Updated: Aug 19, 2018
Week one in two words: solitude, scrambling. Most of my time has been spent learning, exploring, traversing--quietly and alone. Here, the French speak French. End of story. There's no falling back on my Spanish like I so often did during my culinary studies in Paris, and English is never within earshot. I come prepared for every interaction, with all anticipated phrases scratched into a trusty Moleskine and accent practiced like a scene from Groundhog Day. Inevitably, each exchange tumbles over the same cliff, extending beyond my carefully cultivated plans and leaving me exposed: "je ne comprends pas." It wasn't until today, when I was inundated with human interaction which narrowly avoided the cliff, that it became clear just how desperately I was craving connection.
It began with Genevieve, who has lived next door to Vony's house for 30 years and in Provence her entire life. I arrived at her door with one of my most refined and trusted recipes in hand: banana bread. She welcomed me inside with warmth. Genevieve speaks English quite well, but with unnecessary uncertainty. We learned the basics about one another; she's an art-lover, afraid of flying, and surprisingly knows of and loves my tiny home state of Vermont ("New England! Writers!").
Over the course of conversation, I began to notice Vony's artistic signature throughout the fully-renovated country home. A lanky, exuberant, golden rooster in relief greeting visitors as they enter, and a floral stained glass window spilling color across the tile floor--but not like you're picturing. Thick and slightly opaque hand-shorn glass nestled snugly into a narrow concrete arch, arranged in organic patterns; an expert perspective on contrasting hard and soft. I, of course, took the opportunity to continue building out Vony's narrative.
"She could do anything," Genevieve said with all the confidence she deserves to exude.
Vony made the fountain in the middle of Le Poet. She could often be found on her roof. She never married and "never needed a man because she could do everything a man does," but she did share her home for many years with another woman who worked in the church. We talked quintessential Provincial dishes, but that is a story for another time.
Over two hours had passed when I had to pull myself away; Nathalie, a woman who had cleaned the house before my arrival, wanted to come over. Nathalie lived in England for three years working as a caretaker for sick children and seniors, but now 30 years have passed and she remembers almost none of it. She became a professional maid when working as a caretaker became too... too... we got stuck here, miming gesture after gesture, volleying possible French words and possible English words, until she finally pushed down on the top of her head.
"Oh!," I slumped my body, head heavy and arms loose, "heavy? Got too heavy?"
"Oui! Oui! Heavy!" She replied with an enthusiasm on par with hearing your name called for a hard-earned prize, her body going limp and low with mine.
She made sure I understood the state of Vony's house before she cleaned: the sand-colored tile was black from a working wood stove, dust had gathered roughly an inch on every surface, and spiders, so many spiders, had made their homes in the eaves. Immensely proud of her work, she shared with me how to maintain it. Soap & water is best for windows, vinegar left for a few hours can make a toilet look like new, and a tile cleaner that she swears by. She remembers being alone in a new place and how powerful it was when she fond someone to act as an ambassador for the area. She'd love to be that person for me.
That night Genevieve's husband, Maurice, came over to help me with what I mistakenly believed to be a simple task: turning on the hoses. His knock came around 8:30; nearly dark, he had a flashlight in hand and I quickly realized he spoke not a word of English. Walking me to the far-edge of the yard, each footstep crunching the parched grass, he led me to an underground water pump. A few turns of what resembled a Saturday morning cartoon's TNT-detonator, and the sound of water made way for feelings of relief. That relief, however, was short-lived. Because I'd tried time and time again to turn on the five hoses scattered around the yard's perimeter, I'd unknowingly left them all in the "on" position. Almost immediately, the rush of water made the hoses dance as if in celebration, casting a sudden rainfall over our heads. Maurice and I looked at each other and, without a word, nodded, darting to hose after hose, belly-laughing as we were each soaked from head to toe, despite our best efforts to anticipate each hose's next move. When the excitement subsided, we returned to the center of the slightly less thirsty lawn together, giggling.
"Merci beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup, moinsoir!"
"(Something in French I could not understand.)"
A moment of childlike merriment, shared without exchanging a single understood word.
When isolated by language, these moments of connection feel like striking gold, like something running parallel to falling in love. A borderline romantic rush and an unmatched gratefulness for sharing a common language, discovering creative ways to communicate in spite of uncommon language, and universally understood experiences independent of language altogether.
Banana Bread (serves 6-8, but occasionally only 2 in 24 hours)
1/2 cup oil
3 ripe bananas
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup AP flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1. Buy bananas 5-7 days before you plan to bake banana bread and let them get completely brown. They will look gross. It will be worth it. Move them to the refrigerator if you start getting fruit flies.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
3. Combine oil, bananas, eggs, sugar, and vanilla on medium-low speed until well-combined and bananas are no longer chunky.
4. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt all at once. Mix on medium speed until just combined. Don't over-mix; the more you mix, the more gluten you develop, resulting in a banana bread that's dense and rubbery.
5. Bake 17-20 minutes for 9" round, 25-30 minutes for a loaf pan, 15-17 minutes for muffins, or until a knife comes out clean. Rotate pan at the halfway point.
Pour half your batter into your pan or muffin tin, sprinkle an even layer of walnuts, pecans, or chocolate chips (or a combination), pour the other half of the batter, and sprinkle another layer of your addition of choice on top.