header_prologue

lasalleThe village doesn’t exist anymore. Outwardly it appears the same until you notice the gleaming, pre-fabricated buildings sprinkled among age-old farmhouses. The villagers aren’t there, either. No longer do you see them trudging off to fields long before daylight has broken through the mist. The sight of old peasant women in long, black skirts, bent over cabbages in their vegetable gardens has vanished, along with that of peasants clustered around a fence, chattering among themselves in patois, indivisible from their ancient surroundings. Except on postcards for tourists, the sight of women pinning on their stiff, lace coifs, their black skirts billowing in the wind, scurrying across a meadow to attend Sunday Mass in a nearby village is long forgotten. The custom of huddling around a fireplace at one of the farmhouses on dark, wintry nights to keep warm, drink cider, and tell ghost stories to pass the time is no more. A way of life that endured for centuries is gone.

But years ago, when I was young, I found myself there, among them. At first, the village and the people who lived there were unfamiliar and forbidding to me. Then, in time, I grew close to one of them—to Jeanne—and the village became my world, too.

jeanne_bwIn an old, hand-carved wooden chest, I keep a memento that I have treasured for nearly the past fifty years. It is a coif—the kind the women used to wear on Sundays or whenever they ventured from their farms and villages. No longer white, tinged with gray from age, it is wrapped in tissue paper and pressed flat like petals of a flower enfolded between the pages of a book. It is no ordinary coif; it is a special kind worn only for feasts and weddings. The center is made of netting, and all around is lace, thickly starched, yet delicate. As I hold it in my hand, distant memories flood across my mind, memories of love and heartbreak, and of a simple peasant woman dressed in black who transformed my life.

My fingers run along the highs and crevices of the lace, remembering the day she pinned it on me. How vividly the memory of that day sharpens into focus—she is by my side, and the village comes to life again.


header_chapter1

Pounded Dirt

For a long time driving back to Paris, I stared out of the car window, transfixed by skeletal branches illuminated by our headlights and silhouetted against starless skies. Speeding through the wintry Breton landscape, neither of us spoke. Yves kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. At last, he broke the silence.

“Think of it, Midge, seven houses and three hectares. We’ll own half of a hamlet!”

I said nothing, which might have been interpreted as sulking.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “You have to admit for that many houses and all those trees, sixty-seven million francs is an unbelievable bargain.”

Main house and pigsty (future master bedroom). Space between will be joined by corridor.“A bargain? For seven broken-down farmhouses? I can’t believe you’d even think of buying the place.”

Unfazed, he rhapsodized about how sturdy the houses were, how the pinewoods in back spread out for miles, and what a great find it was. “Just imagine. We’ll have our very own forest.”

I turned to him. “Yves,” I implored, “have you forgotten? We wanted a cozy farmhouse by the sea where we could paint beautiful pictures. Not an oversized wreck buried off in the woods. This place is so run-down we’d spend the next twenty years fixing it up!”

Listen, Mijoux,” he said. There it was: the name he called me when he was being affectionate, apologetic, or persuasive. “With all that space, we’ll both have plenty of room to paint.” Besides, he went on, he would build a studio in the woods behind the main house, off by himself and private, the kind he had always wanted. And I could fix up one of the empty buildings as my very own studio.

beforefarm3“Which one?” I replied icily. “They’re all in ruin.”

“They just look that way on the outside, chérie. But they’re solid. Look, I know the place is bigger than what we were looking for, but we only need to restore the houses we’ll live in. And next spring, while we wait for the Blevenecs to finish their new farm, we’ll move into the one by the road, and—”

“Next to the cows?” I slammed my fist down on the dashboard so hard the glove compartment sprang open. “Absolutely not!” I meant it. No one could get me to live in that dismal shack next to the stable that had harbored spiderwebs and rats’ nests for the past hundred years. No one, not even Yves, could persuade me.

“We’ll fix it up,” he said. A muscular arm reached out and drew me to him. “The house already has a working fireplace. All we need is a double-burner camper’s stove for cooking, a mattress on the floor for us, and a bed for Danielle. The Blevenecs’ youngest is only two years older than she is. She’ll have someone to play with. Think how robust she’ll become, spending summer months away from the city, breathing fresh country air. You’ll see, ma chérie. La Salle is just what we’ve been looking for.”

From the time I met Yves, that first amorous spring of 1960, he used to tell me about the farmhouse he would buy one day in the French countryside. It would be a refuge from Paris summers, a hideaway surrounded by nature where he would paint, far removed from distractions of the big city. After we married and Danielle was born, we daydreamed about what the house would be like and where we would find it. Yves’ first choice was Auvergne, the central mountainous region of France where he had spent childhood summers, but Auvergne was a full day’s drive from Paris; we needed something closer. My fantasy had always been to live near the sea in the South of France, with its mimosa-perfumed air and sun-drenched cities along the Mediterranean. Yves insisted that the Midi had been despoiled by tourists, and besides, the South was even farther from Paris than Auvergne. The Midi was out.

Gradually our search whittled down to Brittany. La Bretagne. Surrounded on three sides by sea, Brittany was primitive, unspoiled, had a Celtic soul to satisfy and inspire Yves, and I quickly adjusted to the prospect of a homey farmhouse along a rocky coastline. A mere six hours from Paris, Brittany would be close enough for either of us to rush back on short notice to see a gallery dealer or art collector. At last we knew what we wanted.

With Yves’ coaching, I wrote my father, asking him for a loan for a small farmhouse in the country to spend our summers and promised we would pay him back as soon as possible. “Danielle will breathe fresh, healthy air,” I wrote, “and surrounded by nature, Yves and I will produce paintings that surely will lead to success in the art world.” He wrote back saying, “I hope you’re right, my dear. Your head has always been in the clouds, but I am sending you the money as a belated wedding present, anyway.” We were overjoyed. All we needed now was luck in finding the right place. We contacted notaires throughout Brittany: those omnipresent creatures in France who handle every transaction from birth to death to inheritance and purchases of property.

One day, after countless disappointing leads, a notaire from the south of Brittany telephoned us in Paris.

“I have found it!” Maître Rowan bellowed into the phone. “Quelle chance! It is exactly the place for you! La moitié d’un hameau. Imagine! Half of a hamlet. Mon dieu, only twelve kilometers from the enchanting town of Vannes. Perhaps somewhat larger than what you had in mind. Eh, oui, instead of one farmhouse, you will have seven. Otherwise, the place is perfect. Parfait! Besides, the price is negotiable. Have confidence in me,” he effused. “This one you must see.”

Yves slammed down the phone. “Merde! He must be kidding. Half a hamlet!”

“What’s a hamlet?” I asked.

“A small village! He’s completely crazy.”

He twirled a finger against his forehead and stormed back to his studio. Moments later, the door flew open. “I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I’m going to take a look. At least we’ll have an idea of what’s available in the region.” The following morning, he drove off in our tiny Deux Chevaux for the southern part of Brittany called the Morbihan, and that evening, he telephoned. “The notaire was right, chérie. You have to see it for yourself. Never mind that it’s big. Drop Danielle off at my parents’ house. Take the six-thirty train tomorrow morning that gets to Vannes at half past noon. I’ll be waiting for you at the station. We’ll drive out to see it. It’s called La Salle.”

The next day, I arrived at a quaint, immaculate red brick railway station at the edge of town. Yves waved at me from a nearly deserted platform, I rushed into his outstretched arms, and we were on our way. After a short ride along the highway, he turned onto a narrow, winding country road. “The hamlet is only twelve kilometers from Vannes,” Yves said. “It’s the place we’ve been dreaming about. You’re going to love it, Mijoux. I know you will.”

“Uh-huh.” Despite his enthusiasm, I was far from enamored with the landscape. For one thing, we were heading inland. I had been drawn to Brittany for its rugged shoreline and had counted on being near the sea. What’s more, there was no sign of anyone; not a single car passed us along the road. Trying to ignore a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I reassured myself we were just looking and settled back to admire the scenery, which, in spite of myself, I had to admit was peaceful and unspoiled. Bounded by thick hedges, interspersed with mysterious paths branching off and leading seemingly to nowhere, the serpentine road meandered endlessly with no apparent destination in sight. A few farmhouses, barely visible, emerged here and there in the distance. All around, the landscape was lush, while not as rugged and wild as what I had seen from the train, reinforcing Yves’ assurance that the south of Brittany had a mild and occasionally sunny climate. Struggling to pronounce strange-sounding names carved on makeshift signs along the road, I read aloud, “Locqueltas, Kerlomen, Keravello…Le Guerhuet. What language is that?” I said. “Are we still in France?”

mp9“That’s Breton,” Yves explained. “In most of Brittany, the language was, and in places still is, Breton. But in the Morbihan, near Vannes, they speak Gallo, a mixture of patois, Breton, and French words like La Salle. It used to be the only language spoken here. Then the government passed a law, forbidding people to speak it. They actually put up signs saying no spitting or speaking breton, and that included Gallo. After the war, the law was revoked. But even today, speaking Breton or Gallo isn’t allowed in schools. Still, they can’t stop the older peasants from speaking these dying languages among themselves.”

I smiled smugly to myself. If only my friends in Chicago could see me, they wouldn’t believe their eyes. I was supposed to be living a carbon copy of their lives, married to a steady, reliable Midwesterner—someone like my old boyfriend Charlie—and settled down in the suburbs. Instead, here I was, married to an exciting French painter, with an adorable French-speaking two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and off on an adventure to find an idyllic farmhouse in the French countryside where we would spend our summers. I could hardly believe it myself.

The road continued endlessly. Twelve kilometers felt more like thirty as one unannounced curve followed another and our city-bred Deux Chevaux bounced and vaulted over the unpaved, bumpy road. How rural can this place be? I wondered.

“Here we are,” he exclaimed. “That’s La Salle!”

“Where?”

“There!”

farm2We turned onto a dirt road that climbed a sloping hill. From the car window, all I could see was an ugly stone and cement wall that dominated the horizon like an ill-boding fortress bulging through ramparts and spilling over the hillside. We drove on. Moments later a pine forest that spread across the crest of the hill came into view, shading clusters of farmhouses to the right and to the left of the road. Yves swung left onto a dirt courtyard. I gasped. Fifty feet before us loomed a huge, dilapidated farmhouse. To the right were several more; another stretched across the courtyard and was bigger than any edifice I had ever seen before; and near the entrance were another two. I shuddered to think how many more might materialize as the day progressed. Extricating myself from the Deux Chevaux, I came face-to-face with the front of the block-long apparition I had seen from below. Upon closer inspection, it proved to be an enormous storehouse, overflowing with broken wagons, discarded wheelbarrows, retired plows, tools, castaway hoes, rusted rakes, spades, and junk. Heaving and rattling in the wind like the hulk of an old, dying elephant, it dwarfed the other buildings and cast a mammoth shadow over the courtyard, accentuating the feeling of desolation that permeated the place. I followed Yves, tiptoeing cautiously to avoid tin cans, scraps of discarded tools, and unidentifiable animal droppings. Sidestepping an extended family of chickens, we passed in front of the farmhouses, which were marginally more pleasing than the oversize eyesore at the entrance. All the buildings had meter-thick stone walls and dark gray slate roofs, and were in various stages of disrepair. Slabs of aluminum lay helter-skelter over missing tiles on the roofs. Ill-fitting pieces of wood boarded up windows, their original stone frames replaced by unsightly patches of cement. This was the country house of our dreams? Certainly he couldn’t be contemplating buying such a monstrosity. Nothing could have been further removed from the picturesque Breton farmhouse of Gauguin paintings I assumed we were looking for. This was The Grapes of Wrath.

I wrinkled my nose in disgust, but Yves paid no attention. He was nodding to a couple advancing single-mindedly in our direction. Everyone shook hands and smiled when I remembered Yves had told me not to speak, since if anyone found out I was American, they might double the price. Although what possible difference would that make, I thought, since we certainly would never buy the place!

In his late thirties, the man was tall, held himself stiffly, and had well-defined, handsome features. His wife, by contrast, was plump, ruddy-complexioned, and giggled like a young girl. It occurred to me that talking to strangers was not a part of her life, whereas I loved talking to strangers, especially those whose lives were different from mine. Walking alongside her, I longed to ask what it was like living on an isolated farm far off in the country. I wanted to know where she did her shopping and was she an only child? How many children did she have, and what she was cooking for supper? The more I thought about not being able to speak, the more insatiable became my curiosity and the more shackled I felt by the no-talking edict.

Her face flushed, Madame Blevenec invited us into the main farmhouse. The large, rectangular room served as both kitchen and living space, with bunk beds lined alongside the walls for her and her husband and their five children, as well as her frail, bent-over father, who shuffled in and out of the kitchen, eyeing us suspiciously as Yves and Monsieur Blevenec spoke. From a corner of the dark room drifted the unmistakable smell of cabbage soup simmering on a wood-burning stove. Beams of light from two narrow windows pierced the gloom, and one bare lightbulb dangled by a twisted wire from a rafter next to a coiled, sticky paper that had succeeded in luring and ensnaring flies. Millions of them. I was soon to learn that where there are cows, there are flies—fat, rubbery, voracious, indestructible flies.

Madame Blevenec brought four glasses from the cupboard, wiped each one with her apron, and placed them on a wooden table along with a loaf of bread, a tin box of cookies, and a chunk of lard. We took our places on benches along each side of the table. Monsieur Blevenec pulled a knife from his overalls; his wife took a knife from a pocket in her apron and, observing that we didn’t come equipped with our own, handed knives to Yves and me. There was minimal conversation. Monsieur Blevenec opened a bottle of homemade cider, and to my astonishment, the men lunged into a discussion of a possible sale.

Main house before restoration. (1965)

“Alors, Monsieur Drumont, you saw the plot of land at the bottom of the hill,” said Monsieur Blevenec, leaning forward, his eyes gleaming. “It’s there we’ll lay the foundation for our new house.” He cut a thick slice of bread, spread it with lard, and handed it to me. “And next year, we’re going to buy a tractor. In the whole village, dame, ours will be the first and only one.”

Everyone ate and drank. It was my introduction to cider and lard. The lard reminded me of the slippery texture of raw oysters with the consistency of a gummy gel medium I use to mix my paints. The cider smelled and tasted like a mixture of stale vinegar and turpentine. I choked everything down as discreetly as possible.

“La Sallette,” blurted Mrs. Blevenec, reddening and turning toward her husband for approval. “We’re calling our new house La Sallette.” It was her first contribution to the conversation, far more than I had been allowed to make. The Blevenecs must have thought I was shy, severely retarded, or had no opinion. How wrong they were; I was dying to speak. Deciding on a place in the country was crucial and this was the last place in the world where I would ever agree to spend half of the rest of my life, although a thick piece of lard had glued itself to the roof of my mouth, leaving me no choice but to keep silent.

“Next spring, you and your wife can move into the first farmhouse, the one to the right as you enter the courtyard. We can take a look.” Monsieur Blevenec pushed his bench away from the table and stood up. Yves did the same and motioned for me to join them. Madame Blevenec remained in the kitchen.

“Vous voyez, Monsieur and Madame Drumont,” Monsieur Blevenec explained as we crossed the courtyard, “this side of the village was once divided into two farms. The house next to the road and the one where you would be staying are the oldest in the hamlet. See how the stones were cut and chipped so they dovetail without anything holding them together?” He slid his thumb along the edge of one of the stones. “In this part of the farm, the houses are at least three hundred years old.”

“Then your house is more recent,” Yves said, “because the stones are joined with cement?”

“Right. But two hundred years is still plenty old. Isn’t that so, Madame Drumont?” He smiled. I smiled back and out of habit, started to answer him as Yves stepped quickly between us. Monsieur Blevenec yanked open the door and motioned for me to enter. Inside was dark and musty. From an overhead rafter swung the ever-present naked bulb, and the floor was the usual terre battue. Pounded dirt. Did people actually live on solid packed earth? For decades the house had been abandoned, another nightmarish, albeit smaller, depository of junk. Worst of all, it was at a right angle to the stable where the cows were kept. Would I ever agree to live in such close proximity to cows? Of course not! A temporary house? Preposterous. Still, I didn’t need to be overly concerned. Oh, God, I hoped not. We were only looking, weren’t we?

Returning to the kitchen, we rejoined Madame Ble-venec, who had set out cups and was pouring a strong, bitter-smelling coffee laced with chicory root, as I later learned was the custom in the country. We resumed our places on the wooden benches.

“When you consider there are seven houses and three hectares in the bargain, Monsieur Drumont, seventy-two million francs isn’t a high price.”

I whipped around to face Yves.

“But we would have huge expenses repairing the roofs, installing heating, modernizing, insulating. It’s too big a job, Monsieur Blevenec. Sixty-five million,” said Yves.
“Sixty-nine million,” countered Monsieur Blevenec. “I can’t go any lower, Monsieur Drumont.”

There was a pause. I held my breath. “We’ll need to think about it,” Yves said. I exhaled and made a motion to get up and leave.

“Sixty-seven million.” Yves said, “That is our final offer, Monsieur Blevenec.”

Monsieur Blevenec tipped back his bench. His wife stood and signaled for him to join her. “We’ll be right back,” he said, and they left the room.

“I’ll bet they’re talking over our offer,” Yves whispered close to my ear as if we were co-conspirators.

“Our offer! You haven’t even asked my opinion!”

“Shhh. They’ll hear you. Listen, chérie,” he said, pulling me to my feet and putting his hands on my shoulders, “I know this place doesn’t look like much from the outside. But you don’t know the French countryside as I do. You don’t know these villages or these old farmhouses. I’ve known them since I was a child and I can see the possibilities. La Salle is going to be fabulous once we fix it up. Trust me.”

“Yves,” I said in a husky voice, “we can’t buy this place. It’s too big. It’s too old. The floors are dirt! You know what that means? Dirt floors!” My voice sounded desperate, as though I had dropped to my knees and was pleading with him. “Have you forgotten, chéri? We wanted a little farmhouse by the sea, where we could paint. If we bought this ruin, we’d be too busy picking up the rubble. Not only that…”
He went on as if he hadn’t heard a word. “Believe me, Midge. This place is perfect. It’s an incredible buy for the money. Dad will say we made a great investment.”

“But, but…” I stammered.

Too late. They were back.

When the Blevenecs sat down again, they were business-like and formal. Considering the timing of their private conference, I wondered if Mrs. Blevenec might be the one who made financial decisions behind closed doors, or at the very least, was consulted before they were carved in stone, unlike the hierarchical procedure that ruled in my family.

“D’accord,” Monsieur Blevenec began slowly. “Sixty-seven million. I accept.”

They shook hands. Monsieur Blevenec brought another bottle of cider to the table. They drank, loosened up, laughed together, and agreed that the first payment would be made as soon as the official papers had been signed. Sipping my cider in silence, I found it less offensive with each swallow. Numbly, I decided I might as well get drunk.

“My wife is from Chicago,” Yves announced, acknowledging my presence now that the price was settled and danger had passed. All eyes shifted to me.

“Oui, je suis de Chicago,” I said, clearing my throat.

“But you speak French! Maître Rowan told us you are American,” said Monsieur Blevenec. “We thought you spoke only American.”

I glared at Yves.

“Chicago is a dangerous place, non?” asked Monsieur Blevenec.

“Not since the days of Al Capone,” I said.

“This is the first time an American ever set foot at La Salle. You’ll be welcome here, dame.” He reached across the table to shake my hand.

“Dame, oui!” said Mrs. Blevenec with a shy smile, blushing, and nodding in agreement.

Everyone shook hands, and we said goodbye. It was then, as we piled into the Deux Chevaux and began driving out of the courtyard, that I saw her. She was standing by the side of the road, an old peasant woman dressed in black, bent over from working in the fields, and wrinkled and worn from the sun and wind. What struck me most was the aura of timelessness about her, as if she had stepped out of another century. I rolled down a frost-covered window to get a better glimpse of her. Her hair was drawn back into a bun. A woolen scarf tied under her chin flapped against her cheek as an icy gust whipped across the country road. She leaned toward the car, and it startled me when our eyes met. I kept staring back at her as we turned to drive down the hill. Her long black skirt billowed in the January wind, but she stood as motionless as one of those mysterious, towering stone menhirs that emerge from parts of the Breton landscape. How alien she was to the twentieth century; how seamlessly she blended in with the ancient setting. Brushed by wintry shadows and silhouetted against the age-old village, she was inseparable from the stone and slate farmhouses rising from the ground behind her.

How alien she was to the twentieth century; how seamlessly she blended in with the ancient setting. Brushed by wintry shadows and silhouetted against the age-old village, she was inseparable from the stone and slate farmhouses rising from the ground behind her.

What in the world was I doing here? I asked myself. I could never live in such a forlorn and isolated village. And these strange people whom I could hardly understand, I could never live among them.

And yet, I couldn’t put her out of my mind. Her name, I learned later, was Jeanne Montrelay. Her image lingered in my mind all the way to Paris. As the last echoes of wintry sunlight sank beneath the horizon, I kept seeing her face, wrinkled and round like the sun, intermingling like an ever-changing kaleidoscope with the darkening French countryside racing behind us.