Spring 2007




Visual Arts
Challenge Prompt
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French Stories
N. Jeanne Burns

On Boulevard Diderot in Paris, Smart cars that look like toys instead of real cars, like compact cars with their trunks and back seats cut off, creep toward Gare de Lyon. Motorcycles make the only real progress by squeezing between buses on the boulevard or sometimes between pedestrians on the sidewalk.
            Liz and I hug the slim storefronts, which are lined up like sentinels waiting to check our credentials. The least smoky restaurant among the half-dozen or so on this block is our choice. I don’t need to spend much time with la carte to find what I want to eat: French onion soup.
            Soup is an apt first meal in France. The word restaurant originated in France and described concentrated soup that purported to cure exhaustion. Restaurant acquired its current definition after 1765 when an enterprising French man opened a shop that sold only soups.
            My soup is served in a white ceramic bowl, a modest-sized bowl by American standards. I breach the toasted cheese and baguette layer and am surprised by the broth: it’s a dark honey color. You can see the bottom of the bowl.
Every soupe à l’oignon I have ever eaten had an opaque dark broth with a heavy flavor of almost burnt onions. This soup is light and has a distinct caramelized onion flavor in addition to the crisp beef flavor. This soup is curing my jet lag.
            “It’s delicious,” I tell the waiter who looks like Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. He asks where we are from and when we tell him, he tells us about his daughter who is that day flying to Chicago on behalf of the French tourism office. Her itinerary is in his back pocket and he shows it to us. She is traveling instead to Minneapolis, our home. The Twin Cities weren’t familiar to him so his daughter had told him that she was going to a city near Chicago. He shows off pictures of her and grins when he brags about the places she’s traveled.
            “Thanks for showing this to me. My name is Jeanne, by the way.”
            “No!” he says and puts his hand over his chest. “In France, we don’t exchange names right away. It’s too...intime.”
            “Hold on, intime means…” I say as I look it up in the dictionary. Intimate. It’s too intimate to exchange names in France.
            “Good friends, lovers. But not people you meet in a restaurant.” He smiles and adds, “That’s okay though. My name is Bernard.”
            “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Thank you for your kindness. Enchantée Bernard.”

            In Provence, we stay at Le Clair de la Plume, a luxurious hotel on the edge of Grignan in the Drôme region. The hotel’s name, literally “the clarity of the quill,” refers to the vivid letters of Madame de Sévigné, who lived and died in Grignan. She wrote to her daughter describing what life was like in 17th-century Provence.
            Jean-Luc and Marc, the owners, operate the hotel more like a bed-and-breakfast than a traditional hotel. The hotel includes a salon du thé that serves quiche, meat and cheese plates and pastries from noon to seven, as well as homemade ice cream and tea. Le Clair de la Plume has dozens of Mariage Frères tea. I don’t know most of them. French breakfast, Russian breakfast, Buddha blue, Eros, Casablanca. I pick the one with ingredients I can understand without a dictionary: Casablanca, la menthe marocaine et la bergamote.
            Mint tea sometimes has a bitter or acidic aftertaste, but Casablanca has a smooth, fresh finish. The bergamot makes the tea taste like a cloudless early-summer day. The scent reminds you of the first cut grass of the season.

            We stay for five days, long enough to get a taste of several teas, to get homemade ice cream, and to get that Jean-Luc and Marc are gay.
            “Jean-Luc, when we were making reservations for France, we worried about being two women asking for one bed. We didn’t know how people would respond,” I say.
            “In France, that’s nobody’s business. The mayor of Paris came out of the closet and we were horrified not because he’s gay but because he told us.”
            “It’s not like that in the U.S.”
            He laughs and says, “No, it’s not. You were mad at Bill Clinton for having sex with Monica Lewinski. You know who the French were mad at? Linda Tripp. And her tape recorder.”

            As we leave France, the customs booths at Charles de Gaulle Airport are empty. You can see all the way through the dozen or so empty tollbooth-like boxes to the empty security office. When we arrived in France twelve days before, there were crisp-uniformed men and women in the office drinking from demitasse cups and smoking. But no one acknowledged us. No one stamped our passports.
            It is as if the French don’t want us to have proof that we were in their country.

            The United States customs officer wants proof that we’re not bringing anything illegal into the country. They grill each of us in turn for what feels like ten minutes. Are we bringing in fruit or produce of any kind? Only de lavande. Are we bringing in wines or spirits? Only du vin. Are we bringing in other food? Only du thé.
            The stern uniformed officer didn’t ask us if we were bringing into the country any stories, the only real proof that we were in France, the only import of value.

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