Monday, September 28, 2009

Dogs, Houses, Stories, Friends

The drive to Grenouille-de-Saut this weekend was just so beautiful. We passed the fields of slaughtered sunflowers, followed the lines of plane trees to Barjols, then twisted and turned ourselves onto the A8, super-road of all things fabulously Southern France. "Autoroute of the Sun" it calls itself in places, with no undue modesty. We drove past Aix-en-Provence towards the Roman city of Nimes, also the original home of denim fabri, "de" meaning "from" giving us our 501 "de-nimes."

You never know what you're going to learn reading this blog, and who knows: that little fact might be helpful in your next appearance on Jeopardy or your next game of trivia.

The sun dropped lower and burned itself redder and larger directly on the southwestern horizon, while a waxing half moon rose on our left over the Camargue, the low-lying lands full of flamingos and wild horses at the mouth of the Rhone.

And, even better, we were making this exciting road trip in our sturdy, spunky, super clean little electric blue car. Bill managed to insure it just in the nick of time, and I could zoom zoom it around the curves and up the long straightaways. I loved the car more than I thought I even could.

Diesel Liesel has also turned out to have quite an impressive sense of direction, courtesy of her GPS navigation system, although her imperious and somewhat mechanical circa-2005 tone leaves a bit to be desired. The newer Garmans with their multi-lingual directions sound in contrast like real people trapped inside your dashboard. On those systems, you can choose a prim British Lucy, a hearty Aussie Bruce, or a plain Jane Midwestern sweetheart to direct you from place to place. Presumably you can also choose to be directed by equally pleasant individuals in Swahili, Arabic or Aramaic for that matter. One would guess the cabbies of New York City make good use of several of the more obscure options on their trips between Park Avenue, Astoria, and the Lower East Side.

Liesel couldn't quite find the tiny town we were heading towards, but got us close enough, to Quissac, and we could use good old fashioned paper and pencil directions to make the last few turns. "Serrez a gauche," she would insist at an intersection, and I couldn't help but do what she said. Unlike a typical backseat driver, however, she never lost her patience when I got something wrong. Instead, she would merely insist, with precisely the same directness, that I take the "fourth right" at the next roundabout, heading myself back from whence I came.

Following Liesel is easy enough, despite the language barrier. However, I wonder at this point, so early in the trip, if I really could actually take the fourth right if I needed to. When we were leaving Brooklyn, I made Bill promise that if we were miserable, we could come home after a few months. But having come this far, it's hard even to imagine the route that will return us from whence we came. Like Claudia and Jamie in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, we will go back different – changed – even if we take exactly the same route home.

A right in Quissac took us onto one of my least favorite sorts of French roads. It is the kind that is so narrow as to drop the center line altogether. For most French drivers, that center dash serves less as a rule than as guideline; they zoom along in the middle of things, then swerve back to their side of the road only at the last minute when they have to share. On this road, even that last false hope had disappeared and I had to hope and trust that someone driving south might take pity on my little car and my little family. The road also had that nice deep ditch along each side of it, there to catch my wheel should I sneeze. But many of the most beautiful things in the world are on the backroads of this life, and we drove on expectantly.

But as we drove up the hill and towards Zaro and Gareth's house, I wasn't quite ready for what lay in store. As we drove into their big blue gate and onto the pebbles of the driveway, we could see a table set just outside an outdoor kitchen, with pretty china plates and glasses and candles galore. Several different big stone and old wood buildings rose up around the pebbles. Zaro and Gareth came out smiling, waving their hands and directing us into the right parking spot. They share three bisous for each, so we had two dozen just to welcome us.

The girls, of course, only had eyes for the dogs, their friends Clementine and Spot. Clementine is an excellent correspondent and keeps the girls apprised of the dogs’ activities on the hill at Grenouille-de-Saut. Grace had a rough week last week, spending the very last part of one evening actually moaning for Samson, she was so sad. Somehow, despite all of her best efforts that day, simply everything had gone badly, and she was beside herself with misery. Now, with the shepherd puppies Clementine and Spot to cheer her up, she was beside herself with joy.

Abigail had been sour and cross for the last hour of the drive, all "when will we get there-s" and complaints about all the ways in which her awful parents had done her wrong. It had been a long day (their first French lesson in the morning in Lorgues, then Bill's bass lesson in the afternoon) and we were all tired. When we arrived, we were just happy to be settling in with our new/old friends. The fact that the house was stunning was only a bonus.

As they settled us into the rooms where we would stay, I realized that I might have made a tactical writing error in proclaiming La Bastide such a house of wonders. For Zaro and Gareth's home was yet another level of amazing. I know that one should never compare one's children or one's friends, but I hope nobody's feelings will be hurt if I compare the qualities of the two houses. La Bastide is baroque and stuffed full of strange and beautiful tiles, gilded paintings, whimsical quilts, bright chintzes, quirky artwork and strange Moroccan wooden implements. It looks as though somebody has piled a crazy painted box full of the most Carmen-Miranda pile of fruit you've ever seen. In contrast, Grenouille appears effortlessly, beautifully composed, like a striking arrangement of incredible and rare just-picked wildflowers in a beautiful handmade glass bowl.

Zaro has collected incredible antique quilts that cover the beds and decorate the walls, and in and around all the geometry and texture of the quilts are big sturdy antiques and modern pieces. The hearth of the indoor kitchen's fireplace was full of fresh vegetables and even an enormous pineapple.

Outdoors, every surface was growing with pansies or lavender or big green hydrangea flowers. Roses climb up the sides of the outdoor kitchen, and strings of little lights mark the paths up and down and around to all the places you would most like to go. Back in the far corner of the square of buildings, they have built a tiny eight-sided cabin, clad in wood like an Adirondack camp. Although they have several big bedrooms and salons and perfectly tricked out kitchens in the central spaces, this tiny abode is their actual home for all the months of the year (which is to say, most of the year) when living nearly outdoors (with a big deep bathtub in your cabin) is the most pleasant option.

Gareth's paella was both bountiful and delicious, filling up our hungry little tummies after such a long trip. The girls and Bill told their favorite stories, tumbling over themselves in their desire to get everything out and fill in every gap that had opened up in the weeks we had been apart. Our host and hostess gave us boulles de glace and little cookies shaped like cigars, and filled us in on the miracle that is Armangac. The air was chilly and sharp, but the liqueur warmed us from within. We were tired and a little slap-happy from our drive, so we protested only the tiniest bit when our friends forbade us from lifting even a finger to serve, to clear, to clean up.

We fell into wide beds with soft sheets and were out before we knew it.

The next morning, we awoke to get to see what had been invisible in the dark: the tidy lines of the kitchen garden just below the dining table, then beautiful open fields below the edge of the yard. In the distance were enormous rocky mountains, scrubbed down to softened mounds over eons of time.

We lingered over café au lait and croissants and fruit for hours, while Gareth showed the girls how to do tricks with the dogs and Abigail and Grace bounced on the trampoline dubbed the Hip Hop House. We told more stories and caught up on the friends and experiences we share back in the bigger cities of the world.

Eventually we drove off for a little walk in Sauve, yet another strikingly beautiful ancient hillside town, this one with a murky emerald-green river running alongside. We walked over the "new bridge," built 900 years ago. We had a dorm like this at college, called "New Dorm" for years even after it got its real name. But not nine HUNDRED years.

Zaro took our trip's second series of all-family photos on the bridge, some with dogs, and some without. We got to the market just as it was folding itself back up. Our own market in Aups is a touristy affair. In and around the delicious vegetables and incredible sausages and to-die-for roasted chickens, you can also find lots of cheap running sneakers, ugly t-shirts and products promising easy ways to remove excess hair. This market was light on the tourist garbage, but heavy on the many kinds of goat cheese, the fresh baby potatoes, the tiny round aubergines and the just-pulled carrots.

We had an enormous stir-fry for lunch, with tons off fresh ginger and all of the vegetable ingredients hopping out of the fireplace and into the fire of the wok at Zaro's behest. The girls watched a few movies (Zaro and Gareth's collection is even deeper, and certainly much more kid-friendly, than the one that so stunned me here) while Bill and I fell into a deep afternoon sleep.

At dinner that night, after a glass of rosé or two, I told our friends that this house felt a lot like heaven to me, or at least as close as we're likely to get. Bill then asked Zaro whether, even after years of living at La Grenouille, she still had to pinch herself to believe she was really in such a place. We were just guests there, and well-pampered, well-fed ones, at that. We don't have to change the lightbulbs or worry over the water pressure or the local politics. So Bill's question was to wonder whether all the dross of reality would eventually get in the way of being even in the most beautiful places of this world.

She told us no, and I believe her, in part because she and Gareth are some of the most enchanting and enchanted people I know. Both of them appreciate the world’s most remarkable gifts, but also create practical magic -- in their writing, their storytelling and their cooking. But their magic is perhaps most obvious in their renovating a falling-down farmhouse into something transcendently beautiful and comfortable for themselves, their lucky family, and their even luckier friends.

Lately, since moving to Aups, and pinching myself with excitement all the time, I have started to wonder the same thing revealed in Bill’s question. Both Bill and I have periods in our lives when something that had appeared all sparkly and new has shown itself over time to be dull and everyday -- or worse, a trick of smoke and mirrors that left us bereft.

As I am never one to just let the good times roll, a little voice in my head wonders just how long in this newly enchanted place the best parts of the enchantment will last? Will we find ourselves merely infatuated with Aups, and tire of the whole thing in a few months, hungry to return to more solid reality? Or is our time in this incredible old house like a sturdy and well-fortified marriage, there to hold us up and enfold us when life throws rotten eggs and tomatoes our way?

When it gets dark and cold in the winter, will we see past the inevitable challenges of real life to find our ways, over and over, back into deeper kinds of love than we knew before?

And when we return back to the grid of all those streets and avenues, and that big tall house back home -- what will they feel like to us then?

The rest of the weekend drifted along in the nicest possible fashion. Zaro and Gareth have a wonderful way with the girls, and were both patient and funny with them no matter what kid-style obstacles they produced. Abigail spent the weekend dressed up in a box of clothes that Zaro provided: scarves and skirts, old hats and bags and even a tiny wallet with an old AAA card so she could play at shopping for even more finery. Grace is still young enough to dress up while just old enough to be transforming into a real thinker, a muser, and a beauty. She could move back and forth seamlessly between offering to clear the table to pulling on a silly hat to asking an incisive question about something a grown-up had added to the conversation. She stayed up late without getting cranky, and said her pleases and thank yous like a champion.

I enjoyed the sense of being fully absorbed into a new place and a new series of confidences and stories. When you get to know a new friend, and re-tell your life story, new truths emerge in the telling. It's like writing, and re-writing, looking for the truths that endure as the words and the days and the years unfold. I very much liked the story this time around – certainly the characters and the setting. Although I am still working on the plot, let’s plan on a happy ending of one sort or another.

As we were leaving, we asked for yet one additional favor, and Zaro read us all a chapter from a long book she is writing about the charmed animals of La Grenouille-de-Saut. Grace and I had heard an older version of the story over a year before, when she read to all the children back at school. But Grace insisted, and I had to agree, that the newly tweaked and edited version was even better than before, bringing out all the voices of the animals with even greater specificity. Grace can't wait to read it in hardcopy.

We were so sad to drive away, and I had to promise Abigail the moon and the stars to get her into the car. She had been happy there in a fuller and deeper way than she has been elsewhere, and I could say the same for the rest of us as well.

As we drove off towards Avignon, we left with many more treats than we had arrived with. There was a big bag of Zaro’s fanciest dressup clothes, some sweet tomato puree, and a big bunch of drying Verbena in the car. We had, stored on the laptop, a new family photo that I will likely frame and keep forever on a wall when it's time to get back home. We had memories of the chilly air and the setting sun and the way the dogs flipped backwards when they played. But best of all, we had new old friends, and a promise to see each other again soon.

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