Chapter Nineteen: You're Going to Make It After All
As Sonny Curtis once implored to a young Mary Richards, "You can have the town, why don't you take it?"
As my goal was to get to know Le Perche as quickly as I could, I had always counted on splitting up the period before I moved into the house over two different settings: the total rurality of the mill house for maximum culture shock, and then a wee townhouse in a fancy village about 15 minutes from Saint-Maxime we’ll call Saint-Jouin-au-Perche. This was the Big Little City, ie, a burg of 3,920 residents.
Though I was due to stay a few weeks longer at the mill house, I just couldn’t take the kitchen anymore, not to mention the internet. I gathered my courage and told Samira I wanted to leave a little earlier than we had agreed. It turned out she had some confusion with a future tenant, and they needed the place sooner than she thought, so I was doing her a favor. The owner of the Saint-Jouin townhouse, a high school history teacher who owned it as an investment, could accommodate me moving up the dates.
Fred and Penelope were bundled up once again, the car was packed to the rafters once again, the litterboxes were washed and emptied once again, the divorced dad cocotte snuggled into its box. We were getting better at this. Before I walked out the mill house door for the last time, I hit send on a heartfelt note of thanks to Samira. She drove me nuts but she got me started out here. And I still see her and Claude for dinner nowadays, usually with Georges and Geneviève, when she more often than not wears flower crowns.
There was no question that I had benefitted from the enveloping forest at their place. Tree-hugging wasn’t entirely alleviating the vague depression that still hung around me. But it helped temporarily, sporadically shift my mood enough that I could semi-regularly see above the deep, high-walled pit I had known at other times in my life. This was good news.
I generally oscillate between two opposing beliefs about being in an extended state of negative emotion, which I was still in often enough then to want to ponder it. On the one hand, I imagine that every slight or trauma or injury one has suffered in life—like infidelity, to pick a totally random example—has a sliding scale of tears that must be shed to properly recover. Perhaps the death of a loved one is good for a few bathtubs full, while losing out on a job might net you a bucket. You have to squeeze those out in all your fury and dejection, and then once you do, you get a gold star and you’re done. Healed. Problem behind you. I love the psychological and emotional order that idea implies, which is why I know it’s certainly bullshit.
Then the other belief, which not even really a belief, but something close to the truth, is that depression is a closed loop that feeds on itself, a bucket of tears that somehow always manages to refill. Shedding 34,034 as opposed to just 32,593 isn’t going to make anything disappear. You have to make a real change, do different things, shake up your routine, seek help if it’s that bad. And you have to be patient, which I never am. But I was making plenty of real change. And even if my days weren’t full of achievement, they were certainly different than how I had lived before. The bucket was not empty but its level was trending down.
One thing Saint-Jouin had over the mill house was ready distractions, which are also key when you tumble into the navel vortex as easily as I do. The townhouse was a triplex on a cute side street off the church square, with a living room furnished in mid-century vinyl, and my choice of two upstairs bedrooms. You could hear the bells every hour, ringing out from the weirdly pastiche church, half graceless late Gothic, half late 19th century bulky neoclassical. The town itself was a swanky and pompous version of percheron—pastel plasterwork, terra cotta roofs, rustic stone, a few grand old hôtels particuliers—but the details of the wee townhouse were almost Parisian: there was early 20th century cement tile on the ground floor in a typically flouncy, slightly Oriental pattern, a winding wrought iron staircase like the one in my apartment in Montmartre, and iron railing around the upstairs window. It brought me back to the giddiness of moving into that Paris place, which I bought in my mid-30s. With it, I was planting my flag in France for real. There was a new country and a new city to figure out.
I couldn’t ignore the parallels here. Le Perche was not technically a new country but the learning curve required to shift my frame to pastureland was just as high as learning a new language, tax structure and bureaucracy. In some ways even higher. Countries aren’t all the same but their big city rhythms have more in common with each other than they do with the exurbia in their own nations. The detour back to Saint-Jouin’s higher population density was an almost-familiar-feeling relief.
If the mill house was a sanctuary where I had wrung out the lion’s share of my sobs (theoretically, hopefully), this place had me feeling like a poky, perimenopausal Mary Richards, or a sort of still-breathless Carrie Bradshaw, albeit with reduced expectations. I was able to wear leather soles again. Even heels, should the occasion arise, and I felt like navigating the cobblestones. (Paris had already trained me well but honestly I was never going to wear heels.) There were restaurants where one could maybe even meet cute.
The townhouse had an eat-in kitchen with a formica table I could use as a desk. The range was tinny and small but I almost wept with relief when I saw the burners were gas, with a real oven. There was an adult-sized refrigerator. And Saint-Jouin was ringed with shops within walking distance, including a twee, posh little greengrocer that sold dark milk chocolate from Bonnat and pongy Appenzeller cheese, two artisanal ice cream makers, and two decent boulangeries. There was a Saturday farmer’s market I’d visited before, which glutted the town with Parisian weekenders in their APC country sweaters and Birkenclogs. It got so crowded I didn’t usually go. I love a greenmarket but I get wiggly waiting in line. Still it was a nice change from cavernous, fluoro-lit supermarkets.
At the southernmost entrance to town, about seven minutes on foot from my new digs, was a little natural wine bar and pristinely edited deli where, in the before times, I had stopped for charcuterie plate lunch in between house visits. Among the racks of noninterventionist bottles with deliberately naive labels were obscure dried pastas, Italian amaretto cookies, the odd American hot sauce. It wasn’t orderly enough to be off-putting. Its owner handled that part.
He was very short, with grown-out stubble and longish, thinning brown hair, with the bright red cheeks of a day drinker, and not a jolly one. He’d pop out to the front of the shop to smoke half a cigarette when things were slow, which they seemed to be fairly often. The Google and Tripadvisor comments about the fellow’s mood and capricious notion of service were universally brutal.
Clearly those philistines were not locals like I was now. Because I frequented the place enough that he and I started getting to chatting, probably first about the hot sauce, he told me he had an under the table concession on fresh meat from a local friend who supplied Parisian restaurants. I told him to sign me up.
I started with a tournedos de boeuf, a small, bacon-fat-ringed piece of tenderloin, and back at the townhouse, seared it two and a half minutes per side so it was still almost blue in the middle. Then I died on the spot. It was flavorful, and tender in a way that very little grass-fed French beef is. I went back to the shop a few days later, raving. The owner smiled and told me to come back next week for more. So I walked out with a few bottles of wine, probably some Loire reds, that cost twice what I usually paid for plonk.
So there was a gastronomic underground in Saint-Jouin, and now I was part of it. I got to know the gentle, grandmotherly lady from the ice cream shop nearest me too, fixating on her passionfruit sorbet and the smooth, almost too-subtle cashew ice cream, strewn with whole salted nuts. There was a tomato guy on Saturdays with easily fifteen varieties, including fat cherries with Kelly green starbursts around the stem that were sweet and starchy enough to make perfectly thick sausage marinara with fennel seeds, which I started to do weekly.
I did not go so far as to do my errands with a wicker basket, but I was marinating in the bougie wet dream of small producers sold in quaint surroundings and I was aux anges.
I will just briefly fast forward to a year later, when I was by then in the new house and had my sister and a friend from America come to visit. We were passing through Saint-Jouin, where I still do all my grocery shopping because duh, and it was infernally hot and we just wanted to sit down and have a drink. I suggested the wine bar, and greeted the owner with some familiarity. In return I got stonefaced one word replies. Hm. I asked for a glass of white wine, and my sister and our friend ordered ginger ale. He literally grimaced when the order was placed, before turning abruptly on his heel, going to the shelves, pulling down two room temperature bottles, opening them, and placing them before us. He didn’t exactly slam them down, but it was forceful enough to make a noise. No glasses. “No ice?” I asked. By this time I was just taking the piss. He didn’t even acknowledge the question. Tripadvisor hordes, c’est moi.