Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (3 page)

A small brochure devoted to Carennac quotes Fénelon’s letter to his cousin describing his entry into the town. Here is the account, in my own rough translation:

Many personages (ecclesiastics, nobility, farmers) came from Sarlat to render homage. I walked in the majestic company of all the deputies. I arrived at the port of Carennac and beheld the platform packed with people. Two boats, full of the elite bourgeois, advanced,
and at the same time I discovered that, by a gallant strategy, the most hardened troops of this place were hidden in a corner of the pretty island that is familiar to you. From there they assumed the order of battle to salute me with a lot of musketry. The air was all obscured by the fume of such a body and one could only hear the frightening sound of saltpeter. The spirited horse that I mounted, animated by a noble ardor, wanted to throw himself in the water, but I, more moderate, put my foot on the earth. To the noise of the musketry was added that of the drums.

Sarlat is an hour’s drive from Carennac. Imagine the arduous trip it must have been by horseback or carriage. Standing by the rampart, I can gaze on Fénelon’s pretty island across the river. The troops are still hiding behind the trees. The bronze bust of Fénelon facing the river is softly animated, stirred by my presence. I can hear the faint echo of the burst of gunpowder in the village, stirred from its slumber in the sunny afternoon. There is a distant drumroll in my head.

At the crest of a hill above the village, my house sits tucked like a bird’s nest in the trees. (This is
mine
—I’m always pinching myself.) It is invisible from the road, but from the valley I can just spot its face. In contrast to the normally quiet village, there is a cacophony of country sounds about the house: the chatter of birds, the buzzing of insects, the mooing of cows, the crowing of roosters, and the seemingly demented skirling cries of a local female sheepherder. It is a little gem of old cream-colored stonework and red-tiled roof, dating, according to the real-estate agent, from the early nineteenth century. It is called Pech Farguet. In Occitan, or the langue d’Oc, a
term used to describe the language of Southern France before the unification of the country’s spoken language during the nineteenth century, it means “the hill of the little forge.” In that era, a forge needed to be located as close as possible to its supply of fuel, that is to say, wood. Surrounded as it surely was by acres of pine and juniper, it would have been an ideal location to produce its weight in iron for the village of Carennac.

There is a large living room with a great fireplace occupying one wall and, opposite, long French doors open onto a tiny balcony, with a panoramic view of the valley. Through a little stone archway is a minuscule kitchen, with a half refrigerator and two-burner stove (since I market nearly every day at village
jours de marché
, these suffice). Up an angular wooden staircase is the second floor, with a small, beamed bedroom and a bath (shower, no tub). There is a garage (without a door) and a
cave
, or cellar.

Before my time, it was owned by a British architect and his wife, the Pinckneys, who did the restoration and summered there for twenty years. Now, with my arrival, I suspect that the neighbors have come to think of it as the “foreigner’s place.” The Pinckneys felt, for philosophic reasons, that everything should stay with the house—even Mr. Pinckney’s walking stick and bird-watching binoculars. As a result, the house felt like an important legacy. Almost immediately, I wrote the Pinckneys with loads of questions. (I had never met them, since the negotiations were all done through the real-estate agent and my friend Joan. In fact, I only saw the house in photographs before making my offer.) I received a lengthy response from Mr. Pinckney, in which he described some of the features of the house:

The great table is made from three sources. The top is old floorboards, planed by me, and the best I could do. The legs were from an old house in Lymington, which I was altering, and probably date from about 1850. The footrest is made from a broken crosstree from my yacht,
Dyarchy
, built in Sweden. The chest in the salon belonged originally to my grandfather, who served in the Crimea and Indian Mutiny. The chest on the landing originally belonged to Admiral George Goldsmith, who was a great uncle of my wife, Nausicaa. The Eton bury belonged to a great uncle of mine, who was born about 1840. The small iron rack in the fireplace is intended for warming wine, and hangs on a chain which was originally used for soup.

A set of typewritten instructions about the house, entitled “Points on the Obvious and Obscure,” was left in the top drawer of the bury, or oak cabinet, as I would call it. At first I read it for vital information; now I reread it for sheer amusement:

There are two main switches in and close to the china cupboard in Galley. One is English and the other French. The French switch is on when the tumbler is up, which is the reverse of usual. When there is a thunderstorm the French one switches off automatically and has to be switched on again when the danger is past. The English one does not worry.

The oven always goes out soon after lighting unless its door is left slightly open. When the oven has warmed up, its door can be shut. If a blowout occurs, it is vital to refrain from relighting until the gas has cleared, lest quite a good explosion may ensue.

The fire does not like very long logs, as they seem to direct the smoke outwards. There is a small air intake
hole in the stone paving in front of the hearth with a wood plug in it. This must be opened when the fire is in use. There is a wood shield to direct the draught, which should be placed over the hole. Sometimes it is best to have the small galley window open as well. This is all vital. It can be seen from the foregoing that this fire is temperamental and has to be treated with respect or the house will be full of smoke. Replace bung in floor when you go so as to exclude mice getting in.

Altogether, I felt as if I’d fallen upon, and become the owner of, a real
character
of a house.

Initially, I followed the arrangement established by the Pinckneys, who, in their absence, always left the keys to the house with Madame Bru. Madame Bru occupied a large, uncharacteristically drab gray stucco house on the other side of the crossroad above the house. She was perhaps in her late seventies and resembled one of the chickens that ran freely about the yard: trim, if not to say scrawny, with a pointed nose and button eyes. She would scurry to the door—the
brrring
of the doorbell triggering a pitter-patter of feet, as if her visitor were long expected. She would run her rather tremulous hands through her wispy hair, as if taming ruffled feathers. Her French was relentlessly rapid-fire—“Have mercy,” I wanted to plead—accompanied by quick, pecking gestures. She would sometimes give me a couple of eggs, a generous gesture since they were sustenance for herself and her family. (Once, one of her chickens was struck by a car on the road, which caused her much distress.)

Her daughter, Gabrielle, and her husband, Serge Servais, live in a beautifully restored house on adjoining
property, with well-groomed gardens and lawn (the two properties were formerly owned by Gabrielle’s grandparents). The Servais appear to be on the upper echelon of the social scale in “the neighborhood,” judging from the interior of the house, which reflects a sophisticated taste. They met in Paris, where he worked as an industrial engineer, and lived there until his retirement. Now they prefer life in the country. Madame Servais is a petite, gracious woman, with the pert features of her mother. She always sends me home from a visit with a treat: a bag of walnuts, a bunch of strawberries, lettuce from the garden. Her husband is a large, ebullient man. He pointedly injects bits of English, which he learned long ago in school, into conversations with me. He is hard of hearing and tends, particularly when trying out an English phrase, to shout. “OW DOO YOU DOO?” He’s a punster as well. When I asked them if they’d known the Pinckneys, he replied, “The Pickles?
Les Cornichon? Non.
” They had been living in Paris then.

Two years after I moved into my house, Madame Bru’s health began to fail. She was taken to a rest home and left my keys with the Bézamats, a family I was acquainted with who lived down the road. As delicately as possible, I explained to the Bézamats that I had become concerned about Madame being in charge of the keys, since she had become so feeble, and though she was expected to return from the home, I asked if they would assume the responsibility. Madame Bru never did return—she died in the rest home eight years ago—so now the keys are run back and forth to the Bézamats.

Madame Fernande Bézamat was first enlisted by the real-estate agent to clean the house prior to my arrival, and she has continued to do so ever since (I just write her
several weeks ahead). She seems to appreciate the extra spending money. Her price is nearly as much as what I pay the young male linguist student who cleans for me in New York, but the steadfast attention the Bézamats give to the house the rest of the year is invaluable. In the fall, after the house has been closed during the long hot summer, she leaves a plastic bag the size of a basketball in the garage, filled with the flies
(mouches)
she’s swept up.

Madame appears solid and strong-minded. She is twenty-four years younger than her husband, who is seventy, though she’s not the least bit deferential toward him. A mild neurological condition causes her head to twitch slightly, a movement that punctuates her conversation. She has a weathered complexion from working from sunup to sundown over long stretches for local entrepreneurs, gathering asparagus, strawberries, and walnuts in their respective seasons. In the fall, the walnuts leave her hands stained a deep mahogany for months. Not long ago, she had to have a knee operation due to a loss of cartilage; the doctor said she’d spent too much time on her knees. I long to bring out some humor in her, to break the tedium of her life, and she is quick to laugh. Once, I found her sitting on the landing of her house with her dog, Bobbie (pronounced with a long O), a friendly gray-and-white mutt. She explained that Bobbie was in an agitated state because a neighboring female dog was in heat.
“C’est dur d’etre amoureux,”
I said in mock sympathy. She thought this was uproarious, to attribute a natural animal instinct to a human emotion. But there was a harsh ring in her laughter, implying, I thought, a skepticism about romance.

Monsieur must have been a handsome young man; he still is handsome, with vestiges of a zesty sensuality in his
teasing eyes. Though he has a heart condition, his sharp, clear features are unmarred by age. He uses the name Marius for any official, written matter, but is called Charles by his wife and friends. I have asked him how he met his wife. He simply replied, à la George Leigh Mallory when speaking of Mount Everest,
“Elle n’était pas loin”
(she wasn’t far). So much for my notions of the romantic French.

The Bézamats have a sizable vegetable garden, large enough to provide for the family. Monsieur Bézamat was a
cultivateur
, as was his father before him, for nearly thirty years, and then a
maçon tailleur enpérre
(stone mason), taking only those jobs that suited him. He is always obliging, if not anxious, to do any odd jobs around my house for a little extra money. As soon as I arrive, he is quick to point out whatever needs fixing: a broken hinge, weathered paint, a leak in the roof. He tallies figures according to the
ancien
system, which went out long ago with De Gaulle. It’s
d’habitude
. His wife scoffs at this sign of stubbornness or unadaptability, but I can understand. It makes things more sensible to him. Wouldn’t it be shocking to find that something worth, say, a hundred dollars costs only a dollar?

The Bézamats have four children. I first met Serge, the eldest son, when he was in his late teens. He lives at home and works in the wood business. Colette, two years younger, works in Brive, a bustling town with a big market and cathedral about an hour’s drive away; I have never met her and wondered why to my knowledge she never visits home. Kati and Françoise, twins, were born after a ten-year gap. From the first, I saw that they were poles apart. Françoise was reserved and diffident, striving for independence and womanhood. Kati was rambunctious
and outgoing, a scamp and tomboy who was still having fun being a child. It was always Kati who, out of an innate curiosity, tagged along with her parents when they came to the house, and rolled around with Bobbie on the grass while her parents and I went about our business.

There is, and I imagine there will always be, only one set of keys. They are an irregular mix, to an outer and inner front door and the
cave
. The key to the
cave
is a gigantic, old iron piece that resembles the turnkey to a castle. Yet, over all these years of passing them back and forth, they’ve never been misplaced or lost. The keys constitute an unbroken link in our relationship.

Without the Bézamats, I often think, how would I survive?

2
MY NEIGHBORS

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