In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and lettuce.
Had Benjamin Franklin rented from Monsieur C, his famous line might have looked a little different. I can rarely foresee what challenges life in France will throw at me, but I am always confident there will be lettuce in the fridge.
It all started with a simple question. One day Monsieur C asked Mary: tu aimes la salade ?
Yeah, I like salad, she responded. The deed was done. Sentenced to salad without parole. Daily, Monsieur C knocks on the door that separates the two living spaces, shouting his classic âllo ? Je peux ? and offers us a big bag of fresh lettuce from the garden. C’est bonne, la salade ! It’s not a question.
Unfortunately, neither of us much like lettuce.
Bags of it crowd our fridge. It sits wilting, forgotten, on our countertops.
I tried to tactfully tell Monsieur C that, you know, we’re really doing okay on the lettuce thing. It’s more than we can eat!
I know, he said. Vous mangez pas beaucoup! Vous mangez pas beaucoup!
(You girls don’t eat much!)
He explained that that was why he had been giving us such small daily portions. An image of our fridge, home to scores of wilting green leaves, flashed through my mind.
Anyway, I’ll bring you some more tonight! Bon après-midi ! Conversation over.
I smiled weakly, the light surely gone from my eyes. What could I say but, merci. C’est très gentil.
Sometimes, guilty, we do make a salad: a task which typically involves the setting free of a live snail or two. Open the window, set it on the ledge, send it on its way.
Last week we found a slug.
The upside is that salad has become our measuring stick, a real source of motivation. If we’re waffling about going out and doing something, we put it to the salad test. Okay, we either get ready now, catch the 6:56 bus, or we stay here and eat salad.
That’s usually enough. We’re running to our rooms and scrambling for our coats in no time.
The lettuce thing represents just one of the many little misunderstandings that are bound to happen, when you think about it, when you put together a traditional French man in his seventies and two lively American girls in their early twenties.
In early October, when Mary moved in, he said to me one day: Vous vous entendez bien, hein? (You two get along well!)
Yes! I said brightly. We do!
I know, he said flatly. I can hear you.
What he doesn’t know is that his two renters are often awakened from sleep in the morning by the sound of him sneezing. From downstairs.
The generation gap is impossible to ignore. I think we baffle each other. Monsieur C thinks, for example, that we hang out in cafés in an effort to meet boys. A 4 pm pot of jasmine tea with notebooks out for lesson plans…and we’re there to flirt? His interpretation had me scratching my head until I realized that, with his particular values and no-nonsense practicality, he probably just doesn’t understand why someone would pay for coffee and tea when you could make it at home. But his idea becomes even more hilarious when you consider that rarely, in any of the cafés I frequent, do I encounter someone under the age of forty.
In any case, I am a happy renter. The house is lovely (and rent is unbeatably cheap). It’s pretty, with big windows and bright orange shutters, surrounded by roses, vines, and well-fed cats. We have the main floor while Monsieur C lives in the lower part of the house that opens out to the back garden.
I am unaccustomed to having a landlord who is so…present, but Monsieur C is a thoughtful man in many ways. If he knocks on the door to talk about rent, it’s usually with a few clementines in hand. Tiens ! One for you, one for ta copine. He’ll give us a bag of chestnuts and tell us how to cook them, or leave us a couple of ripe pears.
He’s thoughtful, yes, but I can’t say nice. Nice is too tame a word for Monsieur C. He’s the sort of man surely described by his friends as a rascal. Probably, too, by his enemies, of which I’m almost certain he has at least a few.
He is always yelling merde! Or calling someone a con, then asking if I know what that means. Sometimes he drives me places, to the bank or insurance office, and he’ll slow down in the middle of the street to yell at a friend he sees. Passing drivers then might honk, and he’ll yell at them to slow down, but if he’s the one in a hurry he’ll yell some version of, hurry up, Grandma! to someone taking their time.
Yesterday he gave me a ride home from town–I was carrying a bouquet of flowers and trying to catch Mary on her 23rd birthday before she left for work–and as we passed a house a a few blocks away from home, he slowed down the car and gestured to a tree. You see that? You see that cherry tree? Ça c’est un beau cerisier, ça.
It wasn’t the innocent observation of an avid gardener. Monsieur C proceeded to tell me a story. He had once asked the man whose garden it was to let him have a branch, start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C said, and he still said no! He wouldn’t take my money!
So what did he do? One night, around three a.m. as the man slept, Monsieur C crept through the fence, snipped off what he wanted from the cherry tree and roared off in his car.
I laughed, incredulous. So did you leave him a bit of money in exchange? Ben non ! He didn’t want it.
So this accounts for that tree in our backyard…probably the most dramatic cherry tree story since George Washington.
All’s fair in love and gardening, apparently.