LATE ON THE morning of November 18, 2015, there was a blackout throughout the Canton of Fayence, department of Var, region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, with repercussions affecting the entire public transit system, telecommunications, radio and television broadcasting, food preservation, security systems, computer networks, and various types of businesses, including La Merveille Imparfaite, the gelateria at the top of the stepped cobblestone lane that slopes down from Rue Saint-Clair toward the market square in front of the church.
Just a few minutes earlier Milena Migliari, the gelato maker, was looking out the doorway of her shop and thinking that you didn’t need a calendar to see that tourist season was long over. You only needed to feel the stillness of the air, in which the echoes of the laughter, the revelry of voices, the exchange of looks, the rustling of fabric, the shuffling of footsteps, and the clicking of cell phones of late summer still seemed to hang suspended. You only needed to look around the corner at the main road to see how few cars passed beneath the town hall with the words Hôtel de Ville painted in flowing script, the pale blue shutters, the French and
EU flags, the vases of drooping geraniums long past their prime; how few continued past the storefronts of the restaurants, bakeries, and real estate agencies and then on, toward Mons or Tourrettes or Callian or who knows where. The cold was uncertain, confounded by an undercurrent of enduring warmth; the sky was a faded blue that couldn’t seem to make up its mind to yield to gray. Standing out amid the general silence was the staccato hammering of a construction worker in one of the lanes below, and the music from the radio in the laboratory.
When the lights in the gelateria dim completely and the radio goes quiet, the only sound left is that of the distant hammering. Milena Migliari looked around, went back inside, exchanged a puzzled look with her assistant, Guadalupe, behind the counter, before going into the lab: even the hypnotic and reassuring hums of the refrigerators had stopped. She went back outside, turned the corner onto the main road, needed only a few steps to realize that the power was out in the entire town.
Gelato’s equilibrium is unstable by definition, though it takes some time before it becomes unsalvageable. And Milena Migliari has always felt a mix of anxiety and fascination for unstable equilibriums: it might depend on her own personal history, as Viviane claims, on her never having had a solid familial framework, never having put down roots anywhere. And now the fruits of her labor are in jeopardy: the ingredients sought out with infinite care, the procedures honed over time, expensive equipment to pay off, a budget to respect.
She makes a conscious effort not to get upset, to wait patiently for the power to be restored. She looks at the wall clock, which luckily runs on batteries, makes a few calculations: in the counter’s refrigerated pans the gelato can resist for two hours for sure, even three with this outside temperature. She chats with Guadalupe,
goes back to the lab every so often to look at the batch freezer, the maturation vats, the blast chiller, the positive-temperature refrigerator for fresh ingredients: off, off, off, off. Not a pilot light on, not a fan humming. Her anxiety grows, pushes her to pick up the phone, call the electric company and the city to get some information; but the only responses are from voice-mail systems or incredibly uninformed, vague, and uncaring human beings. They don’t reassure her one bit, quite the opposite.
Milena Migliari goes back out to the main road, talks to the bakery owner who knows as much as she does and is just as worried, shakes her head. Then she goes into the real estate agency next door: two of the employees are staring fixedly at their cell-phone screens, a third is vainly calling for information. She returns to the gelateria and tries to calm down, listens to Guadalupe’s account of her cousin’s birthday party in Quetzaltenango that she joined via Skype. Every few minutes she looks at the wall clock, goes to check the lab. She tries calling the electric company again, the city: nothing. She paces back and forth, from the counter to the lab, the lab to the counter, her cell phone pressed to her ear, her heart beating faster at the thought of the power returning who-knows-when and the temperature in the pans rising to the point of no return. Still nothing happens, so before the situation gets any worse she makes a decision: she tells Guadalupe to help her fill up cones and cups, to distribute them to anyone passing by outside.
But tourist season is indeed long over: on the streets of the old town are only a few elderly ladies with grocery bags, a few slightly furtive North African laborers, a few northern European tourist couples looking lost, a few worried storeowners trying to figure out how the situation is going to pan out. If the blackout had occurred in July or August, or even September, she and Guadalupe would have been able to give away all their gelato in half
an hour, and it would have been great publicity for the store. As things stand, they practically have to beg the rare passersby to accept a free cone or cup. Baffled faces, distracted expressions, raised chins, hurried steps: it’s incredible how offering anything for free arouses suspicion. To convince people. they smile profusely, make reassuring gestures with their head and arms, explain that they’re not asking them to give blood or join a religious sect. But progress is so slow that after a while Milena goes back inside and starts filling up the one-pound containers, starts taking them to the real estate agencies and faux-Provençal handicraft stores, to the restaurants. It’s ironic, because in summer she is inundated with requests she’s unable to satisfy, having to explain time and again that her production is limited, her preparation slow and complex, that she can only satisfy a limited number of people at a time. But now, between the blackout and the lack of tourists, no one seems excited about the enchanting yellow-red of Maquis arbutus berry, the golden brown of Montauroux jujube, the vibrant green of Mons gooseberry. Sure, a couple of people thank her, but mostly it seems like they’re doing her a favor by accepting for free a container that a couple of months earlier they would have fought to pay for. And when she explains with a hint of urgency in her voice that the gelato needs to be eaten soon, to avoid it losing its ideal consistency, they look at her like she’s an obsessive freak, whose concerns are totally inappropriate given the situation in which they all find themselves.
Milena Migliari goes back inside, makes more useless phone calls, gets more useless answers. She checks the temperature in the counter pans with the infrared thermometer, which also luckily runs on batteries: 14°F. Still okay, but it keeps rising, naturally. She already pictures herself poking around dejectedly with the spatula in little puddles of various colors. She and Guadalupe
look at each other in despair. It’s not just the imminent loss of the gelato; it’s a much vaster feeling of decay, extending to the very confines of her life.
When the telephone rings, she jumps up to get it, surprised that one of the unfeeling bureaucrats she reached out to has taken the initiative to update her on the situation. She presses the receiver to her ear, her hand trembling slightly with agitation. “Hello?”
“Is this La Merveille Imparfaite in Fayence? The gelateria?” The woman’s voice on the other end of the line sounds slightly harsh, over the background noise of a moving car.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” Milena Migliari tries to sound professional, but given the circumstances, she isn’t very successful.
“I’ve just read some amazing things about your gelato.” The voice has a slight foreign inflection, but her command of French is absolute.
“Well, thank you.” Milena Migliari doesn’t know whether to feel more reassured that her work is appreciated or pained that soon it’s going to melt right in front of her.
“Milena Migliari, an Italian living on French soil, captures with miraculous sensitivity and perspicacity the quintessence of ingredients that are rigorously natural, rigorously local, and rigorously in-season, and offers it to the palate of the refined connoisseur in incomparable cups and cones of the most delicate and vivid colors. . . .” The woman is clearly referring to the write-up by Liam Bradford, the fine-foods blogger who happened to pass through in July and was blown away by her Saint-Paul red apricot, her Tourrettes midnight-blue plum, as well as by her Montauroux fior di latte.
“Well, I do my best.” Milena Migliari says so because she thinks she has to say something, but immediately feels stupid. She recalls reading the review on her home computer, seeing the photo of herself and Guadalupe behind the counter, looking like a couple
of fugitives from justice; how she felt gratified but also destabilized at seeing the fruits of her long research, born of instinct and experimentation, translated into these slightly alien words.
“We said tomorrow, that was the bloody agreement! No, no, no, Friday is too late, for God’s sake!” The voice on the phone is speaking English to someone else in the car, in a tone so suddenly aggressive that it almost seems like a different person.
Milena Migliari makes a face at Guadalupe, as if to say that she has no idea who’s on the other end of the line.
“I’m terribly sorry.” The voice turns back to her, once more in French, once more in an amiable tone, though not quite as much as before. “Do you deliver?”
“That depends.” Milena Migliari is taken aback, and a bit distracted by Guadalupe, who continues to stare at her questioningly.
“Depends on what?” The voice seems on the verge of losing patience with her, too.
“On how much you want, where, and when.” Milena Migliari thinks that in all honesty, right now, she would be willing to drive dozens of miles just to deliver a single one-pound container: it would give her the sense of having saved at least something from the general disintegration.
“I want twenty pounds. In Callian. Immediately.” Yes, there’s a substantial dose of hardness just beneath the surface.
“Sorry, how many pounds did you say?” Milena Migliari is sure that the woman has gotten her French numbers mixed up: in the three years since she opened her gelateria the largest orders have been for two two-pound containers; and those in the middle of August.
“Twenty. Two-zero. Half of forty. Every flavor you have.” Zero doubts, zero hesitation; now she is growing impatient. “Is it possible?”
“Of course it’s possible.” Milena Migliari struggles to shake off her disbelief.
“Wonderful, I’m so happy!” The enthusiasm in the voice is disconcerting, as much as the recent shift from amiability to impatience.
“So am I!” Milena Migliari can’t help but be excited, though the doubt does surface that this could be some sort of prank. “Would you give me the address?”
“Chemin de la Forêt, Les Vieux Oliviers.” The voice enunciates each word, to make them stand out with the greatest possible clarity over the background noise. “The name is engraved into the tree stump, to the right of the front gate. You can’t miss it.”
“All right.” Milena Migliari would like to ask something else, but doesn’t know exactly what. “Then I’ll see you soon.”
“See you soon!” The person at the other end of the line seems content to have reached a satisfactory conclusion and hangs up.
Milena Migliari puts the receiver back in the cradle, stares at Guadalupe for a second or two, and then recovers, her movements regaining their normal speed. “Help me fill up ten two-pound containers. Every flavor.”
“Ten?” Guadalupe looks stunned.
“Yes, ten! Ten!” Milena Migliari takes the Styrofoam containers off the shelf, lines them up on the counter.
Guadalupe recovers as well; in no time they’re both scooping frantically.