jeudi 20 mars 2008

The garden

The house sits with its back to the street, offering nothing to the passerby but a blind wall with a single window up on the bedroom level landing. As you drive up the street toward it, two windows gaze out over the road leading out of the village, but no one's head turns. I remember the first time I came here, home before it was that. A man bringing his future wife to the house they would occupy, the one with so much history already. She didn't know it yet. She thought they would sell, find an apartment near Paris. She could see the collection of car and motorcycle keys on rings with the ones to the apartment and the mailbox in a shallow bowl on a table just inside the foyer. The rest was unimaginable because they hadn't looked at any apartments yet, but she also suspected that it was because it wasn't going to happen that way. It didn't.

It was April then, sunny and hot for the season. I was jet-lagged but brimming with hope and anticipation. I still thought I would be moving into the house in a couple of months, not another year. The drive from Roissy had seemed very, very long, but Audouin prefers the longer roads less traveled. He pointed to the side of the house whose two upper windows peer down into the street, like the house is watching who is coming and going below, and said, "That's the house." I looked through the car window and hm'ed considerately, and appreciatingly enough I hoped. I had been imagining a recent suburban tract house, although I have no idea why, and then I remembered that he had said that it was old, with very thick walls, and that it was yellow. He had said that it sat on the street, and that you enter it from the side, although no one ever does. That door is always closed, and the garbage and recycling bins sit under the protection of its little roof. It looked tired in the April sun.

We parked the old BX across the street, in front of the neighbor's house, and I got out, turning to squint back up at the side gable. Behind the ivy were traces of faded burgundy faux timber in plaster against the washed out stucco. There was an iron gate, chipped paint falling away to let the metal rust, and when he opened it and stood back for me to pass, I crossed the shaded little courtyard with the bins and stepped down into the terrace onto which the house opens, and I caught my breath. The view opened up out over a wheat field bordered in the near distance by a row of trees.

"The Seine is just beyond," Audouin offered helpfully. It was a beautiful, overgrown wreck of a garden. Then I turned and saw the dark-painted French windows and balcony stretching the length of the house. It was a beautiful ruin of a house. I remembered also that he had said that his heart had stopped when he first visited it, and he knew it was the house for which he had been searching. That might have been the moment that my ability to imagine our apartment failed.
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The house sits on a plateau of chalk, dug from the cliff behind to form "the other side of the street" for the houses right under the cliff, some of which are partially troglodyte, or have garages that are. From the first terrace down to the field below is nearly 30 garden steps, or a story and a half. On either side there are the gardens belonging to the neighbors whose houses are across the street. In front of us is a field that as a flood and agricultural zone will never be built. We are saved from a "lotissement" -- or the groups of cheap tract houses on tiny lots that have become so prevalent, everywhere here -- below our house.

Immediately in front of the French door into the living room, there is a basin. When Audouin first lived here, it was still a fountain, complete with a three-tiered birdbath element surmounted by a plaster angel and offering fake stone benches at either side, from which to sit and watch the water fall. Aside from the aesthetic issue, there was just one other tiny problem; the pump for the fountain was so powerful that it was more like trying to relax and talk quietly beside the power dam just up the Seine from us. The water did not drip, it fell. You have to raise your voice still to be heard over it, which is very stressful and tiring. No one asks up to keep it on once they hear it.

Having decided that it was an eyesore, Audouin set out to destroy the fountain and replace it with grass, only having gotten as far as the removal of the angel and the top two-tiers of the fountain element, when it occurred to him that he had no idea how he was going to get rid of all the concrete that formed the basin itself. He carried the fake stone benches off to the gloriette, or gazebo, and the water sat in the basin until one day it came to him to put the goldfish from the bowl, which he found too sad a life for them, into the basin. They multiplied. Maybe they were happier. From there, it was only natural to begin to install water lilies, put the old stone sink he found down in the lower garden in and fill its basin with moss and grasses, take a bunch of reeds from his sister's home near Blois and put that in there, too. It became a marsh.

One day, looking up the frogs that live in it to see what kind they are (I think they are actually the common European water-loving, smooth-skinned toads Buffo), I read that if frogs or toads move into your basin, it means that a perfect ecosystem has been established. I felt very proud of Audouin.

If the garden sits on terraces, five of them, its theme is approximate symmetry and couplings with occasional accidents, but I wasn't thinking much about this in the earliest days. Mostly, all you could see was chaos. I can hear one reader thinking, "But, of course there is order in that chaos," and there was. But, that is our story, and for that, you will have to patienter un peu plus car j'ai des choses à faire aujourd'hui. I am having lunch with my first client -- brave and kind friends -- in my new career as a garden designer.

And there is another story to follow.
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