West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 26 | November 28 - December 04 2007

Notebook

Thanksgiving in Provence; Some surprises this year

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France — Thanksgiving came to this small corner of Provence last Thursday. We were a small group at my house here in the Old Town this year — seven. I was the only American. Not as international as other years — just British, German and French, but all English speakers, which is my only requirement for this most American holiday. With the exception of homebody me, the others had all lived and worked around the globe — Russia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Senegal, Kenya, Thailand, India — and that’s just for starters. One had even made a film for the BBC years back about Squanto.

Money is tight here for Americans. Every dollar is cut in half when converted to euros. As an American, I am not permitted to earn euros. I’ve been saving for months in order to make Thanksgiving possible. This past year has been rough due to the fall of the dollar, serious medical problems and the murder of two of my beloved cats. But there has been much more for which to be thankful: My health is finally stabilized, if not good; I have superb medical insurance thanks to the French law of universal coverage for all; we have an adorable new kitten; I have marvelous friends; France is beautiful, my house spacious and lovely; I turned 60 in June, a birthday I thought I’d never see because of a life-threatening illness I suffered when I was younger. As I look at the misery and pain in the rest of the world, so much of it brought about by my own country’s administration, I realize how fortunate I am.

The French do not observe Thanksgiving, but 10 years ago ’Alloween, now a big deal, was unknown here. Give them time — their interest in Thanksgiving has already been piqued. In early October, I ordered my turkey from Caty, the poultry and egg lady at the enormous Nyons market that takes over the town Thursday mornings. I reminded her, as I do every year, that being a big-city girl, I do not cook food with a facial expression and the capacity to wear shoes, so PLEASE she should not forget to remove the head, feet and ghastly innards.

Whole turkeys are available only at Christmas; this year there’s a shortage due to disease. I had also placed a large order with our superb primeur (fruit and vegetable store) for such delicacies as fresh American cranberries not available elsewhere. The rest would be bought at Hypermarché LeClerc in nearby Valréas, where I would use my bonus euros saved on my carte de fidelité. 

Tuesday morning (in France shops and banks are closed Monday) I went out early to pick up my vegetables. A hand-lettered sign announced an unexpected closure through Nov. 27. Panic. I hopped into my cute little red Citroën AX and headed for all the nearby primeurs. No luck with the cranberries and several other items, but I decided to do my turkey-day shopping in Valréas while I was there.

By the time I returned home, the news was all over the Old Town. Our seemingly sweet seller of exotic veggies and fruits had been arrested as one of the heads of a major hard-drug ring that had been under police surveillance for the past 18 months, since around the same time he and his wife (who has been suffering from depression and most likely is innocent) arrived. The shop opening coincided with the massive flooding of heroin and meth for the first time into this part of France, though no drugs were ever sold directly from the store. Yes, of course, I knew there’d been an enormous coup de filet (raid) here that morning starting at 5 a.m.

Many of my lowlife neighbors had been arrested — hardly a surprise — but they were small fry compared to our adorable “Nicholas,” whom I’d invited to drop by with “Anne,” his wife, for a Thanksgiving apéro Thursday night. I was stunned, incredulous, as was everyone else. I’d thought we’d been such good friends. He was “one of us,” so to speak. I was in the little shop almost daily — the quality and selection was superb, the prices low, the sense of camaraderie pleasant. “Nicholas” threw in extras; I brought over samplings of dishes I’d cooked from purchases at their store.

That night, I could think of little else. I was worried about “Anne” and the baby they’d adopted from China two years ago. What would happen to them? Every single conversation I’d ever had I replayed in my head, including the ones about the recent nightmare drug problems and the murder of one of my cats by a dealer’s dog. I felt ill. How could he? Nothing made sense and most likely it never will. They are due to reopen tomorrow. Sadly, I will never shop there again. 

Wednesday morning, I set out again in the car for LeClerc, hoping to find a few more items missing from my veggie order. Just as I was heading out of Nyons, the cute little red toy died, smack in the middle of the Route de Montélimar. Nothing could induce it to restart. After 20 minutes, a lovely woman in a car with Parisian plates stopped to give me a hand. We pushed the car to the side of the road and she drove me to my garagiste, the Clary family in Venterol, halfway between Nyons and Valréas. They were just closing for lunch — a three-hour affair around here. We hopped in their truck and went back to my car. Nothing would induce it to start. A problem with the boîte d’allumage (ignition box). It would take at least a day to fix. They drove me home.

While I was preparing the stuffing Thursday afternoon, Mr. Charmer (a.k.a. The Psychopath), who made my life hell for more than five years, invited me over for fresh oysters. Nervously, I went. A few weeks ago, he fell asleep with a sanglier (wild boar) stew on the stove. After several hours, black smoke was pouring out of his house. My neighbors were all in the street watching, as if it were some sort of reality TV. It never occurred to them to call the pompiers (firemen), having that odd native genetic predisposition to not get involved. It was I who called, thus saving Mr. Charmer’s life and putting an end to five nightmarish years. We are now friends.

After the oysters, I went back to my cooking. The guests arrived around 8 p.m. We went upstairs to the library to begin with Champagne and smoked salmon before sitting down at the dining-room table. Needless to say, there was no fresh cranberry-orange sauce this year; fortunately, I still had a can or two left of Ocean Spray. The hurt from losing a “friend,” of feeling betrayed, even used, was still sharp.

But the warmth from feasting friends around my table more than made up for it, not to mention the newfound “friend” across the street. There is always much for which to be grateful.


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