Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (10 page)

To accomplish this job required a further extension of my vocabulary. I prepared myself this time with a new batch of words:
enlever
(strip off),
vernis
(varnish), and the like. At the paint store in St-Céré, the woman directed me to a lumberyard on the edge of town.

“Bien sûr.”
Monsieur nodded when I arrived and had stated my needs.
“Vous voudrez poncer le plancher.” Poncer le plancher
. The words bounced in my head—it sounded like a circus act. He proposed to send a man to the house to give me an estimate. The best way to give directions to my house, I have learned, is to draw a little map: the bridge over the Dordogne, the right turn to Carennac, a left at the fork, the stone wall at the very top of the winding road, the dirt road and the first crossroad, the left turn and the
very
steep descent to the house. To emphasize the steepness, I always crook an arm at a sixty-degree angle. The appointment with a Monsieur Barrié was set for the following morning.

After breakfast, I sat on the patio awaiting his arrival. Soon I heard a car at the intersection and the crunch of gravel as it descended. Monsieur Barrié stepped out of his car with a young man whom he introduced as his son. Monsieur had curly reddish hair and a pale complexion, unusual coloring for this part of France. This was echoed in his son, a painfully thin young man who languidly chain-smoked.

Inside the house, Monsieur admired, pro forma, the view from the windows, and then proceeded to take measurements. He walked mincingly, heel to toe, heel to toe—as the average person would in trying to get a rough estimate of feet—the length and breadth of the room. This struck me as a rather casual method—especially since I would be charged according to this measurement. With a flourish, he made calculations on a notepad and presented me with a figure. The entire job required stripping the floor of the old varnish, applying two new coats, and polishing; this would take two days. I had not expected to spend that much money, but by now my excitement about the project overcame any second thoughts.

Also, this would fit in perfectly with a plan I’d made for a brief canoeing expedition on the Dordogne. (I make it a rule to steal away for at least two or three days of
real
vacation on each trip.) The job could all be accomplished, painlessly, while I was away.

Monsieur said he would prepare a bill and arrive the next day at nine
A.M
. We said our farewells.

The road going past my house down to the valley, as I always emphasize in directions, is treacherously steep; in a shift car, you need to remain in first gear. I forewarn anyone who’s not been there. Upon their departure, I advise them—as I now did Monsieur Barrié—to continue downhill, past the Salgues’ farm, and circle back to the main road, rather than attempt the impossible uphill return. But no sooner had I closed the door than I heard the squeal of spinning wheels and the sputter of flying gravel. For some reason—sheer obstinateness? a streak of machismo?—he had reversed the car and attempted to head up the hill. I rushed out to the alarming sight of Monsieur Barrié’s car tilted crazily at the side of the road. It had skidded backward and now teetered at the edge of a dropoff to the valley below. He was standing by the car, with a ghostly pallor, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. His son remained seated in the passenger seat, his head propped against the headrest, smoking unconcernedly.

“Attendez!”
I shouted.
“Je vais chez Monsieur Hironde!”
Hironde, I reasoned, who had so capably delivered wood to my house, going down
and
back up the road with his tractor, could surely help.

I walked/ran to the Hirondes’ and found Raymond in his yard. Hyperventilating, I attempted to explain the situation: my left hand, the road, at an upward angle; my right hand, the car, sliding down, down, down. He responded
with his usual aplomb and said he would arrive
tout de suite
.

Monsieur Barrié was staked out beside the car as if willing it to hold fast. At the arrival of Hironde and the tractor, he became visibly agitated, perhaps at the sight of the giant, rumbling vehicle, perhaps in response to Raymond’s amazing calm. Hasty introductions made, Hironde pulled the tractor into the patch of lawn by the house, backed up, and turned the tractor in the uphill direction. (Tractors, of course, have no trouble with the ascent—I’d seen my neighbor Salgue negotiate it daily.) He then hitched a long, thick cable to the front fender of Barrié’s car and instructed Barrié to return to the driver’s seat. (The son, enveloped in a smoke cloud of disinterest, had never left the car.)

I retreated to the patio as the tractor began its sure, grumbling, turtlelike ascent. The car was plucked gently from the edge of the embankment. I slipped into the house and peeked out from behind the curtain, to save Monsieur Barrié my witnessing his humiliation. From the door, where the road is seen at its steepest, I watched as the tractor disappeared uphill behind the trees, with Barrié’s car, cigarette smoke issuing from the window, inching along at the end of its tether.

Monsieur Barrié and his son arrived on schedule the following morning, with no mention of the previous day’s escapade. I bade him farewell and set off for the canoeing expedition.

In New York, I had made arrangements for this short venture with the Safaraid company, who operate some six hundred boats in canoeing territory. After checking in at the seventeenth-century Château de la Treyne, in Pensac, where I had made reservations for the night, I stopped for
an al fresco lunch at a totally deserted restaurant in Meyronne. I met my guide, Jean-Noël Dufour, a lithe young man with a shock of reddish hair and mustache, at his house in the nearby tiny village of St-Sozy. Right away he asked me to call him by his first name and proudly divulged that the house, which had been his family’s second residence when they lived in Paris, was his inheritance. He preferred the country life.

Since there had been a surplus of rain in the spring, the river was high. Thus, rubber boots and a wet suit were essential. He pointed to a back room where I could slip into them. I wiggled in a sort of bizarre dance into the wet suit, a hideously viselike outfit; it was like being snapped up in a giant rubber band. I pulled on the boots, but then decided that they were on the wrong feet. I switched them and had the same sensation. I concluded that it didn’t matter. Following Jean-Noël to the car, I rocked sideways with the gait of a robot, though he seemed oblivious to my condition, as agile in his own wet suit as if it were a second skin. He loaded the canoe on the rack of the car and we headed for the river. Sitting in the car in my rubber straitjacket, I felt like a crash-test dummy. A hot crash-test dummy. My skin couldn’t breathe.

When we reached the river, Jean-Noël parked the car and maneuvered the canoe to the water as I waddled after him. At the shoreline he handed me a bright yellow life jacket, which transformed me into a buxom robot. Usually I enjoy the paraphernalia of a sport—the shoes and clothes for running, for example—but this was all so odious. I gracelessly boarded the rocking boat. Jean-Noël pushed off from shore, assuring me that the water would be
très tranquille
. I thirstily gulped the cool breezes as the canoe was picked up by the current. Jean-Noël captained
from the rear, dexterously manipulating a double-paddle oar. My canoeing experience was limited to long-ago days in the Missouri Ozarks, where I had gone to summer camps as a kid. From the front of the boat, I dipped in my single-paddle oar from time to time, to one side or the other, feeling ineffectual. This actually suited me just fine. I was completely content acquainting myself with the river from this fish-eye view. The landscape of high bluffs and lush greenery slipped by. I felt I’d become a part of the scene in one of those timeless Missouri river paintings by George Caleb Bingham.

Only at one point did the river become less than
tranquille
. We ran into a sudden stretch of rapids and were swept pell-mell to shore. I sucked in my breath and clutched the sides of the canoe, in that split second grateful for the hideous wet suit. But Jean-Noël, unruffled, pushed us off again and we rejoined the quieter waters.

After an hour of gliding along, he steered into shore at the île de la Borgne, a tiny deserted island with a carpet of wildflowers. He remarked that there are many such
sauvage
places in the country, but that there was nothing to fear. We hiked across the flat terrain for a view of Belcastel, a privately owned seventeenth-century château, perched like a hawk on the brink of a high overhanging cliff. Back on course, we continued on the tranquil four-mile trip to end up near Pensac and the château. More serious canoeists would have continued on to Souillac for a full-day trip, with a picnic along the way. But I had opted for this briefer excursion.

Jean-Noël dropped me off beneath a little bridge by the château (one of the help would later drive me to pick up my car). I struggled out of my life jacket, wet suit, and boots. Free at last. The air circulating about my body was
deliciously refreshing. I felt as light as a butterfly. Thanking him, I waved good-bye and climbed up the steep bank to the bridge.

The view of the château was breathtaking. Though it seems precarious, on the very brink of a rocky precipice over the river, its solid base is actually strategically anchored. Its turrets and towers soar heavenward. I trudged up the hill and wandered about the garden before a light rain drove me inside. There I was effusively greeted by Madame Michèle Gombert-Devals, who owns and runs the château. Ah, she loved Carennac! She had friends there, whom I must meet. And how was my canoeing? I must tell her all about it. A pity, this dampening shower. Last November they’d been able to have dinner on the terrace. And why was my visit so brief? She so enjoyed company!

I wandered through the stately interior: billiards room, Renaissance salon, and library, all furnished with tapestries and ponderous antiques. One could easily imagine the rooms peopled with richly attired guests, who would have arrived by carriage and boat, attended by plumed servants in the candlelit interior. It was a romantic picture. But wouldn’t travel have been tedious? How did they manage it, with all the trappings required then? Still, despite the ease with which I’d arrived, I was just as ready to be pampered.

Before dinner, I had an aperitif in the salon, where a fire burned steadily. The giant wheels of wood would burn for days. Contentment, after a full, unusual day. I took my place in the dining room, which overlooked a small formal garden. The room, which was decorated in the same grand manner as the rest, had a rather gloomy atmosphere, though Madame Gombert-Devals stopped solicitously at my table to wish me
bon appétit
.

It was one of the worst meals I’ve had in France. I had opted for the chef’s menu of the day, which I expected to show him off at his best. Instead, it was sadly overambitious; he would have done well to let the food speak for itself. Why ruin
foie gras
with a salad drowning in vinaigrette? Why mask the flavor of the
gigot
of lamb with a blanket of rich sauce, crowded on the plate with a mushy
ratatouille?
A respectable Cantal, a nice Cahors wine, and a decent apple tart could not erase the overall sense of a missed opportunity. This was at first perplexing, since I regarded Madame Gombert-Devals as a woman of taste. On second thought, I realized that she was the sort of woman who wouldn’t concern herself with
haute cuisine
. She was a people person. That was her focus, and her forte. (The chef was probably a dear friend whom she was encouraging in his delusions of, perhaps, the
septième.)

The following day was Easter Sunday. I drove to Souillac for the eleven o’clock Mass at the cathedral. In the States, as I said, I never attend Mass, since I renounced Catholicism years ago. Yet, in France, I go both to partake in a ritual of French life and to sharpen my French by listening to the sermons.

The priest was standing with a plump altar boy to the right of the altar. Before the Mass began, a nun scurried up to the altar—slinking catlike, as if she wouldn’t be noticed—to straighten the altar boy’s cassock in an age-old motherly gesture. He blushed crimson. A group of musicians from Strasbourg were on hand for the holiday: the men on drums, horn, and trumpet, the women beautifully costumed with great ribbon hairpieces, black embroidered skirts, and lace-collared blouses. The music, however, was somewhat dispirited, and the women
seemed to be there for decoration rather than to sing, as I’d anticipated.

Sermons are always a challenge. Without an immediate context to hang on to, I’m often at sea. This one, delivered theatrically, was based on an allegory involving astronauts that I never completely grasped. It had something to do with our being astronauts in a quest for the heavens (God), the need for training (religion), the stumbling blocks (temptations), and so on. Or, in the dark sea of the language, that’s the message I came away with—greatly reduced, since the sermon went on for a good twenty minutes. During the Communion, accompanied by the repetitious music, I ducked out.

At Martel, nearing home, I stopped for lunch at La Turenne.
Tout le monde
was packed into the restaurant for a long holiday gourmandizing. I had a perfect grilled trout and a half bottle of Muscadet, watching the festivities. But I didn’t dawdle. I was anxious to get home to see the floors.

The room was transformed! It was light, airy, cooler. I almost hated to walk on the floors, like eating just after you’ve had your teeth cleaned.

Then I noticed a little visitor, witness to my delight. A tiny blue-and-yellow bird was flitting about the kitchen, its head cocked in curiosity at my sudden presence. Fearlessly, it hopped to the window ledge and, with a little scolding twitter—why did you have to come home?—flew off.

Before preparing dinner, I stopped by the Hirondes in order to thank Monsieur for rescuing Monsieur Barrié. In thanks for my thanks, Simone gave me a jar of her luscious fat
cèpes
, which she had put up from the fall harvest. Seated at the dining-room table, Raymond jocularly reenacted the folly of the event—which called for an aperitif.
At the end of the restaged drama, he shook his head. The man was a very bad driver, he pronounced. And
trop nerveux
.

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