Feeling 22 Again
Updated: May 16, 2021
The more things change, the more they simply don't, as Wendy Nelson discovers.
When I graduated from college, I had the tremendous good fortune to backpack through Europe for the summer with four of my best friends. Before leaving Michigan I bought a Eurail pass (a primitive rectangle of cardboard which I think had my picture stapled onto it). That plus $700 in traveler’s cheques had to cover seven weeks of travel from England to Greece and back; no credit card safety net. Today, the economics of the trip only seem credible if I had gone to Europe with Hemingway.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that trip this year. Then, it was the lack of money which limited my choices. Now I have the money and nothing to spend it on.
When I was 22 every franc counted. We would scamper back and forth between banks comparing the posted exchange rates to maximize the penny differences offered in converting dollars into old francs, or old lira, or not-so-old pounds. When I lost a piece of paper money in Italy (thousands and thousands of lira which amounted to about twenty bucks….I miss those ridiculous lira), it was devastating.
We saved a few lira or francs or drachma by sleeping on trains some nights, so we could skip paying for a hostel or crappy hotel. We slept on the deck of the night ferry between Patras and Brindisi so we wouldn’t have to pay for seats, which is a helluva lot colder and less romantic than you might imagine, bottle of ouzo notwithstanding. While museums didn’t cost much, sometimes they cost more than we had. A little scarf at the marché, a pair of earrings from a Metro station – we couldn’t afford many souvenirs.
Much of my precious $14.29 per day went towards food.
That would’ve given Hem plenty to work with. Me, not so much. We didn’t eat in a lot of restaurants. Couldn’t afford them. But that didn’t mean we didn’t eat much better than we had for at least the prior four years.
Breakfast would be a baguette still warm from the morning’s baking or perhaps a croissant as we started to walk around whatever town we were in. For lunch, we’d sit on the grass in a garden, or perhaps line up on the edge of a fountain and have another baguette, a few slices of salami and some cheese, maybe a container of shredded carrots in vinaigrette or my favorite, shredded celery root in a mustardy mayonnaise (céleri rémoulade), followed by fruit and then meticulously splitting a single pastry with our omnipresent Swiss Army knives. Dinner could be a bowl of couscous or a pizza or a plate of pasta. The South Beach Diet was blissfully far in the future. There weren’t more than a dozen real restaurant meals over those weeks, the kind with courses and wine and all the trappings. They were really a treat when they happened, and when they didn’t…..we didn’t miss them.
Life now in my Montpellier apartment is mighty civilized, including a daily apéro and a pastry that we split after dinner only so I don’t puff up like a tick. But when D and I head out to explore France, I could be 22 again.
A few weeks ago we visited Nîmes, an elegant town a short train ride from Montpellier. Inhabited for over 6,000 years, it boasts a wealth of cultural sites. There is a marvelously preserved Roman amphitheater and the gemlike Maison Carrée, the most-intact Roman temple in the world. These stars, plus other bits of Roman detritus earned Nîmes the sobriquet the “French Rome.”
Of course, when we were there they were all closed.
The upside? Since nothing is open, there is no rush to see anything.
A leisurely stroll around the amphitheater was perfectly satisfying on a sunny morning. Ditto circumnavigating the Maison Carrée; both are pretty darn fabulous, as any number of travel sites will tell you.
There was more Roman bric-a-brac I wanted to run down, but it was noon and thus lunch responsibilities loomed large. I believe that some Parisians embrace the obsessive American work-ethic but thank God it is not so in the south of France: la pause dej (lunch break) is sacrosanct. That means that most stores—including the ones that sell food—will observe a two-hour break sometime between noon and 4:00 pm. If you don’t get your victuals while the getting’s good, you will be left to wander forlornly amongst shuttered shops, acutely aware that nearby the owners and clerks are tucking into yummy meals washed down by ridiculously inexpensive wine while you’re reduced to eating McDo.
In the halcyon pre-Covid days, noon was when I’d start looking for a promising restaurant in which to enjoy the next couple of hours. Since all restaurants are now closed, noon is the final alarm that it’s time to bag my own lunch. Luckily, that day we practically tripped over les halles, the indoor marché.
Nîmes’ halles was a thing of beauty: aisle after aisle of producteurs of fresh-off-the-farm (or fresh-off-the-hoof) food, optimally arrayed to beguile. Unlike ordering at a restaurant where there are finite choices and you can’t see how they look until they are placed expertly in front of you, you stroll the aisles in les halles in reconnaissance mode and then more acquisitively, assembling the perfect repas.
A generous slice of pissaladière (savory crust topped by a half-inch of caramelized onions, garnished with a few anchovies and black olives) and two of the local specialty, petit paté brandade de mourue (imagine a large shotgun casing made of dough, filled with salt cod paste) provided a solid pastry foundation. Multiple wine counters were available: we chose a cold bottle of rosé for six euros. Next came a round of creamy cheese (no idea what kind). And then we really fell for the “caviars” that anchored the end cap of one aisle (where the boxes of mac-n-cheese would be at our Stop & Shop back home): vats of eggplant goo, and garlic goo, and sundried tomato goo, and fish roe goo, and pesto. That purchase demanded bread, and a good hour having passed since we entered les halles by this point, the baguettes were all gone so we settled on a huge pain de campagne. D was rather broken-hearted that we couldn’t find our way back to the personal-sized parmesan souflés that we had noted during our initial expeditionary tour, but we were consoled by thoughts of the desserts that we had presciently purchased at the patisserie before we entered les halles. Something called a “finger” of caramel was a five-inch canoe of crust, filled with caramel and nuts. A nameless item was a 2” square of layers of cake and crunchiness and frosting, all tasting of mocha.
Thus provisioned, we sought a lunch venue. At the edge of the sprawling public garden we found the perfect place: plane trees above, packed sand below, boules players in a far corner, a nice bench from which we could watch the light playing on the limestone buildings surrounding us. We uncorked the wine (never leave the house without a tire-bouchon!) and splashed some into our one indispensable Solo cup.
Two hours later we finally left our bench, after having enjoyed a magical afternoon’s entertainment.
Our seats turned out to be ground zero for the weekend boules ritual for bourgeois men in Nîmes. The retired and the under/un-employed play boules midweek. Saturday’s game drew from a deeper bench. One healthy fellow in a tracksuit, maybe ten years older than us, arrived with his gleaming set of steel balls and a brightly colored cochonet (piglet), the little wood ball that is the target of the metal balls. He started practicing by himself. Over the next half hour, more than 25 of his friends and acquaintances arrived. Only about eight played. The rest were smoking, sitting, watching, and kibitzing.
Boules is brilliant if all you want from a game is the opportunity to be outside with your friends. You don’t need to be in any kind of recognizable physical shape. The equipment is limited: 2-3 satisfyingly heavy and shiny steel balls and the cochonet. Alcohol is a suggested accompaniment, particularly when played on your personal boules court (which a surprising number of backyards include). There are only three optional, inexpensive add-ons: a string for measuring distances; a collapsible circle of plastic you toss on the ground to indicate where each person throws from; and—new to me—the ramasse boule de pétanque magnétique, a really powerful magnet on a string that allows you to pick up your heavy balls at the end of each round, without bending over. (cf. this is a great game for the elderly and the inactive.)
It is also overwhelmingly a game played by men. One very rarely sees a woman playing with the guys.
So I was delighted to be invited to join a recent game with the expat women’s group I belong to. Five of us (four players plus the obligatory kibitzer) gathered beneath the huge arches of the old aqueduct that brought water to Montpellier in the 17th century. As we played, locals—again, mostly men—gathered on the sidelines to offer encouragement. Only Marie, who owned all the balls we were playing with, really knew what she was doing, but the great thing about boules is, it doesn’t matter. The incompetent (among whose ranks I cheerfully belong) can have every bit as much fun as the talented. If the sun is warm and your friends are interesting to talk to, that’s all you need for a great boules game.
Just as a piece of good bread and some creamy cheese may be all you need for a perfect lunch.
In the intervening 30+ years since my Eurail trip, I have gotten accustomed to nice restaurants and museum tours narrated by experts through the special headphones I’ve paid for. I’ve bought lots of souvenirs.
None of that has happened this year. I’m more than okay with that.
Souvenir is from the French word to remember, or the noun memories. And those are free.
Wendy Nelson is exploring pandemic life in Montpellier, France.