La tempête de neige

January 10, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We’re snowed in!

View from la tour

On Thursday, the cold weather that has been wreaking havoc in England (remember, we get about fifty British television stations on the satellite t.v., so we know more about British news than French) blows a cold wind down from the northeast. The clouds lower as I tie up the still-blooming roses on the south wall of the chateau. By the time Susan picks up the kids at school at 5, snowflakes dance in a purple-dark sky. The drivers of the two vans that serve as schoolbuses tell the parents that the buses are cancelled for the next day. The teachers, however, are firm: no decision has been made about cancelling school; we should call in the morning. The other parents call out, “à lundi!” (‘til Monday!) as they leave. The children, holding the big bags of holiday chocolates the teachers have given them, are delirious with the possibility that there might be a snow day.

Ice on the roses

Snow in the South of France is like snow in the U.S. Deep South. It happens only a few times each year, and everything completely stops for a few inches. They have no equipment for snow removal, and drivers are basically inexperienced with snow-driving. It’s also very hilly here. This is all very quaint to us veterans of Vermont’s six-month snow-up-to-the-windows winters. We already had one snow day—the Friday before the Christmas holidays—when about three inches fell just at dawn, barely covering the ground. It wasn’t even enough snow to sled. It melted by noon that day. So when Friday school is cancelled on the basis of another few centimeters on the ground, we’re not surprised. What does surprise us is that the snow keeps falling. Rather, the snow keeps blasting on a horizontal wind out of the northeast… for 56 hours.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tower of London? Maybe you remember Arcite and Palamon of “The Knights Tale” in The Canturbury Tales, imprisoned in a tower. How about Rapunzel? Believe me, three days snowbound in our tower apartment with two six-year-olds makes me wish for long hair and a charming Prince. The rescue would be worth the hair-pulling.

We play cards. We watch movies. We haul wood up the stairs from the stable. We let the dogs out and in and out and in. We dress the kids in their snowpants and force them outdoors for thirty minutes at a time, then spend the next hour inside trying to warm them up. We do laundry. We play cards, Monopoly, Scrabble. We all sit down to do the kids’ homework—weather vocabulary, naturally:  le printemps, l’été, l’automne, l’hiver. We force the children to write out postcards to be mailed when (if) the storm stops. We bake cookies, cake, bread. We walk down the hill to the mailbox, but French postal carriers apparently don’t take that vow to deliver despite “snow, sleet or freezing rain.” We make hot chocolate until we’re out of milk. Time goes very slowly. The snow screams sideways past the windows. The wind finds little cracks between the stones of the walls. We keep the woodstove cranked high. On Saturday night, we push back the furniture and do Yoga T.V. in the living room.

Sunday dawns clear and white, about eight inches of snow on the ground, including all of the roads. The Toulouse news reports that a seventeen-year snow record has been broken. Avalanche danger is high in the Pyrenees, pink in the sunrise. The temperatures finally rise above freezing at about noon, but no cars pass on the road below. We go outside and look at animal tracks—stone martin, deer, mice, birds—throw a few snowballs, and try to ride the snowboard down the hill though the snow is mostly drifted to the edges. The roads slowly melt. I am a little sunburned. La neige will all be gone by Tuesday evening, and the temperatures are predicted to be back at 50˚ (F) by next weekend. Like prisoners released, we thaw, we move, we let down our hair.

Chicken-sense

January 3, 2010

When we settle in to the château in Saint Araille and Pete and Rosie leave, one of our responsibilities is to take care of their thirteen free-range chickens. We don’t know much about chicken-care, but Pete and Rosie give us what seems to be straightforward and simple instruction: go down into the attached stable through the kitchen in the morning, unlock and open the door to the outside, open the door to the chicken coop, scoop a plastic bowl of corn from the bin, take it outside and scatter it on the grass. If we go out, we are to lock the stable along with the rest of the house and not to worry about the chickens, in or out. We should gather any eggs they lay for ourselves, though apparently sometimes a hen will decide to hide out and brood a batch and then we’ll have chicks. (Izzy is delighted at this possibility.) At sundown, the chickens wander back into the coop (best if we’re home and the stable door open then so that they don’t roost in the trees), and I am to lock up the coop door and the stable door at dark. Rosie says that occasionally a buzzard or a fox or something will get one, but not to worry. She understands that there may be either fewer or more chickens when they return. This is life with chickens.

The chickens wake me every morning for the first weeks of our stay in Saint Araille, while Pete and Rosie are still home. The roosters start crowing well before dawn and continue for several hours after dawn. They walk around the extensive grounds in small or large groups doing chicken stuff—eating bugs, pecking at seeds, clucking. We begin to recognize the individuals and give them nicknames: Mr. Fancypants, the huge chief rooster, who is quite shiny and hysterical to watch run, the feathers of his “pants” shaking as he goes; Raggedy Rooster, who is a small grey rooster with feathers that stick out every which way; Brown Hen, who has a teenaged chick, with whom she is very sweet and very protective; the Brothers White, matching young white cockerels; etc. Izzy loves the egg hunt, and she and I take on the chore within a week of our arrival. James, on the other hand, thinks the chickens are out to get him. He begs Izzy and me not to make them mad by taking their eggs, though he’s quite happy to eat them later. The chickens show up when I dig up my winter garden plot, and we soon understand their habits and haunts. They’re part of the life of the château, something to watch when I look up from my writing desk and out the window.

I have been struggling with a short story for my collection, Frost Heaves, for some time when we arrive in France. I have a great opening scene where the protagonist hits something that his young daughter thinks is Tinkerbell with his car. I know that the story has to do with freedom and flight and responsibility, but I can’t quite work out the scenes to my satisfaction. The story is set in rural southern Vermont, and my protagonist is one of those young professionals who has settled there to raise a family in a pristine and “carefree” natural world. As I sit there watching the chickens pecking around the chateau garden, it seems only natural that my protagonist and his family would keep chickens too.

“There are too many cockerels,” Pete says, and he plans to slaughter the extras before we leave. “It’s not fair to the hens,” he says. And it’s true that the poor hens seem to be jumped by roosters at every turn. I’ve seen it from the window over my writing desk. Even the kids have commented on it. Pete asks if I have any experience with killing chickens. I politely decline. I like fried chicken, but I’d rather not participate directly in the death of the meat I eat. Perhaps it’s a weakness or flaw in my character, but there it is. I don’t like blood on my hands, literally. Pete and Rosie have decided that it’s their “responsibility” to the chickens to do the deed—“We owe it to them,” Pete says. They wait until the kids have started school, put out a chopping block, and do in one a day for about a week. We are careful not to step in the blood or guts left on the ground. We tell the kids the truth: we eat chicken, they eat chicken, Pete and Rosie have to kill some of their chickens. I listen carefully to Pete’s description of the execution; I may need some of these details in my story.

Rosie reviews the predators in the area and the chickens’ names before they leave. The buzzards, which look to me like hawks, will occasionally snatch a chicken from the yard, leaving a heap of feathers. Sometimes a pine marten or stone marten or fox will take one, leaving a heap of guts. Mr. Fancypants is really Bertie (from P.G. Wodehouse), and Raggedy is really named Orpheus. He quite likes being stroked, she says. “He’s never quite been the same since his mate [Eurydice, naturally] and their lovely little chick were killed by a buzzard,” she says. In the Greek myth, Orpheus, the god of music, travels to the underworld after his wife, Eurydice, dies and there sings such a beautiful sad song that Hades allows her to leave with him, on the condition that she follow him and he can’t look back at her… of course, he does look and she goes back across the River Styx.

For the first weeks after Rosie and Pete leave, I am hyper-vigilant about the care of the chickens. I go down the four flights from the tower every morning at 7:30 or 8, slide open the glass door from the kitchen into the stable, and say “Morning girls and boys!” And they cluck and rustle feathers while I walk through the big empty space to the blue door, which I unlock and swing open, fastening it open with a shutter dog. I go back inside and open the chicken wire door to the coop, step inside, scoop up corn from the metal garbage can, and walk out to the yard, the chickens following along, flapping and stretching their wings, occasionally crowing. I scatter the corn and count them to make sure all thirteen are there. It’s not a bad way to start the day. They’re happy when eating, simple creatures. During the day, I talk to them when they show up in my part of the yard, or just stop to watch them when I need a break from weeding. The dogs seem to completely ignore them. When Izzy comes home from school, she and I hunt for eggs. When one hen decides to hide her eggs in the flower bed, we watch her until we discover her secret place. We eat a lot of scrambled eggs. In the evenings, I round up those chickens that are still out—usually only the red hen and her chick—close up the coop and lock up the stable, go in through the kitchen and upstairs. The chickens and I have a simple routine. They are a little stupid, but they are happiest when everything stays the same every day. In this very strange new life in a village in France, the routine of chickens comforts me too.

I get stuck on the story and switch to work on something else. One gorgeous blue-sky day I chase off two buzzards circling the flock of chickens in the back meadow. Then we have a few days of bad weather, cold grey winds from the west. I dream about the chickens one night in late November.

That morning, I head down the stairs with Izzy, on our way to the car before school, and we go through the kitchen and slide open the door to the stable. Total silence. “Morning boys and girls,” I call, though it’s a false front. I already know the truth. “Something’s wrong,” I say to Izzy. “What, Mom?” she asks. “I don’t know,” I say, trying to remain calm and confident for her. “But I think something’s wrong.” Feathers float in the air of the stable. There is a weird metallic smell. Something gamey. I keep Izzy behind me and hustle her to the stable door, glancing into the coop as we pass. The two white cockerels are lying on the floor, bright in the dim light. “Something bad has happened,” I tell Izzy, guiding her into the yard, trying not to let her see the coop. “Something’s killed the chickens.” I tell her stay outside. I suck in the cold fresh air, steel myself, and go back and into the coop.

There’s a blood splatter on the stone wall. In addition to the two white cockerels, there are heaps of chicken bodies everywhere. The red hen moves, but she’s not in good shape, and by the time I’m back from the school, she’s dead. The big rooster, Mr. Fancypants, is completely missing. The slaughter is shocking, senseless, cruel. Whatever it was that got in killed everything that moved. Certainly more than it could eat. The poor chickens had no hope. A predator. A frenzy. Only Orpheus has survived, but he’s clearly suffering from PTSD. I lure him outside with some corn, but he doesn’t eat, just stands there looking stunned under a rose bush all day. I put on old clothes and find some pink rubber dishwashing gloves in the utility room. I fill the wheelbarrow with chicken bodies and haul them to the edge of the ravine and throw them in, one at a time. Several of the corpses are headless. It takes three trips. I am horrified, repelled, shocked. I want to stand, like old Orpheus, under a rose bush and mourn. I rake out the coop. I get the ladder and a hammer and nails and try to tack the chicken wire to the rafters at the top. I think this is where the predator got in. The stable itself has huge gaps. There is no way to completely seal off the coop with the materials at hand, but I do my best to improve security. I install two new bolt locks on the rickety chicken wire door. I get Orpheus back inside before dark.

I email Rosie immediately, and she is kind and understanding in her response. I know that it is not my fault—the coop is just not secure enough—but I feel so sorry for the stupid defenseless creatures. I feel responsible. Rosie says it was probably a stone martin, what the French call a fouine. I research them on the internet—cute, deadly, fond of biting off the heads and drinking the blood. The M.O. fits. She gives me options—it’s fine to give Orpheus to her friend, or to get more chickens, or to just wait until their return in spring. It’s my decision. I can’t sleep. My dreams are bloody, dangerous. The imagination that serves me so well as a writer of fiction makes it far too easy to see the scene in the coop that grey windy night.

Orpheus is killed two nights later. We have no chickens. I throw his sad little raggedy body into the ravine and clean the coop out completely. I empty the straw from the nesting boxes and move everything outside to be washed by the rain. I rake and sweep and take the board from over the window to let the air circulate. Feathers float around me. I turn my turtleneck up to cover my nose and mouth as I work. Afterward, I take two hot baths in a row. I wish Orpheus well in his journey across the River Styx, feeling awful that I didn’t take him to the neighbors right away.

I tell Rosie that we won’t get any more chickens. It would be like serving them up to the predator. The coop is clearly not secure enough. Maybe by spring, the marten will have moved on. Maybe by spring I will have been able to tighten up security. Maybe by spring, I will have recovered from the trauma.

A month later, I know that the chickens need to play a central role in the short story I’m writing. I know that the slaughter will be a scene in that story, but I’ve spent the month not writing that scene, working around it, trying to understand the story. I know I will have to tear apart much of what I’ve written so far on the story. I open a new Word document and begin again. Twenty pages later, it’s a much better story.

It’s not the first time I’ve processed my personal tragedies into fiction. Those who are close to me recognize this in two of my novels, Getting to the Point and, especially, Backslide. I used the fiction to help make meaning of what seemed wrong in my life, even to correct it or imagine a different reality. This short story with the chickens is a little different. My protagonist is not much like me. It’s not a story about me or my own issues (not much anyway). This time I’ve taken the material of real life and recycled it into a new situation. I’ve asked myself what this set of events might mean to my protagonist, what it might cause or inspire in him. It works. It fits.

Fiction is, in some strange way, truer than truth. The chickens in my story don’t die for nothing; I sacrifice them to move the narrative along, to force my protagonist into a realization of his own humanity, his own essential needs, a recognition of what matters. The chickens die to make meaning.

In the real world, I look down from my writing desk in the tower, and the grounds just seem empty without the chickens. It still makes me sad to think of them. I miss them. I miss greeting the chickens in the morning, and their quiet rustle of anticipation for the day. I often remember that simple pleasure of holding a perfect egg in my palm, still warm from the hen, the potential of all life inside that brown shell. When I go into the stable to get firewood, I hesitate at the door, watching for some stealthy little movement, listening for the predator. The slaughter still seems senseless and mean, ugly. Meaningless.

Réveillon

December 31, 2009

This was in my email inbox this morning, 31 December 2009:

U.S. EMBASSY PARIS, FRANCE

NEW YEAR’S EVE CELEBRATIONS

This Warden Message alerts U.S. citizens to the latest information on New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France.

Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France can be boisterous.  Last year, U.S. citizens reported that glass bottles were hurled, extensive public drinking and drunkenness occurred, and sporadic fighting broke out in Paris around the Champs Élyéees, the Champ de Mars, and Trocadero.  Parked cars being set ablaze is also a fairly common feature of revelry in France, occurring even in upscale neighborhoods.

Violent and boisterous behavior can be expected in spite of increased police and gendarme forces.  U.S. citizens who venture out on New Year’s Eve should be aware of the potential dangers mentioned above and are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.

Note that driving and parking restrictions will be in effect in the above-mentioned areas as early as 21h30.

United States Embassy, American Citizen Services Unit, 4, avenue Gabriel, 75382 Paris Cedex 08, France

Réveillon is actually the name of the all-night meal the French traditionally have to celebrate the New Year’s (or Christmas) Eve, usually with family and friends in private homes. In larger cities like Paris, apparently, it also reverts to its root in the word “revel,” which means a noisy celebration, or to party, get drunk, raise the roof, and paint the town red. Here in the rural part of the south of France, I suspect there will be less car-burning and more feasting involved in the revelry. I’ve heard that there are, indeed, traditional torch-led grape-picking excursions into the vineyards at midnight (accompanied by the drinking of hot mulled wine, of course). A couple of villages over from Saint Araille there will be a public réveillon tonight, but we—with small children and a limited budget—will stay in (safe from any car-burning) and have our own little feast of pâté, brie, baguettes, fresh fruit and salad from the garden. We hope the skies will remain clear for the full moon lunar eclipse at 8:15 p.m. Maybe we’ll allow the kids to stay up (if they can) for the line-up of family movies on BBC1, light a few sparklers and watch for fireworks (or torch-led grape harvesters) from the tower balcony at midnight.

I think it is simply human to mark time. The cyclical progression of the seasons, the march of the constellations across the sky, the daily movement of light and dark, the birth, youth, adulthood, and death we witness in our own bodies and in the lives of others: sometimes we need to mark the ending of a cycle and the beginning of something new. This might be at the turning of a New Year on the Gregorian calendar, the first day of a new week (based on the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis), the night of the new moon, the solstice, the date of a person’s birth or death, the sunrise or sunset, or some completely random or personal return. Some folks say that every moment is a new beginning—the cliché of opportunity to start again at any time. We all begin again, again and again. Why?

For me, it is the opportunity and optimism of newness. Something within me needs to be perceived or conceptualized (whether true or not) as open and possible. A chance for rebirth, reinvention. A new life, bursting from the egg of possibility.

And birth, certainly, is always reason for celebration. If that means you need to burn a car, well, I suppose if it’s your own car and you can do it safely, by all means, go ahead and burn a car to mark your new beginning. Leave those scorched hulks to the junkyard. Walk and breath the air in this new year. Revel in it.

Hindu calendar

Sledding From the Top of the Pyrénées

December 31, 2009

December 30 dawns foggy with warm air streaming across the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains to our south. One of James and Izzy’s main goals for vacances d’école is to go sledding. Downhill skiing is not within our budget, but we can see the snows on the Pyrénées seemingly right out our windows. It seems we should be able to get there to slide without too much trouble, especially on a day when the weather is predicted to be mild and clear. We do a little research on the Internet and find a cross-country skiing place that has a rental shop and luge hill for children and adults. Google Maps claims we can drive there in an hour and eleven minutes. James watches the sunrise, pink and orange, on the mountains, with some concern. “That looks really high,” James says. “I might be scared to sled all the way down from the top of the Pyrénées.”

We’re packed with snacks and snow pants and extra socks and in the car by 9:30. As we enter the A64 (expressway) heading south, the sun breaks through to burn off the fog. When we exit at Montréjeau about forty minutes later, we’ve got the car windows open, the sky is blue, and the temperature is over 50ºF. The Pyrénées break clear of the clouds, sparkling white over the green meadows and rolling hills. We begin to wind our way south and up through the villages of Nestier, Bize, Nistos-Bas, and Haut-Nistos, and Nistos, following the sign for Nistos Station de Ski at Nistos Cap de Neste. At one hour and eleven minutes, more or less, we’re in the village of Bize. Thank you, Google maps. We continue up. The road is tiny, steep, and winding. Up up up. The grass is still bright green on the sides of the road. No snow, though there are tantalizing peeks through the evergreens of the top of the Pyrénées against blue sky above. Forty-five minutes (and some very white knuckles) later, the tiny road dead-ends in a parking lot above the tree-line. There are perhaps fifteen cars, a chalet-style house with bar/café and rental shop, a small skating rink, and the top of the Pyrénées mountains ringing the bowl. It’s still at least fifty, and the snow is icy and melting, but it’s snow. And it’s gorgeous. The kids change into their snow pants and gloves. We rent two plastic luge sleds (with hand brakes) for €8 and start up the hill.

Picnic in the Snow in the Pyrénées

It’s glorious—absolutely clear, warm, and peaceful. The kids make a couple of runs—though they don’t use the brakes at all and it seems possible that they will, indeed, sled all the way to the bottom of the mountains—and then we have a picnic in on the mountain. There are a few other families with kids sledding, plus a few intrepid snow-hikers and cross-country skiers. A long, very icy trail snakes back and forth across the bowl with a low grade of descent, so after eating, we climb up there and take a few runs with a mom and kid in each sled—moms controlling the brakes. It’s a rush, even with the brakes almost totally engaged. By 2:30, the kids are wet and cold and tired, so we return our sleds, change into dry things, and head back down the mountain.

Drop off at edge of road to Nistos Cap de Neste

At Nestier, we turn north and follow the signs to the Grottes de Gargas, only a short detour from our route home, in the foothills of the Pyrénées near Saint Bertrand de Comminges. At 3, the tour guide herds us all (a group of about twenty, including many children, like ours, on school vacation) up the steps of a hill to the cave entry, guarded by a locked steel door. The grottes consist of two very different main caves, connected in more modern times by a passage. The whole thing has been well-preserved, and the new managers have laid a narrow concrete sidewalk for the tour and installed lights to highlight the most important paintings and etchings. In the first cave we see etchings of ibex, horses, and other animals carved into the walls about 15,000 years ago. The guide speaks some English and is very solicitous of all of the children, inviting them to the front, close to where she uses her red laser pointer to identify the parts of the creatures’ outlines.

The second cave is very different and the art here is much older, dated to around 25,000 years old. Here are at least 192 negative prints of hands made by blowing ground charcoal or manganese oxides and red iron oxides mixed with ocher yellow goethite across hands of men, women, and children so that an outline relief was created. No one knows, of course, why these were made, though theories abound. Some of the hands seem deformed or are positioned into what might be a kind of sign language. Susan supports the theory that fingers were lost to frost bite (this was during the Ice Age, of course) or cut off to avoid gangrene. Maybe the hands were printed as a form of ritual—marking a connection to the spirits within the rock or stone—or as play or entertainment. The guide tells us that these inner caves were not inhabited but seemed to have been reserved for special events like this art making or other rituals.

It’s drippy and spooky in there under ground, so close to the hands of humans—art-makers—who lived 25,000 years ago. Someone touched this wall. A human with a hand like mine. We are breathing, in some way, the same cool damp air they breathed, connected through this touch to stone. It’s humbling.

This day of contrasts—from the thin blue air atop the Pyrénées to touching the long-distant past buried under the rock of the Earth—seems to be a complete moment, a full life experience in some ways. The white moon in the deep blue sky is nearly full as we drive home to the château. We are far from home but also completely at home, here on the small blue planet at the outskirts of the universe, sledding all the way down from the top of the mountains, braking on the ice, enjoying the ride.

La Grippe

December 29, 2009

It’s a much better word for the flu, isn’t it? La grippe. Spooky. Dangerous. Exotic. Something that grabs you and holds you tight, maybe never lets you go. In this year of pandemic panic, we crazily took off with two small children for a year abroad. We left Vermont in October, just before the H1N1 “swine flu” vaccine became available in the U.S., just as the whole health care reform debate got into full swing, and traveled to that most dangerous of foreign lands: France. When Susan talked to the pediatrician before we left, he teased her, saying, “Oh, you’re not just afraid of germs; you’re afraid of International Germs!” France, according to the World Health Organization, has the best health care system in the world. Universal coverage. Great research facilities. Doctors who even make house-calls. As the U.S. Congress debates how to improve or fix the American health care system, we have had the opportunity to observe, first-hand, a different—and maybe better—way of taking care of the health of a nation. Our experience in the shadow of la grippe seems instructive, not only in the basics of so-called socialized medicine but also as an insight into the ways the French—and, by contrast, the Americans—see health and government and medicine in general.

Before we left the States, we did everything we could to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus. We did get the regular seasonal flu shot, but the vaccine for H1N1 was not yet available before our departure date. Not only did we call our doctor but I went on the Internet as late as the day before we left Vermont to search for places to get the shots. James, our six-year-old son, often develops breathing difficulties at the end of a bout with the common cold or a flu, twice requiring Albuterol treatments. He’s prone to bronchitis and pneumonia. With all the reports we read about the H1N1 being especially hard on children like James, we thought that his risk factor was high. Alas, no vaccine was available. We decided we’d probably be able to find a way to get it in France. At that time, Europe had had only spotty outbreaks of the virus. Vaccinations weren’t really even a priority for most people.

We arrived in October to gorgeous, summer-like weather. Paris was blazing hot. Our friends there, who are doctors, met us at the airport with la bise—the traditional French greeting of kisses on both cheeks—all around. We asked them about the H1N1 pandemic. The government had not yet outlined the plan for vaccination, they said. In fact, they would attend a required meeting in Paris that night for general practitioners (les generalists). They acknowledged that doctors were concerned. But the vaccines were being made in France. It will be fine, they said. There will be plenty of vaccines. Not to worry. It’s not really here yet anyway, they assure us. And so we visit the Eiffel Tower, hand-sanitizing at every turn, and boarded the train south to Toulouse and Saint Araille.

After we settle into our long-term lodgings in the château, we ask our hosts, Pete and Rosie, who are preparing to go to Australia, if they have had any word about the H1N1 vaccine. They laugh. “Is that the swine flu?” they ask. I tell them about how serious it seems in the U.S., about the college freshman from Boston who went off to school and died within a couple of weeks. I explain that we are concerned about James’ lungs. Rosie says that with the regular vaccine one might get it at the pharmacy oneself and have a visiting nurse inject it, or even inject it oneself at home. She assumes it will be the same with the swine flu “jab.” But the pharmacist has no information. We ring Rosie and Pete’s (and soon to be our) doctor, Doctor T. He seems rather cranky about our questions. He explains that les generalistes will have nothing to do with the vaccines, that they will all be administered at newly created “vaccination centers.” We Google “H1N1 vaccine France” nearly every day for updates. The news reports that la bise is no longer recommended by the government, a hotly debated political topic, but everywhere we go, this is still the greeting. In early October, the government rolls out its vaccination plan: everyone will be able to get the shot from an official centre de vaccination in turns in order of risk. The French health care system, the Ministère de la Santé, will mail a letter—a bon—to every citizen in France with his or her place of vaccination and the date when he or she can receive the vaccine. No one will be required to get the vaccine, it is assured, but everyone in the whole country can be vaccinated before the end of January.

In France, everyone is covered by health care centralized in the government social security (Securite Sociale). The medical card each citizen carries is imbedded with a microchip that records all medical history centrally. Since the French decided that the H1N1 vaccine for children should be given in two doses, both of which should come from the same “batch,” this centralized system would not only assure that the vaccine was distributed according to relative risk (rather than to Wall Street bankers or professional hockey teams) but that both doses came from the same batch. General practitioners would be free to care for the sick rather than swamped with vaccination requests. The government revealed a complex, stratified plan that provided the vaccine to health care workers first, in October, and thereafter to pregnant women, children three and under, and to those with chronic conditions that placed them at a higher risk. School children and everyone else would be vaccinated after that. The government website opened, listing the vaccination centers—assigned by postal code—and their open hours. Everyone should bring their social security card and their bon when coming for the vaccine. The steps that would be carried out upon arrival at the vaccination center were detailed. Volunteers were signed up to administer the vaccines and process the paperwork. (Have I mentioned the French love of bureaucracy?) The plan was ready. The doors opened at the vaccination centers.

No one came.

The French are typically skeptical of their government, oddly not unlike the conservative right in the U.S. Conspiracy theories were trotted out. The vaccine had been developed too quickly. It wasn’t safe. Lawsuits were filed charging the government with an attempt at mass poisoning. The H1N1 was not, after all, much to worry about. Only a few French people were even sick. In the first week of November, a poll shows that only 20% of the citizenry plan to be vaccinated.

At the same time, I search the Internet every day, trying to discover how we—non-French citizens, non-holders of a social security card or a medical card, folks for whom a bon will not appear in the mailbox—might get the vaccine. We Americans—right next door to Mexico where the virus first appeared—are clearly more concerned than our French neighbors. Pete and Rosie depart for Australia without being vaccinated. We ask new friends with small children if they know where or how we might get the vaccine. They shrug. Not important. Clearly we are over-reacting. The American Embassy (in Paris) issues a statement that Americans who are part of the French social security system (working for French companies) will get their bon in the mail, and they list English-speaking doctors (in Paris) who might prescribe a bon that one can take to a vaccination center. Nothing for us. We find the vaccination center assigned to our postal code—Rieux-Volvestre, open only on Wednesdays from 3-7. Should we just show up and see what happens? We look up the French word for asthma (asthme). If he were French, James would be in one of the higher risk categories. We have our medical records. Should we call our pediatrician in Vermont and ask for a letter to support us? The news reports that several centers have had to throw out vaccine because no one—and these are the medical professionals who were first on the risk list—has shown up to be vaccinated. Our doctor friend in Paris emails to say not to worry; there will be plenty of vaccine for everyone who wants it. The government opens the vaccination centers to those in the next risk category: pregnant women, babies, and those with chronic diseases. Still no one goes to the centers to be vaccinated. A few schools near Paris close due to outbreaks of H1N1. A young woman dies in Toulouse. One of my Google searches reports the order in which people will be vaccinated with “homeless people and foreigners in their turn”; our turn, it implies, being at the end. Another Wednesday passes. And then two-dozen people in France die within a week from complications of H1N1.

Up in the tower, we all become sick with something that seems flu-like—the kids vomiting a few times, then each of us with sore throats and coughing. But none of us ever runs a fever over 100. The kids and I are well within a couple of days, though Susan’s symptoms seem worse and hang on longer. We aren’t sure whether we’ve had the swine flu or something else. James breaks out in a bizarre rash of welts, but by then he has no fever or other symptoms. And another Wednesday passes. By the end of November, 240 schools are closed around the country and nearly one-hundred people have died. Suddenly, the formerly deserted vaccination centers are jammed. In Lyon, they have to call out the riot police to control the crowds. When we cancel a birthday lunch with our friends with the baby because we are all still sick, they get in their car and drive to the vaccination center and stand in line for two hours. The government drafts all medical and nursing students. They call upon the military to assist in meeting the need. That Monday, in the children’s Cahier de Correspondance (the little book in which the teachers and parents communicate) a Xeroxed notice has been pasted in—school-aged children are the next group to be vaccinated, if the parents so wish; we are to go to our appointed vaccination center with the bon we should have received in the mail. We decide it’s time to just show up.

On Wednesday, December 2, at 3 in the afternoon, we drive to Rieux-Volvestre, about 25 minutes from Saint Araille. We bring our medical records, passports and visas and some cash, just in case. It’s a cool bright day. We arrive twenty minutes after the center opens, and the line already snakes through the parking lot. We have to park far down the street. I take the kids to the playground—one structure swarming with about thirty children (I have hand-sanitizer at the ready)—and Susan stakes our place in the line. We wait. Everyone waits. A lady hands out numbers like those at the deli counter; we’re number 162. It’s a cross-section of French society. The vaccination center is the only place to get the shot. Everyone in our area has to come here. There are well-dressed retirees, an Asian man, many young women with strollers, a whole extended family of farmers with mud on their shoes, some of James and Izzy’s classmates with their parents, and, as the afternoon drags into evening, office workers still in their suits arrive to join their families. Line cutting is rampant, people coming and going, but though people are disgruntled, no one is really angry or ugly. This is just the way things are done here. People chat with their line-neighbors. The parents of toddlers whip out snacks, but the rest of us are unprepared. We all look up to watch a distant hang-glider. As we creep closer to the front, the method becomes more clear. The rec center doors open and about twenty people are allowed in. One of the officials comes out and asks for pregnant women and mothers with babies, setting up a second queue for these special groups. Their line moves no faster than ours. I go to the car and gather all the library books and markers and activity books from the backseat. James sits on a curb and reads Garfield in French, a small throng of other children looking over his shoulder. Finally, after two hours, the sun beginning to set, we reach the door, still unsure if anyone will give us vaccinations at the end of this long wait.

Inside, we are crammed into a lobby and hallway, herded, eventually, into the bleachers in the gymnasium. The children clamor to the top row in a rowdy pack. Susan and I sit, clutching our number, with the other forty or so adults. One of the young mothers has to leave her infant with strangers again and again to chase down her toddler, who we deem “the escape artist.” We all pitch in to block his assent to the rafters. Every five minutes or so, a man calls out a few numbers, and those folks hurry down the bleachers, along the hallway and into a small room. After awhile, they come out and pass along the front of the basketball court (barricaded off—Aucunes chaussures de rue premises!—no street shoes allowed!) again to stand in line in another hallway under the bleachers to enter, finally, through a set of double doors. We wait in the gym for a half hour before our number is called.

In the small room, we are directed to stand in line at the first of three tables. There are perhaps twenty people crammed into the room, attempting to move from station to station. Susan steps forward for our little family. They ask for our health cards and our bon. Susan explains that we are Americans and do not have such things. What? No health card!? The volunteer is shocked. “Tell them James has asthma,” I say. Susan launches into James’s issues with asthme and the fact that we are living here for a year and the children are attending public schools here. The Frenchman in charge shrugs. The woman official with whom he’s consulting makes the same gesture. He says, well, in principal, we vaccinate “tous” (everyone), n’est-ce pas? Well, of course, they must be vaccinated. Papers shuffle. Susan hands over passports, visas, documentation of health records. The volunteers are unsure how to fill out the forms for us, the strangers, the foreigners. Meanwhile the escape artist and his mother and infant sibling are behind us, the infant fussing, the mother trying to talk to the officials at the table. I open one of the children’s library books and show the baby pictures. He smiles. He wriggles in his stroller straps. I show him another picture—Une girafe? I ask. And another. “Un chien?” The baby laughs. His brother, the escape artist, and a couple of other kids turn to watch the book. Susan gathers her documents, papers and forms—two for each of us. We’re to proceed to the next table to fill them out. Susan gives me one for James and one for myself. “Just copy everything I write on these,” she says. I can read enough of the French to fill in our names, dates of birth, address, phone number. I recognize the usual list of questions: allergies, cold symptoms, etc. We finish our paperwork and proceed to the third table, where we stand in line for a few moments before sitting down to discuss our answers with what I assume to be a medical student, a nice young woman. We are released to the next step.

Out of the small room, back through the gym, we join the line in the next hall. The children are very hungry, and tensions are rising among all of them—vaccination time is near. I open one of the children’s books from the library and try to figure out what it’s about, holding the book open and reading the French words, asking the kids questions about the pictures. “Prout de Pompier,” I read from the cover. “I wonder what that means?” The kids shrug, but they’re interested, distracted from the needle-moment at hand. The elderly couple beside me look over, eyebrows raised. I open the book and we look at pictures. “What do you think is happening here?” I ask, pointing to the bright illustration of a firefighter with a wisp coming from his pants. I read the French words aloud. The couple behind me smiles a little. I turn the page and read again. The double doors open and we all move through. Susan whispers to me over my shoulder, “You know that book is about farting, right?” I did not know. I’ve learned a new word in French: prout. Fart. The mother of the escape artist thanks me. This is enough.

At last, we enter a large room—a cafeteria in other times—set up with screens manned by nurses and medical personnel in white coats. But we—the foreigner family—are ushered through this room and into another small office, here to meet with a regular doctor. I have written on one of the forms that I am allergic to Thimerosol, a common adjutant in vaccinations, and Susan has confessed to cold symptoms. The doctor is very nice, very professional. The vaccine does not contain Thimerosol. Susan isn’t feverish. We are finally cleared for la piqûre (the puncture) and returned to the line in the other room. The children take their markers to a cafeteria table to draw. We all take off our coats in anticipation. We’ve been at the vaccination center for well over three hours. A kind man—a volunteer—comes in and dumps a bag of candy into a basket. The children, who are starving now, spot it right away. We’ve promised them anything, everything, in exchange for their cooperation with this ordeal, and they’ve been remarkably good, even though now, all around us, babies are screaming behind the little curtains. Everyone is exhausted. Even the kids seem relieved when it’s finally our turn. James and I go together, and Izzy and Susan go to another little curtained booth. The nurses are kind and efficient—though James’ nurse has to show mine, who is much younger, exactly where to give me the injection. As soon as we’re done, I grab a handful of bon bons and pass them to James. He deserves it. We all do.

Even after the vaccine, there is another line, everyone putting on their coats and the children eating unlimited sweets. At the final station, more forms are completed, stamped, and the children’s bons for their second injection three weeks hence (two days before Christmas) issued, along with paperwork detailing the shots we’ve just received. We leave the vaccination center well after dark, starving, exhausted and sore in the shoulders, but somehow elated. It’s as if we’ve passed some kind of test.

Does the French system work? Yes. We paid nothing for our vaccinations. We saw people of all classes in the line, everyone getting the same fair though tedious treatment. Was it efficient? Absolutely not. All those papers, all those stations. But the French seemed to take it in stride. Remember, the word “bureaucracy” originates in the French. And it wasn’t just a glitch caused by a last-minute unexpected rush; we go through almost exactly the same process when we return for the kids’ second vaccine three weeks later. The only things that have changed are that more people come prepared with blankets and food and entertainment, we have bons for les piqûres this time, and the vaccination volunteers provide sweets at almost every step rather than just at the end.

In our other encounters with the French medical system so far, Susan decided, finally, to get treatment for her lingering sinus infection. She went to Dr. T., our local generaliste, who will not prescribe antibiotics without an x-ray. The offices here have no staff to speak of—no receptionist, no phalanx of billing clerks trying to negotiate the myriad levels of insurance company rules and regulations. One person answers the phone and sets up appointments. You arrive and sit, and the doctor him- or herself comes out to fetch you at your time. That medical card with the imbedded chip is scanned and the information about the services you’ve received, your medical condition, and prescriptions are automatically recorded in the state database. If, like us, you are foreign, you pay a set fee for the visit—€22, about $30—and pay the pharmacist and radiologist in cash as well. The medicines are pricey, of course, but cheaper than they would be for the uninsured in the U.S. The x-ray of Susan’s sinuses costs €48, about $60; in the U.S., the same x-ray costs $120. We will attempt to get our U.S. health insurance provider to reimburse us, but we know it will be a nightmare of paperwork and negotiations.

The price of health care is lower here, and the anxiety we all feel in the U.S. when we are uninsured or if we become ill with some catastrophic illness that may or may not be covered by the insurance we do have is non-existent here. You need a vaccine; you get a vaccine. You’ll stand in line for awhile, but you’ll know that no wealthy person paid to jump ahead of you. You’ll know that you won’t be bankrupted should the doctor find a cancer when she grabs your arm for la piqûre.

From across the ocean, it’s hard to invest a lot of energy in trying to understand the various permutations of the health care bills being debated in Congress, but we try to keep up. The French system is also complex—not exactly a single-payer system, but close to one, funded both publically (by government) and privately (by employers). Citizens can choose their own doctors, go to as many specialists as they want, and pay out of pocket if they want to go to private hospitals where waits for surgeries may be shorter. But those out-of-pocket costs will be much lower than bills for the same procedures in the U.S. because the government caps prices. According to a (very good) report in Business Week, “France spends just 10.7% of its gross domestic product on health care, while the U.S. lays out 16%, more than any other nation.” Doctors earn less here, but all medical school is paid for by the state, malpractice insurance costs are negligible, and French doctors don’t pay the income tax themselves. The French system is also expensive, paid for by taxes at 20-40% of income, and most people buy supplemental insurance (about €200 a year for a family of four) to cover gaps between government reimbursement and costs (such as for glasses and dentistry), but the French are mostly satisfied with their health care, far more so than are Americans.

We strangers in the village are certainly satisfied. While on sabbatical, our family of four existing on a substantially reduced salary from the university in Europe with a decidedly unfavorable exchange rate, about $600 is deducted from my salary each month for our family’s (required) health insurance coverage in the U.S. We pay out of pocket for all our medical expenses here in France and must apply to our American health insurance company for reimbursement. Frankly, it’s probably not worth the effort; between our $500 deductible and the $20 co-pay for each visit, full price for doctor’s visits and medications in France are cheaper. And for the H1N1 vaccinations, there was never even any question that the benefit to the society of a fully protected citizenry far outweighs the price of the shot. Money never entered the discussion. After all our worry about la grippe, this new peace of mind about our health and its protection while in France is priceless.

Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2009

Our holidays began with about three inches of snow last Friday morning, resulting in cancelation of the last day of school before vacation… a child’s dream come true! We attempted sledding since we’re on top of a big hill, but, alas, not enough of the white stuff, which melted before midday anyway. We were disappointed that the children’s school holiday performance was also canceled, but we baked sugar cookies for the Loto benefit (Bingo) on Saturday night. Susan dropped them off to the teachers, who were in the back room cooking crepes to sell at intermission. She couldn’t stay, but they wished us all well for the holidays. “Joyeux Noël!”

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Rieux-Volvestre, about 20 minutes east, singing Christmas carols in French in the car, to attend a free concert on a restored 17th century organ in the Cathedral Saint Marie. Some Bach, the Ave Maria, traditional Christmas songs, and selections from Occitan were on the program. We kept the kids still by plying them with sweets. Everyone in the small crowd—families with teenagers, grandparents with a toddler, a group of elderly women who sang along quietly, farmers with mud on their boots—sat happily in their coats and scarves the whole two hours. A clarinetist accompanied the organist for a few numbers, a wonderful mezzo soprano sang, and for the traditional Occitan songs, a man with a traditional instrument called a cornemuse, much like a bagpipe, played along. At the end of the standing ovation, the whole group joined in on an encore, which happened to be the same Christmas carols we had just learned in French in the car. At 4:30 on that clear, cool Sunday afternoon, we spilled out into the narrow streets—cobblestones, waddle and daub medieval houses close in—and wandered toward the center for the Marché Noël: donkey rides, a bounce house, handmade hats and soaps and Armagnac for sale in the covered market. Père Noël in his red velvet suit distributed sweets from a horse-drawn wagon, shouting it out: “Joyeux Noël!”

During the week we finished up shopping, got the kids’ second H1N1 vaccines, played soccer with the dogs, and made more ornaments for our little tree in the tower. On Christmas Eve the weather turned warm and gorgeous—around 60 F and clear. I went for my walk at about 3, and on my way home nearly everyone who passed was dressed up for the holiday evening out. A neighbor slowed and waved, rolling down his window to wish me, “Joyeux Noël!”

We too showered and dressed in our finery, got in the car and drove to Toulouse, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy Susan black stockings. A supermarket on Christmas Eve is the same in France as in the states, save for the heaps of oysters in baskets in the aisles. And I’ve never seen such a mob of people buying black stockings at once! The check-out clerk smiled as I left: “Au revoir! Joyeux Noël!”

We had decided to splurge and attend the ballet in Toulouse–a first for James and Izzy–and cheap by American standards, €50 for our family of four. We arrived early enough to eat ham sandwiches in a café across the street, glasses of wine for us and lait chaud (big cups of warm steamed milk with sugar) for the kids. We chatted with the owners and other patrons, who admired Izzy, la Princesse in her crown and fancy dress, and James in his red bow tie who stole the crown for his moment. “Au revoir, Joyeux Noël!” we all said as we left.

The ballet was perfect—five short 19th century pieces, lots of tutus and satin, a fine troupe and good orchestra in the beautifully renovated Halle des Grains. At five minutes before the show was to start, the ushers appeared up in the cheap seats, got us all up and re-seated everyone in the empty seats down below. We ended up in the fifth row. The lights went down. The music came up. The dancers thumped onstage. James and Izzy sat forward in their seats, eyes wide, mouths open. I watched them watching the magic of their first ballet. On the far side, Susan too was watching the kids, her eyes shining. James turned to her and said, “I love this!” Izzy turned to me and whispered, “Mom, thank you!” Later, when she and Susan went to the restroom they met the prima ballerina–changed into jeans but still wearing her tiara, just like Izzy, in the hall. “Joyeux Noël!”

On our way out of the city, streets wet and shining, reflecting the blue strings of lights over the streets and the green and red-lit bridges over the River Garonne, we passed a phalanx of about fifty gendarmes around the Cathedral Saint Etienne, preparing for the mobs sure to appear in the next hour for the midnight mass. We drove home to the château through the countryside, farm houses and villages winking with holiday lights, little churches everywhere lit up for the traditional services. We would have gone, but the children were already asleep in the back seat. We arrived home just after 11. Izzy woke up enough to put out the cookies and milk for Santa, who brought scooters to coast down the driveway, and remote-control cars to torment the dogs, and kites to fly on the hill of Latour des Feuillants.

And another gorgeous day in the village.

James and Izzy Dressed Up for Christmas Eve at the Ballet

Joyeux Noël!

A few of our favorite things (about living in France)

December 17, 2009

Izzy

  • Satellite t.v., especially the British cartoon, Tracy McBean, because it’s about a GIRL inventor!
  • Lait chaud (warm milk) in a big cup with sugar in a café
  • Bon Bons! (literally translated “good good”; candies)
  • Riding scooters at school recess
  • Desserts in the school cantine, like compote de pomme and sauce à poir (apple or pear sauce) and sugar-covered waffles
  • Crêpes with Nutella!
  • Playing roll the ball down the hall with Poppet (the dog)
  • Colored choumaillous (marshmallows)
  • Madame P and Madame C and Elian and Chantal (the teachers and assistants)
  • My new friends: Manon, Marjorie, Clemence, and Marion
  • La piscine on every Monday night!
  • Tepacap! (www.tepacap.fr/)
  • Oat-me-meal with cranberries, bananas and apples every morning.
  • Pâté!
  • Cité de l’Espace (www.citeespace.com/)

Isabelle and James swing like Tarzan in jumpsuits at Tepacap

James

  • Cité de l’Espace (www.citeespace.com/)
  • Tepacap! (www.tepacap.fr/)
  • Kinder Bueno (a chocolate and hazelnut wafer cookie bar)
  • Playing soccer with Patty (the dog)
  • Eating figs, pears, and plums right off the tree
  • La piscine (swimming pool) on Monday nights!
  • Riding the two-wheeler bike at school recess—no training wheels!
  • Having Wednesdays off from school
  • Extra-long school vacations (especially Christmas!)
  • Chocolate mousse
  • Climbing the willow tree beside the barn
  • Buying stuffties at vide greniers
  • Balloon animals for free at Fêtes de Noël!
  • Math at school with Picbille (cartoon character in math book)
  • French songs

Kids in Soyouz, a Russian ship that has been in space, at Cité de l'Espace

Susan

  • The way that Poppet (dog) comes into the children’s room every night for story-time.
  • History history everywhere!
  • French cloth with fleurs de lis
  • The architecture: Romanesque and Gothic arches, châteaux with tours, red tiles on roofs, ancient stone moulins de vent (windmills)
  • A zillion cheeses, especially Petit Basque
  • The butter
  • Crusty baguettes delivered by M. Chantal right to our door.
  • Frescoes, especially those in Notre Dame de Garaison
  • Le Cave in Lombez, where a nice lady will pour good table wine from a huge vat into a two-liter plastic bottle for €1.50 per liter.
  • The way every animal (cows, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, etc.) I pass on my run stops eating and looks up to stare at me as if to say, “What the heck is that?!”

Frescoed ceiling at Notre Dame de Garaison

T

  • Beaujolais Nouveau, released and celebrated at one minute past midnight on the third Thursday in November every year. Wine Spectator Magazine says that the 2009 Beujolais Nouveau “will likely go down as one of the best vintages on record”! It’s yummy! And Jean Berard & Fils Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2009 (scored 88 points) is only €4 (about $6) in the supermarket.
  • The French people, especially here in the south: they’re very friendly, patient with my (lack of) French language skills, physically attractive, and generally seem to enjoy life.
  • Cahier de correspondance: a brilliant way for teachers and parents to communicate. A little book that stays in the kids’ backpacks all the time and includes the school rules, vacation dates, and procedures, plus blank pages where the teachers jot down or paste in notes for parents, and parents write notes to the teachers—everything from notices about field trips and bake sales to progress reports, cantine reservations, and questions.
  • The weather! I’m always interested in weather patterns, and it is VERY challenging to predict here. I like the way it changes so quickly and that almost every day has sun (at least in this micro-climate south of Toulouse). I especially like that it’s MUCH warmer than New England.
  • The Pyrenées mountains on the southern horizon. They vanish completely on cloudy or hazy days, but sometimes they seem to zoom in so close you can touch them. I especially love the way the snow lights them up with pink at sunrise.
  • Living high on a hill at the top of a tower, especially at dawn.
  • Long long delicious meals.
  • Fresh arugula (roquette) from the garden in December.
  • The kites and hawks and eagles floating on the winds over the rolling brown and green hills.
  • Organ music in the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie d’Auch (an organ from 1688, the largest of its century in France)
  • Paintings in caves made by humans more than 20,000 years ago! Whoa. Now that’s old.
  • People carrying unwrapped baguettes under their armpits.
  • Berets: the French really do wear them, especially here near the Basque border.
  • Toulouse: a nearly perfect city. I particularly like the little wrought iron balconies and painted shutters on the Renaissance and Baroque apartment blocks that line the Boulevard Lazare Camot.
  • Patty and Poppet, the adorable and sweet Border Collies for whom we are foster family.
  • The way that keeping a blog has reconnected me to friends and family and made me feel closer despite the Atlantic Ocean and all those miles that separate us!

  • View from la tour

Relics

December 16, 2009

In Saint Sernin in Toulouse are hundreds of Christian relics, including what is said to be a thorn from Christ’s crown at the crucifixion, the skull of Saint Edmund, and a fragment of Saint Jeanne of Toulouse’s pelvic bone. Henry James describes being shown the head of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Saint Sernin’s crypt (Chapter 21 of A Little Tour in France), and in Saint Bertrand de Commiges, the body of Saint Bertrand is contained in a walk-through reliquary the size of a small house, illustrated with events from his life and death. The Monastery of Cluny houses both a finger of Saint Stephan and a tooth from Saint John. For the pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostella, visiting these churches and viewing the relics housed there was a chance to be closer to God and the saints, a brush with miracles and the divine which might just, with a little luck, rub off. The little casks or caskets (or other holders) in which these holy items are stored are gorgeous too, gold and velvet, carved ivory, marble, and these reliquaries are often all there is to see, the sacred bits locked within. As we visit church after church around southern France, I think a lot about relics, about the things we bring along to mark our pasts, to remember miracles, to bring a little magic into our lives.

For Isabelle, my daughter who is six, the little bracelet made of green yarn gleaned from her baby blanket, “Greenie,” who went missing last April, is the most important of relics. She tears up sometimes when remembering Greenie, and she wears the little fragment of the sainted security blanket when she needs comfort… though it’s not the real thing but a memory of it. Maybe it’s the memory of that time in her life that she is keeping. A touch of divinity in the assurance of safety the object seems to provide.

Izzy also brought with her to France a fragment of a blue robin’s egg shell, carefully stored in a small plastic spice bottle on a bed of Kleenex. She found the robin’s egg on a walk with Ingrid, our next-door neighbor, shortly before we left Vermont. She says it reminds her of home, of the day she found it, that it’s special. What does that mean? The hatching of the creature from the egg, perhaps, the magic of our eternal rebirth into the world.

For James, my son (Izzy’s twin), relics are important in a different way. He wears these days the scar from a dog bite incurred last summer, and it bothers him that his face is not perfect any more. When he sees himself in the mirror he says that he’s ugly. He is not exactly afraid of the dogs we live with here—very sweet Border collies—but he avoids the front door when we arrive home, knowing that they will rush out barking, excited to see us. The scar is a reminder, a warning, maybe something like the bone of a martyr or a grail miraculously survived.

James has been on a binge of collecting “stuffties,” stuffed animals, since we arrived in France, but we’re not sure why. He is six now, an age at which children usually move on to other interests. He buys these stuffties at the many vide greniers (empty-attic sales) we go to on weekends with birthday gift money or money he earns for doing special chores, a Euro here or there. He names each one of the new additions to his family—a puppy named Joe, a lion named Leo, a Tiger named Jessie (also the name of our recently deceased old dog). James brought two bears and an Ugly Doll named Igor from home, but it’s these “new” second-hand creatures to whom he seems most attached. I doubt he will feel the same way about them when we return home, but there is something magic about their place in his world just now, as if he is invoking a circle of friends or children to offset his isolation in this new place. Or maybe they are relics of a future, a way of imagining something elusive or intangible, a matter of faith. James talks to them about their “Poppy,” referring to himself as their father. Maybe he’s preparing himself in the only way he can in this fatherless family for his own future fatherhood.

James did bring his map of the solar system with him from home. When we make Christmas ornaments for our little tree in the chateau, he paints the Styrofoam balls as planets, just as he did in Vermont. The solar system has been an obsession for the last year. He learned all of the planets—and many facts about each—and collected artifacts—models, maps, books—about space. Is he mapping his past, marking the place he left off when we left Vermont? Is he keeping track of his place in the universe, France being—really—just next door to Vermont in the grand scheme of things?

My partner, Susan, brought her art supplies, paints, brushes, pastels, paper, and books. Of course, she buys more books here—at markets, vide greniers, junk stores. These are more obvious objects for working magic—she transforms ideas into art. And they seem to be security for Susan as much as Greenie was for Izzy. Her running things—her shoes, her Walkman, her books on tape—are Susan’s other essential supplies for travel. Susan needs her every-other-day run like the rest of us need air. When she runs, she can leave her body even as she inhabits it fully. Susan’s sneakers and audio-to-go are sacred objects, things she must have to be herself wherever she goes.

I too have brought a few special things with me from home as well—a favorite photo of the children; a stone—black with a magic white circle—from the brook behind our house in Newfane; a few of my favorite brand of pen; my journal. I also packed the Christmas stockings Susan made for each of us over the years, and we unpacked them and have them hanging by the fireplace now. I thought they would remind us of home, that they would help us feel settled—still at home in our own lives even so far away from home.

What does it mean to attach significance to objects? For the pilgrims, these teeth and locks of hair and bits of bone and splinters of the true cross reinforced faith. They were tangible evidence of something that is actually unknowable, intangible, abstract. God exists, these objects said. Miracles happen if you believe.

Home, perhaps, is the abstract unknowable intangible thing for which each of us needs reassurance. Even here on the edge of our universe, out in rural southern France, magic exists, miracles happen. We touch our little talismans and they help us conjure up strength and faith for the rest of the journey. Maybe home is something to do with faith, with believing and knowing that wherever we go—from security blanket out of the nest, leaving the egg behind; from a blue-green planet to the mysteries of fatherhood, the dangers of the world worn on one’s skin; from a paintbrush wand to the comfort of one’s own body moving through space and time; from a little house beside a brook in green mountains to a thousand-year-old château atop a French hill, stockings hung by a chimney with care—we house home in the reliquary of our souls, our imaginations. We take the objects to remember, to believe, to work a little magic. But the things we take are not nearly so important as the box we build to keep them safe.

Bonne Anniversaire

December 15, 2009

On a Friday in November while in France, I celebrate my 51st birthday, the youth of old age, according to a French proverb. The children, who will be in school all day, tease me about being over fifty, but I cavalierly assert that fifty is only halfway to 100. “And I fully intend to live to 100,” I tell them as we drop them at school. Their sixth birthday comes one week after my birthday, so November usually becomes focused on the kids, as it should be. But there is something about a birthday, no matter one’s age, that wants celebrating somehow. It’s a marker, that moment that the sun returns to the same place it inhabited on the day you were born.

Back at the chateau, Susan’s mother, Sandra, and her friend, Eric, are visiting. Susan asks what I want, and, as always, I say that I’d like a nice meal in a restaurant. It’s the ultimate luxury for me—good food with friends, fellowship with other humans, and no dishes to do at the end of it all. So we review the list of recommendations that our hosts have left for us. At the top of Rosie and Pete’s favorites is Bistro de Pays (translated, plain and simple, “Country Bar”) in St. André, traditional French fare in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Rosie’s note about it reads: Phone ahead to reserve, show up, eat what you’re served! I know that Susan—a notoriously picky eater—will never make this place her first choice, so I play the birthday-me-first card: Bistro de Pays il est! We reserve a table for “dejeuner,” lock up the house and stable, get in the car and go.

It’s a gorgeous day, my birthday. Sunny and warm, probably about 70˚ F. The road to St. Andre from Saint Araille is curvy and narrow, up one hill and down the next, the snow-capped Pyrenees appearing at the crest of each rise. We zip in and out of villages, pass old women on old bicycles headed for somewhere, and slow for sheep and cows crossing. I think about the Haute Garonne region, the way the glaciers must have pushed up earth into these hills as they advanced and receded back to the mountains, the way the Mediterranean Sea must have swamped this area for awhile, and then the more recent history of Romans and Spaniards, knights and Crusaders, invaders and monks and pilgrims, traders and explorers and farmers—always farmers here—crossing and settling these fertile hills and valleys. It must have been a pleasant journey. The climate is perfect. The scenery changes with each mile. Something like aging, I think. I like this place, the youth of old age rather than the old age of youth, which, according to the proverb, is forty. I don’t feel old; I can still make the climb up the hill, and the view both behind and ahead is splendid.

About an hour later we arrive in St. André, one more small village in a chain of small villages. A Mairie. Maybe a maternelle or l’ecole. A church with a bell wall. A few houses. A farm with a cavernous stone barn. Perhaps a garage or small store. All of the towns we pass through are mostly deserted. In St. André, however, a half-dozen white delivery vans line the street next to and across from the church, a veritable traffic jam. A good sign, Rosie has said: Look for the delivery vans. Those guys always know the best places to eat. Is this the place? We don’t see a sign. Eric parks next to the church. I can see into the building behind us, a very small kitchen, steam rising from huge metal pots on a stove, two women wearing white aprons. It could be my own kitchen; it’s that small. On the street-side, a sign: Bistro de Pays.

We enter the screen door as the church bells begin to strike twelve. Halfway through the day, halfway through this life. I hope. On the left side of a small center hallway a windowed door reveals a tiny store. We open the door to the right. A well-stocked bar. Fifteen or so tables—six arranged in a row together, family-style—all set with cloths, old unmatched china and heavy silverware, wine bottles, and water pitchers. The only diners in the room are a group of delivery men at the first table, who all look up at us—the Americans—as we enter. Conversation stops. The four of us mumble to each other, begin to walk toward an empty table. A smiling woman in white apron comes from the back, takes our name, and gestures to a table. We sit.

Vous aiment un apéritif? she asks. An aperitif? Why not? It’s my birthday. I’m in the youth of old age. Susan’s mother and I nod. Oui! She serves us an amber liqueur in petit crystal glasses from the bar, Paloumbas de _?_. It’s sweet and strong, flavored with peach or plum, I think. A local favorite, she says. As we drink, another group arrives—two couples, one English-speaking—and they are seated at the table next to ours. One of the women passes her astrological birth chart to her friends. She is celebrating her birthday too. Her friends toast her: Bon aniversaire! It is as if a strange twin has appeared, and I can’t help but look closely at her. Are we alike for sharing the same day of birth? She looks about my age. Do her stars predict a similar path? What did bring us both to Bistro de Pays in the tiny village of St. André from some distant place on this particular day?

More truck drivers—male and female—arrive and are seated, some at the long table, though they do not seem to know one another. The woman in the apron brings bread. We pour the wine, a local red, and break the bread. I am a little fuzzy from the drink and warmth of the room. Another couple arrives. The restaurant is full within the hour. Only the woman in the apron waits tables, but she serves the same things to each table, one after another, in some cases moving the same plate of one dish from one table to the next.

I am not a restaurant critic, neither a chef nor food connoisseur, but I know that this food is wonderful. The soup arrives in a huge tureen just for our table, and we all serve ourselves. Pale brown, potatoes and carrots and big pale beans; it fills the belly and heart, and steams the windows. I am happy. The whole restaurant is happy. People laugh. I watch the delivery drivers share bottles of wine from table to table. The woman in the white apron brings the next course: a white mayonnaise-like sauce over thinly sliced celery root, oily black olives on the side. Then the patê, rich and smooth, arrives, and we cut thick slabs to eat with our bread—more bread—before the loaf is whisked off to the next table. I watch my birthday twin cut herself a slab from the loaf. The meal and the day stretch on.

Just before 2, the main course arrives. We’re in luck, because today’s meal includes cassoulet, the specialty of this region of France. Named for the pot in which it is prepared, the cassole, cassoulet is a very slow-cooked bean stew that has a particular mix of meats depending on the individual (or regional) recipe used by the cook. In ours there are sausages and chunks of duck and goose, as well as some roast beef, I think. Originally a peasant dish from medieval times, I’ve been told that a proper cassoulet is cooked sometimes for days, with more and more water added as it reduces, hence the thickness. It is also traditional to use the base from one cassoulet to start the next, leading to legends that some cassoulets are hundreds of years old in origin. The perfect dish for a fifty-first birthday. Even older than me!

As we scoop up seconds from the pot of cassoulet on our table, the woman in the white apron returns with a platter and serves us slices of pale tender pork roast, a hint of apple in the flavor. We eat. We eat. Everyone eats. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.” For me, in this moment at the Bistro de Pays in St. André, I feel at one with all humanity. When we eat good food, though we are strangers, we return to some kind of essential common existence. And there will be no dishes to wash at the end!

At last, we sit back. Sated. Satisfied. The woman in the white apron returns. Dessert? Of course. It’s my birthday, after all. There are choices: Chocolate mousse; flan; yogurt and fresh fruit; ice cream. We choose one each, and all are delicious. The chocolate mousse—my choice—is like eating chocolate clouds, a satiny richness that is perfect with the rich coffee that ends every French lunch. The truck drivers depart, and then my birthday twin with her friends from the next table. We decide that we have just enough time to drive over to see a little church we’ve heard about, and stand to pay our bill at the bar. The tab for this luxury, this long afternoon of life lived fully in gustatory glory? €12 each. About $15.

We walk out into sunshine, church bells ringing again, stretching and yawning. This is the youth of old age, that hour of the early afternoon when life feels rich and full of promise, when the view stretches to white-capped mountains in the distance and back across the hills toward home. We visit the little church painted with intricate stories, and the little well outside that is known for miracles, and we return to fetch the children from school under a painted sunset sky. C’est un bon anniversaire, indeed.

Did I Mention that We’re in the SOUTH of France?

December 9, 2009

Today’s Brattleboro Reformer reports “First major snowstorm blankets southern Vermont.” Yes, we’ve been keeping abreast of local (home) news while here in the tower in the chateau in southern France. And this bit helps us to remember that we truly are far from home. Today in Saint Araille was sunny and about 70 F. Susan wore shorts for her run; I picked fresh tomatoes and arugala from the garden; the kids ran around playing soccer with the dogs. And then we went to buy a Christmas tree. Do we miss the snow? Well, just a little, but there it is, about an hour away, on top of the Pyrenees, glowing pink with the sunset. We’ll go skiing during the holidays maybe, and then come home to eat outside in the garden. Think of us while you shovel!