Monday, September 27, 2010

Profound South: Invincible Summer

"Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un été invincible."

About a month into my summer stay in Paris, I bought a little purse-sized bottle of Tabasco and began carrying it with me like a fiery flask.  I loved the thought of it tucked into my bag, a potion from home.

Is this the culinary equivalent of packing heat? I wondered.  And if so, what was I armed against?  A spiceless life? 

I pepper my morning smoothies with cayenne, sprinkle Tony’s on my popcorn, shake sauce onto pizza.  Moving to Louisiana has only encouraged this practice.  Two Tabasco bottles sit, side-by-side like salt-and-pepper, on nearly every restaurant table in the state.  There’s classic crimson and a lighter green version for those who like it less hot.  

I purchased my heat at a place called Thanksgiving on rue Saint Paul.  My friend Annie was the first person to tell me about the store.  “It’s one of the places you can buy peanut butter,” she’d said, imparting a piece of information valued among newly-transplanted Americans. 

So, one day I’m walking home and see it: the big glass window painted with a cornucopia, scrolly cursive words announcing underneath: cuisine de la Louisiane.

Inside, I find a section stocked with Zatarain’s Red Beans and Rice, Louisiana Hot Sauce, Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, just-add-water gumbo in little plastic packages. 

But this cornucopia isn’t all oysters and crawfish.  There are baked beans and marmite for the English, paper packages of maple-leaf cookies for the Canadians.  Peanut butter and marshmallow fluff for the Americans.  Then, tubs of fudgy icing and box mixes for yellow cake for anyone with a cupcake craving.  Prices aside, it’s every Anglophone expatriate’s dream.  So, in a move of (ex)patriotism, I splurged on grits, cornmeal, and hot sauce. 

While I was browsing, “Me and Bobby McGee” came on, and Janis Joplin told me a southern comforting story about kindness.  Even if you had a flat tire, you shouldn’t worry because a trucker would pick you and your boyfriend up and drive you to a city an hour and fifteen minutes away as it rained and the three of you sang, safe and sheltered in the cab.  The first line from the song was the only real association I had with Baton Rouge before moving here.  It was the place where Janis busted flat. 

During my move south, I had busted flat, too, in a U-Haul, in Mississippi, also with a boyfriend, but nobody offered to drive us to New Orleans.  And by then we really could have used a daiquiri.  So, instead of riding all the way to New Orleans as someone strummed her harpoon, we sat in the diner section of the gas station and tried to re-tranquilize my cat.

It about the time that I bought the Tabasco that I began saying I was from Louisiana.  I’m from Tennessee by birth, from North Carolina by virtue of having lived there for most of my life, and from Montpellier simply because I love it more than any place.  But now, in some ways, I am also from Louisiana.     

Hot sauce: wet heat.  A climatic clue you’re in the South. 

In Paris, people kept fanning themselves, bemoaning la chaleur, and I kept thinking, a little indignantly, you call THIS heat?  A sunny little seventy-five and no humidity?  On one of the first nights, I remember sitting in my apartment in jeans and a scarf, sipping tea and feeling desolate that it was late June and in the low 50s.  Fast forward to now: we’re in the home stretch of September and my roommate said yesterday, “It’s starting to cool off.  It might get down to 86 tomorrow.”

Louisiana’s all swamp and sweat, and so am I.

A few nights ago, I watched Steel Magnolias, which was filmed in Nachitoches, LA.  Viewing a movie set in the South has always been uncomfortable for me.  Things that seem natural in real life become affected, put on: the exaggerated accents, the waitresses calling you darlin,’ the languid pace.  It’s all drawl and dawdle that feels false played out on a screen.    

But beyond all the little signals of southerness, the mention of sweet tea, the words like “tacky,” and “grandbaby,” the hell-raising husband at the wedding who shoots firecrackers into the trees to scare off the birds, the Bible-brandishing beautician . . . beyond all the triteness, the tropes, there’s one part that gets me.  One part that feel real.  Southern. 

It’s the mother’s monologue in the cemetery, about her daughter Shelby’s death. (If you remember, she went into a coma after complications from a kidney transplant.)  It begins calmly then builds to rage.  There’s grace and resilience in it, even if M’Lynne believes she’s been done wrong.  I think of Louisiana.  Of Katrina.  Of Deepwater Horizon.  Of the steady strength of rebuilding. 

The cemetery monologue reminds me of another scene from an epic southern film, Gone with the Wind.  Scarlett’s “I’ll never be hungry again,” speech.  Famished, her hair all frizzy, Scarlett claws at the ground for a stray radish, then collapses, chest heaving against the earth.  If you’re from the South, you know the ground matches the sun-smeared sky.  “Red as birth land’s dirt,” to cite a line from a friend’s poem.

As God is my witness.  They’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.  No, nor any of my folk.  If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.

Scarlett’s standing.  The score swells.  

Camus wrote, "Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un été invincible."
"In the middle of winter, I discovered in myself an invincible summer.”

He grew up in a sunny place, too.  Algeria.  His story, like Scarlett’s, assumes a certain nostalgia for a way of life that became indefensible.  French Algeria fell like the Confederacy.

In French, the Deep South is called le sud profond.  The Profound South.  The more I live here, the more I realize I am profoundly southern.  The land and I lay claim to one other.  Like Scarlett, called back to her birth land’s dirt, I am also called back to my terre, and carry it with me when I go.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Seeking Édith: Dieu réunit ceux qui s'aiment

“Je veux voir Édith Piaf !” 

She couldn’t have been very old, the little French girl who spoke her wish, but her pouty proclamation could have come from my own mouth.  I also wanted to see Édith Piaf!  Where WAS she? 

I’m in Père Lachaise cemetery, standing beside a French family staring squinty-eyed at a map, near the exit on Avenue Gambetta.  They, like me, have traveled from tomb to tomb for hours à la suite.

Elle est loin, chérie, loin . . .

I could tell that no one in her family especially cared to see Édith, and that she, unlike me, would not be able to return the following day, seeking Édith, dedicating a day to her.

When I taught high school French, we sometimes listened to Édith Piaf in class.  The students all knew “La vie en rose.”  No one knew “L’hymne à l’amour.”  It has become my favorite. 

The first two-thirds of the song is typical love song fare . . . a woman making a lot of foolish, fabulous promises, offering to do things no would ask her to do to prove her love.  She says she’d décrocher la lune (unhook the moon) and aller au bout du monde (go to the ends of the earth) and [se] ferais teindre en blonde (have her hair dyed blond), renierais [sa] patrie et [ses] amis (deny her friends and her country) if her beloved asked her to. 

After this crescendo of hollow promises, a laundry list of lovesick clichés, I always begin to feel vaguely vexed with Édith.  Why are women endlessly offering to change themselves, to deny who they are and what they love to be loved?  What is this Sam-I-Am vision of relationships?  (Would you love me in a box?  Would you love me with a fox?)  I understand it.  I’ve done it, even, but why fall in love with a brunette, then ask her to dye her hair blond?  Who’s the man who could say I love you then make that kind of request?   

But that’s when the song changes. 

Si un jour la vie t'arrache à moi
Si tu meurs, que tu sois loin de moi
Peu m'importe, si tu m'aimes
Car moi je mourrai aussi . . .
Nous aurons pour nous l'éternité
Dans le bleu de toute l'immensité
Dans le ciel, plus de problèmes
Mon amour, crois-tu qu'on s'aime?...

. . . Dieu réunit ceux qui s`aiment!

If one day life snatches you from me
If you die, if you’re far from me
It doesn’t matter, if you love me
Because I’ll die, too . . .
We’ll have for ourselves eternity
In the blue of all immensity
In the sky, no more problems
My love, do you believe that we love each other?

 . . . God reunites those who love each other.

Si tu meurs . . .  She’d written the song in September of 1949, seemingly about the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan.  Just a month later, when he was taking a plane from Paris to New York to see her, their story ended.  The plane crashed.  Perhaps you remember the scene from the 2007 film about her life, La Môme (La Vie en Rose in English).  “L’Hymne à l’amour” became one of her most famous songs.  How many times had she sung it afterwards?  Confirmed that the “if” had become a “when”?

Love seems to me both defined by its fragility and its foreverness.  A fractional change in circumstances on an arbitrary afternoon can shift the scale from love to unlove, can cement a decision to close the door, lock it, throw the key in the Seine. 

I imagine the heart as a vast locker room, each of the occupied lockers belonging to someone you’ve loved.  Some lockers are almost empty . . . a yearbook picture, a note passed in class, a ticket stub.  Others, full to overflowing.  You open them, and like a slapstick scene from the halls of high school, the contents spill out, an avalanche of almost.  Almost just right.  Almost the one.  Almost enough.  Almost three years.  The day you close it, you have to slam your shoulder against it to get everything to fit inside.  Then, you go to the weight room to work out.  People don’t cry in weight rooms. 

My friend Kim had once compared love to a pillow . . . hard to destroy.  Malleable, yes, but durable.  I agree with that, too.  The lockers are like fireproof safes.   Even when we’ve ceased to rummage through them, forgotten what all they contain, they remain, never really cleared of their contents. 

I also believe that love is unlinear, that we travel in orbits, that we loop back around and cross paths with the people we’re meant to meet and re-meet.   A few weeks ago I bade goodbye to my friend Karen on the Pont des Arts.  She has been in Paris for two years, in France for the past four.  We first met ten years ago in Montpellier.

-I’m afraid that if I leave, I won’t be able to come back.  Or that it will be harder.  
-I know.  I always feel that way, too . . . but look at us. We’ve both come back so many times.  We always come back.  It’s how we are. 

Dieu réunit ceux qui s’aiment. 

The last time I’d left France.  I sobbed, sometimes secretly, sometimes not, for weeks as I slept beside the person I’d come back for. 

-It feels like France is the other man, he’d said once.   

When he and I parted ways, I went back to France.  Sometimes, when I was there and I missed him, I tried imagining he was dead.

-So that I’m not angry with him.
-I didn’t realize you couldn’t be mad at someone who’s dead.
-Maybe you can . . . but you try to remember the good things.  And you try to make peace with the idea that you won’t be hearing from him again.

Strangely, pretending he was dead was a strategy that he’d suggested, once, when I said I didn’t know how to respond to inquiries about him, about us.

-Just tell them I died.  They’ll quit asking.
-Yeah.  He demonstrated: Oh him?  Yeah, he died.  Then he looked very sad for a moment, as if he was honoring his own memory, observing a moment of silence.  Then you change the subject. 

Not far from the Cimetière Père Lachaise, in a non-descript building where she once lived, is the Musée Édith Piaf.  Visitors require appointments.  The first full song I hear as I walk in is “L’hymne à l’amour.”

I think of the apartment-turned-museum as a life-sized locker with its memorabilia guarded by a tiny dog named Opium and a man named Bernard.  In an article in English lying on one of the tables, the gardien is interviewed.  He reveals that met the singer as a teenager at the insistence of his parents.

As he looked at her, sitting a blue couch that now resides in the museum, in a bathrobe, mal-peignée, he thought:  This isn’t a great singer.  She isn’t even beautiful.  Then, he said, he heard her sing.  He asked to watch her practice backstage for the next three months. 

Afterwards, I walk back to Père Lachaise, determined that this time I will find Édith Piaf.  When I arrive at her gravestone, looking at the dates of her life, I remember the beginning of a framed letter hanging in the museum, a run-on gush of thoughts on growing older:

Tu sais que j’ai 28 ans aujourd’hui, oui mon vieux.  Vingt-huit ans depuis cinq heures du matin, tu te rends compte, je veillis, c’est embêtant quand on a dépassé 25 ans enfin ils sont parties, n’en parlons plus !

Do you know that I’m twenty-eight years old today, yes old man.  Twenty-eight years old since five o’clock this morning, do you realize, I’m getting older, it’s bothersome when you pass 25.  Well, the years are gone, let’s not talk about it anymore!

Engraved on a plaque by her tombstone, are the final lines from the song.