L’ennui en rose part huit


ImageMardi                                                                                                             Jour Seize (Day 16)


Use lavender soap.


Leni was beginning to wonder if she wasn’t smoking crack when she had written these strips of paper down.  She tried to figure out where the hell she was going to get lavender soap at this time of year, and in this town of all places.


Of course she loved the scent of lavender—she would have shoved whole flowers up both her nostrils if she had the chance—but how was she supposed to get her hands on any?


Leni was sure as hell she was smoking crack when she decided to sign up to be an au pair in the south of France.  Sure, she lived in the French countryside and yes, she saw the glistening Mediterranean Sea out of her bedroom window every morning and night, but at what price?


The woman she worked for was a complete and utter control freak.  Leni guessed she’d gotten an American au pair to teach her five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son English.  But no matter how much Leni played or interacted with them, they didn’t seem to give a rip about learning English, preferring to speak their native Provençal, which Leni didn’t speak a word of.  She tried every song and game in her arsenal from teaching Sunday school and vacation bible school.  They were about as engaged as anyone on a Friday afternoon meeting.


They did live in the country and Leni thought she was in seventh heaven eating farm fresh food every morning, noon and night.  But she was miserable being under Mme Civalli’s hawklike gaze.  Every time she played with the kids or tried to clean the house, she got disapproving glares and tongue clucks.  When she dusted a bookcase, she lifted the books and dusted under them, but Mme Civalli would always find the one iota of dust left and give Leni her death glare.  Leni was also expected to iron the entire family’s clothes, but she had never ironed so much as a skirt let alone M Civalli’s button-down dress shirts. 


The kids were both impossibly spoiled brats.  Mme Civalli always overruled Leni’s rulings and indulged the children’s every whim.  Leni had been hired to teach the kids English, but if the children went whining to their mother and Mme Civalli told Leni to back off, what the hell was she supposed to do?  Nothing she did was ever right or good enough, and Leni wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there.


Her one solace was the grandparent’s farm.  They raised olives and lavender.  Though Leni had an almost impossible time understanding their very thick accent, they were very kind to her, always offering her tea and talking to her for hours on end about life in the French countryside.  But it was always a special day when Leni was allowed to work in the lavender fields.


It was June, so it was high time to plant the new fields.  Leni was watching her two charges, 7-year-old Matthieu and 5-year-old Caroline when Grandfather Louis said it was time to get out and plant the fields. 


Actually, Leni had no idea what was being said, but they walked out from the farmhouse to the rolling fields.  Leni saw there were pots lined up in the plowed rows.  She didn’t quite grasp what was going on.


Grandfather Louis beckoned Leni and her two charges over.  There was a small, silver, spiky plant in the flower pot, about a foot high and a foot wide.  He made a small hole in the ground, turned the pot with one hand and grabbed the actual plant with the other.  He gently eased it into the hole and firmly covered it with dirt.  “Comme ça,” he said with a wink.


Leni looked quizzically at the plant.  “What is this?”


“Lavender,” was the answer.


He gestured Leni to a row and Matthieu to another row.  Leni was in her knees in the dirt digging holes and planting the young lavender at intervals, and her first thought was, what the hell was I thinking trying to extend my stay in France?  Why did I think being an au pair was a good idea?  I work for Cruella DeVille, the kids are brats from hell and now I’m like some common farmhand.  I want to go home.  I want to go home!  I WANT TO GO HOME!!!


She didn’t say anything and instead tried concentrating on the task at hand.  There was no point complaining since she was stuck here, so she might as well suck it up and deal with it.  She hated the dry feeling of dirt in her fingers and under her nails.  The morning sun beat down mercilessly on them and Leni’s t-shirt was pretty well soaked.  Her arms and shoulders began to strain from the repetitive motion of turning the pots and patting the dirt.


At least the kids were minding Grandpa Louis.  Matthieu was actually working, albeit slower than Leni and Louis.  Caroline danced through the rows and picked up the pots.  Before long, Mohammed, the farmhand from Morocco and the only foreigner in the village besides Leni, joined them and began to plant the lavender at a faster pace than anyone else.


The first thing Leni noticed about the silver plant was the smell.  It was a fresh, herby smell that was intoxicating.  She held one up to her nose and breathed in the dirt and sweet lavender.  It was a heady, earthy combination.


Suddenly she stopped being quite so cranky.  With the whiff of lavender always in her nose, Leni was able to move with renewed vigor.  The sun didn’t quite beat down so hot on her neck.  Caroline brought her a water-soaked kerchief that she tied about her neck.  She rolled her sleeves up all the way to her shoulder and tucked them under her bra.  The sweat was still pouring, but she didn’t really care.  It wasn’t humid and the morning fog was dissipating under the rising sun.  The cicadas were chirping softly to provide a natural soundtrack to their hard work.  Even the dirt’s gritty feel wasn’t quite so bothersome since it had a basic, wholesome smell that so nicely complimented the lavender.


Matthieu eventually tired of the work, so he helped Caroline collect pots and played tag in the fields.  When they got too rowdy, Grandpa Louis barked sharply at them and they minded him. 


Leni lost track of time in the field with the sun, lavender, dirt and cicadas.  She was shocked how much she was enjoying the farm work.  The sweat and dirty grit hardly mattered because she was enjoying the rhythm of life that farmers had done for hundreds of years.  Life was dictated by the rising and setting of the sun, by the turning of the seasons.  It was simple, hard honest work and even if Leni had her sights set on being a teacher, this was a marvelous experience for her to have.


Off in the distance, she heard the wrought iron triangle clanging from the farmhouse.  Grandma Marie had made lunch, and it was time to eat.  The kids bolted back to the house, while Louis, Leni and Mohammed looked at the enormous field they planted.  It was an immense satisfaction to see how much work they had accomplished in five hours, and that Leni was instrumental in their success.


Grandpa Louis put his arm around Leni’s shoulders to congratulate her.  In heavily accented French, he said, “Have you ever planted lavender before?”


“Never, Grandpa.”


“You’re a good worker.  We got more done this morning than I ever thought possible.  You never did farm work at your home in America?”


“No.  My family lives in a city.”


Mohammed grinned at them.  In his heavily accented French, he said, “It’s hard to tell you’ve never worked in the country, Léni.  You did good.”


Leni’s chest puffed a little bit with such compliments from two seasoned farmers.  “Thanks, guys!  That lavender just smells so good.  What are you going to do with it when it grows?”


Grandpa Louis shrugged.  “They make soap, oils and perfumes with it.  I don’t know exactly where it all goes.  Hey, let’s go eat.  You must be hungry.”


They cleaned up using the water pump by the back door.  The three scrubbed their hands, faces and necks to remove as much dirt, grime and sweat as they could so they would be presentable at lunch.  They sat down to a huge lunch prepared courtesy of Grandma Marie.  There was homemade pasta with farm-fresh olive oil and pesto, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and tomato salad and plenty of good bread baked just that morning at the village boulangerie.  And, of course, there was plenty of wine made with grapes that grew on the property.


Leni was famished after such a hard morning of work.  She tried to eat as slowly as possible to avoid looking like a total pig and actually enjoy the flavor of what she was eating.  Everything was delicious.  This being France, no one was in a hurry to eat and get back to work.  They ate slowly, savoring the food and conversation.  Grandpa Louis relayed how hard Leni and the kids all worked while Grandma Marie talked about the morning’s chores and the latest village gossip from when she had visited the bakery.  Such was the rhythm of life in the country.


Grandma Marie put Matthieu and Caroline down for a nap so Louis and Leni could go back into the fields.  Leni hesitated.  “Shouldn’t I help with the dishes?”


“Oh come now, chérie.  You enjoy working in the fields, non?  Then go take care of the work in the fields.  I will take care of the house.”


So Leni went back out to the fields for three more hours before evil Mme Civalli came to collect her and the kids.  She was loath to go because she so enjoyed the sun, dirt and most of all that heavenly, divine lavender that would eventually grow up to become exploding purple balls of color dotting the fields.  She would have to go back to the States before she saw all her hard work come to fruition, but at least she could rest in the knowledge that she helped plant those stunning fields.


The children chattered wildly about being forced to work so hard and how all Leni did was work.  From the back seat, Leni could see Mme Civalli’s mouth set in a disgusted, straight line of disapproval.  Somehow she would get a verbal lashing at a later time, but Leni didn’t give a rat’s ass.  She spent a day she wouldn’t forget any time soon, in the dirt and lavender with the sun marking the rhythm of the day.


So where the hell am I supposed to buy lavender soap?


Leni wished she had five drops of lavender essence with her—she could take it and whip it up into soap.  Leni actually did know how to make handcrafted soaps and she had all the raw materials at home, sans the actual lavender.


But she didn’t feel like traipsing all over town to battle old biddies in who were in the stores getting supplies for Christmas decorations.  Besides, those big box stores were always so poorly labeled and confusing to navigate—how was she supposed to find anything?


On her lunch hour, Leni pulled out her phone and looked at a couple home goods stores to see if they carried any, according to their websites.  She was surprised to see Bed Bath & Beyond had some.  She doubted it was French, but it would do in a pinch.  Plus she downloaded a 20% off coupon on her phone, so that helped.


Before she left work, she called the store to see if they had it in stock, which she did.  So she hauled ass across town to get to the mall.  She sat in rush hour traffic in the dark (as daylight savings time was already over), gnashing her teeth and holding the steering wheel with a death grip.  She was extra frazzled about her memories in Provence.  She just wanted a hot bath and her soap.


She did bullshit around when she got in the store.  She made a beeline for the customer service counter, found the exact location of her soap, purchased it and ran home as fast as her little car could take her.


She took care of Opie, forced herself to eat some dinner, then drew her bath.  She carelessly left the plastic-wrapped soap by the tub.  Looking up, she caught sight of herself in the mirror and frowned.


The face looking back at her was paler than she’d ever seen it, and this was saying something because she was standing next to a steaming tub.  The shadows under her eyes made it look like she had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.  Though she ate some, there was a gauntness about her from not eating properly since Friday.


Leni knew she always lost weight when she started dating someone new—that was how she coped with dating jitters—but the ghostly complexion and dark, hollow eyes looked awful.  They spoke of the fact she hadn’t slept worth shit in several nights and it would probably be a while before she ever did.




She hated her body for betraying her and letting her down, but this was how she reacted and other than take care of herself or live like a complete cloistered nun, there wasn’t much she could do.  She got into the almost-scalding bath and breathed in the steam, letting it loosen up the tightness in her chest and throat.  She then reached for her soap, tore it open and inhaled deeply. 


The sharp, fresh, spring scent hit her nose and she could feel her blood pressure drop instantly.  There was some kind of exfoliant in it, so it had a gratifyingly rough texture.  She lathered it up and plastered her face in the heavenly foam, already feeling so much better than when she left for work in the morning.


Leni knew lavender had soothing qualities, and she had never been more in need of relaxing.  She could feel the tension slip slowly away, and in her mind’s eye she felt the warm sun, the gritty dirt, and smelled the sweat, earth and pots of heavenly lavender.


Mercredi                                                                                            Jour Dix-sept (Day 17)


Reread a favorite French novel.  Preferably in a café.


Leni looked at her bookshelf when she drew this one out.  She had dozens of French book that she had collected from high school, but which one should she use…?


The first French book Leni read from cover to cover was “Le petit prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  She read in her French 4 class in high school and thought she knew the plot.  There was a cartoon of the same name she watched avidly as a little girl, and she always loved it.  The Little Prince caught a comet with his butterfly net and went to a new planet every week for an adventure before he left for another one.  It was cute and idyllic—perfect for an eight-year-old Leni.


She even remembered the damned monotone theme song.  “The Little Prince/ In outer space/ Can catch a shooting star/ And sail away/ Perhaps one day/ He’ll come your way!”


As sweet as the cartoon was, she had a hard time digesting the actual book.  The author/narrator crashes his plane in the Sahara and he meets a golden-haired boy from Asteroid B612.  The Little Prince spent his days cleaning volcanoes, uprooting baobabs and tending his beloved rose.  Although the rose was vain and kind of a jerk, he loved her to bits.


However, the Prince’s curiosity drove him to visit different planets inhabited by adults who did stupid things.  The Prince saw the absurdity of adult life and didn’t care much for it.  After eight days in the Sahara, he fiercely missed his rose and wanted to go home.  He asked a venomous snake to bite him on the ankle, and that was how he was able to go home.


Leni thought the actual story was depressing as hell.  The cartoon was so cutsey-poo…was that to cover the horrifying content of the actual book?  If she totally understood the story—which she couldn’t because of her poor high school French—she would have cried like a baby.  But she was bitterly disappointed in such an awful ending.  The Little Prince committed suicide so he could go home to be with the rose he bickered with all the time?  What the hell?  Is that a logical reaction to homesickness?


Disgusted, “Le petit prince” remained on Leni’s shit list until she came across it one rainy afternoon her sophomore year of college.  It was a paperback edition on the work (in French, naturellement) printed in the 1970s.  It was three bucks, so Leni decided to give it another whirl.  She vaguely remembered hating it in high school, though she didn’t know why.  It was a cheap book and an easy read, so what did she have to lose?


She was between classes, so she decided to go to the student union to read it.  She got a cup of coffee and sat down on some really uncomfortable plastic chairs to tuck into her new book.


She got sucked in.


Over the next three days, Leni followed the Prince from his quiet, content life on Asteroid B612 to his adventures on planets with idiot adults—the king with no people to rule.  A stuck-up man with no one to admire him.  The drunk who drank to forget the shame that he was a drunk.  The businessman who counted all the stars and said he owned all of them.  The stupid lamplighter who lit and put out a lantern every minute.  The old geographer who was obsessed with where places were but never had the balls to visit them.


Leni was in tears when she realized the narrator still had a spark of childlike innocence in him.  He tried to draw as he did when he was a boy, and he also saw the folly of other adults.  He was sad the Prince left him, but he heard the Prince’s laughter when he looked up at the stars.  Leni knew it wasn’t a depressing ending, it was an idealistic young Prince going home the fastest way he knew how to be with his beloved.


Best of all was her favorite quote from the book:  “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”


One can only see clearly with the heart.  What is essential is invisible to the eyes.


Though Leni didn’t quite grasp the meaning of that sentence, she wrote it down in her quote book and kept it close to her heart for many years.  It was only when her grandfather died from Alzheimer’s disease later that she got a better idea of what it meant.  The awful disease had ravaged a gentle, sweet man’s memory but the only person he asked for by name was his beloved wife who died 10 years before.  Grandma may have been out of sight, but she wasn’t out of his mind, no matter how much the disease claimed his memories.


One can only see clearly with the heart. 


That little paperback book traveled with Leni the length and breadth of the United States and a across a huge chunk of France, too.  The only other book in her collection that was as battered and loved was her copy of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” her very favorite work of literature in any language.  They had very little in common—written 400 years apart, one a children’s fantasy book, the other a historical play.  But themes of love and loyalty were woven in both.  It didn’t take a literature professor to see that the two were both very important to Leni.


Leni owned a dog-earred, highlighted, marked, well-loved copy of “Le fantôme de l’opéra” by Gaston Leroux.  Her obsession with the book started with owning the Lloyd Webber soundtrack as her very first CD.  Then seeing the Lon Chaney 1925 film solidified her absolute love of it.  When she first read the book in eighth grade, she read it three times.  In one day.  She knew every note of the musical by heart and had read countless spin-offs of the classic novel.


No, Leni wasn’t obsessed.

The original novel was written in 1911 and considered in France to be one of Leroux’s minor works—he gained most of his fame writing Sherlock Holmes-esque mysteries.  Only when Universal made a movie of it in 1925 starring Lon Chaney did it start to gain serious attention.  Several Hollywood movies and the longest-running musical in Broadway history guaranteed its immortalization.


Leni got off work, ate dinner at home, then grabbed her battered copy to visit her favorite coffee shop.  She didn’t have time to read it all that night, so she selected her favorite passages to read while she sipped her hot chocolate.


Towards the end of the novel, the Phantom is telling the end of his sad story to his old friend the Persian.  Overcome by his emotion, he can no longer contain himself:


As he told these tales, the Phantom sobbed and the Persian himself could not contain his tears in front of this masked man who, shoulders shaking, hands clutched to his chest, shook in equal turns with agony and with love.


Leni wiped away a tear and stared out the window.  She had loved that story for so long, and it had been so long since she’d last read it.  She was a sucker for the “beauty and the beast” story and this one just had the twist of being told in the bowels of the Opéra Garnier in Paris.


She wasn’t the 14-year-old girl who had first read the novel.  A lot had happened in her life during the intervening years, but she never strayed far from her love of the story.  What is it about good books that keep the reader coming back for more?  Leni had read hundreds if not thousands of books in her lifetime.  Some were for pleasure; many were for study or class.  But there were only about six books that kept her coming back again and again for the pleasure of reading. 


She supposed it was like having old friends; you could go for years without seeing or touching one but stumble across it one day and it was like there was no time or distance barrier.  Every time you encountered one, there was something new to be picked up and you learned more from it than it did from you.


Leni bounced around the novel and allowed herself to take part in the adventures of the Phantom, Christine and Raoul.  She was right there with them at the very high roof ten stories above Paris and she was also there in the very bowels of the Opera, holding her breath as Christine made the life-altering decision—the grasshopper or the scorpion?


She had to pause and reflect on some of the books she read on her quest for Frechitude.


A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust is widely considered to be one of the greatest classics of French literature, but Leni loathed that book with every fiber or her being.  One guy dunks one cookie in a cup of tea and 3,000 boring, actionless pages later, nothing happends.  Yawn.

She adored anything by Patrick Modiano because the narrator was always looking for something.  Their life came out in the narrator as a series of echoes and ghosts of the past, which she always found haunting.


She hated everything she’d read by the Marquis de Sade.  Even though it was considered classic literature by many scholars, she found all the sex and violence in it very off-putting.  It didn’t serve a purpose much more than to shock the reader and flaunt societal conventions.  Leni liked spicy stuff as much as the next girl, but his prose was pretty repulsuive.


While many critics derided Leroux for writing early pulp fiction, Leni didn’t care.  The characters, while not quite three dimensional, were engaging, the story was action-packed and the memory of the novel became ingrained in her soul.  That was all she asked for in her favorite books.


It was nearly closing time, so with a sigh of regret, she stuck the Phantom in her purse and set out for home.  But before she put her car in drive, she punched up a song from her iPhone and played in it her car stereo.


Masquerade…paper faces on parade…masquerade…hide your face so the world will never find you…


Jeudi                                                                                                   Jour Dix-huit (Day 18)


Drink some French wine!


Leni cheated again.  Yes, that was actually written on a slip of paper she had prepared, but she and Erik were going to a Beaujolais nouveau wine tasting later that evening, so this was a good a day as any to do it!


She had been teaching high school English for two months and drinking wine had become a regular part of her life.  No, she was not a lush who drank every day, but she liked to drink her kirs—white wine with grenadine—at the local hotel bar.  And she usually had a bottle or two stashed in her suite.


Alcohol was a normal part of life in her small town.  She never heard of her colleagues or students drinking until they passed out.  Wine was even served in the teacher’s cantine.  When Leni didn’t fix her own lunch and ate in the cafeteria instead, she would usually help herself to more than one glass of vin de table.  It was a pleasant way to start the afternoon, rosy-cheeked and slightly buzzed.


She never caught the reason why, but one of the shop teachers held a wine tasting class after school.  Leni had been to vineyards but had never participated in a proper wine tasting after school, so she was game for it.


The wine tasting started at 6:00, after the 5:30 classes ended one Thursday afternoon.  The guests had stemmed wine glasses.  Leni saw all the bottles of wine and after a crappy day, she was ready to tear into the first drop of alcohol that she saw.  Little did she know that was the opposite approach of what to do.


The guests had to learn proper wine tasting techniques.  Leni learned to grasp the glass by the very base a twirl the wine around, giving it time to settle.  If the wine streaked the sides of the glass, that was a sign it was supposed to be a better quality wine.  She was taught to raise the glass to examine for any sediment.  She was encouraged to plunge her nose in the glass to take a big sniff of the bouquet.  She had to take tiny sips of wine, making tiny air bubbles under her tongue and to let the taste slowly envelope her palate.  There were also points on how to detect the flavor notes, but by the time she’d figured out the first set of techniques, she was tired of listening—she wanted to taste!


They started out with white wines because they were lighter on the palates.  Leni took note of the sweeter wines, which she didn’t like as much just because they were too much like adult fruit juice.  She liked the drier wines because they paired very nicely with fish.  To her, they had a more smoky flavor which was much more pleasant than the frou-frou sweet wines.


The thing she didn’t know about wine tasting is that you are not supposed to drink the actual wine.  Technically she was supposed to spit it out in a little swill cup everyone had.  But Leni was more of a lush, so she didn’t head the instructor’s directions.  She did eat small pieces of bread that were in little bowls on the tables.  It filled her stomach and it also cleansed her palate.  There were also little bowls of espresso beans to smell if the grape scent got too heady.  Thankfully she never had to resort to slamming her head in a bowl of coffee!


They moved onto a couple rosés which Leni both liked.  They were flavorful, light and refreshing—perfect for a hot summer’s day, not so much for the late fall in the foothills of the Alps.


It was time to move onto the reds.  Leni loved red wine because it was usually so dry, robust and earthy.  She didn’t care for the fruitier grapes, but the drier merlots were exactly what she loved.  She liked tasting the fuller fruit flavors like plum or having hints of chocolate in them.  Really, it was hard to go bad with a nice dry wine.


By the end of the wine tasting lesson, Leni had learned more about technique than she ever thought she would.  There was so much to learn and know about wines.  How the hell do sommeliers do it? she wondered.  It was a profession where based on food alone, you were supposed to be able to make wine pairings with a meal.  Sounded like a tricky job but one that could be a lot of fun.  A.  Lot.  Of.  Fun.


By this time a lot of the teachers started to get tipsy.  Other shop teachers were telling off-color jokes, she got hit on by one teacher…Yeah, really not a position I want to be in, she thought as she was about to make her way back to her suite.


Before she left, one of her colleagues, and English teacher named Pierre, asked Leni if she wanted to go to a Beaujolais nouveau party the next week and meet some of his friends.


“What’s Beaujolais nouveau?”  Leni had never heard of it.


Pierre explained that the Beaujolais was a kind of grape that came from the Burgundy region and the third Thursday of November was like a national celebration of the red wine.  The new vintage was consumed, analyzed and celebrated.  But mostly consumed.


Leni didn’t have anything going on, so she was down for going to drink some wine after school on Thursday.  She was now schooled in the social graces of wine tasting but somehow, she didn’t think that the subtle niceties would be needed.


She went right after work with one of the 20-something-year-old paraprofessionals from her high school.  She didn’t know Fatima very well, but she was a lively, vivacious girl and she seemed like good company.  Plus she drove to the bar in the next town over, which Leni didn’t dare do in Europe.


They reached the bar by 6:30 and it was non-stop drinking for the next 5 hours.  Leni had never been a binge drinker, but there seemed to be literally cases of Beaujolais nouveau at the bar. 


As for the wine itself, it was last year’s vintage so it still had the “raw” taste.  It was neither dry nor sweet.  Maybe a bit tang, but Leni liked it well enough.  The others present compared it to years past.  This particular year, they decided, was so-so.  The last really spectacular year there had been was 1989.


Leni knew nothing—nor really cared—about vintages past.  She was more focused on enjoying the wine and slowing down as the evening progressed.  She watched the carousers sing drinking songs that doubtlessly dated back to the 19th century.  She couldn’t understand the words let alone guess what they were about, so she just sat back with bemused interest and watched the singing.  She had seen it done in the movies in Irish pubs, but never thought she would actually observe it in person.


Pierre had introduced Fatima and Leni to his friends but largely left them to their own devises.  Thankfully wine helped Leni talk to strangers, so by her second bottle of wine, there wasn’t a friend in the room that she hadn’t met.  It also didn’t hurt that everyone was fascinated by the rare American living in this part of France, so she was never at a loss for things to talk about. 


She was particularly taken with a man named Yann who worked for France Télécom.  Leni liked him right way—he was tall with glasses and dark hair.  Just her type.  He sat next to her and while he was the quiet type, he made sure she had wine in her glass, food on her plate and that the conversation was always going.  Leni could relax a little bit knowing there was a handsome French man who was attending her every need.


As the wine-and song-filled evening progressed, she noticed Fatima was getting drunker with every passing hour.  Despite her alcohol-soaked brain, Leni still had enough common sense to know not to get into a car with her!  She started to panic in her head and began to mentally come up with Plan Bs so she could get home in one piece.


In fact, Fatima was so intoxicated Leni noticed her over in a corner tonsil-boxing with a man she’d maybe met three hours earlier.


Great.  Just peachy.  Leni couldn’t rule out the possibility that Fatima would go home with this guy and Leni refused to either tag along or sit and wait in the car.  She had to take matters into her own hands.


She looked at her watched and saw it was midnight.  The last train to her town left in 30 minutes, so she had to leave shortly.  She was about to stand up when a man came from behind her, over her shoulder, and refilled glasses on the table.  Leni didn’t see him and when she pulled her chair out, she rammed him straight on.  He lost control of the bottle and dumped a nearly full-bottle of Beaujolais over Leni’s head.


For a second she was too shocked to move.  A whole bottle of red wine was dumped on her, and she was supposed to walk to the train station looking like a total boozehound?


It was nothing short of a small disaster.


“It’s a baptism!” one of the men called out.


“You’ve been baptized in Beaujolais!” another chipred/


Hardy har har.  That’s so funny, I forgot to laugh.  Towels and bar rags were found so Leni could get some of the wine out of her sweater.  She pinned her hair up so it was out of her face and struggled into her raincoat.


Pierre was nowhere to be seen and Fatima was still making out with her new friend.  Leni was desperate to get to the train station before she missed the last train, because the alternatives weren’t pretty. 


Yann walked her towards the door.  “Do you really have to go?”


“I have to catch the last train home,” she explained.  “I really don’t want to sleep in the train station or hitchhike back to town.”

“I could give you a ride he offered.”  This was after he had said how awful his old car ran.


Leni was tempted for a car ride home rather than the train.  Weird shit always went down on trains—people hit on her, she was harassed, groped, people smoked pot in front of her…ugh.  But as nice as Yann seemed to be, she just didn’t know him well enough to trust him taking her home.


She would chance the trains.


“No, I’ll be fine,” she insisted.  “I just have to get going right n-“


He cut her off with a deep kiss.


Holy crap! her brain screamed.  I’m in France being kissed by a French boy!  She didn’t think she was interesting enough company to merit this much attention from Yann, but he made it crystal clear what his intentions were.


He touched her cheeks and kissed her nose.  “Let me take you home.”


Never in all her born days did she think she would ever be kissed like that by a stranger, and Leni’s heart was pumping quadruple time to keep the blood supply flowing.  She looked stupidly at him, her brain a fog of hormones and confusion.


“No, I’ll be fine.  Thank you, Yann.”  With a regretful smile, she turned on her heel and walked out of the bar.


It was lightly misting and Leni clamped her beret down on her head, drew her scarf tighter against her throat and let the cold air cool her scarlet cheeks.  She walked as fast as her legs would carry her to the train station.  A couple of men panhandling on the streets called out, “Hey beautiful!  Spare some change?” and another man actually started following her, so she ran the last three blocks to the station. 


She had her change at the ready, so she purchased the one dollar ticket, stamped it and sat on the bench, waiting for the train to come take her home.


So she’d been baptized in Beaujolais and snogged by an almost complete-stranger.  Not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening.  Not quite what she’d had in mind, but not a bad one at all.


Leno couldn’t help but remember that night so long ago when a whole bottle of wine had been dumped on her head and she ran through city streets terrified for her safety and hormones surging at the same time.


This time was so much different.  She was in her own car, in control of the situation.  She was meeting Erik at a wine bar for a tasting, then maybe dinner afterwards.  She had grown up in a lot of ways from the naïve 23-year-old, but in other ways she still had much to learn about the world and its workings.  Who knew what tonight held in store?


She got to the wine bar at 7:00 and Erik was already there, looking pretty devastating in khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt. 


He gave her a kiss and pulled her chair out for her.  “Glad you could make it.”


She smiled appreciatively.  “Thanks!  I’m glad you were able to find out about this event.”


“Me, too.  I’ve never been to a proper wine tasting before.  Have you?”


The Mona Lisa smile played on her lips.  “Oh, yes.”


“Sounds like there’s a story in there somewhere,” he encouraged.


Leni threw her head back and laughed.  “Oh, there’s a story all right.  It involves me getting a bottle of red wine dumped on my head and running through the rain to get back home.”


He quirked and eyebrow.  “Do tell.”


“Maybe later.”  Leni had plenty to share with him, but it would all come in due time.


They were sitting at tables with about 20 other people for a wine tasting class.  Leni gave Erik a crash course on some of the methods of tasting.  He experimented with his water glass and almost choked on his water trying to get the bubbles to form.  It had been a while since Leni laughed so hard.


Before they tasted, a woman gave a lecture and demonstration on how to properly sample wine.  She showed them how to swirl, taste and savor each glass, careful not to touch the actual wine glass or to just sip the wine.  They sampled ten different bottles, from red to white.  Leni didn’t care for the red so much as the white, and Erik liked the reds better.


It was fun teaching him the subtler points of wine tasting.  By his own admission he was more of a beer fan, so this was new territory for him.  He readily sampled everything that was put before him and he liked the red, earthy Beaujolais more than anything else.


It reminded Leni of what she loved about wine tasting.  It wasn’t about drinking for the alcoholic content or even the food pairings.  It was sampling wine to see if you could pinpoint the notes it was made from, and deciding which you liked best.  Teaching Erik how to sample wine took her back to when it was a new activity for her and she smiled at the memory.


There were pita chips, popcorn and nuts to eat between glasses, but there were no swill buckets.  Leni was rather surprised that they drank every single glass of wine.  Her palate was full from the pinot noirs, merlots, chardonnays and gewürztraminers.  She had consumed the equivalent of over a full bottle of wine, and she was suddenly feeling quite tipsy.  Lunch was a long time ago, and she was horrified to realize she wasn’t in any shape to drive.


I didn’t think this through very well!


Erik noticed her getting very quiet.  “Are you all right?”


She gave him a tired smile.  “I’m kind of hungry.  Haven’t eaten since lunch.”


“Jesus, you’re eating on an empty stomach?  Let’s go find a place for dinner.”


The class was winding down, so Leni looked at the keys in her hand carefully.  She knew for a fact she was too buzzed to drive and she didn’t know her way around the city from her own ass, but she had yet to be in a car with Erik.


He put out his hand.  “How about you give me those keys?”


She frowned.  “No.”


“We’re just going out for dinner.  It’s not far from here, so how about I drive?”


She looked at him warily.  Finally deciding he had her best interests at heart, she gave him her keys and they went in his SUV to a nearby Italian restaurant.


They split a bottle of chianti and Leni enjoyed showing him again how to taste the wine by only touching the glass’s stem and daintily sipping, letting it spread in the mouth.  She quizzed him on the notes and to her delight, he nailed it.  The chianti was excellent with her vegetarian lasagna and garlic bread.  And of course Erik was perfect company.


Leni didn’t eat all her meal and much to her dismay, her yawns grew longer and louder as the dinner progressed.  She let Erik pay the bill and they got back into his car.  She thought he was taking her back to her car, but the last thing she remembered before falling fast asleep was putting her head on Erik’s shoulder to “just rest her eyes.”


The smell of coffee hit her nose the next morning and she stretched like a contented cat.


On a couch.  Not her couch.


Where the flip am I!?


She sat bolt upright on a beige couch trying to get her surroundings, but she realized she didn’t know where she was.  She noticed her shoes were off, her glasses were on the coffee table next to her, and she was wearing the same clothes she had on last night.


What happened last night?!


“Fuck!” she said aloud and she heard the rumble of Erik’s laughter.


“Morning, sunshine!”  He was dressed for work and sipping coffee in his apartment’s kitchen.


She grabbed the blankets and clutched them to her chin.  “Erik, what the hell?  Where are we?” she screeched.  She looked around, wildly trying to assess her bearings.  I got drunk last night and…




He poured her a cup of coffee while he explained, “Don’t you remember?  We went out to that wine tasting class?  You had a little too much to drink, so I brought you home.”


He brought her her mug, kissing her forehead.  “You really don’t remember?”


Oh, I’m starting to remember now!  Leni saw all her clothes were still on (minus the shoes).  Her head was fuzzy and her mouth felt full of cotton balls, which backed up the “I drank too much” story.


“What?  Did we?” she couldn’t keep the note of hysteria out of her voice.


“You made it as far as the couch.  I slept in my bedroom.  I promise I was a perfect gentleman,” he said earnestly.  “Though I must say—you’re cute when you’re confused.”


She smacked his arm.  “NOT funny!  What time is it?”


“Six thirty.”


“Jesus Christ!  I have to be at work in—“  Her brain was valiantly attempting to do the math.


“It’s all right.  I got you up early so we could get you to your car in plenty of time.  I have a shirt you can wear with your slacks so at least you aren’t wearing the same clothes.  I can’t help you with your makeup—“ to which Leni giggled, “but bathroom is first door on your left down the hall if you want to go get yourself presentable.”


Leni took her coffee and padded down the hallway.  His bathroom had a clean towel and washcloth, along with an unopened toothbrush for her to use.  There was a crisp button-down white shirt hanging from a hanger on the towel rack.


Holy crap!  He thought of everything!


While Leni got herself looking more or less presentable, she realized she freaked out because this was the first time she’d ever spent an entire evening at a guy’s place, so of course she would be weirded out.  He didn’t seem to be making a big deal of it, so she probably shouldn’t, either. 


I just wish I knew what the hell I did to deserve such a good guy.  Holy cow, I really hit the jackpot with him!


And in the meantime…we’re laying off the wine!



Vendredi                                                                                            Jour Dix-neuf (Day 19)


Go to a perfume store.  Sample as many as you can.


Leni only drew this slip after she got home from work on Friday.  She was exhausted from the long drive back to town and after her panicky start to the morning.  The last thing she wanted to do was sample perfumes…especially when I smell this good! 


She turned up the collar of the shirt Erik lent her and took a whiff.  It smelled like Erik’s cologne and some sort of aftershave—very nice.  She couldn’t bear to ruin the scent, so she changed into a t-shirt and headed to her favorite department store…


Leni got her biggest lesson on perfume stores from the Sephora flagship store on the Champs-Elysée store in Paris.


She had no idea how big the store was.  All she could say for sure was that every major perfume imaginable lined the walls, available to smell and purchase.


Leni didn’t know exactly where the tradition of using perfumed waters or oils was first used, but she did know ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had elaborate bath rituals with the ablutions that accompanied them.  Lavender, roses, citrus fruits and herbs were all used to make soaps, lotions and oils to enhance the body’s scent.


She also wasn’t sure when it was taken to the level of art from in France.  She would have to guess that during Roman times was when it became popular.  Whatever the case was, France was the veritable epicenter of the fragrance world.  Roses, lavender, lilies and freesia were just some of the types of flowers used in making French perfumes.  They were accented with vanilla, sandalwood, musk and dozens of other scents to make infinite varieties of scent.  What was your mood?  There is a fragrance for that.


Of course there were dozens of internationally recognized French perfume labels.  Leni reckoned the most popular of all was Chanel with their ubiquitous Chanel number 5 whose main notes were rose and jasmine.  There was also Dior, Givenchy, Lanvin, Guerlain, Rochas, Hermès and Yves Saint Laurent just to name a very few.


Leni’s eyes almost popped out of her head at all the choices that were being offered.  She knew she needed new perfume because she was desperately allergic to cheap drug store perfume.  She could only wear expensive perfumes or body splashed because they weren’t quite as hopped up with tons of chemicals.  Body splashes were well and fine, but Leni wanted something a little nicer…something in an eau de toilette.  But as she gazed around the megastore with hundreds of foreign tourists looking at makeup, she realized she was a bit in over her head.  There were hundreds of perfumes she had never even heard of, let alone their makers.  How was she supposed to decide what she liked?


She stopped, looked around, and tried to come up with a game plan.  Every few feet along the counter, there was a small glass bowl with thin, stiff paper strips.  They were meant to have the perfume sprayed on them, waived delicately in front of the nose, and discarded in little trash receptacles after you had sampled the perfume.  There were also little bowls of coffee beans sprinkled along the counter.


Leni couldn’t contain her curiosity.  She stopped one of the employees and asked what the coffee was for.  “It’s to cleanse your nose with,” a very chic, overly-coiffed salesgirl told her.


“Excuse me?”  Leni had no freaking clue what she was talking about.


“It’s conventional wisdom if you clear your nose out with the smell of coffee beans, you are less likely to get a headache and can smell longer than if you don’t.




Leni was glad she asked.  She decided to start with the classic Chanel number 5 because that was the most iconic perfume.  She liked it; it was a very classic scent.  But it was also very expensive and there was something distinctly “old lady” about it.  She tried Coco and Chanel number 19.  While both were lighter than number 5, there was something about both of them she didn’t quite like.  She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, but Leni wanted to smell more.


She swung over to Dior and couldn’t find anything she liked over there.  She tried Issy Miake but that was far too light for her taste.  Givenchy didn’t cut the mustard, either.


:Leni really appreciated that with every scent was a thoughtfully written card.  It contained the base scent and all the bottom and top notes of every scent.  The more she read and smell, the more she began to realize what scents really tickled her fancy.


As Leni was bouncing from brand to brand, she was actually learning a few things.  She had never realized she hated lily or especially gardenia scents with such a burning passion because they automatically reminded her of old women.  She liked lighter scents—citrus and especially vanilla, but she also liked a heavy dose of musk in there so it really stood out.


So if she like light and musky, what was she supposed to do?


She held a bowl of espresso beans up to her nose and inhaled deeply.  The raw, bitter coffee scent jolted her nasal passages out of la-la land and back to the Champs-Elysées.  But it was also probably time to give her nose a break, so she went out for a cup of coffee and a pastry before she headed back to Sephora.


As she narrowed in on her new signature scent, Leni marveled that only in France could perfume shopping be turned into an art form.  There were so many factors in play when selecting a signature scent.  It had a lot to do with body chemistry, the personality of the wearer, how heavy they liked their scents, what was available for them to purchase…It was an intensely personal experience and Leni had no idea there was so much involved with picking out a perfume.


But in more than the scientific process, Leni simply enjoyed the process.  She like smelling dozens of perfumes.  It simply amazed her how many smelled so good one paper but smelled like utter crap when put up next against her skin.  She was amazing how lightheaded she would be after smelling three or four fragrances but after dunking her nose in the coffee beans, she was ready to go for a couple more rounds.  She also enjoyed the self-discovery of this little journey.  She had absolutely no idea how much she liked the more delicate fragrances, yet still insisted on a heavy element such as musk to ground everything and make it noticeable.


As fun as it all was, Leni had to make a decision.  She flagged down a salesgirl and told her what her preferences were based on her earlier smell tests.  A small part of her wondered if the girl would be able to come up with something she would like.


The girl lead her over to the “B” section towards the front of the store.  “From what you are telling me, mademoiselle, I think you would probably like Burberry Brit.”  She handed Leni a bottle with the classic Burberry check pattern.


Fresh and playful, the fragrance is a classic, green-oriental blend of lush fruits, sweet nutty essences, and soothing amber, vanilla, and Tonka bean.


The description encouraged Leni.  She tentatively sniffed the bottle.  It was heavier—more woody and vanilla-y.  So far so good.  She sprayed it on a paper wand.


“C’est bon?” the salesgirl asked.


Leni nodded.  “Pas mal.”  For the last test, she sprayed a dab on the inside of her elbow, waived it around, and inhaled deeply.


Her nose perked up and twitched at the mahogany, vanilla and citrus scents what assaulted her olfactory senses.  It was a heavy musk, but as the seconds ticked by, it dissipated somewhat.  The citrus was less noticeable so Leni was left with the heavier musk and vanilla that she craved.


Leni sprayed her other elbow just to check the results.  It passed with flying colors.


“Alors?” the salesclerk asked.


“How did you know what I would like?” Leni asked.  “It just seems like such a difficult task to match a scent up to a person…how do you do it?”


She smiled.  “Well, you read the literature that accompanies all the perfumes.  You do a lot of smelling when you are not actively helping customers out, and, mostly, it takes a lot of practice.”


“Well, you’re good.  You’re very good.”  Leni wound up spending $80 for one bottle of perfume—more than she had ever spent on any fragrance in her life—but it was worth it for the experience, the personal insight she gained about her preferences and the fact she could be rest assured she had picked out something she would like very much.


Leni visited dozens of parfumeries in the months that followed, and her crash course in fragrances she’d had on the Champs-Elysées was always the key foundation by which she measures how good a perfume was.


It was well past 8:00 pm when Leni dragged herself to the department store and after some confusion, made her way to the cosmetics sections.


She hit up Clinique first.  Leni sampled the Happy, which was always a safe bet.  It was clean, bright and something she had always enjoyed.  But not enough to switch it to her signature scent.


She went to Estée Lauder and smelled what they had to offer.  They had several very nice perfumes but they were all too light and too floral for Leni’s tastes.


She went to Laura Mercier, Ralph Lauren, Juicy, Elizabeth Arden and Chanel.  She smelled over 30 perfumes and couldn’t find anything she liked quite so well as Burberry Brit.  Even though it had been 10 years since it had become her signature scent, was she really ready to part with it?


After forty-five minutes of sniffing and sampling, she decided nothing was quite so nice as her very favorite scent.  She liked what she smelled like and where she was on the scent spectrum, but it was still fun to sample.  She quizzed the clerks on their favorite perfumes and garnered some good recommendations, but in the end nothing smelled quite as good on her as the spicy, vanilla-y, slightly citrus smell that was Burberry Brit.  It mixed well with her body chemistry and just was Eau de Leni in a jar.


She stopped by her coffeehouse on the way home to get some coffee and clear her sinus passages from a long evening of smelling.  Perfume shopping in America would never, ever be the art form it was in France, but Leni still enjoyed the process.  She met nice people, learned a little more about perfume and decided she was happy enough with her signature scent.


And that was enough for her.


Samedi                                                                                                Jour Vingt (Day 20)


Evaluate your core wardrobe.  Are you missing anything?  What needs adding?  What needs subtracting?


Leni was vaguely aware of the concept of a core wardrobe when she lived in France.  Because everything she needed for a year was in her suitcase, she had to be particularly adept at packing what she needed for the long haul.


Three months into her stay, she looked at her tiny wardrobe in her suite and was absolutely sick of her clothes.  Two pairs of jeans, a sweater and half a dozen shirts just wasn’t cutting it for her anymore.  She wanted to go shopping, but she hadn’t yet been paid from her teaching job.  She was getting desperate for new clothes, almost as badly was she wanted money to buy her own groceries.  Her savings were almost deleted and the situation was dire.


She spoke to her principal and department chair about her lack of pay, but both said their hands were tied and there was nothing they could do to cut through the red tape.  Her chair offered her a cash advance so she could buy groceries, but Leni was far too proud to borrow a couple hundred francs.  But what was she supposed to do without food?


She was composing a letter to the rectorat about her circumstances when one of the teacher’s aides knocked on the door with her mail.  Leni got her first two months’ pay directly deposited into her French bank account—FINALLY!


The first thing she did was treat herself to a five-course meal.  After living on bread, cheese and pasta for three months, it was heaven to have wine, salad and dessert to boot.  She didn’t care if she was eating alone—it was a red letter day.  Pay day!


The next thing Leni did was to go shopping for some new clothes.  It was colder than she’d expected, so she bought herself a long black wool skirt, two more shirts, two sweaters and a raincoat.  Only then did she feel like she looked French with her new duds.  She blended in a little better and she had clothes to rotate into her bland core of staples.  All it took were five pieces of clothing and one good coat.


For days after that she kept getting compliments on her clothes.  Her students and colleagues always noticed when she wore something new and would ask her where she got it.  It made Leni feel good that people actually noticed and that native French folks said how nice she looked—she could go for months on one sincere compliment!


Leni looked at her closet.  One pencil skirt, one pair of jeans and two pairs of work trousers.  Three cardigans, three nice shirts for work or going out and one black jersey knit dress.  She rounded it out with four pairs of good shoes and camis or tank tops to throw underneath her cardigans.  They were all good, quality clothes and while not all of them were terribly expensive, they were all good quality. 


Since she started her French project three weeks ago, Leni’s desire to go mindlessly shopping had plummeted.  She didn’t want to go spend $20 on a sweater she would wear five or six times.  Instead, she spent $80 on a sweater she would wear once a week for four years.  She didn’t spent $20 on a t-shirt to only wear ten times before donating to charity; she spent $40 on a good quality t-shirt with the intention of wearing it once a week for two years.  It wasn’t about quantity, it was about quality.  She didn’t have to buy the most expensive items possible, but since she bought, used and enjoyed nicer clothing items, she didn’t feel the compulsion to go out and add to her wardrobe.


It was an oddly liberating feeling to walk into her tiny closet and know exactly what was in there.  She wasn’t a slave to a closet jammed with clothes she never wore.  In fact, she liberated herself with a smaller, nimbler, classier, more functional wardrobe where her only consideration was when she last wore something.


Of course she still had days where she had the “I-have-nothing-to-wear” syndrome, but somehow those days were fewer and further apart than they had been.


Leni put the last few items in her donation bag and felt a twinge of sadness.  With her project over, how was she feeling?


She had learned a lot about herself since she took herself under Kate Beckett’s wing.  She tapped into her memory and thought about the lessons she’d learned from when she lived overseas.  Life was a little simpler, a little more artful, a little more gracious.  Leni learned to simplify her life, slow down and enjoy the life around her.


Though she wasn’t aware of it before, music and art played bigger parts of her life than she was ever aware of.  Art especially was almost like a prayer for her; it touched her on a deep level that no other medium really could.  She saw her life as a big canvas and she noticed the recurring leitmotifs of laughter, love, learning and loyalty.  People came and left her life, but Leni was the one constant in everything.  She couldn’t control what life threw at her, but it was completely up to her how she reacted and how she grew from any given situation.


She also became more aware of her interactions with other people.  Of course her new-found relationship with Erik was the most significant development of the last three weeks.  He challenged her and coaxed her out of her comfort zone, daring her to put her heart on the line and allow him to love her despite a lifetime of disappointment and anxiety when it came to men.  She also realized she was bitchy for no real reason at strangers she met every day.  People cutting her off in traffic, rude sales clerks, morons with their heads buried in their phones…Again, Leni couldn’t control the assholes who surrounded her as part of everyday life, but she could control how she reacted to them.  Living more French challenged her to take a deep breath, slow down and allow a lot of the bullshit to roll off her back.


Leni was also pushed to new limits in her eating habits.  Grabbing nachos in the drive-thru line or mindlessly heating up a frozen dinner were decidedly un-French.  Mme Martin would be absolutely appalled if she saw Leni’s eating habits nowadays!  Another thing this short journey taught her was to make food from scratch.  Sit down and savor the flavors of the food she had prepared herself.  Gastronomy was an a lost art form in the United States, and she had to do what she could up reclaim it.  Sure, there was a time and a place for fast food and frozen dinners, but it was even more important to eat real, healthy food.


Perhaps the biggest lesson Leni learned was that she had more of the answers in her.  She just didn’t realize it.  She knew about core wardrobes, but she needed a gentle reminder from Kate Beckett.  She learned so much from all her friends and acquaintances in France, but she needed to remember what they taught her and how she could apply it to her life ten years later.  As unsure as she was about her relationship with Erik, she knew she would have the wisdom for the answers as time passed.  She didn’t need to know everything right away, and she was grateful that he was gracious and patient enough to walk the journey with her. 


Leni couldn’t help but feel excited about life these days.  Three short weeks ago, she was a miserable, crabby wreck of a woman who’d lived such a beautiful life in France but forgotten how to apply the lessons she’d learned.  Now she was a bit calmer, a bit wiser and a whole lot happier.  By tapping into the joy she’d once felt, she was able to unleash joy in the present.


L’ennui en rose was now la vie en rose for Leni.  This was her life, and it was magnifique.

L’ennui en rose part sept


ImageDimanche                                                                                           Jour Quatorze (Day 14)


Go visit the inside of a church youve never been in, preferably an old one.


OK, Leni dug this one out of the beret, too.  In fact she’d planned to use this one on a Sunday, and today seemed like as good a day as any to use it.


Leni crashed hard and fast that night.  She slept 12 hours, not opening her eyes until 10 am.  She often slept deeply when her emotions robbed her body of oxygen, food and adrenaline.  She’d been through so much in the last 36 hours, it was high time to give her body a bit of a rest.  Going to church would give her soul some equally needed tranquility.


She had the coffee going and assembled breakfast when she heard her phone shaking on her nightstand.  There was a text a from Erik last night.


She slept so hard-core that she didn’t hear her phone go off when he texted at 10:32.


Sweet dreams.


With sigh of deep regret, she powered down her phone and set it in her purse.  As much as she wanted to text him back and say something witty and cheerful, she had to take a step back from Erik.  Her head had come completely off her shoulder, and she had a task to accomplish before she could even see him that evening.  A little distance couldnt hurtcould it?


Fuck you, Paris!  See you later tonight!


Leni melted into the seat in the TER car she took from Paris.  She was on the hour-long ride to Chartres to see one of the most stunning cathedrals in France which, despite all her months there, she had yet to see.


It was the summer Leni chaperoned the group of American college students, and she was taking advantage of a few free days to see Paris, for once, alone.


Paris is a nice enough city, but after four days, she was tired of the smog, the filth, the crowds and tall buildings.  She was tired of the cat calls, groping and getting leered at, though she did everything she could to blend in, not look like a tourist or draw attention to herself.


The prairie girl in her physically ached to see blue sky, open spaces and to breathe clean air.  She loved churches and she wasn’t about to pass up this opportunity to visit what Victor Hugo called the jewel of French churches.  In fact, she was so eager to see it that she did something completely uncharacteristic of her as a tourist—she left her map and guidebook at home.  She was determined to fly this one solo, and she was going to love it.


She enjoyed the rolling hills, the cows and couldn’t get over the fact the sky was actually blue—rare for France.  The gentle rocking motion lulled her into a quiet doze until it was her stop.

“Chartres, ici, Chartres.”


Leni tumbled off the train and blinked in the dazzling sunlight.  Again, she just wasn’t used to this much sunshine in France.  She tried to get her wits about her, but she wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go. 


So whose genius idea was it to leave the guidebook back at the hotel?  Dammit!


She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to get to the cathedral, but an idea suddenly hit her.


Look up.


She saw the two narrow spires and like a beacon, the cathedral beckoning her to turn her weary steps to it.


She walked the two blocks from the train station to the magnificent structure.  The two spires—still in remarkable condition—pierced the sky nearly 100 meters up.  She remembered reading until the Eiffel Tower was built, this was the tallest building in France.  What a site it must have been to travelers back in the day! 


The church must have had exterior renovations recently done because the stonework gleamed white under the glaring sun.  Leni was thankful her sunglasses provided enough protection. 


Leni passed the usual panhandlers at the doors and made her way to the inside.  She was slapped with a cold blast of air which she hadn’t expected.  Her pupils wildly dilated in the cool blackness that greeted her.  She reached into her backpack to put her sunglasses away.


Once her eyes adjusted, she gasped at the stunning kaleidoscope of light that awaited her.  Stained glass windows, some more than 800 years old which miraculously survived two world wars, showed scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints.  She couldn’t make out most of what they were, but the sun danced off the colored light which illuminated the pillars as they had for hundreds of years.  To her, the windows were reminders of a bygone era when the Church dominated every aspect of life in France.  That time had passed, though it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing,


Leni knew many illiterate people who didn’t speak Latin learned about the Bible through stained glass and the stories they told.  From the narrow, stories-high Gothic windows to the gigantic rosette on the south wall, she allowed herself to be transported back in time and spoiled by the delicate, ornate architecture.


She sat down in one of the high-backed wicker chairs in the rear of the cathedral.  Quietly gawking, she looked up, down, side to side and all around.  She was pretty sure she was going to give herself a neck ache if she kept staring, but she couldn’t process everything she was seeing.  The color, the light, the space, the height…the sheet magnitude of the grandeur and majesty hit her like a ton of bricks.


After she soaked up some of the atmosphere, Leni went to the tourist kiosk and rented one of those little audio guides which was a slim, digital Walkman with earbuds.  She thought about getting the French version but because she didn’t want to miss a single detail, she overruled her first impulse and took the English.  Like a weary pilgrim (or a dork—she couldn’t quite tell which), she wandered through, admiring all the stained glass, the façade and sculptures the cathedral had to offer.  The audio tour was supposed to last roughly an hour but she probably spent two hours pausing to admire everything the tour pointed out.


She walked around the circumference of the nave, and there was an elaborately carved marble relief sculpted between the 16th and 18th centuries.  She could see a great detail in the Biblical scenes and those stories only found in Sacred Tradition, captured in stone for all posterity.


She walked outside where the audio guide pointed out some areas of interest—the buttresses, the gardens and the spires.  Leni particularly liked seeing the bright sun peeking through the flying buttresses like it doubtlessly did 800 years ago.  Many things change, but ethereal beauty will always exist so long one can stop long enough to marvel it.


After her tour, she returned the audio guide.  She still had some time to kill before the train headed back to Paris and she thought she would have a little fun.  Pretty much smack dab in the middle of the church was a mosaic maze.  It was about 20 by 20 feet, and it was a labyrinth that was supposed to be a stand-in for pilgrimages nobility were supposed to make to the Holy Land or at least Santiago de Compostela.  She walked through the tiny maze several times, always able to weave her way in and out with little problem.  Sure beats a trip to Israel!


The thing she loved best was the 15th century statute called the Black Virgin made of pear wood.  The Virgin, purportedly from Poland, cradled Baby Jesus.  On this particular day she was dressed in cloth of gold and adorned with a gold crown.  Leni loved her.  The audio guide said she was black because of the soot from hundreds of years of candles, but she hardly cared.  Leni prayed for a solid hour, praying her students made it to France safe, that she would retain her sanity for the rest of her sojourn in Paris and for Mary to bless all her future endeavors.


After praying so long and so eagerly, Leni was disappointed to glance at her watch and see it was time to head back to her train.  She had such a marvelous afternoon traveling back in time to the Middle Ages that she hadn’t thought about the restroom, eating or drinking.


She reluctantly gathered her bag up, said one last prayer in her seat, genuflected deeply and headed towards the narthex.  Before she left, she turned around to face the altar for one last look.  She looked at the stone, light and shadow as they doubtlessly looked in the 12th century, and she smiled one more time to herself.


She would be forever grateful for this time she spent at Chartres.  She got to experience the most magnificent cathedral France had to offer.  In one afternoon she traveled back 800 years and allowed herself to be transported to a different place, a different time.  A place and time when the Church dominated, when illiterate French peasants learned stories from the Bible written in color mosaics in the sky.  When the smoke of incense carried the prayers of the faithful directly up to heaven.


When life was simpler.



Leni checked Mass schedules online, showered and made herself presentable.


She went to the circa 1900 Catholic church where Latin masses were held weekly.  She had been there once many years ago in college but had very little recollection of it.  It would be a pretty old church and the Latin would allow her to unplug her brain to concentrate on the experience rather than what was being said.


Before she even hit the church vestibule that she wasn’t dressed for the part.  All the women around wore skirts and had hats or lace veils on their heads.  Leni was bareheaded and wearing scandalous black jeans.


Are you freaking kidding me?  This is 2013, not 1953.  Vatican II happened so that we wouldn’t have to wear damn doilies on our heads! she thought grimly.


Thankfully there was a little wicker basket of spare lace handkerchiefs for women to put on their heads.  Leni hadn’t come all this way to turn back—she had to do what the beret said.  Hell, I should’ve just worn that!  She grabbed one and stuck it on her head.  It was cheap polyester and itchy.  She felt ridiculous but she was all-in.


She genuflected and hit a pew two from the back on the left side of the church.  She said a quick prayer for herself and Erik, then sat down and looked around.


About half the people there were straight-up old.  They were pre-Vatican II diehards who refused to accept the sweeping changes the Church made.  They looked right at home.  The other half were young diehards who valued the most orthodox tenets of the Church.  Every last one of them was with a spouse, and none had less than three children.  Leni even saw a family of eight—yes, eight—kids sit smack in the front pew.




With the chime of bells, mass started.  Leni didn’t bother with the singing—she thought she had an awful voice and honestly she didn’t really care.  She respectfully kept her head down and waited for the congregation to sit down for the readings before she let her eyes wander aimlessly.


She took two years of Latin in high school and her linguistic skills were sharp enough that she could’ve followed the readings and even known which Bible passages they were, but she wasn’t interested in the service.  She was here for the atmosphere and the experience, so she let her gaze roam around the church with naked curiosity.


The stained glass windows were by no means anywhere near as spectacular as Chartres.  Most of them depicted key scenes from the Bible or the Stations of the Cross and were very easy to see and understand.  At least I don’t need binoculars to see what’s going on here and there isn’t symbolism dripping from every pane, she thought.  In this respect, the church was actually quite user-friendly.  She read the inscriptions which were in German.  Leni’s hometown was founded by German settlers in the late 1800s so it was in line with what she knew about the town’s history.  She was interested to see who they were dedicated to.  At least that was transparent.  Who knows who paid for the Chartres windows…rich nobles trying to get a “get out of jail free” card from Purgatory?


Still, the windows were arched, tall and slender.  They let in plenty of light on the cold autumn morning, though they just didn’t have the “wow” factor of Chartres.  The pillars were tall, simple and slender.  But they weren’t soaring, arched or graceful.  The sound system, the A/C ducts and the electric lights just all seemed oddly out of place with everything else being so old.


She didn’t pay much mind to the readings and even tuned out the droning homily which was in English.  She preferred to focus her attention on the soft scent of the incense, the delicate light, and the weird spectacle of old people, huge young families and the women wearing the damn doilies on their heads.  She had to restrain herself from ripping her veil off and itching her head like crazy.


Leni still remembered to sit, stand and kneel at all the proper times.  She didn’t go up to Communion because she knew that was a big no-no.  She pondered how she still believed Jesus was in that little wafer of bread, but there was so much Church doctrine that she was opposed to.  She also mused about how much her life had changed since sitting before Chartres’ Black Virgin.  She still believed in so many of the basic principles, so why couldn’t she reconcile that with her opposition to the Church’s stance on social issues?  She was discomfited by her lackadaisical indifference.


“Ite, missa est,” the priest said at long last.


Finally!  She still remembered those words—time to go!


After the recessional hymn, she made a beeline out of church, yanked her veil off, dumped it in the basket and drove straight home.




She decided to power up her phone which had been shut off in her purse for two hours.  She saw she had a missed call from Erik, so she called him back to see what was going on.


“Hey!” he sounded genuinely happy to hear from her.


She smiled softly.  “Hey yourself.  What’s up?”


“Oh, not much.  Just got back from church and just hanging out with the fam.  What’re you up to?”


“I just got home from church, too/”


“Oh?  Where did you go?”


“There’s a church here that does mass in Latin, so I thought I’d check it out.”


“You speak Latin?  You never mentioned that.”


“Well, I took a couple years in high school.  No one really ‘speaks’ Latin.  I understand enough to get by.”


“OK.  But I thought you said you didn’t go to mass anymore.”  He wasn’t following her logic.


“I don’t, but I felt like changing things up today.”  Leni really didn’t want to get into the details and mechanics of her French life over the phone.


“Fair enough.  I won’t pry.  So, what did you have in mind for this evening?” he asked.


They made plans to meet at a local pub for an early dinner so he could be home at a reasonable hour in the evening.


Leni had several hours to kill before her date, so she filled it with cleaning, writing and running errands…things she did most weekends.  She kept busy enough that she didn’t think too much about Erik and she kept her phone in her purse, avoiding the massive temptation to check her phone every 30 seconds or barrage him with text messages.  She didn’t need to look crazy or clingy because she wasn’t.


She got to the pub early, and he was actually there already, sipping a couple samples of microbrews.  What followed was a two-hour dinner with appetizers, main course and dessert all peppered with tasting great Indian pale ales and hearty stout brews.  The food and the beer were truly delicious, and the company was even greater.  Leni couldn’t remember when she’d laughed so hard, when she felt so radiant and carefree.  She flirted, she touched his hand, his arm, his shoulder and didn’t even notice when he kept getting closer and closer to her, his eyes never leaving hers.


Sadly, all too soon, Erik asked for the bill, paid it and put his card back in his wallet.  He looked at her expectantly and said, “Well, I’m going to have to hit the road now.”


Leni sunk down a little in her seat.  She hadn’t even though about this awkward scene.  They had had such a glorious weekend together, now it was over.  In 12 hours, Leni had to go back to work.  The proverbial clock would strike midnight and the coach would turn back to a pumpkin.


“Um…” she started, suddenly shy and terrified about this part of the conversation.  Her pulse hammered in her ears and she felt lightheaded.  And it wasn’t from the beer.


“Um, what?”  Erik put his wallet back in his pocket.


“Where…where are we…what are we…?”  She couldn’t get the words out.  She chomped the inside of her lip and looked at her hands folded in her lap.  “Jesus, this is awkward.”


He got up, walked to her side of the booth and slid in next to her.  Without a word, he angled in to kiss her.


Holy crap! 


Leni had read so many cheesy romance novels about couples and their first kisses, and so many thoughts ran through the heroines’ minds when the hero kissed them.  But her brain was completely blank, save for the shock and surprise of him going straight in for the smooch.


He pulled away, and the breath that deserted her came back with a whoosh.  Her head spun and she saw stars behind her eyes from lack of oxygen to the brain.


She knew her eyes were wide as saucers and she felt her face on fire from the blush that crept from her cheeks to spread to her face, ears and neck.


A playful smile was plastered on his face.  “I’m sorry, what were you asking?” 


There was a cocky smugness that she found endearing.  Leni remembered hearing opposites attract, and there was enough self-assuredness in him that she knew made up for her lack of experience and her naïveté.  What she most appreciated was how patient and gentle he was.  He wasn’t in a hurry to rush her into something she didn’t feel comfortable with, but he knew where they were going and she liked that.


“I don’t remember,” she choked, still blushing and flustered.


He took one hand in his and lazily drew circles on the inside of her wrist.  “Can I see you again this week?  I’m free Thursday or Friday.”


“I work Friday, so why not Thursday?” the cracked voice croaked from her throat.


He winked.  “Perfect.”


He helped her as she struggled into her coat.  They walked in silence to her car—Jesus, again with the flipping parking lots!—and she tapped the remote keyless entry.  She opened the door and faced him.


“Text me when you get home?” she asked.


“I could text you while I’m driving down the interstate,” he teased.


“Smartass!” she playfully smacked his forearm.


He kissed her again.  “Don’t you forget it.”


Leni drove home and when she got there to feed Opie, she went outside on the balcony to sit and think.  The cold air hit her hot cheeks and it was a huge relief.


She sat on her lounger and pulling her knees up to her chest, she hugged herself tight.  The tears that had stung the back of her eyes spilled quietly down her cheeks as she gave voice to the nameless horror that had haunted her mind all week.


“I think I’m in love.”


Week two:  finished


Leni’s life was radically different than it had been just seven days ago, even three or four days ago.  Erik had turned her world upside down with his humor, patience, intelligence and gentleness.  So how was Operation Live More French going now?


Some of it was awful innocuous.  Leni made someone’s day a little brighter by writing a simple letter as she had done years ago.  She reconnected with a beautiful French movie that reminded her about why she loved French cinema so much in the first place, full of quirks and appreciation of the beauty of life.  Her hands looked a billion times better after treating herself to a manicure.  She also reconnected a little with God spending a very long hour in church, but it was worth more to her that she unlocked the memories of Chartres.  She knew that even if she would never be Catholic again, she always would have a soft spot for the Church. 


Life also looked more beautiful.  She took a stroll to the art gallery and reconnected with both Louis Galliac and Edward Hopper through two very different paintings done in two very different centuries that both dealt with themes of love, loss and distance.  She explored the local arts with the Blue Moon River and literally bumped into a man who accompanied her on a walk.  Only here, she wasn’t attacked by farm animals or French rednecks.  She was attacked by the strength of her emotions.


Maybe this week wasn’t as neat as the first week was.  It was messy, scary, sad and exhilarating all at the same time.


Week two over.


Bring on week three!




Lundi                                                                                                  Jour Quinze (Day 15)


Buy a pastry at a bakery.


Leni read her slip of paper she drew from the beret.  She’d cheated two days in a row, so she felt like she had to go legit today and not dig one out. 


Damn!  Too bad I already ate breakfast!  She knew exactly where she was going to buy her pastry.  She opened her tablet to check the hours it was open.  She could swing by and get one during her lunch hour and not disrupt her day too badly.


A day can never be too bad if pastry was involved…


Leni had only been in one French bakery before she moved in with Mme Martin.  There was a village boulangerie she visited, but all they had was bread and nothing really sweet.


She had been in classes two days when she decided to head downtown on the Grand-Rue between classes to see what there was to see.  Her friend Laura asked her if she wanted to grab a pastry snack.  Of course Leni had heard about patisseries since her first year of high school French, and she was more than down with checking one out!


They agreed to hit up the first one they found on the Grand-Rue.  Though it was a cold January day and the grey clouds loomed in the sky, it wasn’t windy or rainy.  It could have been raining fire from the sky for all Leni care.  She stared at everything with rapturous wonder, with the awe of someone exploring a new culture for the first time.


Chez Jean-Pierre was the first place Laura spotted, and Leni was not one to protest venturing further.  They stopped at the window and pressed their noses against the glass.  There were little fruit tarts, chocolate pastries, croissants, and huge, elaborately-decorated cakes.  Since it was early January, there were also special Epiphany cakes for sale.  If you sound the bean in your slice of marzipan-ish cake, you got to be “king for a day” and boss your household around.  At least, that is how the tradition went.




They walked in and said the perfunctory “bonjour,” to which the other customers queued up and cashiers responded in kind.  Laura and Leni didn’t get in line.  Rather, they approached the glass-covered refrigerated counter with a quiet awe, amazed at all the selection offered.  However were they supposed to choose?!


There were raspberry, apple, blackberry, raspberry, cherry and apricot tarts.  There was one of kiwi and mandarin oranges that won Leni’s prize for most colorful selection.  But she zeroed in on the chocolate selection like a moth to the flame.  She examined her choices carefully and decided on a rectangular-shaped objected with a black chocolate frosting with the word “opera” written in cursive in some sort of ganache or white cream.  Leni had always been a raging fan of the Lloyd Webber musical “The Phantom of the Opera” since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, and she wanted that pastry.  She had no idea what the name of it was, but she wanted it.


She turned to Laura.  “Do you know what you want?”  Laura had selected a beautiful, red, plump, glistening strawberry tart.


They queued up and somehow kept from drooling on themselves or other customers.  They were discussing their purchases when the cashier chirpily said, “Bonjour, mesdemoiselles!  Vous désirez?”


“La tarte aux fraises, s’il vous plait,” Laura ordered.


Dammit I don’t even know the name of what it is I want, Leni fumed.


“Et pour la mademoiselle?” the cashier asked brightly. 


Leni glided to her selection and pointed vigorously at the “opera.”  “I don’t know what you call that, but I want it, please,” she said politely.


“Ah!  Le napoléon!  Bon choix,” the cashier encouraged.


Why would it say “opéra” if it was named after Napoléon Bonaparte?  Leni knew the sumptuous Opéra Garnier of the “Phantom” fame was built in Paris in the 1870s, about 50 years after Napoléon’s death.  I don’t freaking care I want my goddamn opéra and I want to destroy it!


The cashier carefully scooped out the pastry which was in a large muffin wrapper-like dealie.  She set it in a small box and lovingly wrapped it with a blue ribbon and a gold stamp with the patisserie’s name embossed on it.  Leni was impressed at the careful presentation of the food item she was going to literally shove up her nose the second they left the store.


She paid and Laura and Leni debated where to consumer their desserts.  Eating on the hoof was a big no-no in France and they didn’t want to subject themselves to dirty looks as they walked down the street cramming sweets in their mouths,  There wouldn’t be any empty tables available at the school.  If they sat down to eat at the main square, panhandlers and teenagers would bother them for food or money.  They decided the most unobtrusive place would be down by the river, a few blocks away from school, sitting on benches.


They walked down to the river’s edge, carefully balancing their wrapped boxes on their fingers.  They didn’t dare drop the lovely packages, but neither of them could wait to sit down and inhale their content!


They found an unoccupied bench to settle on.  They silently, reverently opened their boxes.  Neither pasty was jostled in their walk, and they could only admire how artful they were—almost too pretty to eat.


Laura’s pastry was shiny from the sugar glaze on the strawberries.  Leni’s napoléon had delicate layers of cream and flaky pastry beneath the chocolate frosting.  They were lovely to behold.


“Wanna split them in half?” Laura offered.


Leni’s first thought was bitch, you picked that one out, so eat it yourself!  But she thought better of it.  Fishing in her backpack, she pulled out her Swiss army knife.  They each cut their own pastry and handed the other off.


The tarte aux fraises was even more gorgeous to eat than it was to look at.  The flaky crust had to have been made by hand.  There was real butter in it, and it literally melted in her mouth.  The strawberries were fresh—not out of a can or frozen.  Their slightly bitter tang very nicely contrasted the sugary syrup that enveloped them.  Leni would have never called a dessert sublime, but that came pretty close.


Then she turned her attention to her napoléon.  Now that it was cut in half, all it said was “éra.”  The chocolate top was a bitter dark chocolate which nicely enhanced the sweet cream and buttery pastry millefeuille-ish layers in between.  Leni could have literally shoved it up her nose and adored it.


They both sat in contented silence, satiated from their sweet treats.  Neither of them said a word as they watched the river slip past them.  Random French people walked by with their dogs, or with baguettes tucked under their arms.  No one paid much mind to the two American girls getting their first true taste of French pastries, both almost exploding in delight from the lovely presentation and the delicate balance of tang and sweet, creamy and crunchy.


It didn’t matter it was cold or grey.  Or that either was slightly homesick.  Both were young, happy, eating pastries in France.  It was really hard to feel any more alive.


Leni rubbed her eyes at her computer.  It was nearly noon, so she had to go figure out where she was picking up her pastry.  She Googled the bakery she had in mind.  She wrote down the address.  Though it was on the other side of town, she was eager to get over there and see what they had.


She was walking to her car when she got a text from Erik.  What’s up?


About to go get some dessert, she answered.


Wish I could be there with you.


I bet you are, she teased.  I ain’t sharing with you!


Fine, be that way.  See if I’m as nice when we get together next time! he joked.


His lighthearted banter put her in a good frame of mind as she crossed town to Chez Day bakery.  She walked in and was disappointed that she wasn’t hit with any smells of bread or sweets.  The bright lights and white tiled floor did little to disguise the fact that she wasn’t in an authentic French patisserie, nor could she shake the realization she wasn’t in France.


Le sigh.


Of course no one greeted her as soon as she walked in the door.  Leni looked carefully at the selection.  There were cookies, cupcakes, slices of cake and pie.  How very American!  There weren’t any artful pastries or tarts with beautiful decoration.  Her heart sunk at the pitiful selection.


The sullen cashier, dressed like a godawful hipster, greeted her with, “What can I get you?”


“Hello to you too,” Leni said sharply.  “Is that really how you greet new customers?”  She worked retail herself, and she had very little tolerance for rude service.  This tattooed little girl was a real sourpuss considering she surrounded herself with sugary confections.


If it was possible, the server got even more glum.  “What do you want?”


Leni’s face flushed hot.  “Where’s your manager?”


“I’m the manager,” a man came next to the faux hipster with a concerned look.  “What’s the problem?”


“’What can I get you’ is not the most friendly welcome, especially to someone who’s never been here before,” Leni said.  “I’ve been to France, and this is a pretty pathetic selection and miserable service.”


“All I did was ask her what she wanted,” the cashier whined.


“Look, I drove all the way across town specifically to try your so-called French pastries.  I didn’t quite expect such rude service.  A ‘hello’ really goes a long way.”


“I’m sorry about that, ma’am.  Pick out something on the house and I’ll get it for you,” the manager said, trying to smooth Leni’s ruffled feathers.


“You know what?  Forget it.  I work retail and if I treated my customers like such brat, I’d get fired!”  She narrowed her eyes and glared at the cashier.  “Get those fucking gauges out of your ears if you want to be treated like an adult.”  She turned to the manager.  “Hire grown ups next time, huh?”  She stalked out of the store, shaking in anger.


She started her car and noticed a couple people exiting the bakery.  They were people who had come in behind her and witnessed the little exchange she just had.  They hadn’t purchased anything and decided to take their money elsewhere.


Good, she thought to herself.  Serves those assholes right.


She checked her phone for Plan B.  she drove back closer to her workplace in a working class neighborhood.  There was a little Mexican bakery she’d also heard good things about.  Let’s hope the service doesn’t suck!


She walked in and was greeted with an instant, “Hola, señora,” from the woman behind the counter.


Again, no real smells to take her back to France, but Leni admired the lovingly baked breads that lined the bins.  There was a glass counter and while there were no gorgeous pastries, there were cookies and sweet rolls that she was sure would make it worth her while.  A


She didn’t even really care.  After the stupid hipster and the icy greeting, she didn’t care how awful the pastry was—she preferred to be treated with kindness and civility.  She selected a tan-colored sweet roll with granulated sugar on it.


Just like in France, it was carefully wrapped in a box and sealed with a sticker with the bakery’s name printed on it.  Yeah, it wasn’t as spectacular as what she was accustomed to in Europe, but this was a nice substitute.


Leni got back to her office, snarfed down lunch at her desk while browsing Wikipedia, then excitedly tore open her little box.  The sweet roll was sweet and crunchy with the sugar on the outside and tasted of almonds inside.  Not sweet and tangy, but sweet and nutty.  Not her favorite, but not bad at all.


She liked every crumb she could off her napkin and sighed contentedly with her dessert.


Note to self:  American bakeries suck ass.  Ethnic pastries all the way!

L’ennui en rose part six


ImageSamedi                                                                                                           Jour Treize (Day 13)


Go for an hour-long walk outside.


OK, so Leni cheated on this one.


She knew it was in there, so she rummaged around and opened up half the remaining slips before she found it.  She hadn’t fudged on one single day yet, so she thought it would be OK if she took a few liberties at this stage.  After all, she’d followed the instructions to the letter of the law until now, and why not knock one out when she knew she’d be doing it anyway?


She fed Opie and enjoyed her coffee when she went to check her phone.  No message yet.  Since it was technically her turn to text, and she hadn’t written in 12 hours, she sent off a quick one.


Morning!  Still up for a walk this afternoon?


It took a will of iron not to stare at her phone, but she showered and did her hair before she checked her phone again.


Good morning yourself.  You bet Ill be up for a walk this afternoon!  Any ideas when and where?


Leni named a manmade lake not far from the mall she worked at.  It was a beautiful place with a high embankment surrounding most of the lakeshore.  They could walk around the bike path on the dam, and they could enjoy the lake, the parks and the golf course that abutted the lake.  She also gave a parking lot and a time.


Ill see you at 3:30 he texted back.  Have a good afternoon at work.


It was going to be the longest afternoon until she got off her shift.


Leni was going stir-crazy.


She was so tired of having nothing to do on the weekends cooped up in her little room.  It was one of those weekends she wasn’t going out for a road trip.  There was no work for her to do, she didn’t particularly feel like studying, and she just wanted out of her little damn apartment.  Everything was closed down on Sunday afternoon, so what was she supposed to do?  No TV, no radio…books can only entertain you for so long.


A walk.  I am going on a damn walk or else my head is going to explode from boredom!


Leni put on her jeans, plain black flats, a t-shirt and a sweater.  She threw a scarf on around her neck and tucked an umbrella under her arm.  She was going out and damn it, she was going to take in the local scenery.


She decided to walk along the two lane highway that led out of town.  She didn’t really know where it went, nor did she particularly care.  She just wanted out of the town she had been living in the last five months, get some fresh air and maybe have an adventure.


Thankfully she didn’t run into any students or co-workers on her way out of town.  She wasn’t quite sure how she managed to accomplish that, but she wasn’t about to complain!


She admired the pine trees, the fences and the quaint farmhouses that dotted the highway.  She was about a kilometer out of town when she saw a sign for the neighboring village, just another kilometer away.  Leni had heard of the village—she had a few students from there—but she had never actually been there.  She was up for the adventure of going to a new town!


She made her way down the highway, admiring the fencing next to her.  About 100 meters past the sign, she saw a large pony or a small horse munching on grass right at the edge of the fence.  Leni was no agriculture expert, be she loved horses.  Hell, her favorite badge she had ever earned in Girl Scouts was the Horse Riding Badge!  Plus, hadn’t she grown up on the Great Plains?  She wanted to pet the pony.


Looking furtively around, she saw she was quite alone so no awful French farmers would nag her.  She quietly approach the bay horse, who looked up from his snack and looked curiously at her.


Best not to make any sudden moves onhim?  Leni backed slightly up to get a look.  Yup, its a him all right!


She sidled back up and inched her hand up to his nostrils.  They flared as he took a few sniffs.  His ears flicked slightly but he didn’t make any other moves. 


Leni reached her hand out further so and gently pet his nose.  It was white, soft and silky to the touch.


“Nice horsey,” she whispered in English.  She was transported to all the ponies and trail horses she had ever pet as a kid.  There was something about horses that she found almost sacred.  She had once read teenage girls had particular obsessions with horses because they were masculine—strong and reassuring.  Whatever the psychological mumbo jumbo, she thought this horse was quite nice.  His nose was indescribably soft, and he whickered when she pet him.


She could have pet him for hours, but of course Leni was in France and of course something had to go wrong.  She’d only stroked his nose a few times when the horse angled his nose towards her arm, nudging it.


“No, pony, I don’t have any treats!” Leni laughed.


As is the horse actually understood what she was saying, he gripped her jacket sleeve with the edges of his teeth.


What the hell?!  Is he trying to eat me?!


Leni tried pulling her arm away, but the horse had a firm grip on her sleeve.  “C’mon horsey, let go.”  She tried gently tugging her arm away, but he seemed to sink his teeth in further.


This horse is trying to kill me!  She looked around in a panic, and there was nary a soul on the road or in the field back behind the horse.  What am I supposed to do?  Leni wasn’t sure what to do so she started weighing her options while she panicked.  I could hit himbut that might make it worse.  I could scream for helpbut whos going to respond to, Help!  Im being attacked by a horse!


Damn.  It.


She decided the DIY approach was going to be her only ticket out.  Leni planted her feet firmly, braced herself against the fence and gave it one more yank.




She tried one more option.  She opened her jacket and shimmied out of it.  Horsey didn’t move; he was still standing there with her nice rain coat in his mouth.  Leni grabbed her jacket lapels and pulled with all her might, hurling her weight in the opposite direction. 


The violence of her gesture forced her to tumble backwards and land butt-first onto the road.  She scrambled to her feet, her palms stinging from being scraped on the ground.  Clutching the jacket to her chest, her eyes widened in horror when she saw what the pony had done.


A patch of blue fabric was hanging out of his mouth.


She  looked at the right sleeve and, sure enough, a big, gaping hole was there where the elbow had been.


Holy crap!


Her parents had bought her the light grey-and-royal blue waterproof jacket just before she left the States to spend a year abroad.  She had had many adventures in the coat that year, and now there was a honking huge hole where her elbow had been.


And the horse stood there, part of her jacket in his mouth, and his tail swished like the smug bastard that he was.


Screw it.  I just want out of here!


Since it wasn’t raining, Leni tied the jacket around her waist and kept pressing on to the village.  No one in a million years would believe her if she told them a horse tried to kill her.  What if the horse had torn her flesh instead of her jacket?  What if the horse had kicked her?  She ran through a dozen scenarios through her head, all of them thoroughly unpleasant and all of them involving her lying dead or bleeding by the side of the road with the damn smug horse stamping its hoof with glee.


No one ever suspected the horse


 Pony had done plenty of damage.  Torn jacket, bleeding palms and a whopper of a story no one would believe in a million years.  Leni learned her lesson—no more petting horses.  Ever.


She it only took her 10 minutes to reach Echenay-sous-le-Montfaucon, which translated to “Echenay under the Mountain of the Falcon.”  It was a grand name for a sweet, tiny though unimpressive village, considering there wasn’t a mountain to be seen anywhere—only gently rolling hills as far as the eye could see.  There was the town square that contained a city hall, the small country church, the post office, a bakery (closed of course, as it was a Sunday) and a bar.  There were about 30 limestone-colored houses in the whole village, so the population couldn’t have been more than 150.


Leni looked at the mandatory cross in the village square dedicated to all the townsfolk who died in World War One.  Considering how miniscule the village was, her heart tightened in her chest when she counted 42 deaths.  That must have been a devastating blow to such a tiny villageso many young men killed before they were even in their prime


There was a sign indicating a cemetery on the outskirts of town.  Leni liked visiting French cemeteries because they related a village’s history so much better than any history book ever could.  She followed the arrow to the very outskirts of the village and found the surprisingly large cemetery which was bordered by a shoulder-high brick fence.


She quietly walked in and absorbed the atmosphere.  There was definitely a sad component to cemeteries—hundreds of lives that had converged at some point over the years, now all gathered together in a final resting place.  There were lives that were struck down in their prime, before they even got a chance to really live, or ones that lived to a ripe-old age.  Millions of laughs, tears, conversations, hopes, fears and dreams…all in one half-acre plot.


Leni tried to dismiss the maudlin thoughts that crept into her head.  Instead, she walked among the rows of wrought-iron crosses and marble slabs that had iron plaques with the dates inscribed on them.  Some had (what she guessed were) porcelain old-timey portraits of the deceased so strangers like her could see how the family wanted their loved one to be remembered as.


The graves were covered with silk and plastic flowers, mums, wreaths with expressions like “To my godmother/father, “In memory,” “With Love,” and the like.  There were small crosses, little statues of the Virgin Mary and dried, colorless bouquets of flowers Leni couldn’t identify.  Haunting and beautiful at the same time.


Leni decided to play a game she liked to do when visiting a new cemetery.  “Game” wasn’t quite the right word, but it was an activity to get her active and interested in the particular site she visited.  She walked around and tried to find the oldest grave, the longest-living person and the most recent one.


Leni wandered around for about 30 minutes, picking up carelessly strewn trash as she went along.  She found the oldest grave, Albert Duclos, from 1842.  There were probably older ones, but they probably weren’t clearly marked or maybe even never marked.  Jeanne Aubois died at the age of 102 in 1983.  She lay next to her husband who died in World War One.  Leni saw no indications that she ever remarried, so she must have really loved her husband.  Who knew what other stories Jeanne could have told.  Jean-Louis Rochefort passed just six months ago at age 82.


The wind  picked up a little bit and it began misting.  Suddenly feeling very tired, Leni decided to take a break before heading back to her town.  First, she grabbed a plastic bag to hold the two pockets of trash she had gathered up.  She knotted the bag to one of the posts at the iron gate and took one last look at the sweet little cemetery. 


Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.  Let Your perpetual light shine down upon them and may the rest in peace.  It was an old prayer she learned years ago in Catholic grade school, and she found it was always a suitable prayer for those she never knew but wanted to give a shout out to.


Tears stung the backs of her eyes as she thought of her grandparents, one set in a tree-covered cemetery and the other in a country church cemetery in the middle of the open prairie.  Ill never meet any of you, she prayed to the graves surrounding her, but God bless each and every one of you.


She brushed her hand over her eyes and made her way back to the café.  Much to Leni’s shock and delight, it was open.  Suddenly she wanted nothing more than a hot chocolate to revive her before she made her way back home.  The adrenaline rush from the horse and the grief from the cemetery had sent her on a complete emotional roller coaster, and she wanted something to put her on a more even keel.


She walked up to the bar—many French bars didn’t have stools, though Leni could never figured out why—and ordered a hot cocoa from the middle age, bald man.


“Oui, mademoiselle,” he said. 


While the barkeep bustled to fix her order, one of the mustachioed men—the only patrons in the café—sitting next to the bar ashed his cigarette and sized Leni up.  “You’re from the area?”


Leni turned to look at him and his two cohorts playing cards.  “Excuse me?”


“You aren’t from the village.”  It was a statement, not a question.




French Redneck #2, cigarette glued to the corner of his mouth, didn’t even flick a gaze in Leni’s direction.  “You have a slight accent, mademoiselle.  Are you German?”


“No.”  She tried to pay attention to the tiny TV mounted in the corner which broadcast the Ajaccio soccer match.


“Swiss?” French Redneck #3, sans cigarette, guessed.




“British?” #1 asked.



The trio took turns trying to ascertain Leni’s nationality.  They guessed Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, Argentinean (?), Austrian, Belgian, Luxembourgian, Dutch…and they struck out every time.


Leni had gotten her cocoa and turned back to the bar.  They still hadn’t guessed correctly.  #1 stubbed out his cigarette.  “Where are you from, then?  If it’s not too indiscreet.”


If its not too indiscreet.  She set her mouth into a grim line.  That was something the French always said when they were basically demanding an answer.


The barman wiped down the counter and clucked his tongue.  “You morons, can’t you even tell?  It couldn’t be any clearer that the young mademoiselle is American.”


Leni choked her hot chocolate and narrowly avoided doing a spit take on the only person who could correctly guess her origin.  She also espied the three men in the mirror behind her.  The cards practically fell to the floor as they stared at her with naked curiosity.


“American?!” they gasped collectively.


Her head shot from the barkeeper to the rednecks.  “Why?  What’s such a surprise about that?”


Redneck #2’s cigarette dangled so low that it almost burned his five o’clock shadow.  “You came all the way from America just to visit our village?!”


Oddly enough that wasn’t the first time the question had been posed to Leni.  She didn’t know why, though if she had to guess it was probably sheer French ego and machismo, but when she went to really out-of-the-way places, people assumed she was there just to visit that particular little bass-ackwards town! 


Yeah, I took a 10-hour plane ride just so I could visit Echenay-sous-le-Montfaucon just to meet you three crackers, she wanted to say.


The bartender leaned his hairy, bulky arms on the counter.  “Oh, it’s just been a while since an American has visited our town for any reason.”  His eyes twinkled at Leni and his smile was gently mischievous.  “Don’t you know?  Mademoiselle’s grandfather died liberating the village back in ’45 and now she’s come back to see what he died to save.  Isn’t that right, mademoiselle?”


Leni hesitated for a split second.  She’d had such an scary and sad afternoon at the same time, did she really need to compound it with a lie?  Oh, what the hell.  “Yup.  Nazi sniper caught him in the forest in April ’45.  Dad was born a month later.”  She drained the rest of her cocoa.


The truth was her dear paternal grandpa had fought in World War II.  In the Pacific Theater.  And he came home in one piece.  And Dad wasn’t born until well after the War.  Aw hell, they didnt need to know that.


“Damndest thing.”  Bartender resumed his wiping.  “If you idiots would ever put your stupid cards down and read the paper, you’d know there’s a ceremony tomorrow at city hall tomorrow.  At noon.  Mademoiselle is going to accept a medal on behalf of her family in her grandfather’s memory.”


“C’est ça,” Leni confirmed.


“No shit,” Redneck #1 mused.


“Yeah,” Bartender deepened the lie.  “Channel 3’s doing a report for the news.  You twits should come and see how war heroes are honored.  Michel, wasn’t your father a collaborator during the war.”


“Fuck you, Dany” Redneck #3 hissed.  “Mademoiselle, I was going to put manure on my back fields, but if it’s OK with you, can I attend the ceremony tomorrow?”


“It’s open to the public,” Dany lied.  “We have a free country thanks to mademoiselle’s family!”


Rednecks #1 and #2 both agreed they would attend the fictional event as well.


Leni thought it best to leave the village before everyone came out to gawk at her and ask uncomfortable questions.  Wanting to pay she inquired, “Monsieur, how much do I owe you?”


“It’s on the house to the prettiest American girl in this village in the last 50 years,” Dany winked. 


“Merci, monsieur.  Merci beaucoup.  A demain et au revoir.”  She split post haste, not wanting to answer any more bizarre questions about a battle she didn’t know if it actually happened.  She did something she’d never done before.  She winked at Dany (she usually was paranoid about inviting any unwanted attention from Frenchmen, but Dany had a sense of humor), turned on her heal, and headed back to town.


What a weird afternoon.  Leni had set off down the road looking for adventure.  She found it in the most unlikely places.  A walk in the country turned into a life-and-death struggle with a seemingly innocent yet out-for-blood pony.  It led her to a sad cemetery that unlocked memories of her own loved ones who’d gone on before her.  An innocent stop at a café turned into an elaborate practical joke about her accepting the award for her grandfather who’d “died” protecting the village.  French Tweedledee, Tweedledum and Moe were going to be pissed when they arrived in an empty town square during lunchtime tomorrow.


But something told Leni that Dany could handle those idiots.  I just hope I dont run into them in town, she thought.  But she reckoned their wives probably did most of the shopping.  She also had a feeling they didn’t leave the village much if they spent their Sunday afternoons smoking cigarettes, playing cards, harassing Dany and asking strange American girls uncomfortable questions.


Leni was about half-way home walking on the opposite side of the highway from her journey to the village when she saw two Holstein dairy cows hang out by the fence.  She hadn’t noticed them on the way to the village, though.  Their heads were bent, cropping grass to put in one of their four stomachs.


Even though she’d been attacked by a horse, Leni thought there was little to know chance of being attacked by a cow.  After all, weren’t cows supposed to be a lot dumber than horses?  What harm could come from looking at a cow?


Leni approached the duo and just stared at them.  They didn’t pay her much mind as they seemed more interested in eating dinner.  They had actual bells around their necks!  They were huge—pregnant?—but they looked docile as all get out.


She didn’t dare touch them in case either of them were up to any mischief.  She was just about to back away when she felt a pebble in her shoe.  She put her foot up to take her shoe off when one of the cows took a step forward.  Its giant hoof came down on the tiniest part of her big toe, but mostly it just crushed her black flat.


Leni screamed in terror more than pain.  For the second time that day, she stumbled backwards and very nearly lost her footing but somehow her bare foot whipped onto the gravel road shouler to steady her just before she fell back on her ass.


She did yelp in pain because she managed to scrape her bare foot on the gravel.


Jesus, these animals arent going to give me a damn break!!!


The weird part was that the cows didn’t budge or even glance at Leni flailing around in pain.  They continued to calmly chew the grass and ignore her panicked presence.


Leni hopped on one foot to snatch her shoe up and hastily threw it on.  Gingerly putting her weight on the foot that was stepped on, she was relieved to see nothing was broken and she’d been more frightened than anything else. 


For the first time since she was a little girl, Leni ran the rest of the way home.  She didn’t pause to look at any animals, houses, trees or anything else.


Screw nature!  Screw Sunday walks!  I just want to get home, crack open another boring book and pour myself half a bottle of wine.  Goddamned fresh air is freaking overrated


It was probably just as well Leni had to work from 11 to 3 that afternoon.  It was also probably just as well she focused her nervous energy on her customers, helping them find jeans, dress slacks, shirts, underwear…


She could forget her date (was it really a date?) for about two minutes at a time.  But when the thought of Erik flashed through her mind, her palms sweated, her heart raced and she felt like throwing up.  Fucking hormones! 


She was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about her afternoon plans, but one of the girls noticed she hadn’t touched the treats on the break room table.  “Hey Leni, you know I brought those cinnamon rolls, right?”


“Yeah, thanks, Elise.  I’m not really hungry right now, though.  But I bet they’re good!”


“You usually love treats.  You OK?”


“Yeah, fine.  Sorry hon, but I gotta go check the stock.”


Leni really did try to keep her mind on her work, but her hands trembled and she had no idea how her knees could hold her weight up.  She wouldn’t have been surprised if her pale face was grey.  Fucking hormones! 


Her shift ended and she clocked out.  Leni went back to the staff restroom to give herself one last look in the mirror before she left.


Skinny jeans, striped nautical t-shirt, black fashion sneakers.  Mascara and lip gloss were the only makeup she usually wore, and she saw no reason to doll herself up any more for Erik than when he’d seen her last night.


All rightshow time, Synergy!


She was completely oblivious the drive to the lake.  It was miraculous that she didn’t run a red light or have a head-on crash because all she was was a bundle of nerves.  Why was she so freaking nervous?  Oh yeahfirst date jitters!


She pulled into the parking lot and opened the windows.  It was unseasonably warm for October, so Leni rolled down the windows, tried to jam out to the Rod Stewart song on the radio and let her brain create dozens of silly scenarios that could happen on her walk.


So engrossed with her thoughts she was that she didn’t even see the white sedan pull into the parking spot next to her.  She caught some movement out of the corner of her eye and jerked her head to the left.


He was there!


Leni quickly rolled the windows up and turned off the car so he couldn’t hear her geeking out to bad 80s music.  Drawing a deep breath, she got out and forced a bright smile.  “Hey!  You made it!  Did you have any trouble with directions?”


Sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers and sunglasses.  God he looks so casual and socomfortable.  “Yep.  I haven’t been here in years, but it was easy to find.”


“I’m glad.  I usually suck ass at giving directions.”  The words had no sooner left her lips when she clamped her hands over her mouth and her eyes widened in horror.  “Oh, God, I’m sorry,” she said behind her hands, “I swear a lot when I’m nervous.”  Well, actually, I swear a lot any way


Erik laughed.  “Oh, my virgin ears are burning,” he teased.  “C’mere.”


Before Leni could react in any way or even take her hands off her mouth, Erik wrapped his arms around her and drew her close to him in a huge hug.


Her spine stiffened from the uninvited contact, but she willed herself to get her hands off her face and around his torso.  Thought she was as rigid as a board, she noticed his spicy aftershave—or was it cologne—and enjoyed the feeling of two strong arms holding her close to him.


He held her a couple seconds longer before giving her an extra squeeze.  He released her. 


“Hi,” he whispered.


In spite of her fear, apprehension, hormones and confusion, she smiled back.  “Hey.”


“You ready to go?” he asked, indicating the steep embankment they had to climb up before they could walk along the top.


“Yup.  Let’s go!”


The scrambled up the hill and spent an hour walking the length of the lake.  It was a perfect fall day.  The sky was a crystal azure color with just a few puffy, dazzlingly white clouds drifting past.  It was windy but the waist-high grasses danced in the breeze and she could hear the far-off song of wind chimes.  Joggers lapped them, couples with babies in prams, cyclists passed them on their left, dogs and their humans were out enjoying the nice weather and couples just like Leni and Erik were all out enjoying the nice day.


There was a lot to see besides fellow pedestrians.  The goofy golfers hit the links, the waves rolled onto the pebbly lakeshore, the scent of pine hung in the air, kids were screeching in delight on the playgrounds…Leni didn’t think she could have asked for a more perfect scene.


Erik was respectful at the boundaries Leni set.  She wore a light fleece jacket but kept her hands balled in the pockets, her arms straight as two by fours.  He walked close alongside her but not close enough to touch.


He laughed at her bad jokes and told plenty of his own.  He gave her amused sideway glances, insisted on stay to Leni’s left so he could protect her from the oncoming foot traffic.  Leni was also a slow walker and he didn’t try to force her to increase her gait.


They spoke of many things.  They started with banal chatter like Leni’s just-ended shift, the nice weather and the show last night.  Then they moved on to more personal topics—work, hobbies, families.


Erik was amazed Leni came from such a big family.  “You’re really from a family of five kids?”


“Yeah.  Doesn’t seem weird to me, though.  Never really have known any different.”


“And none of you are married, no nieces or nephews?”


“Nope.”  Leni knew it was weird that out of five adult children, not a single one of them had kids, was married or even dated.


“You don’t find that very often,” he observed neutrally.  “Well, Jason is the only one of the three of us who’s never married.”


Leni stopped dead in her tracks.  A trained linguist, she caught the verb tense he used.  Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked at him.  “Wait…what?”


“Sorry.  I didn’t mean I’m married right now,” he hastily continued.  “I’ve been divorced about seven years.”


She resumed walking in silence.


Divorced.  Hes fucking divorced!  She had never been more grateful for the big, Jackie O sunglasses with dark lenses that completely covered her eyes.  Leni couldn’t bear it if Erik saw her crying.


Why was she crying?  Though she no longer went to weekly Mass or even identified herself as a Catholic, she always wrestled with the idea of dating a divorced man.  Of course at 34 Leni knew the vast majority of datable men in her age bracket had been married or at least in very long-term relationships.  But old habits die hard it and it was quite difficult to accept the fact the man she was crushing on—or had been until just a few seconds ago—was divorced.


“What’s wrong?”  Erik genuinely had no idea of the battle that raged in Leni’s head.


As much as she wanted to answer the stereotypical “nothing,” she reached deep down within her and put forth a mighty effort not to run away.  Leni simply said, “Can we sit down a minute?” The dating gods must have been smiling on them because not ten yards away was an empty bench.


She plopped down and Erik sat carefully next to her, leaving a cautious distance between them.  “What?”


She wiped the snot off with her sleeve.  All the emotions that had been pent up in her all afternoon welled up to the surface.  “I-I didn’t know you were…”  She couldn’t bring herself to say it.


“Divorced?” he said gently.


Leni vigorously nodded her head.  “I’m so sorry.  It’s just that I was raised Catholic.  I’m not anymore, but…”  She shook her head and took a deep breath to steady herself.  She exhaled in a long, shaky sigh and wiped her nose again.  Smooth move, Ex-Lax, her brain screamed.


“You’re not allowed to date divorcés?”  The pain in his voice was pretty obvious.


She chomped the inside of her lip as her thoughts drifted back to The Catechism of the Catholic Church.  “No.  We…they can.”


“I know plenty of Catholics, Leni.  I know you aren’t allowed to marry them.”


Leni nodded and stared hard at the lake glistening before them.  “Yep.”  She didn’t bother to correct him when he included her in the plural you.  She may not have gone to church every Sunday, but it was very hard to break herself out of the doctrine that had been beaten into her skull from 13 years of Catholic school.  She shoved her arms into her sleeves and crossed them over her chest, hugging herself tight and shielding herself from him.


At first he didn’t say anything.  He looked at her a long minute then turned his gaze out at the lake.


She took her wrists and furiously scrubbed the tears under her sunglasses and the snot that collected at her nose.  In spite of her distress, she couldn’t help but give a teary, rueful snort of laughter.


He looked back at her.  She couldn’t see his eyes under his sunglasses, but he probably was confused as hell by her mood swings.


“This is fine first date behavior,” she finally said, hugging herself tighter.  “You’re going to go back and see your buddies and say, ‘I was on a date with this girl I met and she started crying on our first date.’”  She laughed again.  “I’ve had guys field calls from their mothers, do Sudoku puzzles or tell me Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy on first dates.  If they didn’t stand me up.  This is the first time I was the one acting like a jackass.”


“Oh, come on.  I’d hardly call you a jackass.”  She heard the gentle teasing in his voice.  He scooted closer to her and he extended his arm over the back of the bench, his hand touching her shoulder.  She shrunk away from him, wishing the earth would swallow her up, she could disappear and make this all go away.


He paused and raked his hands through his dark curls. “I usually save this conversation for a later date, but can I tell you what happened?”


Leni nodded, not daring to look at him.


“She was my college sweetheart.  We married when we were 27.  Three years later I found out she cheated on me, so we got divorced.  It’s about as simple as that.”


“Do you have any kids?”


“No.  We talked about starting a family before she left me, but I don’t have any kids.”


Wellat least theres that?  “She’s an idiot,” was Leni’s assessment.


He laughed slightly.  “I think I called her a few more things than that, but I’m glad I found out her true colors before anything else happened.”  He hesitated again.  “But, after we broke up, I started going back to church myself.  I go to a good one in the City.  They’ve helped me through a lot.”


“I wish I could say the same.  I haven’t found a church I’ve liked yet.”


“Well, you still have pretty strong morals, don’t you?”


She nodded.  “I guess you can take the girl out of the Church, but not the Church out of the girl.”


“That’s not a bad thing.”  The hand touching her shoulder gently started scratching her. 


She looked at his hand, then warily at him. 


He stopped. 


“Can I tell you something?” he asked.


Leni nodded.


“Tell me if I’m wrong here, but I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character.  I see a shy woman who doesn’t date much and who’s afraid to let people get close to her.”


Damn, Erik, youre good!


“I usually don’t hit on random girls I meet in random coffeehouses or bars, but there’s something about you.  There’s a lot to you, probably more than you let on.”


“You’re not wrong,” she admitted.  Leni found herself inching towards him ever so slightly but still cautious—an instinct borne of a lifetime of disappointment.


“I want to get to know you but I don’t want to pressure you.  Right now we’re just two people out on a walk, just talking.  Well, we’re sitting right now but that’s all we’re doing—talking.”


Jesus Christ, its not like hes asking me to marry him!  Hes got my insecurities pretty well pegged.  Damn, Erik.  Youre good.  Leni scooched even closer to him and let his arm drape across her shoulders.


His hand squeezed her reassuringly.  “He took a call from his mother?  Really?”


There was the goofy Erik she liked.  He was breaking the ice for her, gently trying to gain her confidence—but at her own pace.  “We met on eHarmony.  We chatted for weeks and I drove three hours to meet him.”




“Well, I got totally lost in the City so I made him meet me at the diner I pulled over to call him from.  We talked for a while, then his phone rang…”


“His mom?”


“Yeah.  I knew he was close to her, so I went to the bathroom while he took the call.  I came back and he was still on the phone.  I busied myself with the coffee and playing on my phone.  He talked to her for 30 or 40 minutes.”


“And you drove all that way to see him?  What a jerk!  Was there a second date?”




Leni and Erik stayed on that bench another hours swapping dating horror stories but the sun was setting and Leni’s nose was dripping—this time with cold.  Her scarf was shoved over half her face and she was shivering in her light jacket.  But she wasn’t quite so cold.  Throughout the hour he made her feel so at ease that she got closer and closer to him that her head was on his shoulder, looking serenely out at the lake and she felt like…she had come home.


He could still feel her shaking.  “Are you getting hungry?”


She had been such an awful wreck of nerves that day that she hadn’t eaten, and Leni was suddenly ravenously hungry.  “Yeah.”


“Want to go get some dinner?  Is there a good restaurant around here?”


After some discussion, they decided to take separate cars and meet at a local sports bar.  The polished off a plate of nachos, onion rings and two pitchers of beer.  They yelled at the game on TV, made new friends at the table next to them and couldn’t stop talking.


Leni couldn’t tear her eyes away from Erik’s warm brown ones.  It didn’t even register in her brain when his hands brushed against hers or she accidentally kicked him under the table.  She was taken with his intelligence, his sarcasm, his wit and his goofiness.


And his big heart.


By about 9:00, Leni was yawning into her sleeve.  It was such a bizarre day with a busy shift at work, the emotional free-for-all and the feeling of being completely twitterpated by a man she’d only met 24 hours ago.  She’d only just met him, but he made her feel like they’d known each other for ages.         


“You getting tired?” he asked.  They’d finished their last beer an hour ago and Leni felt good enough to drive home.


“Yeah, I-“ she let out another mammoth yawn.


“Dang, am I that exciting?” he teased.


“Shut up,” she laughed.  “It’s been a long day.”


Erik raised an eyebrow.  “But a good one, I hope?”


“Not bad,” was her assessment.


“Can I see you again tomorrow?”


Her heart lurched.  Tomorrow was Sunday, and he’d have to get home to the City.  “What were you thinking?”


“I was going to hang out with the family during the day.  Want to go out to dinner?”


“Sure, but don’t you need to get home, too?”


“Meh, it’s only an hour drive.  So long as get home at a decent hour, it should be OK.  I’ll text you tomorrow…will that work?”




Erik paid the tab and walked Leni out to her little car.  For the second time in two days, they were standing awkwardly in a parking lot.  Shy Leni had absolutely no intention of inviting Erik over to the filthy little apartment she hadn’t had time to clean since—


Two strong arms enveloped her in a massive bear hug, and this time she didn’t stiffen up, freak out, hesitate, or try and back away.  She hugged him right back with all the strength her puny girly arms could muster.


She was safe.  And happy.


Leni looked up at him and smiled softly.  “I had a great time with you today, Erik.”


“I had a great time with you, too.  See you tomorrow.”


He gave her one more solid squeeze and reluctantly let her go.  She didn’t know how normal people ended first dates, but Erik was moving at her comfort level.


She unlocked the car door, slid in, and grinned like a happy moron all the way home.


She was asleep before her head hit the pillow, but warm brown eyes that crinkled at the edges haunted her dreams that night.

L’ennui en rose part cinq (half-way done!!!)


ImageMercredi                                                                                                        Jour Dix (Day 10)


Do a manicure at home, or get a simple one done in a salon.


Leni was biting her nails even as she drew today’s paper out of the beret.


Om nom nomwait, what?


Leni loved biting her nails.  She knew very well it was a nasty habit, but she just couldn’t help it…


For as long as she could remember, Leni was a nail-biter.  It came as no shock to most people that she was a high-strung, nervous young woman.  While she never sucked her thumb as a toddler, she sucked her middle and index finger of her right hand clear into elementary school.  Maybe Freud would have had a field day with it, maybe it was a soothing gesture.  But whatever it was, Leni had to have something in her mouth.


Her older sister with long, pale, tapering fingers had beautiful fingernails.  Well, beautiful and deadly.  When she didn’t get whatever she wanted, instead of smacking Leni, she sunk her lovely nails into Leni’s little arm and clamped down.  Hard.  Enough to draw blood.  She knew as a nail biter, Leni had little defense against those talons.  Leni was a hitter.  She would hit her sister until she finally put her claws away.  Older sister was bruised, little sister was bleeding like she’d been mauled by a cougar.


Both of them eventually grew out of the clawing and hitting, but her sister still had beautiful hands with nails she manicured herself.  Leni, with her stocky man hands and stumpy fingers, still bit her nails.


The older she got, the more of a comfort thing it was.  There was a distinct pleasure she took in chomping down on a slightly grown nail with her incisors, then ripping it off the finger with her canines.  She would then shred it up against the canines and molars before spitting the nail out and repeating the process.  If she munched the nail down to the skin, Leni used her incisors to pull at the hangnails until the skin came off and bled profusely.  Her too-short nails and bleeding hangnails hurt, in a good way.  Again, she got a weird satisfaction from mangling her fingers and distorting her nails.


Mme Martin, a child psychologist by trade, once reprimanded Leni for chewing her nails while they watched the news together one night.  “You shouldn’t bite your wecpgisf, Léni.”


Dont need a dictionary to figure out what that means.  “I like doing it.  I cannot stop chewing myself of the fingers.”


“Don’t you take care of your hands?  Haven’t you ever had a manicure?”


“No.  I paint myself the fingers at home, but not often.”  She couldn’t help it; she had to tear off the hangnails!


Mme Martin reached over and gently drew Leni’s hand out of her mouth.  That was quite surprising because her host mother rarely invited direct physical contact.  She must have wanted to prove her point.


“Léni, your hands!  How lopscvse they are!”




Mme Martin left the room and came back with a bottle of hand lotion.  “Don’t you use this?”


“No.”  She hated the feel of lotion—greasy and suffocating, why didn’t she just put lard on her hands and be done with it?


Mme Martin indicated the chapped and bleeding cuticles and the rough knuckles.  “You really should use some.  You can always tell a lady by her hands.”


“I’m not a lady?”  Leni wrestled the urge to chomp away at her cuticles.


“You should typcbnsa your hands better.  Do you want my lotion?” she offered.




“I have extra.  Take it!”


“No, thank you.  I do not like the lotion, she feels bad on my hands.”  Leni knew Mme Martin was only trying to be helpful, but she wasn’t going to deter Leni from her bad habits.


“As you wish,” she sighed.


From then on, Leni was very careful not to put her fingers in her mouth if Mme Martin was around.  She did pay closer attention to the hands of everyone around her, starting with her hose mom.  Mme Martin’s tiny hands, for all the housework she did, were white and free from liver spots.  Her nails were always filed and though she didn’t use nail polish, Leni suspected she might have used clear varnish.


In fact, most Frenchwomen Leni observed seemed to have lovely hands.  They looked smooth, pale and manicured.  She didn’t see too many women with outrageous nail colors; many stuck to reds and pinks.


As a teacher, Leni did have one senior boy who’d filed his nails down to perfect triangular points.  One day outside of class, she just couldn’t resist asking, “Tell me about your nails, please.”


Aurélien grinned.  “It’s so I can easily play the guitar.”


That was an easy explanation for her to buy.  She was going to let the subject rest, but he continued, “Yeah, and Satan told me that pointy nails please him.”


Huh.  “Don’t forget your assignment for Wednesday.” 


The less Leni said about that, the better.


She looked at her awful hands.  Her nails were chewed down to the bedrock, the cuticle skin was growing over the bottom and the edges along most of the nails were bitten clean away, scabbed.  I have to have the most unattractive hands this side of the Mississippi.


She paused to think about it.  It was ten times worse since she quit smoking cigarettes.  Of course given the choice of one or the other, biting nails was by far the lesser of the two evils.  But was chewing nails worse than overdone manicures?  There were so many women of Leni’s acquaintance who had awful acrylic nails.  Others had their ring finger painted a different color than the rest.  Leni was pretty sure the trend had come from France, but so many women indulged in it, it stopped being edgy and just looked dumb on most people.  Plus, Leni hated all the nail art and crystals people put on their nails.  Why weren’t people content enough to have just plain nail varnish on?  She was something of a purist when it came to her hands.


When she got off work, Leni drove to her favorite nail place where she got a pedicure once a month during the worst of the summer.  The staff was Vietnamese and while they usually just spoke among themselves, they were all quite friendly and did a damn good job for a very reasonable price.


Leni entered the salon and there were eight or ten women there getting nails done.  Most of them were overly made-up for Leni’s taste.  Their hair was too fussy, they were dressed too fussily and they were all busy playing on their phones and texting instead of actually interacting with anyone.  Stupid zombies…


A petite, cheerful woman greeted Leni at counter.  “Hi, what can we help you with?”


“I need a manicure.”


“Acrylic or regular?”  Leni told her natural nails, and the woman gestured to several shelves of polish to pick out a shade.  Leni liked to paint her nails both siren red and pale pink.  She vacillated between the two for a couple minutes before settling on a sunset pink as a compromise.


When the next nail tech was open, she had Leni sit down while she clucked over her nails.  “You’re sure you don’t want acylic?”


“Yes, that’s very bad for my hands.”


“OK, that’s fine.  Wow, your hands are really bad.”  The manicurist wasn’t being rude, she was just blunt.


“I know, I can’t stop biting my nails.”  Leni was sheepish.


The nail tech smiled.  “You’ll feel differently when I get you pretty nails.”


I like her attitude!


Leni allowed herself to be pampered as she got a paraffin dip, lotion rubbed in, nails filed, her cuticles pushed back, dead skin cut away, arms sublimely massaged, cuticle oil, base coat, nail color and top coat.  She kept her eyes shut and barely opened them unless the manicurist was telling her specifically to do something.


Of course she wasn’t rude.  She liked talking to nail techs, so she chatted about how bad her hands were, if it was normal and about male manicures.  The nail tech was funny, informative and made the half hour simply fly by.  Sadly Leni noticed she was the only one actually talking to her girl; the rest were buried in their damn phones.


She examined the finished product.  What was left of her nails were filed to feminine tips, the cuticles were pushed back and oiled, the hangnails were all gone and her nails were a lovely carnation pink.  In fact, her hands almost looked feminine.




As she set her hands under the dryer, Leni allowed her thoughts to drift to Mme Martin.  She would definitely approve the fact I was getting a proper manicure.  I hope I can go more than a day without biting my damn nails…I’m paying enough for them to look good!


Leni paid and generously tipped her nail tech.  It would definitely be worth it if she could resist the instinct to nibble on her nails, and she was certainly less inclined to do so now that she’d invested in a nice manicure.


Driving home, Leni could barely take her eyes off the steering wheel and she admired her beautiful manicure.  She couldn’t help the squat man hands, but at least she was filed, painted, locked and loaded. 


She took a picture and uploaded them to Facebook with the caption, “A manicure on a Wednesday night…just because .”


The twenty “likes” told Leni she would have to do this again, sooner than later.


Jeudi                                                                                                               Jour Onze (Day 11)


Do something cultural.  Take in an art exhibit, go see a concert or do something that otherwise broadens your horizons.


Leni grabbed her tablet as soon as she read today’s missive.  She would have to check the calendar of events to see what the hell was going on.  At least she lived in a college town and there was stuff to do…


The arts had been a part of her life as long as she could remember.  Because she was a bookworm, she always loved learning about different cultures through fashion, artifacts, art and music.  She was one of the rare children who embraced trips to any kind of museum—even going to the art museum excited her because nothing interested her more than beautiful paintings.


Leni had been in France a month when she went to the Louvre.  It was an amazing experience because she had a special fondness for medieval art, and she could have spent a thousand hours coming though its exhibits.  What she loved best wasn’t the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo; she loved a glass vase that had once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was one of Leni’s great historical heros.


In addition to the Louvre, she spent hours examining daguerreotypes in the Museé d’Orsay which, for some reason, fascinated her more than any other sumptuous painting or sculpture.  She barely tolerated the Centre Pompidou not for its contemporary art collection, but for its magnificent vistas of Paris.


Yeah, France’s capital had some pretty impressive museums.


That’s why she fully braced herself for disappointment two weeks later when she went on a class field trip to Dijon.  Mustard aside, it was truly a lovely town that wine built from the surrounding Burgundy region.  It was rich in history and its fabled roofs with an almost Argyll pattern in the tiles.


One of the stops was the Musée des beaux arts de Dijon, which was in the former ducal palace.  Leni knew Burgundy was its own kingdom until it was annexed by the French crown in the sixteenth century.  The building was quite impressive with its mammoth courtyards and graceful great halls.  She was particularly enraptured with the tomb of Philip the Bold of Burgundy with its intricately carved bas-relief of mourners at its pedestal.


She wandered through the galleries looking at nice albeit pedestrian Impressionist paintings, Italian Renaissance works and even rare mummy paintings.  She had to admit that it was all pretty cool, but nothing really moved her until she got to one of the last galleries on the top floor with the post-Impressionist paintings.  There she found a tableau that took her breath away and forever changed what art meant in her life.


“Le glas” (“The Death Knell”) by Louis Galliac was painted in 1891.  A contemporary of Monet and other great Impressionists, Galliac is certainly not considered a terribly popular or grand master painter.  But there was something about this work, painted when he was 42, that struck Leni to the very core of her being.


An old man is sitting on a worn-out wooden crate in a bell tower.  He is clearly a paysan; his brown wool pants, khaki vest and wooden sabots betray his country heritage.  He is clean-shaven and of an indeterminate age—maybe 70?  The veins stand out prominently on his neck and his hands are probably covered in calluses from a lifetime of hard physical labor.


He is contemplating the scene below him.  The golden Burgundian fields roll out to the horizon and beyond, not at all unlike the prairies Leni grew up on.  But what the man’s sad gaze is fixed on is at the heart of the painting.  There is a burial going on in the churchyard right under the bell tower.

Who died?  It is hard to guess.  There is a small funeral procession led by a priest with five women following him.  The first woman in line holds a white banner nearly as big as she is.  All the women are in blue skirts with flowing white veils hanging down their backs.  Nuns?  Three or four mourners in plainclothes bring up the rear.


Why is the old man’s hands clasped in prayer?  Why is his wrinkled face lined with the saddest, most wistful smile Leni had ever seen?  Who was the person being buried, and why was the ,am so sad?


The mystery intrigues Leni.  In all her research in the intervening years, she never found anything about the painting beyond its title and the year it was painted.  It left more questions than answers, so she had to content herself with her own theory.


She guessed whoever died was an old woman, maybe a nun.  The man in the bell tower was her old sweetheart, and he was giving her one last goodbye before he had to ring the bells, announcing her death to the entire village.  The painting looked in on this bittersweet, intensely private moment between the man and the deceased.


What haunted Leni more than the painting mystery was the look of utter sadness and loss on the man’s face.  It was tender, sad, wistful, regretful, prayerful and maybe even a little happy?  That pursed mouth and clasped hands was burned into Leni’s memory.  She visited dozens of art museums after Dijon.  She saw thousands of paintings.  But none could even come close to touching her the way an obscure 19th century painting by an obscure 19th century artist could.  Somehow Louis Galliac had managed to capture every emotion involved when a loved one passes away and convey it on the old man’s face.  And the puzzle of what the painting was actually about only intrigued Leni more.


She almost had to be dragged out of the Dijon museum, but not before buying a postcard of her favorite painting.  Leni looked at it often, especially when her beloved grandfathers passed away.  Somehow, the look on the man’s face was just like the prayer Leni wanted to say, but couldn’t form the words to express how she felt.  It helped her pray when she just didn’t know what to say, more than any Bible passage, more than any prescribed prayer ever could.


She didn’t know what ‘Le glas’ was all about, but Leni was OK with that.  Her own theory and its very enigma were all she needed, and no other painting before or since struck her in such a primal way.  She had seen many lovely objets d’art, but her heart would always be in a Burgundian cemetery with an old man looking out of the bell tower…


Leni flipped through a couple of announcements and decided instead of finding a special art exhibition, she would walk to the campus art museum over her lunch hour to enjoy some of the art.


She made a plan and enjoyed a brisk walk to campus in the halcyon fall weather.  She was surrounded by kids wearing stupid hoodies and Uggs, kids with stupid hipster glasses and godawful interpretations of “ironic” fashion.  Leni was secretly grateful for her smart denim motorcycle jacket, bright tangerine scarf, black cami, fuchsia cardigan, skinny black jeans and black flats.  She looked and felt a lot more put-together than most of the little college kids.


French chic over American college style any day!


She got to the marble-and-glass museum, smiled at the docent, and allowed herself 20 minutes to wander the four galleries of 20th century American art.  It was a respectable collection; Leni quite liked the Caulder mobile and how it defined the emptiness of he space more than the actual space it took up.  The Warhol of Mickey Mouse was ironic and iconic, just like his Campbell’s soup cans.  The Georgia O’Keefe was floral but stark and organic.  The Rothko looked like something she could have painted with two hands behind her back.  But the biggest treat was a domestic scene in an Edward Hopper painting which she had seen many times since she was a little girl.


It was a young couple sitting in their New York apartment’s living room, circa 1932.  The young woman, sad and probably more than a little bored, plinked at the piano.  The husband was facing her but not looking at her, his face buried in the paper.  They were in the very same room yet miles apart.  It was amazing how just like in his ubiquitous Nighthawks, Hopper managed to deftly convey intimacy and distance in one single painting.


Why were the couple so distant?  Was one cheating on the other?  Were there any children involved?  What role did the piano and the newspaper play in everything?  The more she looked at it, the more Leni realize there was a lot she couldn’t see.


Leni felt her knees buckle and she shakily made her way to the closest bench.  Her heart started pounding and her breath came in shallow pants.  For a few minutes she thought she was having a full-blown panic attack—it wasn’t the first one she had and it certainly wouldn’t be the last—but after she breathed a little deeper, she calmed down to assess why she was so shaky.


The two paintings she loved mirrored each other.


The Galliac painting depicted a long physical separation (the man was up in the bell tower and his beloved had passed on), yet an intense, close relationship.  The Hopper painting showed a couple who, while physically close, were miles apart in the same room.  They were mirror opposites of each other, and their common thread was Leni’s own interpretation.


Two paintings I have loved for years…how alike they are, and how different!


She only had a couple minutes before she had to go back to work.  Leni flew to the gift shop, purchased a postcard of the Hopper painting, and stared longingly at it as she trotted back to work. 


All afternoon, she had the Hopper postcard propped up next to her computer and her eyes were constantly drawn to the sad, young couple.  She just couldn’t get over how that painting had been in her spirit for years, but she’d never known it till just then.


That evening, Leni went to Target and bought an inexpensive double hinged frame.  When she got home, she set the Hopper postcard in on the left, and the Galliac on the right.  It wasn’t a perfect diptych—the Galliac was upright but she had to turn the Hopper on its side.  But that didn’t matter.


What mattered was that Leni made a beautiful bookend to the different facets and ages in a relationship.  On one side was a young couple just starting out, but they were sad and cold.  On the other hand was an old couple who had known a true, pure love.  But nothing survived of it but an old man’s regret and a new grave.


A tear trickled down her cheek as she put the picture frames on the bookshelf next to her beloved family photos.  There was a lot of beauty in the world, and she needed to take the time to simply enjoy it.


She got ready for bed.  Settling in amongst her pillows, she propped herself up with her old sketchbook from high school.  Leni had a modicum of artistic talent, but she rarely drew anymore because she had neither the time nor the patience.  She flipped past dreamy landscapes of the Scottish Highlands, ruined churches, ballerinas, whatever struck her fancy from high school.  She started loosely doodling her own version of “Le glas” just to help relieve herself of all the emotions she had.  It was a way to help her process everything racing through her head that evening.


Vendredi                                                                                                        Jour Douze (Day 12)


Go to a café.


Leni woke up out of dead sleep at 3 am.


She hadn’t realized just how tired she was, nor was she entirely sure how the pencil came to be lodged up her nose.  She could guess how the sketchbook got on the floor.  But a pencil sticking up her schnozz?  Really?


She slipped the pencil back in the book, set her alarm clock, and drifted back off to sleep.



Go to a café?


Leni frowned as she sipped her coffee.  She loved going to coffeehouses, so it really shouldn’t be a problem.  Should it?


She much preferred her epic Friday afternoon naps, but again, rules were rules.  Coffee shop tonight it was!



Leni was in a café in Paris with some of her American students who were exchange students under her care one summer.  They were having a discussion (in French, of course) about the museums they had seen up to that point.  The kids were really starting to get to some of the stuff they enjoyed at the Louvre when one of the students pointed out a man walking down the tiny sidewalk. 


“Hey, isn’t that Professor O’Brien?” referring to one of the popular French professors in their department.


It cant be, Leni thought to herself.  What are the odds that wed run into one of our professors here in Paris when we are thousands of miles away from


“Hey!  Dr. O’Brien!  Hey!  Hi!  Over here!”  Her dozen college students where whooping, whistling and trying to attract his attention.


The normally reserved French were staring at the loud Americans, probably thinking they were typical tourists.  Leni had just opened up her mouth to admonish the kids when Dr. O’Brien saw the little group of students.  Recognition dawned on his face as he smiled, gave a slight wave, said, “Hi, guys,” and kept right on walking.


He kept right on walking. 


One of the girls looked at Leni with a stunned expression.  “Did-did he just walk right by?”


“Sure looks like it.”  There was nothing Leni could say to contradict that statement.


“Dude, what the hell?”


“Are you freaking kidding me?  We see him here—in Paris, of all places!—and he just keeps walking?”


“Didn’t he know it was us?”


Oh, if only you poor little dopes had any idea.  Professor O’Brien was very kind, an excellent teacher and scholar, but…he was lacking in people skills and social graces.


He was sorely lacking in social graces!


“Yeah, guys, well…Dr. O can be kinda absent-minded sometimes, you know?”  She tried to smooth the situation over the best way she knew how. 


The students chatted about it for a couple minutes and Leni had just gotten them to settle back in when Professor O’Brien walked back past the little group, merely smiling and continuing on his way.




OK, really?!  The man can’t stop and talk with us for five minutes?  How often is it that you see a group of your own students in Europe.




Leni typically had pleasant experiences in French cafés.


She always had a soft spot for them, even before she ever set foot in France.  There is an aura of romanticism automatically attached to the French café scene circa 1925.  Think the Lost Generation at the Café Deux Magots.  Hemingway writing his next bestseller.  Picasso trying to woo his next model.  Gertrude Stein preparing her salon for the weekend.  F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald living the bohemian life. 


Yeah, cafés were pretty sweet.  Even if it wasn’t as chic as it looked in the movies, Leni always managed to enjoy the hours she spent over coffee and croissants.  It was best to grab a seat outside if the weather was halfway nice.  Inside was just as good, too.


There were plenty of beverages, from coffees, teas, carbonated drinks to wine and beer.  There was also food often available—simple things like pastries, sandwiches, salads and omelets.


If it was warm out, she didn’t mind having a soda or a glass of wine, but French coffee in a French café was usually the way to go.  Leni’s favorite order was an espresso or double espresso and a pain au chocolat.  The jolt of caffeine most always have the rush she was looking for.  And whoever decided to put little chunks of dark chocolate in a flaky, buttery croissant deserved to win a Nobel Peace Prize.


She usually had her travel journal with her, so her hours were spent writing about what had happened the last couple days.  Sometimes she had a book or a magazine with her, or even puzzle book.  Leni simply liked to look busy so she could sneakily watch the people around her.


And there was always plenty to see in French cafés.  Sassy waiters, serious businessmen, overly fussy women, stupid couples making goo goo eyes at each other…Leni was never disappointed nor ever lacked anything to see when she went to a café.  She also tried to eavesdrop on conversations going on around her, but it was usually bustling around so she couldn’t make out what was being said.


Sometimes she wondered if anyone was looking at her.  Leni tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but how many people guess the overweight, gawky girl writing in the corner was an American who was actually trying to eavesdrop on everyone’s conversations?


Going to French cafés was always such a pleasant experience.  Leni placed her order with the waiter, and very rarely did she have to wait long for her order to be brought out.  The lovely thing in France is that once the order is placed and the coffee delivered, you get the bill and are largely left alone.  Waiters will discretely come by to clear cups, glasses and plates as needed, but you can order one espresso and spend hours in the café watching the world go by.



After work, Leni went home for a quick bite of supper.  She then changed into skinny jeans, black boots and went to one of her favorite coffeehouses on the other side of town.  She read online a local bluegrass trio was playing, so it would be a nice chance to get out of the house, listen to some live music, support a local business and have some good coffee all in one fell swoop.


She arrived at the café about 15 minutes before the band started.  They had the instruments and sound equipment set up.  They were just waiting for their set to start.


There were about 30 people in the small café, and Leni was glad to see it was hopping.  She usually sat in a corner at a table, unobtrusive and able to observe the whole room.  But the only empty seats she could find were stools at the bar, so she bellied up to the bar.  The café must have obtained a liquor license in the year since she’d last been.  They had a small wine selection, so Leni ordered a glass of red wine and a pain au chocolat from a local pastry shop.  She declined to have it heated up, so she settled in with wine and room-temperature pastry.


The pain au chocolat lasted about 14 seconds.  Leni definitely had a sweet tooth, and the pastry was amazing even slightly stale.  The tang of the dark chocolate was a perfect complement to the slightly spice, fruity wine.  She didn’t know if it was a vin de table, but it did the job quite nicely.


She dug into her purse, pulled out the latest magazine she was reading, and waited for the band to start.


She couldn’t have been there more than five minutes when a solid person was bumped from behind her.  The oaf crashed into Leni and since she was a klutz to start with, she hopped off the stool, her feet wobbling under her.


A hand shot out to steady her before she slammed headfirst into the bar.  She whirled around, prepared to lay into the moron who hit her, but any insult died on her lips when she looked up and stared into the brown eyes that were looking at her, freaked out from the almost accident.


“I am so sorry,” he began.  “Someone elbowed me and I didn’t see you…”


Tall—over six feet.  Not skinny, the guy had a teddy bear build without being fat.  Warm brown eyes, a mop of wavy dark hair.  Eight o’clock stubble.  And no wedding ring.


Tall, dark and definitely cute!


“I-I…Uh…”  For a rare second, Leni was completely at a loss for words.


She scrambled back on the stool and twirled it so she could face her would-be attacker.  It wasn’t often—ever—that a cute guy bumped into her and apologized.


“This seat taken, by any chance?”  He indicated the next stool over, and Leni saw that the café was jammed-packed.  Though she’d never heard of the band, the obviously had enough of a following to pack the house.


Her sass returned.  “Well, I don’t usually let guys who knock me off my seat sit next to me but…” she playfully cocked her head.  “Go ahead.”


He ordered a flavored hard lemonade and sat down.  “I don’t usually ask girls who I knock off their seat if I can sit down next to them, but it looks like this is the only place left.”


In spite of the innate awkwardness of the whole situation, Leni found herself grinning and in full flirt mode.  “I suppose I can make an exception for you.”


“That’s so nice of you,” he grinned.  “You know this band?” he asked, making polite conversation.


“Nope.  I saw the performance was in the paper, so I thought I’d check it out.”  The truth was Leni visited their Facebook page and watched a couple of their videos on YouTube, but he didn’t need to know that.  Yet.


“Bass player’s my brother over there.”  As if to make the statement legit, he indicated the musician with a glass.  Bass Player waved back in their direction.


“Oh, cool.  Do you play any instruments?”


He smiled and shook his head sheepishly.  “Nah.  Jason’s the only musical one in the whole family.  We think he was adopted.”


“Yeah, my family’s not very musically inclined, either,” she found herself unnecessarily sharing.


“I don’t get to town very often, so it’s a treat for me to see little bro jamming on bass.”  He named a large city an hour away on the interstate where he lived.  Leni knew the town well enough—she was born there and she was related to a good chunk of the town on her father’s side.


Whoever this guy was, he started chatting Leni up.  And she found she really liked it.  She didn’t catch his name, but he was a computer programmer who lived in the next city over.  He’d gone to college here in town but moved to where his job is in the City.


Leni was just about to answer his questions about what she did when the group started playing.  With their sound equipment and the tiny venue, it was really hard to maintain a conversation even if they were sitting right next to each other, so they lapsed into comfortable silence as the trio took the stage.  The lights dimmed a bit in the house so that everyone could see Blue Moon River more easily.


They just moonlighted as a band, but they were actually really good.  Leni was a raging Alison Krause and Union Station fan, and Blue Moon River could have given them a good run for their money.  The bass, banjo, and lead singer/guitar player (bassist’s girlfriend, she later found out) wrote their own songs and also played gospel covers.  Any of their songs would have done well on the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.


After 30 minutes, the band took five.  Jason the bassist greeted a couple fans then made a beeline for the bar.  “Hey, Erik, glad you could make it, man!” he said, shaking his brother’s hand and going in for a dude hug.




“Yeah, you know I wouldn’t miss your first gig in three months!  This is a nice little place here.” 


“Uh huh.  Laura knows the owner and we’ve been trying to book a gig here for weeks.” 


“Good set,” Leni piped up. 


“Hey, thanks.  You a friend of my brother’s?”


Erik jumped in.  “Well, we kinda bumped into each other.  Literally.  I knocked the poor girl off her stool when I was trying to order a drink.”


Jason offered his hand.  “Thanks for coming out–?”  He was looking for a name and Leni quickly realized she’d never given one.


“Leni.”  She clasped the proffered hand.  “You really need to teach this brother of your some manners.”


Jason threw his head back and laughed heartily.  “I’ve been telling our parents that for years, but no one ever listens to me.”  Someone from behind was jockeying for his attention.  “Hey, I gotta go mingle.  Talk to you after the next set?”


“You bet,” Erik said.


After Jason went back to his fans, Erik turned back to Leni.  “Leni?  Like ‘Mice and Men’ Leni?”


“My real name’s Eleanor.  My little brother could never pronounce it, so that’s what I go by.”


“I think Eleanor’s a pretty name.”


Holy shit!  Is he actually flirting with me?!


“Thanks.”  They started talking about family nicknames when the band finished their break and started their next set.  Leni and Erik sat again in a cozy silence, enjoying the strings and heartfelt lyrics.  It was not lost on Leni that Erik positioned himself closer to her, his hip just inches away from her.


From her vantage point, she was sitting just behind him enough to stare at him while he watched his brother’s band. 


So far she couldn’t find anything not to like about Erik.  From what she gathered, he was cute as hell, he loved music, had a great relationship with his family, had a steady job, he was funny…and he had yet to mention a girlfriend or wife.  Through hooded lashes, h er eyes drifted down to his left hand.  No signs of a wedding band.  Erik caught her looking at him and he gave a quick wink before turning his head back to the stage.


Leni’s heart pounded in her throat.  She could barely breathe.  Jesus criminey, I am crushing on this adult male like some hormonal teenager!  She did her damndest to concentrate on the band and enjoy the music, but it was almost impossible to do with him sitting so close to her and her heartbeat was almost choking her.  She could feel her palms grow clamy and beads of sweat broke across her brow.


Though the half hour seemed to drag on forever, the second set was lovely.  “Thank you guys!  Come see us next month when we play in the City!” Laura announced into the mic.


The audience applauded, the house lights came back up and the usual indie music came piped through the sound system.  People got up, chatted with the band, and started to leave.  Blue Moon River signed programs, sold CDs and slowly began packing up their gear.


Leni wasn’t quite sure what to do.  Erik would probably want to hang out with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend, but Leni didn’t want to just leave without saying good-bye.  Or a little something more.


“Well,” she announced after she drained her second glass of wine, “I’d best be hitting the ol’ dusty trail.”  It was a cheesy expression but it’d always been one of her favorites.

Erik had been figuring out his tab, but he looked up from his bill.  “Are you really leaving?”


“Well, I…”  I’m always so tired on Friday evenings.  But I don’t think I’ve ever been more awake in my life.


The corner of his eyes crinkled into a smile.  “If you’re even half as tired as I am, I totally understand.”  He looked over at Jason, who was talking to a couple while striking the set.  Lowering his head and murmuring to Leni he said, “Look, I know we just met and I know this has been pretty awkward this evening, but I’d like to hang out again.  Can I give you my number?”


Holy crap!  He wants to give me his number!  Leni almost passed out due to lack of oxygen reaching her heart and brain.  She subconsciously registered the fact he was giving her his number and not vice versa, giving her the power to contact him at her comfort level.


“I’m in town this weekend.  I’ll be crashing at Jason’s and then with my folks.  Can we get together for lunch tomorrow?”


“Oh!”  The logical portion of Leni’s brain finally kicked in.  “I…I have to work till three tomorrow.”  She worked part-time at the mall doing retail.  It didn’t pay jack shit, but it got her out of the house and she had really nice co-workers.


His face fell, but she quickly had an idea.  “Would you be up for a walk in the afernoon, maybe?  It’s supposed to be really nice tomorrow.”


He grinned.  “I’d like that.”  He gave her his number and Leni programmed it into her phone.  “Do you text much?”


“I like texting.”  That was the truth.


“OK, just shoot me a message when you can.”


“Got it.”  Leni got off the stool and struggled into her jacket.  Erik stood up as well.


“Can I walk you to your car?  I have to stay and help pack up,” he explained.


She bit her lower lip.  I’m parked out in the parking lot in the lot next to the building.  It is well-lit out there, I drive a non-descript black car…She smiled.  “Sure.”


They walked very slowly out to her car, talking about how good the show was and finding they both really enjoyed bluegrass music.  All too soon, Leni said, “Well, here I am.”  She hit the remote keyless entry, her lights flashed and she opened up her door. 


She stood beside the door, ready to sit down.  The car door provided a comforting physical barrier between them, and she was acutely aware of his height and the intent way he was looking at her.  She felt a little like a trapped animal, and her pulse slammed into her veins making them throb.


“Promise you’ll call or text?”  His face indicated he really did want her to call him. 


She smiled brightly.  “I will.  I had a good time hanging out with yo-“


The words died in her lips because Erik angled in and gave her a soft, chase, quick kiss on the mouth.


I can’t remember the last time I was kissed.  Holy shit!


He broke off the kiss, and she could swear his eyes got a little darker.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”


Leni’s knees gave out and she slid into the driver’s seat.  Fumbling with the keys, she turned them in the ignition.  She turned on the lights, hoping she was level-headed enough to drive all the way home.


He backed up and Leni eased out of the parking space, threw the car into drive, waved to Erik and drove away.


Holy.  Mother.  Of.  God!  If there was even the faintest shadow of a doubt if Erik liked her, he pretty well answered her question.


She gripped the steering wheel for dear life until her knuckles turned white.  She turned the classical music station on to try and drown out the thoughts raging in her head. 


It had been many, many, many years since a guy had so obviously hit on her.  And oddly enough, the last time it happened was in a French café, though that was another story for another day.


She was absolutely exhausted when she got home.  She cleaned her makeup off, brushed her teeth and slid into bed in less than five minutes.  Before she drifted off to sleep, she impulsively sent one text.


Hey.  It’s Leni.  Just wanted to say I enjoyed meeting you tonight.


She set her phone on the nightstand.  She took off her glasses and set her alarm clock when her phone vibrated.  She picked it up and looked at it.


I had a lot of fun too.  Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.


Leni couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.


L’ennui en rose part quatre


ImageLundi                                                                                                              Jour Huit (Day 8)


Write a letter or send a card to someone.


Another Monday morning, and Leni drew another task that required laboring over something with her hands.  While writing a letter wasn’t as irritating as stuffing a duvet into a cover, this wasn’t exactly something she had prepared for.


Leni strained to peep into her mailbox cubby.


There was a letter!


Her hands fumbled awkwardly with the tiny key as she opened the box front and fished the letter out.  Only Mom wrote with such regularity and most Thursdays letters from home wound up in Leni’s box.


It was four flights of stairs up, but they hardly mattered as she stormed up them and flung her dorm room open.  Though the other French students kept their doors shut, Leni and the other two Americans on the floor didn’t care.  Their doors were open almost all the time, except for when they were actually studying or sleeping.  Who knew if it irritated the other French kids—Leni rarely saw them, anyway.


Chucking her shoes off, she sat down on her desk chair and tore the letter open.


Not a whole lot was going on back home, but Leni was starved for every detail.  In her mother’s copperplate (and elementary school teacher’s) handwriting, none of Mom’s details were too boring to too insignificant.  Her older sister was rocking junior college, her younger brother and sister were surviving high school.  Her baby brother was still in kindergarten and learning to read at an astonishing rate.  Mom talked about people at work Leni didn’t even know existed and she wrote about all the latest news and gossip from church.


She tried to read the two handwritten pages as slowly as she could.  Once she’d absorbed the letter, she read it carefully three more times, trying to commit every tiny detail to memory.  Only then when she was done, she let her eyes drift to the small framed family portrait on her desk.


Her family.


Though everyone except her youngest brother had an email account, Leni was royally irritated that no one emailed her.  Everyone touted email as the “next big thing” in staying connected, yet neither parent nor any of her siblings bothered to write and say what was going on.  Only Mom bothered to pick up a pen and say what the hell was going on back home.


And Leni was very grateful for it.


Leni grabbed her fountain pen—which she thought was so cool because so many French people still used one though she’d never even seen one in the States—and an ivory-colored piece of airmail paper, so lightweight it was almost like tissue paper—a birthday gift from her mother just before Leni went way to France.  In her tiny printed/cursive hybrid, Leni detailed the rapid progress she was making in her classes, what she was doing with her youth group, the weekend trip to Dijon and other observations about living in Europe.  They all seemed like innocuous details to Leni, but she knew her mom was genuinely interested in what she was doing and only Mom really knew what a dream come true this was. 


Her hand cramped up a couple times, so she shook it vigorously to get the blood circulating properly.  Her neck kinked up because she slumped over the desk and wrote so laboriously.  But when she was done, Leni had one large paper covered front and back in her tiny script with all the latest news from France.


Putting her mom’s latest letter back in its envelope, Leni went over to the tiny wardrobe that miraculously held all her clothes.  On the top shelf with her socks and a fresh lavender sachet, she grabbed a bundle of letters held together with a red satin ribbon.  Untying the clumsy knot—Leni was never very good at wrapping—she kissed the letter and put the newest communiqué from home on top of the pile.  She re-wrapped the pile, inhaled the lavender that permeated the letters and put it back up on the shelf.


As Leni started her homework, she remembered snooping around her mom’s stuff while her parents were out of town one weekend.  She stumbled across dozens of letters her dad had written her mom when they were dating and while they were engaged.  They gave Leni a very different view of her folks because instead of being grumpy and parentlike, she discovered her parents were, well…normal.  Her father was freaking hilarious with his really bad jokes and colorful anecdotes.  But he was also rather poetic but deeply sincere in his declarations of love, which had to be true because they had been married 35 years.


Letters were the most personal form of communication Leni had ever experienced.  They were certainly more intensely personal than any email, fax or instant message.  And there was a level of intimacy no phone call could rival.  Even face-to-face conversations weren’t the same because people could come barging in at any second.  Letters were made to be treasured for generations or destroyed in the heat of the moment.  Letters were a snapshot in time, depending on what the situation was going on at the time and the relationship between the two correspondents.  Meanings were inferred and implied.  Despite all the technological advances of the twentieth century, nothing was quite like a letter. 


Leni had never had a real boyfriend and she doubted even if she did, she would never have a stack of letters from one.  No, the letters from Mom were not the same as the bundle of letters from a sweetheart, but they meant the world to her just the same.  She pulled her stack out when she was homesick which was more often than she cared to admit.  She picked two or three at random to read and it reminded her that no matter how sad she was or how long it seemed till she saw her family again, she was really, truly loved and she could always count on that to get her through the worst days.


Leni always ventured to the post office tomorrow they very next day to mail her letter back home.  Of course it was closed between noon and two—heaven forbid anything in the damn town was actually open over lunch—but she had just enough time between classes to pop into the office on the Grand-Rue.  She stood in line between five and ten minutes because even if there was only one person in line in front of her, the clerks always moved at a glacial pace.  Of course, that really wasn’t any different than when she had to stand in line at the post office back home.  Fast, efficient courteous service didn’t exist on either side of the globe.  And as much as it sucked, there was something oddly comforting about it.


When she was finally the first person in line, Leni waited for one of the two windows to open up.  After an eternity, one customer finished their transaction and shoved off.  The postal worker kept their head bent over something probably unimportant for about two minutes, then finally looked up and gestured as if to a disobedient dog.  “Au prochain!”


Leni approached the counter with the perfunctory “bonjour” and nothing else.  She didn’t need to tell the clerk she was posting a letter to the States, nor did she really feel like engaging the civil servant in any sort of dialogue.


The clerk stamped it about 85 times—what was the French obsession with stamping the shit out of letters and documents—weighed it and gave her a price.


Leni defiantly slapped a 50 franc note on the counter, well under the stated amount.


The clerk, a man in his mid-40s with neither looks nor personality going for him, cocked his head and pulled the grocery checkout line.  “Don’t you have change?”


Sonofabitch.  Was it any wonder going to the post office was only slightly less painful than a Soviet era bread line?  She was more intimidated by postal workers than checkers at the supermarket, so usually she bowed to authority.  But it was Friday and she wasn’t in the mood.  Leni sighed.  “That’s your job.”


“You really don’t have any change?”


“No.”  She didn’t know if she had any, nor did she care.


“You didn’t even look in your fgnpozxi,” he said almost plaintively.


My wallet?  “I have to change.”


“Well, I don’t have any.”


Why do I have to deal with a petulant 45-year-old?  “Prove it,” she said coolly, narrowing her eyes into hard slits.




“Prove to me you don’t have any change.  I refuse to believe you don’t have any coins.  The last person just gave you many coins.”  Leni wasn’t putting up with his bullshit.


The man’s jaw dropped to the floor.  If he hadn’t been behind a plexiglass wall, Leni would have pointed to the roll of coins sitting just off to the side.  He opened his till, grabbed a few francs and practically threw them onto the little metal bowl-shaped tray.  Leni reached into the groove and picked them up.


“Merci et au revoir, monsieur.”  Asshole, she added in her head.


Leni sauntered back to class, content in the feeling of one-upping the postal worker and giddy in the knowledge her letter would reach her mom in about a week.


Love ya, Mom!  Youd be proud of me.  xxoo.


Leni had a small mountain of blank greeting cards she purchased at Target in the dollar aisle.  They were a real steal—eight cards for just a buck!  They were super handy because she used them for thank you letters, birthday cards and for general correspondence. 


Who should she write a letter to?  Leni flipped through her address book for inspiration.  She was one the only person she knew under 40 who kept a paper address book, but it was easier for her to flip though names than to scroll through her phone.  Besides, there were quite a few people she had no phone number for and she frankly preferred having a real address more than a number.


A relative?  A friend?  Someone overseas?  Leni never wrote letters out of the blue, so whoever was getting a letter from her had to be someone who didn’t mind her eccentricity of pen to paper.




Actually, it seemed like an elegant solution.  Leni could thank her for inviting her over the other night.  Perfect excuse!  She slipped a blue-and-white plaid card and envelope into her purse.


After she finished her lunch, Leni penned a simple, two-paragraph letter.  In it, she thanked Angie for a lovely bottle of wine and such wonderful company last week.  She also simply said how much she enjoyed her friendship.  Granted, it wasn’t a long, newsy letter, nor was it done with a fancy pen or stationery.  Quite the contrary—she wrote with a cheap-o ballpoint pen and a dollar store card.  But that didn’t mean the sentiment was in any way diminished nor did it mean she cared any less.


Looking in her address book, Leni wrote Angie’s home address on the envelope, sealed it and used a stamp from the book she kept in her purse.  She popped the letter in with the outgoing mail for the afternoon, a huge sense of accomplishment filling her spirit.


Writing letters may be a dying art, but as long as Leni could hold pen to paper, she would keep the tradition alive.


Mardi                                                                                                             Jour Neuf (Day 9)


Watch the film Amélie.


Leni didn’t need to be told to do this one twice.  “Under the Tuscan Sun,” was her favorite movie when she needed a European fix, but she hadn’t seen “Amélie in so long that was excited to rekindle her love affair with that movie.


While she showered, Leni tried to decide how to get her hands on a copy of the movie.  Leni didn’t have Netflix, nor did she own the movie on DVD.  Her only options were buying or renting the dang thing.  She highly doubted any Red Boxes would carry it and she was too cheap to go buy her own copy (how long would DVDs and Blu Rays be viable ways to watch films, anyway?), so she decided to rent a copy on iTunes.


As she ate breakfast, Leni ordered a copy on her iPad and let it download while she was at work.  She figured by the time she got home, the movie would be done downloading so she could enjoy it after dinner.


Work could not go by fast enough that day!


She actually happened to be living in France when the film first came out.  She probably wouldn’t it if it hadn’t come recommended, though…


“So, what are we seeing tonight?” Leni asked.  She was going to the movies with her co-worker Odette in the next town over.


“Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain,” Odette said.  “It’s done by the Jeunet brothers and stars Audrey Tatou.  How does that sound?”


“Audrey Who?”  Leni had heard of a lot of French actresses, but not that particular one.


“Audrey Tatou.  She’s about your age and she was in ‘Venus Beauty Institute’ which came out a couple years ago.  You’ve never heard of her?”


“No.”  Just flippin great.  Just because you speak better English than I do, I was kind of hoping wed see some of the recent Oscar nominated films.  But, no, fine.  Well see your stupid French movie!  “The Jeunet brothers…have I heard of them?”


“’Delicatessen?’  “’The City of the Lost Children?’”


Leni had seen both of those.  Jean-Pierre and Guillaume Jeuent wrote fantastical films based on quirky characters, usually featuring dystopic societies, which she had some to hate in movies.  Still, she liked both movies immensely.  Even if she had never heard of Audrey Tatou, the movie couldn’t be that bad.


She and Odette got to the theater, paid for their tickets and settled into their seats.  But then Leni was struck with an insane desire to eat some popcorn, though she hadn’t noticed any concessions stand.  “Can I get some popcorn?” she whispered to Odette, who’d been to the theater smany times before.


“Yeah, the machine is out in the lobby.”


“Machine?”  Had she heard Odette right?


“Yeah, I think it costs 20 francs.  Do you need a coin?”


“Nah, I’m good.”  Am I good?  Who the hell buys movie popcorn out of a machine?  Leni made her way back to the lobby and scanned the room.  She saw two people standing in front of a vending machine/kiosk.  Bingo.


She watched like a hawk as the couple inserted a coin and punched a button.  A large plastic cup dropped down followed by a shower of popcorn.  The little door opened and they retrieved their popcorn.


Examining the machine, she didn’t find any indications for extra salt or butter.  Am I really paying three bucks for a cup of plain popcorn?  Leni hadn’t been to the movies in so long that she was really passed caring.  She popped her coin in.  The machine whirred to life and the cup dropped.  Though she didn’t hear any popping, the popcorn came flowing down and the door opened.  She reached her hand in and got her treat.  She couldn’t resist the urge to taste one kernel and she almost spat it out, it was so disgusting.


The popcorn was stale.  And sugared.


Leni despised caramel corn, and this was not a welcome way to eat popcorn, especially when she wanted a huge bag of fresh popcorn drowning in (real or fake) melted butter.  Popcorn wasn’t supposed to have tiny sugar granules on it, nor was it supposed to be stale.  It tasted foul and it was a real disappointment.


Still, she was cheap.  She’d paid for the popcorn so dammit she was going to eat it.


She wove her way back to her seat and set the cup between her legs.  “The popcorn’s sweet,” she hissed to Odette as the trailers came on.


“Of course it is, what did you expect?”  She really had no idea.


“In the States, our popcorn is salted and usually has butter on it.”


Odette’s eyes grew large and even in the dim theater, Leni could see her genuine shock.  “No wonder there’s such an obesity epidemic over there.”


Leni just offered her some popcorn.  Now is not the time to get into it.


It was wise of her not to argue with her friend about fat Americans (at size 18, Leni was hardly svelte by American or French standards), because she was in for a cinematic treat.  Though she missed some of the cultural references and the film was not subtitled—why would you subtitle a French film in France—Leni understood the vast majority of the dialogue, enough to be completely besotted with the film.


Amélie was a plucky waitress in Paris whose mission it became to improve the life of those around her.  Through her direct meddling, her father got out of his house/hermitage and traveled the world, her café customers stopped obsessing about their problems and hooked up with new loves, the mysterious artist across the alley turned out to be a lovely friend, the shy grocer’s assistant found his voice and his worth, her landlady found a “lost” letter from her deceased philandering husband, and Amélie solved the mystery of the man in red shoes for her new boyfriend, Nino.


The plot was whimsical, and the visuals superb.  Leni loved the reds, greens and yellows which dominated the color scheme.  The soundtrack was pure French; she could easily imagine smoking a Gauloise in a café circa 1920 and enjoying such gay accordion music.  The costumes were fun.  Leni particularly enjoyed Audrey Tatou’s simple sweaters and dresses, though she didn’t care so much for the clunky Doc Martens she always wore.


More than anything else was the film’s message…life is beautiful and meant to be enjoyed, from the simplest pleasures (putting hands in sacks of grain, skipping stones, breaking the surface of crème brûlée) to the biggest triumphs (falling in love, doing good for others).


Leni had never seen such a fun, beautiful movie from beginning to end.  A satisfying emotional roller coaster.


In the decade that passed, Leni saw the film two or three more times, but it she hadn’t seen it since she got her master’s degree.  Like so many other films, Leni tucked the memory of the movie safely into the recesses of her mind.  Though she couldn’t tell you the plot or the characters, she could tell you how the movie made her feel.


Which was precisely why she was so excited to get home and watch it after work.


She couldn’t stop thinking about the movie at work.  She resisted the mighty impulse to look up a plot synopsis or even pictures online, though she did cave in and played “La valse d’Amélie” on YouTube and listened to it three times in a row.  It was hard concentrating on all her spreadsheets when her brain was in Paris ready to dive into a world of French whimsy.


Leni got home, changed into her jammies, fed Opie, ate dinner, then settled back onto her couch with her iPad.  The movie was downloaded, cued up and she was ready to rock and roll.


She wasn’t disappointed.  Though it had been ten years since last she’d seen “Amélie,” Leni cried when Amélie despaired of ever meeting Nino.  She cheered the grocer’s assistant when he grew a pair of balls and defended himself against his mean employer.  She laughed at the garden gnome’s exploits as he trotted the globe.  She sighed with relief as Amélie rode on the back of Nino’s moped—young, happy and in love.




She shut her tablet off and got ready for bed.  Leni fell in love with the movie all over again and she wasn’t disappointed by one single detail in the film.  She remembered precisely what she had loved about the movie all those years ago, and with a few years (and hopefully some grace and wisdom) under her belt, she was able to make a few more observations she couldn’t as a 22-year-old.


While Leni couldn’t machinate the good deeds like Amélie could, she could try to be the happiest person she could to make someone else’s day just a little bit brighter.  You really never know how awful a day people have had, so it did pay to treat people gently.  Unless they are assholes—then they just deserve whatever you can fling back at them.  She was glad she wasn’t quite as solitary as Amélie was, but Leni could stand to get out of the house a little more frequently.  And for God’s sake, keep your eyes open!  There are menfolk all around, waiting to be flirted with…


Leni had the film rented for three days, but she only felt compelled to see it once.  Though she would be damned if it would be ten years before she saw it again, Leni was content just seeing it this one time.  She was older and wiser than her 22-year-old self and certainly had more life experience than Amélie.  She wasn’t a quirky Parisian café waitress.  She was a quirky American data analyst, and she had the grace and wisdom to know what she wanted in life and go after it.


Carpe diem.

L’ennui en rose part trois


Vendredi (Friday)                                                                                         Jour Cinq (Day 5)


Make a simple vinaigrettePreferably use whatever you already have.


Well, it looked like Leni was having salad for dinner…


Mme Martin did 100% of the cooking, but there was one day she asked Leni for some help.


“Can you please make the mjoldsp?” she asked, wiping her flour-covered hands on her striped apron.


“Pardon?” Leni asked, not quite sure what she was asking.


“For the salad.  Can you make a vinaigrette?”


Though she’d never officially heard that word in French, Leni knew what vinaigrette was.  French salad dressing.  But dont those come out of bottles?


Leni left her spot in the armchair in front of the evening news and made her way to the kitchen.  Mme Martin bustled around, but she had bottles and jars of various sizes on the counter next to a bowl and a fork.  What in Jesus name am I supposed to do? Leni fretted.


“I have everything you need there on the qwcpox,” Mme Martin said.


Is she assuming I know what the hell Im doing?  Leni didn’t know what the hell she was doing.  The flattened herself against the counter as best she could do avoid being knocked over by her host mom.  Picking up the bottles and jars one by one, she examined the ingredients.  Olive oil…some sort of vinegar…lemon juice…some type of Dijon-ish mustard…salt…pepper…spices she couldn’t identify…


Mme Martin paused from whatever sauce she was stirring on the stove.  “Oui?” she asked politely when she saw Leni’s hesitation.


“Do you…do you have a paper with instructions?” Leni asked.


“Oh, a vsfypoq?” Mme Martin countered.


That must mean recipe.  “Yes.”


“Oh, just make it like you normally do,” Mme Martin said calmly.  “I’m sure it’ll be fine.  Be careful not to put in too much vinegar.”


Leni’s hands started to shake.  God damn it I have never made a goddamn vinaigrette in my freaking life.  The closest she had ever come was making Italian dressing for her mom, pouring in the amounts written on the lines of the salad dressing bottle.  Then she added the Italian dressing seasoning, put the cap on and shook the shit out of the bottle.


Sighing inaudibly so that Mme Martin wouldn’t think she was a complete and utter moron, Leni put just a couple drops of vinegar in the bowl.  A squirt of mustard, a drizzle of olive oil then a splash of lemon juice.  She was conservative with the salt and liberal with everything else, though she had no clue what the spices were.


I need to stir the damn thing, she thought.  Cant shake the bowl if its not coveredno spoon in sight…Was that what the fork was for?  She grabbed it and vigorously beat the vinaigrette in the bowl.  Mustard splattered on the counter.


“It is not necessary to murder the vinaigrette,” Mme Martin laughed gently.


The games up, Leni thought.  “I never make before.”


Host mom’s eyebrows shot up.  “Vraiment?”


“Vraiment.  Our vinaigrette, she is in the bottles.  We buy in store.”  Best to come clean.


“Really?  I didn’t know Americans do not make their own.  That is interesting.”  She tasted whatever she was working on.  “It is best to taste what you make, you know.”  Without making Leni feel like a complete moron, Mme Martin gracefully told Leni it was OK to experiment.  Not every recipe is written down.


Leni dabbed her fork in the sauce and let a couple drops slide onto her finger.  Licking it, her face instantly puckered up.  It was waaaaaaaay to tart!  There has got to be a way out of this!  Because olive oil is pretty mild, she put in another drizzle, added some more salt and stuck in one of the spices that was particularly aromatic, which she later found out was rosemary.  She stirred it—more gently this time—and tried it again.


Much better.  The olive oil cancelled out a lot of the tang the vinegar, lemon juice and mustard had.  Though she didn’t see any, Leni was sure it would be even better with just a pinch of brown or white sugar to give it a sweet component. 


Oh my God!  Im actually thinking about complex flavors on a simple vinaigrette!  Leni’s head swirled around the counter, but she didn’t even see anything that resembled a salad.  Her chest puffed out a little bit when she realized she was building her own recipe and not knowing exactly what was in it.  It was just like the way her grandparents cooked.  She never saw them look at a recipe; it was always a pinch of this or a dash of that, stirring and tasting until they got the desired results.  And the dish turned out damn good every time.


“Can you taste, please?” she begged Mme Martin, who put her spoon down and made her way down the counter.  She dunked her pinky in and tasted it.  “Very nice, Léni!”  Her smile was gentle and genuine.


“A little sugar, yes?” Leni volunteered.  “It make taste more good.”


Host mom bobbed her head in agreement.  “You’re exactly right.”  She opened a cabinet and without even looking, put the tiniest handful of white sugar imaginable in.  She gave it a small stir and proffered the fork to Leni.


The enhanced vinaigrette exploded in her mouth.  It was smooth from the olive oil, tangy from the lemon juice, mustard and vinegar.  The spices—whatever they were—added a complex component and the sugar enhanced it with just the slightest sweet element.  It was the most sophisticated salad dressing Leni had ever tried, and she made it with her own two hands.


Mme Martin stuck her finger in one more time to taste it.  With baited breath and her heart racing, Leni asked, “C’est bon?”


An eternity passed before her host mother reached her verdict.  With a slight nod and tiny wiggle of her eyebrows, Mme Martin pronounced, “C’est bon.”


Leni might as well have won the Nobel Peace Prize, NBA finals, World Series, Super Bowl, BSC trophy and an Oscar all in one fell swoop.  All the accolades she’d ever received in her life couldn’t compare to the elation she felt that her French host mom validated her first attempt at making vinaigrette when she didn’t really know what the hell she was doing.




Leni saw the empty salad bowl on the counter but didn’t see the actual salad.  Her head straining around the kitchen, she queried, “Where’s the salad?”


“It’s in the fridge.”  Mme Martin resumed her stirring over the stove.  “Why?”


“I wanted to place the vinaigrette over the salad.”


Mme Martin’s keen brown eyes peered over her glasses at Leni.  “Over the salad?”


“Yeah.  You do not put of the vinaigrette over the salad?”


A frown furrowed Mme Martin’s brow.  “I’m not sure how you do it at home, but I put the vinaigrette in the dhmseyuv of the bowl then the salad on top.  You mxnqegbo the salad.”


Leni had no clue what she was talking about.  To illustrate her point, Mme Martin handed her spoon to Leni, reached into the fridge to pull out the container of lettuce and set it on the counter.  She poured the vinaigrette in the bowl, took her spoon back and resumed her station at the stove.  “Can you please njipaqe the lettuce?”


Something about tossing it?  Leni took a fork and spoon, lightly tossing the salad and coating it with the vinaigrette that was on the bottom of the bowl.  “Comme ça?”  She showed Mme Martin what she’d done. 


“Oui, oui!”  More approval!  Leni thought her head would explode from sheer triumph.


“In America, we put ourselves much vinaigrette on the salad.  Too much.  The salad, she is always very…wet.”


“Wet?”  A look of confusion danced across Mme Martin’s features, but she found the right word.  “Soggy.”


“Yes, soggy.  The salad, I do not like to eat when she is too soggy.  This, this is good.  I like.”


There are a lot of things about France that I like.



Leni was just about ready to leave work Friday evening when her cell phone shook on her desk.  It was her dear friend Annie, who had been her good friend since elementary school.


“Hey, what are your plans for tonight?” Annie asked without much preamble.


“Not much.  About to head home and fix some dinner.”


“I got a nice bottle of red wine.  Not quite sure what it is, but it’s French and I thought it’d be something we could enjoy.”


Leni hesitated for a second.  Damn it I want me some wine but I have to make a damn salad tonight.  Rules are rules.  Grr.


Annie jumped into the pause.  “What?  Hot date?” she teased.  She knew Leni was painfully shy with the menfolk, but she also knew about Leni’s self-deprecating humor.  Only Annie could joke about her love life without Leni wanting to rip her face off.


“Oh, you know it!  Wine sounds good.  How about I pick up a salad and some bread?  We’ll make a meal out of it.”


She didn’t have to twist Annie’s arm.  After Leni finished work, she swung by the grocery store, purchased the items in question and got to Annie’s house.


Annie was already half-way though her first glass but she had one ready for Leni when she walked in the door.  Leni needed no coaxing. 


While Annie gently poked fun at Leni’s amorous prowess, Leni could give Annie shit about her culinary savoir-faire…or lack thereof in this case.  She did have an excellent red wine, though.  It was dry and smoky—exactly how she liked her wine.


But nothing else in the kitchen remotely signaled an impending meal.  The oven wasn’t even on.  “So…were you thinking garlic bread and salad were just gonna materialize out of nowhere or what?” Leni demanded.


Annie took another sip of wine.  “Bite me!”


It really was nothing for Leni to saw the baguette, slather it with butter and dump spice on it before throwing it in the oven.  She had the bag of salad ready to go on the counter and was just about to ask about the dressing when Annie remembered, “Shit!  I used the last of the ranch for lunch!  How do you feel about a naked salad?”


“I could make something,” Leni offered.


“Yeah, but I don’t have any seasoning packets…” Annie mumbled, rummaging around in the cupboards.


“No problem.  Got Dijon mustard?”


“No, just the yellow crap my kid puts on her hot dogs,” Annie said, waiving it from the refrigerator door.


“That’ll work.”  Leni directed her to get vegetable oil, white vinegar, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning.  Feeling like an old pro, Leni dumped everything into a small bowl without measuring—this was the one thing on the planet she could make without looking at a recipe—and fearlessly stirred it with a fork.


She offered the fork to Annie.  “Taste.”


Annie’s eyes grew to the size of saucers.  “That.  Is.  SO.  GOOD!  How the hell did you do that?  That was all crap I just had here in my own kitchen!”


Leni took a tiny taste before she put it in the bottom of the salad bowl.  “An old family recipe I learned from my host mom in France.”  The Mona Lisa-esque smiled played at the corners of her mouth as she lightly coated the salad with her simple vinaigrette.


Youd be proud of me, Mme Martin!  Old family recipe indeed.


Samedi (Saturday)                                                                                        Jour Six (Day 6)


Walk to the grocery store.


It was 7:30 am.  Opie decided Leni had slept in long enough.  He paced on Leni’s hair on her pillow.


“Go ‘way!” Leni said, burrowing her head under the covers.


Opie was not to be deterred.  He took his claws—which should probably have been trimmed a couple weeks ago—and dug them into Leni’s scalp.  Leni was pretty sure he removed more than a few hair follicles and some blood in the process.


“NO, KITTY!” she mumbled, throwing her baby out of bed and onto the floor with a solid thud


Opie was going to win this battle.  With a mighty purr/chirp, he heaved himself back on the bed.  Gently pussyfooting his way over the mountain of blankets, he planted himself squarely on Leni’s chest.  With his ass smack in her face.


Why did I ever think getting a damn cat was a good idea?  Bleeding from her scalp and with the smell of cat ass fresh in her face, it was time for Leni to get up.  She padded into the kitchen, dumped Opie’s food in a bowl and made some coffee.


While the elixir of life was brewing, Leni drew her next slip out of the beret.


Grocery store.  Walk.


She looked across her apartment to the window beyond.  It was misting outside. 


Goody goody gumdrops.  I get to walk to the ten blocks to the store in the rain


It didn’t take a rocket scientist to tell Leni was never destined to drive in France.  She couldn’t drive stick if her life depended on it.  She hated the little cars that looked like they came out of cereal boxes.  Gas was freaking expensive compared to the States.  And it was pretty much a law in France the streets could only be three feet wide.


Yeah, there was no way in hell she was driving anywhere.


Leni didn’t mind hoofing it everywhere, but no one told her anything about walking around like a pack mule being burdened down with bags and bags of groceries.


Now, she had always learned in her French classes in high school and even college that French people still visited specialty shops for food like the pastry shop, the deli, bakery, etc.  Of course they did the bulk of their shopping in supermarkets, but the neighborhood merchant (especially the bakery) was still very much relevant in France.


Mme Martin went to at least one specialty shop a day, coming home with a baguette, a pastry for desert, sausages…It was all delicious, but Leni never went anywhere with her except for the bakery on the weekends.  Where Mme Martin did all of her shopping was something of a mystery.


After Leni moved into the dorms, she was on her own for food.  Thankfully there was a Casino grocery store about a half mile from the dorms, so she decided she was going to go with a couple of her friends to get their initial provisions.  How hard could it be?


Ah, famous last words.  At 20 years old, Leni never had to do the grocery shopping just for herself, so she was in for some trouble.


Leni and her two American girlfriends had no problem reaching the store on foot, but they were woefully unprepared for the magic that awaited them.  Delicious cheeses they had never heard of.  Pastas.  Nutella.  Bread.  Pastry.  Chocolate.  Nothing could have prepared them for the onslaught of delicious foods that awaited them!  They puttered their shopping carts through the store, throwing items in.  Not unlike drunk sailors on pay day.


Checking out at the grocery store was another experience Leni was not quite prepared for.  First of all, all the clerks were seated.  That never would have flown in the States!  Secondly, their grim, dour faces did nothing to invite the small talk Leni was so accumstomed to from American cashiers. 


Like French zombies, they scanned the items, shoving them in plastic bags.  Leni’s total was 146.25 francs, just over $20.  Leni handed her a 200-franc note, not thinking much of it.


The cashier didn’t retract her hand to make change.  Leni stared at her, confused.  “What?” she was really not in the mood to deal with any new cultural nuances right now.


“Don’t you have any change?” the cashier asked, coldly.


“No, that’s your job,” Leni hissed.  Seriously?  She was supposed to dig through her wallet for spare change while that lazy slag sat there doing jack squat?  Really.  Leni was NOT in the mood.


The cashier’s lemon-sucking expression instantly changed to complete and utter shock.  Mouth agape, she opened the till which contained a lot of compartments since France had no less than nine coins and five papers bills in circulation before the euro kicked in in 2002.  She barely managed to get the customary “bonne journée” out of her mouth before Leni snatched the bags and stormed away.


Leni would later learn that in France, pretty much all cashiers asked if you had exact change.  Though she never understood why, she assumed they were all lazy sons of bitches who couldn’t be bothered.  It didn’t take her long to use the catchphrase, “That’s your job,” narrow her eyes into slits and wait in dead silence until she got her change.  Again, she had better things to do than dig for change and, frankly, she did enjoy the mental tug-of-war.  She so liked torturing petty people!


Anyway, after the Change Battle Royale, Leni and her comrades struggled to get back to the bus stop.  Though the busses were frequent, they couldn’t understand why they waited nearly an hour and no bus had come.  Several people approached them and tried to start talking to the girls, but Leni and her hyper vigilant friends conversed in English and ignored the four older women who had tried to engage them in conversation.


All of the women had grocery caddies with them, the kind on wheels that could transport groceries for someone walking.  They were simple in their elegance—two wheels, a tall hamper-like basket with a telescopic handle for easy pulling.  If Leni was a


The girls decided they waited long enough and started trudging back to the dorms.  It wasn’t too bad the first couple blocks, but Leni’s arms quickly tired of their heavy burden and she had to constantly stop, juggling her heavy plastic bags.


The last two hundred yards from the dorms, a bus sailed right by.  Leni later learned there was a different bus route and schedule on the weekend, which she had never known.  She was pretty sure that the women who tried to talk to her were trying to tell them the bus would not some for quite some time.  So much for American can-do (or, in this case, can-wait) attitude!  So she wound up making the long journey, killing her arms and looking like a fool all because she couldn’t read a damn bus schedule!


Two years later when Leni went back to France to live and work as a high school teacher, she was faced with a similar conundrum.  Though her room was paid for at the boarding school she worked at, she still had to pay the cafeteria for her meals.  She did not like taking her meals in the student or faculty cantine, plus the school was closed on the weekends, so she decided to cook for herself in the privacy of her own tiny kitchen in her suite.


But, of course, that required her to hoof it to get her meals.  The grocery store—bizarrely named Super U—was located about three-quarters of a mile away from the school.  Leni had to make the trek once, sometimes twice a week, in order to get her food.  It wasn’t too bad—she got exercise and fresh air—so long as she didn’t purchase bottled water.


Leni was cheap.  She never understood or agreed with the French obsession with drinking bottled water.  She was perfectly happy using one bottle for tap water over and over again.  What’s more, who wanted to lug a six- or eight-bottle case of Evian bottled (each with 1.5 liters of water) almost a mile?  Certainly not Leni!


Her suitemate, a 20-year-old French boy, kept warning her how bad the water really was, which she always pooh-poohed.  Until one day.  It was February of the school year and Leni went away for a week-long road trip.  She accidentally knocked over a water bottle in her haste to leave.  When she came home, much to her horror, she discovered a blatantly obvious layer of rust-colored sediment on the bottom of the bottle she knocked on its side.


That made a believer out of her!


So from that moment on, Leni became a fanatical consumer of bottled water.  Even though she lugged her six-pack of Evian home from the Super U every week or two, it was sure as hell better than drinking rust.  Needless to say, she developed some strong legs and lost over 20 pounds from all the physical exertion!


Leni in America did not walk to the grocery store, though.  That was what cars were for.  Why would any sane person walk to a grocery store they didn’t even like (Leni hated the grocery store closest to her) when they had a perfectly good car?


Still, rules were rules.  At least she didn’t draw this command on a weeknight—that would suck to have to walk ten blocks in the dark!


After lunch, she put on a jacket, stashed an umbrella in her purse and made the 15-minute walk to the store.  Though it was finely misting, it was a gorgeous fall afternoon.  Leni breathed deeply and watched her breath waft up past the colors exploding from the trees.


Leni didn’t need much at the grocery store—this was a perfunctory visit.  She pawed through the produce and picked out a lemon, a clove of garlic and some olive oil for that night’s dinner.  It was such a refreshing change of pace to not have to fight with the cashier about money.  Leni paid with a ten dollar bill and actually got change back without so much as a peep from the perky high school girl who rang her up. 


Leni slung her purse over her body, nonchalantly swung her plastic bag at her side and strolled home without a care in the world.  It was not an exciting trip, but she didn’t have to drag heavy bottles of water back home, and her very existence did not depend on her ability to walk to procure food.


Would Leni walk to the grocery store again considering it was so close to her?  Probably not, because she usually grocery shopped as she ran errands and honestly did not have time to enjoy an amble though the neighborhood every week. A lot had changed in over ten years, but Leni was older and wise enough to enjoy a pedestrian trip to the supermarket instead of dreading it.


Dimanche (Sunday)                                                                                      Jour Sept (Day 7)


Buy a bouquet of fresh flowers.


Opie “let” Leni sleep in until nine the next day.  While her fuzzy vulture paced at her feet, Leni drew that day’s mission out of the beret.


Not a problem here.


Leni loved fresh flowers.  She very rarely bought them because beautiful as they were, it was foolish to spend money on something that would die a few days later.  She had never received flowers from a boyfriend except for one sweet guy who brought a carnation on a first date.  Leni was usually relegated them to buying them for herself, and she was used to it.


Leni was going over to Mme Martin’s house for dinner.


Since Leni had moved away a month ago, she managed to keep in contact with her host mom through infrequent phone calls and a couple letters, but Leni was jonesing for a home cooked meal, and she really missed Mme Martin’s company.


They had agreed Leni would come over to the Martin house after classes, but Leni had some time to kill before her bus got there.  Plus, she had to pick out a small gift to take to thank Mme Martin for dinner.


In France, customary gifts to hostesses are chocolate, wine or flowers.  The problem with Mme Martin was that she didn’t drink.  Leni never dared ask why, but she never saw a bottle of alcohol in all the weeks she lived there.  Either Mmr Martin was a recovering alcoholic or, more likely, she simply didn’t care for alcohol.  Leni met quite a few French people who just didn’t like the taste of any alcohol, which flew in the face of every stereotype Leni had had about French people before coming to France.  Mme Martin did not have much of a sweet tooth, either, so chocolate was really not the best idea.


Flowers it was.


As it was February—a brutally grey and drizzly month in France—there wasn’t much in the way of locally grown flowers, and hothouse flowers were ridiculously expensive.  Still, that didn’t stop Leni from walking around the florist’s shop on the Grand-Rue with an open jaw.  When she stepped into the humid store with tastefully low light, she had no idea flowers could be such an art form.


The flowers were in stands like she had seen at Hobby Lobby, in rows and in small plastic buckets.  They were separated by color and there were about ten of the same flower to a bucket.  The idea was to select the bouquet you wanted and have the florist prepare it for you.  And the trimmings to make the bouquets were nothing short of breathtaking just by themselves.  There were reams of tissue paper and skeins of ribbon in every color, texture and width Leni could think of.  There were colored lengths of wire to add flair, color and visual interest to bouquets instead of boring ferns or baby’s breath.


Leni watched a couple customers select flowers with the florist’s input.  She then rolled added some wire and ribbon, wrapped them in tissue paper and finished with cellophane, beautifully curled ribbon and sealed with a sticker with the boutique’s name and address.  When it cmae to packaging things up, it was really hard to beat the French.


She finally got the courage to look at the flowers without feeling like a total moron, and Leni gasped out loud.  The flowers were five bucks a pop and up.  Even if she made a simple bouquet of three or four flowers, that was more money than she had wanted to spend.  Leni was crestfallen.


Then she got an idea.  There were potted flowers outside with a lower price sticker.  Maybe one of them would be less than fifteen bucks?  She popped back out to the street display and found pots of maroon-colored chrysanthemums.  Eight bucks a pop.




Leni selected one and went to go pay for it.  She was giddy that she’d managed to find flowers at a reasonable price.  Mme Martin loved plants, so this would be perfect.


“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the florist said as she carefully covered the mums in cellophane wrap.


“Pardon?”  Leni didn’t quite get what she was driving at.


“You have peqxcvlo here,” the florist explained.


That must mean mums?  “Yeah.  They are pretty, no?”


The florist did something Leni had rarely seen—she bustled and fussed over the flowers without really acknowledging Leni’s comment.  Which was very weird, because French people usually had an opinion about everything and they weren’t afraid about sharing it.  This woman was being tactfully diplomatic.  That was almost, well…American.


Leni paid for her flowers and marched over to the bus stop to wait for hers.  As she stood there she got a number of strange looks from passersby.


What the flip is wrong with me?  Is my fly open?  Booger hanging out of my nose?  Leni just couldn’t figure out why people were looking at her like she was some kind of freak.  She discretely wiped her nose and felt her jeans—nothing seemed amiss.


When the bus arrived, she hopped on, showed her pass and settled into a banquette seat.  An old woman looked at her across the aisle with a small, sad smile.


What the hell is going on?!  I know I usually stick out like a sore thumb, but do I have the word “freak” tattooed across my forehead?  If Leni wasn’t so looking forward to Mme Martin’s excellent dinner and company, she would have started to full-blown panic right then and there.


Mercifully the bus ride was only fifteen minutes long.  Leni couldn’t get off the bus fast enough, punch in the code to the apartment building she used to live in and climb the four flights of stairs up.  She rang the buzzer, starting to get more than a little giddy.


Mme Martin answered the door in her apron.  “Ah, Léni!  C’est vous!  Comment ça va?” she asked with a sincere, bright smile.


Leni put the flower pot behind her back so she could crane her neck and get a kiss on each cheek. 


“Entrez, entrez,” Mme Martin warmly welcomed her in.


Before Leni took off her jacket, she held out the pot of chrysanthemums.  “These are for you.  Thank you for inviting me!”


Mme Martin’s joyful expression was replaced with a look of sheer horror in about two nanoseconds.  And that weirded Leni out—her host mom never lost her cool.  Ever.


“What’s wrong?”  Leni was having a slight freak-out.


“Why did you bring me peqxcvlo?”  Mme Martin wouldn’t even touch it to put it on the dining room table.


There’s that stupid word again!  Does it mean “mums?”  “Well, I bought it at the florist. The other bouquets, they were a bit too expensive so I bought you this.  You don’t like?”


Realization dawned on Mme Martin’s face and for the very first time that evening, someone actually smiled at Leni.  Granted, it was huge smile of relief, but given the lousy reaction she’d gotten from her mums, she would take what she could get!


“I’ll be honest with you, Léni, really don’t care for peqxcvlo.  Don’t you have them in America?”


She took the small glass of whiskey Mme Martin offered and sat took a sip.  “Yes we do.  Why?”


“In France, we only give peqxcvlo when there is a ngvqpetf.”


“Ngvqpetf?”  It seemed like that was the key to uncovering the mystery of the mums.


“Yes, the ceremony when a person dies.  Peqxcvlo are flowers for funerals.”


Horror settled in the pit of Leni’s stomach and registered in her eyes.  Mums are only used in funerals.  No wonder everyone was looking at me like I was completely insane—I might as well have handed out baskets of lilies with the “In remembrance” ribbon on them!  Holy crap!  “I—I didn’t know!  I am so sorry!”


Mme Martin laughed softly.  “They only mnzsfrthi in the fall, so they are associated with death and ngvqpetf.  So in America, you do not use them when someone dies?”


“No, we use the white flower that looks like a trumpet.  Oh, Mme Martin, everyone looked at me like I was a Martian!  Now I understand why people gave me the strange looks!”  That’s what a get for being cheap!  “I’m sorry.”


Her host mother was extremely gracious about it like she always was.  Instead of keeping the ghoulish flowers at her home, she would take them to the cemetery to place at her parents’ graves the next day.  Leni wouldn’t blame her if she decided to keep them out on the patio for the evening.


Note to self—chrysanthème means “chrysanthemum.”  Do not give them to anyone alive for any reason ever.


Leni went grocery shopping at target that afternoon and went to the flower section last.  There were many colorful bouquets for her to choose from, from carnations to roses.  But they paled in comparison with Leni’s memories of French florists.  She couldn’t pick the gorgeous flowers she wanted to make her own colorful arrangement, and whoever made the bouquets probably didn’t take the traditional symbolism into consideration.


Yeah, picking out flowers here in the States just isn’t the same.


Still, that didn’t stop Leni from enjoying the scents of heady roses and delicate irises.  She settled on an autumnal arrangement with sunflowers, tiger lilies and other small decorative flowers she couldn’t identify.  For six bucks she got an explosion of color and the memory of those awful mums.


When she got home, she stuck the flowers up on a bookshelf high out of Opie’s reach as he had the tendency to munch on anything green and Leni didn’t want to poison him.  She settled in to watch more of Katie’s Beckett’s videos on YouTube, but she couldn’t help but smile at the vase on her top shelf.


Who doesn’t love flowers?  Who doesn’t love getting flowers that won’t spook the crap out of them?

L’ennui en rose part deux


Mardi (Tuesday)                                                                                           Jour Deux (Day 2)


Drink an apértif before dinner.


Leni woke up fresh as a daisy and her duvet was still fairly free of wrinkles, though Opie had managed to get a fine sheen of white cat hair on it.


Meh, Leni thought.  I’d rather have a house full of cat hair than not have sweet Opie in my life.


She showered, wrapped a towel around herself and while breakfast was heating up, she pulled her second slip out of the beret.


She smiled to herself when she read it.  Apéritif in the evening?  Hell yeah!


Leni always enjoyed going out for cocktails with the girls and she loved her glasses of wine, but something told her she was really going to enjoy this.


She knew she didn’t have anything in her liquor cabinet nor did she have any wine on hand, but Leni recently read in a blog tomato juice was a common non-alcoholic apértif in Europe.  She had some on hand, so she would give it a shot after work.



Leni was over at her friends’ house for dinner.  The Dujardin family was about as nice as they came.  Thomas, Fanny and their 13-year-old son Florian had advertized on the bulletin board at Leni’s language school.  Thomas was looking for native English speakers to practice his language skills with as part of his job.  Leni was grateful for home-cooked meals and the chance to practice her French.


The first time she went over, about a month into her stay in France, she was warmly welcomed and settled into the couch.  After a few minutes of small talk, Thomas said, “Would you like an apéritif?”


This was an alien concept to Leni as she was only 20 and no one in her family drank before dinner.  Her father had beers during football games and the like, but no one really had cocktails before dinner.  “What’s an apéritif?” she asked, genuinely curious.


In his halting English, Thomas said, “It is the alcohol we have before dinner.  It is to help make us hungry.”


“Hungry?”  Young Leni didn’t see the connection between booze and the appetite.


Explaining further was beyond Thomas’ English capacities.  Lapsing into French he explained, “It’s a custom we have to take a drink before dinner.  I suppose in America you would call it cocktails?”


Leni looked embarrassed and felt like a naïve hick.  “I am not enough old to drink of the alcohol.”  Though she’d been to her share of college parties, Leni was not a big drinker.”


Thomas continued, “But in France since you are over 18, you are old enough.  The apéritif is just a way to socialize and get ready for the dinner that is to come.”


That sounded good to Leni.  “I like this idea.”


Thomas grinned.  Striding over to the TV stand, he opened the bottom cabinet.  Leni’s jaw dropped to the ground when she saw the dozen or so alcohol bottles underneath.  She couldn’t make out the labels and she was dying of curiosity to see exactly what they were, but she didn’t dare go read them to look like she was a snoop.


“What would you like, Leni?  I have whiskey, pastis…”


“What is pastis?”  That was one she’d never heard of.


Thomas went back to his English.  “It is from the south of France.  It is very good in the summer.  It has taste of the anus.”


Leni had to pretend to cough to keep from laughing her ass off.  Anus tasting?!  What the flip was he talking about?!  “Can I smell it?”


“But of course!”  Passing the bottle of amber-colored liquor over, Leni unscrewed the lid and took a wary sniff.  It smelled just like black licorice, not an ass.  While it was one of her least favorite candies, she was very intrigued by this new drink.  “Can I try that?”


“Oh, yes!  I have some, too.”  Thomas reached under the TV and pulled out two cylindrical glasses.  He went into the kitchen to fill both of them up with ice and returned with a small pitcher of water.  Pouring a jig into both glasses, he said, “It is the custom to add water.  I let you pour and taste.”


With trepidation, Leni picked up the small pitcher and added just a shot of water to her drink.  Her drink turned from the color of a fine whiskey to the palest yellow imaginable, like homemade lemonade.  She wondered—what were the properties in the water that turned the pastis that color?  Thomas filled his glass half-way.


He held up his glass.  “Santé.”


To your health.  “Santé,” she replied, clinking their glasses together.  Taking a tiny sip of the pastis, it pleasantly burned and coated her throat.  It was like drinking cold, refreshing black licorice.  It was light, breezy and it reminded her of summer.


Still, she thought her drink might be a bit too strong.  She poured a little more water, and the effect was even more pleasant.


“You like?” Thomas asked.


“Yes, it’s very good/”


“This drink comes from Provence.  It is usually drinked in the summer and it is thought a man’s drink.”


“A man’s drink?”  Leni never really thought of drinks being more for one gender or the other, apart from fruity martinis so many women seemed to prefer.


“Yes, in the countryside, women do not drink this.”


“I like it!”  Leni wasn’t just being polite—she couldn’t get enough of it!


“You want more?” Thomas offered.


Leni didn’t have to be asked twice.  She didn’t want to be greedy and she didn’t dare ask for a third drink.  She learned as time went on that while the French enjoyed their apéritifs, most folks of her acquaintance did not over indulge to the point they were drunk.  The same went for having wine at dinner—they savored it, they enjoyed it and even discussed it.  But nearly all the French people she knew did not drink to get drunk.  It was the pleasure of having a beverage and sharing it with friends and family.


Leni would also go on to discover more about pastis in Peter Mayle’s excellent books about Provence.  Pastis was a truly southern French drink consumed by paysans and nobility alike.  Thomas was right that men were most often portrayed drinking it, but Leni didn’t let that stop her from having it.


Getting it in the States was rather tricky.  Specialty liquor shops carried it, so she stocked up on it whenever she had it.  And she almost always had it the same way as the first time she drank it—two ice cubes and just a touch of cold water.





Instead of searching high and low over town searching for pastis, Leni settled for her tomato juice.  She would have been perfectly happy with pastis, but it would have to wait for another day.


While her soup was heating on the stove, Leni opened up her can of tomato juice and she made an awful face.  It smelled vile!  How was she supposed to enjoy this as an apéritif?  She didn’t even have anything that remotely resembled cocktail glasses, either!


She settled for her plastic tumblers from Target.  Filling the glass half-way with tomato juice, she continued making faces at it.  Is there no way to make this any better? she despaired.


She was just about to slam it back when here eyes came to rest on her spice rack.  Leni saw the cayenne pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes.  Why not?  Spice it up a little bit and gice it a real kick!  She shook generous helpings of both into the tumbler.


She took a tentative sip.  Not bad at all.  Spicy and tart, it coated her throat as it slid down, while the heat from the cayenne and pepper flakes burst in her sinuses.  De-lish!


As she savored the spice, she realize she needed something to munch on to counteract the heat on her palette.  She searched her memories for what she used to eat during aperitif time.  Shelled mussels speared with toothpicks, assortments of olives, baby gherkin pickles, potato chips, peanuts, ham, assorted cheeses and crackers…What sounded good?


Living life as a bachelorette, Leni did not keep a particularly well-stocked pantry.  She rummaged around and found a can of cashews.  Perfect.  She poured a tiny bowl and made her way out to the bistro set on her porch.  She slowly sipped her drink and alternated it with nibbling on her cashews.  Spicy and salty.


She watched the fun slowly fade into the west as the sky turned yellow to orange to red to pink and dusk settled in.  She sighed deeply and enjoyed her aperitif and snacks.  This was what life was about–slowing down and enjoying life instead of running around like a chicken with her head cut off, never taking the time to enjoy the small things, like the spice of the pepper, the salty silk of the cashews and the kaleidescope of the sunset, all while looking forward to the soup she was heating up for dinner.


The soup!!!  Oh.  Shit.


Well, you can only enjoy life for so long.   Leni dashed back into the  kitchen to find her vegetable soup was a quasi-burned lump of vegetables, most of the broth having evaporated.  All she could do was laugh to herself as she scraped the veggie blob down the garbage disposal.


Time for another tomato juice.  Too bad there wasn’t a shot of vodka to put in there, too.


Mercredi (Wednesday)                                                                                 Jour Trois (Day 3)


Wear a colorful scarf.  If possible, tie it in a knot you have never worn before.


This was not a problem for Leni.  She owned over two dozen scarves looped over the rod in her coat closet.


She did have to YouTube a video of Kate Beckett tying her big emerald silk scarf several different ways.  The problem was Leni didn’t own a square scarf she wore on a regular rotation.  Lots of long ones, plenty of pashminas.  But out of the corner of her eye she spotted one red polyester scarf and she was transported back…


Since Leni first arrived in France in the month of December, it was not hard to see their affinity for scarves.  Bright silk scarves, fluffy cashmere scarves, cotton, polyester and every material in between…she noticed the French didn’t shy away from their scarves.  Even the men wore big wooly mufflers and she thought they were all dashing and very, well, European looking.


She particularly noticed a lot of denizens of her town wearing a camel-colored scarf with a white, red and black pattern.  She saw it everywhere and it was so common, she wondered if it was like the unofficial town colors?


Sweet Leni in her naïveté had never seen a Burberry scarf.  It wasn’t until about five years later she put two and two together.


After two or three weeks of observing the French and suffering a serious case of scarf envy, Leni decided it was time to take the plunge and buy her own.  During her breaks from class she would cruise into local boutiques and admire the bright silk scarves, but at $100 a pop, it was too much for her meager student budget.  She wanted to spend more money on traveling than scarves and she couldn’t justify such a hefty price for a piece of fabric.


One particular silk scarf made her drool.  It was caramel-colored with chocolate swirls on it in an abstract pattern.  Leni admired it on the display, letting the silk drip through her fingers.


The saleswoman approached her.  “Would you like to see how the gdfpmbex looks on you?” she politely inquired.


“Oh, I don’t know how to…how to wear myself that,” Leni said, indicating the scarf.


The sales clerk gave a small Mona Lisa smile.  Leni thought that she stuck out like a sore thumb, but if she stopped to think about it, the city she lived in was always crawling with foreign students drawn to the French language school.  People in town were used to the international university students. 


The clerk took the scarf, fearlessly whipped it around several times the same way one whirled a towel around to give someone a towel snap.  “Voilà…”  She looped she scarf twice around her neck and tied it in a smart knot.  “Et voila!”


Leni was in awe of how quickly she did it.  How was it every woman in this damn country has an innate sense of style?  “How you do that?”


The saleswoman patiently unfolded the scarf and repeated the process.  “Voilà…et voilà.”


“In the United States, we do not wear ourselves the scarf much.”


“That’s a pity.  The scarf is a very useful tfxngbw.  It is an easy way to sfdbxspo an outfit.”  The clerk had amused twinkle in her eye.  “Do you want to try?”


“Scarf is expensive.”  Leni didn’t want to try to tie a scarf only to feel obliged to purchase it.


“Pfffft,” the salesclerk commented as she unfurled the scarf from her neck.  “Try.  You seem like a brave girl.”


Leni wasn’t one to back down from a dare.  She took the scarf and tenuously whipped the middle around and around till it was serpentine in form.  “Voilà?” she asked the clerk for approval.


The Mona Lisa smile got a little wider.  “Voilà.”


Placing it firmly against the back of her neck, Leni brought the ends forward and tried to wrap it back around her neck, but she only succeeded in strangling herself.  “Gah!”


The saleswoman laughed and helped Leni extricate herself from her soft silk noose.  “Other way, mademoiselle.”


Leni tried one more time.  Gently placing it at the front of her throat, she took the two ends, brought them around the back of her neck, crossed them and tied them at the front in a loose knot.  “Voilà?”


The clerk beamed her approval.  “Voilà!”


Leni admired the effect on her.  Though she was wearing jeans and a simple loose black t-shirt, the scarf looked smart, easy and, well…chic.  Why don’t Americans wear scarves all the time?  Holy crap, I have never felt more put-together than I do right now!  Her chest puffed a little bit with pride that she had managed to quickly learn to tie a scarf while only garroting herself once.”


After looking in the mirror a moment or two, it was time for Leni to face the music.  She looked at the handwritten price tag and frowned.  “The scarf, she is so beautiful, but…”


The saleswoman was unfazed.  “It is a little expensive for a university student, yes?”


Leni looked at her with her big, guileless blue eyes.  “You are so nice to show me how to wear myself the scarf, but I…”  Her French vocabulary failed her at getting the guilty words out of her mouth.


“It is my pleasure.  You will return to America and show your friends this, yes?”


Nodding, Leni took one final, longing glance at herself before she reluctantly unwound the magnificent scarf and handed it back to the clerk.  “You are very helpful.  Thank you so much.  Au revoir!”


“It is my pleaure.  Au revoir, young lady!”


Though Leni did not buy the scarf, armed with this new lesson, she was determined to buy herself a scarf and enjoy it.  Less than a week later, she was downtown and quickly needed to get some groceries which were in the basement of Monoprix. 


Before Leni got to the stairs, she stopped to admire the hats, gloves and scarves, which is something she had never taken the time to stop and do before.  She marveled at the kid leather gloves and how they didn’t fit on her fat meaty Midwestern hands.  She looked at the astonishingly tiny travel umbrellas that popped open if you so much sneezed on them.  There were also wool berets of every color and pattern imagineable.


But Leni wasn’t really interested in any of those.  She fingered the aisle of scarves, carefully considering each one.  Monoprix is roughly the French equivalent of Target as far as having cute merchandise at affordable prices.  Leni found one particular scarf that tickled her fancy.  It was a large square-shaped polyester scarf that was a bright crimson red.  To keep it from being too bright, it had big leaves on them that looked like they came from a caramel philodendron.  It looked great over a coat or with a simple t-shirt or jacket.  Leni loved it immediately.  It was 50 francs, about eight bucks.  Perfect for a student budget.


Vendu.  Sold.


That scarf crisscrossed France with Leni and she logged thousands of miles with it.  Though her jacket was a gaudy royal blue windbreaker, the crimson scarf added a bright touch of Europe to what threatened to be a very American outfit.  When she bought a dark brown pleather raincoat, the red scarf was a welcome pop of color.  She got her eight dollars out of that scarf and then some.


But in the years since her undergraduate career, Leni had sadly neglected the scarf, although she dragged it with her wherever she moved.  It was mainly used to pack her breakable perfume bottles with, but she simply could not bring herself to part with it.  Leni knew there were other ways to retire a loved scarf—wrap it around a plain plastic pot to give a plant an extra pop of pizzazz.  She could tie it to her bedpost to decorate or use it to cover a shelf of pretty knickknacks. 


Leni carefully examined her Monoprix scarf and found that that other than some minor fraying at the seams, it was still in excellent shape considering how old it was and how much she paid for it.  Though her with her budget she could probably afford the caramel silk scarf or even an lower-end Burberry scarf, Leni preferred her cheap, scratchy crimson scarf.  Not for the look, but what it represented to her.


It symbolized an easier, carefree time in her younger days.  Though Leni was hardly old at 34, her time in France felt  like it was a million years ago.  It might as well have been a million years ago with all the life Leni had lived in the last 14 years.  But one look at the scarf, smelling the bizarre fragrance of hundreds of perfumes from two continents that lingered on it a decade later…Leni was  20 years old then and there.


Taking the scarf, she fearlessly whipped it in the middle like a rattail.  Winding it around her neck like the saleslady showed her, she put her own twist on it by tucking the ends into the back of her scarf.  The effect was almost like a ascot—the scarf was wound completely around her neck with no ends sticking out.


Leni admired herself in the mirror before she left for work.  The scarf looked about as good as the day she bought it, and it made her black t-shirt, khaki pants and black flats look dressier and that much more special.  While her face was round and her chin double, the scarlet scarf put some color in her cheeks, made her blue eyes bluer and emphasized her short blonde hair.  She grabbed a denim jacket, threw on her big Jackie O sunglasses and hustled out to her car.


On her walk to work, she had an extra spring in her step knowing she looked damn good thanks to one simple scarf.  The fall air seemed fresher, the sky seemed extra bright and was it just her imagination or were the fall leaves even more brilliant in their fall glory?


Leni perched at the curb waiting to cross the street to her office building.  A man approached her and paused next to her, craning his neck left and right to make sure traffic was clear.  Leni observed him out of the very corner of her eye and she saw his head didn’t swipe back in the other direction.  He was checking her out.


He’s checking me out!  Leni was painfully awkward with men and she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d caught a guy checking her out with such undisguised curiosity.


The French saleswoman’s Mona Lisa-esque smile played at Leni’s lips.  “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she said without looking in his direction.


“It is nice,” he commented.  And I’m pretty damn sure he isn’t talking about the weather.


Leni sprang off the curb and almost skipped across the street.  I really should wear red scarves more often.



Jeudi (Thursday)                                                                                           Jour Quatre (Day 4)


Read the newspaper.


Leni quirked her brow when she read that on Thursday morning.  Read the paper?  When?


Of course Leni could get her hands on the paper, but she wouldn’t be able to read it until lunch at the very earliest, but probably not until dinner.  Well, I said I would do whatever the paper said, no matter what day it was, she thought calmly.  So the newspaper it is.


It had been years since Leni had been to France, and she was pretty certain the majority of French people her age read the paper online rather than a physical copy.  It wasn’t so much the act of reading an actual newspapers as it was being well-informed of local, national and international event, more than just reading the headlines online or getting sound bites from CNN.  It was relaxing (with a cup of coffee, preferably) and taking the time to soak up what was going on in the world around her.  Supporting the local paper, crossword puzzles, perusing the classified ads…that was all icing on the cake.




Leni had been a devoted newspaper reader even before she ever set foot in France.  Her parents had subscribed to the local paper for as long as she could remember.  Her favorite things to read had always been the funny pages.  As she got older, she came to love the advice column, the crosswords, movie and restaurant reviews, finding weird items for sale in the classifieds, reading the international news and checking the scores for her favorite teams (though she was by no means a sports fanatic).  As a college student, she became more keenly interested in local politics and how it affected her university’s funding.


She never bothered to read the French papers much as an exchange student, though she would pick through it if someone left it on the bus, a bench or in a bistro.  An optimist, she would try the French crossword and give up after five minutes. 


The year Leni lived in France as a high school teacher was a lonely one.  She lived in a tiny town literally in the middle of nowhere.  There wasn’t a movie theater, mall, bowling alley…no where to go to kill a few hours other than the local café or bar.  Part of the problem was that Leni’s students were crawling literally everywhere, and she really didn’t feel like seeing them in the café.  They would practice their awful English on her or ask her to their stupid parties.  Leni was only a few years older than most of her students and though she was lonely, she knew it was the very definition of folly to go to their houses.


With no television, computer or even a radio, she had to make her own entertainment.  Leni did go to Mass, though that only last one whopping hour.  She purchased books or borrowed them from the library to study for her impending master’s degree exams, but even that didn’t take up much time.  She took weekend trips, but she only worked 12 hours a week and she desperately wanted leisure.


In short, Leni was bored.


On one of the rare weekends she was stuck in her boring little town, Leni went to the tabac to stock up on cigarettes before all the stores were closed on Sunday.  Instead of making a beeline for the smokes like she usually did, Leni looked at the actual newspapers and magazines that lines the racks in the store.  Because she lived dangerously close to Germany, there were papers available in German in addition to French.  She even found a newspaper in Arabic, presumably because France had such a sizeable population from its former colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.


That was something Leni would never have seen in her hometown in the States.  There would be an odd newspaper in Spanish here and there, but 99% of the papers she saw were in English—nothing more exciting than that.


On complete impulse, Leni grabbed the départment’s local paper, bought it with her two packs of cigarettes and started out for home.


While she was crossing the Grand-Rue, she heard kids playing and happily screaming at the playground of one of the town’s two elementary schools.  Because she didn’t have anything else to do, Leni directed her steps to the sounds of the kids’ voices.


She was not disappointed.  The playground literally exploded with kids hanging off the monkey bars, tumbling down the slide, playing whatever passed for hopscotch and tag in France, creeping along on scooters and just causing pandemonium in general.  Mothers and younger siblings in strollers sat along the fence and on nearby benches, catching up on the latest gossip, visiting, and keeping just half an eye on their kids.


This was by far the most refreshing sight Leni had seen in this godforsaken little town in the two months she had lived there.  There was not a single creepy-looking guy to be found to hit on her, Leni didn’t see a single one of her students and for the first weekend day she was stuck in town, she felt like she could actually sit down and enjoy her little town without being bothered!  And, being a woman alone, she could sit and quietly enjoy watching the kids without looking like an utter creeper like a man in the same situation would.


She steered herself towards the first empty bench spot she could find next to two smartly dressed women in hijabs who were chattering away in what Leni assumed to be Arabic.  Though the lack of nicotine was palpable in her body, the very last thing she thought was appropriate would be to light up at a playground in front of a bunch of kids or next to two women who probably didn’t smoke.


Instead, Leni took out the paper which had been tucked under her arm and opened it.  She let the sounds of kids happily playing ring in her ears, she breathed in the cool fall air as opposed to sucking down a cigarette.  She enjoyed the chatter of the two women next to her, though they could very well have been talking about her, Leni couldn’t have cared less.


The very first section she opened to was the international news to see what was going on in the States.  Leni was genuinely surprised that the only article about America was something that had to do with the U.N. Security Council.  Meh.  About as interesting as the Dow Jones score.  She flipped through to see if there were any comic strips, but she wasn’t particularly shocked that there wasn’t a single one to be found. 


She did find horoscopes.  Scorpio.  You will have a distinctively different outlook on things this week.  You will find something different that will make a difficult situation bearable.


Leni let the paper drift to her lap as her heart tripled in beats per minute.  Holy shit—could the horoscope writer see me or what?!  Her eyes swept across the playground and the women merrily conversing before the lifted the paper back up with trembling hands.  Maybe it would be better to read something else not so spooky.


She flipped to the local news that talked about the recent harvest.  Though Leni’s French was excellent she didn’t have the vocabulary to know, or, frankly, to care about what the hell it was talking about.  She turned the page to local events.


A bike ride was in the works for the next weekend.  An organ recital at the Lutheran church next Wednesday.  A university protest the next town over.  Free antique appraisal at the library.  An apéritif/cocktail hour at the bookstore in the village a kilometer down the road.


Holy shit!  Things really do happen here in this stupid little town! Leni thought.  She already knew about the organ recital her pastor at church mentioned and it was on her calendar.  Though she had no intention of going to the protest, bike ride or cocktail hour, Leni was surprised to actually find herself thinking about going to the antiques appraisal and take her grandmother’s antique cameo ring that she had brought with her.  It would get her out of the house and maybe she would even learn something about her jewelry.


OK, maybe this little town didn’t suck as much as Leni said it did.  She didn’t give it nearly as much credit as she should have, and she never would have found out about all these events if she hadn’t picked up her local paper.


Leni read the paper almost cover to cover—skipping the sports scores because she really wasn’t a soccer fan—by the time the sun began to set.  The kids and their mothers started to leave the playground a couple at a time and before Leni wanted to find herself the only woman there, she tucked the paper back under her arm, got up and made her way back to her room at the boarding school to start thinking about dinner.


What could have very easily have been a depressing, dreary gray afternoon turned out to be quite a fun one.  Though Leni didn’t talk to any of the kids or adults, she enjoyed the companionship of the human experience.  She got out of her sad little room and spent a couple hours outside, enjoying fresh air and remembering what it was she loved about France in the first place.


For one lousy euro, Leni had a whole afternoon’s entertainment and learned quite a lot about her sleepy little town.  A euro well spent.


Leni went to her favorite local coffee house after work.  She knew they sold the local paper there, so she could kill two birds with one stone.  She found an abandoned paper at one empty table right when she walked in the door, so she snatched it up before anyone else could lay claim to it.


She ordered a hot apple cider—coffee didn’t really appeal to her so late in the day—and made her way to an empty table in the middle of the shop.  She settled in and opened the paper.  Ordinarily she would have made a beeline for the comics and advice column, but this time she discretely looked checked out the people around her in her immediate line of view.


Two college students had their Bibles opened as they argued the meaning of grace and free will.  An older man frowned as he labored over his next chess move while his much younger opponent did a crappy job of containing his glee.  Two women Leni’s age were dissecting the previous night’s date one of them had been on.  Three high school students had their textbooks opened as they dutifully highlighted their notes for tomorrow’s midterm.  Six older women were discussing entrepreneurship.  One of the baristas was busy in the corner setting up a microphone and stool for the poetry slam that began in a couple hours. 


She stayed at the coffeehouse for an hour.  She hit her favorite sections and also read the calendar of events, obituaries, police blotter and the financial section.  The crossword was finished and the Sudoku was given a hearty half-assed attempt.


But more than the paper, Leni got an experience that was worth far more than her three-dollar cider.  She was entertained and informed by the paper she didn’t pay a dime for, she people-watched and she allowed herself to be a social creature for the hour she was there, even if she didn’t speak to a single soul.


Not a bad investment for a newspaper that didn’t cost Leni anything!