Chapter Twenty-Six: Countdown to the Fête
In which I finally receive nearest and dearest, and we make ready for Saint-Maxime's literal party of the year.
At last the time had come to throw open my doors. First to my sister and one of my best friends from college, Charles, and then to Saint-Maxime en masse, or so I imagined, for the annual fête de village on the second week of August.
“Oh that’s so cute, your new village has a party!” Yes, it’s totally cute, like the poky handmade signs that were erected sometime in July at both entry and exit points to Saint-Maxime. They announced a barbecue and musical fireworks, whatever that meant, and had balloon stickers. I would drive past the signs on my way to the supermarket and instinctively roll my eyes like a mean seven year old about to correct somebody’s grammar. But then I’d catch myself and remember that these people were now my people, and so this was now my party. You might want to stop sniffing at the country mice when you become one yourself.
The fête de village was also the occasion for what I imagined to be my village coming out. In the previous days, I had made the rounds of the block of houses near mine, knocked on the doors, introduced myself, and told them I was having an open house on the day of the fête and to please come by for a drink. Lucie’s father Stanislas answered the door at Maribel’s. I had never seen him before. Beefy, with a big moustache, long nails, and darting eyes. That big dog that barked all the time was his. All the same, he was polite as could be, and said he’d be happy to come by. There was François a few doors down, who bred horses and was somehow related to one of the old mayors of the village, a dynastic post, it seemed, for decades.
Keep mingling with relative strangers, damn it, I ordered myself, and went over to Angelique’s for a drink the day before my guests’ arrival. She had a massive backyard with a pond and a barbecue, and we sat under her rusty gazebo and drank syrupy kirs and ate pretzels and chive-flavored cheese cubes from Laughing Cow, a brand that seemed so sexy to us American kids.
“You know nobody is going to come to your open house,” Angelique told me, explaining that nobody knew me, and we’re not all the same kind of people. (I rightly assumed she meant social class.) Anyway they’d all be busy at the garage sale portion of the fête, which started at seven in the morning the day of. But she would come, she told me, and I knew she would.
And then her next-door neighbor, the other person with a house directly across from mine, a grey haired fellow I’d seen wandering around in sweat pants a few times before, popped in for a drink. His name was Serge and in the ten minutes we hung out before I had to go get on the phone to do some interview or other, I learned he was very, very into Israeli folk dance. He told me he would come by too. I told him I couldn’t promise dancing. Georges and Genviève, and Samira and Claude would be there, and they could be pretty jolly. But no, I imagined it brunchy and game day-like, with people popping in and out like so many of my mother’s Christmas Day open houses of years gone by, except without my mother to micromanage the slicing of pineapple.
I had no idea what to expect from a fête de village other than vague memories of a trip to Scotland with the ex and the kids when we stumbled onto some Highland Games at one village near a misty lake. There were hay bales and archery and folk dancing and feats of strength after the men in kilts had gotten drunk enough. The stepkids stood off to the side in their skinny Parisian jeans and modish haircuts, checking out the locals like just-landed aliens until we put bows and arrows in their hands and then all difference was lost. There were no musical fireworks, but it was a far more polished affair than I imagined ours would be.
The day I went to pick up my sister and Charles at the train station in La Loupe, a grim little village one county over, on my way out of Saint-Maxime I had seen bunting all up and down my street that must have gone up the night before, and hay bales in the parking lot out by where we all go to dump our recycling and trash. That lot doubles as a pétanque court for Saint-Maxime’s most dedicated day drinkers, but with the arrival of the bales, the usual gentlemen made themselves scarce.
My sister and Charles were as bad as I’d imagined after an eleven hour flight, a soul-crushing line to get their passports checked, a train into Paris, another to the Gare Montparnasse, then an hour and a half train out to the nearest station from my place, plus a 30 minute drive back to mine.
Still, I was overjoyed to finally have some of my truly nearest and dearest come see what I had gotten myself into. My sister, who is subject to emotional swings more extreme than mine, was anxious over an upcoming fibroid surgery and needed some hand-holding. Charles, an experienced French travel buff so ardent that he spends his down time watching videos about the SNCF, had been sherpa-ing up to this point, but even he, usually unflappable, had reached his breaking point. In his early 50s with the look of a John Hughes villain (turned out in madras, excellent hair, handsomer than you) and the soul of a John Hughes protagonist (achingly sensitive, insane geek), Charles was in his own quite justifiable funk, as part of the reason for his visit to France was to help one of his closest friends, an American expat, to the other side of terminal cancer.
They were barely awake on the drive home, but I showed them the point on the drive, about ten minutes in, when we crossed into Le Perche as I had come to know it: rolling hills, horses, cows, brick-trimmed village houses, thickly forested in every shade of green. My sister had been out once before, on a visit with my brother for my 50th birthday, during my house hunting phase. So she was prepared for how drop-dead it was. “It almost looks like Hawaii without the palm trees,” Charles said, before finally passing out. “Just so ugly. How can you stand it?”
When we got to the house, and we hauled in their bags, they gave me a few ooohs and aaahs at the living room floor, which was all I really wanted. They handed me duty free Tequila and See’s candies, and I handed them skinny cans of cold Perrier. I told them we had a few days to mooch around before the open house, helped them schlep up their bags, put them to bed and made a shopping list for the big day. I would make pesto and Korean pepper-spiked egg salad and there would be lots of country ham and salami, and olives and chips and crackers. I wanted my neighbors to see that I cared, because I imagined that my foreignness and unexpected arrival made them suspicious like Stanislas’s son earlier that summer. I wanted them to know that I came in peace.
The next day, my sister and Charles made themselves useful immediately. Even in a fairly low emotional state, my sister is blessed with far more patience than I, so she volunteered to hang curtain rods. This was a fairly urgent task since everyone’s rooms faced the street and there were about to be a lot of people milling around there. And so off we went to Bricomarché near Saint-Jouin, one of the world’s most satisfying hardware stores, for screws and studs and spackle. Charles had a hard time staying on-task in the droguerie aisle, which is where you find all the old school waxes and abrasive powders and black-olive-stinky savon noir. I stocked up on endless bottles of cheap Viognier from the Intermarché next door. It started to feel like I had something like a life out here as I played the tour guide and drove them into Saint-Jouin to look around. More oohs and aaahs. Chocolates for their friends at the fancy greengrocer on the square, satisfaction for me.
The day of the fête finally arrived, and I probably don’t need to tell you that none of the people I invited from the village, other than blessed Angelique, actually showed up.
Come back next week for that mild humiliation—I had been warned—followed by unexpected other drop-ins and meetings. That day turned out to be the first of my actual life in Saint-Maxime, it just didn’t happen how I’d imagined it.