In the eight months I spent in the Mediterranean town of Sanary, France, working with and getting to know fishermen, I never met a fishwife. I never met a woman who sold fish who was contentious, strident, or foul-mouthed. I never met the typical fishwife of, say, Grimms’ “The Fisherman and the Fisherman’s Wife.” Lulu, Madame Fronteri, Anne, Jeanette, Anne-Marie, Brigitte, Marianne—none of the women who sold the fish their husbands caught were remotely like that. Maybe you can still find the fabled fishmonger in Marseille, the one M.F.K. Fisher describes as “loud canny…whose voice carries more than a block during the worst noontime bustle,” but not in Sanary. The women who stood behind the small metal stands, with the names of their husbands’ boats printed on them, who cut, gutted and fileted the fish for customers in the afternoon, were formal, smiling and not raucous at all. You would think from their mien that you were being sold a scarf at the Galeries Lafayette, perhaps, or some tea at Fauchon, not a slab offish.
“Oui, Madame,” they would say to an inquiring woman, “that is pageot. One hundred francs the kilo. Oh, yes, expensive, perhaps. But very good!”
“And how do I prepare it?” the woman would ask, placing her head closer to her potential dinner.
“You can saute it, Madame, or you can cook it in the oven with a bit of onion, parsley and tomato.”
“And its good?”
“Very, very good, Madame!”
And if the customer decided no, not today—or not this moment—then, always, they would say,
“Goodbye, Madame, and thank you.”
You could buy fish at the local fish store or in the supermarket or at one of the large vans that parked every morning at the edge of the port. But when you bought from the fishermen’s wives, you were certain what they sold was fresh. You would walk up to a stand, and the fish would be there spread out before you with bodies supple to the touch and slippery, eyes clear and nearly watchful, and rich, cranberry-tinted gills. Some of the small fish were still alive, flipping vainly every so often. It was nice, too, to buy from the wife of a fisherman. It was a simple and clear transaction, and the idea that a man and a woman were working together to wrest a living from the sea was very strong and made you feel hopeful.
Fish was sold only in the afternoons, with two exceptions. They were sea urchins and swordfish. Both of these were sold in the late morning, because that’s when the boats returned from the sea. Otherwise, the women came and opened their stands around 2:30 P.M. and stayed working roughly until 6 P.M. They had to fix dinner, too, and lunch, and if, like Marianne, they had small children, they had to arrange to have them picked up when school was let out since they couldn’t leave the stand. I would be talking with Henri’s wife, Josephine Fronted, who sold oursins, sea urchins, and all of a sudden see her glance nervously at her watch.
“Excuse me,” she’d say, and quickly begin clearing her stand. “It’s almost noon.” And in an instant she was off, hurrying home to prepare lunch for Henri and her daughter, Natalie, who worked as a waitress in a hotel.
In addition, some of the women had yet other jobs. And always, they had to keep their houses! After selling sea urchins in the morning, Madame Fronteri worked in a nursing home three afternoons a week. Lulu Vitiello worked in her daughter s flower shop on Sundays, holidays and on days when the weather prevented the men from fishing. But what they considered the main job, their travail, if you asked them, was selling fish. I’m sure that some of the women, like Brigitte, Lulu, Anne-Marie and Renée never expected when they were girls in, respectively, Leipzig, Paris, the Dauphiné and Dijon that they would be selling fish in the south of France when they grew up. But they married fishermen, and that’s what happened.
If you begin your walk at the eastern bend of the quay, the first stand you approach would be that belonging to the Fronteris, and which is where you go to buy sea urchins. And you buy them from Henri’s wife, Josephine. Josephine— Madame Fronteri to me—was a short, large-armed woman who wore tinted glasses and, regardless of the weather, skirts that reached mid-calf. She also wore shoes with a slight heel, even when selling sea urchins, so there was always a slightly matronly feeling about her. She was the most formal of the fishermen’s wives.
Her formality was not off-putting. She had a pleasing smile and a most interesting voice. It was dark, supple and rich and with a slight sadness to it. So much of her was evoked through her voice. Even now, it’s sounding in my mind. When her husband told me that their grown son had died of cancer just three years ago, I understood why I heard that counterpoint, that underlying tone of melancholy in the music of her words.
Madame Fronteri grew up on a small farm in Tunisia, near the port of Bizerte. When she was a little girl, her job was to water the vegetables in the family garden, tend them and harvest them. When she was older, she hunted and shot rabbit for the family. When she was telling me this, she raised her arm as if aiming a gun and went Pow! Her father came from Palermo—see how close Sicily is to Tunisia, only about 100 miles!—to escape poverty. (Remember that Tunisia was a French protectorate then, so a poor man might go there with a dream of a better life.) She liked Tunisia very much, but when she was fifteen, her family was forced out by the new Arab government, and so she, like thousands of North African-bom French citizens, crossed the Mediterranean and saw France for the first time.
Aside from the son she had lost three years ago, she and Henri had two daughters. Natalie, the waitress, worked at the biggest hotel in town. Françoise was a student at the University in Aix-en-Provence. Françoise had had that ghastly operation to remove her colon and so had to have an external sac as compensation. (Her illness wasn’t cancer.) Henri told me this, and when Françoise came home from Aix for the holidays, I wished he hadn’t. I felt uncomfortable that I knew something so personal about her without her knowledge.
But I did know, and I knew about their dead son, and these sadnesses were the subject of a powerful comment once. I happened to be at the port one day around noon. Henri hailed me and invited me to lunch. I had never seen his home, and I was happy to be invited. He and his family lived in an apartment near the post office, about a five minute walk from the port. When we arrived, his wife and Natalie were there, putting dishes on the table. After the meal, we sat and talked for a few minutes before Natalie went back to the hotel and Madame Fronteri to the nursing home. For some reason, I asked them what advice they could give me about raising children. I had only recently been married, and my wife and I were thinking about having a family.
“Me?” Henri said. “I can’t give you any advice.” Then he paused. “You know,” he said in his sad-sweet voice, “we’ve had many problems. And pain. And, really, if we were to do it over again, we wouldn’t have children.”
Madame Fronteri looked directly at me with a distant polite smile on her face, then nodded her head just slightly in affirmation.
Despite—or was it because of?—the tragedies in her life, Madame Fronteri had a deft sense of humor and dry, straight-faced delivery.
“Why don’t you stay with us through the summer?” she said when she found out I was leaving in July. “This is the best time. You’ve spent the winter here, and now—look at the sun!” She waved an arm upward.
“I cant! If I stay any longer, my wife will have my head cut off.”
She smiled just slightly. “Going around without a head, that’s not very practical.”
“It can present problems.”
“I suppose you better go home, then.”
“I suppose so, Madame.”
Her work at the port was in the mornings, not in the afternoons like the others. Henri went diving for sea urchins early. He returned to port around 9:30 a.m., and so that was when they were sold. He would dump the brown and maroon spiny balls onto the stand, glistening still with the Mediterranean Sea, and Madame Fronteri would spread them out with flicks of her hand, expertly, as if she were a croupier. The sea urchins were indeed exciting to look at, spines sticking out of them as if they were some medieval weapon, and soon enough people came to stare and buy. The price was 20 francs the dozen, around $4, and normally Henri collected about 50 dozen. If they sold them all, they would collect around 1000 francs, or about $200. Sea urchins were profitable, but the season was only from October to May, so in the offseason Henri had to search for fish like the others.
You open a sea urchin with a knife, or better yet, with a pair of heavy scissors—you wear gloves if you are smart—and this makes a grinding, calcium-laced sound. Inside, there is almost nothing, just a small, brownish pile of guts at the bottom and five narrow side-clinging strips of matter called the corail. The strips, which are the reproductive organs, are orange and are what people eat. Henri claimed that the true gourmand eats everything, but most people eat only the corail. You scrape it from the inside of the globe with a knife and, properly done, consume it with some bread and a bottle of white wine. Urchin corail is extremely rich and has a dense taste similar to the liver of a lobster. It is called the “caviar of the sea” by the fishermen, and since it is not worth buying less than 20 or 30 oursins, you feel like some Parisian gourmand from La Belle Époque tossing away prickly globe after prickly globe, watching the pile grow taller as you sip pur cold white wine and eat your precious portions.
Sea urchins are very popular, so Madame Fronteri was always busy filling orders for customers on the quay, gingerly separating 12 from the entangled pile and wrapping them up in newspaper and handing them over. On a good day, 600 sea urchins would be sold in two hours. Nicola was the only other fisherman who went diving for sea urchins, so the competition wasn’t so bad. I often lingered by the stand as Madame Fronteri worked and watched the mountain of sea urchins diminish as dozen after dozen were sold. As I spent more time with Madame Fronteri and Henri—who would often be working on his boat docked just behind the stand while Madame Fronteri sold the oursins—I learned more and more about sea urchins.
They are an inscrutable creature, moving not by their spines—which do move, by the way, in very slow, clocklike motions—but by means of little sucker-tipped tentacles. These tentacles, more like filaments, really, are normally not apparent but will come out, for example, when you place a sea urchin in a bucket of water. They are as delicate and amorphous as the spines are rigid and obvious. Barely visible, they sway and search, and they are how the sea urchin adheres with such tenacity to rocks underwater. I had thought it was the spines that locked them in their crevices. No. They cling with resistance to the rocks with their nearly invisible tentacles and remain fixed even under the palpable influence of the tide’s retreat and attack.
So, they are surprisingly difficult to dislodge, and one should never attempt to do so with the bare hand. The spines are toxic and will break off and enter the skin with ease. Once they have penetrated the epidermis, they remain obstinately there and are removed only with difficulty. Like old watersoaked wood, they break up into pliant bits, each bit breaking up further at the touch. They can cause an agonizing reaction—poison from sea creatures produces a unique kind of pain, most troublesome to bear—that may last for months. I saw Nicola limping one day and asked him what was wrong.
“Sea urchin. Two months ago. I thought I had it all out.” He had bumped into one with his knee while hunting underwater. Two months later, and he was still in agony.
I often saw Henri’s hands puffed up like a baseball mitt after a mornings dive for sea urchins, and he told me that some fishermen even get a kind of wart from handling them and so refuse to dive. But despite the hazards, Henri was the sea urchins best promoter. At one point, I was absent from the port for a few days because I was ill from eating a bad oyster. When I returned, I told Henri why I’d been gone.
“I have never, never heard of anyone getting sick eating a sea urchin,” he said, squinting up at me. “They filter out any bad things in the water. In fact,” he said, turning toward the water before us in Sanarys port, “even if you throw a sea urchin into water where there is diesel fuel, you can eat it afterwards, and you wouldn’t be able to tell. But,” he raised a finger high in caution, “you must never eat a dead sea urchin, or one that is more than forty-eight hours old.” Sea urchins, like oysters, are eaten alive.
How do you know, I wondered, when a sea urchin is dead?
To round out my sea urchin education, I went diving with Henri. I had told him I wanted to dive, and though he looked me up and down dubiously when I asked him, I finally convinced him he wouldn’t have a floating corpse on his hands if he let me come with him, and he agreed. I was quite excited at the prospect. So one day in early January, I met him in the morning down at the quay before daylight, at around 7 a.m. He had borrowed a wet suit for me, along with mask, snorkel, flippers and lead belt. We went on board his boat, the Tïntamarre, (a Provencal word that means “noise” but which also means “an older man with a wandering eye” as in, “Him? Careful. He has the tintamarre”). I asked Henri if he had the tintamarre. He smiled and shook his head, no, no. “Never?” He laughed. “No, never.”
We set out in the dark day. I stayed in the cabin with Henri as he guided the Tintamarre through the channel and into the open sea. I watched his face as he peered into the obscurity. He had a sad, sweet face that reminded me of that perfect melancholy you see on the faces of great clowns. Even if you dont know that he lost his twenty-five-year-old son to cancer, you can see a bit of surrender in his eyes, a sense of retreat. I could tell he had been wounded, and I often found it difficult to look into his eyes, the grief was too sharp. He did not otherwise force his hurt upon me, and he was always generous and frank, and I counted him as one of the most helpful fishermen in Sanary.
We went out about a mile off Sanary to the He des Embiez, which is merely a rock with a name, and anchored. The day began imperceptibly to break. It was cold, but not bitterly so. On this January morning, it was more like a crisp fall dawn. I could see the lights of a few other fishing boats in the distance. We would be diving not very deep, eight to ten feet at the most, more often less. Henri modestly stripped in the cabin while I took off my clothes in the stern in the fresh open air.
As I took off my clothes, I thought, all of a sudden, here I am, on the other side of the curve of the world, in the stern of a small boat floating on a famous sea, the vague French coast in the distance, the cool air swirling, totally naked. I started to laugh.
As I began to fumble with my wet suit, the door to Henri’s cabin opened partially, and I could see his naked flank and part of the bare rest of him, all white and under-exposed. I was overtaken in that youthful way when I saw my father naked when I was a boy. The moment was complex. “For a father is disturbing,” as Rimbaud says. Once more, I felt the forbidden mixed with the eager. I felt also an uncomfortable kinship with Josephine, Henri’s wife. Both of us had seen Henri’s naked body. I turned away.
I put on the thick, resistant outfit, feeling rigid as a robot. I was ready Henri emerged from the cabin and handed me the two implements I would need: a common dinner fork and an open plastic crate that had once been used to hold two dozen bottles. The crate had a long line attached to it. Henri told me I was to pry the sea urchins from their niches in the rocks with the fork, then surface and toss them into the box. The box would be floating on the surface along with me, one end of the rope attached to it and the other to my wrist. I already knew about spitting into my mask to keep it free from the vapor of my breath. I had snorkeled before, but never for work.
In we went.
The coldness of the Mediterranean deprived me immediately of breath, and, even with the wet suit, stunned my body and made my head clang like a bell. (At the bar later that day, Georges Bollani said, “You should have pissed in your suit. It keeps you warm. Everybody does it.” But he was kidding.) Henri swam off in one direction, his snorkel tube moving along above him like the periscope of a submarine. After a few gasps of air, I flippered off in another direction looking downward. Water began to enter my wet suit, trickle by trickle, and to seep coldly around my body.
At this point, the day was full enough to provide visibility as I peered downward into this second world. That’s what it was, another planet, and I had it all to myself. I saw right away hundreds of sea urchins, black spiny balls dotted everywhere on the rocks. They were nesded in every crook and every declivity. The rocky floor of the sea was heavily populated. Though the water was fairly clear, it was too deep to dive, so I swam closer to the edge of the island itself. I saw no fish.
I saw, however, a nice cluster of sea urchins below and within striking distance. I dove. But the thickness of the masks glass deceived me about the depth, and I had to plunge much deeper than I expected. I reached the cluster. It was about four feet underwater. Hovering, I picked at the first sea urchin I saw with my fork. But it was as if k was being held by nails, not by a few tiny suckers. Finally, after working the fork desperately, and cracking off several spines in the process, I pried the urchin loose from its rock. I was out of breath from the effort. I surfaced, ready to explode, and tossed the sea urchin into the floating box.
Down again. Little by little, î began to get the hang of it. But it wasn’t so easy. It required a considerable effort to pry each sea urchin from its home, and I never seemed to be able to get more than two per dive. I was gentle when I handled them—I wasn’t wearing gloves—but since the spines were all about the same length, if I was careful, I could cradle the sea urchin with impunity, on the bed of nails principle. The danger was when I approached the island too closely. The water, surging against, and moving backward from, the rocks, tumbled me about like an astronaut in space, and sometimes I found myself nearly turned over. In the effort to right myself—which could be difficult since water near rocks can be extremely active—I almost stepped on spines which were lurking everywhere. I suddenly understood Nicolas injury. Not only that, I was unused to the work, and out of shape.
My stamina began to wane. Still, I was glad to be there. I dove and collected for nearly two hours. Then I could do no more. The cold finally caught up with me. Treading water, I looked into the box, and it appeared I had amassed about forty sea urchins, a nice pile of gleaming, dark, prickly bodies. I swam back to the boat, dragging the box with me. I was numb, even with the wet suit, and it was hard for me to swing my arms above my shoulder. I had swallowed quite a bit of salt water, too. Now, I would definitely have a bit of the Mediterranean in my blood. It was full day now, and the rocks, which had seemed like phantoms, were formed. I huffed as I swam along. I was savoring this moment: I figured that I had perhaps 75 francs worth of sea urchins with me, all of which I planned, of course, to turn over to Henri.
Henri was already in the boat, out of his wet suit and changed back into his ordinary clothes. I was grateful for that. I climbed laboriously aboard and then pulled my box in after me. Look at all these lovely sea urchins, I wanted to say to Henri, wet and streaming from the sea.
“But—but you have collected only the black ones!” Henri cried. He began sorting through the pile. “Black, black, black…”
“No! Only the purple and brown are good!” He began tossing mine overboard, one by one. Splash, splash, splash. In the end, I only had nine that were worth keeping.
“I didn’t tell you that the black ones are not good?” Henri said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Look how many you have now,” he said, gesturing toward my once-filled box. It looked so empty now, the number of sea urchins so small.
“Yes, I see,” I said. Black sea urchins were everywhere underwater. That was why I had been able to collect so many. But the black ones were inedible. The brown and purple that were much deeper and harder to find were the only ones good to eat. Henri had gathered at least 200. “Not a good day,” he said, looking down at them.
I changed into my clothes disconsolately. I wondered if in fact Henri had ever told me that the black sea urchins were no good, and it seemed to me that perhaps in passing he had. Henri started the engine, and we headed home. I was glad for the breezy ride to Sanary, the water splashing off the boat in pure daylight and nothing to do.
When we reached the beacon at the edge of the breakwater and then entered the port itself, the minor blow to my ego was forgotten. Reaching the port was too wonderful a moment. It always was. The Tintamarre moved slowly and deliberately amongst the moored boats in the port, raising no wake at all as she did. There was the morning in Sanary before us. There was the sweep of the limestone quay and some people walking along on it, some with baskets under their arms for shopping and some catching sight of us as we drew nearer. There were the immense palm trees dotted along the curve of the town—does any other tree give such a soothing feeling?—and the low, light-colored buildings just behind them. There it all was, and if our small arrival wasn’t actually a moment of triumph, something inside me felt as if it were. To be standing on a boat moving slowly into port, moving so slowly a walker might overtake you—the aura of return about you, no matter how brief the voyage out had been, then that last effortless drift into your berth— that to me was one of the most serene moments spent on a boat.
Henri’s wife was there waiting for us, dressed formally as usual, and I could see two or three people next to her, potential customers for today’s sea urchins, perhaps. She gave no greeting but tossed us a line, then brushed her hands together smartly. Henri fastened the line to the boat, then cut the engine. I jumped off the Tintamarre onto the quay. I walked over to the stand.
“Madame,” I said to Henri’s wife, “how many sea urchins do you think I found?”
“I don’t know. How many?”
“He only took the black ones!” Henri said from the boat.
“Really?” Madame Fronteri said.
“Yes, it’s true,” I said.
“Perhaps,” Madame Fronteri said with a wry smile so characteristic of her, “you are better at writing?” I hope so.
“Yes,” she said. “I do, too.”