Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Boîte aux lettres

French mailboxes--at least some of them--have two slots. One slot is for local mail; the other slot is marked simply Autres Destinations, other destinations. If your mail isn't going to the local region--in our case, the Alpes-Maritimes--then it doesn't matter whether it's going to Addis Ababa or Akron or Arles. It goes in the second slot.

I love the two slot mailbox. It is so French: at once so efficient--pre-sorting the mail, as it were--and so fussy, demanding just a little extra attention on the part of the mailer. And then there's what it has to say about the importance of the local, the classification of where you are standing at this moment, where you live, versus other places. The French are people of place, and many stay in the same place not just for a lifetime but for generations. The names you see on village war monuments, from wars a century ago, are the same names you see on store fronts today. There's a sense of locality that has had centuries to develop. Either you're from a place, of a place, or you're not. Either your mail is local, or it's not. Addis Ababa or Arles: what does it matter which? Neither place is here.

I'm an inveterate purchaser of post cards. Everywhere we go, I choose a few with particular people in mind. I'm a less inveterate sender of post cards. We get home and they go on my desk, and then the stamps, if there are any, are downstairs, or I can't find the right address book, and before long the cards are buried in the paper drifts. I've uncovered several recently, in the Moving Process, and, since I've also found a cache of stamps and--imagine--my various address books (I keep intending to consolidate them), I've been catching up on my post card correspondence.

Which is what brought me to our local post office the other day. I went to put my cards in the Autres Destinations slot, as all of them were addressed to different time zones. Then I looked again.

A local wag had painted over the last two syllables of destinations and replaced them with an s, turning Autres Destinations into Autres Destins. Other destinies.

Well, it brought me up short. What is the relationship between destination--where you're going--and destiny--where your fate leads you? And are destiny and destination ever one and the same? We thought they might be: we thought that this destination--weather, beauty, history, food--could be our destiny. We thought we might stay, become permanent foreigners. Maybe destiny, or maybe just forces greater than we were--or maybe a little of both--leaned hard on our decision, and here I sit with the dogs, in an empty house, listening to the drone of the cicadas and thinking about where I'll be a few days from now.

We'll go--as I think I've told you--to my mother's house, to a place where you could pitch a ham biscuit in any direction and hit someone who was kin to me either by blood or history. And a few weeks later we'll go to Washington. Our current destination is home. It turns out that La Bastiole was a destination, and a good one, a happy one, but not our destiny. At least not for now. As for destiny: if it could be that we are together, and that we see our girls grow into strong and happy women, and if we could live in a place with good baguettes, above average Thai food, and fresh sweet corn in July, with a good bookstore and movie theater and--don't forget this one--people who share our stories and can remind us of them when we forget, well, let's just say we could do a lot worse.

Our time here has been a wonder, and now we've come to the end. We're closing the gates to La Bastiole--the portail secret, of course, but also the legal gate--and driving off down the hill. You've been good traveling companions; thanks for making La Bastiole one of your destinations. I don't know whether I'll have more stories for you once we reach the New World. I do know that this is the end for now.

As the child of an English teacher, I have bits of poetry that jingle round my mind. I can't remember phone numbers, bank codes, or passwords, but a line from a poem will lodge in my head for days. These last few days it's been T.S. Eliot, one of poetry's wettest blankets, but with what an ear for language. The end is where we start from, he said.

So here we go.

Monday, July 13, 2009


We were invited for dinner at 7.30. Our hosts were English, so we knew that the expectation was that we would in fact arrive in the vicinity of that time; had they been French, we would have been expected an hour later. Culture is a subtle creature. It was, anyway, coming on to half seven and we were driving down the local départementale, a road big enough to have a white line down the center, but small enough to be lined by high stone walls. It was about to storm. A motorcycle came around us as we went into a curve, and the car that was approaching in the opposite lane flashed its lights. A reasonable enough response, we thought, to the moto.

But it wasn’t because of the moto that the car had flashed its light, as we saw a moment later. It was because of the miniature Pekingese that was trotting towards us in our lane.

Stop the car, we have to pick up that dog, I said.

C put on the brakes. He didn’t pull over because there was only wall beside the road. I can’t just stop here in the middle of the road.

Put on the hazards, I said, and opened my door. Viens, chien, I said. I’ve learned that French dogs, like French people, appreciate it when you make the effort.

The dog stopped, turned, and trotted up to me. I scooped it up into my lap and closed the car door. Okay, he’s in.

Does he have a collar? He turned off the hazard lights.

The dog wore no collar. His fur was dirty white and matted, and one eye was white with blindness. He sat in my lap panting. I cooed at him.

We’re going to be late. We can’t take that dog with us to dinner.

It was not the first time in our life together that C has had to organize the fallout from my spontaneous acts of helpfulness. One time he spent an anxious half an hour parked in the side yard of a dairy farm on a country road in California. A few miles earlier, we’d passed a large Holstein standing on the side of the road. She’d gotten out of the pasture where we could see her sisters still placidly chewing their cud. A cow in the road is a danger not just to herself but to anyone who happens along, so when we came to the closest farm, I wanted C to pull over so I could go tell the farmers that the cow was out. Then—when I couldn’t raise anyone in the farmhouse—I went round the barns, and, out back, found a trailer with a Spanish-speaking mother and children in it. The men were all off working in the fields, so I spent a pleasant twenty minutes drawing a picture of a cow and a broken fence. C and the girls, who were not yet one, stayed in the car, the girls sleeping and C trying to decide whether to stay with his children or go and save his wife from bloodthristy dairymen. When I came back to the car, he asked me in a steely voice never to do that again. When I explained about the language, and how it took some time to find a pencil and paper, and how the older boy was learning English in school, he was unmoved.

So the other night when he said we could not bring the matted Peke to dinner and what did I propose doing now I tried to think fast. I looked up and saw the bakery. Let’s go and ask Gilbert what to do, I said. He’ll know what to do with a stray dog.

No he won’t. Why would Gilbert know anything about stray dogs? But C turned off the road anyway, and we parked. Gilbert and his wife—or, rather, his companion; they’re not married—work in the local bakery and befriended us early on. Since then he and Blanche have been among our best sources of information and help.

When we got close enough we saw that the boulangerie was closed. Two of the young women who work there were walking away. Dog in my arms, I approached them.

Excusez-moi, mesdames, but we’ve just found this dog in the street. Not much for an opening gambit, but it was all I had.

They gave me the look that people give crazy strangers carrying dirty dogs the world over. Then they recognized me. Their faces went from ignore the crazy lady to let’s save the Peke in an instant.

C, meanwhile, was hovering in the background, torn between calling our hosts to explain why we were going to be late and helping me explain the situation to the bakery ladies.

Then one of the boulangères—really, barely more than a girl; 18 or 19 at the most—recognized the dog.

I think that’s my neighbors’ dog, she said. I’ll call maman and get their phone number.

It seemed too good to be true. I had been working out how we were going to introduce a blind, old, shedding French dog to Alice and Wendy, who are neither blind nor old nor do they lose their fur. Would we be able to take it out of the country with us on such short notice? What about our red couch?

C went to one side to call our friends while the fille du boulangerie called her mother. After a little conversation, she turned to the dog and said: Tequila!

The dog pointed its ears and looked at her.

It was the neighbors’dog.

Then she called the neighbors. There was no one home. We talked about what to do. The young woman explained to us where she lived, and we realized that she was a neighbor of Gilbert and Blanche. Well then, I’ll call Gilbert and he can tell us if the neighbors are home, C offered. We have great faith in our baker friend.

Mais non, came the reply. Gilbert et Blanche ne sont pas chez eux ce soir. They’re not home tonight. There was not even a hint of surprise that this couple who spoke such accented French would have (as we learned later) her uncle’s number programmed into his phone.

In the end, we followed the two boulangères back up the road down which we had already come, and turned off into the side street where Gilbert and Blanche and all their family live. The young women stopped a boy on a scooter who turned out to be the neighbors’ son. A set of gates opened and a large berger allemand came out to sniff around the car, followed closely by a teenage boy. Do you speak English? was the first thing he said, and the second, That’s our dog.

We asked if it were safe to open the car door. The German Shepherd looked fierce, and, although I’ll pick up stray dogs in the street without giving it a thought, I’m not a complete fool.

Oh he’s fine, don’t worry, said the boy, as he hurried around to my side of the car.

I opened my door. The dogs touched noses, and the Peke jumped out. All three went back in the house.

We were only a little late for supper—late by English standards, still early by French—and we had a good story. It wasn’t so much a story about getting the stray home safely. It was a story, our friends pointed out, about village life. All those conversations over the purchase of a daily baguette bought us more than bread. They bought us—gave us—a place in the community, made us, if not local, then at least into known strangers, strangers who were a little less strange. Who you would not be surprised to learn had your aunt and uncle’s phone number on speed dial.