Over the past few months I have been reading As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. The book traces the beginnings of Julia’s career as a cook and cookbook writer. For the majority of the correspondence I’ve read so far, she has lived with her husband at various governmental posts in Europe, and strikes up a pen pal relationship with Avis DeVoto, a woman who shares her love of cooking and is connected to the publishing world in the States.
Besides all of the fascinating discussions that they have about cooking and politics, they share details of their personal lives; for instance, Julia hints at some of the pitfalls of her life as a trailing spouse. For the first part of their correspondence she lives in France, alternately in Paris and Marsielles. She loves the language and knows her way around the country, happily and frequently mailing things like knives, herbs and other French cooking-related items to Avis in the U.S. They discuss differences in culture between the two countries, and Julia admits that there are things about the U.S. that she misses (among them dishwashers and great choice in shopping – some things really don’t change); however, she comes across as content and pleased with the culture in which she lives, even wondering why anyone would choose to live anywhere besides Paris. Then she receives news that her husband is to be transferred to Bonn, Germany. She doesn’t really hold back when telling Avis how this makes her feel:
“But, having lived here [in France] for so long, I have a horror of Germans and Germany. It makes me retch to think of them, and I would never, willingly, set foot in Germany.”
Despite this less-than-positive feeling, she and her husband do make the move. She tells Avis in a letter from shortly after their move to Bonn that one day she “wandered, lonely like a cloud, above the housing development, then up a path along the Rhine, which was lovely.”
Used to the apartments full of character and history that they used to have in France, she is less than thrilled with their cookie-cutter housing development. She looks forward to receiving their furniture and personal items in the mail from Marseilles, so that they can “impose a bit of ourselves upon its rigidity.”
The part that cut me to the core: when she describes to Avis more than once how living in Germany is “a strange half life,” referencing the “half-life feeling” that she has throughout the day. Is there any better description for it?
However, even though she is navigating a new culture, keeping a home for her husband and working tirelessly on her cookbook project, she still finds time to kick the German language’s butt. Like so many other things for her, beating the crap out of German was just a question of when, not how, such as whe she says,”I’ll be glad when we can get this damned language under our belts.” In describing it in greater detail to Avis, she explains:
“German. It ain’t easy. Now I am in adjectives, and do they have the same ending as the other words in each of the four cases for each of the four genders? No. And do they have one ending for one case and gender when preceded by all words? No. Or do they have another set of endings when used alone, but referring to a noun in another place? Yes.”
However, she perseveres: “…I find I like German. It looked sickening to me at first…but I think it is the living system that makes it attractive.” She even tells Avis about how she surprises herself by ordering oysters over the phone, talking to the woman at the post office and making an appointment at the eye doctor. It’s the little things.
Next post: Julia and Avis’s observations about Germans and Germany. And check out the video below, in honor of Julia’s 100th birthday. It’s guaranteed to make your life just a little bit better.