Shortly after I moved to the Pacific Northwest and started easing out of my legal career, I took a memoir writing class with Laura Kalpakian, a prize-winning novelist and great teacher. In the end I decided I preferred fiction to memoir, but when I was invited to contribute to a recent anthology, I revisited a piece I wrote for the class.
AN AZURE YEAR
“…remember the orange and fig,
The lively sun and the sea breeze at evening.”
William Carlos Williams
Sicilian Emigrant’s Song
Meals in my childhood home in the industrial north of England were nourishing, and came in a range of neutral tones: white (mashed potato and semolina), beige (gravy and suet pudding) or grey (tinned peas.) Wartime rationing persisted into the Fifties, as did the spirit of ‘making do’ and ‘waste not, want not.’ Food was fuel, and its preparation a chore, not an art form.
Even after I left home, value and volume still mattered more to me than taste and presentation. By 1974, Graham and I were newly-weds playing house in Balham, a marginal neighborhood squeezed between up-and-coming Clapham and the West Indian ghetto of Brixton in southwest London. I laugh now when I think of us picking our way fastidiously through the ethnic street market, averting our eyes modestly from erotically shaped vegetables with unknown names, ignoring the aromatic enticement of jerk chicken roasting on an improvised oil drum barbecue, in order to purchase frozen fish sticks and instant mashed potatoes in the fluorescent glare of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket.
The British newspapers labeled the early months of that year ‘the winter of our discontent.’ As well as more than usually depressing weather, a miners’ strike resulted in frequent power black- and brownouts. Spring seemed a long way off; summer, an impossible dream. The advertisement in the Sunday paper for a financial auditor at a Westinghouse Electric plant in Nice looked like a shortcut to paradise, although we never imagined Graham would get the job. The position required a French speaker. We had both taken French to Advanced level at school, but seven years of irregular verbs and the ability to spout random quotes from Molière did not equip either of us to hold a conversation in colloquial French. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so he applied.
As it turned out, the American executive who interviewed my husband in the bar of the Hyde Park Hilton spoke no French. After multiple Scotches consumed before and during the meeting, he could barely speak English. Thus, it was not difficult for Graham to impress him with his savoir faire, and he landed the job at the princely annual salary of $16,000 – about four times our joint income at the time.
A month or so later, we stumbled down the steps of the plane at the Nice airport, into dazzling sunshine. We couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we escaped the remnants of a dismal British winter, complete with economic crises, political unrest and social malaise, but we were going to be paid handsomely to live on one of the most beautiful coasts in the world, with the blue of the Mediterranean at our feet and the grandeur of the Alpes Maritimes at our back. Better still, until we found a place to live, we were to stay in a luxury hotel, all expenses paid.
The Sofitel was not one of the rococo grandes dames like the Negresco or the Metropole that face the sea from the Promenade des Anglais. Tucked away a block or so back, its quiet opulence thrilled me. Graham had to leave for work at some ungodly hour, but I could linger over a second bowl of coffee, brushing the last flakes of my croissant from the duvet. After dressing that first morning, I set out to explore the town, quickly finding that I preferred the twisting alleys of old Nice to the smart boutiques and boulevards behind the Promenade. I bought my lunch from a street vendor: a slice of pissaladière – onion tart striped with anchovies and studded with black olives. Then back to the Sofitel to work on my tan by the minuscule rooftop pool.
Graham returned to the hotel after work each day armed with restaurant recommendations from his new colleagues. One evening, we ate at L’Esquinade, reputed to be the best in Nice. It occupied an unimpressive house next to the port where the ferries to Corsica docked. I am ashamed to say I can’t remember a thing we ate, as I spent most of the time staring at Aristotle Onassis dining at the next table with a woman who was not Jacqueline. He looked like an old brown tortoise, spoke little and very quietly, forcing the waiter and his companion to lean protectively towards him.
We bought a car: a one year-old white Renault. Graham soon became adept at steering with his knees as he made emphatic and universally understood hand gestures to motorists who cut in or stole his parking space. It was amusing to see my mild-mannered accountant transform into a Gallic Godzilla once he donned his automobile armor. He also purchased a small “man-purse” to carry wallet, keys and small change without ruining the line of his pants which fitted closely over the derrière and flared at the ankle. He started wearing his shirt collar outside his jacket too. Although he had been more nervous about the move to France than I was, his daily immersion in the workplace quickly gave him confidence. I remained more obviously a foreigner.
But that would change once we moved into our castle! La Bastide, the name of an imposing mansion built for some English lord a century ago, does translate as castle. It sat on thirty acres of sweet-smelling Mediterranean pines and scrubby oaks high above the town of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, with stunning views over Cap Ferrat, and, on a clear day, all the way west to the Esterel Peninsular beyond Cannes. The current owner, Madame Sabin, had acquired it through one or other of her three former husbands. She now lived alone in the best suite, having divided up the other high-ceilinged rooms, added rooftop studios and squeezed in sleeping lofts in order to maximize rental income. Our apartment was tucked away on a back corner of the building. I loved it, especially the balcony from which we could watch the craggy face of Cap d’Eze blush pink in the sunset’s reflected light.
Françoise Sabin was a well-preserved seventy, with expensively coiffed hair in a shade of light brown that might have looked entirely natural on a woman thirty years her junior. She possessed excellent posture, allowing her to look down her nose at me, even though we were the same height. She was one of those Gorgons who have appeared from time to time in my life. They flirt with your husband and say acidly sweet things like “What an interesting color on you,” then lean forward to inform you in a stage whisper that you have the teensiest brown stain on the back of your skirt. In the years since, I have learned to shrug these women off, but back then I was intimidated – sometimes to tears - by Madame Sabin’s random cruelty.
When we first moved in, however, all was sweetness and light. She seemed eager to show us off to the friend who was staying with her at the time. Julia Harriman, an elderly lady with frothy white hair and merry blue eyes, was a member of a prominent New York family. While Mrs. Harriman was around, we were cooed over and spoilt like a pair of newly-acquired puppies. At Madame Sabin’s suggestion, the four of us went out to dinner at a restaurant in the mountains whose specialty was crayfish prepared à l’amoricaine, a spicy, garlicky rub that stained our fingers red. We never would have found the place on our own. Madame Sabin drove us in her ancient Mercedes, chatting animatedly with Julia in the front seat, as she swung the car around hair-pin curves with utter disregard for other road users. After Mrs. Harriman returned to New York, Françoise made it clear she was now Madame to us. We were not to expect any further chummy excursions.
Life settled into a pleasant routine. Graham left early each morning to drive over the mountain to the Westinghouse plant at Ariane, the industrial hinterland behind Nice. I did some cursory housekeeping – our apartment covered only 400 square feet – and then set out with my basket down the hill to Beaulieu. La Bastide’s lower driveway emerged onto a street opposite the cemetery, which, after a couple of turns, ended at a square where a market was held six days a week. On five of those days, this consisted of a few stalls selling produce from the little farms that clung to the south-facing hillsides towards Italy. On Fridays, other vendors appeared, displaying Provençal pottery and table linens, Italian leather purses and jackets, and immense pink satin brassieres. The stalls filled the square from the fruit and vegetable sellers at the lower end, up to the bandstand where an accordion group provided dance music for the citizenry on Bastille Day and other festivals.
I saved the market until last. First, I bought groceries, wine and water at the tiny supermarket. Next I went to one of the three or four bakeries this town of about a thousand people supported. I was one of the few housewives who did not buy fresh bread twice a day. It was hard to resist breaking off a nubbin of crusty baguette to savor right there. I completed my order with two croissants or a small brioche for tomorrow’s breakfast. The butcher’s shop was located back at the market square. There was always a line, as the proprietor took great pride in helping his customers select exactly the cut of meat they needed for a particular recipe. I was intrigued to see him pacify a whining four year-old with a wafer-thin slice of steak. The child sucked happily on the raw meat as if it was candy.
Finally, I crossed the street to browse the market: misshapen tomatoes big as boxing gloves, fennel, fava and green beans, tiny red potatoes, braids of garlic bulbs, a dozen different types of olives, peaches, plums, pears . . . . not all at the same time, but a seasonally changing medley of color, shape and smell. Having made my careful selections, I approached the vendor. I quickly learned that it is considered rude to offer your purchases to be weighed and paid for, without first engaging in a polite ritual of comments about the weather, the arrival of the apricots, or the end of artichoke season. This was equally true in the shops and restaurants: food was too important to hurry, whether you were buying, cooking or eating. The exchange invariably ended with Madame tucking a handful of parsley or basil in with the purchases, a delightful grace note accompanied by a cheerful “Bonne journée!”
My basket now heavy, I fortified myself for the long climb back to La Bastide with a pastis at the Brasserie Beaulieu, conveniently located across the street. Even in winter, the weather permitted me to sit outside at a sidewalk table, so I could enjoy watching the market activity between scanning the headlines in Nice Matin, the local paper.
Our daily routine continued with a picnic lunch. Graham had a two hour break at midday, enough time to rush back to La Bastide and pick me up. We took our baguette sandwiches smeared with liver pâté, apples, perhaps a hunk of cheese, and certainly a bottle of wine, down to the beach in front of the casino, or, if the wind picked up, to the sheltered little harbor where we sat with our backs against a sun-warmed stone wall. After the tourists went home at the end of August, we got to know other lunchtime habitués by sight. Two women d’un certain âge sunbathed topless with religious determination no matter what the temperature. One had hair the improbable crimson that French women favor, while the other was a bleached blonde. They oiled themselves, then lay rigidly without talking, breasts spreading out to rest over their armpits. A large man in a battered straw hat rowed a small dinghy out to the center of the port, and drifted there while he ate his lunch. We made up elaborate lives for these characters, and missed them if they failed to appear, but, except for a nod and the required “M’sieurdames” when we passed, we never exchanged a word.
After Graham went back to work, the afternoons sometimes dragged. Unless I made an excursion on the bus into Nice, I read or sunbathed until it was time to start preparing the evening meal. I possessed no cookbook other than Marguerite Patten’s Step by Step Cookery that served me well with instructions on basic techniques. I set out to copy the dishes we ate in the local restaurants. Mediterranean food relies largely on the freshest ingredients, mainly vegetables, in traditional peasant dishes that gain their flavor from a liberal use of herbs, garlic and olive oil. I gradually learned to trust my senses, and to improvise: tricks like placing a lemon stuffed with garlic cloves in the cavity of a chicken, and tucking fresh rosemary sprigs under its loosened skin. Trial and error eventually produced a repertoire of dishes I was proud of.
Not all our food experiences were enjoyable. One Sunday evening in spring, Madame Sabin came to our door bearing a gift: mushrooms gathered that morning in the mountains. She gave us detailed instructions on how to cook them: the correct amount of olive oil made aromatic with garlic, how to crush the thyme, not chop it, etc. Then off she whirled, leaving us open-mouthed in amazement. She had not bothered with us for a while, except to shout at me for parking too close to La Bastide’s main entrance. We should have been suspicious, but we so wanted to believe she liked us that we followed her instructions to the letter, and proclaimed the dish delicious. We ate every one of those damn toadstools, sopping up the juices with our bread. By 4 a.m. we were sure we were going to die, deciding it was not even worth calling an ambulance. After our recovery, we never raised the issue of the poisonous mushrooms with Madame. What was the point? She would shrug off our story with some accusation that we had cooked them the wrong way, or say she had eaten from the same crop with no ill effects. I still wonder, did she really want to kill us? High season was approaching, and maybe she calculated how much more rent she could charge for our apartment, once the tourists arrived.
Nevertheless, if we kept out of Madame Sabin’s way, life was idyllic. Most weekends, we ventured out to a new destination: east into Italy, west to the nude beaches of St. Tropez, north to the hilltop villages that dotted the Alpes Maritimes. Each excursion provided its memorable culinary moments: Sunday lunch in Portofino that lasted until five pm; a picnic in a wild flower meadow on the way to the art museum at St. Paul de Vence.
But labor strife was brewing over in Ariane, disturbing our serene lifestyle. Westinghouse had mismanaged the factory since its acquisition. A revolving cast of American managers, few of whom spoke more than a smattering of French, had failed to understand or communicate effectively with the French workforce. It should not have come as a surprise when the union called a strike. The workers mounted a picket line that veered towards violence any time a manager’s car attempted to enter the gate. For a few days, Graham met with other salaried staff in a nearby café where they played fussball and drank coffee until it became clear they would not get into their offices that day. Then, some remote administrator lined up a series of auditing assignments for Graham at other Westinghouse facilities to keep him busy while the strike dragged on. These assignments took him to Milan, Paris and even Tokyo. I accompanied him whenever possible.
Inevitably, the light dawned back at head office in Pittsburgh that the venture in Ariane, known informally as Westinghouse’s summer camp, was never going to turn a profit. The sale of the factory to a Finnish outfit was announced, occasioning a further business trip for Graham to Helsinki as part of the handover process.
We sat on our balcony in the waning heat of a July evening, watching the car lights twinkle along the Basse Corniche towards Monte Carlo. It was hard to imagine leaving this place, even though we always reminded each other it was a fantasy.
“I’m pretty sure I could get back into the accounting firm, and you could work for one of the London boroughs. But perhaps we should look outside London – somewhere we could afford to buy a house?” Graham ticked off our options morosely.
“Tell me what they said about the Brussels job again.”
“There’s a bump in pay, but I’d be away a lot. Everyone says Brussels is a great place to live – easy to get to Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt . . .”
“What about the food?”
“Fabulous restaurants!” Graham’s eyes lit up with memories of the couple of times he had been there.
I lifted my glass and chinked it against his.
“O.K. Done! Let’s move to Belgium!”