My notebooks are black. All except the one bought from the stationery shop in Valparaiso which is bright yellow. There wasn’t much choice. Not unless I was willing to deal with squares, and I wasn’t. Unlike the protagonist in Modiano’s novella – can you call something shorter than two hundred pages a novel? – the protagonist who writes lists of names – people, streets, buildings or really anything that will fit into an unexpected list – I have failed to record many of the names that illustrate my days in my black notebooks. The yellow notebook does worse than the black ones. I bought it at a point where I had time on my hands and its records fall in the crack between truth and lie. This is not important. What I’m trying to write about is Modiano’s The Black Notebook and in all honesty, even though the notebook is mentioned every few pages or so, the notebook itself is irrelevant to the book. The book is an excuse for Modiano to write Modiano.
Jean, the protagonist – who is Patrick in Family Record or whichever of the other French-named Modiano protagonists who wander through Paris overly late at night in their youth and later become a writer – Jean could never be a woman. This, in the same way as how Cortázar’s Horacio Oliveira in his novel Hopscotch could never be a woman. We women have to be taken out late at night and escorted home. If, in the film, Midnight in Paris, the male protagonist, Gil, had been a woman, then his fiancé (assuming still a heterosexual relationship) would have questioned her walking the streets of a foreign city past midnight, alone. As he is a man, nobody seems all that much concerned.
To walk such streets alone as a woman is irresponsible. Especially poorly lit city streets. And yet it’s exactly such streets that hold a certain literary charm. It’s the edge, the faded light and the blurred shadows which make it so fascinating. Modiano writes what Edward Hopper painted in his 1942 painting, Nighthawks. It’s a world just past closing time. It’s not a world of busy bars and nightclubs, but the public bus station at two o’clock in the morning when few people are around. You’ve begun to sober up. You’ve been elsewhere, perhaps eaten, or not eaten, although even if you’ve not eaten much, you don’t notice the sensation of hunger because your mind is elsewhere. Floating. Life stretches out in front of you; there’s a long walk home.
In the northern-hemisphere autumn of 2020, in the few weeks we had where the bookshops were open, I walked into the spacious old textile mill at Saltaire and purchased a book entitled Family Record. An impulse buy. I’d run my fingers down the book’s spine, let it fall open in my palms and felt the quality of the thick paper it was printed on. I hadn’t heard of the book, but I’d heard of the author – a Frenchman by the name of Patrick Modiano – and I like a nicely printed book.
The first Modiano book I read, and fell in love with, was a collection of novellas, published together under the title Suspended Sentences. How I came to own Suspended Sentences or even when I read it is a mystery to me. My copy is a version translated by Mark Polizzotti and printed in 2014 after Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature; Family Record has the same translator, publisher and a similar shiny mark of a prize-winning author on the cover. I think I bought Suspended Sentences in Leeds on some shopping trip that had led me to seek comfort in Waterstones, but it could have been anywhere. I know I had it sitting on my shelf for some time before I finally read it, and I’d bought it because it was modern and French and therefore like nothing else I was reading, but although I am certain that I have read it – an impression remains – I cannot be sure when. I wrote no review and appear to have recorded it on no list.
I took the book, Family Record, to the till so that I could pay, and the masked man behind the counter gushed with enthusiasm for my choice. He hadn’t read Suspended Sentences – which I recommended to him – but he had read other books by Modiano and been enthralled.
If you are one of those people who like to be pulled through a novel, dropped from one cliff-hanging chapter decisively into the action of the next, then Modiano is not the author for you. If he plots, there remains no evidence. Nor does he tie up any loose ends. In fact, he seems to go out of the way to make the threads of his stories fray, their threadbare fabric might be full of character, but these characters don’t necessarily do anything. I read his work hoping for demystification and close the book mystified as to how I can be so in love with the clarity of his writing and yet endlessly disappointed by its obscurity.
In introducing the novellas of Suspended Sentences, and reflecting on his work translating the stories, Polizzotti states “Generally speaking, and despite the ambiguities in his narrative strategy, Modiano’s prose style is straightforward and clear – by which I do not mean simple – and I have aimed above all to preserve that limpid quality in this translation.”
I look at a page at random and I try to work out what it is that I like so much about his writing style. He would be, if one were running a writing class, an eloquent example of the power of varying sentence length. Watch the full stops and you find short sentences embedded in longer sentences, snuggled in the middle of them, pretending simplicity without ever being simple. But that’s not it. There are staccato moments, especially perhaps when we’re in the mind of a boy who’s dealing with what’s laid out in front of him one step at a time. It’s memory, but like when you’ve lost your keyring and you’re trying to piece back together where you’ve been, vocalizing the options, wondering what you could have possibly been doing with your hands that led to the abandonment of the door key. Which surface did you drop them on?
Then there’s a great repetition held in the verbs. By which I don’t mean that the verbs themselves seem to repeat, they don’t. Or well, sometimes they do, but not excessively so. But that verbs are used to build up the scene, give the texture of the scene. They don’t tend to be complex or flowery verbs. They tend to be quite common verbs. Yet they build up gradually, one after another, acting to give weight to a character.
As an example, take a look at these verbs, used in a scene opened at random from the novella Afterimage to describe a man’s movements.
So I’m left feeling that although there’s something ethereal about the overall pattern of Modiano’s fragments, each individually is weighted and solid. Through some hard-working verbs, his work grounds itself in the names of people and places, dates and ages, car models and the patterns of wallpaper.
Either way, I’ve two more of his books ordered and shipped and I’m hoping they’ll be gracing my front door in a day or two.
“… he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe: Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal, through thin-framed intellectual glasses (which seem out of place perched above his heavy beard and broad shoulders), turning it just so for each impact.”
Cal Newport in his book Deep Work describing the blacksmith Ric Furrer of Door County Forgeworks
Whenever I read about someone doing physical labour with a
sense of love I’m reminded of my time on the farm in France. Whilst on the farm
in France isn’t the only occasion when I’ve worked the land, it was the most
prolonged period I’ve done so, and the most rewarding.
I’d be up early, to share breakfast with the children before
Grandmére walked them to school. Fresh French bread and homemade jam. Then, whilst
Grandpère was checking his email, I’d head over to the polytunnel to water all
the vegetables growing there.
Anything ripe and ready for eating I’d take to the kitchen
Plus, any eggs I’d wrestled from the want-to-be mothers in
the hen coop. After this, I’d collect grain from the barn and drive out to the
sheep. They would come running at me, the largest, a sheep I nicknamed ‘bully’
at their lead. It would take creativity not to end up rolling down the
Then I’d go and join Grandpère
By this time, he would have settled on a plan for the day,
and would be, you could be sure, wielding some sharp implement. His favourite
was the chainsaw. We chopped down trees, chopped up trees and built wood piles
great enough to heat the uninhabited chateau if necessary.
I learnt to love stacking logs
There is a rhythm to it: You’re working alongside one
another in almost silence. Nothing is happening fast, but you’ve engaged mind
and body, and you think, one more trailer full and we’ll finish-up, just a
little bit more. You ache, but you’ve got the rhythm working for you and the
ache is part of the harmony.
After working all morning, I’d take a solid siesta
I would be exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally too.
I was learning something new every day, like sharpening chainsaws and driving
Under scrupulous supervision, I learnt to prune fruit trees
Including, the apples in a neat espalier style. I’d cut a few branches, with great care, and then Grandmére would appear and point out what I’d missed. I’d trim a bit more, then she’d suggest another branch, explaining each step of the process as we went along.
I fell in love with it.
And whilst I am very wary here of romanticising manual
labour, for me, it was a magical experience. A feeling that never came to me
when I was working in an office.
Although of course, many people don’t work the land out of
I will never need to exhaust myself with full days of
physical labour. For me, it’s a choice and came with a guarantee of a good
hearty meal. Grandmére being an excellent cook. You can’t go and work on a farm
for a couple of months and understand what it’s like to make your livelihood
out of manual labour. You don’t have a clue.
When the time came, I could take a flight to my next
destination and go try something else.
But there is something about seeing a patch of land you’ve
dug or a tree you’ve felled, and saying, that’s what I did today. I did learn
Ric Furrer, the blacksmith described at the top of the page,
chooses to make swords
Each one is a piece of art, crafted with care. When he
thrusts the hot metal into a pipe of oil to cool it, he doesn’t know if it is
going to crack, which does happen sometimes with the dramatic change of heat.
The oil catches fire and momentarily wraps the sword in flames.
Part of the reward is the process. It’s making something happen with your own hands. It’s having something you can look at when the sun begins to set and say, with pride, that’s what I did today.
From the archives there’s also this post about a day on the farm. You know, should you be looking for even more.
My favourite type of restaurant to frequent in Spain belongs on the edge of a small town. Outside on the road, or in an unmarked parking lot sits a collection of cars with the appearance of being unwashed, although the land here is so dry and the air swirls with so much dust that they could have conceivably been washed that morning.
Every time I approach such a restaurant I feel a little afraid. You can’t see too well inside, maybe older men sit outside, smoking, suggesting an all boys club, but on entering you discover the place to be loud with voices high and low. You take a seat, anywhere you want, and you’re offered the menu of the day: a selection of courses that will be brought out, one after another to be shared between you and your companions, all for a fixed (and very reasonable) price.
This is my favourite type of restaurant because it forgoes all that pesky decision making that comes from having to choose what it is you want.
Here I can just eat.
Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.
“So—do you know what you want?”
This is the question my mother emailed me with after reading my previous blog posts (lessons from the mother), and by the question, she didn’t mean just for dinner, she meant in life. I stared at her email for a moment, considered my lists, my plans and the feeling that floods my heart when I’m doing something that I consider to be important and then my fingertips hit the keys in determined strokes. I wrote back, “Yes, I think I do.”
I thought, for my mother, as well as any other reader, I’d elaborate. I’m going to briefly elude to three stages of how I got here.
This isn’t guide to how to work out what it is that you want, I wouldn’t want to suggest that such a process would be the same for you, this is just a story of how things were for me. But, what with you being human too, chances are you’re going to relate to some part of my journey.
The stages so far:
Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals were my long term goals Stage 3: Writing down the next step
Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue
Towards the end of my degree I proactively made an appointment to see the career counsellor. I was a few months off finishing my degree and hadn’t worked out what I was going to do after graduation. I had, in one moment, contemplated teaching, but after volunteering in a primary school for a while I came to the solid conclusion that teaching would be a long slog of me against the system.
This chap who was supposed to advise me was probably a great source of information for physicists looking to move into a hedge fund or academic department, but he didn’t excel with hysterical me. It was hardly his fault.
Wisely, in hindsight, he suggested speaking to a medical professional
Although he didn’t express himself very well. Of course I did not feel that not knowing what job to apply for constituted a mental health problem. I figured it was a very common challenge facing many graduates and that it would, in time, resolve itself.
In fact I didn’t understand that not knowing what I wanted was a real problem until a number of years later when my psychotherapist pointed it out to me. Graciously she guided me into the understanding that my incredible, analytical, rational brain (the one that was at home in the world of quantum mechanics) was a bully, and that my emotional needs were being squished, surfacing only in inelegant spurts of anti-social behaviour.
I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate
The compromise however would have to be from the rational side of me. The side of me that understands my bank balance, writes my CV and earnt a degree. I really despised this idea, but eventually, after much fighting with myself, recognised that my emotions are impossible to reason with.
Now I had surrendered some of my stubbornness it was time to move onto the second stage.
Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals
It surprised me to discover that what I want is nothing new. The things that make me the happiest are pretty much the same things that made me the happiest when I was at school.
The desire for travelling has amplified rather, and become more nuanced. Painting and drawing have been pretty consistent activities throughout my life. And I whilst my standards have risen, my writing has been prolific since I was a teenager. I might have started my diaries when I was in my twenties, but the Christmas holidays of my sixteenth birthday I churned out 20,000 words. A year later I’d created most of a novel.
My problem however was that it all felt pretty much like playing
I’d written that novel after stopping studying English at school at the grand old age of sixteen, and although I did art at AS-level it became a horrific endurance battle as the department entered civil war.
So whilst other people around me studied to be artists or writers, I played at both and loved both hobbies equally. Meanwhile I was pretty obnoxiously certain that I was going to become successful, well-off and influential because of my incredible analytical mind.
Thankfully, after a few false starts, I ended up amongst the psychotherapists cushions. She helped me think through some very important questions. What will being well-off give you? Successful in whose eyes? Influencing people to what goal?
At which point it hit home
I want to be immersed in the things which require a soft ego, gentle humility and that are driven by listening to the world, not shouting at it. I want to paint, I want to write, and I want to learn by opening myself to all the incredible people around me.
Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain
Crabbe says yes, but you are going to have to get a proper job one day, and Goyle says, but don’t you want to be successful like your house-buying, PhD winning, money making peers.
At first I fought them.
Then I realised that they, like most bullies out there, need a bit of compassion. I was rejecting them and therefore they were going through a bit of a rough patch. This time it was my emotions that needed to get to work. It was time to show some compassion, to myself.
I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.
Stage 3: Writing down the next step
So, these fluffy goals of creating art, writing something and seeing the world aren’t exactly your business SMART goals. And I’m sure intelligent goals are very useful for some people, but what I need is a direction. At this stage, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t got a clue where I’ll be in five-years time. I don’t currently know which continent I’ll be living in six months from now. I’ve kind of made a nest of uncertainty, and whilst it’s not necessarily plastic wrapped perfect, it’s tactile and stable.
I know that in five-years time what I will be doing is creating art, writing stories and conversing with strangers. Therefore, all I’m focusing on right now is getting really good at those three things. I plan on spending the rest of my life continuing to get really good at these same three things.
So all I need to know today is what small step I’m making
Each week, or every couple of days I review my goals, write down the next small step I need to take, and then I focus on doing just that. It’s simple.
In the future I assume I will need to put more emphasis on being more financially stable but I’m practicing my humility. I’m not in the place to do that right now. I’m practicing my generosity, I believe I’ll get there eventually. I’m practicing my self-kindness, I’ve just picked myself up off the ground after a rather nasty fall.
I need to get a stable footing before I try to cartwheel
And so today I wrote this article, and I painted a picture of a photo I took a few weeks back whilst visiting Granada and I practiced my Spanish.
So, yes mother, I know my life goals. And I’m achieving them every single day.
For me, it’s easy to be so analytical that I forget to follow my gut feeling.
My gut feeling, what I like and don’t like, is actually surprisingly consistent. Therefore I pay attention to this and set goals that reflect what I actually enjoy doing.
Getting the next step written down helps me keep my mind focused on today, whilst moving along the path of creativity I’ve actively chosen for myself.
It doesn’t mean I know what I want to eat when I’m presented with a menu
So if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask the waiting staff for a recommendation.
Spain is a wonderful place for trying new food. You can pick at the food, share it, swap it, taste only a tiny amount of it and this is all considered to be polite. It’s how you’re meant to eat.
Often, I’m asked where I start when I’m planning my travels
When you’re thinking about travelling it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. I’m lucky, in that now I have done some travelling, and met people from all over, I can build trips around visiting people I care about seeing again. There are a few other factors that orientate me within a plan. Primarily, I’m currently keeping to Europe. There’s a lot in Europe, and since I’m a young naïve woman who travels mostly alone, Europe is where I’ve decided I can push the edges of my comfort zone without jumping overboard.
This post demonstrates some of the whimsical thinking that goes on behind my travel planning.
A friend invited me to go stay with them during their spring holidays when the university is closed
Without really thinking about it, I said yes. She’s up in Finland and although I’ve driven as far as Sweden, I’ve never been to Finland. Ignoring how cold Finland is in March, it seems like an excellent idea. After all, I’ve never been to her town; I hadn’t heard of it until she moved there to study.
The two of us met in Sicily working as carpenters and have written to one another regularly ever since.
Another friend invited me skiing
I said yes despite never having been skiing before and knowing nothing about skiing. I’m sure I’ll learn, and I know I’ll have a great time since the friend in question is the sort of friend who has me giggling and chatting until the early hours of the next day – and it’s always about wondrous trivia and calamitous romances whilst eating much too much chocolate. She’s so accepting of me, and non-judgemental, that I find myself feeling comfortable even when I’m saying the most ridiculous of things, and this is despite our strong, differing opinions on odd socks. Skiing is in Austria. I’ve got new gloves, but I still need some good socks to keep my toes warm, I’ll need them for Finland anyway.
Paris is one of those cities I wish to see more of
And since another dear friend is starting work in Paris very soon, it would be a waste not to visit her and her partner and their sofa-bed to celebrate their move. I’m already imaging us in a Parisian patisserie, my mouth already watering. Then there’s the art galleries that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in and the streets which require some aimless wandering.
Which is the basis of the odd framework for my next trip (next big trip)
Which I’ve then bulked out with more whimsical intention. Since I’m going to Finland, I figured Estonia’s capital Tallinn is on the way. I read something about Tallinn long ago in a book, which I then promptly forgot, but which has managed to lodge an odd bead of curiosity in my mind. Then I learnt about the Singing Revolution which started in Tallinn in 1988 and which is the sort of thing I wish I’d been taught about in school.
It’s often entirely on gut feeling that I start off my plans for visiting places or seeing things. A painting in an art gallery can be a catalyst for my spending three months in one village in Northern Spain. A friend’s postcard spent too long staring at me and I had to go see the original again. It doesn’t take much to get me inspired, but when there’s a travel idea in my mind it takes root and won’t budge until I’ve followed it through. I’ve been to the same ice-cream shop in Italy on at least three, but probably four, entirely separate trips. All this goes to show that motivation is a complex topic. To me it feels whimsical, but simultaneously like the most obvious common sense.
Latvia and Lithuania happen to be between here and Estonia
Although I’ve been to a fair few European countries, I’ve not been to either. Lithuania particularly caught my attention because of a tour I did through Warsaw last May. From 1569 to 1795 Poland and Lithuania were joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its largest also contained Latvia, that odd extra bit of Russia, a bit of Estonia, considerable amounts of Ukraine and a tiny bit of Moldova. This commonwealth was notable for its quasi-democratic government and tolerance of religious differences.
Managing the logistics of this trip requires the full application of my analytical mind. Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is proving an interesting challenge to get to. It has a train line that only seems linked to the rest of the world during weekends (look up Rail Baltica I). The main problem seems to be a lack of standardisation of gauge. With EU funding, this part of the world is slowly becoming more connected.
I don’t know when I decided that I was going to do the whole lot by train
I think it was when I started considering the number of planes it would take to get back and forth: England to Helsinki, Helsinki north, back to Helsinki, off to Austria… It feels excessive and I’m not in a rush. Plus, leaving the obvious planet saving point aside, I prefer trains to planes. Often, the view out of the window is better. In a plane you get a breath-taking view on take-off and landing, and occasionally when the clouds clear as you’re passing over the Alps or along a stunning coastline. Most of the time though, what you see is cloud and often. Lots of cloud. And clouds are impressive, but not necessarily any better than passing through a quaint little village station. The windows are bigger on trains, and people rarely try to sell you a glass nail file for more money than you’ve spent on your entire lunch. On the Berlin to Warsaw train you get a free cup of coffee.
I also find trains soothing
There’s something about the motion of the train that has a calming effect on me. As long as you avoid the busy trains, and frantic crowds, you can have an easy afternoon, not doing a lot, just watching the world go by.
Writing, and reading, on trains I find comes easily to me. It’s like the motion of the train sets my mind moving. When I’m in a new place learning how to fit in and ideally create a temporary sense of belonging, then I often don’t pause long enough to get my thoughts and feelings and all that stuff I’m reflecting on scribbled out. A train can, in its own peculiar way, be a place of pause and sanctuary.
“Mon serviette,” the trilingual three-year-old demands from his high-chair.
“Ma serviette,” Grand-meré corrects.
“Mon serviette,” the boy insists.
“Non, ma serviette. C’est feminine.”
Later on, the grand-daughters are practicing their spelling.
How do you learn a language?
Not how do you memorize vocabulary, or correctly conjugate verbs, but how do you open your mouth and persuade a sound to come out? What’s more, how do you make this sound loud enough and clear enough that someone sitting at the other side of the dinner table knows you’re speaking to them?
This is a skill that the children have and I struggle with. Everyone at the table is in the process of learning. The children are learning both English and French, the grandparents are improving their English with the help of my frequent but gentle corrections and I’m…
… I guess I’m learning to overcome that debilitating panic that numbs my memory. I’m lost every time I want to ask for something or reply to someone in French. It doesn’t so much matter that I’m stuck in the present tense, nor that I have atrocious pronunciation. I just have to start.
How do you feel about speaking a foreign language?
Which took a turn for the surreal when I found myself standing beside a huge stack of old roof tiles with three French men who were discussing which ones they loved the most.
Unsurprisingly, Grandperé owns a surplus of tiles, to go with his surplus of roofs.
Every now and again, a Frenchman would declare ‘C’est tres joli’ (in English: oh my, isn’t this tile so delightfully pretty). I never discovered the ideal shape and so ignored this factor. I simply stacked the non-broken tiles, and threw the cracked ones in the bucket of the digger. They made a satisfactory noise as they shattered.
The other component of ‘prettiness’ was the colour of the tiles. Here there was rather a lot of disagreement. One man liked the ones with more yellow, another preferred the ones with more pink. Nobody was a huge fan of the very orange tiles. They looked much too modern – although being modern they had fine shape because they probably weren’t made on some Frenchman’s thigh.
Yes, roof tiles are thigh imprints. Who’d have guessed that.
Once we’d put 500 tiles in the van, we went in for dinner. The visitors felt 500 was enough. They would come back for the rest later. Grandperé had a surplus of roof tiles.
As she was stirring the soup, I explained to Grandmeré what had been happening outside. She smiled when I told her about my struggle to translate such an outpouring of affection for a roof tile. Her opinion was that what a man looks for in a tile is very subjective. There’s no point worrying about it.
Last year I sat on the edge of Horemheb’s tomb – he’s the king that came shortly after Tutankhamun – and I shared tea with three Egyptian men. One invited me to be his third wife, I declined. We laughed about football and he told me about his kids.
Last year I said yes to a young Egyptian man who wanted to buy me coffee. I beat him at pool, and he took me out for dinner. I drove his horse through the villages on the west bank. We saw cows being slaughtered and he bought me chocolate even when I told him not to.
Last year I went to a beautiful club on a boat on the Nile. My dress was the longest dress of all the women. I wore the least makeup and had my shoulder’s covered. In the middle of the dance floor, I belly-danced, for the first time. I was never short of a partner.
Last year I danced on the beach after the sun had set, earphones in, feet bare, not caring who was watching, just because I could.
Last year I spent 9 days in noble silence, doing serious meditation, with more disciplined, more focused and more patience than I had ever imagined.
Last year I woke up early to run up the hill and watch the sun rising on the horizon.
Last year a guy stopped me as I was walking past and apologized for his impropriety, but he just needed to tell me that I was beautiful. I beat him at pool.
Last year I watched my sister stride across the stage, greet her chancellor as an equal and take her degree. No other woman showed such confidence.
Last year I watched my sister fall in love.
Last year I became fitter than I have ever been. I ran up my mountain and swam in the sea. I cycled up a 20% hill and almost fell off my bike at the top.
Last year I created a network of au pairs so that I’d always have someone to have coffee with. I learnt about Italian food, Irish fears of commitment, German heartbreaks, Swedish grit, American religion, philosophy and gynaecologists. We ate chocolate croissants that melted in your mouth.
Last year I ate carrot cake pancakes, and told my secrets. Even the ones that I didn’t want to tell.
Last year I did the grape harvest and made wine.
Last year I caught a black donkey in a dark wood.
Last year I designed, traced, sawed, sanded and painted Christmas lights for the centre of Palermo. I walked beneath them and realized I’d made something real.
Last year I taught nature studies in Catalan, babysat in French (in a really big castle), and did woodwork in Italian.
Last year I read 58 books.
Last year I watched the sun set, orange on a winter’s sky.
Last year I saw the milky way and hunted zombies in the vegetable patch.
Last year I was told thank you by more people, with more sincerity and for more reasons than I could have imagined.
Yesterday morning, we got took out our secateurs (delightfully un sécateur en français) and chopped down the raspberry canes. You do this to promote new growth in the new year. As I chopped, I ignorantly didn’t know you used the word ‘cane’ to describe the plant, but the Father kindly corrected me when I told him about my gardening exploits later in the evening.
We dug up the canes which had failed to produce fruit this year and weeded around those that had. Now, unless there is some great technique that I’m oblivious to, the work has taught me that I am considerably physically weaker than Grand-mère. That’s with the fork, shovel or pick axe.
Je bêche avec une bêche.
One particularly long and stringy weed seemed to have grown everywhere. It winds around the plants and suffocates them. I could pull it off in large handfuls but it would snap from the roots. If the roots remain it will grow again. Once we’d removed as much as possible we threw wood chip down on the ground around the plants to protect them.
We set out on an adventure into the forest for mushrooms. So far this year, the mushroom harvest has been rather pathetic. There has simply not been enough rain. Although it’s now October, it rarely rains. The fields still have huge cracks in them from where they were toasted by the summer sun.
There were however some mushrooms in the forest. When we returned to the farmhouse we lay our small collection on the kitchen table for inspection. Grand-mère found her champignion book to help us analyse what we’d found. Luckily it contained many pictures as well as French text to help us identify our mushrooms.
With a quick glance at the table Grand-mère knew we didn’t have the best autumn mushroom in the collection. She hopes it will turn up next week.
We did have one particularly worrying looking mushroom, the closest image we found to it in the book had a rating of two skull and cross bones. Luckily, we also had some edible (comestible) mushrooms. However, the book described the taste of some as sour, and others as unpleasant. They smelt bad too. Fortunately, the very smallest, with stalks like straw and tops not much bigger than the tip of my thumb, smelt sweet. Grand-mère declared them to be very good. We have three of these tiny mushrooms.
Sometime last week, I finally woke up early enough to catch Grand-mere skimming the cream. Grand-père laughed at me wanting to see something so simple, but he eventually admitted he hadn’t ever skimmed the milk. Getting up early was well worth it though. My imagination had failed to consider that there would be a crisp layer of fat, translucent and a little yellow in colour, laying on the top of the milk. For some reason I can’t explain, being surprised by the cream delighted me.
The French aristocratic seating procedure is something I find quite bewildering.
Inevitably I am the youngest adult, and of course neither a priest nor a member of the military. Therefore I often sit at the head of the table. From the middle of the table Grand-père and Grand-mère conduct the proceedings. To Grand-père’s right sits the highest ranking woman (after Grand-mère) and to his left the second highest ranking woman. When there are only three women for dinner this is me. If there are only two women then we sit at the kitchen table.
The highest ranking man (ignoring Grand-père) sits to Grand-mère’s right. To her left sits the second highest. The pattern continues until everyone has sat down, following rank order, alternating between man and woman.
Everyone but me has an innate understanding of this order. I just know I’m at the bottom.
Grand-père serves the woman to his right first, then the woman to his left. He serves me before passing the plate to Grand-mère but after all other women. I’m not allowed to eat until Grand-mère had begun. I’m given a piece of bread at the beginning of my meal to use at the end to mop up the sauce. Inevitably I eat it first and then spend a while wondering whom I can interrupt to ask for the bread basket. The seven year old informed me that you must never take two pieces of bread at a time. Even if they are very small pieces. It’s rude. Furthermore, I find I drink my wine too slowly in comparison to everyone else, this vexes Grand-père and his smooth, wine pouring routine and therefore disrupts his own meal.
Otherwise it’s seamless.
Grand-mère says that it’s not just her who can make cooking and serving roast dinner for twenty-five look effortless. Her mother, her mother in law, her sister-in-law, all these people know, or knew, how to really enjoy a grand family meal. What’s more, she’s an outstanding cook. The meat is from the field and the vegetables from the garden. I’m in awe.
In comparison, I can cook roast dinner. I could even cook roast dinner for twenty-five, or at least I could if I had somewhere to seat everyone. But mid-meal you’d be unable to engage me in a meaningful and considered conversation, I’d be worrying about the gravy. Afterwards I’d sneak out from the washing up for a nap. I’d look like a wreak.
So I think Grand-mère’s magical. Her secret weapon though, is that everyone around her knows exactly which way to pass what plate when.
That’s something to ponder.