Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Jules is here for the week. He and Madame have come down from Paris to escape the cold and to look after some work that Jules is having done in our garden. He's often having work done in our garden. His pattern is: begin a project; change his mind midway through the project about what he wants the men he's hired to do; decide the project is too expensive or the workers are too expensive or the weather is too bad or he doesn't have the proper permits; pile the project debris in the corner of the garden; wait one month and begin again.

This week's projects include finishing the pool house, finishing the stone wall, fence, and hedge at the bottom of the garden, and redirecting the drainage from the house around an olive tree. Four men, more or less full time, one small- and one medium-sized backhoe, a couple of large trucks, a brouette méchanique, which is a motorized wheelbarrow, do we have those in America? --and Jules, helping. Helping looks like this: Jules in his oiled canvas coat, green wellies, slouch hat, corduroys, old Façonnable shirt, and work gloves, telling the ouvriers where to dig the trench and non non non non! attend attend attend! wait wait wait! you have to be careful, mon dieu, watch what you're doing there, you'll screw up the whole thing. Arms wave. Hands wring.

It's not easy working for Jules. Eventually everyone whom he hires talks to me about it. Olivier and I made friends over the fact that we both had to put up with Jules; at the end of last summer, though, Olivier had had enough after 15 years of being told that he was heavy, lazy, and slow--Jules' standard characterization--and took himself off. The current set of workers are new to me, though not to Jules, and we are still sussing each other out.

One of the 35 olive trees in the garden died about six months ago. At least, to the unschooled, non-Julesian eye, it looks dead. No leaves, brittle branches, but what do I know? Maybe olive trees routinely resurrect themselves. Jules spent a good deal of time messing about with it last summer, when it was perhaps dying and not yet manifestly dead. He sprayed it with various poisons. He dug a low trench around it. He had the ouvrier who owns the small backhoe, M. Loglie, dig a meter-deep and foot-wide trench leading down the hill, away from the tree, because Jules had decided that the problem was the tree was getting too much water.

I found M. Loglie standing in the trench one day, with Jules shouting into his cell phone nearby. When I raised my eyebrows at M. Loglie, he grinned. This is how we work here. We do a job, then we undo, then we do it again. C'est un vrai cirque. It's a real circus.

The trench didn't help, and while Jules was here over Christmas, he spent a couple of afternoons circling the (now clearly) dead tree. I lurked in the kitchen. If he sees me, that's at least half an hour gone. He was hatching a plan, and this week, he has carried it out.

First, M. Loglie, his son, and their friends dug a large trench from the side of the house near the olive tree, the olivier, to the edge of the garden. Huge piles of thick mud; you may have heard that there's been some rain in France recently. Jules walked back and forth along the trench in his country squire outfit, directing. More there, less here, what are you doing, non non non not like that. When he was distracted, I slipped out to go to the grocery store.

When I came back, the olive tree was laying on its side, dug up. Oh, I thought, how sensible. He's given up on the dead tree, and dug it up so we won't have a stump.

I was out hiking all day yesterday. The girls and I came home after the ouvriers had left for the day and Jules had gone back up the terraces to Madame and his scotch. I noticed when I came in that the trench had been filled in and the mud distributed more or less evenly around it. Then, walking back and forth in the kitchen--mail, groceries, answering machine, dogs--I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

It was the olivier, replanted. In the same spot, but, if you looked closely and remembered well--if you had, in fact, spent some time walking around the tree and listening to a discourse in rapid French on whether or not the tree was dead--you would notice that the tree was planted less deeply. More of the trunk was exposed, a good six inches more. Other than that, same dead tree, same spot. It was like a Steven Wright joke: someone dug up the tree in my garden and replanted it in the same place.

An hour or so ago, I saw M. Loglie's son when he came back to work after lunch. Ça va? he said.

Ça va, ça va, I replied. No rain today.

Non, non, il fait beau. We both looked up at the blue sky.

And, I said, no trees to replant today?

He met my eye then, and twinkled. Not yet, he said. But you never know. Maybe this afternoon.

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