Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Michel barre le bateau

Sunday we were invited by the parents of my exchange partner, Cecile, to spend the day at their vacation home in Cap Ferret. The plan was to show up at high tide, and go out on an excursion by boat to the Ile aux Oiseaux (Island of Birds), come back home and then have have dinner with the family.
We are welcomed into the bosom of the family by Cecile's father, Michel, and her mother, Annicke. In rapid succession we are introduced to their two sons, Simon and Mathieu, there is also Anne-Sophie, one of their three daughters (two of them being absent), the spouses and of course the five grandchildren... a veritable colonie de vacances. Tess and Colm have already slipped away to make reconnoiter the toy situation and the prospects for playmates. Literally within five minutes of my arrival, I am already fielding questions about school systems in America and France. There is in this family, I can see, a very lively streak of intellectual curiosity.
As is tradition here, the house has a name. It is christened SusanMonnette. She was built by Cecile's great-great grandfather, who used to come to the penninsula from Bordeaux to hunt. Back then near the turn of the twentieth century, there were no roads, no electrical power, no water. All of that has changed now and one has to use one's imagination to see this house in different surroundings.




Michel spent his boyhood vacations here, learning to sail little boats like this one, learning the tides and the idiosyncracies of the bassin channels, fishing, crawling over the dunes...as time went on and this place became discovered and developed it all changed...but the most dramatic changes have only occured in the last decade or so. Now there is little land left to develop and the economic pressures on real estate prices have pushed prices into the stratosphere. Now the penninsula hosts an odd melange of people who are forced into close physical proximity but who seldom rub elbows with one another, from the oyster fisherman and artisan types whose quaint little cabins are now protected by government concessions which forbid their being sold or rented but which can be passed on to family members, to the nouveaux riches from Bordeaux and Paris whose estates advertise wealth, luxury, and privilege. You see it reflected in the models of cars which travel into the Cap, the Jaguars and the Porches. In between there are folks like Michel whose attachments to the penninsula extend back through generations even though their visits to this place are confined to vacations (confined is perhaps a misleading term since for French funtionaries, there are ample vacations). I suppose Cape Cod is something like this.
Michel has a boat. He bought and restored one of the traditional oyster boats of the bassin. It's called a pinasse. It many other things, the pinasse has become a pleasure boat, a collector's fancy. It navigates the waters of the bassin and does not venture out into the more turbulent and tricky waters where the ocean tides enter.
The pinasse floats just twenty or thiry meters away from the terrace where I engaged in conversation with various family members. I notice that a certain level of physical activity has commenced to buzz about us. And then Thomas, one of the grandchildren, an endearing sixteen year old with earnest brown eyes, brings me an armful of life jackets to try on the little ones. The tide is rising, and, as they say, it waits for no man. About ten of us are going. People come and go, it is a bit like mounting an expeditions, there are last minute questios about clothing, glasses, etc... we bundle up as the weather which was forecast to be sunny definitely portends other things.
Cecile's husband, Gerard has graciously volunteered as a kind of emissary smoothing the introductions and offering us useful asides detailing certain family relationships, who is married to whom, who does what for a living, who is older... I watch Michel steering the rudder of the pinasse. I ask Gerard what a tiller is in French.
"La barre." Then in a confidential tone which is clearly intended to convey to me that if I pay attention I may succed in speaking the language of the locals, he adds a bit of useful linguistic detail. You don't use the word conduire (to drive) when speaking about boats. Instead you use the word barrer which literally means to man the bar or the tiller of a boat. To describe what Michel is doing, you simply say, "Il barre le bateau."
I slide back to the stern and sit alongside Michel. He is a an obliging tour guide who clearly doesn't mind recounting the days of his boyhood here as well as bits and pieces of the history of the bassin. He points to different boats which either remind of his own childhood or people or activities he knows about. He refers numerous times to the changing channels and the shifting bars of sand both in and around the bassin. The winds have picked up and the air has cooled, we won't be going to the island, he says, instead we'll keep along the shoreline. We pass alternatively large estates, ugly condominiums, and fishing villages with their colorful windowshutters. A couple of guys on jetskis race past us and spray us with their wake causing Mathieu to send back a stream of profanities, none of which the offending jetskiers can hear, of course.
"The fishermen and the boaters hate these guys," says Gerard. Sounds familiar, I think to myself.


We pass by a Catholic church which features a distinctive Maroccan style of architecture. Michel tells about the origins of the place, how the builder was a Frenchman with strong ties to northern Africa and who had this church built as a chappelle to a villa which was also built according the style of the same area - colorful tile patterns, fountains in courtyards...









"Where is the villa?" I ask.
"The property was sold. And this was put up in it's place." Michel points to a square multilevel condo. "When the locals saw what this man was about they raised a fuss. Unforturnately, only the chappelle still remains."
As we crawl along I decide to ask Michel what he does for a living. I know that he works in the adminstration of the French government but that is all I know. He tells me that he is the president of the French equivalent of the American Sercurities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
"Hmmm..." I say, " Then it's you who is responsible for the expensive euro that is plaguing my family here."
Michel laughs. "Perhaps."
Eventually Michel brings the boat back to SusanMonnette where we are welcomed home by the littles grandchildren, Mathilde and Paulo, and all of the women folk.







A fire is lit in the old chimney inside the house. We sit and sip hot tea and then, as we regain our normal body temperatures, we slip back outside to the terrace under the flagpole for a glass wine or pastiche, a salty snack, and the omnipresent cigarette. The flag pole bears the colors of France and Chile since the wife of Mathieu is Chilean. It is customary in this house to fly the national colors of all the occupants. Michel apologizes for the absence of an American flag. It has been a long time since they had an American guest and the neighbor from whom they borrowed a flag for the occaision is away and out of reach, last minute inquiries had proved fruitless.
As we stand there and chat pleasantly, I am vaguely aware of being watched by people who walk by on the beach on the other side of the fence. I too have walked along this beach and gawked at the houses and caught glimpses of residents and wondered about their situations. Just past the passersby I can see the pinasse settling down onto the sand as the tide slowly drains away. The rhythms of life here correspond to such elemental influences.
Michel appears with a large platter containing three large fish, mule. He shows it around to everyone as a prelude to starting the barbecue. He then disappears back into the kitchen where he goes to work preparing platters of fresh oysters. Meanwhile, outside, a second barbecue is heating up. Crevettes (shrimp) are being prepared along with a petite preparation which is a flavorful combination of vegetables, herbs and spices.
If I told you that these shrimp were delicious, I would be guilty of lying by gross understatement. As I eat one, I am instantly reminded of the line in the film The Big Night where the main character who struggles to say in English (not his native tongue) how sublime a meal is finally simply exclaims, "If you eat it, you have to die!" It is that good.
Michel is supremely at ease in his role as host and guide. He speaks French to us, but every so often gives us a glimpse of his impeccable English as well. In fact, the entire family seems to be composed of anglophiles. Simon asks me for a colloquial equivalent for "Je prends mon pied."
"I take my foot?"
"It's a way of saying that something is great." (My dictionary claims that it also means to have an orgasm!)
I love linguistic tricks like this but as I wrack my brain for something to give him I experience that familiar feeling of being caught between two languages. Beth comes over and I enlist her help.
Finally, I blurt out, "That's the bomb, dude!"
I can't swear to its currency in pop culture right now but I know that I didn't make it up. It comes from somewhere. Simon is pleased. His brother seizes on the word "dude" and repeats it several times laughing. Then his face lights up.
"Lebowski...le grand Lebowski."
I nod at him smiling and I say in my deepest bass voice, "Dude...the dude abides."
Simon and his brother begin trading quotes and anecdotes from the film The Big Lebowski. I am impressed and enormously entertained. I throw out another line from the John Turturo character, named Jesus, who haunts the local bowling alley and wears incredibly tight disco-era outfits while transforming the act of bowling into an erotically charged piece of performance art.
"Nobody fuck with Jesus."
This sends Simon and his brother into yet another excited round of reenactments of the film.
The sixteen year old boy, Thomas, has sidled over in curiosity to find out what all the guys are talking about. He looks puzzled, Simon is more than happy to try explain the Jeff Bridges film which he has obviously seen more than once. I watch the men take the teenager under their wings and try to initiate him into the mysteries of this cult classic. I can see on the boy's face that something is getting lost in the translation, yet the enthusiasm of his uncles is so great that he seems pleased just to be included. They are trying to describe the scene where the ashes are cast out into the wind. Watching them laughing even at their own recollections, watching the boy smile uncomprehendingly at their antics, it occurs to me that the generational gap is every bit as wide and difficulty to bridge as the culture gap or the language gap.
After we have eaten all the shrimp and the snails, it is time to move indoors and sit at the large table. The meal begins in earnest there. Two large platters of oysters await us. Bread, butter, lemon. They will be followed by the fish and potatoes indivually wrapped in foil. A grand vin is brought out and poured into everyone's glasses. We toast everyone's health and drink. It is very good, even I can tell that. Gerard agrees but then he offers the opinion that it may yet be un peu vert (a little green). I get the feeling that Gerard has ventured into contrarian territory and that he is waiting for someone to respond. Michel does not really bite. He merely observes that the wine is not bad. At this point, Gerard hastens to correct any impression that he doesn't like the wine. It is a very good wine, to be sure, but all the same, perhaps a tad bit premature. There are a few murmurs around the table. It seems to me that everyone has an opinion even if they aren't necessarliy going to express it. By contrast, I have no opinion at all. People here are invested here emotionally (and financially) in their wine. It is not an affectation among the friends that I have observed; rather, it is a genuine passion. They love their wine and they love to talk about it.
Dinner conversation meanders all over the place... we talk about health food, somehow a round of Darth Vader sweeps the table, there is a funny series of attempts to correctly pronounce the name of Harrison Ford, laughter and teasing come easily to this group.
At some point mention of the missing American flag triggers a conversation on flags, pledges, and national anthems. The French are fascinated by our custom of having school children pledge allegiance to the flag. It is a practice which doesn't conform to some of their fundamental assumptions about American individualism. They ask me recite the pledge. I oblige them and then tell them the story about the insertion of the phrase "under God" into the pledge and the subsequent debates over that change. Someone wonders why they (the French) don't teach the French anthem, La Marseillaise, at school. Somebody else says that all the kids know it already. Some at the table are skeptical about this claim. Then there is the question of the suitability of the song for children, it's violent, savage imagery. Michel dismisses this claim, but Anne-Sophie's husband who is a magistrate persists. The interpretation is not his own but something that he's read, something with the weight of authority about it.
This claim is met with further skepticism around the table and what ensues is a line by line recitation of the song by everyone, a sort of collect close reading of the text. Each line is checked off as being nonobjectionable until they arrive finally at the chorus and to the phrase in question.
Aux armes, citoyens !     to arms citizens
Formez vos bataillons ! form your battallions
Marchons ! marchons ! forward march!
Qu'un sang impur so that the impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons ! will irrigate our fields
The consensus immediately breaks apart as no one can agree on what the line signifies. Is the sentiment expressed here one of self defense or blood lust? Annick observes that the ornate language itself is a problem and that the passage is perhaps obscure beyond repair. There are reminders of the historical origins of the song, how it helped unify the French at the end of their revolution in 1792.
I share the observation that our own anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, is notoriously difficult to sing. I am pressed for more information, what are the lyrics, can you sing it for us ( I try but it's a pretty lame effort). Finally, they want to know when it was written.
This is the kind of trivia question that will cost me a million dollars some day during my fifteen minutes of national TV celebrity. Without thinking I say the Revolutionary War. Almost as soon as the words are out of my mouth I know they are wrong. No wait, I say. That's wrong. I'm saying to myelf, I know this. Francis Scott Key, watching a shelling of Fort McHenry...or was it Fort Sumpter?...no, that's the Civil War, that's later. Then I remember... "the War of 1812." I say.
No one at the table has heard of that war.
"Who were you at war with?..."
"Great Britain... again, in 1812, "I say.
"Interesting, so were we."
Later, the salad and the cheese plate and then champagne and an enormous bowl of strawberries which will provide the catalyst for an animated argument about the politics of food and globalization. Michel, the freemarket guru, presides over a table dominated by socialists. He is supremely content to be in the minority and takes great pleasure, it seems, in the fact that everyone is here at the table. I indulge myself in some contrarian exchanges with Gerard who is railing about the need to return the earth to locally sustained food communities. I needle him about the relative costs of transporing tourists by air compared to that of transporting strawberries.
Gerard rails on about the problems of globalization and the need to preserve a certain order styled around local markets. I express skepticism about man's ability to structure things in such a way. Michel then opens his arms benificently and says with a smirk, "I think we should let the market determine whether we get our strawberries from Chile or not." Immediately his children raise a good natured hue and cry, and Michel is content to sit back and observe the fallout. I feel very much at home in this setting. Later the conversation turns to sports and I have a chance to try to explain American football and baseball and to pose some questions about rugby. There is a hilarious anecdote that Simon tells about a time he went to Cubs game in Wrigley Field....three and a half hours, nothing happens forever, people drink beer, people watch, nothing happens, people drink beer, nothing happens and then finally he goes to the toilet and misses the only homerun that wins the game. He is completely mystified by the attraction of the game. I counter his story with a caricature of a soccer game, people run around to no great purpose, nobody comes close to putting a ball in the net, people drink and sing songs, more running, more singing, finally you look away for a moment and "goooooaaaal!" Everybody laughs. We are in territory that Thomas loves and he begins to tell rugby stories of his own. He's sixteen and utterly happy to be hanging with the adults at the table four hours after we sat down.
It's two in the morning when we decide to find our kids and go home. Colm is asleep in the sofa. Tess is in one of the upstairs beds with one of the granddaughters sound asleep. Everyone wishes us a safe drive home and warns us about the gendarmes. Gerard tells us to follow him on the back roads home.
"If they stop you," he tells us, "Pretend you are Americans."
I'm worried that maybe Gerard has had too much to drink. Then he clarifies, "Don't speak French to them. That will confuse them."
We laugh. Then he looks at me. "If that doesn't work pretend you're having a stroke and keep saying, 'the hospital! the hospital!" Everybody laughs again. There are kisses all around, and they send us out into the wee hours of the morning on a wing and a prayer and enough good feeling to last us a lifetime.
K

3 Comments:

Anonymous Kristine said...

Great story. I love it. You are so lucky to have such a good rapport not only with your exchange partner, but also with her family. I am so glad for all of you! It is funny how the next thing you know, it's 2am and you have to find out where the kids are. That's another thing I love about it here.

1:01 PM  
Blogger kc said...

nice to hear from you, Kristine ... we are indeed lucky.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous erin said...

I'm so glad you found a family to be part of- and one that sounds so much like your own! What a wonderful day-

10:09 AM  

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