IF YOU WERE NEAR my kitchen window most mornings, sipping your café when the bells rang eight times, you’d soon become an intimate participant in the events of someone else’s day. The narrow allée between our building and the neighbors’ was a conduit for sound. With the window barely open, voices of people speaking, even quietly, bounced off the stone walls and delivered entire conversations into your very room.
I began to recognize individuals. A woman’s voice called “Mina! Meeeee-na!” That was Danielle next door, calling her cat. She had nine, but apparently Mina and Gizmo were the only ones she had to call. Once I answered in a corresponding cat voice, “Oui, kaman,” and there was a startled silence and then that giggling-behind-the-hand kind of laugh that proper French ladies have.
I had met Mina first. When my friend Kathy and I had stayed in the village, Mina showed up in a starving-alley-cat disguise and we let her in. Kathy bought cat food and a litter box, and let her sleep on her bed. She stayed with us five days, and Kathy was figuring ways to take her back to Washington when Mina suddenly disappeared.
Madame Journu would pass on her way to fill her watering can at the fountain, nearly hidden by vines and pink blossoms, in the tiny square beyond our building. It was a neighborhood Place, as opposed to our Place de l’Horloge, full of cars, or the grand Place de la Fontaine where the auberge kept everything lively. In the relative quiet at this end of town, you could hear the voices who were speaking with Madame Journu—the neighbors I knew as the cat lady, the pretty landscape truck girl, the stuck-up tightass bitch, the woman in hiking boots and the woman who was “too much wild and not so sweet in city ways.”
Fewer male voices made regular appearances. You’d hear the occasional snappy quip from Danielle’s always-in-a-hurry husband Claude on his way to the car. He had the sly twinkle and deadpan delivery of a funny guy. “C’est pas mon truc,” he said when Andrew pretended to offer him the ugly vase of fake sunflowers in our foyer. “It’s not my thing.” I made a note of “truc.” It was a word that could plug many holes in my vocabulary.
Another voice belonged to old Monsieur Pas-Facile. He passed by every day, uttering in something between a moan and a whimper, the words pas facile…not easy…as he made his way along the allée, apparently with great difficulty because of the rising grade. He was a widower who lived by himself in a big house several meters down. Every day he left his house in the same flat wool cap, green cardigan and faded pants that barely reached the top of his grayed socks. He would totter crazily on his long, crooked legs, grasping the air until his hand found the wall, and then propel himself toward his parcours of sitting places, each selected according to the angle of the sun and the activity he could observe there. He would speak to me, sometimes at length, with a didactical intensity that would have been very instructional if I could have understood any of it. He totally ignored Andrew. On nice evenings he would sit on the wall of the terrace and share his observations with the clientele until Jean-Claude drove him away.
Walking Mojo was a good way to meet people. A little girl of about seven started showing up on what Andrew and I called “The Poop Loop.” She liked to grab the dog’s ears and pretend to dance with him. He grinned enthusiastically, so he must have liked it. She called him “Lasco,” which I didn’t understand until one day I heard myself saying “Let’s go!” when I was ready to take him back home. Following her to her lair one day netted me the acquaintance of her mother and father, a friendly young couple who had renovated their house and wanted to know if I knew any (rich is understood) Americans who would like to buy it. I took some photos, and in exchange I got the name and number of their family doctor. Jean-Claude was urging his own on me, but I wanted more options. Their doctor was kind and took time to listen to you, but he did not speak any English, the woman told me. Since that was beginning to appeal to me, I decided to go see him.
Spending a couple of hours with the huge French-English dictionary we called “The Big Dic,” I prepared a summary of my medical history. Nothing much to talk about—just the basics you need to fill out the new-patient chart the nurse gives you in the waiting room.
I called the doctor’s office to make an appointment and the doctor himself answered. I almost hung up. What kind of doctor answers his own telephone? He said, or I thought he said, that I didn’t have to make an appointment; I could just show up between the hours of nine and noon. That was worrisome. But I was determined not to be swayed by “socialized medicine” prejudices.
There were a few people in the waiting room. There was no receptionist. There was no nurse. I remembered what Cindy had said: “It’s just the doctor and naked little you in the room. No nurse. No sheet.”
The doctor himself opened the door and greeted each patient. Somehow, everybody knew who was next. I memorized the people who were there when I came in so I would be sure when it was my turn.
The doctor was a nice-looking forty-ish man, who reminded me of pictures of Bing Crosby—a sweater-wearing kind of guy with a shy smile. He ushered me into his office. I sat down across from him and placed my pocket dictionary (“The Little Dic”) and my laboriously translated medical history on the desk. He glanced at the paper and asked me what he could do for me. I explained that I was new to the area (surprise!) and that I had no complaints; I just wanted to establish professional medical resources. He picked up the medical history.
“What would you like me to do with this?” he asked, obviously puzzled. Damn! I hadn’t prepared a French answer that question.
“I just bring it, um, so you know a little of my history and past sickness in the family and like that.”
He studied it carefully.
“Alzheimer’s is generally not hereditary,” he said kindly. Then he took me into the examining room, checked my blood pressure and listened to my chest. I got to keep my clothes on.
Back at his desk, he picked up the paper and went over it once more, methodically correcting my French, and gave it back to me.
His fee was twenty-five Euros. I paid him in cash.
Andrew snagged the next guy, another elderly neighbor, in his nineties. Andrew had been introduced to him and, learning that he was a chess player, invited him to our place for a match.
“Uh-oh . . . like a lamb to slaughter,” I said. In addition to being half a century younger, Andrew was a chess predator.
Sure enough, after making it up our stairs with his own chess set, Monsieur Jean Roux sat down to the inevitable massacre.
“You whipped our new friend?”
“Yes, but wait— he invited us both to lunch.”
“At his house.”
“Who does the cooking? His wife?”
Oh goody! We needed more social dining experiences and now we’d get to see how an elderly French bachelor entertains his guests!
On the appointed day, Andrew and I rang his bell, with a baguette and a bottle of red wine. We waited. No answer.
Did he forget, or fall asleep? “Maybe he died,” Andrew said.
He found a foothold in the stone wall and reached up to tap on an upper-story window. No response. We banged on the door and rang the bell again, and then Andrew went around to the front of the pie-shaped building where the elderly gentleman, not trusting his ears, was looking out the window for us. Shortly he appeared at the door and gave us a delighted welcome.
“Bienvenue, mes chers amis!”
Monsieur Roux’s wide grin was impish and his white hair stood up in feather-like tufts, giving him the air of having been, at one time, a bit of a rascal. He was wearing a blue sweater, under which was a coordinating blue-checked shirt and, under that, a blue T-shirt.
We passed through the creaking front door into the vaulted stone space of a cave, or cellar, like the one Jean-Claude had shown us under our building. Most of the wall opposite the entrance was missing. Through the ragged opening we could see a view of the valley. The open part was roped off with orange plastic, and workers were hammering and squabbling outside. Monsieur Roux explained that a builder hired by English neighbors had dug under his house, causing his terrace to collapse in a heap of stones. He seemed more amused than angry.
Upstairs we entered a kind of sitting room, which looked out onto the upper terrace, still intact (although roped off) with a panoramic view. The room was furnished in the rustic Provençal style–dark woods, colorful fabrics and bric-a-brac. There was a narrow built-in daybed, covered with a printed quilt.
He showed us into the kitchen/dining room, roughly triangular in shape dominated by a big old farmhouse table. The floor in this room never even heard of “level”–it was as if the red tiles had been laid into a child’s sandbox. In the front corner were the tile counter and a sink. The fireplace occupied a whole wall, and I recognized from illustrations I’d seen that it was the kind that the cook would sit at in olden days, stirring the pot.
At one end of the long table sat a big black boom box, probably wondering, like we were, what it was doing there. At the other end were three place settings, with placemats printed in a fruit-and-vegetable motif. A big platter held a kind of salad composed of artichoke hearts, imitation crab bits, green and black olives and endive, all carefully cut into small, even pieces. So this was what a nonagenarian man would serve for the midday meal. A selection of cheeses was set out on a plate on a little chest under the window.
Monsieur Roux seated us–me at the head of the table in the armchair and Andrew to one side. Monsieur Roux would sit across from him, in what looked like his customary place, with his back to the fireplace.
Would we like an aperitif? He disappeared through an archway and came back, laughing apologetically, holding up a frozen bottle that he’d left too long in the freezer. He set it in the fireplace to thaw, and poured us some red wine.
We toasted to finding new friends.
“Servez-vous,” he urged, motioning for us to help ourselves to the salad. As we filled our plates, he remembered to retrieve a bottle of soy sauce to dress the salad. He had developed a taste for Asian seasoning during his youth in China, he explained. His father was ambassador there in the early 1900s.
“I’ll tell you my history,” he said, disappearing into the other room and coming back with a big, nicely bound book. As we ate, we discovered that forty years ago, our new old friend had bought a historic military fortress–one of a limited number left–from the French government. It was near a village in the French Alps, near the Italian border. According to the chapter devoted to him in this showy book, he had renovated the place all by himself, learning carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electricity in the process. It took him years to turn it into a home, but the photo in the book shows him, or his more youthful self, posing proudly in a handsome interior, a view of a green valley and the snow-capped Alps behind him.
Divorced and childless, Monsieur Roux lived by himself in his eccentric garçonnière until, at eighty-five, his heart began to give him trouble. The altitude was bad for him, said his doctor. But the property would be difficult, if not impossible, to sell. As he wondered where to go, a woman from our village contacted him. She had seen him in a documentary on television, and she offered him rooms in her house—this house. At the moment she was away visiting family, but usually she is out walking every day.
The woman in hiking boots!
An odd couple ourselves, Andrew and I looked at each other wondering about the arrangement. Who sleeps where? Going back through the house we refrained from counting beds.
When we finished the salad we realized it was just the first course. Our host took our plates into the kitchen and brought out clean ones, and a pot containing two whole fish, cooked in a broth. He handed us a spoon and fork and asked Andrew to divide them into three portions. Then he brought out a pot of potatoes cooked in their jackets.
Resuming his place, Monsieur Roux said to me, “So, I understand you are a matrimonial agent.”
I asked where he’d heard that. “Your neighbor told me.” What language error had I made to put that information into circulation? The only contact I’d had with neighbors so far was those nasty notes. And what was a matrimonial agent, anyway?
Monsieur Roux urged more potatoes on Andrew until he was so full he could barely sit up. Then he cleared our plates again and brought out a bowl of rabbit-eared greens, set the cheeses on the table and offered more lemon, oil and soy sauce. The men talked about the stock market, our host’s hobby. “You are in your thirties, are you not?” he asked him, and then glanced at me with a twinkle.
“And I am not,” I said. He chuckled.
Dessert was apple compote, served in its plastic container. Then came coffee–instant, and head-buzzingly strong. Andrew, who had a cold, began to sniffle. Monsieur Roux had just the thing for that. Out came the peach brandy, and three thimble-sized glasses.
I felt a little guilty leaving such an elderly man with the dirty dishes, but helping in the kitchen is not the French way, as I’d learned after a dinner party at Françoise’s house, where we’d embarrassed ourselves enough as it was.
Françoise suggested to me one night at Jean-Claude’s house that we give a joint dinner. She thought it would be interesting if I brought some American dishes to serve with the aperitifs, and she would prepare the rest of the meal. It had sounded like a lot of fun that night, while we were up to our eyeballs in Jean-Claude’s free-flowing wines, but the next day I freaked out.
“What the hell are we going to do?” I said.
“Come on, you have the professional experience!” Andrew had worked for several years in high-volume restaurant kitchens in the Washington area.
I picked through Mom’s recipe box. I’d taken it from her kitchen when we were clearing it out, but only as a memento. It was full of label and magazine recipes, featuring powdered instant soups and canned and frozen ingredients.
“What is American cuisine anyway?”
Andrew thought. “Buffalo wings? Bloomin’ Onion?”
After agonizing over it for days, I decided to make a meat loaf with tomato sauce and offer it sliced, with a platter of shrimp and dip. But I hadn’t made a meatloaf in years, and we had to make some emergency repairs to the block of tasteless meat before we sliced and served it.
Françoise had invited Jean-Claude, who came alone and brought a cushion to ease his painful bottom, and Anne-Marie and Alain, proprietors of the chambres d’hôtes next door to her. Andrew and I invited Gwen, who lived twenty minutes away and knew none of these people.
We sat around in the salon, guzzling the elegant champagne Françoise served us for aperitifs and watching the French guests as they swapped innkeeper gripes and nibbled politely at the food, which was about as appropriate in this setting as nachos and a Chicken Ranch Melt.
Gwen grilled Jean-Claude, whom she mistrusted, and then as the time dragged by, she turned to me and snapped in English, “So are we ever gonna eat? What’s going on?”
We adjourned to the candlelit dining room where Françoise brought forth a spectacular leg of lamb en croûte, with new peas and golden discs of potato perfection, then a exquisite salad of tender greens, a selection of impressive cheeses, a dessert of baked meringue filled with ice cream—each paired with a complementary wine—and then as a finale, rich dark coffee brewed at the table in gorgeous glass bubbles set over a golden flame.
When I ventured into Françoise’s tiny kitchen to see if I could help, she and her assistant smiled at me as if I were joking. The person who brought that horrible food wants to help. Distract her with something! I was quickly handed my dishes, emptied and wiped clean, and waved off.
Andrew and I slunk home like beasts.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell