French Family

     There are two planes of life in France, in town and at home.
     When we first arrived at the home of the Montiege family in Brittany, after the train ride from Paris to Rennes, I took a nap, and then thought I would join Francoise and her daughter Claire in the kitchen.
     It had been our own family’s tradition that we would hang out in the kitchen while my mom cooked dinner. But I quickly realized that here in this kitchen, it was no time for conversation. Mother and daughter were focused and busy preparing a multi-course meal.
     Desperate to get out of the way, I gratefully accepted when the father, Jean Luc, offered an aperitif in the living room. After a while, Claire brought her tray of appetizer experiments to the living room and we tried a sort of semi-solid gazpacho served in little containers with tiny spoons, that she regarded as less than a total success.
     We then moved to the dinner table for the first course, a fish compress, light and tasty, that was followed by a small beef roast with sauce and carrots, followed by a homemade dessert. All of it was accompanied by an old red wine Jean Luc had opened for the occasion.
     The dinner conversation was lively, touching on the younger daughter Laura’s intense school schedule, the economy of the region, and Francoise’s father, Rene, who I had visited outside Paris. Afterwards, Jean Luc offered me glass of calvados.
     Not long after the meal, everybody went upstairs to their rooms to read a bit and retire, with school and work schedules starting early the next morning.
     Throughout our stay, the evening meal was the central social event of the day.
     Plans for the meal were made by Francoise and her daughters in the morning or by phone during the day. Jean Luc helped out, picking up the ingredients and running to the bakery for fresh bread. Errands, gym and study schedules, were all adjusted so that everybody would be home for dinner.
     It reminded me of growing up with a French mother. I had a lot of freedom as a kid, but I had to be home by six o’clock. That was a hard deadline. We had to make it, because my mom put a lot into every dinner. We too had lively, sometimes tumultuous conversations, where you had to jump in or you would get passed by.
     Another moment of recognition came when I saw the solid Breton antiques in their house, and, with surprise, saw that the two major pieces were the very same types of country furniture my mom and dad had prized in our home — a “vaissellier,” which was a tall, open cabinet with wood rungs at the bottom of each shelf, to hold dishes, and, second, a big, deep, country table with a top that slid sideways so you could put winter bedding in the belly of the table.
     I remember my folks making a trip to Brittany and driving back in a VW bus filled with those two massive pieces, and other antiques, with the kids squeezed into the corners. Those two big pieces were my mom’s most important bequests, pretty much her only ones.
     As I had seen in Denmark, the French also share a common television culture, shows that are popular throughout the nation. They include sometimes ribald comedies that would not be seen on American TV during family hours.
     One show we watched before sitting down to dinner consisted of a set of skits, including, on this night, a comedy staple where a conversation is conducted in double entendres so that each of the two parties to the conversation has a different idea of what is being discussed.
     The slip and slide of comedy is the hardest element of language, and I could not follow the dialogue. But I did understand the conclusion where the black actor begins energetically squeezing the large, plump breasts of the white actress, only to find out she had been talking about something else entirely.
     Everyone in the Montiege family, mother, father, high school daughter, college daughter, all laughed out loud and clearly enjoyed the skit.
     On our last day in Brittany, Jean Luc and Francoise drove us on a tour of the northern coast. First we went to St. Malo, the fortified pirate redoubt on the emerald sea, and then to nearby Cancale, famous for its oysters.
     We bought two dozen oysters from a fisherwoman still in her rubber waders. Back home, Jean Luc taught me to search for the uneveness in the line where the shell closed, and in fairly short order we had opened a couple plates of them.
     They went down magnificently as the first course, with a bit of lemon and a swallow of white wine. Followed by a tasty, rich fish soup we had bought in a big can in St. Malo, followed by white fish baked in paper foil with tomatoes, lemon and zucchini. Topped off with a big slice of homemade apple tarte.
     With a slight sense of loss, perhaps as much for a past life as for the warmth of the Montiege family’s reception, we left the next morning to catch a plane for Marseilles. All in all, there was in the French family we had come to know a sense of hard work and a busy life, but a happy, eventful and pleasant one, with a warm and comfortable house and delicious meals.

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