As I’ve mentioned, Gabrielle has – well, rather absorbed me – into her routine, so this morning I went to the swimming pool with her again, along with her neighbours Jean and Claudine. Claudine, who is probably in her early (maybe mid) thirties, has given me a swimsuit, and is interested in doing a home-swap with me so that she can take her family to London and make her children (ages four and ten) practise their English. C’est possible!
The swimming pool in Frejus is spectacularly placed right on the Mediterranean sea. So, everything about Friday mornings – meeting Gabrielle and her friends, practising my French, swimming for about an hour (I should note that of all athletic activity, swimming is, and always has been, my favourite thing,) and enjoying the view – has become a delight.
This Friday was going to be busier than usual, however. Whereas last Friday I settled in to write for the rest of the day, today I had a sort of date at 3:30 in the afternoon. The funny thing about this was that I wasn’t entirely sure who I was meeting.
To explain: a couple who know Verity, named Valerie and Raymond, stopped by a few days ago to repair Verity’s garden hose. Valerie invited me to come to their house for lunch on Saturday. All was well. I should note that Valerie teaches English, so she has pretty much flawless English, so we spoke in English, though we agreed I really should practice my French.
I find that with the people I’ve met who don’t speak English, it forces me to work on my French, whereas if I know they speak English, I’ll retreat to that if I’m feeling unsure of the words I need in French. So, the garden hose was repaired, and we had a date for Saturday. Voila!
Then yesterday, I had a phone call. It was kind of a rapid, slightly confusing phone call, entirely in French. I thought Valerie was saying that Saturday wasn’t going to work, and could I come over Friday at 3:30 for tea instead. So that was fine. But as soon as I hung up the phone, I started doubting that. I started thinking, why would Valerie, who has perfect English, insist on making the phone call completely in French? (But we had said I needed to practise my French, so maybe that’s why?) And, wait, doesn’t she work in schools teaching English – so would she be free on a Friday afternoon? (But maybe it was school holidays or something?)
I decided that the phone call might have in fact been from Ilona, who had said a few times, ‘I’ll call you.’ But I really wasn’t sure. So I decided to stop by Valerie’s (she’d told me where she lived,) and if she wasn’t in, or was in but told me we had not changed plans, then I would go to Ilona’s (Verity had described where she lived,) and hopefully one of those would work out.
Fortunately, then centre of Les Adrets is tiny, and both Valerie and Ilona live in the centre.
I walked to Valerie’s, or at least, I thought I did. I found a postbox with ‘Raymond’ on it, which seemed promising. She’d said their house had ‘a brown gate’ which really didn’t narrow things down. A very nice lady who was not Valerie opened the door. I’ve been keeping a little notebook with names, phone numbers, and French phrases in it. So I asked if she knew Valerie & Raymond. After some thinking – ‘Ah! Il y’un journaliste?’ (Raymond is a journalist,) we hit upon the right people. (Again, it’s good that Les Adrets is pretty small.) She pointed me in the right direction.
After a bit of wandering around, I finally found Valerie’s house (the postbox said ‘Valerie & Raymond’,) but no one was home. Zut!
So I walked across the street to where Verity had described Ilona’s house to be. After some searching (it’s great that they write everyone’s name on the postboxes here,) I found Marius’s name – Ilona and Marius are cousins from Poland, and Marius is currently the Priest in Les Adrets, and they share a house. So I rang the bell, and Marius answered. He speaks excellent English, which made things easy. And Ilona had gone to Verity’s to meet me! Oops! (Zut!)
So I hurried back to Verity’s, and I met Ilona on the way. ‘Je suis desolee!’ I’m so sorry! (I said that a good few times.)
I explained my confusion, and I think she was just relieved to see me and to know what had happened. All of this had taken about half an hour, so we weren’t running too late. I think there is a universal ‘girlfriend-radar’ that happens between young women of a similar age where they’re pretty forgiving of one another (I suppose that’s in my very lucky experience; I’m sure the flip side is beastly competition, but not in a situation like this). So Ilona invited me to go for a walk with her. One of the jobs she has in Les Adrets is to basically house-sit, not quite what I’m doing, but checking in on people’s holiday homes to make sure everything is secure and tidy, all the electricity is working, the post is collected, etc.
So, we went to a MANSION.
I would have taken photos, but I didn’t want to invade these people’s privacy. This house is set into the hills with a view of Cannes and the rugged Esterel laid out before it. You can see down to the ocean. Ilona had about 300 keys to this castle. First, she let us in a gate, and we walked down slate steps to the main door. (Because of the views here, the main entrance to the house always feels like the ‘back’ to me, tucked into the hillside, and the ‘back’ of the house, with a huge vista, feels like the front.)
Ilona pointed out an elevator – a shiny, metallic, outdoor elevator – and explained how she never uses it because one hot day she got stuck inside for an hour, and Marius was in Poland, and it was horrible. (‘Horrible – ‘orrible’ is the same in French and English.) We entered a living room with long, panoramic windows overlooking of the bay of Cannes. There was an open-plan kitchen and a deck, and a mezzanine style floor opening down to another level, with a huge stone fireplace, many sofas and a big billiards table. We went through about five bedrooms, and a garage with two motorcycles and a Vespa (!) Then we went downstairs to another deck with a massive swimming pool, and a completely separate chateau/cottage which is also the working studio of the lady who owns the house. She’s a sculptor of amazing sea creatures – lots of fish and manta rays. There were photos everywhere of the artist & her husband scuba-diving with sea turtles and tropical fishes. There was a separate bathroom for each bedroom, lots of bidets, and an outdoor kitchen (I mean a full kitchen) beside the pool.
And this house sits empty for four months out of the year, when the family stay in their other house in Italy, or their third house, somewhere else (I can’t remember where). And I’m willing to bet a great many houses in Les Adrets (“Millionaire’s Mile,” Verity calls it,) are the same way. With a sweet little lady like Ilona looking after it. One begins to think that one could make a full-time job of this…
Ilona talked. I understood most of it. Well, I think so, anyway – how can one be sure? But she told me all about how hard it is to be in Les Adrets, where most of the people are so old, most retired, and how Marius loves it there, but he’s invited to dinner all the time because he’s the priest, and she’s invited too, but his French is much better than hers, and she doesn’t understand it all, and it’s completely exhausting (you’re telling me!) … She thinks she might want to move back to Poland, where she teaches, but they have really wonderful opportunities to live in interesting places (because they are provided accommodation by the parish,) so she’s not sure what she’s going to do, but it depends on what kind of work she can find…And basically, she was really, really happy to meet me because we’re much closer in age (she might be thirty) than most of the people here.
I completely agree; in fact, that was the first thing I thought when Verity introduced us – hooray! someone close in age to me! And she said it took her about a year and a half before she began to really understand French, and that I form sentences and phrases really well and that my French isn’t bad at all. Which is very generous of her, but I did admit that I’d studied some French at school. And she asked me to explain Thanksgiving to her, because she’d seen something about it on TV, and didn’t understand at all. So I did my best, in a mixture of French and English, to explain. Neither of us know the word ‘turkey’ in French, so we decided on ‘un grande poulet’ (a big chicken). Close enough.
I found it heartwarmingly international that here was an American girl and a Polish girl walking around a French village communicating almost entirely in French, which is a the second language for us both, and it was working. Not without error, as noted above, but so what – it works!
Finally, we walked back to the village centre, because I needed to buy milk and bread (really,) and Ilona lives right in the centre, and we made plans to meet for tea: clear plans to meet at Verity’s house for tea, next Friday. Kiss kiss. Au revoir! Bon soir!
I’m beginning to feel rather attached to France.