Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Olivier has worked for our proprietaire, our landlord, for 20 years. To say that he is the resident handyman is not quite right, although he knows plumbing, gardening, carpentry, and I imagine he can take apart and reassemble most engines. To say that he is the estate manager doesn't seem right either, as our proprietaire's land is not enough to qualify as an estate, and Olivier does both more and less than manage: an estate manager has an office and tells people what to do. Olivier has a small green Renault Twingo and seems to find that the work gets done best when he does it himself. When I talk to French people about Olivier and what he does, they suggest that he is the gardien, which comes close in meaning to a steward. He is the person who looks after things.

For the past several months, he has been looking after us. He comes nearly every day, arriving a little before eight, disappearing for an hour or two midday, and leaving around five. On days when he is not mending something in our garden or showing a plumber or carpenter or electrician work that needs to be done in our house--it's a new house, so new that it's not quite finished--I sometimes only see him walking along the restanques on the way to the Bastide, the proprietaire's much grander house several tall, stone-walled terraces up the hill. But I know that he is around and about, and if I see him when I am coming or going, or if I meet him when I take the dogs up the hill to run, we always speak, and he is always patient with my French and happy to explain the latest developments.

Last week one morning C. decided to bike to work and left, kitted up in spandex, well before the girls and I had finished our breakfast. When it was time for me to take the girls to school, I sent them up the hill to the car and began to collect purse, phone, and keys. No keys. Not anywhere. I checked in drawers, dishes, pocketbooks, pockets: nowhere. Minutes passed while I went through the house touching surfaces and trying to remember where they were. Then it dawned on me: C. must have taken them. I looked in the kitchen drawer: C.'s keys. Aha. I would have to take his car.

I went up the hill to two girls who did not want to be late for school and we all got into C.'s little Volkswagen. I found the clutch and looked at the stick shift: it had been at least a decade since I had driven a manual-transmission car, but this moment had to come sometime. I put the car in reverse and it went forward so suddenly that the oleander hedge jumped back. E., in the front seat beside me, stiffened. I put it in reverse again and narrowly missed the olive tree that our proprietaire planted in the center of our parking area. (Charming, yes; practical, no.)

I realized that this was not going to be the morning that I relearned how to drive a manual car. But what to do? In a few minutes more the girls would be late for school, if I could get them to school at all. By the time C. got to work it would be long past time the 8:15 bell, and then he would have to borrow someone's car and drive the 20 minutes home, and then another 15 minutes to get the girls to school. G. and E. were radiating anxiety at the prospect of arriving late to their French literature class, the hardest class of the week, with the most alarming teacher. Our nearest neighbors are summer people, gone now until Christmas at least. I could phone the school and explain my situation and ask if someone could come and pick up the children, but that sounded a little farfetched and pathetic; I wanted to get them to school and retain a smidgeon of dignity.

I looked over my shoulder and saw the Twingo parked just outside our gate. I left the girls in the car and raced up the terraces. Olivier was just coming out of the proprietaire's garage.

Bonjour! Ca va? He shook my hand, as always.

Oui, oui, ca va, merci, mais on a une petite crise. I explained: C. was on his bike and had taken my keys, I could not drive a stick shift car, the girls had to be at school; could he help?

Olivier was already walking beside me back down the terrace. Bien sur, bien sur, he said, I dislike driving manual transmissions myself. I much prefer automatic; the car I do not drive to work has an automatic transmission. He was in the car now and pulling out of the driveway, heading down the hill and out onto the road to school.

As we entered the town Olivier began to talk. He had grown up here: his parents had worked in a perfume factory, a parfumerie: his mother had ended her career as an aromatiseur, someone who mixed flavorings, parfums, for ice creams, like lavender and strawberry and lemon and jasmin and rose. The factory where they had worked was gone now, replaced by apartment buildings.

Olivier's children all went to the College des Vignes, so he pulled expertly into a bus stop just across from the entrance and the girls leapt out of the car. I kissed them goodbye and climbed in the front seat.

When does school start? Will they be late?

Oh no, they'll be fine, they will be just in time. It was so lucky for us that you were there.

No, no, it is nothing, c'est normale. Of course it was normal only if you customarily went into burning buildings to save litters of kittens. We swung back into traffic and down a side street that brought us, within a few hundred meters, back into the countryside.

All of the land around here used to be farms, flower farms, Olivier went on. When I was a little boy my family would all help harvest the jasmin flowers for the parfumeries. You could smell the flowers in the air. There were no houses as there are now. We were coming along the main road connecting our village to the town. There were just a few bastides, a few large farms, that grew flowers. When I was a boy I would spend the summers with my grandparents, west of here, I can show you on a map where they lived and you could go there, it is very beautiful. When I was a boy I can remember going there and there were champs de lavande, fields of lavender, 7 kilometers in length. I remember seeing them. When there was a little wind, the lavender moved, and it was like the sea.

We were pulling into the driveway now. If you need to go out again today, come and find me and I will take you. It's normal, pas de probleme, pas du tout.

My keys were in the back door. The rest of the day, and since, when I close my eyes, I see an ocean of lavender.

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