Monday, April 09, 2007

fishes and from the sole

The husband of my exchange partner had to come back three months early last week under difficult circumstances. Gerard's father is gravely ill from cancer. What under normal circumstances would have been an extended celebration and reuniting with friends, family and his beloved sea is now instead a profoundly difficult prelude to a separation far more traumatic than the culture shock each of us has had in our own ways to face.
He left behind him in America his wife, his teenage daughter and his youngest boy. Almost from the outset, his return was an ordeal, there was the long (30 hours) trip, the loss of his luggage containing souvenirs and family gifts, and finally the onset of a head cold which left his throat raw and reduced his voice to a cracking, hoarse whisper. Gerard is one of those people who inspires confidence, trust, and affection from the very first. We've spent precious little time with him, and yet he is already dear to us. To see him in this circumstance is painful. We are living in the house he built lovingly with his own hands. He is home yet not at home; everything is off kilter. All we can do is remind him as often as possible that he is welcome here in this place and at our table, but he is careful not to impose on us. Perhaps it was fitting therefore that on Easter Monday he and his two eldest sons, Stephan and Roman, joined us today for a lovely midday meal...fitting because this day marks for so many the twin themes of death and renewal.
It actually began last night, with Gerard and his boys showing up unannounced as we were finishing dinner. They hauled in a cooler filled with fish caught only hours earlier that day in Marseilles where Stephan has just completed his training to become a boat captain. There were crab legs, some tiny shell creatures no one could satisfactorily name for me, and the prize catch...six sole.
Being mostly ignorant about fish, especially the salt water variety, we sort of dumbly said thanks and offered everyone a glass of something but Gerard was all business. It was battle stations... there was work to be done and it needed to be done quickly. Fresh fish needed to be handled correctly and without delay. We put a large pot of water on the stove, dropped in the crab legs along with some bay leaves and other spices and started heating it up. While he put the sole on a platter, Gerard explained what to do with the crab, bring it a boil for just a toute petite minute then empty the pot and stow the crab legs in the fridge. He was adamant about the toute petite minute. Any more would spoil the meal. He then pointed with pride to the sole, what his son had furnished us was indeed special, even the best restaurants had difficulty getting access to fish this good this fresh.
Tomorrow, he would come back. He would show us how to prepare it. Beth asked him about side dishes, Gerard suggested potatoes. (Only later in the evening would we become panicked by the realization that we had no bread, no potatoes, no vegetables, and, worst of all, no wine and the next day was a national holiday...where would we get it?) Beth and I both felt a bit overwhelmed by the grandness of the gesture. We thanked Stephan again. We then discussed what time tomorrow to eat, evening or midday, and decided on the latter. With that Gerard looking weary and haggard left us, his boys trailing him out the door.
Beth and I sat there a bit stunned not only by the swiftness but also the rawness of the visit, Gerard had seemed too preoccupied, too tired probably to muster anything resembling a mask of good cheer, instead he had simply come into our (his) house as he was, generous always, kind at heart, but also harried and saddled with cares.
On the flip side, we'd had no chance at all to don masks of our own. We were caught in mid meal our mouths full of food, our tongues tied up in knots, the kids wearing tomato sauce on their faces, toys strewn everywhere, the sink full of dirty dishes. Twenty minutes after they arrived, they were gone.
Beth and I tried to digest what had just happened. Tomorrow we would be having Easter dinner, sole and crab, with Gerard and his boys. As we scanned the wreckage of our house and also slowly began to take mental stock of our provisions, there was a vague intimation of how much work there was to be done in a short time , but there was also an abiding pleasure in the realization that Gerard had let us in. We were already in his house, but it felt like he was letting us into what one of my mentors in college called the "sacred circle". The best way we could hope to reciprocate would be to pass a "bon moment ensemble" the next day.
And that is precisely what we did.
Which is not to say that there wasn't some sleep lost over the question of where to find wine and vegies. But life also continued on other fronts completely disconnected it would seem from other storylines. This was also the evening of the first ever bike rides by Tess and Colm which succeeded for a time in utterly displacing those concerns and replacing them with an unexpected jolt of euphoria. Life is not plotted like a well constructed novel, it sends out shooters in myriad directions. Over time we carry about inside us stories connected rather like aspens on a hillside. We went to bed very happy and a little unsettled by the uncertainties of how to feed the multitude the next day.
The next morning I go to the bakery. I get four baguettes: 1 Littorale, 1 Doucette, and 2 Mariannes. I am looking for a large strawberry tarte but they don't have one. As I pay for the bread I ask about the possibility of finding an open market so
mewhere. The women behind the counter looks at me in disbelief then asks her coworker in a voice loud enough for all the customers lined up behind me to hear, "He wants to know if there's a market open anywhere." The coworker shrugs that famous shrug. People behind me look nonplussed, as if to say, how could you ask a question like that?
The woman I asked, smiles and says, "It's Easter." She's trying to help me except that the me she's trying to help is not really me but some American cretin who doesn't get the notion of a national holiday where only critical services like emergency rooms and bakeries are open, and then only for a few hours, on holidays like Easter. That's not really me, I want to say to everyone, but instead I mutter something lame like, "I know it's Easter I just thought I'd ask." I beat it out of their and get in the car.
I'm on the point of giving up the search for a potatoes and wine when on an impulse I hang a left turn and head for the town of Ares a mere three miles down the road. I need to bring home some good news to Beth. There may be a bakery open there with a strawberry tarte. As I drive into the roundpoint in Ares I see that there are many cars parked around the church in the townsquare. And then I see the bakery, there's a line stretching out to the street. I park by the church and walk to the bakery. As I pause to look in the window, three more people join the end of the line. Inside, I see what I've come for, a large strawberry tarte
. I hurry over to get my spot in line. As long as nobody buys that tarte, this will be a trip well worth the time.
I needn't have worried. When I get to the counter I see that there about six such tartes and a few other types as well...all very appealing. Perhaps this will take some of the sting out of my failure to find the other things.
I stow the tarte in the Colm's car seat and pull out of the parking lot back into the roundpoint, as I swing round to the other side of the church I see that that the market is indeed open. I literally can't believe it. I flash back to the deadpan looks in the first bakery. Did no one know this market was open? Judging from the traffic coming in and out of the market's entrance it is certainly not well kept secret. Getting the information you need here...c'est pas evident.
I fish out the cell phone and tell Beth that lunar module has landed and that I'm about to set foot in an honest to goodness market. She talks me through the produce section, parsely, green make that asperegus, potatoes...Roger and out. What kind of wine do you drink with sole? Answer (according to the man stocking the shelves that morning), Chateau Ferran Entre-Deux-Mers Haut Benauge 2005. I get three bottles. Life is good once again.
At the check stand there is a moment of suspense as I offer my credit card and wait
to see if it will work...not every store is outfitted with the necessary equipment to make it work, though almost always there is no problem. The checker runs my card through and then waits, and waits, and waits. I'm in the midst of formulating a plan B involving a quick dash to the ATM machine across the square, another queue of nonplussed customers in my wake, when I notice that the other checkers are also waiting. There are three checkstands all them at a standstill, all of them with lines snaking back into the store's aisles. I decide to venture a little small talk with the checker.
"When all the machines are working at the same time, the system must go slower huh?" I haven't the faintest notion what I really mean by that, perhaps a single squirrel wearing down as he vainly tries to generate enough power to operate all those computerized gadgets?
The checker looks at me and says, "No. It's the boss. He's on the computer upstairs." She lifts her chin just enough to suggest an office somewhere up there. "When he's on the computer, everything down here slows down." I laugh at bit too hard at this disclosure. I should be frowning, pursing my lips, shaking my head at the poor service, but I'm just happy my card is going to work...eventually, it does.
So an hour after leaving home on Easter Monday, I return
with bread, potatos, asperegus and green beans, three bottles of wine, and a strawberry tarte. I'm quite sure that the coffee Beth made me is cold by now but that's a small price to pay for the satisfaction of providing for your family.
Two hours later (noon) Gerard comes over and thus begins a long, luxuriously slow developing day and meal that will not come to an end until another five hours have expired.
In the interim we will have looked at photos, swapped stories about our exchanges our families and friends, offered observations cultural and linguistic and often hilarious, even squeezed in a ping pong game or two, and we will have savored some very, very fine crab and sole on a sun drenched terrace table.
The warmth of this day is palpable, both human and heavenly. Like a cat, I want only to back up against it, to feel it on my skin and in my soul. I look around the table, the sunlit faces of Gerard and his sons, three points of light describing an arc that joins them to another far off and fading light in a bed in Bordeaux and one even farther away in the eyes of a young boy clear across the ocean in the northwest United States. Tess glides by on her bicycle. She can ride it now all by herself; it's as if she's sprouted wings. Colm is on his back humming on the grass with a book shading his eyes. Beth holds suspended a glass of white wine whose reflected light plays softly upon her tanned features...
From where we started, I think to myself, how did we ever get to such a place as this?


Anonymous erin said...

Beautiful - thanks for sharing.

5:30 PM  

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