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meals in paradise

Two days ago, the cicadas in the garden abruptly started their piercing song. This afternoon, I was lying on a chaise on the lawn trying to finish Bill Bryson’s book about Shakespeare, and one cicada in the trees above my head was so deafening I threw little stones in the air to shut it up, at least till I got the book read. Such are the sufferings of a summer’s day in Gordes, Provence.

As I’ve written, my friend Lynn is in Lille judging candidates for the Capes, one of the gruelling French academic exams. She will spend the next four weeks in meeting rooms analysing papers and people. In the meantime, her husband Denis and I are house-mates in their spectacular home in the village on top of a mountain, he at work in Cavaillon most days, returning in the evenings; we also spend the weekends together. I’ve been earning my keep; an indefatigable worker, he sharpened his hedge-clippers and spends hours trimming some of the many bushes and trees around their huge property. My job is to follow him with the wheelbarrow, gather up the detritus and dump it elsewhere. Somehow, working in someone else’s garden is easier than in one’s own, particularly if the garden is in Provence.
Two of our most important discussions of a weekend day involve lunch and dinner. Denis is, as perhaps I’ve noted, French. This means that lunch and dinner are important discussions. For example, on Saturday he had to go to Avignon to buy a shirt and shoes for the wedding in July, so, because he detests shopping and I, for some reason, do not, I went with him. We spent the morning shopping at dear Galeries Lafayette and at the Mephisto store in Avignon, stopping also at a garden store and a fruit vendor by the road on the way home, returning at 1.30. (A great success this morning, I said to him. You actually spent money, and I didn’t.) I was hungry and, I assume, so was he. At home, I would have made a quick bunch of ham sandwiches – again with the ham sandwiches! Lunch done.
Here, after the requisite food discussion, I ended up grilling two porkchops smeared with Dijon and herbs on the barbeque while Denis made a zucchini gratin. We made a cucumber salad, and I remembered to put the cheese outside in the sun to warm it up well before we’d want it. In half an hour, we were eating lunch. Aperitif: melon. Then – Denis likes to eat meat and vegetables separately – the chops, then the steamed zucchini with a crust of melted Emmental cheese, then the cucumbers – Denis does not like to eat more than one thing in a salad, a salad means lettuce of one kind or other or some other vegetable, alone – in vinaigrette, then cheese with his homemade bread – all this with rose – then peaches and apricots, then ice cream, and then espresso.
That’s lunch. Then at seven we have the next discussion: supper. Which can be a simpler meal, but still requires thought, preparation, and serving all in the proper order at the proper temperature with the right utensils.
As you can imagine, I am learning quite a bit about France from this man. Our North American society is so vastly much more casual, ad hoc, laissez-faire, than this one, though this one is changing quickly, with “le fast food.” My French friend almost never eats a piece of fruit or a vegetable out of season; you eat apricots now and when they’re over, you don’t eat them again until next year. You do not eat apples till the fall. And – this came out today – chocolate is better eaten in winter, not in summer. Even the Frenchwoman at lunch with us had never heard of that one.
We had a guest today – Isabelle, an old friend of us both, called out of the blue, said she was nearby and would drop in if she could. A guest coming for Sunday lunch – this required immediate attention. Thirty years ago, Isabelle gave me her recipe for tabbouleh, which I have made innumerable times since – it’s fail-safe and delicious. (Recipe to follow.) So in her honour, I made her tabbouleh and then another ratatouille, since the window sill in Denis’s kitchen was covered with eggplants, peppers, zucchini and tomatoes. If someone out there knows a better recipe than ratatouille, or even one almost as good, with those vegetables, please let me know. We had no onions, so Denis zipped down to the village on his youngest daughter’s Mobylette, returning also with olives for the aperitif.
There was a discussion before the meal about when we would serve the tabbouleh – it was cold, unlike the other parts of the meal, so should we have it before as the first course or after as the salad course? I blinked in bewilderment – can’t you just pile serving dishes on the table and choose yourself? No, you cannot. Once this important decision was made, we sat at the table on the terrace for two and a half hours, discussing a wide range of topics, mostly our children and other people’s. We talked through the aperitif, then the meal – again, in order and with red wine, barbequed sausages and merguez, then ratatouille, then cold tabbouleh, then cheese, then ice cream, then espresso. And then, a swim or we would all have passed out.
What a thrill, to hear these French people say, “Elle est delicieuse, ta ratatouille.” She is delicious, your ratatouille. Because ratatouille is female.
Okay, enough about the meals, though they occupy some time, and will again next week because I have undertaken to cook an evening meal for Denis when he returns from work in the evening. Schools have substitute teachers; I’m a substitute wife, a position I am rather enjoying. When we were shopping yesterday, Denis kept asking the opinion of the salesladies, who smiled expectantly at me, waiting for me to leap in and tell him what to buy. When I didn’t, they didn’t know how to react. What a strange marriage, I can imagine them saying as we left.
Next week looks like paradise: the days alone with computer and books (and swimming pool and garden full of oleanders and lavender) with as my only responsibility, besides a little garden maintenance, to cook a meal satisfactory for a French male of a certain age. Hmm. Actually, quite a daunting responsibility, but one I undertake bravely. After all, my ratatouille, she is delicious. And anyway, even not very good food ready for you when you get home is better than none.
I have finished both Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare bio and the Guernsey Literary Society. Both great summer reads, recommended. I did find that the Guernsey book faltered some at the end, got a little sticky sweet. But a wonderfully happy ending in a book detailing an important piece of neglected history – as my friend Daniel would say, fighting against amnesia – and full of rich characters – can’t beat that. Brava to the writers.
Now it’s almost 9 p.m. Denis and I are both tapping at our Macs on the terrace dining table. The cicadas are buzzing still; the birds are twittering sleepily, the wind rustles the small, spiky leaves of the green oak (chene vert) trees. We had a simple supper: melon, salad (allowed: a bit of cheese and lots of fresh basil with the lettuce), fruit, yogurt. No, yogurt, then fruit. This is important. Denis asked why it’s only Mediterranean societies – France, Italy, Spain, Portugal etc. – which celebrate the importance of gathering for a lengthy meal, not just on special occasions but every day.
I said that in North America in the Fifties, families ate together every night when Dad got home from work. What they ate wasn’t very good but they ate together. Then came television, and then came TV dinners, and that was the end of that. Under the guise of making life easier for women, we lost family dinners, the all-important gathering to eat, speak and listen. I know families now who never eat together; couples who never cook. I have learned here that it really doesn’t take that long to make a real meal. And then to sit down and taste it, and talk.
Nine soundings of the bell, in the distance, from the village.
Isabelle’s fail-safe tabbouleh.
Put about a cup of couscous in a bowl. Add: a bunch (4? 5?) of juicy tomatoes cut up with all their juice (or during a Canadian winter, a can or so of chopped tomatoes); a lot of parsley and mint, chopped; a small onion, chopped fine; 6 or so tablespoons of vegetable oil; the juice of at least one lemon, maybe a bit more depending on the lemon; salt and pepper. Stir well, put into the fridge for a few hours. Stir and taste regularly. If it’s dry, add a bit more tomato juice or, to taste, lemon. Serve decorated with mint leaves.
Isabelle told me at lunch that now she marinates raisins in something and adds them. I’ll get the details and get back to you. Bon appetit.
There’s the moon.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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Chris Walks
This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.

Theresa Kishkan
Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.

I walk on. With my feet, and in my mind as well.

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Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.

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