I REMEMBER the exact moment when everything turned to shit. It was ten o’clock on a November evening. I opened the apartment door to take Mo out for his last pee before bedtime and I stepped into a wall of smoke. Dense, defiant smoke of a hundred cigarettes rushed against my face, pushed by a furious assault of . . . cigars. I teetered on the top step. Mo backed up, sneezing.
The air was worse on the floor below, where our late-season clients were sharing a guest room. The two ladies had just come back from a very enjoyable dinner at the auberge and said that they’d almost fainted when they opened the door. They gasped their way upstairs to their room and stuffed a rolled towel under their door to keep out the fumes.
That was it. The dark forces residing within this ancient garrison were united once again against a common enemy. Us. The place where we lived and worked, where we’d invested all our dreams, was trying to kick our asses out.
Up until then we’d been on a roll. Two wonderful seasons of painting and cooking—spring, summer and fall sessions—had not only earned us a livelihood but had given us purpose. People came from the States—California, Colorado, Missouri, Vermont, Florida. They came from Toronto, Calgary and Montreal in Canada; from County Cork, Ireland; Wellington, New Zealand, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. They brought native talent and developed skills—or they brought nothing but the desire to try. They came to learn, and Andrew revealed his astonishing gift for teaching.
“What do you see?” he’d ask a student fussing over a composition.
“I see mountains, and an orchard, and a little house . . . ”
“You see darks and lights. Put down the shapes of those darks and lights on your canvas and they’ll turn into those things.”
We moved the sitting area out of our big front room, bought an oak table that expanded to seat sixteen, officially making it our mess hall. Andrew had designed and built a professional plan de travail, a long wooden counter supported by stainless-steel storage for cooking and serving ware, which divided the space into cooking and dining and also worked for cooking classes.
In the mess hall, with its high-beamed ceiling and traces of the medieval signal tower, we hosted the welcome dinner that kicked off our painting workshops. Groups were purposefully small— four or five people—so that Andrew could work closely with each artist. He set forth the objectives at this first gathering and sounded out his subjects. A week was a short time in which to accomplish much, and if people didn’t realize that when they arrived, they certainly did by the fifth day when the prospect of showing their work in our gallery space was looming.
That created real pressure, of course, and usually on the third day, somebody would crack. There would be stomping away from the easel, sniffling behind doors, sullen looks and sarcastic comments over lunch.
Of course there were those who hadn’t bargained for hours of hard work on their vacation, but after they got over the shock of realizing what would be expected of them, most of them buckled down.
People who normally sat at a desk all day trudged through fields carrying their gear like soldiers. People in their seventies and eighties climbed over walls and sat on bare ground to render their scene. Well-groomed people with expensive clothes got gleefully dirty and sweaty and stayed that way for days.
I had my own challenges, serving four-course lunches to salad-and-sandwich people who normally saved the serious food for dinner. The thing was, they were working outdoors in the fields, like farmers, until the sun went down and they were ready for bed. I thought it made sense to feed them at noon like farmers, food from the landscape they were painting—the flavors of the colors—served the French way in courses to slow down the pace. I served simple dishes like sliced tomatoes with olive oil and basil to start, followed by great local lamb grilled with rosemary, then a green salad and a platter of fresh cheeses from our neighborhood goat farmer, and finished with a tart of cherries we picked ourselves from a friend’s trees. I’d use lavender flowers in cake or crème brûlée to evoke in taste the spectacle of our fields of fragrant purple-blue.
When the artists came drifting back from their demanding day, I had a light buffet ready for them, so they could take what they wanted of the soup or salad or charcuterie, which, with a glass or two of wine, would send them happily to bed.
Americans had some trouble adjusting to this way of eating. They had food allergies, they were on this year’s fad diet, they wouldn’t eat veal, or rabbit, or fish with a head. Our squeamishness is legendary in Europe.
“Yes, you may ‘ave your fish without its head,” I heard a local restaurateur tell a customer, “but it will not be intelligent.”
I persisted, because I believed my victims would come around—and usually they did. By week’s end, people had developed more discerning palates and were bragging about the things they’d dared to eat.
And they weren’t mad at Andrew anymore. In fact, the day of the student show, they’d march down to the cave with him like soldiers and follow his instructions for mounting their work. The reality of an audience had set in—they’d seen the posters placed around the village to alert locals and tourists. The announcement read, “Notre Pays par les Yeux des Étrangers,” and it would feature photos of representative works. Their works, with their names and nationalities.
As the pieces went up, numbered and named, and the halogen lights threw light over the rough stones, the medieval cave took on a theatrical quality, something between real and imagined space, where spectators would step cautiously through the single arched opening on the street to become part of an entirely different world inside.
We set up five-liter containers of good red and rosé wine from a local vineyard, and put out bowls of pretzels, nuts and chips within view of the door, while the painters hurried up to their rooms to groom and dress and try to calm themselves. There were tears and fits of nerves and stage fright, but by six o’clock they’d be standing in formation wearing their “good” outfits, backs straight, chins up, smiling and whispering timid bonsoirs as the flow of neighbors and passersby began.
The first people to show up were usually the Journus. They would set the tone with a smile and a formal handshake for each person. Monsieur Journu would take a long time with each piece, examining it carefully, and then produce his observations to the artist in halting, but excellent, English. Madame would do an efficient tour of the exposition, smile graciously at foreigners, chat with arriving neighbors and hang around the table near the big bowl of potato chips. She was an aficionado of chips. Lay’s chips, she assured me, were the best.
Just before the show, Andrew would have done his breathless eleventh-hour canvassing of the village, rounding up neighbors, people having a drink in front of the auberge or hanging out at Christine’s, the Australians staying in the house by the fountain, the ladies walking their dogs, the plumber knocking off from a job, the Finnish couple just arrived, the Americans who were lost and asking directions. Diane and Steve would show up with their little terrier, Nanu, who’d go nudge Mo, waiting under the table for dropped morsels. Within the first hour, the vaulted space was alive with music and conversation in many tongues. Even the most anxious artists were relaxing with wine and attempting to use the French phrases they’d rehearsed in their room. Occasionally someone would ask a price, the artist would scurry to find Andrew, who would sound out the potential customer, propose a figure and close the sale while the artist looked away to hide tears. When the dinner hour approached and people started clearing out, I’d look at Andrew, surrounded by beaming acolytes plastered to the gills, and we’d give each other a happy nod. We seemed to have distilled our own long artistic awakening into a learning curve that fitted inside a week. We’d brought France some pilgrims and converts. We’d made a difference in some lives.
This was everything we had wanted. If not, then it was pretty damn close.
By the end of the first season of painting workshops, our neighbors in the village had begun to see what we were all about. We felt understood and, if not accepted, at least appreciated as sincere in our purpose.
Our purpose, as we’d come to see it, was to gather enough money and investors to buy the ground floor, the last remaining space in the building, and convert it into an international arts space. We would have tourist information, wine tastings, art shows and events in the summer, and in the winter we’d offer it for village use. Lectures, music solos, exhibits, demonstrations and other events always drew local crowds. Madame Journu had mused to me about a café cultural, an intimate place to have coffee and look at art, to discuss books or listen to a speaker. I could see it. I could see it!
The boutique, now sad and neglected, would be brought to life again. The terrace shaded with a white canopy like Danielle’s, a couple of little tables, and rosebushes in stone planters. Inside there would be paintings on the walls—Andrew’s and others’—and shelves of French and English books. There’d be an espresso bar to one side, and a counter for tasting wines or serving snacks.
The back of the boutique would be knocked out, and the open space would flow all the way to the back wall, incorporating the studio apartment in a vast open plan. A two-way fireplace would section the space, with a lobby seating area on one side, and, on the other side, the former apartment would be configured to show films or present performers, readers and speakers. People could circulate freely throughout the space. I imagined them exchanging ideas in many languages.
This vision thrilled me.
But at its darker edges lurked the figures of Jean-Claude and the cigar-smoking son-in-law of Françoise, newly aligned in some mysterious matter that, whatever it was, couldn’t be good.
I’d catch sight of the two of them in a doorway or at a corner in the village as I went around putting up posters for our student art show. The big man had been glumly operating a little shop at the other end of the village, where he sold clothing rumored to be remnants of his failed business up north, ruined by China, the new devil in international commerce. Jean-Claude’s hair had grown long and he let it hang limply off the sides of his head. With his complexion grayed by smoking, his black eyes sinking into dark hollows, he looked sinister, even a little insane. Or was that me?
The two of them would pause in their huddle, nod and then wait silently, blowing cigar and cigarette smoke up and away, until I passed out of earshot.
“You think they’re plotting something?” asked Andrew, half joking.
“Must be something to do with real estate.”
“J-C has a buyer for his house . . . ”
“Yeah, finally.” He’d put it on the market at a ridiculous price and went through several real estate agents in his efforts to pay off Brigitte and leave the scene.
“Nobody’s mentioned anything to me.”
“No wonder. There’s that back fence permanently attached to your arm.” Andrew’s command of the local argot made him a guided missile for gossip.
“They say he cut the other daughter out and got all Françoise’s money.”
“Really? So that’s why he plays cards and drinks pastis in the shop.”
“They say he’s in the mafia.”
“Everybody says everybody else is in the mafia. If you have a house and a car you’re in the mafia.”
“He has a house with a pool and five guest rooms, two cars and . . . ”
“Surely if J-C’s planning to sell or rent to him he’ll talk to me about it.”
“ Surely. Just like with the German girl.”
As the season ended, résidences secondaires were shuttered up, and leaves began to collect in the fountain, Jean-Claude did come to me. But the deal was done. Pastis, as we called him, had signed a lease on the boutique and the studio apartment—the whole ground floor.
J-C was going to move to the Centre, where his girlfriend lived, and start a project on her family’s land.
“I mest have someone in ze boutique for sree more years, until I pay off the loan and earn my retirement.”
“I don’t know . . . what’s he going to do with the boutique?”
“He likes my concept. We have talked much about it, and he will keep everysing ze same.”
That wouldn’t be so bad. The same displays of artisan soap, honey, wine and olive oil, burlap bags full of lavender flowers and herbes de Provence, flowered napkins and aprons.
“What’s he going to do with those racks of clothing?”
“Oh, he will keep some until he sells it all.”
I couldn’t picture Pastis charming our clients with jokes and folklore the way J-C had. Pastis didn’t speak any English. But what the heck. The boutique would be closed from Toussaint to Pâcques, November 1 to Easter, as was traditional for seasonal commerce. In tourist season, the hours were nine to noon and four to seven. We could live with that for few years.
“And when the lease is up we’ll be able to buy the boutique space?”
“Yes, I give you first chance to buy.”
“And what about the studio apartment?”
“I will decide.”
Then, too soon, Pastis arrived to take over, trailed by his entourage of drinking buddies. His big round head was set into an amorphous body without much of a neck, so he looked hunched. His eyes—black irises surrounded by yellowed whites—looked as if they’d burnt holes in his face and left rings of ashes on his skin, which was sallow and spotted.
He looked at me sideways like an animal and held up the key to our door as he pushed by me in the street. What was that? I watched him go in with his followers, and then went to get the cake I’d made for him as a friendly gesture, hoping to start off as a good neighbor. He thanked me, looking suspicious, and put it aside. So that was done. I could go home and hope all these buddies of his would soon do likewise.
At nightfall, they were still inside. From our window we’d seen several other men, including J-C, entering the boutique from the terrace, each entrance greeted by a rise in the noise level. It was a party.
The sun went down. We had a silent dinner, each of us hoping for the best and dreading the worst.
At ten o’clock, I went to take Mojo out and the smoke hit me like a train.
The next morning when we heard the shutters of the boutique groaning open, Andrew and I went downstairs to deliver a polite speech to Pastis, who was hanging around the counter. A couple of his buddies were hanging around too. And Steve Lifton, with Nanu on a leash.
I greeted Pastis. He said the cake was good. I said I’m glad he liked it, but . . .
“I’m sorry to say we’ve had our first complaint ever from a guest. About the smoke.”
“The smoke?” He stepped closer and looked down on me.
“Yes, the cigarette and cigar smoke from last night climbed the stairs and filled the halls with . . . ”
He held his fat fist in my face and made two fingers walk up imaginary stairs.
“The smoke? It climbs upstairs? Like this?”
He watched me decide how to take that, and Andrew stepped forward.
“You could block the smoke from getting into the corridor with a towel, maybe, or something. That would solve the problem . . . because, you know, we have guests and . . . ”
As Andrew spoke, Pastis reached across him, pulled one of his little cigars out of the pack on the counter, lit it, drew in a gust and then turned to Andrew and blew the smoke directly in his face.
We stood there dumbfounded. From his entourage came the inevitable “This isn’t America!”
Steve, understanding the gist if not the words, yelled “Hey! I’m American!”
I’m not sure what happened after that. I was outside in the Place de l’Horloge crying when J-C arrived. He appeared to be upset and concerned. He went back to the apartment with us and tried to calm us down, using his psychologue skills.
It would be okay, he said. He would talk to Pastis before he left. When he was gone, we were to handle any differences through him. We should call him when anything happened, tell him anything that Pastis was doing wrong, and he would handle it. He was sorry, but it had to be this way.
I was looking at him through tears and caught a glimpse of satisfaction. He was going to make a clean getaway.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell