What were you doing at the end of August 2020? Despite my civilian status, I was a guest at a reunion of French nobility. Voilà, an excerpt from my forthcoming An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement-Age Memoir.
“I am on a little vacation, my first overnight outside Paris. Jim’s count boyfriend, Pascal, gave him permission to invite me for a long weekend in Brittany that includes a reunion of nobility on Sunday. I’m excited. Although I have friends descended from noble families—des and de las, vons and vans —I’ve never attended a more-or-less artistos-only event.
Jim picked me up shortly after noon, stooping under the burden of an ungodly magnitude of groceries. If I didn’t know we were headed to the grand estate of a nobleman, I would assume he was outfitting a fallout shelter with a year’s supply of food in case of alien attack. He explained that food at the château was often raunchy. Hmmm, I thought, what does that mean? I would soon find out.
Pascal, a bouncy, gregarious gentlemen in his mid-70s, met us at the station in his ancient, disintegrating, rusty, grey, non-air-conditioned Citroën station wagon. The countryside was pleasant but unremarkable: fields, woods, buttercup-flecked pastures of lazy brown cows, and the occasional farmstead. We exited the main country road onto a smaller one and then turned into a space between two ivy-covered stone buildings, one of which must once have been inhabited by a gardien, a gatekeeper, as is still customary on French estates. Pascal rents his propriété as a destination wedding venue and was sacrificing a weekend of income to host extended family and friends for annual potluck dinners on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon….
Initially, I was disappointed not to have been assigned a room in the seventeenth-century château or the early nineteenth-century manoir on the other side of a tall hedge. But Jim assured me I had the best room on the estate. He led me past the manoir, through a romantic arbor with a small pond surrounded by benches and flowers, to a long red brick building with a variegated flat tile roof and several doors. My segment resembled an English cottage, with aromatic rose trellises flanking the entrance, and above, a darling dormer containing a window with a bright blue frame that matched the door.
Once inside, I found myself immersed in my childhood dream. ‘The library’ was a spacious room with bookshelves on all four walls. Pascal calls it the library not because of its original usage—both the château and the manoir have libraries—but because it is where his thousands of books, organized thematically by Jim, live. The fireplace is the only non-readable object occupying wall space; my bed stands far enough from the wall to permit access to the shelves. Oriental rugs cover the stone floors, and worn, saddle-leather armchairs with wooly throws on their backs invite leisurely reading. It’s a cool space in both senses. On this estate without air-conditioning and in this blistering heat, I’m honored to occupy the chilliest among the numerous available bedrooms. I couldn’t be more content and can already envision overstaying my welcome….
After a Saturday afternoon wander through Pascal’s forest with Jim, I returned to ‘the library’ for a pre-dinner nap and found a shoeless Duchess Charlotte, recently retired from a career as a Chinese-to-French translator, sitting sideways in one of the leather chairs, legs slung over one arm and immersed in Nicolas Mathieu’s 2019 Prix Goncourt winner, And Their Children After Them. Embarrassed, she admitted not having read it previously, and asked if I minded her staying.
“No,” I replied, removing my shoes; and slipping under the down quilt on the bed. In other worlds, one would be embarrassed for having invaded another guest’s private space, not for having neglected to read a prize-winning novel. But this is France, a nation of avid readers, where keeping abreast of contemporary literature is as important as knowing who won the world series is in the U.S.
One of the most popular French TV shows airs for ninety minutes on Wednesday evenings and is called La Grande Librairie—The Big Bookstore. Journalist François Busnel has hosted it for more than a decade. Each week, he interviews up to a half-dozen authors whose recently published books he has thoroughly digested, an awe-inspiring achievement. I watch it, too, since it’s an expedient method for keeping culturally au courant. At pretty much any social occasion, if, stumped for conversation fodder one remarks on the latest episode of La Grande Librairie or the books or authors it featured, even foreigners with less than perfect French will be embraced as compatriots.”