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“Bonjour. Ça va John and Barbara?”, our neighbor, Olivier, calls to us as we walk past his house.   “Tres bien, merci,” I respond.   Olivier's yard is filled with countless odd items; dolls, a rocking horse, metal scraps arranged like sculpture that he has collected from the local dump, a water wheel, and a stuffed badger.  In the rear there is a vegetable garden and a “still” for making pastis. 

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“Please come in and have an appertif”.  It is 11 o’clock in the morning.  John accepts the invitation and I come along reluctantly.

Olivier runs to the kitchen to fetch snacks – almonds, potato chips, popcorn, home-cured boar sausage, and marinated anchovies.  He sets three glasses on the table along with a bottle of pastis and a pitcher of water.  As he pours my pastis I wave my hand, “Just a little.”  He pours John a more generous amount then for himself he fills the glass half full.  We add some water and the pastis turns milky white.  I take a sip of the pungent licorice liquid which burns my throat when I swallow.  “Il est tres bon,” I lie.

 “Mange, mange,” he urges us to help ourselves to the refreshments on the table.  I pick at the popcorn.  He offers us the bowl of fresh almonds still in their husks.  Instead of a nutcracker, he takes an almond and cracks it with his teeth.  Now I know why he’s missing some.

Bravely I sample an anchovy and am surprised that it is delicious, fresh, fishy, sour, and salty.  The boar sausage I am not so crazy about.

Olivier asks John if he likes escargot.  “Oh no, never.” Since I don’t see any snails on the table, I say that I love them, “Je adore escargot.”  Olivier tells me that before I go home to America he will make me some.  I hope he will forget this offer.

Over the summer Olivier frequently stops by our house to give us vegetables from his garden; tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, lettuce, and radishes.  Occasionally he includes two fresh brown speckled eggs.

The doorbell ring the day before I leave to return to San Francisco.  I open it and there stands  Olivier holding a saucepan with a potholder.  “For you, Barbara, escargots.”  “Oh how kind of you Olivier.  Merci beaucoup.’’  He sets the pan down and removes the lid.  Inside are steaming snails in tomato sauce.  I am sure they are from his garden.  Knowing I will insult him if I don't try them on the spot, I take  one out and pluck it with a fork.  Courageously I pop it into my mouth, chew and swallow it. What a nice surprise, it tastes of garlic, tomatoes, onions, and chorizo.  Actually quite delicious.  Even so, I confess I do not eat many after he leaves.



 
Abeilhan is a small village in the Herault subregion of Languedoc in southwest France.  The local history experts say it has been populated since Roman times.  The surrounding area has low hills covered with vineyards.  You can see the Pyrenees in the distance to the west and lower mountains to the north.  From the higher hilltops on a clear day the blue water of the Mediterranean is visible to the south.  

The roadways through the countryside are lined with plane trees.  These same trees border the Canal du Midi, the waterway linking the city of Toulouse in northern Languedoc with the Mediterranean at the port of Sete.

The closest town to our village is Pezenas.  Its medieval center is a major tourist attraction and it is mobbed during the summer.  Montpellier, a 45 minute drive away, is a cultural center and university town.   Bustling Beziers is closer, but being surrounded by modern container stores and ugly chain stores it isn't appealing to visitors looking for French charm.

 Villages here are located close to each other, from Abeilhan there are four within walking distance.  Not long ago each village had everything its residents needed, such as a butcher shop, grocery store, restaurant and pharmacy.  Now many, like ours, have only a shop for the most basic items and a vegetable stand open just two days a week.  A butcher's truck comes each Tuesday afternoon and the fishmonger on Fridays (of course).  We have two bakeries to which I walk to each morning for a bagette.  Alas, we have no real restaurant, only a cafe serving coffee in the morning, spirits in the evening, and pizza anytime of day.  However, everything we could possibly need is an easy drive away.

Villages here have not been “cutified” as they have been in Provence.  The towns look like they probably have for hundreds of years except for the new housing developments springing up at village outskirts.  The houses are brick beneath stucco, usually with a few stucco patches broken off, and are painted pale pink or sunny yellow.  Doors and shutters are typically sky blue.  During the summer the shutters are kept closed to keep out the heat making you think they are deserted.  
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A typical home in our village.
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Village streets of cobblestone are narrow.
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"Downtown Abeilhan"