l’argent et midi (money and noon/lunch)

 

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With Paul at Le Crocodile

When we first arrived in France, Paul asked us many things about food. What we liked, what we were willing to try. We assured him we were adventurous and eager to explore whatever delicacies he put before us. Scrunching up his lips the way the French do, he seemed to doubt our ability to do that. We finally figured out that our country’s reputation for poor palates and tasteless diet trends had preceded us.

“I am sorry for you,” Paul explained. “You are so afraid of your food.”

He was right, of course. Americans typically want to know how many calories are in a dish, how much sodium, how much fat. We tried to tell him it is because our food is kind of a mystery to us. We aren’t always sure what is in it. Not so in France. The mashed up, processed foods we are used to seeing at the grocery store hardly exist in France. And we couldn’t wait to show Paul how much we embraced that wonderful difference.

“Yes? Ah, so, I will show you France through food,” he declared.

So he did. When I think of my days with Paul, it is food that looms large as a subject of conversation and consumption. I remember small green prunes the color of green apples. Expecting them to be tart or bitter, I was surprised by their delicate sweetness. I remember the fragrant clementines, the tiny, wild strawberries, the mounds of fresh olives and nuts, and the dizzying selection of cheeses.

The most celebrated part of Paul’s day was midi. He lived for the large French midday meal. Each day he ate somewhere else where locals greeted him with respect and genuine affection. In each establishment he had a favorite seat, a favorite dish, a favorite beverage. I will never forget the day Paul introduced me to his favorite beer, Leffe, over midi in his small local restaurant, Le Village. Or the day he insisted we were to experience crocodile for lunch.

Steve and I looked at each other. “Crocodile?”

Paul cocked his head . “Oui. Crocodile. But first, let us talk money.”

We bristled a bit, wondering what the colonel had in mind for us. But his edict was short and to the point.

“So, when you are in my town, I pay. When we travel, you pay.”

Steve and Paul shook hands on the arrangement and we never spoke of money again.

‘So, tomorrow, we eat crocodile,” he continued.

“Yes. Absolutely. We eat crocodile,” we responded as we slipped off to bed.

Turns out the colonel had a good sense of humor. Our midi meal of crocodile the next day was a joke. There was no crocodile on the menu at Le Crocodile restaurant. The owners, I believe, were Australian or it was an Australian-themed restaurant. What was on the menu, however, was kangaroo. Paul ordered a kangaroo steak for all of us. Steve and I never flinched as we ate it. It was surprisingly good.

I really liked eating at Le Crocodile. It was a great place to watch the local French on their lunch breaks. We returned several times.

Always Paul’s treat.

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At Le Crocodile. Paul is sitting next to Don, another American he met playing chess online.

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le marché (the market)

 

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The colonel kept his word. Early the next morning (at least to us), the large brass bell on the staircase banister rang out. Jolted awake, Steve and I turned to each other and giggled. As we sat up to get our bearings and shake the jet lag from our heads, the bell tolled again. With a bit more urgency in its clapper.

After a much needed shower, I headed downstairs to find the colonel waiting in the hallway. He greeted me with a smile and a kiss on each cheek. Ushering me to the dining table, he pointed to the coffee, bread, and jam. My first petit déjeuner of our trip.

“You will?”

I nodded and took a seat next to Steve. Although he tried to contain it, the colonel’s excitement — and impatience — was visible on his kind face. Having eaten hours ago, his mind was on the next item on the day’s agenda: the market, le marché. Realizing our tardiness was throwing him off schedule again, Steve and I quickly downed our coffee and bread. When we rose to leave, a wave of relief passed over the colonel’s face.

“So, we go?” he asked, grabbing his cane and beret.

Again, we nodded and followed him through the kitchen to the garage where we piled into his tiny, silver car. The colonel was no slouch when it came to driving the manual transmission vehicle. This thrilled Steve, who is an “enthusiastic” driver, as well. At one point, the colonel got irritated with someone making a tedious left turn. Exasperated, he  pulled around them and through the intersection. Steve threw back his head and laughed in surprise and delight.

I shook my head and smiled. Except for the 40 years difference, the two cyber friends could have been brothers.

After parking the car, we walked across the pavement to Paul’s town market. Many heads turned and acknowledged the man everyone called “le colonel.” Their respect for Paul was very touching.

It was still rather chilly outside so the fresh market was housed indoors until the weather cooperated. A  vibrant array of colorful foods, their scents heady and seductive, hit our senses all at once as we entered the small building. Although I had been to markets in France before and recognized many of the cheeses, fruits, vegetables, meats, and breads, there were offerings at Paul’s market which were new to me.

As we made our rounds, the market’s hawkers bombarded us with urgings to try their wares. Paul swooped in and chose the best each had to offer. At one fruit stand, he stopped and raised his eyebrows. Looked at me and smiled.

“You know?” he asked, pointing to a small, coppery-brown, bulbous fruit.

Embarrassed, I shook my head. Paul laughed and gestured to the stand’s owner. With animated enthusiasm, the man selected one of the odd looking fruits. “Une figue,” the man said, smiling at me.

“Ah, Merci,” I said.

Paul and the man exchanged a look that I interpreted as glee. From the fruit stand  owner, I detected a bit of envy. To introduce someone, especially a woman, to a new edible delicacy is every Frenchman’s fantasy, I soon found out.

Paul pointed to the fig as it was placed in his palm to make sure I noticed the  cruciform cut that had been made in the fig’s crown. After I acknowledged the cut, Paul gently squeezed the fruit from the bottom. As he did, the fig’s skin fell open like the petals on a water lily. Its interior flesh was crimson, rimmed with a thin band of moss green. It was the most stunning piece of fruit I’d ever seen.

Now Paul raised the fig to his lips. Turned to me and said, “You see. Comme ça,” just before sucking the oozing fruit with practiced delight. I couldn’t wait to do the same. And Paul and the fruit man couldn’t wait to see me do it. Smiling at me adoringly, the men looked on as I pressed the fig to my lips and drew in its luscious sweetness. Steve, smiling from the sidelines, was enjoying the show, too.

Before we left the market, Paul insisted on buying me a sizable bag of figs to take home. They weren’t just a sinfully delicious fruit to him. They were a visual metaphor for all that is wonderful about being alive.

From that day forward, figs were always present on Paul’s dining table.

 

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Fresh fig

 

l’arrivée (the arrival)

 

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Time lost all semblance of civility as we tried to navigate France’s roadmaps, rotaries, and construction detours. On three separate occasions we found ourselves lost in the same vortex of a chaotic Versailles roundabout. Landmarks took on a deja vu quality. How we eventually found our bearings and headed in the right direction is still a mystery to me.

Three hours late, we drove up to Paul’s home in St. Remy Les Chevreauxe. Paul stood on the front stoop, his arms spread wide. He greeted us with kisses on both cheeks, hugs, and a hint of concern at our troubles with the French road system. That all melted away as he guided us into his charming home. In the main room, a dining table was set with a wonderful meal of avocados stuffed with seafood and beef in a rich gravy. Midi, the traditional French lunch, had morphed into diner, due to our tardiness. Paul was generous with his forgiveness, however, and with the glasses of rose he poured. Together, they helped ebb the stress of the day’s traveling and put us at ease with our host and our surroundings.

Before eating, Paul pointed us to the hall staircase and motioned upward. “For you,” he said. Slowly, we followed Paul up the stairs where he showed us our room and bathroom. It was the only time we saw him climb the stairs. Paul walked with a cane and lived on the first floor now so he no longer had to make the climb. As a result, we were gifted with having the top floor of his home to ourselves. We had a queen-sized bed covered in a red velvet quilt. White lace curtains hung over the wide French window in our bedroom. Flinging it open, we gazed down upon Paul’s hedge-enclosed garden and neighborhood, drawing in a deep breath of fragrant, rose-scented air.

After our meal, Steve readied himself to play his first game of chess with Paul face to face. Relying on a hefty book of 501 French verbs for translations, he positioned his pieces. Made his first move.  Joy registered on Steve’s face and Paul’s, warmed by the 40-year-old Scotch Paul brought out to mark the occasion.

I took a seat in a comfortable chair across from them. Pulled out a book and pretended to read. I was happy for the permission to recede and be a quiet observer. The evening was theirs now, punctuated by the genuine warmth I heard in their voices. The soft padding of chess pieces being moved. The clink of the Scotch bottle being tipped to their glasses. The robust scent of their cigars.

The laughter of friends, new and old at the same time.

Before retiring, Paul told me we would go to the market in the morning. Walking me to the staircase, he pointed to a large brass bell mounted on the banister

“You see? I will ring. Tomorrow.”

I nodded. Smiled.

Le colonel meant business, I thought to myself.

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The colonel’s bell

 

l’invitation (the invitation)

 

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Entrance to Paul Fossat’s home

My friendship with Paul came as a surprise to me.

Although fascinated by the conversations Steve and Paul shared, I was always content to be on the periphery. In my mind, this was Steve’s journey. He was the one who had reached out to this charming, articulate, life-loving Frenchman. He was the one who nurtured the relationship. I was merely a voyeur.

As the months passed, Paul’s place in Steve’s life grew deeper. I saw that Paul was becoming a father figure to Steve, a philosophical mentor, and a kind professor all in one. Paul was also funny and an unabashed lover of women, something Steve and Paul shared despite their 40 year age difference. In so many ways they were on the same intellectual and emotional wave length. I loved seeing how Paul’s friendship lit up Steve’s world. Stretched him. Delighted him.

And that delighted me.

From time to time, Paul asked about me. I replied, through Steve, enjoying an occasional cyber exchange with Paul. I never expected it to be anything more.

In 2004, however, that all changed.

“Oh my God. I am so jealous,” Steve told me one night.

Steve had just learned that Don, a college professor from New Mexico, was planning a hiking trip to France. Steve had introduced Don to Paul through IYT. The three of them were now online chess friends. It was killing Steve that Don would meet Paul before he did.

Trying to hide his jealousy, Steve teased Paul about the situation. Seeing through Steve, Paul responded by insisting Steve and I come to France, as well. Reality set in and Steve told Paul that an unplanned trip to France was not in our budget.

“You will stay with me. You and Laura. Stay as long as you like. One week. Two weeks. I live alone and have a large house. It is no problem,” Paul countered.

Steve asked me what I thought.

Only one answer seemed to make sense. “Paul is 91 now. This may be your only chance to meet him. We can’t afford not to go.”

After urging Paul to speak with his daughter first to make sure she was okay with us coming to stay with him, we made our plans. Just before they were finalized, Steve contacted Paul and gave him one last opportunity to reconsider.

“You know, in the U.S. we have a saying. Friends are like fish. After a couple of weeks they both begin to stink.”

Paul said he understood the joke.

“Fish, yes. My friends, never,” he replied.

 

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French doors opening into Paul’s garden

 

 

 

 

 

rencontrer le colonel (meeting the colonel)

 

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Enjoying dinner with Paul at Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris

In March of 2004, my husband joined an online game site called It’s Your Turn (IYT). Plagued by a chronic bad back, Steve found the distraction of playing scrabble and chess online helped ease his constant pain. Friends and neighbors agreed to sign up and be his first IYT challengers.

Because IYT is an international site, there was an added benefit to Steve’s game playing. Challengers from Australia, Russia, and other far flung places started inviting him to play with them. Soon it was the people as much as the games that he looked forward to each night. Curious, Steve asked them about their lives. Some were willing to share, others preferred to just play the games.

From the very beginning, one person stood out above the others. Steve’s eyes lit up and his fingers raced across the keyboard whenever this player was online.

‘I like this guy,” Steve often said,  looking up from his laptop. “I really like him.”

The guy’s name was Paul Fossat. Paul was French and lived near Versailles. As Paul and Steve got to know each other better, their conversation drifted to politics, science, geography, philosophy, history, art, and culture. Paul was well-read, had a quick wit, and routinely beat Steve at chess. Talking through an online translation program, they shared favorite books and much more.

One day, Steve asked Paul a new question.

“I am wondering if you have any other hobbies. For relaxation. For example, I love to play golf. Do you?” Steve asked.

The answer that came back was unexpected.

“No. I can’t,” Paul replied. “You see, I am ninety.”

Steve and I looked at each other. Exchanged the same surprise. Suddenly, the faceless name on Steve’s computer screen took form. Paul was much more than an online competitor and witty conversationalist.  He had a history, a story. And I wanted to know it.

Little by little, Paul shared the details of his life with Steve. His wife had died four years ago. He had two grown daughters and two granddaughters. He and the oldest daughter did not have a very good relationship. He did not elaborate and Steve did not pry. Paul’s younger daughter was his pride and joy as was his oldest granddaughter. Both women had keen minds like Paul and were drawn to math and the sciences. Sadly, Paul’s youngest granddaughter was born with mental disabilities.

Paul was also a World War II veteran. In the first months of the war, on the Belgian/French border, Paul was taken prisoner by the Nazis. He spent the next five years in a German POW camp. When he returned home after the war he learned he had a five-year-old daughter, conceived shortly before Paul parted from his new bride. When the girl saw Paul walk in the door, she looked at a photo and then to him. Shook her head.

“That is my father,” she said, pointing at the photo. “You are not my father.”

It was understandable, Paul explained. During captivity, most prisoners lost a considerable amount of weight. Drawn and tired, weak and thin, Paul did not resemble at all the handsome young French officer in the photo his daughter had been taught to think of as her father. Spoiled by her exclusive relationship with her mother, the girl found it hard to accept Paul and share her mother with him. In many ways, Paul said, the war made it impossible for them to retrieve the bond that had been taken from them.

What began as Paul and Steve’s story, quickly engulfed me. I did not know then and am still trying to articulate now how profoundly Paul impacted my life. I know I am a better person for having known him for the brief five year interval that spanned our friendship.

My husband and I visited Paul twice in his lovely French home. Got to know his family, neighbors, and friends. We traveled to Normandy with Paul and saw the impact of that event through his eyes. Came to better understand the deep bonds that still reside in the hearts of the French for our country’s sacrifices during WWII.

Knowing I was a writer, Paul once asked me, “You will write about us?”

Yes, Paul. At last.

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huîtres (oysters)

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The colonel loved slimy things. His daily diet consisted of at least one helping of canned foie gras. Alternates to that regime included snails, mollusks, and any number of sea creatures that had to be pried from their calcified homes.

Oysters, though, were by far the colonel’s favorite.

One Saturday, the colonel rushed me out of the house early in order to get to the local farmers market in time to pick out the best fresh oysters. As we climbed out of the colonel’s car across the parking lot,  I smelled them. Cloaked in stony shells of striated rock, they still reeked of the sea, as did the men who sold them. Seeing me and Paul approach, the weather-toughened vendors called out, “Le Colonel!” Then they went into their routine, bombarding Paul with quick-witted banter.  I understood little of the conversation.

Then again, I needed no translation.

Just by listening to the tone of their voices, I learned buying oysters was about carnal desire. Virility. The posturing and taunting between Paul and the vendors was typical, I imagined, of the conversations Frenchmen have engaged in for centuries when a women comes with a man to buy oysters. Suggestive winks, raised eyebrows, and wide grins were cast my way as the colonel deliberated over the oysters. Taking one in his hand, he raised it to my nostrils. Gestured for me to draw in a deep breath.

“Yes? You smell the sea?”

Several sets of male eyes lingered on me as I inhaled the scent. I blushed. Nodded.

We bought a lot of oysters that day.

That evening, Paul carefully washed and pried open the oyster shells. Mounded them on a plate and set them in the center of the table. Nestled in among them he put quartered lemons. Beside them he placed a plate of buttered toast. Before we began, the colonel passed around a small container of grape tomatoes.

“First. You must. To release the senses,” he explained, popping one into his mouth.

Steve and I followed his lead. He beamed and filled our wine glasses. Nodded.

“Now,” he said, gesturing toward the large platter of oysters he’d spent half an hour preparing for us.

One by one, we separated the oysters from their homes, squeezed the smallest amount of lemon upon each one, and presented them to our outstretched tongues. In butchered French, we tried to convey our thanks.

Throwing back his head, the colonel laughed as we lost ourselves in the splendor and simplicity of our evening meal. Between sips of wine and bites of buttered toast, the parlay continued. Shell to plate, lemon to oyster, oyster to waiting mouths. Over and over, we repeated the movement until the platter was empty and the spent oyster shells overfilled two bowls.

I helped the colonel scoop up the bowls and take them to the kitchen.Tossed them into a garbage bag. Pulling out the bag to take to the trash bins, I saw the sharp shells had punctured the bag. Oyster juice oozed across Paul’s kitchen floor. I pointed it out to Paul who grabbed two rags from a hook and dropped them over the spill. Humming a French tune, he danced up the mess.

Each day with Paul was filled with moments like this. Moments lived in the present.

His most generous gift of all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

un nouveau départ (a new beginning)

Waves crashing in Marseille, France

Waves crashing in Marseille, France

In April of 2014, my brother was involved in a horrific, near fatal car accident. In the days following his accident, I put many things on hold. Like this blog.

It is now 2016. Two years since my brother’s accident. His journey back to us hasn’t been easy. Yet after multiple reconstructive surgeries and many months of physical therapy, he is rebuilding his life.The damage to his body was extensive. He will never be able to ride a bicycle again or run up and down the stairs. There are vision and hearing issues that still bother him, as well. But considering what he has been through, he is doing remarkably well.

My brother’s name, by odd coincidence, is also Paul. He and the colonel never met or spoke to each other. Yet I cannot think of one without the other. Despite staggering odds, both Pauls faced difficult challenges in their lives.

I am so grateful to have loved them both.

For my brother, there are still hard days. Days that have forced him to reevaluate what is really important. He is a different man who has acquired a wisdom that still amazes me. He says he has never been more grateful for his life and the people in it. He tears up, thinking about all the doctors and nurses who tended to him and helped bring him back to life. All the people who stood by him.

Now, though, he is eager to begin again.

So am I.

 

 

 

je suis tellement désolé (an unplanned interruption)

In April of 2014, my only brother was involved in a terrible auto accident. He remains in critical condition and is currently undergoing a series of reconstructive surgeries. Doctors have never seen so many broken bones in one body.

Once my brother is out of the woods, I will resume posting on the blog. I hope that will be within the next week or two.

Thanks again for your interest and please keep posted for future entries.