Why France?

The cold wind is snapping down from the Pyrenees like the end of a bullwhip. It’s very fierce and the sting is making it hard to remember that I like this weather. It’s sunny, though, and that’s more than I could say 24 hours ago.

But even yesterday, when Carcassonne was cold and dreary, I was walking around as cheerfully as if I’d won a lottery. It made me think about how I seem to be predisposed towards affection for this country. A lot of people, hearing about my plans to spend time here, said they understood the purpose but they often asked, “Why France?”

Because I love France, but where did that come from?

In the late 60’s I started watching The French Chef on public television. Julia Child was entertaining, but if her husband Paul had happened to get a State Department posting to Rome years earlier instead of Paris, and Julia had studied Italian cooking and then written a cookbook for Americans and gone on TV teaching Italian cooking, would that have led me down a different course?

When I bought a copy of Julia’s The French Chef Cookbook in the 70’s I started at Page One and, with my parents’ enduring indulgence, worked my way through. (Never got around to veal brains until I moved out on my own, though.) I still remember the first recipe: Suprêmes de Volaille à Blanc, chicken breasts poached in butter. (I really do remember it but even if I didn’t I could look it up because the book – that­ copy – is sitting right here.)

Every page seemed to require a trip to the store, and Mama often stood with fingers drumming and eyes rolling and lips pursed while I engaged with the meat or fish man. When Julia’s Steak au Poivre called for one-and-a-quarter-inch-thick “loin strip” steaks and Mama drove me to the Handy Andy at Central Park Mall, the butcher tried to tell me that New York strip was the same thing. It took him ten minutes to make his case but my pre-teen suspicions lasted for years. Mama also said she wasn’t about to drive all over the place when this meat was perfectly good. “The man said so!”

(This period, by the way, was some years before Mama declared herself a vegetarian, by which she meant that she would eat fish, chicken, turkey, duck, pork – “There’s nothing like good bacon!” – and beef. Lamb and veal she’d rarely eaten anyway since I left home but now she definitely wouldn’t eat them. And so she was a vegetarian.)

There was a lesson for life there at the butcher counter, of course. A recipe teaches techniques and it suggests, but it helps – indeed it’s a good thing – to be able to adapt.

I later learned a little about Italian cooking and am now comfortable with the Atlas pasta machine. People praise my ravioli and tortellini. But I do think about the degree to which one TV show, and the language lessons and French vacations that followed, led me to the Languedoc village where I’m sitting right now. In the end does it matter?

We all know about what we refer to between people as chemistry. There are lots of perfectly good people – smart, funny, attractive, tall, short, whatever you think is desirable in a person – with whom we just don’t “click.” There’s something somewhere in people that draws them together, and I believe it’s the same with people and places.

There are City People and Country People. Some folks long to spend their afternoons sitting under olive branches in Tuscany. Others dream of a hammock strung between palm trees on a beach in Costa Rica. In 1989 I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and despised the place; lasted six months and scrammed. But when I returned a little over ten years later it was a different story. It’s wonderful and it’s home. Chemistry seems also to be a function of time.

People gripe about the French but I’ve had just about nothing but pleasant experiences with them. I’m also inclined to like them, and I’m absolutely sure that makes a difference.

I knew a man who was going to Paris a few years ago. I told him I was envious. “No, I have to go but I don’t like it very much. Nobody understands me.” After his trip I asked about his meals. Where did he eat?

Are you sitting down?

“I didn’t have one good meal the whole week.”

That could not have been simple bad luck. In Paris, of all places, you’d have to try very, very hard not to eat well for a week. What a dope!

When the chemistry is there, it’s easier to overlook imperfections that others might find glaring. Yesterday’s rain and today’s wind, for example. I’m here – and the rest doesn’t matter. You’re with me – and the rest doesn’t matter.

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