At a little open-air market in Foix, a small city in Ariège in the mid-Pyrenees region of southwestern France, I came upon a cheese stand selling local products. I’ve become fond of the area’s bethmale, a firm and tangy cow cheese, and its cousin toudeille, which can be made from cow, sheep or goat milk, or a combination. I picked up a bit of each from the seller. Then, tasting a delicious sample from a heavy wheel of cheese that the fromager was displaying on the counter, I bought a little bit of that too. I asked the vendor its name.
“There’s no name for it,” he said. “It’s simply a cheese from the Pyrenees.”
France has hundreds of cheeses, many named for their regions – the bethmale comes from a valley of that name where the cheese was first produced – and I was a little surprised that France, land of relentless categorization and insistent codification, allowed such a fine-flavored cheese to remain nameless. But some things, such as handmade local products sold locally by locals to locals – and to the occasional visitor – apparently fall outside the purview of the entrenched French bureaucratic mindset.
If I wanted more of that cheese the next time I visited my friend Jean in Foix, I’d have to be there on that same market day and find that same stand and hope that the same fromager would have that same anonymous cheese. But since cheese is a living thing it’s also ephemeral, and the cheese would not be exactly the same as the one I tasted. Besides, the cheesemaker’s supply depends on what is available to him and what he chooses to create. So, even if I wanted to find that cheese again, I’d have to rely on chance rather than count on certainty. I have come to expect certainty when I’m in France, because the French do so many things a certain way, though apparently with some exceptions, such as the making and naming of regional artisanal cheese.
I didn’t come to France to find certainty, however, but to be unsettled, or to find a place where being unsettled seemed more normal than it did at home in New York. I have a tendency to forge habits – a necessity when you work for yourself – that can become routine and that can insulate me from discovering what’s beyond my immediate view. This happens even in Paris, where so much remains unknown to me, even if so much is now comforting and familiar, though still beguiling. Although I finally feel that I belong, in a city where I will still always be a foreigner, I sometimes take for granted my growing familiarity with French culture, which can lead to complacency. So, even the trivial act of tasting a new and unnamed cheese created in me a slight and momentary sense of imbalance that not everything can be labeled. I’d had to appreciate a specific taste without knowing the name of what I’d tasted beyond the generic, and had to savor the moment, knowing that it would probably never be repeated. I was looking for a sure thing, but I had to accept uncertainty.
I’ve always lived in uncertainty, for my future, for my work, for who I am, for who I want to be and for what I’m worth. This is perhaps why the routines I create to establish order in my day often lead me to relying on habit that maintains stasis rather than using it as a springboard for leaping into the unknown. I remind myself that I must push myself to change, because I know that it’s too easy to become used to what I have, even if it’s not what I want. This is why I first began to build a recurring temporary life in Paris, so that I would have a series of set dates when I would have to move from one place to another. This would necessitate some sort of disorder in me, and I’d be shaken out of whatever everyday isolation I’d fallen into, an inadvertent apartness that I somehow cultivate, because I am by nature someone who prefers to be alone, as much as I long to connect. Perhaps my solitude is a way of remaining unknown, and perhaps unnamed, somehow there and somehow elusive, like that cheese I’d bought.
I was in Foix again a few weeks after I’d sampled that unnamed cheese, and I saw the same cheesemaker. I didn’t notice if he was displaying a wheel of cheese that might be similar to what I’d tasted before, because I was rushing to catch a train. But I overheard a group of English tourists being led through the market, who were marveling at the varieties of mainly local cheeses on display on that and other stands. “There are so many cheeses,” gushed one woman to the guide, “how can you remember them all?”
“Impossible,” she said, her French pronunciation making it seem both a fact and a challenge. “But you should try them.”
The trying, I thought, is the answer: I never know what I have when I have it, since it’s always later when I appreciate the time, the place, the food, the people, because I belittle the validity of my responses to whatever it is I encounter. That’s why I must try again and again, not simply to recreate an evanescent experience, though that will remain a frustrating constant in my character, but to thwart the self-abnegation that holds me back from appreciating the fullness of life.
And all that from a slice of cheese.