Part I - Breaking Bread With Friends, Old and New
With a bit of advanced planning, a drive through the Provençal countryside gave my California friends a chance to take in our colors of the season as we traveled together to meet these friends and then over to meet these friends on a crisp autumn day last week.
A walk through the quiet oak woods and sleeping lavender fields that surround the perched village of Grignan gave my visiting friends a chance to experience a bit of “My Private Provence.”
On the way back from exploring the most recent phases of a family farmhouse’s “green” renovation and a peek at some ancient bories on the property, we wandered past the promising truffle beds...
...returning chez Famille F. to take part in a very special lunch.
A winter salad of fresh celery dressed with a salty anchoïade (anchovy dressing) started things off.
A lovely bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was opened as the lid was lifted off of a delicious pot of Civet du Lièvre or hare stewed in red wine and herbs. (A hunter-friend’s gift, the hare had been offered fresh from the hunt to my friends who shared this special dish with us.) Marinated for a day then cooked slowly for another couple of days, the result is a rich, wine-y stew - the color of a good molé to my southwestern trained eye.
It was paired perfectly with a belly-warming pot of Aligot, a rich potato dish from the southwestern region of France. We happily feasted, not at all shy to dig in for generous second helpings. Having washed down the rest of that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a selected Côtes du Rhone was opened to accompany the cheese course - which proved to be another lovely match.
A tarte au citron brought our special meal to a close and a shot of espresso sent us off after we had added our warm American hugs to the exchange of three kisses (typical in this region of the Drôme).
In under an hour, we were in the middle of the vineyards of Rouge-Bleu where we tasted a bit of the promise of things to come from this newly launched winery.
The pleasure of tasting out of the barrels and watching the golden light envelope the creative couple at the heart of this farmhouse/vineyard project was just the thing to round out this exceptional day. During the few moments shared with the wine-maker and his author-wife, we enjoyed a few laughs about life as it unfolds when one takes a leap into an unknown, but compelling, dream...something I suspect each of us knows a little bit about. Before we knew it, the afternoon had slid into sunset and the return trip to Aix was made as night fell.
It’s something special to share friends. It’s all the more special when those connections shrink distances between continents. And in the end, it really comes down to the joy of breaking bread together, non?
Part II - ...There’d Be Days Like This, Mama Said...
After a day such as this, there can be a bit of an afterglow. And so it was chez La Fourchette. A couple of hours after returning home, while still enjoying that afterglow, I discovered that I had no hot water...and no heat. Hmmmmm...alrighty then...it was late and couldn’t be dealt with ‘til morning so I tucked myself in and gave it the old Scarlett O’Hara Approach: “I’ll deal with that tomorrow.”
The next morning, bundled in layers of sweaters and scarves, I pried my fingers from around my coffee cup to call “l’agence” (the French rental agency) to see what they knew about the problem. But...there was no dial tone. It was soon all too clear that this was also the moment in time that my old telephone carrier had been terminated to allow for the transition of a new carrier so that I could save money on phone/internet/television connections. I believe this would be called a case of unfortunate timing...in any language.
Once contact was made with l'agence on my portable telephone, I waited for a response. Lacking a timely response, I trusted that it was fairly self-evident that heat and hot water for paying residents would be a top priority so I went about my day. And of all days, this one was packed with patients to make up for the time I had taken to be away on Tuesday.
To illustrate just how ridiculous and circus-like the situation became at one point, there was a moment of critical mass when a new patient arrived a few minutes early in the midst of me using that tiny window of time to try to sic a French friend (with a clear, firm manner and a lovely deep voice that sounds as though he means business when he makes a point) on l’agence to see if I could get some water boiling...figuratively and literally...as it appeared that no one was in any hurry to take care of the problem. At the same moment, a deliveryman appeared with a large box of equipment for the new telephone set up. You’re getting the picture?! I could only laugh...but that was when I still had it in me to laugh. (A side note here: I should have a dial tone sometime on Thursday of this week...and that’s the good news!)
A couple of clients later, the buzzer for the front door of the building sounded again and I grabbed Bodhi in preparation to receive someone coming to my door. When I opened the door, standing on the threshold was the manager from l’agence, my French friend and some guy with a big black dog who was trying to convince these two fellows to let him in to get to me as he is hearing a dog barking for the greater part of each day and he’s had enough. Bodhi, with a fear of big, black dogs, began barking, as the black dog's owner was becoming increasingly aggressive. Over the fray, I tried to explain that it was not my dog that he hears. (And believe me, it’s tough to be convincing about that when the dog you are defending is doing his best imitation of an irritating barking dog!) But in fact, it is the dog upstairs that cries for the better part of the day...which also happens to be the dog whose droppings get swept onto my courtyard (and dining table!) from an owner upstairs who clearly has no sense of the fact that there are others in the world around her. Fortunately, the gentlemen were successful in sending the complaining man and his black dog away before he could find his way any closer to me and the discussions turned to the real problem at hand.
Within a couple of minutes, the fellow from l'agence had made it clear that the several inches of standing water in the cave (the basement of the building in which each apartment has a locked storage unit)...in fact, the same standing water that I had complained about to l’agence a couple of months ago...had risen to the point that it had shut down the heating unit and water heater.
“There's a problem with the pump,” the manager explained, punctuating his declaration with the French Shrug.
“Yes, I know. There was a problem with the pump two months ago,” I said not even trying to fake an American smile. The pump happens to be in the locked storage unit of the woman who has the aforementioned barking dog and the habit of sweeping the unwanted contents of her neglected dog onto my courtyard.
“I work in the restaurant business and I’m not home very much,” she stated when she was asked for entry into her storage unit so the necessary work could be done. When it was suggested that she leave her key with either l’agence or a neighbor, she replied, “But my stuff is in there!” and punctuated it with...a French Shrug.
Wanting to be helpful in any way possible and since I was standing right there, I offered to hold her key and stay with anyone working in her unit if she would feel better that way. No verbal response was necessary as, with lips pursed, she shot me a look that conveyed her determination to immediately end any and all conversation with someone who had clearly lost her mind. With that, she turned her back, climbed the stairs out of the cave, and made it clear that she was finished with all of us. (I can’t wait for that discussion when I ask her to stop tossing her dog’s messes onto my courtyard! Just imagine how well that will go!)
One by one, the residents of the building were informed of the now serious problem and reassured that it would be taken care of "as soon as possible"..."maybe three days” predicted a posted letter on the wall next to the letterboxes.
A few days later, a new letter was placed in everyone’s letterbox which very politely explained that the problem was an unfortunate inconvenience and “what a shame” that this has happened and if there had been anything damaged in our storage units due to the waters rising, we could contact our insurance companies. The letter continued to state that the problem rests with the city and not l'agence and all should be up and functioning sometime on...Saturday.
But Saturday’s sun rose and set...and nothing was functioning.
Then it was Sunday...and the only number available was the closed office of l’agence.
Now Monday, as of this writing, the building is still without heat and hot water and the only thing that seems to be different from last week is that there are now a lot of very cold, very angry (some less showered than others) residents.
You never realize how much you rely on hot water to make a life really livable until you lose it. And I was lucky! I had the chance to walk around the corner to take a hot bath in my old apartment. (Thanks, Guys!) You know you’re up to your neck in challenges when bundling up to walk a couple of blocks in the biting cold wind of a Mistral, stepping into a cold and empty apartment, slipping into a hot bath, re-bundling up and taking that warmth back outside into the biting cold to get home, is the highlight of your day! I was one of the lucky ones and I knew it. Talk about counting your blessings...I can’t always see them steadily as one cold day wears on into the next, but that little blessing is a shining star on my List of Things For Which I Am Grateful. That, and the offer for Bodhi to have a warm bath at his sister’s house! (Merci, C...and for the hot chocolate!) We may not be warm but we’re clean!
(And were it not for N. and W. and their offer for the electric radiator from their own salon, we might otherwise have been found clean but frozen solid early in the adventure! Merci to both of you, too!)
For now, I’ll be drinking plenty of hot chocolate...and making a pot of Aligot to warm me up and be reminded of that lovely time spent with friends. As winter pushes autumn aside, this is a good dish to keep in mind for cold nights...which will hopefully be heating up in my little corner any day now...but then again, who knows?! (Insert my new talent for a French Shrug here.)
On second thought, maybe I’ll just crank up a little bit of The Shirelles and dance myself warm.
Hit it! “...there’d be days like this, my mama saaaid...”
L’Aligot (From French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David)
2 lbs. floury potatoes
10 oz. cheese (preferably a soft white unfermented tomme de Cantal or a mild cheese which melts easily.)
2 oz. butter
4-5 oz. cream
Cook the potatoes in their skins, peel and sieve them to a dry purée, and add seasoning. Heat the butter and cream in a heavy pan, put in the purée, stir until hot and amalgamated, add a very little crushed garlic, then the cheese, cut into small squares, all at once, and stir until it is all melted and quite smooth. Serve quickly before the mixture starts getting grainy.
(I think I can speak for all of the American palates around that hospitable French table, it was good even as it cooled!)