WE HAD TWO MORE summers together.
At the end of the summer of 2007, Andrew had a load of cooking jobs for visitors who had rented holiday houses, all with swimming pools and views of the beautiful French countryside. I didn’t have anything to do while he was working. I had finished writing this book (yes, this book) and had sent it to literary agents in the U.S. Months later, I began to get piles of nothing but rejections. I began to feel useless. I was losing my business skills and my creativity. I was running out of money. And now our relationship was cracking.
I came up with the idea of taking myself on a pilgrimage. My plan was to leave Provence and drive northwest toward the Atlantic Ocean—an area where I had never been. Every region of France has a different face, personality and cuisine. I would come back via a southern route, passing through towns I knew and others I’d heard about. Andrew suggested I take the tent and camp along the route. I could handle that … cheaper than B&Bs and I had heard that camping in France is quiet, clean and friendly.
I decided to follow the river Loire (we were a few hours from the source) to where it flows into the Atlantic. I would make a plan for the return route later. For me, this adventure was a little like Outward Bound for the mature writer. Not Jack Kerouac, more like Thoreau and his Walden Pond, or Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey—just as silly and almost as capable a load-bearer as our eight-year-old Renault Kangoo.
On July 9, I packed the car with a tent, a sleeping bag, a propane stove, a cooler, some clothes, my Nikon and my laptop. There was still enough space for Beau, our greyhound. I kissed Andrew, hopped into the car and off we went.
It was a wonderful month. There’s nothing like paring everything down to just you and the great outdoors to bring you back to what counts: finding food and water and a dry place to spend the night, time for reflection, a glimpse of beauty and satisfaction in mastering basic survival skills.
Beau and I traveled north, through Lyon, the capital of gastronomy in France and the world, through Dijon and Burgundy, full of wine I couldn’t drink but loved the area anyway. Westward to the chateau region in the Loire Valley, dreams of nobility. Up to Rennes, the university town. The coast of Normandy. Brittany, legends of King Arthur, an ephemeral Arthurian atmosphere in the silver and green land. Down along the Atlantic coast to Carnac, the prehistoric megaliths. The little town of La Trinité-Sur-Mer. Then Bordeaux! Sounds romantic but it’s an ugly city and the traffic is hell.
The last leg of my trip was eastward again, to the Dordogne, land of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” and the region’s namesake, the prettiest French river so far. Cuisine—nuts, cheeses, salads, foie gras and mouth-watering comfort foods featuring duck and potatoes. And while you’re wiping your mouth there are the famous grottoes and caverns that are geological marvels to see. Lascaux is one of the best. There, or at least in the replica that’s open to the public, you can see the reverence with which ancient man regarded the creatures that gave him food and clothing.
Our last stop was Carennac, a tiny storybook village (370 inhabitants) on the Dordogne River, with an impressive 11th-century Cluniac priory, village houses with half-timber overhanging balconies, and a grassy shoreline walk along the little canal that was fed by the river. It’s only a few kilometers from the amazing Gouffre de Padirac, a dramatic cavern with a cathedral-like chamber and an underground lake—and Rocamadour, built on a soaring rock, which became a major pilgrimage site in 1162 when a perfectly preserved corpse, believed to be Saint Amadour, was unearthed at the entrance of the village’s first chapel.
But what brought me here was a book I read 10 years ago and re-read regularly: “At Home in France,” by Ann Barry, a New York Times travel writer. She was a single woman who fell in love with Carennac, and bought a house on a crest above the village, even though she could only carve out a few weeks a year to be there. She kept such meticulous track of her intense short-term experiences that she turned them into a book.
She died of cancer before it was published.
The tourist office is in the courtyard of the 16th-century chateau and the 11th-century church and priory of St. Pierre. I asked one of the women at the desk if they had any information about the américaine who had lived part-time among them for 10 years. She said she could direct me to Ann’s house, Pech Farguet, and she drew me a map.
I followed her directions in the car and found the house on a winding road in the hills high over the village. It was just as I imagined from her descriptions in the book—obviously occupied by someone else now, with new construction going on practically next door, but homey and well-cared for just the same.
That evening, Beau and I went down to the dining room of the inn where we were staying and were seated at a table in the back corner where he could sit on the floor between me and the window. (Yes, France allows dogs into dining rooms.) This was Beau’s second restaurant experience. It took a while for him to get the idea of what he was supposed to do—lie down and be unobtrusive—but he finally found a way to be comfortable and munch bread while he worked the roomful of admirers.
I had a puréed vegetable soup, a confit de canard—duck leg cooked to a golden brown in its own fat, a local specialty—accompanied by sliced potatoes browned in the same fat, and garnished with fresh green vegetables. My friendly waiter, who had met Beau in the stairway that afternoon, was proudly telling other diners about him as he served, arranging appointments for people to pet Beau after we finished. “Madame over there would like to pet him, and the table next to you would like you to bring him over,” he said as he showed me the cheese selection and cut for me a big slice of a firm Cantal, a mild Bleu de Quercy and a Rocamadour, the region’s famous goat cheese, the consistency of a chewy honey inside a tender skin.
For dessert, I settled on vanilla ice cream. “Wouldn’t you at least like it mixed with, say, chocolate or coffee,” asked my waiter, worried that I had passed up some of the house’s more spectacular desserts. But no, I was happy.
It was the right way to end that trip.
On the road to home Beau and I were quiet. We both had learned a lot about this old world and those who had lived and died and left us a lot to think about.
After all, you’ve never been the age you are today. You have to take stock periodically. In my 50s, I found my motto in a sports tagline: Now there is one less thing I cannot do.
This decade of my life requires a new tagline: Now there is one more thing I still can do.
Back in Saignon there was much we had to do. We worked all through the fall and winter so we could have more good summers. We finally had managed to claim the whole building. Pastis (whose name was really Patrice) had moved out and J-C sold the ground floor to our friend, Juli, a Canadian who had visited us several times. One summer when she was with us waiting for her husband to join her, he sent an email telling her he wanted a divorce. It was an awful week, but she turned her thoughts to Saignon and maybe living there at least several months a year. Over the next couple of years she managed to buy more of the apartments. J-C had found a new girlfriend and decided to move with her to the center of France where she had property.
J-C was back in the money.
Juli and I were now sole owners of the entire building. We named it “La Maison des Arts et Lettres.”
At the end of that summer, while Andrew was working on the ground floor, I embarked on another camping trip. After a few days he called me to come back. Andrew had decided he wanted to break up and move back to the U.S. If I was to go on by myself I would need another year to build new classes and find another artist to teach. He would give it a few more months. But Andrew had decided to move on. He needed to.
We all want a happy end to a story like this, but this is life. As Andrew said recently, “I remember us laughing about how we lasted longer than everyone ever thought we would.” The offbeat love between us lasted for 13 years, and the friendship is hanging on.
Another year and Andrew was gone, back to California, where some of his siblings lived. With Andrew gone I couldn’t continue with the art and cooking classes on my own. Juli thought she wasn’t ready to step into Andrew’s shoes (although she paints and cooks very well). But I wanted to stay in France, so I decided to move to Aix-en-Provence, just an hour from Saignon. I sold my last apartments to Juli and left Saignon with Beau and our alley cats, Sylvie and Raoul. Several friends lived near there. My friend Georges lived nearby on the Mediterranean. And then there were the theaters showing American movies and some good restaurants, gyms, terrific shopping. Everything I didn’t have in the village.
But my happy time in Aix-en-Provence was just a year and a few months.
I had rented a nice house with a fenced-in courtyard full of tall old trees, just for the animals. There was a garage for the Kangoo, now an old girl trying to keep up. I had to drive 20 minutes to meet up with my friends. They were up for any kind of party. Their apartments were charming, the food was yummy and gorgeous, along with good wines. Of course I didn’t drink with the others, but it was fun to watch them get plastered.
When summer came we went to the beach every weekend. We were free, dropping tops and bronzing, having lunch in a petit café overlooking the Mediterranean…where life was born.
But back in my house I felt alone and sad. I was living in a nice neighborhood, but it was full of families. I didn’t fit in. I would never have friends in that neighborhood. I missed Saignon. I missed getting ready for the summer people coming to paint. I actually missed working.
And another thing, a legacy from my dead parents, was becoming apparent. It seemed my brain wasn’t working well for me now. I found myself saying something my mother would have said when she had Alzheimer’s and doing the same silly things she had done. Chills slipped down my spine when I opened my mouth and heard a floating word that had no sense. A word that belonged to another conversation.
I talked with my friends, Juli and the Aix girls. Why not go to the doctor, they said. I went to my doctor, who sent me to an neurologist. My friends, often Paulette, came with me to every appointment and helped with the translation. I went through some tests. My friend Georges took me to the hospital for brain scans.
My doctor said I had Alzheimer’s. My neurologist was diffident. My friends were hopeful. I took the scan pictures to my landlady, a nurse. She looked them over and just raised her eyebrows. I didn’t want to go through more tests here in France even though the costs are lower than in the U.S.
After everything had been done and said, I started thinking of going home. It was time to call Ben.
Ben started looking for apartments for me–and for doctors and a neurologist in Los Angeles. I told my landlady I’d be moving back to the U.S. My girlfriends gave me a going-away party…and it was a real party. No tears.
Paulette came with me to L.A., as my mind was not clear enough to fly on my own. Pictures of my dad and mom, sitting in silence in nursing homes, went around in my head. I left all the talking to Paulette. She spoke for me.
Now I’m writing the end. It’s not sad.
In the summer of 2014 Ben took me to several great doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Yes, I have Alzheimer’s, although no one will really say the word. But I have medicine that helps me handle my brain and find my words.
As a writer, words are my life.
It is 2015 and I live in a little apartment in a great complex with pools and a gym and a little café. Ben and his wife, Michelle, started furnishing my apartment before I moved in and I finished it. I brought my cats from France—Sylvie and Raoul—with me to Los Angeles. Before I moved in, Sylvie died. Raoul is still with me and now I have a rescue dog too, a 3-year-old, half-poodle named Zoe. The friend who took me to the rescue shelter will take Zoe when I can’t handle her anymore.
I hope it will be years before I have to give my animals away.
In the meantime, I have a covered patio looking out on the green courtyard with tall old trees. I have nice young neighbors who know about my situation but take me in anyway. I can walk to shops and stores, to restaurants and movies, to a famous farmers market. I can swim every day. I can walk to the gym whenever I want and meet up with my trainer who will give me a good hard workout weekly. Ben and Michelle are nearby.
And I write. I use a book called Roget’s Thesaurus of Words for Writers. A lot of writer’s use a thesaurus, but I call mine the Alzheimer’s Thesaurus.
I hope you will always read and write and learn. I hope you won’t ever have Alzheimer’s, but if you do, or someone dear to you has this terrible disease, remember (yes, remember) that you can still use words if you try. They need not be the luscious vocabulary of the days, years, I spent in the South of France, the language of cafés and foie gras and fields of lavender. No regrets there! And even when I forget to remember, those words of love, of adventure, of belonging, will lurk in the back of my mind, where I hope they will continue to comfort me.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell