Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (2 page)

One childhood friend, Christine Lankford, was separate from all others. She lived up the block. Christine went to the public grade school and I went to Mary Queen of Peace; going, as we did, to different schools made it possible for us to create and share a private world all our own. Christine had curly strawberry-blond hair and creamy skin that picked up the rosy reflection of her hair. She was sweet-natured, unexcitable, unimaginative. I could reinvent myself in a world only the two of us shared. I could be whoever I chose with Christine, and since I had a wild imagination, this took various forms.

There was a house on our street, weathered and weed-infested, that was said to be haunted. Its real-life tenants appeared infrequently. I had decided that they were a
gangster and his floozy from Los Angeles, where they were rumored to operate when they weren’t in St. Louis suburbia. Indeed, the couple did have a low-life appearance, he unshaven and often shirtless, with shifty eyes that never connected with a neighborhood child’s, she raven-haired and voluptuous, with dresses defining an hourglass figure and revealing bosom and calf. When they returned from their life of crime, as I imagined it, they would sit on the front steps of the house, drinking beer, defying their gentrified neighbors. They had a salivating three-legged bulldog that prowled the front yard. This cast of unsavory characters, I decided, needed a detective on the case. I began a file on the couple, describing their “history” and the precise dates and hours of their comings and goings. But this was inadequate. For important clues, it would be necessary to get inside the house. In one of their absences, I persuaded Christine to be my accomplice. While she stood faithful watch, her head jerking like a startled bird’s, I threw a fist-sized rock through the window of the back door. And—how simple—we were in. Christine, a quaking sentinel, waited in the living room, where she could keep her eyes peeled on the street, while I rifled through drawers and closets. I found a cleaning bill, a movie ticket stub, a bottle of dried-up hot-pink nail polish. I pocketed them for my files. That was it. Not much to go on.

While Christine ran for home on some pressing business, I climbed the apple tree in the backyard to record our investigation in my dossier. Christine never ratted, or even referred to the incident again. I kept it to myself—and never confessed my crime to the parish priest. This was surprising, because I was always trying to dredge up some worthwhile sin for which I could be absolved.
About the best material I could come up with was on the level of lying that I’d fed the parakeet or cheating during a game of Monopoly. This “breaking and entering” was a far more serious matter, but it remained connected to a realm of fantasy.

Yet this adventure informed me about myself. I would dare what others wouldn’t. I would invite rarefied experience. And, however risky, or even mistaken, I felt irreproachable.

Another encapsulated world within the real world was that of the movies. As a child, I spent hours at the cinema. Movies cast such a spell on me that I forgot who or where I was. The first film I remember was
The Wizard of
Oz, where I was taken with my Brownie troop under the supervision of our leader. Dorothy’s plight was more than I could bear to watch. I crawled under the seat and cupped my palms over my ears. I was discovered—a ball of fear—when the Brownie body count at the end of the film came up with one missing.

On Saturday afternoons, all the kids went to the local movie house for a double feature. The packed, darkened house was a riot of activity: popcorn wars; constant “musical chairs” as mercurial children jockeyed allegiances, both romantic and otherwise; brawls and stampedes in the aisles. An adult wouldn’t have set foot in this madhouse. The soundtrack was set at an ear-shattering level, in a futile attempt to overwhelm the noise of the live audience. Meanwhile, the screen was alive with dramatic newsreels and heart-pounding westerns and romances—inspiring subjects that were larger than ourselves. I felt swallowed up, frightened of drowning in this chaotic vortex, cowering yet content in my obscurity.

Today I prefer going to the movies by myself, when I’m
lost in the cavernous dark and surrounded by strangers, Italo Calvino captures something of this in
The Road to San Giovanni:

It was a time when the cinema became the world for me. A different world from the one around me, but my feeling was that only what I saw on the screen possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen were only heterogeneous elements lumped together at random, the materials of a life, mine, which seemed to me utterly formless. The cinema as evasion, and certainly evasion was what I got out of the cinema in those years, it satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation.

Today, the movies remain a satisfying disorientation: leaving the cinema in the afternoon, as from a cocoon of perpetual night, I’m flummoxed by the daylight.

I still find great satisfaction in being in places—a town, a hotel room—aware of the fact that no one, not even close friends, knows where I am. I am free; I am uncompromised. When I left St. Louis to seek a career in New York, driving across country, I stopped at a motel in Cleveland for one night. At that moment, completely alone, whereabouts unknown, I felt finally liberated and unburdened. My father’s message had taken root. My mother’s spirit was with me.

When the possibility of the house in France arose, I was in my midforties. I had no ancestral ties to the country; my father’s side of the family was Irish, my mother’s
German. France stirred the dreamer and romantic in me. It had elegance and sophistication, the arts and high fashion, castles and royalty, cafés where literary figures whom I revered had actually sat,
haute cuisine
—in short, all that my Midwestern suburb lacked. Burdened with the childhood guilt for my parents’ conflicts, I had remained at home until graduation from college. I had never had the experience of living with peers. And, though I had had my share of affairs (my first serious love came along in my junior year), I had never truly contemplated marriage. An elderly French bachelor might say, “Je
n’ai jamais trouvé ma chaussure”
(I never found my shoe), but for me it wasn’t quite that simple. I wanted to avoid the trap in which I’d seen my mother. The prospect of the house came at a time in my life—settled in a job, settled in the co-op—when I was ready to turn a corner, take a plunge. Its remoteness suited me.

The
département
of the Lot, in Southwest France, is usually overlooked by guidebooks (pray that it continue, I secretly hope), which tend to focus on its westerly neighbor, the Dordogne. The Lot shares with the Dordogne the same appealing type of stone houses with red-tiled roofs and a hearty cuisine, centering on
confits
of preserved duck and goose,
foie gras
, truffles, prunes, and walnuts. Cahors is the
préfecture
of the Lot; it is also the name of the lusty “black” wine of the region. North of Cahors is the Gramat Causse, the largest
causse
, or limestone plateau, in the Quercy. It is the spot where the winding river Lot, a tributary of the Garonne, flows over rocks and loops around picturesque towns. The Dordogne River, which, in what the Michelin calls its “Quercy stretch,” snakes around Carennac. The mountainous Auverge lies to the east. The Corrèze, to the north, boasts the famous china-making center of Limoges, as well as my train stop
in Brive-la-Gaillarde. Because the Lot has no particular glitz—“castling,” caving, and canoeing are as racy as it gets—its gentle landscape invites you to pause, rest awhile, leave behind your worries.

On my first, ecstatic journey to Carennac, I spent the first night in the
auberge
in Carennac. I was to meet the real-estate agent at the house early in the morning. It was dusk. I took a stroll through Carennac. I could have been on the moon, so far was I floating above earth. Bliss, like its opposite, grief, is strangely isolating and inexpressible; the world goes about its business at a great remove. I thought of my father, who, I’m confident, never experienced such an emotion. I recalled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge, who, at church on Christmas, reflects on the word
joy:
“He asked himself if he ever had known it. If so, he could not remember. But he thought he must have known it because he understood the connotation, which would be impossible without having experienced it. However, if he had once known joy it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called ‘rejoicing’ after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There were many such feelings, but none of them should be called ‘joy.’ He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.” That would have been my father: happiness was demoted to a deceit that fools fell for. I’d believed him—in some ways, I’d been my father’s child, drawn into his world of solitary darkness. Until this moment. I’d never known joy, and now I did.

The house hardly seemed a reality, but it was really
there. The bliss I felt at first mellowed over the years. And, removed from a social life that continually reinforces one’s identity, I faced myself, something of a blank slate. It was a place where I could begin life almost as a child, or a brand-new person. I emerged from a cocoon and found commitment to that postcard-size patch of the world and the people who inhabited it.

Opening
       a Door
1
MY HOUSE

C
larennac is a fairy-tale village. From the high road it appears like a house of cards, with its jumble of cherry-red tile roofs. Its tiny meandering streets compose a storybook setting of eleventh-century church and abbey, tiny bridge, and stone houses clustered along the gently flowing Dordogne River.

Its designation as
un des plus beaux villages de France
brings excursion buses in the summer and, on Sundays, groups of families who descend on one of the local
auberges
for the traditional four-hour midday meal. There are three comfortable inns and a pint-size
alimentation
, or grocery store, owned by Monsieur Jean-Marc Coussil, a heavyset middle-aged bachelor with a sober disposition, a vivid flushed face, and eyebrows that jump with a nervous tic. Those are the only commercial enterprises. There is no café. There are virtually no permanent residents in the village, most of the houses being second homes whose
owners live in more urban environments. Thus, the village feels suspended in time, nearly motionless and silent.

The church and abbey don’t imperially dominate the village as is often the case in France, but are discovered nestled at an angle on a cobbled street past an inviting archway. The tympanum, sculptured in the natural stone of Carennac
(blond comme le miel
, as it is described), is surprisingly animated, with the twelve apostles conversing
tête-à-tête
. Within the church, the sixteenth-century
mise au tombeau
depicts a group of figures who must have been modeled after some local citizens, notably the Virgin, with her strong, broad peasant’s face and eyes hooded in unspeakable sorrow. The adjoining cloister invites a quiet walk along its arched passageway, where it is cool on the hottest of afternoons. I always light a candle and make an irreligious wish: that Carennac will never change.

Across from a rampart overlooking the river stands a bronze bust of Fénelon (1651–1715), the renowned churchman and writer who was the senior prior of Carennac from 1681 to 1695. One of the
auberges
is named for him. His
Adventures of Télémaque
, a literary tool for his political ideas as it follows the adventures of a young man in search of his father, is said to have been written here.

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