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French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundyby Jeffrey Greene
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneThe Presbytery
How is it that real estate agents know even before they look at you, as they shout on the phone to a colleague, that you are a waste of their time? They must develop a sixth sense to spot dreamers, like us, who know nothing about owning a house. The agents spend their days taxiing people around a particular region, fumbling with keys and feeling about for light switches, each house a disaster, a trap, a mystery, an answered prayer. They wipe spiderwebs out of their eyes, confuse the facts, answer each question with I'll find out for you, knowing that they'll never have to. Meanwhile their clients see themselves sleeping, eating, listening to music, bringing up children, getting drunk, making love in rooms that strangers have forsaken because of a job change or moving up, or in some cases divorce or death.
Mary and I, with our little white Maltese, Christabel, waited patiently to be noticed by a middle-aged man wearing a green checked jacket with an ocher shirt and dark green pants, a kind of uniform of the French salesman. Seizing the chance to impose herself before his next phone call, Mary announced, Monsieur, nous cherchons un moulin ou une petite maison, pas trop cher, pour restaurer, quelque chose sur le Cousin ou la Cure. We wanted a cheap house or old mill to restore, maybe on the Cousin or Cure rivers. We had lived long enough in France to know that all such negotiations begin with C'est impossible à trouver. This conversation began with an equivalent: Quelle surprise, madame. Tout le monde cherche la mê me chose. Everyone is looking for the same thing.
Mary responded, You'velisted a mill in Mé lusien, and we're interested in learning more about it. Touring nearby, we had seen the mill and noted the distinctive Day-Glo orange poster proclaiming à vendre. We wrote down Jean Rousselet, rue de Paris, a small real estate office in Avallon. Undeniably, a picture of the mill was taped to his window, and it became all too clear to Monsieur Rousselet that his afternoon was as good as shot.
Before the summer of 1992, Mary and I had never seriously considered owning a house together, so there must be a mental condition that could be called house buyer's psychosis. No one can be rational about such a huge commitment or expense as buying a country house. That summer, we had both become stricken while staying in a relatively unknown region of northwestern Burgundy. Once the condition takes over, you begin to hallucinate. Maybe you see an ivy-covered house in the Burgundian rural landscape, the reality of a photo in a nerve-worn magazine stacked in your dentist's waiting room. Maybe you see your life set in the restorative pastoral calm and solitude of nineteenth-century painting and literature. You see a chance to live a second life, to reinvent yourself in another country. Or you see your rural childhood home, if you had one, your childhood river, a place to slip back to in middle age, into the reassurances of a remembered world. Unfortunately, your childhood home is long gone, and as you age you become ever more tangled in the person you happen to be, no matter how many houses you acquire. Still, when looking at houses, you see many things that aren't there.
For years, Mary and I had visited French friends in their country houses along theLoire, in Normandy, or in Burgundy. Our friends invariably bad-mouthed their places shamelessly — Quel boulot! Ç a coû te une fortune! Ce n'est jamais fini! Quel esclavage! In turn, we'd answer the requisite and sincerely felt Quel paradis! as we sat in gardens, listened to songbirds in young fruit trees, or inspected the freshly finished rooms. We assumed that complaining in a state of happy slavery is one of the delights.
The idea of Mary's and my owning a country house together was even more preposterous because we spent most of the year living on separate continents. When we got together, we lived in an unreal world of driving off to Italy on a whim or indulging in three Paris films on a given Sunday. One owns a country house to get away from the confines of the city and one's place of work. One can let the kids go nuts.
The summer of 1992 Mary and I exhausted ourselves driving from Paris to Szeged in Hungary. We took up a long-standing invitation from Mary's colleagues Erika and Pé ter to vacation there. As early as the seventies, Mary had worked with Hungarian scientists, who, in spite of severely limited resources in materials and the influx of techniques mainly from the outside, managed to maintain their strong scientific tradition. Mary had great respect for their commitment, and in turn they hung her picture in the cafeteria of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute. I had read and loved the poetry of Attila Jó zsef and Mikló s Radnó ti, whose tragic lives are legendary, and I was interested in the glories of Hungarian intellectual life that produced the likes of Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, the former known for his work on theManhattan Project and the latter for the hydrogen bomb.
In 1992, the Russians had already pulled out of Hungary, leaving behind their unwanted statues and dismal barracks scrawled with graffiti. The government was desperately trying to privatize state holdings while at the same time larger European companies were buying small Hungarian industries and terminating their operations to avoid competition from low-wage workers. The massacre in the Balkans was well under way, with refugees filtering over the border. Pé ter warned, Stay on Ró sza Ferenc under the lights while crossing Né pliget Park. The whole town seemed to be out strolling the paths, making love on the riverbank, or watching the outdoor movie theater, the projection filling the trees with huge figures...
When Jeffrey Greene, a prize-winning American poet, and Mary, a molecular biologist and his wife-to-be, discover a moss-covered stone presbytery in a lovely village in the Puisaye region of Burgundy, they know they have to live there. In lush, lyrical prose, Greene recalls their experiences turning the 300-year-old stone building — a "château in miniature" that the locals believe houses numerous spirits-into a habitable refuge. He brings to life their adventures in finding wonderful bargains with which to furnish their new space, including a firm mattress and some rather suspicious antiques" bought from the back of a van.
Greene offers the unexpected joys and surprises of village life, from celebrating his and Mary's simple backyard wedding to toiling in a verdant garden. He shares the experience of surviving his mother's decision to move in and humorously introduces the locals — both human and nonhuman — who define his and Mary's new world.
Woven throughout this luscious tale are the pleasures of rural France: wondrous food and wine, long-held rituals and feasts, dark superstitions, and deeply rooted history.
When Jeffrey Greene, a prize-winning American poet, and his wife-to-be, a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, discover an old stone presbytery in a lovely village in Burgundy, they know they have to live there. With an unabashed joie de vivre, they begin the arduous process of procuring their own slice of country paradise.<P>French Spirits is the magical tale of their life as Burgundians, from their efforts to renovate their new house and furnish it with some rather suspicious "antiques" sold from the back of a van, to dealing with the charming and unusual locals who insist the Yanks are British. In lush language, Greene brings to life the neighbors and friends, countryside and cuisine, that combine to make this new home unique. A feast for the senses, French Spirits is must-reading for travelers and dreamers alike.
About the Author
Jeffrey Greene received his MFA from the University of Iowa and his Ph.D. from the University of Houston. He is the author of To the Left of the Worshiper and American Spirituals, which won the 1998 Samuel French Morse Prize. He was also the winner of the Randall Jarrell Prize and the Discovery/The Nation Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and many other journals and anthologies. He lives in Paris.
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