(Another dispatch from Paris, a few years after the fact. Names have been changed to protect the bad dancers.)
November 6, 2004
This time last week I was in Thionville (“Tee-own-veel”), France, a beautiful little north-eastern border town within a stone’s throw of Germany and Luxembourg. Marito, Pazza and I had escaped the city for a weekend in the country at Pazza’s mothers home. A weekend of rest and relaxation in the picturesque French countryside. Or so I thought.
We left Paris along with the throngs of Parisians who make their weekly escape from the city via one of the four city-centre train stations. Each station serves a different direction. Literally, the trains come in from one direction, right into the terminal, and once they are loaded with passengers, they go back out the way they came in. So, we went to Gare de L’Est and battled the crowds of passengers weaving through ticket lines and train platforms to get to their allotted car and seat.
It was another one of those reality check moments for me…the sun setting behind us, dimming the colours as we zipped off for our weekend in the French countryside. This was the stuff of novels and moody foreign films. And now, apparently, the stuff of my life.
Three hours later, we arrived in darkness in Thionville. Madremere (Pazza’s Mom) was there to greet us and quickly whisked us off to her home for a late evening meal of homemade soup, roasted chicken, and an array of cheeses. You have to understand, Madremere had prepared the menu for our weekend two weeks ago when she first invited us to spend these three days with her. It was her unabashed joy to prepare meals throughout the weekend. But more about the food later.
Madremere’s home is the second storey flat of a converted manor home on the corner of the town square. Eleven-foot ceilings, moulded cornices, heavy draperies, tapestries on the walls, chandeliers in each room, and enormously proportioned French antique furniture. I loved it immediately and settled in for a lazy weekend of strolling through town, reading in overstuffed chairs, and tipping back countless mugs of coffee.
Did I mention that Madremere is of Italian/French extraction? Relentlessly passionate, active and stubborn. This woman is a retired high school Principal who now fills her days with swimming, water aerobics, playing bridge, singing in a chorale, serving on a local historical association, and now, as a result of my influence, she is taking English lessons. (Imagine my surprise to be greeted by Madremere saying in perfectly clear English, “Hello, I am Madremere. I am an English student. Are you Harry Perkins?”. Apparently Harry Perkins is the French english student’s equivalent to the Canadian french student’s, "Pitou" the pup.)
Now, combine Madremere’s Italian “ying” with Pazza’s French “yang” and you’re bound to have a memorable time. Simply crank up the volume on everything you do and all will be well. Why talk quietly? Surely you want to share your news and disagreements with the elderly widows who live above and below the flat? (Pazza delivered flowers to the aged neighbours upon our departure as an apology for the increased activity and volume.)
…and then there’s my Marito, the son of Italian immigrants to Canada. I’m not sure exactly what it is about Madremere, but Marito snaps-to like he’s dealing with his own mother when Madremere is in the vicinity. I lazed in bed one morning, listening to Pazza belt out, “Poot your ‘ed on my shooooldure. Whisper somezing to me…babeee!” And over the volume of Pazza’s voice, I could hear Madremere bellowing directions to Marito. Something about doing dishes or setting the table. I’m not sure. The only thing I could hear of Marito was his foot-fall, frantically dashing between kitchen and dining room.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love Madremere. I met her when I first visited Paris prior to our move and she has been a constant presence even though she lives in Thionville. I see her whenever she visits Pazza and I am told that she always asks for me and sends me “gros bisous” (big kisses). But please, I am a third generation Canadian of British descent. Though I may be the loud one in my family, I am most certainly the quietest in Madremere’s adopted family.
As a result, throughout the weekend, Madremere or Pazza or Marito would approach me individually, at regular intervals with whispered questions…”Tu est content?” (Madremere)…”You are relax-ed?”(Pazza)…”Are you okay?”(Marito)
With a sincere grin, I assured each of them that I was very content to sit and read in a chair in the dining room window turret. In fact, it became known as my chair for the duration of the weekend. Madremere would not allow anyone else to sit there but me.
Saturday morning Madremere insisted that the three of us join her for her regular weekend visit to the market across the square for the day’s fruit, vegetables, and cheese. Marito dutifully trotted alongside of Madremere, carting her shopping basket, while Pazza and I ducked into a café for a quiet coffee.
Upon our return to Madremere’s flat, and following a lunch over which we lingered long, Pazza hit the road for Nancy, a town an hour away where she attended university and had plans to connect with old friends.
That left Marito and I with Madremere. I retreated to my chair with my book (Madame Bovary) and a bag of the most fantastic chocolate covered marshmallow (bought on the sly at the market). Marito, intending to take a nap, was intercepted by Madremere and ended up spending the afternoon in a long and intense conversation.
To liberate him from continued discourse on all things Franco-Italian, I invited Marito to join me for a walk through the centre of town, where old village streets have been cobbled-over and converted into a pedestrian concourse of shopping and cafés.
Originally a German border village, Thionville was designed to be the French traveller’s first impression of Germany, replete with what was then considered to be the best in Germanic architecture. The town and surrounding region was then annexed to France in the late 19th century, and has since become a fascinating hybrid of German and French architecture.
Dinner for three was served and savoured, before Madremere, Marito and I spent the rest of the evening, sitting around the table, laughing and talking and eating too much of everything. Pazza returned later that evening and seemed quite content to have shared her mother with us for a day.
Before going to bed, Madremere had asked if I wanted to go to church with her in the morning. I readily accepted, anticipating a quiet morning of contemplation and reflection.
Who was I kidding?
Since I was the last to crawl out of bed each morning…(it was a long weekend, remember)…I missed breakfast with Madremere, Marito and Pazza. Even so, Madremere always left a place setting for me in her kitchen, with fresh baking, homemade jam, and a fat pot of tea. So, each morning as I sat quietly munching away, Pazza flew around the flat, towelling her hair and belting out some unknown tune, Madremere bustled about preparing ingredients for lunch, and Marito buzzed between the two trying to be of assistance to Madremere and distraction to Pazza.
I repeat…each morning. And Sunday morning was no different. Sometime during the night, Madremere changed her mind about church and decided that I would not necessarily enjoy Catholic mass in French. She thought I would prefer to doze in the guest room bed instead of the pew at the cathedral.
So there really wasn’t much of an opportunity for quiet contemplation on Sunday morning, until Pazza suggested that we go into the town square for coffee. Reminding us to be back for lunch at 1pm, Madremere waved us off with a flick of her tea-towel.
I tell you truthfully, it was simply beautiful to sit in that square, wrapped in sweaters, warming my hands with a cup of coffee, across from an old german church whose bells began to peel at noon, sending the pigeons throughout the square into the air.
And so I experienced some quiet contemplation after all.
Then Marito’s cell phone rang. It was Madremere…miffed that we had not yet returned. It was 1:15pm. She could have called Pazza’s cell, but Madremere played her cards well, knowing that Marito would take off like a shot and end up a block ahead of Pazza and I in his pace to placate Madremere.
As we tucked into yet another incredible meal, Madremere announced that she would be driving us into Germany and Luxembourg to see the sights. Pazza rolled her eyes and protested. Considering the number of times she has ridden shotgun on these trips with previous visitors, Pazza had no interest in joining us for our rambling roadtrip. And so it was decided after much bally-hoo that Pazza would stay home and enjoy some time on her own while Madremere trucked Marito and I around the countryside…
…in her 1990 VW Golf…named, Peppermint.
It stalled out a couple of times, but we managed.
At one point in the trip, I asked Madremere to explain the difference of “belle” and “beau” to me because she was using them interchangeably. In evenly enunciated French, Madremere explained that belle was feminine and beau was masculine. “Par example, tu est beau et je suis belle”, she said with a sly grin in the rear view mirror. And we laughed. Needless to say, I told her that she was beautiful throughout the remainder of the weekend.
Three hours and three countries later, we returned home to Pazza.
And then the party began.
I had taken to my chair to read when Pazza came in and turned on Madremere’s stereo, bringing to life, a CD of Italian love songs. Vacca sacra! Immediately Marito, Madremere, and Pazza began to belt out their unrequited love along with the crooner…who to me, sounded as though his foot was caught in a wine press, by the way he was howling. The volume was cranked up, perhaps so that I would be able to hear the singer’s heart break on verse four. It was Italian voodoo…I swear. Madremere, Marito, and Pazza were taken over by some unseen force that compelled them to swoon and lament love lost.
And then they danced.
Madremere grabbed Marito and soon they were pivoting and swinging around the dining room table, backs held straight, heads tilted, far off looks in their eyes. Ever seen Strictly Ballroom? Well these two characters could have competed. Pazza and I laughed our fool heads off.
The song ended and Pazza decided to change the CD. Madremere went to the kitchen to gather dishes to set the table for dinner. Marito waxed nostalgic for all things Italian…but then stopped mid-sentence as the first few beats of Pazza’s selection filled the room.
“Daddy Cool” by Boney M.
Before you could say “Nightflight To Venus”, Marito and Pazza were flailing about, hopped up on a retro groove. Then they began to do the bump. But given their general lack of coordination, it looked more like argumentative twins conjoined at the butt, wrestling to separate themselves. I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard. But I managed to yell for Madremere to witness the madness.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear?...but a little Italian French lady cha-cha-cha-ing her way into the dining room bearing a load of plates. Are you familiar with the Dance of the Seven Veils? Well this turned out to be the Dance of the Eight Plates…as Madremere twirled and bopped her way around the table, depositing two plates at each setting as she went.
A week later, and I still chuckle to think about it.
After a phenomenal dinner that included homemade tortellini soup…(I simply took the tureen and put it in front of me, much to Madremere’s amusement and delight.)…we retired to the living room to talk, drink tea, and listen to Chevalier and Piaf and Dietrich croon quivering French love songs.
Bliss, I tell you. Bliss.
Monday was a national holiday in France. All Souls Day…a day when you go to your family graves and lay flowers in tribute. Madremere was going to take us to the little village cemetery in Neufs Chefs to her parents’ graves, but sometime in the night, she changed her mind, let us sleep in, and instead, invited three of her friends to join us for a traditional French fall afternoon meal (Pot au Feu) prior to our 5pm train. Madremere asked me to pick the music for that meal. I chose a bit of Bach, a dash of Vivaldi, and a soupcon of Copeland. Pazza and Marito rolled their eyes and introduced me to the guests as the english foreigner.
Rested, full, and rather content, we crawled onto our train and glided towards Paris. Pazza promptly fell asleep, Marito read his book, and I took stock of the weekend.
I visited two European countries, read one and a half books, added to my French vocabulary, and even managed to learn some Italian while I was at it.
Not bad for a three-day weekend.