Wednesday, November 21, 2007


La Bastiole is a new house, and when we moved into it a few months ago, there were still odds and ends remaining to finish. Our landlord, M. LaChaix, assured us that all would be completed quickly and efficiently, and work continued after we moved in, albeit at a decidedly summer-in-Provence pace. At the end of the summer, as our landlord was closing up his house and preparing to drive back to Paris, he told me not to worry. Instead of having Olivier finish all the work inside the house, the landlord's own favorite carpenter, M. Duc, would be coming. From Paris. For a week, in October, to finish all the odds and ends.

The local equipe greeted this news with much rolling of eyes and shaking of heads. He has to have a carpenter from Paris, you know, because of course we don't have any carpenters around here, said the gardener at the villa below us. From Paris? Un menusier Parisian? Violette stopped just short of spitting. C'est typique. Luigi, the Italian man who comes to help Olivier sometimes, sighed and shrugged. Parisians like Parisians, he said, in his Italian-accented French. And Olivier shook his head. C'est ca, c'est M. LaChaix. The work that M. Duc from Paris was to do for us was not complicated or involved or even particularly skilled--there was some sanding to be done here and there, a couple of missing screws to put in, a trap door to fit. Nothing that could not have been done by Olivier, or Luigi, or any of their friends and colleagues in the village. But, the Parisian menuisier it was to be.

Before he took the autoroute for Paris, M. LaChaix came down the hill for a final look over the house. He took me and Olivier down to the basement and pointed to a heap of old kitchen cabinetry in the corner. This, he showed us, this was going to become shelving for my laundry room. He directed Olivier to help him sort the cabinets out, talking the whole dusty time about how the cabinets could be placed, arranged against the wall, to help me put--and here he glanced pointedly at the detritus of our moving--everything in order. M. Duc would do it; he would understand exactly how it was all to be done. The cabinets were old, but they still had a lot of use left in them.

Olivier leaned over to me, unnoticed by M. LaChaix, who was in full voice on the subject of arranging the cabinets, and said in perfect English, These are good for firewood.

Eventually, after a lot of phone calls from M. LaChaix in Paris, the day came when the menusier was to arrive. The night before, I had a long conversation on the phone with our landlord, and we made a list together of what M. Duc's priorities would be. He was driving down from Paris with his apprentice, and would be at our house the next morning at 8:00.

And he was. M. Duc is approaching 50, with thick grey hair and an impressive moustache, and the beginnings of a serious paunch. When he came into our kitchen, his pants were held up by a length of cord looped through the beltloops. The apprentice, Mathieu, was skinny in the way that only 20-year-olds with a heavy dose of attitude and multiple body piercings can be.

I took out my list and began to go over it with M. Duc. He nodded, puzzled, and I continued, using my best French, trying to make myself understood. But no, language was not the problem. After I continued for a few minutes, M. Duc stopped me. "C'est M. LaChaix qui me dirige, Madame. It is M. LaChaix who is telling me what to do, Madame."

I retreated behind southern graciousness and left him to his business. Later on in the day, I saw Luigi and Olivier outside, working on the mysterious septic pipes. We compared notes on the Parisien arrivals, and I allowed as how I had been put in my place. There was some shrugging and rolling of eyes--no accounting for foreign manners, and for once I was not the foreigner under discussion--and we went on to talk of other things. When the locals turned and knelt back down on the terrace to put their heads in the septic pipes, I thanked them for working on the septic. It's not a pleasant job, and they were at it day after day, resigned but cheerful. Olivier popped his head back up. He grinned. "C'est M. LaChaix qui nous dirige. It's M. LaChaix who tells us what to do."

The week progressed slowly, as M. Duc and Mathieu unloaded an entire carpentry workshop from the hatchback of their Peugeot and set it up on our back terrace. The temperature hit 65, and Mathieu took his shirt off, affording all of us the opportunity to wonder how exactly one decides to have the back of one's neck pierced, and the opportunity to hope that Mathieu's hips, skinny as they were, would be sufficient to hold up his low-slung, baggy blue jeans. The knot in the cord holding up M. Duc's pants held, and, after a few days, he even managed to be somewhat friendly to me, in a distant, cool sort of way. I suppose that if you pay a carpenter from Paris to install second- or third-hand cabinetry in Provence for a week, some hauteur comes with the territory. I coped with the attitude and the hauteur and the sawdust pretty well, thinking about the end result: cabinets, such as they were, installed in the basement, fewer loose doorknobs, and, ultimately, the hatchback gone back to Paris.

Wendy never warmed to M. Duc, though. She detested him on sight, and still detested him five days later when he was packing up to go. Luigi and I were in the kitchen with Wendy when M. Duc came in. Wendy barked her best GO AWAY NOW bark and retreated under the table.

Elle ne vous aime pas, Monsieur, I said. She doesn't like you.

Mais non! Dogs always like me, see? M. Roy went towards Wendy and made vaguely soothing sounds. She barked louder and finished off with a growl.

Non, Monsieur, c'est vous. Elle ne vous aime pas. I shook my head and smiled. No, it's you. She doesn't like you.

Luigi, always softspoken, looked up from his sanding and smiled. Elle n'aime pas les Parisiens.

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