Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Some people draw the short stick when it comes to family. I've been ridiculously lucky three times: first at birth; most recently, when I married Matt and acquired his excellent crew of loving lunatics; but in the middle, at age sixteen, when I was placed at as an exchange student in the Delaunay family for a year, in a town called Brie-Comte-Robert.

Brie-Comte-Robert is in "la grande banlieue" or the outer, outer suburbs of Paris, beyond the reach of the RER, the commuter rail. When I mention it, most French people haven't heard of it. The last train rolled in at midnight, with no bus service home at that hour. This meant that when I was in high school here, if I wanted to go into Paris for the night in the middle of the week, as I often did, there was no returning home until the following morning. My host parents were fine with this. My host-mother, Claude, would pick me up at the train station and take me straight to school. Her  only rule was that I sit through my classes and not complain about feeling tired or hungover, although both were inevitably true. You make your choices, you live with the effects, and you accept your responsibilities. That was her motto. Not a bad message to absorb as a teenager.

Because I was sixteen and American, I was more than a little clueless about a lot of things. I understood that their property was different from the others in town, and that it was beautiful, a crumbly old house behind a tall gated wall. But I didn't realize that it was the largest tract of land in Brie. The land had belonged to Claude's parents. Her mother (la Meme) still lived within the walled enclosure, in an old house of her own. Apparently one day, a few years after I returned to the States, Claude realized that the mayor had plans to turn their land into a protected zone, meaning they wouldn't be able to develop or sell it for its worth, because no one was going to want to buy a big piece of land with no option to build on it. Before that could happen, the family acted preemptively, built an apartment complex, and moved to an even smaller town called Montreal, in the south of France, where they bought a bigger, older and crumblier house (pictured above).

This week, Max had yet another school vacation, and so we got on a plane to Toulouse, the closest city to Montreal, to visit the Delaunays in their new (to me) home. I hadn't seen them in 20 years, and I was excited but nervous. So much time had passed. My life has gone through so many revolutions. I didn't know if I'd feel comfortable with them anymore, let alone with my kid in tow, who's neither perfectly behaved (particularly in the table manner department) nor conversant in French, contrary to the popular belief that, "kids are sponges! He'll be fluent in two months!" (Yeah right). But apprehension aside, I really wanted to see them. I retain extremely vivid memories of my year in France, and especially the time I spent with them. I remember weeping uncontrollably when the day came that I had to leave, feeling completely ripped apart at the thought that my time with them was over, just like that, when I had truly come to feel like a part of their family.  

Our plane from Paris to Toulouse was delayed by 2 hours, so we didn't land until almost midnight. As I waited to be picked up by Richard, my old host-brother, I wondered if I'd even recognize him. Richard was 15 the last time I saw him. My memory was of a sweet and geeky teen, who was most often to be found lying on the "poof" (beanbag) watching dubbed American action movies. Our bedrooms came one after the other, at the end of the hall. As the year progressed and we became better friends, we'd steal Claude's long, skinny "Vogue" cigarettes and smoke them out of our bedroom windows late at night, talking softly and blowing our smoke in the direction of the chicken coop.

Thanks to the delay, we happened to land at around the same time as Agnes, my old host-sister, who was 7 when I lived in their family. Agnes now lives and works in Serbia, having spent her own year as an exchange student in Russia, which started her on the Slavic track. My memory was of a pesky kid, also sweet, bright and very aware, a great mimic. "Ma petite Malena," she'd call me, which was the same thing her parents called me, almost always followed by some admonishment--which she copied as well as their chiding tone. She loooooved to correct my French, which I found very irritating coming from a child, but hilarious in retrospect. Agnes hadn't originally been intending to come home for Easter, but when she found out that Max and I were coming, as well as her older brother Charles from Guyana (he was away in the US the year I lived with the family) she decided she had to make the trip, and I was so glad that she did.

In spite of my fears, I recognized both Richard and Agnes immediately, and immediately felt a sense of deep happiness to be with them again, that persisted and grew throughout the weekend. When I lived with them, the Delaunays always made me feel like a real part of their family, and even though two decades have gone by (and I have been a terrible correspondent) that feeling came back, and grew stronger as I watched them take Max in too, and make him feel welcome despite the language barrier (and those less than perfect table manners, which did get noted).

Many (all?) of my memories of living with the Delaunays revolve around copious consumptions of very good food and wine. I don't know if they shaped the gourmande that I am today, or if I just got lucky to be placed with a family of bon-vivants. The first week that I lived with them, we spent a whole day bottling the table wine that they'd consume over the course of the year. Each adult got an allotment of 1/2 bottle per day. The wine arrived in caskets, and we used tubing to fill an army of empty bottles. The trick was to fill each bottle below the point where the cork would go, but (inevitably) I'd fill it to the brim and then have to drink that inch of excess. This was one of the first things my host-mother Claude reminded me of. "Comme tu etais soule!" How drunk you were! This became a refrain to the stories they told about my year with them. Another one, told with a bit less affection, involved the hot summer night that my Finnish friend and I bought wine from the gas station and took it to the edge what we believed to be a lake but was actually some kind of sewer, where drunken skinny dipping ensued. Reminding me of this one, Claude shook her head in disgust. I couldn't tell if she was more horrified by the fact that we'd gone swimming in the sewer or consumed gross wine FROM THE GAS STATION! L'horreur! "Didn't we teach you anything?" she demanded. "We had very good wine you could have taken!"

I was glad for once that Max's French comprehension is minimal. Although the family did their best to try and corrupt him to their decadent French ways... While this photo was staged, he did get his own (little) glass of champagne at each meal.

Only one member of the Delaunay family was missing. I remember Claude's mother, la Meme (who died five years ago) as an adventuresome white-haired woman who'd traveled the world, and declared San Francisco "the only livable part of America." She was always in an apron and blood-speckled rubber boots. There were chickens on the old property in Brie, one of which met its demise at Meme's unswerving hand every Sunday morning. It was from her that I learned that if you decapitate a chicken improperly, its feathers will remain stuck and be hard to pluck. Every Sunday, the Delaunay family spent more time preparing and eating a meal than the typical American family does on Thanksgiving. The entire day was given over to the creation and consumption of a true feast. The head chef was always Daniel, my host-father, who had run away from home at age 14 to be an apprentice chef in some of the best restaurants of Paris.

They don't have chickens at Montreal, but Daniel procured this special capon for Easter--a castrated rooster, which apparently makes them get way bigger--and you can see him here doing the beheading of the beast. Max was fascinated and horrified. Since arriving in France, the land where butchers sell all beasts complete with heads on, he has decided to be a vegetarian, abstaining (his loss) from both the capon with chestnut gravy, and Claude's homemade foie gras. Before serving the foie gras, she launched into a long tirade about how crazy Americans are to object to the practice of fattening geese, since "this is exactly what they do before their long voyage south! They live off their own liver! We just happen to harvest and eat it!"

He had no problem with the homemade french fries or the apple galette, which we made with Daniel. He was a bit protective of his incredible pate brisee, but allowed Max to do the honors of slicing and peeling the apples, and sprinkling the whole thing with pats of butter, cinnamon and brown sugar.

Agnes had recently been to Turkey and she brought back this box of Turkish Delight, which was great since Max and I had just finished reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, where the bewitched Turkish Delight gets Edmund to betray his family. Max helped to set the table, and cut these flowers from the garden to use as decorations.

Also present was a woman named Liloil, an old friend of the Delaunay family, who is a painter and an astrologer. "It's crazy how accurate her predictions of the future are," my host-mother said to me. "She sees everything about everyone except herself."

Liloil did tarot readings for all of us, myself included. She also drew a sketch of "Charlie," the knight who haunts the 500-year-old house in which the Delaunays now live. Apparently he appeared when they started doing renovations on the place, to make sure that they didn't alter the place in a way that didn't sit well with him. "For instance, he would not have let you paint that wall green," Liloil said. She is the only person who has seen Charlie, but everyone in the family has stories about him moving their things around, ripping the covers off their feet or generally toying with them. Max swears that he saw him too, but wearing white pajamas rather than the black robe and medallion that Liloil sketched.

At the end of our stay, I felt nearly as sad to be leaving as I had that first time, twenty years ago. Daniel keeps asking us to return once more before we leave France--preferably with Matt--and even though it's far, I am tempted. I definitely don't want 20 more years to go by, although we all agreed on one thing, which is that people never really change.

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