44. Un Gateau Pour Allie
Well, that’s it. I’m 28.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can always be surprised by your own changes, whether it be metabolism, skin elasticity, or these weird, short hairs that keep sprouting out from the top of my head making me look like a troll doll. There are some gray ones too, which is fun.
C and I were in the living room on Friday morning, readying ourselves and our apartment for our first weekend away since my move. We were going to see his family in Metz, France, where his mother had recently moved to be closer to his half sister and her boyfriend, along with their new baby. C’s mom had moved to be about as close as you could get, taking an apartment on the same exact street three houses down. They live in a quiet new development among dairy fields and corn farms in the northeast of the country. C’s mom was feeling anxious, having only moved into her apartment a few weeks ago and woefully behind on her unpacking; she had been splitting her time between her job at a high-end furniture store in Luxembourg City, and racing back to take care of her new granddaughter. She had had barely enough time to buy new towels, and she owned no furniture other than a living room couch. When she called and told her son this information, C was frustrated, but agreed to help her sister’s boyfriend in moving the extra futons from their house over to his mother’s apartment that evening. Before hanging up and amid a fast flurry of French, I heard one phrase I understood: “un gateau pour Allie”: She had gotten me a birthday cake.
With that, we shuffled off down the hill to the car rental place, situated at the base of a comically steep incline; it was so steep I wondered how the cars weren’t just sliding off. It reminded me of the cliffs that border the main highways of Nashville, and how the craggy rocks stand perpendicular to the flat roads; In Switzerland it seems, rather than blasting through the earth with dynamite, it should be etched away into a two-lane windy situation overlooking some innumerous picturesque valley below.
We got to the front desk of the Swiss Hertz-equivalent, and C was notified that unfortunately the car that he had booked, one with my only criteria of “as smooth as possible so I don’t puke in the mountains”, had not been returned on time and wasn’t available. Rather than refund our money for a less favorable model, however, they had upgraded us to a brand new Mercedes-Benz E200: the nicest car either of us had driven. Suddenly, the five-hour drive didn’t feel as taxing. We put our two small bags inside the ginourmous trunk, waved at the unused back seats, and settled in, giggling as we sat in the parking garage trying to figure out how to work the 3D navigation system. With our destination locked and Led Zeppelin in surround sound, we were on our way.
Our first night over, we awoke the next morning with a strict regimen set by C: we would be taking his mother to IKEA to pick out some dang furniture. We waited for a while for everyone to get ready; C and I wandered over to the local bakery in our swanky ride, and per his usual, C ordered about three times as many pastries as we would possibly eat. As he continued in French, “And that one, and that one…” I began to wonder how much all of this was actually going to cost: in total, about fifteen dollars. The French love their bread, but will revolt if it isn’t reasonably priced.
After IKEA, which was a new experience for me (yes, I tried the meatballs!), it was time to head to Yutz, to visit C’s grandparents. When we arrived in the small, sparsely populated village around 4pm, we parked on a side street in one of the many vacant undesignated parking spaces. I felt a little more free knowing that no large “Park Happy” corporation in France had found this little town and decided to plop down a kiosk and paint some numbers on the slots. We rounded the corner, and passed buildings new and old, bleached white with time and worn smooth by centuries of wind. In the sinking afternoon sun, we could see C’s Mamy and Papy standing on their balcony, calmly waving as if on the bow of a ship. I looked over, and C was smiling.
I had forgotten how tiny a woman C’s Mamy is. She met us at the front door as we left the elevator, carrying a white box retrieved from the bakery at the base of their building. She is probably under five foot tall, and weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. I understood her as she laughed to the rest of the family in French: “I’m definitely shrinking!”
We took our seats at the table, and tea and coffee were served, but not until a good thirty minutes of wall-to-wall chatting had elapsed. The French can TALK. Never wonder again how these people fill the twelve hours of a Christmas feast; they simply start a conversation, and it lasts for twelve hours. At one point in the middle of it all, there was a loud commotion down on the street: people were yelling, engines were revving, and some were madly honking their horns. “Go out and look” said Papy to me, gesturing with his right hand towards the balcony door. As I stepped out, I saw others out on their ledges looking down, and some people stood on the street waving at the cars, as a raucous wedding processional passed through Yutz, making as much noise as possible.
As birthday cake was later served—a vanilla custard and airy white cake iced in caramelized marshmallow cream—somehow the conversation drifted onto pets, and animals in general, which happened to be the latest chapter in Rosetta Stone I had completed. I perked up noticeably, and this time when people around the table looked in my direction, I was able to contribute my first two sentences to the conversation. I half expected for the table to break out into applause, but then remembered that I was in a small village in France in the salon of C’s grandparents’ flat, not the Lincoln Center in New York or a kindergarten show-and-tell.
For the last portion of our short trip, we headed to C’s aunt and uncle’s place for dinner. C’s zany uncle, whom he calls Tonton, met us at the door. A former train conductor, Tonton stands slightly taller than C, but with a stocky, rugby player’s frame and a long slim ponytail that he twists out of habit to make a ringlet at his mid back. Like all good uncles, he was the comic relief and sommelier of the party, while his wife—Tantan—provided the excellent food. We sat around in an open living room area while Tonton flipped through Saturday night programming, finally settling on a TLC-type channel that actually played American TLC shows dubbed in French. When the conversation lulled, I could look over, and if there was a rare long shot of a face before cutting away, I could read the lips of the woman from Texas talking about how much her house would go for if “flipped”.
Tantan, a woman clearly taking after her mother, has begun to shrink as well, seemingly only 80% of the human I last saw two years ago. A lover of good food and entertaining, she had made a beautiful three course dinner for us, the first and largest being the many different hors d'oeuvres she had prepared for the living room portion of our evening. While Tonton opened two bottles of white wine: A sweet, floral Muscat wine, and a zippy dry anjou blanc from the North; Tantan laid out three large plates: one, a carrot and coconut milk gazpacho; two, a plate of three bite-sized offerings including deviled quail’s eggs, tuna-salad-stuffed cherry tomatoes, and ham wrapped in cucumber; and three, a puree of ham and a mild cheese served with a crunchy mini breadstick. We sat around for an hour or so as the sun sank down beneath the village, watching the shadows move while Tonton made faces at the baby. I still felt so lost in translation, and as the day drug on, things only got worse.
By about 9pm, Tantan served the main course: juicy quail legs with crispy skin, caramelized carrots with a small dollop of mashed potatoes, and a sauce made from frois gras pooled like a golden brown puddle of flavor in the middle of the plate. We sat around the dining table, making universally understood yummy noises as we finagled the meat off of the tiny legs. Tonton served two wines: one from Graves for the quail, coming from the same wine region as Bordeaux; and for the final cheese course, served alongside a soft grassy brie-style cheese, a garlic herb spread, and an aged comte: an impossibly light and nuanced grenache blend called Le Triporteur, or “The Scooter”.
The night continued with the conversation, but after tasting all the wines and with a full belly, my brain had grown slightly fatigued from the 36 hours of mishmash shot out of a cannon I had been attempting to understand. Tonton saw my fading enthusiasm and leapt into action, announcing to the table that he wanted to show me something. “It’s something on fire, I don’t know what, be warned” translated C lethargically. At Tonton’s beckoning, I followed.
I was then lead out to their back balcony, pitch black with no street lamp to cast light on the 11pm sky. He spoke no English, so with hand gestures and simple French: “fire”, “coal”, “burning”, “every day”, and “keeps going”; he pointed at a bright orange flame in the distance, rivaling the size of the snow white moon above it, that danced in the black sky like a molten geyser. After a moment of piecing together what he was trying to tell me, I got it:
“Oh!” I said. “It’s a coal mine, and that’s the flame from the furnace? And they never turn it off? It never stops?”
“Never stop.” He said, in English.
At about midnight, with C still catching up in the dining room with his family, I wandered back into the now quiet living room and sat on the couch for a break. I looked up at the television just as the commercial break came to a close. On the screen flashed a blue sky with gray clouds parting to reveal a familiar, yet slightly altered, sight: Les Simpsons.
I cheerily watched the Simpsons, dubbed in French, noticing little nuances but not many major differences, until Homer accidentally set the kitchen on fire and let out a loud, “T’OH!”. Tonton looked up from the dining table and mimicked the sound to everyone’s amusement. T’OH! Apparently, the French actor cast to speak for Homer had initially misread the script, and pronounced the iconic “D’OH” with a “T” instead, and it stuck.
We gathered our things and headed for the door at about 1am. It was getting chilly outside when we reached the street, and after waving a last goodbye and with a final “A Noel” (“See you at Christmas”), I fell into the passenger seat, switched on the seat warmer, and promptly dozed off.
The next morning, moments before we left for Switzerland, C was getting dressed and I was in the empty apartment living room, sitting on the couch with C’s mom. We looked at each other, desperate to make conversation. I said something about there being lots of light in the room, and she did her best to say something simple that still took me about five minutes to understand: “The weekend went by so fast.” I tried to respond, but the words eluded me in these final moments. I let out a heavy sigh and looked at her, dejected. She smiled sympathetically, patted me on the back, and said, simply, “C’est dificil.” It’s difficult.
“Yes, it is” I said, in English; “But we’ve just got to try.”
She didn’t understand, but I knew she wanted to. And that was the point.