A Splendid Duck

A Splendid Duck appeared in The Unsavvy Traveler, anthology, 2005, Seal Press

THE MOST memorable duck I ever ate was a canard cooked up slowly, willfully, by my friend Suzanne when we were on a summer work program in France. We were young and impoverished students, enriching ourselves in one of the world’s finest cultures. But pommes frites and salade niçoise could go only so far in making a student from Texas (Suzanne) or New Jersey (me) feel culturally superior. So every few weeks, Suzanne, who at twenty-eight was more worldly-wise than I (age twenty), seduced a couple of men. They would, for the pleasure of our poulet-de-printemps company, wine and dine us. The truite, biftek, and coq au vin were superb, if not free; the men–who always seemed more ravenous at the end of the meal–always expected un petit peu de sexe.
Never mind that there are other names for such an arrangement. It was all soul-blackening premarital sex, as far as I, not long out of Catholic girls’ school, was concerned. (And feminism wouldn’t reach my neighborhood until a year later.) Somehow I always got out of paying the postprandial price. On the other hand, Suzanne, obviously one of those libertine Protestants I’d heard about, would on occasion have no qualms about delivering “les goods.”
We had been fired after only two weeks from our jobs as barmaids at Café Bleu in La Franqui, a lovely beach town in southern France. We were essentially run out of town because everyone in the village was friend or relative to our patron. Our downfall had begun with our eagerness to mingle with the youth of the village, which included some attractive young men. We had asked the prudish café owners, who were charged with our oversight, if we could have permission to step out after work. (We were boarding in their home and being fed three meals a day in the company of three generations of their family.) They responded, “Sure, you can go out any night after hours. But,” they said through pursed lips, “you’ll have to climb the locked gate when you return.”
Suzanne had dauntlessly taken them up on this dubious liberty one weekend night. While I waited in our small room for her to return, I thought about our first evening together as complete strangers. As she unpacked her bags, she threw two foreign objects on the bed: an aerosol can and a clear plastic gadget. “That’s spermicidal cream and that’s the syringe for inserting it–any time you need to borrow it, feel free,” she said, and finished unpacking before I could gather my thoughts and respond. You could say I was getting my first real sex education from Suzanne; Father Masho’s long-winded religion classes at Mother Seton had amounted to: “Girls say no, because boys can’t.” Suzanne was punching holes in my church’s dogma, left and right.
One Friday night, some of our French friends invited Suzanne and me to a sangria party. Dozens of us stood around the country dirt road in front of a cottage and drank endless glasses of the purple beverage, thick with fresh citrus wedges. I chatted with my friends, Chantal and her boyfriend, Patrick (or Patreeck), on whom I had a crush, while Suzanne talked to an Australian man passing through the village. The night wore on, music played, and when the galvanized tub of sangria hit bottom, I realized I hadn’t seen Suzanne for hours. Or the Australian. They both returned late, licking their chops, so to speak. Suzanne told me she was glad she had remembered her birth control, laughing as we both scaled and leaped the fence that night.
Her wanton ways aside, I was the one who had actually turned us into fugitives. Our student-work program representative stopped by one day to see how we were doing. Jacques, one of the owners, made dramatic reference to the gate-hop, slurring Suzanne in machine-gun French. My hands, which were resting inside my barmaid apron’s two pockets, filled with francs of every size, seemed to gain a life of their own. Before I could consult with my hands, they had flung two fistfuls of coins into the scowling face of Jacques, who was separated from me only by a two-foot-wide bar. Five men had to hold him down as he tried to leap it. Suzanne and I, spurred by our own adrenaline, ran up to our room, packed our suitcases in minutes, and got a lift out of town from a sympathetic villager.
As we hitchhiked up to the north of France, the only things we missed about Café Bleu were the regular home-cooked meals. Together we weathered the unbearable cravings that plague those with the purse of a proletariat and the palate of an aristocrat. We hadn’t eaten much for a few days when we stopped in Narbonne. A man in a public park fed us some pedestrian bread and sausage, and it tasted like something from the table of King Louis XIV.
After a week of such rationed dining, we had lost weight. We reached Châteauroux in the Loire Valley, once the domaine of fat kings and queens in their castles, and took a room at Hôtel Voltaire for not many francs. To lift our spirits, we put on our ersatz-silk dresses and sought relief from hunger pangs in the bouncing colored lights and repetitive four-four beat of a local discotheque.
The capitaines in the French army must have been watching us dance together. They were athletic and handsome, in hindsight, but their crew cuts, at a time when long hair was the universal badge of trustworthiness for youth around the world, made them look old and as suspect as cops. It did not help that Roger and Gilles, in their pressed and pleated khakis, danced stiffly, like someone over thirty in the 1960s trying to do the twist.
Suzanne was more impressed–or perhaps more hungry–than I was, and I could see a scheme was wending its way through her head. At first I wanted no part of it this time. But Ol’ Tex, as I called her when the cultural gulf between us felt as wide as the Gorge du Verdon, was steadfast in her machinations, where I was quixotic and reactionary. (After all, we’d still be at Café Bleu eating three fine meals a day if it weren’t for my spring-loaded impulses.)
It’s not that I didn’t have amorous feelings for Frenchmen. I had walked on the beach in La Franqui with Pierre, the baker, on his night off, and he had shown me why it’s called “French” kissing. I had gone on a date to a nice bar with François, who was small of frame but robust of embrace. On the beach (always on the beach–no young people had a private place in this resort area), my body English communicated with his “body French”:
François: Ça me plaira si tu enleverais ta robe. (I’d like it if you’d take off your dress.)
Moi: Je ne fais pas comma ça. (I don’t go all the way.)
François settled for PG-13 romance.
As I watched Suzanne’s familiar seductive tactics (it had been weeks since the sangria party), I considered that we were gastronomes in training, long overdue for food steeped in rich sauces and made from animal parts whose French names we were still learning to pronounce. I considered that I was hungry for new and exotic dining experiences, and also for world experience. I wasn’t yet ready to be cavalier about sex, but I trusted Suzanne the way I trusted a tableau by Manet or a poem by Baudelaire–a startling work of art with hidden depth. She was my own enfant terrible, yearning to escape a lifetime of constraints. So, despite my reservations, I went along with Suzanne’s plan.
The next day, Roger and Gilles met us as planned at Hôtel Voltaire and drove us to Valençay to visit the château. I was to get Roger, but when they arrived I couldn’t remember which one he was–one crew cut looked like the next. And both men spoke the rapid-fire French of the provinces, which was muddy to my untrained ear. I smiled a lot and said, “Oooohhh, ça alors!” It didn’t seem to matter to Gilles . . . or . . . Roger.
We visited the swank, wrought-iron-gated royal courts of Sir Talleyrand. The men took turns reciting five centuries of history. One more passionate than the other, they told of the noble Estampes family, who were responsible for this great architectural masterpiece of Renaissance and Classical styles.
“It’s my favorite castle,” I understood one of them to say.
“Oh, moi, I prefer Chambord,” argued the other. I still couldn’t tell them apart, but I marveled at the depth of their love and knowledge of their country’s history, qualities that have marked every Frenchman I’ve ever met.
At the end of a long stone drive, my acute hunger and anticipation of its being quelled in style seemed to heighten the details provided by Roger or Gilles. Surrounded by the requisite moat, the château had been some two hundred years in the building. The furnishings in the apartments were French Regency, Louis XVI, and Empire. Ça alors.
But, two hours into this ceremonious tour, while we were still using the polite vous form to address each other, I became too weak to care about French patrimony. Give me a baguette, s’il vous plaît. Feeling faint, I sat on a stone bench alone for a while, watching the game animals roam the grounds. I was staring at a duck, when suddenly it was turning on a rotisserie, dripping big splats of juice. Ponies, swans, peacocks, and goats were scattered about, and I began to feather, skin, and spit-roast them all, then place their steaming carcasses on a huge platter redolent of garlic, trimmed with browned potatoes, shallots, sprigs of thyme, and a nicely reduced brown sauce, finished with beurre maitre d’hôtel.
I had lost all interest in the fortress, and when these délices de France danced before my eyes, I even forgot about the creepy feeling I had about our getting a fancy repast this way. I forgot about my most recent struggle to keep my clothes on–with two American soldiers whom Suzanne had gotten to drop God knew how many sous for bottles of fine French burgundy. Although Roger and Gilles had much more class and finesse than the Americans, I sensed that they wouldn’t take sexual rejection any more gracefully.
When at last the four of us were sitting inside the Chêne Vert, a one-star restaurant, I had my usual aperitif, Pastis. I could now decipher Roger’s–or was it Gilles’? Let’s say Roger’s–speech, and he seemed to take interest in who I was, my college studies back home, where I lived. He was astonished at the size of my family, and I had to explain that that part of my life was due not to my being American, but to my being Italian. And like every other French person we’d met, both capitaines asked Suzanne if her family had oil fields in Texas and therefore beaucoup de sous, this accompanied by the perfunctory rubbing of the palm. Her family had neither oil nor money, but Suzanne’s smile and patience, like her Texan drawl in French, were constant and unrelenting. “Monsieur, ce n’est pas important; c’est incroyable! Ce n’est pas vrai!” Every syllable clearly anglicized, her elision of consonant to vowel and perfectly emphasized.
For a fleeting moment I let my defenses down and asked my guy about himself–where he’d grown up and what he would do after the army. He was from Toulouse, he said, and would go back to his family there and find a job similar to the work he did now.
“Très bien,” I nodded, careful not to show too much interest lest it be construed as an invitation I was not making.
Soon an elegant soup of cream of sorrel was under my nose, and I was the first to dive into the pale green pool, ignoring the muffled sounds of French about me. I resurfaced for conversation only when I scraped bottom.
Gilles asked if we liked Tum Jonz (Tom Jones), who was a superstar all over France that year, 1971. His song “She’s a Lady” played ad nauseum on every jukebox, including the one at Café Bleu. It was second only to the Rolling Stones’s “Brown Sugar,” which at least we could dance to.
“Un peu,” Suzanne lied. Of course we didn’t like Tum Jonz; we hated him, and Gilles and Roger’s love of him strengthened my guard.
I grabbed some bread, cleaned my plate, and ignored Roger’s hungry eyes. I didn’t like what I read in them–he should have seen gaucheness in my action, but I could tell he saw lewd foreshadowing, some code behavior for what he thought might come. Perhaps he was having visions to rival my own back in the courtyard. Though I doubt spit-roasting was his fancy.
I started to feel much better as my blood sugar rose. My well-oiled French flowed, and I realized then that the French had invented their gastronomy as a foil for their impossible tongue–you need that wonderful, rich food to help the lips, tongue, and throat wrap themselves around otherwise taut, tense sounds. By the time the canard rôti arrived–it looked just as I had prepared it in my hallucination–I was able to slow down a bit and savor each juicy morsel, bleeding its impeccably seasoned jus into my deprived mouth, along with roasted potatoes and a caramel-sweet macédoine of peas, carrots, and tender pearl onions. It was, as Suzanne kept repeating, Quel splendide!
Yes, it was splendide through the salade verte, the hot soufflé a l’orange, the espresso, the Marie Brizard digestif. Three hours after we sat down, we strolled out to the car. Just as I was feeling that ’Ol Tex knew what she was doing, and we were on our way home, Gilles turned his car away from our hotel and toward the nearby vineyards, then down a narrow road through a dark tunnel of plane trees. Away from the vineyards he drove, the naked vines looking like dwarfed curmudgeons, sneering and mocking us with hideous, gnarled limbs.
“Où allons-nous, Monsieur?” Suzanne asked in a voice whose confidence made me wish I’d been born a Texan. It was so dark, with no moon but a ton of stars, which would have been romantic under most circumstances. But the inkiness closed in on me as I tried to maintain normal breathing and remember fun times with Suzanne in France: riding a tandem bicycle and singing Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true for amused passersby; sleeping on the yacht of a rich English couple who’d hoped to ensnare us as maids; racing down a country road in a convertible with François, who drove our getaway car out of La Franqui. Suzanne and I had been through so much in so little time. And I still had my treasured honor.
Would she and Gilles actually do it in the front seat? Would Roger be content to share small talk with me as they did? Gentilhommes or non? Catholic schoolgirl scruples or Protestant libertinage? I knew the score. I knew when a meal had strings attached–even if I didn’t know the French translation for the custom.
Gilles coolly parked and killed the motor; Roger’s arm came around the top of my seat, then nonchalantly slid down to my shoulder. I was ready to give the meal back.
“Suzanne!” I yelled in my best English. “Get us out of this!”
She didn’t answer. I was about to have to fight off the French army, and Suzanne was making small talk up front with Gilles. Or was she? “Qu’est-ce qu’y a? QU’EST-CE QU’Y A?” repeated Gilles shrilly. Why was he asking her “What’s the matter?” over and over? Suzanne had wordlessly slumped forward toward the dash. Gilles was feeling the pulse of her limp wrist.
“Du vin, trop de vin,” he repeated, shaking his head with despair. Too much wine. “O, merde, quelle sorte de connerie!” He blasted himself with the heartbreaking vulnerability, worthy of Cyrano de Bergerac, that I’ve heard many Frenchmen evince.
“Ça alors,” I said, confused. We had polished off three bottles of wine, plus our before- and after-dinner drinks, but I was fine, what with all the food. Before I could articulate a thought in any language, Gilles had turned the key and screeched back in reverse. I heard gravel shooting out from under the tires and flying against trees. Roger begrudgingly took his arm back. The air inside the car became heavy, charged, and uncomfortably silent.
The country road with old vines unfurled in reverse as we sped back to our hotel. I would have felt relieved but I was concerned for Suzanne. I reached forward and felt her forehead. She was now slumped against Gilles, warm and motionless.
The capitaines carried Suzanne’s dead weight to our room. Miraculously, no one saw us. They deposited her on the bed, where she lay unmoving, a sated look on her face. I took a blanket from the armoire and covered her. The men backed smoothly toward the door, saying “bon voyage, bon voyage.”
“Un moment,” I said, making them freeze in their tracks at the door.
“Oui?” came Gilles’s small voice, his hand on the doorknob.
“Merci pour la bonne soirée–c’était un très bon restaurant,” I said.
“De rien, de rien,” Gille answered hurriedly, as if he bought expensive repasts for strangers on a regular basis. He tiptoed, backing up, shrinking, shrinking, and fading like the end of a Looney Tunes cartoon. They shut the door quietly, and that was the last I saw of them. I still think of them today: two French patriarchs past middle age with little paunches sharing a wink and a chuckle as they recall the américaine saoule–so lit she had passed out even before she could enjoy un peu de sexe.
After they left, I felt Suzanne’s head again and sat there for about thirty seconds. She opened her eyes and said, “Are they gone?”
“Oui. That was a close one,” I said.
“Oui,” said Suzanne. She started laughing hysterically. ’Ol Tex really could get us out of anything. I laughed along with her until it hurt. Ah oui, quel canard splendide!


  1. My, my, my — SO GLAD I have changed my name! Who knew the whole thing was MY doing — as I recall it was that sweet Catholic girl who JUST had to go dancing at the wicked French hunt club with the sound supressed disco dance hall in the basement.

    And those French military officers — I remember that it was my, not so innocent traveling companion who wanted to have them pay for drinks. Given that this Baptist girl wasn’t much of a drinker.

    Hey — hello again after all these years. I was searching for pictures of Le Cafe Blue in La Franqui when your name popped out of Google.

    I have been a writer and publisher and traveler too but mine was all around an outdoor career in archeology and long range park planning.

    It is so good to know that you have fared well — especially since you did agree to camp out under the cherry tree. I have a vivid memory of rain, and a dark night waiting for a train and you walking along behind me muttering and cursing and acting like it was the end of the world.

    Drop a line…Emily Suzanne Carter