humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”

 

Maman + Lyon: our trip begins

In February, my mom came to visit me in France for a whole two weeks. My dad had told me about his plans months before and I could hardly keep it a secret, but waited to let Mom find out on Christmas day.

We started off our trip in Lyon. Mom has heard a lot about it from my travels, but had never gotten to see it for herself. I strongly prefer this city to Paris, having been to both recently. I made the mistake of going to Paris during prime tourist time (Christmas) and it was enough to put me off for awhile. Lines for the vestiaire, lines for the bathroom, lines for my favorite bookstore. Crowded cafés revealing disappointingly average bowls of onion soup: another tourist trap. 45 minutes on the metro.

Paris is better if you know how to plan, and honestly that’s not my strong suit. Lyon feels a little more sacred, unspoiled by the over-commercialization of the romance of France (a place that becomes decidedly less romantic when it seems like half the world is there). Lyon is colorful, lively, warm, the stomach of France.

Mary and I went to Lyon a day before my mom flew in and got settled in at the AirBnb. In typical AirBnb fashion, this required codes and keys and the finding of a surreptitious flowerpot. Once inside, it was spacious and cool with big windows providing a view of the Saone river. By far our greatest AirBnb success.Lyon river view

We met my mom at the airport the next day and we spent a fun couple of days around le Vieux Lyon, mostly, eating and biking around.

I took mom to Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a big covered market now dedicated to the famous French chef (whose face can be spotted across the street, painted onto the side of a building). Paul Bocuse and the halles that bear his name are dedicated to the highest-quality ingredients. C’est où les produits sont roi (where the products are king. Things really do sound better in French, don’t they).

Mom was craving a croissant so we bought a few and then we bought a box of macarons from Sève, my absolute favorites after the famous Ladurée in Paris. macarons boiteVanilla bean, peach apricot, rose. The lady was patient, her gloved hand hovering over the pastry case as Mary and I scrambled to decide which flavors to order, each one individually. Deux roses. Non, quatre. Cinq, c’est bon.

Macarons are one of the few patisseries that taste as good as they look. They don’t look good for long, though, because they don’t last long. Delicate, ephemeral. If it sounds like I could write poetry about these little cookies, well. I have.

We got around almost exclusively by bike, and it was dreamy, although Mom may have a slightly different opinion. Me, anyway, I was flying. Lyon has a really nice, user-friendly bike system, and the bikes are big, with comfortable seats, baskets, lights, and working brakes. I had forgotten what it felt like to coast down a hill and feel adrenaline instead of terror.

One day we biked to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we pedaled leisurely around the zoo and visited the botanical gardens.

We ate dinner almost exclusively in bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurants, and Mom had such Lyonnais and French classics as boeuf bourguignon and salade lyonnaise. img_8326-1Our unanimous favorite, though, was a place called Les Lyonnais.img_8346-1 We sat at communal wooden tables and ordered classic food a bit more originale (interesting, different), than other places we’d tried. The place has personality, largely due to the servers, one of whom, sixtyish, has huge black framed glasses and a white beard, always making droll, ironic comments in French (and a little English). He’s the kind of guy who’s always smirking, but you can tell he loves his job.

The menu itself has a sense of humor, promising such delights as the “Unforgettable Onion Loaf.”

Besides bouchon fare, we ate fair number of brioche aux pralines and tried fun ice cream at a popular shop. I had mascarpone and sheep’s milk yogurt flavors. Technically it was a little too cold to be eating ice cream cones outside, but I was also wearing four-inch clogs and riding a bike over cobblestones, so what do I know about practicality.

We went to the Musée des Beaux Arts just in time to see the last days of the Matisse exhibit. This was a real treat for me. I’ve gone to a lot of art museums this year, (including contemporary art museums in like five major cities), and I’m always on the hunt for the kinds of bold colors that Matisse prizes. So to have all this in one place was major eye candy.

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After a fun couple of days, we headed to the South of France, where we attended the cheesiest festival of all time.

To be continued, in other words.