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?”
“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?”
“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.