Aug 29 2015

Plum Pickins

Two greengage trees, on the edge of our property, produce the sweetest plum-like fruit. Last month, the trees were flush with little round green plums, promising a bountiful harvest when they’d ripen, at the end of August. Knowing we’d return to the country house for the last week of summer, I envisioned the pies, tarts and marmalade that would result from such a robust yield.

I didn’t even know the trees produced fruit until the Pastry Ace paid us a visit and with her keen culinary eye, pointing out all sorts of fruit growing on or around our property that I’d never noticed. Since then, I’ve watched these plum trees fill out with little round fruit, but I don’t always get to harvest them because often we’re gone when they ripen. Last year our cross-America tour pulled us away for the last half of the summer. Who knows what it was the year before; we were moving to Barcelona and otherwise occupied. We tend to use the country house in July, and do other things in August, sometimes returning for the last week, sometimes not.

~ ~ ~

After my annual escape to Pamplona in early July, I returned to our country house just in time to make the neuron-cake that Short-pants requested for her birthday. (Try that with a hangover after a week-long party.) Soon after, neuron_cakeDe-facto and I flew to the states for work – a neighbor stayed here with the girls – returning to the country house for a week or so before a wedding in Italy called us to the Adriatic coast. We crawled back to Barcelona in heavy traffic, wanting only to stay put, quietly, which we did for a week or so before a return to the country house for the last week of summer, our last hurrah, and maybe finally some time to relax, before submerging again into the routine of work and school.

August is the height of the vacation period in Europe. The cities turn quiet – both Paris and Barcelona, like other European capitals, seem to lose half of their local population. Streets clear out and the energy of vacation covers the city like a heavy beach blanket. It’s still full-on summertime, warm and sunny and relaxed, but the moment the calendar clicks from July 31 to August 1, there’s a sense of melancholy. July is bright and bouncy with the youthful energy of summer fun. August comes with a big sigh, signaling that all good things must end, that summer is rolling by, rapidly, and fall is just a few footsteps away.

~ ~ ~

But I had the greengages to temper my August melancholy. On our drive north from Barcelona to the country house, I pictured those trees covered with juicy, yellow-green plums, and I promised Short-pants and Buddy-roo I’d make pies with top crusts bulging with fruit. Maybe I’d even freeze one and leave it for our return in October.

Minutes after our arrival, I sprinted out to the corner of our land where the two trees stand, ready to pluck a plum off a branch and savor its sweetness. The next day I’d fill up a big bowl and move the fruit directly from tree to pie, but I was impatient to appreciate the inventory. Winston galloped after me, not knowing why, but sensing my anticipation.

I ran down the road and jumped over the ditch and found my two trees, thick with green leaves fluttering in the late afternoon breeze – and not one single plum. tree_sin_mas

Gone. They were all gone.

I recall, now, a few summers ago, going out to inspect the trees in August to find them empty. But it had been a very wet spring and summer. I hadn’t gotten any grapes that season either. It was weird, but it was an anomaly, so I thought. But given that just a few weeks ago I’d seen both trees covered in fruit, something was very wrong.

I looked closer. This couldn’t be the work of birds. The tree had been cleaned, top to bottom. Not even one stray plum hung from any of the branches.

I’m bewildered that someone would clear out all the fruit from both of the trees. Though near the road, they are not obviously visible to a passing car. Somebody knows that the trees are there and possibly they’ve come every year – except the years we happened to be here in August – to help themselves. They must see our house locked tight without a car in front, and they stop and clear out our plum supply. But seriously, they must have had a ladder! There were plums all the way to the tops of those trees. This was a deliberate harvest. Not just let’s grab a few fruit while passing by. They took everything.

Grudgingly, I bought greengages (known as Reine-Claude in French) at the market. They are a precious fruit, coveted (apparently). I had my heart set on a plum pie. Buy it’s not the same, not the same as pruning the tree, weeding around it, watching the little beans turn into berries and into plump little plums, picking them yourself and knowing they came from your own land and your good effort. There’s that, plus the sheer cheekiness of the perpetrators and the feeling of violation that accompanies the loss of something you believed to be yours.

They must have been yummy. This summer has been hot and dry, and this is good for all the fruit on our property. The grapes that get morning sun are already ripe; I picked them yesterday and served them with our luncheon cheese plate. The grapes that see sun only in the afternoon are not quite ready for harvesting, but there have never been so many grapes hanging from my vines, in all the seasons I’ve been tending them.

The endrina (a.k.a. sloe berry) tree on our property is also bountiful. And another one at the end of the road, on our neighbor’s land, is covered in little blue fruit and far easier to reach. I’d been eyeballing it, thinking about the next batch of patxaran. I might not have thought much about helping myself to a few of those blue berries, until now. Yesterday, I walked down and private_propertychatted with the neighbor, asking if she minded if I took a few bowls of those berries before I left.

“Take them all,” she said, waving me off. “We can’t use them.”

I am reminded that my children and my man – and my mother-in-love, who is with us now – are all safe and healthy. And the fruit poachers did not break into our home and damage or remove anything. Not that our purposefully rustic country house contains any possessions of great value, but such theft or vandalism would disrupt the peaceful rhythm of our stay here. Still, it smarts, that somebody stole my plums and dashed my dreams of the perfect pie. Of course, there’s always next year’s crop. We’ll just have to come up with a strategy to keep those plum thieves away.

Dec 16 2009

That Big Doll

Like a bad penny, she just keeps turning up.

It all started as a parting gift, but now she is a fixture in our home. And I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified by her.

Last summer the girls were invited to a birthday celebration. A late July party is not easy to populate; most Parisians are away on vacation. The birthday-boy’s mother was thrilled to learn that we were in town that weekend and that the both Short-pants and Buddy-roo could attend. I dropped them at the appointed hour and they tumbled through the door and made themselves at home, taking over the apartment as though it was their own. How kids fall into play so quickly.

Since we’re a take-turns kind of family, De-facto was charged with retrieving our children after the party. He returned home with two girls and one life-sized plastic doll. The boy’s mother had insisted, De-facto said, and the girls had pleaded to let her come home to their community of dolls. What could he say? (“No, thank you,” comes to mind, but in what was probably a slightly awkward moment, this didn’t occur to him.)

There’s something terribly discomforting about the doll. That she is nearly the same height as Buddy-roo wouldn’t be so bad except she has the anatomical features of someone much more mature. She has breasts – perky, pointed ones – and her waist is inhumanely narrow compared to them. She came wearing one outfit: low-rider jeans and a Daisy-Mae midriff top. When you attempt to arrange her legs so that she might be seated, they spread apart. She is a tart.

I call her that big doll, as in “please take that big doll upstairs to your room.”
Last summer, Ricky and Lucy hosted more than a few lovely, lingering, Sunday brunches in our courtyard. And of course, that big doll found her way to the table. I tried to ditch her by sliding her between the sheets of Ricky and Lucy’s bed. It got a good laugh and a few compromising photographs, but no ransom was required for her return.

When the tornado twins stayed in our home while we were gone, I’m told that big doll was a huge hit and afforded many opportunities for curious kinds of play. This might explain, too, why the birthday-boy’s mother was rather eager to find the doll a new home.

That big doll usually stands in the corner of Buddy-roo’s bedroom, and yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly jumped out of my skin, startled by her life-size presence beside the basket of stuffed animals. Weeks pass where the girls ignore her, preferring their other dolls, yet any suggestion that she might find a new place to live is met with tears and pleas for mercy.
Our next-door neighbor asked the girls if they wanted to select a few toys that they don’t play with anymore to donate to a Christmas toy-drive for needy children. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo demonstrated great philanthropic spirit. After an exhaustive inventory, they prepared a generous bag of toys and dolls that had fallen out of favor but were still in good condition. I didn’t even ask if that big doll could join the out-basket. I simply placed her on top of the bag with the other toys, in front of our neighbor’s door.

I just returned from a week-long trip to find that the bag of give-away toys had been taken, but my nemesis had stayed behind; that big doll was standing outside our door, glaring at me. It’s like a Stephen King novel; she will not disappear and she seems more evil each time I try to dispose of her. I’m not sure if our neighbor left the doll because Buddy-roo had persuaded her to, or if she just didn’t want to be seen carrying that big doll to the office.
With a style that puts the Silahis to shame, that big doll crashed our Thanksgiving dinner, turning up topless at the table after the cheese course. She managed to break one of my crystal champagne glasses while reaching for a cigar. She was the one who polished off the last of the cognac.

And I know what’s coming. We’re cooking a Christmas Goose with Ricky and Lucy this weekend; the double entendres will be too tempting. She’s so very clever, she must know I can’t possibly throw her out during the holiday season. I guess I just have to learn to live with that big doll.

Nov 8 2009

A Little Longing

There was a pre-toddler in my house all last week, a baby boy, blindingly blond with thoughtful round blue eyes. A drunken sailor staggering around our living room. He took instantly to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, who are closer to his size and less threatening. De-facto had spent time with him before, so they rediscovered their kinship rather swiftly. But I was a tall stranger. Even though I’m family – I’m his aunt – he’d never laid eyes on me
blond_hugbefore in his one-year long life. So I waited and watched from the side, actually almost lurking, because I wanted him to know that I was interested in his affection, if he ever cared to offer it. But I kept my distance from the little man, which is – for real – what my sister-in-love and her De-facto call their baby boy. Little man.

I remember when I was little, visiting my grandmother. She lived in a condominium complex with a long swimming pool and a shuffleboard court, which I thought was terribly exotic. She had a friend, an older, ugly man with bad breath who always wanted to hug me. I don’t believe he ever wanted to do more than that, but still, I didn’t want even the casual nice-to-see-you-oh-you’re-so-grown-up embrace from him. It was a real treat to visit Grammy – she cooked corn-fritters from scratch and made thick, icy, piña coladas – but I dreaded running into her creepy friend. A big oath by a small child can be a powerful thing: I promised myself that when I grew up I’d never force my hugs upon an unwilling little person.

Instead I crouched down across from the little man, day-by-day, hoping to become more familiar, to become someone he might trust. Each day, a little closer. A short conversation, from a distance. A smile, a song. Then it came, the moment, several days in, when, without any coaxing he actually stumbled into my arms and allowed me, without squirming, to pick him up and carry him around.

My failing memory had blocked it out – until he was in my arms and it all came back – what it is to hold a big baby who’s so compact, solid and muscled. He’s a little peanut but he’s dense, the robust force of his all-boy energy like cutting open a vacuum-sealed bag. His miniature feet clamped at my waist. His fat index finger tested my nose. He smelled like milk.
And I thought, how could it be that my daughters were once this size and I could hold and hug them close to my chest? How could it be that once, only a few years ago, these long straws in a tall soda glass that stand before me now could have been little and round and nestled in my arms just like this?


Yesterday, after the long-faced trek down four flights of stairs with suitcases and the stroller and the this and the that which are required for long distance travel with a one-year old, De-facto reluctantly handed the little man back to his sister so she could buckle him in his car seat. Hugs goodbye with tears and promises not to wait so long for the next trans-Atlantic visit. We stood in the street waving as they drove away, until the taxi disappeared from sight.

Upstairs, the chaos left in the wake of the little man’s staggering-around play was waiting for us. We did not clear it away. We sat on the floor with the girls, laying out Brio track, piece by piece, building a seamless route to move trains around our living room, wishing – futilely – that our children could stay just as they are – small and huggable – forever.