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Friday, September 21, 2012

Les Visiteurs

It's been a very busy September here at the Flophouse.  Not only are we busy with our house project but we have had many visitors this month.

Earlier this month, my mother-in-law came to stay since my spouse was abroad for business and the family agreed that leaving me here by myself was a bad idea.   Did I mind?  Not a bit.  My French mother-in-law is one of the smartest women I know and our conversations are always interesting.  Over 80 years old this woman was young when France was invaded during World War II.  Later she married a French army officer and moved to Algeria where my spouse and his sister were born.  They came back to France in 1962 and lived in various parts of the Hexagone including Versailles.  On Sunday we went to mass together at the chapel at the convent of les Sœurs Servantes du Sacré Cœur de Jésus and as we walked she pointed out their old house and the school my sister-in-law attended both of which are very close to our new house in Porchefontaine.

My mother-in-law hails from the Limousin, a sparsely populated region in France that has a very long history. The city closest to the town where she was born and raised is Limoges which was founded in the Roman era  (around 10 B.C.) and is best known today for its porcelain.

On one of my very first trips to France my future husband took me out to that region to spend Christmas with his grandmother (my mother-in-law's mother) in Saint Junien.  So my first impressions of France were not about Paris but about what they call La France Profonde (Deep France).  I remember our trip vividly for two reasons: the grilling that I experienced on the first day by Mémé (she would have made a fine "Inquisiteur" in the Middle Ages) and the quality of the dinner.  We had goose from the market and chestnuts.  Delicious.

Like her mother, my mother-in-law is one of the best cooks around.  What she can do with some inexpensive cuts of meat and a few vegetables is nothing short of miraculous.  She is also a great believer in using "les restes" (leftovers).  There was some rice left in the fridge and she made a lovely gâteau de riz which I ate for breakfast several days running.  To those who argue that copious amounts of money must be spent for the highest quality ingredients in order to eat well,  that simply isn't true.  What one really needs to eat well and frugally is time. The stew for lunch goes on in mid-morning and preparations for the dinner meal begin not long after lunch.  I ate so well during Maman's time here that I gained 2 kilos (about 4 pounds) - something that delighted my doctors at the clinic.

My parents arrived from Seattle via Reyjavik and Amsterdam about a week after my mother-in-law left.   Both my parents were born on the U.S. West Coast in the states of Washington and California.  They are the perfect guests from out of town.  Both are very well-travelled and you could probably drop them just about anywhere in the world and they would make do just fine.  My mother who was born in Seattle (which makes me a very rare beast - a second-generation Seattleite) spent her summers working at her grandparent's farm near the village of Naches (population 700) which is close to Yakima in Eastern Washington.  Just call this l'Amerique profonde (Deep America).   As a result she has a number of skills that are rather uncommon today.  In addition to being a fine writer and photographer, she knows how to milk a cow, churn butter, sew, and bake delicious bread and pies (and the pie crust is always hand-made).  Of the four skills I've listed here (and I'm sure there are more I don't know about) I've only inherited two out of four and I think the Frenchlings only have one (they love to bake).

They went down to both the local market at Porchefontaine (about 10 minutes away from our apartment) and the main market in the center of Versailles and came back each time with butter and cheese, lamb, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  To say that I ate well during their stay would be an understatement.  My mother made an open-faced pie with hand-made crust and four kinds of fruit that I am still eating for breakfast.  I got on the scale this morning and I've put on roughly another 2 kilos. And it was all good food too - like my French family, my American family doesn't do "Coca-Cola and chips" though I used to sneak these things into the house when I was a teenager.  And when my mom found out (as moms always do) there was hell to pay - it was seized as contraband and disposed of forthwith.

So thus far the month of September has been a kind one.  I had visits from people I love and don't get to see nearly as often as I would like.  There was intellectual stimulation, good conversation and a steady stream of fine food that I didn't have to cook. I am also about 4 kilos heavier - a good thing since, like all the folks in my family with Norwegian blood, I tend to be on the tall and thin side:  173 centimeters (5 feet 8 inches) and about 54 kilos (119 pounds).  Not the best place to start when you are facing 5 rounds of pretty aggressive chemotherapy.

Fortunately for me, "Mom" and "Maman" have made it their mission to correct this and today this particular problem is well on its way to being resolved.  Between you and me, I feel a lot better and stronger.  Which for me just proves beyond a shadow of a doubt Michael Pollan's food rule, "Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food."   Only way to do better is to actually have grandma/grandmère come by and cook that "real food" for you.


Shirl and Rowan said...

Hey, Victoria. Greetings from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we are for a semester while Rowan takes graduate metaphysics at Harvard. I loved this entry. The way to this woman's heart appears to be through the stomach. Glad to hear you felt a lot of love and gained a bunch of kilos. Healing thoughts go your way.
Rowan and Shirl

French Girl in Seattle said...

Amen! I must admit when I first read the title of your post, I immediately thought of the hilarious French comedy, "Les Visiteurs." Fortunately for you, none of your guests caused as much damage and uproar in your house and the two lead characters (and time travelers) do in the movie! :-) So happy you enjoyed quality time with your in-laws and your own parents. I am curious: Is your belle-mere a "Pied Noir," like my father's side of the family? You mentioned Algeria and I was just wondering. My family, too, moved back to France in 1962. Bon weekend, Victoria. Keep those extra kilos on if you can! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

bubblebustin said...

This is my favourite kind of reading for enjoyment. You have done a wonderful job giving the reader a slice of your life and French culture. Of course, any mention of French cooking has my full attention. That reminds me of one of my two most embarrassing moments during the one and only time I visited France.
While descending a beautifully worn stone staircase to a lovely restaurant on the Rive Gauche, my heel happened to get caught on the second to last stair. I may have ended up with a significant injury had my fall not been broken by the silverware cart near the bottom of the stairs. Needless to say I made a crashing entrance, so loud that a table of young Japanese women jumped to their feet and shrieked. I did manage to compose myself after a martini or two, and in spite of a semi-snide remark made by the waiter which I can't recall right now.
The other embarrassing moment involves a very unfortunate misuse of the French language that almost brought the fire brigade to our little hotel in Provence, which I may tell you about sometime.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Shirl and Rowan, So you're in the Boston area? How wonderful! Thanks for the healing thoughts. Round 5 was definitely an improvement over round 4. Lots of love back at you.

@Veronique, I hear you are having nice weather in Seattle, I wish I could say the same for Versailles though today doesn't look too bad. I think you were the only one to catch the allusion to the movie, Les Visiteurs - which is one of my all time favorites. So you have an Algerian connection as well? I'm not sure my in-laws were exactly pied-noirs. They were there because my father-in-law was posted there. In face he was there twice (he was also in Cambodia for a time). I do know that they had a house in Medea that they lost and many good memories of their time there. If things had turned out different, would they have stayed? Hard to know.

@bubblebustin, Great story! Oh I would love to hear about your misuse of French. I have a few of my own. :-)

bubblebustin said...

Okay, Victoria, I'll tell you my story and I hope you'll tell me one or two of yours.
After enjoying a glass or two of wine in our hotel room, I decided I needed to fetch something from outside our room. I entered the hallway to find it pitch black. I found my way down the hall and to the lobby to report to the owner that we had no light in the hall and groped for a french word that had 'lume' to describe it. Knowing I didn't speak French combined with my feverish pointing toward my hallway while repeating the words 'allumette', I'm afraid she believed the hotel to be on fire. She had horror in her eyes, but thankfully my French speaking husband showed up at that time to set thing right. At that point on, I always let him do the talking.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh that is a good one, bubblebustin. Yes, some days it's best to let the native (or near native) speakers take charge. Here is mine.

I went to a small stationary shop near my in-law's house to buy a pen. Words for pen in French are feutre or stylo. My French wasn't very good so I asked for (I thought) a "feutre." But I mispronounced it and said "foutre" instead. "Foutre" has lots of fairly vulgar connotations and one definition is "sperm."

I thought shop owner was going to die laughing. I have never been more mortified in my life and never EVER went back to that store...

bubblebustin said...

Thanks, Victoria, my husband I thought that was pretty funny. Certainly one can't be condemned for trying? For me, it's taken more than just a few embarrassing moments to learn that I can't speak a foreign language nor sing any better after a few glasses of wine :-(