Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guest Post: Le Comité de Reception


Well-known St. Remy resident Paul Taylor has been a foreign correspondent with Reuters, the international news organization, since 1977. Today he is Reuters' European Affairs Editor, leading coverage of the Eurozone crisis. Originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, Paul first came to France as a high school exchange student in 1970. He studied history and French at Balliol College, Oxford, and wrote his masters dissertation on the French revolutionary terror in Poitiers. Paul met Catherine Maier in St. Remy in 1976, when her parents, who ran an antique shop on the Rue Carnot, picked him up hitch hiking. They married in 1983 and now divide their time between Paris and Provence. Paul's first foreign posting as a Reuters correspondent was to Paris in 1978-9 during Giscard d’Estaing's days, and his 11 years as a Paris-based journalist include six as chief correspondent for France in the 1990s, covering the late Mitterrand and early Chirac eras. In his long and stellar journalism career, Paul has covered many major global events: the Iranian revolution, the Cold War and the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the first Palestinian Intifada, the Maastricht Summit, the birth of the European single currency and the Camp David peace negotiations. I've read many of Pauls news and analysis stories over the years, but never anything personal. So  I asked him to share a great Provence snapshot or memory...and this evocative piece is what he sent.

They were as Provencal as garlic, lavender or olive oil. Sitting across our back alley shaded from the afternoon sunshine like a picket line on strike against the heat. For years, we ran the gauntlet of our next-door neighbours each time we entered or left our house in the old centre of Saint-Remy-de-Provence. We dubbed them “le comité de reception” -- the receiving committee.

There was Louise, a cheery, plump woman whose kitchen door on one side of our alleyway was aways open, exuding enticing smells of fried onions, garlic and tomato as if she only ever ate ratatouille. Almost always dressed in a stained blue apron, Louise loved to tempt us in to see what was on the stove. She never had children but doted on ours. Then there was Mme. Brini – we were too polite to ask her first name – a slight, dark-haired lady with a black spot on one cheek, always dressed, or so it seemed, in the same light blue striped nylon garment that doubled as a dressing gown and a kitchen overall. Sometimes Mr. Brini joined them. A dapper fellow with a bad back which curtailed his petanque-playing, he didn’t say much. Not that he got a chance. Louise and Mme. Brini kept up a steady chatter in a mixture of Provencal and French that was impenetrable to outsiders.  

They had been there long before we arrived in Saint-Remy thirty years ago and it seemed we almost needed their permission to cross our own threshold. Like a Greek chorus, they gave us a running commentary on our own lives, punctuated by sighs of “pardi” or “peu chere” (“by God” or “poor dear”).

“So we’re coming home, are we?” Louise would say, using the versatile French pronoun “on,” which could refer to us, or to herself, or both. Not so much a question as a statement of fact. “Been shopping?” she would observe as we schlepped baskets of food from the market. “Haven’t eaten yet?” she asked almost reproachfully if we arrived after 1 p.m.  Before we could answer, she would say “We’ve had ours”, patting her ample belly contentedly with both hands over the stained apron.

One day my wife told Louise she had been shopping in Avignon. To our astonishment, Louise said had never been to Avignon, the main town just 20 km (12 miles) from Saint-Remy.

“He rang the bell but we told him there was nobody there,” Mrs Brini would chime in, reporting the unsuccessful passage of a tradesman.

Sometimes, they would sound as if they were commenting on our private life. “She’s gone,” I was told on coming home one day. The word “partie” sounded more final than “sortie” and carried an undertone of commiseration. When my wife returned as I was chatting with the reception committee, Louise piped up “La revoila” ...“There she is again."  In retrospect, it reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s killer line in the 1980 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter--“there you go again”--implying a relapse into some unhealthy habit.

Perhaps unfairly, I imagined them gossiping disapprovingly about our lifestyle, the length of my hair or our unorthodox late eating hours. It was my wife’s second marriage. The reception committee had seen her tread the same alleyway and enter the same portal with her previous husband. 

Yet looking back, I find no trace of hostility or intrusiveness, only the conviviality of outdoor Provencal life, which we didn’t truly appreciate until it was gone. Having lived in Germany, I have experienced nosy neighbours. One complained to me that my car was dirty. Others had a friend fined by the town hall public order office for failing to clear leaves and snow from the sidewalk outside his house in winter.  He was out of the country at the time, but was fined anyway.

By comparison, our reception committee was a model of benevolence. After they died, we felt a real sense of loss. Sometimes, as if their ghosts still haunted our empty alleyway, my wife and I exchange glances as we approach our doorway. “So we’re coming home, are we?” she says to me. And I reply, “We’ve had ours” patting my stomach. And we chuckle with fond nostalgia. -- Paul Taylor

The painting above is "Place Favier, St Remy de Provence," a 20" x 30" oil on canvas by artist Jack Morrocco, who divides his time between Fife (Scotland) and the Cote d'Azur. This small, peaceful square is very near Paul and Catherine's house.

9 comments:

  1. What a beautiful piece. Thank you Paul for sharing a Provence that I have never seen, even though I live just over the Alpilles in Arles. And thank you Julie for asking him to write it!

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  2. Lovely story! It reminds me of our first neighbours in Tarascon, an old Gypsy couple who used to leave food for us or the dogs. When we moved a few streets further into the centre of the Old Town they warned us "Fait attention, ils sont pas comme nous ...." be careful they are not like us ....we laughed but
    they were right!

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  3. I so enjoyed reading this!! I wish it were the introduction to a book about Provence. I'm left wanting to know more!
    Thank you, Paul and Julie.

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  4. Lovely story. Yes, does sound like the start of a must read book about St Remy/Provence.

    So nice too that the old neighbours were so real and so friendly. In almost all books/blogs about France now French women are presented as ultra chic and impossibly slim and sleek. This story fits more with my memories and even with more recent observations. Of course there are wonderfully chic women but many are quite ordinary and companionable. Not icons on pedestals. What a relief!

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  5. What wonderful descriptions I can imagine these fabulous characters in my head. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Beautiful and so descriptive.....Paul should think about a book of Provence short stories....

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  7. La France Profonde ... we can only admire !

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  8. What a nice way to think of the colorful residents of St Remy...

    Makes us want to be there...

    Rikki

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