French Friday: Cloth Napkins, Iced Water, and Doggy Bags

In his extremely well observed, funny, entertaining, awesome novel The Nix, Nathan Hill writes:

“Samuel was disappointed that a foreigner’s first impression of America would be made here, [at O’Hare International Airport], and what America was offering them was a McDonald’s (whose big message to the incoming throngs seemed to be that the McRib was back) and a store specializing in gadgets of questionable necessity: HD video pens, shiatsu massage chairs, wireless Bluetooth-activated reading lamps, heated foot spas, compression socks, automatic wine-bottle openers, motorized barbecue-grill brushes, orthopedic dog couches, cat thunder-shirts, weight-loss armbands, gray hair prevention pills, isometric meal replacement packs, liquid protein shots, television swivel stands, hands-free blow-dryers holders, a bath towel that said “Face” on one end and “Butt” on the other.

This is who we are.”

When my children were old enough to notice their unfamiliar surroundings but moreover express their feelings about them, they pretty much summon up their French impressions in a similar way.

On one particular trip I had warned them. It’s summertime, I said, the airport will be stuffy, crowded and people will likely be a little pushy. My kids didn’t care much. Their goal was to get there and see their grandparents.

Yet on our early morning arrival, in a particularly rowdy aiport, I recognized on their tired faces the marks of disappointment.

“This is only the airport,” I reminded them when hurried careless passengers kept bumping into them.

Then we took the highway. Truth is the gray suburbs that surround Roissy airport are simply ugly and even depressing. It is hard to believe that they are the gateways to the French capital.

In my kids’ eyes I read: These tagged, bleak buildings along this noisy, jammed highway belong to Paris? The Paris you keep babbling about?

“Don’t worry,” I announced in a cheerful voice. “Remember? This is not Paris yet.”

Like Samuel, I was disappointed that my born-American children’s memorable first impression of France would be made here.

But I was not expecting that my elder daughter’s friends from kindergarten would feel the exact opposite way when they visited our home. Not instantly. Still.

 

 

People have often asked me if I served wine to my children. No. Never. 

Soon after school started, Julia, Peter, and Tommy became our regular guests. When they had lunch at my home the table was already set when the school bus dropped them off. I still remember the sparkle in their eyes the first time they took in the tablecloth and cloth napkins, the real glasses and the flowers.

Although these are from Public House, in Chattanooga, we always use cloth napkins at home.

“What are we celebrating?” they asked.

“Nothing,” said my daughter, puzzled by the question.

Her surprise, and soon her siblings’, would, years later, be sometimes tinted with a touch of embarrassment. Why was their maman using cloth napkins and glasses and not paper napkins and Dixie cups like their friends’ moms?

“I’m hungry!” Peter said that day, tapping his plate with his knife.

“Unfold your napkin,” my daughter said.

“Can we eat while we watch TV?” Peter asked, standing up.

“That would be so much fun!” my daughter said.

“I only eat red apples, white bread, and orange cheese,” Julia announced. And later on, no matter what I served, she said, “I don’t like that.”

“Have you tried it before?” I asked, serving quiche and a green salad on that first lunch date.

“No, but I know I don’t like it,” Julia answered, leaving the table.

“I swear it’s good,” my daughter said.

Julia made a face, but in the end sat down and ate.

“Can I have a coke?” Tommy asked.

“We only drink water,” my daughter said.

“We also have orange juice and milk,” her younger sister added, opening the fridge.

“I just drink OJ and milk for breakfast,” Tommy said.

I poured Tommy a glass of water. “Can I have some iced water, please?” he asked.

“But it’s cold outside!” my daughter said. I never served water with ice at home, especially in winter, following the French way.

“I only drink iced water,” Tommy insisted.

My daughter got ice cubes and added them to everyone’s glass. “Yum,” she said with a shiver after taking a sip. “It’s so-o good! Maman? Can we drink water with ice cubes, too?”

With iced water, I realized that friends’ culinary opinions and habits would soon matter more than mine. And of course my homemade lunches could only pale in comparison to the exotic hot dogs, hamburgers, and Jell-Os served in the school cafeteria.

“Nobody brings this kind of lunch at school,” my daughter declared one day, pushing her lunchbox as far as she could on the kitchen counter.

“That’s true,” her sister added. “Can we have Lunchables instead?”

“No,” I said. Does it really exist? I wondered.

“Then, can we at least eat the school lunch like everyone else?” My elder daughter crossed her arms on her chest.

“What’s your favorite food?” I asked the girls.

“Pizza!” they shouted.

“Okay, what about having the school lunch on pizza day?”

“Yeah! Merci, Maman!”

I wouldn’t have received a tenth of their enthusiastic cheering if I had treated them to lunch at the Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower. Or to dinner at La Coupole.

The historical brasserie on Boulevard de Montparnasse in Paris

The great outdoors will always be my favorite fancy dining room.

One day, I met Julia’s mother on the parking lot of the supermarket.

“I never saw you before,” she said as we loaded our trunks next to each other.

“I come at least once a week,” I said.

“Funny that we never bumped into each other before.” Then she glanced at my cart and laughed. “I know why!” she exclaimed. “We don’t visit the same aisles.”

I laughed, too, when I saw the bags of chips and bottles of soda piled in her cart. She pointed at the green apples and the loaf of French bread lining mine.

“Darn,” she said. “I forgot to buy those. Julie loves your apples and bread. And Tommy’s mom wonders where you get your cheese because he likes it.”

Julie? Really? She only loved red apples. And Tommy? He blocked his nose when I put Camembert on the table.

It turned out that my daughters enjoyed some success with their homemade lunches. Their friends loved the baguette and Brie sandwiches, the pear cake, and madeleines I baked from scratch, while my daughters claimed to favor true American food.

French Crème Brûlée

Versus…

A More Typical American Dessert

A French Steak Frites

Versus…

An American Meat Sandwich with Fries

I had not thought of making a good first impression when I received my daughter’s friends, but I was glad that I did. They had never been to France, of course, and had never met anyone from there until we moved to town. Our home and us represented both France and the French people. And I liked the idea that these children would remember the way they felt when they visited us for the first time. Because we all know that first impressions are not easy to forget. Good or bad 🙂

As for me, this same year, I became the favorite guest of a mother who came from India. Her daughter and my preschooler became instant friends at the nursery school.

“Do you like spicy food?” she asked me once as we were picking up our daughters.

“I love spicy food!” I said. “In fact Indian food is among my most favorites in the world.”

Her beautiful face broke into a grin. “Good,” she said. She lowered her voice. “The Americans find my food too spicy.” Behind her confidential tone of voice was a hint of disappointment but also of hope, now that she had met me.

She invited me for lunch on a cold winter day. She wore an elegant sari and her home smelled of curry, red chili, turmeric, and coriander. I was impatient to taste her food. And what a feast it was! When the children were finished eating they sat on a rug and played, while their mothers drank tea. Fire crackled in the chimney. Indian music played in the living room. In accented English the mothers shared the stories of their lives from before. They forgot they were in Massachusetts, until the voices of their little girls, speaking perfect-pitched American, reminded them that they were still in the US.

So the host who had cooked too much food asked her guest, “You’ll take a doggy bag home, of course?”

“Of course,” said casually the guest.

Atypical French Breakfast table. Most of us don’t eat much in the morning. Some even go sans napkin:)

French Friday: Chattanooga Part 2

Every July, when I was a kid, my family went camping, either along the Atlantic coast in Brittany or Vendée or still in the Alps or the Pyrénées.

When there, I always started to imagine my life in these unfamiliar beach or mountain towns where we had planted our tent for three weeks.

I would try to spot the local kids. Who were never difficult to distinguish from the vacationers. First they had a tan when we arrived. Then they never looked lost in town. Finally they had friends to go swimming, fishing, hiking, shell combing or just hanging around with. I made friends too over these long summer days but only with the other kids on the campground. So the local kids remained mysterious and I envied them for they lived a life different of mine, in a place that bore little resemblance with my hometown.

During our vacation my parents, my sister, and I always took an after-dinner walk. We passed houses edged by trees that were also different from the ones that grew in Normandy. Other houses were tucked along quiet streets with names that hinted to the region and its history.

During these summers I developed a taste for imagining the other lives that would be mine if I made my home elsewhere.

This tendency has never left me. As much as I’ve loved building a home with my family in each town where we’ve lived, I still envision myself elsewhere when we travel.

In which part of town would I like to live? Where would I go for a walk? What would be my favorite café? Would I get accustomed to the climate, to the different light and air?

If I lived in Chattanooga, for example, this is what I would do:

*I would purchase a membership to the 300-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.

*Sometimes, to remember that I only borrow the land that is now my home I would go to The Passage, a memorial to the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears refers to the forced journey of the Cherokee tribes to Oklahoma in 1838. About 4000 Cherokees died before reaching destination.

*On Sunday, I would go to the market. The Chattanooga Market is supposedly one of the largest in the country. The cherry tomatoes were stunning.

I even received a free re-usable bag with the logo of EPB. Which is one of America’s largest publicly owned electric power providers and also the pioneering communications company that came up with the first Gigabit Internet speeds, crystal clear television and telephone service utilizing a community-wide fiber optic network.

*The pedestrian bridge that links both banks of the Tennessee River would become an instant favorite of mine and I would bike on the thirteen miles of paved trails built along the same river.

*After visiting the Hunter Museum of American Art I’d get coffee at Rembrandt café or at the nearby bakery. Many cafés abound across town for a place the size of Chattanooga.

The Rembrandt café. Photo courtesy Bluff View Art District Chattanooga.

The Bakery

*If out of town friends visited me I would take them to Rock City, in Lookout Mountain (located in the state of Georgia but part of the Chattanooga metropolitan area) and tell them the story behind this walk-through garden with stunning views.

During the Civil War, claims from both Confederate and Union soldiers that one could see the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia from the summit of Lookout Mountain surfaced. The seven states claim has never been geographically proven but the view from the summit of Lookout Mountain remains awesome.

In the late 1920s, Garnet and Frieda Carter started to develop a large walk-through garden through their private estate located in Lookout Mountain. Frieda gathered and preserved more than 400 varieties of plants indigenous to the region, earning her national recognition from the Garden Club of America. During the Depression, she and her husband opened their estate to public visit. I was interested to know how anyone during these years of hardship for so many people across the world had been able to do such extensive work and promote it in such a manner that Rock City became soon one of the greatest American private gardens and popular family attractions. I found out that Garnet Carter is the inventor of Tom Thumb Miniature Golf, the father of mini golf. When he sold the right to his patent he used his fortune to build Rock City.

The garden paths take the visitor through massive natural rock formations, abundant flora, on a swinging bridge, through kitsch Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village. And to the 140-foot High Falls as a grand finale.

*I’m pretty sure that my out of town friends would enjoy visiting Ruby Falls.

Like Rock City, Ruby Falls is also the work of a local. Leo Lambert was a cave enthusiast who knew about the Lookout Mountain Cave. This cave had a natural entrance at the foot of the mountain on the banks of the Tennessee River and it was home to Native Americans. Later there were reports of explorers traveling deep into this cave, without reaching the end. In 1905, the Southern Railroad Company constructed a tunnel along the face of Lookout Mountain and through some portions of the mountain for one of its lines. This tunnel sealed off the natural entrance to the cave.

Leo Lambert contemplated the idea to reopen it to the public. With a group of investors he got the idea to drill an elevator shaft from another point on the mountain to access the cave from the surface above. Work began in the fall of 1928. Late December, a worker discovered a void in the rock and felt a gush of air. Upon further inspection an opening was discovered. Lambert, along with a small crew, entered this opening to explore the newly found cave. They discovered a number of unusual and beautiful rock formations, flowing passages and several stream beds. Pushing their way deeper and deeper into the cave, they finally reached the spectacular waterfall. On his next exploration into the cave, Lambert took his wife Ruby along. This is when he told her that he would name the waterfall in her honor. Since it opened to the public in 1935 the Ruby Falls Cave has seen millions of visitors. The place that claims that there is no rain and always a nice 60 at Ruby Falls is quite special, although a major tourist attraction.

In France, I once harvested grapes in Ardèche, where caves abound. I agreed to join some speleologist friends of mine. Let’s just say that I will always favor the top of the mountain to caves.

But the extensive work that has been done at Ruby Falls allows people to visit the caves without crawling. My husband bumped his head a few times but he’s 6’2. I am 5’7 and had only to watch my head a couple of times.

*Once one of the most polluted American cities, Chattanooga is now enjoying clean air, due to many green initiatives.

The Bike Share system, for example, is similar to the one in much larger American and European cities.

The revitalized riverfront with many parks has allowed Chattanooga’s residents to get out and play, and also to host the Ironman 70.3 triathlon.

I love the great outdoors but I’d rather hike than run, take my bike to the library more than on a race and play in the ocean than swim competitively in a river. But. When I saw the men and women crossing the final line, some of them in their late 60s and possibly older, I was awestruck and so proud of them.

Back from Chattanooga, I read Andrea’s blog post Settling. Which is about her uneasiness as she arrives to an unfamiliar place. This is in fact the first post of two. Settling, Part 2 is as great.

“It takes time to settle into a new landscape,” she writes. “There are places in which we don’t belong at all, and some that make us work hard for that belonging.”

“Eventually, the land will begin to reveal itself to me,” she writes later. “This is not an easy landscape, but if I listen I will find my place in it.”

Her words have a deep personal resonance. As I get older I’m aware that I’ve never ceased to look for a place to call home and finally start to realize that home doesn’t necessary mean only one place. I’ve often envied people who’ve never moved for the ease that flows from them, due to their intimate relationship with the landscape they inhabit and the people who populate it. But I’m not one of these people. I will never be. I will continue to find myself home in many places. For the time of one weekend, one month, one year, or more, with more or less success. And I won’t probably ever stop imagining myself in other places. As I did when I was a little girl, then a teenager passing through these unknown French beach and mountain towns.

Steamboats will always evocate the American south to me

Sunset on the Tennessee River

Monthly Monday Miam-Miam: Chattanooga Part 1

From the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center in Chattanooga

Fall is upon us. With fall, I won’t travel as much. But I will work more on several writing projects that need my full dedication. An agent has shown interest for one of my picture book manuscripts. Several readers have been through my Young Adult novel and I know what has to be done to submit this manuscript. I know I am getting closer to my publication goals, but I need time.

We all know that time is precious and unfortunately unstoppable. So I’ve decided to keep my weekly French Friday post where I blend my dual French American identity. But I will move my weekly Monday Miam-Miam to a monthly publication. Starting today, Monday Miam-Miam becomes Monthly Monday Miam-Miam.

From Chattanooga Market

After our trip to Asheville, North Carolina where we discovered a tiny fraction of the Blue Ridge Mountains we were tempted to pay a visit to neighboring Tennessee. We have been several times to Nashville and Memphis but never to the mountain region.

With little time it was impossible to explore the Smoky Mountains. Faithful to our motto “less is often better than too much,” we established camp in Chattanooga, knowing we would straddle the states of Georgia and Tennessee.

There is so much to see and do in and around Chattanooga that I will split our visit in two posts.

For today, these are the two Chattanooga restaurants that make my short-list.

 

For the freshness and locally sourced food: Public House

Located downtown and yet slightly away from the more rambunctious bars and eateries, Public House is part of the Warehouse Row, the former Old Stone Fort during the Civil War. The fort was transformed first into a warehouse and then into a small elegant retail place that has kept the original architecture and added a modern twist. The row offers a mix of restaurants, offices, and shops. I even noticed a boutique Yves Delorme, the French provider of fine (and expensive) linens.

Local farms from Tennessee or its next-door neighbor Georgia provide the meat, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products to Public House. The chef works also with Foley Fish, a fourth generation fish house in Boston. If you know Boston you know you can trust the city with seafood and seashell.

The food at Public House is really close to what you would eat at home if you took the time to cook. The goal is to offer good food at a reasonable price in a comfortable setting. I found the modern clean décor very inviting.

And I really loved the napkins.

Cheese is having its moment in the US. Most restaurants we’ve visited over the last year offer cheese as an appetizer. What we love best is to explore assortments that offer a mix of foreign and local cheeses. That night Public House had an excellent Camembert from Georgia. Trust the Norman girl with Camembert 🙂 They also had a terrific cheese from the Sequatchie Cove Farm located 35 minutes away from Chattanooga.

With two knives, please.

His Sauteed Carolina Trout with Squash Casserole and Pecan Pesto

 

My Grilled Faroe Island Salmon with Quinoa Pilaf and Romesco

Our server was a young woman native from Chattanooga. Attentive and friendly she incarnated the legendary southern hospitality.

We didn’t have enough time to visit the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, an hour and half away from Chattanooga. Neither one of us drinks hard liquor, but Jack Daniels has an international reputation. During my college years, I had an occasional whiskey-coca as we call the Jack and Coke drink in France.

Our Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey Chocolate Cheesecake compensated. I’m not a huge cheesecake fan, but I loved the whiskey flavor in that one.

With two spoons, please.

 

For the view: Back Inn Café

Back Inn Café is located in the historic Bluff View Art District high above the river.

The Art Museum in Chattanooga

The Tennessee River

The restaurant is housed in a renovated Colonial Revival Mansion, but the weather was so nice that night that we decided to eat in the garden that overlooks the Tennessee River.

Dining in the garden

While we ate we enjoyed hearing and watching the triathlon men and women who had come from all over the world for the Iroman 70.3. The women had just competed and the men would race the following day.

 

Food for the soul: only one independent bookstore in Chattanooga but a really nice one.

Star Line Books is located in a small indoor gallery, in a quiet part of Market Street, close to the University of Tennessee. With two levels it’s still a small yet airy store that offers a selection of new fiction and non fiction titles, numerous locally authored books about nature, environment and cooking, as well as a great children’s literature section with titles that range from picture books to young adult novels.

From the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center in Chattanooga

 

See you on Friday for Chattanooga Part 2!

 

 

French Friday: Le Tour de France and a Château in Normandy

Based on American newspapers, magazines, novels, and even children’s books you’d think that France is Paris and southern France. But when I meet ordinary Americans I find them equally, if not more, interested by Normandy, my home region, and the Tour de France than the City of Lights and the Riviera.

Last week, I bumped into a couple of middle aged Americans who assumed that I was a seasoned cyclist because I was born and grew up in France.

“My dream,” the man said on a confidential tone, “is to see the Tour de France.”

“I’ve seen several,” I blurted out.

I hadn’t intended to appear blasé, so I described how I got to watch the yearly race with my family.

Embed from Getty Images

For years, the Tour de France ran past my home, so we could stay inside until the last minute and rush out when people started to shout, “Les voilà!”

Most often, however, we would line up on both sides of the road and wait with our neighbors while the anticipation and excitement grew. Back then summers were sunny but rarely hot. I still remember the breeze on my bare arms and legs. The ambiance was festive and low-key. Adults made money-free bets, based on the results from the previous days but mostly on their favorite cyclist. My mother, as so many French people, favored the underdog Raymond Poulidor over Eddie Merckx as she had in the past when Jacques Anquetil was Poulidor’s competitor. Poulidor nicknamed Poupou never won the Tour de France and remained the eternal #2, without ever losing French people’s sympathy.

Embed from Getty Images

When my sister and I were small my father would alternatively carry us on his shoulders so we could spot the arrival of the cyclists. Except for the one who wore the yellow jersey – le maillot jaune, symbolizing his victorious previous races, these cyclists were so incredibly fast that I was never able to distinguish one cyclist from another in the pack– le peloton. I would just watch, breathless and impressed. Whoa!

I loved my bike and adored the few descents along the neighboring back road where my parents had just allowed me to bike with my younger sister and classmates. But these cyclists were faster than the most daring of us. To this day I remember the whooshing sound of their wheels and how the spokes left me dizzy as they zoomed past us.

Above all, the Tour de France remains for me the joyful exhilaration that preceded the distribution of small gifts. Thrown from the voiture balai or sweeping car that followed the caravan of bikes, these candies, visors, whistles, and balloons took the appearance of the most precious treasures.

“That must have been lots of fun,” concluded the middle-aged couple.

I had never realized until I moved to the US that few people saw the Tour de France from their doormat.

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Right after I met this American couple, I spotted Valerie Davis’s latest post: Tour de France.

There she shared her 1950 Tour de France as well as her stay in Paris and in a provincial château, when she was a twelve-year-old British girl.

Which prompted some of my own childhood memories, some twenty years later, in another château located in my native Normandy.

For privacy reasons this is not the château of my post but another one, quite similar, in Normandy. Photo courtesy cotecaen.fr

Three of my cousins lived in the most unusual setting because their parents were the caretakers of a large property including a medieval château.

I lived half an hour away and yet a world separated us.

Which is why I equally loved and disliked this place.

The natural beauty was irresistible. The land was planted with centennial poplars, oaks, chestnut trees, and fir trees. Stonewalls covered with moss and ivy surrounded the château and the extensive grounds. Iron wrought gates opened on a long pebbled driveway that split at some point toward my cousins’ farmhouse and the château. Only a short walking distance separated them, so my uncle and aunt could easily go from one place to another.

Well-kept paths and trails that I’ve rarely seen away from France led to more forest-like fields and moreover to the river where my cousins camped in the summer. Regardless of the seasons the land was gorgeous, alternatively covered with snow, daffodils, wild flowers, and golden grass. On the way to the river stood a small chapel where the count, countess and children could attend mass when they stayed over during long weekends and school vacations.

Courtesy to Pinterest

My cousins were accustomed to aristocracy. I was not.

Why would the nobles, I wondered, enjoy privileges and these châteaux, while French people who didn’t belong to the aristocracy lived in small houses, often in tiny flats they couldn’t afford buying?

So I started my own small rebellion. When my cousins reminded me to call the count and countess’ children Monsieur and Mademoiselle before their first name, I did my best to talk to them without ever addressing them directly. Which was not that hard. What was impossible, however, was to never say “you.” In French, we have two pronouns for “you.” If you address a person you know well, a child, a family member or friend you use “tu.” But if you address someone you don’t know and is older than you, or anyone who deserves respect such as a teacher or a boss, you use “vous.”

Apparently “vous” was also mandatory when addressing aristocrats, even if they were my age or younger.

And that was a real issue with me. No way could I use the formal “vous” when talking to a girl younger than me or a boy my exact age.

Now these kids were fun and I loved playing with them. Since our games took place on this historic property we even had a real château to protect from the enemy or attack depending on which side we were.

Adjacent to my cousins’ farmhouse stood a tower where my uncle stored hay for the cows and steers.

The tower was more modest and had only one front door and a top opening, but it was still a tower. Courtesy Pinterest

We were about twelve kids, aristocrats and commoners, split between two armies who fought either from the ground or from the top of the tower. Our weapons: dry cow dung.

During these wild battles, my cousins bombarded the young counts and countess without ever losing their good manners.

“Prenez ça, Monsieur! Vous êtes mort!”

“Et vlan, c’est pour vous Mademoiselle!”

On my front, things were more complicated. The tower was the Bastille and I had to free the prisonners. The ultimate goal was to reach Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. I was young but understood that no amount of dry cow dung would ever be enough. So my only attempt to change a system I found unjust was to fight in silence, with occasional groans but no monsieur, no mademoiselle, and no vous.

In her post, Valerie writes about her memories of eating gouter at the château. The French afternoon snack time, served mostly to kids, either after school or around four p.m., comes from the verb gouter or to taste. So a gouter is never a big meal.

At my aunt’s, after those long days spent mostly outside, gouter was not limited to two cookies or an apple. My aunt sliced the large loaf of country bread she bought every morning at the village bakery. She buttered the thick slices and either spread confiture (jam) or gelée de groseilles (redcurrant jelly) or still shaved some dark chocolate on top. Which was my favorite way to enjoy my gouter.

My aunt used much thicker bread but the concept has not changed. From Chef Simon

The gouter at my aunt was pretty much a All-You-Can-Eat buffet. Dinner would be served much later when she would be back from the château where she helped at the kitchen.

We know that we tend to embellish our memories, one way or another, as time goes by.

It was probably tiring to wait for the Tour de France. The small gifts were cheap tokens. The cyclists were so fast that they were gone in the blink of an eye.

But after an afternoon of playing war with dry cow dung, I don’t exaggerate if I say that this simple, restorative gouter brought civilization back to our lives. Sometimes commoners and aristocrats shared this meal together. There was then no need for Monsieur, Mademoiselle, and vous.

We were equally ravenous, equally pooped, equally dirty, equally silent as we devoured our gouter. In my young mind, in these moments it looked like we were also equally French.

 

 

French Friday: In Memory. With Love.

In memory of 9/11 I won’t write my weekly Monday Miam-Miam post. Instead, I remember today of this world-changing event and also of my family’s first cross-country road trip, born from September 11, 2001.

This post is also my love message to this land I am so grateful to inhabit. A land that is currently suffering on so many different levels. A land that I still discover when I travel its natural beauty and complex human landscape.

En mémoire du 11 septembre je n’écrirai pas mon billet hebdomadaire du lundi. Ce billet d’aujourd’hui est en souvenir de cet évènement qui bouscula et transforma le monde. Ce billet évoque aussi le premier voyage de ma famille à travers les Etats Unis. C’est aussi un message d’affection profonde pour cette terre que j’ai la chance d’habiter. Une terre qui souffre actuellement pour des raisons humaines et naturelles. Une terre que je découvre encore lorsque je traverse sa beauté géographique et rencontre son unique diverse population.

Pour ceux et celles qui aiment me lire dans notre belle langue natale, que j’ai parfois tellement peur de perdre au fil de ma vie américaine, il se trouve que j’ai de nombreux billets sur nos voyages au coeur des US. Vous pouvez les trouver en recherchant Route 66, le 11 septembre, ou encore New York City.

 

When my husband drove home from Massachusetts to California, escaping the aftermath of 9/11, he brought with him unforgettable pictures and stories of a country so big that many west coast residents will never set foot on the east coast and many east coast residents will never visit the west.

“When I followed the directions to get home,” he told me. “I wanted to follow others. I could have gone anywhere.” He always paused there.

It is because of this pause, more an invitation than a silence, that, two years later, the six of us went on our first family cross-country trip.

A year and a half after 9/11, four months after the Iraq invasion preceding the lengthy war, our country was still healing. Everywhere, people needed to check on each other to make sure everyone was all right. The sense of loss, of having stepped into a different state of mind was still palpable.

In New York City, in that summer of 2003, we wanted to stay at the recently reopened Millenium hotel in lower Manhattan where my husband had stayed for business several times. The hotel suffered great damage on September 11. Our room overlooked Ground Zero, and neither my husband nor I slept much on the first night. Our thoughts took us back to that day when our country and the world entered a new era. We both listened at the sound of the bulldozers that dug through the night and the shouts and voices of the workers who switched shifts.

In the morning, haggard and somber, we walked to St. Paul’s Chapel, the children holding hands. We don’t go to mass but we visit religious edifices, regardless of their denominations, for cultural and architectural purposes, and the children had always been quiet as a sign of respect for anyone’s religious beliefs. Yet on that hot, humid summer morning, they had never been so solemn.

They held hands as they entered the makeshift memorial and only parted when my seven-year-old son chose to linger around the drawings and the flags rather than to read the cards and banners. His sister, only two years older, wanted to make sense of each and every word. Of course, my methodic science oriented daughter stepped from one exhibit to the other while my oldest said that she couldn’t breathe and asked to wait for us in the garden near the sycamore that is said to have spared the church from any damage.

I kept my husband’s hand in mine. We had discovered New York many years ago, before we knew each other, and we had both succumbed to the city’s spell. Later when we lived in Massachusetts we had taken every opportunity to spend weekends in New York together. Before September 11, it had been so easy to flash a plain driver’s license at Logan Airport before jumping into the shuttle for La Guardia. Since we loved Paris we could only love New York. Paris is the New York of the French. Both offer so much to love and hate.

On that hot, humid summer morning, we both had only love for New York.

On that same first cross-country trip, we traveled the mythic Route 66 all the way from Illinois to California. The remnants of the Main Street of America were often nothing more than a strip of abandoned motels, broken neon that didn’t blink anymore, and a few shacks that displayed tourist memorabilia. Yet everywhere, it was easy to visualize what Route 66 once saw: young people or families driving shiny cars, stopping for gas at Phillips 66, pulling in a drive-in for a hamburger and a milk shake, and spending a night at one of the kitschy motels.

As we drove toward Oklahoma City, a summer storm was brewing above us. Lightning zigzagged through bruised clouds.

“Don’t you think that after Ground Zero, a visit to another site of terror is too much?” my husband asked me when I suggested a stop at the National Memorial.

“It’s different,” I said.

For the children, like most Americans, being a terrorist after September 11 meant being Muslim. Oklahoma City was the perfect place for clarification.

A little more than one hundred years after the Great Run Race, on April 19, 1995, 168 men, women and children lost their lives in the same city in the bombing of one the downtown federal buildings.

Oklahoma City was reinventing itself through cafés and breweries, basketball games and street music, merely blocks away from the serene National Memorial built on the site of the destroyed federal building.

“The children got smaller chairs,” my son said as we paused, facing the chairs that represent the lives lost that day. “At Ground Zero, there is nothing.”

On the outskirts of Oklahoma City, a couple of hitchhikers, she, pregnant and handicapped, he, keeping an eye on the storm, held a sign that read: “Jesus Saves.” Stuck at the red light, I was ashamed to witness their poverty.

“Can we give them some money?” asked my youngest daughter.

The light changed to green. We moved on. The hitchhikers waved at us.

Until we arrived in Sayre, Oklahoma, the old Road 66 was mostly a trip back in time with pictures of a young and energetic country. But Sayre, on a steaming August afternoon, was a reminder of a different past. The Great Depression forced many Oklahoma residents to flee their state for the promised land of California.

I had read The Grapes of Wrath in French and some extracts in English while I was in high school. Part of the movie based on Steinbeck’s novel and starring Henry Fonda, had been filmed in Sayre, Oklahoma. I hadn’t been able, as a French schoolgirl, to grasp the despair and the anger, but also the hope and courage of the Joad family in their catastrophic trip from Oklahoma to California. But when I walked through the almost deserted, dilapidated downtown of Sayre in the middle of a hot summer day, it didn’t take much imagination to feel the distress of the period.

“Route 66 opened access from the East to the West,” my husband told the children. “This is also the road that the people who left Oklahoma for California took.”

“Why did they leave?” my son asked.

“Because California is better,” my Parisian-born daughter said.

“It’s my birth state,” said my first American-born daughter.

“Mine too,” her younger sister piped in.

“They were looking for more job opportunities,” my husband said. “That’s why they left.”

“Like you and Maman,” my son said. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.

The soil in Sayre, as it is in most of Oklahoma, is as red as blood. On the day of our visit, although the sky swelled like an overripe fruit above our heads, only a few heavy, warm drops of rain trickled down.

Later, as we drove across the panhandle of Texas, reaching Amarillo for a steak dinner and a good night’s sleep, I thought of the Joad family, stopping only for a quick rest and hoping their car would make it through another day.

When we crossed New Mexico and Arizona, we had plenty of time to enjoy the dramatic landscape of the Southwest, the food, and the little shops along Route 66. The Joads drove all night and stopped only when they reached the Colorado River at dawn.

In Needles, California, one of the hottest points in the country, the temperature reached 117 F at 9:00 p.m. The windshield was burning hot under my hand. We stopped at a roadside café, which offered limited food choices, but an intriguing sign:

“We didn’t choose to be here, but this is your last chance to have dinner, so be nice and appreciative. We have spent a lot of money to make this place a decent rest stop.”

Unusual American business message to customers perhaps, but it is true that any driver should stop in Needles for gas and food. Just in case. The road through the Mojave Desert is long and unforgiving. After dinner, the temperature hadn’t dropped, but our car was air-conditioned, and we drove safely through the barren land. The Joads had an old, unreliable car. When they reached Needles, they went on, through the heat and isolation of the harsh Mojave Desert.

Approaching Bakersfield, which opens the southern doors of the vast San Joaquin Valley, the Joads discovered, awestruck, the beauty of the valley.

“I didn’t knowed there was anything like her,” said Pa. He called, “Ma-come look. We’re there!”

The Mother Road in 2003 was still paved with sweat and glory, misery and hope.

 

Unlike my husband and the children, I couldn’t fall asleep after our first cross-country trip. Even with eyes closed, surrounded by quietness I was restless. The vastness of the United States of America kept me awake.

American flags on the motorcycles. Bumper stickers on semis: “Without trucks, America stops.” Bumper stickers on cars: “Got Jesus?” Waitresses working long shifts while their children are home. Gas attendants smoking behind the building while customers get coffee and donuts. “How are yous?” at the rest areas. Smiles and nods at the free continental breakfast buffet. Miles under the wheels, trucks zooming by, sandwiches on the side of the road, and newspapers spread all over the car.

And the infinite beauty of a land as vast, as diverse, as generous, and as resilient as its people made me hungry for more.

 

In 2007, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy published The American Vertigo. The book was written as he made his own cross-country trek, following the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835 and 1840. Although Mr. Levy met interesting and well-known people that I won’t ever meet, his United States didn’t smell, taste, or even look much like mine. The title of his book, however, drew me when I bought it in France.

There was no other possible title, I now realize.

And this is why, each time my husband suggests yet another road trip, I agree.

For this vertigo that reminds me that I live in the United States of America.

 

 

Monday Miam-Miam: Labor Day Lobstah

I never really ate lobster in France. I do remember my mother mentioning Homard (French for lobster) Thermidor (a traditional fancy sauce). I was a kid but I heard expensive and detected a trace of envy in her voice. Homard sounded like caviar. Food my parents couldn’t afford.

When I lived in Paris I adored shellfish platters made of an assortment of clams, oysters, tiny briny shrimps, scallops, periwinkle, mussels, prawns, langoustine, and lobster claws served on a bed of ice.

But this is in 1996 over my first trip to Maine that I discovered real lobster. Fished there, prepared there, and eaten there. Since then I’ve never ever (even once) ate lobster away from Maine.

Although lobster is served everywhere throughout Vacationland, this is more often in Brunswick that my family eats the Maine signature food.

Brunswick is home to Bowdoin College, one of the three renowned liberal arts colleges of Maine (with Colby in Waterville and Bates in Lewiston). Only eight miles from Bath and twenty-five from Portland, Brunswick manages to feel urban while being small. No doubt due to the population of students coming from New England, the whole country, and even from abroad.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed the transformation of Brunswick, more noticeably when the Naval base closed definitely in 2011 to become a civilian airport. Restaurants and cafés opened along Maine Street and also steps away.

The most unique being by far Tao Yuan. My family bumped accidently into this restaurant upon its grand opening in 2012. I was so impressed that I wrote a blog post about our experience when the place was only called Tao.

Just north of Brunswick, you enter the small town of Topsham and leave the Cumberland County for the Sagadahoc County. In Topsham you cannot miss the gorgeous Androscoggin Pedestrian Swinging Bridge.

The town is also known for its historic mill building located on the banks of the Androscoggin River. The building used to be the Pejepscot Paper Company quarters. Built in 1868, it is the oldest surviving paper mill in the state. The mill is part of the National Register of Historic Places and is now a mixed-use commercial property with many tenants, including the brewery Seadog.

But my family goes to Seadog to eat Lobstah with a View.

Seadog can host lots of people inside and outside on its covered patio that overlooks the bridge over the Androscoggin River. But it’s almost impossible to find a table during the summer. Not really a problem for me as I love the place best when it’s rainy and the river roars down below my feet.

Lobster roll, fries and cole slaw: a Maine staple

But when we really crave real lobster we go to Hallowell Seafood and Produce Wine and Cheese Shop, located on Water Street in the small town of Hallowell that sits along the Kennebec River.

Hallowell Public Library

Family owned and run it’s an authentic Maine small store where you’ll find the freshest fish and seafood but also seasonal fruit and veggies from the farm, and unique grocery items that don’t make their way to the neighboring Hannaford.

The Seafood and Produce Wine and Cheese Shop in the fall

The two brothers behind the counter know their turf and serve everyone with a smile, humor, and almost always with a little bit more than you’ll pay for.

They will cook the lobsters while you wait or take a short stroll along Water Street.

Boiled for you

Lobstah at home

Maine or the Way Life Should Be. The lobstah must have a different opinion, though.

Based on the large number of authors who call Maine home, food for the soul abounds there.

In Brunswick, I like to visit Gulf of Maine Books. The shop is located on Maine Street, feet away from Bowdoin College. The alternative bookshop, an old timer in town, offers children’s books and a wide selection of books for adults in all genres. No website but the store holds notable books.

In Hallowell, I love spending time at Merrill’s Bookshop. The store carries rare, used, and scholarly books at the top of a narrow set of stairs inside a brick building facing the Kennebec River.

This is an old blog post that I wrote in 2012 about the experience to shop there and also about books versus tablets.

 

 

Wherever you are today, whatever you eat, and whatever you read I wish you a safe, restful Labor Day!

French Friday: When Your Born-American Toddler Swears in French

From Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay

I envy my son’s exceptional memory. Maybe all these music sheets he has to memorize because he’s a musician help. No, it’s just natural, I think, since he has always been able to remember anything and everything since he’s very little. Including stuff his mother didn’t ask him to remember.

The youngest in the family, my son was with me most of the time before he started kindergarden. He didn’t talk much, but I knew it was his personality and not a language issue since he understood absolutely everything whether in French or in English. At home, I only spoke French with him.

In the car too.

Where we spent quite some time, either dropping his sisters off at dance class or at a friend’s for a playdate or a birthday party or still picking them up after gymnastics or a piano lesson.

We had left Massachusetts where my son was born and had returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. I immediately noticed that people drove far less courteously in 2000 than they used to in the early 90s. Due to the recent massive migrations toward this compact area, traffic was horrendous. Since I always carried a precious cargo I was prudent and intended to keep calm under all circumstances.

When I had been surprised and amused to notice drivers using the fast lane while applying makeup or browsing through the morning edition of the San Francisco Chronicle in my early American days, I was now shocked to see so many tailgating, cutting, and even giving the finger, a gesture that is used with more parsimony in France than in the US. On the other side, French drivers cuss more often than their American counterparts.

I didn’t. Much. Remember, I had always at least one child in the car with me. So if I did use a bad word I muttered between my teeth. Always in French, naturally.

One day, as I was driving through packed streets, my son buckled up in his car seat right behind me, my mother-in-law next to him and my father-in-law riding shotgun, a driver passed my car only to slam right in front of me to avoid the path of an oncoming car.

My son exclaimed in a clear loud voice, “Connard!”

My father-in-law stiffled a laugh and said, “Right, petit. That driver was very rude. And dangerous too. He didn’t even use his blinker.”

My mother-in-law leaned over and said, “Tell my son to watch his language or his own son will soon swear like a sailor.” Which in French is like a charretier or a carter.

“Our grandson is only repeating what he hears,” my father-in-law went on. “And it doesn’t come from his mother for sure.”

My son had remained silent since his expletive. I peeked in the rear mirror to check on him and caught him staring straight at me with an angelic smile.

“Maman,” he said.

One word was enough to prove my husband innocent.

From Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay

Later that night, when the kids were tucked in bed, my in-laws begged me to tell the “funny” story that happened in the car.

“Evelyne never uses this word,” my husband said.

“But how could he have heard and memorized it?” I said, partly to keep my husband from listing the other bad words I could have used, mostly embarrassed to see that he was taking full responsibility for our son’s choice of language. “After all,” I insisted. “He’s always with me.”

“Don’t underestimate those Sunday rides,” he concluded.

In the end, we’ve never known for sure who taught our son this French cursing word.

What we do know, though, is that he has expanded his French vocabulary in this particular field. No doubt due to his soft spot for French cops movies but also to his exceptional memory.

If only he could stop memorizing what his mother didn’t ask him to remember.

 

P.S. Although the author of this recent blog post is right: the French expletive “connard” is crude, some American equivalents are as vulgar.

As any cursing word, it depends on the context and circumstances, right?

From Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay

 

 

 

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