Sweet Friends

IMG_0765We had a reunion last weekend. Two sets of neighbors who had moved away came for a visit, spurring a long, chatty lunch with the entire gang. We dined en terrasse, where it was borderline hot. The day before had been incredibly windy–my laundry was ripped off the line and scattered across the yard. But on the appointed day, there wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze. The sun shone. The birds joined the jazz playing. It was perfect.

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As I don’t show photos of my friends here, you are treated to a gallery of French pâtisserie shots.

It wasn’t last minute but not with great advance warning either, so the food was simple. One neighbor brought nuts and charcuterie for the apéritif; another brought cheeses and apple pies (three! homemade!) for dessert; we supplied barbecued ribs and non-meat options–spanakopita, hummus, Patricia Wells’s red peppers with cumin. One of the returning neighbors has been vegetarian since before it was fashionable the last time, as well as a yoga teacher since well before the Beatles discovered yoga. My role model.

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Even the frozen stuff at the supermarket is amazing. “Chocolate-raspberry obsession.” Yup.

Everybody was thrilled to be reunited. Truly tickled pink. We’re several years older now, and it’s these gaps in gatherings that make everybody look back and realize that OMG Time Has Passed. My role model remarked on how much our palm trees had grown since she moved away. She kindly didn’t mention how many wrinkles I had acquired. But back when the palm trees were shorter than me, my face was smoother.IMG_0763That’s the least of it. So many medical issues, all around. They seem to give everyone an urgency that life is short and precious.

There is also, for me at least, a hard-won intimacy that comes only with the passage of time and true affection, though I always think I should do more. The others, for example, helped dig each other out after the historic flood that hit before we arrived. They did each other’s laundry. They had each other’s back. Muffin deliveries can’t measure up to that.

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‘Le Petit Zeste”

Yet, little by little, it happens. I’ve learned which ones got pregnant before their weddings and other little tidbits that are water under the bridge and no longer anything that would raise an eyebrow but not usually common knowledge either. These stories amuse me to no end and make me love my friends more than ever.

In town, there’s a group of friends I call the Fashionable Glasses Group. They are in their 70s, all meticulously dressed, and all with very not-ordinary eyeglasses. They meet at the same café every Saturday morning at the market. One time I was sitting at a table next to them, and more and more of their friends came and asked to take the empty chairs at my table. Eventually I suggested they also use the table for their coffees, and somehow I finagled my way into their conversation, which was brilliant.

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Another supermarket freezer treat: Sublime with berries and almond milk.

Recently, I once again was seated next to the Fashionable Glasses Group. A guy in the same demographic came up and started chatting, then sat down. Eventually his wife, as immaculately dressed as he (in coordinating colors with him–post on that coming up) arrived, flicking her hands sharply with the south-of-France gesture that means “extreme/lots/you wouldn’t believe it,” and saying she was held up because, as she walked down the street, she just kept running into people! I couldn’t help myself. I eavesdropped. I did more that that. I took notes.

The gentleman then explained that he likes to go to the forest. He described preparing his thermos of coffee. He rhapsodized about the whispering pines, the piercing stars at night, the song of the cigales, or cicadas, in summer.

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Thanks to the Boulangerie Papineau and the master pâtissier Rémi Touja, both just steps from our AirBnBs in Carcassonne, for these works of art.

One time, a cigale drowned in his pool. “She wanted to save it,” he said, gesturing at his wife. “What could I do? Mouth-to-mouth?”

“It didn’t move. The poor thing was dead. My sister gets crazy from the song of the cigales. You know, it can drive you mad.”

At this, the Fashionable Glasses Group nodded in agreement and interjected their own tales of having been driven over the edge by the incessant ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of these insects. There also was a tangential discussion of how big they get, which I thought resembled some fishermen’s stories.

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How about that mega-macaron on the right?

“So I wrapped up the dead cigale and put it in an envelope to send to my sister as a joke,” he continued. “A few days later, I went to put the envelope in the mailbox. Just then, it started vibrating! It was alive! I opened the envelope and the cigale flew away! So I didn’t get to play a joke on my sister.”

When you see a group of classy, bourgeoise French friends sitting at a café and talking animatedly, now you know: this is the kind of stuff they are discussing.

I love it.

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I want to bellyflop into this.

If you want to know the names of some of these, click here.

Memories

IMG_0696How do you pay tribute to cherished people who die? People who were not just special to me, but were special, period. Any attempt to distill their essence comes out bland at best, distorted at worst, because there is too much to pack in. And, where to start?

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Life is fragile.

I met B 26 years ago. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the bearded Sean Connery and was famous for his temper. I was terrified of him. At some point early on, I was the emissary sent to ask him a question, and I braced myself for a rant. But I prefaced my errand by telling him something to the effect that I was already scared to death of him so he could take it easy on me, because I was still going to go crawl off and cry. The look on his face was utter confusion: you’re afraid of me??? IMG_0699Maybe because I was the new girl, from the sticks to boot, he turned into a protective teddy bear to me. Actually he softened toward everyone, seeming embarrassed that he had a reputation that he didn’t want. He was a fantastic mentor—exacting about pushing me to do better than my best, and precise about what I did right and wrong and how to fix it. IMG_0705I thought he was ancient. It was the white beard maybe. I remember teasing him about “turning 80”—if your age and work tenure added up to 80, then you could retire.

His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was interested in everything and had traveled widely. With him, it wasn’t six degrees of separation but one or two. He seemed to know everybody who was anybody.IMG_0714He liked to go to Chinatown. He would order because he spoke Cantonese and because in most situations he was in charge. He would examine the menu, ask the waiter questions in Cantonese, then ask his dinner companions questions in English, taking notes in Chinese on a napkin. You never knew what would arrive at the table, but it was always good. He introduced me to pea shoots.IMG_0931I forget the event, somebody’s birthday, and he chose a restaurant in an untouristy corner of Chinatown. He ordered for the whole party, of course, in advance. They brought out an entire fish the size of a child—it took a couple of waiters to carry it. Then, in front of us, one of them carved the fish and removed its skeleton, as if it were a magic trick. Magical things happened with B. The fish was sublime.IMG_0923I would visit him in New York after I moved to Europe. He let me stay at his place, listing the illustrious friends who had previously crashed on his sofa. It was quite comfortable, squeezed among the Asian antiques from his travels. We stayed up late and ate ice cream and watched “Sex and the City,” which, living in Brussels without a TV, I had never seen. Mostly we talked and talked. There was no subject B couldn’t talk intelligently about.

Before a trip to Hong Kong, he asked me and several other female colleagues whether we wanted pearl necklaces. Of course we did. He went to the pearl market, picked out each pearl himself, had them strung (correctly–with knots between each pearl) and fronted the money for quite a few necklaces; we paid him when he came back. I still have that necklace and wear it a lot. I think of B every time I put it on.IMG_0701He loved puns. Usually really bad ones, but sometimes they were perfect. I could no sooner tell you any of the puns than I could tell you which glass of water I’ve drunk was the best; many were good, almost none were actually bad, and some were pure joy.

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Wild rosemary in bloom.

I was going to say he was an expert in certain topics, but the truth is he knew a lot about everything. He especially enjoyed science and medicine, yet he was deeply informed about geopolitics and art and history. He could tell you stories about buildings as you walked past them in New York. He would walk home, and I would sometimes walk with him as far as the dance studio where I took classes. Walk and talk.IMG_1122The only thing was that sometimes he would tell what seemed like a tall tale, and it would be an elaborate setup for a pun. And other times it would be completely true, however unbelievable—you could look it up and see he got every detail right. He went on about some strange bee, I don’t remember the name but it was so silly it sounded like something a kid would have invented. “You’re making this up,” I told him. “What’s the joke?” “It’s true!” he protested. I checked in an encyclopedia, and there it was.

He was a stickler for the truth. In bees and in everything. It got him in trouble when he was young, a badge of honor he was proud of. I don’t know whether I would have been as courageous.  IMG_0932Almost the same time, another friend died, also of cancer. J also had a shock of white hair and an interest in everything. He also had lived around the world and spoke several languages. He had amazing stories to tell, but you had to pry them out of him. He never flaunted his sophistication.

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The next photos are from the road in front of J’s place. His and his wife’s spirits are still felt here.

He told of a nightclub in Khartoum that was the end of the road for cabaret acts and a stolen car (I don’t think it was his car but a friend’s) in Albania and the white-knuckle flight into Papua New Guinea’s airport. Like I said, he had seen the world. And then he and his wife chose to retire in our little village in the middle of nowhere, France. Decent weather, competent public administration (often incompatible with good weather, as they had learned on their travels) and the same time zone as their family, who were scattered around Europe. IMG_1129I would scan the crowd at the market, looking for J’s white hair, so easy to spot. Even now, when I see a head of white hair in the distance, I instinctively think it’s J. It was always good to get a coffee with him and his wife, who was one of my closest friends in our village.

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Moss? Lichen? So soft.

They were high school sweethearts. I am fascinated by couples who found each other so young and it actually worked out. They were well-suited, for sure: kind, intelligent, adventurous, patient, diplomatic. With a sense of humor.IMG_1132IMG_1133As befit someone who could pass for Santa, J pulled off a jolly chuckle well. But his sense of humor was less of the joke-telling variety and more of the absurd or situational variety. His house and a neighbor’s house were situated at a bit of a remove from the village. The mairie would change the sign for the entry to the village: sometimes it would include the two houses, sometimes it would exclude them. Back and forth. During one of the exclusionary phases, the two neighbors declared that their property, like Andorra, was a separate principality, and they were the co-princes. And they went on about it. Called each other prince. The principality this, the principality that. For years. Straight-faced, but wonderfully absurd. IMG_1127J and B would have gotten on wonderfully and it’s too bad they never met. But my life is immeasurably richer for having known them.

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The other principality, Andorra, is somewhere thataway.