Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fear And Strawberries

I'm afraid I made a mistake last night. I don't think it's going to be permanent, and I don't think it's even going to have any lasting effects, but I'm still not real happy about it.

I've been wanting to get out, meet new people, make some new contacts, so when my pal Marie said there was going to be a get-together followed by some food at the Maison des Relations Internationales, a lovely old house on the edge of the town center hill, last night, I agreed to join her.

What I should have done, I now realize, is to have paid closer attention to what was going to happen.

We got there a bit early, and hung around the grounds, which are planted with various exotic and not-so-exotic trees, and Marie pointed out various landmarks which could be seen. She insisted on speaking French, which is good, and we agreed that we should set up weekly 90-minute meetups at which French and English would be spoken in two 45-minute halves, thus helping each other out. So among other things, I learned the word for "water tower," which is chateau d'eau.

Inside the Maison, a meeting of the organization which was presenting the program we'd come to see was going on. Marie mentioned that "there are a lot of...I don't want to say 'important' people, but...people who count in the city" in this organization, which, I see from a piece of paper I brought back, is called ICEO, which, if I'm not mistaken, has something to do with eastern Europe.

When the meeting broke up, we went in and circulated. Apparently the fact that I'm American had caused some interest, because we're in very short supply here. I still wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I chatted amiably, in bad French, with a couple of the people Marie knew. I think the minute when it all started to go downhill was when she mentioned to one of these guys that I'd lived in Berlin, and he asked me how long I'd been there. Stupidly mixing words up, I replied "Sixty years." (Well, it seemed like it). I got a rather odd look. No, no, no. Sixteen.

But at about that point, the meeting was called to order and I realized, by reading the piece of paper in my hand, that the guy at the table in the front of the room was François Lerin, Scientific Administrator of something called IAMM, and was going to give an introduction leading to a debate on the topic "Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and twenty years of transition to a market economy, what future do the Balkans have in Europe?"

A topic on which I have no opinion, and, more importantly, in which I have no interest at present. And which I was now pretty much obligated to have to deal with.

M. Lerin, let it be said, isn't a very dynamic speaker. Sitting closer to the microphone would have made it easier for me to decode the rapid stream which came out of his mouth, but I only heard intermittent words, and understood very few of them. The word "modality" came up frequently, which caused me to reflect that there was a very, very good chance that I wouldn't have understood this if it were in English.

And as the clank of the caterers setting up in the next room got louder, I realized something: I should not be here. I came because I had only €50 between me and destitution, and because there was a free meal, and that was wrong. I could offer nothing to these people in return for the meal, because I had no idea what was being talked about. I was trying not to panic, but my palms were getting sweaty. I really had to make my excuses and leave. But Marie was up taking pictures, so I couldn't leave yet. It was coming on to nine. There was one store open for another 45 minutes. I should grab something and eat at home.

As the debate wound down, Marie returned to her seat and I told her in no uncertain terms that I absolutely had to leave. She didn't seem to understand why, but I asked her to apologize on my behalf. By the time I was back in my apartment, my heart was thudding. I sat down and centered myself and relaxed as best I could, then got up and went to the store.

I wrote Marie last night explaining myself as best I could, but I haven't heard back from her. I suspect things will be okay. But I'm not very pleased with myself for any of this.

* * *

It's unfortunate that the day ended so badly, because it had begun so well. I've been making sure to go to the market that's held twice weekly at the Arceaux district here, easily the best of the city's markets, and Saturday I was pleasantly surprised to notice that my sense of smell, which disappeared shortly after I returned from Texas in early April and has been pretty much AWOL since, had returned. Cheese stalls smelled cheesy, the guys cooking stuffed squid and paella were perfuming the air, and the strawberries were out in force. I found one family selling nothing but, and they were the local kind known as garriguettes. These are less spherical than they are shaped like a V. Very narrow, and not very big. I smelled some, and yup, they were ready. So I bought a 250g basket for two bucks and took it home. In Texas, I'd bought a box of Grape Nuts, which seem to me to be the ideal medium for berries, so yesterday morning, I washed and topped half of the garriguettes and stuck 'em on top of some Grape Nuts and had a fantastic breakfast.

Garriguettes don't taste like the strawberries we got in Berlin, exactly. I mean, they're clearly strawberries; nothing that tastes like that could be anything else. And yet...they're different. I spent some time tossing this around, trying to explain it, and the answer was so blindingly, stupidly obvious that I'm almost embarrassed: as any French person could tell me, it's about terroir, that indefinable something which not only makes the wine grown in one patch of ground vastly different from another, but affects all of the food around us that's not industrially grown. It's an important part of French life, and yet it's still surprising to me when it gets up in my face like that.

I didn't go back to the market this morning, though. Partially out of fear of spending too much (although I needn't really worry, I now realize: all I bought on Saturday was the strawberries and a bottle of olive oil, which I needed: when I'm in crisis mode I get very conservative), partially out of the fact that it was 11:30 before I could have left and with it taking a half hour to get to the market and it closing at 1:00, it didn't seem worthwhile. Plus, there's nothing I really need (crisis mode again), so best not to be tempted.

The crisis will abate some in June. It's about staying alive until then.


  1. I think you just had a bit of a panic attack: I'm sorry that you felt the need to leave early. Here in Berlin, I am far less fluent in German than you appear to be in French and often am completely overwhelmed at speeches and meetings, but it is what it is. I would have stayed, had the meal, and been as pleasantly conversational as possible. That would have been no reflection as to how much money I had in my pocket. Do you know why you felt as if you had to leave?

  2. Dear Ed,

    I'm sorry for not answering sooner. I came back home late on Monday evening. As I expected, I had a wonderful time with my friends. I mainly talked with a very friendly young student who has a Bulgarian fiancée (my younger son had a Bulgarian fiancée too) and François Di Marco, a young man who teaches at Montpellier III. The food was good and the wine was divine. We absolutely didn't mention Easter-European countries or Berlin. I think like G that you got panicked (without any reason really, nobody would have asked any question about Berlin, Pierre did not expect you to talk about anything or to do anything for him, he just wanted you to feel welcomed in Montpellier, to feel at home - I think you looked like a little boy and that made me sad). Anyway I had a wonderful time. Yesterday I spent a large part of the day with my dear British friend Maggie, and then I went to "my" publisher. I typed a part of a book he is writing until almost 11 PM last night and all this morning. That is why I didn't write back.
    Think of a day when we can meet and speak French. Allez, bon courage et à bientôt.

  3. I forgot to say that I also think like G as regards your knowing how to speak French. I didn't even know you could speak French. You speak quite well!

    (you should correct my mistakes or typos..... :-))

  4. Sorry, Marie, I can't fix your comment posts. I can either print them or not, but the editing is up to you!

    G, of course, has a point. It was a panic attack, but I still don't feel that it was totally ungrounded. I really didn't have much to say about what had gone on there, and I'm not naturally gregarious in situations like that. If this had been a get-together at the museum or the library -- other places I know Marie goes -- I would have had culture, just generally speaking, to lean on, and that would have given me a little bit to improvise with. As it is, I'm under some extreme pressure at the moment, and I wish I weren't, and that contributed to things.

    As for how well I speak French, that's all down to my high school French teacher, Barney Isaacson. I mentioned once to my brother-in-law that my French just appeared out of nowhere whenever I visited France and he said "Me, too: we have Brney Isaacson to thank." He must have been a remarkable teacher, because even though I spent a lot of time staring out the window, I cam in second in the New York State French exam at the end of my senior year!

  5. I didn't have anything to say either :-))) Actually I didn't understand much of what was said during the "lecture" and I was not very much interested. But nobody was going to ask us any question and we didn't have to talk to other people. I thought you were interested in wine. Many people there were "experts"....

  6. I'm just battling the Evil Empire (aka DeutscheBahn) and have been googling for people who have taken them on and won... Has no-one succeeded??!! My BahnCard cancellation letter was 5 days late (I didn't know about the 6 week rule). I hope you escaped their clutches in the end...

  7. Never heard of garriguettes before: are they some kind of wild strawberries? In the future maybe you should try to post a picture when you discuss strange fruits or vegetables: that would ground the discussion.

  8. If I didn't feel like such an idiot (or such a tourist) taking my camera to the market, I'd do that, and yet I'd better if I'm going to grab a shot of these things, and many others: what on earth are spherical zucchini for, for instance?

    And I'll have to take photos if/when the wild asparagus comes in. Although I'll buy some as soon as I see it: been waiting years to try it!


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