Cooking and Singing Don’t Mix

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I love sewing y’all, but sometimes I need a break.  Sometimes I like to get back to the writing part of my blog.  I really do enjoy writing. It is a stress relief for me, and my fingertips are currently needle-shredded. So here is a little story I wanted to post last week, around Thanksgiving time, but I was just too busy doing Thanksgiving.

It’s another story about my time in France, and I like it because it includes my love of cooking, my love of singing, and, well, my love of talking about my time in France.

In the past, I have blogged about how I started dabbling in the kitchen around the age of 12.  But my passion in those early years was for baking, not cooking.  I hardly ever tried making things outside the realm of refined carbohydrates, so that by the time I found myself in a foreign country at the ripe age of 18 and in charge of feeding myself, I was pretty much limited to spaghetti and sandwiches. My two roommates, having known me to show up at my high school with bread or cookies to feed the entire student body, probably assumed that I knew my way around every corner of the kitchen.  They were mistaken.

Our first essays into the culinary world were laughable at best.  I think the biggest problem we had was that instead of trying to learn how to cook with the traditional French ingredients readily available to us, we were constantly trying to mimic the foods we missed from home.  I remember at Thanksgiving, we got so homesick for American food that we ventured out to find ‘Kennedy’s’, a small store that other foreigners had told us about.  This little store sold imported American goods at outrageous prices.  A can of pumpkin for pie cost about five dollars.  Tiny jars of Jif peanut butter, boxes of jello and graham crackers just about broke our food budget for the month. And don’t even ask how much they wanted for a package of Oreos.

One such memorable episode was around Christmas time, when one of the girls insisted she needed Cool Whip for a traditional dessert.  We set out in search of the precious artificial dairy whipped topping (Kennedy’s being closed) and had to settle for some unknown substance called Crème Fraiche, which came in a similar looking container.  It was a surprisingly good substitute!

I learned something else about cooking while I was in the culinary capital of the world.  If you want to cook good food, it is going to cost you, no matter where you live.  We lived in the dormitory of a seminary with lots of broke students, and there wasn’t a lot of haute cuisine going on in that kitchen.

After a while, and to my surprise, seeing as I was always puttering around in the kitchen, I was often asked how to make things by the French students.  My biggest surprise was when a friend of ours, who was in charge of student social events, asked me to help him oversee a large and important dinner party for the students and the visiting board of the seminary.  In my naïveté (and I must admit I was flattered) I agreed.

We made up a menu. I don’t precisely remember everything we decided to make that night, but I do remember we decided on roasted pork.  I figured that would be easy enough even though technically, I had never attempted to cook a pork roast.  But I was pretty sure I had seen my mother do it once or twice.

While all this was going on, there were other things preparing for the seminary board’s visit. One of those things was a choir concert.  My friend ‘E’ and I had joined the tiny little seminary chorale earlier in the year and had been trying, without much success, to understand the French both in the music and coming from the choir director.

There was also a bit of culture shock coming from the style of the music.  I had grown up as, shall we say, a musical conservative. As far as religious music went, my family was strictly classical and believe it or not, my first real exposure to American contemporary Christian music was in that little chorale. (Just try to imagine Michael W. Smith in French).

The final song for the concert was a piece that I really didn’t care much for.  In my humble opinion it was corny, overly dramatic, and had way too many unnecessary key changes. (I think there were seven in the last two pages, each one climbing higher into the stratosphere) There was also a lengthy solo involved, that would require the soloist (gasp) to walk around the stage and sing all of those ridiculous key changes directly into a microphone held in her hand!  It was a huge leap away from Mozart and Mendelssohn so dear to my heart, but you guessed it.  I got landed with the solo.

Dreading the fact that it was also in a language I was far from mastering, I tried to decline, but to no avail. So there I was, slated to finish up the concert with a melodramatic bang and cook dinner for the whole seminary on the same night.

Things went fairly well that day.  Between prepping food and last minute choir rehearsal, I was on my feet most of the day, but things were coming together.  I even managed to fit several large pork roasts into the miniscule oven that we had to use.  Everything was roasting and simmering that should be roasting and simmering, the tables were all set, and I just had time to run and get dressed before the concert.  I changed, ran a brush through my hair and slapped on some lipstick.  But just as I got back downstairs, I thought it would be wise to check on the pork one last time.

I raced into the kitchen, grabbed a potholder, opened the oven and yanked out the pork-laden oven rack a trifle hastily. Before I realized what was happening, a wave of scalding, simmering water and pork drippings came sloshing out the side of the pan and deluged the oven, the floor and my startled legs.  I yelped in panic, both from the pain in my shins and from fear of a huge grease fire.  I grabbed some towels and started frantically mopping in every direction.

Thankfully the pain in my legs passed quickly and I think the nylons I was wearing were the only thing that saved them from severe blistering. I cleaned up the mess as fast as I could, knowing that I was already late for the concert.  But as I raced out of the kitchen I knew that something had to be done about my legs.  Grease soaked and smelling of pig, they had to be attended to.

My shoes were full of drippings as well so that I slipped and slid all the way back upstairs only to  be met with another dilemma.  My slicked up shoes were the only dress shoes I had.  There was only time to do three things.  I kicked off my shoes, peeled of my burn-prevention nylons and grabbed my roommates shoes. I raced to the other building, shoes in hand, where the choir was lined up waiting. I gasped my apologies, dropped the borrowed shoes on the floor and tried to slip into them.

People- it was like that scene from Cinderella where the ugly stepsisters are trying to force the glass slipper onto their bony feet. The shoes were two and a half sizes too small.

But alas, the choir was already on their way out to the stage and I had no choice but to wedge my toes in as best I could and toddle my way out after them.  That concert was a misery.  Not only were my feet in agony, but I had all the dread of that solo to come.  And come it did.

I made my way to the front of the choir as best I could, considering my swollen and blood-deprived feet.  The microphone was slippery in my greasy hands that I hadn’t had a chance to clean properly, and there in front of me was a room full of austere looking (to my nervous eyes) board members. I stood there in my too-small shoes, fully aware that I was about to butcher their language in a song that I was almost too embarrassed to sing.  But the show had to go on.  I focused on a spot in the back of the room and got through every last key change.  It was done at last.

The rest of the evening was kind of a blur.  I think the dinner turned out pretty well considering; even that treacherous pork.  But my poor roommates shoes- they were never quite the same again.

The Unlooked-for Frenchman

Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary. I’ve known my hubby for 15 years now, almost half of my life, and I’ve been married to him for 13. Whenever this time of year rolls around, I like to think back to the week we met- the last week that I was in France.
I don’t have the time or space to relate all that happened during those crazy, memorable days, but this is one of my favorite (and most embarrassing) memories from that time. He was just returning home to the seminary in Aix, fresh from his first year abroad at Covenant College. His father was the administrator of the seminary and his mother the secretary, so home was an apartment on the campus.

If you recall, I had been studying in Aix for nine months, along with my friends E and N. And we had also been joined by E’s older sister B after Christmas. Steve knew B very well already from a previous sojourn in France, so he invited her (and the rest of us) to his apartment for dinner and a time of catching up. I had met him for the first time a few days before in the seminary driveway, and then we had merely introduced ourselves and walked on. So when we went to dinner that night he was still, for all intents and purposes, a complete stranger.

I had assumed that his merry, warm-hearted mother would be making dinner for us, but upon arriving, I saw that his parents weren’t even there. I was relieved that his father was absent, since we girls had always been slightly intimidated by the tall, white-haired administrator with his crisp British accent. (No offense to my dear father-in-law. I know him better now.)
At any rate, much to my surprise, this young frenchman had made the dinner entirely by himself. I remember him serving a fresh tomato and basil tart, a lovely salad, and his famous soup a la courgette. That was enough to peak my interest in the guy, but the evening continued to display more things worth admiring. The fact that he was a talented violinist and that we shared a very similar taste in music was one thing. The fact that he was a hard worker, and that the beautifully tiled floor in his parent’s apartment had been all his own work was another. And then after dinner, he walked into the living room with a tray of chocolate mousse he had made himself. I mean, what was a girl to do? All that, combined with a pair of mysterious blue-gray eyes, and I was a goner.

I don’t remember sleeping much that night. Of course I couldn’t tell the other girls what I was feeling. It was all too ridiculous. Remember, my nickname was ‘the nun’, and I may have been a little proud of that title. But much to my chagrin, and though I tried all night to call it to my aid, the common sense and rationality that had always dominated my life and decisions seemed to have fled. I tried to remind myself that just two days before, I had assured my parents that I wouldn’t be bringing a frenchman home with me. How we had laughed on the phone over the idea! Nevertheless, when dawn began creeping through the cracks in the shutters, I had but one idea in mind. To see that boy again.

All morning, I racked my brain to think of a way that I could ‘accidentally’ bump into him. Finally after breakfast, where I noticed my appetite had entirely fled, I suddenly remembered that we still had our last month’s rent to pay to the secretary. The secretary was his mother! His apartment was directly above the office! I had a better chance of meeting him there than in the kitchen, so I abruptly left the other girls to run and collect the money. I could tell they were beginning to wonder what was wrong with me. I don’t think I had ever failed to eat my breakfast before, but I didn’t care much what they thought at this point.

I was soon standing in front of the office door with a dry mouth and beating heart, hardly called for when performing such a mundane task. But boldly went in anyway. I found myself blushing furiously when his mother greeted me, and could hardly stammer out a ‘bonjour’. I silently handed her the rent, and then, unable to think of an excuse to stay, I began to turn when the sounds of a Bach violin prelude came floating down the stairs. I stopped and looked up at the ceiling.
“Ah, c’est mon fils, Stephen,” said the secretary. “Il joue du violin,” she continued with obvious pride.

“Ah oui?” I replied stupidly, and blushing still further, said ‘au revoir’ and made my way out of the office.

I gave myself a pep-talk all the way back to my room.

“What is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? Get a grip! You’re leaving in a few days! This is pointless! He’s not even interested in you!”

But to no avail. Upon reaching the room, my first care was to figure out a way to at least hear a little more of his violin. I remembered that in the short tour Steve had give us of his apartment last night, I had seen that his bedroom window led out to a tiny balcony. That balcony was just across the way from our bedroom. And directly beneath our bedroom window was a roof belonging to the porch below. If I could climb out there and sit on the far edge, as close to the balcony as possible, I might be able to hear something.
As a matter of fact, we girls had often climbed out to sit on that roof for the chance of a little privacy, or to catch a bit of a sun. We kept it up until we were caught by the administrator. His austere warnings about the inability of that roof to support much weight had finally convinced us to stay off of it- but not today.
I opened the big green shutters, grabbed a book by my bedside table so that I might have a plausible excuse for sitting out there, and climbed out the window.
Sure enough, the sounds of Bach could still be heard clearly as I crawled to the edge of the porch roof. I sat down with my back against the sun-baked wall, held my book up in front of my face, and listened. I blocked out all thoughts of how ludicrous my behavior was, and how I seemed to be acting in some reverse parody of Romeo and Juliet, when I was startled by a loud “Ahem!”
I clutched at my book, and looked down. There, to my horror stood Steve’s father, in all his silver-haired dignity looking up at my dangling legs.

“Have we not before discussed the dangers of sitting out on this roof?” he asked reprovingly.

Then, as I tried to apologize, I noticed his eyebrows lifted in some confusion as he looked at my book. I looked down too. I had been ‘reading it’ upside down. My mortification was complete.
But if he thought I was crazy, he said nothing about it. Nor did he ask me what I was really doing there, since reading had clearly not been my purpose. He merely continued on his way, while I blindly scrambled to my feet and made my way back to the window. It was only then I noticed the music had stopped. I looked over my shoulder, and there was Steve, standing on the balcony with a funny little smile on his face. I didn’t know how much he had seen, but even so, I wished then that the roof would collapse and take me down with it….

Well, needless to say, everything turned out all right in the end. I wouldn’t trade those embarrassing moments for anything, since they were the beginning of thirteen happy years of marriage. They also make for a pretty good story.

I love you Stephen, my un-looked for Frenchman. Here’s to thirteen more years!

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Language Barriers

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Hmmm. What to post? There’s not a lot of new things going on with my shop right now, and I haven’t been cooking much of interest lately.  I thought I could tell a story, since it has been a while, but I always have a hard time deciding what I want to tell about.  Something about my childhood?  About my time in France, or my married life or my crazy boys?

How about France.

Whenever I think about my time in France, the story of Boris always pops into my mind first.  If you have known me for any length of time, you know the ridiculous tale of Boris, but I feel like it needs to be written down for posterity.  I haven’t asked my roommates from France if I can tell this, so I will try to tell it from my own perspective.  They can correct me if I err.

So the last time I wrote about France, we were just settling in for our year abroad.  We had moved into the seminary dormitories and had explored, to some extent, the charming city of Aix-en-Provence.   We were registered at the nearby language institute for foreign students, and I for one, was eager to begin my studies.

One of my chief worries was the language barrier-  that it would be very difficult to communicate with anyone, either at the seminary or the school.  But I needn’t have worried.  In fact, the opposite problem presented itself.  Instead of a language barrier forcing us to communicate in a new language, we soon found that almost everyone we encountered spoke English to some degree, and were eager to practice their English with us.

The language school we attended introduced us to a huge variety of nationalities.  People from Italy, Sweden, Uganda, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Japan and Korea, just to name a few.  And they all spoke English.

Even at the dorms there was a good mix of nations.  There was the seemingly strict and intimidating British man who was the seminary administrator (and little did I know then, my future father-in-law), a very handsome Canadian fella we called “Gorgeous Gabriel”, a cute little Brazilian lady who could whip up an amazing meringue by hand, and then there was Boris.

Don’t let his name mislead you.  He was not from Russia, but from Germany.  He stood about 6 foot 5, had close cropped blond hair and blue eyes, and was a friendly enough guy.  He also spoke English very well, but with a predictable German accent.  That was the only predictable thing about him.

Part of seminary life included a communal kitchen where everyone did their best to share the shelf space in a few old refrigerators, and cook together over the tiniest little gas stove imaginable.  I did a lot of the cooking for the three of us, and was usually the one who used up the small propane tank hooked to the back of the stove.  Then it was my duty to go and inform the administrator (of whom I was slightly afraid) that I needed another tank.

The first time I met Boris was in the kitchen where I had run out of propane halfway through baking a batch of muffins for breakfast.  He made a quick friend of me by offering to go get the refill tank himself.  He returned with it and I finished my muffins while he started in making his own breakfast.

I wasn’t paying attention to what he was cooking until he sat down to eat.  The other girls had come down by that point, and we, and everyone else in the kitchen, were simply staring at him with mouths agape.  In front of him was a bowl full of yogurt with granola on top.   Next to that was a plate with several fried sausages and some cheese.  Lined up in a neat row above his bowl were half a dozen hard boiled eggs, with a baguette roughly torn in half and generously buttered next to them.  And believe this or not, there was a pot of pasta and some sauce boiling on the stove for whenever he might have finished his first several courses.  He easily downed all of this remarkable feast while we nibbled our little muffins.  We soon found that he ate like this- three times a day!

He was a very loud talker, and walked into any room very abruptly, slamming doors behind him.  He always gesticulated wildly when he talked, and I distinctly remember one evening, his marching into the common room, waving a pair of socks in the air, and declaring angrily that his new socks “Ver alvays leafing fuzzles in between his toes!”

His German accent was a source of amusement to us, and I admit we often entertained ourselves by trying to get him to say the word ‘weather vane.’  Without fail, he always pronounced it ‘feather wane’, and then he would storm off when we got the giggles.  But one of my favorite memories of learning about different nationalities was the in-depth discussion a group of us had one night about cartoons we had all watched as children.  I grew up watching the Smurfs, and I knew that the Smurfs were European in origin, so I mentioned the cartoon, thinking we might have something in common.  All of the French people in the room started snickering at the word, and tried to pronounce it themselves.

“Quoi? What are Zee Smoooorffs?”

“You know, those little blue men?”

“Ahh! Oui Oui!  You mean “Les Schtroumpfs!”

Then it was our turn to laugh at the ridiculous word.

Just at that moment, Boris charged into the room, wanting to know what the laughter was about.  We tried to explain the conversation, and he had the most puzzled expression on his face until it suddenly dawned on him what we were talking about and he hollered out-

“Ach Ja!  Die Schlümpfe !”

The laughter lasted a long time after that one.

But the best story about Boris happened late one evening, after we had all finished eating dinner.  We were drying the dishes, when Boris, who was the only other person in the room, suddenly announced that he wanted to speak to all three of us.  We were a bit startled at the commanding way in which he said it, and even slightly alarmed when he walked over to the kitchen door and locked it!

But we quietly sat down and waited for him to speak.  He paced the room energetically for a few minutes, making us even more uneasy, and then suddenly burst out with –

“I like you.” (pointing energetically to me on the left)  “And I like you.” (pointing to ‘E’ on the right.)  My friend ‘N’ in the middle he completely ignored.  The stunned silence that greeted this statement was, I hope, understandable.

He elaborated.

“I vould like to date you both, but I can’t decide vich.  It is like a clock in my head going- tick, tock, tick, tock.”  From the direction in which his head was tilting back and forth, it appeared that I was tick and ‘E’ was tock.

“Efery morning,” he continued, “I come down to the kitchen and I see you (pointing at me) cooking breakvast and I think, ‘Ja, I will marry her and haf hot meals every day and maybe someday haf nine children.’ ”

More stunned silence.

“But then, I see you come down (pointing to ‘E’) and I think to myself, ‘Ach, she is so beautiful!’ And so, you see, I can’t decide”

At this point, my poor friend ‘N’ tried to excuse herself from the proceedings, seeing as she was not needed, but he told her to sit.  Apparently the ball was in our court now, and we simply stared at each other in disbelief, trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves.

The rest of the meeting didn’t go well, seeing as, believe it or not, both of us turned him down.  In the end he got angry and I don’t know how it might have ended if he hadn’t seen one of our good friends walking by the window and quickly stormed out of the kitchen.  When our friend entered, out burst our strange tale, a bit hysterically if I remember correctly.  He assured us that he would keep an eye on Boris, and that maybe we should keep out of his way for a while.

But Boris did a good job of keeping out of our way, until he found a different living situation that would suit him, and us, better.  I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye, but I have always kind of wondered. Whatever happened to Boris, the man who couldn’t decide between tick and tock?

Now that it’s Spring

I know I am speaking too soon, even in the South, but on a day like today, I can’t help but feel that Spring has arrived for good.  Sunshine, 70 degrees and blooming daffodils will do that to you.

As soon as it starts getting warmer around here, I immediately start craving lighter foods.  I pulled out the vitamix and made a smoothie for the boys today after months of using it to make hot soups.  And I wanted a salad for dinner in place of our usual wintertime roasted veggies.

I thought I would share this recipe with you all.  It was the first salad I ever learned to make.  Sure, I already knew how to chop up a bunch of lettuce, throw some diced carrots on the top and serve it with a bottle of ranch dressing, but a specific salad recipe?  That was new to me at age 18, and what makes this salad special was that I learned to make it in France, from a genuine French woman.

There are lots of golden memories floating around the making of this salad.  When my friends and I lived in southern France, we often visited our missionary friends on Sunday afternoons for dinner.  It always seemed to be a glorious sunny day with the French doors opening onto the terrace, letting in a light breeze that carried with it the scent of wild thyme and rosemary.   Madame B would be in the kitchen with a huge olive-wood salad bowl in front of her.  As I watched, she would cut open a big clove of garlic and rub the whole interior of the bowl with it.  Then in the bottom, she would mix her dressing, asking one of her children to run find some fresh thyme in the yard outside to sprinkle on top.

She would toss all the ingredients together and serve it with roasted lamb, or whatever else was sizzling in the oven that day, and of course, fresh baguette.   All of her food was good, but this salad- it was fresh and bright and garlicky and almost rich, as far as salads go.  I fell in love and insisted she give me the recipe.  And now I give it to you.

Here’s what you need for the salad.

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And this is for the dressing.  So easy!

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(that’s balsamic vinegar- sorry it’s so blurry.  And any dijon style mustard will do.)

Begin by either rubbing a garlic clove around your bowl, or smashing a couple cloves and throwing them in the bottom.  We like things garlicky around here.

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Then the dressing is very simple.  Depending on how big your salad is going to be, use the following ratio-

3 parts olive oil

`1 part balsamic vinegar

1 part mustard

This is enough for a moderate amount of lettuce- say- two hearts of romaine.  I use a Tablespoon as a “part”.

Mix this in the bottom of your bowl with a good pinch of salt, pepper and thyme if you have it.

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That’s it for the dressing.

Now dice up an avocado.

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And a couple of tomatoes.  Throw those in the bottom of the bowl as well.

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Then just chop up your lettuce (again, I used a couple of hearts of romaine).

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Toss it up, and voila!

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It’s great as a side, but sometimes I add some diced chicken and or bacon, for a full meal.

Enjoy, and here’s hoping spring is here to stay.  And for those still buried in snow, remember- spring will come again!

Le Cours Mirabeau

In my previous post on this subject, I left you all gripping the edges of your seats as I was waking up to my first morning in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. You may recall I was feeling a certain trepidation about the upcoming year, after my first startling glimpse of Europe.
I awoke that first day on the floor of an upstairs bedroom in the home of our missionary friends. I had no idea what time it was, or what day it was even, but I got dressed quickly and went in search of my mother and friends. They were all gathered around the dining room table, eating what appeared to be lunch. I was greeted by our friend (who was an American) and introduced to his French wife and five children. I sat down next to my mother and felt shyness wash over me.
I don’t remember what our first meal in France was, but I do remember being offered a glass of wine by the host. I gave a sideways glance at my mother and my surprise must have shown on my face, because they all laughed. Embarrassed, I said I didn’t really care for the taste of wine. His wife then offered me a bubbling cider. It was alcoholic as well, but less so, and she informed me that it was a good way to start developing my taste for alcohol. It was how they had started teaching all their children to appreciate good wine.

‘When in France’, I thought, and accepted the drink. It wasn’t half bad. Perhaps it helped loosen my tongue, because my shyness was wearing off, and I started asking questions of the daughters of the house, who all spoke good English. I figured it was never too soon to start learning the language, of which I knew the words ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci’.

“How do you say ‘water’ in French?” I asked eagerly, pointing to the pitcher in front of me.
The girls looked at each other.
“Oh,” one of them replied.
“How do you say ‘water’?” I repeated more slowly, thinking by her answer that she hadn’t understood the question.
“Oh,” she said again.
I looked puzzled.
“The word for water is Oh,” she elaborated.
“How do you spell that,” I replied, feeling foolish.
“E-A-U” she said.
I stared. How on earth could you get the sound O out of those three vowels?
“Unless it is plural, ” she continued. “Then you add an X at the end.”
“Oh, so then you pronounce it Ohx,” I went on, more confidently.
“Non, non,” (both girls giggling) “you never pronounce the X.”
“So how do you know when you are talking about plural or singular?”
They shrugged. “You just do.”
I went on, trying to sort out the confusion. “So I thought you pronounced the X in Aix-en-Provence, but you never say the X?”
“Oh,” (more giggling) “Of course you pronounce the X in Aix.”
“So how do you know when to pronounce a letter or not? ” I asked.
” You just do,” they finished, maddeningly.
My trepidation was mounting once again.

Later that day, we were taken to see our new living quarters by our missionary friend. Since he had an unusually large family, by French standards, he drove a Volkswagen Bus. I remember the terror I felt as he zoomed confidently through ridiculously narrow streets in his overlarge vehicle, narrowly avoiding other cars. I had an impression of tall, austere, gray buildings, interspersed with small fountain-filled plazas as we flew along. Before long, he was pulling up the driveway of the Faculte Libre De Theologie Reformee,(or the Fac, as we would soon learn to call it) -the seminary where we would be living for the next nine months. It was a long rectangular building, 4 stories high, and it was covered with a pinkish colored plaster and studded with tall, mint green shutters- an interesting combination.
Our room, when we saw it, was on the second floor- the first door on the right of a long hallway. It was large and bare, with a few odd pieces of furniture, three single beds, and an old sink in the corner. There was a common bathroom down the hall, for men and women to share- yet another shock for this prudish American. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the room, but I fell in love with the enormous windows that you could fling wide open to welcome the day.
Right below our windows was a concrete slab that served as a sort of porch roof for the story below. I thought it would be a nice place to read or study and get a bit of sun in the future. The driveway was lined by tall trees with a strange, spotted, gray bark that I had never seen before. I was told they were called Platane trees.
As we took an exploratory walk towards the center of town, I noticed that these trees grew all over the city, right out of the stone, it seemed. They even looked like stone, except for their big leafy boughs overhead. It was not a large city, and our walk into town took about twenty minutes. We passed lovely, mossy old fountains shaped like dolphins, and glimpsed cathedrals down side streets.

People in dark clothing walked swiftly and silently past us as we sauntered along, absorbing our new home. My apprehensions about the language and the people and being on our own, that had been crowding my mind since I first got on the plane, were beginning to fade as I took in the richness of the architecture around me, and when we finally reached the Centre Ville, I forgot them completely.

It’s hard for me to describe how I felt when I first saw the Cours Mirabeau- the main boulevard running a quarter mile through the heart of Aix. Falling in love might be too strong a term, but it’s the only one I can think of. The way the the entire boulevard was lined with enormous platanes arching high overhead, lacing their branches to form a green canopy, through which the sunlight filtered, dappling the cobblestones in a soft green light. The way the tunnel-like trees directed your gaze to the end of the avenue, where a huge fountain danced in the distance. The charming cafes, the sculptured buildings, the smell of the boulangeries and patisseries, all combined to root me to the spot with my eyes wide, as I tried to drink it all in.
“I’m going to love it here,” I smiled to myself, “Whether I figure out the vowels and the exes or not.” And linking arms with my mother, we entered the enchanted green tunnel.

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The innocents abroad

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I had so much fun remembering the night my hubby proposed, that I thought I would share the story of how we met. But then I thought I would have to go back a little further and a then little further until I decided I might as well just start at the beginning of that year of adventures. It’ll be good blog fodder for those moments when I can’t think of anything to post except pictures of dolls.

I always laugh at the fact that I ever ended up studying in France for a year. I laugh about how sheltered I was, how inexperienced, how I didn’t know a lick of French and wasn’t actually interested in traveling or French at all. I went because my pastor’s daughter and another friend needed a third traveling companion and my pastor is a very persuasive man. In fact, the first my parents ever heard of the plan was when he approached them after church one Sunday with a big smile on his face and said, “I am so glad you are allowing Nicky to accompany my daughter to France this year!”
After much initial confusion, there were a few weeks of questions and discussion that left my head spinning. Then a friend offered to donate a plane ticket and it was suddenly a done deal. I was eighteen years old and bound for foreign ports.
It was actually a well thought out plan. We had missionary friends in the south of France who worked at a seminary in the little town of Aix-en-Provence, close to Marseilles. We could live very economically in the dormitory rooms of the seminary and walk the twenty minutes to our language institute, all the while practicing our fledgling French with other seminary students living in the dorms. It sounded straightforward enough.

I wasn’t sure how to pack for such an adventure. It was hard to know what to fit into two suitcases that would be enough for a whole year away from home. And figuring out a new wardrobe to take to France was downright intimidating. My closet at that time consisted of baggy jeans and old flannels, vestiges of the “grunge” movement that had dominated my high school years. I can’t remember exactly what I ended up buying except a vibrantly red fluffy coat that stood out alarmingly every morning on our walk to school amidst the chic black and grey pea coats of every other french person on the streets. I always felt, as I saw their sideways glances, that they were thinking how noisy Americans were, even in their clothing. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I distinctly remember that last morning at home, the drive to the airport with all of my sisters, while one of them played “There’s no place like home,” morosely on her harmonica. Thankfully my mother and my pastor’s wife were coming with us for a few weeks, so I wasn’t as terrified as I otherwise would have been. We boarded our plane with little difficulty, and settled in for the nine hour flight. Our first taste of European life came with the in flight movie. It was a movie I am afraid I will never forget, calledCousin Bette. Within the first five minutes, our mothers were gasping and trying to cover our eyes with their hands. It was 90 minutes of uncensored nudity, sex and more nudity. To a girl raised on a steady film diet of The Sound of Music and Polyanna, this was a little upsetting. We tried not to watch the screen directly in front of us, but it was a tough job. When it finally ended, our mothers sighed in relief and apologized to us as if it were their fault. An hour later, they played it again.
After a few failed attempts at sleeping, we landed in Amsterdam, our layover city. Here was another shock. This was no friendly American airport. It was dark and crowded and overrun by men in uniform, carrying semi-automatic weapons in their hands. We stayed close together, trying to find our next gate. When we finally found it, the next adventure began.
The lady taking our tickets informed us that my ticket was not for the 12 noon flight, but the midnight flight, 12 hours later. My ticket had been purchased separately from everyone else’s, and there had been a mix up with the AM and PM. My mother began to panic. She couldn’t leave me all alone in that frightening airport for 12 hours while they went ahead. She did everything she could to get me on their flight, but due to security reasons, they simply wouldn’t consider it. I watched them all board the plane without me, my mother in tears, and faced 12 very long hours alone.
I was exhausted and longed to find a corner to curl up and sleep in, but the lady at the ticket desk had told me to pay close attention as they would probably change my gate several times. I was also afraid someone would steal my things if I slept, so I wove my arms through the straps of my bags and dozed fitfully, waking with a start every time they made an announcement.
Midnight of that endless day finally came. They had indeed changed my gate a dozen times, but I managed to find the right number as they were boarding. When I saw the line of people preparing to board the plane, I felt like turning and running. Nearly every other person on the plane was a soldier in German uniform. They were evidently soldiers on leave or something, because they had a lot of steam to blow off. Smoking was allowed on the flight, and unlimited alcohol. That flight was an exhausted nightmare of hazy smoke, raucous, drunken laughter accompanied by loud German singing and countless offers from inebriated soldiers to buy me drinks.
Thankfully the flight was only a few hours long, and I was the first person lined up to leave when they opened the plane door, leaving the soldiers, who were still partying and wolf-whistling, behind me.
The first person I saw, anxious and white faced behind the gate, was my mother, standing next to our missionary friend. I don’t remember how I finally got myself and my luggage loaded up and into their car, and I only vaguely recall long avenues of dark trees lining the road as we wound through the countryside of my new home. I remember stumbling into a bed made up on the floor of someone’s bedroom and drifted off to sleep vaguely wondering what I had gotten myself into.
The next thing I saw was someone opening a pair of bright green shutters, welcoming a glorious morning in the south of France. A new year had begun.