JOHN VON SOTHEN discovered when he married a French woman that a man’s visions of those sex filled, rosé saturated lazy European summer holidays are unfortunately dependent on one thing. You have to spend them with…..the French.
THE DINNER PARTY
One of the selling points my wife, Anaïs, pitched me before bundling me off to France to live the rest of my days was that we’d have six weeks of vacation a year. I grew up in Georgetown and came from a family who didn’t vacation well at all. I thought every- one flipped their outboard skiffs or had their luggage stolen in Budapest or unwittingly brought poison ivy into China. My first grand tour of Europe was a ten-day Gris- wold-esque blitz through Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and Venice. At the time, I thought it was normal to hit the Louvre drive-by style, then dash through the Tuileries Garden to grab a seat on a Bateaux-Mouches boat that sped past the Eiffel Tower while you wolfed down your dinner so you could catch an overnight train to Marseille.
The first hint that there might be a better way came at the other end of that train ride, at a topless beach. Even though I was nine, I still remember it vividly—yes, because of the breasts, but also because everyone seemed so perfectly at ease, like they were in a Seurat painting. Charming white-and- turquoise boats rocked in the harbor. Older men played leisurely games of pétanque. Pas- tis flowed like a ruptured water main. Even as a nine-year-old, I had the impression that these people not only knew how to live, they knew how to take time off. It was equally clear that my parents, on the other hand, who exited the changing booths bitching that we’d better hustle up if we wanted to see where Gene Hackman filmed The French Connection, did not.
Anaïs and I had met in a French café in Brooklyn called Le Gamin, which just hap- pened to be on the ground floor of my building. She had one of those bobs with concave bangs that made her look like an adorable KGB agent from the 1960s. Anaïs wasn’t the first Frenchwoman I’d dated. In fact, ever since that topless beach, I’d been mythol- ogizing France and Frenchwomen to the point of fetish. Forget Farrah Fawcett or Michelle Pfeiffer, I dreamt about French actresses like Anne Parillaud, aka La Femme Nikita, and Béatrice Dalle from Betty Blue.
And now, two and a half years after we met, Anaïs and I were married with a child and living in Paris. I had a beautiful French wife and new bébé, and I had ditched America’s lame, puritanical, two-week-if-that vacation for the six, seven, even eight weeks’ holiday that is the birthright of the French— enough time for a man to really hone his vacationing skills. I pictured us jaunting off to Normandy in October to watch the colors change while we made vats of cider. During Christmas, we’d drink mulled wine with our extended family while the kids fawned over the Galeries Lafayette department-store windows. In February, we’d ski in the Alps and eat fondue, and at Easter we’d be somewhere warm like Antibes or Marrakesh, working on that base tan for the fat three-weeker coming up in late summer. All this was not only legal, it was encouraged!
My rookie error came my first year in France. Of course, I’d always heard that the French abandon Paris in August. Naively, though, I thought I’d beat the French at their own game. While everyone else was gone, I told myself, we’d have Paris to our- selves! I didn’t realize that after July 15, the Left Bank becomes an annexed protectorate of Wichita, Kansas, overrun with Reebok-wearing midwesterners. And in the places tourists don’t venture, like my neighborhood in the 10th Arrondissement, you could possibly starve to death, because everything is closed.
Unlike me, Anaïs didn’t care that we seemed to be the only people not vacationing. While she’s politely listening to someone recount their trip to the Dordogne region, I’m asking exactly where the Dordogne is and what they packed and how they looked for houses, trying to find patterns and links that would help me master this high French art and live the Moveable Feast / Year in Provence / Under the Tuscan Sun fantasy. And I learned that one reason the French can afford so many weeks of holiday—skiing, swimming, etc.—is that unlike Americans, they do so en groupe.
So one January, after dinner at the home of our friends Stan and Elisabeth, the conversation naturally turned toward the August holiday. The talk became more serious once we retired to the salon for a digestif. A laptop was moved to the coffee table and we all snuggled around the couch, looking like an impromptu key party, searching for houses to rent. Greece was in play early, then Spain made a run, but as choices were vetoed and prices compared, we coalesced around Italy, and the long shot of Umbria. It wasn’t as touristy as Tuscany, and it was cheaper. The house was bigger, and it had one of those infinity pools overlooking the hills.
What I didn’t know then was that by merely looking at the photos and parroting phrases like “pourquoi pas!” and “super cool!” I was signing a moral lease that bound us all together eight months down the road.
Rule No. 1 of French vacation: Never toss out the idea of vacationing with people unless you really intend to vacation with those people.
Eight months later, Anaïs, Bibi, and I were driving through the Umbrian countryside ogling the lush chestnut groves and elm forests, the sweet wafts of lavender streaming through the sunroof. The yellow-ocher hills pitched and rolled as far as the eye could see, while the cypress trees that lined our road stood green and upright like soldiers saluting our arrival.
But I probably should have been flooring it, because of
Rule No. 2: Your bedroom is decided not by who draws the short straw or who pays the most but by the time-honored French gentleman’s agreement of first come, first served
—which in this case was Stan and Elisabeth’s friend Bashir, despite the fact that he was single. We, alas, were the last to arrive.
On our way to the only remaining room, we passed the airy and cool suites on the first floor with big windows overlooking the pool and the vista behind it. Laptops were open, and clothes were strewn everywhere, as if to say, “Look, I can’t just pick up and switch rooms now.” I even saw a photo that had been hurriedly tacked to a wall.
The room we’d be staying in for the next two weeks was up a long flight of stairs at the end of a hall. Its one window was choked off by thick ivy, so no breeze could penetrate. “You have great shade! I’m jealous,” Elisabeth said, entirely unconvincingly, as she left us to gripe.
Rule No. 3: Remember that you not only vacation with friends, you vacation with their friends as well, people you’ve never met until you actually arrive.
Sometimes they are cooler than your actual friends, which gives you the option of upgrading. Other times they’re so awful it makes you question not only your friends’ taste in people but also whether you’re the exception or the norm.
And then there are surprise guests. In the car, driving to the destination, you’ll receive a text explaining that someone’s seventy year-old mother is set to “pass through” for ten of the fourteen days.
Elisabeth and Stan, our friends from that initial dinner, both worked corporate jobs. There was one artist, Bashir, the Lebanese muscle-bound sculptor whom I called “the sculpted sculptor.” Then there were the divorcees, François and Simone. The soft-spoken and genial François would be staying with us for two weeks and then continuing on to meet his adolescent daughter in Sicily for some father-daughter time, just to give her a glimpse of what life would be like now that she had a sad dad. Simone, meanwhile, was constantly monitoring her phone in case her lonely father called. “He really wanted to come with us this year!” she told us. (Bullet dodged.)
By the way—and this cannot be underlined enough—we were the only ones with a child. Bibi, now four, was embarking on her first real French vacation, too, and it turns out she’d end up being the only friend I could count on during our stay.
A TASTE OF WHAT’S TO COME
The French are naturally good cooks; I’ll give them that. They’re like friends who grew up with gearhead dads and can fix a lawn mower as easily as I can post something on Twitter. Vacations for them are a chance to get behind the apron and show their skills.
Rule No. 4: The first twenty-four hours of a French vacation must be reserved for “the food shop.”
First, you’re huddled in long debates about who wants what on the menu that week. Some will come with recipes they’ve ripped out of Elle magazine. Others will want to get the lay of the land first.
Once the food was gathered (from three different places), the mission was to drive together to another village to find the right wine, and since the market that sold the fish was closed, it was decided we’d come back the next day.
Over limoncello and candlelight that first night, it was announced with fanfare that there would be activities—but not the kind you find listed in a pile of brochures. No, each of these ateliers (“workshops”) would be headed by, yes, one of us, depending on each of our respective talents and passions. Let me repeat this: On the first night of my French vacation, I was told I’d be working.
Rule No. 5: For the French, vacation is a job.
A list was thumbtacked to a corkboard in the entryway, with the programs written down next to the name of each “professor.” There was an atelier abdo-fessier (a snobby word for crunches) manned by Elisabeth, plus an atelier peinture guided by Simone, an atelier philosophie (“Spinoza?”) was Stan’s gig, and an atelier theatre would be led by Anaïs. Aside from the fear of having to act in a play directed by my wife, what stressed me the most was that it wasn’t apparent to me what my talent was. Eventually, I proposed an atelier stand-up, mainly so I could heckle my housemates with impunity. (I’d learn later on from other French people that these ateliers are not at all typical, though they seemed intrigued by the idea, so I may have inadvertently helped to spread it.)
A heat wave was sweeping Europe that summer. Unable to sleep, I moved onto one of the couches downstairs. “What, can’t John live without his AC?” Bashir needled Anaïs the next day.
Ironically, I did dream about AC that night. As I slumbered in this picture-perfect villa, I dreamt I was in a blinds-drawn hotel room in an anonymous Charlotte Radisson, soulless and freezing—a place I’d always imagined to be the nadir of American travel but that now I might have traded for.
THE BATHING-SUIT-MOZZARELLA INCIDENT
On French vacation, there’s no chance of sleeping in, especially when you’re sprawled on a living-room couch. I’d awake around eight to commotion in the kitchen made by early risers already fixing a giant tray the French call a plateau, which holds tea, coffee, bread, butter, cheese, and jam for everyone. The plateau is a sort of dinner bell for French breakfasts, and its preparation is the signal that everyone is expected, once again, to eat and be together.
I don’t do chitchat pre-coffee, so for the next few mornings I scurried up to my room after folding up the couch, telling our housemates that “I need to help Bibi put together that Lego horse stable she’s been wanting to build.”
Bibi, I learned, hated plateau as much as I did. She was used to our laid-back style in Paris: cereals and croissants and baby bottles and coffee in our bed each morning, which she called le camping.
“Pourquoi no camping?” she asked, on the verge of tears.
“Because,” I said, flashing an unsettling smile like the one Jack Nicholson perfected in The Shining, “we’re on vacation, that’s why.”
“Well, I hate vacation, then,” she pouted. “Me too, dear. Me too.”
My absence, however, did not go unnoticed. “Where is the American?” they’d ask my wife, loud enough for me to hear them through the ivy.
The Breakfast Club would then all wash dishes together and hit the pool. A net was brought over from the garage and a volley- ball game would start up. I tried to sleep, but the bink! bink! of the ball, followed by a splash, then an “ohh-trois zéro!!” made it too hard to ignore. And amidst the splashes and the yells, all of this at 9:00 a.m., there was the announcement “One more game, and then we’re off to food-shop!” which was met with a sort of childish group response of “Ouiiii!!!”
The lure of the cool water proved too strong, and I soon found myself joining them. But what started as simple back-and-forth lobs of the volleyball morphed into a game, and although I was a novice, my unorthodox serve turned out to be effective. Before I knew it, the game had become serious, and Bashir suddenly flashed in anger, which I found flattering, only because it meant my serve was baffling him.
Now I was flopping around the shallow end, trying to save the ball at all costs, spiking on a frail Simone, taunting the other team with wide eyes, all with the goal of beating Bashir’s ass. Not because he’d taken the best room and brought his own stress into my vacation, but because I wanted so badly to be able to ask him at tomorrow’s plateau if he planned on hosting his annual “How to lose gracefully in volleyball” atelier.
The excitement in the pool made me hungry, and while the others were resting on their chairs following the game, I darted into the kitchen on wet feet and a dripping bathing suit to raid the fridge, breaking
Rule No. 6: There will be no snacking.
I was pawing some mozzarella and cutting wedges of tomatoes when I heard footsteps, which forced me to shove the tomatoes in my mouth and—sadly—the mozzarella down my bathing suit.
It was Elisabeth, and I could tell she sensed something was up. “We’ll be leaving for the village in a couple of minutes if you want to get ready,” she said. I nodded and smiled with a closed mouth. Since bathing suit mozzarella should never be put on bread, I inhaled it like a Jell-O shot, then changed clothes for another two-hour food shop.
I’m not sure if the French obsession with being together on vacation has to do with the ingrained notion of République they learn at school or whether it comes from the colonies de vacances (summer camps) they attend in July. But the more my housemates wanted to be together, the more I wanted to be alone, and by the second week, the impromptu atelier I’d created could have been called Find the Hiding John.
“Où est John?” became a group rallying cry, because John, it seemed, was always needed for some pool game, some bocce contest right before dinner, or some karaoke sing-along of bad French seventies music. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be relaxing by the pool only to hear, “Where’s John? He’s supposed to beat those egg whites for me!” or “Did John get the charcoal ready?” And the more they looked, the better I hid. There were “jogs” in the morning. There were fake long calls from the U.S. just so I could play games on my phone, and long stints with Bibi either playing “hide from the evil adults” or in the pool fake-teaching her how to swim just so I didn’t have to hear the minstrel Italian being spoken on the terrace.
But the only time I could really avoid them was when I grabbed Anaïs and we stowed away to our room, me screaming into my pillow like a grounded teen. “John’s fucking here, YOU ASSHOLES! Fuck off!!!! YOUR FUCKING FRIENDS SUCK, Anaïs!!”
“Oh, stop exaggerating,” she would say. Anaïs had been oblivious to much of the horror, perhaps because as a French person, she found most of it quite normal. For her, anybody after two weeks could come off as pénible (annoying).
“Friends are like fish,” her father likes to say. “After three days, they start to stink.” He usually invokes this famous proverb on his fifth day at our apartment. That night at the yoga atelier, as Easy Yoga for Dummies played on the same laptop we’d huddled around at that fateful dinner party in January, I exchanged wearied glances with Bibi. I realized, sweating in full crow pose, that I had finally lost my illusions about the perfect French vacation I had spent so many years building up.
It was decided our last night together would be “American night,” which meant we’d speak English all day and eat American for dinner, and John, of course, was named cook. I accepted the nomination, only because I didn’t want to confirm everyone’s assumption that Americans suck at cooking. Plus, by choosing to do smoked barbecue, I’d be able to avoid all the group activities planned that day with the excuse that someone had to keep an eye on the ribs. Under a tree in the shade, with a bag of chips and a couple of beers, which Bibi had smuggled to me, I “tested” the ribs every hour, and a soothing calm drifted over me as the sauce ran down my stomach.
By the time we said our goodbyes, I wasn’t even angry anymore at my friends for having hoodwinked me into vacationing with them.
Rule No. 7: Accept your French friends for who they are—people you’ll gladly hang out with . . . in Paris.
We returned a day before the rentrée, the ceremonial French back-to-school period. In front of the school, while Bibi hugged her friends, the parents hung back and caught up on, of course, what else?
“Alors? Vous êtes partis où?” (So? Where did you take off to?), one parent asked. As I began describing my first real French vacation, the Photoshopped version, with great friends and food and “lots of stories to tell,” I could see the gears of her mind were already turning.
“Well, you sound like just the kind of people we should go on vacation with!”
And while she told me about the dinner she was organizing that weekend to plan for next year’s trip, extending an informal invite to you know who, I found myself backing away, ever so slowly, subtly looking over my shoulder for the one lifeboat I could count on to save me from my next French vacation.
“Bibi . . . Bibi?. . . BIBI!!!!”