Friday, September 08, 2006

a belated birfday gift

My French "brother" Dominique sent me some photos of the 100th birthday celebration for his "Mémère Olympe." Incredible. And she hasn't changed a bit. In his email, Domi said she was having some trouble recognizing people, but I imagine that that's merely an eyesight issue: she's probably as lucid as ever. When I first met her in 1986 (she lives on a farm in Cherbourg), she was already quite old at 80. Hell, I'll be happy to live to sixty, much less a hundred!

Some of the teenaged girlies are my "cousins," whom I remember as wee little gamines clustering around me and demanding that I draw more cartoons. I don't know a lot of the younger guys, and I have no idea who most of the littlest kids are. It's been a while since I attended a big French family gathering.

In the middle of the picture-- close to Grandma Olympe, sporting a necktie and a gray version of Abraham Lincoln's beard-- is Uncle Charles, on whose farm I worked the first time I ever went to France. I swear the guy's actually Scottish: he speaks French with a Sean Connery accent, all the "s"es melting into "sh" sounds.

Damn, that was nuts-- ten days on the farm, man! It was 1986. I could barely speak any French despite four years of it in junior high and high school. I got shat on by a frightened cow that was attached to a huge milking machine (some cows scare easily when a stranger appears, and many are already freaked when hooked up to the tit-sucker); Oncle Charles had me put on a raincoat before I entered the milking facility. That was wise.

I helped with the ramassage du foin (hay gathering) on a different day, which involved using pitchforks to jab bales of hay and lob them up to Charles, who was standing on a flatbed being pulled by a tractor that crawled along at walking speed. Dominique and I had to toss those bales higher and higher as Charles continued to stack them on the flatbed. I'll never forget the way my shoulders ached when we stopped for the evening, but lemme tell you: we earned our dinner that night.

I also helped feed les petits veaux-- the calves who required huge quantities of milk. To my surprise, I discovered that the calves were fed powdered milk mixed with warm water. To my greater surprise, I discovered that calves throw their heads back quite without warning while drinking milk-- a reflex, Charles laughingly explained, possessed by all calves: they're trying to push against an imaginary udder to coax more milk out of the teat. I nearly shat my pants the first time that happened.

While France-bashing is a favorite pastime of many bloggers, my own experience is that the French, however wacky their politics might be, are just folks. Good folks, at that, with a true joie de vivre and an acute sense of the absurd. I'm hoping to visit France in 2007, finances permitting. It's been too long since I had my last fix.

Joyeux anniversaire, Mémère Olympe!


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