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Dans Mes Bras!

   

 

Take a look at the two movie posters above, and ask yourself, “Which one would a nine-year-old boy want to watch?” Lucky for me, my son refused the one he called, “a rich people movie”.

While cruising the old movie channels on TV this evening, I came across Audrey Hepburn’s 1954 film, “Sabrina”. A lowly chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina goes away to cooking school in Paris and returns the belle of the ball. It’s one of many films, most starring Audrey Hepburn, to sell me on France’s power to make dreams come true (mostly dreams involving being possessed by wealthy men).

Running across the movie as I come to end of my first week in France (In Tacoma), I felt certain I had to watch it, for old time’s sake. For the nostalgia. Even though MFK Fisher warned me in “Provence, 1970” that nostalgia is a lie, I still felt drawn to watch Audrey Hepburn pine away in Givenchy couture and be pursued by a man THIRTY YEARS older than her.

After only a few minutes of the movie, my son writhed in his chair, complaining. I pointed out that Sabrina was in love with a man who didn’t notice her. He said, “I can TELL, but why they have to take so long about it??”

I tried to think of a way to pitch watching the movie, for the tradition, or for the romance, or…

The longer the opening scene went on, the harder time I had making a case for the film. When Sabrina spied on the playboy brother making the moves on a socialite across the indoor tennis court, my six-year-old daughter cried out, “I don’t LIKE that guy!” I wanted to high-five her. “YES,” I said, “he’s not a nice guy”. Then I really started to think why I wanted to invest any more time in outdated notions about the value of a woman’s education.

I tried one last time to explain the movie’s central tension, “So, she can’t fall in love with him because he’s rich and she’s just a servant’s daughter.” My son said, “That’s why I hate rich people movies!” Finally, I had to agree with him.

Just then, my husband swooped in – like a pterodactyl – with a movie he’d been waiting to watch on Netflix.

Within the first few minutes, we see our early 20th century writer and adventurer heroine commanding a camel, cracking an Egyptian code and running headlong into an occupied sarcophagus calling out, “Dan mes bras!”, or “Into My Arms!”

My son cheered and said, “Now THIS is the kind of movie I like. She’s cool.” Adèle Blac-Sec didn’t just entertain a picky kid, she rescued me from my Hollywood trance. After so many years, here was a woman I could admire for more than her tiny waist and alluring charm.

Adèle smoked, drank, shot, cavorted with dinosaurs and mummies, and only read her mail in the bath. Where was she when I was a kid? When I was forming those dreams about what I could be?

She was in the comics. In fact, her comic book is now published by Seattle-based Fantagraphics, translated by the late Kim Thompson, who I interviewed as a radio host back in 2003.

This evening it’s wonderfully liberating to imagine riding the back of a resurrected dinosaur to save the sister who suffered for my brash competitiveness. It sure beats trying to stir up romantic feelings for a frowny Bogart. And, if I weren’t in France (In Tacoma), I’d probably have missed all of this. I’m so glad I came.

I can’t wait to find out what other treasures await me here. Dans Mes Bras!

Je Ne Sais Quoi

charcuterie des les enfants
charcuterie des les enfants

My children remained unaware of our new living arrangements. Today, on the first day of their Thanksgiving break, an undeniably American holiday, I set out a kiddie-style charcuterie plate for lunch and broke it to them, “Kids, we’re not where you think we are. Sunday night, while you slept, your father and I moved the family to France.”

We discussed the wrinkles in time and space necessary to accommodate our new living arrangements. They were surprised that I always dreamed of living in France. They were surprised I had dreams.

Once I assured the kids they could keep the kittens, and have turkey and sweet potato pie tomorrow, they gave a cheer and even agreed to try the pickled asparagus and okra in my impromptu attempt at a French-ish lunch we could all enjoy. Rosemary ham, dry salami, cheddar, gouda, soda crackers, three kinds of pickles and soda water with orange bitters. It wasn’t authentic or even that nutritious, but it would have to do.

I spent the morning finishing “Provence, 1970“, and I found myself thinking in the breathless style of all the food writers. It seemed things would always “have to do” as they threw fresh herbs over broiled shellfish or plated store-bought fresh foie gras and filled glasses with an especially haughty vintage of wine. In the other room my kids watched PBS Kids, and I read in my bathrobe, but the spirit of world-weary, mid-20th century, well-to-do food royalty filled my heart and belly.

In the book, our heroine, MFK Fisher, confronts the inherent snobbery of her passion for French cuisine and culture. Although she always wanted to retire to France, a nostalgic 1970 trip back to the hotels and restaurants of her youth convinces her that France is, in the parlance of 2014, OVER. Fed up with not just the other people in the culinary celebrity scene, but of herself in the scene, she decides to spend the rest of her life in California.

The author included actual quotes from letters people like Julia Child, James Beard and all their influential friends wrote to one another, often sniping about someone else. As I read their gossip, I considered that I was at least fifty years late getting to France. Then I remembered that this writer’s residency isn’t bound by time OR space. I can conjure any France, from any era. I just have to figure out which France is the one of my fantasy.

As much as a I love food, I can’t hang with the big boys when it comes to cooking, wine, and especially paté. I want to believe I can, but all my cookbook author interviews as a radio host taught me that I am small potatoes in the kitchen. It’s naive to confuse asking good questions of great chefs with being able to do what those great chefs describe. So, I know I’m not pursuing the Cordon Bleu path. (No, there will be no “Megan & MFK” to compete with “Julie & Julia“.)

Luckily, my children are even more unsophisticated than me. They don’t know le jambon from a hambone. So, when I told them we’d be trying to assimilate to our new country of imaginary residency, they accepted that my cheese and crackers plate was something exotic. They asked to learn more about France.

I told them the table would be called la table, and would no longer be an ‘it’, but would heretofore be referred to as ‘she’. They picked up the vocabulary lesson amazingly fast. Already, we outstripped my feeble attempts at sign language when they were babies.

They asked me what made me always want to go to France. I told them, “I don’t know what – perhaps the je ne sais quoi.” I explained my joke, since we hadn’t gotten that far in our one word French lesson. My son howled. He thought it was the funniest thing ever. We spent the next several minutes describing everything in our lives with that phrase of ambiguous praise. The whole house became instantly more chic.

If it’s not mastering the art of french cooking, then what is my reason to spend A Year In France (In Tacoma)? Right now, it’s definitely the je ne sais quoi.

 

C’est La Vie

Although most books suggest that Provence is the best place in France to spend a year, this morning it appeared that I actually landed in Paris. Rain poured down, mist rose up, and when I looked out my back door, someone had stolen my umbrella. Quelle malchance!

A missing umbrella might otherwise be a small inconvenience, but my husband and I are down to one car. Last week, before our ‘departure’ for this Year In France (In Tacoma), our second car was totaled in an accident. All the other issues with the wreck aside, we decided to try living with one car for a few weeks rather than rushing out to spend money we don’t have on a replacement vehicle.

With our one car miles away at the train station, and no protection for our heads, I walked the kids to school in a big hat and trench coat. They wore their waterproof, hooded jackets. We all got very wet.

Always on the lookout for symbolism, it occurred to me that an ‘umbrella policy’ is an insurance term. Was the stolen umbrella foreshadowing a bad turn of events relating to the accident?

I found myself obsessing over the karmic source of our bad luck. Of course, I was raised with a solid layer of American morality and feel sure that any unfortunate event is divine punishment. Finally, though, I remembered that that attitude doesn’t apply here in France (In Tacoma).

The French, as I have come to understand them through movies, books and college classes, are far more likely to throw their hands  in the air, say, “C’est La Vie”, and retire to a nice glass of something strong to dull the pain. Since I am pretending to be in France, I figured I could at least pretend to not fret.

I made an omelet with mushrooms to help stimulate my French attitude of nonchalance. Still, it was hard to not fret, even to fake not fretting. And then, the auto insurance company called to discuss the terms of a total loss payout.

My stomach churned as I tried to guess the hit to our premiums, as I worried about the paperwork, and again I wondered if we tripped some bad luck circuit in our lives. Once the agent put me on hold to process some forms, I was left to my swirling thoughts and the muzak. That’s when I heard “Free Man In Paris” playing, in its anodyne form.

“The way I see it,” he said
“You just can’t win it”

It’s true. I can’t win it all the time. There will be some setbacks and unfortunate events.

Luckily, I’m in Paris, rain and all, and I can, at the very least, be free and wander down the Champs Élysées.

C’est la vie!

 

(If you’re following along at home, this is exactly how I prepared my mushroom omelet, using gouda instead of cheddar.)

Le Chat Du Petit Matin

Le Chat Du Petit Matin

WHERE WAS I?

I am in Tacoma, and it is November 2014 and I am 41 1/2 years old, female, and apparently determined to erect new altars to old gods, no matter how unimportant all of us may be. 


That’s my variation of MFK Fisher’s first entry into her journal upon arriving in a cold Provence hotel in December 1970. She had just spent a delicious, yet troubling, couple months with fellow culinary celebrities including Julia Child, James Beard, and Richard Olney. In a new notebook, she started writing to make sense of the conversations, arguments and visions they shared.

MFK’s grand-nephew, Luke Barr, published a book about their historic meeting in 2013, “Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste”The story is about a shift in American cuisine, but also a changing world.

I found Luke’s book today as I begin a new chapter in my life. Two years ago I left my public radio career following a traumatic experience at an industry conference. Since then I’ve been building my own business, my own show, and my own sense of identity. Despite pushing myself to start over, though, I feel stuck, unsure if I’m doing the right thing or where, exactly, I’m heading.

Fed up with my aimless anxiety, last week I asked myself, “What would you want to do, if you could do anything at all?” Without thinking, I said, “Live in France and write a book”. It’s a fantasy image concocted from six years of studying French, a decade of food interviews, dozens of books and a host of movies. The France I imagine running away to is probably as far from reality as my old dreams of ‘making it’ in public radio. Still, the desire jumped out of my mouth when given the invitation.

Unfortunately, we’re in no position for me to dash off to the Continent for café afternoons and cognac evenings. My husband and I are just barely keeping our budget over the red line, we have two young children, and we can’t swing a night out, much less a writer’s residency. However, the same imagination that would send me to a foreign country in search of inspiration is capable of conjuring up a present reality that might be just as exhilarating.

The Pacific Northwest is a wine, food, and culture Paradise. I should know, I spent twelve years exploring the region as a radio producer. Despite painting audio pictures of the glory of artisanal living around Puget Sound, though, the demands of my career and commuting and family kept me from experiencing it for myself. I felt like I was always describing the dessert trays of life, never getting a taste.

Rather than escaping to France, I thought, what if I found France where I am? Since my image of French life isn’t based in reality, my “Joie de Vivre” doesn’t have to be either. I got the idea of spending…

A Year In France (In Tacoma)

So, last night my husband and I said goodbye to our home as we knew it. We decided to get a little townhouse in some French village, something with a beautiful view, perhaps some cats, a school for the children and a job within a train ride so we could support our bourgeoning bohemian lifestyle. He figured he can keep up his en plein-air artistry while I finally get to the writing that’s eluded me.

This morning, I woke to a gorgeous sunrise behind a majestic volcano. There are no active volcanoes in France, but “Provence en Tacoma” defies the real world. Meanwhile, my children adapted to our abrupt move as though nothing had happened. I have high hopes for our expat-pat life.

I found “Provence, 1970” while researching our new pseudo-home. When she wrote her first entry in her 1970 journal, MFK Fisher was 62 and her children were grown up. So far in her life she had divorced her first husband, lost her second husband to suicide, left a Hollywood writing job, had a baby out of wedlock, went into debt with her third husband, had another baby, and lost both her parents. Worse, the Provence she retreated to in 1970 reflected an attitude entirely unlike the one that inspired her approach to food.

I knew I found my guide to this new adventure when I read this passage from “Provence, 1970”:

In her new journal, underneath WHERE WAS I?, she wrote:

I am in southern France, and it is December, 1970 and I am 62 1/2 years old, white, female, and apparently determined to erect new altars to old gods, no matter how unimportant all of us may be.

The “old gods” were French, of course. They were the gods of food and pleasure, of style and good living, of love, taste, and even decadence. M.F. had spent the last thirty-odd years writing a kind of personal intellectual history of these ideals in her books, memoirs, and essays. These works were her “altars,” so to speak, and she was now embarked on a new one. This notebook would serve as the site of her daily communion with France.

France had long been at the center of her philosophy. She had made France a touchstone of her writing, in which she alchemized life, love, and food in a literary genre of her own invention. But she was suddenly keenly aware of the need to make new sense of the old mythologies. The events of the previous weeks had shown her the limitations of her own sentimental attachments—to the past, to la belle France—and confronted her with the too-easy seductions of nostalgia, the treacheries of snobbery.

She was alone in Arles for a reason. It was a reason she was still in the process of formulating.

On My Last Nerve

11-02-14 Last Nerve

On My Last Nerve

You are.

They are.

That isn’t.

He’s about to be.

***

I had nearly a billion in my body, but they’re thinner than skin. They don’t grow back.

I didn’t even know I was down to one, until you found it and jumped.

***

It carries less than one-hundred millivolts, useless to you, but enough to blow my circuits.

The dining room fixture sparked and popped when the dimmer surged, frying all its copper neurons, leaving us in the dark at the dinner table.

I am no different than that reproduction, flush-mounted, frosted glass pendant.

***

My grandmother took a pill for hers.

My mother died because a disease ate all of hers.

I steeled mine to insulate myself from a similar fate.

You probably didn’t know that.

***

It’s the pain in my neck, the chip on my shoulder, the lock in my jaw.

No angels can dance on the span of it, but you managed to stomp.

If I had any more, I’d send the message to my hand to smack you.

It’s just that it really is my last one.

So please, get off.