I sit in in the glorious gloom of a summer thunderstorm. Minutes ago, the skies and the church around the corner competed loudly for which could produce the loudest peals. The church won, working through the four plus ten chimes of the hour, then moving on to 23 (!!!) uninterrupted minutes of random ringing, interspersed with some very pretty hymns (I recognized one but couldn’t recall the title; another was Bach’s “Ode to Joy”), then some more raucous ringing. Thunder clapped and rumbled, but the bells dominated.
The soft rain is audible, but not in a percussive way. More than a hiss; maybe a hum? The tiny raindrops–just past the cutoff for drizzle–have the collective effect of hitting a key on a piano so fast that it is one continuous tone, a sound that doesn’t fade the way a single keystroke would. What note is it? Everything has a pitch; even rain. I heard a podcast about this: a musician walked around his home with a tuning fork or some other tool and figured out that his refrigerator was D flat below middle C and his air conditioner was G sharp, etc. Your home is either literally harmonious or in discord.
Out the window, the roof tiles are slicked wet, as if coated with silver, or glass. Just a couple of days ago, they seemed to form a kiln, baking us. We escaped the unseasonably early heat to our cool caves. With no air conditioning, we close the shutters on the sunny side of the building, shutting out the klieg light of midday but for just enough of a crack to allow us to putter without turning on electric lights.
This summer cave existence transports me to childhood, to my grandmother’s house. A very modest house, with a screened-in front porch where we could play on rainy days, with a box of old clothes for dressing up (including a moth-eaten fox stole that we were torn between loving for its softness and being terrified of for its glass eyes and little claws), a few old-fashioned school desks–the kind that had heavy iron bases, fold-up seats and inkwells, the wood tops polished to baby softness by years of little hands–some other toys like dolls and cars. There was a window from the living room to the porch, but it was useless, covered with gauzy curtains and heavy drapes that were fashionable in the 1950s. There was a small window on one side, very high, good for nothing–I think it was to go above a hutch. An arch opened to the dining room, where the large window was completely consumed by an enormous air-conditioner. A dining chair with arms sat next to a small telephone table, with the black rotary phone that Grandma used to keep up with her “lady friends.” This double room would be deliciously chilled in summer and kept as dark as a cave.
A wood door led to the blast furnace of her kitchen. A plastic awning protected that window, allowing just a sliver of a view of the neighbor’s white siding. The neighboring house was only the width of the driveway away. In summer, the sun evaded the awning by reflecting up from the driveway pavement, where it melted the tar in the cracks and gave the kitchen an ethereal glow. Her kitchen table was the kind you see in retro diners, all curved chrome, with an apple-green Formica top and chairs with a chrome loop at the top to grab them, upholstered in a vinyl version of the same green print–slashes of black in that 1950s style. A huge black fan oscillated on the floor, making the pink ribbons she attached to the front stand out straight, like the flag on the moon. Its lazy bumblebee hum, back and forth, was our soundtrack of summer. My siblings and I squabbled over the kitchen chairs as she served us bing cherries in imitation-wood bowls. One of my siblings now feeds his grandchildren bing cherries from the same bowls. Those melamine bowls will last forever. The soupy Midwestern humidity instantly covered the refrigerated cherries with beads of dew. Nothing has ever tasted as good.
Last night I went to a concert at a vineyard. I had been to concerts there in the past. In fact, I have a photo of our kid at age two or so, sitting at the grand piano in that concert room, fat baby fingers delicately touching the keys, proud to be up so high on the piano bench. That was on a wine-buying excursion. Also worthy.
It was the perfect post-confinement concert: the room’s windows were open, letting in a sweet breeze; the audience was, to put it nicely, among the first to be eligible for vaccination. The room wasn’t full. Pierre Genisson played clarinet and Marie-Josephe Jude played piano: Gershwin, Poulenc and Piazzolla, starting with “Porgy and Bess” and ending with “Rhapsody in Blue.” We were told the pieces were chosen deliberately to let our minds travel, after this year without any travel. I closed my eyes. I was in New York, my first time, in the early ’80s, and it was appropriately winter, with people in their black coats walking briskly through gray streets. Even the Piazzolla took me to New York, where I had literally danced all night to Argentine tango every weekend. I opened my eyes and looked at the black lacquered piano and was still in the city, now at the Vanderbilt Y, where I had stayed, which had impressed me with its hissing radiators and doors and windows painted, many layers over, in glossy black. I had seen “Manhattan” just a couple of years before that trip–the plot was utterly unbelievable but the black-and-white homage to NYC, set to “Rhapsody in Blue,” won my heart. To me New York, like Paris, would always be more true in monochromatic winter than in sticky, gaudy summertime.
I let my gaze pan over to the ridiculously handsome clarinetist; he was in silhouette before a picture window that framed the garrigue, lush from recent rain. A cedar tree billowed in the breeze, almost like one of those air puppets at used-car lots. I am not in New York or Paris but in the south of France, where summer is not usually sticky nor gaudy; it’s as if, in the heat, the inhabitants adopt the beiges of the stone architecture and the parched (not yet, but it’s starting) landscape, where the already-andante life adopts an additional ritardando to avoid sweat. Where else could I have this combination of beautiful music in a beautiful room of ancient stone walls and a big tapestry and also a beautiful view? It was no stuffy concert but more like being admitted into an exclusive private salon.
I have written about the vineyard, Saint Jacques d’Albas, in the past. It is an exquisite place, with excellent wine. Just the drive there was lovely–it struck again me last night even though I have driven on that road too many times to count. Still–always–breathtaking.
Life has occupied me lately with a bunch of changes, including hurdles, which I have surprised myself by surmounting. I got fully reimbursed for something–after several congenial but fruitless helpline calls and an online form that was impossible to complete (en grève, or “on strike,” was not one of the options for failure of service and it would send me back to the home page again and again). I finally printed out a complaint form, wrote a sharp cover letter (in French), sent copies of everything and mailed it certified–you must always send letters recommandé avec accusé de reception to be taken seriously. I was reimbursed before I even got the postcard proving they had received my letter. Separately, I took my dossier to the préfecture to change my address; they couldn’t find me on the list even though I showed the email they’d sent with my appointment time. The receptionist was torn–believe their list or their email to me? I insisted–politely; they got me in. My new Internet and phone line didn’t work; a technician came within a week and in the meantime the phone company, Orange, lent me a box to get 4G data. I had braced myself for an argument, but to a person everyone I spoke to was charming, helpful and efficient. At the phone company!
I got the kid vaccinated–what a well-oiled machine that was! No sarcasm–it really was impressive. We had taken an appointment online (and it automatically signs you up for the second dose), we were sent to a desk to check in, then to a waiting area where we barely had sat when the kid was called. Shot given, sent to wait 15 minutes and out the door. I think the whole thing took 20 minutes, including the wait afterward. There had been a line of people without appointments in the parking lot and by the time we left, the line was gone. Plus, the jovial nurse had a stand-up routine for the questionnaire that had us in stitches. French health care: universal, efficient and humorous.
Between all this and watching the kid navigate studies, I realize that the French have procedures and rules for everything–as every society and culture does–and that what seems opaque and arbitrary to outsiders is transparent, orderly and even obvious to the French, because they have been trained in it their entire lives. As with learning the French language, at a certain moment, it clicks. When that happens, it feels as if all is right with the world.