“Come to Burgundy this weekend and visit our chateau,” he said. Right, I thought, I’ll bet he says that to all the new expatriate American girls. I had been living in Paris for a grand total of two weeks at this point. But he wasn’t kidding. My friend, Bénigne, with whom I had been corresponding for a few months, did indeed have a country home, as many Parisians do; however, his happened to be his family’s 18th Century chateau. What does one bring as a house gift for a weekend at a chateau? A couple of extra horses?
Then there was the question of what to pack. This was my chance to live out a long-standing fantasy of being the Lady of the Manor à la Downton Abbey; or at least one of the houseguests at those notorious Belle Epoque house parties in which everyone is quietly switching bedrooms in the middle of the night. For that, I would need my long, elegant dresses, of which I still have many (and which have, for the most part, remained unworn during my recent years living in the desert of Santa Fe). However, as there is also a farm on the grounds, perhaps jeans and long rubber boots would be more appropriate for slogging through piles of horse merde. I decided to bring a little of everything. Of course, I had to bring my laptop, a few books, art materials, etc. So my luggage was not what would be considered “light.”
Less than an hour before I was to head for the métro to meet Bénigne and his father for the ride down, Bénigne calls and asks if I can pick up a few things at the épicerie (grocery store) on my way. “Sure,” I said. I figured it was the least I could do. So he asks for a sack of potatoes, some onions, and a half dozen eggs. One thing I have not mentioned is that this happens to be the first evening of one of those long May weekends in which all of Paris leaves the city for their country locations and everyone is running around at an insane pace buying provisions and crowding into the métro to get to their destination.
“So let me get this straight,” I thought, “You want me to pack another 10 pounds into my bags, which are already heavy enough to give Hercules a hernia, and get half a dozen eggs safely to their destination while packed like a sardine in the métro?” If I actually successfully accomplish all of this will I win any great prizes?
So, with no time to spare, I raced out of the flat, down my six flights of stairs, and across three blocks to the Monoprix, which was a complete zoo. Like someone in one of those old Keystone Kops movies, I threw a bag of potatoes in my basket, then the onions; but could not find the eggs, despite running up and down the likely aisles. Aren’t the French supposed to put eggs in everything? You would think they’d have a whole aisle devoted solely to the cherished oeuf.
At last I located a box (unrefrigerated, of course, which was why I couldn’t find them), added it to my purchases and raced back home. I actually had the presence of mind to realize I could leave my heavy bag of groceries downstairs while I sprinted up the six flights to retrieve my luggage. Believe it or not, everything arrived at our meeting place undamaged, except, perhaps, for my back and shoulders.
Bénigne’s father, Monsieur François de V., at 80 years old, is a classic French gentleman, the kind one rarely sees any more. When I met him, he was wearing a three-piece suit, complete with watch chain (with a real pocket watch attached), an overcoat that was common early in the 20th century, a hat, and a walking stick. He greeted me very formally, but with a gentle smile, making me feel welcome.
One thing French men have on their American counterparts is the fact that they make an effort to dress well; and that doesn’t mean just tucking in their shirts and avoiding wearing a baseball cap. I mean, come on, is it really that torturous to a man to put on a button-down shirt and wear a tie at least once in a decade? Most usually react to the suggestion as though you’ve asked them to pour battery acid over their head. Personally, I find men who go to the trouble of dressing nicely for me incredibly attractive. Women have understood this theory for centuries, which is why we have put up with wearing absurd things like high heels and makeup.
So the three of us headed off to Burgundy and, around midnight, arrived at the chateau of Cussigny. Entering the shadowy hallway near the kitchen, I was led up some stairs, down a long hall, through a couple sets of doors, up another flight of stairs, around a corner, and down another hall, where we finally reached my room. Along the way I was shown where the toilet and bath were located (at opposite ends of the house from each other). One day, I thought, someone will find my desiccated corpse lost down some stairwell, toothbrush in hand, having tried to find the bathroom in the middle of the night.
My room turned out to once again be in the garret; however, the garret of a chateau is considerably more elegant than that of your typical starving artist. It was furnished with many antiques, including a Godin stove, and the view from my window onto the landscaped gardens was spectacular.
In the morning, I managed to make my way down to the dining room without getting lost. Breakfast was laid out with fine china and cutlery, and I loved the antique toaster, with which one toasted bread in front of the fireplace. Wishing to do my part after the meal was over, I took the dishes to the kitchen and was preparing to wash them when I was told it was not necessary, as Françoise would do it. Who was Françoise, I wondered? Perhaps a sister I had not met? No, she was the maid. I thought, “People still have maids in this day and age?” I guess if you own a chateau in Burgundy you do. And that was just the beginning…