Filching Fruit in France

The single best thing I will ever eat.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARILYNNE ROACH

I knew I would get into trouble when I agreed to lead a tour through the south of France this past summer, and I thought I had already achieved my goal when my wife left her hairbrush behind. You HAVE to leave something behind when you go to another country (it’s some kind of International Law), and the specific object will be dictated by the level of difficulty you will have in replacing it in a foreign land. And, of course, I had rushed her at the end of our packing, so it was my fault. (So apparently was the Crimean War.)

My wife has very luxurious thick hair, the kind that breaks wimpy brushes. I have…well, let’s just say I wish she’d let me grow my ear hair long enough to try for a comb over because that’s the only part of my dome still producing. To misquote Monty Python, “It is ex-hair; it has ceased to exist! It has rung up the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible. The only reason this man has to visit a barber is to collect hair off the floor to spread around his lettuce, potatoes and hostas to give slugs a really bad day.” (Actually, a bad night.)

My wife reminds me that dinner is at seven SHARP. Maybe it wasn’t dinner. Maybe something else was sharp. Certainly not me.

So if I go into a store in France and try to pantomime ‘hairbrush,’ they’re sending me over to the bowling-ball or floor-polishing section. Ah, but on Day One of our cruise we were given a ‘five-minute French lesson,’ where we were told to say “Bonjour” as you French accent and leave off the last letter in each word. This actually worked a lot better than it sounds, but then again it would kind of have to.

Anyway; so here we are on a riverboat (the Viking long ship kind, not a Mississippi paddlewheeler, which would have forced me to wear a cool hat and keep asking people if they wanted to play cards), docking in small French towns during the day and sailing at night, generally after dinner. So my group gets back on Day Three from our walk through the really cool medieval streets of Avignon, it’s only 5:30, and dinner’s never before 7:00. So I announce to my wife that I will walk into town and find a place to buy a stiff-bristled hairbrush for her.

Knowing that this is the last she will ever see of me, she double-checks that my life insurance policy is still in the same place back at home, and reminds me that dinner is at seven SHARP (which is weird, because the cruise is very relaxed and people tend to trickle into the dining room over a 20 minute or so period). Maybe it wasn’t dinner. Maybe something else was sharp. Certainly not me. And preferably not the hairbrush-to-be-named-later. Stiff, yes; sharp, no. Hey! That IS just like me!

I decide I will set off in a direction that looks shoppy and stay on that street so I don’t get lost. Twenty minutes later I realize there are no straight streets in any portion of France and I am crossing a bridge into what seems like another town. I should turn back and start getting really lost before it starts to get late, but then I see the sign for “Le Market Super” with an arrow pointing straight ahead. Geez; how far is a kilometer? Is it more or less than a mile? It’s ten after six. I decide to go for it.

Luckily, Le Market Super is only another five minutes away. And it’s got a wall of hairbrushes so I don’t have to try and explain with my hands that I want something for my head and come back with a French lice treatment. I pick one out, a quick “Bonjour,” six Euros and a “Merci” at the checkout, and I’m on the road back.

At least I think it’s the way back. It kind of looks the same…

Oh heck, everything looks the same. Wait—over there; is that where I saw the sign? I go down this big street and walk past a garage that seems familiar. Then I glance down the side street and see something really familiar—a garden! With tomato plants growing! I’m saved!

I walk down the path and quickly realize that the garden area and the house it’s attached to are a good two stories below the path I’m on. A lot of France, we have learned, is a layer cake: the modern city built on top of a medieval city built on top of a Roman city. Le jardin appears to be a level below the Romans; way down below and completely unapproachable by any path I can see. I give myself a minute to look at the nice line of tomato plants and the endless rows of herbs, beautifully laid out. Tomatoes and herbs; if I could only get down there—the heck with the ship!

I turn to leave and something brushes against my leg; suddenly there’s a red stain on my pants down by my ankle. Oh no—I am wounded! Tetanus! Lockjaw! (At least they won’t have to put up with my lousy French accent—although I pity the poor detectives who find the body: “All he had on him was twenty Euros and a hairbrush.”)

But then I realize I’m not in pain—and that I’ve brushed up against something red growing up a fence from down in the garden below: Raspberries! On the very tips of thick canes that must be twenty feet high! And so ripe in late July that they’ve gone past deep red and are inching towards purple. In a day or two they’ll be overripe, but right now they’re just delicious. And there’re lots of them. And there’s no way the poor gardener below can get to them. Probably doesn’t even know they’re up here. So I gobble them up, greedily, messily. Forget tetanus; we’re going for stigmata here!

But wait: My wife LOVES raspberries, and these are so ripe and warm and sweet. And they’re French! Pre-Roman French maybe! But how to transport them? Bowing to European convention I hadn’t asked for a bag for my single item. (You’re supposed to bring your own bags to Le Market Super, and if you don’t, they toss cheap plastic ones in your general direction with a sneer and wait for you to hand them the Euro dime you must pay for each act of your insolence.)

Maybe I’ve got some kind of bag in my pockets. No, just like the Homicide Detectives who will find my body have noted, some Euros, a hairbrush…hey! And a sheet of paper. Maybe I can fold it carefully and bring a few berries back in it. Look, it’s today’s schedule. Let’s see—lunch at noon, tour the town, do a little wine tasting, back at the ship by 5:30; free time to wander the town (just like I’m doing), 7:00 pm, set sail for Lyon, dinner at 7:30…

Oh, that’s different. Dinner’s going to be a little late. No rush then. And hey—good thing I’ve got my…rasp…“set sail at 7:00”…berries. Oh, fudge. THAT was the “sharp!” (I knew it wasn’t me, and here I’ve proven myself right once again.)

There are about a dozen berries left. It’s 6:40. A man out of a 50’s French New Wave film appears in the doorway of the house down below: white t-shirt, black pants, no shoes, suspenders dangling down around his knees. He is shouting something in French to me.

“Bonjour,” I reply meekly, but it seems like it might be a little late for Bonjour as he’s shaking his fist at me. “Merci?” I try. Then I hear a dog bark, and I’m pretty sure it probably knows a way to get up here. I turn to go, but there are berries left. I hear a ship’s bell off in the distance, there’s a Frenchman cursing at me in a doorway, and a dog is barking in a way that seems very French. My ship is leaving. I’m about to be bitten and/or arrested. And yet a strange feeling of calm settles over me.

It’s as if the whole ‘Mediterranean relaxed lifestyle’ thing is coursing through me. I feel the terroir: the layers of civilization beneath my feet. I reach out and lazily pick another berry and pop it in my mouth. I savor it slowly, knowing that it will be the single best thing I will ever eat.

I turn to the man in the doorway, show him a big berry, pop it into my mouth, make that kind of extravagant kissing motion where you wave your hand through the air, bow to him deeply, try to say “Delicious!” with a French accent, bow again, tip the cap that I am wearing to him, and say the very best, most sincere “Merci” that I will get out over the entire two weeks.

He smiles. The dog runs up next to him for a head pat. I pick the last fruits, wave goodbye, and walk off in what I pray to God is the general direction of the ship. It is 6:45, and I am walking at a frighteningly normal pace. Not fast, not slow; savoring the last of my berries, tipping my cap with a “Bonjour” to young mothers pushing strollers and getting big smiles back.

I turn a corner and there’s our ship. 6:55. Time to spare! I bound up the gangplank, the last one on board. The girl at the front desk notes that I am stained head to toe in a stylish reddish-purple. But before she can ask if I’m hurt, I pop the last berry into my mouth to show her where the color is coming from.

“You certainly seemed to have enjoyed yourself on your little walk, Monsieur. Do you have any berries left for your lovely wife?”

“No. The berries were for me. She just wanted a hairbrush.”


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