Love, French Style

I arrive in Figeac by train a few minutes shy of 5 am. It’s cold and the sun won’t rise for another three hours. To my surprise this train station is nothing more than a platform. I’m desperate for a cup of coffee but I’m loathe to try and find my way from the station into the town in search of one; it’s dark, I’ve got my heavy backpack and a messenger bag besides, and who will be open this early?

I emailed my friend Enza last night to say I’d text her upon arriving in the morning, but I know already that it will be some time before she and Paul are free to come and get me. They had guests last night at their bed-and-breakfast which means this morning they’ll be fixing breakfast, cleaning up, as well as tending to the animals and doing the usual chores around the place. 

It’s after ten by the time they turn up. I’m curled up on a curb against a light pole in front of the station, on the edge of the parking lot. I stagger to my feet and hug Enza, who helps me put my bags in the trunk, then I climb thankfully into the warm car and greet Paul. It’s a short drive to their house, where after being shown to my room, I crawl into bed. I expect simply to rest and warm up. Instead I fall deeply asleep.

When I come downstairs I discover I’m not the only guest. The paying guests have moved on, but Paul’s brother and sister-in-law have arrived from Marseille. Enza introduces me to Jojo and Françoise, then while they are catching up with Paul, whom they haven’t seen in months, Enza takes me outside to meet the rest of the gang. We go see the chickens first, 6 or 7 hens and one rooster. They are used to people but still run when we get very close. Enza had a pet chicken when she was a girl (“You have to start young,”) and swears they can be affectionate, but you wouldn’t know it from this bunch. Even the old one, Hannibal (so named because they caught her eating her own eggs a few times), scrawny with thinning feathers sticking out at all angles, dashes for the bushes when we get within a couple of feet. Enza fills their food bowl with leftover spaghetti from last night, which they dive into. Over the next few days I will conclude that these are some of the most well fed chickens anywhere. They get to peck all day on insects, seeds and fruit from the nearby trees and chow down at least once on anything, and I mean anything, that the humans couldn’t be bothered to finish, including bananas, ham, bread, fish, zucchini, croissants, and gorgonzola cheese.

Next we meet Monsieur, the rabbit, from the few left behind by the previous owners when Enza and Paul bought this place. Like the old chicken, he looks quite thin, and when he turns around I can see he’s losing his fur, but he’s still very cute and adores being petted almost as much as  he does being fed. I ask her if they ever let him out of his cage to run around and she says she tried, but he won’t go. “Can’t you just pick him up and put him on the grass?” I ask. 

“I’ve tried, but he scratched my arms to pieces trying to get back in. He’s terrified of leaving his cage.” Apparently he’d never been let out when he was young and now he associates the outside world with danger. “If I had more time to spend with him,” she says wistfully. “Maybe I could coax him out.” 

We say goodbye to Monsieur and walk across the road and down to a field where two donkeys are grazing. They are Lola and Lana. Lola is older and has lived here for years. She is relatively docile, if not downright friendly. Lana was acquired right before Enza and Paul purchased the business and still behaves as if she’s never seen a human before this very moment, even though Enza visits every morning and sometimes twice a day, usually bearing carrots, apples or bread. Lola lets me pet her, but needless to say Lana does not, though she does take a carrot from my outstretched hand before bolting off. 

We return to the house by the back door where I meet the final two residents, the most recent additions to the family. They are Hermann’s tortoises (the only species of tortoise native to France) Enza has named Willa and Florence. While they are not exactly the kind of creature one generally associates with the words cute and cuddly, I am enamored of them instantly. During  my stay here I will ultimately be drawn to spend more time with them than the other animals, sitting and holding them one at a time while reading, drinking coffee, or talking with Enza and Paul.

I’m itching when we get back inside but don’t think much of it till I go to take a shower and discover about two dozen big red welts across my belly and on my thighs. Alarmed, I rush downstairs and show Enza. “Bedbugs!” I squeal. “No, not bedbugs,” she assures me. “I don’t know what they’re called, but Paul got bitten earlier too, and they come from outside. They’re in the grass or something.” She gives me a tube of ointment to rub on the bites after my shower.

At dinner I do my best to contribute to the conversation, which is an interesting mix of French and Italian (both Enza and Paul come from Italian stock) but give up after a time and settle in to just listen and scratch my stomach. Now and then Enza and I speak English to each other, and Jojo surprises us by plopping a few English words or phrases into our private conversation when the mood strikes him, which makes us all laugh. We eat pasta with wild mushrooms in a delicate cream sauce, after the soup course, before the cheese course, followed by the dessert course, of course! France, especially rural France, still takes food very seriously and the consumption of a meal is meant, figuratively speaking, to be no less than an extended, intimate conversation that goes on for hours. What, after all, could be a more constructive and valuable way to spend your time? This holds true especially when you have guests.

Enza allows me to help with the food preparation and clean up, but the next night when I offer to give her a hand she tells me Françoise brought the main course with her, and will just heat it up. Enza has made a salad for the first course, and Françoise has supplied a cake for dessert as well. A big pot is on the stove, and Françoise is stirring the contents. “What is it?” I ask. What delicacy ce soir? I wonder dreamily. Enza motions for me to follow her outside the kitchen. “How do you feel about tripe?” She asks. Yikes. I make a face, not a pretty one. “I’ll taste it,” I say, my tone less than enthusiastic. “I don’t like it,” she admits. “I’ve tried it before and DID NOT LIKE IT,” she says, clearly enunciating her distaste. “But it gets worse,” she says, and whispers, “Sheep’s feet!” I swallow hard. “What about them?” I croak. 

“That’s what Françoise is heating up on the stove! It’s a stew, a spécialité of the région,” Enza says, automatically speaking Franglais. “Marseille,“ she clarifies. As if it matters. I put a hand over my mouth. “I don’t think I can manage that,” I tell her, scratching my leg. “Me neither,” she says. “When she phoned to say they were bringing dinner and Paul told me what she had planned, I told him I wouldn’t eat it. But she’s brought it anyway. Now I feel like it would be rude not to eat it.”

I think about it for a minute, scratching harder, all over now. “Tell them I’m a vegetarian, “ I say, but as soon as the words are out I realize that won’t work. There was prosciutto in the pasta last night and I ate that with relish. “Can I be allergic?” I ask. “I mean, look,” I say, lifting up my shirt to reveal my inflamed skin. Enza rolls her eyes and grabs my hand. “Stop scratching!” she chastises me. Then, “Chiggers, by the way.” When I stare at her dumbly, she explains that is the name of the tiny insects that are eating me alive.

Over salad I’m distracted, trying to think of a way out of eating the stew. Finally I decide it probably won’t be that bad, if it has lots of sauce on it like most French dishes, maybe I won’t even taste it. When Enza stands up to clear the salad plates I whisper to her, “Just a spoonful,” and grimace. She nods. Moments later Françoise approaches the table, bowls in hand. She moves from one place setting to another, distributing great big, heaping bowls of stew one by one. She puts mine down in front of me with a flourish. “Et voilà!” I smile weakly up at her. When Enza takes her seat beside me I nudge her with my spoon. “What happened here?” I ask. She sighs heavily. “I know, I know,” she says under her breath, then gives me a look that says, what can you do? and shrugs. I notice with satisfaction that her bowl is just as full, perhaps fuller, than mine.

I taste it. Honestly, I do. I take a bite, in two different places. But it’s horrid. It’s gelatinous and squishy and chewy and gristle-y. I spend the next little while moving it around on my plate, separating it into two or three smaller portions and making a display of rubbing a piece of bread into the sauce. I lick my fingers, and sigh as if I’m full. When Enza moves to clear plates, I jump up with my dish and dash into the kitchen before Françoise has a chance to glance my way. Then I eat a lot of cheese, followed by Françoise’s dessert, which is, fortunately, an uncomplicated apple cake. 

Jojo and Françoise leave a couple of days later, and the table feels large without them. When Enza and I speak English now, I’m conscious that Paul is on the outside looking in, with nobody to have his own side conversations with now that his family is gone. It feels like we’re a couple of naughty schoolgirls speaking pig Latin. But when we only speak French, it’s so bad it’s funny: my accent isn’t too bad because I learned young, but my vocabulary is paltry given the decades I didn’t speak it at all; while Enza is only now, in her fifties, learning to speak it, and hers is the opposite dilemma to mine. I watch Paul’s face, which twitches from time to time, and wonder which really is worse for him: being excluded from the conversation by virtue of not understanding the language, or being forcibly included in a conversation that bears no actual resemblance to the language he knows and loves. I keep waiting for him to put his hands over his ears and start shrieking, “Arrêtez!” or perhaps even “Basta!” to make it interesting.

The night before I leave there is a tremendous thunderstorm. Enza and I stand at the front door looking outside as, each time a sheet of lightening flashes, the patio, the garden, even the field and road across from us are illuminated in a light so bright you wouldn’t know it was night. For all of one and a half seconds or so. Then it’s pitch black again. We each take a picture then declare that with the soft edges and other-worldly lighting, they look like Robert Kinkade paintings.

The next day they give me a ride to the Toulouse airport where I’m Florence bound. I thank Paul for his hospitality and his patience with me. Then I hug Enza hard. Every time I say goodbye to someone I love since Jackson died, the thought flashes in my mind that this might be the last time I’ll ever see them. My eyes fill with tears. When I walk away I remember that Enza is turning 60 next fall and she is planning a birthday party, somewhere in Italy probably. “You’ll come, right?” she asked me. “Yes,” I told her, “I will.” Now, I make room for this thought.

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