Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 6: Provence Meets Pit Barbecue

December 26, 2014

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The Belles, Patty, Sherry, Marcia and Lynne, and their luggage arrive in Saignon to begin the decorating process.

The Belles, Patty, Sherry, Marcia and Lynne, and their luggage arrive in Saignon to begin the decorating process.

THE NEXT WAVE of troops from the South was due to arrive. While Cindy’s friendship dated from my young-married life in Bayou country, Lynne, Patty and Sherry went way back, to small-town summers in South Carolina, when fun required a drive-in, boys from a rival town and lying to parents. Sherry is my cousin; I met the other two visiting her in Walhalla when we were all in our teens. They followed me to a small women’s college in mountainous North Georgia, a school I’d chosen to pacify my high school boyfriend, whom I dumped anyway. They pledged the same sorority, but that was as far as loyalty would stretch. After spending a couple of years breaking restrictions, the three of them headed off to the University of Carolina for serious partying. That’s how Patty met my brother, then a serious partier, and became my sister-in-law for a few years. Sherry and Lynne both lived in Greenville with their families and Patty and her current husband lived in Houston, but over the years, the four of us had learned how to close the distance between us with girls-only road trips and, later, girls-only vacations at one of our second homes. We marked our forties at my old farmhouse on the coast of Maine, and our fifties at Lynne’s condo in the Turks and Caicos, but the essential elements never varied—cases of beer and at least one makeup session.

These were proper Southern ladies in the best tradition, meaning you were always impeccably made-up, you didn’t wear white shoes after Labor Day, nor jewelry below your waist, and always had a brown paper bag for your beer while in the car.

These women knew my limitations. They’d pooled their money (there was always one of us who couldn’t afford the trip) to come help me set up house and guide me through the process of breaking into small-town society—a process which, stripped down, can be applied almost anywhere in the world.

I knew that they would start by disarming the indigenous people and then they’d pummel me into a shape that would fit in. That’s what they always did.

The morning I left for Nice to pick them up, Andrew was still silent and moody, and I wasn’t sure what the atmosphere would like be when I came back four hours later with a carload of more me and mine.

In the tropical warmth of the Nice Airport, people watching for arriving passengers stood as still as possible so as not to perspire. My friends had flown from Atlanta to New York and then to Nice, a long, hair-mussing, clothes-crumpling, patience-testing way, but they came bouncing into the terminal like cheerleaders onto the field, displaying the colors and stirring up the crowd. They stood out from the other travelers—who needed black poly-spandex travel wear when God gave us cotton and linen? And steam irons?

Lynne was ahead of the “Belles.” She’d gotten a law degree at fifty, and no one dared to cross her. My big-hearted cousin Sherry taught unwed mothers in a state program, and meticulous Patty, the detail person, had retired early from a big oil company to do charity work.

Suddenly, I felt the force of real power. These were emissaries from the world of don’t-you-worry, where technical problems are taken care of with a nail file, and tragedies with Little Debbie and Jim Beam. People there had to be nice (nahs) above all, and if they weren’t nahs, I mean pretty damn nahs, they just needed to be shown how.

The car rang with laughter and lyrical praise for the passing scenery, and when I started to gripe about Andrew, the slightest negative got lost in the good-natured waves of catching’-up stories. They had proclaimed Andrew a sweetie when I first presented him and that was irrevocable. I might as well shut up. When we got back to the apartment and found he had set out an ice bucket of champagne for us, I wondered if there had really been all that conflict in the house or had it all taken place in some hard-ass Yankee part of my mind.

Andrew’s sister Anne came down from Paris (so similar to Andrew that you’re tempted to call her Annedrew). The Belles immediately adopted her, and we all dined together at the auberge, which was becoming a tradition. We sat outside drinking late into the night, making an awful lot of noise. When we got to our door and nobody had a key, we tramped around the corner to an almost-accessible window over the street. Lynne started to climb the stone wall, but Andrew pulled her back by the skirt and was starting up himself when somebody thought to ask Anne the word for ladder (échelle, which was what finally did the trick.

The next day, hung over and tired, I begged out of more excitement long enough to finish a freelance assignment that was due. They were gathered around the window seat doing their morning Bible reading; it was a practice they’d adopted recently, to my surprise, but they never expected my participation. It was one of those things that were done in their communities that weren’t done in my Washington circle.

“You go right on with what you need to do,” said Sherry. “I’m just so happy to be here!” She’d already made friends with “that precious little family at the bakery.”

“We’ll get out of your hair,” said Lynne. “ If you’ll just lend us your car, we’ll go off and entertain ourselves.”

“Let’s go to Avignon,” agreed Patty. “I’ve been reading about the Pope’s Palace.” She and Lynne had both traveled in Europe, but this was Sherry’s first time.

Andrew familiarized them with the big six-passenger car we’d rented for its cargo room. Lynne was familiar with the manual gearshift, and could read and speak French, so the Belle that was Sherry rode shotgun with the road map, and the Belle that was Patty sat in back reading out of her guide book. It looked like one of our traditional road trips except that I would have ridden shotgun and there would have been a cooler in the back between the Belles.

I watched them pull out of the Place de l’Horloge (“Oh, Mitch, it’s like a storybook village!”) and pouted a little thinking of the fun I would miss. Then I had a vision—from where, when? Oh yes—the last time those three went off in my car it was 1964 and they were headed for a day at the beach–six hours away from campus and considerably beyond school rules. So unthinkable that the rulebook had no words for it. I had stayed at the sorority house, bound by my position as an officer to at least avoid trouble, if not to head it off. The details that I learned gradually over the years went in this order: My car broke down on the way. They met a nice businessman at the garage where they took it. He was picking up his own car. They persuaded him to let them drop him off at his office and drive his car to the beach. They picked him up that evening to go get my car from the garage and go on back to school.

All told, it introduced me to the strange mix of admiration and fury that I experienced again raising Ben.

While I sat working on my laptop at the table in the front room, Andrew and Anne decided they would tackle the job of getting a late delivery up the stairs. It was a modern convertible sofa made by Steiner of Paris and shipped from Grenoble, where Cindy and I had found it. It was basically a double mattress and lightweight frame folded into a simple seating form, covered in white canvas and held with leather straps—in short, a Steiner. I had watched in horror as the driver of the delivery truck carried it uphill on his back when his truck couldn’t get into the village. A giggling teenaged girl tottered along beside him on absurdly high-wedged shoes. I assumed she was his daughter, and that she’d been allowed to skip school to ride down into the fabled land of Provence with her daddy. And then again, maybe not.

Regardless, the Steiner had made it inside, but it had sat in the hallway for several days.

I was vaguely aware of activity somewhere below me as I concentrated on work. Already that morning, the electricity had gone off several times because of powerful American hairdryers put to simultaneous use, and then there had been clamorous plumbing noises, urgent whispers about water, shrieks and muffled laughter, but whenever I called out to ask what was the matter, they’d pacified me with cheerful chirps.

“Nothin,’ honey.”

“It’s okaa-y.”

“You just go right on with what you’re doin’.”

But now, even with the Belles gone for the day, and just Andrew and Anne downstairs, I had an uncomfortable premonition of all hell breaking loose, like when you suspect your kids have gotten hold of firecrackers. Every once in a while, as I paused to think up a headline or start a new paragraph, I thought I heard thumps and whispering on the other side of the door to the stairwell. Once in a while Andrew or Anne would open the door silently and tiptoe past me on some kind of errand. It wasn’t until I finished my assignment and faxed it to the client that I learned what had happened. The two of them had managed to stuff the Steiner into the tiny spiraling stairwell leading to the top floor and it had lodged there. They had been climbing over it to get into the apartment in order to keep me from seeing the problem until a solution was found. In the end, it was simply a matter of removing its legs.

With my work done and sent, the Steiner safely in its place in the atelier ready to accommodate two more sleepers, Andrew and I opened wine and set out things for aperitifs while I got dinner ready.

By eight o’clock, the roast was done, we’d drunk half the wine and were wondering where the Belles were and whether we should open another bottle, when Lynne called to say they were on their way and not to worry.

“What could they be doing?” said Andrew. “Shops close at seven.”

“How did she sound?”

“In control.”

“Uh-oh.”

So here’s what had happened. They had gotten halfway to Avignon and stopped to fill up the tank (and stock up on beer) so they wouldn’t have to worry about it later. Back on the road, the engine shut off and Lynne pulled over, opened the door and belatedly saw the sticker that said DIESEL FUEL. She then removed two Xanax tablets from her purse and gave them to Sherry and Patty to hold in reserve in case they started to freak out. Then she wrote out a short script in French and sent them out to flag down cars.

“Do not take the Xanax yet,” she warned. “You won’t be able to take another one for four hours and I don’t have enough with me.” But they gulped them down immediately. She caught them in the rearview mirror.

Here is what the note said, in French:

We have borrowed our friend’s car.

We have put the wrong fuel in it.

It is dead.

Can you help us?

And on the other side it said:

If not, do you have any beer?

This approach netted them a ride on the laps of a couple of mechanics in the truck of an Avignon garage. While the mechanics fixed the car, the Belles had a fine time shopping and lunching in Avignon, and when they went to pick the car up they spent a pleasant hour or so “visiting” with the guys, receiving language instruction, observations of life and love, dining and sightseeing tips, and swapping addresses and invitations to come over and meet the family.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

WITHIN A WEEK, starting with my interiors and moving outward, the Belles reorganized and finished furnishing and accessorizing my spaces, defining their use. “THIS is where you put your cleaning supplies.” “THIS is where you need a lamp.” “THIS is where you keep your good china and silver.”

“And THIS is where to sleep,” called Lynne from the grenier, where the Belles had banished her for snoring.

The next phase was getting me properly established in the neighborhood. After trying to soften up a suspicious and surly Brigitte, they turned their rays on Jean-Claude, captured him and made him their slave. He got us all invited to the home of Pierre, “The Best Wild Boar Hunter In the Village” and his wife, Anne-Marie. The two men had known each other since their “hairs were black.” We went inside to see Pierre’s stone carvings and collection of arrowheads and fossils, then outside to sit in the shade in front of the old house that Pierre’s grandfather had built, by the pool Pierre had put in, and listened to Jean-Claude’s translation of stories as we munched potato chips and drank pastis and whiskey at eleven in the morning.

Next Jean-Claude lined us up for aperitifs with Danielle and Claude, the attractive couple next door. We discovered that he designed wrought-iron furniture and she did faux finishes and creations in antique fabrics. I found myself ordering a chair and footstool from Claude, while the Betsys arranged with Danielle to custom-finish the old armoire that came with the apartment (“It’s depressing”) and make curtains in the local style for the open cabinets. They were discussing a wrought-iron railing for the grenier with Claude when I drew attention to the time, and they came away with sets of Danielle’s lacey handiwork folded in tissue paper to put in their suitcases.

Among the three of them, personal tastes varied from homey to posh, but they were united against Don—or against the image of a male decorator, since they didn’t know him. They were aligned with Andrew in a movement to check Don’s influence, and I was pulled along to places like Gordes and Saint-Rémy to find the Provençal “look.” The words “You need…” were followed by organdy tablecloths, leather-handled baskets, antique silver, embroidered napkins, large ceramic serving pieces and—with the discovery that there were no built-in dispensers—lots of cute ways to handle bathroom tissue and paper towels.

“This is the most comfortable chair I ever sat in,” said Sherry, stretching out her long runner’s legs from a low teak armchair.

“You need a pair of those for the terrace,” said Lynne, and into the car they went.

They found a low whitewashed wood piece with cubbyholes and drawers for whatnots. “You need this in the kitchen next to the counter.”

I didn’t even question whether it would fit. It was already in the car.

“Gosh, y’all—what would we have done without this car?” wondered Sherry.

We went back home to make the rounds of the village shops—there were two—in case we’d missed anything. Turns out I “needed” pitchers, dishtowels and dried lavender from Jean-Claude’s shop and an antique apothecary cabinet and a handsome leather box (“for Andrew”) from the grumpy lady in the little shop by the fountain.

The final business was to eliminate a couple of offending pieces in Don’s scheme—the kilim rug was folded, laid on top of the wood-and-concrete-block table and slid across the floor to the door.

I still have the picture of the four of us, radiating health and happiness and menopausal energy, standing by the car holding our trophies.

Lives of the Party II

BACK IN THE MARYLAND SUBURBS my fax machine rang around nine o’clock one night. I was still at my desk working on a deadline but couldn’t help watching as it started spitting out a hand-written page. That and the late hour meant it was coming from Jean-Claude in France, something that would distract me from the job I had to do. Eagerly, I snapped it up.

On our summer visit I had talked to him about having a party to introduce myself to the neighborhood. Looking back on the few weeks I’d spent there, I had realized that I’d been seen with Don and then Andrew, neither one a conventional-looking companion, and then with clusters of unaccompanied ladies who behaved in boisterous American ways.

After living between two Iranian families for several years, I was sensitive to the fact that first impressions based on stereotypes would hang around to haunt you (and your son and your dog). I wanted somehow to show the French villagers the people we truly were and the good friends and neighbors we meant to be. I’d read that being invited into a French home was a sign of crossing the threshold into friendship. I liked that. I would invite them into my home—”open the kimono,” as they say. Let them figure out who I was and who was what to me. I sure didn’t know

Come what may, I would feed them and ply them with drink.

The Belles and I had pow-wowed with Jean-Claude about it, and we had entrusted him with the task of making up the guest list. In fact, now that I think about it, he’d insisted on it. It seemed to be a task of diplomacy that could not be entrusted to well-meaning but ignorant people like us.

Now, fresh from my fax machine, were the names he deemed suitable to invite to the party.

Some I recognized, some I’d even suggested, but most of them were unknown to me except for his identifying Franglo notes here and there, like “workman,” or “educationer.” From those hints I took it to be a very egalitarian compilation—from carpenters and masons to the baron and baroness. Jean-Claude had taken blackball rights on some suggestions. I had mentioned the lady in the shop by the fountain, but he dismissed her as “too much wild and not so sweet in city life.” Darn! That description had a certain allure that I vowed to explore later.

Now that I had the image of a group of real flesh-and-blood French guests, the vision of me preparing and serving them their own cuisine began to look, well, horrifying. Not because I didn’t know French cooking—I had taken classes, studiously followed Julia Child’s methods and tested them in my kitchen, and I had read and re-read everything M.F.K. Fisher ever wrote on the subject of French cuisine. That was just the point—I now knew enough to be sure that I’d be more comfortable doing open heart surgery in front of the staff at Johns Hopkins.

To be appropriate, whatever we served at the party would have to be made from the local products and pretty much stick to what was in season. While I was thumbing through a Provençal cookbook I’d picked up, it suddenly struck me—France is big on regional food. Provence is southern regional food. I grew up on Southern regional food.

Voilà le menu, y’all!

I did some long-distance huddling with my team. At least two of them—Cindy and Lynne—were planning to come and help me with the event. We came up with some classic Southern dishes that would make an authentic church-supper kind of buffet—fried chicken, corn on the cob, brownies. Cindy offered a Cajun accent with her traditional gumbo and Ken’s marinated shrimp. Lynne promised genuine Carolina pit barbecue.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Since when do you make pit barbecue?” (Lynne favored take-out and vowed her dream kitchen would have a drive-up window.)

“Never mind. I’m bringin’ it and it’ll be fabulous!”

The invitations were in Jean-Claude’s hands to distribute, and we were set to travel in early October. Andrew, who sometimes seemed to drift away in our amorphous relationship, was totally on board for this event.

It was almost two years to the day since we’d first laid eyes on the village. Now not only did we have a sense of the real folks who populated this fairytale place, we were going to bring them in, share our food and learn their stories.

Lynne and her husband, Niles, flew in via Amsterdam with a cooler of the real thing—Henry’s Smokehouse Barbecue—and several containers of Niles’s margarita mix. Cindy brought a huge and glorious centerpiece designed by a florist she had befriended in her roundup of Grenoble’s best artisans.

Anne materialized just in time for a group rehearsal. After ten years of academic life in Paris, her French was smooth and her musical voice made it sing. To practice, someone would play the “Guest,” and she would speak from behind their head to the person playing a “Host.”

“Je suis ravie de faire votre connaissance,” rumbles the “Guest” in Anne’s voice.

“Um…merci et bon-venue—oh shit,” says the “Host,” giggling with stage fright.

“Vous avez preparé un repas très agréable.”

“What’s ruh-pah mean again?”

We busied ourselves for days with cleaning, cooking and running out to search for essentials like corn on the cob and Worcestershire sauce that may have escaped Cindy’s extensive list of ex-pat provisions. A natural stylist and scene-setter, she made little cards labeling each dish and its region, knowing how information like that interested the French. She put out little stands holding miniature French and American flags. We arranged the buffet in stations, and cleared the furniture out of the atelier so people could circulate. We bought both red and rosé wine in five-liter containers from one of the local vineyards. Then we all got really scared and started drinking it.

The evening of the party began with a terrible thunderstorm that cracked and howled and slammed the little Place de l’Horloge with wind and rain. Looking down from the front window, you couldn’t see a single person making their way through the streets. You couldn’t see how they even could.

It was still raging at the designated hour when, coiffed and dressed and standing at our various buffet stations, we rehearsed our French to one another and waited for the first ring. I felt panicky. I didn’t know whether to worry that the violence of the storm was keeping people at home or, worse, that we were being universally snubbed. Maybe stories had circulated—about me with Don and then Andrew—was I their mother or what? About me being dumb enough to buy the suicide house, about how dogs caught Kathy and me trespassing, and Don and me vandalizing the intercom. About a crowd of us roaming drunk through the village after midnight looking for a ladder.

I paced around the front room until Cindy caught my elbow. “Remember, I told you,” she said, “French people are always at least fifteen minutes late to the party.”

She was exactly right. They showed up at eight-fifteen on the dot. I mean all of them. In a bunch—even before the rain stopped. They came up the stairs with arms full of flowers, gifts of home-made liqueur, herbs from their gardens, beeswax candles, framed prints of local scenes and even a porcelain ashtray, to ensure that the predictably non-smoking American hosts would have at least one on hand.

There in our home were André the mason with his wife, Kathy, and his son and helper, Hervé, and his own little family. There was Denis the carpenter with his wife and daughter, Pierre the plumber with his mother, Janine, the baron and baroness, Monsieur and Madame Journu, circulating with friendly dignity. The “educaters” turned out to be Marc and Raymond, a couple who directed a vocational-education program for the mentally handicapped on their goat farm. There was great, good-humored Pierre-The-Best-Wild-Boar-Hunter doing his wild animal calls, and his quiet wife, Anne-Marie, who must have heard them a million times. There was the dashing couple from next-door, Claude and Danielle, and the proper matron Christiane, from the other side, whose husband had presumably stayed home. There was petite Françoise in a sheer blouse and chamois skirt, fine gold jewelry dangling in her cleavage and glittering at her ears; towering Alain and imposing Anne-Marie, the couple who ran the grand chambre d’hôtes next door to Françoise’s little cozy one. A robust woman in a black lace cocktail dress introduced herself as a mechanic and tried out some American slang. And in the middle of it all, as official-sounding as a country ringmaster, was Jean-Claude, with Brigitte sitting apart, smoldering in a backless top and skintight pants.

What I saw when I looked around was an exotic mix of good-hearted people who appeared willing, even pleased to be part of our new lives–even though they had seen or heard of us doing stupid things and knew we would continue doing stupid things until they could get hold of us and show us the way. Oh, you betcha—they were just itching to do that!

People circulated around the food stations, read the food-identification cards with great interest, and stood in little clusters like clinicians comparing notes. Cindy, glowing with pride and jewel colors, was ladling out enough gumbo to flood the levee. In the atelier, it appeared that Carolina pit barbecue had found a new strain of rednecks, and Niles’s margaritas had encouraged them to form a conga line. I saw Lynne flashing her open-mouthed party grin and hugging the waist of one of the “educators,” while the other one grasped at her behind. Even the fussy village busybody was smiling.

And why not? For the most part, this was a coming together of people who came from agrarian roots—albeit in two different lands. There was hard work and bad weather and good harvests in their histories. And even the “damn Yankees” and (expletive) Parisians among them agreed that when the eatin’s good, on mange bien.

Something broke into my pleasant daze. I noticed that no one had touched the fried chicken. Or the corn on the cob I’d scoured the stores from here to Avignon to locate. I pulled Jean-Claude aside and asked if there was a reason people were avoiding certain dishes.

D’habitude, the French sit down at table to eat,” he said, nodding toward the buffet table we’d set up. “We do not stand, and we do not eat ze cheecken fry-ed, or wiz our hands.”

I looked over at the platter heaped with crispy fried chicken. Nobody knew how to eat it. Nobody wanted to learn.

“And the corn?” I asked, pointing to the pile of buttered yellow cobs.

“We feed it to animals.” He gave me a pitying look.

At the stroke of eleven, our guests moved en masse to depart. Those who had shaken hands when they arrived now bestowed three kisses and used the familiar ‘tu’ form of address—a form my French teacher hadn’t bothered to teach us because she said we’d never get to know French people well enough to use it.

As we cleaned up, we critiqued the menu. The gumbo was hugely popular, and the barbecue was a surprise hit, thanks to the easy-to-hold-in-the-conga-line sandwich format. But Andrew and I fretted over the possibility that we had made a blunder in serving the fried chicken and the corn on the cob.

“Now y’all gotta remember one thing,” said Cindy, the voice of authority. “These people will eat snails.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Our friends flew off flushed with victory and full of anecdotes to tell back home, and Andrew and I were left alone together in the French-speaking world. The rest of the weekend we occupied ourselves with cleaning up after the party and getting the place ready to close down for the winter. On Monday morning I opened the mailbox and saw two square envelopes made of the kind of heavy ecru paper used for personal notes. They were addressed to me!

My first French thank-you notes!

I rushed upstairs and waved them at Andrew, who was puttering in the atelier with some tools.

“Wow, look at that!” he crowed, wiping his hands to take one.

“Yeah . . . we made it, huh?” I opened the other one and scanned the handwriting. “Wait a minute . . . what does yours say?”

“Hold on, I’m still reading . . . ”

“Okay. No, wait. These are not thank-you notes.”

One said that, in case we didn’t know it, there were people in this village who have to get up in the morning and go to work, and they don’t appreciate bright lights, loud music and voices carrying on until the wee hours of the night.

The other said that if we ever had another night like that they would call the gendarmes.

There were no names.

We sat there glumly, trying to get ourselves adjusted to this new slant. When we heard Jean-Claude open the boutique at three, we took them down to get his take on the matter.

“Zis one is not nice—zat one is correct, but zis is not nice, pas du tout.”

He studied them, one in each hand, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“Who do you think they are from?” I asked.

“Nssst-nsst-nsst. Not nice.” He glanced at me and then nodded this way and that, indicating the possible whereabouts of disgruntled harpies who might have vented their frustrations on me.

“Women-without-men?” I asked.

“Oui.”

Later someone knocked on the door to the apartment. We came to a standstill, a little stunned. Visitors used the intercom to be let in at the street entrance. It couldn’t be Jean-Claude: He didn’t knock—he just barged in. After the notes, we were both feeling a little uneasy. Vulnerable.

I got up and went cautiously over to the door. I could hear heavy breathing, and someone clearing his throat. I took a deep breath and cleared mine. Summoning my French vocabulary to the front of my mind in case I had to use it, I opened the door.

There was the elderly baron, in a smart navy jacket and starched broadcloth shirt, eyes bulging from the exhausting climb; one gnarled hand was braced on the wall for balance in the steep stairwell, and the other held a square white box, the kind that contains pastries. Jean-Claude must have admitted him through the door in the boutique.

I invited him in, stammering a language combo even I didn’t recognize. He took a few steps inside, still catching his breath from the stairs, while a dozen possibilities flashed through my head. There was an emergency outside in the Place. Our roof was on fire. Oh no! He came to complain about the party! But wait—the baron had been at the party. In fact, his wife had enjoyed three servings of gumbo.

I asked Monsieur if he’d like something to drink, and he gasped for “a little water.” Andrew came in to greet him, much more smoothly than I had managed in my state of shock, and we stood around smiling expectantly while the elegant old man finished his water. Finally he delivered himself of his mission. Walking over to our table, he placed the box down ceremoniously, announced that it was a gift, and invited me to open it.

The white pastry box did not hold miniature fruit tarts or éclairs in paper doilies, as I was expecting. Inside were four roughly oval-shaped objects of varying sizes, wrapped in fresh green leaves. Over them lay another one of those ecru note cards.

Please accept these roses de sable from our region as a gift of welcome and friendship. Henri and Marie-Thèrese Journu

Monsieur made an unwrapping gesture, nodding encouragingly and giving a little sideways smile to Andrew.

They were rocks. I held one up to Andrew, hoping his expression would tell me if it was a threat of some kind.

Watching my face for a glimmer of comprehension, Monsieur began to explain, his hands designing pictorials in the air. I caught something about a collection, the words for several colors, the name of a nearby village, and some reference to his travels, which I’d heard had been extensive. I concentrated on fishing out familiar words in the stream of his speech. Andrew’s occasional “Ah, oui” gave me hope that he would be able to tell me later what the deal was with these rocks.

When there was nothing more to say to us that we could understand, the gentleman shook each of our hands, nodded in a way that seemed like a bow, turned and steadied himself for the treacherous descent ahead of him.

“So, what did he say about these?” I asked, laying the rocks out in a row in descending size. They were the color of sugar cookies, strangely lightweight, faceted like pinecones, and they sparkled where the light hit them.

“They’re geological formations from the ochre sands you find around Roussillon and Le Rustrel, where the mines were. Once upon a time the sea covered all the area, and when it retreated it left all this colored sand—more than twenty shades—and a lot of cool specimens like these. He and Madame found these on their walks in the countryside over the years. The only other place he’s seen anything like them was in Africa, where they have that kind of reddish sand.”

“You understood all that?”

“Well, yeah, but also, Jean-Claude told me about the ochres.”

Ah. Man talk with Jean-Claude. Bonding?

He grinned. “Just think, a baron brought you roses formed by sand.”

“Wonder how old they are?”

“Older than you.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s a sign.”

“Of what?”

“A miracle.”

That night we drank a bottle of vintage wine and mellowed out listening to oldies. We even did a little slow-dancing. Andrew harmonized with the Everly Brothers, and wanted me to try the low part.

“That’ll get us more notes from neighbors,” I warned, but I tried one verse.

“Aghhh! That’ll get us the gendarmes.”

“Shut up!”

You shut up.”

So I did. It was a soft night, and his pure tenor drifted out to mingle with the contented gurgling of a fountain out there in the dark.

Darling, you can count on me

‘Till the sun dries up the sea

Until then I’ll always be

Devoted to you

“How ‘bout those sand roses?”

“A miracle.”

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 



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