Octopus Ode

According to my research, aka wikipedia, the octopus is a cephalopod mollusc of the order Octopoda. Octopuses have two eyes and four pairs of arms, and like other cephalopods they are bilaterally symmetric. An octopus has a hard beak, with its mouth at the center point of the arms. Octopuses have no internal or external skeleton allowing them to squeeze through tight places. Octopuses are among the most intelligent and behaviorally flexible of all invertebrates.

If Sète could have a mascot the octopus would be its best representative. Upon arriving in Sète I caught my first glimpse of an octopus swinging from the belt of a scuba clad man walking along the beach. Never having seen an octopus in my life, you can imagine my surprise. As the man walked by I racked my brain for the vocabulary, but unfortunately this was not a word I learned in high school French class. I wanted so badly to start a conversation with this man about his octopus. “Where on earth did you catch that!?” I would have enthousiastically asked. But alas, my mouth just hung agape, and it was only my expression of awe that allowed me to convey my curiosity to this stranger. Returning home that evening, I searched out the word octopus in the dictionary, laughing at myself thinking when will I ever need this word again…it would be sooner rather than later.

The French language, never ceasing to amaze me, has two words for octopus: la pieuvre, if you are referring to the living eight armed creature OR le poulpe, if you are referring to a less happy, yet oh-so-tasty, cooked octopus. (Note the difference in the gender of the nouns… this screws with me ALL the time.) This invertebrate is deeply appreciated here, and it has even brought some culinary fame to this little port town. La tielle Sétoise, is a much more appetizing name than octopus pie, but patatoe-pahtahto. La tielle is a spicy octopus ragoût clothed in a sweet wine-flavored pastry dough, and eating it is a rather religious experience. I had it for dinner the other night, for lunch today and I may go back for more tomorrow.

Furthermore, this sea creature makes a lovely metaphor for my séjour in Sète. As of recent I have been noticing the symmetry between my hometown, Stowe, and Sète. They are both charming and picturesque, dependent on tourism, and containing a deeply proud and unique native population. It might seem like I’m comparing apples with oranges, but fisherman and farmer are not really so different after all. One lives humbly from the sea, the other from the land. Another comparison I’ve drawn between Stowe and Sète is that one person’s business is everyone’s business, and the arrival of a foreigner like myself has not gone unnoticed. It’s not shocking, yet after passing four years disguised in a blanket of San Franciscan fog, my taste for small town fame has faded measurably. This is not to say I’m famous here, but people know I exist. The few French friends that I have made here are local Sétois with expansive networks…what’s more, I work in a well known local bar in centre ville. Meeting someone for the first time here, I am greeted with, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about you, you’re that American girl.” I didn’t quite know how to handle that at first. It freaked me out wondering what kind of preconceived judgements they had already passed on me. I’ve been counseled not to do anything “too bad” if I’d like to stay out of the spotlight. This advice has been heard and I’m navigating my way cautiously.

With this advice comes my second comparison to the octopus. I’m learning to channel their intelligence. I have to stay concealed enough so that I don’t become someone’s dinner, and flexible enough so that I can adapt to new environments.  I’m learning to squeeze through some metaphorically tight spaces: a new language, a new job, and new friends…it hasn’t all been easy, but  I’m hoping to acclimate elegantly.

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2 thoughts on “Octopus Ode

  1. Betsy Austin says:

    Beautiful, Lizzie. Keep these vignettes a’coming! And check out “le poulpe” in Jules Verne 20,000 Milles Lieues sous la Mer:) It’ll scare the be’jesus out of you!

  2. Paula Botwinick says:

    Brilliant piece of writing my little octopus friend.

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