L’Aude is a river that houses three main regions here down south, Salelles d’Aude being one of them along the canals in the South of France. The canals are one of Napoleon’s bright ideas for moving trade through the southern country. That big idea and expanding Paris boulevards and thoroughfares wide and far-reaching were revolutionary, practical and enduring.
Today, after last minute shopping in a quiet mall outside downtown Narbonne, some to-go sushi from the supermarché, and an espresso in the cafe by the mall exit, we ventured to a small hamlet close to Salelles called le Somail, one of the three divisions resting on the Aude. The sleepy port town boasts a tea house and ancient book store, the former closed for Christmas and the latter open for our roaming eyes and feet. Much of the tiny town is closed for winter.
The ancient musty chill air inside the book store reminded us of winters, many of them passed through, wind and rain soaking the stone walls of this tiny librairie tucked alongside the river of moored houseboats, cacophonous ducks and romping dogs–just before the stone bridge. The cool wind hurried our leisurely walk.
The town, abandoned by tourists and inhabitants alike, stood as contrast to bustling downtown Narbonne with its courtyard restaurants a-brew with ale and crepes, narrow boutique-lined lanes, stately cathedrale de Narbonne, and street music. We spent a fine-weather, blue-skied day sightseeing, shopping and eating crepes, croque monsieur, and macarons along the outside booths and stands of the market. Inside the farmer’s market, we crammed all five of us into a tiny tapas bistro of four long bar tables, where we ate duck and scallop brochettes, planchas drenched in olive oil and garlic, and grilled aubergine and courgettes, washed down with local white wine for us and orangeina for the kids.
We are gaining weight in kilos but will be losing it in pounds when we return, so it should be easy. Right?
The French. So cool, so unconcerned, yet not really affected. They just do their thing.
We traveled heavy, 8 huge pieces of luggage on wheels yet wholly unwieldy. And lugging that shit through the train stations, all in a line, cramming the already small corridors even smaller. But confused as we were, a passerby gave as an unsolicited direction or tip, all while zipping along, pace unthwarted by our unsightly clogging of the turnstiles and escalators.
It’s a rapid-fire city, yet I don’t feel the anxiety or aggression I find in my suburban hometown. My country is ravaged with anger and hopelessness. I’m glad to be away to de-steam and gain perspective.
Food. That’s all there is to say. Even the ordinary corner brasserie offers the finest. I had cod in a buerre-blanc sauce with sautéed spinach after fresh oysters with mignonette sauce, so fresh and gorgeously good, rounded off nicely with pear Creme brûlée. The pinot was soft and lovely, and the espresso brilliant not bitter. Pure coffee.
I dream of French espresso at night in my beach town US home. Small pleasures.
After a bustling, crowded brasserie scene, we ventured on Rue San Michel, passed the Pantheon where Napoleon lies buried spying on his beloved city, the one he masterminded. It’s the Latin Quarter, full of students on their last days before holiday. The night is crisp, probably low 50’s but still and clear. The old gibbous moon casts a striated glow across the tip of Norte Dame’s buttressed topmost spiral. Our lady peers above the city telegraphing disapproval of burgeoning modernity–and us tourists–clear across town to the tomb. I feel her.
And the 16th century church featuring Bach every Saturday stood eerily sandwiched between stone and masonry, dwelling and commerce. On a brisk night, throat to boot warmed by French Pinot, Paris welcomed us aimless wanderers soaking in the hate sanctuary.
The south threads vineyard to the right to oyster farms to the left as we travel the country road tracking miles of cordoned sea, rhythmic cages to the tide. Down the road thirty to forty minutes from the airport, we stopped at a petit village paper napkin restaurant serving fresh oysters, mussels, cod, clams and conch. Plateau de fruits de mer. Fruits of the sea, so fresh. Farmed local oysters keep the region’s salt locked deep inside the shells. Paris oysters frown upon their peasantry, I’m sure.
We’ll stay in a Spanish red tile roof and white stucco house facing acres of vineyards, dry now in winter. They belong to the nephew now, my children’s great aunt having cuddled up next to her husband’s burial plot. When the children were 3 and 6, we spent a few weeks in summer here when the swimming pool was a chicken coop next to the German Shepherds’ pen. And a pig too. My oldest wondered at a brown pig. Aren’t all pigs pink?
We had fresh laid eggs, brown and imperfect, but full gamey flavor, and we rode bikes and horses along the canals. We opened the loch for one huge sloop half moon house boat of fine resin pine shellacked to shine. An American woman piloted it and invited us on board for a slow-going mile or so. We folded up the stroller and boarded. She was supposed to be spending six months with her husband navigating these canals throughout France after his retirement. But he died instead. The 17th century Canals du Midi persist without him.
The winter before that summer in 2001, we spent a Christmas reunion here, the three brothers together again after twenty years. Three families, the grandchildren from 3 to 21 years old. And mamie cooked a feast as is her wont: oysters and lobster and foie gras and lamb, gratin, frommage, chocolats, table wine unending from the local vineyard, local muscat for the foie gras, and rich, aromatic coffee and creme brule to finish. We laughed and ate.
I see the pictures around the house from that winter. Everyone smiles broadly into the camera, even the brother who disappeared directly after that event, never to be heard from again. He does that. Just disconnects from the family he loves but mostly hates. No one can explain it so I can understand. My smile, as ever, is only half formed.
And now, looking over the land, lush green as ever, only now it’s punctuated with commerce and industry where only horses and cows peppered the open fields. Now there’s a supermarket walking distance where only a ten minute bike ride away tiny corner market serviced this small stretch of street just inside the borders of Salelles d’aude. It’s rural–but not as isolated.
Inside the house, I smile at the pastel green stools lining the green, blue and white tile counter where I once fed my little one in bib and baby seat gripped to the tile to float that nearly 20 pound near toddler at our first Christmas visit. Her mamie planted a Christmas tree, a sapling then. It towers above us stately now, twenty years later.
And six yeas after her first visit, she and her three year old sister, perched perilously atop those high stools, snacked on la vache qui rit cheese and yoplait yogurt. The house looks the same as it did then, only more cluttered. Because its owner has finally slowed. I thought it would never happen, this whirlwind of endless hyperactive cooking, cleaning and chattering. She’s been dying since I know her, 37 years now, except when I see her. She could outrun me in a foot race, I always imagined. But she’s 82 now, and moves slower, like a 68 year old.
I’m older too. The travel is no less painful since I don’t sleep on planes, upright and cabined tightly. But now I feel the aftermath of the struggle in my back and neck, having desperately tried to drift at angles suspended in air. I ache. But somehow I’m less grouchy than those other times. Perhaps it’s the growing up, my kids, now adults, and me, seasoned with too much obligation and not enough appreciation. My kids have taken up the grouch mantle. My mother in law blames me for their grouchiness when they’re tired. No one’s good enough for her son. As it should be.
A humble meal of vegetable soup, brown grainy, country bread, ratatouille, lamb cutlet (for the carnivores) and frommage paired with a young Saint Emilion filled us to sleeping, even after our late hours long naps. Hopefully jet lag lags a little less tomorrow. The chef and her son watch Miss France beauty pageant while the children suck up the wireless they’ve been missing for far too long, at least a day.