An American In Provence: Reflections on France
By Gabi Flam | July 14, 2017
I sit at a Parisian Cafe on Rue Cler. The picturesque and softly bustling cobblestone market street in front of me envelops my senses as I sip espresso from a tiny cup. Vendors with mustaches scream next to me, “fraises, oranges, pamplemousse!” The clopping of heels along the cobblestone street echoes in the spring evening as I light a cigarette, a reward and ritual after finishing my reading for class and subsequently my espresso at Cafe du Marche, just around the corner from my apartment in the 7th arrondissement. I bite the filter a little, a trademark of mine, leaving slight teeth marks imbedded into the brown paper, and inhale. The smoke heats my throat and lungs. I feel content, at home. How strange, I think, after 4 years of this place to almost be done, graduating from college soon, and be going home, back to America. But is it even home anymore? This place has taken me over, this country full of love for life and art and food, and now it seems that everything I have ever loved…it’s here. I discovered books here, literature, poetry, writing…This pondering takes me away from the cafe, Rue Cler, the city coiled around me like a snail’s shell, as I puff my cigarette hypnotically. I think back to the strange road that brought me to Paris, to France.
When did I decide that I wanted to be French?
My first trip to France alone was during the summer when I was fourteen. I stayed with the DeCanteloubes, family friends of my parents, in their summerhouse in Provence. This fascination must have started then. But I don’t really remember enjoying that summer much. The greatest feeling that I can remember of that trip is loneliness. There were moments though, when France seemed to be pervading my mind, my body. My skin crawling from the strangeness, the inability to understand. My mind bending, trying to grasp the language, the way of life.
I stop and look at my cigarette, which I have now let burn down to the filter and is singing my fingertips. A long stick of ash hangs over the ashtray about to fall. It disintegrates, floating into my eyes.
During the long hot days that summer I would watch Catherine, I remember, the mother of the family, smoke her long skinny cigarettes by the pool, topless, her tan skin and short blonde hair glistening. Her mother, Bonne Maman, would sit reclining next to her in white slacks under a large brimmed hat. Everything these women did seemed to me to be elegant and calmly premeditated. Their voices would resonate in the empty warm air, like birds cooing to each other.
One day on my way to the bathroom, I passed Madame DeCanteloube’s room where her backpack was lying open on her bed. Later I took one of the bikes they had lying in the yard around the olive fields in the back, riding slowly between the trees and stopped to pull out a cigarette I had stolen from her. At first the smoke burned and I coughed throwing it in the dust around me. But soon I would ride out alone and sit on the dry dirt ground, playing with pebbles, and smoke it to the end, moving my arms and exhaling to the side just as she did. In these moments of reflection, I would pretend I was French. Speaking the few phrases I knew, repeating words I had heard over and over between inhales and exhales. I could hear the far away clinking of the bocce balls Hervé, her husband, would throw in the back yard in the late afternoon and know it was time to come back before dinner. Was my interest sparked here with the lighting of my first cigarette in the DeCanteloube’s olive fields?
I fucking smoked a cigarette today! It was actually amazing! I liked it, in a weird way. It was sort of soothing and nice. Not anything like I had imagined it would have been. These cigarettes Catherine has, I mean, they’re beautiful. The box is thin, elegant, with flowers and cursive writing, and the label says “Vogue Cigarettes.” Even the cigarettes themselves are beautiful. They’re long and thin with blue trim like the box. Very refined and French. I love it. It’s not like I want to get addicted or anything but I mean I’m surrounded by it everywhere, and it doesn’t seem disgusting here like in the U.S. It’s not so bad and forbidden. Its peaceful and…beautiful.”
But my mother always takes responsibility for my love of France because (as she loves to tell) I was really here the first time “in utero.” There is a faint seriousness present when she claims this is why I was drawn here. As a doctor, my father was able to get a special letter for the airline in order for my mother, eight months pregnant with me, to fly internationally to France, on a trip around the country that they had planned even before my conception. There are photographs of my parents and two older sisters at places that I now walk by daily without a second glance. In front of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame. My favorite photographs are two of my mother on the beach in Honfleur, in Normandie on the northern coast of France. In the first she is standing facing the sea in her bikini, her back slender and sexy, blonde hair blowing in the wind. In the second she is facing my father, who is taking the picture, with a large smile on her face, grasping her huge belly just below her waist.
It’s strange to think that there may be truth in this claim. I remember the first time I tasted escargot at the age of 7 and immediately loved it. I remember the chewy texture and salty oil that I swished in my mouth joyfully. My mother wasn’t surprised though, claiming it was because she ate them for nearly every meal the last month of her pregnancy in France, it seemed only natural. Who knows? Maybe in my final weeks of formation into the being that entered this world, the sounds, tastes and feelings of France really affected me. I can see it now, my tiny shrimplet fetus floating in the amniotic sack with a cigarette and a baguette.
But my next encounter with this country was not quite so picturesque, at least as I remember it. It was a struggle for me to even agree to spend the summer there when I was about to enter high school and had many more important social obligations to worry about. I know I should have been excited, thrilled even, to be shipped off to the south of France for the summer to learn the language. And I knew the DeCanteloubes well, met them many times before on their visits to the states to stay with us, or when we would stay with them at their apartment in Nice on family vacations. Their oldest daughter Aurelie had even lived with us for two summers before, and become like an older sister. But to me, being a fourteen-year-old girl who was about to enter the 10th grade, this was the last thing I wanted to be doing with my summer.
I had arrived from Los Angeles, thinking of nothing but makeup and boys, two things I had recently discovered. At least their son was only two years younger than me, I thought. Maybe he’s gotten cute since I last saw him years ago. Maybe he’s even cool. But I stepped off the plane to discover a bumbling boy of eleven, Mathieu, who had an affinity for picking his nose and eating the boogers. He didn’t even try to hide this misanthropic act that disgusted me thoroughly. No, he would just pick them right in front of me, all the time. And sometimes play video games. Not only was I stuck alone in a foreign country, but he was my only playmate and means of connection with someone my own age–and a dork. Now, he is finishing his studies in computer science and engineering at a technical university outside of Paris. And I bet still picking his nose.
Also, he barely spoke English. “The better to practice your French!” My mother would declare on the other line of the phone after I would rant my bitter complaints about the boy to her. I had taken one year of French before my mother had had this brilliant idea to send me away to her friends for the summer. This was all part of her plan to make her three daughters into “international citizens of the world.”
“My children will be trilingual, open minded, well-travelled,” she would muse to other doctor’s wives at medical meetings. At that time my eldest sister was already well on her way to learning her third language while living in China as an exchange student for her senior year of high school, after already mastering the French language while spending summers with the DeCanteloube’s oldest daughter, Aurelie. And my middle sister had spent her junior year of high school in Spain, and after college would end up attending medical school in Israel. Another push from my parents in order to expand her horizons, and especially to get back to our Jewish roots.
“Not only is our daughter Arielle becoming a doctor,” they would tell fellow Jewish doctor colleagues, “but she is also fluent in Hebrew now and supporting the Jewish state, like a true Zionist.”
So I was the third and final daughter for my parents to send abroad to complete this goal. I had a choice of where I wanted to go, and my mother made it happen. Looking back on this now, we were very lucky kids whose parents really pushed us out into the world and gave us the means to explore—but unfortunately I did not see it this way then. Instead, my upbringing in the world of Los Angeles private schools had turned me into a bit of a brat, who would rather have been shopping in Beverly Hills and making friends with famous people’s kids than traveling to foreign countries.
Deeply disappointed in Mathieu and his bad habits (I hadn’t yet learned that the French aren’t known for their hygiene) I took to relishing my unhappiness in the way that only teenagers can. My disappointment bubbled and boiled within me, as I watched him daily, disgusted and perturbed. Yet, I kept silent and covered my hatred with smiles and nods, sure to be as polite as my mother had taught me to be.
At first I was quiet, observant. To my chagrin, my mother had told Catherine and Hervé, her friends, the parents, to speak to me in French as much as possible. I arrived off the plane in Nice tired and dazed to millions of cheek kisses and excitement, only to find that we had a two-hour drive to “la campagne,” the countryside, Provence. I sat in the back seat wearily trying to comprehend everything they were telling me, nodding with eyes wide, trying to make sense of the words that sounded more like a leaky faucet being turned on and off than language. I watched Madame DeCanteloube’s mouth as she turned back to face me from the passengers seat. The lips pursed and pushed forward, everything so forward and tight and on edge, almost like a model in a beauty shot—kissy face. I wondered how she could speak so much so quickly. Ssshhhhh…notre maison…une petite ville…Aups…Bonne Maman…heureux. Was this the same language I had been learning in school? I watched the road, watched her mouth. The car jerked as Hervé heavily switched gears with the stick shift scooting roughly around every tiny dirt curve. We were almost there.
The house was quaint, the outside a sort of tan stucco material with green shutters and red tile roof, surrounded by fields of lavender and olive tree orchards. I remembered being there once before with my family when I was about 7 years old, it looked just the same. And there was Bonne Maman in front.
Catherine’s mother Yvette, known to all as Bonne Maman, waved with a radiant smile topped by pink lipstick. She was elegant, and it was clear that she was once very beautiful, like Catherine, blonde and thin. I thought about my grandma in the Bronx and her ratted poof of badly dyed frizz, her thick New York accent and habit of picking her teeth at the dinner table.
Bonne Maman was just as I remembered too. Its strange how old women don’t seem to age once they make it past a certain point. Their white hair is always done the same way; they wear the same clothes and lipstick, as if time has frozen.
Hervé opened my door and offered to take my bags. He was tall and tan with grey hair, wore a kind of eighties style aviator glasses, and puffed constantly on a small nicotine inhaler. He smiled at me wide, the small piece of plastic hanging from his stained yellow teeth. On the way inside Bonne Maman welcomed me in proper English to her home. I could tell she was very excited to be able to speak English to someone, and I thanked her for having me.
“En Français!” Catherine interjected almost singing, taking my arm and escorting me inside.
I can still picture the interior of the house, (and had been there many times since to visit during vacations from school, as it was only a three hour train ride from Paris). The thought of this place almost like a second home now makes me smile, which is now funny to think of my anxious and terrifying first encounter with it.
The house was simple, with cool tile floors and a dark wooden picnic table next to large wide-open widows, after you walked through the entryway where shoes of all sizes were set neatly. To the right of that was a white lacy couch and old brick fireplace. To the left a perfectly stocked country kitchen and large glass doors that opened onto a burnt orange tile patio, set with white plastic table and chairs, with nothing around but grass and then olive trees for miles, and a pool way out on the edge of the lawn. The air buzzed with the quiet hum of the country through the open windows. The house smelled of burnt wood and dried grass.
I furiously tried to think back to the past year in Français 1. Ok, hmm, I can ask where my room is right? I can tell the time. Shit.
“Ou est ma chambre?” I asked. Catherine took me up the windy creaking stairs and showed me to the room next to Mathieu’s.
“And here is Mathieu,” she said delighted, “the last time you saw each other was so long ago.” We stood in the doorway as he turned around from his computer to say hello.
“Well get up Mathieu!” Catherine insisted. A skinny boy with light brown hair and a nose too big for his small, pale face came toward me and kissed my cheek.
I wondered if I should remind him the last time we saw each other he was five and riding around their house on a tiny tricycle in his underwear, but I had no idea how to say that.
“Je voudrais dormir,” I decided on instead, trying to explain to them that I was exhausted. Catherine responded in English, like music to my ears, “Oh my dear, so sorry, you have had a long trip of course you are tired. Go take a nap.”
I awoke just in time for dinner. As I descended the staircase hesitantly in my pajamas I rubbed my eyes that were sticky from sleep. Jet lag fogged my head as I quietly walked into the living room and was greeted by Catherine appearing from the kitchen.
“Oh you are awake just in time to eat,” she informed me, “Did you sleep well? How are you feeling? Come, sit.”
Instead of answering her questions I nodded, smiled, and followed her out onto the patio. The warm, maternal air that exuded from her made me feel comfortable. Small and blonde and always smiling, just like my mother, her eyes wrinkled around the edges from always smiling. Everyone greeted me as they sat at the white plastic table that resembled the same one we had in our backyard back home in California, making me feel a little more comfortable. Bonne Maman drank a scotch with one cube of ice placed delicately inside. I knew this because this was my father’s drink, I would watch him on summer evenings with a cigar and a glass of Glenlivet. I could smell it from my chair as I sat down beside her and felt another warm rush of comfort. The ice cube clinked against the glass with every dainty sip, pink lipstick stains surrounding the edge. Her gold jewelry glistened as the sky turned orange against the olive trees behind her. Hervé across from me sipped a strange looking liquid that was a sort of cloudy yellow. They switched to English as Catherine wondered back into the kitchen to finish up dinner.
“Ah, how are you little Gabi? Feeling better?” Hervé asked.
“Yes, thanks…What are you drinking?”
“Oh, this is pastis. It is a drink made from anise, you know what is anise?” he asked, his accent thick as he said a-nees.
“Um, yes, tastes like licorice I think?”
“Yes, this is it. A bit like licorice. It is very French. Ve-ry French. You see it comes like this.” He pointed to a bottle with a strange looking brownish liquid in it. “It is very strong, so we put water in it to drink. You want un gout? Here, you smell first.”
I took the glass up to my face, placing it below my nose. The cloudy yellow against the country setting lighted by the sinking sun reminded me of Van Gogh paintings I had seen of hay and large fields. I inhaled deeply as my nostrils tingled and my eyes opened wide.
“Oh oh,” Bonne Maman laughed, “it is an acquired taste. But it is a classic drink to have as aperitif here. You know this word, mon cher?”
I shook my head and leaned closer in interest. Hervé stood up and seemed to be poking at something on the grill next to the patio. I watched as smoke wafted from behind him.
“In France we love to eat and drink you know. We like to enjoy a nice drink around 5 o’clock and sit out on the terrace or at a café. It is the French way. Take a break and relax after the day, before dinner. Here in the south, pastis is a very classic tradition. A drink of the region.”
I sat listening enthralled. I had sipped tastes of wine from my parents’ glasses at dinner, even tried a tiny burning swallow of my father’s scotch, but this wasn’t just a drink—it was a culture embodied in this activity, this sitting back and taking in all that surrounds you, using your senses—it was appreciating as a ritual. Something so opposite the American mindset of rushing around, never stopping. I thought about my mother frantically driving my sisters and me around Los Angeles, my father awaking every morning at 4:30 am to get to the hospital, eating dinner in my room by myself in order to finish all my homework, staying up until 2 am and then waking again at 6. A shiver of anxiety flowed through my stomach, up to my chest.
I placed the glass to my mouth and slowly let the pastis flow onto my tongue, down my throat. It tasted just like black licorice with the strange tingle of liquor still unfamiliar to me. The sun was almost beneath the horizon and the terrace lights sprang on as darkness arrived. Hervé set a plate of lamb chops with rosemary on the table, Catherine arrived with potatoes and wine, and Mathieu scuttled out from behind his computer to sit across from me blankly.
We sat and spoke and ate, and it was here, everyday at this table on the orange tile patio during these meals that I began to get to know the DeCanteloubes. Did my fascination begin with this moment of ingesting this embodiment of their country within the sour pastis? Tasting my first ritual of France, taking in their oral culture?
These meals and reprieves that every day seemed to center around: a planning in the morning for the trip to the local market, the long lunch accompanied with bottles of wine, then afternoons by the pool reading, then preparation for a light dinner, always preceded by an aperitif and long conversations.
When I awoke most mornings we would head to the town market. This place reminded me of the “provincial village” in Beauty and the Beast. I wondered how a place like this tiny town of Aups still existed in this day and age. It was beautiful though, and quaint, like something out of a cartoon to me. All the shutters were wooden and flung back against the crumbling houses along roads of dirt and cobblestones. In the town square beside cafes with people sitting out on the patio beside the old white church with bells that would ring loudly each hour, stalls were set up in rows and rows. The clamor of feet or shouts and smells of cheese and meat created a bustle of excitement. This was the most exciting part of everyday for me. Encountering the outside world, moving from table to table watching the interaction, inhaling deeply the hot smells of fresh olive oil and herbs. Everything was so fresh here, not packaged in plastic in the sterile isles of giant supermarkets under blinding fluorescent lighting.
Once Catherine had collected all the ingredients for that day’s meals, we would return home to begin our day of preparation and relaxation.
Bonne Maman and Catherine would enlist me in helping with the cooking. I only was given small easy jobs, like chopping, or peeling, but they took great effort to show me the recipes and explain everything in French. This involvement made me feel slightly less homesick, as one of my favorite activities at home was to watch my mother cook. It seemed like the kitchen was always in movement and when I would take reprieves from observation I would exit out to the patio and float in the pool swatting the wasps away.
This emphasis upon meals was very new to me. I came from a family that loved food, but the French took it to a whole new level. At first I would sit there bored for hours, eyes glazing over and zoning out into daydreams of Ryan Philippe or Leonardo DiCaprio coming to rescue me from this place. Unlike in America, lunch was the big meal of the day and dinner was a smaller, lighter meal served after aperatifs. I was surprised to find that bottles of wine were served at lunch, even to me. Rosé with ice, another very “southern” beverage was the usual. After a while though, I could begin to follow some conversations. I would sit quietly trying to follow the rushing language as it trickled so freely between their lips. Piecing together words more and more as days went on, absorbing their voices and expressions, imitating the way they moved their mouths in the mirror before bed.
In moments of silliness (and probably slight drunkenness) Hervé would begin to speak in English, able to tell that I was drifting off in boredom.
“Please pass a slice of olive oil, Gabi” Hervé asked and turned to me smiling.
The entire table burst out in laughter.
“Papa!” Mathieu shouted, “T’es fou!” Hervé looked on at everyone confused, his face dead serious, eyebrows squished together.
“Mon cher, you cannot have a slice of olive oil! It is a liquid. You can only have a slice of solid things!” Catherine giggled.
Hervé turned to me, his mouth open wide. “Ah! Desolé!” He burst out in laughter and turned back to me. I was holding my hand over my mouth trying to listen and held back my laughter.
“Could you pass me a drop of olive oil please?” He smiled wide and looked toward the rest of the table with a sense of pride.
The meals then became the high point of my day. Afterall, I was allowed to drink wine, and Hervé became my favorite source of entertainment since Mathieu was basically a mute towards me.
When I think back on this, now it’s easy to remember these funny moments. But for the most part, I was sad and lonely, spending most days alone at the pool or on the terrace or wandering along the rows of olive trees. As a fourteen year old girl who would rather not sit in the confines of a dark room and play video games while there was such a wild and beautiful new world outside my window waiting to be explored, I resented that my playmate took no interest in playing or even really talking. I can still feel the bitter sting that resonated every night as I lay in bed with no one to talk to. I was jealous that my sister had Aurelie to show her all of this, to be her friend and personal guide. How’d she get so lucky, I wondered. I longed for home. Looking back on this now, he was probably just nervous and shy, thrown into interaction with a teenage girl and didn’t know how to speak to me. I’m sure I didn’t make it easy for him.
In retrospect though, the quiet observation and loneliness was actually the best part. I had never felt so inward before, so reflective, so interested in—not just what I was learning about this strange new place and people, but also what this place was making me think about me. Every new thought or experience was so contained within me that I began to feel crazy. I had no distractions like television or friends to waste the time with or talk to, and my thoughts began to overwhelm me.
I sat in the olive fields alone, often crying, puffing a beautiful French cigarette pensively and contemplating, reveling in how strange the world now seemed. In Los Angeles in the little bubble that contained my life as I knew it, there was no mention of all the people or rest of the world that existed beyond southern California (except in history class, which felt so far in the past it was irrelevant, or brief lessons on “culture” in French class in which you would learn about food or names for sports). But the idea that so many people living far away from me existed without my knowledge made my head hurt. And then my thoughts turned back to me. I began to wonder in my first sort of encounter with existential crisis, what the hell I was doing here? I had just discovered curse words, and they seemed to serve a very effective purpose at this moment. I would lay awake in bed at night and ponder, Who the fuck am I?
But at the same time, I felt new and thoughtful and adventurous, and I needed to do something with all these things I was discovering, these new feelings, new perspectives on the world so far from my life as I knew it before—the strangeness began to become energy for questioning like I’d never experienced. My thoughts were becoming too much to bear, then I remembered that before I had left, my “uncle,” as I knew him, or rather my father’s best friend who was like an uncle to me, had given me a journal for my trip. I had shoved it in my bag quickly, glancing once at the photo of the Eiffel tower on the front. I took it out one night and started to write down things that happened, things I noticed, things I didn’t understand. Soon, I began carrying it around with me as a sort of safety blanket. I wrote everyday for the rest of the summer.
Writing became this safe place where I could ponder and bitch and make sense of everything that was making my head feel like it was going to explode.
Mathieu became a specific focus of my writing as I would observe him and speculate upon his bizarre behavior. Boys were new to me in the first place, but he seemed a whole new specimen. I began to take pleasure in releasing my disgust for him in writing, my only outlet for it.
Mathieu is strangely depressing to me. When I would look over at him tonight, he would be rubbing his nose, which is really really big, and discretely try to stick his finger up his large nostril while sniffing every 5 seconds. Then he’d remove his finger after stirring the contents in his nose a little bit and place it in his mouth! While continuing to “bite his nails,” (but really eating his boogars) until he repeated this disgusting and annoying process over and over.
Then as I began to mold and create language, to reflect different feelings and observations, it started to fascinate me too. I began describing things in great detail, playing with words. I felt so alone in my head with only English, when this world around me was conducted in another language that I had barely any grasp on. The fact that they thought and conducted there lives like this seemed like the strangest thing so far when I really thought about it. Language was weird. Did they way they spoke affect the way they thought? Catherine had told me that things in French were usually about twenty percent longer than in English. Did that mean that they spent more time of their lives talking or thinking than we did? And the sounds! Some seemed humanly impossible to me. How was it that these people, who looked very similar to myself, could form these ridiculous sounds with their mouths like purring cats?
I remembered one of my first poetry classes my freshman year of college, when I first moved back to France to study. In a conference with my new professor I told him that language fascinated me, that the disconnect of sounds and understanding made my head whirl. I asked, “Is that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?” He shook his head and responded, “No, not at all. You just sound like a poet to me.”
When I craved English to soothe my over stimulated brain, I turned to reading. I asked my mom to mail me books, “anything, please!” So, out of her motherly thoughtfulness, she decided on books like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and My First Summer in the Sierras by John Muir. These writers were having new and strange experiences too and putting them into words! I sometimes would not sleep at night, but instead stayed up reading until the morning. Then I decided I was just like them—an explorer.