Monthly Archives: June 2013

When “second homes” are first in the heart

C’est les vacances!

Everyone knows that the French are world champions of the watered down work week and the wondrous six week minimum paid vacation.  But did anyone ever stop to ask where les français GO en vacances?  Ask no more!

They go to their résidence secondaire (second home) if they’re lucky enough to have one.    It may be at the seashore, in the mountains, or deep in the countryside, it may be a castle, a studio apartment, or a trailer home, but whatever and wherever it is, the home away from home is a very French thing.   With three million “second homes”, they have twelve times as many as the Germans, and more than anyone else in the world!

I discovered the “second home” concept early on when Philippe, who was courting me assiduously, invited me to his parents’ country house an hour west of Paris, not far from the beautiful cathedral of Chartres.  Although they had a lovely, spacious apartment near the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, the résidence secondaire, which his father bought during the War to get his wife and small children out of the capital, was a haven not just for the family but for the many friends who were invited to partake of the bounteous repasts served by my mother-in-law, a wonderful cook and one of the most hospitable persons I have ever met (I once heard someone accuse the French of being inhospitable –  the person obviously hadn’t met her!).

The Rochefort “second home” was built in the 1860s. With its low sloping tiled roof, from the outside it looks like an illustration of a fairytale cottage in a children’s book.   Inside, the rooms are small but each has been lovingly painted and decorated and cared for.  The house is only a few doors down from the village church, and only steps away from the mairie where my father-in-law served many terms on the City Council.   Television rapidly changed social life in the village;  my mother-in-law told me that when she was young,  the main entertainment on a hot summer evening was sitting in front of your door and chatting with the villagers out for a stroll. Imagine that in this day of internet!

My in-laws braved the Paris traffic every single week-end to arrive at the country place, air it out, go to the next village to buy groceries, come back and start some serious cooking and repairs around the house while assorted grandchildren and cousins and friends played in the huge yard and the more adventurous little ones crossed a wee bridge over a small brook that ran through the property (every once in a while a clumsy soul would end up in the water). Our youngest son spent most of his time sneezing and wheezing because of various allergies (to the country?!) but it didn’t make a dent in his pleasure.

As for Philippe, he’d hit the couch, open a magazine, close his eyes and generally fall asleep.  After a stressful week at the office (he’s one of those French persons who worked 80 hours a week, not 35) the country place was perfect for relaxation.  While he napped, I would watch my mother-in-law’s doings in the kitchen and from her learned a precious thing or two about French cooking.  No, not written recipes – they were in her head and she was incapable of transcribing them. My “lessons” were in the watching and the observing and the smelling and the tasting  – all of which I did a lot.

On summer nights we’d set up a huge long table on the terrace.  The children were always with us but I distinctly remember that my in-laws, who loved them all dearly, didn’t tolerate any acting up. They were welcome and expected to eat what was served and behave.  And they did, I think, because they were so happy to be there (and were allowed to run off and play once they’d finished the cheese course – they were sure to return for the dessert.)

On cold winter nights after a long dinner we’d sit by the fireplace and perform a ritual: one of us would go to the cupboard to fetch thimble-size glasses into which my father-in-law would pour the Rochefort pear alcohol production. Yes, OUR pear production.  Every year in the fall we’d all get in the tiny kitchen (total workspace: one counter) and cut up a thousand pounds of purchased Williams pears (for there were no fruit trees on the property) in four, then put the pieces one by one into two wooden barrels where they would remain until spring when the distiller would come along, all red-nosed because he’d been inhaling (or drinking) too much strong alcohol. With his copper still, he’d transform the pear juice into alcohol that would take every hair off the chest of even the hairiest man.  But we love it and it’s good.  Every time I uncork a bottle (by the way, a thousand pounds of pears only yields about thirty bottles), the smell of the wood in the fireplace and the country air and the happy faces of the friends and family in the room pop out and float in the air.

Nostalgia’s one benefit and there’s another: our minimum-80-proof pear alcohol will kill any germ that comes near it.  Extremely useful when you’ve got a cold.  But buveur beware: don’t drink it like water which I rashly did one night with a friend. Result:  I have never been so drunk in my life and my unsuspecting friend swore off alcohol for five entire years. I now sedately take a sugar cube and dip it into the glass (what the French call a canard, a duck) to get the pleasure of the taste but none of the  side effects.

So many memories:  of my mother-in-law mending our clothes and caring for her geraniums and asking me at breakfast what we might eat for lunch (I’m under the radar in the morning and couldn’t engage with her on that one), of my father-in-law buttering slices of pain d’épices and bringing her breakfast in bed which she shared with the grandchildren who had piled into it with her,  of all those meals that went on for hours with much laughing and talking (trust me, no one in that family ever said  “Im not hungry” or raided the refrigerator – meals were at the table and twice a day like clockwork).

I could write so much more about those magical days in the country place – and so could, I would imagine, any French person who has one.

Why?  Because those French “second” homes are often first in the heart.

 

(The above entry is adapted from and based on excerpts from “Hanging Out Without Feeling Guilty” in my book, Joie de Vivre).  All material copyrighted.

 

 

Writing about the French

Now here’s a question to contemplate on a stormy day in Paris as I gaze at my dark green, almost black “jardin” and watch the rain pelt down on the flowers whose petals I just lovingly cleaned up:  Why do people write about the French?  I thought about this after receiving the following question, one of many I answered for an online interview in A Woman’s Paris. (Advance warning: the question is flattering.)   Here goes:  “Your trilogy, French Toast, French Toast, and Joie de Vivre  have had a huge impact on Francophiles, travelers and expatriates living in France. What do you think it is about your books that make readers connect in such a powerful way?”

I replied, and I think it’s true, that “one reason may be the general fascination with the French.”  I mean, who writes about the Swedish, the Danish, or even the Brazilians?  Why are we all so utterly obsessed, enthralled, or enraged with the French? Why are we so interested in what they do, how they dress, how they act?  What is it about them?  Is it because the French remain so thoroughly themselves in spite of globalization? Is it simply because more people visit France (it’s the top tourist country in the world with 81 million visitors a year)?  Whatever it is, there’s a veritable cottage industry of books about France, the French, Paris, the Parisians, French food, French style, hey, even French toast and joie de vivre!

Other than the general fascination with the Frogs (pardon my French – and incidentally, does anyone out there know why the French are referred to as grenouilles?), I have had an intense personal fascination with them, starting with my French husband, a man who continues to make me laugh and never bores me even after forty years of marriage (is it because he’s French or because he’s who he is?).  At any rate, il faut le faire.   But back to the question about my trilogy:   If people identify with or are amused in any way by my books, it may be because I invite them into my life.  Years after my first book was published, readers continue to ask how Benjamin and David are doing and tell me how much they loved the interviews with Philippe.  Their reaction warmed my heart and showed me that the book touched people beyond Francophiles.  I think they identified with the general problem of adjusting to marrying into a culture rather than visiting it, raising children, making four-course meals in a tiny kitchen, learning the lingo.  And the specific overriding matter at hand:  the subject of all my books is the surprising, stunning, and egregious difference between the French mindset and the American one and the process of adaptation (or not).  As I always warn American students visiting Paris:  “We think we are alike but we are absolutely not.” I then proceed to enumerate all the ways in which the Americans and the French differ – and it’s a shocker.  The authors we read, the thoughts we think, our attitudes toward religion, sex, food, our sense of humor, the list goes on and on.

Which reminds me:  I’ve got to go prepare a speech for a group of 17 students from Missouri Southern State University visiting Paris and us later this week.  Not only will they get to see a Parisian apartment (they will find it small but, trust me,  by Parisian standards, 96 square meters for two is heading toward vast) and get to hear my spiel on les différences culturelles,  they’ll also get a glance at our resident Frenchman, Philippe (they can decide whether or not he looks French. The jury’s out).  After the talk and some viennoiseries,  we’ll repair to the nearby Père Lachaise cemetery to contemplate the graves of the illustrious  (Chopin, Piaf, Balzac, Colette, and Jim Morrison to name but a few).  Any guess as to whose burial plot is the most well-known and sought after?    After the tour of the tombs, a couscous lunch awaits us at our local Moroccan restaurant.  If that doesn’t give them a slice of Parisian life, I don’t know what would (well, the Arch of Triumph and the Eiffel Tower but they’ve surely been there, done that).

So, why write about France and the French?  Let me tell you after our little talk, tour, and couscous.  I’m sure those students will find zillions of “French” things that are different – and I can’t wait to hear what they say.  It will be grist for my mill  – and, who knows,  maybe another book about the French.  Encore un?  Mon Dieu!   Well, that’s what I mean about writing about the French.

Irrésistible!

 

The full interview in A Woman’s Paris can be found at the links below:

French Impressions: Harriet Welty Rochefort’s “Joie de Vivre” taking pleasure in the small things (part one)
French Impressions: Harriet Welty Rochefort’s “Joie de Vivre” comes when you least expect it (part two)

 

 

The Passing of a Fine French Lady

If you’ve read my books or heard me speak about my life in France, you’ve heard about my French mother-in-law (belle-mère in French, a prettier term than the English one by far).  She passed away last Sunday at the age of 98 so this is the moment to pay tribute to an exceptional and much-loved lady who peopled my life and my books.

When I married her son Philippe forty years ago, I was filled with the usual qualms all daughters-in-law everywhere have about their mothers-in-law.  Would we get along? Would we agree? Disagree? Have fun together or not have any fun at all?  In addition to those general questions, I had some particular ones, considering that I was American and my mother-in-law French.  Would our cultural differences bring us together or divide us? To take a practical example, would it be a problem if I didn’t set the table the French way? Burst out in loud American laughter?   And another practical question: what was I to call her? Should I use the informal  tu or the formal vous?

The latter questions were quickly solved.  I called her by her first name, Marie-Jeanne, and I addressed her with the formal “vous” as she did with me.  Tu is more familiar and creates less of a distance, but  I have always remained convinced that the formal vous was the perfect form for us.  And it certainly didn’t keep her from affectionately calling me ma petite Harriet or ma petite fille.

What will I remember about my mother-in-law?  Of course, her wonderful cooking, but above and beyond that, her incredible and sincere hospitality.  15 for dinner?  No problem.  The deal was, though….so as not to make her nervous, Philippe would only tell her at the last minute.  “Oh my goodness,” I exclaimed the first time he announced he was bringing a group of friends and hadn’t told his mother.  “You have got to give her advance warning!”  He, who knew his mother well, smiled and replied:   “No way.  She’ll do better if we just hit her with it.”

And she did. She didn’t even register shock as the 15 friends filed in.  She greeted each by name, with a smile and a bise, then proceeded to the kitchen to prepare a simple delicious meal that would fill many hungry stomachs.  On these last minute occasions, she’d often make the Rochefort potato omelette I wrote about in French Fried.  She’d produce a fresh head of lettuce, make a homemade vinaigrette, find something in the house that would serve as a starter (her starters were always so lavish that in the beginning I thought they were the meal), ask husband Henri to run to the fromager so she could put a dazzling variety on the cheese plate.  Even with no warning, her meal was so skillfully done and artfully presented that it looked as if it had taken days instead of minutes. She always wanted people to feel at home, and they did, staying late into the night, laughing and talking.

Even the war didn’t stop that.  Although there was a curfew and Germans were patrolling right in front of the house, Marie-Jeanne and Henri would sneak out the back door, cross a little brook, and go to their neighbor’s place to play cards until late at night when they’d silently creep back home.  They knew all about joie de vivre even in the worst of times. . Although she didn’t live in the past, Marie-Jeanne  would tell me stories about the war that made me realize what a dreadful time it was in every way – and realize that if food is so important to the French, there’s a reason. They hardly had any! The first time I peeled a potato, she was astounded.  “I can see you’ve never been through a war,” she said, not unkindly, and proceeded to demonstrate how to get the skin off the potato while leaving some potato…

As for my French, if it’s as good as it is, it’s due in part to Marie-Jeanne who corrected my mistakes rarely and gently.  Not only grammar mistakes but usage.  One day I told her that I had bien bouffé at her table.  She laughed and told me that bouffé is for animals, not people.  Humans say diné.  I could cite countless other examples of little tips like this that got me out of trouble and helped me speak decent French.  I also got a primer in Perigourdin expressions which my mother-in-law used frequently.  Born and raised in that beautiful region in southwest France, she spoke that melodious dialect fluently although she didn’t want people to know it when she came to Paris and became a Parisienne.    She referred to the small balls of soft white bread I would separate from the crust as tapous.  (I understood  that doing that was not très élégant and stopped, retaining only the word as a souvenir of this bad habit).   My huge bowl of coffee was a bachou (basin).   I would often insert these words into a French phrase and even French people didn’t know what I was talking about!

MamieBirthday2010

Marie-Jeanne may have looked like the grandmother we all imagine, with her white hair, sparkling blue eyes, and soft skin (I once asked her what cream she used and she told me she had never used anything other than soap or water) but she was a strong woman who kept her household running smoothly.  She planned meals and cooked and served and cleaned up, mended all our clothes, took care of the grandchildren, tended her plants, and especially, made sure the ambiance  was good. She once told me that keeping things on an even keel and extinguishing potential conflicts was important.  She did that well and graciously and with a smile.

Frankly, I owe most of what I know about France and the French to Marie-Jeanne and her son who, I often told her, she raised right (and well before Women’s Lib).     This is a man who never leaves a trail of dirty clothes on the floor, who can cook and sew and iron, and who, like his mother, thinks of others before himself.  Pas mal, as the French say.

Mothers-in-law more often than not get a bad rap. Sometimes it’s deserved, sometimes not.  Was mine an exception?  I don’t know.  All I know is that for me she was truly une belle personne and a  belle belle-mère.  Now that she’s gone,  I’m happy I often told her so.

 

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