WE GOT OUR FIRST guests without signs.
A friend of Andrew’s family rented a house in the area every year. A trust-fund bachelor, according to Andrew, active in the arts, able and happy to pay a handsome price for a week in our beautiful studio. He was coming to visit!
Yippee! His patronage could become an annual certainty! Our place could develop into a posh hideaway for sophisticates who wanted things low-key.
He was middle-aged, slight and pale, with no chin and red splotches on his face. An artist with an apartment on Central Park, he had some kind of directorial connection with a nearby American art school. He took us to dinner the first night and confessed his apprehensions about the girl he’d invited to join him. He hadn’t even slept with her yet, but he thought she might be The One. They had really hit it off at a party in New York. He’d paid for her ticket. He kept ordering bottles until we were all drunk, and the owners of the café were sitting out front waiting for us to leave. She was a lingerie model, he said. I thought it was a joke.
The next day I was in a bookstore in Aix-en-Provence when three women came in from the street and approached the counter. Their spokeswoman was trying to communicate with the clerk in the cheerfully blunt way of Americans who haven’t learned any French phrases.
“Where are the lavender fields? LAVENDER? Where? La-ven-der?” The clerk just smiled helplessly and looked over her shoulder for help.
I kept my head down. The fields above our village were in full, breathtaking, fragrant bloom, but I wasn’t in the business of guided tours.
The women looked around for pictures to point to, waving their hands, raising their voices, talking over one another in their eagerness to make themselves understood.
I couldn’t stand it. I came out from behind a rack of cards.
“The lavender fields are about an hour north of here.”
Three faces turned toward me with unabashed joy. The clerk relaxed her shoulders, relieved of duty.
They were two California schoolteachers and a daughter who was a flight attendant and source of free flights. They had started out with a free pass for Ireland, but the flight filled up, so they took the next available flight, which was to Nice. Having no interest in the Riviera, they rented a car and went looking for the heart of Provence. They had no clue where to stay.
I thought of a word from the old Nancy Drew adventures: plucky. These gals were plucky. No hotel reservations, no itinerary, no restaurant checklist from friends back home. I was charmed.
“I live there,” I said. “You can follow me if you want.”
Astonishingly, they rounded up their little rental car and followed me, a total stranger, through the countryside north of Aix, across the Durance river, through the mountain pass and into a different world.
We turned onto the country road that traverses the plateau, and I stopped at the first big lavender field and signaled them to pull over. Across the road, the spears of purple-blue lavender stood a foot and a half high, rising from nests of silver-green, the neat rows like rays across the reddish soil, leading the eye to a point on the edge of the plateau, where the snow-white summit of Mont Ventoux gleamed in the distance.
They tumbled out of the car like children, cameras swinging on straps. I urged them to get into it, to wade in knee-deep, breathe in the fragrance and hear the buzzing of bees. They didn’t need encouragement—they tramped straight into purple glory, stood hugging each other and burst into tears.
“This is how it’s supposed to be!”
The sight of our medieval village wowed them. Oh yes, yes, they would love to stay there! Could it be possible? I brought them to see if any of Jean-Claude’s rooms were available, since the studio was occupied by Trust Fund, waiting for his lingerie model. Good news—the room-with-bath right next to it was vacant. It was humbly furnished but large and cool, with a double bed and a daybed. They booked it for the week—at the seasonal price for three.
Trust Fund’s new girlfriend arrived. She was a slim brunette in her twenties with a square jaw, a husky voice and expensive sunglasses. We dined at our place and, all feeling the tension of the occasion, drank everything in sight. Andrew and I got so schnockered we finally had to call it a night and send them downstairs to the guest room.
In the wee hours of the morning, when the receding tide of alcohol leaves your mouth swollen and gritty, I was startled by the sound of clinking glass and muffled laughter. Something was going on in our front room, where the drinks tray sat on the big wooden buffet, just below our bed in the grenier.
“What’s that?” I whispered in Andrew’s ear.
“I think they’re taking our liquor.”
We could hear them descending the stairs.
Later in the morning we made a quick check and found a couple of top-shelf bottles missing. We were just finishing lunch when the model came to our door, wrapped only in a sheet, to say they’d run out of wine and could they borrow a bottle from us.
“We’ve been having a good time,” she giggled. “I guess you can tell.” Behind her, Trust Fund wobbled on the steps, clutching his sheet to his white chest. I handed her our last bottle of rosé.
I asked the teachers if they’d been awakened in the night, and they acknowledged that they’d heard the two squealing and banging around until dawn. “It sounded like they were all over the place.”
I learned from Jean-Claude that the girl had come into the boutique to buy five more bottles of wine. He thought she might be a prostitute.
“I know zis kind of woman.”
Andrew and I grew uneasy. We’d put a lot of work and thought and, yes, money, into the studio apartment, and this was a sorry inaugural. Trust Fund and the Lingerie-less Model were obviously settled in to drink all day, without going out for food, or a breath of fragrant air, a glimpse of honest blue sky.
The Lingerie-less Model came up again that afternoon to hand me some soiled bath towels. She’d used them to wipe up the floor because “some wine spilled.” Red wine. Expensive white towels.
In my head I heard Don. “Those goddam shams cost a hundred dollars apiece.” I shuddered.
Around seven she reappeared in a short sundress, thrown over her now familiar naked body. She held one of my mother’s pink and gold sherbet glasses, brimming with red wine. She was drunk.
She wanted to talk about the man she’d spent the night with. She broke into sobs and lifted her dress to show us bruises he’d left on her body.
“He’s into some weird shit,” she said, dribbling wine down her front.
She asked what we knew about him. Andrew told her honestly that he was an alcoholic. We suggested that if she was being abused, she should leave. Andrew offered to take her to the train. Suddenly switching moods, she straightened herself up and declared, “I am committed to helping him change–I want to correct him.” And went back downstairs.
That evening, the teachers knocked on our door with an invitation: “Join us at the top of Le Rocher at eight, and bring a glass!”
The sun was low and the light beautiful on our village’s lone tourist site. The centerpiece, a concrete table-map identifying the villages in view, was covered with a gift-shop tablecloth and spread with an assortment of cheeses. There was a big pitcher of rosé. They’d hit the wine co-op as I’d suggested and had experienced the marvel of filling a five-liter jug with the local vin du pays directly from a towering stainless-steel tank.
They received Jean-Claude and Andrew and me—along with a few random people they’d met, and two German tourists who were already there—as if it were their own place.
“Only Americans would do this,” I said proudly to Jean-Claude.
“C’est vrai. Only the Americans.”
On their triumphant first day in the Luberon, the California teachers had explored the countryside, discovered bories–indigenous dry-stone shepherd’s huts—visited a goat farm, petted the goats, bought their cheese and somehow managed to learn the owners’ family history and plans for the future. Their little party at sunset was to thank us for introducing them to our wonderful world. We partied until it grew dark and the caretaker came to lock the gate for the night.
“Gee, I hope they don’t mind that we kinda took over the place,” said one of our hostesses.
The next morning was particularly beautiful. I took Mo out for a run in the hills, enjoying his simple good-natured companionship, the solid ground under my feet and the honest fragrance of fields warming in morning sunlight.
I needed to sift through the events of the last couple of days. In the innocent enthusiasm of the California teachers I thought I recognized what might be the most satisfying return in this business of hosting strangers. But there was a kind of sad depravity going on in my rental room, the place I’d meant to be a haven for special people like them. It was so disappointing—but worse, I felt a sickening tinge of familiarity in it. I knew the contours of that murky world. There was no innocence there. No joy. I didn’t want it to take hold here, in my new life.
I came back home with a decision.
Andrew and I had been embarrassed by this guest he’d brought into the fold—had introduced around as a friend of his family. He had recounted a few stories involving bouts of drinking and meanness, but he had convinced himself and me that the man would be on his best behavior here—which should have forewarned me of the possibility of bad behavior. Now he knew we had to take a stand. He just didn’t want to do it.
“If you’re with me on this, then we need to go talk to him together,” I said. “This is our first trial in the hospitality venture. We’re setting a precedent here. Is this what we want to attract?”
We went down and “un-invited” Trust Fund. He was in the bathroom shaving and trying to repair the ruins of the night before. She was out getting bread. He was shocked. They were just having a little fun. It was pretty severe of me (he knew it was me) to kick them out.
I suggested an AA refresher, handed him the phone and the directory and wished him a pleasant stay at any other place but ours.
There was no mention of settling the bill.
After they left, I answered a phone call from a woman asking for the Lingerie-Less Model. When I told her she’d gone, and that I didn’t know where, the force of her reaction told me she was her mother.
“I don’t know this man . . . she doesn’t know him . . . she’s too trusting . . . why she does these things . . . ”
Oh, lady. If you only knew. I felt so bad for her. But her daughter was a grown woman—and a lingerie model to boot, for crissakes.
Cleaning up the room after them wasn’t enough. Andrew vacuumed, I scrubbed, and we washed and ironed the linens, bleached the towels, and put out soap and bath products for the next guests. When we stood back and surveyed the room it looked good, but it felt bad.
“The next guests in this room should be special people,” said Andrew thoughtfully. “That will be the real inaugural.”
It’s probably not a good business practice to go about purifying your rooms after unpleasant experiences. I certainly wouldn’t advertise that we did. But I’d learn to give credence to the idea that there can be a certain energy or spirit in a place. I’d never been to the Gulag or the Killing Fields in Cambodia, but I have sensed something at a slave auction block in Georgia, the ovens at Dachau, in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and the Anasazi ruins of Mesa Verde. Something. As in Robert Frost’s “something there is . . . that doesn’t love a wall.”
Even the most rational people take into account the spirit of a place, whether they know it or not. Think about how hard it would be to sell a house where a murder had taken place. Would you move in and sleep there? I went against my instincts when my second husband and I bought a house that was on the market because of bad luck and divorce. Every room in that house felt like a hair shirt, and it all ended in divorce. The people who moved in after us divorced too.
One of the walls of this guest room was built in the thirteenth century. The humans who had passed through it ate, drank, made love, gave birth and died in it over hundreds of years must have contributed something to the atmosphere of the place. Andrew and I had spent a few nights in this room, and our dreams were vivid and almost baroque in their details.
I was a dreamy little girl with magical thoughts that, when I became a businesswoman, I kept in a separate compartment, for fear people would think I was a nutcase. Andrew, on the other hand, was transparent and free-floating. If someone suggested that he and I had loved each other in a former life, he would not only agree, he would start coloring in the details. Astrology, numerology, afterlife experiences, kindred spirits—it was all part of his practical reality. We had begun to have more conversations in this realm, probably because of the freedom of not being understood by the people around us. Villagers could talk about “Andrew and his mother” all they wanted. They had no idea what weirdos we really were.
Now, we had to get rid of some bad juju and bring that room back to its original state of grace.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell