Chez Moi

“I have a little home in the south of France,” the lady who was my neighbor announced. “It’s too much to cope with now. Do you know anyone who would like to have it?”

“Me,” James said.

He had flown to England from America to help me vacate my apartment and sell all my belongings. In five days I was heading for India, a typical destination when wanderlust grabbed my heart. The next morning we got in the car and took a ferry to France.

“I was wrong,” James confessed 24 hours later. We had reached the Mediterranean. “I can‘t take on a house this far from home. It’s impossible.”

I turned right. The Pyrenees silhouetted the blue sky ahead of us. My heart opened. I recognized home.

“You‘re going to India,” James reminded me. “Coming to this house is a crazy idea. Turn around.”

I drove on. It was February 1995. Orchards of cherry trees stretched back from the road, rich with pink blossom, mountains shining bright with snow above them.

We turned onto a mountain road.

“Is this right?” I asked.

We had climbed high, and our road now plunged toward a river valley. James did not answer. He had taken a vow of silence that would last till we were safely on the road away from here. We followed bends in the river to the village.

Its houses cluster around a hill like honeycomb cells. To be in one house is to be joined to all the others, their shapes curved and rising snug against each other with their shuttered windows and orange-tiled roofs. I found the house we were looking for, opened the door and took my first steps inside French mountain-village life.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, pushing back the shutters and looking out along the valley. You could count the trout in the river below.

Behind me, James reached a finger into the wall and pulled off several feet of plaster. The house‘s rear wall was the bare rock of the hillside, which leaked like a spring onto the floor. The electrical wiring was strung along the copper pipes of the plumbing, which ran below the ceiling.

“It needs some work,” I admitted.

James was studying to become a Zen priest. He pulled out a wooden chair, sat on it and closed his eyes. He would stay in meditation till I was ready to go. I brought in boxes of my most precious possessions and took them upstairs, away from the wet floor. They were my pledge that I would return. Three days later, I was in India. But it was the last time. Since then, this little home in France has contained my wanderlust. Every year, for months at a time, I return. Once the goat house for the original monastery, the building dates back to the Middle Ages. It has watched generations come and go. Perhaps that’s one reason I am a traveler who is learning to stay still. Living in this village is like traveling through time.

A bell tolls, and a party of people dressed in black come out of the new village hall built across the river. They cross the bridge and mount the steps to the church that crowns the village. Such funerals seem to attend all my visits. Every morning I meet a widow on her way back from the cemetery, visiting her husband, who was once my neighbor.

History passes in lives like these, but as seasons, too. Those February blossoms fall, and cherries grow. I wait for the ripeness of wild figs, apricots, blackberries, almonds and pomegranates. Bats stream out along the river at dusk, nightingales sing from favorite branches, frogs croak mating calls, and in summer young folk from Paris return to their ancestral homes. A show band brings crowds to dance in the square at the end of August, then the holidaymakers return to Paris, grapes ripen for the October harvest, and in November vines stripe the landscape in red and gold.

On my last morning there, I came downstairs to find one of the village dogs, who had befriended me, sitting on the window ledge. We took our regular walk through hillsides worked with terraces as ancient as any in the Andes, then I went home and closed the shutters, and said goodbye. When I return to the village this spring, and buy from the butcher‘s van that parks twice a week by the fountain, the dog will leap and howl with pleasure, and we will resume our walks.

That’s what wanderlust means to me now -- walking my hills with my friend the dog. And searching for a good electrician in the south of France.#


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