Last summer I lived in the, “Nut Butter House.” Don’t let your mind wander far, for this description was frank; I lived with Justin, the innovative, young chef who concocted and stocked the shelves of natural stores with, “Justin’s Specialty Nut Butters.”
Before morning coffee, on lunch break, after work, late night; it was a favorite habit to drag a metal spoon across the shelf of glass jars in the kitchen and contemplate a question for which all answers were right: Heavenly Honey, Sinfully Cinnamon, Pumpkin Pie or Honey Almond? (Those are Justin’s jar names, not mine.)
And more than one morning, while loudly smacking around in my mouth a consistency of food that only peanut butter gets away with, I stuck that spoon into the jar, for one *promise myself* final swirl and held that gravity-defying substance into the early summer sunshine coming through the window and wondered…
“Just where do you come from?”
Let’s walk forward; specifically about 460 miles forward…
Having walked for over a month towards the city of St. Jean Pied de Port, in Southern France, I was only a single, final day of pilgrimage from that which I had declared as my sacred site of drive and destination: the Pyrenees.
But I have to first tell a story, only because it is good for a great laugh at my expense, and I’m game for a little good-natured giggle at a poor-tempered pilgrim.
On this particular day, I cried.
Not out of happiness or in bliss, but the sloppy, wet tears of a full emotional breakdown.
Aren’t we all entitled to an unexplainable few? Well, this was my day. And technically what triggered this mental meltdown was the fact that I didn’t want to eat a chocolate croissant.
No really. This is true. Through tears, I cursed all croissants and licked the salt from my lips as I blubbered on (to myself, mind you): “Can I just be American? Just this morning? For just an hour? Please?!”
So there you go; probably the only claim to my citizenship ever recorded on sol.com.
A little background is essential to the explanation. And although I will get back around to the theme of nut butter, it won’t be for awhile, so please let go of that breath.
In France, all meals are sacred rituals. Eating is not an objective, it’s a meditation in mindfulness, right intention and presence; careful attention to all the details of each meal must be considered from preparation to presentation. There are no exceptions to the guidelines of eating engagements; not even whilst plodding the dusty roads of pilgrimage.
So after a month of sitting down every morning with my fellow French pilgrims, to tables with carefully arranged places set perfectly with pretty sets of plate, glass and silver –ware, with separate saucers for fresh coffee, and petite glasses for squeezed juice, and shared loaves of bread baked that morning, and blocks of fresh butter and homemade preserves ready to be passed around, and polite insistence on the presence of all pilgrims, I came to admire, respect and love these shared and sacred meal customs.
But on this particular day, I was not in the mood. I was tired. I hadn’t spoken a phrase of English for two weeks and I was exhausted from pushing, without pause, on the walls of my French language limits. On this morning, I woke up longing to just be able to share a dream, wish, desire or understand just a little sarcasm, speak with a single metaphor, or converse on anything beyond the present and past tense. And since these concepts were all well beyond the confines of my French comprehension, I woke up and decided that I needed to walk alone; leave early, catch the sunrise, and be content with an in-depth conversation (in English) with myself.
So I woke up and tried to leave early.
One of my fellow pilgrims was an older French woman, who had often declared, normally to my appreciative reception and with only best intentions (as well as preempting patient instruction), “Your French is terrible; insulting to me. Please listen: this is how you say…”
It was on this morning that this particular woman took a seat in a stiff-backed, wooden chair and started watching me as I washed a pear and sliced it into bowl of yogurt and muesli near the sink. She was on to me. She put her nose in the air and smelled it coming; the scent of unwritten French code and conduct in jeopardy…
The coffee was brewing. The table set. The bread sliced. The butter softening.
As I put a spoon into my bowl, and took a single bite (while standing!), I could feel her flinch behind my back. Out of my peripheral, I watched her cross her arms and look away.
Not wanting to cause her continued pain, I swallowed my food as quickly as possible. Her legs crossed to match her arms and her mouth pinched down to contain the sharp words fighting for a way out.
I cleaned up as quickly as possible, knowing the sensitivity of my emotional state and wanting to make a quick escape. But just as I picked up my pack and tried to make a move for the exit, the lady of the house walked through the door with a brown paper bag raised in the air and announced; “Fresh chocolate and almond croissants!”
Unable to contain herself any longer, my angry observer uncrossed everything, grabbed a flowered serving dish, and stepped in between me and the door, “Ah croissants! Beautiful. You cannot leave now…”
“Sit down,” she commanded me.
On the verge of tears, I replied weakly, “I’ve already eaten. I’m full. I want to watch the sunrise. Thank you, but I’d like to go…”
Her body moved not a millimeter, “SIT DOWN and have a croissant. Look, almond. Would you like almond? Or chocolate? Sit down and have coffee and a croissant with us. Sit.”
“Please…”, desperately, I pleaded.
A young Swiss friend of mine, recognizing my distress, came to my rescue, “She wants to watch the sunrise. She’ll miss it if she stays. Let her go now…”
Happy for this opportunity to speak to someone as if I weren’t there, she grabbed the plate and loudly dropped it on the table, and said, “I JUST don’t understand. It’s just a croissant?! Why can’t she sit? She should just sit down and eat with us!”
My mind raced through my small mental dictionary of French vocabulary; how was I to say, “All I want is to be alone! To eat cereal and not bread for breakfast. To eat right over the sink, in silence, and just efficiently get on with my day! Just for one single day. Can I just be American for this one breakfast?!”
But the cutting hospitality swiped through my anger and hurt me. My eyes watered up and instead of responding — I fled. I bolted out the door without any goodbye courtesies. And with hot breath and tear-stiffened cheeks, I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and cursed chocolate croissants venomously.
And that was the one day I cried on the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compestelle because I didn’t want to eat a chocolate croissant.
I should also mention that after walking for four hours, and just when I’d conclusively convinced myself that I had exaggerated all the morning’s happenings in my head, and that really, perhaps it had all been nothing but an emotionless event for everyone but me, I ran into my Swiss friend…
“Are you okay?! My god, you should have heard her go on about you after you left! She talked about you, and everything about what and how you ate, for another half an hour before I couldn’t take any
more and left myself!”
So there’s my French fumble. Luckily for me, my personal philosophy reads, “any humbling lesson is good one.” And I prize this one for the fit of laughter into which it always sends me.
Yes. This story does get us to where I want to go. For it was in avoiding another encounter with this woman (who, again, was only a violently good hostess) that I purposely detoured from the path to an off-the-route town, and of course, lost my way, but found an answer.
And it does lead us back to nut butter. In fact, I’m actually going to go all the way to Senegal with this story. But like the pilgrimage; one step at a time…