My friends and customers are always envious when I tell them I fly to France an average of four times a year. They probably imagine that I spend my time sitting in a bistro chair, sampling macarons, visiting world-class museums, strolling the streets of old villages in the countryside, enjoying superlative meals accompanied by excellent –and inexpensive– French wines, and collecting a bunch of moments parfaits along the way.
Well, there is some of that.
There is also something else: many expatriates easily eschew touristic activities in favor of just hanging out with family. Over the past few years, most of my trips have followed the same pattern: a few days in Paris attending trade shows and exploring a random neighborhood, followed by ten days (or more) around Gourdon to reconnect with my roots and visit relatives.
I expected our latest February sojourn to unfold in a similar fashion but everything felt a bit different from the get-go, just as if we were wandering in a parallel universe. Our arrival coincided with a rare snowstorm over Paris. The views of the tarmac at CDG1 are never spectacular but it felt like we were landing on some desolate planet: white skies merging into white grounds dotted with an occasional gray concrete building. It was beautiful and ghostly at the same time.
It was still snowing when Rick and I boarded our train at Austerlitz station. We continued to travel through white-and-gray landscapes. An hour and a half into our journey, I heard a loud sharp noise unlike anything I had heard before. The train continued on to Chateauroux where it stopped for over an hour. Apparently, a very large chunk of ice had come loose from under the locomotive and hit a couple of windows on the last two wagons; they had to be uncoupled from the rest of the train and their passengers accommodated into the remaining cars. Onward to snow-covered Limoges, Brive, and Souillac. There were still a few patches on the ground when we arrived in Gourdon. As my aunt was driving us home, I filled my eyes with a sumptuous winter sunset: a brilliant red disk dropping behind black tree limbs tickling a clear blue sky.
The main item on our agenda was to empty out my grandparents’ old house and prep it for renovation. We knew it would be a formidable endeavor: having experienced two world wars, that generation never threw anything away. The house is actually quite small in its current state and hasn’t been regularly occupied for the past twenty years. In my youth, the furnishings were a bit spartan; each object had its place and purpose. After my grandmother passed away, “the farm” gradually became a storage venue more than a truly functional home. While it provided adequate accommodations for a two-week vacation, it was now a mere shell of its old self, no longer imbued with charm, warmth, or soul. Except in my memories.
By the time we were done, we had made fifteen trips to the déchetterie and filled the neighborhood dumpsters with two dozen grands sacs poubelle. We emptied several cupboards, armoires, two attics, and one toolshed; I sifted through just about everything, not wanting to discard anything important. Not necessarily valuable, but meaningful to me. Grandpa’s pipes, still displayed on a horseshoe. Grandma’s scarf, the one she wore to go to Mass. A heavy cotton sheet embroidered with their initials in red thread, part of her trousseau. The wooden high chair that had been used by my dad and his siblings, by myself and my sister, and by my nephews: three generations of French derrières! Lots of letters, lots of Christmas cards, lots of photographs.
One of these photos is introducing the post. I think my grandfather took the picture in 1927. It used to sit on the chest of drawers in the small upstairs bedroom where I stayed. It shows my great-grandparents, pépé Basile and mémé Françonnette who inherited the house from her sister. Sitting between them is my uncle René. Françonnette is looking straight at me; rosary in hand, she seems to tell me it’s now my turn to take care of her house. Normally, I would have been elated to see this photo again after some twenty years but the moment was bittersweet: René died the day before the photo resurfaced. Odd timing; sadness; a sense of finality. People, their homes, their things.
I took one last glance through the bedroom window and closed the wood shutters. I walked down the old staircase, registering the distinct “note” of each step and committing the whole song to memory. I stared at the blackened walk-in fireplace where I had spent countless hours, book in hand. I rubbed my fingers over “1940 Lagarde” handwritten in the concrete threshold by the mason who had last remodeled the house during the war. I locked the door and walked away, unable to hold back my tears. I turned around and found myself contemplating this familiar house as if I was viewing it for the last time. In a way, I was.
Le wagon: railroad car
La déchetterie: the dump
Le sac poubelle: garbage bag
Le derrière: butt