Saturday, January 16, 2016

French Fried

Wild excitement! Madame Compagnone was coming to visit!  To my very own house---from her tiny village in France to my old (but baby-new compared to hers) sprawling city in California.  She was born the very same day and year that I was born, and she was an artist who created fabric wall hangings, just as I did!  This odd bevy of coincidences made her visit all the more thrilling!  Her granddaughter, Hermine, was in French school in San Francisco with my granddaughter, Natalie, and that was how this visit had come to be.  Best of all, however, Madame Compagnone was French!

 As for me, had I not been a Francophile since the first of the seven times that I'd seen "American in Paris"?  Had I not bought Charles Aznavour records in my twenties, no matter that I didn't understand what it was exactly that he was singing about, but still feeling that great wail of irony and grief attendant to love and girlfriends and cigarettes dangling from the dapper little singer's lips?  And did I not believe that being a painter in a Paris garret was the Absolute Coolest thing to be, at any age?  Was my English not Frenchified?  Beh-ret!  I say to myself.  Pah-ree!  Soup-son!  Pleece geef me ze sahlt!  Oui!

I obsessed about the visit.  (Veeseet!)  

I would be cooking the lunch---the stakes were high.  What would I give a French woman who was also a (and I staggered at the thought) French cook!  I felt nervous and suddenly at the kindergarten level of cookery:  here, Madame, have this nice rock with the side of dandelions.  The mud cake is in my toy oven and will be ready later.  

Everything I ate in the weeks prior to her visit was a contender, including Doritos and toast soldiers. Pasta? Non! Refried beans on cheeps? Non!  She may be a vegetarian. Who knows? and I would raise my eyebrows and shrug as best I could, to look Gallic.  

I went through all of my cookbooks, including Indian, Italian and Chinese, in case I were to feel especially daring.  I didn’t.  How about, I asked myself, a cous cous?  So newly Californian.  So witty, so fresh.  Oui!  my mind answered itself.  What could be wrong with that?  A simple green salade and ze cous cous.  I will look up and compare all of my cous cous recipes and get the very best from each. 

Eet weel be a Veek-tory!

The morning of the visit arrived. I cleaned the doorknobs and rearranged the mantelpiece.  I dusted all the surfaces then went after the fine lacy webs that clung so prettily to the light fixtures.  I stacked the magazines in neater piles and made a new tablecloth.  I cleaned off low, imploring paw prints from the sliding glass door, made by a stray cat who wishes to be one of us.  Then I went into the kitchen to prepare the food.

I washed the lettuce, made a lovely piquant dressing and cut up red onions and oranges and grapefruit.  I saved the avocado for when I saw the whites of her eyes.  Now for the assembly of the cous cous: tiny specialty tomatoes no bigger than marbles, roasted peppers, broiled, so as to skin them, an exercise in frustration (merde!).  Sparing no effort, I rinsed the canned garbanzos then added them, along with the Greek feta, currants, toasted pine nuts, (the second batch after burning the first) sauteed onion and garlic, cucumber, the seedy part disemboweled, lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar--a tad--and kalamata olives.  I forgot the parsley but it was too late to go back to the store.  

Upon tasting a bit of it, it seemed, well, odd.  But it was also 1:45 and they (my daughter-in-law, who spoke such beautiful French, my granddaughter, Natalie, and her wee sister, Julianna, four years younger, and the esteemed Madame Compagnone) were due at 2.  Perhaps the dish was not too odd, I hoped.  I kept trying it.  The feta was so, uh, stinky.  Steenky.  Fresh as a spring flower out of the deli case, but somehow stinky beyond gourmet-acceptable.  Hmm.  And perhaps, ah, but no--but maybe, yes?  The currants' sweetness was at war with the other flavors here?  Also, there was a kind of hugeness about the amount.  It was not a delicate amount; it was monumental.  A modest ladling on a plate would yield only a fraction of reduction in the serving bowl. 

Yet here it was, 1:45.  I was quite warm by now, a little flushed with excitement.  Also, a worm of dread was gnawing at my vitals, thinking about the suddenly forty pounds of cous cous that I was going to have to haul to the table.  I saw myself in the mirror.  My outfit was not so chic as it was a decent fit.
A feet.  It feet me.  That's all I ask of my clothes these days---just be there on my body, preferably with no stains.

Then she arrived. Elle est arrivee!  She was human-sized and elegant and not the least bit stuck-up.  Her simple jacket pinched in at her waist, showing me that she was slender, and she had arranged a silk scarf handsomely about her neck.  Her hair was upswept.  I had always wanted enough hair to sweep up, but I had not been fortunate in that way.  I secretly busied myself with noticing everything I could with the idea of calculating my imperfections when I had time.  Also sweeping into the house came Sandy, my daughter-in-law-the-translator, and ze two adorable granddaughters.  

We embraced--tout!--and went queekly to la table.  I sliced the final avocado and brought on ze bread and ze monstair cous cous.  The cous cous that ate San Jose.  A dollop here, a dollop there, ah, and there it remained, enough to feed a class reunion.  Much talk ensued!  Great French words flew out, hand gestures, laughter, translations!  Adorableness from   the grandchildren!  No seconds for cous cous were requested.  The green salad had played a small but honest part.  The bread and cheese clearly won the day.

Madame Compagnone was engaging and had merry eyes.  She was chic.  Tres chic.  She had ten grandchildren.  Under our vibrant, smiling chatter, however, I was sad, so triste, in the cooking part of my soul.  I had not measured up--it was not a Veektory.  And I would be eating cous cous until the following Saturday, possibly on into next month.  Would I ever be free?  Mon Dieu!

After dessert, we went into the living room.  I looked at the pictures she brought of her work and she regardez mine.  We spoke, we exclaimed, we were translated.  And then, the visit was over.  Au revoir, au revoir, we cried!  And their car drove away.

The cous cous stayed.  On Monday night, I cooked those good designer sausages to go with the leftover cous cous.  I had made a tiny dent in it on Sunday, but I had not yet gotten to the foothills.  I served it to Mark with the sausages, this son of mine who is a wise and tolerant being.  After awhile, I noticed no change in the heft of the cous cous mound.  I raised my eyebrows, nodding at it--"no?" I said.  "Ehhh", he replied, and then, he made a face.

Oh dear.  I am so sorry, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and Charles Aznavour and Charles de Gaulle and Gertrude Stein.  I've let you down.  Quelle fromage and c'est la vie.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

There Are People Walking Around in My Neighborhood Who Look As Though They Don’t Belong Here

On my way to the freeway I was stopped opposite the last-built tract homes with ivy old enough to hang down their enclosure walls and just before the Safeway parking lot.  I saw a man so handsome, so beautifully dressed, I believed he’d been parachuted in from Hollywood. 
Part of an urban renewal program, surely.

I was surprised, because people around here are a bit lumpy, the men wearing their 2-day whiskers in a way that would never remind you of Jon Hamm or Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Also, they often have a quirky fashion sense, if by “quirky” you could substitute “not any.” But this man, glimpsed for only a wide-eyed moment on my part before the light on the corner changed, was a vision.  

He wore a long black coat, nipped-in at the waist, with a dark, slightly-patterned cashmere scarf loosely wrapped around his neck. How do I know it was cashmere? Because a man in a coat like that would not have it any other way.

His hair, too. It was combed. It was full and brown, swept back over his head like a Colin Firth do. His eyes were brown; his features were symmetrical, balanced, handsome.  

I wondered if he were lost.  

I wondered if I should pull over and drive right up onto the pavement and offer him a cup of tea or a martini, neither of which I had in the car, but figured I could pull together quickly enough, depending on his response. 

 I would soothe his fears about accosting him with my old Avalon, suddenly inches from his very nice shoes, shoes that were well polished, with decent heels. Not run down in any way.  I can say a very nice “there, there.”  He would see that, as far as meaning well, I was the Queen of Well Meant.

All of this zipped through my mind and then I remembered that I’d not cleared the countertop in my kitchen.  He might not understand that, coming from Somewhere Else as he must. I looked down at my sweater, the black one with its sprinkling of Mika Mo’s early winter fur, and worried that the Man might not be a dog lover.  He might be, but I just didn’t know for sure. 

And now there was that pesky guy behind me in his own Toyota, tooting his horn, reminding me that I was on my way to the bank and the light had changed so there was really no reason not to drive on. 

But really, what was this man doing in my neighborhood?  

We are a community of extras for a crowd scene here, with ordinary hairdos and clothes from Ross. We migrate to the Lunardi’s and the Safeway for our foodstuffs in Toyotas and Nissans and Hyundais, and we bring our own bags, often from Trader Joe’s.  A few months ago I saw a glamorous woman, kind of Cate Blanchett-y, in Lunardi’s, wearing a stunning tweed coat and elegant high heels and giving off a pleasant scent---or maybe that was the bakery.  

Once again, it was improbable that she was from the neighborhood. I had to watch her for a while as I folded and unfolded my shopping list, the one with the big jug of white vinegar on it, since a Facebook posting had noted that white vinegar was really great for cleaning your toilet and actually, for cleaning almost anything!  She, the beautiful woman, did not look as if that item would be on her list. 

These sightings are unnerving.  I hope they are not going to move here and take over. The stress would be unbearable.

Notes to Future Writing Self

Your book is a dinghy, with a few faded, striped cushions lying at angles in the middle of the boat, should you plan to row it out of its moorings.  It’s in need of a sanding and a fresh coat of paint.  

You have left it to the elements, lured to the coziness of the British Reading Room and the daily Chronicle and the lightweight fun of emails and Facebook and Huffington Post. Conversations with your daughter, errands for your son, passing snark with your brother—all these things keep you from rowing out to find fresh observations, fresh sentences. Endless distractions, reeds in the water, tangling the oars.

You need to put on something waterproof, probably a yellow shiny rainproof poncho, maybe a pair of boots if you can find them and just get into the boat.

Undo the rope.  Drift out.  

Think about that bulky bit towards the end of your story that seems to be just More of the Same; trim it, tighten it, DO something.  Every day, a little farther out and away from the house noises and the house obligations. 

The bills and dishes and appointments and endless lists of things to do. Away from the shore, into some quiet, into some thinking, no interruptions.Get away.  Get into the book again. 

Get in to it.    

You don’t need to go far. Just go often. Get away from your House Self. See something anew. See another angle. Do it by doing. Do it by not having that first cuppa and the quick glance at the emails and all that follows.  

Just row out there for that first fifteen minutes. And every day, row on out. You’ll like yourself better. You won’t feel quite as mousy as you have been feeling. 

Okay, Future Self?  Give it a try?  Huh?