Everything is about me. The second morning I awake in the small studio I rent in Salies, I remember my Grandmother’s lament: “Nobody needs me anymore”. She was in her late 70’s, living at my mother’s house in Mexico, separated from her lifetime home in New York and any friends that had remained there. Arthur, her late husband had been dead for over 7 years and she herself had, had a stroke that left her semi-paralyzed. “Nobody needs me any more”. It is not exactly what I think upon awaking, and yet there is the thought that here in Salies, everything is about me. Every decision, every move is “do I want to or not?” Nobody asks me for anything, nobody needs me, there is nothing I HAVE to do, no chores pending, no appointments to keep, no phone calls asking for help. Only me, and of course, Salomé.
This is good but unsettling. I am not indispensable for anyone, haven’t been for a long time and ALL my time is for ME. Soooo, what to do becomes a “problem”. What do I want to do now? It takes getting used to. However, previous experience has taught me that in a few days it will be heaven and by the time my month is up I will go heavily back to the responsibilities and chores of home and work. So here I go: a month of it all being about ME.
French service. Goodness! I always forget and the harshness of it hits me like a slap in the face. The French interpretation of efficient (good) service is to be brusque, stern, stiff, unsmiling and quite rude. First they ignore you for at least 20 minutes to make sure you realize the favour they do by waiting on you, and then they look at you as if you had made them wait. Their best service always presumes you to be wrong, is prompt to point out that you cannot order what you just ordered in a tone that suggests you are an idiot for even considering it, and then proceed to tell you what you should be ordering instead (if you ask them to repeat it because your French is lousy and they speak so fast –on purpose, of course- that you are not even sure if they are offering you fish or poison, the points against you double). No smile, definitely no smile. It probably has to do with their training; perhaps they think that to be stern is to be professional and gives them the air of precise efficiency and, of course, of being right. The French are always right.
Ah, but if you have a dog and they spot it sitting quietly at your feet, then they are all smiles… not for you, for the dog. They unprofessionally kneel down, cooing “mignon” and scratching its head, behind the ears, all smiles, and then they whip into the kitchen with a speed you could well wish to see when you’re hungry, and out again with a bowl of cool water which they place in front of the pooch with a few more smiles and “mignon’s” coming out of their fingertips, and then back to you with their poker faces suggesting you certainly have now had enough time to decide even if you are simple minded. You order and smile and say “merci” when they bring it, but to no avail. After all they are hard working and want you not only know it but also to understand that it is your fault: you are the cause of all their suffering. C’est la vie; c’est la France.
Sandwich. Sandwich in French is translated into an unheated baguette, cut in half and slapped with one cold, greasy slice of jambon de montagne ou cru (cured ham) and nothing more. But, ahhhh, sandwich at home in French translates into a delicious baguette, cut in half, brushed with a light coating of mayonnaise, two thick slices of jambon douce (regular ham), several chunks of brie cheese, heated in the toaster oven and then garnished with lettuce and sour pickles. A side of salad with lettuce as only the French know how to grow it and we have a fête de la bouche.
Cold drinks. “C’est ne pas possible”… They would never say it, but they don’t have to: you can see it running through their mind when you order a Coke to go with your exquisite meal. And then you commit the ultimate sin: you order glasson, ice. That’s when you get the look that says “hopeless”. Occasionally, you will get what you asked for, but most times they will bring the Coke without ice. When you repeat stupidly “glasson”, they point to the bottle and tell you it is cold (c’est froid). And then you have to explain –I do- that in spite of the fact that the drink is cold, you want ice.
Today the ice cubes, presented gingerly in a small glass with a teaspoon for serving them (don’t they know you are just going to dump the meagre amount straight into your coke?), look like small pillows. Now who would make an ice cube dispenser that produces cubes that look like small pillows? The waitress places them in front of me with a grimace that might look like the beginning of a smile if I didn’t know already that it is a controlled smirk. She knows I’m American, in spite of the fact that if anyone asks me I promptly tell them that I am from Spain and that my Father was Spanish, and –by the way- originally from this region of France, yes, Béarnaise. And if you don’t believe me, there are several ‘Domecqs’ named on the war monument that stands so proudly by the Saley’s river. This, at least, is what I would like to say if my meagre French allowed me to, but I think it as I smile lamely and murmur “merci”.
Salt. Salt is a no-no. It seldom appears on the table. What in the world would one want in France with a salt seller on the table? Every chef in France, no matter how small the restaurant, knows the exact amount of salt each dish needs, so why would any self-respecting client want salt? But, of course, I am not self-respecting; I want salt. Hopeless case, that’s what I am. I get a salt shaker that probably hasn’t been used for the last year at least (maybe since I came in 2009) because the salt is practically glued to the bottom and I have to slam it several times on the table to produce a few grains. So not only do I ask for salt, but I make noise about it which attracts the attention of others eating at nearby tables. Now I have informed everyone that I do not approve of the chef’s seasoning. I am surprised the chef does not come out personally and sprinkle arsenic all over my food.
Waste not, want not. That is what my grandmother used to say to get me to eat everything on the plate. The phrase went along with the explanation of how there were so many starving people in the world and how lucky one was to have food. It meant that not even a pea should be left. The French are not worried about the starving people as far as I know, but they do expect you to eat everything on your plate because any morsel left there is seen as a complaint. A complaint about French food is practically unpatriotic and even tourists are expected to be patriotic if they are in France. So tourists beware: you must be ready to die for what has suddenly become YOUR country even if they don’t like you. So the pizza is delicious and even though it has the finest crust, I prefer to eat half the crust and all the topping. So I delicately scrape the ham and cheese and tomato onto the half of the pizza I will eat and leave the remaining crust lying accusingly on my plate. I notice it there, the waitress notices it there… and we both sigh. I pretend to be interested in eating the rest until she moves away to wait on a more appreciating table, and then quickly slip the remaining crust under the table to Salomé’s delight. So now I understand why so many French bring their dogs to restaurants with them.
French fleas. In spite of my supposed spirituality, I am capable of killing other beings individually or en-masse if those others are about to eat my dog alive. Ever since the first time I came to Salies, I discovered that French fleas are of the Charles-de-Gaulle strain and have nothing to do with Spanish fleas. Spanish fleas, as far as I know, are non-existent. Salomé gets treated with a small vial of flea and tick poison once a month and has never suffered a flea. But I had no sooner descended from the car and released Salomé to do her duty in the park, when she was attacked. By the time we had taken all the stuff (ok, I had) up to the studio apartment, Salomé was infested and scratching and jumping all over the place under attack from a population of fleas that apparently hadn’t eaten all summer. I had religiously put the juice on her the day before coming to France; she also had a white collar on which is supposed to keep EVERYTHING, including mosquitoes, at a safe distance during six months, but the French fleas obviously, couldn’t read Spanish and had no idea that they were supposed to be repelled by these inventions. Salomé was going crazy and I was horrified. I rushed to the nearest pharmacy (in Salies, the pharmacies carry human and veterinarian remedies) and explained in my lame French to the lady at the counter, that les puces françaises had invaded my dog and I needed something to repel them. She gave me flea shampoo. Salomé got bathed, lathered and left the suds for 10 minutes. The Charles-de-Gaulle fleas withstood the onslaught. I returned to the pharmacy. The pharmacist suggested I bathe her again and then handed me a venomous spray to put on her under parts. That did the trick.
The second year I came, I was more prepared. I brought the shampoo and spray with me and put the vial of insect repellent on her a few days before coming so it could have the complete effect. None the less, she got fleas and therefore a bath and a couple of sprays before coming clean.
This year, I put the white collar on a week before, the vial four days before and the morning of our trip, I sprayed her under parts with the insecticide. Then I sprayed her again before we descended from the car. I was sure to beat them this time and for a while thought I had. But the second night here, Salomé suddenly started jumping around as if something had bitten her tail, so I put her on her back and searched her under parts. Sure enough, I found the culprit, as far as I could see only one. Now, to kill a flea is not easy; they are not prone to cooperating for one thing and for another, they’re fast and jump if you’re not careful. When they jump they can land on their hunter and then you really are in trouble. So I went for the flea, the flea went for the nearest thicket of hair and disappeared. So I sprayed. The flea reappeared and the chase resumed.
It isn’t easy to kill a flea, even if you manage to catch it. Fleas have a hard crust that must be squeezed between two fingernails, preferably the thumbnails. So it was quite a chase and in the end I was triumphant, managing to catch the tiny thing between my thumbnails, press and hear the “pop” of life leaving it. It was only one flea this year; no invasion, no bath, a couple of more sprays and Salomé is peaceful and so am I, in spite of being a murderess.
P.S. Of course, a few days into Salies and all these “jottings” become obsolete. The French service is marvelous, kind and gentle (efficient enough), the food is perfectly seasoned (no need at all for salt) and the Badoit is cold enough to be consumed without ice. Salies, of course, is heaven and Salome’s fleas have all departed.