Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (20 page)

To get to the separate restaurant, I had to climb up a steep rocky terrace to a great wooden door. It creaked as it opened onto a spectacular setting. The restaurant of creamy-white stone was semi-alfresco, with a view of the surrounding hills, hazy in the evening light. Flowers and candles adorned the tables. It was as serene as a monastery.

I ordered a glass of champagne and chose the
prix fixe
menu. Here, as the view of the hills darkened, is what I had: the chef’s offering of an
amuse-gueule
(what we would call a cocktail snack but which wittily translates as “tease the mouth,” and specifically, the mouth of a ravenous animal), which was a puff of
pâté à chou
filled with
crème fraîche
atop a delicate chive cream sauce; an eggplant mousse in an airy cream sauce with a refreshing touch of mint; a salad of finely slivered avocado on delicate mixed greens, with olives and mounds of avocado mousse; for the main course, what was called a
crespinet du pied de porc
, molded balls of rich, gamy minced pork in a crisp casing, sweet and sticky, surrounded by tiny carmelized onions, bacon bits, and baby carrots; an unusal
cheese course, a
chèvre rôti
redolent of anise and warming its bed of greens; and, finally, a
reine de pommes
, a warm slab of apple tart in a cidery sauce. I spent more on the wine than the entire meal: a 1985 Graves recommended by the wine steward, who enacted the classic and mesmerizing ritual—which I’ve so rarely seen—of testing the wine in a little silver cup (called a
taste-vin)
and holding the bottle to candlelight to check the sediment. It was a grand wine; at the end, he pointed to the sediment on the side of the bottle—a good sign. I received every bit as much solicitous attention as the elegant couple, apparently known to the maître d’, seated at the next table. I walked back to my room—no stars, portending a cloudy day—literally and figuratively on top of the world.

Rosebushes lined the wine route. At first I assumed they simply reflected the Provencals’ love of flowers. But I later read that since roses are easily susceptible to rot, they warn viticulturists of impending disease to their vines. The fields were carpeted with
genêts
, buttercup-yellow wild-flowers with a powerful perfume. With the windows of Charleston open, and the ceaseless
mistral
sending rushes of air through the car, I was constantly inhaling the aroma. I took to stopping along the way to pick a few sprays of
genêts
, which I’d stick in a water glass in my hotel room, their scent my last sensation before sleep. The rolling yellow fields, the deep blue sky, brought Monet’s blue-and-yellow kitchen at Giverny to mind.

Along the Cézanne route outside of Aix, to Mont-St-Victoire, the colors of the landscape became muted, austere. My art-history books came to life, and I recognized the places where Cezanne’s strivings to find “a harmony parallel to nature” were realized. I drove the route
around the rugged limestone massif and circled back to Le Tholonet, where Cézanne had rented an old stone farmhouse in the last years of his life. Being within sight of St-Victoire, the circumstances of his death seemed particularly poignant: he’d gone out on one of his daily excursions to paint the mountain and was caught in a rainstorm. Burdened with his easel, he collapsed on the road and was eventually found by someone with a laundry cart. He died a week later.

The
mistral
was maddening, a never-ending brewing storm. How do the Provencals endure this wind day in, day out? What would the winters be like? I asked Madame, as she anchored my tablecloth at an alfresco lunch; her smile and shrug seemed to say, “We all have our little crosses, but this is a small one to pay for being in paradise.” But after two weeks, I was itching to be free of it. The last day, as I headed back to Pech Farguet, I wondered at what point the
mistral
would vanish—would there be one instance when it was and the next instant not? I couldn’t say when—it was like waiting for a flower to bloom, or die—but at some point the car was no longer buffeted, the whistling stilled, and when I stepped out the door, it was as if the world had come to rest. Provence was behind me.

Crossing the border of the Lot, I marveled again at the singular character of the region: the old stone houses with red-tiled roofs, the gentle landscape, the colors. The very air, it seemed, was unlike any other. I took a deep breath and drank it in. In all of France, I was reassured yet again, this was exactly where I wanted to be.

14
AN OLD FRIEND

T
he following fall, my close friend Patsy O’Connell visited the house. Our friendship has been long and loyal. We grew up in adjacent neighborhoods and had gone to school together, all the way from first grade through college. We both had reclusive, pessimistic Irish fathers. I don’t recall our ever speaking of them to each other. Our mothers were Brownie leaders together. They were the center of our lives. We both had two much older siblings, sisters in Patsy’s case, brothers in mine, so that we shared the experience of having older parents and a more solitary upbringing. Only in her later years did Patsy become spontaneously generous—a streak of Irish miserliness of spirit overcome? Yet she is still somewhat shy about demonstrating—and receiving—physical affection. We formed a bond in those early years that underwent dramatic changes in our lives. During college, we segued into antithetical circles. Patsy got involved with a radical antiestablishment hippie crowd (she was arrested
in one of the first sit-down protests against racial prejudice in a bank in St. Louis). I took a staid path: sorority, religious sodality, honors society (the be-good, don’t-rock-the-boat route). Yet we remained close friends. Our contrary worlds were almost an unspoken joke between us.

Patsy joined the Peace Corps and subsequently taught in Africa for several years. Eventually she wound up back in St. Louis—the majority of her close friends were there—as the director of an adult-education program. She recently bought a three-story house in the historic renovated district of Souillard, near the waterfront, which she has filled with her collection of African art and a colorful array of folk art. Her married sister lives in New Jersey, however, and Patsy usually visits her once a year and stays over for a night in Brooklyn; I get back to St. Louis now and then to see her and other friends. Even though we’re far apart, I count her as one of my closest friends. And though we see each other infrequently, there’s a continuity. I couldn’t stand on more solid ground than with this woman I’ve known all my life. I invited her to France, assured that we’d travel well together: same interests, same rhythm. And we’d worn well.

Being in France together would be special, since we’d have an extended period of time—five days—all to ourselves. I arrived several days early, on a Friday, and planned to pick up Patsy at the train station in Brive the following Monday (to save her the anxiety of having to switch trains to St-Denis).

When I drove up to the station she was already standing on the steps. We hugged gleefully. Here we were, two old grade-school friends meeting in Brive! On the way out of town, we chattered madly, about Paris, her train ride, about the weather, about the route we’d be taking
home. She adored Charleston. Such a
typique
way to get about! She was rhapsodic along the route to the house. Not far from Brive, there’s a particularly spectacular view of the château of Turenne, with the houses of the tiny village clustered at its base like children at their mother’s skirt (in fact, it had more than a thousand villages and numerous abbeys under its aegis). It was her first castle and I slowed to a crawl so that she could observe it at length.

At the house, she dropped her luggage on the patio, stunned at the view. I basked in the moment: Patsy at my home in France at last. We’d been planning this trip for a long while.

That evening we had champagne before the fire. I’d put together a special dinner: a potato
gratin
(a James Villas recipe that required about three hours of tending) and grilled duck breast in a port-and-orange sauce. We shared a bottle of wine and dropped happily in bed. Patsy had the upper bedroom. I slept in one of the two enormous chairs before the hearth, which had been built by Mr. Pinckney. These are capacious wooden chairs, with sturdy bright blue cushions (the color scheme of my house is a Monet-like blue and yellow, the same as Patsy’s old bedroom at home, I remembered). They have sloping backs, and long footrests that slide out from the bottom so that you can almost stretch out full-length. It’s somewhat like sleeping in a lounge chair. It was no sacrifice to be lulled to sleep by the dying embers of the fire.

Patsy reflects her Irish heritage. She is plump and apple-cheeked, with large blue-green eyes and curly auburn hair, which she now dyes. She is wonderfully witty and talks a mile a minute; when she and her sister are together they carry on an overlapping dialogue, speaking
and hearing at the same time. Patsy loves nothing more than a lively and nearly endless discussion. She has a big, cackling laugh, which erupts often. When she is pensive, she has a winsome way of pursing her lips as if to kiss. Patsy enjoys good food, which gave me no end of pleasure during her stay. Each morning I would drive down to the Bétaille bakery while she was showering. After the first morning, she always wanted both a croissant and a
pain aux raisins
, with coffee. She clucked over the food like a contented hen.

I wanted to wow Patsy right off the bat. So, the first morning, we headed for Rocamadour, one of the most spectacular sights in the region. The village, seemingly defying gravity, is literally pinned to the face of a cliff over a gorge 1,640 feet below. Rocamadour was a major pilgrimage stop: according to the Michelin, thirty thousand people came on days of major pardon and plenary indulgence. Its fame grew as a result of miracles rewarding the faithful. On the way to Rocamadour, I told Patsy about the pilgrims’ route, just as Charles had told me, in storybook fashion.

The arriving pilgrims, I said, entered the Haut-Quercy from the north. Perhaps a night or two in Tulle, and the hospitality of the abbot-bishop, would have whetted their desire to reach the shrine of the Black Virgin in Rocamadour. They would look forward to seeing Roland’s sword, and to hearing the blessed bell that rang to mark the saving of sailors in trouble on the sea, far to the west. A day’s walk would bring the ragged band to Aubazine, where, at the shrine of Blessed Stephen, they could receive blessings. Then they went south to the high castle of Turenne, where one of the most independent and powerful of French viscounts ruled, or perhaps by way of
Collonges-la-Rouge, where amid orchards and vines, rich farmers made the land glow like the finest of medieval miniatures. The pilgrims would come to the towers of Curemonte or Martel, tiny fortified cities, each with active markets and ruled by a dozen noble families. Then down to the cliff-bound valley of the swift-flowing Dordogne, crossing at Carennac, or farther west at Gluges. On the way the pilgrims passed farmers driving plows pulled by teams of four oxen. They met up with monks hurrying from priory to monastery to grange. They occasionally saw knights or men-at-arms, but these violent folk were best avoided. There were no bridges on the Dordogne, which was uncrossable when it flooded, and the ferryman’s charge was probably very dear.

After resting on the south side of the river, the pilgrims would climb up to the plateau, the Causse of Gramat. The
causse
is a drier woodsy-bushy wilderness dotted here and there with sinkholes or depressions where a farmer can eke out a living. Shepherds pastured huge numbers of sheep on the
causse
in the Middle Ages, and orders like the Knights Templar owned huge expanses of its harsher and less populous parts. In summer the
causse
becomes fiercely hot, at least in comparison with the sweeter valleys to the north, and in winter the wind blows very cold. There is no surface water on the
causse
, and it is a very long day’s walk across it to the edges of the deep canyon of the Alzou, which hides the wonderful shrine of Rocamadour.

The reward for those who reached l’Hospitalet, a village at the edge of the canyon, was a spectacular view of Rocamadour, with its buildings that seemed to pour down the cliff face to the west. Here the pilgrim could rest, find food and shelter, and prepare for days of devotion,
sightseeing, and shopping. The first meal at l’Hospitalet would surely include slices of a huge round peasant loaf, the tasty disks of
cabecou
or goat cheese, and wine from the vineyards of Cahors. In the days that followed, the pilgrims would walk down the cliff road and through the fortified gate. They would pass dozens of small stalls, inns of every variety, and religious shrines for every type of devotion. Poor and rich alike, men as well as women, must all have felt the keen sense of satisfaction that a long effort to reach a distant goal brings. But pilgrimages are addictive, and how many of them would decide in a few days or weeks to continue on, to Conques or to St. James of Campostela in faraway Spain? After all, it would only take three or four more months to get there. The life of a pilgrim was both harsh and sweet, trudging, staff in hand, to new countryside, and a new blessing with every shrine. It’s easy to see how the way of the pilgrim became one of the most powerful metaphors for the journey of human life.

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