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.
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!