The Neighborhood

The man that sold us our house warned us not to trust the neighbor. The neighbor said don’t trust the farmer. The farmer kept his own counsel. We set out to find out by ourselves.

There are five families in the neighborhood. We met Bertrand and Mathilda first, just after we bought Le Pouget and we liked them at once. They live across the road in a renovated stone barn. Bertrand is a former mason, a gregarious and charming man who reads Socrates, Joyce and the Huffington Post. His family is Italian, as is Mathilda’s, and they met in St Tropez. I can imagine them together then – brown-eyed beauty Mathilda and older, handsome and sophisticated Bertrand. They have two beautiful sons, one at a university in England; the other at a lycée in Bordeaux. The oldest, Gregoire, helped us in the house on his spring break. As we shoveled plaster and bricks, we talked about Descartes, Spinoza and Kant – both of us philosophy majors, although my study was decades ago. I listened and remembered and was happy that his favorite was the Dutch lens-grinder.

Down the drive are Marie-Christine and Jean-Pierre who are dairy farmers and own most of the land around us. They are friendly and respectful. First they waved from their tractor, then they stopped the tractor, dismounted and made polite introductions. Now they wave and beep each time they pass.

After Patrick left, we continued to demolish the inside of the house, and knocked down five more walls, opening it up to light and air. The piles of debris mounted. Jean-Pierre said he’d take the rubble to fill some holes on his farm, and delighted, we asked him to come back at the end of the week. Getting rid of the enormous piles had seemed a daunting task. Friday came and we’d only made a small dent carting the bricks and mortar outside. Jean-Pierre, a taciturn, shy man who speaks in a sing-song dialect we can hardly understand, realized our plight and worked with us all afternoon. Plaster, brick and wallpaper flying, he hauled off load after load in his tractor front-end loader. When we finished we opened a bottle of wine and toasted and smiled at each other as the sun was setting through our lovely new bank of west-facing windows.

The patois would later get me into trouble with Marie-Christine and Jean-Pierre’s son when I tried to communicate with him about their cows grazing near our barn. I misunderstood him, he misunderstood me. We don’t have a problem with his cows, he thought we did. Luckily, Marie-Christine is direct and stopped by to sort it out. As she said, it would not be good for either of us if we didn’t like her cows. Next time I’ll say, “J’aime les vaches.”

The house next to Bertrand and Mathilda has two delightful children and a chain-smoking governess. They have parents I have yet to see or meet. The remaining neighbors are an elderly couple and some Parisians who spend part of the year here.

Down the road, which used to be the ancient pilgrim’s route to Compostelle, and less than a kilometer away, is St AvitSénieur, a tiny medieval village dominated by a huge 11th century abbey with an adjoining cloister. It was fortified in the 12th century by two enormous defensive towers in a time when no villages were safe from roving bands of mercenary soldiers. The sanctuary was large enough to protect all of the town’s residents during an attack and the door strong enough to withstand an army. Now, a well-used pétanque court lies at the entrance to the cloister ruins — promises of afternoons to come. On the ridge to the west is the fine military gothic church at Beaumont with four belfry towers: it is rumored that they were used to pour boiling oil on attackers. It is larger than St. Avit’s abbey and even had an interior well to sustain its citizens during enemy sieges. Twenty kilometers to the north is another fortress church in Trémolat. In medieval times, the church was the second line of defense, after the town walls. To have so many in such close proximity testifies to the violence of the Périgord’s history.

A few years ago I researched my ancestry on my father’s side and found that I was related to Eleanor of Aquitaine by three separate lines. I was delighted that Eleanor had probably passed by our farm when she visited the local churches and their important relics (Cadouin’s abbey was believed to have had part of the shroud, proved to be a fake in 1935).

It was also a pleasant coincidence that John and I had visited St Avitseveral years before and stopped at the Relais de Compostelle for a glass of wine and spent a delightful hour talking with the proprietor, sitting on the terrace while the sun set over the valley. We went back to find her and she was still there and remembered us. She is Luce, a lovely, warm woman and the mother of the restaurant’s owner, Dominique. We became instant friends. She only comes on weekends to help her daughter and I don’t see her much, but it’s nice to know I have a friend nearby.