The Stranger Across the Aisle - II
An elderly couple greets my family at the start of a sabbatical year in France. (4 minute read)
In the early summer of 2010 my wife and I moved to the south of France with our two children. We rented an old country farmhouse surrounded by olive trees and a vineyard.
The first time we went looking for our sabbatical home we drove past it because it only pops up for a second from the main road. But then Melanie saw something looking back, and she yelled out “that’s it, that’s it, that’s it!” and we made an abrupt U-turn on the white rocky soil of a neighbor’s goat path. We blocked traffic for a moment, and Melanie put her hand on my forearm as we made our way down the long gravel drive.
The owners lived in Paris, but the wife’s elderly parents greeted us on the terrace in the shade of the plane trees that front the house. We found ourselves laughing because we had to raise our voices over the sizzle of cigales to introduce ourselves. Then the two of them led us inside and gave us a tour of the home.
The husband showed us how to secure and latch the ancient shutters against the winds of the Mistral, and he demonstrated the impressive thickness of the stone walls with the outstretched length of his forearm. Everywhere in Provence homes and B&B’s are called mas, and I asked him if the home was what they called a mas. He quickly raised an index finger and explained that, non, it was a bastide, making the class distinction with a flash of pride.
With our overlapping bits of French and English we pieced together a broken, but cheerful conversation. Daniel’s bedroom was the un-deux-trois room because a series of camp beds there were lined up in a row, one-two-three. He explained that the fibrous leaves on one of the trees on the rear terrace were once used in creating rope and that the thicket of bamboo lining the vineyard provided a windbreak. Outside by an old stone wall one of us asked the name of a familiar fruit on a tree, and it turned out to be figue, and we shared the charmed camaraderie of having the same word in both of our languages.
It was hot that afternoon, and the wife offered the children orange juice. While we waited for her to emerge with a tray of glasses and the pitcher of juice, we settled in the cool of the living room by one of the two massive stone fireplaces.
We shared the ages of our children and grandchildren. The children were asked in French how old they were, and Daniel replied that he was twelve, and he looked the husband straight in the eye. Alannah said that she would be eight on the 4th of July. Then my daughter leaned towards me and asked me something so quietly I had to ask her to repeat it. Then I understood, and I translated that in a few days it would be her first birthday without fireworks. The husband joked that she’d still get her fireworks but ten days late on Bastille Day. When the orange juice came, the children said merci tentatively, but without prompting.
This elegant old couple, in their eighties and dressed immaculately, even in the fierce heat, moved easily and alternately about each other, giving and taking effortlessly, scrolling back and forth, gently admonishing each other on the speed they were speaking French to us.
They shared their pride in their own children and their children’s professions, in this beautiful old home we would rent for the year, in this region of their childhood with its exotic plants, its dramatic weather, its scorpions and shiny green insects the length of your thumb. They alluded to family and friends to be found there still.
They were the elderly couple you meet every so often where you find yourself gently recalibrating your own marriage, steering your ship towards True North while the distant landmarks are briefly visible in front of you.
The old gentleman explained something to Melanie about coordinating the fireplace drafts at opposite ends of the room, and she laughed and nodded and smiled cheerfully back at him, lighting up the room in her way and filling me with a husband’s pride.
I was enjoying her taking in the home, and the two of us were playing a small game with each other of not making eye contact when evaluating something long-desired that’s turned out to be perfect, pretending to hide our conclusions from each other, keeping our “love it”—”don’t love it” cards close to the vest and acting as if there is still some verdict that hadn’t been returned, but the minute we walked into that magnificent living room with its mirrors and high ceilings and absurd museum moldings, we both knew that we already loved our new home.
Her new home, really…
Feel something. Twice a week.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Isbell gets right down to the brass tacks of love and marriage. Getting a lot of airtime this week at chez moi.
If I didn’t think it would have scared all of the guests away and possibly my bride, I would have played this at my wedding. (That and the fact that it wouldn’t be written for thirty years.)
It's knowing that this can't go on forever Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone Maybe we'll get forty years together But one day I'll be gone Or one day you'll be gone — If We Were Vampires, Jason Isbell
I stumbled onto this exceptional piece of writing this week. It’s a sensory delight with deep respect for the intelligence and imagination of childhood, far too rare a perspective. Don’t skim it.. Hat tip to .
Mr. Troy Ford
Mr. Troy Ford, one of my merry partners-in-crime here on Substack. Wacky, charming, informative, irreverent, campy and delightful. Stuffed with links! Lots of capitalization! Engage him in his comments for the full experience.
And bring your monocle! He will let you know when to put it in.
If you’re not using the Substack mobile application, you are missing out. The Notes feature will wean you off Xitter fast.