La Piscine Et Le Glouglou

Posted July 17, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

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Glouglou is a lovely onomatopoetic French word that technically means to gurgle, or glug, but also means to drink a lot, or describes what one drinks a lot of. And piscine is, of course, a swimming pool. And drinking, perhaps immoderately, while swimming? Well, that’s the story of the day.

Because all the while I was planning this trip to France I was dreaming of this pool. Perhaps it’s a shallow dream, to go where it’s hot and submerge oneself in cool water while drinking French wine, or the alluring, anise-flavored drink of the south, pastis. Ok, I’ll just go ahead and be shallow. I’m on vacation and shallowness is called for. Or, if not called for, at least allowed and indulged.

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Although down here near the deep end is where some of Shel’s ashes are buried, and it’s here that I place a glass of whatever glouglou I’m indulging in, so that I return regularly to where he lies, floating, paddling, and just generally hanging around his presence, on some level or other.

Today while there I suddenly began humming a bit of a song by Alain Bashung, “un jour je parlerai moins, jusq’au jour où je ne parlerai plus.” One day I will speak less, until the day when I speak no more. Which is, as you know, exactly how it went down. That inspired a pretty big gulp.

After a few lazy laps I passed by this same spot and heard in my head another French classic, “il y a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai.”  I’ve loved you for such a long time, I’ll never forget you. And there a gulp wasn’t enough, I discovered that what I really needed was a saltwater face wash, which my own blue eyes obligingly provided.

Ok then, is that why I’m here, in this sort of garden of Eden?

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To revisit my past life? I thought I was coming to see old friends, before they, or I, get too old for a grueling journey between our two far-apart daily lives. I didn’t realize that this house would be a living cemetery of memory, albeit beautiful memory, and beautiful in its own right. Maybe more of a memory museum.

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But yes, the view from this pool, one of my very favorite spots in the world, is clouded, or enhanced, depending on your perspective, by the shadows of my former life. In this case, it’s analogous to a filter. Because for the first time I decided not to bring a camera, but to try to make a leap into the future by using just my phone to capture my days. And the filters cast shadows, and make things glow, just like my memories.

But I’m not reproaching myself for any of it. I plan to spend as much time in the pool as I possibly can, and if it’s saltier when I leave, well c’est la vie.

 

 

 

 

 

Help In The Night

Posted August 12, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

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Last night, the eve of my birthday, managed to be one of the most desperate nights of my life. To set the stage, I’m spending the week in a sweet little vacation rental on one of the more remote parts of the island, with water on both sides of the house.

Because the Perseid showers are always my birthday gift from the universe, I went out on the back deck about 10:00 to look for meteors. Because it had gotten a bit chilly, I closed the door behind me. Because I’m an idiot I didn’t see that although I had unlocked one lock to get out, there was another, waiting to ambush me. Twenty minutes later, no meteors. Also, I’m locked out on a deck that’s right over the water. All of the windows are locked, and my phone, keys, wallet, and glasses are inside the house.

No point in screaming for help, as there’s no one home in the houses on either side of mine. I remembered that there was a little door from the deck to the parking area. It was jammed and only opened about 12 inches, but I knew it was either jump in and swim, or squeeze through that door, even though I was mortally afraid of being stuck in there all night, or possibly for the rest of my life. I ooched and scooched my not-at-all-small way through, bending the wooden gate as much as I could, and finally as I popped out the other side the door came free of whatever had been blocking it.

So then there I was, in the pitch dark, with no neighbors home. I stumbled up the road toward a house that had lights on in the upstairs bedrooms and rang their bell. A silver-haired woman who looked to be in her late 60s came hesitantly to the door, wearing a housecoat and slippers. I pleaded for help. I must have looked either so honest or so distraught that her sense of danger was overcome, and she let me in. I think her name is Reenie, although I wouldn’t swear to that.

She and I proceeded to try to find the number of the rental’s owner, who lives in California. Apparently it’s unlisted. I called 911, and the nice policeman gave me some numbers of locksmiths, who don’t answer their phones at night.  Reenie called AAA, just in case. No luck. I called my former neighbor Denys, who lives about four miles up the road, is 84 years old, and goes to bed early after a few Manhattans. He still has an old-school voice answering machine and I yelled into it “help, Denys, wake up, help” about a dozen times, but no luck. Reenie kept urging me to break a window, but I told her I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Totally freaked out doesn’t begin to describe how I felt, and it was now after 11:00. No keys, no phone, no glasses, no wallet. At least I was fully dressed and had shoes on.

Intrepidly, Reenie grabbed a flashlight and a huge hammer and went out, still in her pink-flowered housecoat, to break into a stranger’s house. In the event she had to hammer like a lumberjack because the door turned out to have double-paned safety glass, made to entirely resist break-ins. She did succeed, finally, we exchanged heartfelt hugs, and I was home.

I had hoped to get the glass replaced today without any need to confess to the owner what an idiot I was, but no, there’s no glass place anywhere around that works on the weekend. Meanwhile, poor Denys got up this morning, saw his answering machine light flashing, heard my cries for help, and arrived, pale-faced and grim, at my door.

Because he was a builder and contractor all his life, he set about removing all the shattered glass and trim pieces, and closing up the opening temporarily. First thing Monday morning I’ll show up at the glass shop and hand over my credit card. But before then I have to call the owner, which, I can assure you, I absolutely do not want to do. I’m always a model guest, taking care of things as if they were my own. It’s almost more than I can bear to admit to being an idiot.

And now I’ve told the whole world. And also, it’s my birthday. Reenie and Denys, you’re my best gifts ever.

Smoke And Sand

Posted August 8, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

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I wept all the way from Walla Walla to Vantage. Not because I was sad to leave my new home for the old one, but because the land was awash in smoke. My eyes streamed, my nose stuffed, and cars appeared like shape-shifters, making me blink furiously and wonder whether I needed new glasses. When I climbed up to the high desert around Ellensburg the smoke lifted off the roadway, but the mountains were still a blur. Through it all I kept the vision of the island clear in my mind, and hoped against hope that the skies would clear.

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Seattle greeted me, wearing a gauzy grey little wrap. I could see the island across the sound, but dimly.

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If you were reading French Letters last year, you might recognize this view. You might remember it with a blue sky, blue water, as I do, not floating disembodied on the page as it is here. This is the back yard of the sweet vacation house I’m renting for the second time, a place that feels oddly like home, whatever the palette.

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And this is the front yard, peculiarly pale, mysteriously bleached. I should add that the two bodies of water are not more than 100 feet apart where this house sits, on a sand spit that we had all better hurry up and appreciate before it goes under water as the sea level rises inexorably.

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When I arrived the table was set for four, although I imagine that my guests and I will always dine outdoors, smoke be damned.

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In French you’d call this a house les pieds dans l’eau, with its feet in the water, and that seems apt, as I stretch out after my long drive with my feet over the scummy backwash of the ebbing tide on the lagoon side of the house.

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Night begins to fall, almost imperceptibly, the grey deepening, a few lights coming on. Still I don’t go inside. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve actually been cool while out of doors, and it feels fantastic, even though it means having smoke instead of sweat clinging to my hair.

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A smoky moon rises. This day is done.

Where Wheat Is King

Posted August 4, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

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Yesterday I went on a hot and hazy journey. You might have heard that we’re having a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures hovering around 100°, and that we’re being smoked out by the fires in British Columbia. It’s not as bad here as it is in the Bainbridge Island area, where a friend told me today that he couldn’t see across Puget Sound for the smoke. But it’s hazy and greyish and the sky has an unhealthy gauziness to it. Plus it’s icky sticky hot. Staying indoors with the air conditioning cranked seems the prudent thing to do.

Nonetheless, yesterday I went on a 200 mile drive through it all.

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It was such a still day that even the windmills were powerless to churn up the cough-inducing mix of smoke and dust from the last of the wheat harvest. The wheat is mostly in, but the last harvesters are toiling away, and the trucks hauling the wheat down to the Seattle Grain Terminal are plying the roads. It’s the kind of drive where all you see is wheat, interspersed with scrubby range land, and punctuated by startlingly few homes. A lot of the way I had the road absolutely to myself, and I admit that I reveled in it.

When I drive like that I don’t have the radio on, no CD, just the whoosh of the car in space. Sometimes I sing to myself, sometimes I don’t. It’s a time for freedom, for just keeping my eyes and ears open and being glad to be on the planet another day.

I was going to Clarkston, WA, for my work.  The work part was good. Very good, even. But the town was discouraging, at least to an outsider. I asked one of the guys I was interviewing where the pretty part of town was, and he allowed as how there really wasn’t any. It’s a town of about 7,000, plopped down in what we’d call the middle of nowhere. In French you’d say it’s at the fin fond of Washington, which means more or less the furthest depths, and to my ear captures the situation better. It’s a town that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, which makes it sound pretty.

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I took this picture at a tiny park in town, and for once the picture looks a lot better than real life, hence the power of Instagram (I imagine). This looks bucolic, but in reality it’s kind of tucked behind an industrial area, an afterthought. Clarkston also just a bridge away from Lewiston, ID, which is the most inland seaport in the U.S. Amazingly, it’s located 465 river miles inland from the Pacific, separated by eight locks and dams. Tens of millions of tons of wheat pass through this port, on their way west, quite a bit of it headed for Asia. That makes it sound imposing.

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But in reality, it looks like this. A small and dusty town perched on the edge, one where you can still get burgers and shakes delivered right to your parked car. There’s a lot to be said for that, and there are things you could say against it as well. I could say that nearly all of the students attending the community college there qualify for financial aid. I could say it’s a place where two years of community college studies will get you a job at less than $20 an hour, whereas if you took that welding degree and hopped a plane to Texas you’d likely start out at $80,000 a year. It’s a town where a hot and dusty traveler might not get offered a cup of coffee. That’s how on the edge it is.

Of course, I was only there for three and a half hours, so what do I know? Four hours on the road, less than that to try to capture the feeling of the place, the dreams of the teachers and students of that college. To understand why they are there, of all places on the planet, other than an accident of birth. Why do people stay there, in a town that wheat built? What did I miss, in my laughably short time there?

Well, I can say that I didn’t see anyone kiss, although they must. I didn’t see anyone vote, but it’s Trump country so that’s probably just as well. I didn’t see the town’s beating heart, and so I’ll go back. I’ll keep looking, but I’ll be prepared to be disappointed. I didn’t see a single sign advertising gluten-free anything.

Crossroads Of The Heart

Posted July 28, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

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Somehow life in France always seems more vivid to me. I don’t know why, but when I’m there the smallest things glow with meaning and emotion. Every word and gesture seems nourished by an undercurrent of feeling.  Shel always said that when we lived there I was the happiest he’d ever seen me, and I think that’s still true. Something in me sings to be there, it’s an intimate experience of well-being, living in a place where le relationnel, the interpersonal, is the driving force of daily life.

I got a little French suntan last week while I was on vacation, but it’s already fading. I’m still thinking in French half the time, but it’s no longer all the time. I brought home with me the impulse to look prettier, fuss with myself a bit, that always descends on me when I’m there. That too shall pass, and I’ll once again go to the grocery store in embarrassing shirts with lackadaisical hair, not having looked in a mirror all day. That’s how I am here, less, in so many ways.

One reason is that there everyone knew and loved Shel, thought of me as his wife, seldom saw me alone. Here, no one’s ever known me to be anything but alone. Ça change la donne, which is hard to translate. It’s a game-changer, making you do something differently because of the hand you’ve been dealt.

In a certain way now I’m a half, but my friends in France all knew me when I was part of a whole. In another way I’m twice what I was, because, whatever happens, now it’s all up to me. I live another life in France, I speak another language, I’m someone else entirely.

But this time I was definitely an American, and faced a lot of gently- raised eyebrows. and a certain amount of tiptoeing around, until I took to saying notre soi-disant President, our so-called President. It’s a lot for one person to have to answer for, the horrific mistakes made by one’s country. I gained a much greater sympathy for the Germans of modern times, who must feel, as I do “it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it.”

All of which raises the question of who I want to be in this so-difficult world. In spite of  the legendary bureaucracy and the notorious plumbing, should I sink back into what feels to me like the warm bath of French life? Or is that bath bound to cool with the times, just as the American dream is shattering, unthinkably? Stand and fight, or flee toward peace?

It’s a time of deep, existential deliberation for me, and it’s France that inspires my contemplation. As a woman alone on this Earth, one with a foot in each of two worlds, I welcome your thoughts and counsel.

Heading Home

Posted July 13, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

Tags:

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Tomorrow I’m headed home to Uzès, one more time. It’s a funny thing about the idea of home. Sometimes I miss my island home, sometimes I feel right at home here in Walla Walla. Pretty much always I miss the home in Uzès where Shel and I lived for so long, the friends we loved, the familiar sights and sounds and flavors.

Because I stayed in another house when I was last there, two years ago, it’s been four whole years since I slept in the bed Shel and I shared for more than 1000 nights. Four years since I awoke to the tuneless, no-nonsense clanging of the bell in the nearby convent and the smell of bread from the bakery next door. And just over two years since we laid his ashes to rest by the pool where I plan to swim every day for the next week.

It’s going to be hot, in the 90s the whole time, and of course there’s no air conditioning in the house. Just the cool tile floors, the shutters closed during the day, the crisply ironed sheets, and the chilly, inviting swimming pool. I’m planning to spend a lot of time in that pool, doing just what I used to do. My trick is to put a nice glass of pastis at one end of the pool, then swim laps. Two laps, a sip. Four more laps, another sip. One can, and I used to, spend hours like that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my cranky shoulder will hold up to that regime.

I’ll hug and kiss old friends but won’t be there long enough to make new ones. But even though the time will be almost unbearably short, that’s why I’m going, for those hugs and kisses, those beloved faces, the hot streets, the packed-beyond-belief summer market, to see which shops and restaurants have closed and which new ones have opened, to have lunch on the terrasse with a vast assemblage of patés, cheeses, and olives, and rosé by the gallon.

Ma vie d’antan me tend les bras. My old life is waiting for me with open arms, and tomorrow I’ll fly straight into them.

All Cherries, All The Time

Posted July 10, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: ,

Here in eastern Washington cherries are bustin’ out all over, so I thought I’d pop this post and recipe up again from 2011. It’s still the best one ever, à mon avis, in my opinion. And why am I speaking French again? Because this is the week I leave for France! I’ll be telling you more about that cherry on top soon.

French women are famously fastidious eaters, as we all know. Unless faced with this clafoutis, that is, in which case all bets are off. Recently I watched two women (for some reason clafoutis is considered to be kind of a feminine dessert) delicately sigh their way through generous servings, and then, apologizing just a little, just for form’s sake really, dive right in to seconds.

I had always found clafoutis ( pronounced klah-foo-tee) to be a bit insipid; after all, it’s more or less fruit baked in pancake batter. But this time, combining two different recipes that I found on the French website Marmiton.org I made the queen of clafoutis, a memorable clafoutis that will enchant all cherry lovers and encourage them to excessive consumption.  After all, cherries are only once a year, and it’s our duty to eat as many of them as possible during that sweet season.

The French believe that leaving the pits in the cherries makes the clafoutis more flavorful. It’s certainly easier on the cook, and provides lots of opportunity for playful pit-spitting and juicy red fingers when you serve the dessert.  The squeamish may pit their cherries, but if you want the real deal, leave your cherries intact.  As it were.

Cherry Clafoutis

For the cherries:
1 1/2 lbs perfectly ripe cherries, stems removed, unpitted
1 T butter
1 T sugar

For the batter:
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
a pinch of salt
5 T flour
5 T sugar
2 ounces butter
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla
extra butter for topping

In a large non-stick pan melt the 1T butter and 1T sugar.  Add the cherries and let them slowly caramelize over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the juices begin to run and the cherries look glazed, about 10-15 minutes.  Butter a 9×13″ pan and place the cherries in it, distributing them evenly.

Preheat oven to 350° and while the cherries are cooling a bit, prepare the batter. Melt the butter in a small pan or bowl and set aside.  Beat the eggs well with the salt, using a whisk. Beat in the sugar, then sprinkle in the flour while continuing to whisk until batter is smooth.

Mix together the milk, melted butter, and vanilla and add it to the dry mixture, stirring until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter carefully over the cherries in the pan, being careful to keep the fruit evenly distributed.  Generously dot the top with little slivers of butter.  Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is puffed and deeply golden. Serve warm or at room temperature, warning your guests about the pits.