Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Art of Conversation - part 1

I am intrigued by conversation. To put it simply. I am occasionally embroiled in a mess of words. I love to listen, but I love to talk. I've adjusted multiple times in my life to different cultural cues, and these days I find myself questioning yet again just how it all flows.

As I child I was the shy one, the youngest who listened and absorbed. I also played alone or with just one other. I was not a groupie. I never belonged to a clique. Better to be on my own with a book, or at a table with adults than to play the social games demanded upon young females in grade school.

I discovered friendship with my peers in high school, of the birds of a feather variety. My close friends were in all my classes, on the swim team, in the band. We did many things together, played tennis after school, took out the sale boat, cut classes to head to the beach. It was a group thing yes, and I was often the extra one, letting the others laugh and shine as I went along -- fully enjoying myself, but allowing others to lead.

And then I learned to speak French fluently. And suddenly, (I think the wine had something to do with it too), I was chatting away. I was expressing myself. I was present.

Still, it wasn't an overwhelming thing -- I think -- I still took second fiddle to various boyfriends, girlfriends, etc., I was pretty discreet.

Living in Japan opened another door -- to being a clown and an entertainer. What else do you do when you're blond and a head taller than all around you? I started talking with my hands, making up words, expressing myself with sounds that exist in no language known to man, and occasionally managed some sentences in Japanese. But, whatever you learn in school (if you study Japanese), one of the great pleasures of this language is that much is left unsaid. It kind of goes like this: Oh, that woman.... Yes I so agree, she's.... Mmmm, Ah sooo dessunee.... and so on. Never say too much, be suggestive, but not precise, make some interesting noises of agreement and expression. Thank goodness for nuanced expression!

And then I arrived back in France for graduate school. Ready to be discreet, polite, attentive. I waited till I was spoken to, waited till the person in front of me finished his sentence, I was the epitome of grace. And I was ignored. Hm. So, I learned to talk again. I learned to impose myself into a conversation simply to be taken seriously and to be noticed and heard. Gone the discreet Asian influence, enter Gaulic intensity and argumentative tendencies.

The past few years have seen me living with a mono-syllabic husband, and managing tours and cooking classes all over Provence. I learned to talk. I learned to story-tell, laughter and jokes included.

I concurrently honed my skills as a hostess, questioning gently my guests as to their background, their previous voyages, their interest in food, wine, etc., Careful to avoid politics or delicate subjects, noting if someone was uncomfortable with a certain subject and bringing them back to another less offensive one.

But as I move forward in my life, I am coming to see that these years of talking for a living brought me towards a tendency to speak too much. And, frustratingly, it is hard for me to stop at the opportune moment and offer space to those around me to share (though it helps if I drink no more than one glass of wine). I find that I've a tendency to be in the personal and not the general, which also limits where others can contribute. And so I find myself in the position of observer - of myself, but also of the world around me. I am newly interested in the art of conversation. Is this something one learns naturally? at the dinner table? in the car? in school? And which cultures encourage which behaviors? Am I behaving in a French way? in an American way? or somewhere in-between?

Certainly, I am someone who is more often with one friend at a time going into detail and sharing lots on each side. I am less often at the table with a group of adults playing my small role in the life of the conversation before us. Thus the personal naturally dominates my conversation, and it is rarely the group dynamics that lift me to new levels of creativity and adaptation.

I've a dear friend who expressed that she prefers it this way. She finds group conversations tiring and banal, having lived that at a different time in her life. She prefers a more intimate setting and a more intense presence of each participant.

Meantime another agreed with me that the French tend to be lighter and more generalist in their conversation than Anglo-saxons, and that discretion is valued. Others will (or should) show you off to advantage. It is not necessary, and a bit boorish if you do so yourself. (Yes, but when you've a husband who never gave you credit for your part in your lives/business/etc., for 13 years... you do come to doubt this method). JP had brought this point up to me (ouch) and it is far easier to hear it (in a lovely and general way) from my friend. Okay, point taken, time to work on it.

I'm re-reading Cultural Misunderstandings (see the list of books to the right), in particular the chapter on conversation. And my mother is going to find me the letter of Diderot to his love Sophie concerning the salons de Paris and the magical movement of subjects and ideas amidst the participants.

I shall share more as I learn.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Feeling a bit more here

The house is getting in order. I'm putting away things as they should be, getting the kids' rooms ready for them, watering the garden and just re-investing it all with my energy and presence.

I've refreshed my sourdough bread starter (I stashed it into the freezer for the summer, upon the recommendation of Shirley Corriher in Cookwise) -- or rather I'm in the midst of refreshing it and have added flour and water to it to double its volume now for two days in a row. However, it isn't bubbling fiercely as yet, so I'll wait another day or two to make bread.

I've picked and simmered and canned elderberry syrup, sirop des baies de sureau, for this winter's various throat ailments (though it's rare that the boys are sick, Jonas has been known to cough occasionally). They were there, abundant on the trees, and I'm here. Thus, why not?

It was easy. I got out the ladder, my scissors and a basket and harvested away. Then I brushed the berries into a tub of water with my fingers to remove the stems and wash them, also sift out the dried or green berries, the branches, etc. I put them in my big copper jam pot with two litres of water and two plus 2/3 (all I had) kilos of sugar. I simmered for a bit. Then turned it off and let it sit over night. Then I mixed the whole batch in the blender -- breaking up the berries-- and put it back onto simmer. Then I poured through a strainer, pressing with a silicon spatula to get the least bit out. And voila. Now, no doubt, I should sterilize them. I don't think my quantity of sugar is enough to truly preserve. There was more juice in the berries than I anticipated, and I've quite a bit made. It was only 2 litres of water, but I've 2 bottles (750ml) and 3 jars (500ml).

In fact, the final product is a bit bland and vegetal in flavor. Though it is gorgeously deep purple and enticing to the eye, it won't replace black currant syrup for drinks or kyr any time soon.

Meantime, kidless for the week, I'm living a night life as I've rarely done since my youth. The days are too hot to be up and about (after 11AM that is) and the evenings are wonderfully refreshing and pleasant. There are tango balls all over the region, and so off I go. Being a night owl is not helping me get over jet lag. Quite the contrary. But as I'm able to work somewhat during the day (translations, email list, missive to the world for my tourism business, writing, letters, articles, etc.,) I don't feel completely slothful -- though definitely somewhat.

It is always such a strange thing to have time on one's hands. Once you become a mother, run a household, have a job, a thousand things to do daily, etc., it is simply surreal to be mellow and to discover you have time to read a novel -- if quite lovely. It looks like I'll be finishing Wolf Hall (all about the Tudors and Thomas Cromwell) by this weekend.

Tomorrow a few more errands, perhaps a bike ride? and more writing. Thus, perhaps, I'll feel virtuous and useful, if only briefly.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Moment of Melancholy

Ah yet again I am traveling both physically and psychically between countries and worlds. And I wonder... how much effort have I put into being in France? into making things work and coping? And how at ease did I feel back in Michigan these past few weeks? How effortless it was to be respected and accomplished in my fields, to communicate, to be. I was a tad less the outsider that I had so felt last year. I observed, but not like an alien, more in appreciation for what I find so lovely and heart-warming.

Much of the past year, whether in the US or France, I've been observing. It got way out of hand noticing how people dress, what they eat, the level of conversation, how couples seem to work, how children are raised, what daily rhythms resemble, values, goals.... But that's where I've been. Inside and outside at the same time.

While in the US I put on a few pounds -- eating lots more pasta, bread and ice cream, not to mention blueberry and cherry pies than I normally do. Yoga every other day didn't compare to the amount I normally walk each day in Avignon. I gradually left more and more of my elegant clothes in the closet and switched to comfy jeans, shorts and t-shirts. Fewer décolletés, flat sandals, no make-up. I adapted. I read novels and went canoeing. I fed and did dishes and socialized with family and friends.

I visited many -- so often women who are achieving their dreams, making chocolate, making goat cheese, writing cook books, running a fabulous Italian deli.

It felt good.

From a few conversations -- and yes, observations -- I truly do believe that chivalry is more present in Northern Michigan than in Provence. Single women get helped -- with putting away boats, chopping wood, shoveling snow, etc., This is a world that helps he/she who needs it. The Frontier spirit of helping out, and receiving help. Collaborating to survive.

How many times did JP notice that I had to fix my car, work on the house, etc., and simply state that I'd better find someone competent to do that for me over in my neighborhood. If he hadn't the skills to do so, I wouldn't have found that so annoying, nor if I truly had had the funds to hire such people would it have been so hurtful. But, under the circumstances...

Here in Provence in little ways men are attentive -- opening doors, tipping their hats, quick to compliment on your looks, flirt, etc., But for the big things? Well, it's not easy. Most are stressed and over-worked, so, cope on your own. I'm lucky in that Erick still helps out on occasion, and that I've a superb plumber (whom I pay correctly). My neighbor has his moments, but being 'lunatique', i.e. moody, I don't count on him.

What I also truly admired in the US was the level of complicity, respect and genuine admiration and trust I witnessed in a number of marriages. Marriages of equals. It wasn't a game of the sexes, but partnerships. I've not felt that here. Perhaps I've simply had bad luck, or??

Then again, I'm amused by the ease with which many American friends use vulgar language and references, which are just not the norm amongst my French acquaintances. While sailing on a hobi-cat the water surged up through the middle of the canvas. I likened it to a water massage for cellulite (thalassotherapie anyone?). And I heard back the comment more commonly used in this family that it was a Lake Enema. Hmmmm.

There are other examples: my morning ritual includes grabbing a kleanex and blowing my nose; a friend commented that his includes taking a good crap. Oh... did I need to hear that? Yes, I'm a bit shy on these matters, perhaps equally amused and perturbed.

And so as I unpack all that I'd put away for the summer rentals, re-invest my Provence home with my belongings, my photos of my children, I feel a touch of melancholy, nostalgia, and cultural dislocation. A yearly rite of passage, or?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Friends, Food, Poetry

A 50th wedding anniversary. How many get this far? and how many get this far with such love and tenderness in their eyes and gestures? They've certainly shared values, joys and wonder. The many quotes and references fly about us from Shakespeare (King Lear) to Dr. Seuss and everything in between.

Poems bring tears to all our eyes.
A royal roast pig is a joy to behold and consume.

The kitchen is in motion at all hours of the day: breakfast, clean-up, lunch, clean-up, tea time, clean up, dinner prep, drink hour, dinner, clean-up. We take turns and it all gets done.

The kids roam, swim, go tubing, read, play games, grab some chips and the normally forbidden soda, discover poker and bridge. The dogs are under foot, sneaking a bit from the floor (or a child's hand!), cuddling, playing, barking, sleeping.

The elder folk enjoy the comforts of the deck, a wide range of reading material in their hands.

wild flowers deck the cakes. Bag pipes ring in the air, song is crafted and sung.

And the values of love, consideration, tenderness, communication, respect, honor, attention, and the age-old virtue of being sure and steady waft upon the air and envelope us all.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Another's Point of View

I have this thing about generalizations. Granted, I’m guilty on occasion of such, but... As I read my way through The Secret Life of France I am startled and frustrated by some of her chapters. Now, to clarify, this book is very well written by a woman who moved in circles I will never come close to. I am in admiration and I am aware of the quite privileged access she has had. (Had I married a Frenchman who shared my classes at Princeton, perhaps, but that's not how my story has played out). She is describing the habits and tendencies of a rarified circle of the very highly educated elite bourgeoisie of Paris. What she says does not hold true for my world in Provence of teachers, farmers, vintners, artisans, massage therapists, essential oil practitioners, artists and musicians.

The last two chapters I read have been strong on politics and the relationship of France (since WWII), to its British neighbor to the West and the Americans across the ocean. She has encountered (she being British, not American), tremendous nostalgia and respect for the British (all the while acknowledging that the sentiment is not returned from across the Channel), and outright scorn, annoyance and disdain for Americans.

Hmmmm. Can I say Thank Goodness I’ve not encountered this in the South? Nor has my mother (granted, a Ph.D in French literature) in her many years backing and forthing across the Atlantic to the city of Lights.

But, as she perpetuates the unfortunate opinion that all the French hate the Americans (NOT TRUE!) I am forced to consider my impression upon people here.

I’ve written before of the cultural confusion I feel when in the US – where I am received as hyper-verbal, WASPy, New England with a European gloss – thus I intimidate on occasion. And the concurrent reception I receive in France where it takes quite a bit of time and knowing me to be convinced of my cultured self (is it so hidden?) and rather deep education (all is respective). Mmmm Yes, my first impression in the hexagon shines through my surface self : bubbly, American accented English (though my French accent is well-received), optimistic and outgoing, as JP would say, my enthousiasme enfantin lends people to not take me seriously and to underestimate me.

A friend recently confirmed that when outsiders saw me (young, pretty, ebulliant) with Erick (older, more established, local) upon our marriage they assumed he had to have wooed me with security, wealth, comfort... Why else would I have stayed? No, he didn’t offer me this, but he did offer me a foil upon which I grew, expanded, developed and discovered my talents, previously unknown to myself. It was his passion for cooking and his region that gave me the impetus to create our business from scratch. He was also willing to do what he was skilled at to complete the picture – the physical renovations of the house, the shopping and cooking, the driving, etc.,

When we were in the midst of divorcing and I was advised by both my lawyer and JP that I really shouldn’t continue to work with him, I am convinced (now) that they assumed he had the where-withall to continue to support me and the children. That the business might collapse without my participation, that I was the one that brought our clients to us... this was an idea completely outside their scope of imagination. I was simply a pretty young thing from America, right? Much to my chagrin (and at that time low self-esteem) I followed their advice. This timed with the economic crisis brought near financial disaster on both our heads.

Over the past year Erick and I have knit our working relationship back together and we now help each other as we are able. A far better solution for both.

So, to conclude: that yes, if Americans are sweepingly (and ignorantly) considered to often be uncultured and less civilized than their European counterparts (particularly by a class of individuals that truly revel in criticizing and judging others) ... I do suffer occasionally from this stereotype. But, not for long. Where people have open minds and the desire to learn, discuss, exchange, snap judgements can be altered.

Curiously, I more often encounter a certain level of cynicism towards the English... but then, I’m American and no doubt our French hosts occasionally play games with the suspected rivalry of the Brits and their former colonists. All is fair game for the gullible...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Meadowlark Farm - Cedar Michigan

One of the things I adore about this part of the world (Northern Michigan) is the growing consciousness and support for environmentally intelligent activities: houses off the grid, solar panels, individual windmills, organic farms supported by a whole array of clients willing to pledge a seasons' commitment to a crate a week, and so much more.

One of the magical places that I've been introduced to by my dear friend Nancy Allen -- a fantastic cook and cooking teacher of many years -- is the Meadowlark Farm outside of Cedar. It is a small family-run farm firmly anchored by Jenny and her husband. Their children, Ella and Elijah, help out and welcome visitors as graciously as their parents. Nancy has an arrangement with them to cook every Friday for the entire crew of helpers and workers and family and visitors (in this occasion myself, my mother and my two boys) with their array of organic vegetables and herbs freshly picked that morning.

She has also taught cooking to the kids (who are both home-schooled) and written quite a bit about her experiences on her own blog. It seems a fruitful exchange for all participants.

When I called Nancy the other day to see her during my very short vacation up here, she suggested I come over to the farm and join her in the kitchen -- something I always adore doing! When I arrived she put me immediately to work on rolling out the dough for the special Mediterranean pastries, Za'atar, that she was making from Paula Wolfert's superb book, The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. I rolled them out quite thin, and spread a marvelous mixture of herbs and sesame seeds and olive oil atop them. She assures me that as this is a Moroccan specialty, I should be able to find some mixtures in my local stores in France to recreate this wonderful flat bread.

Then I helped her with the beet falafals (sweet, delicately spiced, and crispy fried!) - also from Paula Wolfert- while her friend Maureen and my mother worked on a Greek zucchini and celery dish with raisins, cinnamon, vinegar and onions.

I brought along some of my fresh bread (a bit heavy as the starter has yet to truly bubble away like mine back in Provence. However, it was received as a good, nourishing, whole grain loaf with a nice acidic bite. Little in resemblance to my bread back home, but nonetheless a crowd pleaser.

My boys happily went off to play with Elijah and the farm dogs. I cooked away, and then we all sat down to a delectable and somewhat exotic feast. Yum! After a lovely chat with Jenny, a tour of the barn and the flowers she adds to her vegetable crates (a creative outlet for her), I suggested we bring Elijah back to the lake with us where he spent a fun afternoon with my boys playing Monopoly, swimming out to the raft and exploring our little corner of the woods.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Back to Michigan

Back to Michigan and back to my boys. Here such a short time, but here nonetheless. Chicago and Detroit bookend the trip. Efforts to connect with wine dealers/importers and distributors are taking time, but I trust will be fruitful. I’m here, but must get to town daily for 2-3 hours (at least) on the computer. This is not always so easily done. I trust my jet lag will continue for a few more days! Only one car between us (my mother and me). The idea of vacation is marvelous, but the realities of running my little businesses when in a home without internet access are tough.

Barely up on my first day and I got out the cutting shears. Mom wanted her hair cut, and Leo offered himself up to me as well. Quite amazing. He’s spent the year growing and growing and growing his hair.

I think I did a beautiful job (pictures to follow), but it is rather a shock to him. He was quite the romantic poet there for a while. Samson has lost his locks.

Jonas is swimming (yeah!). Both of them are playing better tennis. They are taller, more independent, but still themselves and mostly pleased to have me here. With Leo I’ve already had a run-in about summer home-work – writing a page or more by day – that Mom had begun. Oh it just isn’t easy.

Jonas is in do anything to please mode. So he’s got Mom wrapped around his finger. Helpful, delighted, present, lively, quick to respond... Can you ask for more?

And myself? Eating too many yummy local pastries! But reveling in doing my yoga on the deck under the swaying trees. It’s all in the balance.

Yet another book about France...

My dear English friend (the one with 6 kids, not the one who teaches at school) has shared her copy of a new book by yet another Anglo-Saxon (this time English) about life in France. It is aptly named, The Secret Life of France.

It is amusing, and well-written. I'm mostly enjoying it. However, she makes some serious statements damning a nation's people when her experience is, well, limited to that of a wife of a wealthy and superbly well educated Frenchman of the definitely upper bourgeois class.

Apparently, in such a situation, finding marvelous and true and deep friendships amongst women is near impossible. They're all out to be the most elegant, sexy, alluring to the many (or too few?) men in their world and this competition crushes the possibility of true connection.

What a shame for her is this is her experience. I will testify that it took me some years to make good friendships with women in France, but this is more for their skittishness that you will leave. As a foreign-born woman, are you someone who they can hold in their heart for a life-time? Or will you skip out when the going gets tough? As such, there are perhaps a few more barriers to cross before these very special frienships are offered.

Yes, I do have dear friends. Friends I can count on. Friends I can confide in. Friends who shore me up when the times are difficult. Friends who are honest with me, supportive, at times critical, but with love. I can laugh, hug, cry with them.

As I work my way through the book, I learn that Parisians (of a certain class I assume) have different mores when it comes to sex within and ouside of marriage. Again, I didn't experience this in Provence. Outside of the capitol, fidelity is definitely the preferred way to live and divorce is often the result of infidelity. But then again, duplex apartments in the 16th and castles on the Loire are not being put at risk.

I'm still reading, and finding her observations about politics and other elements quite interesting, at times elucidating. I'm not finished. In any case, one of the details of her story that interests me is she in the end gave up on French men and married an Englishman. They live in France, so you could say she's got the best of both worlds.

Curious. I'll write more when I get to the last page.

Going to the Beach - Un saut à la plage

When you’ve an urge to go to the beach, and the desire to spend the night there, you are open to what the universe offers. Here in Provence we’ve quite a number of possibilities. Best known to me are Beauduc – the wild beaches that my former husband took me to the first week I knew him and where I’ve held two overnight parties for Leo’s June birthdays – and the Plage d’Arles just beyond Salins de Giraud, the site of many an evening’s dip and barbecue, grillade.

The former is the site of an old fishing village, and once held (till just a couple of years’ ago) a completely illegal squatters’ village of camping cars and proper hand-made cabins, all lacking plumbing, gas, and decent electricity. It was the romantic edge of the Earth to many. A place to completely get away from things. The route there went over a long dirt road with impressively deep pot-holes, past salt paddies, flocks of pink flamingoes, to the end of the European continent. Any further and you’d start pedaling to Africa.

Sad to say, the powers that be decided one fine day to raise all that had once been of the make-shift village of Beauduc. As such, you can still drive down there, camp for a few nights in your tent, even perhaps position your camper van for a few days, but the community is mostly gone, the great open air restaurants specializing in grilled fish have been displaced, and the sky and beaches are more likely to be filled with gliders and power-sailors than amateur fishermen.

The beach beyond Salins de Giraud is a bit more official. In any case the road to it tails off just twenty yards from the waves, so it is far easier to reach. To the left, a couple of hundred yards down the beach is the naturiste (nudist) scene. Camper vans with Dutch, German, British and the occasional French plate are settled there for the summer. Remember tales of seven weeks of vacation? They spend it all here.

To the right are the ‘textile” or suited folks. Here families play in the surf, people build make-shift barriers to define their summer gardens, i.e. the 10 square meters in front of their camping van. Mosquito netting in some cases, many barbecue grills, and a fare number of dogs puncture what in winter is a rather marvelously barren and majestic landscape.

But, I did not get to either of these destinations. When I suggested to my dear friend Martine that I wanted to spend a night at the beach she told me flat out that she doesn’t like sand. She also went into rather graffic, suggestive (can this be done?) detail as to why these first two options were not to her liking. Something about a lack of local outhouses was key to this... Imagine where everyone is at 8AM every morning when you’d like to have a quiet swim? There’s the dunes, and???

You get the picture.

No, her preferred get-away is a pebble beach in Martigues. It is a plage naturiste of old, a place she’s been going to for over twenty years. Where her son learned to swim, where she is at home. She listed its vices before its virtues: lots of old folks (though this goes both ways of course), a close-up view of the oil refineries of Fos Sur Mer (thus best to go when the wind is blowing in the right direction), dinky, small, a bit far away.

However it was the virtues that keep her coming back: right on deep water, one of the deepest bays in the Mediterranean and just at its entrance. Cleaner than Beauduc as it is a pebble beach and ‘ahem’ all the pollution that hits it also reaches the wishfully pristine (not) Camargue, so let’s not be a Camargue snob. And in fact, with the wind going the right way, though we had an uninhibited view of the refineries, they were materially affecting us less than the beaches down-wind. There was also a cafe on the beach run by someone she’s known forever who keeps an unofficial eye on the beach at night. It is a members’ only beach, and there are showers and toilets hooked up to the proper plumbing elements just off the beach.

And so, I found myself one morning not too long ago, lying in my (very pale) birthday suit, enjoying a number of dips into the great waters of the Mediterranean after having spent a quietish night in our tent. With the morning air came large bronzed bellies, deep mahogany tanned drooping breasts, shaven heads and privates, bleached hair, borrowed flippers and protruding body parts as long-time acquaintances came over to our little haven of beach pads and umbrellas to say hello.

Just to confirm a note about hygiene: when visiting the cafe you bring along a towel to sit upon. Though the rest is left open to the air as nature intended.

We stayed but the night and the morning. As it was, though I’d put lots of sun cream on, I did fry my back some (and my butt... underwear and bra straps both were a bit sensitive for the next few days). It was a great get-away. Completely other. We chatted, swam, read, ate our picnic lunch and reveled in the waters of our little corner of the world.

Never say never.