On ending up in an obscure corner of France
…a kind of memory that tells us
that what we’re now striving for was once
nearer and truer and attached to us
with infinite tenderness. Here all is distance,
there it was breath. After the first home,
the second one seems draughty
And strangely sexed.
– from “Duino Elegies,” Rainer Maria Rilke
We’ve had our three days of snow in the Perche this week. The sloped perspective of the hills behind and in front of the house were blanketed in white, with each field bordered by a dark thicket, a barbed wire fence, a barn, or a low-lying farm. We took a two-hour walk on empty roads dusted in white as the powder accumulated, becoming ghosts in the swirling fog until the road, fields, and walkers were one.
The Perche is a relatively unknown area of France, several dozen miles from Chartres, bounded by Normandy, the Maine, and the Beauce, where the French grow their wheat. A county during medieval times, today it is part of 4 different départements. Because it does not have an official administrative identity (you cannot be a voter from the Perche) and because it does not have enough of the renown of the Loire Valley or Chartres to find its way into most tour books, it has remained undisturbed and protected from a major influx of all those tourists who come to visit.
This relative lack of identity has, however, resulted in a strong sense of fierté Percheronne, which, even though I have been in the area for nearly two decades, I did not quite understand until recently. For my attachment to the Perche has grown gradually. When I arrived in France all those years ago, I was no Francophile — I was not even a Paris addict. I was just hungry and curious, and I’d jumped off a cliff without knowing it and was in a free fall. After spending a certain amount of time managing the free fall, I hit the ground and I was still in France, in or near Paris, to be exact, and attending to the serious things of life like children and husbands and making a living.
Although I loved Paris, any deep attachment to place had been left behind, sans regret. I would get a taste of it when I went back to the East Coast, driving the roads for the pleasure, past shingled wooden houses, through tunnels of dizzying autumn colors, or diving into Vermont lakes.
Like so many things in life, the importance of buying a house near one of the capitals of the Perche, Nogent le Rotrou, only became clear in retrospect. At first, there was only fear. This somber stone house, the endless unfinished barns, and the ageing apple orchard behind were to be mine alone. I would make decisions alone and come here with my children alone, for I had now divorced. The first winter was freezing and muddy. The fireplace smoked and when we tried to heat the house, the floors beaded with sweat like someone with a very high fever because the yellow tiles were laid directly on the ground. It was draughty and dark and the doors leaked, leaving puddles on the floor when the rain blew in from the West, which it did often.
But that was its glory. Although the tiny house with its oversized barns and untended land (every single one of the apple trees died within the first year) was livable (the plumbing and electricity worked, the roof was good), there was everything to be done and no money to do it with. Because of this, time and desire slowed, and often left its place to dreaming. The renovations did not take place with the snap of an architect’s finger, because there was no architect involved. Many of the changes were dependent upon money put aside from an extra month’s salary at Christmas, one new door at a time, of learning to lay tiles, and upon weekends spent covering the ochre walls and black beams with dozens of gallons of white paint.
So the transformation was terribly gradual, like ageing in reverse. And the result is terribly personal with openings that were once barn doors and books lining closed passageways, stairs and windows of odd sizes in odd places, and cold patches where the insulation has not been replaced. The house remains small and the barns huge in comparison, much too large for anything but dreaming and the occasional renovation.
And so, imperceptibly, I grew into the house and then lifted my head and faced the land. Warily, I must say, because I prefer water. The empty orchard behind the house was a fertile green canvas waiting to be filled. Beyond that lay the hills and a patchwork of fields. Driving through the area was a game of hide and seek, a discovery of one unexpected expanse after another — of stone farmhouses near La Ferté Bernard, of the abbey in Thiron and the manoirs in Bellême.
But I didn’t need to go that far. Mornings, as the rain evaporates in the chilly air, the mist hangs low and heavy, dripping on spider webs and damping the colors. You can be alone here if you wish, and not be bothered. You can cut across the field towards the church in Argenvilliers, then make a loop, past the horses at the Chateau d’Oursières and the pig farm, take a right at the large roadside cross, then continue towards the highest point in the area and never meet a soul. You can take your bike at sunset on exhausting rides up and exhilarating rides down to Vichères, Authon, or Rougemont, making larger circles, with the house at the center.
And because there are no demands, because it too has an ambiguous identity, you find yourself going further each time, exploring, making a silent claim to place again, then returning to the tiny house with the dark windows like a homing pigeon, tamed.