When writing about France, I feel like dimwitted Cecily from The Importance of Being Earnest, quipping, “The weather continues to be charming,” day after day. But I can’t think of one uncharming thing to say about my first month in this medieval French village, except maybe, “Don’t order the fish soup.” The actual weather hasn’t been charming in the typical manner, meaning it’s been raining for days, but it is soothing and fragrant, and the river reflects the gray sky as you cross the bridge, making the earth around you seem like some forever thing, making you feel like a small but beloved piece of the endlessness stretching above, and the vastness reflected below.
Last night, I stayed up until the wee hours, curled up in my cozy bed in my apartment, listening to rain drum on the tiled roof overhead, finishing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which was exquisite enough to render me speechless. Today, I woke, still hungover from my all-night reading session (yes, there is such a thing as a book hangover) to a text from my beautiful neighbor Martine Murray (read her books–her writing is gorgeous), a brilliant Australian novelist who is like a living fairy, and her daughter, Manon, who is like a smaller living fairy, inviting me to go the market in the next village with them. We also invited Eric McComber, my favorite French drinking buddy, although he isn’t technically French.
He’s a Canadian musician/author who arrived in the village on a bicycle a decade ago during a years long tour of Europe. He never left. He wears a rugged hat, makes kick ass blues/rock music, writes novels that sound good but are written in French so I will never know for sure, speaks like 20 languages, has read more books this week than I’ve read in my life, makes me laugh often, and owns several cats, one of whom just had kittens on the top of a bookshelf. I’m not allowed to touch them because he’s afraid it will upset the mother, a blow of fate so terrible, I’m often driven to drink when visiting him. I probably wouldn’t be drinking in France otherwise (those who know me well can attest to my legendary loathing of demon whiskey), but man, not being able to hold those kittens is tearing me up.
Inexplicably, Eric has recently dubbed himself Machete, having something to do with a movie in which, to my limited understanding, a lot of people get shot, after which witty one liners are tossed about. (Bang! Bang! Bang! “You’ve just switched from unleaded to leaded, muchacho.”) I don’t know why Eric decided to change his name. It was sudden and disconcerting and made me worry that multiple personality disorder might be in play. I just woke up to a message from him one day saying “Machete have hangover,” or something, and from that point on, he spoke to me like that. “Machete not drink Coca Cola.” “Machete like red flowers.” Gone was the eloquent man who had expounded on Proust in three languages the first night we hung out. “Machete not do lunch.” “Machete have twelve cats.”
Wildly jealous of his new tough guy moniker, I decided to nickname myself after a sharp, metal instrument as well. I called myself Tweezer. So I send texts saying, “Tweezer fell down flight of stone stairs and broke ass” (which I did–the bruising is epic), and he writes back saying, “Machete call ambulance?” But this morning, when Machete walked into the parking lot yelling, “Yo, Tweezy!” to get my attention, I momentarily forgot that Tweezer was me. The fact that my fresh-off-the-presses nickname had been truncated to become the even more nickname-y “Tweezy” confused me further, and I did not respond. It will come with time.
Once Machete got my attention by calling me by my proper Christian name (as proper as a name derived by hippie parents from a species of owl can be), the four of us piled into Martine’s car, which like all European cars, is roughly the size of an American shopping cart, and off we went. Martine is a raging insomniac, and she didn’t sleep a wink last night. Compound her exhaustion with the fact that France is riddled with roundabouts, it’s raining like Noah’s flood, she doesn’t know where the defroster is, she’s driving on what for an Australian is the wrong side of the road, and Machete (who has never driven and consistently sent me the wrong way down one-ways in Nimes) is navigating, and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s a nail biting ride, filled with shrieks and little gasps of terror, but we make it. The rain has let up, and well, the market is magic, as always.
As you would expect, canopied tables are spread out for some distance, laden with fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, cheeses, wines, and meats. Above them stretches the French sky, blue-gray, heavy, and welcoming, like a woolen blanket, and under that, cobbled streets, and lush green, green, green, everywhere. Lilac bushes dangle over centuries old walls, spying on the proceedings and mingling their scents with the others here–yeasty breads, sweet cakes, rich coffees, roasting chickens. There are clothing vendors as well, and counters that serve hot drinks and pastries.
It’s a social event, not a shopping trip. If you’re have a crush on someone, you go to market and ask them to dinner. If you have no romantic interests to pursue, you stand up and drink thick coffee with rough men who speak mostly French, but work hard to include you in the conversation by gesturing wildly and smiling in your direction at regular intervals. Your French is getting better (at least inside your head, though you can barely say “bonjour” out loud), and you can understand some of what they say, but you pretend you can’t so that you won’t be required to display your abysmal French speaking skills.
You leave them with the traditional three kisses, which were hard to master when you first arrived. In those early days, you’d go in for an American hello/goodbye hug, and the person would move in for a kiss, and you’d knock heads, and everyone would be awkward and uncomfortable. After a few days, you figured out three cheek kisses were the thing (left, right, left), but you didn’t know they were air kisses, so you left sloppy wet spots on the horrified faces of everyone you greeted or said goodbye to. Now you are a pro. Left, right, left, in the air, without ever touching the cheek with your lips, suckas.
After air kissing the coffee men, you leave them. You search out Manon, who is one of your favorite people you’ve ever met and just now is wandering dreamily in her colorful scarf and plaid skirt, looking for culinary finds. She is the most intelligent, well-rounded, eloquent 10-year-old in the history of the world, and as you stroll through the market together, she discusses the quality and texture of various olives. (“These are nice, but they could really use a touch more tomato, if you ask me.”) She is doing an expose at her school on this history of women’s rights, and she comments forcefully on the issue. (“Did you know that some people believe Eve ate an apple and was cursed with pain in childbirth?” Incredulous. “If men had babies, they’d say they got blessed with childbirth because they were stronger than women and capable of bearing pain. But because women do it, they say it’s our punishment for being weak!” She’s smart, that one.) Holding a melon and squeezing it to test its ripeness, she thoughtfully weighs the pros and cons of playing the piano vs. playing the cello. (She plays both.)
Manon helps me bumble my way through my purchases. (I’m switching from second person to first again. I have no idea why I projected my prior actions onto you. Perhaps I’m in the lurches of a violent, medieval village inspired identity crisis. For all I know, you are sitting there irate, saying, “I most certainly did NOT drink thick coffee with rough French men.” I apologize for making assumptions about your behavior.) When I want to pay for a handful of potatoes and some beans, Manon interprets the vendor’s French. She also points out which vendors have crushes on me, which vendors are trying to swindle me, and which vendors have the best strawberries. Then, I sit on a wall eating exquisite pear cake, glazed with chocolate (recommended by Manon, who knows more about food than any 10-year-old I’ve ever met, and for that matter, than most 50-year-olds I’ve met), talking about Princess Bride (one of my top ten movies of all time) with Manon, and talking about Wes Anderson (my favorite director ever) with Machete while Martine buys things and greets her many admirers.
Martine didn’t know her admirers’ names when she first came to the village almost a year ago, so she nicknamed them all Something Man. The nicknames stuck. There is Asparagus Man and Chess Man and Handsome Man. There is a man who is responsible for cleaning up the dog excrement in town, but she is too kind to call him Caca Man. Every day, Martine and I share tea in the afternoon and talk about her various Something Men, and about my tragic inability to truly love any man except one decidedly beautiful Not-Here Man.
Even though Martine and I speak the same language, there are communication gaps. Early misunderstandings involved the frequent use of the word “pash.” It came up over tea, when Martine was talking about one of the Something Men. “Maybe I should just pash him, see what it’s like.”
This was during my first days in the village, when everything was disconcerting and new. I was terribly lonely and desperately wanted to solidify my friendship with Martine, so I didn’t dare interrupt the flow of our intimate girl talk by admitting I didn’t know what “pash” was. Also, I’d gotten so used to not understanding anything that was happening or being said around me, and pretending that I did, that I went with force of habit. Smile and nod. Fake it ’til you make it. I knew from the word’s context that it was some act of a romantic nature, but after that, there was a large gray area. “Pashing” could be anything from holding hands to bumping uglies. But I am ashamed to say I encouraged Martine, not knowing exactly what I was encouraging. “Yes, you should totally pash him! Pash the heck out of him! Why not?”
She seemed shocked. “You really think I should?”
(Oh, God. What am I condoning? Should I tell her the truth? No way. I’m in too deep now.) “Yes, damn it! Pash the boy!”
Martine giggled and threw back a gulp of tea. “Oh, my! You are such a bad influence on me, now aren’t you?” She said this like it was a good thing, which bolstered my confidence.
“Well, I know a thing or two about pashing!”
Martine laughed again. “You’re so wild! I’m going to do it! I’m going to pash him!”
I left feeling elated at having cemented my connection with this wonderful human, but also feeling a bit of discomfort over what exactly I had so vehemently encouraged her to do. I hoped she wouldn’t contract any diseases.
The next day, she and I went out for drinks at the village bar. After sitting under Van Gogh stars sipping wine with various locals on the terrace, each of us was walked home by a different man. I didn’t really think of the offer to walk me home as a romantic overture. I thought it was just a “let’s make sure you don’t get mugged, dumb American girl” gentlemanly gesture.
The next day, Martine showed up on my doorstep early. I opened the door, bedraggled and hungover. “I’m sorry to wake you, but I had to march over straight away to talk about last night!” she cried.
“Yes!” I said gleefully, suddenly feeling wide awake, like I was back in high school with all sorts of romantic intrigue swirling about me. (This is a lie. I wished romantic intrigue swirled about me in high school. Those who met me in high school know the only romantic intrigue swirling about me in those days was in the bodice rippers I read during Chemistry, aiming to get my first non-A ever in a class, thereby establishing myself as no-longer-a-nerd, and at the same time enabling me the opportunity to work out the particulars of sex. Manhoods. Heaving bosoms. Delicate flowers. Pirates and rakes and rogues. It was all so confusing.) I led Martine to the table and sat across from her.
“So, you go first,” she prodded eagerly. “How was your walk?”
“It was delightful,” I responded.
I smiled, not sure what was expected of me. “Um, we talked about music.”
“And did he pash you???”
I felt a little surge of panic. I knew I probably hadn’t pashed the man in question, unless pashing was the three air kisses thing. Should I have pashed him? Did walking home have a greater significance in the village than I thought? Was pashing a required portion of the walking home ritual? Oh, well. Fake it ’til you make it. “Yes?” I said.
A squeal of glee! “I knew it! How was it?”
At this point, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I didn’t want to say anything worthy of repeating. “Tawni had amazing pashing with __________.” Or, “I heard ________ is a horrible pasher.” So I settled for a lukewarm, “Pretty good.”
“Just pretty good? Well, no matter. It will be better next time.”
This was sounding a whole lot like pashing was full on sex. I wasn’t 100% comfortable with agreeing to having had full on sex with a near-stranger who walked me home in a medieval village. But if it was a local custom, who was I to argue?
Martine continued to revel in my imaginary lukewarm pashing. “Oh, my! You’re a saucy little thing, now aren’t you then? Here three days and already pashing. You’ll be the talk of the village, now won’t you?”
This whole “talk of the village” thing made me nervous. What exactly would the villagers be saying? “That American girl, she’s an easy pash.” I didn’t want to be an easy pash. My elation faltered. “Martine,” I whispered.
“What?” she asked, sensing my discomfort, looking concerned.
“I have to tell you something.”
“Well, go on then. No judgement.”
I think she thought I was going to confess to having committed some horrible sex crime in the night. Instead, I said, “I don’t know what pashing is.”
She stared, stunned. “You don’t know what pashing is? How can you not know what pashing is?”
“We don’t say that in the U.S.?”
“Well, then, what is it that you say instead of pashing?” She looked like I’d just told her we ate goat brains instead of eggs for breakfast in America.
“I don’t know what we say. I don’t know what pashing is.”
“It’s kissing. Long. Intense.” She mimed a passionate kiss.
The lights went on. “Oh, it’s short for ‘passionate kiss!'”
“Well, I guess that’s it. I never really made that connection until now.”
I enthusiastically explained that we call pashing “making out” in the U.S., and she was shocked because apparently, “making out” involves a good deal more than kissing in Australia. Martine is such a kind woman that she did not chastise me for encouraging her to pash when I had no idea what pashing was. She did not say, “Well, you were trying to get me some venereal disease, now then, weren’t you?” And after that, we became fast friends, “if I don’t hear from you by noon I worry, eat dinner together almost always, drink tea and share Something Man stories every day” friends. And “go to the market together” friends, which brings me back to the market.
The three Ms and I have eaten our cakes and finished our coffees and air kissed (but not pashed) everyone goodbye.
And now, we are at the supermarket down the street, where bio-conscious, organic-eating Machete chastises me for buying citrus scented American body wash that might give me cancer, while seeming unconcerned with the Hannibal’s-elephant-sized bottle of whiskey sitting next to it in my cart. Apparently, there are things worth getting cancer for and things not worth getting cancer for in this world.
And now we are standing on the stone bridge into our village. Ancient walls stretch before us, almost as high as the sky, and that crumbling castle ruin peers down at us from its place at the apex of the hill on which the village is built. We drop our bags and rest our arms because our food is heavy, and there are staircases everywhere in this place. Manon is exclaiming over the beauty of a heron in the river, and Martine is taking photos of me and Eric sharing sparkling water, and I’m telling Eric it feels like a whiskey night.
And now I’m here in my warm little bed watching rain fall and run through the cracks in the cobblestones outside.
I think of the snail I moved from my doorstep to a nearby potted plant so he wouldn’t get stepped on, and of the butterfly Manon and Martine saved from the street, and of those kittens tough guy Machete protects on his bookshelf. I understand this village has wrapped me in warmth, like a child in a blanket, cocooned me in tiny acts of kindness and air kisses and love. Additionally, my belly is full, and my cupboards bulge with bread and cheese and farm fresh veggies and eggs, and I swear to Jesus and all that’s holy that if I did not have family and friends I adore in the U.S., not to mention three universities on the East Coast waiting for me to come teach this summer, I would never leave this place. (Plus, there is the matter of Not-Here Man, who in a brutish act of cliche romantic larceny lifted right from the pages of those bodice rippers I read in high school, stole my heart decades ago and has refused to ever give it back, rogue, rake, pirate that he is. I can see him now, Fabio-ed out and shirtless, holding a wanton wench, a tragically heartbroken, utterly besotted version of me, by an ocean, under a waxing moon which drips buttery light into my remarkable cleavage. And cut.)
Today, Tweezer write things. Tonight, Tweezer drink whiskey with Machete. Tweezer’s brain love French village. Tweezer’s liver, not so much. Tweezer’s eyes adore pretty stone staircases. Tweezer’s purple ass resent the fuck out of them.
The weather continues to be charming.