In the bleak midwinter

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 2 Permalink 0


I thought it was M returning from work. The black car turned into our drive and the headlights started a long slow progression toward the house.

I thought he was trying to preserve his new tires against the pot holes – pot holes I should have filled already, I scolded myself, but we are waiting on the gravel delivery, which can come only after the trenches for the pipes can be dug, and that has to come at the same time as the tractors are here to finish the septic tank, and that has to wait for the inspection.

As it’s already the holiday season, none of this is going to happen in the next month. So we have pot holes, and he was driving slowly.

As the headlights came closer, I saw it was a different car, and knew it was a neighbor family who live nearby. They stopped in the allée and he got out, carrying a black sack.

I can never contain my joy in seeing them, but he looked stark. We all do. The tans have long ago faded, and our hair is long and our eyes hollow. The evening sun made the windows of the car into mirrors full of tree branches, and I could not see inside.

Is she with you?

No, she’s very tired now. It’s not going well. You should come by and see her. But after Sunday. She will be at dinner on Sunday. She’s very very tired now. Another round of treatment. But that makes it more important that we be together on Sunday for the holidays. You’re coming, both of you, right? She sent you this present.

I have become accustomed to choking back any reaction to the news spiraling downward. One is strong for those who are stronger.

What’s in the bag?

Two foies gras. She made them herself. And a bottle of Gewurtstraminer. Our best. One is foie d’oie, a real goose instead of the usual duck. 

He came in and exchanged news. A new bathroom with a walk-in shower for ease of use. Their daughter’s flower shop in full press for the holidays. Our untimely brood of December chicks. His plans for his own chickens in spring when they start laying again.

Spring seems like a very very long time away. We are in the two shortest weeks of the year. The light comes in horizontally through the windows at noon.

But it was not noon. By now it was after five, and the darkness had set by the time he picked up to leave. I shook his hand furiously. We do not bise, he and I, as adult men. But I hope that the affection I feel for him is evident in my profuse handshakes and broad smiles, every time. He is so important to us, as is she.

Leaning on the car door he asked a last question: Did you… Did you go to the annual village dinner in la Magdelaine?

Yes, we did. 

You liked it?

Yes, we loved it. (Here I lied only a little, but then quickly rebounded with a higher truth:) You know, more than the food and party, we loved the sense of community. We felt welcomed, and I know it can’t be easy for everyone to be so warm toward us. 

You felt welcomed and had a good time?

Yes, very much so. (I was wondering what he had heard, what we had done at the village dinner to draw dubious attention, so again I retreated to the easier-to-defend high ground of higher truth:) What has always surprised us here is the acceptance. We’ve never felt anything but welcome and acceptance, and it’s a surprise, because…

I chose not to enumerate the reasons. Because we are not only outsiders, which would be reason enough to reject us, but also Americans, anglophones, gays… The FN just took a blow in the elections, and despite this family’s unflagging, inexplicable kindness toward us, we know their political leanings. Everyone around here is one or the other, either devoted leftwing liberals, or they are far right FN. And the latter after a strong initial showing had summarily lost in a bruising defeat during the night. We of course are relieved, but for others who feel assaulted and trapped in their own country during this black, bleak winter of terror and dread, the strident nationalist message had been a rally, and defeat by one’s own compatriots was not an easy message to hear. And they are our friends.

He knows all of that without me having to say it, and he finished my ellipsis: Just… because.

IMG_7194He smiled weakly and got into his car. I held the dog back and he turned around in the drive, coming finally all the way to the house before leaving to make the full circle, like a proper houseguest, the front lights of the house streaking across the shiny black of his car as he passed.

A dimanche !

Oui, à dimanche.

The car rumbled slowly back down the drive, and I left the lights on for M to find his way later.

Back in the house I stared at the gifts. One was duck liver and the other goose. I had asked which he preferred and he had demurely declined to say, telling me to let her know later which one we preferred.

She had taped a piece of paper to one jar with the word for goose, “Oie,” written on it in painfully fragile letters, so we would know the difference.


I was standing in the grocery store line on Saturday. I try not to go out when others are about, and that is easy here as the French tend to do things all together on a common schedule, all at one time: time to work, time to eat, time to drive, time for coffee, time to do the shopping, time to sleep. But I had come in during the pre-lunch rush on a weekend, no less, and I was frustrated, having to wait in what for me was an unusually long line.

I looked down at my basket and then turned toward the aisles of gourmet food and thought to myself, “Five years ago just standing in this spot holding these cheeses and meats would have been a coveted vacation for you. Most people in this world finding themselves standing in a real French grocery store would consider it a culinary and cultural wonderland. You used to think that every day here was a vacation. What happened to change that?”

So I adjusted my attitude for the better and bought some pear-flavored chewing gum at checkout, to celebrate France. When I first discovered it five years ago, I thought I had found the Holy Grail. I would do well to remember that initial joy.

I said Bonne journée in goodbye to the clerk with more than the usual gusto, and she replied Bon appetit! Because it was the pre-lunch rush, you see, and all good French can be presumed to be en route to sit down shortly at table and eat, all at the same time.

In fact on this day, so were we, like the good French we are becoming. We ate outside by the river, with our view down to the glassy water reflecting the sky, with a bottle of afternoon wine. It was warmish, and we didn’t need jackets, just heavy shirts. It was midday and so there was sun, however oblique. I wore sunglasses, to make myself feel even warmer – the best of worlds.

M raised his glass as we started the meal and said cheerily, Bon appetit!

I found my appetite completely restored and peaking.


When I arrived to my professor’s home on Monday for French class, I greeted her with our usual bises, side to side, starting with our left sides, as I have learned is most people’s custom in this area. Start with the left by turning your own head to the right, and the convention holds with much less fuss, less bumping of noses and less time wasted with uncomfortable giggling.

Scraping my shoes well on the mat, because her floors are fastidiously clean, I said in English, Greetings in this bleak midwinter! A new word for you, I expect: Bleak. But a useful one.

Of course I know the word bleak, my dear. I was born in Algeria! Bleak is quite familiar to me in any of several languages and in all of its many senses. But why do you say this to me today? It’s not bleak atall! It’s sunny outside. We cannot call this bleak.

Well, it’s hardly warm!

It’s all in your perspective, my dear. Look at this brilliant light coming in the windows almost exactly sideways, and how filthy the windows are. When I was a girl just coming back to France from the war, they used to tell me that the winter sun was the best housekeeper. It comes in low and laterally, so it highlights every smudge and cobweb in the windows. See how dirty mine look! They are quite that filthy the rest of the year, you know, only not by appearances, and so as long as the sun is bright and low, we know that we have some polish to tend to. It keeps us honest. 

And I am trying to look at it that way. A searching moral inventory, a torch in the darkness waving from side to side, the car lights turning up the drive, finally home, the windows backlit for thorough cleaning. I am trying hard this year to learn French, not just in my mouth, but in my imagination.

Black is a mirror

My professor was correct, of course, that December is not the bleak midwinter. The worst is yet to come, in the long cold days even after the sun begins its slow return. Even with more sunlight, the days will grow greatly colder and by late January and February, no matter what the terrorists do, no matter how the country turns, I will be able to use the word bleak without any pushback.

But that is why they place the holidays here, I think. To observe this pivotal moment, the dying of the light and its return, so that we have hope in the longer but worse days ahead. And a guide to housekeeping: Do this, and this, and this. The light is uniquely focused. In a certain sense you won’t be able to see as well later as you can now.

That black car, that black sack, the lights on the paint of the car, a gift of rare black persimmons over the weekend, the sweetest I have ever tasted, that shocking red on the inside like a luminous sun, the loving script of O-I-E 2015.

The dying of the light is when we perceive the light most as compared to its extinction. It may not be long til there is another funeral. So many funerals. And our own just in the offing, just any minute, as the crow flies. It reflects everything, the river behind the house this time of year. It’s like a still looking glass, but it’s rushing past, and we sit precariously on the cliff above, taking in all we can.

Which do you like best, duck liver or goose? The goose is by reputation the much finer, but it is dull gray and also a much larger organ, and so it cooks less evenly by mi-cuit. The rosy duck by contrast has more taste up front – brasher but prettier, and consistently sure.

Both are gaver‘d by a loving farm woman with an ample, generous spirit. She does not much cater to certain kinds of interlopers, but then there are other unlikely types whom she adopts like a brooding hen on a cold day, once she gets to know them.

Come along here. Get along there. See how we find the grain. See how this grain is better, though it is harder to see against the soil? See how we shelter with our feathers ruffled out for warmth, all together. It may get much colder before we find spring. 


  • Zev
    December 15, 2015

    Thoroughly enjoyable post to read, though your mood seems a bit brooding. Or perhaps I’m projecting! What wonderful friends/neighbors you have. In spite of your differences they see what’s most important.

  • Pleun
    December 15, 2015

    Cliffhanger: so what was wrong with the holiday party? Lovely poetic piece to counter the pervading holiday cheer. Better to have some real thought and see the light aslant than to have to be satisfied with the fake twinkle an tinny music in a mall. What you are having is real food and it will leave you richer and more alive. The other, is like nicotine, it leaves you wanting more but empty no matter how much of it you get. Wait with dying until we have another chance to visit, please.

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