there are snails in the salad: adventures in renting

 

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and lettuce. 

Had Benjamin Franklin rented from Monsieur C, his famous line might have looked a little different. I can rarely foresee what challenges life in France will throw at me, but I am always confident there will be lettuce in the fridge.

It all started with a simple question. One day Monsieur C asked Mary: tu aimes la salade ? 

Yeah, I like salad, she responded. The deed was done. Sentenced to salad without parole. Daily, Monsieur C knocks on the door that separates the two living spaces, shouting his classic âllo ? Je peux ? and offers us a big bag of fresh lettuce from the garden. C’est bonne, la salade ! It’s not a question.

Unfortunately, neither of us much like lettuce.

Bags of it crowd our fridge. It sits wilting, forgotten, on our countertops.

I tried to tactfully tell Monsieur C that, you know, we’re really doing okay on the lettuce thing. It’s more than we can eat! 

I know, he said. Vous mangez pas beaucoup! Vous mangez pas beaucoup!

(You girls don’t eat much!) 

He explained that that was why he had been giving us such small daily portions. An image of our fridge, home to scores of wilting green leaves, flashed through my mind.

Anyway, I’ll bring you some more tonight! Bon après-midi ! Conversation over.

I smiled weakly, the light surely gone from my eyes. What could I say but, merci. C’est très gentil. 

Sometimes, guilty, we do make a salad: a task which typically involves the setting free of a live snail or two. Open the window, set it on the ledge, send it on its way.

Last week we found a slug.

lettuce

The upside is that salad has become our measuring stick, a real source of motivation. If we’re waffling about going out and doing something, we put it to the salad test. Okay, we either get ready now, catch the 6:56 bus, or we stay here and eat salad. 

That’s usually enough. We’re running to our rooms and scrambling for our coats in no time.

The lettuce thing represents just one of the many little misunderstandings that are bound to happen, when you think about it, when you put together a traditional French man in his seventies and two lively American girls in their early twenties.

In early October, when Mary moved in, he said to me one day: Vous vous entendez bien, hein? (You two get along well!)

Yes! I said brightly. We do! 

I know, he said flatly. I can hear you.

What he doesn’t know is that his two renters are often awakened from sleep in the morning by the sound of him sneezing. From downstairs.

The generation gap is impossible to ignore. I think we baffle each other. Monsieur C thinks, for example, that we hang out in cafés in an effort to meet boys. A 4 pm pot of jasmine tea with notebooks out for lesson plans…and we’re there to flirt? His interpretation had me scratching my head until I realized that, with his particular values and no-nonsense practicality, he probably just doesn’t understand why someone would pay for coffee and tea when you could make it at home. But his idea becomes even more hilarious when you consider that rarely, in any of the cafés I frequent, do I encounter someone under the age of forty.

In any case, I am a happy renter. The house is lovely (and rent is unbeatably cheap). It’s pretty, with big windows and bright orange shutters, surrounded by roses, vines, and well-fed cats. We have the main floor while Monsieur C lives in the lower part of the house that opens out to the back garden.la-maison

I am unaccustomed to having a landlord who is so…present, but Monsieur C is a thoughtful man in many ways. If he knocks on the door to talk about rent, it’s usually with a few clementines in hand. Tiens ! One for you, one for ta copine. He’ll give us a bag of chestnuts and tell us how to cook them, or leave us a couple of ripe pears.

He’s thoughtful, yes, but I can’t say niceNice is too tame a word for Monsieur C. He’s the sort of man surely described by his friends as a rascal. Probably, too, by his enemies, of which I’m almost certain he has at least a few.

He is always yelling merde! Or calling someone a con, then asking if I know what that means. Sometimes he drives me places, to the bank or insurance office, and he’ll slow down in the middle of the street to yell at a friend he sees. Passing drivers then might honk, and he’ll yell at them to slow down, but if he’s the one in a hurry he’ll yell some version of, hurry up, Grandma! to someone taking their time.

Yesterday he gave me a ride home from town–I was carrying a bouquet of flowers and trying to catch Mary on her 23rd birthday before she left for work–and as we passed a house a a few blocks away from home, he slowed down the car and gestured to a tree. You see that? You see that cherry tree? Ça c’est un beau cerisier, ça. 

It wasn’t the innocent observation of an avid gardener. Monsieur C proceeded to tell me a story. He had once asked the man whose garden it was to let him have a branch, start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C said, and he still said no! He wouldn’t take my money! 

So what did he do? One night, around three a.m. as the man slept, Monsieur C crept through the fence, snipped off what he wanted from the cherry tree and roared off in his car.

I laughed, incredulous. So did you leave him a bit of money in exchange? Ben non ! He didn’t want it.

So this accounts for that tree in our backyard…probably the most dramatic cherry tree story since George Washington.

All’s fair in love and gardening, apparently.

goats & grapes: I make it to montluçon

Today Stéphane (le “père adoptif”) and I embarked on a road trip. He had generously offered to take me to Montluçon to start my job, and of course I accepted, not being one for solo travel in the French countryside with over a hundred pounds of luggage.

So there we were, listening to Chérie radio and driving further and further away, it seemed, from la civilisation. At first, the cows, goats, and sheep were charming. At one point, I glanced over at a field and saw two farmers doing the faire la bise. Ah la France.

And then I started to worry. We drove through what looked like ghost towns, and more signs appeared, pointing the way to Montluçon. More skinny cows. More goats.  Closed businesses. I heard Aline in my head: ah oui, Montluçon c’est la campagne-campagne, hein ? (A translation might go something like: “that place is really out in the sticks”). I felt something like dread. When would the car stop? I kind of didn’t want it to. We could just sit here listening to Celine Dion until the end of time. Or at least until we ran out of gas. I did not wish to be a “small-town girl in a lonely world,” not even in France.

Maybe we’d get there, to this dusty abandoned hamlet where I’d have a herd of sheep for company, and I’d have to beg Stéphane to let me back in the car. Have mercy! I’d cry, or its rough French equivalent.

The drama was put on hold when we got to Montluçon and I saw that it was most certainly not a farm. Oh look, a pretty bridge. People drinking wine en terrasse. A cute movie theater.  Relief came in waves before I realized I needed to focus and help Stéphane find where we were actually going. In August, I had corresponded with someone from l’Académie de Clermont-Ferrand who gave me the contact information of an older gentleman in Montluçon who had been hosting TAPIF assistants for a good ten years. It sounded like a pretty good deal for an unbeatable price, and also, I was completely desperate. We emailed back and forth and there I was, with nothing but my bags and a few email screenshots. We put the address into the GPS and it was awhile before either of us realized there was a typo in the address I was given. We stopped several times in the busy downtown area so Stéphane could call out to someone for directions. I turned on my emergency data supply to see if my navigation could hack it, and all that got us was Siri attempting street names with absolutely horrendous pronunciation that I had to translate. After a few circles, we found the right people and were soon driving down a pretty open road just outside of town.

We were there, at a house with pink flowers and orange shutters. I rang the bell; this was it. My new landlord, who I’ll call Armand for the sake of privacy, put me right at ease, answering the door with a “Jessica ! Viens, viens, ma petite.” He’s in his seventies, I’d guess, and easily one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. He insisted we sit down and brought us beer and sirop. On my kitchen table he’d put a bowl of fresh grapes. Freshly picked from…my new backyard, where there are more muscat grapes than one person could ever eat.

The first questions he asked me:

but do you like escargot ? oh, j’adore.  cuisses de grenouille ? oui, oui, j’aime.  boudin ? j’aime bien, oui.

He seemed pleased with that. I laughed. All these foods that various hosts and friends have assumed I wouldn’t like? I totally like. Frog legs, weird meats at the bouchon… Je suis pas difficile. 

Armand showed me around the house. I’m renting the whole top floor, it turns out. He lives downstairs, in a little bachelor-pad type place that opens onto the garden. Sometimes Armand hosts several assistants but I’m the only one this year. I have a cozy room with a desk, great closet, comfy bed, and large window to let the sun in. I have a kitchen full of sunlight and a view of the backyard; a living room with a couch, TV, and dining table…wifi is set up and there’s a cabinet in the hallway with teaching materials from past assistants. He even gave me a note in a sealed envelope from an assistant from last year. I guess he likes to do that to make it easier for everyone year after year. In English, the past assistant gave some really good advice about how to make the most of the stay in Montluçon and she said that “Armand” is one of the kindest people she’s ever met.

After Armand had explained everything to me, Stéphane headed out. It was nice having him there because there were some things I had trouble understanding. Armand speaks really quickly and has an accent I’m not familiar with. But he’s so easy to talk to, I noticed my speaking ability improving in a matter of a few hours.

He gave me a tour of the garden, which he welcomed me to visit whenever I want. Growing now are: grapes, figs, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, apples, pears, peaches, spinach, lettuce, carrots, melons…there are flowers and bees and grape vines everywhere and honestly, j’adore. What’s more, it’s only a five-minute bus ride from town. Armand kept picking things and telling me to taste them, a ripe fig here, a cherry tomato there.

He had insisted to cook dinner for me as soon as I got there. “You just arrived, chérie, I’m making you an omelet!” And so I went to unpack my room in my new apartment/house and waited for the call that dinner was ready, which was quite the charming way to be welcomed into my new town thousands of miles away from home.

We ate downstairs with a friend of his, a farmer, I think. We had le potage, classic garden vegetable soup from his region of origin that he swears is the secret to good health: you must drink it twice a day. You must also drink red wine. We had Beaujolais. And when I saw the farmer pour the wine into his soup and drink it all I thought I was seeing things. Turns out, this is a thing, though I’m still not totally convinced they’re not playing a prank on me with that. They said I should try it, so of course I did. C’est…différent. It wasn’t terrible, but I think I’ll keep soup and wine in their respective receptacles from now on.

Then the aforementioned omelet. Let me tell you, this man can cook. The omelet, which we split three ways, included: eggs from the neighbor, potatoes, parsley, and garlic from the garden, and fleur de sel. Utter perfection.

Then cheese. Armand offered us either cow’s milk cheese fresh or “dry,” or goat’s milk cheese fresh or “dry.” These are also products made within mere miles. This is cheese girl heaven. We finished it off with green grapes from the garden that Armand ventured outside to pick while we ate our cheese. As local as local gets.

Because I haven’t yet had time to visit any magasin to buy food, Armand bought me a baguette and even gave me some butter, tea, and sugar cubes that he put into a little bag. I am stunned and delighted at the warm welcome.

Tomorrow I get to visit the schools where I’ll be teaching! And there are three of them. How I will manage to get myself there in an unfamiliar French town by 9:15 is another story…I don’t even know where the bus stop is.