Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (5 page)

The trees were just beginning to show hints of gold; the full glory of fall doesn’t arrive in the Lot until late October or early November. The air was so cool that I quickened my pace, feeling the tug in the muscles at the backs
of my legs. I was exhilarated, feeling victorious. My meeting with Jean-François was a little trophy that could forge a closer bond with the Hirondes.

Simone opened the door and motioned me into the dining room with her usual warm greeting—unsurprised, as if I’d been there just yesterday. We sat on two stiff wooden chairs before the fire. I told her straightaway about my meeting with her
petit-cousin
, ending with the treat of the wonderful
tarte tatin
. That, she said, beaming, was probably her recipe. Or, she amended, the family recipe. I patted my stomach, as if I was still digesting the last bite, and waxed on about the light crust, the warmth of the apples contrasting with the coolness of the whipped cream.

Would I like the recipe? Simone asked. She knew it by heart, the way she knew most of what she cooked. To three cups of flour … she began her recital. I listened contentedly. I knew I’d never be able to equal that
tarte tatin
. I wouldn’t even attempt it. It was her confiding the recipe that counted.

3
MY FIRST GUESTS
(i.e., Jean and the Bats)

M
y first houseguest was Jean Breton, a former lover, who, despite the dissolution of our romance, has remained a close friend. In our romantic days, before my acquisition of the house, we had taken a number of vacations together in France: to Provence, Alsace, the Basque country. Jean’s family is French-Canadian and he grew up speaking French at home. In France, people were sometimes baffled by his accent. Despite this, his ease in the language has always been a source of envy to me, although he has no comprehension of the rules of grammar and, to my amusement, cannot recite the alphabet phonetically. If something complicated needed saying in our travels, I relied on him. If something needed spelling (a far less frequent occurrence, of course), he relied on me.

Jean liked to travel in style, so we frequently stayed in plush country inns or châteaus. He is ten years older than I and worked his way up from the position of clerk to the
president of a bank in Connecticut, where he lives. He could afford luxurious travels—and I couldn’t have been happier to be the beneficiary. Yet Jean is not pretentious. We have also stayed in some second-rate and offbeat places, and he can roll with the punches. Traveling with another person is a supreme test of compatibility: it’s not only a matter of shared interests, but of pace. Jean and I are completely in sync: quick to be ready to go at the same time, flagging and seeking a break simultaneously, identical in our attention spans. We also agree on the critical matter of baggage: one piece of luggage is the limit. That means reappearing in the same outfit, but who cares? No one but ourselves would see our clothes tomorrow.

Jean was thrilled at my acquisition of the house, and the following year he responded enthusiastically to an invitation to spend a week in the spring. I spent several days at the house before his arrival, obsessing over the possible combinations and permutations of excursions and menus. I picked him up at the train station in Brive.

The first day we marketed in a local village—Jean and I share a love of cooking—and that evening had a golden roasted chicken stuffed with rosemary from the bush in the yard and a whole head of lavender garlic; tiny sautéed potatoes that tasted as if they’d just been plucked from the earth; coarse, crusty
pain de compagne;
and a big green salad. For wine, we had a buttery Meursault I’d been saving for a special occasion (Jean is a wine connoisseur), and for dessert, a specialty of the region: an apple tart with furls of pastry as thin and crisp as parchment, flavored with an
eau de vie de prune
. After the fire was reduced to glowing embers—in early spring, there is a
chill in the air after the sun goes down—we climbed the stairs for bed.

There is only a double bed in the tiny upstairs bedroom, but neither of us felt awkward about sleeping side by side. Former passion is similar to vanished pain: a fact remembered but no longer felt. We burrowed under the covers and turned off the light, with the distant hooting of an owl—why is it always only a single owl?—an invitation to dream.

In the middle of the night, we were abruptly awakened by the most alarming sounds. They emanated from the other side of the wall by the headboard: a frantic scratching, sounding like the fingernails of a thousand skeletons clawing their way from their graves, accompanied by faint, poignant cries, the whimperings of monster babies. We bolted upright and grappled for the light switch.

“Bats,” Jean pronounced. I was aghast but believed him—he’d grown up in the country, and spent summers on his grandparents’ farm in Canada. “Only a nuisance,” he added, now that he’d gotten a grip on himself.

His words had the opposite of the soothing effect he intended. “Bats!” I shrieked, tunneling under the covers, as if they would swoop through the window in a hellish swarm.

Jean pounded on the wall with his fist.
“Taisez-vous!”
he shouted, commanding quiet with mock ferociousness.

And sure enough, there was a sudden, blessed silence. It was a relief, but far from reassuring. Jean switched off the light, slid under the covers, and hardly missing a beat, was soon breathing deeply in sleep. I lay staring into the dark; the wicked, jagged-winged creatures, their eyes an iridescent green, soared through the nighttime of my mind.

And then it began all over again: the incessant scratching, the hideous faint wails, what I now picked up as the ghostly rustling of wings. I nudged Jean, who was, of course, already awake.

“What can we do?” I anguished. Without a word, he bounded out of bed, trundled down the stairs, and reappeared with a broom clutched in one hand like a sword. Jean, who is a small, wiry man, an eleven-time marathoner, stood rockily on the bed beside my head in his candy-striped pajama shorts. I released my locked arms and grasped the ankles of his bantam, muscular legs to lend support.

The bats had hushed at the first few blows, but Jean continued to pound determinedly on the wall. This was overkill, I thought grumpily. But suddenly there was a great swooshing sound, like a flock of birds flushed from a field by hunters. I peered out the window at the starry, moonlit sky, expecting it to be darkened by a thousand bats—the stuff of comic books.

“They’re gone,” Jean said with a deep sigh, dropping to his knees like a penitent. He tossed the broom to the floor and switched off the light. We rolled over on our stomachs, each facing the outside of the bed but clasping hands between us, like children after a bad dream.

J
ean’s enthusiasm to see my part of France was boundless. We took one day trip after the next, visiting the castles and caves that are a particular fascination of the Lot. While the region contains more famous and impressive castles, such as Castelnaud, my favorite is Montai, which I regard as my neighborhood castle since it’s a mere fifteen-minute drive away. Castles are called
châteaux
,
meaning either a certifiable fortified castle or simply a grand country home. In fact, Montai is not a castle per se, but a
manoir de plaisance
, built by Jeanne de Balsac d’Entraygues, the widow of the governor of the Haute-Auvergne, in 1523. It’s not ostentatious—you can truly imagine daily life being lived there—but it does have an impressive fireplace in the second-floor dining room with an astonishing life-size stone stag, and a unique staircase, which winds around a central wall, and whose underside, carved with shells and fantastic birds, is visible from below as you mount the stairs.

The tour guide at Montal had us both riveted. He was a young man with a startling mien. It’s as if someone had taken his head and given it a hard upward thrust on one side, rendering his features at a slant: the eyebrow and eye higher on the right, the nose skewed, the mouth pulled down on the left, the jaw overshot. Yet he wasn’t unattractive. He had a boyish look and an eagerness that is typical of young tour guides in France. They speak with a practiced clarity, for which I am always grateful (subjects such as Aubusson tapestries presenting something of a challenge to the nonnative speaker). And there’s something of the actor in them: how else can they deliver the same material over and over again with unfeigned delight, surprise, and gravity. (Possibly France’s aspiring actors work as tour guides, as opposed to those in New York, who work as waiters and waitresses.)

Jean found the story of Montal as heartrending as I had on my first visit. The brief entry in the Michelin calls it
“un miracle d’amour maternel.”
It was built by Madame d’Entraygues for her son Robert, who was fighting in Italy in the service of François I. All was made ready to welcome home the proud soldier. But, tragically, only the
dead body of Robert, who had been killed in battle, returned. The château stands as poignant testimony to her love: an ornate letter
R
can be seen in the exterior frieze of the courtyard. She blocked up the tower window where she had stood watch for the return of her son and had carved beneath it the words
PLUS D’ESPOIR
. No more hope. The guide notes that the statue of a young boy above one of the courtyard windows was decapitated by Madame.
“On pense,”
he says—so it is supposed—and Michelin does not document the fact. A second son, who was a church dignitary, was relieved of his ecclesiastical duties after his brother’s death so that the family line could continue. And continue it did—this son sired nine children.

This is as far as the records go. But what next? I wanted to know. How did Madame d’Entraygues deal with her grief? Did she pine away at Montai? Abandon it in order to seek the solace of her family? A widow at that time—surely not an uncommon state, given the ravages of battle and disease—must have faced enormous hardship in her unwelcome independent state. Yet she survived to the ripe old age of ninety-two, outliving both sons.

Since Jean and I are both walkers, we spent some time merely strolling about nearby villages. One day we stopped in a small village, whose only point of interest was its church. I cannot resist popping into any church.

All the villages around my house, as in France in general, have cross-shaped signs posted at the village limit, listing the hour (or hours) of the Sunday Mass. Yet despite the church’s effort to modernize its services (French replacing Latin, folk music on guitar replacing the Gregorian chant), the congregation at local Masses is usually a tiny band—typically two dozen women in their sixties, a
handful of men the same age, the rare family—their negligible numbers further diminished by the enormity of the edifice, which renders their feeble, rote prayers unintelligible, and their eggshell-thin voices raised in song pathetic.

Jean is highly principled but skeptical about organized religion. We go our separate ways at churches, which I imagine he sees as temples of questionable authority in a faith he cannot hold. He happily set off to scour up a restaurant for lunch.

In fact, I’m not stirred by any religious fervor but rather in thrall to the past (a past that is so
present
in France). The most remote village church can possess its own monumentality and grandeur, although it may be gaudily, even tackily appointed. I am as impressed, at times, by these outposts as I am by the grand Gothic cathedrals of major cities (Paris, of course, as well as Chartres, Bourges, Reims, Amiens). These country cousins are stout testimony to the devotion and dedication of the faithful.

On my first exploration of the countryside, I had driven to Collonges-la-Rouge, an unusual nearby village whose name is derived from the houses and streets that glow with a red hue from the indigenous clay from which they’re constructed. I happened on a stonemason at work atop a tall ladder, restoring the frieze of the little church in the square. It was late morning, sunny and hushed. Transfixed, I watched him at work until it was time for lunch. The ancient sound of metal chipping away at stone, a ritualistic and patient
thung, tbung, tbung
, was mesmerizing. Nothing, apparently, has changed since the Middle Ages in this time-honored craft.

*   *   *

W
hile Jean wandered on this particularly gray and drizzly day, I stood in the ponderous Romanesque interior, arms wrapped around myself in the stony coldness, slowly pirouetting. It is another satisfaction in visiting country churches outside of the hours of service to find yourself utterly alone, as I did then. The pulpit, an ornately carved wooden shell, stood empty; the tall candles flickered in the cold breaths of air; the eyes of saints stared benignly into space, as if they were looking at something no longer there. I smelled a trace of incense, which triggered a response in me that was similar to Proust’s madeleines. I felt a benediction, a gentle recollection of childhood naïveté. I no longer pray; but for a moment I experienced the warm spiritual presence of my mother.

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