It is every writer’s dream to land a housesitting job in France. I’d have three months to start (and abort) a novel while enjoying the medieval landscape. But how did my galpal and I land the job? We had met a nice British couple, the Brays, at a cocktail party thrown by ex-“Condé Nast”-boss James Truman’s mother, in the Caribbean (Montserrat, before the volcano blew), who said a French hippy was housesitting for them in France.
“He burns candles everywhere instead of using electricity,” Mr. Bray complained. Surely we were more qualified to housesit for them than a dirtbag flaneur?
So the next winter we arrived at the remote village of Couloume-Mondebat and took charge of the 15th-century farmhouse, whose barn had hidden American servicemen during World War II. We would be staying in the “gite” (guest quarters), which featured a master bedroom, guest bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom.
Hot water was supplied via gas canisters, which had a nasty habit of conking out when guests were visiting, resulting in bloodcurdling cries, such as what happens later in this essay.
Our living quarters also boasted a bookshelf of pleasantly dated books, such as Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. No TV. Our only contact with the outside world was a telephone and a shortwave radio to listen to BBC broadcasts.
Over the course of three months, we lived an expatriate life reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” (My book proposal, Three Months in Gascony, upon which this article is loosely based, sounded derivative and unsaleable.)
The landscape is dotted with vernacular pigeonniers, windmills, churches, and “Inri” crosses–evidence that the Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela passes through here. One of my favorite stops on “The Way of Saint James” was Lupiac, hometown of Charles de Batz, the real-life D’Artagnan immortalized by Alaxander Dumas in The Three Musketeers. His abode, the Chateau de Castlemore, was closed on the day I visited, but I seriously admired its grand façade, somehow resembling Tintin’s manse Marlinspike Hall.
It was near Lupiac, in fact, that I broke my tooth on a wild-boar cassoulet bone while dining in the village of St. Mont at a restaurant that requested anonymity (maybe: “The Auberge de Saint Mont”), overlooking a charmed thousand-year-old Roman vineyard. I paid a visit to the local dentist Monsieur Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), who promised to fix it right up.
As the demonic dentist drill hit dent, Mr. Butterfly joked that he knew how to deal with Americans: “I am Iraqi! I am Iraqi!” he mocked with his limited English, enjoying my feigned discomfort. Needless to say, my replacement tooth was a little too large, but for only a handful of francs, not euros, I couldn’t complain much. At least they had doctors in this medieval demesne, most of them living quite comfortably in ancestral chateaux.
The Hunters’ Feast
With its many feast days, it’s easy to become a glutton in Gascony. Luckily, cannibalism is no longer practiced in France; after all, it’s been eons since ancient Gauls (like the comic book character “Asterix”) wolfed the flesh and gnawed the bones of barbarians babbling bad French. Still it was hard to shake the feeling of apprehension, especially after we’d settled in at the local “Fete de Chausseurs” (hunters’ feast), a word similar to the French for “shoes,” to find the event liberally garnished with Gascon hunters brandishing rifles and aromatic Gitane cigarettes.This was the fairytale slice of historical Gascony where many of the inhabitants come as fattened as the geese they devour. And speaking of geese, as my girlfriend and I got a gander at the unlearnedly accent-less hunters’ feast menu, we began to wonder if our own goose was cooked: “Garbure, Assiette composee fruits de mer, Truite sauce champagne, Civet de chevreuil, Roti de chevreuil, Legumes, Salade, Foret noire, Café, Armagnac.” You don’t have to delve into a Larousse dictionary to divine the gist: a meal of more than six courses, including a thick soup (with duck in it), a whole trout, and two deer dishes, accompanied by three kinds of locally produced wine and Armagnac (including a must-try white wine called “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh” –which is fun to repeat after a few snootfuls.)
Shades of Monty Python
Between courses I breathed “beaucoup” and “trop,” waving my fork in a feeble attempt to ward off food, and feeling like the fat guy from the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” who is impelled by the French waiter, played by an evil John Cleese, to eat until he explodes. Which adds new meaning to “amuses bouches” (happy mouths) and “amuses geulles”(happy faces)—small gourmet bonbons to induce evacuation, Roman-orgy-style. The only other people at the “fete” who spoke English were an Anglo-Irish Earl, “T,” renovating an 18th-century chateau down the road (his ancestor was the Viceroy of India), and his wife, who handed me a business card: “Comtesse de ____.” (The Comtesse dabbled in real estate and assured me small chateaux were not “too dear.”)
Though this festive final lunch was supposed to last the traditional two hours, we were there from 12 to 5. And the worst thing was: we had a dinner date with some neighbors in just under an hour!
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