ANDREW CAME HOME from the shooting range with Jean-Claude looking like a zombie. His face was ashen.
“So . . . how was it?”
“Uh, I don’t know if I can talk about it yet.”
“Go down and ask Jean-Claude.”
I looked over my shoulder as I left and he was still standing there, tilting a little.
I slipped into the boutique the back way, from the foyer. Jean-Claude was there alone, hunkered down behind the counter. He looked up as I came in. His face was ashen, too.
“Aghhhh. Ouf.” He shook his head and looked away.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes . . . maid . . . I don’t know.”
“Somebody was shooted.”
“It was an accident . . . he is okay, I think.”
“It is okay. I just need somes quiets. I mest sink how I did it.”
“Oh . . . my . . . God.”
“I am a good shooter.”
“Okay . . . I’ll see you later.”
Eventually I got the story. Thrilled to find in Andrew a trusting apprentice (and maybe a means to keep me in line), Jean-Claude had taken over his initiation into the manly outdoor things in which he considered himself an expert, and they had reached the playing-with-guns level. They went to the trap-shooting range Jean-Claude frequented, and after watching how it’s done, Andrew got to try out his trigger finger. Jean-Claude, looking on, posed his rifle butt on the ground next to him and-–BAM! Pellets ricocheted off the tin roof overhead. A buddy standing nearby went down.
Andrew and Jean-Claude stuffed the guy into the car and raced him to the hospital, where he was treated for superficial wounds. Then they drove him home and delivered him to his wife.
He was a driving instructor. After that, whenever he passed in the car with a student driver, Andrew would point: “There goes the man Jean-Claude shot.”
I was happy that Jean-Claude had taken Andrew under his wing. It partially released me from that position. I was becoming aware of domineering undertones in Jean-Claude’s genial manner. I’d been shocked by the way he berated Brigitte for some housekeeping infraction. He’d had his back to the doorway of one of the rooms when I passed by in the hall, and I could see her hunching over the wad of dirty linen she’d collected, shoulders heaving with each verbal blow. There was an ugly violence about the scene that I couldn’t forget. I looked at their relationship now from a different angle. There was a warning in it for me. He could go off suddenly, just like his gun.
But he was my one connection to business—the only business you could do with nothing but an extra room. (Well, the only business you’re prepared to do.) What’s more, he was our entrée into village life—and French life in general. It was this character in a straw hat, red ribbon encircling the crown, who guided tourists into the gentle flow of life in Provence and, slick as a gondolier, into our guest rooms.
There was often an unlikely mix of people and nationalities on his terrace in the evenings. The ones he liked would be invited to hang around and enjoy a free pastis. This was purely for hospitality—he didn’t have, or want, a license to serve alcohol. You can’t control strangers who are paying for their drinks. This had been important to me in my initial talks with him. No matter how much you may like to drink, you don’t want to invest in rooms over a bar.
But it was our privilege to be called downstairs to join those spontaneous gatherings and meet exciting new acquaintances from places we’d never been. We’d get comfortable, encouraged by our cloudy drinks to breach language barriers, and our host would set forth on the lore of the land, opening with his standard pastis patter:
Ze first is for ze sirst…
At “we don’t care,” the audience would break into laughter and raise their glasses to the good life in the South of France. I tried at first to keep up with the pastis-drinking pace, but after a few tipsy kitchen accidents I realized why Brigitte was never there, or any other local wife at the apéritifs hour.
Encouraged by an attentive audience, Jean-Claude would begin the evening program, taking us beyond food and drink to the bedroom, the boardroom, the sports arena, the great outdoors and the wild blue yonder. He’d led corporate team-building expeditions, collected trap-shooting trophies and Judo belts, bedded several women at a time and piloted a jet out of an impending catastrophe, and he had the stories to illustrate it all.
This was the gatekeeper to the unknown territory beyond our door. It was he who told us what was what and who was who. If you forgot, or you decided to ignore it, you’d get the finger in your face.
“I told you…” The finger would wag and the voice would go a note higher on told. Andrew had it down perfectly.
“I told you” would often be followed by “you mest” and an explanation of the correct way to do whatever it was.
He told us—and everyone else. Even in the hospital, weakened from surgery, when he discovered the doctors’ lack of knowledge about the health benefits of good red wine, he’d found it necessary to lecture them.
“Zey did not know! I told zem.”
One day I went with Jean-Claude on a break-neck tour of the ateliers of his suppliers, makers of the specialty preserves, candies, wines and liqueurs that were sold in the boutique. It felt like a special honor to be riding with him in his BMW, stopping in out-of-the-way corners and being introduced to people who had such special talents and high standards of quality.
“Taste,” said Jean-Claude, bringing his fingers and thumb together to his pursed lips. “Zat is something we French know from baby.”
I visited the workroom where jams and jellies are made, surprised by the gleaming floor, the shining metal vats and the homey scene of people sitting family-style around a table as they peeled the fruit. I met the baker of the “best” traditional bread, and peered into the ancient oven where he shoveled loaves of risen dough into the fire every day before dawn. I watched guys in red aprons pour thick blobs of hot creamy nougat from a cauldron to cool in slabs that would become those sweet chewy bars filled with nuts and fruit that, wrapped in glistening cellophane, every child entering the boutique made a beeline for.
“Taste. We know it from baby. Many peoples do not.”
I had to admit that we Americans were not traditionally tutored in taste. We are taught to eat everything on our plate, but not necessarily to enjoy it.
“That is why I ‘ave my idea . . . ” he turned to give me a look of dramatic import.
”University of Taste!”
He saw it developing in our building. He had already put his concept in place in the boutique, by setting out slices of cured sausages and spreads and patés on toasts for customers to sample. Why not extend tasting to include, not only wine, but cheeses, salts and vinegars, herbal infusions, ripe tomatoes, fresh eggs—host a sensory exploration of Provence and her most precious delicacies, even, dare we think, truffles?
I get rippling chills when I catch onto an idea, and I was nearly nauseated with excitement—although it could have been his driving. In my mind I could see our place becoming a center for learning about food and—why stop at that—painting and the rest of the arts while we’re at it. That was sooooo right up the Marcia-and-Andrew alley. We’d attract enthusiastic, interested, paying customers! We could launch events, rent space to growers, winemakers, artisans!
Wait a minute–had he said we? No, he had not. But he had let me in on the idea and I would stick with him in renting out the rooms while a bigger pot simmered in my mind.
He put up a website. We put up a website and linked it to his. We made an agreement that we got a percentage from guests we put in his rooms and he got a percentage for guests he put in our room. We would serve our guests breakfast, and we would serve those of his who wanted it for an additional price. It was a good deal at first, because his place was already a known commodity and we got his spillover. We would have to wait for Americans to find us, but before the season was over we knew a good deal about the behavior and preferences of various Europeans.
Andrew and I had to work out a few things in the housekeeping department. He knew how to clean and vacuum, but he didn’t understand my insistence on the little niceties people expect in a B&B. Neither did Jean-Claude, for that matter. He was accustomed to impersonal businessman hotels, and Andrew was accustomed to what I might call “roughing it.” It was up to me to see to appointments such as scented soap, herbal bath products and hair dryers. It was fun.
What wasn’t fun was scrubbing toilets after guests. But if I caught myself grumbling over the bowl, with my arm plunged in up to the elbow, I would ask myself a simple question: “Would you rather be doing this or sitting in a marketing meeting?” The toilet usually won out.
Meanwhile, Jean-Claude had taken his signage issues to a town meeting at the mairie and had come back “hungry.” There was a movement afoot to discourage the kind of rampant consumerism that had turned other small picturesque villages like Gordes and Roussillon into tourist towns, burying their heritage under new shops and stores full of expensive clichés and the ubiquitous real estate offices with property photos in the window. Jean-Claude had run into several roadblocks in his efforts to advertise the boutique. He’d circumvented the policy against posting signs within the communal jurisdiction by sticking signs on friends’ properties lining the way into the village. But when it came to getting all the wording he wanted on the little directional signs within the village, he was thwarted. He could show the name of his boutique and an arrow pointing the way, but he could not elaborate that it offered regional products and specialties.
We waited for him to come back so we could hear all about it. He was boiling mad and his face was almost purple, but he controlled himself as he poured us each a pastis, lit a cigarette and sat down to tell us about the meeting.
“I fighted,” he assured us. “I tol’ them, ‘you har hall hass-‘oles and hall you do is SHIT!’ ”
But he didn’t get his way. So that night, he went around with a black indelible marker. The next morning, the signs included his lettering. And the next week, after the words had faded, they reappeared darker and bolder than ever.
It was a little scary.
There was a scuffle going on in the street—you could hear angry voices even through windows closed against the wind.
I opened the window and leaned over the sill far enough to catch sight of two dark-haired men in work pants and wool shirts. One held an old cane-bottom chair with which he was bashing the other one. As I watched, Jean-Claude came out of the boutique, where he’d been doing his accounts. He grabbed each of them by the shoulder and by yelling louder and more fiercely than they, succeeded in parting them and sending them in different directions.
Later, I asked him who they were.
“Co-propriétaires of the building next door.”
I gulped. He looked away.
“Okay, we have to branch out,” I said to Andrew at lunch one day. We were drinking wine and talking about—what else—Jean-Claude, our mentor-tormentor.
“He’s a good guy, but he’s a little crazy.”
“The thing is, as far as everybody in the village is concerned, we live in his back pocket.” I was afraid we might be in the wrong camp when push came to shove.
“Yeah, Jean-Claude and his stupid Americans.”
“You have to remember he’s not the good-ol’-boy he seems to be—he’s a Parisian, and that’s like a damn Yankee down here.”
“And all anybody knows about us is what he tells them.”
“That’s not good. And we can’t ask anyone else how he portrays us.”
“We need to learn enough French to talk to people directly.”
We both took a gulp and refilled our glasses.
“Yeah, if we want to be part of the community anyway.”
“If we want to stay here,” I said, looking at him sideways.
“More than a year?”
“Well, I wouldn’t violently object.”
“Okay, you’re uncommitted, but you care about the community.”
“Sure! Or we could be like the British and show up once or twice a year, open up the old manse, sock in the tea, biscuits and curry paste and turn on SkyBox . . . ”
“Or we could be like the Americans and . . . ”
“ . . . just not be here at all.”
“I want to stay.”
“I do too.”
“Then we gotta branch out.”
So far, we’d befriended the baron and baroness, and that was good. Older villagers have a lot of clout. If you’re American, you’re lucky in that sense, because they remember when the Yanks came through in ’44. They were little kids and the Yanks gave them chewing gum and let them ride on the tanks. You’re already profiled as nice guys, in spite of fifty years of American tourists behaving badly. Monsieur had even made it a point to give me a copy of a letter written by King Louis XVI to his ancestor, Bonaventure Journu, thanking him for his contribution of a fleet of ships to the American Revolution.
I thought Andrew and I were beginning to make a good team, in a good-cop-bad-cop, us-against-them kind of way. He was innocent, open and kind. I was experienced, distant and harsh. He believed everyone and I believed no one. He thought with his heart and I with my head. There we were—Cancer and Aquarius. Who would have thought we’d have made it this far?
But this was no time to congratulate ourselves. We had work to do.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell