Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 7: Making the Move, Renting Rooms

January 1, 2015

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Looking down on Saignon from Marcia's window

Looking down on Saignon from Marcia’s window.

THE NIGHT THAT WRAPPED UP the twentieth century was a tacit adieu to America as well, although I didn’t think it at the time. Celebrating with Andrew, Cindy and Ken, and—wondering what he was doing with straight couples—Don in a fashionable restaurant not far from the village. I remember the scene with the same clarity (unusual for New Year’s Eves) as I remember being on the beach in Mazatlán, pregnant with Ben, drinking a “virgin” margarita and watching fireworks on the last night of the seventies. The occasions were similar in two ways: I was still sober at midnight, and my life was about to change forever.

The room was small, washed with the color of wheat and the warm glow of little rose-shaded lamps, and it was full of pleasant-looking people cozying up in the intimacy of the moment. Large windows framed a night sky deepening from indigo to black, over the gentle garrigue, the Mediterranean scrubland, spiked with a cypress or two. If it were a stage, its orchestra was the rows of boxwood and rosemary in front.  People talked softly and gazed outside now and then as if to give a nod to Nature, our hostess here on earth.

They call this festive evening le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre, which sounds somehow silver and shining to me. No one can tell me much about St. Sylvester, but he must have had very good taste. There were no noisemakers, no party hats, no loud drunks or people dancing in stocking feet. There were no fights, no tables turned over, nobody with smudged mascara crying in the bathroom or throwing up in the parking lot. There was food—delicious, gorgeously composed dishes—arriving at the table at a luxuriously slow pace across four and a half hours.

That’s right. Four and a half hours.

A British couple at the next table were the only other English-speaking people, and we exchanged pleasantries and recommendations, the kind that pass between people who are not from the area but aren’t tourists either. Andrew referred to them as “frightfully friendly.” We wondered briefly if the management had purposely seated us near each other, in the way one might corral the more aggressive fish in the aquarium.

Cindy the scene-setter could not resist thrusting one little Mardi-Grasian touch of flash into this decorous setting. She pulled five sets of large red eyeglasses out of her customary carpetbag and made us put them on. The frames formed 2-0-0-0, and when you put them on, you looked through the middle 0’s.

At midnight, the handsome young chef-owner of the restaurant and his pretty blonde wife went around arm-in-arm to each table to wish each and every one of us a très bonne année.

“That does it,” said Andrew. “We should all live here.”

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A fortune-teller once told me she saw an airplane in my hand. Apart from the fact that my father had sold airplanes (and god knows what else) to foreign powers, it did turn out that I flew a lot more often than the average American woman. By now I could—and did—make the trip from Washington to Paris to Marseille in my sleep, shuffling through Charles de Gaulle as if going for the morning paper in my slippers.

It was the coming back that was difficult. The pace of life, in Washington at least, seemed frantic, the people scared or angry, the scenery cluttered, and the food—that was the tipping point. I found myself cursing at tomatoes. These were lavishly displayed at one of the new breed of “natural food” stores that were cropping up, but if you took one home and bit into a slice, you would taste nothing. NOTHING. We’d met a Frenchman who had moved back to France with his American wife and child after living several years in the States. When Andrew asked him if there had been any single reason for quitting America, he said, “I just couldn’t live with the food.” I’d laughed at the time, but I was beginning to see his point.

However, it was not food that turned the tide but life itself and its limits. We Belles had been shaken by our own Lynne’s bout with breast cancer a few years before. The burning pain Jean-Claude had felt in his belly last season was colorectal cancer; he’d had surgery that winter and kept us updated by e-mail (“I have no more hass-‘ole”). Now the specter cast its shadow over a long-time local friend, Jon, one of my fellow painting enthusiasts and Francophiles. He and his wife, Vero, had a place in Cannes. I was reading “At Home In France” by Ann Barry, and when I came to the surprisingly abrupt end, I saw in the author’s profile that she had died before finishing the book. That shook me. She was my age, a strong, independent woman, a runner! She had bought herself a little house in the Dordogne region of France, but her editing job at the New York Times would allow her only two or three weeks a year to enjoy it.  She died of breast cancer before she could get back there to write the chapter I was looking forward to.

When I mentioned this to Jon, who was convalescing after a thankfully successful operation, he said, with typical bluntness, “Well . . . what are you waiting for?”

Indeed. My new life hadn’t started at zero, after all. And in spite of my healthy diet, my running and working out, I had reached the age when I couldn’t take life and time for granted.

I was moved by the close calls to talk with Andrew about the one subject we’d avoided ever since we’d met: our future. As artist and “agent” we’d discussed different possibilities for his career. But in a relationship like ours, where society gives you no model and the rules are what you make up as you go along, it’s hard to visualize a common future. The best we could do was to plot out the next year, and that, we agreed, we wanted to spend together, in France.

At that point, Andrew could just pack up his few belongings and go, but I would have to think carefully about divesting myself of property and resources—those things that keep us tethered in place like milk cows. I would have to hold on to my major clients somehow. I was years away from collecting Social Security, I’d used the first installment of inherited money to buy the French property, but I had no way of knowing how much the rest of it would be or when it would come. At the moment, it was keeping my mother housed, fed and cared for.

My mother had taken me aside when I was young and told me in hushed tones that I would never have to worry about money. She hinted at a large cache of funds put away to assure our future. Looking back, it was probably during a brief blip of extraordinary prosperity when a good chunk of cash from Dad’s international deals may have been stashed in a Swiss bank. Whether or not that was true, those days were over, and we siblings were in charge of the estate and knew its extent—which was no more than what any smart, hard-working middle-class American could accumulate over a fortunate lifetime.  It was certainly not inexhaustible.

But that truth didn’t caution me.  When your parent assures you that you’ll never have to worry about money, you believe it.  The certainty is planted somewhere deep inside of you, in a place where you go to find courage to face each new leap. It bolsters you when you’re flat broke and pounding the pavement for work. You believe that there is something out there for you, that if you just persevere, it will come, and then, lo and behold, it does.

Miraculously—as if to prove it—the value of my cheesy little townhouse, which had hovered for ten years around the price I’d paid for it, suddenly shot through the roof. It was happening all around Washington. Where was all that money coming from? My real estate agent, a neighbor new to the trade, didn’t even have a chance to put up her first sign before the place was sold for a previously unimaginable price. I’d put a lot of cash into it, so I got a whopping amount out after settling the loan. It seemed that one day I was saying “I think I’ll put the house up for sale,” the next day I was wondering where I would store my stuff, and in a matter of weeks we were rolling into the village loaded down like the Beverly Hillbillies, with Andrew’s cat in her cage, my bird in his, and my big fat Lab on a leash.

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“Let’s give it one year,” we said, again and again. “One year,” as our animals roared threats at one another from their chosen turfs. “One year,” as we spent hours of fine summer days figuring out how to regulate the hot water system, set up phones and messaging service, obtain car insurance, even write checks—all the hassles that come with relocation, doubled by the international factor. Then tripled by the French factor, which says If there is a way to make it more complicated and take much, much longer than you ever imagined, we are proud to say that we have invented it.

As long as he was the only person for miles around who spoke English, we depended on Jean-Claude for everything. He’d insisted on acquainting us with our surroundings. The man had a colostomy bag inside his shirt and a chemo infusion pump at his waist, but there he was, his cigarette clamped under his mustache, leading us along rocky trails through the countryside to see the hidden springs, Roman ruins, prehistoric caves that “nobody knows—no-body!”

But the big emergency, the problem that took over our days and nights, was something Jean-Claude couldn’t help us with. Getting online.

It was absolutely vital for me to get connected to my clients as soon as I arrived and continue the seamless service I’d promised them. I had set it up with the phone company, and the dial-up connection had worked every time I’d stayed here in the past. It was the same laptop, the same phone company and the same Internet server—but now, with everything riding on it, it didn’t work.

For hour after frustrating, sweaty hour Andrew and I took turns on the phone with techs, and consulting a huge English-French dictionary updated with technical terms. Days went by when we never left the apartment, quitting only at nightfall, when we started the drinking that would knock us out until the next day dawned and we’d pull up to the desk and the phone for another stretch of furious helplessness. We exhausted the English-speaking techies and put the French through seven kinds of hell. Where was the problem? There were so many points between your keyboard and the screen of someone across the ocean that every junction had to be examined.

One day after an entire month of contradicting advice and guidance, I just got in the car, drove to Avignon, bought a new Apple computer, took it home, plugged it in and was online in a few minutes.

I can’t explain it now. I couldn’t even bear to think about it for several years. My mind just wouldn’t go back there.

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The new computer changed our French life overnight. We woke up to celestial sunlight and birdsong, had fresh croissants and coffee on the terrace overlooking the valley. I had a good long run with Mojo along the plateau above the village before I sat down to work, while Andrew whistled and hummed at his easel.

I was exploring the local morning markets and working my way through French cookbooks, so often when we broke for lunch it was to “test” a menu. We’d start with something like ripe tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with the fluffy crystals of salt from the flats in the Camargue, followed by a roasted farm chicken stuffed with wild thyme picked on the trail that morning, perfect little oval potatoes with butter and fresh parsley, and sweet slender haricots verts, pride of the greengrocer, with a bottle of Côtes du Rhone red or a Bandol rosé at our elbows. Then we’d clear our palates with a tender green salad and move on to the cheese course—one of the local goat cheeses—a Banon for example, wrapped in chestnut leaves soaked in eau-de-vie, plus a cow cheese from a place we’d visited or planned to, like a Reblochon from Cindy and Ken’s neck of the woods.

After that kind of a lunch, we had no better alternative than the traditional sieste, an hour’s snooze in sheets cooled by the scented breeze off the valley. It didn’t take us long to get rid of the nagging feeling that we should be doing something productive during that lazy post-lunch part of the day when nothing is moving. It was a matter of going with the rhythm of the place. If you fought it, if you tried to defy it by eating lunch later and slipping into bed around five when everyone else was back in full swing, you’d be rudely surprised.

“Allo—somebody zere?”

Jean-Claude no longer bothered knocking when he came up from the shop with an idea. He threw open the door and spun into the room in a single motion. Above him in the grenier, we groaned and shifted into consciousness.

“There’s Kramer,” muttered Andrew.

But we had business with him now. We’d have to better synchronize our working days. And leave the hanky-panky for nights.

I had decided to make the studio apartment available to seasonal guests, along with Jean-Claude’s rooms, in the hope of making a little money. But first we had to get rid of the mezzanine—not an original feature like the one upstairs, but a contraption Jean-Claude had rigged so the room could sleep more people. This had to be a covert operation, though, because Jean-Claude had designed and built it before he sold the room to me, and it would hurt his pride if we trashed it right under his nose.

It took Andrew a couple of weeks, working only when Jean-Claude was not in the shop, and when Brigitte was not cleaning guest rooms. He slowly dismantled the wooden structure and smuggled the boards out a few at a time, like one of the prisoners in “The Great Escape,” one of the classic American movies we’d ordered on DVD, which had given us the idea.

Now in went the wrought-iron canopy bed Don had ordered for my boudoir, joining the leopard-print daybed with the pillows he’d appliquéd with oval line-drawn portraits of long-gone aristocrats; the antique table and two high-back gothic chairs he’d covered in blue silk with fleur-de-lys; the Moroccan rug and light fixtures, the bedspread in Provençal reds and golds; two sets of queen-size pillows stacked behind European squares, their white shams printed with a gold “La” on one and “Nuit” on the other. It was devastating.

We dared hope that when Jean-Claude saw the results of our secret work he would be mightily impressed.

“My ‘eart is broken,” he said, clutching his chest and looking up at where his construction had been.

“Are those Don’s ancestors?” smirked Brigitte, eyeing the appliquéd portraits on the daybed pillows.

We had covered Jean-Claude’s violent-yellow “rustique” paint job with a fresh coat of white. “Hôpital’ he moaned. “Clinique.”

We took photos for display in the book he kept in his shop to show customers inquiring about rooms. We showed them to him proudly.

Baroque américaine,” he said, shaking his head at our folly. But he slipped them into a sleeve in the book, after his own rooms. Our price was the highest. “I will tell zem it is a special room,” he assured me. “Like for la lune de miel—ze ‘oneymoon.”

I wasn’t counting on “walk-ins,” as we called them—the European travelers who go around comparing prices for lodging on offer, just as they read menus out front of restaurants before they go in and ask for a table. I was banking on Americans, and I had some printed brochures and a website in the works. These photos would, at best, catch the attention of visitors who might be considering staying in this charming village on a future trip.

And, I thought, who knows—I might even have more rooms one day. I might be a little old lady who rents rooms to supplement her pension.

Opposite each room’s photo page in Jean-Claude’s book was a complicated schedule of rates. You had the price for two people, the price for each additional person, the price for one night, for a week, for two weeks—each according to the season, figured from Easter to All Saints’ Day and broken into low, high and medium depending on customary demand. I thought it was too intricate a system for me to keep track of, so I just gave him one across-the-board price for the room.  He was appalled.

“And what about ze sird person?”

“I don’t want three persons in that room.” I mean, please. What kind of a threesome would choose the “honeymoon” room?

Our “business meetings” happened like that—on the fly, and then he would go ahead and do what he wanted, the way he’d always done it. The next time I looked in his book at my room page, there was the complicated low-middle-high season, one-two-three-people rate schedule.

The problem, in my estimation, was that Jean-Claude might not have noticed that our region had begun to attract a more well-heeled traveler than the simple and thrifty vacationers he was used to. I did a little basic market research and found his room rates to be toward the bottom of the scale for a destination that one American publication had called “the Hamptons of France.” Of course, the prices reflected perfectly the humble furnishings and basic amenities, so in that sense they were right on. My room fit the area and the market—it just had no business being in the same building.

This would be something I’d have to work around, because it certainly didn’t look as if  Jean-Claude would be receptive to any upgrades.

After one of our “business meetings,” during which we had agreed on the importance of signs in attracting your potential clientele, I came up with a layout of photos and captions, displayed in an antiqued window-frame on a post that could be stood among the greens in a planter out front.  The color photos in the “panes” would lure people closer to look at the rooms and read the selling points. I showed him the idea. He didn’t like it. He said he was working on some sign ideas of his own, and I would soon see how it’s done.

On the light-green shutters of the boutique, in line with the bold graphic symbols forbidding bare feet and shirtless torsos, he hand-lettered in black the words:

CHAMBRES

ZIMMERN

ROOMS

“That oughta get ‘em,” said Andrew.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell



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