The Stranger Across the Aisle – III
The perfect home, all things French, and an improbable sign posted over the city hall door.
Columbus couldn’t have prepared for his new world adventure with greater deliberation than Melanie picked out our home for the year. Although the house was rented sight-unseen from Seattle, my wife painstakingly sifted through hundreds of French rental homes online, sitting at her computer desk in the kitchen, calling me in from the other room so I could watch impatiently as her JPEGs loaded, and grumble over her shoulder at blurs of patio geraniums, red tile work, brass cookware, and cracked wooden beams in the bedrooms.
Sometimes I would nod and agree and get back to whatever I was doing. Other times I’d volunteer a helpful “I hate it” and, completely undaunted, she’d want to know why I hated it because how could you “hate” this beautiful living room? Look at those iron curtain rods. Who could hate those? They’re beautiful. But wait a second, there’s a better picture. Hang on. Don’t go. Wait. She’d scold the Internet for loading her pictures so slowly because she knew I was already leaning away and would race off at any second.
She inspected prospective homes from adjacent Google roads, clicking back and forth on directional arrows at two in the morning, hoping for fresh undiscovered angles. She drilled down from GPS satellites until she was thwarted by the warning tiles of “no further imagery available.” Sometimes I’d stir in our bed and realize she wasn’t next to me, so I’d pad my way downstairs and find her in the dark of the kitchen in front of her desktop monitor. I’d gently tug on her astral projection lifeline and reel her back in to the Pacific Northwest. She’d be wild-eyed and full of adventure with screenshots from the journey to share with her family.
It wasn’t just finding the right home. She had to find the right home in the right town. So for an entire grey Seattle winter, she navigated through hundreds of virtual French towns peeking into murky, reflective shop windows of boucheries, poteries, quincailleries, fleuristes, pâtisseries, poissonneries, charcuteries and tabacs. She compared the arcs of village fountains, read inscriptions to the fallen on WWI monuments, estimated the local joie-de-vivre by counting baguettes in the arms of passers-by.
And with the painstaking care with which she makes all of her decisions, she ultimately found our home in Rognes, a half hour or so north of Aix-en-Provence, a long drive to the children’s school, but within the range we’d agreed. It was a small village whose entire focus seemed to be the creation of bread and wine. Almost impossibly, it supported three bakeries within a hundred and fifty yards of each other. We had wanted something truly French, something the children would always remember, something that would burn itself into their imaginations, and there she was, Rognes, the “R” ever so softly gargled and swallowed by the locals, a town whose name only our children had the faintest hope of pronouncing correctly.
We had only been in France a day or so, and you could still measure our adventure in hours. In that first blush of early enthusiasm all things were still being observed as French. The man with the orange sticks waving the plane to its parking spot was French. The airport baggage carousel was French. The rental car trees were French. The Peugeot was French. And now this swimming pool surrounded by French lawn was French and the house was French.
Certainly, the elegant old couple was French.
We shook hands with them at parting and kissed their cheeks the way the French do and said our au revoirs on that shaded stone patio, a patio where we would have our French year with our French dinners, our French wine and our French friends exactly like in our French films.
On the way out of Rognes there was a stone plaque over the large wooden doors to our mairie. It was a vertical sundial slab. Above the fine straight rays that mark the hours a sculptor had carved a block letter inscription that read, almost impossibly, “CARPE DEIM.” This was over the mayor’s door.
It was the kind of hyper-real, over-the-top, adolescent literary detail you’d only find in a Marvel comic book, something the orphaned superhero might read inscribed on an old gold-chain watch, the thought that sustained him between the never-ending flow of criminals. “Yes, CARPE DEIM,” he reminds himself from the steep edge of his sunset cliff, the wind blowing in his blue hair.
In other words, it was the perfect detail, one of those little details in life that is so exquisitely tuned to your internal drama that you wonder for a flash if you’re actually living in some sort of organized theatrical production, and if you do well here, at the very end the secret curtains will part, and everyone will cry and clap for you.
Feel something. Twice a week.