Monday, June 9, 2008

L'Assistante Américaine


After a wonderful two-week stay in France, I returned once again to the classroom in the fall of 2006, my 28th year of teaching middle school French at Durham Academy. Early in the fall semester, I received an email from Madeleine Vedel asking me if I would consider coming to live in their house and work for them. I could translate for Chef Érick, she said. They would pay part of my airfare over and I could work for room and board. I thought that perhaps I could turn that into a sabbatical request from my school and stay on from June to December. I applied for the sabbatical but was turned down. Quite a few tears later, I decided to go for the summer. I talked to my two sons and explained to them what a wonderful opportunity it would be for dear, French nerd mom. They have called me a that for as long as I can remember. I've taken both of them to France with me and they love the country. It's conjugating verbs while in their mom's eighth grade French class that they weren't too fond of!
I made all the arrangements to be away for two months in the summer of 2007 and took off for Paris in early June. I had a wonderful seatmate, John Meldrum, an American musician living in Paris with his wife and children. We talked for hours and he assured me that I would have a great summer. I took the TGV to Arles and made my way, for the third time, to 30, rue Pierre Euzeby. I was shown to my room at the very top of the house, on the family side this time.
I took on many of the daily duties of running the B&B- preparing and serving breakfast, cleaning rooms, checking people in upon arrival, as well as assisting Érick with the clients for the cooking classes or stages. I became known around town and at the market as his assistante américaine. I learned to make crêpes from scratch, without a recipe, practicing first on two adorable boys from Ireland. I did this one morning when Érick was away, just in case they were a disaster! The boys were very pleased, I am happy to report.
At the beginning of the summer, Érick and several of his friends began renovating the fifth bedroom, as it became known. It was decided that I would become their lunch chef. I was a nervous wreck on the first day I was expected to have lunch on the table for them. It was a Wednesday, one of two market days in Arles. I went to the market and bought roasted chickens and potatoes. I attempted to make green beans or haricots verts, boiling them first and then frying them in olive oil. The chicken was a hit, but my green beans were not eaten. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with them-- one of the guys took a big serving, bit into one and then didn't eat the rest. He put them all back in the serving dish. I ate most of them myself. I later learned that I had not boiled them long enough-- they were too crunchy, pronounced practically raw by my new food critics. Luckily, I got over being nervous. However, I realized that I was serving too much pasta on the day that Gilbert came in to work one morning and asked for potatoes, no pasta, please. I didn't contribute much to those lunch time discussions during the first several days. After studying French since the age of 14, I couldn't seem to understand them. Their southern accents and the liberal use of Provençal expressions left me in the dark most of the time at first. Lunches lasted about an hour and a half and everything from music to the weather to airplane engines were discussed and debated. As soon as the table was cleared, the guys scattered to various sofas for their 30 minute siesta. They would get back to work around 3:30. When I explained to them that my lunch time during the school year consists of eating in my classroom with my twelve advisees in about 10-15 minutes they were horrified. And no rosé? Uncivilised.
It was a glorious summer. Elijah, a young man from Wisconsin, was there as the main dishwasher. As I was really missing my own sons at home, he was happy to fill in for them. I helped him with his laundry and woke him up every morning when it was dish-washing time. Dorette came with Emily from Chapel Hill as her assistant. They brought two groups of teens. Virginia was there as au pair to Madeleine and Érick's two young sons. We had guests from all over the world-- two fun-loving couples from Israel, Canadians, Italians, Norwegians, and Americans, just to name a few. The group I nicknamed the Creative Ladies were inspirational. Mo, one of them, stayed on in Arles and I was able to spend time with her at the pool of her hotel one afternoon. I learned to clean toilets in French, as Véronique, the woman who comes in to help with the cleaning, was called away to be with her ill father. Sadly, he later passed away. Madeleine and I took several of the teens to Nice for a few days. I lost my wallet at the Matisse museum and, after panicking and calling my best friend back in Durham to figure out what on earth I was going to do, learned that it had been returned by a family from the States. The museum employee lectured me on being more careful with my belongings, the same lecture I give my students every March when we go to Paris. I celebrated my 49th birthday with Dorette, Emily, Madeleine and one of the teen groups by going to Joël Durand's chocolate shop, lunch at Glanum, shopping and watching the street entertainers in Avignon at the summer festival, and finally with dinner at a pizza restaurant across the Rhône river from the Palais des Papes and the famous bridge of Avignon. Érick and his young son, Jonas, took the train from Arles to Avignon to join us for dinner.
When the time came to say good-bye to everyone in August, I was bereft. Véronique gave me a ceramic cicada, Richard gave me a CD by Les Quartiers Nord, a band from Marseille we had seen in concert in Arles, Gilbert gave me a bottle of Bordeaux as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate, and Madeleine and Érick offered me a massage by one of Madeleine's friends to thank me for the hours of hard work. The flower man at the open air market bid me good-bye, telling me I had un accent délicieux. I didn't know whether to be offended or flattered! I opted for the latter, after being told by Érick that it was indeed meant as a compliment.
I decided to leave some clothes in my loft bedroom, just in case I returned the next summer. I also had absolutely no extra room in my suitcase. After all, I had to make room for olive oil, sea salt, spices, three bottles of wine, books on Provence, CDs of local music, etc. I had no idea if I would indeed be able to return during the summer of 2007, as I stood in the Air Canada line at Charles de Gaulle airport with tears dripping off the end of my nose. I will always be grateful to the employee who took one look at me and got me through that line in record time. I think she was afraid I would break out in hysterical sobs any minute. I did know that I had spent two wonderful months in what felt like my home away from home.

Crêpes
Beat three eggs in a medium sized bowl with a fork. Add perhaps a fourth of a cup of milk. Gradually add enough floor to make a really thick pancake batter. As you mix it, it should pull away from the sides of the bowl. Gradually add enough milk to make a thin batter. Do not add too much milk. If you then try to rethicken it with flour you will have lumps that are impossible to remove. (The batter is thin enough if it is easy to coat the bottom of the pan with it as you pour it into the pan.)
Heat a well-seasoned skillet. Melt butter and quickly pour in enough batter to coat the bottom. The pan needs to be hot. The crêpe is ready when the edges brown and start to pull away from the side of the pan. You can try flipping it in the air to turn it or just flip it with your fingers or a spatula. Serve warm with jam or nutella.

2 comments:

Jennifer said...

Great post! I am going to try your crepes this morning. I think that the recipe taught to me years ago is more German so I'm excited to attempt a new version. Keep the recipes coming.

m du panier said...

Teresa, You are doing a great job with the blog! Thanks for bringing us along on the adventure with you..mais je suis tres verte, comme une grenouille! (now that i think about it, i should change my name to m grenouille! We are having (finally) lovely, hot, cloudless days....just like Arles.
tammy