At Home With Vivian: Sounds of a Summer Evening

As I was sitting in my dining room on Saturday night working on a quilt for my due-any-day grandson I heard music and laughter off in the distance. I looked out into the living room to see if I had left the television on, but the screen was dark. I hadn’t left the radio on in the kitchen either. Then I realized the music was coming through my open windows from across the street. What a lovely happy sound! I remembered that our new neighbors were having their wedding reception in the backyard. Auspiciously, it was a beautiful summer evening to celebrate their marriage. It will be a night to remember.

I remember as a child spending many warm summer evenings sitting on the front porch with my mother in West Pittsburg, or out on the back patio with my Aunt Marion and Uncle Bill in Antioch. We always sat in the dark to keep the bugs at bay. As the grown-ups inhaled on their cigarettes, the tips glowed and the fiery red dots flew and flited in the air much like I imagined lightening bugs would if we had them here. I loved listening to the grown-ups talk. Especially when they told stories on each other. “One time, when we were out fishing in Suisun Slough…” Uncle Ernie said, then laughed and slapped his knee and laughed again. “Your Uncle Bill ….” I could listen to stories forever.

We sat outside because air conditioners weren’t common. We opened our windows and used screen doors. The sounds of our neighborhood could be heard on any summer night. Televisions blaring, teenagers clanking and washing dishes, and kids outside playing hide and seek, yelling “Olly Olly Oxen Free!” If the wind blew just right, you could smell the honeysuckle vines covering our neighbor’s fence or the scent of a lawn recently mowed.

I have since had the pleasure of seeing lightening bugs in person. My first time to see them was on a military move across the country. On our road trip we stopped in Nebraska to visit with Jeff’s father’s family. We stayed with his Aunt Rosie and Uncle Willy. Cousin Suzy lived around the corner and had kids about the same age as our three. Because Jeff’s father had left home decades before, it was rare to have the California Roubals in Bruno, Nebraska so Aunt Rosie invited everyone to come see us! Her house and yard were full of more Roubals than I knew existed and they all knew how to barbeque. “We have the best meat here in Nebraska, don’t you think?” Aunt Rosie asked me. Of course!

After the sun went down Suzy came over carrying a box of canning jars with perforated lids. She handed one out to each of the children there and instructed her kids to show those California kids how to catch the fire flies. As it got darker, we started seeing sparkling things in the sky. I don’t know who was more excited – me or the kids! One by one, the children caught a bug and brought it over to show me. In the pitch black of the night out in the country, the jars shimmered like magic. I now know why people believe in fairies.

Another enchanted evening, I will always remember, happened in June of 2002, in Bordeaux, France. My youngest daughter was finishing up her study-abroad program year. Her classes were finished and she had ten days left on the rent of her apartment. She invited us to visit. Jeff and I were delighted to go.

She lived in an apartment at the tippy top of a five-story building built in the 18th century. How cool is that! Marble stairs took us to her tiny attic apartment that she had shared with another American student who had already left for home. We three had the apartment to ourselves.

We happened to visit France in the middle of a heat wave. Because of the normal temperate climate, most homes in Bordeaux did not have air conditioners. Did you know that heat rises? Well, it does and her apartment was hot. We spent the days wandering around Europe in an air-conditioned rented car, but at night, it was hard to sleep.

One evening after a wonderful visit to Saint-Emilion, where we enjoyed learning about the wines of the Bordeaux region, tasting the best cheeses I’ve ever had and exploring the winding medieval streets of Saint-Emilion, we returned to her attic apartment, huffing and puffing up five flights of stairs. I went straight to the window to catch a breeze. They don’t have screens in 300-year-old buildings so I found mosquitos and no breeze. Mosquitos love me. I closed the window. It got hot. I opened the window. My family thought I was hilarious.

The French eat everything fresh. On the way to the apartment that night we stopped at a produce stand on Rue Sainte-Catherine, near her apartment, to purchase the ingredients for our dinner. Because our daughter’s apartment had already been inspected, she didn’t want anything to mess it up. She allowed us to use one pan to cook with. Jeff and Jessica chopped green beans, onions, zucchinis, and tomatoes then stir-fried it all in olive oil and sprinkled it with parmesan cheese. Vegetables never tasted so good.

After dinner, I looked out to see what was going on in the French world. I watched tiny cars trying to get into tinier parking spaces. I saw bicyclists weaving between pedestrians, motorcycles and autos inching down the narrow cobblestone streets. I reported all of this to my family who were cleaning up after dinner. My daughter accused me of being a character in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, like “Rear Window.”

On one trip to the window I observed the building directly across the narrow street. Two little boys were looking up at me from a floor below us. I waved, they waved. I heard a female voice in French. The boys left the window, waving good bye as they went. Their room went dark. It was 9 p.m. on a week night. It was probably bed time.

A light came on in the window on the floor below. A couple was setting a table. Because of the angle of our buildings, I could only see the young people from the chest down. I saw a white table cloth being spread on the table. Two candle sticks, a tray of appetizers, and three bottles of wine with eight wine glasses appeared on the table. Jeff joined me at the window, curious as to what was so interesting.

Music, mostly instrumental, floated up from their window. I don’t remember if I recognized any of the songs, but in my head, I hear Edith Piaf singing La Vie En Rose. Three young couples arrived separately and entered the building from the street below the apartment. Jeff and I watched legs dancing. We saw wine poured and appetizers disappear. We viewed the young couples leave the building, singing, saluting, laughing. We saw the hosts, alone in their apartment, dance to one last song, his arms around her waist. The lights went out. Sigh. So romantic! I felt like I was Leslie Caron in “An American In Paris.” It was all so FRENCH!

We’re lucky to live here in Martinez, especially downtown, where we get a good breeze off of the river. We seem to always be a little cooler than the surrounding towns. Jeff and I still don’t own an air conditioner. We have fans and a swamp cooler for when it’s needed. Usually, we just open our windows and let the breeze flow through. And we can hear the sounds of our neighborhood. We may not live in France, but we do have our romantic evenings here too. Congratulations to our neighbors, Jenn and Steve Rizzari!

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