For previous chapters, search Marcia.
IT WAS A WARM MORNING in Cannes, promising to sizzle. The beautiful people were reclining under striped umbrellas at the beach clubs, while their admirers in souvenir T- shirts lingered in the shade along the Croisette watching them between passing rollerblades. In the shops along rue d’Antibes, clerks leaned against their counters and tried not to move too much. There would be plenty of action when the beaches emptied around 4 and people came shopping for the je ne sais quoi that would put their evening look over the top.
My friend Don and I had flown in the night before and checked into our rooms at Hotel Splendid, each with a balcony overlooking the port, the pleasure boats moored there, and the cafés and restaurants along the quay. This morning we had a couple of urgent priorities before we were to drive into the arrière-pays of Provence on our mission to furnish my new résidence secondaire in one week.
First, we needed good Italian sunglasses and sandals.
Don, an interior designer with an affluent Washington following, had agreed to take on the job of furnishing my apartments–I’d lured him with an offer of lifetime lodging in exchange. He wasn’t all that interested in the pastoral cuteness of Provence, but it would give him a base close to Paris and her designer stores and edgy nightlife. He thought we could do all the shopping in one week and arrange for delivery on the day I planned to move in. In my limited experience with the way things go in the South of France, that seemed a little ambitious, but he was the pro and I’d go with that.
Following his instructions, I had measured the three rooms of the top-floor apartment and the studio apartment on the floor below, which would be for seasonal guests, and for Don eternally. It was a thrill to see his meticulous plans on paper; more thrilling to see my fantasy as a real thing.
The slow retail morning was perfect for speed-shopping. We made our purchases and still had time to catch the morning market near the train station, where we found a pair of little end tables fashioned from old fishing baskets, and a dusky print of “Saint Michel the Archangel Terrifying the Devil.” We see only the head of Saint Michel, so he must have succeeded.
Flushed with heat and success, we promenaded around the port in our stylish new shades and sandals, browsing the seafood menus until we found the right mood food—bouillabaisse. Perfect, if a bit copious for Don, who picked delicately at his food and quit at one glass of wine.
This was going to be great—traveling with a man who shops, who has a great eye and a mandate to establish me in appropriate style, and who leaves most of the bottle to me.
I thought of an American couple I’d seen in Cannes on one of my post-divorce solo trips. They had stopped in the middle of the cobbled street to argue, as people pushed past them. She was looking down, her face contorted as if she were going to cry. He had a grip on her upper arm and spoke loudly in her ear. “You wanted to go to France, we came to France. You wanted to see Cannes, we’re in Cannes. What the hell do you want now?”
Oh yes. This was the way to go.
Next morning we left the Riviera and took the autoroute west toward Nice, then north toward Lyons, exiting at Cavaillon and following the Durance River. Carried away with the excitement of showing Don the beauty of the countryside, I didn’t notice when the highway narrowed, became a road and then a drive and finally—when bikers started passing us—a path.
I finally got us to the village and into the two rooms I’d rented from Jean-Claude on the same floor as the studio apartment. We found a restaurant in a hotel in Bonnieux with a view across to Lacoste and de Sade’s castle. We drank a lot of wine (or I did) and climbed the great rock, Le Rocher, above the village to look at the stars and the lights of Avignon.
In the morning, wrapped in his immaculate white kimono and soft slippers, Don made an appraising tour of the guest rooms and common spaces in the building, taking in the results of Jean-Claude’s attempts at decorating: the walls covered in margarine-yellow plastic, the various-sized doors painted various tones of brown, and a variety of cash-and-carry light fixtures with cheesy cottage motifs.
“Well,” he said, letting out a sigh. “We’d better get going.”
As we pushed into the hinterlands in search of antiques and brocante, our mission took on the urgency of a time-sensitive attack in foreign territory, and we were ill equipped. In the showroom of a rug merchant in St. Remy, watching him unroll and spread out one after another of his pricey imports, I noticed a rivulet of blood on Don’s heel trickling from under the strap of his sandal and about to drip onto a handsome kilim. I caught his eye and nodded at it and he stepped carefully away from the carpet. It was then that I identified the cool sensation emanating from a spot on my own tortured ankle. We hastily thanked the man and backed out of his shop promising to come back after lunch. We had to find Band-Aids, or whatever they were called in French.
We’d started with rugs because they can open the color story for a room. For my place, Don had designed an ambiance that would suit a Parisian apartment but rounded the edginess with accents of the Midi. A militant shopper, he could buzz through cluttered beehive spaces, registering pieces to come back for and ignoring anything that wouldn’t work, no matter how charming it was. He was scrupulous about lighting and accessories (“Lamps are important”). His dedicated memory registered exactly what we’d seen and where, and how it would fit into the plan.
The only thing he didn’t get was the French lunch hour.
“All I ever need is a salad. I can’t believe we have to wait until THREE O’CLOCK for the stores to open back up.”
“I know, but that’s how it is here,” I’d say soothingly, enjoying my third course. “Have some wine.”
“Would it kill these people to do a little BUSINESS?”
By the end of the week we had covered every store, shop, market, salvage yard and second-hand depot within 100 kilometers of my apartment, and we’d assembled a mix of rustic, classic and whimsical pieces that would create an atmosphere different from anything I could have achieved by myself. When left to my own devices I tended to pick up things on a whim, with the only criteria being that they were easy to pay for and carry home. Don showed me how to buy huge heavy things without flinching. He knew how everything would fit, right down to the last centimeter of space and the last cent in the budget.
Incredibly, serendipitously, a drastic change in the exchange rate had yielded me several thousand more dollars worth of wiggle room, which made our mission that much more fun.
But when the fun was over, there was the drudgery of organizing an intricate schedule of deliveries so that everything from everywhere would arrive by truck in the little square outside my door within a three-hour window on a date more than a month away, when I would officially take possession. Jean-Claude had lined up a local crew who would transfer the goods from the trucks and send them up to my floors via a crane-like contraption. That was how it’s done in small villages with narrow streets and narrower stairways. You couldn’t carry anything wider than a straight chair up those stairs.
I could see my new home shaping up, and I’d had a valuable education in design. Only a couple of things were still unresolved.
One was the intercom. Don and I had tried to insert proper name cards into the box by the door, which rang in our apartment and in the one below. It was dark and late, and we were not sufficiently sober. Somehow, we ended up on our hands and knees on the street outside the door trying to find tiny springs and metal pieces that had fallen out of the box when we got into it. A speckled red-eyed Spaniel passing by had found Don attractive, and mounted him, which broke our concentration, the job was left undone, and the intercom would never again ring in both apartments.
The other thing was the mezzanine, the wooden platform in the middle room, the one that was going to be my boudoir. Don had no use for it. The room could be open and breezy without “that thing,” he said, and the ladder propped up against it was an eyesore and an invitation to accidents.
“What is it with these lofts?”
“Mezzanines,” I corrected, defensively.
“Mezzanines are for the movies.”
He had ordered a tall wrought-iron canopy bed for the space and I was supposed to enlist a workman to take out the platform before it was delivered.
“It needs to go,” said Don. “And the one downstairs in the studio, too. What would you put up there, anyway? Bales of hay? Pitchforks?
It was Andrew who had inspired me to explore France; he had been involved in the campaign to find me a place, and had instigated the discovery of the village where I’d finally bought. But his father’s illness had taken him out of the loop. I had ordered myself to move ahead without him, figuring he was bound to join the starving-artist gang in New York as soon as he worked up the nerve.
But when I got back from the trip with Don, whom he barely knew, Andrew showed a proprietary interest in everything we’d found and decided. As I described our escapades, he only half-smiled, and he seemed unenthusiastic about the plans and ideas we’d come up with.
He felt left out. That was the only way to read it.
My stories involved way too much fey fun and bourgeois consumerism to amuse him. In his world, décor was of no importance. You need a table, a chair, a bed. A headboard would be superfluous. A painting can be hung anywhere, without regard to the color scheme. What’s a color scheme but something to make you buy new things whenever the trend changes?
I tried to explain to him that it was important to me, after years of compromising, to start from scratch and create an environment just for me. A shade of jealousy darkened his blue eyes, and his back arched with some kind of resolve. So if was just for me, why was I letting Don help me?
This bordered on No-Win Land. I decided not to go there.
As our weekends resumed, Andrew wanted to talk more about France, and New York seemed to be fading back in his mind. Maybe by sitting out the trip with Don, he felt he’d missed an essential segment of the adventure he’d originated, and now he not only wanted back in, he wanted a more central role. As he pointed out, it was part of his five-year plan to show his work in a Paris gallery.
We had shared space on weekends and on trips, but that was not living together. Sharing my apartment, my résidence secondaire, was living together as far as I was concerned. It was a commitment, and involved a continual balance of give and take. I was still enjoying the taste of “me” and “mine” in my mouth, after years of “we” and “ours.”
But then, I was used to marital cohabitation, where you put down roots and grow entangled until you have to chop things off to get away. He had lived among throngs of family members, roomed with friends, slept over with women, crashed on floors and sofas. He was like Spanish moss; he could adhere anywhere and live on air. Sharing an apartment with him might be as easy as sharing a garden with a butterfly.
That kind of cohabitation might be okay at this point. More free, less binding and stifling. I knew and accepted—even expected, made myself expect—that any day he could meet a young woman and decide to marry and have children. In a way, that aligned with my march toward independence and autonomy. So what if he wanted to “crash” with me for a few weeks of the year? That was no big investment. In fact, inviting him into my home in France could be a ritual thing, like receiving the Communion wafer on your tongue or opening the door for Elijah. It could be an act of letting the art spirit into my French life.
My moving day fell on Andrew’s twenty-ninth birthday. I didn’t plan it that way. He had decided to come with me to help, after wavering for weeks, alternately clingy and distant. I had no idea what was going through his mind. I barely knew what I was thinking. Looking back, it was at points like this that our generation gap became a black hole. So, we lapsed into our customary dance, one-step-forward-two-steps-back, while I rushed jobs for my clients and practiced French vocabulary, hoping for the best.
It was a hot July day. The crew Jean-Claude had arranged for me showed up right on time. They parked the yellow cherry-picking rig in the Place de l’Horloge and the three of them promptly sat down on the terrace in front of Jean-Claude’s boutique. When I came down he was serving them coffee.
“Is this on me?” I asked peevishly. I was already sweating, and my cotton wrap-around skirt was sticking to my bottom. “Does this count as part of the three hours I’ve hired them for?” He gave me a withering look. I was shamed into abandoning my frantic pacing to sit with them on the low wall in front, holding my damp skirt closed, with an eye on the narrow alley between neighboring buildings where the delivery trucks would spill into the Place de l’Horloge.
Anyway, that’s what I fervently hoped. Having placed all the orders, communicated the logistical plan and confirmed the directions and timetable in my inadequate French, the odds of it all working out were pretty frightening.
Andrew was upstairs presumably checking out the vibe of the atelier, which seemed a lot like staking out territory. After getting pumped up to come help with the move, he was now in some kind of private funk, uttering remarks that I was too busy and hassled to decode. Thanks. Just what I needed right now.
Once the first delivery truck nosed its way around the corner of the building and stopped in the Place to unload, the operation began. The crew maneuvered the vehicle into place between our building and the neighbors. Pieces of furniture were transferred from the truck to the loading platform and then hoisted up to the chosen window on each floor. Don’s measurements had been accurate to a hair’s width, and I wished he could be there to enjoy the cliff-hanging danger of close calls.
I kept a lookout for more trucks from the upper-story window that looked down on the Place. Among the wandering tourists and squads of hikers passing through, I noticed a woman whose bearing and dress didn’t have the village look, nor did she seem like a tourist. Whoever she was, she was taking quite an interest in this move.
I turned my attention back to what was squeezing through my side window now: the piece I was most worried about—a huge old haberdasher’s chest made of oak with rows of drawers for supplies. It rode up to the window on the platform, steadied by one of the crew, cigarette dangling from his lips, as his sweaty colleague inside rushed forward with arms upheld to meet it. Both men whistled with admiration as the piece passed through the window frame. It took all three of them to move it into position next to the fireplace. We all stood back for a minute to survey the effect, wiping sweat off our faces.
“Bonne installation!” said a husky voice. I turned around. A little gallery of strangers had assembled in my front room, and among them was the soignée lady I’d seen down in the Place. I recognized her now as the owner of the shop where we’d bought the piece, and she had driven from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue half an hour away just to see it put into place. It was a congratulatory moment and even Andrew regained his good humor to do some cheering.
When the crew’s time was up they knocked off, leaving only one truck carrying a convertible sofa unaccounted for. Never mind—everything else showed up, fit in place and looked great. It was time for pastis, the anise-flavored summer drink of Provençals. The liquor is mixed with water, yielding a glass of sulfurous storm clouds, with the same effect on your mind. As Jean-Claude liked to explain to novices:
Ze first is for ze sirst.
Ze second is for ze taste.
Ze sird is for ze company.
Ze fourth we don’ care.
This was on me, too. But that was okay. It was done. Everybody down here was paid and happy. I would knock back a pastis or two and then go up to see if Andrew had come out of his mood so we could celebrate his birthday. Cindy and Ken were due to pull in any minute and we had reservations at the auberge.
It seemed to me that Andrew had spent the day second-guessing furniture placement and design decisions. In the big loft-like kitchen/dining/living room he had sniffed at the smart chocolate leather dining chairs, gathered around a grayed Portuguese farm table in front of the fireplace. He wondered what the thinking was behind the two whimsical occasional chairs—Don called them “Louis XVI on steroids”—placed in front of a section of ancient stones, flanking an eccentric table made of wooden blocks and concrete inserts. Well, it had spoken to me and Don had okayed it. He questioned the dusty colors of the Moroccan rug, the “napability” of the Roche Bobois sofa and the “stainability” of its mushroom-colored upholstery. I found myself defending everything—even though I’d balked at pricey Roche Bobois to begin with.
All of a sudden he was a disapproving Mrs. Grundy. A perfect sideman for the presence of Mom, which had materialized when I opened the boxes from her apartment in Coronado. We siblings had divided the “good” things when we cleaned the place out for sale. But something in the lapse of time and the transatlantic crossing had altered their perceived value for me. Oh, everything was perfectly intact—the gold-filigreed Wedgwood china, the Waterford crystal, pewter Jefferson cups—even bunk sheets from the old family houseboat, coyly embroidered Bateau, perfectly preserved from long-ago summers on Lake Allatoona in Georgia.
What? Would I be offering tea to my exotic neighbor, whose last name refers to doves, when I meet her? Would her striking Modigliani head incline in admiration of my upbringing? Would Jean-Claude’s sullen wife burn if, sipping Bordeaux from one of my glasses, someone whispers, “Oh look, It’s Waterford”?
And what would I do with trapezoidal bunk sheets? I was pretty sure I was sober when I picked out all this stuff. Maybe it was a knee-jerk thing, being back in Mom’s World, with the Queen Anne-ness of the locked china cabinet, the polished silver tea set that never tasted tea, the ancestral portraits of nineteenth-century strangers.
I found Andrew now in the middle room looking at the mezzanine, which hovered an inch or so above his eyebrows. I had made a few feeble attempts to line up someone to take it out, but it was still there, looming over us, leaving a boxy little half-room with one small window-door opening to the chemin-de-ronde. My vision of soaring overhead space, of a canopy bed draped with diaphanous veils, was fading away. The wrought-iron parts of the bed hadn’t even made it up the stairs. They were still in their boxes, stashed in the studio apartment downstairs, along with the mattress on the floor where we’d slept the night before.
The mason I was supposed to enlist to take out the mezzanine was the one who had restored and refinished it for the former owner. He was also head of the moving crew. He had taken me aside during the day’s operation to explain to me that it was a traditional grenier, an integral part of the building, used in the past for storing grain and now the equivalent of an attic. (So, the Vide Grenier signs I’d noticed referred to attic sales, emptying the attic). He scolded me gently for wanting the grenier ripped out when he and his men had put such careful work into restoring it.
Now I had to hear it all over again from Andrew, who adopted a sanctimonious tone. “I can’t believe you wanted this taken out—it belongs here!”
“This isn’t a barn—what would I put up there?”
“How about your desk?”
“I’m supposed to climb up a ladder to get to my work?”
He had puttered around the sweeping atelier space all day, measuring for his easel and his worktable, his large canvases, his sitting area—with the French doors standing open, letting in golden light, fresh air and birdsong.
Let him cram his stuff up there!
“Hey—that could be where the bed goes. You don’t need ceiling height when you’re lying down!”
“I’m supposed to go up a ladder to bed?”
“You can’t climb a ladder?”
“ I can now, but . . . ”
The image of my frail old future self flashed in front of me.
“But what?” Andrew was getting anxious. I was in good enough shape to ignore the age difference between us most of the time. The thought of making allowance for future disability totally unnerved him. Maybe he should’ve gone to New York with his friends instead of living in a little French village with a geezer who couldn’t climb a ladder.
He tried another tack. “Have you seen the view from the window up there?”
I climbed the ladder, trying to seem limber, and crept over to the window on my knees. It looked north, over the terrace, across the wide panorama of green valley and blue-violet mountains rising to meet the glowing horizon. Swallows made loops in the sky. I opened the window to a cool breath of herb-scented air.
That piss-ant was right. It was the best view in the house.
Cindy and Ken arrived, quickly saw the smoke signals of intramural war, and switched into diplomatic robot mode. This was clearly not the time to set up an office for me. It wasn’t even necessary yet—the workload I’d carry here was still undetermined, and use of the atelier was, at this moment, hypothetical. Quietly, Ken helped Andrew set up my desk, phone and fax machine in the space beneath the grenier, thus keeping the drone of commerce away from the quiet pursuit of art for the time being. Cindy surveyed the effects of Don’s design choices with a veteran eye and admired the skill with which he’d put things together—although she would have preferred the expensive period dining table we’d seen together in Grenoble to the rough-hewn farm table. To her, the overall feel didn’t say Provence enough, but we both knew she would rectify that with gifts of accessories in the French country style.
We tabled all controversy by going to dinner and celebrating both our milestones—my move and Andrew’s birthday—and killing a couple of bottles of Côtes du Rhone recommended by Jean-Pierre, who had started it all with a few words to Cindy. When the four of us left the Auberge we were, as they say, bien arrosés.
The move was done, telephones installed, electricity panel charted, and the hot water regulator switched out of the thrifty certain-hours-only mode to the shower-whenever-you-damn-well-want-to mode by Ken, the patient engineer. When the diplomatic duo departed, somewhat early, I thought, it left a whole day for Andrew and me to rattle around in. He retreated to the atelier with his private dilemma—should I stay or should I go, as the Clash might have put it. Confronted with the vast difference between my way of life and his way of thinking, he appeared to just shut down. He wouldn’t speak. I raged, I cried, I cajoled. No answer. He slumped on the floor in a corner and stared into space.
How vulnerable he must have felt. How annoying I found his behavior.
We had never lived together for more than a week or two.
I was the first child in my family; he was the eighth.
Perfection had been expected of me, adequacy for him.
I was detached Aquarius; he was clingy Cancer.
I was nineteen when Kennedy was shot; he wasn’t even a plan.
This just wasn’t going to work, I thought, looking out the front window. Good that I find it out now. The man was no less foreign to me than the people I saw down there passing through the Place going about their mysterious business.
I read that women in mediaeval times are often depicted gazing out of windows. Maybe it was because they were locked up in towers with pouting young men.
I watched the light go golden on the ivied walls of the house across the Place. The retreating row of red clay roofs glowed as they zigzagged away toward the cliffs, looking like soft sculpted sand, capped with curly greens. I enjoyed knowing that, on the other side the Luberon range, where the landscape goes lazily Mediterranean, Cezanne was born and spent the days of his life in an intimate dialogue with the colors of this land, and the light on a mountain.
Ahhh. I’d forgotten about our connection through Art.
But—look at everything else! His background, his family, his world view—all completely foreign. How could I even begin to crack the code of life in the village when I’m already deep in a culture clash inside my own home? Foreigners in a foreign land, foreigners to each other. Show me a guide for that.
I went downstairs to find some grownups.
“Andrew has chosen this moment to have a crise d’identité,” I said to Jean-Claude as we stood in the doorway of the boutique. A man at one of the little tables chuckled over his espresso. Jean-Claude cocked an eyebrow as if to say, “What do you expect? He is a boy.” He poured me a drink, and we sat down to talk.
Jean-Claude’s concept for Le Petit Comptoir Provençal was a kind of Provencal general store, stocked with regional specialties like candied fruit and preserves, soaps crafted of olive oil and perfumed with lavender, thyme and peach; flavored mustards and herbed vinegars, bright-colored table linens in naïve Provençal prints featuring cicadas and olives, serving pieces in ceramic and olive wood, and a selection of pastis, absinthe and Cote du Rhone wines. In the morning, Brigitte served cafés to neighbors and locals. Summer afternoons, Jean-Claude served and entertained tourists looking for local color.
Tall green shutters stood open on the cobblestone terrace, and red and white Cinzano umbrellas shaded the tables. The low stone wall, a couple of concrete planters and a scraggly cypress separated the terrace from the Place. The Place was mostly residential, bordered by maisons du village, and intersected by four narrow thoroughfares too small to be called streets. The main one to the right of our building led vehicles into the Place and then through a series of tight squeezes into the lively Place de la Fontaine, where the Auberge’s bistro tables surrounded the fountain, and on past Christine’s dépôt de pain and salon de thé, where you buy your baguette or have your café crème on the side terrace in view of the church, then past the alimentation with its restaurant above, then a Paris-style artist residence and gallery, and finally the carrefour where the post office/school building stood across from the war memorial, marking the limits of the village.
Back in the Place de l’Horloge, something like a steep driveway went past the clock tower and climbed up to a parking area under the giant rock, Le Rocher, where remains of an old olive mill and dusty cars shared an enviable view over the pastoral side of the valley. To the left of our building was an allée that dwindled into a footpath, lined with the maisons of neighbors who populated this end of town.
In the Place was parking space for maybe seven small cars, if maneuvered with sufficient nerve. Across from the Petit Comptoir was the ivy-covered five-story maison of the elderly baron and baroness, whose late-model sedan sported a sticker bragging “Ma Toyota est fantastique.” I’d seen the elderly Baron parking the car, opening the door for his lady, and escorting her to the door.
To our right, in a humbler building, was the little apartment of one of the supposed “women without men.” She had cats, which came and went through a cutout flap of screen on her ground-floor window. Past her door, the building’s facade gained a more gentrified look with the draped windows and brass hardware of a prominent matron and her pipe-smoking husband, and culminated with the huge résidence secondaire of a Finnish family. Their sparkling pool and dining arbor were hidden from the street by a garden wall, but in plain sight of jealous eyes on my chemin de ronde in the heat of the day. It reportedly stood empty all summer except for two summer weeks.
Now Jean-Claude introduced me to some of those “women without men”; the piano teacher from across the allée, who wore an ironic smile, and a floppy halo of auburn hair around her grayed crown. Then a pert little whiskey-voiced lady, Françoise, with her Shih Tzu, both wearing jewelry and wiggling their bottoms. Françoise ran a maison d’hotes. She too was a newcomer, he told me, and depended on him for important insider information. She’d left a uninterested husband somewhere up north.
Also seated along the wall was a Canadian couple, back from sightseeing, talking with a trio of Danish hikers. They accepted glasses of pastis from their host and I saw the wife empty hers into the planter. These were the jullietistes, Jean-Claude whispered to me. The July people, the tank-top-and-backpack crowd. He looked forward to the arrival of the aoûtiens, the August vacationers, who apparently were more cultivated and spent more money.
Jean-Claude impressed me with his easy shifts from French to English to German, entertaining with jokes and tales, stopping to run inside and ring up purchases. One customer hung around in the shop picking up things and looking at prices, and then left without buying anything, provoking Jean-Claude to mutter “Dutch,” and when another tried to short-change him, “Belgish.”
This was definitely the front-row seat in Babel.
After a pleasant hour of being a spectator, I went back upstairs resolved to work on diplomatic relations with Andrew. We stepped out of the atelier to watch the sun set and the swallows swoop and dive for their dinner. He missed his cat, he said. I missed my dog and my bird. It’s hard to leave the animals, we agreed. We should bring the . . . next time. We stood together not talking, feeling the gentle shifts in our interpersonal balance. Somewhere there was peace. There was love. There was possibility.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell