Archive for the ‘outings’ Category

The Letter V (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 28, 2015

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

Note:  As Provence is in the region of Vauclaus, and as the Peter Mayles lived in a house with a Vineyard, I feel that there are sufficient Letter V’s associated with this selection.

When I was a child I always eagerly awaited the arrival of the Reader’s Digest.  As soon as it arrived I would seize it and scan the right hand column of the table of contents, hoping to see humorist Will Stanton’s name there. I loved him. I believe – and I would like to look into this further but I don’t have time right now – that he was the one who wrote a story about an episode involving an American diner and a French waiter.

If I remember correctly this was basically a conversation recounted in the first person by the fictitious American, in which he and the waiter try desperately to communicate in basic French phrases.  Of course each phrase is most slap-stickishly misunderstood and even more hilariously misspelled using similar sounding but totally inappropriate English words.  I particularly remember one line where the waiter bows obsequiously and murmurs “Tray of Beans!”  Now, thanks to my many years of careful study of the French phrases employed by Hercule Poirot, I understand that this was obviously a joke on “tres bien” and so I can easily see why it was funny. I don’t know why I thought that it was funny then as I had not yet met Monsieur Poirot, but it simply slayed me. Desperate to share the joke I carried the magazine around and inflicted this story on each person in my family individually, making them drop everything and listen while I read it out loud, and every time I got to “Tray of Beans!” I would first break into titters and then into guffaws and then I would fall helplessly onto the floor laughing uncontrollably, unattractively, ungracefully and all by myself, because no one else thought it was funny at all.*

I am hopelessly enamored of the French language and it is the cruelest of ironies that Fate gifted me with a congenital inability to pronounce correctly even the simplest of French words.  I think it’s partly physiological — I’m pretty sure that to produce the tones intrinsic to the language requires a sinus structure that is not present in my head, and perhaps a smaller and more flexible tongue, and also a much stronger and more coordinated musculature of the lower face — and also partly psychological — I’m just way too self-conscious to even try making those beautiful, sonorous Gallic noises, much as I swoon at the sound of other people making them.  In my second year of college I was given a French song in my voice lesson and my tentative honks and infantile mews caused my voice teacher, the kindest man you can imagine, who was accepting to a fault and never laughed at anyone, first to go all wild-eyed and twitchy behind his beard and then to break down entirely. He was so sorry, afraid he had hurt my feelings, but I totally understood.  Languages in general are not my strong point, but French in particular is just not going to happen.

Still, I fantasize about living in France (perhaps as a mime) and here I found A Year in Provence to be very encouraging. On a casual first read it seemed to that Mr. Mayle and his wife plunged into living in France in exactly the way I would be likely to do if left unsupervised (that is, recklessly, on a whim, with no forethought whatsoever) and that it was only once they had arrived and settled in and he was casting about for something to keep himself busy that he conceived the bright idea to write a hilarious book about his experiences, kind of as a hobby, a little project on the side, something to fill the long afternoons.**

On second read, though, it is obvious even to me that A Year in Provence was certainly not only in the works, perhaps already under contract, but that it was no doubt the whole reason for the move in the first place and that framing it as a spontaneously plunging into a new experience was carefully planned as a major theme of the first few chapters, in which although Mr. Mayle does not know the language well and both misunderstands and mispronounces his way through the first few months, he is able nonetheless able to negotiate the activities of daily living in French.  Here’s the clue: after a while as you read you realize that these activities – visiting markets, gossiping with the neighbors, being available all day for the builders, making excursions to neighboring towns, seeking out the best places for lunch, finding out all about truffle hunting –  could only be the daily activities of a man who has the flexible schedule of a writer and the assurance that when he assembles all these experiences into manuscript form he will certainly be compensated most lucratively.  That’s alright, that’s the way sensible people do things.  Spontaneous activities run most smoothly on a roadbed of painstaking preparation, as I have been reminded often by the Patient Man (but not in those words, which he would think were not only an incomprehensible but a downright silly way of saying it).***

The book lures you in, though, seduces you with the idea that maybe you could really just up stakes and move to France yourself.  Is it any wonder that everyone envies a writer?  I wonder what else I could do remotely via computer from a farmhouse in the French countryside.  Medical data transcription?  Email fraud?  A pyramid scheme? Cold call insurance sales?  Tech support – no, probably not tech support.  One more reason to get cracking on the next Great American Novel, I guess. It could be a step to the Great American Living in France Novel.

See you tomorrow for Letter W,


*None of them speak French either.

**Actually I’m probably the only reader who ever interpreted it that way.  As I said, I do not have the gifts of forethought and planning and I so desperately wish that things could work out nicely without them that I’m always on the lookout for success stories of this type that I can share with the Patient Man and this probably coloured my initial reading.

***It’s amazing how many years it took me to figure out, for instance, that the very simple picnics being unpacked so casually on the lawn (oh, I’m sorry, the Lawn) at Tanglewood were the result of much planning, shopping, cooking, baking, garnishing, coordinating, accessorizing, packing and presenting.  All my picnics seemed to consist mostly of paper plates and plastic Walmart bags escaping to fly around annoying the old money.  I still don’t have the knack.  I mean, I can shop, plan, cook, bake, garnish, coordinate, accessorize and pack, but when it comes time to present I get nervous and drop things and then off fly the paper plates again.


Well, At Least I Finally Have Good Ski Pants

February 11, 2015

I bought a ski pass at the beginning of this season but when late in December I tried to put on my ski pants I realized, once I finally got them zipped, that if I should happen to fall over while wearing them I would almost certainly suffer a serious internal injury. It was not even clear that I would be able to bend enough to get into the car to drive to the mountain. A possible scenario was that I would be able to put them on in the parking lot by jumping up and down while yanking on the zipper, hop over to the lift line and then shuffle forward and stand stiffly waiting for the lift, then the chair would hit me in the back of the knees and I would try to sit but my body wouldn’t bend and I would just kind of collapse backwards onto the chair, flailing, and then flip forward and slither under it; probably my helmet or jacket would get snagged on some projection under the chair as it passed over my body and I would be dragged slowly up the mountain, face down, and I did not wish this to happen, so I pretended that I didn’t want to go skiing anyway.

To be fair, these were ski bibs handed down to my son from my brother-in-law and then handed on down to me. I’m not even remotely the shape of either of these people and it’s amazing I’ve been able to wear them for as long as I have. The money I spent on the pass has been preying on my conscience, though, so I finally went to LL Bean a couple of days ago and spent a horrific amount on nicer ski pants than I even knew existed, and now I’m obligated to ski every day between now and May to justify both the price of the pass AND the price of the pants*.

So I went skiing this morning, and as usual on the way to the mountain I went over my list of fears:

  • That I will be forced onto a chair with a bunch of snowboarders who will trip me with their awkward boards as I try to get off and I will go sprawling and the lift will have to be stopped and it will look like it’s my fault.
  • That the lift operator will make me get on a chair with two young people who wanted to be by themselves and when we’re half way up someone will trip trying to get on or off (probably kicked by a snowboarder) and the lift will have to be stopped and we will be stranded mid-mountain, just the three of us, the blue sky above and the white snow below and romantic solitude everywhere and there will be several endless minutes of awkward and resentful silence before we start moving again.
  • That I will not be able to heave myself out of the chair at the top and the lift operator will not notice and I will have to ride all the way to the bottom, the upward bound skiers pointing and laughing and the lift operator at the bottom demanding to know what I think I’m doing.
  • That a snowboarder will fail to see the obvious pattern in my slow and deliberate S-turns and will crash into me from behind, killing me, and the last words ringing in my ears as I leave this world will be an outraged ‘Stupid woman was in my way!’
  • That a perfectly competent three-year old will ski past me and then for no reason suddenly stop directly in my path and I will not be able to avoid crashing into her, and this will obviously be my fault because I am the adult and I was uphill and I failed to avoid the collision, and both of her parents will shout this at me over and over as she is crying and the ski patrol is checking her for injuries and I am struggling vainly to untangle myself and get to my feet.
  • That a trail labelled “Moderate” will have a one of those very short but unavoidable connecting sections that are about four feet wide, icy, very steep, curving between trees and boulders and completely choked with packs of merciless ten year olds all trying to shove each other into the woods for fun.
  • That someone will be able to tell just by looking at me that I was the kid who went on the class ski trips but sat in the cabin reading books because I didn’t know how to ski and couldn’t afford a lift ticket but then still tried to be all cool with the rich kids when they got back from the mountain, and they will ask me what I think I’m doing pretending that I belong here.
  • That I will go into the lodge and buy coffee and sit down at an empty table to drink it and then immediately the big happy extended family whose stuff is under the table will come back and sit down all around me, except for the the person whose seat I’m in, who will stand behind me and say plaintively, “Where am I supposed to sit?”
  • And finally that late in the day I will fall over in plain view of the lift, my skis will be trapped under my body and pointing in different directions but will still not come off, I will not be able to reach my poles, no one will bother to stop, and while I am still thrashing around, struggling, pulling myself part way up only to fall over again, getting weaker and weaker each time, the mountain will close, the last skiers will swish around me, spraying me on the way by, a snowboarder will jump over me with a mocking laugh, a ski patrol will fly by shouting over his shoulder that I’d better get a move on and then the lights will go off, I will run out of energy to keep trying and I will freeze to death before morning. When they find my body they will shake their heads and say how careless and irresponsible I must have been.

But only four of these things happened today, and that was encouraging, so I’ll probably go again tomorrow. See you soon, <KK>

*and the very nice matching jacket I felt I also needed.