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Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (6 page)

BOOK: At Home in France

Jean was jumping in place and flapping his arms on this bone-chilling day like a kid making an angel in the snow. A stroll required more grit than we cared to muster. It was noon, a little early for lunch for the two of us—though not for the French, who break from noon to two or three in the afternoon for their midday repast. Nonetheless, we sought the comfort of the indoors. Rather than drive on, we scurried across the square to what Jean had found to be the only restaurant in the village. As we entered the tiny dining room, we were engulfed by its steamy warmth and the smoky aromas of grilled meat. There were perhaps a dozen tables, all occupied save one—waiting, it seemed, just for us. The locals, mainly men, were a spirited bunch, regaling each other over trencher-size platters of food. We had a restorative lunch of soup, sizzling steak, and slender, crisp french fries. Would we like dessert? the sole, matronly waitress asked, between her breathless whirling-dervish rounds. Jean, who
could leave no stone unturned, ordered a dish of homemade prune ice cream—prunes, a speciality of the region, turn up in everything from a pork stew to
eau de vie
. I watched as he slipped a teaspoonful into his mouth. The expression on his face was that of a saint’s in a medieval religious painting, eyes rolling heavenward in a swoon.

Besides bountiful lunches in local restaurants, we shared a picnic on a grassy hill overlooking the Dordogne River, and dinners at the house prepared with the best of the local markets. The days seemed long and short at the same time, and then they were gone. It was time for Jean’s departure. He had decided to take a plane from Bordeaux instead of repeating the train ride back to Paris. I gladly agreed to drive him to the airport, a three-hour trip. We could see a little of the wine country and enjoy dinner and an overnight stay in the town (neither of us had been to Bordeaux).

After breakfast we set off. Just outside of St-Emilion we stopped at a winery and then ambled around the town. On one of our first trips together, Jean had succumbed to what proved to be the folly of purchasing a case of very expensive wine. He had stashed it in the trunk of the car, but it had been a constant concern. It was summer, and he worried that if we parked in a sunny spot, the wine would be ruined. In an effort to keep it at a relatively stable temperature, we would often drive round and round towns searching for a shady spot. It was like traveling with a sick passenger. After that, he decided, sensibly, not to purchase any more wine to bring home. But that didn’t prevent him from looking.

We had lunch at the elegant Plaisance, near the cathedral in St-Emilion and, at our leisurely pace, didn’t arrive in Bordeaux until midafternoon. Since it was off-season,
we hadn’t thought it necessary to make a hotel reservation. Jean was behind the wheel and I cracked the handy Michelin. We started with hotels in the
grand comfort
category (the Frantel). Jean pulled up in front and double-parked while I bounded in to make a reservation. There were no rooms available. We went down a notch to
très comfortable
(the Terminus). Full up. The Normandie. Full. The Majestic. Full.
De bon comfort
(the Royal Médoc). Booked.

This was unheard of. I asked the desk clerk at the Royal why the hotels were all full. The town, he informed me, had been turned inside out for a
fête de musique
. The arch of his eyebrows and the wagging of his index finger—a sort of reprimand—implied that an attempt to find a room was futile. I trotted back to the car and reported this to Jean. Moving on to
simple mais convenable
, we struck out at the Centre and Trianon. The Michelin list was now exhausted. I was exhausted, tired of bounding in and out of the car. It was now approaching six o’clock. A niggling panic and incipient shortness of temper were just under the surface between us. The point now was to get a room, any room. After making several random stops at hotels that were also full, we turned a corner and stumbled on one that had a distinctly old-world, if not to say decrepit, appearance.

I heaved with my shoulder in an effort to budge the heavy oak door and adjusted my eyes to the dim interior. Pale, dusty streams of light from a filmy skylight revealed a weathered, unattended reception desk. A tiny lamp with a frayed green silk shade cast a yellow circle of light on a leather ledger. A brass bell sat beside it. I gave it a sharp ring with the palm of my hand. I heard the drone of a television, the creaking of a chair, and the slow scuffling
of slippered feet from beyond a shut door at the end of the hallway. The door slowly opened and an imposing woman came forward. Perhaps in her sixties, she was dressed in a long black skirt, to which she gave a Loretta Young-type swish, a black sweater cut low to reveal scallops of freckled bosom, with a large egg-shaped yellow pendant nestled in the cleavage, and a black shawl and turban with glittering gold threads. There was, however, a mothball air about her; she struck me as a woman who had fallen on hard times, yet still strove to create an impression of elegance. She had an overbite and deep parenthetical creases enclosing her crimson mouth; her face had the hardness of a ventriloquist’s dummy. In her right arm she supported an enormous cat resembling a Siamese, but tailless, which she placed ceremoniously on the desk. The cat ducked its head to rub against my shoulder. “Mignon,” she said approvingly to the cat, in a startlingly husky voice. She stroked it with arthritic fingers, poignant in a woman so obviously concerned with beauty.

she said, drawing out her response like a whistle, when she heard my travails. She had a room! I rose on the toes of my feet and clapped for joy. I explained that I would run out and inform my friend, who would park the car. And how much was the room? Twenty dollars. This was amazingly cheap. Why? a little patrolman in my brain questioned. She required the money on the spot. I plunked down the cash, and she handed me the keys. There was no mention of breakfast.

That was the last I saw of her. Jean and I found our room down the hallway on the first floor. The long, skinny key slid up to its neck in the door lock and turned loosely over and over without effect. We took turns: “Here, let me,” “Let me.” Eventually, by moving it a
gradual notch forward, like a thief cracking a safe, Jean got it to catch hold.

The room was enormous. In fact, it had all the features of a miniature house. To the left of the door was a knee-high double bed, covered with an orange comforter and the type of long sausage-shaped pillow, as resistant as a punching bag, which is common to French hotels. The mattress was bound to be soft and lumpy, the cover revealing hills and valleys. Beside the bed was a tiny table and a lamp with a fluted plastic shade. This constituted the bedroom. The vast middle portion of the room served as living room, with two stiff, offputting love seats separated by a faux marble table topped with a vase of dusty plastic flowers. There were no windows, but heavy, ceiling-to-floor drapes hanging on a portion of the “living room” wall opened to reveal an air shaft, brightly lit like a stage set, as if to simulate sunlight.

At the far end of the room, to the left, was the kitchen, with a mini-refrigerator and a small square wooden table. The bathroom, to the right, separated by a Japanese-style room divider, had a miniature sink with a glass shelf that would hold exactly one toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, and, above it, a cloudy mirror. The shower was a sort of plastic stall fitted into the corner.

There were no luggage stands to distract from the impression of home. A single closet contained three plastic hangers. After silently surveying the capacious, if shabby, surroundings, Jean and I hastily unpacked the barest necessities.

Mignon—either the cat’s name or a term of endearment—had managed to slip into the room on our heels and had taken up a post on one of the love seats, adding a further note of domesticity. Jean was arranging his
shaving kit on the kitchen table. Fond as he is of cats, he experiences an immediate allergic reaction in their presence. His eyes were already tearing. I sidled up to Mignon nonchalantly—with that just-whistling-a-happy-tune posture to prevent her bolting. Surprisingly, she crawled into my arms, purring in contentment. When I promptly tossed her out the door, she glanced back, miffed.

Jean and I were famished. We splashed cool water on our faces and were ready to go. After a casual dinner at a local restaurant, we dropped into bed—or rather, we sank into the bowels of the mattress, glued back-to-back. Jean had an early-morning flight. Neither of us slept well. Throughout the night, our sleep was disturbed by an annoyingly slow-motion opening and closing of doors in the hallway, the tumbling of keys in locks, the hushed traffic of feet on creaking floorboards.

That was Bordeaux.

Driving back to the house, I was both savoring the pleasure of Jean’s visit and feeling
un trou
in my chest at his sudden absence. Reviewing our days together, I had a sudden insight. Jean and I had stayed in a brothel.

It all fell into place: the room, the footsteps in the night, Madame’s appearance. I tittered. This was rich; my mind seized on the possibilities. Madame could once have been a stage actress who, in her middle years, had fallen on hard times. Perhaps she had had many lovers in her life, but all had deserted her, so that she was left to fend for herself. She had established a “house,” I concluded, of beautiful young prostitutes, all of whom adored her as their own mother. Her loyal clientele included a local banker, a classy restaurateur, a Parisian businessman, who held her in strictest confidence. It was, so, well,

But why had she given us the room? Was it my helplessness and desperation? I rather doubted it. Probably it was nothing more than a bird in hand. The room was going empty that night—and twenty bucks is twenty bucks.

The idea of staying in a house of ill-repute was immensely satisfying. That would shock the nuns who had supervised my strict Catholic upbringing. “Ha!” I erupted unwittingly in the stillness of the car. “Ha!”

‘ayez pas peur,”
Monsieur Bézamat said, when I told him about the bats.
“Pas méchantes.”
These were phrases—“don’t be afraid, “they’re not vicious”—I would hear repeated many times. He led me into the house and produced a large, coffee-table-type book—or perhaps it was a children’s book—devoted to the
animaux de France
, with large, bright-colored illustrations accompanied by brief text. It took a while for him to find what he was looking for. Monsieur Bézamat is obviously in dire need of eyeglasses—he holds a book at an unnatural distance and peers at it down his nose through shuttered eyes—yet he resists wearing them unless they are forced upon him by his wife. He finally opened to a page with an illustration of a black bat—looking a bit
, actually. Thus, I learned the word for bat—
which, indeed, had a nonthreatening, if not to say, tender, sound to it.

Monsieur explained that because the house was left unoccupied for long stretches of time, animals would hole up and hibernate there. I had a Technicolor fantasy of all manner of little creatures huddled together for warmth in the microscopic Disneyland of my house.

Later, at home in New York, I read a piece in
The New
about bats. Monsieur Bézamat had been absolutely correct in portraying them as harmless. The article related that bats are the unlucky recipients of a bad press, which paints them as evil and ominous. I recalled a horrifying falsehood from my childhood, about a bat’s proclivity for flying into your hair and becoming frantically entangled. According to the article, however, bats are shy, and are, in fact, among the gentlest of creatures, “almost as soft as chincilla” to the touch. Some live to be thirty years old, putting them among the longest-lived mammals on earth. A mother bat usually rears only one pup a year and the male and female take turns with child rearing. The reporter wrote:

Since they don’t build nests, they take shelter in a wide range of secluded places.… When the females are giving birth and raising their young, they prefer warm places.… And since most bats produce only one baby a year, it’s very important whether that baby survives or not.

Mon Dieu!
What had we done to the poor
I was overcome with remorse, and sent the article to Jean, the home wrecker. (I made no mention of the brothel in my letter.)

In time, the bats—who had picked up stakes and never returned—were followed by other creatures.


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