Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 25: Hostile Territory

May 7, 2015

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MAYBE IT’S THE DESTINY of the émigré to face the fight or flight dilemma. After all, the very act of emigration implies that you chose to flee once, so it might always be your reflex when things in the new place get rough.

J-C, once our friend and protector, had abandoned us to a man who hated us right from the start. We had no money to buy our way clear. We were trapped inside the ramparts, obliged to pass through hostile territory to go in and out.

I looked for some kind of wisdom in immigrant stories, starting with those of my own family’s telling.

When my ancestors Lewis and Iles got to the New World and came up against the fury of the natives, did they high-tail it back to the Old Country? No, sir! They pushed the natives all the way across the Mississippi River and staked out all the good land from Virginia to Illinois.

Pushing the natives was something I did not want to do. But these guys weren’t natives. Jean-Claude and Pastis had come from Paris and points north to take advantage of a boom in land and tourism. It was they who had displaced the natives. And truth be told, many of these little villages could not have survived without an infusion of new blood and cash flow. Their young people were moving away to get jobs, leaving mostly farmers and old-timers on pensions.

Then there was Andrew’s father’s émigré story.

Vladimir Petrov left Stalin’s labor camp in Siberia the week Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, hopped the Trans-Siberian Railway and kept moving across war-torn Europe until he secured passage to America, and a job teaching at Yale.

In Escape From the Future (Indiana University Press, 1973) he gives an exciting account, mysteriously leaving out certain details—like how’d an ex-con get the travel money? How’d a Russian immigrant get such a swell job?

It seemed important to look at our place in this country from every angle. We were foreigners in a small village. They were natives. We had the right to the top two floors of our building. They had the right to the ground floor and the terrace.

But in spite of J-C’s promise, they had turned the boutique into a restaurant—and worse, a bar. A chalkboard menu attached to the open shutters proposed salads, regional specialty platters and wine by the carafe. The menu was instantly removable. If inspectors came sniffing around, one could say, “What restaurant?”

In America an apartment over a boutique isn’t necessarily prime real estate, but over a restaurant it’s probably worth crap. Surely it had to be the same in France. I’d invested everything I had in the property. There were no more windfalls coming in my lifetime as far as I could see. If an emergency forced me to sell, I’d lose money.

There was the Bag Lady Banana Peel.

To make matters worse, the terrace out front, which had presented an irresistible picture to visitors and tourists, was becoming a corner hangout. All day, every day, Pastis hosted a living tableau of state-supported moochers, winos and idling day laborers, and the Place de l’Horloge was clogged with double-parked trucks and vans. For a lunch cook, he hired a drunk who arrived by motorcycle, already half in the bag after working the breakfast shift at the hospital.

The Baroness, whose tall windows on the Place literally framed the tableau, could gauge the day’s nuisance potential by the rapidly dropping levels of pastis in the drinkers’ glasses.

“It is not chic,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Was she a snob? Were we? Nobody else in the quartier seemed to mind this social sea change, but the kind of well-dressed, well-behaved tourists once attracted by the boutique now avoided it altogether. Even souvenir-hunters, spotting a rack of postcards in the doorway, were reluctant to skirt the churlish porch-sitters to get a closer look.

This man couldn’t be making money.

“He doesn’t need it,” said Andrew. “It’s a place to get away from the wife and hang with his buddies all day.”

That’s how it looked, all right.

The envoy of an up-market British guidebook arrived to interview us and take photos for inclusion in the guide. I’d sent a substantial check with the application. After a pleasant interview in our mess hall, and a tour of our guest rooms, we escorted her downstairs for the shot of the façade, required in horizontal format for the guidebook. Our handsome eighteenth-century walnut door, on the east side of the building, was festooned with vines, and tall planters on either side made it a picturesque scene, but you couldn’t make it a horizontal. You could shoot it from the narrow passage opposite, but the converging edges of two houses blocked its expanse.

There was no way around it. We had to take her into the Place. There, we stood facing the shop front, and the terrace with its faded umbrellas advertising Coca-Cola and ice cream bars, its denizens hunched over cards, smokes hanging from their lips, the tipsy cook shouting his bets, Pastis looking menacingly at us. She raised her camera and then put it down.

“I’m afraid this won’t do,” she said.

And it didn’t.

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We tried to go about our seasonal work of teaching and hosting, steering students and guests away from any unpleasantness, determined to make do (or as Andrew said, “make doo-doo.” In between workshops, there were incidents. If you left the door on the ground floor open for a minute to get water from the fountain, Pastis would rush to close it, locking you out. If petals from our geraniums fell on his terrace, we’d find dried dog turds piled around our mailbox. Nothing overt, until one afternoon when I heard an altercation, and I got to the window in time to see Pastis push Andrew backward off the terrace.

“Je suis chez moi!” he shouted. It’s my place and I do what I want.

When Andrew retorted, Pastis followed him into the entry hall and pushed him down a couple of steps.

“What did you do then?” I asked, not having been able to see that part.

“Well, I couldn’t punch him. He’s old and out of shape. I just let him be an ass.”

“I can’t believe this. We should call Jean-Claude.”

“He doesn’t give a shit.”

“You’re right.”

“We’re in this alone.”

And so it went all summer. Pastis was the beast below, the monster between us and the outside world, the rock in our shoe. I stopped parking in the Place because I’d catch his black look in the rear-view mirror as I backed out and I’d get flustered. We changed our daily routine to avoid going out or coming in our shared entrance at the same time. We took circuitous routes to the car park or the boulangerie to avoid the terrace. The man was filled with a virulent rage, transmitted through his piercing glare and muttered curses. A few seconds of exposure could make you sick for a week.

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So, flight or fight—at the end of the season flight seemed the only way to preserve one’s sanity.

We began to talk about holding our workshops somewhere else, away from this village and this region. Just take ourselves out of the scene while we looked for some way to get some control over our lives and our property. Surely some force of good, a Mommy or a Batman, would come on the scene and rescue us. Madame Journu, close enough, took two days of her time to help me write a perfect formal letter to the mayor, describing our plight. He had responded with an exquisite expression of his official sentiments, which amounted to “Gee that sucks, hope you get it straightened out.”

This was a historical building, part of the village ramparts, dating from the thirteenth century, for Christ’s sake! Didn’t anyone care about preserving its dignity? Anyone besides us stupid Americans?

 

I had to get out of there before I went nuts.

A painter friend had suggested we think about doing a workshop at a château in Burgundy where she often stayed. Andrew liked the idea. He said he’d stay with the animals if I wanted to take a few days to go check it out, talk to the owners and see what we could organize. I asked Diane to go along for the ride.  She was a pushover for road trips.

When you leave the autoroute, the meandering roads of Burgundy take you through quaint little towns, where houses cuddle close, each immaculate window overflowing with bright flowers. Only nice people could live here. You’ll pass slow barges reflecting in shimmering water, and green hillsides flocked with contented white cattle. Goodness and mercy will follow you and you shall feel good.

I prescribe this ride for anyone who has lost hope in the world.

In the countryside near the little town of Avallon we found the drive, marked by a discreet little sign with four stars. It led us over the placid waters of a moat by way of a narrow bridge that stopped at the gate, where the medieval donjon stood guard.

“That’s a dungeon?” said Diane. “I thought dungeons were underground.”

“ D-o-n-j-o-n. Freestanding defense tower.”

“Listen to you!”

Admitted through the gate, we shortly pulled up the gravel drive to the Château de Vault de Lugny, a massive building set against a wooded backdrop. I turned the key and the old diesel engine coughed and quit. We sat looking around.

“Okay, here’s our castle,” I said.

“Shucks,” said Diane. “Is this all?”

A gentlemanly attendant in impeccable uniform materialized, smiling broadly. He took the keys of my rattletrap Peugeot to park it with the Jag, the Mercedes and the Porsche in the carport we passed. “Don’t let anything happen to this car,” I admonished him, and he gave me the honest laugh I was looking for. An enthusiastic young woman came out to greet us. This was gonna be swell.

The sixteenth-century château was transformed into a luxury hotel in 1986 and is run by the gracious famille Bourzeix. Our room was at the end of one wing, looking out over the long pebbled terrace, where guests breakfasted at white garden tables, and the vast sweep of lawn, where a few peacocks strutted around looking for admirers.

That night we had dinner in an alcove off the dining hall, where a long table ran the length in front of a massive fireplace with a roaring fire. Instead of the decorous clientele of advanced age and means that we’d expected in such a place, the guests at the table were mostly youngish couples of different nationalities. By the time we finished our third course, we could hear from their shouted remarks and laughter that they had all become friends. Then there was some glass-banging and a short hush followed by cheers. A young man had produced a diamond ring and popped the question to his girlfriend right there at the table. She accepted, with squeals and giggles, and he ordered shots of vodka all around. As we passed through the hall on our way out, they were on their third round of shots—everyone but the little Japanese family huddled at one end, trying to finish their meal and escape without offending. Diane and I were literally yanked into seats at the table and enveloped in the general celebration.

The next day, while Diane took photos of the grounds, I had a meeting with Elisabeth, the owner and director, who speaks impeccable English but patiently honored my wish to conduct business in French. I remarked on the scene in the dining hall, and she laughed. “That happens all the time—it’s so much fun.”

Gorgeous countryside, elegant accommodations, first-class service and fun. Where do I sign?

We worked out a reasonable plan for one workshop in the fall, in which we’d combine painting with wine tours. If we got enough interested guests, we could plan more.

We left in a happy mood of adventure and discovery that lasted all the way home. Our mission was accomplished, our love of France had been warmly returned, and our rapport with fellow travelers had given us funny stories.

At dusk we drove into the village and I stopped the car to let Diane out at the little allée that led to their house. Steve came out to get her bag and ask how it went. We were bubbling over with excitement, our voices reaching the table of regulars outside the boulangerie, looking up from their aperitifs.

Suddenly a long, dark station wagon roared up behind us and screeched to a stop, its front bumper just inches from the back of my legs as I was closing the trunk. I looked down to see if I was hit. Then I looked up. It was Pastis, his face rising over the wheel like an enraged bull with steaming nostrils. He leaned on the horn and filled the peaceful quartier with hysterical noise.

I was dumbfounded, frozen in the tiny margin of safety between his car and mine. Diane and Steve were behind me, but I couldn’t see or hear them. I was watching my predator like a trapped animal.  He could cripple me for life with a tap of his foot.

I don’t know how long we stayed like that, with the frenzied howl of the horn circling our heads and vibrating in our ears. Eventually, the young proprietor of the boulangerie got up from the table and hesitantly approached the driver’s window. He leaned over to speak, and motioned at the little lane to his left, suggesting the customary detour around the main street when it’s blocked by deliveries. Pastis ignored him and attacked the horn with renewed vigor, his car and his hatred aimed dangerously at me.

I heard Steve shouting in English, and I moved to squeeze my way out from between the bumpers and get into my car. The horn continued as I slid into the seat and turned on the ignition. That frightening face was in my rear-view mirror and it felt sickeningly intimate inside the thunderous dome of sound. As I fiddled nervously with the key, the car suddenly lurched forward.

He had rammed me.

I wasn’t aware of onlookers, of protests or of help coming toward me. I was alone with this monster in the mirror, fucking me from behind. As I sat there wondering what to do, he accelerated and began to push. My car rolled forward, all the way up the street and into the intersection, where he took a sharp right and sped away down the hill to his house.

Steve had already called Andrew by the time I came in the door and he was furious.

“He drinks all afternoon and then he gets in the car. Did anybody see?”

The next day he went to the boulangerie to solicit testimony, but nobody was of a mind to speak up. “C’est délicat” was the general response.

 

Madame Journu told me I must make a déclaration à main courante. I had to go to the gendarmerie and give my declaration in person for the record. If additional complaints accrued under Pastis’s name he’d be in trouble with the law. Then she helped me write a second letter to the mayor, referencing the déclaration.

Now Andrew and I had both been physically attacked, and we wavered between outrage and fear. What had happened to all the good will we’d built up over the years? Were we still seen in the village as J-C’s stooges, even though we’d tried to forge our own relationships? Were we the enemy in a class war? Was it simply that we were Americans, with our national image at an all-time low?

It was the worst of times. The summer heat had been miserable, good old Mo had suffered as growths took over his lungs and we’d tearfully put him down. We were going broke and facing a winter without money for anything but bare necessities.

My eternally supportive son Ben was dealing with his own woes; he’d received the kind of blow only Hollywood could deliver—an explosive promise of riches and fame followed by crashing and burning.  He was pulling himself out of the dumps by re-dedicating himself to the art of the art, which had been overwhelmed by the business of the art. Once in a while he needed an injection of New York energy and contact with the hometown and theater friends who revolved around its artistic core.

I kept my girlfriends up to date. Kathy, Patty, Sherry and Lynne had all expressed their concern and loyal support, and Cindy, feeling loyal to both Jean-Claude and me, tried to serve as a mediator between us.

But under attack from without, Andrew and I did what most close couples would do—we turned on each other with the force of our anger, fears and disappointment.

“It’s wonderful to hear that you’re living your dream,” wrote someone from my past who’d found me on the Internet.

Yeah. Now wake me up, will ya?

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The forces of good arrived that winter. It was not Batman but Mommy who cheered us up, reminded us of our purpose and proposed a solution to our predicament.

A late-blooming artist, cook and writer, Juli had attended a past workshop with her husband.  He was, as they called it, a recovering Mormon. Having been prominent in the church organization, his defection shook up their whole family. She had made the break as well, and they had come to France for the creative energy that discovery brings.

She wrote us to say that we had inspired her to take a huge leap. In fact, she would be arriving soon with three of her seven children, and she wanted them to have the kind of awakening she had experienced here with us.

She had rented a house for six months in nearby Aix, and the kids brought their computers to do their schoolwork online. (Their school wouldn’t cooperate with this plan, so Juli took them out and enrolled them in one that would.) Their first few days in Aix were overwhelming, with only one of them able to utter a simple phrase, but they got into the French swing of things.

When they were settled in, Juli’s sister and niece visited. They were both amateur painters and were interested in joining the studio workshop we were holding as a winter make-up for a feisty New England grandma who had missed a summer workshop because of cancer. Instead of going outside to paint the landscape, our students would gather in Andrew’s sunny atelier, which would just accommodate four painters and their easels, their instructor and a model.

Painting in the studio with a live model is an intimate experience, and the challenge seems to be more pronounced for people who have never painted the nude. Our New Englander was experienced, but our Canadians had to go through the process of adjusting to being in the same room with a completely naked male stranger for hours at a time.

Our model was a professional, a martial arts expert with a killer body. He could go to a Zen place when he posed, and that helped him keep his composure when our girls fell into fits of embarrassed giggling. Between poses, he put on a wrap and walked around looking at each person’s work and making encouraging comments. That put everyone at ease, and when they resumed their work, he’d join them in a chuckle.

Juli’s enthusiasm for our place and our work began to revitalize us. Over lunch we were encouraged to talk about the ideas we’d shelved when Pastis moved in. Over the recent holidays, Juli and her visiting family members had stayed in our building while we went away for a week, and she had some observations.

“We all enjoyed being in the village,” she said, “but it’s not the same without you. It’s what you create here that draws people.”

It had been awhile since we’d thought about anything as ambitious as building an international cultural center, but Juli brought it up again. She thought we should find a way to pursue it. In fact, she wanted to be a part of it. Dismissing Pastis as something that would go away, she arranged to see J-C’s empty apartment on the ground floor. She looked at the caves. She studied floor plans.

The day before she left to go back to Canada, she composed a proposal to buy the entire ground floor and the two caves beneath the boutique.

“I’ve always thought I’d buy a little shop when the children were grown. Now I know that this is what I want to do.”

She sent the proposal to J-C by e-mail. Cautiously, hesitantly, we raised our hopes—if not to the joyous level of the early days, at least enough to sustain us for what would certainly be an uphill battle.

I found a rock on the plateau that was shaped like an ear. I decided to call it “the god’s ear” and sent a photo of it to Juli. She knew the meaning of things like that.

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 One day the following autumn I was holed up in one of the guest rooms that, without guests, was serving as my office. Months had passed and J-C had not responded to Juli’s offer. The feeling of liberation she’d brought with her had left when she did. We’d had another slow summer and the winter worries were whimpering at the door.

How would I write this as a story? Where would it begin, and where would it end?

I looked at the pen-and-ink drawing in a frame on the mantel. It shows a woman sleeping peacefully in one of the canopy beds, quilt pulled up to her chin, an old lace canopy overhead. This was the room with the ghost.  Artists sleeping in its nun-like beds had reported feeling a presence. A benign presence, like a mother watching over you.

I’d always thought of it as Nana, my grandmother, who had urged me as a young woman to go live in France. Her idea was more specific though. “On the Left Bank, with the artists.” Maybe that was why she was here, to give me a little nudge. Maybe I was too late, or too far south.

Suddenly my reverie broke with a crashing cacophony of slamming, banging and ugly shouts. The sounds came from below, and I rushed downstairs to find Andrew and Pastis in a shouting match. Behind them, the door was open a crack, and Danielle stood outside looking stunned.

Andrew had been standing in the doorway talking with Danielle. Pastis had drawn him into the entry hall, pushed the door and started beating on him. Andrew had held him off long enough to pull the door open for Danielle to witness.

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Two weeks later, Andrew was in the States moving our stuff into another storage place. I was alone, crossing the empty Place de la Fontaine with a baguette, when the big fat Ford station wagon bore down on me again like a recurring nightmare, passing so close it grazed my arm.

I went hysterical. “Why does he hate us?” I cried to one of Pastis’s buddies later. “Why does he want to hit me with his car?”

He shook his head and turned away. “You must integrate,” was what he said.

Maybe. But first I had to file a report at the gendarmerie.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 

 



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