Monday, February 21, 2011

Feeling Better...But Terribly Cranky

Since childhood, my tolerance for discomfort has been minimal.  My sister was the one blessed with steely stoicism (born of necessity...but I digress).  Moi?  I fall more along the lines of Camille.  I detest feeling less than 100% and if I'm going to suffer, I want to make sure I'm not alone.  I can manage with some degree of decorum and grace - for about 3 days.  Then I get scared that I'm always going to feel terrible.  That I'll get stuck in this compromised state.

The sign that I'm feeling better has always been the same:  I get cranky. 

Very cranky. 

Very, very cranky. 

Although consciously I recognize that it's a phase of healing for me, the things around which that crankiness shows up have changed over the years.  One particular shift was noted as I took to the streets for the first time in two weeks to forage for food.

Walking the few blocks to the market, down the little cobbled rues, through the canyons of ancient stone buildings accompanied by the music of the ubiquitous fountains in this fine ville, I noticed a couple of behaviors that really irk me.  As in 'irk-me-on-a-regular-basis' kind of irk me.

The first is a double whammy as it is both disgusting and a health hazard:  Men blowing their snot-filled winter noses directly into the street.  That's right, folks.  They hold one nostril shut with a thumb and blow the shit out of the other nostril.  Second verse, same as the first for the alternate nostril.

(See how cranky I am?  I swear when I'm tired or cranky.) 

It's a common wintertime vignette that gets played out daily on the streets.  You'll be walking along and all of a sudden, a fellow will lean a bit forward, thumb lifted to shut down one nostril and then watch out!  Absolutely disgusting.  Beyond disgusting.  It's a veritable health hazard.  There should be stiff fines or gloved police handcuffing the offenders and hauling them off to some cell where they can blow their snot hither and yon - alone and cut off from humanity - until they can behave better or they die. Whichever comes first.

The second behavior takes place year round.  How lucky are we?  This would involve men relieving themselves whenever the urge strikes them. No bathroom around?  No problem!  That's apparently why there are walls...and bushes...and sides of the roads.  Around any given corner in our little ville one can see a fellow pull his willy out in broad daylight to pee - against a wall...or into the bushes.  I've seen no one using a fountain yet but probably only because I've not been paying attention.  Really people?  This behavior makes sense to me if one is camping in the outback, or skiing for an entire day without stopping for lunch. I try not to think about a day spent at the seaside.  But just in the street during the course of a day?!  Puhleeeze.  The café waiters may give you the stink eye but they'll not bar the door to their bathrooms, I can assure you of this.

So with that off my chest, I'll go back to the chores at hand of moving my apartment...which is happening all this week.  Add moving stress to my Miss Cranky Pants state of mind and there may well be another rant in the offing. 

As long as you are not one of the above mentioned offenders, I'm here to wish you a lovely rest of your day. 

If you do happen to be one of those disgusting aforementioned offenders, get a bloody clue and knock it off!  Your mothers would be disgusted with you. 


Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

Just a little wish to send you into your day.

Having recently learned the Provence connection with St. Valentine, I thought I'd pass that along as well for the celebration.

Excerpted from Provençal village of Roquemaure - known as the "French capital of love" - parades Saint Valentine's bones by Jules B. Farber:

Roquemaure, close to Avignon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape honors its adopted Saint Valentine, the patron of love, in mid-February with a three-day "festival of lovers" or "kissing festival".  It is here in this provençal farming village where the saint's authentic bones are encased in the parish church.

The celebration only started in 1988 at the instigation of the local priest, Father Durieu, who envisioned recreating the joyous religious procession led by the recreating the joyous religious procession led by the Archbishop of Nimes in 1868 when the deliriously happy populace filled the streets to welcome the relics' arrival.  A rich farmer had bought the bones in Rome and brought them back to protect vines scourged by a disease initially called taches (spots) de Roquemaure, later diagnosed as phylloxera.  In those days, farmers believed saintly relics could restore helth and strength to their vines, while protecting them against new disasters.  The holy bones did the trick!  The region's renowned Côtes du Rhône, dating from the 1st century AD, had been saved.

The priest had heard the legendary tales recounted for generations from father to son about the excitement and hope which had swelled over the locals during the arrival festivities and the resulting "miraculous" recovery of the grapes.  Also aware that mid-February was always a crucial time when the growers cut their vines in a non-ending battle to avoid the fléau fou, the crazy blight that had earlier destroyed the crops, he explained, "The Latin origin of Valentine is Valerem which means to give health and vigor."

Descendants of the wine growers whose vines were saved and remain in good health since the saint's remains arrived parade alongside seven wagons piled high with roots, each representing a principal cépage of their centuries-old, highly esteemed Lirac and Côtes du Rhône appellations.  Naturally, afterward, everyone settles down to the serious business of wine-tasting while a parade of horse-drawn carriages passes through town.

The moral of this little tale? 

Would you agree that it seems that things got better when love came to town?

with thanks to DutchMacVistoV2

I'm not quite able to be in an extended upright position just yet, so no promises but...plan to stop back in tomorrow to see the rest of the Stylish Blogger Awards!  There are 10 to go...(not 7 as previously mentioned...such complex math takes a clearer head!)  Fingers crossed...

In the meantime, spread the love, people...and the peace...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bouquets of Blooms

Dear readers, thanks so much for sticking with me.  'Tis flu season.  'Nuff said.

During my unintended hiatus, I learned that La Fourchette has been given a Stylish Blog award by Deborah Lawrenson.  Deborah's writing breathes life and mystery into the Provençal landscapes in her blog and on her site.  She occasionally serves up little slices of her latest book, Lantern, expected to be published this year. 

She said such nice things about this blog that I felt as though I should have been wearing a be-jeweled tiara and doing a queen's wave while hugging bunches of roses.  (Can you tell I haven't won many things?)

I'm going to change the rules a bit and offer seven Spring bouquets - since I thought we could all use a little flower power - mid-winter and all.

But the first bunch goes to warm the damp corners of an English winter or fill the corners of her old Provençal mas with sunshine.  Wherever you are, Deborah, this is for you! The remaining 999 fois merci!

Seven bouquets for your Sunday.  What's your favorite?

And now for my 12 Stylish Blogger Awards. (I know, I know.  It's supposed to be 15 but I have only enough flowers in the buckets waiting below for 12.)  I'll start with 5 and promise the remainder when I can sit up for a longer stretch.  (Drum roll, please!)

Laura, over at The Everyday Life of a Young American Girl in France, is another California girl livin' La Vida Loca up north in Lille.  She makes me laugh on a regular basis with her reports on adjusting to a little French life.

Carla Loves Photography is a visual inspiration.  Her range of skills in quite impressive.

Deja Pseu at Une Femme d'un Certain Age taught me how to tie my scarf in ways that make me look French!  (Okay, that's an overstatement, but still...)

Kate at Dear Buddha makes me laugh and breaks my heart in equal measure for her snarky,  self-effacing and open-hearted  look into the days of her life.

At A Femme d'un Certain Age, Tish Jett offers tips and tricks with humor and flair to keep a woman of any age fashionable.

I'll add the other 7 at a later date.  In the meantime, ladies, all you have to do is stop by and pick up your award (along with a bouquet of flowers from the buckets below!), let your readers know where your award came from and then share your own "seven of something". (I think the 'rules' are to share 7 things your readers don't know about you...but I'm all for breaking the rules in the interest of creative inspiration!)  Then announce your own 15 awards. 


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Passport Saga Continues

I try to keep these things in perspective.  Really, I do.  Sometimes I'm successful and I have a giggle as I share another slice of my little French life.  On the days when perspective is nowhere to be found, I actually consider throwing it all in and returning to the shores of the Pacific.

My passport is lost.

That's right.  The good news is that I have another chance for a decent photo.  (Hah! You know I'm kidding on this one, right?)

To renew a passport, one must send the actual passport to the Consulate in Marseille.  Registered mail is recommended.  (No, really?!)

And so I did.  Registered mail with an avis de reception - a return receipt.

Last week, in the process of planning dates with one of my work contracts, I realized I would need my passport for one of my meetings. (Don't ask - that's another story.) errrrr... "I don't exactly have my passport," I announced.  No worries, I was told after some checking had been done.  My titre de sejour*  would do for identification instead.

The bigger problem turned out to be that in calling Marseille to see why I hadn't yet received my avis de reception (mailed in early January), they told me there was no record of having received my passport in the first place.

Oh. This can't be good.

I started at La Poste.

The buiding to the left, in the back is La Poste.  Nevermind that kissy couple in the foreground - happens all the time around here.

When I first arrived in France, I used to stand in line at La Poste and marvel at how there could be thirty people in the queue and no one being served.  Mind you, the fonctioners behind the counters were all busy.  Busy exchanging kisses and talking about the last meal they had enjoyed, that is.  I was mystified at how calm the customers not being served were.  As I had all the time in the world since I had just arrived and I was in the honeymoon stage of my existence here, I thought it rather quaint.  Now, it just pisses me off and I roll my eyes and sigh as when I look up at the number board to see 379 flashing and I'm holding a slip of paper that says 461.  There is a system to the place but it is a total mystery to me how it works. 

Last week, when my number flashed on the board like a winning bingo call, I dropped my nasty attitude on the way to the counter.

"My passport seems to be lost in the mail.  I've checked online to follow its registered number and there is no information available on this parcel," I explained. (And as I always add when I'm relating such tales to my sister:  this was all in French.)

I could see it before a single syllable left the postal worker's lips.  Eyebrows lifted, bottom lip puffed out, shoulders began to creep up in a familiar shrug.  Yep.  This little exchange was likely to go nowhere.

"Oh no.  It is not lost," she said.  "They must have received it at the consulate," she said, confident in La Poste's ability to deliver...but really, only god knows why she would be confident.

"I've called the consulate.  They've done a search. It is not there," I said...again.

"Well then, we'll just look online.  The information will be there," she said, again with a confidence that is admirable - just not deserved.  (It would be useless to tell her again that I had already tried.)  And with that she tapped in a few details and came up with - that's right. Absolutely nothing.  (Meanwhile, I could totally understand if the crowd of number-holders behind me was doing a collective eye-roll and heaving a garlic-scented sigh.)

"I do not know what to tell you then," she said.  "You'll just have to wait."

"Wait?" I wondered out loud.  But in my head I was thinking, Wait for what? For hell to freeze over?  For some uncodified amount of time before I can get some assistance?  Does anybody have a clue about what that waiting time would be, pray tell.  But what I said was, "Is there anyone I might speak to that could look for it in the system?"

"Bon.** You can call this number - but they will charge for it," she said as she scribble a four-digit number on my receipt.

Of course they will charge me for ....errr....customer service, I thought, at a whoppin' 32 centimes a minute!

I thanked her and turned to elbow my way through the waiting masses.

Once I was home, I called that four-digit number tout de suite.***  A recorded message began, leading me through a number of prompts to push this number or that to land in the right spot.  When I finally arrived in the appropriate department, the recorded message instructed me to say the 13-digits of my  assigned number,  found in the upper right-hand corner of my receipt.  Madame Repondeur**** even gave me a aural demonstration, rattling off her own 13 digits to suggest pace and clarity.
"À vous*****," she said, indicating that it was now my turn to share.

"Un-ahh-zero-quatre-trois-sept-neuf-cinq-huit-un-cinq-sept-trois," I said, slowly and deliberately.

"I will repeat your number back to you to for verification," she said, "Un-ahh-zed-quatre-trois-sept-neuf-cinq-huit-un-cinq-sept-trois," and then she instructed me to press "1" if that was correct and to repeat the number if it was not.

It was not. I repeated the number. "Un-ahh-zero-quatre-trois-sept-neuf-cinq-huit-un-cinq-sept-trois."

"I will repeat your number back to you to for verification," she said, "Un-airrr-zero-quatre-trois-sept-neuf-cinq-huit-un-cinq-sept-trois. If this is not correct, simply say the first two characters of your number."

So I did.   "un-ahh."

"We have no record of this in our system. Thank you for using La Poste.  À bientôt! Aurevoir******."

Click. zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

What?!  That's it??  We're not going to even give it another shot until we actually get somewhere?

I called again and went through the same drill.  Three.more.times.  (I know, I know.  I like to think of it as "persistent" but ask people who know me well and I'm guessing they have another word for it. I'm also guessing that they would not consider this to be one of my more charming qualities.)

I suspected that it was my accent that was not registering my registration number with the recording system.  I headed back to La Poste the following day, receipt in hand, along with my portable phone to see if one of the postal workers might be able to get past Madame Repondeur.

When I reached the counter and explained my dilemma, the look of astonishment was priceless.  Okay, I'll give her that this probably isn't a request they get every day as a portable phone is being handed to them...but really, is it too much to ask for a little help here, people?!  It's their bloody system (yes, I've picked that up from some of my British friends here...a little softer than what's in my lexicon) for gods sakes!

Absolutely not.  They do not do that.

"What do I do next?" I asked.

"I don't know what to tell you," she said.

Really?  I'm telling you my passport is lost in your mail system and you're telling me you don't know what to tell me to do to figure out where it is?  But all I said was, "C'est dommage,*******" and thanked her.

On the way past the back door of the poste, I saw a woman I've worked with before stomping out her cigarette butt and reaching for the back door - her smoking break now over. I stopped her before the door shut and, after saying the obligatory, "Bonjour, excuse moi de vous deranger, mais********..." and went right on with a brief description of my petite problem.

She suggested I go to some obscure office outside of town where perhaps someone might be able to help me.  I made a note and figured I could probably ask 10 different postal workers and get 10 different suggestions for 10 exciting but likely unproductive goose chases.

I spilled out my frustration to a French friend who then offered to make the call to see if we could get past Mme. Repondeur.  Nope.  Even her clear and proper French seemed to run into the same brick wall.  But she did find, in teeny-tiny print, a number to which I could text my registration number to begin a search.  Voilà!  I tell you, they don't make it easy here.

I have not found the grand French paradox to be that they have extraordinary rates of life expectancy despite their diets of cheese and cream sauces.  No, I find the grand French paradox to be that they have two favorite expressions:

La vie est dur.   (Life is hard)


Tout est possible.  (All is possible) 

I wish I could help them see that it really doesn't have to be so hard.  It really doesn't.

I'll keep you posted on the passport.  Let's all keep our fingers crossed in the meantime.  It feels very, very weird to be in a foreign country without a passport.


* french residency/working papers
** fine
*** right away
**** answering machine
***** your turn, to you
****** see you soon, good-bye
******* that's a shame
******** hello, excuse me for bothering you (magic words around here)

Monday, February 07, 2011

A Quick Stock Tip For You!

Soup's on at La Fourchette!

I thought we'd put some base notes in our medley of winter soups with a guest vlog by my friend, Marc Osten.  He hosts Marc's Culinary Compass, a video-blog where you'll see an eclectic array of vids from tips on vegetable gardening (his own garden is the lovely setting for those episodes) to the back-story on hand-pulled noodles in New York City.  He's even introduced a kid-friendly ABC Café, hosted by the charming Miss O. (Olivia Osten...AKA "Cupcake" back in the day.)

Marc and his family lived in Aix for several years, arriving about the same time as me and heading back to the East Coast a couple of years ago.  I've had the pleasure of enjoying some of the most fabulous multi-course dinner parties hosted by Marc and his wife (and my friend), Colleen.  I thought it would be fun to share his passion for food and cooking - and life - directly so I asked him to be a guest at La Fourchette.

À table, tout le monde*!  Please welcome Marc to the kitchen.  I know you'll make him feel right at home.

Merci...mille fois, Marc!  À très bientôt - in one kitchen or another...


*  to the table everyone

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Little World Views

Tossing a little color in your direction with some Sunday blues.

Is it true?  Is this Super Bowl Sunday in the United States of Football?!

I hope your team wins.

I hope the food is good.

I hope you're not spending the day doing laundry (unless, of course, you want to be). Actually, even doing laundry isn't so bad in the south of France.  I can attest to that.  After all, look how much fun we've had!

Bon dimanche,

ps...Plan to stop in tomorrow and welcome a guest to the kitchen at La Fourchette.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Little World Views

The sun's rays are just beginning to do their morning stretches behind the tiled rooftop of the old Eglise Madeleine so we have the promise of another beautiful day...which means I'll still be at this...

One more day should do the trick.  Stop in to see the Sunday blues when they go out on the line to dry.

Bon weekend!

ps... I have a surprise for you in the kitchen on Monday!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Little World Views

Laundry day.  'Nuff said. 

Loads of sunshine expected this weekend for laundry each day.  I'll be hanging it all out so stop in and say hello if you have the chance.

Bon weekend à tous!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Little World Views

The sun shines brightly here but temps are still a bit frosty.

How about a cup-o'-cocoa to take chill off?

With a dash of cinnamon!

Bon journée,

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

On Simmering Soup and Smiles in a French Life - Part Two

...speaking of smiles and the French not doing so much of it, there is actually a rule about it.  That's right.

No smiles allowed least not in photos for things like identity cards (comparable to a US driver's license), medical cards, etc. 


Not one turned up mouth corner to be seen.  In fact, those shots look more like something one would see on the wall of a US post office - or TMZ when it covers bad actors and their DUIs...but I digress...(oh, don't try to tell me you don't occasionally click on that site to check in on the lastest LA gossip!  People mag?  InStyle?  We all have our little shadow vices when left with unsupervised moments, non? But really...I digress...)

This took some getting used to because, you see,  I smile.  It's a photo for gods sakes, of course I smile.  But when I went in for my medical card photo (yes, that's right, I'm now officially in the famous French medical system.  Yay me.  Yay France!), they insisted that it had to be sans sourire*, sans lunettes**, sans les cheveux*** in my face.  And they were oh so right. 

My first photo?  I had forgotten to take off my glasses.  Reject. 

The second try?  Ferociously ugly mug shot. Check.  Slap that puppy on a card with no expiration date and send it on out!

With this French cringe-worthy photo experience under my belt, my American passport needed to be renewed.  I went into a photo place a few weeks ago for my two required photos to be included with my application to the American consulate.  There, a polite fellow indicated that yes, they did provide passport photos and guided me to the little spinning stool in front of a white background.  He gestured for me to be seated. 

Former Girl Scout that I am, I took the printed version (from the US government website) of the regulations for American passport photos out of my purse and handed it to him...forgetting that he's French and doesn't necessarily appreciate being told how to do things.

"We can smile!" I said to him in a way-too-chirpy-to-be-considered-normal tone as I tried to compensate for the insult I had clearly committed with my printed regs.

"D'accooooord," he said, then switched to English, "but not a beeeeg smile, like zeeeeesssse," and with that he pulled the corners of his mouth up toward his ears in a Mad Joker-type of face.

"Uhhhh...Right," I said, all signs of chirp taking flight from my tone.   Oh, this can't be good.  A man who is pissed at me is going to take my picture.  A picture that I'm going to have to look at for the next ten (count 'em!) ten years.

I shook it off, lifted my countenance towards his flash aaaaand ... smiled.  I could feel it immediately - a sort of crooked half-smile that I haven't seen since my fourth grade class photos...which, by the way, was taken the day after I'd cut my own bangs. 


"Encore****," he said.

Look up.  Take a breath.  Let it out.  Aaaaaaannnnnd smile.


He was all business as he flashed the back of his camera in my direction to show me the two shots taken.  Neither of them looked that good but what was I going to do - add another insult? Ask for one more chance? Expect the customer to be right? Happy? Satisfied?  (Perhaps at the rent-a-car place, but not here.)

"Très bien*****," I heard myself say.  The nervous chirp was back.

"You cahn rrretournnnne zeeese afternoonnne to peeeck zem up.  Zay weeell be rrready after trree." he said, avoiding any eye contact.

When I returned that afternoon, I tried to be discreet as I walked in the door.  I just wanted to pick up my photos and get out of there.  I told the woman behind the counter my name but as she turned to open the drawer of waiting orders, Monsieur Grumpy Pants Photographer stopped her and told her my photos were in the back.  He would get them.  She left me to him.  La vache.******

He returned and slid the packet of photos across the counter in my direction saying, "Voilà! Madame Smile Face."


Was the bigger insult that he was giving me my first real nickname here or that he had photo-shopped me into some sort of bizarre helmet-headed creature?  I couldn't decide. 

This is what I get? Really?!  This is it after six years of trying to integrate as respectfully as I possibly can - I get this? For the request to be able to smile on my American passport photo?  Really?! 

I took my photos, slinked out the door and never looked at them again.  I went to another photo place, had another set taken and sent them in.  I don't really remember what they look like.  Trauma will do that to one's memory.

Then just  a couple of weeks ago, I stepped into my favorite little Italian market.  Owned by a couple about my age, they make the best pesto outside of my little French kitchen.  I've been known to make a weekly purchase of their lovely blend (a secret recipe) when I can't get basil in the market to make my own.  I'd fallen out of my rhythm since returning from spending summer in the US and hadn't been in for quite some time.  Thus it came as no surprise, after all these months, that the reception I received was a bit chilly.  What's more, there was not a peck of pesto in the place to be had.

"La semaine prochaine,∞" Madame Pesto Perfetto said as she focused on arranging the marinated octopus in a tub behind the glass - again with the no-eye-contact thing.  I thanked her politely (or was it profusely?  I can slip into suck-up mode if I sense I've offended someone) and told her I'd be back next week. 

As promised, I returned last Wednesday.  Madame and her husband were stocking shelves when I walked in.  I started with my usual  (and rather melodically delivered - think Julia Child-type melodic ) "Bonjour" as I entered the shop.  Then I pulled an empty glass jar from my basket.  As I handed it to her, I said, "Guess what I want?"

She smiled and said, "Pesto!" and we both laughed at how clever our little exchange had been.   Then from the corner, where he was stacking the newly arrived Italian specialties, I heard, "Madame Soleil est arrivée."  (Madame Sunshine has arrived.)

He was talking about me.

Madame Soleil.*******  Imagine that.

Single-handedly changing the French culture one smile at a time. 

Well...except for cranky passport photographers.  

Some cases are just tougher to crack than others.

This soup is my take on Dibby Dab Soup.  A deluxe version of a soul-soothing chicken soup.  Whip up a batch when you need a little comfort - like after a French identity photo session.   Or savor it along with a sweet compliment/gift/nickname that has landed when you least expected it.

It works for both situations. You can trust me on this.

La Fourchette's Chicken Soup for the Soul

1 onion, chopped
1 leek, halved, rinsed well and sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
herbs de provence
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 chicken breast, whole
1 15 oz. can chopped tomatoes
6 cups of good chicken stock
1 cup of canned chick peas
sea salt and pepper to taste
tortellini, (I used spinach and riccota)
(I often add a sausage - meat taken out of the casings - to the mix but my favorite butcher was closed for the winter holiday and I only get them from him.  Worth a try, though.)

Sauté onion, leek, garlic until soft. Toss in a tablespoon or so of crushed herbs de provence and add the carrot, zucchini, tomatoes and stock.  Bring to a boil, drop in the chicken breasts and chick peas and allow to simmer for 30 - 45 minutes.  (I add the sausage with the chicken when I include it.)  Remove the cooked chicken from the soup and allow to cool just enough to be able to shred it, then return it to the pot.  Bring it back to a soft boil and add the tortellini.  Cook to the package directions - depending on fresh or dried.  Test for seasonings and add sea salt and pepper to taste.

I sometimes put a handful of chopped spinach (or baby spinach leaves) in the bottom of each bowl and ladle the soup on top of this.  Top each bowl with a spoonful of pesto and serve immediately.

If I have veggies that need to be used, they'll sometimes end up in this which point, if it is loaded with fresh veggies, it becomes Brush Your Colon Soup.  But I only call it that with family and friends.  In fact, let's keep that just between us, shall we?

Bon appétit!

* without smiling
** without glasses
*** without hair in the face
**** again
***** very well
****** "the cow" - literal translation, but used in slang to express dismay, like 'damn'...only cuter because it's...well...a cow.
∞ next week
******* sun, sunshine

ps:  I know this looks like was soup in an earlier incarnation but I was tapping away on this post as it warmed for its photo shoot....and then I lost track of time and it got a to say?...stewy.  (Fortunately for the soup, this is not a passport photo that will follow them for TEN years!)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

On Simmering Soup and Smiles in a French Life - Part One

Like the soup that is simmering on the back burner chez La Fourchette, blending subtle flavors into rich and satisfying texture and taste is a process, not an event.  The key is time.  Well, that and paying attention along the way.  Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?  But when the soup is a new life in another country, the time it takes to blend - or blend in - can progress like a hesitant escargot heading for a pan of garlic and butter.  En plus*,  cracking the code to determine exactly what gets added to the mix and what gets left out can be like trying to unlock the secret recipe of a Michelin-starred chef...errr....not all that easy if you get my drift.

Our soup for this week is still simmering and bowls full will be served tomorrow.  It'll be worth pulling a chair up to the table, so plan to come back when you hear the dinner bell.  But I thought I’d start with the back story on this soup.  Bear with me…you are about to feast on a slice of my little French life…it’ll make more sense tomorrow…I promise.

I am car-less in Aix en Provence.  For a California girl, this is both liberating and frustrating.  Living in a town in which I can walk to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (not to mention the cinema and various theaters for live performances and concerts) couldn’t be more perfect for someone who is happy to have taken an exit off the freeways of So. Cal.  The time to be factored in for these tasks is quite another adjustment.  But little by little, even that seems less of an issue these days.

There are countless re-calibrations like this – some more complicated than others.  One of them has to do with a particular California (perhaps it's just American) habit that arrived with me when I landed in France:  a smile. 

Wired with a natural optimism (my mother used to refer to my outbursts of unfettered - and often unreasonable  - optimism by calling me Pollyanna), I quickly learned that smiling was not such a good idea here in France.  Neither was eye contact.  This has to do with the whole public life/private life that the French so value.  People are out on the street to get from one place to another - that's pretty much it.  If they meet a friend along the way, tant mieux**, but meeting new people....errr...not really so interested in that, no.  In public, it's an all business – all the time attitude and demeanor.  Smiles to strangers are worthy of suspicion.  And in the case of men, worthy of an unintended and unwelcome approach.  I was a quick study on this and, as an introvert, came to appreciate that whole split between inner and outer life. 

But try as I might, that smile sneaks up on me and slips right out if I’m not paying attention.  As a result, things like this happen to me:

On Monday I was to pick up a car at the rental car agency (I needed it for today’s business meeting) and arrived with a beautifully wrapped box of chocolates.  You see, the last time I rented a car through this place (I’ve used them for years – they have the best internet deals and they're always really nice, but I digress…) I returned the car at an hour when the office was closed.  The complication being that I had to get to work and had no option but to leave the car at that particular moment to make the 30 minute walk back to my afternoon appointments.  

In a bit of a dither, I called the number listed on the contract.  Thankfully someone picked up (afterall, it was déjeuner***, a sacred hour in these parts).  She offered me the option of leaving the key in an agreed upon secret place to allow me to be on my way.  Nice, huh?  Thus, the box of chocolates - a petite merci.  (I've found that a simple thing like a box of sweets or a buttery bag of fresh madeleines from my favorite vendor in the marché works wonders to ease complexities of multi-cultural transactions that might otherwise be lost in translation.)

As I stepped up to the rental desk, Monica, the woman who usually handles the details when I need a car, was looking ever-so-much like the Cheshire cat.  She immediately got up and left saying she would be right back.  I set the chocolates on the counter and chatted with the fellow who was left at the desk. Monica returned with a box that looked like this:

…and it was filled with this:

“Just a petit rien**** because of your smile.  You always have a smile for us and that . is . rare!” she said, slowing the final three words for emphasis and adding a little "pffffft" and a dramatic roll of her eyes for flair.  (Of course, it’s rare – this is France! I thought.)

I was so blown away, I nearly forgot to explain why I had brought the chocolates.  When I finally got around to my appreciation for the special treatment last time (not to mention, that I was going to need that special treatment again today), she came around from behind the desk with arms open wide and a big smile.  She took hold of my shoulders and leaned in to faire les bises*****!  This is not a small thing, dear readers.  Then she gave me a cuter than cute Fiat to drive away and went out of her way to make sure all of my information in the system was correct and up to date.  

This kind of customer service is…well…let's just say it’s rare in these parts, people, and leave it at that.  Apparently, as rare as a smile!

To be continued… 

à demain,

* what's more
**  all the better
***  lunch
**** little nothing 
***** give kisses on each cheek 

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