Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (4 page)

D
uring my first fall at Pech Farguet in 1984, I became acquainted with the Hirondes. When I needed firewood, Monsieur Bézamat informed me that Raymond Hironde was the man to see. Monsieur Hironde and his wife, Simone, live in Magnagues (pronounced something like maan-yag-ge, a word that always feels like peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth). It is only a five-minute walk up the road from my house. It’s a mere hamlet with a few dozen houses and a small square, where an annual fête is held in July. There is a defunct church and beside it the
presbytère
, which has a story behind it that Monsieur Hironde hastened to tell me. In 1944, the Normandy invasion had taken place, but “the war was not yet over.” Two British officers landed in parachutes near Miers—there’s a marker designating the spot. One of the men, Major George Hiller, had been shot by the SS. The locals discovered him and hid him in the
presbytère
in
Magnagues. There he was cared for by a doctor from nearby Vayrac and an English nurse. After the war, the nurse and the major married. He was much older and died years ago, but she still comes to the
presbytère
, which they’d bought and made their home after the church was closed. There is a plaque to the left of the door that reads:
ICI FUT SOIGNÉ GEORGE HILLER MAJOR BRITTANIQUE AUPRÈS DES GROUPES VÉNY, BLESSÉ PAR LE SS EN JUILLET
1944
(here, the British major George Hiller with the Vény group, wounded by the SS in July 1944, was cared for).

Monsieur Hironde is an avuncular gentleman, with a gurgling laugh that starts deep in his throat and erupts in a snort through his nose. A natural-born teacher, he is a storehouse of facts and figures—the depths of chasms, heights of mountains, historical data, that sort of thing. And he speaks slowly and exactingly to me—though with a pronounced, endearing lisp—as if he were addressing, well, a foreigner. I don’t regard this as the least condescending, but rather as a sign of perceptiveness, an ability to recognize my need. (I have given up pleading with the Bézamats to speak more slowly.)

He said he could readily supply me with wood. The very next afternoon he arrived with a tractorload of logs of various thicknesses, cut to fit my fireplace. There had been no discussion of the amount; he had simply cut down a tree. He dumped the logs in a great heap outside the house. I paid him for the firewood and hoisted two logs under either arm. It was going to be a day’s work, carrying them piecemeal down the flight of stone steps to the
cave
. He stood rooted in place, looking conflicted. Then, with a generosity of spirit from which I would benefit for years and an
allez-y
, he picked up an armload
himself, balancing the bundle as if he were cradling a baby, and paraded after me to the
cave
. We passed back and forth, like soldiers, up and back, up and back. In the end, the
cave
held a tidy, mountainous stack of logs, a supply for many winters to come. I was deeply satisfied with this physical exploit. That night I would have a glass of wine in front of a roaring fire.

Monsieur Hironde, I eventually learned, was retired from his position as a middleman in the mushroom industry (an
agriculteur)
, employed by the Boy-Maury factory located in nearby Biars-St-Céré. During the mushroom season in the fall, he would travel approximately two hundred kilometers a day to a dozen collection points where pickers amassed the harvest. He would pay the harvesters, and in turn, the factory would pay him. In a good year, he would earn perhaps twenty thousand francs—all in the course of several months. On the side, he also supplied wood.

He lives in a house built by his grandparents in 1912. When his parents married in 1914, they moved to the house, where Raymond was born in 1922. When he married his first wife in 1950, they lived with their parents in the house. Raymond and his first wife had five children.

Simone was born in Carennac in 1922 and married her first husband in 1941. They had four children. When both Raymond and Simone’s spouses died, they married in 1984. That was the year I met them, though at the time I assumed they were a longtime married couple. They’d known each other since childhood, which goes a long way toward explaining their obvious compatibility.

Whenever I stop by their house, the Hirondes invite me in for a coffee or a glass of Monsieur’s homemade prune
eau de vie
, even in the late morning—despite
the rumored French reluctance to welcome foreigners into their homes. Over the years we have graduated to using first names with each other. The ice was broken when Madame Hironde sent me a Christmas card signed “Simone and Raymond.” Subsequently—I can’t recall the specific occasion—she addressed me by my first name. I warmed as if she’d physically touched me. After that I gingerly tried out “Simone” and “Raymond”—lyrical to my ears—which caused no tremors. So we were established on a more intimate basis, though we’ve never gone so far as to
tutoyer
each other.

When I visit, we sit in the small, spartan dining room, furnished simply with a wooden chest for dishes and a plain wooden table and chairs within the hand-warming vicinity of a small fireplace. The adjoining kitchen has sparkling white walls and tile. There is a third room on this floor, a study across the front hall, with an astonishingly ostentatious
armoire
that Simone proudly points out as a family heirloom. Otherwise, there is not a picture or photograph, decorative object or bibelot adorning any of the rooms. The Hirondes are not impoverished. They’re just clutter-free, detached from material goods. Yet where is their sense of nostalgia, their taste or fancy? Without clues or context, they seem ill-defined. I feel, selfishly, that something is being withheld from me.

We talk of travel (they have been to Portugal, Spain, Hungary, countries that are among the more affordable vacation spots), politics (which, given the complexity of the subject and Raymond’s excitability when roused by an issue, often leaves me in the dust), family matters, and, often, at my instigation, food and cooking. They are rarely prompted to inquire about my life in New York, which must seem terribly remote. It’s more natural to talk about our immediate world.

Raymond warms to the role of raconteur, especially after some
eau de vie
. In fact, he looks something like a vaudevillian, with slick brown hair parted on one side and naturally uplifted eyebrows that give him an air of perpetual surprise. Simone sits somewhat formally beside him, sometimes with the distracted air of one who has heard all this before. He is fond of recounting a story about the first time he left his homeland, as a soldier during the war. In the prologue, he explains his strict Catholic background, his sole experience with the priesthood. The main story recounts his service in Hungary, and his first attempt to attend church there. To his utter shock, the priest arrived with a wife on one arm and a child in tow. A blatant flaunting of sin! Then, enlightenment: this was a Protestant church! Everything was put to rights: one man’s sin was another’s virtue. As he retold this tale, flushed and full of good cheer, his laughter would cause his head to tip back in merriment.

Simone, in contrast to his unfailing jolliness, has a sensitive, selfless temperament. Although I have seen her grow animated when talking about a travel adventure or anticipating a visit with friends, she is more often focused on problems of family or friends. On one of my visits, she wept openly over the recent, premature loss of a daughter-in-law, who left behind young children. A sturdy-looking woman—though she is troubled by bronchitis—she has a tidy, fastidious manner, habitually attired in a crisp belted dress in warm weather and a plain woolen dress and sweater in the cold. Her silvery blue hair always appears freshly coiffed (early one morning, she greeted me in a bathrobe with her hair in tight little rollers, and on several occasions I’ve encountered her on the way to the hairdresser). Simone is a familiar type of person to me—not unlike the Midwestern women I grew
up with—down-to-earth, religious, family-oriented, without airs. I’m always at ease in her company.

Five years ago I discovered a surprising aspect of the Hirondes’ relationship. I had stopped by their house to see if Monsieur could come over to trim the lawn. He promised to come over that afternoon. He would be leaving later, he said, to fetch Simone—
mon compagnon
, he called her—who was taking a cure in the Pyrenees for a bout of arthritis.
Mon compagnon!
The words—not
ma femme
—jumped out of the sentence and gave me a jolt.

All this time I had thought they were married. Perhaps that had only been a polite way of signifying their union in 1984. Still, why should I be shocked? Obviously, I had stereotyped them as a straitlaced, traditional country couple, whose living together out of wedlock would be unacceptable to family and neighbors. But I was also a little put out. The Hirondes, who were so protective of me, had become something of parental figures. The child in me surfaced; this felt like a small betrayal.

T
hat same spring of 1991, Simone proposed that the two of us take an excursion to the property her
petit-cousin
, Jean-François Fraysse, was restoring. This was something I must see. This distant relative, she said, lived most of the year in New York, while his seventy-year-old uncle, Georges Fraysse, did the lion’s share of the labor.

The place was only a mile away. When we arrived we found the elder Fraysse on his hands and knees, planting shoots of lavender. A stocky figure, he had a ruddy moon-shaped face with a picket fence of grayish teeth, bushy eyebrows, and a shock of flyaway white hair. He stood to greet me, with the agility of a twenty-year-old. Etiquette
requires a Frenchman with soiled hands to avoid a gritty handshake with a woman. Yet, not to appear unwelcoming, he may extend a bent wrist—or, if that’s soiled as well, an elbow to be shaken instead. I shook Monsieur Fraysse’s elbow.

The vast property, Simone said as he led us to the main house, included approximately fifty hectares, or a hundred and twenty-five acres, as I later calculated, and had been in the family for three generations. Monsieur Georges Fraysse had already cleared an expanse on the highest hill behind the house where he had planted three hundred chestnut trees. On the far side of the house was a magnificent grange in the ubiquitous stone and red tile, and on the other side an enormous beehive of a
four à pain
, or woodburning bread oven, which would be restored to working order.

When we entered the house, I could see that this was no ordinary undertaking. The structure was little more than a bare skeleton of roof and walls, the dirt floor covered by rickety wood planks. The best-preserved feature was a walk-in fireplace where the cooking would have been done in the past (in fact, there were some old iron cooking pots gathering dust on the hearth for which I, or a New York City antiques dealer, would have given a pretty penny).

I asked Monsieur Fraysse how long he thought the restoration would take. He shrugged his shoulders with an
“ah, ben,”
not in a sense of defeat but as if to say that things like this have a way of unfolding in their own time.

At the end of our brief tour of the house, Simone said she had something to show me. She prodded Monsieur Fraysse into rummaging through a cluttered drawer of an old wooden chest. Eventually, he produced a single sheet
of heavy paper. On one side was a reproduction of a photograph depicting a once-familiar rural scene in this part of France—a farmhouse with a young
paysan
leading a team of oxen to the fields. On the other side was a menu, with the name La Luncheonette scrolled across the top. Her
petit-cousin
, Simone announced, was the chef and owner of this restaurant in Manhattan.

I studied the small selection of classic French dishes, momentarily mystified. At the bottom of the menu was the restaurant’s fringe, if not to say seedy, address on Tenth Avenue, along with the phone number—proof to me that it did, in fact, exist. Standing on the wobbly floorboards, I squinted my eyes to imagine a French restaurant on Tenth Avenue, owned by a cousin of Simone’s. It was so improbable, a thread connecting here to there.

Simone didn’t suggest that I look him up, but I immediately made a resolution to do so.

B
ack in New York, I stopped in for an early dinner. The entrance to the place was on Eighteenth Street. The intersection is at the heart of a desolate stretch of warehouses. The view through the lace-curtained window is the parking lot of a truck-leasing operation. Hardly the setting for a
pâté de lapin
and
cervelles au beurre noir
, which is what I ordered.

I asked the young waitress if Jean-François was free for a moment. He emerged from the kitchen, a man in his midforties, who, I could see, might in old age resemble his uncle Georges. I explained that we were something of neighbors
(voisins)
in France. He collapsed in disbelief into the chair across from me. I finger-drew a small map
on the tablecloth, the roads leading from my house to his. His face softened into a broad smile. He knew precisely my little road—a mere hairline on the most detailed map of the region. When I asked him when he would be going back to France, his face clouded. The work of the restaurant took up all his time. Was he worrying if it would survive? I wondered. Then his face brightened, as if he had been transported a world away. He raised cupped hands, as if testing for raindrops, and said that as his house there was undergoing restoration and was at the moment roofless, it was like being on a continual
pique-nique
.

He returned to the kitchen. I lingered over my
tarte tatin
, still warm from the oven, and coffee. I was overcome with a disturbing and unpleasant sense of dislocation. For a moment that intimate, closed world of Pech Farguet had taken root on unsavory Tenth Avenue. It didn’t belong here. It was diminished, unappreciated in these surroundings. I wanted to lock up La Luncheonette and throw the key away.

I
n the fall, as soon as I settled in the house, I walked the short distance to the Hirondes. The little road cuts a swathe over the high hill. You’re at the top of the world. The meandering, glittering river coils like a loose bracelet in the valley. Sheep grazing in a lower pasture are immobile, like ceramic figures in a crèche scene. The piercing shrieks of the woman driving her cows home on the lower road puncture the air like gunshots.

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