Grapevine philosophy

Tagging the ‘good life’ of the French with American social graffiti, a good dose of deviance
by Emma Wood
FRANCE

I’ve long had a bone to pick with those women with baby strollers, the steamroller type who walk two abreast and render entire sidewalks useless—but my grumblings came to a crashing climax yesterday morning. 10:13 a.m.: I’m late for my lit class, bike in hand but no time to use it; she in the queue with her stroller. The tram that arrives has little room left for humans, not to speak of us wheeled delinquents—and in a moment of divine cosmic alignment, we enter the tram side-by-side just as the doors slither in to prepare for take-off and crunch—bike and baby embrace.

I hadn’t yet known what it’s like to get yelled at by an angry French mother: “Vous etes maman, eh? Qu’est-ce que vous pensez, bebe ou velo?”

She doesn’t know Sam Johnson.

Now, you’ve gotta be part native for that. I am now a full-fledged social deviant, like those Nantais teenagers who stick traffic cones on General Mellinet’s upturned sword.

My little host siblings, too, know how to relish those moments of deviance. Tuesday evening, the children (plus Emma) have been shooed out of the kitchen to make way for un “diner” chez les de l’Espinays. As the grownups downstairs dine on olives and chevre, we’re dancing in my room to the Greatest Hits of Wynne and Sylvia’s KWCW. Satisfaction Hour, spring 2006. (Little can they imagine the midnight dance parties those beats have known at the upstairs office in Reid; as they raid my closet for all things frilly and shiny, I tell them we’re exactly like real American college students.)

Last weekend we made a four-in-a-row tour of the chateaux of the Loire, and there I found that same kindred wildness in the forests and grapevines of the castle grounds. I listened tranquilly to the first guided tour: how such-and-such rich but plain-faced woman funded the castles construction to the liking of her husband’s mistress, how kings used to use an extra chair to catch ink droppings from their plumes.

Two tours down, I ducked out on the next, hunted grapes in the garden and napped beneath a trellis. I wandered, belly full of grapes, and found myself suddenly in Tom Davis mode. Tom Davis wouldn’t be eating grapes here. He’d be thinking about the wild intricacy of those masses of vines, the vitality of that smooth, three-tiered fountain, the visual joke of bulbous hedges with spindly bottoms, and the interplay of freedom and borders in those decorative plots of kale and chard. (Yes, kale and chard—wouldn’t you guess—the Europeans make art with their plants; the Americans eat them.)

It’s the same interplay of deviance and structure we’re talking about in my musical analysis class: the rubato and syncopation that slowly crept into flawless, symmetric Gregorian chants in the 16th century; in the same evolution, architectural curves that came to soften angular Gothic peaks. So I’m playing a bit, within the structure. Evening baguette counts (on last night’s tram: three) and deviant bicycles—a daily dose of social graffiti.

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