Friday, March 6, 2009

A Divorce, a New Country, A New Dog

Dog Days in France
by Lee Harrington

After a year of losses, a writer experiences France through her new dog’s eyes
France is famous for loving its wine, its food, and above all its dogs (which in my opinion makes that country the very nearest thing to heaven on this earth). So a few years ago I made the decision to set my second novel in the South of France, thereby granting myself to right to travel to the Riviera each summer under the name of “research.” This means that technically I could laze around the beach, and get soused on rosé, stuff myself with cheese, and then write it all off on my taxes. I consider myself a very fortunate person indeed.

But still, the idea of traveling alone kind of depressed me. It didn’t bother me when I was in my twenties, when I was more adventurous, but I had recently hit a milestone birthday, and had gotten divorced and then had to deal with the very sudden death of my beloved dog Wallace. My sorrow and loneliness felt wretched and eternal, to the point where I started to believe that being alone was a curse placed upon me at birth, perhaps as some negative karma from a previous lifetime, and therefore I just had to accept it, and deal.

But spending a summer alone in France—in one of the most beautiful places on earth—worried me in a way that I can’t explain. Would I be able to handle so much beauty with my mind so clouded with sorrow? Isn’t beauty meant to be shared?

Because I had no interest in staving off my loneliness with yet another man, I decided to get another dog, a rescue, whom I named Clothilde—or Chloe for short. And as soon as I met her I asked her excitedly if she wouldn’t mind spending a few months with me in a remote French village, but instead of jumping up and down in bliss and ecstacy at the thought of going anywhere, she merely wagged her tail. Just the tip of her tail—in that way dogs have when they are not sure whether they are supposed to be excited or not. Fans of Charlie Brown may recall that Snoopy would give a full tail-wag for Sally but only a tippy-tail wag for Charlie. So who can blame for feeling a little hurt, and paranoid. Did my new dog not like me? Or did she instinctively know that, as my second dog, she might not be as beloved as my first?

In any case, I now had a traveling partner. And I was convinced we would bond once she saw the beautiful beaches and meadows of France.
Now, any dog person knows that if you travel with a dog you are more approachable, more likeable, more willingly embraced. People assume you are a good person if you love a dog. But this was 2005, back when we had a greedy, lying idiot for a president. It was the time of “Freedom Fries” and the “Axis of Weasel.” The “president” encouraged Americans to boycott French wine. So I wasn’t sure if the fact that I am one-quarter French would excuse my being an American. What if people thought I had voted for Bush?

It was up to Chloe to earn me some points with the French. Luckily she is cute, and eternally happy, and to top it all, an epagneul francais. She is also most likely part Border Collie—she has those freaky Border Collie eyes, which reduce to pin points every time you bring the ball out—but I didn’t mention the Border Collie part at French customs, I simply said “le chien est l’epaguneul francais” and we were welcomed heartily into my adopted country.

We found ourselves living in a charming little town called Grimaud—a perched medieval village just north of St. Tropez. Its first stone had been set in the 1100’s and the village still carried many of the qualities of that by-gone age, where everyone knew one another, and large fortress walls both protected and sequestered the villagers from the outside world. No one—well, almost no one—spoke English in Grimaud, which seemed fitting for such a place. But I, at the time, had little faith in my French, and had assumed I would breeze through the Alpes-Maritime like a true American—one who expected everyone to be fluent in the Common Tongue.

But the Grimaldines were not fluent in American. Suddenly I was forced to tap into a portion of my brain that I hadn’t used since college, where I had taken French only to meet the language requirement for my B.F.A. And, although college was not that long ago, I have always assumed that that portion of my brain had been fried by recreational drugs. Still, I had no choice but to speak French. I needed provisions, after all. My dog needed her free bones. So we ventured into shops and stores, and tried to communicate our needs, and I found that with my dog in tow, the villagers were willing to tolerate—indeed, even work with—my faltering French. They helped correct my pronunciation. They taught me new and essential words. Mostly they cooed at Chloe, who clearly made them happy, and earned me warm and embracing smiles. They told her she was sweet and charming and asked her name. The nodded in approval when they learned that she had a French old lady’s name: Chlothilde, and offered her bits of cheese, and laughed when she jumped on their counters to receive her treat. She took the treats into her mouth so politely and gingerly she would not have popped a soap bubble. “What good manners,” they said.

Soon I realized that my college brain had not been fried—it was simply dormant, something that needed a great long, Rip-Van-Winkle-like rest after four years of staying up till sunrise and doing bong-hits right before class. I wouldn’t say I became fluent, but my days in Grimaud developed a certain fluidity, and inevitability, and made me think that if I was going to be alone for the rest of my life, and many lifetimes to come, at least
I knew how to say things like: I would like a pound of goat testicle, please, for my dog, and some entrails of baby pigs.

By our fifth day in Grimaud the dog and I had a routine: we’d rise in the mornings with first light—which in Southern France is a gorgeous, pale light, the color of brie—and then I’d throw on some breezy linen clothing, and we’d set out on our morning walk. Our walk took us first to the grounds of an ancient chateau, where Chloe would pee upon its hallowed ruins, then up to a small park which overlooked the village and provided grand views of the sea.

I sat there every day for six weeks, and the beauty of the view never failed to astonish me. The sea seemed to be made of diamonds, and the park always smelled of rosemary and sage and lavender. Chloe would zip around through the trails and brushes, latching on to this scent or that, flushing out a bird—some French bird I never learned the name of—and she would leap up and try to catch the gorgeous French butterflies, and it all just seemed so French, and then her new pal would arrive at the Park—a sublime Beauceron named Prince, and when I asked if he had been named after the “Artist formerly known as Prince” my new French friend really didn’t get, and I couldn’t explain in her language. But our dogs spoke the same language, so everything was fine. We would stand around and watch as the dogs frolicked. The nipped and bowed and barked, and threw their bodies against one another and clacked teeth, and then they’d chase one another—in joyous circles--around the giant wooden statue of Jesus on the Cross, in whose honor this park was named. France is a Catholic country, and Jesus faced the Chateau, because that way, it was said, the king could behold Him every morning, and remember to rule his people with an open heart.

So this is how I started my day: with kings and princes, dogs, a blue sky, and a new French friend.

After our walk we’d head down into the village for breakfast, making several stops along the way. First, we would pass an alleyway near the town chapel, where a one-eyed cat often lurked, and where Chloe went into fourth gear, pacing and panting and maniacally sniffing at all the cracks in the walls. She seemed certain that the cat would someday come out and surrender itself, and the way she wagged her tail suggested that she would never give up hope.

Next, we stopped at the Roman fountain at the center of the square so that Chloe could have a drink—an ancient, noble fountain into which the dog would climb, much to the delight of the men who gathered there in the mornings to play boules. In New York, they would have taken me and the dog off in handcuffs if she waded in a public fountain. And yet here, in France, my dog could refresh herself in full view of the gendarmerie—impeccably dressed policemen, in crisp, tailored uniforms, who laughed and smoked and asked Chloe if she had enjoyed le bain after she had come up to them and shook herself off. I don’t know why dogs always wait to shake themselves off until they are within two feet of humans, but the French didn’t care. Maybe they thought being showered in dog-water was good luck, just as they thought that stepping in dog-shit with your left foot was good luck. In any case, they seemed to know that a dog shaking water off itself was as natural as water itself. Dogs remind us that life really is about the simple things, such as taking refreshment in cool water and then shimmying it off.

Next, we walked down Rue du Marie—a cobblestoned street lined with bougainvillea and potted ferns. Every day, without fail, we would pass two fat Labs lying underneath a cool stone archway, munching on yesterday’s stale baguettes. Chloe always hoped that the Labs might share their baguettes, but when she approached they’d growl at her, protective of their crunchy crusts. The owner would stick his head out the door and apologize about his chiens mechant. But Chloe never gave up hope that the someday the labs would share their bread.

Next we’d pass under a stone arch, which led us onto another narrow cobble-stoned street that wound its way leisurely into the heart of the village. We’d pass two art galleries, a touristy shop where they sold soaps and pottery, but at that hour they were closed, and soaps hold no interest to a dog anyway. She had her nose trained on the boulangerie mid-way down the street. I made her wait outside while I bought my daily bread and she barked impatiently, knowing that if she kept on barking she would eventually get her fair share of the baguette, which was the butt end of it, the pointy, crunchy part the French call the col. And all the other villagers waiting in line would laugh of course, for what is more charming than a dog crunching on a col on a sunny summer morning under the blue Mediterranean sky?

Next Chloe would rush toward the boucherie. There, she would press her nose against the window, and wag her whole body with joy, until the butcher’s daughter came and out with a gigantic marrow bone—like, an entire shin. Now, a dog with a marrow bone has a certain look: eyes bright, tail bobbing, a brisk pace, eager to find a shady place to lie down and enjoy the treat.

And that place, for Chloe, was always the cafe. It was the sort of cafe you’d expect in a tiny French village: open aired, with wicker chairs all facing in the same direction: toward the street.

One thing I did not know is that, in France, it is uncommon for a woman to sit in a cafe alone. Often, waiters will hesitate to serve you, because they assume you are waiting for your husband. I did not know this custom, so for the first few days, I would sit there, flabbergasted, trying to get the waiter’s attention. Next to my table was a small Roman fountain, adorned with the stone face of a stone-eyed man who, I swear, looked just like my ex-husband. If he were here, I told myself, I would get served. But then again, if he were here, he’d be reminding me how much this vacation cost, and telling me to stop being a writer and get a real job.

Meanwhile, there was Chloe lying on the cobblestones beneath me, and the only thing that existed for her was that bone. Sometimes it felt to me that this dog and I hadn’t bonded yet. Maybe it was her independent Border-Collie thing. Or maybe it was me. Maybe I could never love another dog the way I had loved Wallace. And maybe poor Chloe knew this, and therefore contented herself with sleep and food.

After a few days the waiter figured out I was alone. Not alone in the existential sense, but that I was the American-woman-who-had-come-to-live-in-the-village-to-write-a-book. Cheerfully, he brought me my coffee and my croissant, and ask me all about New York, which he someday hoped to visit, and Chloe would lie at my feet, even though the chef at the cafe kept inviting her into the back kitchen, to sample the his boeuf de moutard and coq au vin. No, she had her bone, so she was content—as content as a child with ice-cream. I liked to think she was content to be near me.

We’d spend three hours at this cafe, me with my laptop, Chloe with that everlasting bone. In France, no one brings a laptop to a cafe—why would someone work during breakfast, or lunch, or at all?—so I knew of course I was exposing myself as an American. Indeed, French tourists often stopped and stared. But then Chloe would crawl out from beneath the table and begin to tool around the restaurant, looking for scraps. The gawkers smiled. Her behavior was so acceptable and natural that mine had to be, too.

So instead of becoming the subject of ridicule among the local folk—the laptop Americaine—I became a source of benign amusement. The waiter explained to the chef that I was working on a novel. The chef explained to the florist that I was recently divorced. The florist explained to the mayor’s wife that I was renting a small house near the Chapelle des Penitents, and that I liked to visit the Chapelle in the evenings, even though I was technically Buddhist. The mayor’s wife told my 80-year old neighbor that I meditate in that Chapelle, and my neighbor told me conspiratorially that she liked to meditate, too.

We shared a courtyard, Evelyne and I, and she was a painter, and drove a flaming orange Peugeot. She wore beautiful floral dresses, in feminine colors such as lavender and pink, and always tsked-tsked at me when I showed up in my Janis Joplin t-shirt and cut off denim shorts. “You must use your feminine powers,” she always told me. I have a tattoo on my right thigh of an Apache thunderbird, which is supposed to give me power in war. Did that count as a feminine power?

Evelyne lived alone. And yet her life was full and varied. She drove with the convertible top down. Chloe adored her, and the feeling was mutual, as Evelyne left her doors open all day, so that Chloe could tool around her house in search of the cat that had died years ago. Through Evelyne, I learned all sorts of cutie dog words. A do-do was a dog toy. A chou-chou was a pretty dog. When Chloe writhed around in the courtyard waiting for her belly-scratch, Evelyne would tell her she was the prettiest dog in the world, the sweetest, the most adorable. She told me I was lucky to have a friend like this.

Sometimes I worried that I was becoming a stereotype: the loner divorcee who adopts a dog in order to fill some emptiness, and who starts attributing to the dog all sorts of human emotions and powers. Soon I would be the middle aged woman who lets herself go; who stops dressing in a way that might attract a member of the opposite sex.

Yet, standing there in the courtyard with vibrant Evelyne and my silly, happy dog, I would feel connected to the universe in a way that is hard to explain.

Still, nights can be lonely in France. Perhaps it is simply because nighttime is an ending, and to spend a night alone is to remember all your partings and endings, all your shortcomings and failures. Each evening, at around ten o’clock, I would take Chloe out for our final walk through the village. We’d walk past the restaurants with their glowing white tablecloths and flickering lights: tables full of couples and families, talking, laughing, sipping wine. The women all wore frilly blouses. Then men all stared at them, rapt. Their wine glasses caught the light of the candle flames, and the air would be filled with the sounds of tinkling silverware and hushed, smooth conversation. These sounds echoed off the stone walls, filling the very night with a theme of some sort—a theme of togetherness, I guess, of completing another day. I felt like a ghost.

But Chloe broke this spell. Each time she trotted past the restaurants holding her latest do-do (a stuffed Santa Claus Evelyne had given her) all conversations would stop. We would be met with smiles and laughter. A waiter would call her over for a bit of steak frites. And people would speak to me in French about the dog, and comment on how pleased she seemed to be with herself, and what a lovely night it was, and ask: You are the American writer, yes?

“Yes, and I didn’t vote for Bush,” I’d say with a smile. “And neither did my dog.”

“Ah, bon, bon,” they would say, and wish me a good night. A bonsoir.

And so, with this blessing, we would walk on. We’d pass the Chapelle des Penitents and then the château, lit theatrically with giant spotlights. We’d pass a villa within which someone was always playing the piano, and then a long wall covered with brilliant pink flowers that only bloomed at night. Their scent was intoxicating, and as thick as a shield. Finally we’d pass three elderly women were always sitting on chairs outside their building, and they, of all the villagers, loved Chloe best. They were gentle, dignified Frenchwomen, who were now too old to stand, but not so old as to forego wearing frilly dresses and heels. They had the formal accents of Parisians, but all formality melted when Chloe covered all these women with kisses. Chloe would leap up onto their frail laps and muddy their dresses, and they’d laugh and playfully try to steal her Santa Claus, saying, ca n’est pas Noel.

To me they were polite and kind. They asked me where I was born, and how I liked the weather, and I would answer in my crisp French, all the while feeling an inexplicably yearning to crawl onto their laps. I yearned to tell them the larger stories—this loneliness, my divorce. I wanted to them how my dog had been hit by a car the day after I moved out on my husband, and how I wondered if he, the dog, had committed suicide, because he couldn’t bear to see us all live apart. I don’t know what it was about these women—I just wanted them to know. And yet I suppose they knew anyway. You can always see a story in a person’s eyes.

One night, as Chloe and I passed, the ladies invited me to join them. Touched, I sat, and Chloe settled in at my feet. For a moment, none of us spoke. We listened to the laughter. We smelled those flowers and felt that breeze. Above us the chateau loomed—a castle that had not crumbled in nine hundred years. Suddenly I realized we were all in this world together. We were all the same. Everyone just wants to be happy, as the Dalai Lama says. French, American, dogs, humans: all just want to be loved. I placed my hand on Chloe’s flank, and I could feel her little warm heart pounding through her ribs. She pressed her body into my leg and looked into my eyes. Don’t be sad, she seemed to be saying. The world is large and we are here. We are, we are, we are.

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