Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 23: A Shifting Village

April 23, 2015

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MarciaChpt23web“I HAVE SOME MONEY if you need it.”

These are the words of a friend. More than that . . . an American friend, who shamelessly uses the words money and need in the same sentence.

My friend Diane and I were sitting at Fran’s walnut table surveying her newly decorated apartment. The walls were freshly painted white (Hôpital! Clinique!), and hung with a couple of Andrew’s paintings. A breeze rustled the ruby taffeta framing the view of vine-covered stones, red roofs and heavenly blue sky. Fran’s budget had allowed us to create a chic “little nest” for her occasional visits. Now it was ready to receive paying guests—and we were desperately ready for them. After a winter of barely scraping by, my bag-lady panic was back. I was having dreams about losing rings and being stranded in an unfamiliar landscape. Diane was someone who could relate.

She and her husband, Steve, were the only other local Anglophones we knew who weren’t sitting on a fortune. Jean-Claude had shared a hospital room with Steve, who hurt his back during his stay last summer. He invited them to “take a café” and called us over to meet them.

A pair of New Yorkers who’d retired to Florida, too youthful for their age; survivors of cancer, war and heart failure; lovers of life and France, they were renting a house in the area for the second year in a row.

“In two weeks our visa’s up and we have to go back,” Diane told us. “We’re already dreading it.”

I said, “Why don’t you just stay?”

By the time I saw them again, they’d signed a long-term lease and bought a car.

“All we had to hear was ‘just stay,’ laughed Diane, bouncing her white-gold curls.

That fall they threw a party and more than fifty people crowded into their little place to enjoy a generous American-style stand-up buffet. They’d brought together a diverse group of locals and transplants—met their families and learned their stories—all with only a few words of French.

“We hadda move,” Steve said in Brooklynese. “We got more friends in France than in Florida.”

Diane, who’d been a National Geographic photographer, shared many of my interests–language, images, exploration of all kinds. We liked to talk over coffee and imagine ourselves forming a salon, like eighteenth-century Parisian society ladies, versed in art and literature and engaging progressive thinkers of our time. Mostly we sat around trashing the Bush administration and deploring the invasion of Iraq. The fallout from that fiasco and the sinking Dollar had made it increasingly difficult for them to live on their pensions, and for us to depend on an American clientele.

“Really, if you need the cash, just tell me.”

“We’ll find a way, but thank you. I appreciate knowing it’s there for me.”

We po’ folks were a breed apart from the Anglophones in local ex-pat circles. They were mostly British, well invested, with multiple residences and household staff. They shopped in London and Paris, cruised to St. Petersburg, skied in the Alps and rented châteaux for family weddings.  The few other American ex-pats we knew were beginning to feel strapped, and some had already given up and gone back to the U.S. to avoid a drastic drop in their standard of living.

Steve and Diane had started a business to supplement their shrinking retirement income. They scoured the markets daily for collectibles and sold them on eBay.  Diane wrote the copy and took the photos. Steve packed the boxes and lugged them to our village post office. It paid the rent—the rest was easy. They had already moved into the French health-care system, which, at their age, left them few expenses to worry about.

As usual in the dark days in winter, when tourist money seemed like a childhood memory you’d never have again, Andrew and I considered worst-case scenarios. I thought I could go to Los Angeles and live with Ben until I got a job. No, said Andrew, he would go—to New York, stay with a friend and work in a restaurant kitchen as he had in college days, send home what he could. I couldn’t even imagine that scenario.  He had a master’s degree—maybe he should just go back to D.C. and teach painting. And what about me?

“I’m not going back to Washington,” I’d say. So then we’d talk about where. Arizona?  Maine? California? These were places we liked, but the problem was . . . what?

“Well, the food can be awful.”

“Everybody seems frantic, scared, paranoid.”

“Suburbs, SUVs, McMansions, Starbucks . . . ”

“Violence, political correctness, extreme makeovers . . . ”

“ . . . evangelistic Christians . . . ”

“Oh God!”

“But really, it’s the food.”

“Yeah.”

Then, coming out of every winter, we would look around and say . . . Nah.

We just couldn’t see ourselves living there anymore.

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Andrew and I were trying to shake off some of the patterns we’d set as addicts, and we pulled together that spring. We were determined to find ways to support our art so art would support us. It was all we had. It was who we were.

We were now seeing a new kind of tourist. Americans in particular were asking more thoughtful questions, revealing a deeper interest in the land, its products and its history. I began to think that people coming here, as opposed to a taking a cruise or a beach vacation, were more interested in learning something. We talked about developing creative arts programs to offer in the tourist season. It felt good. It felt right.

We were fortunate to be living at an international crossroads, and vacationers from all over the world passed through. Unlike a hotel, we ran the kind of place that attracted people who wanted to engage you in conversation, and share personal stories. Often you’d catch a glimpse of some deep longing, especially in those who were at a turning point in life. I knew that feeling. We could work with it.

It had dawned on us that, beyond the change of scenery, the sudden immersion in another culture opens a space where it is possible to try yourself in different ways. You’re somehow out of the range of critical recognition and review. This anonymity gives you leave to exercise abilities and talents long forgotten, or stifled.

Expanding this idea, we began to codify our painting programs, which had been loosely organized periods of instruction, into multi-discipline workshops—educational experiences in which painters of all levels could push their artistic talent and deepen their understanding of the world.

My job was to feed them. I was practiced enough in the local cuisine to offer daily menus of regional specialties. They’d come to our table hot and hungry from painting outside in the landscape, and they’d be greeted with the flavors of the land whose colors and textures they were learning to portray.

We folded three meals a day into the workshop price, along with accommodations and excursions, and now that the gallery space in our cave was ready, we could introduce a student art show—a vernissage—to cap off the workshop week. Locals and tourists alike would be invited to step inside for refreshments and see how our students had rendered their fields and orchards and the lines of their tiled roofs.

Once we had everything in place, with Nancy’s participation and Fran’s apartment to add to our accommodations, all we could do was wait for the enrollment forms and deposits to start coming in. If it was going to be a good season, we’d know right away. If it wasn’t, we’d grow more anxious with every passing week, second-guessing ourselves and flailing around frantically for some other means. We’d do anything, we agreed, except go back.

Somehow, clear-headed and sober at last, we could see that as both the responsible thing to do and the very definition of defeat.

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One morning early enough still to be hopeful and warm enough to open the front windows, I saw a gnarled little figure in confetti colors moving across the clock tower Place like a cautious insect. It was the Argentine artist—alive and, while not kicking, still getting around. She had withdrawn into her decrepit castle, as she did every year at first chill, announcing that she was ready to die. With the first whiff of spring, she’d risen like a shriveled Persephone to give life another whirl. Cigarettes in her pocket, portfolio under one arm, she’d take up her cane and make her way downhill into the village to see who else was still alive, had not yet looked at her drawings or indeed was even worth talking to.

Her name was Rosario. She was looking for coffee and simpático souls. The community she’d once belonged to had died away.

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In 1953, an idealistic group of Argentines left Buenos Aires in opposition to the regime of Juan Perón. Their blood had flowed to the Americas in the wake of Columbus, and now it returned to Europe, carrying its history of conquest, slavery, revolution, passion, dictators and governmental corruption.

Perón’s authoritarian government was stifling to such intellectuals—writers, poets, artists and other free thinkers. Their spirits, held down by inflexible political and religious ideologies, were released in Paris like bright balloons, and they soared into the slipstream of an international avant-garde movement. A powerful blend of cultures, ideas and personalities ignited in the City of Light and it set off an explosion of artistic exploration and creativity.

Among the émigrés who congregated in the bohemian Sixth Arrondissement were the flamboyant young artist Rosario Moreno, her husband Aldo, an architect, and their friend the author Julio Cortázar, who wrote stories of magical realism.

Having experienced the power of Paris myself, I could imagine these fellow Americanos gathering in her cafés and jazz clubs, reckless under her influence, mobilized by her siren song, dancing to a Latin beat.

But sooner or later even the most passionate lover of Paris will miss the one charm she lacks—the blue skies and brilliant sunshine of the South. It was not long before Cortázar discovered Provence and—of all its quaint stone villages—chose this one for his summer residence. Aldo and Rosario followed him in 1964, and they bought the crumbling mediaeval castle that stood on the rock just above his hillside cottage.

Their restoration project would last for decades. Working with their own hands, they cleared out the underground network of caves beneath the castle, a troglodyte world built in living rock, and converted the dungeons, vaults and torture chambers into useful, almost cheerful, domestic spaces.

Rosario appears in a fashionable book of Provençal interiors from the sixties, wearing a mini dress, her black hair pulled up in a French twist. She looks delicate, but she was known to have carried massive stones and heaved them into place herself. She carved gargoyles, magical symbols and mysterious smiling faces into rock and installed them at points of passage as greetings. Her vaulted workroom was like a converted troll’s house, a dome of stone a few steps from the front door. There, while she did her fanciful drawings of the jungle flowers, birds and fish of her native land, she could look out the window onto gentle green hills and the snow-capped peaks of blue mountains.

I liked to imagine this little band of Latin camaradas—Rosario, Aldo, Julio and his wife,  Aurora—on a summer evening in that electric era, entertaining friends down from Paris for the weekend. They would surely play up the macabre history of the castle for their guests, and tell stories about the villagers. They’d grill beef and chorizos on the parrilla, pour local wines and sit up late on the moonlit terrace, smoking marijuana, playing music, talking about cultural heritage and internationalism, the fusion of art and politics, socialist aesthetics in art and literature. Perhaps Cortázar would read aloud one of his stories, the listeners following his logic of hallucinations and obsessions. Or maybe there would be a trumpet serenade, or a fist fight, or clandestine lovemaking. Maybe there would be chemically inspired visions, extemporaneous poetry, sudden shedding of clothes in the soft darkness. Many things can happen when art and intellect are set free on foreign soil.

These pictures came to me whenever I saw Rosario approaching the steps of the bakery, where Christine would serve her coffee and listen to her ruminations, or taking a seat on the terrace in front of the boutique, where Brigitte would look through her portfolio for the fiftieth time and give an occasional breathy sound of approval to a particular flourish of line or shock of color.

Sometimes I’d see her stop a couple of tourists, and I’d watch anxiously as she leaned into them, her head tilted up, her black eyes surveying their faces for signs of intelligent life. English, German, Dutch—they wouldn’t understand, and they would disappoint her (and me) with stiff smiles and vigorous nodding. She would eventually turn and beat a three-legged retreat.

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“You do anything in this village and the commères, the gossips, go tak-tak-tak,” said Danielle, watering flowers in her Kenzo skirt and fitted blouse. I had finally learned enough conversational French to hang around bitching with my neighbor. Danielle didn’t seem to belong in this tiny rural village, and I suspected she was over feeling shunned. She was always impeccably turned out, every black hair in place, hand-crafted jewelry at her ears and neck, silk swishing at her knees, and a way of carrying it all with maddening grace. 

A renowned home cook, as well as an artist-craftswoman, she had opened a restaurant in the caves under her house, which, like ours, opened onto the street, and she’d arranged a dining terrace shaded by a canvas canopy and climbing roses. The restaurant proved to be too much work for too little return, and the next year she rented it to a chef from Normandy and her two daughters, who’d come back from a stint in Florida where they’d gotten the hang of full-speed capitalism. They had instant success with tourists and ex-pats but burned their bridges and left in a blaze of anger after a couple of seasons.

Danielle was going back to the stove for the summer, but first she had to run the gantlet of administrative permits and neighborhood accord. She was feeling neglected by Claude, who had partnered into a luxury boat business and would be spending the coming months taking tourists to sea while she did the work of running the restaurant alone.

As Americans, we were outsiders, but we began to understand that people like Danielle and Claude, although French, were outsiders too. Rosario’s son Aldo had used the word marginal to Danielle on the one occasion they were both in our house. I didn’t have the language at the time to understand the remark, or her reaction to it, but it stuck in my mind.

Danielle grew up in Marseille, the daughter of the harbormaster, in a big yellow house engulfed in Mediterranean blue. Claude came from Corsica, the island of officially French land that grows a separate race. When they came to this little village, property could be had for a song, and they bought the big angular house that sat across from ours in the fork of two ruelles, a few steps from the door of Françoise-Too-Much-Wild-and-Not-So-Sweet-in-City Ways (who contrary to J-C’s description, was friendly, frank and fair).

They put in new windows, refinished the interior, hoisted to the upper floors such fixtures as an old claw-foot tub painted blue and an ancient Chinese screen, and created an atelier at the top where Danielle worked with antique fabrics.

They were bien installés when Andrew and I arrived in the village, their two daughters grown and on their own, Claude doing wrought-iron projects for architects. What we knew of them was what we saw and what Jean-Claude told us. There was the fence of language between our next-door neighbors and us. We could see over it into their lives,  but we couldn’t exchange more than a few banal comments.

One of the tactics of neighborly communication was to learn to identify individuals by where they stood on tourist trade, the region’s main source of revenue and biggest bone of contention. In the winter, the schism was hardly a crack in the surface of rural life, but as Easter approached to kick off the season it became a deep gorge between two camps: those pulling for throngs of tourists and those gearing up to run them off.

I had come to understand the irony of Aldo’s marginal remark. Aldo himself was off the grid in either camp. The only thing that connected him to anything resembling the local community was the fact that he had grown up in the village—but only marginally, because he spent his boyhood in the castle surrounded by major talents and mercurial wits who partied late into the night and spoke of revolution.

Now in his fifties, Aldo seemed to be between jobs or careers. He still lived in the castle with Rosario. Lately their constant bickering had escalated, and he‘d pitched a tent inside the walled garden, ran electric wires out from the house and placed wooden barriers in front of the gate to his retreat, with threatening handmade signs lettered in dripping blood-red paint, applied with such obvious fury that it had splashed over stones and plants in the vicinity.

The Cortázar property lay just below Aldo’s campsite. Julio’s only heir lived in Paris and kept the cottage as a summer residence, but he and his Mexican wife had enlarged and enhanced it beyond recognition. The building now had an institutional presence, with beady little windows looking out of its broad pink face. The original stone cottage clung to its lower left side like a barnacle. There was seldom any life there outside the season, and signs warned hikers it was private property. I wandered up their gravel road by mistake once with the dog and was met with a barrage of somewhat hysterical shouts and gestures.

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Down the hill on our side, innkeepers were busying themselves with their swimming pools and lawn furniture. From my front window I could see the effect of spring-cleaning at Françoise’s place, where the pyramid roof of her bridal suite glowed red in the sunlight.

Françoise, who’d given me a wild wrong-way ride through the village at midnight, and had invited me to hold up my native cuisine for scrutiny, was gone. She had fallen ill with a stomach ailment in the fall, hid her pain and fear all winter, and reappeared in spring as a pitiful creature half her size, feigning the energy and enthusiasm for a new tourist season. That summer she finally allowed herself to be taken to the hospital and treated for cancer, but it was too late. Her two daughters came down from their homes in the north, and then, as she worsened, their families. Her husband, who had refused to join her in Provence, surprised everyone by dying a few days before her, and the two of them were laid side by side in the village cemetery after all —like it or not.

The last time I saw Françoise her family seemed to have taken over her house and guest rooms. A daughter came to the door and led us to the salle, where we’d once enjoyed her spectacular agneau en croûte and defended the California wines we’d brought to the table. Now the room had the transitory feel of a purgatory, where one waited for whatever came next. Andrew and I made halting conversation with various family members, until Françoise was able to make herself sufficiently chic for a proper entrance.

Something was shifting behind the scenes. There was property, money and business at stake. There was a weary daughter who was being nudged into the background. There was a downcast daughter who was moving into place. There was an unctuous son-in-law, with dark ringed eyes and a tiny cigar stuck in his fat face. And there was Françoise, sitting straight, smoothing her skirt, and maintaining the demeanor of a châtelaine while barbarians pushed at the gate.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 

 



One thought on “Weekend Reading, Chapter 23: A Shifting Village

  1. rudy says:

    Lyrical + informative + love how you write about all of these captivating characters

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