by Ethel Foladare Mussen
An octogenarian traveler in France relives the days.
Pierre and Martine Eisenlohr embraced me twice each and motioned me toward a table facing the bar and just outside the very crowded dining room. “Dinner? Bon! We’ve added a terrasse, and tonight we have music in the bar. Jazz!” Before I could sit down, Pierre pulled me toward the bar. “You remember my daughter Aurelie?” I nodded though I barely recognized the busy young woman setting out the dessert table just beyond us. He gestured toward a tall young African behind the bar. “Her husband! They were married last year.” I smiled and murmured my congratulations.
For me Aurelie would be forever the little dark-haired girl whose communion I’d attended 15 or more years ago in company with the rest of the village and the other children also celebrating their communion. It was a shock for me to accept this hard-working, dread-locked person as Aurelie’s husband. Later, I watched them both pursuing their duties as waitress and bartender to the busy clientele and saw them assuming their roles as active partners to her parents. But I was disappointed for them. I would have preferred one of the many lean, clean hikers who swept through Moustiers. But she had met Moustafa and her parents obviously stood behind her choice. I could not ask them how they felt, since it would only betray my own disappointment and possible racism.
As usual on my arrival in Moustiers I was tired from the drive and had no provisions in the little studio that the Bondils often let me use. This year was my eleventh visit over a twenty-one year span. Each stay had continued and enlarged my friendships with the potters, their families, and the other fonctionnaires of the village. Last year, the studio was taken and I’d stayed again at Le Relais—Pierre and Martine’s hotel—for the few days I visited. This time the Bondils made sure that I knew the studio was mine and begged me to stay for months if I wanted. It mattered not. I ate first night with the Eisenlohrs at their hotel. The menu was different and I learned that they had a new chef. Instead of the multilingual young men studying hotel management of the previous year, there were new girls, including Aurelie and one serious young man. Everyone was scurrying to meet the needs of the fully occupied dining rooms, including the area behind me, and the chef and his two assistants in the tiny kitchen were busily filling orders.
Pierre and Martine did not look older this year so much as worn and tired. Martine’s slightly sunken dark eyes had deeper circles beneath them. Pierre’s cheeks just began to be creased and his hair was grayer. Clearly at the height of the season the hotel was fully occupied and a dining terrace had been added, but extra summer help was always hard to find and there were more people to be served from the casual drop-ins as well as hotel guests and regulars. Martine had been born in her father’s small inn and made her husband—an outsider from “l’exterieur”—into a modern Moustierien hotelier. Now Aurélie introduced her soft-spoken Senegalese into the family business at a time when other restaurants, auberges, inns, gites, and the formidable Alain Ducasse offered competing rooms and cuisines in the same community.
I would find the same multigenerational pattern in the ateliers and boutiques as the young children I had first known grew up, entered the businesses, and fathered their own children. All of them competed in a short season for the same bodies that jostled through the narrow streets and shopped by day and ate, drank, and slept at night.
Now for Bastille Day, the village was absolutely crammed with tourists, including those who were patrons of the hotel, and before the diners were finished, the bar began to fill with patrons coming for drinks or glaces and waiting for the show. To my right, a slightly rotund black man wearing a black fedora hat finished his dinner at the family table near the kitchen in company with a lean-cheeked pony-tailed man who turned out to be the keyboard player. Both men wore loose, flowered short-sleeved shirts consistent with the heat and humidity of the evening. At exactly nine p.m., as advertised on the yellow circulars mounted around town, Peter Oumi hummed his rich baritone into the microphone, shoved his hat back, and as Christian settled at the keyboard, the music began.
The repertoire was an homage to many of the black American singers, Nat Cole, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, with a few Sinatra swing ballads thrown in for good measure. Scattered throughout were some French rhythm and blues, and occasional songs of displaced Frenchmen longing for their hometowns. The audience grew, as diners finished and moved from the dining rooms to the bar side to listen. We all swayed and clapped and joined in, sotto voce so as not to disturb the easy flow of Oumi’s delivery. There were no breaks; the music continued.
Although he proved to be French, the singer’s diction was so American, the repertoire so typical of piano bars, I was transported to my first experience in a Los Angeles bar near the Ambassador Hotel, watching Nat King Cole and his Trio bursting on the scene. Before his signature “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa” in fact, “There was a boy….” And dancing at the Palomar when young Blue Eyes fronted the Tommy Dorsey band and we girls could hardly dance for swooning. The easy swing made me suddenly nostalgic for the distant years when those now dead performers and I were equally young. Although I smiled, I felt my throat tighten and catch at the memory.
About midway through the set, a blond woman who’d been sitting behind me rose and went behind the bar, beyond Moustafa. A few moments later she reappeared, guiding Pierre and Martine’s son, bringing him to the table behind me. “Say hello to my friends,” she urged, and with the strangled diction of his spastic throat, he uttered a garbled “Bon soir” followed by hoarse laughter. He picked up a black hat like Oumi’s and placed it on his head as Oumi gestured to him, and announced, “Pascal!”
Pascal moved out from the other tables, his twisted knees swaying as he picked up a small baton and held it close to his chest. His fingers were splayed as he poised the microphone—for that’s what it was—near his mouth. He smiled the open-mouthed grimace of the palsied. His height was limited somewhat by his tortured posture and he did not seem to be an adult. Yet I knew that when I first came to Moustiers and stayed at Le Relais in 1984 he was already a little boy, and just two years ago he celebrated his 21st birthday in this very room with a sexy musical chanteuse singing songs just for him. I never asked what he could do. I took his limitations to be what I saw—primarily physical.
My first conversation with Pierre echoed now—a memory of checking in on a cold May evening in a village deserted of all but a few shopkeepers. Reine Bondil had directed me there above other hotels on the Avenue des Lerins when it was clear that I must stay the night. “Il est plus propre la—it is cleaner.” And after a plain dinner in the stuccoed dining room lined with faience of Moustiers mounted on the walls all around me, Pierre and I had spoken about his recent trip to San Francisco, since I had registered my home base. He had just taken his young son to Stanford Hospital on the recommendation that some doctor there might help cure his condition. I didn’t know what the condition was at the time other than that it was congenital and no change could be expected. I did not reveal that I treated physical handicaps including speech and hearing, for there was little I could do in this brief stopover. I didn’t know then that I would return often over the next twenty years and that both Reine and Pierre would be forever my friends and the core of my French family.
At first I visited on specific dates to observe the few historical and religious holidays of the village. The tiny museum was gradually enlarged and the gardien, Albert, enriched tourists’ experiences with his mixture of French and English. Over time I studied the history and presence of the 18th century art form now being revived by a few ateliers located just below the village but sold in the boutiques that made up the commerce of the town. In subsequent travels I’d found antique examples in ceramics collections in museums all over the world and the decorator shops of Pierre Deux were making French Provincial suddenly stylish from Paris to New York to San Francisco and Carmel. I asked Albert how this had happened and he slyly reported the extensive national political maneuvering involved in getting one atelier’s product placed in fine cosmopolitan shops while others remained unknown outside the village.
One morning in the coffee bar at Le Relais, Albert introduced me to the curator of the musee who was borrowed from Marseilles for weekly visits until she was brought in permanently and given a substantial house and a bureaucratic designation suitable for the move. After that they both introduced me to more potters and in time I was permitted to visit all the workshops, watch the variety of creations, and meet most of the families. At first I stayed at the hotel, but one year Reine Bondil offered me the use of a studio apartment over the shop where I’d first met her. This was a great compliment since she accepted no pay.
The Provencal temperament was such that most of the storekeepers were part of the potter’s family but also had some hired sales help—young women from the surrounding territory. Their shops faced each other or elbowed space in the same or adjoining stone buildings, yet proprietors might barely nod to each other or exchange “bon jour” when they opened their doors in the morning. The young women who worked there, however, were usually friendly to each other. Years later, I decided that the frequently suspicious Madame Bondil was warmly cordial to me because she regarded me as a true friend to her family and not a competitor. By this time, there were 16 ateliers or workshops and 36 boutiques in the village. Isabelle Bondil, the daughter, worked in one of their shops by the time they had opened three, and Philippe, their son, was the actual tourneur or potter whose work was fed to the four skilled decorators in the atelier. Reine, herself, supervised the firing of the pots before and after their decoration. She would ask me to note certain production details when she knew I was visiting another atelier and I let her use me as a sort of professional spy, for it helped me learn more about the manufacture of the faience of Moustiers. Jean Pierre, the father, was of an old local family who had moved to the mountains when the village faded a century earlier and in the 1960’s came back to buy and restore old properties, and establish the charcuteries. He was the general manager and builder of his own family’s commerce. When he needed a coronary bypass, some years ago, Reine assumed more management. But now she admitted she was pained by “soucis”—fears and worries.
I tried to maintain my neutrality wherever I went and could not miss the irony when these sharp-eyed matrons joined the throng of villagers at the ceremonies held at the top of the hill, at the church of Notre Dame de Beauvoir. There, just below the distinctive star that hung suspended between the two peaks, the church with its simple basilica and peaked tower represented the pure gathering place of the souls of the village. Worship and mass were usually held below at the church in the central Place de l’Eglise, but major holidays began with an assembly at the eglise and then in procession everyone trod the 365 cobbled stone steps to the upper chapel. Although I needed walking shoes to climb to the top when I joined the others, the village women, clad for the occasion, wore dress shoes and walked en masse. The young abbe led the group, holding his skirts slightly above his ankles as he strode up the stairs ahead of us. When we arrived at the chapel porch, all the women spoke and smiled and chatted and the men exchanged pleasantries before they filed in to be seated for the ceremonies.
So it had been for Aurelie as the young communicants marched in a single group, holding their flowers before them. The statue of Notre Dame usually rested on an altar at the église but as on other special ceremonies was being carried on a flowered dais on the shoulders of the fathers of two communicants. Children who would be singing in the chorus marched in just ahead and behind the golden haloed statue. The Bondils kept toward the front, for Isabelle had provided flowers at the altar in memory of Philippe’s young wife who had recently died. But just behind the children, amidst the other villagers, Pierre trudged upward, Pascal straddling his shoulders, leaning forward into the ascent to help balance the burden of his body. When we all reached the porch, we parted so that Pierre could place Pascal in the pews close enough to see his sister and to hear the singing. The chorus raised their voices and the golden stone walls resounded with “O, Notre Dame.” And the abbe began the ceremony.
Later, Philippe married Nicole from Digne to the north who had come to sell in the Bondil’s second boutique. The newlyweds came to stay with me in Berkeley when she was first pregnant and then again just two Christmases ago with their four children. Philippe had since e-mailed me a picture of their jolly infant son, Maxime, whom I met now. Philippe still potted in the mornings, but he, Nicole, and his oldest, Aurianne, all worked part of the time in the two Bondil boutiques that sold Provencal linens, soaps, and lotions and casual pottery while the other two of the family’s boutiques carried the fine reproductions they crafted so beautifully. Isabelle and Nicole had designed some new patterns, but the classics remained expensively superior. Other families had adapted similarly to the more casual tourist tastes and throughout the village a variety of patterns and shapes in ochres, greens and reds displaced the famous creamy white wares with the jaunty birds and mythological heroes. Tables of the colorful patio wares stood outside many of the shops alongside racks of postcards, herb mills, and honey. In some boutiques, the prized faience was displayed only farther back on the shelves. The vitrines filled with elegant white and blue creations that I had first stumbled into twenty years ago had acquired the kitschy tourist façades one found all over the world. Although the golden star still shone in the afternoon sun, the fairy-tale village I discovered was sinking into shrouds of history.
Tonight I watched Pascal lurching toward Peter Oumi, hoarsely joining in the refrain of “New York, New York.” Behind me, the table of friends hummed along and clapped to the rhythm. My shoulders swayed too, but suddenly overcome and wracked with sadness, I covered my face and bent into my napkin so no one could see me openly weeping at the bittersweet culmination of these years—theirs and mine and all the shared hopes, fears, and sorrows of our intertwined lives.
Ethel Foladare Mussen is a peripatetic octogenarian and retired health care professional whose years of international travel have resulted in a collection of typical arts and crafts, especially ceramics. Over the last twenty years she has been documenting the fortunes, misfortunes, and history of the people and art of Moustiers Ste. Marie in Provence. Her adventures and misadventures have appeared in A Woman’s Europe, Travelers’ Tales Provence, and other anthologies. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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