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un kleptomane (klepto-man)
A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse
After an emotional visit to the American Consulate, we swung by my mother-in-law's, buckled her into the car, and drove to the end of Marseilles where the coastline rumbles out to sea, the huge limestone rocks meeting a turquoise eternity.
We arrived at the last port, "Callelongue", where a couple handfuls of fishing boats rested along the tiny bay. Facing the boats, there was our longtime favorite restaurant, La Grotte.
Ça fait du bien. Ah, ça fait du bien! My mother-in-law and I agreed: getting out, with family, did wonders for the morale! But our spirits were about to be stirred up once again....
It happened when Jean-Marc shared an update about a certain someone. The news was innocent enough but my focus automatically shifted to my mother-in-law, who I knew would self-detonate in a matter of seconds.
One.... two... three! I listened as my normally lovable mother-in-law made a cutting and unsavory remark, before staring off in the opposite direction of her son. (Leading me to speculate that older people don't roll their eyes, they dignifiably remove them from the annoyance).
Ha! My eyes hurried over to Jean-Marc to witness his predictable reaction: "Maman, is it really necessary to make such a remark each time? Why don't you just keep it to yourself?!"
Michele-France mumbled something loud enough to sollicite another peeved response from her firstborn. Well, if he didn't want to hear such a remark, he needn't have brought up a touchy subject, my mother-in-law insinuated. Things were heating up now!
As my eyes travelled eagerly back-n-forth I caught myself enjoying some guilty entertainment. But it was a relief, for once, not to be on the receiving end in the word-slinging arena! Besides, I might learn a tip or two from my mother-in-law--on how to dish it back!!
Guilt won out and I quickly jumped in to defend my belle-mère. This time Max and Jackie's eyes jumped in too as we followed the grumpy dialogue. Wishing to avoid a commotion (the tables all around were beginning to take notice) I begged everyone to calm down and try to be normal like the rest of the French families, who were enjoying their public outing in a good-mannered, typically reserved way.
Why couldn't we be normal like everyone else? (The previous meltdown happened when one of our teens would not stop saying the "b"--or "bouton" (pimple) word, thus breaking a rule enstated by the weak-stomached member of our family (no potty talk at the table, either, I'm always reminding everyone!). Allez. ça suffit. ARRET! Quit it!
Soon we were all on our best behaviors again, letting go of the worries and irritations of the week in time to enjoy plates of deep fried supions and even a round of ice cream sundaes! What a lovely lunch, I thought, standing up to stretch as Jean-Marc paid the bill. Only the newfound peace was short won....
I watched in disbelief as my mother-in-law picked up the table's ashtray. "Do you think I could take this?" she asked her son. My eyes were glued to the cendrier which hovered dangerously close to my mother-in-law's wide open purse.
I thought about what a dupe I'd been to sit there defending my rascal of a mother-in-law... when, in the end, she was about to pull one on us--"one" of those social don'ts that no longer seems to faze people like her. People like her who have already been labelled or judged or misunderstood or sadly shunned to the point where no matter what they do they're damned.
I knew I needed to be understanding but despite all my efforts I had not yet, in my 45 year experience, evolved that far spiritually. It was still very important to my well-being to control all outcomes or, at times like this--as a desperate last resort--to keep up appearances!
"No! No she can't take that! " I implored my husband. "Tell your mom she can't steal the ashtray!"
Jean-Marc, caught in the middle, spoke firmly. "Laisse-le, Maman." Leave it, Mom.
But wasn't that, after all, a little hypocritical to judge my mother-in-law for wanting to swipe restaurant property? Hadn't I done the same at some point in the past? What about that time when, after a couple or 5 glasses of wine, I slipped a wonderful clay cendrier into my purse on leaving a historic restaurant in our old neighborhood? Who was I to be so shocked by my mother-in-law's simple desire? At least she had the politesse to ask if she could steal it!
"I should have just slipped it in my purse," Michèle-France explained, "and not bothered you about it."
Or was it pride that had me wanting to control the situation? We weren't going to risk our reputations, were we, over a cheap cigarette dump! Frustrated, I looked at the pitiful ashtray. It was only a standard glass cendrier. Rather than cause a scene, we could stop by the dollar store, on the way back--or any local quincaillerie--and buy her one! Or I could send her the pretty ashtray that we inherited from Maggie and Michael when we moved to our new house. If my mother-in-law wanted an ashtray, she could at least have a beautiful one. It certainly wasn't worth the risk of condemnation to steal this lousy thing!
Michele-France spoke innocently to her son. "Do you think you could ask the waiter if I can have it?"
Oh gosh! This was almost as bad! She wasn't going to ask the waiter! This was the point at which I realized it must be pride that was shuffling all my emotions. If only I could learn that lesson, which began 10 years ago. And what little progress has been made...
"Jean-Marc!" I said, hoping to influence him. But my husband grew frustrated with the ridiculous situation and I watched as his turn came to self-detonate.
What a ridiculous situation indeed. And to think, up til now I wasn't in trouble with anybody! I had set out to mind my own business--pausing only to help defend my mother-in-law (that was it! Last time I'm sticking up for her--THE RASCAL!--only to end up on the attack end!)
It was too late now to try to keep up appearances. My husband threw up his arms, "C'est le monde à l'envers!" With that he stormed out of the restaurant, leaving me to translate--and then contemplate--his departing remark: "It's a crazy world!" Indeed, it's the world upside down.
Michèle-France wasn't fazed, but lingered suspiciously close to that ashtray before I snapped, "Come on, let's get out of here!"
"I'll just rest here until he brings the car around," my mother-in-law casually mentioned, pretending to ignore the ashtray.
Oh no she wouldn't. Not if I could help it! With that, I coaxed the little trouble maker away from the table and its treasure, past the discreetly indiscreet restaurant audience, and out to the curbside where we waited for our ride.
I couldn't wait to see how my husband would navigate... what with the world being as he said,"upside down". I guessed we had better put our seatbelts on!
la grotte = cave
ça fait du bien = that feels so good
la maman = mom
la belle-mère = mother-in-law
le bouton d'acné = pimple
allez / ça suffit / arrête! = come on. that's enough. stop!
le supion = une petite seiche =small cuttlefish
la quincaillerie = hardware and junk store
c'est le monde à l'envers! = this is crazy! (or this makes no sense!)
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Cabanes de pêche. On the way to the restaurant, there are these classic fisherman's cabanes--used nowadays by families who spend the day at the beach. (The colorful doors open up and the family has access to everything from beach mats to little cooking stoves on which to fry merguez sausages for lunch!)
I found this photo of the port -- taken 7 years ago... If you are in Marseilles, drive to the easternmost end and sit out on the terrace of La Grotte. Highly recommended! To comment on this post click here.