Monday, October 31, 2011

My Big Expat Gardening Gaffe

All of a sudden, the stores were filled with mums. Every market, every roadside stand, every InterMarche parking lot--overflowing with mums. Fat, healthy, brilliant mums, just 35 francs per pot. It was late October, 1999, and my little garden was calling out for color.
Having left Manhattan (and my one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side) for Provence, just four months before, I was ecstatic about having a house. A real house! With thick stone walls, heavy shutters, a traditional tile roof and wooden beams. I had colorful neighbors who left homegrown grapes on my table and tomatoes dangling from my front door, just like in the movies. I had an olive tree! 
And for the first time in my life, I had a garden. But it was definitely looking drab.
So I called the family's guru of greenery, my dad in Wisconsin, to talk about mums. Though not a mum fan himself, Dad got behind my plan in a big way. "If that's what the stores are selling," he said, "then it's a good plant for the season. They're cheap. Put a bunch in and see how they do."
Just to be sure, I called my friend Carol, another American here in St. Remy. Was this the right time to plant mums? Would they make it through the winter? How deep should I plant them, how long would they bloom, how much water did they need?
Off we went to the garden center, and after much deliberation--such beautiful colors, such variety!--Carol and I settled on three rosy pinks and three brilliant whites.
And into the ground they went. My neighbors smiled as they strolled past and I basked in their approval, pawing around in the dirt, lovingly planting my mums. Some people paused to chat but moved on quickly when they realized I spoke no French. Didn't matter: I was happy. I had a house--and a garden--in Provence!
The next day, my friend Philippe stood in my yard and stared, grinning. I'd grown accustomed to his teasing about my American-in-France faux pas, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what was so frigging funny about mums.
"Did you notice that the stores had mums for just three days?" he asked, "and that they disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived?" I confirmed that I had found that odd, and that I was thrilled to have slithered through that narrow window of horticultural opportunity just in the nick of time.
"Yesterday was Toussaint," he explained. "It's like your Memorial Day."
Mums, it seems, are the traditional flower for graves. The reason they'd all disappeard overnight from the stores was that they were now in cemeteries all over Provence. Save for the six in my yard, of course. 
"You've made a nice little graveyard in your garden!" Philippe giggled.
So I decided that my mums would be a memorial to the people I'd loved and lost, including three grandparents and a brother. All of them are buried at home in Milwaukee, 5,000 miles away. And my mums thrived. Then the famous mistral blew down from the mountains and caught St. Remy in its grip. My mums were buried under a mountain of branches and crunchy, golden leaves. Then it snowed, and I left the country for a time, and that was pretty much the end of the mums.
When I returned in spring, I planted lavender, rosemary and other things more conducive to the climate and culture. And now my garden looks pretty much like everyone else's: lush vines, hardy perennials and hardly any color left as we head into November.  But tomorrow is Toussaint and the sun is shining and the shops are full of mums. They're cheerful and so fresh looking and just 7€ or 9€ per pot...

24 comments:

  1. Lovely post, as always funny and evocative. We all need mums, sadly some are buried, but the memory stays..

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  2. This made me laugh Julie....so many similar mistakes I have made too...xv

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  3. Julie, we've got a list of faux pas, don't we? To add to this one....don't ever take a mum plant to a friend's house when invited to dinner. It's really not all that welcome! Hope you're well.

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  4. I had no idea! I love mums! Sweet story...

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  5. HI Julie,

    It is the same in Italy.. funny how France and Italy have so much in common... loved your story. .Carla

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  6. Happened to me too! But we all learn...

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  7. Thanks for sharing your story. I am glad to learn about this from you rather than do my own faux pas.

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  8. Julie: Thanks for sharing this story. Working in Japan, I spent my whole two years committing gaijin (foreigner) faux pas. Part of the joys of assimilating into a new culture...

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  9. Thanks for the giggle...terrific story!!

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  10. j'aime this story, so sweet. And I can't believe it's been since 1999 that you have been there. So nice to hear about your dad still being with us.

    I love stories about funeral flowers -- like gladiolas. I remember a boyfriend sending them to me, trying to "get me back" when I was done with the relationship. He was devastated and desperately called my best friend, and she told him, no "it's over" -- and I put those hideous flowers in some back room of the house.

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  11. So true about the mums - this was the first year I saw them & remembered they were for the Toussaint. They're so beautiful & look perfect for the garden :)

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  12. Funny how we honor those we've lost--even unconsciously. I think you should plant mums every year and make it your own little faux pas tradition.

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  13. We did it too! But in our defense they are so spectacular they drag you in and make you buy them!

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  14. They’re around for much longer these days – just like anything else, it is becoming commercialised …

    Great story – I always buy Chrysanths at this time of year & put them in a pot where I can enjoy their glorious abundance of flowers & remember those we have lost …

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  15. I thought of you and this post today on my morning walk with Ben, Juile. The flower shops are the only thing open and the only thing they have to sell are...mums!

    Trying to figure out our schedule here for the next two weeks and hoping that we can meet soon...

    Bisous,
    Heather

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  16. Just returned from there - I was going to bring some back to England but they were too big!! We guessed they must be a memorial plant. Great story, great area - we want to go back soon!!

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  17. This is so funny. I love Mums and had no idea! Guess I won't be giving them as gifts anymore!
    Thanks for sharing
    Vicky

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  18. don't worry, I've allways loved the chrysanthemum and allways will have them at home, whatever the French around me think. and things change, I'm not the only one anymore. so, profite!

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  19. :) we were just talking about this yesterday! Funny how things vary so much country to country!

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  20. Absolutely brilliant! I love your writing too, lovely blog. x

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  21. Great story. It reminded me of a story a friend told me. She was newly married, living in Paris and remembered the look of horror on a friend's face, when she presented a beautiful big bouquet of Chrysanthemums as a dinner hostess gift! Now she can laugh about it!

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  22. I love this story. Thanks for sharing!

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  23. You had me entranced. Just had to know the story. A cute story for sure. Love to learn about their culture. Fiona

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  24. I remember so well... And Now I guess it was a good idea eventually. Actually thought about planting some in my garden this year for all those that are so far away from me but didn't dare... Maybe next year!
    Philippe

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