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When Carol Drinkwater and her fianc?, Michel, are given the opportunity to purchase ten acres of an abandoned olive farm in the South of France, they find the region's splendor impossible to resist. Using their entire savings as a down payment, the couple embark on an adventure that brings them in contact with the charming countryside of Provence, its querulous personalities, petty bureaucracies, and extraordinary wildlife. From the glamour of Cannes and the Isles of Lérins to the charm of her own small...
When Carol Drinkwater and her fiancé, Michel, are given the opportunity to purchase ten acres of an abandoned olive farm in the South of France, they find the region's splendor impossible to resist. Using their entire savings as a down payment, the couple embark on an adventure that brings them in contact with the charming countryside of Provence, its querulous personalities, petty bureaucracies, and extraordinary wildlife. From the glamour of Cannes and the Isles of Lérins to the charm of her own small plot of land-which she transforms from overgrown weeds into a thriving farm-Drinkwater triumphantly relates how she realized her dream of a peaceful, meaningful life.
four months earlier
"Shall we look inside?" suggests Michel, climbing the stairway to the main entrance, which is situated on the northwest side of the upper terrace. The estate agent, Monsieur Charpy (pronounced "Sharpee"), confesses that he does not have a key.
It is only now that he owns up to the fact that he is not actually representing the property. But, he swiftly assures us, if we are genuinely interested, he will be able to "faire le nécessaire."
I am in the south of France, gazing at the not-so-distant Mediterranean, falling in love with an abandoned olive farm. The property, once stylish and now little better than a ruin, is for sale with ten acres of land.
Once upon a time, Charpy tell us, it was a residence of haut standing, which owned land as far as the eye could see in every direction. He swings his arms this way and that. I stare at him incredulously. He shrugs. Well, certainly that valley in front of us and the woods to the right but, hélas—he shrugs again—most of the terrain was sold off.
I wonder why nothing else has been constructed. The villa still stands alone on its hillside, and the magnificent terraced olive groves Charpy promised us have become a jungle of hungry weeds.
"An olive farm with vineyard and swimming pool," he insists.
We stare at the pool. It looks like an oversize, discarded sink. Dotted here and there are various blossoming fruit trees and some very fine Italian cedars, but there's no sign of any vineyard. There are two cottages included in the purchase price: the gatekeeper's house, at the very foot of the hill, is firmly locked and shuttered, but even from the outside, it is plain that it needs major restoration; the other, where the gardener or vine tender would have resided, has been swallowed up beneath rampant growth. As far as we can tell, for we cannot get within two hundred meters of it, all that remains is one jagged stone wall.
"The villa was built in 1904 and was used as a summer residence by a wealthy Italian family. They called it Appassionata." I smile. Appassionata is a musical term, meaning with passion.
"Pied dans l'eau," continues Charpy.
Yes, it is ten minutes by car to the sea. From the numerous terraces, the bay of Cannes is within tantalizingly easy reach, while the two islands of Lérins lie in the water like lizards sleeping in the sun.
To the rear of the house is a pine forest. Most of the other shrubs and trees are unknown to me—those that are not dead, that is. Michel asks whether it was drought that killed off the little orange grove and the almond tree, now an inverted broomstick of dead twigs in front of a tumbledown garage.
"Je crois pas," says Monsieur Charpy. "They caught cold. Our last winter was harsh. It broke records." He stares glumly at four bougainvillea bushes which once straddled the front pillars of the house. Now they are lying across the veranda like drunks in a stupor. "Aussi, the place has been empty for four years. Before that, it was rented to a foreign woman who bred dogs. Évidemment, she cared nothing for her surroundings."
The years of neglect aided by the recent freak weather have certainly put pay to Appassionata's former glory. Still, I am drawn to its faded elegance. It remains graceful. There is beauty here. And history. Even the gnarled olive trees look as though they have stood witness on this hillside for a thousand years.
"The propriétaire will be glad to get rid of the place. I can arrange a good price." Charpy makes the offer disdainfully. To his way of thinking, paying any sum for such dereliction would be scandalous.
I close my eyes and picture us in future summers strolling paths we discover beneath this jungle of vegetation. Michel, at my side, is surveying the facade. The baked vanilla-colored paint flakes at the touch. "Why don't we try to find a way in?" he says, and disappears on a lap of the house, tapping at windows, rattling doors.
Charpy, ruffled, sets off after him. I hang back, smiling. Michel and I have known each other only a few months, but already I have learned that he is not one to be defeated by such a minor detail as the lack of a key.
The land is not fenced. There is no gate; the boundaries are not staked. There is nothing to secure the property, to keep hunters or trespassers at bay. There are broken windows everywhere.
"Come and look here," Michel calls from around the back. He, with his more practiced eye, points out the remains of a makeshift vegetable garden. "Squatters. Been and gone in the not too distant past. The locks on all three doors have been forced. It should be relatively easy to get in. Monsieur Charpy, s'il vous plaît."
Once inside, we are moving through a sea of cobwebs. A deep musty stench takes our breath away. Walls hang with perished wiring. The rooms are high-ceilinged, sonorous spaces. Strips of wallpaper curl to the floor like weeping silhouettes. Tiny shriveled reptiles crunch underfoot. Such decay. We tread slowly, pausing, turning this way and that, drinking the place in. Rip away all the curling, rusted mosquito netting fixed across the windows, and the rooms would be blissfully light. They are well proportioned, nothing elaborate. Corridors, hidden corners, huge rust-stained baths in cavernous bathrooms. In the main salon, there is a generous oak-beamed fireplace. There is an ambience. Chaleur.
Our voices and footsteps reverberate, and I feel the rumble of lives lived here. Tugging aside the netting, grazing a finger in the process, I gaze out at eloquent views over land and sea, and mountains to the west. Sun-drenched summers by the Mediterranean. Appassionata. Yes. I am seized.
Charpy watches impatiently, fussing at the sleeves and shoulders of his jacket, while we open doors, shove at long-forgotten cupboards, run our fingers through layers of dust and disintegrating insects and flick or turn switches and taps, none of which work. He does not comprehend our enthusiasm. "Beaucoup de travail," he pronounces.
Back outside, the late-morning sun is warm and inviting. I glance at Michel, and without a word spoken, his eyes tell me he sees what I see: a wild yet enticing site. Still, even if we could scrape together the asking price, the funds needed to restore it make it an act of insanity.
We head for a bar Michel frequents in the old port of Cannes. The patron strolls over to greet him. They shake hands. "Bon festival?" he enquires. Michel nods, and the patron nods in response. The conversation seems complete until Michel takes me by the arm and introduces me. My future wife, he says. Mais, félicitations! Félicitations! The patron shakes our hands vigorously and invites us to a drink on the house. We install ourselves at one of the tables on the street, and I feel the heat of the midday sun beat against my face.
Although it is only late April, there are many foreigners bustling to and fro laden with shopping bags. Several wave to Michel, calling out the same enquiry. "Bon festival?" He nods. Occasionally, he rises to shake hands or, in French fashion, lightly kiss another's cheeks. Mostly, these fleeting encounters are with executive types in sharply cut blazers, lightweight slacks, Italian soft leather loafers. They talk of business. It is the closing day of the spring television festival which precedes the Cannes Film Festival. Both festivals are dominated by the markets that run alongside them. The world of television, the filming of it rather than the selling of it, seems to me a million miles removed from these markets. I marvel at how Michel can survive in such a milieu.
A lithe waiter zips by with our glasses of Côte de Provence rosé. These are accompanied by porcelain saucers filled with olives, slices of deep pink saucisson and potato chips. He deposits the dishes on our table and departs without a word to us. We clink glasses and sip our wine, silent, lost in our morning's visit. Both musing upon our find, buried aloft in the pine-scented hills way above this strip with its glitzy hotels.
"I wish we could afford it," I say eventually.
"I think we should go for it. They want to get rid of the place, so let's make an offer."
"But how could we ever ...?"
Michel pulls out his fountain pen, takes his napkin and we start scribbling figures and exchange rates; the ink bleeds into the soft tissue. The answer is clear. It is way beyond our price range. There are Vanessa and Clarisse to consider, daughters from his previous marriage.
"The pound is strong," I say. "That will work in our favor. But it's still way more than we can afford." I glance at the clock on the church tower up in the old town. It is after one. Charpy's immobilier office on the Croisette has closed for the weekend. It is just as well. We will have left by Monday. I am returning to London, where it is raining, Michel to Paris. I turn, peer up the lane that leads to the old fish market and tilt my head skyward. Only rounded summits of green hills are visible above the blocks of crab-colored buildings. I cannot tell which of them harbors Appassionata.
"Let me talk to Charpy on Monday," says Michel. "I have an idea."
"Perhaps they'll sell it in stages."
"Of course they won't!"
Our pension overlooks the old port. I pass the afternoon watching the to-ing and fro-ing of yachts and the ferries plying a path to the islands. Michel has disappeared for a final, postfestival business meeting. He will not return before evening. I am seized by a desire to slip back up to the hills, but I know that, alone in the car, I would never find my way. Instead, I idle away the afternoon reading and jotting in a notebook.
I didn't come to Cannes to look for a house. Michel was flying down for the festival and invited me to come along and spend the week with him. It's true I have always been drawn to "my house by the sea," and whenever I am at the coast, whether it be Finland, Australia, Africa or Devon, I browse the estate agents' windows, visiting occasional properties, hungry to discover something unexpected, to walk into a space where I belong. No other property I have ever visited has felt this close to belonging. Even so, to buy Appassionata would be an act of madness.
Every bean I have ever earned, I have spent traveling, crossing borders, roaming the world. I have been intensely restless, hungry to live a hundred lives in one lifetime. I have never settled anywhere. I have no capital to speak of. I am not fluent in the language; schoolgirl French is my limit. And as for farming? My mother's family owns a farm in Ireland where I spent childhood holidays, and I played a country vet's wife in a television series: hardly an agricultural pedigree. Still, to restore this old olive farm, with views overlooking the sea—to create roots, and with this man, who proposed the day after I met him. A coup de foudre, he said ... an act of insanity, but since we met, life has been giddy. We've been spinning like tumbleweed. It may be illogical, but it feels right.
I begin to scribble several to-do lists, which is out of character, simply an attempt to contain my excitement, to comprehend the enormity of the venture. I'm drawing the possibility of ownership closer to me, to quieten the fever.
Finally, about six in the evening, as the church bells chime the first of the Sunday masses celebrated on Saturday evening and after I have exhausted all avenues to make-believe ownership, I stroll the beach to swim. The water is bracing. I am alone in it, which pleases me. I savor the salty taste on my lips. I flip over on my back and scan the waterfront, the coastline which stretches as far as the cap of Antibes, and the hills behind. I drink in its foreignness. The cream and salmon tones of the buildings, the softly evocative light that has drawn so many painters here. I notice the observatory on a hill to the right of me for the first time. I begin to put myself in the role of habitant. Could I really live here? Yes. Yes!
Sunday, we drive out of town. We head inland, up into the hills, making for the pretty old town of Vence, perched atop a hill at the end of a long winding road. Michel wants to show me the chapel the Dominicans commissioned Matisse to redesign when he was living at Cimiez, an elegant quarter in the hills above Nice, but when we arrive, it is closed. How disappointing! I had expected a discreet mass to be in progress, with monks and incense. We shove our faces through the fencing, clamoring for views of the garden and building, and Michel directs my eyeline toward the chapel roof. The tiles are a brilliant azure blue. So simple, so unlikely and so pure.
And then, drawn like nails to a magnet, we head for the villa.
There is no gate or fencing to prevent us from entering the land, so we do. Without Charpy at our side, we can explore the site more thoroughly. On the tarmac driveway, I find several dead shells from hunters' rifles and look around, wondering what they were shooting. Rabbits?
"Wild boar," suggests Michel.
I laugh. "This close to the coast? No way."
Once up on the top terrace, we decide against going inside. Charpy forcing the door is one thing, but alone, we will not contemplate it. Instead, we press our faces against filthy, sticky, cracked panes of glass and peer in through the windows. The sludge-brown shutters are bleached and peeling.
"We'll paint the shutters the color of Matisse's chapel," says Michel, Azure blue. Côte d'Azur. The blue coast. I lift my eyes heavenward. Blue sky. Cobalt blue. Vanilla walls and blue shutters. I try to picture it. A cool yet vibrant combination. "Yes, let's," I murmur.
Many of the slats are splintered and broken, forced by squatters or robbers. "They will need to be replaced," says Michel.
"Everything will need to be replaced. Nothing is intact."
A curious feature we hadn't noticed yesterday is a bread oven that looks like a monstrous beehive. It has been added, stuck on, to the main chimney breast at upper terrace level. "That will have to go!"
"We haven't seen inside the garage."
"I bet it's locked." And yes, it is. Alongside it are two stables with the upper and lower doors hanging loose on heavy rusted hinges. I expect them to reek of hay, but they are stacked with misshapen cardboard boxes crammed with disintegrating papers and files. On the ground are a few broken bits of gardening tools, rusting and useless, a cracked cup with no handle and a row of dusty dark green bottles lining the walls. I wonder whose life those objects belonged to. And what became of that person, those people.
A house is so much more than a house. And a house in a foreign country pushes the learning experience that much further. It expands, promises to expand, the psyche; the inner journey. We are two embarking on this path together. Newly in love. Thrilled by each other. The house that Monsieur Charpy saw with us yesterday and the potential farm, the regeneration we are picturing, are two different properties. We are purchasing a dream. We will nurture it through the pruning of trees and the harvesting of fruit. We will celebrate our union by extending invitations to friends and family worldwide ...
We sit out in the afternoon sunshine at the pool's edge, side by side, fingertips touching, and dangle our feet in the vast, empty basin. We walk down the steps, enter, stand within it, calling loudly, hooting and singing. Our voices echo. We run around its perimeter until we are out of breath. Swallows wheel and swoop high in the sky above us. We close our eyes and listen to the stillness. I have never walked in an empty swimming pool before. With the soles of our shoes, we shove thick plaits of ivy out of our path and find puddles of sludgy muddy rainwater seeping into the deepest crevices of the basin. Drowned black insects float among speckled ivy leaves. The walls are so much taller than we are. I press my back against the bleached blue cement and feel as though I have fallen into the very heart—no, we will be the heart—the watery womb of the property. We linger and kiss, our pulses racing. We look deep into each other, smiling, overwhelmed. Two tiny excited people in this vast expanse of space. I think of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. I feel as big as Tom Thumb. Rather, as tiny. I am Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, the adventure, the challenge, has shrunk us in preparation for our journey. We will grow bigger and taller as we inhabit this space, as we reach into it and learn from it; learn to farm it and to know its myriad secrets. And in its restoration, we will discover each other.
I love this place already. I love this man at my side who has tumbled into this crazy dream with me. He seems to want to make it work as much as I do. He appears to be as energized and bowled over by the prospects as I am.
Although we have known each other only a few months I feel safe with Michel. I trust him. He loves abundantly, with risk, and is tender. I needed that. I was losing faith. After a series of short-lived affairs, one rather public relationship—I lead a life in the public eye, albeit at a modest level—I had become isolated. I was losing myself. I was hurt and growing brash. I was independent, driven and alone.
The sun is moving to the right, preparing to slip behind the hills. The sky is changing color, augmenting its palette to include tawny orange, pastel red and soft purple. "Where is that?" I ask. "There, where the sun is setting?"
We are back on the upper terrace. Michel is smoking a cigarette—I wish he wouldn't—and it is time to go.
"We'll follow the sun to Mougins and have dinner there, it's too soon to return to Cannes."
Yes, too soon to return to Cannes and its gaudy lights, its meretricious festival nightlife.
We descend the drive slowly, pootling past the olive terraces to the right and left of us. My attention is drawn to flowers on the olive branches, tiny white specks, little crocheted blossoms, delicate as finger lace. We build the future by enlarging upon our past, Goethe wrote.
At the entry to the hilltop village of Mougins, where cars are banned, we find an inviting petit hotel restaurant. It has a terrace with extensive views which nosedive into the deep valley and sweep toward the sea. We take our places on the terrace.
Michel orders us deux coupes. Our patron nods approvingly and disappears. We notice a hand-painted sign that reads 140ff la chambre, parking inclus. "It's a good price," says Michel. Less than fourteen pounds. "We must remember this place for our next visit. It's closer to the house, quieter than Cannes and cheaper." The monsieur returns with our two glasses of champagne, and says, "I am the only one, le seul, in the village with my own parking."
We nod encouragingly.
We eat ravenously. Our meal is delicious and an excellent value as the set menu at 70f. I begin with warmed goat cheese melted on toasts of baguette and dressed with an arugula salad, while Michel chooses une petite omelette au briccio, omelette with goat cheese and mint. I follow with gigot d'agneau, succulently pink, with tian de pommes de terre, a dish of potatoes and tomatoes cooked beneath the roast leg of lamb. Michel orders veau aux olives noires à la sauge, veal casserole with black olives and sage. The owner recommends a Bandol rouge to accompany; a wine from the neighboring Var region. Michel, although a faithful Bordeaux man, decides we should go for it. It is fuller-bodied than I would have expected, but it complements the meal and our mood of discovery. Michel accepts a slither of brie de Meaux to follow and then the tarte au citron et aux amandes. I decline the cheese but am tempted by a dessert I have never come across before: lavender crème brûlée. It is heaven, one of the most sensuous foods I have ever eaten. We set off into the night replete and happy. The patron has wooed our stomachs and won our hearts. To my amazement, as we are leaving, he introduces us to his very glamorous wife. She, he announces proudly, is the chef!
On Monday, after several phone calls to and from Brussels—where the vendors, Monsieur and Madame B., reside—a deal is struck. We will buy the house and the first half of its terrain immediately and will sign a promesse de vente for the second five acres, to be paid within four years of the completion date of the purchase of the villa. On top of this, Michel has beaten down the original asking price by almost a quarter.
Now we must leave the south of France. We have stayed over a day longer than we had planned, in order to set the purchase of the house rolling. Although we are leaving the sun and the sea, the bustle of Mediterranean life and, tonight in Paris, I must say au revoir to Michel for several weeks, my heart is sailing like a kite. A house in the south of France. More than a house: the restoration of a disused farm, a canvas to paint on, a new life to forge and someone to share it with. In my mind's eye, I can already picture the pouring and bottling of liters of olive oil, lashings of nature's liquid gold.
Back in England, I am barely able to contain my excitement until a friend takes me to lunch and invites me to ponder some well-meant advice. I am warned about the horrors of the French tax laws, property laws, by-laws and the black holes of the Napoleonic system. Should I decide the whole affair has been an aberration and choose to sell, I am told that the French will hold on to my money for five years. I leave the restaurant shocked and weak at the knees.
This is followed by an encounter with another longstanding chum who flummoxes me entirely by telling me for my own good that all these difficulties come of having been too secretive. Next, my family wants to warn me against being hasty. "Have you considered the pitfalls?" my father asks, and begins to list scenarios of corruption and deception, summing up with "You're too impetuous. You don't want to get landed with a pig in a poke, now do you?"
I am still trying to catch my breath when my mother phones, confiding that while out shopping with my sister in Bond Street, she broke down and cried. "I had to been taken into Fenwick's coffee shop. I couldn't stand up."
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"How could you? We are Irish Catholics," she wails.
I say nothing. What can I say?
"And he's a foreigner. You've always been the same. You've got no common sense!"
I replace the receiver. Slumping into uncertainty, I begin to stew. Yes, I am impetuous, I probably lack common sense, I hadn't been aware that I am particularly secretive and I certainly have not troubled to investigate the pitfalls of the French system. On top of which, we cannot afford the farm. It is an unachievable fantasy fed by a whirlwind romance which is probably destined to go the route of all others. I should pull out. So, my frame of mind when Michel telephones from Paris to say that he has received a call from Brussels is one of mounting hysteria.
"What?" is my amorous greeting.
"Madame is insisting on ten percent of the selling price up front, in cash."
"Absolutely not. It's illegal."
That kind of request is quite common, I am hearing, in French property transactions. It is known as the "deposit." The buyer pays a percentage of the agreed asking price in cash, and the vendor declares a sale price lower than the property's true total. It helps to alleviate the astronomical frais levied against both purchaser and vendor.
"It's black-market money," I shout insanely. "She can't do that."
"I'm afraid it is a generally accepted practice."
I refuse to discuss it. In fact, I refuse to discuss anything and replace the receiver rather too abruptly. I know, though, that if we don't agree, we will lose the olive farm. A decision that felt organic a month ago is now driving me over the edge with doubts. Virtually everything I own, including the cashing in of my one and only insurance policy—much against my accountant's advice—is going to be sunk into this enterprise. What if it all goes wrong? What if everything my friends and family are telling me is true? I am woken by appalling dreams. I pace the nights away, jabbering to myself. Terror is taking hold.
Now it is high summer. Due to French bureaucratic nightmares, our hope that the sale would be completed before the holidays is receding fast. And while complications of the contract—such as the division of the land—are being wrangled over and ironed out, the pound is falling. Our calculations are out the window. Due to the devaluing exchange rate, the property price has already risen by twenty percent. If matters get any worse, we will have to pull out. I am tearing my hair out. Michel keeps his cool. Bastille Day arrives. We motor down through a celebrating France to visit the abandoned property one more time, mainly to appease my stewing financial fears, before signing any commitment.
Our arrival is greeted by a magnificent tree alongside the top terrace which is in full and glorious bloom. Exhausted, after twelve hours' solid driving, taking turns to catnap in the car because we have too little cash for hotelrooms, we cast ourselves like weary shipwreckers on the upstairs terrace, adjacent to this majestic tree. Its blossoms are the color of ivory, its petals thickly textured with a fragrance so redolent it envelops the whole hillside. Collapsed before the dawning day, my head on Michel's chest, I know that this perfume is imprinting upon me. It will forever remind me of the south of France, and of being recklessly in love.
As the day unfolds, the perfumes, the views, the hot, clear weather seduce me once more and I am calmed by Michel and his quiet strength. I see my doubts for what they are; I am stepping off into the unknown, moving out of one life to inhabit another. Fears, real or illogical, excitements are part of that transition. Misgivings laid to rest, we make for the beach where we steep our weary limbs in the Med, doze the afternoon away and shower off salt and sand in fresh cold water before going in search of dinner and a bed at the little hilltop hotel-restaurant.
As evening falls and we dine by candlelight on the hotel's terrace, a diorama of fireworks explodes across the Mediterranean sky, lighting up the entire bay. Their purpose is the honoring of the French declaration of independence—here, in France, Quatorze Juillet, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, is the greatest of all national holidays—but in my heart, soothed for the present, I pretend they are for us.
Bright and early the next morning, Michel puts through a call to the vendors in Belgium. He confirms that we will pay the cash advance Madame has requested if, in return, she and her husband allow us to move into the the villa before the final contracts are signed. "Ah, you are eager to begin restoration works while the weather is hot and dry, n'est-ce pas?"
Yes, well, that would be true if the cash advance wasn't about to eat up almost every penny we can lay our hands on. The fact is, Michel has invited Vanessa and Clarisse, his thirteen-year-old twin daughters, to spend their summer with us. He wants them get to know me a little better and to share with us the thrill of installing ourselves at the property. They are dying to see the place, he tells me. Besides, we haven't a bean left to take them elsewhere.
Madame B. agrees, en principe, but insists that we discuss all negotiations over lunch in Brussels. Before hanging up, she offers him the choice of either swift-transferring the money to an account in Switzerland in advance of our Brussels rendezvous or bringing the agreed sum in cash with us on the day.
I am ready to hit the ceiling. I will not hear of one sou from my one and only insurance policy, plus savings, disappearing into unknown blackmarket accounts in Switzerland before anything is signed and settled. Why can't we take a check made out to their wretched Swiss account and hand it to them on the day?
"I suppose she fears it might not be honored."
"Typical! At that level, no one trusts anybody!"
I rant and fume until I exhaust myself and Michel's laughter and those gentle blue eyes temper my hysteria.
And so it is arranged.
Two weeks later, the beginning of the French mass exodus from north to south—for a nation of individualists, they certainly behave like lemmings when it comes to late July and the holiday season is upon them—we pack my little black VW convertible with old mattresses, bedding and a surplus of kitchenware from my flat in London and set off for Brussels.
Our plan is to introduce ourselves to the Belgian owners, create the "right impression" (i.e., that we are able to afford the place), sign the promesse de vente, hand over our hard-earned money secreted in brown envelopes in Michel's briefcase (unless he can sweet-talk them into holding off this part of the arrangement until later) and, directly after "business," drive to Paris, where les filles eagerly await us.
Michel feels that to turn up outside the vendors' home in a car bursting at the seams with sticks of old furniture might appear a trifle presumptuous. It might prejudice negotiations. So when we arrive in the city, we deposit the laden vehicle in the underground garage at the Hilton and make our way on foot to the address we have been given by Madame's secretary. I barely register the city streets and almost don't notice our arrival at the wide leafy avenue that bears the name we are looking for. My head is whirring with what-ifs. What if these people fall upon us and rob us or they try by other less violent means to cheat us out of our money; how can we be sure they are not crooks? Even given we escape such fates, there are the documents we are about to sign ...
Almost before I realize it, we have arrived and are standing, no, we are frozen, outside imposingly ornate iron gates which rise to the height of an average oak tree. "Thank heavens we didn't bring the car," I whisper, clutching Michel's hand. For a good three minutes, we regard the exterior of what looks to us like a miniature Versailles.
"Here goes," he replies, squeezing my hand tighter before ringing the bell.
The gates slide apart and we crunch across gravel and tiles, climb a marble stairway and approach baronial doors. These are opened by a butler in full uniform. Michel, appearing unflustered, gives our names.
Nodding a dehumanized greeting, the butler tells us in a thick Belgian accent, "Madame will be with you shortly." I, with my already imperfect French, have difficulty understanding even that simple sentence. I sigh at the prospect of the impending negotiations. Then, with a polite but indifferent nod, he leads us across a fabulous black-and-white marble hallway ablaze with sprays of livid red gladioli and into a capacious salon which he describes as "Madame's writing room."
"I'm in the wrong film, wearing the wrong costume," I mutter as we perch in two ornate gilt Louis-something chairs.
As soon as the door closes and we are alone, I rise and cross to the floor-to-ceiling windows which look out upon substantial, perfectly manicured gardens. I count half a dozen gardeners digging and planting a crisscross arrangement of magnificent flowerbeds. An antique Italian marble fountain stands in the center of a crossroads of graveled walkways, a chef d'oeuvre of gushing crystal-clear water. I gaze contentedly upon this spectacle until the door opens behind me and a terrifying, tightly coiffured, tight-lipped woman wearing a thick coating of orange face powder enters: Madame B. She is accompanied by another, marginally younger woman, twitching like a nervous bird, whom she introduces as Yvette Pastor, her private secretary. Madame B. apologizes for the absence of her husband, who, she explains, is malade. She strides briskly into the hall, requesting us to follow. My heart sinks. I picture our carefree summer plans disappearing faster than Belgian chocolates.
We are seated around an oval walnut table large enough to seat twenty guests with ease. A magnum of Cristal champagne arrives on a silver platter. A message is sent from Madame via the butler to Monsieur, bidding him, in no uncertain terms, to get up and come downstairs instantly; there are papers to be signed. I resist my desire to protest.
Business commences. I barely comprehend a phrase and stare in blind panic as six pages filled with dense legal French are shoved across the table for my perusal—a copy of the binding documents I am about to put my name to.
A little while later, the door opens and a frail old man appears, trembling and pale. He is dressed in elegant sportswear and wears heavy, expensive jewelry on his, mottled hands and wrists which are delicate as parchment. He apologizes profusely for his malady. We shake our heads sympathetically, at a loss for words. He looks as though he might drop to the marble floor at any second. Madame commands the butler to pour Monsieur a glass of champagne. Monsieur declines. Madame insists. Le pauvre Monsieur assents and toasts our good health and the prosperity of our future lives at Appassionata. "You have much work to do in the garden," he says.
"Foolish to discuss the growth of the land," she reprimands. Monsieur demures, accepts Madame's fountain pen and signs his shaky, illegible autograph.
Then it is my turn. I down the last mouthful from my crystal flute and, with sticky hands and beating heart, obediently scribble my initials or name wherever Madame points her manicured fingers. I glance at Michel and smile weakly. I am praying to God he knows what he is doing, because I don't, and he is handing over our envelopes.
Business completed, Michel rises. He leans to offer a bisou to Madame B., who proffers her cheek, clearly enchanted by his charm and thrilled by his astute business acumen. Watching the pair of them negotiate has been rather like watching two fencing champions in combat. Monsieur and I did not utter a word. In fact, at the very first opportunity, he offered his apologies and retired back upstairs to his room.
"Mais, non, you cannot leave now! We must lunch!" Madame says to us.
We have already consumed almost a magnum of champagne among the five of us—Yvette, always present, seated in a chair to the rear of Madame, has tippled immoderately on our future happiness—and we have a three-hour drive ahead of us, but without a word between us, we sense that to refuse would be judged a rebuff and might cloud future business relations.
We nod, attempting enthusiasm. "Pourquoi pas?"
"Très bien. I suggest zee 'ilton." She excuses herself and orders us to wait out front.
"Well?" I ask Michel in a fraught whisper when Madame has left the room.
"Did we get the permission or not?"
"Chérie, did you not understand what was being said?"
"Not every word," I reply weakly.
Michel grins. "We have signed and sealed permission to occupy the villa for the summer, in fact from this moment on until it is officially ours."
"Yes, well, at a price."
"Sssh. Chérie, don't yell. If we fail to complete, no matter for whatever reason, they keep everything."
"What! Every penny we have given them today—?"
"And anything, everything, we spend on the place. We can't claim a franc back."
"Oh my God! Whatever made you agree to that?"
"Chérie, the deadline for completion is next April. So there's nothing to worry about."
"Next April. That's almost a year. Yes, we'll have bought the place long before then." I sigh, relieved.
Outside in the gardens, Madame inquires after our car. For a second we are both flummoxed, recalling guiltily my little Golf packed to the rafters with furniture for "our" house, awaiting us in the underground garage of "zee 'ilton." Michel, sanguine as always in such moments, comes to the rescue. "We parked a little distance from here, chère Madame, for fear of losing our way in the city."
Madame nods comprehendingly and then examines me from head to foot as though she is measuring me, which is precisely what she is doing. "C'est bon," she decides, commanding a passing gardener to fetch her car from its garage. "It is a sports car, but you can squeeze in the back. It's not far; you are slim." Moments later, to our speechless amazement, as the garage doors unfold, a gleaming lipstick-red 500SL Mercedes creeps toward us. I had been expecting something a trifle more sedate.
"My weakness," she confesses like a child. "You see, I was born very poor."
"We pile into the car, which, with Madame at the wheel, shoots off like a rocket.
During lunch at the Hilton, we learn that she is the richest woman in Belgium. "Poor Pierre," she tells us, "does not care for money or material possessions. All he wants is to potter about in the garden. He adores flowers and plants. It is very difficult for me. I do not know what to do with him. We have known each other since we were twelve. We began a business and have worked very hard, and now we are rich, but he prefers to stay in bed. He cannot handle all the responsibilities our money has brought us. I travel everywhere with Yvette, my secretary. Pierre does not want to go anywhere other than our summer house. It is très tragique." As I watch her, Madame B. begins to resemble a bloodhound. Her expression is drooping, her eyes look lost and uncomprehending. The terrifying woman we first encountered has disappeared. But the mood does not last long. Soon she is beckoning for the bill, which she insists on paying—thank heavens!—and then offers to walk us to our car.
Michel and I exchange complicitous glances.
At this late stage, we cannot possibly own up to the fact that our little buggy packed with two moth-eaten mattresses is parked not a hundred meters from her Mercedes in the garage right beneath our feet. Instead, we roam around a few back streets feeling stupid and dishonest and seeing our ridiculous charade for the time waster that it is, but insisting that we just cannot recall where we parked.
Eventually, Madame B. gives up, hails a cab to deliver her the three streets back to the Hilton and wishes us bonne chance! Our parting is good-natured, almost affectionate. "See you at the notaire's office. I will fax you the address," she says. "I look forward to it." And she flutters her eyes at Michel like Betty Boop.
By the time we arrive in Paris, it is late. Michel's daughters are disgruntled. They have been awaiting the arrival of Papa all afternoon. The girls and I have met only a few times, and I am probably more affected by their mood than Michel, who, oblivious to any whining, runs to and from the car cramming bags into any space he can lodge them, telling everyone to get a move on or we won't reach the south before the holidays are over. "What about Pamela?" asks Clarisse.
I turn my head in surprise. Who is Pamela?
Clarisse points to the gate, and there, panting and waddling toward us, is a startlingly obese German shepherd. The addition of Pamela unbalances the carefully considered equilibrium of my already dangerously overloaded Golf, and worse, elle fait les petits pets all the way from Paris to Cannes. And they are lethal! Embracing a new family is one thing, but by the time we reach Aix-en-Provence, I am seriously asking myself, can I love this smelly dog?
Excerpted from The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater Copyright © 2002 by Carol Drinkwater. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 27, 2008
Lovely book on shifting gears in mid-life, reminded me of Peter Mayle's 'Year in Provence' where the rich in England ditch their stuff for a start on challenging properties and a new language in France. Drinkwater's writing is skilled with beautiful descriptions. I was very taken with her love for learning about olive trees and the culture of her area. She writes with respect about biblical traditions that, ironically, she does not seem to hold (the world of the rich and famous who live with one another first before trying marriage is clear here) -- but it is still a great read, and miracles abundant still seem to come her way, which we can all celebrate. I recommend the trilogy -- especially for those looking for encouragement to try something new in the face of trying times.....
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Posted August 24, 2004
This is a beautifully written book. When you are reading you see the old house and even older olive trees, you can almost taste the olive oil. She is such a wonderful writer!
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Posted July 21, 2007
A diary is not really a book unless 1)it is well written, not just filled with every adjective you know or 2)you worship at the subject's feet. I felt this was more of a 'look where I get to live and you don't' version of a life than anything else. When I compare this book to A Thousand Days in Tuscany there is really no comparison, the second title is so much better. Or to really sample a great version of an actress telling of an unusual life, read 'Interlude' by Anne Baxter.
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