How hard could it be? I had three whole weeks

IT WAS OCTOBER of 2007 when I added the final touches to the lettering on the wall. La Rêve, the dream. The ideal name for the ideal stone cottage in France. Three decades of wishing, working, and hoping, and we didn’t even have to name it ourselves. It came pre-named by the seller. It was fate. Nothing else could account for it.

The two words, La Rêve, glistened on the wall as the paint dried in the fading sun. The two curving ribbons of French, so lovingly crafted by my own hand, ended gracefully in a flourish after the final e. E for Eileen, I thought. I feathered a soft shadow beneath the two words for an extra dash of dimension.

Eileen had volunteered to care of business back home. My responsibility was to furnish the house, filling it with tables and chairs and beds and fresh paint to prepare for our first vacation in May. I had three weeks to complete the project before getting back to work in San Francisco. And although a whole afternoon spent on signage might seem like indulgence, I’d felt I’d earned it.

The kitchen now had cutlery, the salon new drapes. The guest bedroom had new bedding, the master bedroom a deluxe new bed (guaranteed for five years). The bathrooms had fluffy white towels, the terrace a shimmering BBQ. In the garden were two chaises longues with cream-colored pads. A metal table with six metal chairs beckoned from the shade of an ash tree. In the salon was a flat-screen TV with a DVD player, a minor-brand music system with two decent speakers, and a couple of custom-built bookcases—authentically distressed by an itinerant Portuguese—to organize all the equipment. And the eat-in kitchen had a repainted farm table with eight newly caned chairs.

What I had learned from this experience was that, for someone new to France, the smallest transaction could turn into a grand cauchemar—a nightmare of Alice-in-Wonderland proportions.

Take a simple thing like a table.

In France there are traveling antique shows called brocantes. These outdoor events are staged several times a year in a number of the larger villages. Scores of sellers haul their goods from village to village, hoping to unload used armoires, tarnished candelabra, pockmarked mirrors, bad paintings à la Matisse, and all sorts of furniture grown more expensive with abuse. In my single-minded quest for a kitchen table and chairs, I pointed the car toward the picturesque town of Villeréal.

Ascending the hill I could see the stalls edging the old ramparts. Bargain hunters walked down the street in twos and threes toting newfound treasures. Children trailed after parents, holding a toy or a dog or an ice cream cone melting in the midday sun.

Before I could even park the car I saw it—a painted pine table. Eight cane chairs stood off to the side. I quickly found a space and locked the car, nostrils flaring, pulse racing, irises dilating. My ancient hunting instincts had kicked in. Stay calm, I thought. Move slowly. Don’t tip your hand.

The whole enterprise was complicated by my lack of language skills. I glanced down at a tiny cheat sheet shaking in my hand. Trop haute (too tall), trop petite (too small), trop grande (too big), trop lourde (too heavy), and trop chere (too expensive). Also Combien pour . . . ? (How much for . . .?) and En avez-vous d’autres? (Do you have others?). I was ready.

The seller was a heavy bald man with plastic tubes trailing from his nose. I sidled up and pointed to a fake Cézanne.

“Combien pour la peinture?” I wasn’t sure if I’d asked “How much is the painting?” or “How much is the paint?”

He pulled a wheeled oxygen tank over to the non-Cézanne, rubbed the stubble on his multiple chins.

“Soixante euros.”

Soixante euros is pure conjecture on my part. My ear for French numbers was on a par with a German Shepherd’s ear for Shakespeare’s sonnets.

“Oh la la,” I said with alarm. “Trop chere, trop chere.” Was it too expensive? Who knows? But the opening move in any negotiation is the immediate expression of shock.

One of the first things Eileen and I learned in French class was that oh la la has a different connotation in France than it does in the foreign imagination. In America we say oooh la la. In our interpretation, oooh la la is the verbal equivalent of a wolf whistle. As in, “Oooh la la, check out that derrière!” Or “Oooh la la, did you see that negligée in the shop window?” In France, oh la la means something more like “Oh dear, oh dear,” or, in some cases, “Oh, no!” when you happen to drop a dish on the kitchen floor. The phrase is also expandable. You can add extra las, usually in pairs, to express additional shock. “Oh la la la la” is appropriate when you pull down the entire sideboard, shattering every piece of dinnerware in the house. The goal in life is to keep the las to a minimum.

I moved vaguely in the direction of The Table, showing nothing more than idle curiosity. “Et la table?”

“Deux cent vingt-cinq euros.”

Another number beyond my dog-like comprehension. He produced a crumpled business card and jotted on the back: 225 euros. I took the pencil from him, crossed out the 225 and wrote 175. He crossed out 175 and wrote 200.

“Mesurer?” I took one end of my little yellow plastic measuring tape and he took the other—160 centimeters. The excitement drained from my body. The table was ten inches short. Only six of the eight chairs would fit around it.

“Je suis desolé,” I said, consulting my cheat sheet. “Elle est trop petite.”

He replied, “Pas de problème.” No problem, there were more tables at his shop in Agen. If I would visit him on Tuesday, he was sure he could find one that would suit my needs.

“Et les chaises?”

He promised there were plenty of chairs. In fact, he was a master caner, and he would happily re-cane any chairs that I chose. Twenty-five euros each. He took his business card from my hand turned it over.

Cannage de Chaises     

I followed the map to the address on the card. It was not in Agen, but in a residential area called Pont-du-Casse, an hour south of Bergerac. And it was not a shop, but a tract house. Outside on the lawn a ragged troupe of children were playing a game. They got up and followed me to the door.

“Bonjour!” said their father, dragging his oxygen tank behind him. He extended a fleshy hand, then motioned me to a large garage. He pulled opened the doors, revealing a mass of arms and legs. The entire space was crammed to the rafters with a bewildering array of tables and chairs.

Monsieur Babineaux set to work unstacking the tables. He smoked one cigarette after another, the plastic tubes dangling from his nostrils. The man was obese and short of breath, but he was strong. He shuffled hundred-pound tables as if they were playing cards.

After 45 minutes it was clear that none of the tables were the right size.

M. Babineaux was undeterred. He led me into the house, down a dark hallway, chuffing like a steam engine. We emerged into the light of the kitchen to find the rest of the family assembled for dinner. They jumped to attention, napkins still tucked in their shirts, as if a visiting commandant had walked into a roomful of cadets.

There, in the center of the kitchen, was the perfect country table. Chunky, rustic, simple.

He snapped a few orders. His wife, sons, and daughters quickly removed all the dinnerware, glasses, and wine bottles. Within seconds they had the table out of the house and onto the front lawn.

I felt like I’d just robbed a bank. “Et les chaises?” I said.

One week later, a rusty truck rattled past the gates into the courtyard. Out came a table and eight chairs, all painted a sophisticated shade of gris-bleu. When the set was placed in the empty kitchen, the house finally looked like a home. I snapped a photo and sent it to Eileen.

“Nice table,” she said on the phone. “Was it expensive?”

“It was a steal.”

I stepped back from the wall. La Rêve. The dream. Beautiful. If you ask my friends, they’ll tell you I take a certain pride in my skill with a brush. I was a graphic designer in another life, and lettering was my forte.

A small yellow van came jouncing up the dirt lane, churning white dust as it approached the house. “Madame La Poste,” the woman who brings the mail. She handed me a few envelopes and looked at the wall.

“Très jolie,” she said.

My heart swelled with secret satisfaction. It is pretty, isn’t it? Eileen will be pleased.

“Mais, monsieur, c’est Le Rêve, pas La Rêve.” She tapped her finger on the misspelled article.

“Le, not La?”


“Oh la la.”


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