Jasmine Tea

Holidays still felt wrong. Over the years, Diana had adapted to everything else. She had been independent and capable before she married, she was independent and capable after he’d gone. She reverted. The bed felt wider, the bills were harder. Otherwise the only things that mattered were the two daughters to bring up alone and a heart which felt as if it was made of cogs and gears running on oil, rather than flesh and blood powered by love.

But holidays were hard. When the girls were still little, there was no-one to plan the day with, argue over directions with, choose a restaurant with, count the pounds/pesetas/drachmas/euros with, sit up in the evening over a glass of wine and watch the sun go down with. As the girls grew, there was no-one to help them jump waves, to play jokes on silly, serious mummy; no-one to help kiss those sun drenched faces as they slept under strange skies, exhausted by new experiences. But she kept on anyway. At first, she decided where they would go and as years passed, she invited her daughters’ input and through their eyes, experienced the world anew.

Now they were nearly grown. Diana was no longer alone in the hot cicada evenings, one daughter would share a little of the wine and the other filled the evening with guitar music. But her bed was still cold on one side. And soon, the girls would fly the nest and she would vacation alone.

In the first week of their holiday, Diana took the girls a few miles upstream of the pretty town and watched as her confident, independent daughters, eschewing her help, phrase-book-Frenched themselves a canoe trip down the river. She saw them push off from the bank, all orange and yellow and red, insulting each other and arguing over paddling techniques as they disappeared under the trees; then she drove back to wait for them.

She had two hours to kill. This was the first time she had been abroad, totally on her own, since she had been in her twenties. There was no sticky hand to hold, no arm hooked through hers, no squabble to referee, no groans of boredom to contend with. To start, she walked the shaded streets along edges, peeking in windows, wondering who was watching her progress. She was the only person alone, washed along in a tide of families and couples.

Diana walked into a few shops and turned over the bright ceramics and lavender scented linen. She considered preserved delicacies and unusual jewellery. Under flapping awnings, waiters rushed to prepare tables for lunch, placing table mats and cutlery and reservation markers.

It was too early for lunch and besides, they would eat it together when the girls had finished their trip and handed the canoe back. But she was thirsty.

Going down a quieter side street, Diana found little businesses more unique than those in the main tourist area and among them, a shop selling English second hand books with a salon de thé attached. Diana could never resist a bookshop. She was pleasantly surprised with the selection, expecting tattered forty year old Penguins and musky hardbacks. The books were good quality and varied, the shop light and airy, with gentle piano music in the background. She could see through into the rear where a few tables stood neat with lace tablecloths and beyond them the light green of a narrow garden which must lead down to the river.

Diana chose three books and approached the till which stood between the open door and the empty tables. The music stopped and turning, she realised the piano was behind her and a tall man had risen to serve her. What nationality was he? After all, he was selling books in English. But his ‘Bonjour madame,’ was definitely French.

‘Bonjour monsieur,’ she said, handing over the books. The sounds of birds came in through the door and she could hear the laughter of people on the river and commentary on a passing tourist boat. She still had an hour to kill. Looking out into the garden, Diana noticed there tables were set up in the shade, a little vase of flowers on each one.

‘Et du thé aussi, s’il vous plaît?’ she asked.

The man smiled and handed her a menu. The range of teas was, like the selection of books, wide and varied. Diana’s desire for a taste of home was lost in the options. The day was very hot. It was too hot for English breakfast tea and milk.

‘Jasmin, s’il vous plaît,’ she said, struggling to remember in time to soften the J to make it sound French.
‘À l’intérieur ou..?’ he queried, indicating the cool of the interior.

‘Dans le jardin,’ she said firmly. She was pleased that although he knew she was an English speaker, although her accent was terrible, he continued to speak to her in French as he asked her to take a seat and said that he would bring the tea out to her.

Diana sat in the garden for a while, and then leaving her things on one of the spare seats, wandered down the length of the garden to enjoy its peaceful greenness and its slightly overblown flowers and herbs. She trailed her hands through lavender as she made her way to the end, where a little roofed store held spare tables and rusted garden tools. A small glass-less window looked down onto the river. Turning, she looked at the narrow back of the bookshop and its upper rooms and the stone walls enclosing this secret place of sun and tranquility. She ambled back to the table and took out her book.

‘Et voilà, Madame,’ said the man, putting a teapot and cup before her.

‘Merci beaucoup,’ Diana said, then, waving her hand added, ‘C’est très joli, ce jardin.’

Was that good French? She couldn’t remember. It sounded right.

The man paused and smiled, shrugging a little. He continued to speak in French, slowly but nevertheless in French: ‘it’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid, I’d like to make to more appealing.’

Diana understood him. Every word. Well, not every word. But she understood what he was saying to her. She started to formulate a reply and then decided just to talk and hope that what she said made sense.

‘No. It’s good it looks at this time,’ she replied, knowing the French was wrong. But if she stopped to work it out, she might as well not speak at all.

‘You’re very kind. Do you think it would be nice to have a tea garden?’

‘Yes,’ Diana could not remember the subjunctive, how to say ‘I’m sure it would’. She plumped for: ‘It’s very polite, gentle, tranquil… I’m sorry – my French is very bad.’

The man smiled. ‘Not so bad,’ he said.

‘I’m not at school during many years,’ Diana winced, imagining her A level teacher sobbing into her text books. ‘Depuis’ not ‘pendant’. Too late.

‘Are you holidaying alone?’ asked the man. Somehow it felt neither intrusive or creepy. It was just a question.

‘No, my daughters are with me too. They promenade on the river in a canoe.’ What a ridiculous thing to say. And what must he think of her, leaving them to do it on their own? ‘They’re eighteen and sixteen,’ she added. Although now she thought about it, he couldn’t possibly think they were little children, she was no longer a young woman. She was sitting in front of him. The sun shone on her fine lines and anyone, even a man, could almost certainly tell that her hair was coloured and spot the reading glasses on the table. For a second she felt silly but he didn’t seem to be appraising her. He was just chatting.

‘Your daughters – do they speak French too?’

Diana was ashamed, not for the first time, of the linguistic indifference of her nationality. ‘One – she learns Spanish only. The other loves music alone.’

‘Ah,’ he nodded as if in approval, ‘does she play an instrument?’

‘Yes, the guitar. She’s in a team…er… gang.. er…band.’

‘And you?’

‘Yes, I play a bit on the …..’ what on earth was the word for piano? She pointed at the instrument inside.

‘Piano,’ the man told her without reproach.

Diana pulled a face in apology, ‘Sometimes …. when we’re on holiday, I ….’ (what’s the word for ‘miss’?) ‘want to play…I’m sorry. I forget more than I learned.’

‘Don’t be sorry, it’s nice for me to speak to a customer in French,’ he answered.

There was a silence but it was comfortable. Diana poured her tea and wondered how to ask what had made him start this business. He was looking down the garden as if envisaging it with more tables, filled with customers. Perhaps he preferred it as it was now, quiet, with just a few people dropping in from time to time, so that most of the time, he could play piano to his audience of pre-loved books. He was, like her, neither young nor old either. Just himself.

‘Monsieur, pourquoi…’ she started but then a voice called from the interior:

‘Yoohoo! Jacques! It’s us!’

The man bowed to Diana and smiled, ‘Pardon, madame,’ he said, ‘… et merci.’

‘Merci aussi,’ she replied as he turned to his other customers.

Thank you? What for?

She heard him inside, still courteous but now speaking impeccable English, ‘good morning Mr and Mrs Smith, how are you both today? What tea would you like? I have some green tea or lapsang souchong? Or orange blossom perhaps?’

‘Oh away with you and your teas!’ laughed Mrs Smith, ‘you know we don’t like that sort of thing. Just the usual, same as always.’

‘Inside or outside?’ asked Jacques.

‘Inside’s cooler I reckon,’ decided Mr Smith, ‘and no insects.’

In the garden, in the breezy shade, Diana finished her tea and carefully carried her things back to the counter. She paid Jacques and smiled, seeing him glance at the piano. 

’Come again, even if you don’t want books or tea,’ he said in French, ‘just to play the piano. If you’d like to, that is.’

‘Thank you, I think on the subject of it.’

Outside in the street, Diana made her way to the canoe landing place, slowly. When she arrived, the girls were waiting.
‘What have you been up to?’ asked her youngest, ‘you’re all smiley.’

‘Aren’t I allowed to smile?’ argued Diana, ‘I’m so proud of you both, you’ll give anything a go. Daddy would have been so pleased to know that you grew up willing to try. He was never scared of anything.’

Her eldest gave her a hug damp with river water. It was eleven years since his death but she could remember him, just about, ‘Or maybe, he was scared but he tried anyway,’ she said, ‘just like you.’

Just like me, thought Diana.

‘So really, what were you up to?’ asked her eldest.

‘Bought some books, had a cup of tea.’

Her youngest looked unimpressed. ‘Can we go canoeing again, Mum?’

‘If you like,’ said Diana.

‘What will you do? More tea?’

Diana thought about it. ‘Yes, why not,’ she said, ‘and maybe find a piano to play. I’m going to try something new.’

salon de the

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Menu Del Dia, Plat Du Jour

I was only fourth in line that Saturday morning. Two female butchers, head to toe in white, were serving ladies one and two. Lady three was chatting at a hundred miles an hour with ladies five and six and also with ladies one and two. Ladies seven and eight were just entering and picked up the gossip as if they’d been there all along. I just smiled in a friendly manner and looked (probably) foreign or at least, not local. They smiled back, said hello and returned to the latest news.

The place was spotless. Clear laminated diagrams of dissected beasts decorated the walls, should you not know the cut you were after; or in my case, what they were called in Spanish. Local eggs and honey decorated the top of the deli chiller, where cured meats and sausages were lined up like fat pencils alongside boulders of cheese.

I had been there a few days earlier and bought a chicken which had been deftly cut into twelve pieces, but today I wanted a whole one. Husband and children had left me to do some window shopping in the street outside. “I won’t be long,” I told them.

The only thing was… ladies one and two seemed to have both asked for half a pig’s side cut into wafer-thin chops. This involved the slender, feminine butchers bringing down a cleaver at one centimetre intervals (an alarming thing to watch but very impressive) to make twenty or so potential chops and then the rather slower (and judging by the glowing foreheads, quite strenuous) activity of sawing through bone. Husband and children reappeared to find out what had happened to me. The mercantile part of the town was very small, and they’d run out of shops to look into without actually buying anything. It was already 30°C (86°F) in the narrow streets even in the shade of the ancient white buildings and it was only 9:30am. I sent them back out as they were getting in the way of ladies nine and ten.

Lady one having been served, satisfactorily rounded off her bit of the conversation and departed. Lady three approached the counter and asked for… well it was all a bit fast to understand, but the butcher was reaching for another side of pork and flexing her muscles. I longed to be able to speak Spanish properly and to ask whether it was a Spanish thing to eat wafer-thin chops on Sunday or just a local tradition and how they’d be cooking them, but the few words I knew got tangled in my head and I was too shy. I just kept smiling brightly and wondering if I’d get served before lunch time.

Eventually it was my turn. I asked for a chicken. I could tell everyone was a little baffled, although, the butcher wore an air of one to whom a brief respite has been given. She asked me how many pieces I wanted it chopped into. “No gracias. Entero por favor,” I answered. There was a lull in the general hubbub of conversation. She doesn’t want pork? I could hear them thinking. She wants a chicken and she wants it whole? The butcher looked as if I was doubting her skills. How to explain in my extremely inadequate Spanish that I wanted to roast it for Sunday dinner but to a Spanish recipe with garlic and almonds and raisins and sherry? I just smiled. I left with my chicken and dignity and imagined them thinking: is she mad? Why would you want a whole chicken? She can’t want to cook a whole chicken in this heat? The following day, roasting it while the temperature outside our holiday let was 43°C (109°F) and the temperature in the kitchen was probably high enough to fire clay, I did wish I had bought some wafer thin pork chops and made my husband barbecue them.

This happened two years ago. The town has a supermarket, in fact it has at least three. There is the small Eroski on the outskirts and there are a few low scale franchises in the winding white streets, where you could buy everything you need. We used the Eroski mostly and it sold meat of course, but it was good to go to a butcher and buy exactly what I wanted. The villa had a very poor internet connection, so we didn’t use it. This took us back to how our holidays were years ago. Out of connection with social media and news, a little more connection to the area we were in and each other. We did have an excellent mobile signal so we were able to keep in touch when we needed to and any cafe with free wifi resulted in heads down for two teenagers who had forgotten how bereft they were while they were jumping in and out of the pool and reading and actually talking to people in the same vicinity, apparently having fun.

I count myself very fortunate to have been able to visit France or Spain every year for the last twenty-three.

In the beginning, my husband and I were touring and camping, travelling from place to place with a French Michelin guide to campsites. Using a mobile abroad was so expensive, we used them for emergencies only. Using the world wide web… well it didn’t even exist to start with. My husband’s linguistic skills are useful in a restaurant and that’s about it. I can speak French (rusty but adequate) and can manage Spanish at a very basic level. I learnt it for one year at school and then had to choose my O’ Levels. With no advice provided whatsoever, I assumed future employers would want me to have a science. Physics was the only one in which I had any hope of passing but was in the same option group as Spanish. If it had been in the same option group as Geography, or if I’d realised that no-one was ever, ever going to ask me what I knew about Newton’s Laws (not much) or Brownian Motion (nothing), I would have chosen differently.

Since both of us like being in obscure, back-of-beyond sorts of places, we just had to manage as best we could in shops and restaurants (and pharmacies/surgeries when that year’s medical incident occurred), making atrocious linguistic mistakes but getting by: cooking and eating delicious local food: cleaning mussels in the shade of the tent; making ratatouille on a two ring stove. We ate in out-of-the-way restaurants and cafés, finding (usually by chance) places the locals frequented, not always knowing what we’d been served but always finding it delicious and excellent value. We once hired a small villa in Andalusia, all on its own on a mountainside up a winding, precipitous stony track flanked by prickly pear. I bought a whole chicken then too, but didn’t realise, when they said whole, they meant guts and all. I would have handled this better if the hot water supply hadn’t just broken down.

We didn’t really notice or care that we couldn’t get in touch with the outside world. If we were desperate for news, we could check out yesterday’s British newspapers in the shops or pick up the Herald Tribune or seek out the publications for ex-pats. Pretty much the only time when we were worried was when we went touring with a trailer-tent to the South of France in 2000. We had a son, just over a year in age, who had been walking since he was nine months old and I was six weeks pregnant and suffering dreadful morning sickness. As we travelled south, we noticed people queuing at petrol stations and wondered what was going on. Or rather my husband did, I was mostly trying to control the nausea and feeling distressed by the fact that surrounded with lovely cuisine, all I wanted was toast or fast-food burgers (which I usually loathe). Arriving at our final destination, we discovered there was a fuel crisis and we had no way of being certain what was happening. Desperate notices were posted up around the campsite: “we have to catch a ferry from Dunkirk on Friday, can anyone siphon some diesel for us from their own tank? We’ll pay good money.” Ringing home at extortionate rates elicited little sense from either sets of our parents, the newspapers were a day behind. Would we be able to get home? We only had enough petrol to get us half way up France. Fortunately for us, the crisis lifted before we had to drive north.

Other than that, it was nice to be away from the media and to be in our own little world, dabbling our toes in another culture. We tended to shop in the smaller shops and supermarkets, which in the main sold food for the national cuisine and if you were desperate for a taste of home (which in our case meant British strength tea, fresh hot chillies and curry paste) you had to hunt for the shelf which sold foreign food and hope for the best. Thus UK branded tea and biscuits rubbed shoulders with sauerkraut, American mustard, soy sauce and tacos. In France, you might find a section for Vietnamese style cuisine but not Indian or Mexican. Cheese was unquestionably French. It was not always easy to find fresh milk. In Spain, you might not find lamb and instead of beef there might be veal. In both countries however, there would be an array of vegetables like a work of art, fresh, varied and vibrant and a fish counter of gleaming scales and live crabs, many of which were from British waters, since the British won’t always eat them. We loved this. We both cook well and, since in the early days the exchange rate was very favourable to sterling, having such a choice meant that we had to restrain ourselves from buying more than we could cook.

So much has changed in the last few years, an evolution we barely noticed, as the children grew older. We started going on holiday with my in-laws whose generosity is overwhelming both in terms of financial input and helping with the children so that we had a break. But as time went on, even before the exchange rate dropped, eating out for six became expensive and trailing six people round looking for obscure places is much more difficult than when there are just two of you.

Over time, menus of the day have crept up in price as economies struggle across Europe. The local speciality, aimed at the tourist, is now likely to cost more than something generic. Meanwhile, in the supermarket, UK, Irish, American and German brands nestle in amongst French and Spanish, even in the cheese section. If I want to, I could pretty much buy exactly the same things in France or Spain as I do at home, in the same anonymity. Even on the high street, the same clothes shops appear everywhere with the same prices. Walking around the shopping district in Malaga, you might as well be in Southampton (albeit you need shelter from the sun rather than the rain). It’s not so easy to guess where someone is from by their clothes anymore.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t got wifi, you’ve got 3G. You can access the whole world and your social media contacts twenty-four hours a day if you want to. Without making a deliberate choice to do so, you can’t get a break from the political machinations, the desperation of refugees, injustice, celebrity gossip, the online arguments: all of which you can do nothing about.
What’s the point of all this?

It’s nice to be able to get in touch when you want to and know everything is all right at home when you need to. All the same, I miss those days when we didn’t know what was going on, when we just sat and watched the view, sipping local wine, eating local food. I miss going into a shop and having the challenge of working out what to cook for dinner with what I can get hold of.

I wish more people realised the joy of being part of a Europe which is rapidly disappearing and dividing. What really seems tragic to me, is that while everything appears homogenised (food, brands, clothes, behaviours), people seem further apart. Heads down at devices, taking photos of ourselves rather than everything else, eating our own food rather than trying someone else’s, worrying about what’s happening elsewhere rather than enjoying the here and now. People no longer have to make the effort to communicate if they don’t want to. So they don’t.

I wish I had hadn’t been too shy to ask about the pork chops. I wish I hadn’t been too shy to explain about the chicken. Very likely, no-one would have understood my terrible Spanish, but I like to think they’d have got the gist. I hope I get the chance to find those out-of-the-way places again and next time, work up the courage to do more than smile.

balloons

Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission