by Pamela Cordell Avis
A modern tale of metamorphosis.
I was at one of life’s crossroads, you know, the kind that either can or cannot divert you to a journey down an untraveled road. To move from L.A. to a tiny farming village in France was not an option, it was not even an idea. It often happens, however, that the things we don’t plan are more likely than those we do, and the smallest, most insignificant event, can open up a path where there was none before. In this case, it was a detour on the way back from the supermarket. I was in France at the time visiting an American friend-turned-Parisian at her house in the country. Our shopping out of the way, we drove through a village she thought I’d like to see—an ordinary sort of meander on a lazy summer afternoon. It was indeed a pretty village, but it was so small we were in and out of it in less than two minutes. As we made a sharp right turn at the end of the Grande Rue and rolled out onto the narrow country road, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a For Sale sign.
Once back home, I found myself talking to my friends about the house. I hadn’t even liked it when I went to see it, a quick cursory look and I was off, but somehow it had entered the back of my mind and stuck there. One day I called the real estate agent—let’s just see where this goes, I said to myself without much conviction. It would be a miracle of biblical proportions if the French gave me a mortgage and only divine intervention would persuade my employer to let me work in France. I had no experience with miracles, divine intervention, or, for that matter, even exceptional luck.
It’s the surprises that change our lives. The mortgage got itself arranged by fax, as did arrangements with the seller with respect to certain pieces of furniture that were too big and too heavy to be moved. Eda, my friend who’d shown me the village in the first place, signed the closing papers as my proxy, and I moved to St. Aubin in time to put up a Christmas tree. The stay would be short, I was due back in L.A. after the holidays—the deal with my employer was that I would show up regularly to meet deadlines and see to it that everything was actually printed and out the door before leaving again. Instead of using the Santa Monica Freeway to get to work, I would be using international airlines. Mortgage payments and consolidator flights, I figured, added up to about the same cost as an L.A. apartment. I’m not absolutely sure of that calculation, but that’s the way it looked in rough on a yellow pad. In any case, it was close enough. I’d lived in France before, and its call to me was always there, like an undertow. I could make it work, I reassured myself, and, as I would be pinching pennies most anywhere, better to do it in a country where even the most modest of restaurants serve three courses and the wine is cheap.
On New Year’s Eve a neighbor appeared. It was dark as the edge of space outside and raining. My house, an old farmhouse of fieldstone, sat behind a high wall, just like all the others on the Grande Rue. That somebody was inside the wall and outside my house was signaled by a shrill, off-pitch sound that sent currents of ice water through my arms and legs. I stopped what I was doing and stood still, not daring to move. It came again, and again. Then with a flash the lights went on outside in the courtyard, my front door flew open with the force of storm wind, and a man walked in.
“Bonsoir,” he called at the top of his voice.
I had moved into the hall at the top of the stairs, my hands holding tightly to the railing as I looked down at him. “Bonsoir,” I replied tentatively, not sure whether he should be welcomed or not.
“You didn’t answer your doorbell.”
I decided to go downstairs and have a better look at him. Offering my hand, I spoke the truth, “I didn’t know I had a doorbell.”
Raymond introduced himself as my neighbor and thrust a bottle of excellent champagne at me. He began to say something about a woman alone on New Year’s Eve, but broke off in mid-sentence to bend over and sneeze explosively, twice, into a pressed white handkerchief. “I’m sorry I can’t stay longer,” he wheezed, “I have a very bad cold.” With that he was gone, and I didn’t see him, or anybody else, until I returned in the spring.
It was the first day of May when I next landed in Paris, picked up a rental car and headed south—direction Joigny-Auxerre. My mood was very much different this time. I’d had time to get used to what I’d done. This was now home. The car windows were down, the air smelled like France, and I was exhilarated by life. When I turned off the autoroute and picked up the country road that led to St. Aubin, I was greeted by an amazing expanse of yellow. All the way to my tiny perched village, the gently rolling hills were patched with geometrically shaped fields of bright yellow flowers, their borders separated by rows of tall dark evergreens and lush shrubs. It was the most stunning thing I’d ever seen in my life.
It wasn’t very long before I met Philomen and Baucis. In fact, it was probably longer than you would expect, as they could not be missed, but I was discovering there was a lot more to the house and the land I’d bought than I had realized. The house was huge, and I had thought it small. Around the corner from one of the stables, I found a small garden, and one morning while chatting with a neighbor, whose name I learned was Marie-Thérèse, I mentioned that I might put in some tomato plants. After lunch a tall man showed up with a basket of plants and a hand plow. He introduced himself as Jean, the husband of Marie-Thérèse, and said he was there to turn the soil of my garden. When he was finished he asked me if I liked the view from the orchard. We opened the little garden gate and walked out on the slope. From there we could see the entire valley and its geometric shapes of color, crops that had already rotated to another hue and grain since my arrival through fields of startling spring yellow. In the orchard, Jean pointed out which trees were cherries, which were pears, apples, and walnuts. He then spoke of how I should care for them. I looked around the orchard and then at him, “Is this part of my property?”
A single-lane road ran along the side of my house and my orchard, and dead-ended at an old cemetery. In front of the cemetery wall were two enormous trees. One was a linden and the other an oak. They were very old, even ancient, and as they had grown over the years they had begun to lean toward each other, tangling their branches in such an intimate way that I thought of Philomen and Baucis the first minute I saw them.
Philomen and Baucis are the devoted couple from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, generous farmers who offered hospitality to strangers, two men who happened to be gods in disguise. The gods rewarded them by granting their wish to be together for eternity, thus morphing them into oak and linden that would forever live side by side.
Two travelers once, it is said, appeared in modest disguises that hid their glory, for Jove and Mercury were the two. They knocked on door after door seeking a bed for the night, but over and over again were turned away. In the end, in one they found a welcome—
The villagers welcomed me in thoroughly surprising ways. To use a French term, they embraced me. I met them all at once (we were 480 at peak season, which is to say when the Parisians were in residence) at the Feu de Saint Jean, an annual big deal, which, near as I could tell, was a community outdoor cookout to celebrate the first day of summer. Raymond, Marie-Thérèse, Jean, and I would walk down to the plain below where the commune had bought an old mill and its grounds for occasions such as this. It began more or less as I expected, but after we’d eaten the grilled this and that (sometimes it is better not to be specific), drunk quite a few bottles of local burgundy, and it had grown quite dark, some men fired a haystack which was big as a barn. Lighting a fire outdoors, of any sort, can be a terrifying sight to someone from Southern California, but these people seemed to know what they were doing. As the flames roared to the sky we all—men, women, children, and the American—got up to hold hands and dance in a circle around the fire. This was a pagan ceremony old as the time man first stood up straight and recognized the summer solstice. And in St. Aubin, generation after generation had passed down the secret of staying upright on treacherously slippery grass as the dance gained momentum. It got faster and faster as the circle changed direction, and then again, and again. The villagers held securely to my hands, then my wrists, then my arms, and I to theirs.
By mid-summer my failed efforts at gardening had become evident. Maybe too much water, maybe too little. It turned out that it didn’t matter at all because every time I went out someone thrust a bowl of strawberries at me, a bag of tomatoes and cucumbers, or a dozen ears of corn. Also, I was often invited to lunch, feasts that progressed through course after course, rituals that lasted for hours and were accompanied by bottles of wine that never seemed to be empty. Is it any wonder that I began to see Philomen and Baucis, known since antiquity for their generosity, as symbols of St. Aubin?
Baucis set out a plate of olives, green ones and black, and a saucer of cherry plums she had pickled, and an endive and radish salad. She had cheese and some roasted eggs…
Baucis served her cabbage and pork stew. For dessert there were nuts, figs, dates, and plums, and baskets of ripe apples and grapes…
When Philomen went to refill the wine bowl,
He picked it up but felt that it wasn’t empty. Instead, as much as they drank, the wine had replenished itself, and the bowl was as full as before.
There was no way I could reciprocate such generosity. I couldn’t even give my neighbors fruit because everybody else had orchards too. My orchard had turned out to be a big producer, and a big pain. I couldn’t keep up with the picking, the eating, or the preserving, and overnight the grass had grown high as an elephant’s eye. It was a village eyesore, but I was in no mood to go out there with a scythe, nor did I want to pay somebody to tackle it with a tractor—we’re talking a couple of acres.
Nothing went unnoticed at St. Aubin, and anything that happened at my house spread like wildfire: by telephone, over the fence, and among the women who lined up every morning for their baguettes. The American, as I was known to most, was a source of intense curiosity. This I knew from Raymond. He was quite a well-known singer who traveled the world but had a solid foot in the country and understood the mind-set of the neighbors far better than I did. He also had a wacky sense of humor and delighted in telling me what others were saying about me. (Clearly he would only know if he had participated in the gossiping!) Just because they had embraced me didn’t mean I was immune to criticism.
When I first moved in several households devoted their late afternoons to watching reruns of 2000 Malibu Road on television, which went against me in some circles. Most people in the village had not seen foreigners since the German occupation of France during the Second World War, and as far as Americans were concerned, nobody could remember ever wanting to know one. Down below, a farmer’s daughter, who was mute and heavily pregnant (the father, a young itinerant with curly red hair, spent his afternoons on a wooden bench in front of their farmhouse eating raw onions as if they were apples), went so far as to sign to the postmistress that The American was going to turn her house into a hotel. What’s more, it would have a flashing neon sign in front. And one day when I was shopping at the open market in the next village over, a woman dressed in black and bent with age—widows of the war still dress in mourning—approached me with, “Ah, so you are The American.” When I confirmed it, she said she hadn’t seen me in church, and when I told her I was Protestant, she replied with, “Alors, on est Chrétien ici.” Well, we’re Christian here. I simply let it pass. My ancestors were French Huguenots—heretics to some, victims to others. I thought to bring that up would only make things worse. None of the gossiping, or even the confrontations, were mean-spirited, it was just the way it was. After all, I—a foreign woman living by herself—was the odd one.
It is hard to say how many people discussed the condition of my orchard before I had a visit from a couple I hadn’t yet met. They came in a pickup with five young sons, who spread out in as many directions to explore everything hidden behind a closed door above ground and below. The couple asked if I would like to have a pair of donkeys in my orchard. They would eat the grass and keep me company.
No donkeys had appeared before I left for California. The snow had taken care of the grass problem. When I returned in May, a pair of donkeys was there, along with a foal. The baby donkey was only marginally younger than the yellow Lab I’d just let out of the car. My puppy was already known as Lincoln. He’d been given to me when he was barely nine weeks old. I could have refused him, but I didn’t. I picked him up, held him near, he kissed me on the cheek, I kissed him on the top of his small head, and that was that. We boarded a plane together the day he turned three months and was entitled to travel papers. By bringing a dog to live at St. Aubin I knew I’d crossed a bridge that I hadn’t yet come to. It was a bit like buying the house—I’d first do it and then figure out how to make it work.
The news that Philomen and Baucis might be cut down reached me on my first day home. It struck like a thunderbolt. These beautiful old trees had been planted as seedlings in front of the stone wall that enclosed the cemetery at about the same time the ground was consecrated. It was under their budding leaves that my neighbors paused to take in the breathtaking expanses of yellow colza in the fields below the village, announcing the arrival of spring. In deep summer, their shade cooled the footpath, and people sat there on the wooden bench to chat while watching tractors cut through the tall wheat. Even when autumn rains began the change and when snow fell, people took their dogs up there, to pause and to reflect on the meaning of life. It was the most hospitable place in the village to admire the changing seasons, and no one ever, ever went there without feeling the presence of its ancient sentinels. However, the roots of Philomen and Baucis had grown too long and spread too far. They were rattling the bones of the dead.
As the cutting-down process was not yet definite, I quickly became distracted by the imminent arrival of my car. I didn’t yet know what kind it might be or even what color it was. Eda, my resourceful American friend-turned-Parisian, had found it for me. I’d sent a check, and voilá—instant car owner. No more expensive rentals. It was being driven down from Paris by Anne, Eda’s daughter and my favorite young lady of all time. I’d known her since she was two, when I was a struggling (read perpetual house sitter) artist and she kept me company in the atelier that belonged to her parents. This night she would stay to meet Lincoln, and the donkeys.
Anne was the first of what would be a procession of houseguests. I’d acquired certain necessities like furniture, plates, knives and forks, wine glasses and picnic baskets—that sort of thing. Marie-Thérèse had given me bed linens—the kind that float over your body like a cloud—from her own trousseau and her grandmother’s. They’d been packed away for years as too good to be used, only to be deemed as utterly useless by her daughters who wanted only polyester blends. I was thrilled. My houseguests were varied and many. Several old boyfriends showed up, and one old husband. Some people I didn’t know—an overflow from Eda’s house. Then came a woman, the friend of a friend who was the clandestine friend of a female friend who would be horrified to know that I’d met this woman (these things do happen), and just about everybody I knew in Los Angeles plus some from London, and some new friends from Paris. I love people, especially those I know, and they wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t invited them, but I soon realized that a lunch, drinks, or dinner relationship is much different from a visit by a fish out of water. There were those who couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t sleep, because it was too quiet. Others were speechless to learn that there was no air conditioning in my little second-hand French car and cranky the same evening when the house turned chilly and they had to go find a sweater (cranky, because they wanted me to close the windows and turn on the heat), and others were outraged that the part-time employee in the post office didn’t speak English. Some never picked up the rhythm of the house or of the place: they ate breakfast at nearly noon and wanted to go out to eat in the late afternoon, even though there are virtually no restaurants in the French countryside that serve lunch after two, which meant that after emptying the refrigerator they were not hungry again until after all the restaurants had long since finished taking evening sitters. Grocery stores closed at noon, didn’t open again until four, and closed again at seven. These hours absolutely flummoxed people who were used to 24/7. France has a lot of rules that have been embedded in the culture for a very long time, and they have a lot of attitudes that do not graciously accommodate people who do not think—and eat—like the French. Those travelers who don’t believe it, or think a smile will get them into a restaurant after closing hours, are wrong. Those people grow to hate France, and unfortunately some of them were my friends.
The year-of-the-houseguest resulted in an inevitable thinning out of friends and acquaintances. It also marked a change in me. All the griping had pushed me solidly into the French camp. Between visits I’d often sit on the veranda in the evening (wearing a sweater) and sip a glass of wine while trying to figure out what it was about this place that I liked so much. It was beautiful, but lots of places are beautiful. I’d left one of them to come live here. At first it had been the nineteenth-century character of the village. Virtually nothing had changed since then, and I found living in another century a riveting experience. Also, I loved the challenge of functioning in another language. As I got used to the time warp and as my French got better, I became part of the weave. The small friendships of village life became numerous and more important. Most of the early frustrations—like the orchard—had been resolved. The family that came twice a day to feed the donkeys was also picking the fruit and delivering it to the mobile distiller who came every once in a while and set himself up in front of the church on the main square. There, aided by volunteer tasters, he produced barrels of liquid lightning. While the village was literally in the middle of nowhere, I was by no means isolated. Within an easy thirty minute drive I could cast my eyes over a ridge of medieval fortified castles and their pastoral grounds where fat white sheep graze when the grass is at its greenest, listen to Gregorian chants in the Cistercian abbey at Pontigny or hear Bach in the basilica courtyard at Vézelay. More towns than not were ancient works of art, and it was there in the midst of living museums that I bought lipstick and new shoes, shopped for food, and went to first-run American movies. At home, the braying of donkeys got me out of bed with the sunrise (they wanted carrots), and, after a stand-up breakfast of French roast and local croissant that heaped shame on Starbucks, I could step into a state-of-the-art office that instantly connected me with the outside world. Of course I couldn’t use any of that modern technology at midday because everybody was cooking lunch and there was not enough electric power to go around. If that got to me, Paris was an hour and a half away.
When the ultimatum came—and I knew it would—to spend more time in the Los Angeles office, I bit the bullet. I’d felt it coming when I accepted Lincoln. I knew he would grow too big to travel back and forth, and I knew I would never leave him in a kennel for months at a time. The bullet was a tough one. Residence permits for foreigners are only for those who can prove that their income is earned outside of France. Work permits for non-Europeans are rarer than McDonald’s. There was no way around it. I’d always said a writer could live anywhere in the world. It was time to test the theory.
I managed to stay there, in St. Aubin, for a little over ten years. I never got tired of it, and when I left it broke my heart.
In the end Philomen and Baucis were cut down. The villagers and farmers took it far better than I did—they, of course, were on more intimate terms with nature’s life cycles than I could ever hope to be. Just as Philomen and Baucis bid a poignant final farewell to each other when the gods transformed them into trees, I began saying farewell to my friends and neighbors while preparing to transform myself back into an American. Lincoln, at ninety-two pounds, would travel in an airline cage the size of a studio apartment and Gatsby in the cabin with me. Gatsby had appeared on a soft June morning in the rafters above the veranda. One of six tiny kittens, he was the issue of a cat that visited regularly to eat, but not for a caress. Shortly after the morning debut, the mother cat walked five of her litter across the roof, never to return, and left Gatsby behind. There was nothing wrong, no reason to abandon him—he was clearly a parting gift.
Returning to the States was a decision whose time had come; the problem was deciding where. I was exploring cities on the internet like a holiday traveler trawls airfares and becoming more befuddled with each day. Again, it is the surprises that change our lives. One day when having lunch with an American artist who lived close to Paris, and whom I had not seen for a very long time, I learned she had a house for rent in a small American town. “Stonington?” I asked. “Where’s that?”
Pamela Cordell Avis was born in Colorado and has since lived in many places. Once having finished her undergraduate work in art history and studio art, she painted in Provence until she was hired during a Cannes Film Festival to market feature films, which took her to New York, then Los Angeles, and then all over the world. Later, while living in St. Aubin, the subject of this story, she discovered a film in a neighbor’s attic, which sent her back to school to get a graduate degree in Holocaust Studies. She is currently writing a book about the hero whose story was hidden in that attic. “Philomen and Baucis” won the Grand Prize Bronze Award in the Second Annual Solas Awards..
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.