Saturday, October 31, 2020

My Big Expat Gardening Gaffe

The following story might seem familiar to some of you but I hope to many of you it won't! I originally published it on October 31, 2011 about something that had happened nine years earlier. Normally, I don't republish old content. But tomorrow is Toussaint (when the French visit the graves of their loved ones) and the stores and garden centers are once again filled with gorgeous chrysanthemums (meant to be placed on graves) and even though I still get teased about this little incident all these years later, why not? Today is a strange day all around. It's Day #2 of our second lockdown in France and there's a full moon tonight for Halloween (which won't happen again until 2039) and our normally buzzing little village is completely, eerily silent.  Earlier this evening I bought myself a large, beautiful chrysanthemum to celebrate the weirdness and also to honor those who've died and tomorrow I'll plant it in my garden. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy this little tale, whether it's your first or second time around!

All of a sudden, the stores were filled with mums. Every market, every roadside stand, every InterMarché 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 disappeared 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...