Following on from last week’s family history piece, The Crystal Necklace, here’s another republished and slightly revised memoir piece, Artichoke Fields, coming from certain episodes in childhood, when I was around 12-13.
Around the time this piece is set: my father with me(at back, next to him) and four of my siblings, Camille, Gabrielle, Louis and Bertrand. Photo taken by my mother.
It is a hot day in the seventies, and we kids are fighting quietly in the back of the car. Maman occasionally shoots glares at us in the rear-vision mirror, silently warning us to behave. Meanwhile Dad drives steadily, carefully, as if he is anticipating all kinds of possible dangers, as if years and years of driving have not cushioned him against the myriad possibilities of danger and catastrophe. 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 to keep control of it yet jumpily aware of the knife-edge of life, of the unpredictable way in which, in a second, things can change forever. But at the time, his careful driving is merely another of the mix of traits, the shorthand of experience, which, together, make up “Dad”—this person who you accept naturally, as you accept your mother, or your brothers and sisters. As a child, you rely on signs, on the known, and somehow accommodate contradictions and complexities without really thinking about them.
But here we are, driving. The vinyl of the seats sticks to our flesh, so the too-close warmth of a brotherly or sisterly leg in the backseat of the Holden leads to under-the-breath quarrels about the most ridiculous things possible. It’s summer, and we are driving from our northern suburb into the semi-rural west of Sydney, near Blacktown. As we approach, 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. When he was a small child, he would go there for holidays, and he has told us many stories of it, his eyes misting with a regret which I didn’t quite understand at the time. Later, I see it is not only nostalgia, but something more powerful–a need to hold on to a good, simple thing within a wartime childhood booby-trapped with painful memories.
The good memories connected with this kind of place have transformed Dad, at the moment. He does not look anxious, or harried; his even, smoothly pale olive skin is unmarked by frowns. 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 contemplating the simplicity of work on the land. It is traditional for him to say this, here; yet always Maman nods, patiently, always we hear him without wondering at its repetition.
We stop in front of the house. It is a very simple fibro construction 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 plain Australianess an incongruity in the lavish Europeaness of cultivated fields. For here are not acres of wheat, or of the other large, full-scale crops we associate with this vast land; but the smaller, denser patches of hand-grown vegetables, in different seasons: lettuce and spinach in serried rows, tomatoes and capsicums and eggplants ripening in sunrise colours, and especially, most especially, the artichoke fields. There the artichokes 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 extraordinary, 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 unexpected things.
Here, in that childhood time, the farmers come to greet us, their sun-brown, wrinkled faces split by their smiles into a hundred tiny rivulets. I never learnt their names, and to me, at that age, they look agelessly ancient, like peasants in an old picture. They are small, both of them, both dressed in black: but he is lean and wiry, with crew-cut greying brown hair and sharp pale eyes, while she is round as she is high, her breasts like soft pillows under her shabby dress, her silver-and-black hair done up in a floppy bun, her eyes like lively brown birds in their nest of wrinkles. She is Maltese, he is Yugoslav. Dad, accustomed, at the building sites he supervises, to working with Balkan 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 he finds the female farmer, the Maltese, very sympathetic. “Eh, paysan!” she says (‘Hey, countryman!’), or that’s what it sounds like to my delighted father. Her voice, high, distinctive and confident, is ageless, too; we have heard, on a record at home, Portuguese peasant girls singing in exactly the same kind of shrill yet in-key voices. Dad is immensely proud of it, preening under the accolade which she shrewdly–but not insincerely–gives him. Maman is rather more circumspect; not only is she a more detached observer of people, but she is also closer–only one generation removed–from peasant origins, 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 about these wonderful salt-of-the-earth people, drives us back to our somnolent, rich suburb where the quiet he both craves and resists attacks his restless spirit like a physical pain.
Dad addresses the farmers in a mixture of languages: a bit of English, mixed with a little French, fragments of Italian he’s learned on building sites, and even a bit of patois, the Occitan-derived dialect of the Toulouse area, where he comes from. The farmers answer back in a linguistic mosaic too, and Dad is always particularly thrilled if they appear to understand some of the patois; he sees a connection between all kinds of European languages and to hear this confirmed, especially here, the homely patois under the alien sky, is a source of joy.
We walk with the farmers 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 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 irritated bewilderment which must surely seize them sometimes. I think of their daughter and how it must be for them all when they have to come up to the school. I think of it because it’s how I feel. When my parents come to my school, I am in shameful agony, hoping they won’t say the ‘wrong’ thing in the ‘wrong’ sort of accent. There are other people we know, Sicilians from rural backgrounds, whose attitude towards their educated children is humble, frighteningly so in fact. My parents aren’t like that, at all, they are better educated than I am and would soon cut me down if I tried to patronise them; yet still I cannot help fearing that they’ll say the wrong thing. So 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 this society. It makes me squirm, this thought, and so I turn away from it, and towards the fields. It never occurs to me back then, 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 grins at us, showing crooked teeth, and says, in her strongly-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-smirk. 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 a dish. We are tenderhearted; but our feelings never extend to the nicely trussed, carefully jointed roast that appears on the table. . .
Now the farmer is walking in the artichoke fields, talking shrilly, a mixture of salty comment on current events, and wild praise of her vegetables. Her husband is silent (“Taciturn, like all Yugoslavs, ” Dad is delighted to say) . But he smiles quite a bit, and touches the plants, gently, as if he is greeting each. That, surely, is only my fancy. He and his wife are unsentimental, without frills or falsity, honest, as the French saying has it, as ‘du bon pain’, good bread. 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: yes, this one. He stoops, cuts the stem, throws the vegetable into the basket he is carrying. Dad keeps pace, asking the woman 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; amused but enigmatic. We children follow behind with Maman, the smell of the big vegetables filling our nostrils with a heady odour.
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 prickles, 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 surprised me, 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; vanilla smelt more homely and tender; the rich dark smell of roasting 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. 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 quite pinned down, half-wild, half-tame, of heady, unforgotten smell, uncomfortable at times, maybe never to be fully understood.