I’m not going to pretend that living a couple of weeks in a country makes one at home although one can certainly feel at home. My primary goal in living in France this fall was to be able to walk to the village boulangerie, purchase our daily baguette (or ficelle in our case, which is a smaller version), and be recognized by the owner. I had thought a minimum of three weeks in one village would be necessary for this to happen, but even a week would suffice although the two weeks that we are in our Gite will be “just right.”
When I’m doing the advance research for my reading lists for travel, it’s part of the joy of planning the trip, looking for those books that will enrich the trip, and it also helps anticipate the journey itself, which is an important part of the enterprise. I am still in horror when I recall a fellow traveler on a tour in Egypt who interrupted our guide who was giving a lecture on Akhenaten to ask, “Are we talking BC?” That a traveler would invest literally thousands of dollars and not arrive in country better informed?
Books for the journey must be chosen carefully as it’s the library that will be available. (Recall that I am not a Kindle user yet.) Thus, it’s with a great deal of pleasure when I open a volume and have that refreshing sense of “just right.” And, it’s remarkable how often a book fits the exact moment of the journey. After finishing L’Affaire by Diane Johnson, I was not sure which one of the ten or so books that I had packed to pick up next as no one was set in the Alps as the previous one had been. Finally, I settled on what looked like a fairly quick read, At Home in France by Ann Barry (1997). She fell in love with the countryside of the department Lot, which is next to the more popular Dordogne. (We were in Dordogne in 1996, and I can attest that it is a part of the French countryside to which we hope to return, not only for its prehistoric caves such as Lascaux and Pech Merle and its medieval castles such as Beynac, but its fabulous food and landscape.)
At Home in France might be described as a “gentle read” in that same classification as the Miss Read novels set in English villages. It has a soothing pace about it. The book is not as funny as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1991), but it has a heart-warming cast of characters, such as the neighbors who are on hand during her bi-yearly visits of one to two weeks and who look after her tiny house perched on a hill in Carennac (classified as one of France’s “most beautiful villages”) when she is at her day job at The New Yorker or the New York Times.
There are the usual food searches, like finding the perfect bread. (I can attest already that even in about 10 days’ time, we have settled on a baker in our own village and have spurned inferior bread found in St. Jorioz although the boulangerie there is much more upscale and larger.) Or trying out fishing. There are also rather surprising personal revelations in which she ponders with a childhood friend whether it’s likely either of them (both single) will ever be engaged in a romance again in their lives. (They are both early 50s when they have this conversation.)
At Home in France is in the genre of the expat who takes up residence in a foreign country (although Barry is clear from the first that she never intends to reside permanently in France). She opens the book with a quote from Gertrude Stein, “That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really.” I’ve mentioned already Mayle’s book, but there’s also French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy by Jeffrey Greene, which I read in advance of this trip to get “in the mood.” Rosemary Bailey’s My Life in a Postcard is set in French Pyrenees, a title from an earlier reading list for travel. Michael S. Sanders’ From Here, You Can’t See Paris: Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant was a gift to a friend–more of a comment on a political joke but still a good read on southwestern French countryside. One of my very favorites not only for its narrative but also its recipes: On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town by Susan Herrmann Loomis. (In fact, I’ve given it as gifts to several friends, two of whom had brunch at Loomis’ during a visit to France.) Buying a Piece of Paris: A Memoir by Ellie Nielsen is in the book bag, waiting to be read when I’m actually residing in Paris in November. (I cheated though and read master blogger David Lebovitz’ The Sweet Life in Paris early as it’s packed with practical advice about being an American in Paris.)
House books are very helpful in getting at the culture of a country or city, which is revealing to the traveler. Later, I’ll share more such “house” books such as A House in Bali and The Caliph’s House (Morocco).
Readers who turn the last page of At Home in France discover that its author, Ann Barry, died in 1996. Because I look at copyright information before starting a book, I was already aware that the author and narrator had passed away as the copyright is held by “the estate of Ann Barry.” Unfortunately, Barry passed away from cancer when only 53. Knowing the fate of the writer made the reading all the more poignant although no less enjoyable. What good friends Barry must have had to bring this memoir to publication.