Beginning French: Prologue

Our story opens at a small stone farmhouse in southwest France

THE COUPLE UNLOCKS the French doors and walks onto the stone terrace. Their bodies are stiff, achy, jetlagged. They’ve just endured the 27-hour ritual in which they drag heavy bags from house to car, car to shuttle, shuttle to plane, plane to plane, plane to taxi, taxi to train, train to car, and car to old stone house—the house that waits patiently all autumn, winter, and spring. They collapse on wicker chairs and stare into the distance. The air is warm. The first stars make their shy appearance.

The woman gets up, her chair creaking. She disappears into the house and returns with a bottle of pale rosé, sets one glass here, one there.

After a long pause, she says: “I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”

The man nods. “It’s impossible.”

They sit, taking small sips as the stars grow bolder and more numerous. A bat zigzags through wooden columns that strain to support a roof heavy with old tiles. The breeze carries the scent of burning vines.

“Of course,” the woman says, “I always say that. Then we get here, we come out onto the terrace, and I remember why.”

The man turns his head.

“You know—why we do it,” she says. “Why we pack up our clothes, our computers, the dogs, everything. Why we close up our house in California and hire strangers to watch over it.”

“Why do we?”

“Because of this,” she says, with an inclusive gesture. “This landscape. This fragrance. This view. As soon as we get here I start to forget all the effort and pain. And then I never want to leave.”

The man raises his eyebrows.

“I think we should write a book about this,” she says. “I think we should write a book about this part of France, about our friends, our neighbors, about Sara, this house, about learning French. About this.”

They gaze across the field. A light goes on in the next hamlet over. The sky has become a sea of stars. The Milky Way is the heavenly wake of some huge ocean liner, passing silently millions of miles overhead.

Both of us?” says the man.

“Why not?”

“How can two people write a book?”

The woman drains her glass and places it on the table.

“Same way we do everything,” she says, her smile a miniature Milky Way. “You’ll drive and I’ll navigate.”

He reaches for her hand. They laugh. They walk into the house, where the jetlag and the wine and the fragrance of the night overtake them.

……….

For the record, my name is Marty and my wife is Eileen. We’re Americans. But here’s the thing: if we could introduce ourselves to all of our 320 million neighbors in all of our 50 states, no one would call us Americans. We would simply be Marty and Eileen. Yet in this part of France, no one would call us anything but les Américains. Why? Because there are no others. We’ve looked.

Aside from the French, we see quite a few English. In the summer we hear a smattering of Dutch. While the Dutch may simply be taking advantage of the cheap flights out of Rotterdam, the Brits have a historic claim on the place. They lost it in the Hundred Years’ War. And now, six hundred years later, it’s as if they’re quietly buying it back, bit by bit, hoping no one will notice.

But that doesn’t explain why we’re here, les Américains. Or why we traded our life savings for a second house in a part of the world we’d never heard of. We have no historic ties to France, no family members living in the “old country,” no vivid memories of cycling through the ripening vines during our gap year. More to the point, we can’t just “pop down” like our British friends. We have to slog 7,000 miles through nine time zones and five types of transportation to get here.

No. The reason we ended up in France is much less obvious. We came by mistake. We thought if we bought a house in France, we would—as night follows day—become French.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Wow, these people must be loaded. Who buys a house in France on such a whim?

It wasn’t like that. There were no silver spoons in the kitchen drawer. We started our marriage as mere children, barely twenty, already raising a child of our own. To pay the rent I peddled handmade greeting cards from the back of an old Volvo. Eileen fed our little family with food stamps. When the greeting card business failed, I set up shop as a freelance designer. Little by little we built a life—I, designing ads and logos, she, keeping the books and running the house.

For the next twenty years, travel was out of the question. But we kept the idea alive—the idea that someday we might visit a few foreign countries, even learn another language. And maybe, just maybe, if we worked hard enough and spent next to nothing on clothes and cars and meals in restaurants, we could afford to live in a foreign country. Why not? It doesn’t cost a cent to dream.

……….

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