What Happens When an American Family Moves To a Tiny French Village?


“What do you think?” asked Mary Jo.

Article continues below

“About what?”

“About everything. The village.”

We had just completed our first tour of Autignac, population eight hundred, burrowed deep in rural Languedoc. This was home for the next six months. This is where our two kids—Eva, fourteen, and Joseph, nine—would go to school. This is what we had picked, of all the options available.

A knife edge of Mediterranean sunlight sliced the central square in two. To our right, in a hot wedge of shade, the white plastic tables and green plastic chairs outside the Café du Commerce were talkatively half-occupied. Two bikes leaned against the nearest table. A pair of men sat across from each other in tight jerseys and half shorts, with two glasses of white wine sweating on the table between them.

“I think it’s a perfectly beautiful village,” I said. “It’s just not a particularly beautiful village, is all.”

*

“What’s seiche?” asked Joe.

“What’s what?”

Seiche.”

He was pointing to the first of four dishes the Café du Commerce was proposing for lunch.

Seiche Farcie à la Sétoise,” I said thoughtfully, as if deciding how best to explain it to him. But I had no idea what a seiche was, nor what the stuffing in a seiche farcie might be, nor what it meant to be à la Sétoise.

It had turned into the kind of day in which even such a logical and evidence-backed statement came out sounding evasive and weak.

I did not know what a Gardiane was either—item two on the laminated menu. Nor, in fact, did I know what number three, Daurade, was, or whether it would taste good grillée.

I did recognize item number four—rather a classic—referred to in this part of France, it appeared, as Cheeseburger avec Frites.

The owner of the café, who doubled as the waiter, had a hint of James Dean prettiness, with sandy hair swept back, and sandy stubble along a remarkable shelf of jaw. But the bruised hollows around his eyes and his dingy teeth spoke of a pack or two a day, too much coffee, and not enough sleep.

Something about our group, whether it was our flushed, Nordic skin, our two cameras, or simply the ineffable scent of touriste américain we must have given off in spite of ourselves—something about us had evidently triggered something in him, and his sunken eyes had glared at me as he first approached our table, as if, after all these years, he finally found himself face-to-face with the bastard who had run off with his wife.

Our two kids had received their elementary education at a public school called L’Étoile du Nord French Immersion, where the curriculum had been taught in French. As a result, we had spent a good chunk of the prime of our lives commuting more than an hour a day, five days a week, nine months a year, from a perfectly good suburban school district to the east side of Saint Paul, so our kids could speak French, like their father.

As that era of our lives had drawn to a close, Mary Jo and I had decided that eight years of Raffi songs, multiplication cards, and French vocabulary quizzes on the morning commute would feel more worthwhile, in retrospect, were it capped by a semester in France, and (we hoped) by some pretty spanking good French emanating from the mouths of our two children.

One of the very first things American students of French learn is how to order un Coca at a restaurant, although you would not have guessed that from Joe’s and Eva’s blank and disbelieving stares when I had ordered two beers, and invited them, in French, to order their Cokes from Monsieur. He had stood there, looking back and forth, apparently as irritated with my turning this into a teachable moment as with their refusal to speak.

He returned now, carrying a tray, in T-shirt and Adidas sweats, walking on the collapsed heels of his espadrilles.

He set two glasses of Kronenbourg—that ubiquitous, inoffensive, thoroughly quaffable Parisian café standard—in front of Mary Jo and me, and poured each of the kids a Coke.

“Can you ask for some ice for the kids?” asked Mary Jo.

The café owner stood waiting to hear something in his own language. “They never serve ice in France,” I said.

“Sure they do,” she said.

“No, they don’t,” I said.

And what I meant was that, sure, you could ask for ice in France, and they might even have some, but it was not normal, and it made you into that person—in my case, the tall American, wearing hiking shoes, at a table with two cameras on it, speaking English to my family—who asks for ice. Nobody wants to be that person.

Merci,” I said to the owner, and smiled. He notched the serving tray under his armpit, and stalked off.

Eva took a sip. “It’s warm,” she said.

“It’s not warm. It’s cool,” I said.

“It is warm,” said Joe.

“It’s not warm. It’s not a thirty-two-ounce Slurpee, but it’s not warm.”

“This is what I was talking about,” said Mary Jo. “Weren’t we literally just talking about this?”

“Guys, we’re in France,” I said. “Things are going to be different. That’s part of why we’re here.”

The church bell rang out the noon hour as I took a sip of beer. Across from us, the doors of a municipal library stood open, blasted by sunshine. I tried leaning back in my plastic chair, then, feeling a suspicious amount of give, sat back up.

The talk around us was blessedly free of the English, German, Swedish, and Dutch that seem to breed in those popular places that are in the process of changing, or have already changed, from themselves into painted and tourist-hungry imitations of themselves. But the French I was hearing was a rapid-fire singsong that sounded more Spanish or Italian in many ways than French, and, despite the near French fluency on which I had long prided myself, I struggled to follow much of anything that was said around us.

James Dean returned, and stood hipshot beside our table, as if resigned to get through this cruddy little episode so he could resume staining his teeth with dark roast and tar.

I asked him what a Gardiane was, and he explained that it was like a daube de boeuf, but made with the meat of bulls from the Camargue. I think I had a notion at that point of what daube de boeuf was. A beef stew. Red wine. But my awareness of it was like my awareness of haggis, or stockfish, or Krumkake—something exceptionally regional and distant, more tradition than food.

And what was Seiche Farcie, I wondered.

He puffed his cheeks and blew. It was a fruit of the sea, like an encornet. My blank smile revealed that I did not know what an encornet was any more than a seiche, and, as he absently described a stuffing made of breadcrumbs, sausage, and aromatics, he scanned the tables surrounding us, and skipped over to a bald man in a tracksuit sitting by the door, confiscated his partially eaten plate, and placed it under my nose.

Seiche Farcie,” said the waiter.

On the plate were two and a half ghostly white inflated ovoids smothered in tomato sauce. The half-eaten one resembled the ivory-colored stomach of a good-sized largemouth bass that had been stuffed tight with bratwurst, and the steam rising into my face was a rich perfume of mingled tomato, sausage, onion, garlic, and saltwater pier.

“Some kind of shellfish?” I asked Mary Jo as the waiter returned the plate to its rightful owner.

“Squid?” she asked.

The waiter returned now to display a whole fish, like a huge bronze sunfish, branded with grill marks. “Daurade,” he said, and swept away again as the attention of our fellow diners gravitated toward us.

He returned once more, with a plate from the baker’s table, and—whether knowingly insulting or simply thorough—explained to us that the meat patty with melted cheese on it, sandwiched between two slices of brioche, was a sheese-boor-GARE.

“I will take the Seiche Farcie,” I said when the waiter had rejoined us. Despite my introvert’s tendency toward social reticence, I was, and always had been, a broad-minded and rather swashbuckling eater, willing to find room in my heart and my palate for anything that any fraction of the human population had, at some time, found to be edible fare.

I asked the kids, in French, what they would like.

They sat uncomfortably for a second or two, and Joe looked imploringly at Mary Jo.

“Dad,” said Eva.

“Stevie,” said Mary Jo.

“What?” I asked.

“You know what they want, just order it.”

“And for you, Madame?” asked the waiter.

Mary Jo appeared, for a time, willing to wait me out.

“Madame?” asked the waiter.

“Cheeseburger avec frites,” said Mary Jo in unselfconscious American Franglais.

“We are not eating cheeseburgers,” I said.

The kids both nodded at her.

Mary Jo held up three fingers. “Trois,” she said, and the waiter nodded.

“And,” said Mary Jo. She pointed to the kids’ glasses. “Glace?” she asked.

He nodded again, and disappeared through the stone doorway into the café.

We had some work to do, we Hoffmans, if we were going to fit in around here.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Let’s ask if they have Doritos.”

“It’s the first day,” she said. “Give the kids a break.”

I took another sip of beer. Attempted to lean back again, and changed my mind.

“Joe, let’s go check out the library,” I said.

It turned out to be a short visit.

“The library is closed, Monsieur,” said a fiftyish woman in wire spectacles and a sleeveless blouse.

“My apologies, the doors were open,” I said.

“The doors are open, but according to the sign we are closed at noon, therefore we are closed.”

“It’s closed,” I said when we were back at the table.

“The doors are wide open,” said Mary Jo.

“The doors are wide open, but the sign says they are closed at noon. Therefore, I’m told, they are closed.”

And it had turned into the kind of day in which even such a logical and evidence-backed statement came out sounding evasive and weak.

Our host returned with three plates of cheeseburgers, and one plate of what I would eventually learn were stuffed cuttlefish.

There was mustard and vinegar, but not ketchup, for the fries. The cheese on the cheeseburger was not cheddar, or American, or Monterey Jack, but Emmenthal, which I could smell, along with the waiter’s armpits, as the plates were set down. And when the kids lifted their buns there was a sauce on the burgers that might have been fresh mayonnaise or possibly aioli, and they examined this new form of burger as if it had been fished from the trap in the bathroom sink, while I tried my first slice of stuffed cuttlefish, tasting like an ocean-infused dumpling.

Mary Jo tucked more or less contentedly into her sheese-boor-gare, and Joe gave it a shot.

But in the end, due to the particular perfume of the Emmenthal, and the French tendency to cook burgers on the rare side of medium rare, both kids abandoned their meals, pushing the smell of ripe Swiss cheese and mystery sauce to my side of the table, where the gibbous moons of their partly nibbled buns went gradually soggy in pools of blood.

I decided that whatever we were trying to accomplish on this trip, it would not be to indulge more of this, whatever this had been. We had some work to do, we Hoffmans, if we were going to fit in around here, and with this thought, and with a practiced Parisian, I suppose the word is “insouciance,” I took a sip of beer, lifted my chin, and leaned back into my chair, which snapped with the sound of a belly flop in a quiet pool, and I went over backward with it, baptizing myself on the way down with the dregs of my Kronenbourg, before the glass slipped from my hand and shattered on the pavers near my head.

After a dazed second or two, I began swimming up from the puddle of myself as the diners around me exclaimed and asked after my well-being, and attempted to help, and as mortifying as all of that was, it was as nothing to the sight of the café owner, already armed with broom and dustpan, cheered on in machine-gun patois by the bald man in the tracksuit, making his way across the terrace to sweep up after the new American in town.

On the way home, with the kids still hungry, we stopped by the bakery, which had just closed for lunch, then the greengrocer’s called Le Jardin de Marie, also closed for lunch, and finally the tabac (a combination newsstand, deli, and bodega), where a rolled steel curtain drawn in front of the entrance announced, in so many words, “Closed for lunch.”

As we descended Avenue de la Liberté, toward our new home at number 42, we passed several other pedestrians, including an attractive young couple with suggestively white teeth. Before I could make out the words they were saying, their intonation marked them as inescapably American, and so, as we passed, I made sure to greet them first, not with a “Hello,” or even a “Bonjour,” but, because it was past noon and that was the rule, and because I was in that kind of mood, driven by visions of Coca-Cola with ice, and plates of uneaten cheeseburgers, to say nothing of the miasma of spilled beer accompanying my every step—I made sure to greet them, as I say, with an intentionally snooty “Bon après-midi,” to which they grinned in that ingratiatingly confused, insipid, and apologetic way of all lost American tourists, and I discovered, to my satisfaction, that I hated them.

__________________________________

a season for that

Excerpted from A Season for That: Lost and Found in the Other Southern France by Steve Hoffman. Copyright © 2024. Available from Crown, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top