‘(Click on pictures for larger versions)
We settled down in our new apartment with a nice rather big living room and our new little Puppy dog who got along wonderfully well with our three-year-old Mélisande – who had now traveled back and forth across the Atlantic. Our new home was in rue Jean-Marie Jégo in the 13th arrondissement. It was a wonderfully quaint and colorful old-style quartier right around the corner from the famous rue de la Butte aux Cailles (the quail hill), which I already described in Chapter 23.
John and I both love the outdoors and one day we decided to look for a modest little country house. And it would also be so very nice for our pets. Having nature itself right outside your front door seemed like paradise.
We would sometimes go to Le Bois de Vincennes on a Sunday, or to le Parc de Sceaux, right next to my school, l’Ecole Centrale, or even, for special occasions, to Fontainebleau, the wonderful forest and château south of Paris. Any of these little Sunday outings was very nice of course. However, it was not by any stretch the same as having a place of our own where the animals and all of us could roam around freely.
One day in le Parc de Sceaux when Puppy was four months old, I remember for a very ominous reason. We had been walking past the château in the park down the magnificent lawns and past the huge canal, called le Grand Canal. We were getting into a less formal park scenery and all of a sudden Puppy disappeared over a line that was clearly the end of something, but totally unmarked. My heart skipped a beat or two and I hurried down the steps that were next to where four-month-old Puppy had just gone overboard. With great fear in my heart I expected a lot of broken bones. What was waiting for me was a little puppy,
looking a bit surprised, but with a happily wagging tail when he saw me. He had fallen over the edge of a path that ended in an almost 2-meter high ridge, at the bottom of which the park took over again. It was totally unmarked at the top and we were all a bit stunned and a bit annoyed too, but of course greatly relieved.
So feeling that we would like to have a country place for both us and the animals, we took a day to drive around in a pretty large region south of Paris, to see where there might be some nice countryside.
As it happened we hit on an ad in a magazine for old-house lovers, which got us to find our way to a little town called Ecueillé in le Berry about 250 km south of Paris, and from there the notaire took us to a fermette that looked idyllic in the sun. It was literally at the end of the road, and that was one of the things that we really liked. Nature all around, a field with sheep, forests and more fields.
The house was not in very good shape, but the owner had put in very nice windows and doors. The fireplace was beautiful, and most of the rest was going to need quite a bit of work. But we were right away charmed by the cute and old-fashioned fermette. There was, however, more work to be done to the base and the gutters than we had ever expected.
I remember sitting under a gorgeous willow tree at the posh house of the notaires in Ecueillé, drinking a glass of vin cuit, Banyuls (one of my favorites) or some such brand. Vin cuit is one of the standard kinds of petit verre offered to visitors generally in France — unless in a less genteel miliey it is pastis, Ricard in our case. The deal was made and we knew perfectly well that we had bought ourselves a whole lot of work. But we were young and our pets would have a place to run around in, even if the house was not in tip-top shape. Our energy at the time amazes me now, so many years later. I sewed oodles of curtains, short ones for our five small windows and a set of long ones for the French doors in the living room.
La Fontaine was an old little farm house totally isolated from inhabited areas, except for one eccentric elderly man who called his sometime live-in woman ‘ma blonde’. We didn’t see much of ‘la blonde’ however, but much more of M. Togniard, his cocker spaniel and his little white kitten, Miquet.
What surprised us the most was the way Mélisande took to the outdoors in no time and how she learned to chase and catch mice. One day when I was sitting in a deck chair in front of the French doors to the living room, I heard a strange squealing noise that didn’t sound at all like Mélisande. She came running from one of the barns towards the house and the little squealer was – in her mouth. She was proud and wanted to show us her booty. I don’t remember the end of that story but we probably made her drop it and somehow disposed of the poor beast
We set about painting the walls and the ceilings almost right away, starting with the kitchen. As far as I remember the living room got its new make-up the following year white paont between the beautiful heavy beams.
We became very good customers ‘chez le brocanteur’ (second hand furniture salesman) in the village, and also in all the major stores around the ‘place’ in Ecueillé. The joke about “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker” was one we may have repeated until it got a bit threadbare, on our shopping days in the little town. The armoire in our bed-living room was quite nice, and definitely quite superior to the one we later bought for the guest-room.
We got to be well liked in the little town, not surprisingly since they got good business from us. And not just the stores but the ‘artisans’ as well. We needed a lot of help to get the place in fairly good shape. The very first thing was buying a stove and getting a water heater installed. Oh yes, and a shower in our run-down bathroom where there was nothing but a toilet and a sink.
We were not like the Dutch tourists who arrive with their cars packed to the brim with food. Since we also had family and friends visiting already the very first year, we had to buy two new beds and transfer the two beds from New Rochelle to the ‘guest room’ which was not in very good shape that year.
We had mostly worked hard on emptying out all the garbage (bric-à-brac) that was piled up high in that room and transfer it to one of the two barns.
The first piece of furniture we bought for the kitchen was a low sideboard and later on a higher one with glass doors on the upper half. The roof beams remained somewhat messy-looking during our five years, but the rest got to be quite civilized looking.
Our niece Kajsa spent the year ’74 – ’75 in Paris to study Langue et Civilisation française at la Sorbonne. We, she and I, had worked very hard to improve her level of French during
the late summer months, and she absorbed like a sponge what I taught her. In her studentexamen she had done math and science and very little language – except English of course. After her graduation she was tested and it became clear that she was remarkably gifted for languages, but not for math. So now she changed her plans for the future and we were working hard to get her into an advanced level at the Sorbonne. It worked fine and we were all very pleased..
When we took over, the base of the house in the back was in very bad shape and needed some work done right away. Already in the late summer we had men come to repair the whole base to keep the house from crumbling.
During a visit, John’s dad, Bert, had offered to paint the fence. He said he was very good at that kind of work. As it happened, Bert and John instead put more stones next to the new cement base to keep the rain from running in under the house. Bert was in fact good at most kinds of handiwork, but the fence was in such bad shape that we didn’t think it was worth the while. Bert was a dear old man who only died in 2011 at the age of 102. We saw a lot of him even after Margaret died in 2003, when John and I were in Lapland.
Bert and Margaret came to visit us in Paris in September 1974, one of the great many visits by them. We always traveled somewhere when they visited – north, south or east. This time it got to be Normandy and Brittany. (Travels with Family)
After that quite interesting trip, we got back to la Fontaine, which must have seemed very exotic to Americans who were used to all the standard comforts you always have in the U.S. Also, there are no little old farm houses left anywhere in ‘America’ from centuries ago and in a ramshackle state, the way this house must have appeared to my parents-in-law.
Bert, however, was undaunted by the state of the house and he set about finishing off the work that the masons had left behind. John was his co-worker. This was part of the assainissement that was considered urgent by professional advisers.
There was outside painting to be done, and John painted the gutters and drainpipes after they had been installed as part of the same program that was considered to be urgent – the major part of which was the foundation in the back of the house.
We steadily improved on the interior as well – armchairs from IKEA that were quite comfortable to sit in replaced the deckchairs we had first bought for rue Jean-Marie Jégo before our furniture came over from New Tork.
After a boring Formica table in the kitchen we very soon bought, from our favorite brocanteur, a solid walnut table which had certainly been the centerpiece in an old farmhouse kitchen. It had marks under the long table top of meat grinders and the like having been screwed on tight onto the table over many many decades. But the table top was beautiful, that is, it got to be beautiful after niece Kajsa had worked hard on sanding it and varnishing. It was one of the pieces of furniture that it really hurt to get separated from when we left five years later. (We now many years later have a very similar table from another brocanteur, long but not nearly as lon,g.)
Another piece of furniture we bought from the brocanteur was a thing that is called a maie, in dark walnut, a kind of big chest for storage of something like next-year seeds, or some say flour. We loved the one we bought a couple of years into our five years at La Fontaine. We kept it at the furniture storage place when we left in 1978 rather than let it go in the auction of all the rest of our furniture. One day we were told that our beloved maie had been stolen, and it seemed that there was nothing that could be done about it. But that really hurt. I still miss it.
However, it would have been too long for an ordinary city apartment, and we had not moved to Lyon yet, where things changed a whole lot in terms of space. Now we actually have a similar table, but a bit shorter and without the marks from meat grinders on the bottom side of the table top.
La Fontaine got to be associated in my mind with Kajsa, since she was so often with us, especially at the very beginning when we were getting the place in shape. Her work on our kitchen table will never be forgotten. I have a mental image of her bending over the table rubbing hard with sand paper, but strangely enough that picture does not exist – only in my mind.
Sister Gun came down from Lund in southern Sweden to see us and her daughter Kajsa in Paris. She also got to come with us to La Fontaine, one of our very first visitors.
One day the very first summer a neighbor of ours showed up who was the régisseur of the nearby château. His name was Poitou and he was a wonderful man. He was originally from the western French province of Poitou. He now offered to mow our backyard which could not possibly be called a lawn, particularly not that first year. It got to be un petit verre of course in our kitchen and we soon became fast friends. He would come back to mow our backyard every summer, and it became increasingly almost like a lawn. (What a shame that we don’t have a single photo of our dear friend, M. Poitou.) When the men worked on the base of the house they also flattened out a grassy hillock that was far too close to the house – which was part of the assainissement.
The drought that then followed in 1976 made it possible to clean up the pretty dirty-looking frog haven and ‘pond’ — called une fosse, at least in this region, le Berry. More about that further on, but the mud from the bottom of the dirty ‘pond’ now came in handy to at last fill in the big hole behind the house which had been used by the previous owners as a dump for all sorts of garbage and was also a growing place for brambles and nettles.
We will never forget a Sunday noon when we were having lunch at a local restaurant in a small neighboring town, Villegouin, which M. Poitou had recommended to us. You ate what they served you, copious and good, four to five courses, and it had a local ambiance that was very pleasant. Gemütlich is the word that comes to my mind. We noticed M. Poitou seated with some friends at a table across the room. He waved Bonjour and so did we. Then out of the blue the waitress came up to our table with a bottle of good wine, saying M. Poitou offered it to us. What a wonderful friend! We really loved him.
We were even once invited for a collation by the châtelain himself. I believe he had heard that I taught English at l’Ecole Centrale and since he was himself a centralien, he probably felt he would like to meet us. A very pleasant part of an afternoon.
After sister Gun, many more visitors were to follow. There was of course our dear Argentinian friend, Roberto, with or without a temporary girlfriend, Françoise. I remember her well because she didn’t like us at all. Roberto told us later, laughing happily at his memory of Françoise, that she had asked him why on earth he took her to see those friends of his.
She had a little car and after a couple of days she had had enough of us, and they went on to some other place. And we didn’t miss her.
One evening when we were sitting in the living room listening to a wonderful interpretation of Verdi’s Requiem on the radio, we made little remarks now and then, even though we were totally carried away by the music. John remembers that Yehudi Menuhin played the violin and that Furtwängler was the conductor. All of a sudden Françoise got very tired of all our raving and commenting. She said “If you like it so much, why do you talk all the time?”
Funny, but there was very likely something to her remark. It reminds me of John’s and my reaction when we hear some absolutely perfect rendition of a difficult note or phrase in an opera. We chuckle from sheer delight. Once at the Metropolitan Opera we were sitting in the orchestra I remember, and when we chuckled happily at the soprano (which one?) a lady in the row in front of us turned around irritably to hush us.
Of course we had a halfway decent stereo in the country too. John couldn’t live without it. As for me, the first things I bought when I got installed in rue Jean de Beauvais in the 5ème in 1970 was a turntable and a radio that the turntable could be connected to. My first two records (Oh yes, those were the days of LPs and small music stores) were Beethoven’s violin concerto, which I still adore, conducted byYehudi Menuhin, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
John had a cassette recorder though and, among other wonderful music, all the cassettes by Mahler that were available at the time. Those are still my favorites. I fell in love with Mahler. My favorites still today are numbers. 1, 3, 4, and 5. To those his 9th symphony has been added. It’s sheer magic.
John played the clarinet, which he had picked up again since high school and college, after years of neglect, having had his clarinet restored by a professional before he started. I loved to hear him play Mozart’s clarinet concerto, which he played with ‘Music minus one’ system, a cassette that had the entire piece of music minus the clarinet, in his case.
Tere is much more to be told about our dear La Fontaine.
First La Fontaine picture gallery from 1974
Chapter 26 – (Part 2) La Fontaine — Drought and Flood
Continued – Chapter 27 – Part 2