Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Artichoke Fields--an essay

It is a hot day in the early seventies, and we children are fighting in the back of the car. Dad is driving steadily, smoothly, as he always does, driving as if he is anticipating all kinds of possible dangers, as if twenty-five years or so of driving have not innured him to the myriad possibilities of change. When I am older, it comes to me that this is how he has lived his whole life, on the brink, never taking it for granted, trying hard to keep control of it yet painfully aware of the knife-edge of life, of the way in which, in a second, things can change forever. When I am older, it comes to me that I am similar, driven to achieve, pursued by the awareness of life's fragility, the swiftness of time passing. But at the time, his careful driving is merely another of the traits, the shorthand of experience, which, together, make up "Dad"-- a person you accept unthinkingly, as you accept your mother, or your brothers and sisters. Dad is careful yet can also be awesomely impulsive; Maman is impulsive yet can also be icily logical. You don't think too much about those uneasy conjunctions; as a child, you rely on signs, on the known, and somehow accomodate those things, together.
But here we are, driving. The vinyl of the seats sticks to our thighs, and the warm closeness of a brotherly or sisterly leg leads to sotto voce quarrels about the most ridiculous things possible. It's summer, and we are driving for what seems like hours, to the other side of Sydney, into the wildness of Blacktown. As we approach its rural outskirts, Dad sits up more in his seat. Even though--or maybe because--he is city born and bred, he loves the country with a fervour born of happy memories of his great-grandparents' place in the Aveyron. He says, "It's astonishing, isn't it, to see how hard these people work, " and his tone is gentle, wondering, filled with the pleasure of its simplicity. It is traditional for him to say this, here; yet always Maman nods, always we hear him without wondering at its repetition.
We stop in front of the house. It is a very simple fibro house, and we have only been further than the kitchen once or twice. But the house is unimportant. What is important is beyond it, in the flat fertile acres that surround the house, making it an island out of time, its Australianess an incongruity in the Europeaness of cultivated fields. For here are not acres of wheat, or of the other large, fullscale crops we associate with this vast land; but the smaller, denser patches of vegetables: lettuce in serried rows, tomatoes, ripening in sunrise colours, spinach and leeks and, especially, most especially, the artichoke fields. There they stand, tall and fierce in their greens and purples, acres of them, their tightly-packed heads swaying on their strong stems. Some of them are already going to flower; and their perfume--a strong, sweet smell, like wild honey--fills the air. They are beautiful, beautiful and wild as a Van Gogh painting. The sight of them always catches at my throat, so that even now, years later, I can see them, smell them, and wonder at the selectiveness of memory that will keep such pictures and not others. And, like a Van Gogh painting, if you don't simply stand on the sidelines, admiring, but venture inside them, the artichoke fields will reveal all kinds of unexpectedly painful things.
The farmers come to greet us, their very brown, very wrinkled faces split by their smiles into a thousand more tiny rivulets. I never learnt their names, and to me, at that age, they look immensely old, agelessly old, like peasants in an old picture. They are small, both of them, both dressed in black: but he is lean and wiry, with wild grey hair and sharp pale eyes, while she is round as she is high, her breasts like enormous soft pillows under her dress, her hair done up in a floppy bun, her eyes like lively brown birds in their nest of wrinkles. She is Maltese, he is a Yugoslav. Dad, accustomed, at the building sites he supervises, to working with men insisting on their Croatianess, or Serbianess, or Bosnianness, wonders at the farmer's calm avowal of being 'Yugoslav'--what does this show about his politics?--but does not press the point. But on the way home, he will say, "Hmm, say what you like, I've always found Yugoslavs difficult people to fathom. It's really the extremity of Europe, you know. . " And I wonder at the need of adults, too, for shorthand, for second hand wisdoms.
But Dad finds the woman farmer, the Maltese, very sympathetic. "Eh, paysan!" she says, or that's what it sounds like, in her shrill voice. Her voice, too, is ageless; we have heard, on a record at home, Portuguese peasant girls singing in exactly the same kind of shrill voices, voices you never hear, otherwise, in Australia. I think that her version of 'paysan' means something akin to friend, or compatriot, fellow-spirit, perhaps. Whatever it means, Dad is immensely proud of it. He preens under the accolade which she shrewdly--but not insincerely--gives him. Maman is more circumspect; she is closer--only one generation removed--from a peasant origin, and she has few illusions about it. "She's a good saleswoman, " is all she will say, later, when Dad, talking nineteen to the dozen, drives us back to our somnolent, rich suburb where ennui attacks his restless spirit like a physical pain.
They talk in a mixture of languages; some English, mixed with Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and even a bit of patois, the Occitan-derived dialect of the Toulouse area. Dad is always thrilled when the two farmers prove to understand some of the patois; he sees a connection between all kinds of European languages (or at least the Latin ones)and to hear this confirmed, especially here, the patois under the alien sky, is a source of joy.
We walk with them down the paths that lead away from the incongruous Australian house(where their only child, a daughter, sits eating biscuits in front of the television) and into the European preserves of the farm. Here, before you reach the hand-cultivated fields of vegetables, are neatly-arranged poultry runs, with chickens running about, and rows of rabbit hutches, where blink fat rabbits. There are no pets or superfluous things; in this setting, away from the house which diminishes them, the farmers are tough, witty, their tenacity written in their faces, with none of the bewilderment which must seize them, more than once, in this country. I look at them and think of their daughter and how it must be for them all when they have to come up to the school. When my parents come, I am in agony of fear, hoping they won't say the 'wrong' thing in the 'wrong' sort of accent. There are other people we know, Italians, whose attitude towards their educated children is humble, frighteningly so. My parents aren't like that, at all; yet I wonder how these two, these farmers, and their daughter, must feel like, when they have to leave the artichoke fields and go to the school, or the supermarket, or the myriad things one must do in such a society. It makes me squirm, this thought, and so I turn away from it, and towards the fields. It never occurs to me , of course, that maybe it did not touch them, that the shame may only be in the minds of self-conscious children.
At first, we look in the hutches, say, "Isn't that one sweet?" and the farmer smiles, showing bad teeth, and says, in her appallingly accented English, "Good eating, that one!" We are at the age, in the place and time where such statements appear callous; so we are silent, and ignore Dad's I-told-you-so-grin. He has often said we are becoming too soft, sentimental, Australian; Europeans are tough people who look reality in the face. You like lapin a la moutarde? Right, well then you must be ready to first catch your rabbit and kill it. . Or to plunge your hands without disgust into the freshly-killed carcase of a chicken and make it into an objet de table, a dish, rather than a once-living thing. We are tenderhearted; but our feelings never extend to the nicely trussed, carefully jointed meat dish that appears on the table. . .
Now she is walking in the artichoke fields, talking shrilly, a mixture of salty comment on current events, and wild praise of her vegetables. He is silent ("Taciturn, like all Yugoslavs, " Dad is delighted to say, and I wonder a little at how adults seem to need the shorthand of second-hand wisdoms, too). But he smiles quite a bit, and touches the plants, gently, as if he is greeting each. That, surely, is folly. He and his wife are unsentimental, without fancy or falsity, honest, as the French saying has it, as ‘du bon pain’. But that, surely, is a sentimentality, too; for I have heard Maman saying that these two never lose ‘le nord’, always stick to what they know they want, and are not above using cajoling or even a judiciously-placed marketing ploy to sell their vegetables. They are not doing this for fun, for ‘du folklore’: that is the mistake of urban people, throughout the ages. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder.
Every so often, the farmer stops. She throws an arm out to her husband: this one. She stoops, cuts the stem, throws the vegetable into the basket he is carrying. Dad trots just behind her, asking her all kinds of questions. She answers with aplomb and humour, in her shrill voice, while her husband fills the basket and smiles what my mother would call a 'corner' smile; half-sceret, enigmatic. We children and Maman follow behind desultorily; the smell of the big vegetables fills our nostrils with a heady odour, their sharp thorns prick the unwary child who leaves the narrow paths between the rows. We all love artichokes; some Sunday nights, that's all we've eaten, an enormous tureen filled to the top with the boiled vegetables, served with vinaigrette on each person's plate. The table would fill up with mountains of discarded leaves, plundered for their bit of sweet flesh, then put aside for the next one. There is something addictively wonderful about artichokes; the more and more frenetic peeling-back of leaves, till you get to the 'straw' inside, and peel that off as cleanly as a bandage, to reveal the succulent flesh of the heart. We ate the stems, too; the Blacktown farmers always sold us young, fresh artichokes, so that their stems were as tender as asparagus. Occasionally, we'd eat them with butter and garlic, or tomatoes. But the simple one, the boiled-and-vinaigrette ones was what we preferred.
We always lingered in those fields, dodging thorns, and in areas where the purple flowers were really out, the bees as well, maddened, as we were, by the heavy smell of the artichokes. Once, I remember, the farmer picked one of the flowers and gave it to me. The unexpectedness of the gesture made me blush, and for the rest of our time there, I couldn't resist putting my nose as close as possible to the flower. I've always been sensitive to smells, finding them powerful evokers of emotion and place, and now, I try to think what it was that made this smell so heady. Roses smelt sweeter, muskier, richer; vanilla smelt more homely and tender; the thick brown smell of meat made me feel hungrier. This was a smell of almost-wildness, of something only just tamed, and only dimly understood, something whose discovery was concealed under layers of half-meanings. It was not the smell of careful, cultivated Europe, neatly arranged, tamed and civilised, the Europe of the mythologisers or the nostalgic. Rather, it was the smell of the Europe whose inheritance was mine, which seeped into me like instinct, but was submerged, like instinct, for a long time. A Europe--a France-- not only of the mind or of the comfortable senses; but also one of the blood's leap, of the pain of rejection. The France my father felt in exile from, the France my mother followed him from, despite her own rather less ambivalent feelings. A corner of Europe forever elusive, never pinned down, half-wild, half-tame, of heady, unforgotten smell, uncomfortable at times, maybe never to be fully understood.

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