac?" No. Hear me out. Sure, I'm a bit of a firebug. But all kids are too. So it's not a bad thing to offer a little grown-up instruction on how to indulge those dangerous tendencies in a semi-safe manner. On Wednesday, for instance, I made a point to tell Jasper that no matter how much fun it was to do what we were doing, it's the sort of thing that's best not to do alone.

"Imagine if these vines broke and I fell," I said. "Or imagine if this floor gave way suddenly, plunging me down into that dark pit below. I'm be a lot better off with you here to help me out."

"Yeah," she said. "And you should probably always carry a cell phone too."

Smart-alecky kid. Me carry a cell phone? I'm certainly open to serious suggestions, but come on! A cell phone? Really? That's just nuts.



Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Super Bowl Sunday

On Sunday morning I drove down to the Kroger's for some Doritos and a half-rack of Bud Lite so that I wouldn't show up empty-handed to the Super Bowl party over at Philippe and Étienne's place. Also, because I knew that their friend Laurent was a huge Saints fan, I figured I'd balance things out by cheering extra-loud for the Colts while wearing a throwback Johnny Unitas jersey. But, damn it, the local Foot Locker and even the NFL memorabilia outlet store in Avignon were all sold out of Unitas, and Art Schlichter too, so I had to settle for a pair of Mike Pagel pants instead. That put me in a bad mood. And then I drank way too much of Philippe's sister's Jägermeister-and-grape-juice punch. By the time the fourth quarter started, I'd already broken one of Étienne's commemorative Little League World Series mugs, chipped another, and spilled a pitcher of strawberry daiquiris all over his cousin Pascal's taco salad. It still might've been okay, I think, until I told that crude joke about Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and the guy who played Horshack on "Welcome Back Kotter." That was it. Étienne cut me off. Philippe started yelling at me. His sister damn near punched me. They wouldn't even let me stick around for the end of the game. At about the time that Peyton Manning threw that comeback-killing interception and the "Who Dat!" cheers started echoing through the cobbled streets, I was stumbling to my knees in an ancient alleyway and vomiting all over the back bumper of somebody's Citroën.

Okay, actually, that's a lie. All of it. Even the vomiting part. Especially the vomiting part. Total fiction. Nobody here cares about the Colts or the Saints or the Super Bowl. They don't even care about "Welcome Back Kotter," as near as I can tell.

What I really did was this: I walked with Jasper down the street to the local cinema to catch a Sunday afternoon showing of "Max et les Maximonstres."

The movie theatre (although it'd be more accurate to call it a "movie room") is in a sort of multi-purpose municipal building called La Grainage. We'd been there once before to investigate one of the elaborate and long-lasting bingo events that seems to happen every weekend. Yes: bingo. It seemed suddenly like I was spending a sabbatical at a senior center in Boca Raton. Darn near the entire population of Cotignac was there, filling out their 5-Euro-apiece cards with the hope of winning computer equipment or electric animals or baskets full of wine and cheese. I left quickly, but Quincy and Maddox and Jasper stuck around for several hours. Jasper managed two cards at a time, and then a third, and then five at a time after Maddox turned over his cards to her. She's precocious, Jasper is, with the enthusiastic bingo skills of someone 10 times her age. Didn't win anything though.

Actually, given the time difference, the Super Bowl didn't even start until it was already after midnight and into Monday morning here in France. So, what'd we do on Super Bowl Monday? We went for a little family hike--through the village, past the soccer field and the skate park, along the path of the penitents through the woods to the top of the hill, to la Santuaire Marial Notre-Dame de Grâces. It's been around ever since the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to some local lumberjack back in 1519, and it's a very big deal place for pilgrimages--especially pilgrimages by women who are keen to conceive. Some lady from Austria famously made her way here in the 1600's and then proceeded to give blessed birth to Louis XIV. There's now a whole wall adorned with tiles--hundreds of them--engraved with thanks from parents whose prayers have been similarly answered. I may be an atheist, but I'm also I'm a sucker for heartfelt piety and uplifting architecture. It's a pretty cool place.

There was some sort of Monday morning mass going on inside the church, while nearby a couple of guys with chainsaws noisily destroyed a dying tree. We sat outside and ate a picnic lunch (baguette, goat cheese, dried sausages and apples; also pretzel stix). At one point during our picnic some old guy in flowing robes--the local Bishop, I believe--ambled by accompanied by a cat. "He is my friend," the Bishop said in French, and he hopped up onto Quincy's lap and she stroked him lovingly behind his ears. (I'm talking about the cat here, by the way; not the Bishop.)

The Bishop seemed to be in an exceptionally upbeat mood and when I asked him why, he said that he'd placed a big bet on the Saints the day before and so had won a ton on the Super Bowl. Not only that, he'd also cleared a tidy profit on a ridiculous prop bet involving the halftime show, Pete Townshend, and a porkpie hat. He was such a good-natured fellow that one thing led to another and before you knew it I was telling him my raunchy existentialist / Horshack joke. He laughed like a hyena, which is more than I can say for that jackass Étienne and Philippe and his goddam mirthless sister.

Okay, yeah, I made up that last bit. That whole last paragraph isn't true. But the rest of it is. And the good folks at Notre-Dame de Grâces really do appear to be a culturally savvy lot. They have a surprisingly sophisticated website, for instance, on which the latest Message from the Bishop starts off like this: "Today the internet is an indispensable means for the apostolate."



Monday, February 22, 2010

La Seculara Familia

As some of you know, I am (or, at least, insufferably pose as) an architecture buff. So let's play a game, shall we. Let's pretend for a moment that you're a brilliant modernist Catalonian architect, and that Quincy and I are your wealthy patrons, and we have charged you with the task of designing a feverishly detailed cathedral in Barcelona. But, at our behest, instead of embellishing its facades with lavish representations of the Nativity and the Passion, you have instead decorated it with a more mundane sort of iconography--a set of images that depict our five-day family holiday in Spain last week.

Just what tales do these tableaux tell? Ah, what tales indeed...

One facade of this mythical building might be adorned with a set of panoramic panels depicting the banal beauty of Our Home Away from Two Homes. "Our home away from two homes" is exactly the phrase that Jasper used as we returned to a plastic cabin in the southernmost section of a vast parc de vacances outside of the coastal town of Vilanova i la Geltrú. Ours was one of hundreds of prefab structures parked alongside hundreds of trailers and RVs, around which prowled dozens of mewling homeless housecats. The entire "camping" complex was like a weird pan-European mini-city comprised by linguistic ghettos of people speaking French and English and German and Dutch, all energetically pursuing a leisure lifestyle largely isolated from Spain itself. It addition to its playgrounds and swimming pools, the complex had its own supermarket and shops and restaurants, and even its own mini-zoo. We explored them all, and--because it was unseasonably cold and wet--we also occupied ourselves indoors a lot. A lot of mad-libs and art projects. (Maddox has largely abandoned abstract expressionism and is now producing representational art with surreal flourishes, such as his habit of drawing stick-figure people with unusually long feet that curl and swirl and circle around their entire bodies.) Also a lot of games of twenty-questions. Which could've become tiresome but never did, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that Maddox's first question was invariably "Is it a goat?"

We also spent time in the indoor swimming pool. So much time, in fact, that some extravagant depiction of the swimming pool deserves to dominate an entire wall of the shrine that you, the eccentric architect, have designed to commemorate our Spanish holiday. But, in this sculptural masterpiece of yours, it's not the pool itself that grabs the eye; it's the people splashing within it. And, specifically, it's what they are all wearing on their heads: Swim caps. Everyone has a swim cap on. It's the law. Well, okay, it's not exactly etched into the Catalonian penal code, but the parc de vacances did have a strict policy requiring everyone to wear a swim cap in the swimming pool. Now, as many of you know, I just don't do headwear--because caps and hats always look ridiculous on my tiny head. But rules are rules, and so I was compelled to find a store that sold Speedo-style swim caps for all of us. I tried to be optimistic. I hoped that maybe it'd make me look like some angular Australian backstroke bronze-medallist or something, or at least not look completely laughable. No such luck. When I slipped that lycra cap over my nut-sized noggin, I looked less like an Olympian, and more like some pasty Russian cosmonaut in awkward orbit around the Earth.

The kids would've been happy to spend their entire holiday swimming in the pool and cuddling up to half-feral housecats, but we did venture occasionally outside the "camping" complex. So maybe a third and final facade of your ornate architectural masterwork should depict the highlights of these excursions. For instance, we spent some time on the beach in Vilanova i la Geltrú, where the kids took great delight in climbing onto a statue of muscular naked woman curled up inside an enormous bull, and took equal delight in watching a big bulldog take a crap on a miniature railway.

And we took a daytrip to Barcelona too. I've already forced you to recall that I am (or, irritatingly, pretend to be) an architecture enthusiast. So it won't surprise you to learn that Jasper and Maddox were forced to participate in a Barcelonian walking tour dictated almost entirely by my desire to see some of the modernist architectural marvels for which the city is so famous. It'll surprise you even less to learn that this was decidedly not the highlight of their holiday. My own lasting memory of Barcelona won't have anything to do with the intricate organic forms of the Casa Batlló or the hallucinatory magnificence of the Sagrada Familia. It'll probably be the half-hour we spent in a very ordinary playground directly in the shadows of the glorious soaring towers of Gaudí's famously-unfinished masterwork, watching Maddox happily slide on a slide, while Jasper sat on a bench with her nose buried in a book about a magic school-bus and butterflies.



Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general (with footnotes!)

It has been brought to my attention (by Quincy, lovingly) that some of the things I say in these postings may not be readily meaningful to all readers. You know, like when I riff, in French, on the opening lines of a Camus novel, or refer obliquely to some particular piece of ornate architecture, or make some obscure allusion to someone like T. S Eliot or Richie Brockelman. "Nobody's gonna get that reference," Quincy says, "Nobody's gonna know who that is." And when I assure her that there may be someone out there for whom those lines from Camus ring a distant but fondly-remembered bell, or who might actually recall that Richie Brockelman, Private Eye debuted on NBC in the spring of 1978 and ran for all of six episodes, she (Quincy) just looks and me and nods and says, "Uh-huh." And when I mention that it's all okay anyway because anybody reading this blog is just two mouse-clicks away from a full deciphering courtesy of websites like Wikipedia or IMDb or KnowYourMeme.com, she just closes her eyes and exhales slowly to show me how much it pains her when I insist on using words like "meme" [1] in ordinary household conversation.

"Maybe you need to add footnotes," she says. It's possible that is was a joke. I mean, I don't think Quincy really wants our blog to resemble some semiotics essay published in PMLA [2]. But still. Footnotes. Hmmm. Okay, I'll try it.

It turns out, though, that this Blogger interface doesn't make footnoting all that easy. Clearly, the software code wasn't written for T. S. Eliot [3]. So, okay, here's how I'm going to handle it. I'll indicate foonote numbers in square brackets like the ones you just ran into after "meme" and "PMLA" and "T.S. Eliot." The explanatory notes themselves will appear in separate post below. (That separate post will be titled, simply, "Footnotes," to distinguish it from the more prolix--but deceptively straightforward--title than this one has [4]). Got it? Okay, let's proceed.

But wait. There is one more issue that I'm struggling with here: The question of just what exactly needs a footnote. Does T. S Eliot really need a footnote? Does Camus? And if I worked in some timely allusion to Epic Beard Man [5], would I need a footnote there? And what about when I conclude this post with the words "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih"--does that need a footnote too? Well, actually, that last one's easy. "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih": That's pretty transparent stuff, isn't it; no explanation needed.

Whew, that's a long preamble. I'm exhausted. And I still have the footnotes to write. I'd better get the point of this post. The point is this: What, if anything, does any of this have to do with France? Why am I even posting this stuff here, on our blog about France, instead of on our blog about blogging about France? Well, smarty-pants, it's cross-posted. [6] So there.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih. [7]


[1]. The word "meme" was coined by Dawkins (1976). But it's now in common parlance, at least in some circles. So there's really no need for Quincy to give me that pained look.

[2]. Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. (Again: pained look.)

[3]. The allusion here is to T. S Eliot's poem The Waste Land which is so famously abstruse that Eliot himself added footnotes. There was a time (back when I was a parody of a 19-year old University student, so please prepare to roll your eyes) when I fetishized T. S. Eliot's opaque oeuvre. I can always elicit a particularly pained expression from Quincy simply by bringing up the fact that, in 1982, I attended a Halloween party dressed as the title character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. "I'm so glad I didn't know you then," she says.

[4]. The phrase "a practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general" is not just an apt description of this particular post. It's also the exact phrase that another writer (H. P. Lovecraft, of all people) used to describe The Waste Land. It's true. And, yes, Quincy is making that face at me again. Oh, but you should've seen the original title I'd put on this post before I changed it to that H. P. Lovecraft line. The actual title may be footnote-worthy, but the original title--of which I was embarrassingly proud--is the verbal equivalent of me going out in public dressed up as J. Alfred Prufrock. When I read it out loud to Quincy she ... well, you can just imagine the pain behind her eyelids. [i] To spare you, I've buried it in a footnote. Or more exactly, it's in a footnote to this footnote. I'm signifying footnotes-to-foonotes with little italicized i's in square brackets -- like what you saw after "eyelids" a couple of sentences ago. These foonotes-to-footnotes themselves appear in the post immediately below this one. (You suggest footnotes to me, you get footnotes. In fact, you don't just get footnotes; you get an over-the-top exercise in self-refential silliness. You're welcome)

[5]. Oh yes, I've been going on and on about Epic Beard Man recently, waving my laptop at Quincy and blathering madly about video mash-ups and Amber Lamps and the whole weird cultural power of camera-phones and the Internet. It's entirely the fault of Epic Beard Man and all those millions of YouTube enthusiasts that I've been using the word "meme" a lot recently, and causing Quincy so much pain. (You don't know about Epic Beard Man? Well, look it up. I recommend KnowYourMeme.com.)

[6] Yep, I actually created an entirely new blog simply so that that I could take this ludicrous exercise to whole new level of hackneyed self-referential post-modern pain.

[7] Nope, sorry; I told you I wasn't going to offer an explanatory footnote for this. Besides, if I did, it'd just be painful. [ii]

Footnotes to the footnotes

[i]. "He Do the Police in Different Voices." Yep, that was the working title of this particular post. Why? Do you really want to know? Really? Okay, you asked for it: It's because that exact title--"He Do the Police in Different Voices"--was T. S. Eliot's working title for The Waste Land. Hey, don't blame me for the intense pain you're experiencing behind your eyes. I warned you.

[ii] No. Absolutely not. I refuse to torture you any more. If you're that kind of masochist, you can just look it up for yourself. No more footnotes.



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In which scorpions and nun's farts are served as food, and Maddox falls in love

Yesterday was market day in Cotignac. So, while the kids were at school, Quincy and I wandered from stall to stall under a sunny sky, filling our shopping bags with sheepsmilk cheeses and olives and mushroom-and-hazelnut tapanades and lots of green beans, lemons and Spanish clementines. Also a whole roasted chicken and an enormously tasty ham that (if I accurately interpreted what the meat-man said) was cut from a baby pig. And if you're appalled that I'm not appalled by that, I'll remind you that although I do still consider myself a vegetarian, I'm a non-practicing vegetarian. And besides, this is France.

More than any of us, Jasper has been trying new foods here in France. It helps that she eats lunch at the school cantine practically every day. Some days she discovers new things that she loves; other days not so much. For instance, one day last week the menu included assiette de la mer. When she got home in the afternoon, I asked her how it was. She liked the sauce, she said, but not the scorpion that was in it.

Scorpion! I flashed back to when Jasper was just one year old and we lived for six months in Sri Lanka. Quincy was brushing her teeth before bed one night and very nearly stepped on a scorpion on the bathroom floor. I was already almost asleep, but I pushed aside the mosquito netting and climbed out of bed to deal dutifully with the arachnid intruder. It turned out to be scarier than I'd anticipated. The scorpion wasn't one of those slim little pinkie-sized things I remembered from my days in the Arizona desert. This Sri Lankan scorpion was a big as a banana, with monstrous claws and a thick black cord of a tail that arched menacingly toward me, making me acutely aware of the fact that I was entirely naked. It took a while, and was a bit of a struggle, but I eventually chased it out into the hallway and then cornered it on the stairs where I clubbed it to death with the end of a broom.

This is the image that jumped to mind when Jasper told me of her distaste for the scorpion she was served for lunch. "Scorpion?" I asked. "Well it looked like a scorpion," she said, "I didn't eat it all." Turns out, though, that it wasn't a scorpion. It was a prawn.

Maddox hasn't yet been sampling such a wide range of local foods. There's a cantine at his preschool but he hasn't been eating there. We figured he needed a bit more time to acclimate to the new school, new rules, and a new language that he still (purely on principle, I think) refuses to speak. The plan is for him to start eating at the cantine at the end of this week. In the meantime, he's been eating lunch at home.

Lately the kids have been bringing home lots of xeroxed reminders and announcements about the upcoming celebration of Carnival. It's a very big deal around here, with parties and parades, and all kids are expected to dress up as some legendary storybook character. We've lucked into a secondhand homemade Robin Hood costume that would be perfect for Maddox (among other things, there's an awesome leather vest and a green felt hat adorned with real feathers) except for the fact that he wants absolutely nothing to do with it. He's at that endearing / irritating age where he still regularly says hilarious things (such as the other day when, apropos of nothing, he said "I can feel my testicles growing"), but also increasingly refuses to listen to good advice. His stubborn rejection of Robin Hood is just one example. So too is his principled refusal to speak French.

Yesterday Maddox brought home a notice about a Carnival party at his preschool. Parents are asked to provide a snack of some sort, and the announcement listed several suggestions: "des crêpes, des beignets, des pets de nonne, etc." Pets de nonne? My trusty old French-English dictionary wasn't any immediate help there. So we got onto the computer for a little on-line translation: "Nun's farts." Nun's farts? Yes. Apparently, they're a popular pastry.

Also this week Maddox went with his preschool class on a field trip to a local olive orchard. He was very excited about it. When Quincy asked afterwards what he did in the olive orchard, Maddox said that he played. "Who'd you play with?" she asked. And he replied, "You know: my friend."

Ah yes, his friend. Her name is Hannah and, according to her mother, she talks about Maddox constantly. When Quincy dropped him off at school yesterday Hannah was already there; Maddox ran up to her and wrapped his arms around her in a long hard hug. When I returned him to school after lunch, the gate to the schoolyard was locked and so we waited outside the gate for a few minutes until a teacher appeared to unlock it. A bunch of other kids--the ones who stayed at school for lunch in the cantine--were running around inside the schoolyard. One of those kids was Hannah and she immediately ran over and grasped desperately at Maddox's hands through the iron gate. Meanwhile, Hannah's best friend (who speaks some English) ran up and, gesturing toward Hannah, told me this: "She is the amour of Maddox." Neither Hannah nor Maddox said anything. They just stood there, holding onto each other through the iron bars, like something you might see during non-conjugal visiting hours at a penitentiary. It was pretty charming.



Monday, March 22, 2010

In which Mark uses words like muesli and Fanta and plaques d'immatriculation

It's that time of year. Branches are budding, bushes are blooming, fruit trees are flowering. And you know what that means: It means that I'm spending my days itching and sneezing and filling handkerchiefs with watery snot. That's what I do every spring back home in Vancouver too.

So, yeah, the more things change, the more ça même chose. Or at least, almost the même chose. Some things are a tiny bit different. The springtime pollen is different, for instance, emerging as it does from almond blossoms and walnut buds and whatever that great big tree in our back yard is that spills fuzzy red allergens all over the terracotta terrace where, increasingly, we're eating our mid-day meals.

Despite the airborne tides of pollen, it's probably a good thing that we've started to move our life-style out of doors, if only because it's a departure from our previous routine. Having been here already more than two months, the novelty of being in France itself has worn off, and it's easy to feel that we've settled into a comfortable sort of sabbatical rut. You know: Yet another trip to the weekly market to buy fruits and vegetables and cheeses. The specifics may change from week to week (last week we discovered a delicious gaperon, the week before it was a cantal vieux) but really, it's the same ol' same ol': Wandering from vendor to vendor in the shining morning light, uttering a few phrases in haphazard French, handing over the euros, and stocking up. (And even some details never change at all: every week I seek out a particular vendor who specializes in eggs and flan and un-aged curds, and I buy a fourpack of sheepsmilk brousse.) If not for the unnecessary French mots I'm forcing into these sentences, I might as well be writing about a trip to a Safeway supermarket. Yawn.

Anyway, in order to be a semi-responsible blogger, I'm trying to attend more vigilantly to those things--the little things--that actually are different or unexpected or somehow peculiarly Provençal. (Because the alternative, as you may have discovered, is that I don't write anything at all. Or worse: I fill up the blog with tedious faux-erudite ephemera.) And I'll try to notice things that are at least a tiny bit more interesting than the mundane fact that instead of eating a bowl of yogurt and granola for breakfast every day, as I do in Vancouver, I'm instead eating a bowl of fromage blanc and muesli (or, as they call it here in France: muesli). Still, I apologize in advance to those of you who are hoping for tales of embarrassment and humiliation. What's been happening these days is all pretty modest stuff.

Like the other day when, after putting it off and putting it off some more, I finally went to get new license plates for the car. Not for the new car. Nope. The new plates were actually for the other car: the 1980s-vintage beater that, despite performing without incident on fully 3/4 (exactly 3/4) of its outings with us, now just sits rusting in our damp and dusty garage. You see, France has adopted a new car registration system of some sort and all cars, even old and unreliable ones, are supposed to be getting new plaques d'immatriculation. Well, you can see why I kept putting this off. Even under familiar circumstances, this sort of task is typically just time-wasting and tedious--the boring journey to some wearying government office, the endless waiting in line, the hesitant inquiries about opaque procedures, the forms to fill out, the forgotten document that requires you to return home, find the damn document, and then start all over again with another boring journey and more waiting in line and more forms to fill out...yes, it's the sort of errand I'd put off even if the interaction was to be entirely in English. Add in the fact that I'd be navigating this tricky bit of bureaucracy in my awful French and, well, frankly I'm shocked that I didn't somehow finagle a way to get Quincy to do it instead.

But--and here's the vaguely anthropological twist--it turned out that it wasn't like that at all. No Byzantine bureaucratic maze; no tedium. A quick walk to the local gas station; a single piece of paper, 30 euros, and no more words of French than I'm using in this very sentence, and voilà: des nouveaux plaques d'immatriculation. You've probably had sneezing sessions that took longer. I know I have.

Our little musical-theatre outing last weekend was also just a bit different in the details than it would have been if we'd been doing it back home. In Vancouver, the performance (comically embellished re-imaginings of Aesops fables, which were actually much less awful and lot more fun than I just made them sound) would have taken place at some community centre or somewhere secular like that. Here, it was at a famous hilltop church. In Vancouver, the curtain call would probably have been followed immediately by kids' wheedling pleas for a post-performance trip to Dairy Queen. Here, we instead hung around outside under the pine trees, helping ourselves to Fanta and slices of cake and cashews that someone had put out on the picnic tables where the actors and the audience mingled with nuns and a bearded bishop. And, on our walk home through the woods, we stopped to explore a crumbling roofless building being reclaimed by trees.

And then there're my bicycle outings. Every time I go riding with Ollie, I'm reminded that we're living a different lifestyle here in France. Now, partially that's because when I'm home in Vancouver my time in the saddle is mostly limited to slow-motion cautious commutes with one or more children in tow, whereas here I'm regularly risking a bent rim or a broken chain and a shattered clavicle while following fearless Ollie down treacherous trails. But it's also because these rides inevitably take me into scenes that seem just amazingly, iconically, clicheédly, even embarrassingly Provençal. A monestary on the side of a mountain. A small stone chapel appearing suddenly in the middle of an oak-filled forest. A tiny red-roofed hilltop village where the wind blows hard and we ride under the narrow arches of ancient alleyways. Yet another dusty hillside track alongside yet another olive orchard. Last weekend Ollie led me along some centuries-old trail that wound it's way through the middle of a wine chateau, through the vineyards, up over a rocky hill, and then, like many of the trails here, suddenly crossed a stretch of private property, where there suddenly appeared a burly dog that lunged loudly at our furiously pedaling feet. Of course, as I know from sad experience, that last part isn't peculiarly Provençal at all.



Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Our guesthouse finally gets guests to house

Last week I had a lunch in a restaurant here in Cotignac and it occurred to me that it was the first time I'd eaten in a French restaurant since we arrived almost three months ago. There's something a bit funny about that. I mean, most foody folks--and I think that Quincy and I might qualify as foody folks--fetishize French cooking, and when they visit France they make a point to eat out. Somehow that just hasn't been our priority. When Quincy (who wasn't even with me at lunch) asked me about my meal afterwards, I used words like "murky" and "fishy" and "sludgy" to describe it. Her reaction suggested that she thought that I'd found the food disappointing, which isn't true at all. I meant those words in the most positive possible way. The food was fine, and it filled me up.

(Hmm, maybe that last sentence disqualifies me as foody folk after all.)

The impetus behind my restaurant meal was the fact that my parents were visiting for a week. The weekend before they arrived, our friend Carol came down from Geneva for a visit. And just before my parents left town, our friend Helen from Seattle arrived. Yep, now that spring has arrived, the onslaught of visitors has begun.

Please don't misunderstand my use of the word "onslaught" (especially if you're among the parade of people who're planning on visiting during the coming months). I assure you that I'm using the word in the most positive possible way.

Also, if you do visit us, I promise that we won't subject you to the same hardships that Carol endured. Carol's visit coincided with a brief stretch of unseasonably cold weather and we hadn't yet discovered how to successfully heat our guesthouse. We've since learned that the guesthouse "radiator" is merely decorative--kind of like having an ugly painting of a clown on your wall. (Or, more to the point: it's kind of like having an ugly sculpture of a radiator on your wall). We've also now located a portable space heater. And it's sunny and warm now too. After Carol, none of our subsequent guests have needed to sleep clothed in multiple layers of fleece jackets and woolen caps. Also, Maddox hasn't vomited on anybody since her visit either.

Of course, if you want something to read when you're here, I suggest you bring your own books. There's French literature on the bookshelves here, but we don't have much in the way of English-language books lying around. Rather than lugging tons of books over from Canada, Quincy and I opted for lighter, more electronic solutions. Quincy's got a Kindle. And I do a lot of reading on-line, a strategy that produces pleasingly haphazard entertainments. (A few days ago, for instance, and without any intention whatsoever to do so, I spent all evening reading about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.). Carol resorted to scrounging a Lemony Snicket book from Jasper's room, and my parents spent their week reading and re-reading Tintin comics.

In addition to Tintin and delicious sludgy restaurant food, I kept my parents intermittently entertained with walks around Cotignac. On one walk I picked a bunch of wild asparagus growing by the roadside and, despite my mom's contention that it'd be coated in dog urine, I served it up for dinner. We also played a lot of table tennis. My dad used to be a ping-pong demon during his undergraduate days--almost 60 years ago--and he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to once again throw down some topspin-heavy forehand smashes. My mom holds her own at the table too, and the mere act of palming a paddle again brought forth a flood of proud recollections her about sporty teenage years. You probably didn't know, for instance, that she had the highest bowling score among all the girls in her gym class.

("Oh that was just on that one day," said my mom when I read that previous sentence out loud to her, "and then that man died"--referring to the fact that news of FDR's death irritatingly overshadowed her moment of gym-class glory. She also suggested that I blog a bit about her high school badminton exploits; but, alas, I've failed to record the details.)

She flew back to the States today. My dad left a couple of days earlier, to attend a meeting in Switzerland. I accompanied him via train to Geneva where, after making sure that he boarded the right train to continue his onward journey to Montreux, I spent the night at Carol's place, before returning home the next day. (It was super warm and cozy in Carol's apartment, by the way, and chockablock with English-language books; I borrowed one for the long ride home). It was a lot of train travel in a short time. But I was happy to hang out with my dad and to make sure he actually made his connections. Although he's traveled in crazy ways in crazy places all his life, this was the first time he'd actually ridden the rails in Europe in over 40 years, so he was feeling a bit clueless and uncertain about the whole thing. My favorite part of the journey occurred when a French train conductor came around to check our tickets. He was wearing a cheap gray suit over a purple turtleneck, and an old-fashioned driving cap of the sort that I associate with golfers of the Ben Hogan era. I nudged my dad to tell him to get his ticket out. "There's the ticket puncher," I said. My dad looked. "He doesn't much look like a ticket puncher," he said, "He looks like the kind of guy who wants to sell you dirty pictures." For reasons that I can't quite explain, I found that hilarious in about six different ways.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Poissons d'Avril

We're deep into April now and I've had a run of dreams I which I'm trying to dispose of a dead body, and only semi-successfully. One night, frustrated by my accomplices' half-assed efforts, I grabbed a shovel myself and proceeded to dig an enormous burial pit in the soft yielding dirt underneath a neighbor's vegetable garden. A few nights later, I was in a hotel room and the dead body was crammed into a backpack. I hefted the heavy pack onto my back and proceeded to walk out into the hotel hallway, down the stairs, and through a lobby full of policemen, counting on my practiced nonchalance to keep me out of custody. Weird dreams because, really, when you think about it, of all the people you know, I'm about the last person who'd ever need to surreptitiously divest himself of a freshly killed corpse.

(This raises an interesting question: Of all the of all the people you know, who's the first person who you'd think might someday need to surreptitiously divest himself of a freshly killed corpse? I don't want to know the answer. But it is a fun ice-breaker kind of question. Feel free to trot it out the next time you need to dent one of those awkward silences that crops up around the communal breakfast table at a Bed & Breakfast somewhere.)

As I write this, I'm in Carcassonne. But despite it's name, there are no dead bodies here. (Get it: Carcassonne; carcasses. Ah never mind.) It's vacation time again. Not for me, of course (I'm on sabbatical, remember, not on holiday), but for the kids. Their latest two-week holiday started just over a week ago, after April Fish day.

It turns out that April 1 is a very hilarious big deal here in France, with lots of highjinks and tomfoolery. But it's not called April Fools day here. It's April Fish day: Poissons d'Avril. When I picked up Maddox from preschool that afternoon, he was brandishing a whole fistful of paper fishes that he'd apparently spent all day cutting out and coloring in. Jasper had eaten lunch at home that day (because the cantine menu simply read "aioli" which seemed just so mysteriously weird--a lunch of upmarket mayonnaise and nothing else?--that even she didn't want to take a chance on it) and she too had her pockets stuffed with crudely-made paper fishes and bits of tape. At her school, apparently, kids spent their recess time trying to stick these fish facsimiles onto other kids' backs without them noticing. Kind of like a "Kick Me" sign, only without any apparent consequences.

As for me, Poissons d'Avril passed without finding myself the sad patsy of any piscine pranks--at least as far as I know. I did briefly toy with the idea that maybe the cryptically mononymic cantine menu ("ailoi") was some sort of unfunny joke, but then I learned that, in fact, aioli is actually a sort of culinary shorthand referring to a completely legitimate lunchtime offering (a plate consisting of fish and vegetables in an aioli sauce) and everyone knows it. Well, everyone except the small-headed rube who, until last week, didn't even know the first thing about April Fish Day.

As for Carcassonne, more about that soon.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In which we visit awesome castles, ruined and not

The real shocker is that all four of us were in upbeat moods throughout the morning that we explored Carcassonne. That was quite a change from the two previous days, at Pont du Gard and Peyrepertuse--both which I now know to be among the most visually awesome places for any parent to spend his time wishing that he could legally thrash the hell out of his determinedly grouchy daughter.

Yes, Jasper is precocious. She's still only 8 years old, but increasingly she acts like she's 12 or 13. And I mean that, obviously, in the least positive way possible.

Of course, if you asked her, she'd assure you that the cause of her sullen displeasure can be traced to me and my Draconian parenting practices. Regardless, it was irritating. And aesthetically frustrating: Jasper's been regularly wearing a red sweater that just happens to look dynamite in photos--a great wet splash of color to punctuate the monolithic earth-tones of all these ancient ruins--but she vigorously refused to be photographed. When she'd see me with my finger on the shutter, she'd bolt immediately from wherever she'd been so picture-perfectly posed and flee, as fast as she could, up some flight of stone steps.

But at Carcassonne, Jasper was all smiles as she cheerfully characterized the legendarily well-preserved medieval city to be "kind of boring." I didn't find it boring. With its turrets and portcullises and throngs of camera-toting tourists, Carcassonne is like some sort of derelict Disneyland. And even though the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's still part of the living urban landscape, full of retail shops and restaurants and motorcycles zooming over historic drawbridges and diesel trucks rumbling down medieval alleyways barely big enough for a bicycle. As a pedestrian and parent to two distractable children, I didn't find that boring at all.

That's something that I really get a kick out of here in France: the way that deeply historical stuff is taken for granted; the way it's just part of the ordinary landscape.

Traveling around France, or even just walking around Cotignac, I'm reminded of the phrase that V. S. Naipaul famously used to characterize the American south: "a landscape of small ruins." During the times that I've traveled around North Carolina and other southern states, I've really resonated to those regular bits of ordinary wreckage--old barns overgrown with kudzu, uneven porches being slowly shattered by wisteria, that sort of thing. But, if anything, "a landscape of small ruins" is an even more apt description of southern France. I mean, sure, there are plenty of impressive huge ruins here too--immense displays of ancient architecture like the Pont du Gard and all, blah blah blah. But it's the countless little ruins--the ones we see everywhere--that I dig so much on a daily basis: The crumbling mill at the edge of a village; the half-collapsed hilltop chapel; the cylindrical remnants of abandoned wells amidst the rocks and rangy weeds of almost every orchard. At an intellectual level, it's humbling to encounter these constant casual reminders that, no matter how sturdy we might try to make the things we make, our things are ultimately no match for the rain and the wind and the sun. And there's also something so aesthetically pleasing in these juxtapositions of engineering and entropy: I just like the way they look.

The big ruins look pretty great too, and even Jasper's headstrong grumpiness was no match for the dilapidated awesomeness of Peyrepertuse--which, with its dizzying mountaintop location and sharp geometries, has an almost Machu Picchu-like quality about it. Hours later, after we'd returned to the cramped little "camping" cabin where we spent the night, Jasper snuggled up to me as I downloaded that day's photos onto my laptop, and she giggled in amusement at the pictures that I had taken of her attempts to avoid being in the pictures I was taking. And then we looked at them again, and she laughed out loud all over again, and so did I.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ash cloud

I drove to Nice last Thursday, to pick up our friends Erica and Bob (and their baby) at the airport. I figured they'd be tired after their long flight from Vancouver, via Frankfurt; and, as I know from sad experience, traveling with an infant is rarely conducive to fine dining in transit; so when they emerged from customs, I planned to welcome them to the south of France with some of my favorite fresh olive bread and an assortment of cheeses--including an amazing Comté that I'd discovered the week before. But--spoiler alert!--they didn't arrive on schedule. They were late!

You maybe haven't heard because it's probably been buried in the back pages of your local paper that you don't even read anymore and is going out of business anyway, but apparently there was some volcano in Iceland that erupted last week, spilling ash into the sky, and causing problems for flights in and out of European airports. Yeah, it was news to me too. So, anyway, they missed their connection in Frankfurt. What a pain. Sure, Luftansa found room for them on the very next flight to Nice that afternoon, but that was, like, three hours later. Three hours! That's three hours I was forced to spend hanging out on the Côte d'Azur, munching on olive bread and aged cheeses under the palm trees and Mediterranean sunshine. That's three hours of my life I'm never gonna get back. Freakin' volcano. Talk about inconvenience!

Wait. What? You'd already heard about the volcano? And what's that? You don't think that my faux-outraged tale of minor delays and fine cheeses registers--not even a tiny bit--on the ash-related tale-o'-woe-o-meter? Oh. Okay, fine. I'll stop fishing fruitlessly for sympathy. I'll go back to tolerating your envy instead.

Given that almost all European airspace has been off-limits to airplanes for the past week, and that a hundred thousand people have been spending days and days becoming all the more depressing familiar with the bright un-cozy corridors of FRA or LHR or CDG, with no exit in sight, it's really quite amazing that Erica and Bob and their baby made it here at all. When you're traveling overseas with a squalling infant, it's hard to remain chipper in the face of airline inconvenience; but it maybe helps just a bit when, for days on end, the news stories remind you that, in fact, you are about the least inconvenienced air travelers in all of Europe.

So, anyway, instead of spending their week surreally trapped in transit, Erica and Bob have been doing exactly the kinds of things that you'd envision our visitors doing--and which you'd be doing yourselves if you were hanging out with us: Drinking rosé and eating leisurely lunches on our terrace, going for sunny walks where the rosemary grows wild and abundant on the hillsides, spending ever more money on ever more vast quantities of olives and cheeses at the Tuesday morning market. Playing a lot of ping-pong. Oh, also, Erica and Bob have been wiping copious amounts of baby slobber off of their baby's chin, their own clothes, and pretty much every surface of our house. You know, it's not been so very long since Jasper and Maddox were that age, but I'd totally forgotten how much drool an infant can produce. Like a spaniel or something. Anyway, wine and cheese and drool. That's life here in France these days. That and an eager interest in the volcano and its consequences.

Speaking of which: Quincy's brother Galen has been staying here with us as well. He arrived way back when the airplanes were still flying regular schedules, but his stay here has gone on longer than originally planned. He was ticketed to leave last Sunday, from Marseilles to Frankfurt and then onward. So, obviously, that didn't happen. He's been on his laptop a lot, monitoring the ash cloud chaos with some amusement, and working out a plausible exit strategy. His latest plan involves taking advantage of our relative proximity to the open-airspace promised-land that is Spain: A series of trains from Aix to Marseilles to Montpelier to Barcelona, and then to Madrid, and then an alleged flight out of Madrid. We'll see.



Saturday, May 1, 2010


On the weekend before we went to beach, there was Carnaval. It's a very big deal in Cotignac. It started Saturday morning with a parade, and lasted through nightfall when, down in the dirt field where the old men play at boules, there was a burning-in-effigy of a gigantic tissue-paper gingerbread man--a spectacle that maybe symbolized something but, if so, I don't know what. In any case, the burning of this faux-confectionary effigy started and ended so quickly that Quincy and Maddox and I (arriving late to the boulodrome) missed it entirely. Jasper was there though, and she said it was awesome.

We'd been anticipating Carnaval for weeks and weeks. The kids had been advised, through endless flyers sent home from school, to dress in déguisements. In the days leading up to the big day, we could watch a massive truck-sized dragon--a parade float--being built in the garage across the street from our house. Maddox loved peeking in on the emerging monster as it got a freshly painted coat of bright green scales and a bright red mouth. Eventually, the dragon even breathed fire (well, okay, just smoke).

On the morning of Carnaval itself, Jasper and Maddox mustered at their respective schools along with every kid in Cotignac. They were all in costume. The theme this year had something to do with myths and legends and fables and fairytales, and I suspect that this theme was made explicit in order to cut back on the number of kids dressed up as Spiderman and Iron Man. There were still a few, of course. But mostly there were lots of princesses and pirates, and lots of medieval knights waving cardboard swords. Jasper was the Mad Hatter--although, with her oversized flamboyant floppy hat, she might easily have passed for a pimp informant instead, or Bootsy Collins.

Maddox was a pirate and, as is his fashion, he wore his eyepatch well up on the top of his head, where it looked less like a pirate's eyepatch and more like a lopsided homemade yarmulke, or maybe some sort of embarrassingly weird unnecessary toupee.

Quincy borrowed one of my many bandanas to make herself a last-minute pirate costume as well, and she marched in the parade along with Maddox and his classmates from l'école maternelle. In fact, Quincy found herself suddenly appointed a parade marshal of some sort, which was a little scary because it suggested that she would be burdened with lots of opaque responsibilities. But, ultimately, her primary responsibility seemed simply to wear an orange armband.

The parade was led by a car full of blood-donation enthusiasts dressed up as corpuscles. (They looked a lot like Woody Allen as a giant sperm in that famous movie scene from 1972, except bright red instead). The red corpuscles were followed by a rag-tag massive mob of schoolchildren, all in costume, and some of them riding elaborately decorated bicycles and scooters as well. There were also various grown-up groups too, including an enthusiastic troupe of French cowboy dancers (who later would please the crowds in semi-synchrony to the tune of "Achy Breaky Heart") dressed up in the kind of ornate West Coast western wear once favored by Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Bringing up the rear were a few whimsical floats, including one with a human-sized deck-of-cards, and another that appeared to be celebrating some sort of vaguely sexual union between Pocahontas and The Big Bad Wolf (and maybe the three little pigs too; it was pretty high-concept). Finally, tugged by a tractor, came the smoke-belching dragon itself, accompanied by confetti-tossing wig-wearing dragon-wranglers and a set of massive speakers blaring out songs by the Rolling Stones. After a few slow boisterous processions around town, the parade petered out, the dragon and wolf and Queen of Hearts parked themselves on the sidewalks, and tout le monde spent the rest of the day milling festively around the central square, eating crêpes, drinking drinks, and bouncing on the bouncy castle.

Later, when I asked the kids what their favorite parts of Carnaval had been, Maddox singled out the bouncy castle. Jasper especially liked the burning gingerbread man. She also really liked it when the costume contest awards were announced: She and her MadHatterBootsyPimp outfit won second prize.

The prize itself turned out to be a flimsy pen and spiral notebook, and she loves them both. She has begun to fill the notebook with the first lines of a book that she says she's writing. It's got illustrations too.

I'm reminded of when I was a kid, living in Pakistan in the early 1970s, when my brother Eric and I were both deeply under the influence of Spiderman and Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, and one day we decided to draw our own superhero comic books. We were on a 3-week road trip with my dad, from Lahore up the Karakoram Highway into the Hindu Kush. (It's here, by the way, that Quincy and Erica and Doug Kenrick all start rolling their eyes skyward as I dip knowing into my deep reservoir of self-parody.) With the snowy peaks of Rakaposhi and Nanga Parbat towering over us, Eric and I hunched for hours over our notebooks, drawing muscular panels modeled after the familiar formulas of Marvel Comics: the predictable super-powers that arise from random accidents, the sudden super-villains with their ludicrous names, the dumb dialogue.

Jasper, happily, has chosen to go in a rather different direction in her first book. Her book reads like this: Once upon a time, there was a bunny who lived in the blakberry bushs at Jericho beach. On the other side of the beach, there was a house and in that house, lived a cat. Now it just hapyned that one day they met. The bunny said "who are you?" Then the cat said "I'm Srauberry. Who are you?" "I'm Buttercup" said the Bunny. "do you whant to play eneathing Buttercup" asked Srauberry. "No" replied Buttercup.

So far, that's it; but it's only been a week, and Jasper's been pretty busy with school and other entertainments. She hasn't really had the time to work out exactly how to move her narrative forward in the face of Buttercup's curt indifference. My Pakistani superhero comic never made it past its second page. Jasper's book may, or may not, run longer than that.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

When I paint my masterpiece

We took a picnic lunch up to the hilltop ruins of Castellas à Forcalqueiret a few days ago, and it was pretty darn awesome. That night, as Quincy and I were putting the kids to bed, I was reflecting enthusiastically on the day. "I love ruined castles," I said. The kids had their own opinions. Said Maddox: "I love castles what aren't ruined and have bakeries inside them."

Meanwhile, we're hoping that our house here in Cotignac doesn't become a ruin itself before we're done with it. It's a rental, after all. It's not like we're bad renters, but things do break down. (We bought a brand new coffee maker to replace the one that succumbed, on our watch, to years of calcium deposits from the famously hard French tap-water). And things just break, period--especially on these stone-hard floors. Cups, saucers, plates, bowls. Hell, last week we broke 3 wine glasses in just one single evening. (I realize that makes us suddenly sound like we're Def Leppard trashing a hotel room here, but I assure you, there is a legitimate and non-drunken-debauchery explanation for each and every bit of breakage.)

We're especially attentive to breakage because of all the kids passing through our house. Our friends Donald and Jane arrived in Cotignac a few days ago, with their daughters Cara and Caity Rose, both of whom are at the ages (like our own kids) where hands and feet seem especially likely to seek out and slash themselves on any stray shard of broken crockery. Plus, Bob and Erica are here as well, with baby West; and West is at the age where he explores his expanding world by putting everything possible in his mouth. Anyway, keeping things pristine is a bit of a chore, what with our doors open to the terrace all to the time, and the breezes blowing, and kids tromping in and out. Luckily, the mottled terracotta floor-tiles disguise most of the dirt, so it doesn't look quite as filthy as it always is. The flip side, though, is that we're sometimes reminded of that hidden filth in ways that are, well, just a bit horrifying. Like the other day when Erica heard West half-gagging on something and, upon extricating that something from his mouth, discovered it to be an old Bandaid.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of us, Maddox yesterday decided to re-decorate his bedroom with a crayon, and he spent the better part of the morning doing so. His bedroom is a sizeable estate, including (and I'm only exaggerating the slightest bit) his own antechamber, bathroom, and office, as well as the bedroom itself. That's a lot of walls to cover with crayon. And he covered them all with a series of designs that, while not exactly sophisticated, were impressively coherent in style and motif. Mostly they were cycles of loops and swoops and rounded humps--like an endless series of hills seen from afar, or the world's largest herd of purple elephants--plus a few generous X's and hearts for visual punctuation.

And of course, because this house isn't actually ours, it's all illicit graffiti. It's not allowed. We punished him by sending him down the street, with Jasper and Cara and Caity Rose, to spend several hours playing with clay in the studio of a local potter. He loved it (that'll teach him). They all loved it. Meanwhile, I spent a good chunk of my afternoon with a sponge and bucket of soapy water.



Monday, May 17, 2010

The secret waterfall

Is there a scene in some adventure tale that depicts a secret cave hidden behind a waterfall? In a Tintin book maybe? (Or Lord of the Rings? Or Planet of the Apes?) It seems like an iconic image anyway, but I just can't place it. All I know is that when I was a kid I wanted to discover a secret cave behind a waterfall, and explore it.

There are lots of caves around here in southern France. Cotignac butts right up against a massive cliff that is full of holes. Some of these holes, high up, are home to hundreds of swifts that dart and swirl in the skies in search of insects. Lower down are bigger caves, hollowed out hundreds of years ago by local troglodytes. Some of these caves are still used today by people who own houses up against the cliff, although they use them in fairly pedestrian ways--as garages, for instance, or to store patio furniture. Not exactly Tintin-esque.

There are also waterfalls around. A nearby town--Sillans la Cascade--is named for its huge waterfall, which is a popular destination for weekend walkers. Although, before you get to the deep blue-green pool at the base of those falls, you encounter several barriers with scare signs posted on them. Danger de chute! Acces interdit! Things like that. But there are wide paths worn around those blockades. That's one thing I appreciate about France: It's a relatively less litigious environment than North America, and so people have easy access to potentially dangerous places like abandoned mills, ruined castles, and slippery cliffs. Sure, there might sometimes be signs warning you away, and sometimes even easily-breachable barriers, but they come across as little more than half-hearted municipal suggestions. Nothing to really stop you.

There are waterfalls right here in Cotignac too. There is an easy well-worn path to one of them, and we've been many times. And there's another one too, which isn't exactly unknown, but also isn't exactly easy to get to. It's hidden high up along one side of the cliff, and there's no real path, and I think it might be on private property anyway. Jasper and I finally made it to this "secret waterfall" one recent weekend while Maddox was having an all-afternoon play-date at Hannah's house, and Quincy was enjoying a rare opportunity to have the house to herself. To get to the waterfall, Jasper and I had to beat our way through tall grasses and vines and wild roses along a barbed-wire fence, and then scramble steeply up over crumbling shale alongside a sharply cascading stream. Jasper is a strong climber, and a sensible one too. More than once, as we fumbled for footholds in the slippery rock, she suggested that we stop. "It's too dangerous, Dad," she'd say, "Let's go back before one of us gets hurt." Fair enough. But if she was gonna talk precociously like a parent, I had to respond like an eight-year kid--"Oh come on, just a little bit higher? Please?"--and after three or four dodgy maneuvers, we hauled ourselves up to a large hollowed-out bowl shrouded by trees in the side of the cliff, with the waterfall suddenly thundering down above us and gathering in a wide pool at our feet.

A couple of days later, Eric and I revisited Jasper's secret waterfall while the kids were at school. It was then that we discovered the secret caves as well. There were multiple entrances, including a big one carved into the dry cliff on the far side of the pool, and even one small wet one--barely big enough for a malnourished troglodyte to slip through--partially hidden behind the roaring plume of the waterfall itself. We resolved to come back the next day again, with Jasper, and with headlamps.

And so, the next afternoon, Eric and Jasper and I set off on foot one more time toward the secret waterfall. It really is a lovely walk. Deep-throated croaks of bullfrogs lurking in shallow pools choked with mosses and algae. Black-and-white skittery flashes of magpies in the fig trees. Weedy fields dotted with red poppies and purple irises and rustling stalks of wheat. We munched on tender shoots of wild fennel. We talked about that time many years ago, when Eric and I, along with our friend Noodles, set out with flashlights to explore the abandoned tunnels of a long-defunct iron mine carved deep inside a Connecticut hillside. Some previous trespasser had done the dirty work of cutting through and bending back the steel bars that were supposed to keep foolhardy teenagers like us out of the mine. So only common sense--which we chose not to possess that day--could have prevented us from risking our lives inside the lightless subterranean obstacle course tricked out with sharp stones and broken ladders and deep vertical shafts that appeared suddenly at our feet.

There wasn't quite so much danger lurking behind the secret waterfall here in Cotignac. The caves didn't go very deep. Most of them were pretty well waterlogged, and the one dry tunnel ended in a cave-in after about 15 meters. So, while it was definitely fun and exciting, it's wasn't exactly like my iconic comic book imaginings. No Tintin in pleated pants disappearing through a waterfall with an old-fashioned flashlight in his hands and an exclamation mark above his head. No Snowy with a worried look. No Captain Haddock making a blustering hash of things. And as we explored, we had to be wary of broken glass. Because, of course, Jasper's secret waterfall isn't exactly a secret to people who've grown up in Cotignac. Evidence suggests that local teenagers have been climbing up here for years, to explore, to carve the cliff face with their names and initials and earnest declarations of unrequited love, and to party.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Half an elephant and not-so-smart mice

The kids brought home handbills; posters were pasted on walls; and on Saturday, a small car with a large loudspeaker on its roof made a tour of the village, fuzzily blaring the news: a parc de loisirs was coming to town. Quincy and I studied a flyer carefully. Among the various spectacles and amusements, we figured the kids would be especially excited about the objets gonflables--a phrase that we assumed, correctly, to be a French way of talking about "bouncy castles." As for me, I was intrigued by the promise of Sourisland--a "village miniature de souris savants!" Because, you know, if there's one thing more entertainingly surreal than a miniature village, it's a miniature village populated by preternaturally smart mice.

The parc de loisirs was set up in a dusty parking lot next to the gasoline station. There was a small circus tent and four large inflatables, each as big as a house. Despite all the pre-parc publicity, there weren't a lot of people there. Which is not surprising, given that Cotignac is a sleepy little town. Also, a lot of families probably preferred to spend their sunny Sunday afternoon on amusements that didn't cost 8 euros per child (but only 5 euros for grown-ups!). Quincy and I got our money's worth by relaxing in the weeds at the edge of the lot, leaning against a makeshift fence, and watching the action on the inflatables. Which was mostly stuff like this: Jasper slides to the bottom of a giant inflatable sinking ship. Maddox too. Jasper takes off running, in shoeless stocking feet, across the dusty gravel in the direction of a giant inflatable chicken. Maddox, also in his socks, stumbles across the gravel after her.

The gonflables scene went on until a loudspeaker called everyone into the tent, where a series of entertainments began to unfold. As they unfolded, it became abundantly clear that the whole thing was very much a mom-and-pop-and-their-collection-of-kids operation (the dad and the kids provided the entertainment, while mom sold popcorn and cotton candy from a cart outside) which made me enjoy it all the more.

It started with the trained goat. It appears that this is de rigeur among carnies in the south of France: A scrawny goat with gigantic distended teats balancing upon an increasingly tall stack of increasingly tiny stools. Then there was the teenage daughter of the troupe, dressed for burlesque, walking on a wire and twirling a dozen hula-hoops. At one point, Jasper leaned back and whispered, "She would be more beautiful if she didn't have braces." I reflected on my own metal-mouthed high-school years of braces and retainers and headgear. "Hey kid, don't be so judgmental," I wanted to warn Jasper, "That's you in about 5 years, minus (I hope) the sequined bikini."

After she was done, the patriarch (and head clown) invited the audience into the ring so that we could try our own amateurish luck at hula-hooping. We were all comically bad at it. And some of us were comically badder than others. I'm told that I attracted an especially loud set of laughs when, after failing to spin the hoop around my waist, I tried to spin it around my neck by jerkily jackhammering my head back and forth like some sort of spastic woodpecker.

There was one little boy, though, maybe about Maddox's age, who was amazingly adept, and kept his hoop spinning perfectly with a confident rapid rhythm that reminded me of a masturbating monkey I once saw at a zoo. After we all gave him a big round of applause, it was revealed that he was a ringer: He was the youngest of the circus siblings, and this was his dad's amusing way of introducing him. A few minutes later, though, the boy wasn't feeling so great. While his two older brothers--dressed like identical homeless mimes--showed off some elaborate balancing skills on piles of barrels and planks, the 4-year-old nearly collapsed in tears while trying unsuccessfully to set up his own apparatus on the uneven ground. This led to some vivid acting-out in the direction of his dad who was trying simultaneously to energetically emcee the show and to keep the whole thing from becoming a train-wreck of predictable family dynamics, and who was doing it all while wearing a ludicrous orange shag-carpet wig.

Things soon got back on track with another crowd-pleasing piece of audience participation, in which Jasper played a prominent role. This particular act involved a dancing elephant. Except that it wasn't a real dancing elephant. It was two people bending over with an elephant-shaped sheet fitted over them, blindly following a bewigged clown's Svengali-like instructions to kneel down and to stand up, to trot and to boogie and, inevitably, to fall over sideways in a hysterical heap. Jasper was half of that elephant. Specifically: the back half.

I found it all entirely cheesy and delightful and worth every centime, but I did wonder if we were ever going to see that miniature village of super-smart mice. After all that audience participation, I was starting to half-seriously think that there weren't any precocious rodents after all, that "souris savants" wasn't to be taken literally, that maybe it was just some ironic euphemism meaning, loosely, "easily-gulled country folk who pay good money to become spastic woodpeckers and elephants' asses in front of their friends and neighbors."

But I was wrong. Sourisland did indeed exist, and it was finally unveiled after a second sweaty round of bouncy castle fun. Yep, it was a miniature village all right, with a school and a church and post office and all. But the mice inside it didn't seem so savants. Aside from climbing a tiny ladder and sliding down a tiny slide, they didn't show off any special skills. They mostly just stuck their heads in and out of the tiny windows of the tiny buildings, and pooped their tiny turds all over the tiny streets. Big deal; I could do that myself.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The dictionary game

You know the dictionary game, right--where you choose some weird word out of the dictionary that nobody knows and everyone has to make up a definition that sounds like it might be the real definition, and the best bluffer wins. It's fun. There was a time when I played a lot of dictionary, and I loved all those ridiculous but semi-authentic-sounding definitions that emerged--like "a honey-colored ceremonial bathcap" or "any statue of a chicken." I still treasure the memory of that evening in the early spring of 1987 when (in response to the word nobble) my friend Snacker ventured the following: "To eat corn on the cob in a violent and bucktoothed manner." It's an absurd definition, of course, but because it made such visually astute reference to a treasured comic strip panel (depicting, if I recall correctly, Dennis the Menace's dad), it was very much a winner.

It's with this in mind that I thought it might be fun to use the dictionary game as a means of conveying to you one specific aspect of our life in France that, for obvious reasons, I won't exactly miss very much, but in a weird sort of way I will miss just a tiny bit.

Okay, so here's the gimmick. I'm gonna give you a phrase in French, and then I'll list some options as to what it translates to. And you gotta guess the right answer. Okay, ready? Here we go.

Here's the phrase in French: s'apporte à bonne chance.

And here are your options as to what it means:

1. A polite way of referring to a tall, thin, small-headed man from another country.

2. To insist on wearing preposterous-looking sports sandals every day, regardless of the weather.

3. To amble down the street in an eager, distracted manner.

4. The quaint custom, common throughout much of Europe, in which people blithely let their dogs crap all over the streets and sidewalks, and very deliberately choose to NOT pick it up.

5. To glance down at one's feet finally, a split second too late.

And the answer is....

None of above. Or, wait, maybe it's all of the above. In any case, it was a trick question. Translated directly, that French phrase is about bringing oneself good luck. And, apparently, people in France might say something like that to you when you step in dogshit, which you inevitably will. Kind of like how someone in Germany might say "Gesundheit" after you sneeze. Except that this isn't about sneezing, obviously; it's about stepping in dogshit, which really isn't the same thing at all.



Thursday, May 27, 2010

In which Mark starts to think seriously about what his French stripper name might should be

has been pointed out that maybe, for my own protection, I should be blogging under an alias.

Lots of the bloggers use wacky handles. Plus, there is a long and honorable tradition of using a pen name when contributing to a genre outside of your usual domain. If the pseudonym approach to off-brand work has been good enough for Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Dustin Hoffman, then, hey, maybe I oughta give it a whirl as well.

And then there's the whole self-protection thing. "Our French Files" doesn't always present me in the most flattering light. While I'd like to think that this blog portrays me as an intrepid international adventurer, it's more likely that I come across as some sort of clueless doofus with a footnote fetish. Do I really want all that embarrassing small-headed spastic woodpecker stuff attached to the name "Mark Schaller"? Shouldn't I be protecting my brand a bit better than that?

So, yeah, I'm thinking about an alias, some sort of handle that would be appropriate for a blog about a sabbatical in southern France. But how might I arrive at my French blogger name?

Is there some sort of formula to follow for a nom de blog (or nom de blague)? You know, like how there are these half-serious recipes for figuring out other hypothetical pseudonyms--your stripper name, your drag queen name, your professional wrestler name, that sort of thing--which always involve combining the name of your first pet with your favorite crayon color or your fourth-favorite 19th-century German philosopher, or something like that. The outcomes aren't always realistic. (I mean, I can't even imagine a professional wrestler named "The Raspberry Snowflake," And no self-respecting stripper would call himself "Cerulean Schopenhauer." Come on.) But still, it's something.

So anyway, Quincy and I got to talking about this yesterday, and decided to come up with an recipe that I might follow in order to cook up a nom de blague.

"How about using the street that we live on for part of your name," suggested Quincy. "That sort of thing always shows up in these sorts of things." Good idea. Here in Cotignac, we live on Rue de la Cadelle. It's not exactly a street (it's more of an invisible alley that narrows further into a foot path, but which people sometimes drive their cars on anyway because, you know, this is France). But it's good enough for half of a made-up name: Cadelle. But what about the rest of my blogging faux-nom?

Here again Quincy offered some cunning guidance: "What's something else that's emblematic of your time here in France?" she asked, leadingly. Hmmm, let's see. Intrepid international adventuring? She laughed. Pitch-perfect conversations in my flawless French? She laughed again. Nose-to-the-grindstone 16-hour days completing solemn scientific articles, one after another? She laughed long and loud, and then turned serious. "Bakeries," she said, "Boulangeries. Patisseries. You've spent weeks and weeks sampling all kinds of breads and tarts and puff pastries. What's your favorite? Because whatever it is, that oughta be part of your French blogger name."

Excellent idea. But there is so much to choose from, and it's almost impossible to identify the one bakery item here that is my absolute name-worthy favorite. There's that olive bread that they make at the bakery that's closest to Maddox's school, but which they only make on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I do love that. (Although I'm not sure pain d'olives works wonderfully well as a personal name.) Oh, and there are those croissants aux pinons that we buy there too, stuffed with an amazing almond paste and coated with pine nuts. Yum. And then there are the sacristains--especially the ones that we buy from the bakery down by the fire station--and which Jasper in particular has repeatedly identified as the thing that she will miss most of all when we return to Vancouver. A sacristain is truly awesome. (Although I might feel a bit uncomfortable appropriating that word--which refers also to a Church caretaker--for such an unholy purpose as a prankish nom de blague.) Ah, and then there are the slices of custard pie--des flans. I'm particularly partial to a singularly fantastic coconut flan that they sometimes sell in the narrow little bakery near la mairie. Mouth-wateringly wonderful. Yes, yes, the coconut flan. (Which, happily, no one actually ever calls flan au noix de coco, because that would be just way too much of a mouthful to include in a made-up name). Mmmm... coco flan. Or, as Dustin Hoffman's pseudonym's character's student's father might say: "Mmmm... coco flan."

So: Coco Flan Cadelle. If I can figure out how to change my username on this website, that just might become my alias--my French blogger name. (Although, now that I think about it, it might actually work better as my French stripper name instead.)



Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bonjour chaton

It's hot. I've taken to wearing my sarong around the house. Although not in public. Not yet anyway.

It's hot, and so we've been in the water a lot. This past weekend we drove up to Lac de Sainte Croix, rented a pedal-boat, and pedal-paddled our way up into the Gorge du Verdon. Spectacular. It's like being in some deep canyon in the American southwest, except that the cliffs are a surreal golden yellow and the water is a surreal milky blue and instead of being surrounded by a bunch of hooting and hollering Arizonans drinking cheap beer and throwing the empty cans in the water, you're surrounded by a bunch of hooting and hollering French folks drinking real Champagne and popping the corks in the water.

We've also been swimming a lot. Jasper swims like a trout. Maddox still uses artificial floatation. Quincy went with him to buy some water-wings a couple of weeks ago and Maddox chose the bright pink Hello Kitty ones. No surprise there. Whereas most of the world might think that Hello Kitty apparel is designed to appeal to 6-year old Japanese schoolgirls, Maddox is under the impression that it's the epitome of classy European menswear. I suppose I must take the blame for that. Because, well, because of my wristwatch.

I don't usually wear a watch back home in Vancouver where I'm surrounded by clocks. But here in rural France, I figured a wristwatch would come in handy. I didn't want to spend much money on it, though. So, a couple of months ago, when Quincy drove to Brignoles to do some shopping, I asked her to buy me the cheapest wristwatch she could find. Turns out the cheapest wristwatch she could find was made by Hello Kitty.

It's pink and sky-blue. Its skinny little plastic band barely fits around my skinny little wrist. Its petite little digital watch-face is embedded in a petite little plastic flower. It keeps time flawlessly. I wear it every day.

And now that it's hot outside, it's no longer lurking behind long sleeves. People are taking notice.

For instance: I was at the bakery a few days ago, buying bread, and as I was offering up my handful of coins, the bakery-woman smirked and nodded toward my wrist and said, "C'est une très jolie montre." Yes, I agreed; it is.

And it's not just grown-ups that are impressed. We attended a picnic recently, on a hippie farm of some sort near Lac de Sainte Croix, where they have chickens and swine and yurts and fanciful treehouses. It was a pot-luck affair ("auberge Espagnole," as they say in France--because, apparently, pot-luck is for Spaniards), organized by a bunch of organic food enthusiasts, and so we ate lots of rustic breads and quiches and patés made from the flesh of local pigs and cheeses squeezed from the teats of local goats. After lunch a bunch of us, accompanied by our kids, went for a walk. As we were walking, one little girl suddenly started yammering at me in very excited and slightly disconcerted French. I didn't know what she was talking about. She pointed to my wrist, and then I began to understand. Hello Kitty. Yes, I agreed (in French), it isn't often you see a Hello Kitty watch on a man. And, yes, it might seem reasonable to assume that the watch belongs to my daughter. But it's not Jasper's, I said; it's mine. What do you think of it, I asked her proudly. And she said, "Elle est très belle." Yes, I agreed (in French); she is indeed.

So, you know, maybe I should just go ahead and wear my sarong proudly everywhere I go. It's not like I have some sort of manly reputation to keep up.



Monday, June 14, 2010

Whenever Maddox says something he says something hilarious, but whenever Mark says something he just reveals himself (again) to be kind of a chump

A couple of weekends ago, we went on a lovely little family hike through the forests and the hills just outside of town, during which we ate a picnic lunch under the warm midday sun and examined butterflies and bugs among the flowers and the rocks. Later that evening, as I was putting Maddox to bed, I was reflecting on the day's events. "I really enjoyed that hike with Quincy and Jasper today," I said. And Maddox replied: "I wish I could keep a hammer in my ear; or a flashlight."

Naturally, I take delight in his gift for non sequitur. It is a gift he shares generously with the rest of us at home. At school, though, he remains linguistically tightfisted: He pretty much doesn't say a word. He's got friends aplenty, it seems, but--even with those who speak some English--he appears to communicate primarily through a series of cryptic peeps and squeaks. And, although he is happy to say "Au revoir" to his teacher (Madame Blanc) at the end of the day, he refuses to say anything else to her. Not even "Bonjour." At first we attributed this to second-language shyness. But it's been going on for more than five months now and I'm pretty sure that, for Maddox, the refusal to greet Madame Blanc has simply resolved into a matter of principle.

There was a time, almost two months ago, when we tried to bribe him into saying "Bonjour" to Madame Blanc. He resisted, but did suggest a sort of compromise: "How about if I say 'Salut' instead?" We said sure; although, in hindsight, it was obviously a set-up for comical disaster. Madame Blanc is famously severe and formal in her demeanor, whereas "Salut" is about the most casual sort of greeting going. It's the kind of thing you might say to your buddies at a bar--a sort of French equivalent of "Howdy!" or "Whassup!" or "Yo! Yo! How's it hanging, bro!" It's not something that kids often say to grown-ups. And it's definitely not something Madame Blanc expects from her 4-year olds. Anyway, when Maddox got to school that day he ran up to Madame Blanc and yelled out "Salut!" and was so delighted with himself that he immediately wrapped his arms around me in a great big prideful hug. I was proud of him too. As for Mme. Blanc: Well, let's just say that she expressed unsmiling surprise. To the best of my knowledge, Maddox hasn't said "Salut" to her since. Or "Bonjour" either, of course.

But, you know, seemingly simple greetings aren't always as simple as they seem. Personally, I struggle with "Ça va." It's a phrase that literally means "That goes"; but of course it doesn't really mean that. In a cordial context it's both a question and an answer too, corresponding variously to English phrases such as "How're you doing?" and "Fine" and "Can't complain." It should be simple (it's just a mindlessly casual greeting, after all) but sometimes people attach other words to it too (like oui and bien) which makes it all more complicated, and I've never been able to quite figure out how exactly the script should go. Consequently, when people say "Ça va?" to me, my wheels fly off and I usually end up dumbly mumbling a semi-incoherent stream of random French pleasantries and then, just to keep my bases covered, I lean in close for a kiss on each cheek. It's working so far. (Well, with the women it is.) Still, I'm acutely aware of the fact that my high-school French classes never prepared me for the ordinary pleasantries of life in France. Instead, we all learned stiffly formal phrases like "Comment allez-vous?"--which, it turns out, on one actually ever says out loud.

Speaking of stiffly formal phrases that no one actually ever says out loud: "Je m'appelle Mark." Now I don't know about you, but that was one of the first things I learned in French class. I was taught that it was practically on par with "Bonjour" as a common, polite, and useful thing to say. In fact, I always considered "Je m'appelle [your name here]" to be part of the unofficial Holy Trinity of emblematic French phrases, right there with " est la bibliothèque?" and "Le fromage est sur la table." Well, apparently I was wrong. In real life, just as no one ever inquires as to the whereabouts of the library, or declares the whereabouts of cheese, no one ever says "Je m'appelle [your name here]." Well, no one but me that is. And after many months here, I finally realized this. I think that, unlike every other phrase in French, this one perhaps translates in a rather literal way: "I call myself Mark." Which makes it not only severely formal and old-fashioned, but also a plainly preposterous thing to say. It's as though I've been going about France shaking people's hands and saying "I wish I could keep a hammer in my ear." Or, perhaps, it's as though when I first meet people, I stare coldly into their eyes, point both of my thumbs rigidly toward my puffed-out chest and, like some tribal overlord declaiming his intentions to conquer the world, announce myself to the trembling masses: "I call myself Mark."

So, even though I still haven't exactly learned the right way to greet people, at least I've learned that everything that I always thought was right is actually wrong--and makes me come across like some sort of arrogant asshole from the 17th Century. And I've learned why whenever I bend down to chat with children, they just look at me like I'm from Mars.

Anyway, back to Maddox: A couple of weeks ago he did a series of three drawings. I asked him what he was drawing, and he told me. These are his exact words:
Drawing #1: "No stars, no sun, no moon, and no tape"
Drawing #2: "The world's largest paintbrush"
Drawing #3: "Two birds, the sky, air, and a vacuum cleaner"



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Secret waterfall redux

I won't be offended if you think that, little by little, we're going insane. I just glanced back at the stuff we've been blogging about recently, and it occurs to me that a superficial skim might suggest a family increasingly unhinged. Mark unselfconsciously flouncing around town wearing a little girl's wristwatch and a sarong; Quincy claiming to hear the serenading songs of birds all night long; Maddox speaking in surrealistic riddles; and so forth. Even the recent photos may suggest that we've succumbed to some strange madness that drives us to obsessively sculpt towering toothsome concrete rabbits and to gaze oddly at our reflections in sheared-off auto parts deep within the Provençal woods. It's like we're no longer just a family on sabbatical, but are instead minor characters in a Werner Herzog movie, or Alice in Wonderland, or Apocalypse Now. You might half expect Quincy to start blogging about the sudden appearance of a strung-out ghost of Dennis Hopper in the vine-grown ruins of an ancient olive mill; or for me to report on how, during a recent trip to the market to buy cherries and flan we encountered the lumbering form of Marlon Brando sitting in the shadows of a cheese shop reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot and telling far-out tales of gardenias and riverbanks and razorblades and snails. (The horror. The horror.)

So, yeah, I won't be offended if, while reading our blog, you're reminded of that famous remark by Francis Ford Coppola: "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane."

If not for the bits about being in the jungle and having too much money, that remark might be an accurate assessment of our lives. Oh and also the bit about going insane. Because, despite appearances, I assure you: We still have all our marbles. In fact, our lives are so boringly normal here that it's hard to find anything to blog about.

But, while I cannot report on any torrential rain of madness, I can tell you about something that Jasper and I did a couple of days ago that found us dropping down through a sort of rabbit-hole and plunging into the (non-metaphorical) heart of darkness.

I wrote once before about the secret waterfall and the caves. What I didn't mention was that, in addition to the big easy entrance into the short tunnel we explored already, there's another cave entrance that I'd previously ignored because it's just a little hole in the side of the cliff and I wasn't sure I could even fit through it. On a return visit, I just had to try. And I fit. And so did Jasper and Maddox too. And, once through, we were inside a substantial tunnel just goes and goes. We explored it for a little ways--far enough for the dry tunnel to start getting damp as it bore back darkly through the limestone. Having gone that far, Jasper and I were keen to return and explore it as far as we possibly (or safely) could.

We did so as soon as Quincy's brother Kelin and his family arrived in town. It was the perfect opportunity because (as those of you who subscribe to Nature, Geology, and the Journal of Geophysical Research already know) Kelin knows a thing or two about water and rocks and geomorphology. And because one of his girls (Teagan) is 10.

"I'm not going in there!" Teagan exclaimed when, after hiking out of town and climbing up to the waterfall, she saw the narrow slot in the rock that we'd need to shimmy through.

But she did. And with Jasper leading the way with the chirpy enthusiasm of an eager mole, the four of us plunged onward and gently downward through the darkness. Despite her vocal misgivings, I think there was only one moment when Teagan had any real regrets about being there. It was the moment when, as we dropped to our knees to get through a particularly low passage, our headlamps suddenly illuminated a large dense ragged-looking spider web right in front of our faces, occupied by a burly spider the size of my hand. We quickly scuttled on, and on, pausing occasionally so that Kelin could point out interesting features created by the interaction of gravity, water, and calcium carbonate. Because, you know, when you're hunched back-breakingly over inside a damp lightless passageway deep inside the earth, and you've just been nose-to-nose with a spider that looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, nothing beats an impromptu geology lesson. Seriously.

Eventually, Jasper yelled out that she saw light ahead. And moments later we reemerged blinkingly, along with some gently flowing groundwater, in a familiar spot along a tiny road on the upper edge of the village.

And then we turned around and plunged into the heart of darkness again, back the way we came. Not because we were so especially keen to blunder once more into the webs of blind and bloated spiders, but because we were keen to take a bracing swim in the churning gray-green pool underneath the secret waterfall where we began.

Yeah, I know: It's not exactly a paranoid florid fantasy of razorblades and snails and Marlon Brando in his pajama pants. But it's all I got.