THE FRENCH WILL TELL you there are two Frances: Paris, and the 36,500 smaller communes that make up the rest of the country. These two Frances are as different as New York City and the rest of the United States. Before we stepped off the plane in California, we’d already made plans to return with our daughter Sara to sample the other France.
Sara had taken French all through grammar school, and in her early twenties she entered the workplace as a chef. She wouldn’t say “chef,” because a chef is someone who runs a kitchen in a restaurant. But on the basis of cooking skills, she’s a chef. Rather than work long hours in the backbreaking crush of a commercial kitchen, she had chosen the more civilized occupation of styling food for magazines. She leapt at the chance to sample the cuisine of the very country in which the word cuisine was born.
We set our sights on Provence—Avignon, Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Aix—to breathe the same lavender-scented air that drew Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso to the Côte d’Azur. That summer Eileen and I arrived at the Avignon train station to a chorus of cicadas so loud that we couldn’t hear our own thoughts. It was a scene straight out of a Marcel Pagnol movie.
The next day Sara flew directly from New York to meet us there.“Bonjour mes parents! Ça va?” she said upon reaching the hotel, her entire two-week wardrobe in a small pink roll-aboard.
In the span of a single week, the three of us sampled what seemed to be every restaurant in the guidebook. We ate our way from Roussillon straight down to Marseilles. We had one of our best meals in a coastal town to the west of Marseilles, beautiful Cassis, at a sidewalk dive that specializes in fish soup. It was in this hot and arid region of France that we acquired a taste for ice-cold rosé.
When the week was up we piled into the car and headed west to Bergerac—as in Cyrano. According to the guidebook, Cyrano was not actually from Bergerac, but the city fathers weren’t above riding his coattails. They had erected a large statue—complete with pointy nose, plumed hat, and knee boots—in the center of the old town.
After six hours of driving, the sun was low in the sky and the landscape had turned green and gold with long purple shadows. Vineyards and wheat farms alternated with clumps of forest, and wide expanses of sunflowers gave off an intense yellow light collected from the long summer day. We had never seen such beautiful farms. There were pale amber- and tan-colored houses with stone walls and clay tile roofs, with none of the clutter you see on commercial American farms. They were the kind of farms that make you want to take off your shoes so you don’t get the fields dirty.
One of those farms, no longer a going concern, belonged to our London friends, Susan and David Stuart. They had invited us to stay for a few days on our way back to Paris. Finding the place was a challenge, though. There were no street signs, just enameled metal pointers to various villages. We had to turn the map several ways to figure out where we were.
“There it is!” cried Sara, gesturing toward a white plaster house with a perfectly trimmed hedge. It was positioned hard against the road. Across from it was a small church built of wheat-colored stone, with a stained-glass window and rough wooden doors that appeared to be permanently locked. Next to the church was a small cemetery.
A stately iron gate guarded the Stuarts’ property. Behind the gate was a tidy, white-gravel parking area edged with beds of Queen Elizabeth roses, Munstead lavenders, and thick rosemary bushes. A large willow was visible on the lawn a short distance away, and a white gravel path led to the front door.
David and Susan rushed out, arms spread wide. “Our American friends are here!” said Susan.
“Come in, come in, you darlings” said David. “Are you all right? Did you get lost?”
If you look up “gracious” in Google Images, a picture of the Stuarts pops up. One of our most fervent wishes is to someday be half the hosts that David and Susan are. They handed out drinks, gave us a quick tour of the house, then whisked us off to our rooms to freshen up for dinner.
The next morning they drove us to Miramont, a nearby village with a lively farmer’s market. Like many villages in southwest France, Miramont is a bastide, a fortified town laid out on a grid. In the center of the grid is a square that serves as the village marketplace. Between 1222 and 1372, nearly 700 bastides were built in the south of France with the intention of colonizing the wilderness. Now they attract tourists and foodies to their central squares with stalls selling hard goods and farm-fresh produce.
I was riffling through a pile of gorgeous patchwork quilts. Eileen rushed over. “You’ve got to see this,” she said, leading me by the hand to an arcade with long tables. Spaced evenly on the tables, one by one, were various heads of lettuce—light green, dark green, pale yellow, multi-hued, curly-edged, loose-leaf. “They look like bridal bouquets!” She scooped one up in her hands and held it out. “Please?” I paid the farmer and we placed the lettuce gently into a plastic sack.
Across the square, David and Susan were buying ingredients for dinner. Sara wandered through the maze of stalls, marveling at the freshness and variety of the food in rural France. It’s one thing to see a village on a map. It’s another to smell the mussels simmering in the pot, to taste the subtle differences among cheeses, to hear the music of accordion and guitar, to walk on cobbled streets with half-timbered houses leaning out over your head. On the map a village is just a village. When you’re standing in the middle of one, you realize that this is a particular village, with a particular atmosphere, and a particular magic.
“David, how many really nice villages do you have around here?” I asked.
“Oh, probably dozens within twenty miles or so. Eymet and Duras are especially nice, and so are Issigeac and Castillones. But this village is our village.”
That night we sat out on the terrace, eating roast lamb and drinking Pecharmant, a local vin rouge. We watched the sun rake across the fringed surface of the cornfield that walled the Stuarts’ property. A chicken wandered through the hedge and pecked its way across the lawn.
“David,” said Susan, “tell everyone how we met our neighbor, Madame Rustand.”
“Ah, yes, our introduction to the country life,” said David.
The corners of Eileen’s mouth turned up. She leaned forward.
“Madame Rustand,” he said. “She’s very poor, like a lot of people around here. She keeps her own vegetable garden, and some rabbits, ducks, and chickens.”
A second chicken made its entrance, hedge right, as if on cue.
“We thought we should do the neighborly thing—you know, go over and introduce ourselves. She was standing there, with her apron and baggy stockings, a chicken under one arm. The hand of the other arm was turning it into an ex-chicken.”
Horrified, I shot a glance at Eileen.
“She wiped the blood on her apron,” he continued, “and stuck out her hand to shake.”
Eileen shrugged as if to say, Well, that’s rural France!
“Then what?” I said.
“Then we were neighbors. She began coming through the hedge every few days to bring us eggs.”
“Of course, she doesn’t speak English,” said Susan. “And my French isn’t that great. So we communicate mostly with smiles and gestures.” Susan mimed a conversation with Madame Rustand. “Every once in a while we insert a quel dommage—what a pity—or an oh la la to keep up our end of the conversation.”
“Who else lives in the neighborhood?” I asked.
“On the other side we have Monsieur Guenot, who takes care of the pool. He appears out of thin air and gives us a wave when he comes over to work. He doesn’t speak English either, so when we need to talk I bring a dictionary, and David brings a sketchbook to make drawings.”
“What about carpentry and odd jobs and like that?”
“Poulet?” I interrupted. “Mr. Chicken?”
“Exactly, Mr. Chicken. A nice man who does little bits of carpentry and fixes things for us. He was the one you saw this afternoon, painting the back of the house.”
The back of the house is really the front, as it has the more impressive façade. Its French doors and shutter-flanked windows face out over the fields to the distant hills. I had remarked on how tall the house looked with a man perched so up high on such a thin ladder.
“Then we have Monsieur and Madame Chouinard who take care of the garden, and Mrs. Carey from Bristol who does the housekeeping.”
“It sounds like a well-oiled machine,” I said.
“We were just lucky,” said Susan. “Most of our helpers came with the house.”
The five of us savored our blackberry crumble with a sense of camaraderie and a shared belief in the goodness of life. We capped off dinner with a glass of pale gold Beaume de Venise and called it a night.
Two days later, when we got in the car and headed toward Paris, Sara and I looked at each other with the exact same thought.
“We could be French!” said Sara.
“What?” Eileen said. “I thought you wanted to be Italian!”
“No, FRENCH!” we said in unison.
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