Les Américains en France

Our little stone house becomes a home

“WHERE DO YOU WANT the travel books?” I asked Eileen.

“Let me put those away. I don’t like the way you do it. You always arrange them by size and color.”

“Sure, so they look good and I can find them.”

“So they look good and no one can find them.”

I can see where my system might seem obscure to some people. I turned my attention to the kitchen utensils.

“Let me do that,” she said. “The kitchen has to work. There’s logic to where each thing goes. You can’t just put the spatula next to the bread knife because their handles match.”

My moving-in role seemed to be shrinking by the minute. “Well, what can I do?”

“Why don’t you go out and return the DVD player?”

Oh, yeah. The DVD player. The one I bought during my initial furnishing expedition. It worked for about 45 minutes, then came to a sudden halt in the middle of an action scene. Nothing I did could revive it.

One of the more jarring aspects of rural France is that outside of its many quaint villages, with their 19th-century shops and cobblestone streets, you’ll find the biggest big-box stores you’ll ever see in your life. They don’t have mere supermarkets in rural France. They have hypermarkets. A single store will contain all the items of a supersized supermarket, plus aisles and aisles of clothing, camping gear, bicycles, gardening tools, major appliances, and stereo equipment. Thankfully, the villages and the giant stores are kept far apart. The giant stores are mostly located on the outskirts of major towns like Bergerac.

It was in one of these stores, Conforama, that I bought the Philips HG-325 DVD player that foundered on its maiden voyage. Conforama, like many big-box stores, asks you to drive your car around to the back to pick up certain items. You make your purchase in a modern, well-lighted store, then go around to a dark, dingy warehouse to sit in a cheap plastic chair and wait for your product to be brought to the front. The warehouse is also where you bring your returns.

The only problem, as I saw it, was that I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain why I was returning it. To make matters worse, the heavens had suddenly opened and it was raining cats and dogs (chats and chiens in French, which are somehow wetter than American cats and dogs). The roadway at the back of the building was two feet deep with water and impassable by car. I parked fifty feet away and waded into the flooded area with the broken Philips player held over my head. When I climbed up the steps to the warehouse, my pants were soaked to the pockets. The clerk behind the desk stared at me without saying a word.

“Monsieur,” I said. I straightened my shoulders and placed the dud DVD player on the countertop.

“Ouais.”

All of a sudden I was at a loss. How do you explain that an item you purchased months ago worked fine the first time, then simply quit for no reason at all? And how do you take the high ground when your pants are dripping water all over the floor of the waiting room? Where do you start when don’t even know the French words for broken, malfunctioning, or defective?

I mustered the most indignant yet self-assured tone I could fake.

“Monsieur,” I said.

“Ouais.”

I pointed at the box. Then I pointed at my watch. I poked my finger nine times around the dial at the five-minute marks, indicating 45 minutes.“Marche, marche, marche, marche, marche, marche, marche, marche.” Then one final poke on the nine. “Marche pas.”

His eyes widened.“Oh la la,” he said. He turned around and strode into the back. Returning five seconds later he smacked a brand-new box down on the counter and said, “Voilà!”

Eileen had experienced her peak French moment at a fancy dinner with two roommates in their Bastille apartment. I experienced mine—albeit a slightly smaller peak—in the dingy warehouse of Conforama with a broken DVD player and muddy pants. But I did it. I got the job done.

When I pulled up at Le Rêve, the sky had cleared and the view from the courtyard stretched thirty miles into the distance. There was a pink roll-aboard in the salon and a table full of appetizers in the kitchen.

“Mon papa!” said Sara, running up with a hug. “I just got in. I figured you might need some snacks. Especially after going to Conforama and speaking French. Mom’s waiting on the terrace. Go outside and I’ll bring you some rosé.”

The mini-marts in France are a cut above the 7-11s and gas-station shops that dot the highways back home. Of course, they sell the usual junk food—chips and cookies and candy bars—but they also sell locally sourced meats, cheeses, bread, fruits, and vegetables, often produced by friends and relatives of the owners. Sara stopped at our nearby “little store” on her way in, grabbing packages of aged jambon sec, duck rillettes, and Cabécou goat cheese. She picked up a fresh baguette and some ripe peaches, tomatoes, basil, and figs.

Before we knew it, spread on the table before us were baguette rounds topped with rillettes; oven-roasted figs wrapped in aged ham and stuffed with goat cheese; a juicy peach, tomato, and basil salad on the side; and a bottle of the world’s palest rosé. Eileen topped up our glasses.

We grinned as if we’d just won the lottery. We were together in France, the three of us, enjoying our new vacation home exactly as Sara had described it. The books were put away, the kitchen was organized, the fridge was stocked, and the house was operating smoothly. With the summer still a few months away, our dream house was ready.

……….

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