Au revoir, Roberta

Sitting with my ritual cup of morning tea, I opened my email and scanned down the Inbox. Noting the address of Galerie Urubamba and hoping it to be a response to the note I sent to a woman in France a day earlier, I eagerly clicked it open. It took a moment for my brain to connect the dots and the words to sink in. The reply was not from the person to whom I’d written but from her daughter, sharing the news that her mother had passed from the world a few months previous.

The shock was unexpected and so too the tears welling up in my brown eyes. I reread the email carefully once more, transported back to Paris and her large flat where I had lived, taking in the details of her last days. Abandoning my breakfast tea, I stood up and walked outside onto the lanai, where I drank in the morning sunshine amid the whispering trees as hot, salty tears rolled down. In a stream of Parisian memories, my heart cracked open wide.

Several years had passed since my last contact with Roberta in France. She was the fiery, brilliant, outrageously opinionated and obstinate woman with whom I resided on the Left Bank while I attended Le Cordon Bleu. An American by birth, she moved to Paris more than forty years ago with her two young daughters (one adopted, one biological) and became an ex-pat determined to stay. After a few diversions, she ended up creating a business importing Native American art from both North and South America, establishing a boutique gallery just a stone’s throw from the Seine. A lifelong friend of my deceased mother, repeatedly she had invited me to stay with her, to come and experience France and thus expand my limited horizons.

In my thirties, while living on the Big Island of Hawai’i, I made a career shift and decided to attend culinary school. I had little interest in returning to the mainland and being away from my partner, but the opportunity of France—where food is akin to religion—and lodging in the Latin Quarter, well, that was a different opportunity altogether. I accepted Roberta’s longstanding invitation, wired an outrageous sum of money to Le Cordon Bleu, and enrolled at the world famous school to pursue a Grand Diplôme in cuisine et patisserie.

Roberta possessed a rare intellect, a hot temper, fiercely held opinions, and was critical to a fault. She was generous and punitive, both. Each evening when I came home from school bearing the day’s creation(s), she would enthusiastically devour whatever I had prepared while offering a no-holds barred critique. Mind you, I’d already gone through an evaluation by chef at the end of class, but this woman was a tougher critic than any of my instructors.

“This pot au feu is all wrong!” she would decry, gobbling down every bite.

“I can’t believe they are teaching you to make it this way.”

“These are the wrong apples for this tarte aux pommes!”

And so it went. A critical evaluation each day at school in cuisine or patisserie (or both), and another each evening at the dinner table. ‘Wrong’ was a well-used word in her household. Very occasionally, perhaps in conjunction with a rare astrological event, there was praise.

“These madeleines are perfect! You must teach me to make them.”

In a simple, non-fussy way, she was an accomplished cook in her own right. At the twice weekly market at Place Maubert, a few streets away from her flat, she was a force to be reckoned with. Ferocious as she was charming, she elbowed her way in to get the best peach—or whatever her sights were set upon—among all the other pushy French housewives while arguing a point, haggling on price, or loudly swapping recipes with the vendor. She maneuvered her tall, stainless steel, two-wheeled market basket like a sports car driver, packing it to capacity in the most efficient manner. Victorious with our groceries, we would then sit at the corner café and enjoy un grand café crème—“pas trop chaud” (“not too hot”), always her brusque insistence to the waiter—as we watched the market activities before heading back to her flat, where we would stuff the small, Euro fridge totally full.

A self-proclaimed gourmand, she took it as her personal mission to initiate me into the world of French cheese.

“Americans know nothing about cheese!” she snorted.

It was delicious, stinky, wonderful, and sometimes overwhelming. To this day, I cannot even contemplate Camembert without remembering one morning when, rushing out the door to school, Roberta accosted me in the hallway to chastise me severely with an angry look in her eye.

“You have done a terrible thing!” she barked.

I stared at her, not comprehending, silently running through the list of terrible things I had done since the previous night. Idiot that I was, I had placed the perfectly ripe Camembert in the cheese box in the fridge (where all the cheese was kept, silly me). Apparently, I was supposed to place it in the vented, enclosed windowsill box beneath the kitchen window.

“You have ruined it! It’s inedible now. Might as well eat rubber. What a waste! You owe me a replacement.” She stormed off to her bedroom and I trudged off to another day of chou vert in the classroom (I swear that eighty-percent of what we cooked in the second term of cuisine was cabbage).

Despite my mistakes, my year of fromage and the nightly cheese course was one of extraordinary discoveries and good taste. Even now, at the year end holidays I still go giddy and weak in the knees over the thought of dipping into a ripe, runny, Vacherin Mont D’Or in its little, round spruce box (not that I would ever be able to lay hands on such a treasure in Hawaii).

Thirty-odd years prior, with her two little girls she had moved into a condemned flat sommerardwithout any heat on Rue du Sommerard in the Latin Quarter, a few doors down from the Musée de Cluny (the museum of medieval art, built atop ancient Roman baths). Over the years, she had renovated the apartment totally and, thanks to Parisian rent control, paid a pittance for what was now a grand, three bedroom, three bathroom, palatial suite with high ceilings—including a dining room and salon—in a highly desirable area of Paris, equidistant between the Sorbonne and Notre Dame.

Frugal to the extreme, she kept the heat so low during the winter that I was constantly bundled up to keep from freezing. I soon purchased the heaviest goosedown comforter sold at La Samaritaine (one of the iconic French department stores) in order to stay warm at night in my pale yellow bedroom overlooking the central courtyard.

For Roberta, the world was black and white, with very few shades of grey. She was immensely fond of sweeping statements like, “Everyone is bisexual, they just won’t admit it.” Or, “No one in France drinks white wine.”

“Don’t speak to me in French,” she commanded one evening when I asked her a question about local mushrooms. “Your accent is terrible and I cannot understand you.” (This from a woman who spoke French with an accent, herself).

Thus I was silenced to English in the household. Like a werewolf subject to the phases of the moon, one never knew which side of Madame Roberta would emerge.

After scolding or criticizing me for something (say, putting the vacuum cleaner away incorrectly or daring to answer the phone), out of the blue she would suddenly say, “Allez, mon cher, get your scarf. I want to take you somewhere.” Then she would lead me on some special walk, strolling arm in arm along narrow cobblestone streets, to show me a hidden aspect of the city or to visit a lovely park or secret garden. This paradox of a woman loved her adopted home with all her proud and fiery heart, and she was intent upon sharing the best secrets of Paris with me. Whether it was a remarkable stationery store with beautiful handmade papers (my favorite fountain pen, with which I have written every word of my book, came from there), or a special tea shop (I owe my allegiance to Mariage Frères to her), an exceptional boulangerie or charming bistro, or a little shop selling antique brass pastry tools, the discoveries were countless. Most of them wonderful.

Larger than life, Madame R. could have been a character in a movie, except that she would certainly be perceived as merely a caricature rather than a real woman. She had traveled the world, survived dozens of hair-raising adventures, lived in the Amazon, studied with shamans, worked with Steinbeck as a young editor—she claimed that after he wrote Travels with Charley, he had asked her to ghost write for him—and spoke at least five languages fluently (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Czech).

She taught me the art of setting a French table, insisted I drink my coffee after dessert (French-style rather than American), and often held intimate dinner parties with fascinating guests—a Nobel laureate, a blind medical intuitive, a former resistance fighter and arms smuggler—where intellectual conversation and animated discussions flew round the table so fast that my beginning French was utterly useless and lost.

“I don’t have time to translate for you,” she exclaimed one evening in the midst of a flurry of debate, throwing up her hands in despair. “Just listen and understand.”

Right. Got it. Bien sûr.

Along with Non (‘no), her favorite French word was the command imperative of ‘listen’—Écoute!

In the closet of the bedroom where I stayed, she had a large, framed photo of the revolutionary Che Guevara. When one day I asked her who it was, she exploded into a stupendous rage.

“Americans are so stupid and fucking ignorant! You should be ashamed! Did you learn nothing in school?!?”

This led into a long, political diatribe that left my head spinning, and I resolved to ask no more questions. Ever.

Our time together was transforming and challenging, both. She instilled in me an abiding love of most things French (despite my apparently poor ability at the language), yet perhaps the greatest gift that she gave me was related to her role as an adopted mother.

During my time in France, I was very ill with severe blood sugar issues and I spent too many hours at the American Hospital across town, undergoing tests to determine what might be wrong. Was I diabetic? Being adopted, I had no medical history to draw upon. Roberta stood convinced of the importance of adoptees locating their birth parents, and had urged her own adopted daughter to do so. Despite my resistance, she laid several books upon my bed for me to read about adoptees who searched for their parents and the important psychological shifts that unfolded for them as a result.

“You will never be settled in life until you search for her.”

Propelled by my medical crisis, once back home in America, I did search for my birth mother and eventually located her. An emotional roller coaster ensued but, in the end, finding and meeting Katherine was a profoundly healing journey. I have Roberta to thank for that.

By the time I left school and Paris, our relationship had deteriorated significantly. I couldn’t wait to leave her flat with all its complicated rules and shifting moods and temperaments. It bothered me that she refused to say thank you for anything, whether it was an errand I had run for her or dinner I had cooked. Not once did she utter the words. It was as if they pained her.

Upon my departure, she gifted me a wooden box of exquisite, genuine Laguiole cheese knives—a different shape blade for various types of cheese, naturellement—with the iconic Napoleonic bee emblem affixed to their handles.

“You’ll be back,” she said affectionately, her eyes soft with emotion.

“I’ll always come back to visit,” I replied, “I love Paris… and France.”

She shook her head vehemently, one finger waving through the air in the all too familiar rebuttal. “Non! One day, you will be back to stay. I can tell.”  She hugged me goodbye, and then I turned and walked out her door with my suitcases and down the classic, spiral stairs of the old building.

I never saw her again.

We maintained email connections over the first couple of years, particularly during the search for my birth mother. She was terribly fond of mailing out blistering tirades against George W. Bush, mobilizing all Americans into action to take back their government. But eventually, we dropped the thread and silence ensued across the distance and continents between us. Until this week, when I reached out to thank her for all that she had given me and being such a challenging but remarkable influence on my life.

Alas, I was too late. Cancer took her away, though she went to work at her beloved Galerie Urubamba until a week before her death. I can still see her marching down the sidewalk, shoulders hunched but head held high.

Roberta was a woman who lived with passion and conviction and I salute her. She pursued her dreams and ambitions with zeal and gusto, and I think she had a firm sense of her soul and what nourished it. Or didn’t. As a single mother in a foreign country, she built a good life for herself and raised two worldly, competent daughters. Yet I suspect that given her true genius of intellect and firmly set opinions, she was lonely much of her life—who could possibly compete or ever rise to her level? I feel a sense of compassion for her, along with deep gratitude that she was a part of my journey.

In her own way, she was a Soul Artist. She cultivated pleasure and in a very French manner, lived for the delight of gathering at table with a well-crafted meal and good wine. Much of that she shared with me, sculpting with a forceful hand in curiously subtle ways. And I think both she and la belle France helped me realize that my sensitivities and appreciation for the sensual details of life were not an anomaly but something to be cultivated. Celebrated, even.

I’ve not yet returned to the Hexagon to live as she predicted—I landed for some years in England and then Spain, instead—but who knows. After residing abroad in various places, I’m inclined to say that the south of France (and the northeast of Spain) still holds a distinct allure to return and linger. Apart from the remarkable light and joie de vivre, I’d do it simply for the open air markets, wine and cheese. Thanks to Roberta, I’ve got the cheese knives.

Au revoir et merci, ma cherie Roberta… je t’embrasse bien fort.

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