vendredi 19 février 2010


Horse farm, on the edge of the village

It's been a long, long day, in a long, long week.

I washed my (husband's) workers' blues and hung them up for the day. There were other things to do, things that required clean jeans and a little make-up, for appearance's sake. For one thing, I had a chainsaw to recover from the agricultural equipment place in Perdreauville, 15 minutes from Moosesucks.

You leave the house, drive along the Seine and make a right to climb up onto the plateau above the Vallée de la Seine, and the land opens up and rolls in gentle hills an vales, covered with fields and dotted with villages, farms, and criss-crossed by roads people have used to visit one another for centuries, covered with chunks of mud and scattered with stone, villainous to cars, let alone deux roues. I feel like I have traveled to another country when I leave the road through the Fôret Régionale de Rosny and emerge in this landscape. It's France to me.

When I first moved here, and I am specifically referring to here, outside Paris, from the exurban sprawl of the Tri-State area, the thing that struck me was the value for farmland. Paris ends. You can draw a line around the métropole. There is the Paris of the Parisians, which is enclosed by the Péripherique, a 20th century wall of vehicular traffic linking the 23 portes de Paris, and then there is the Paris that includes its nearest suburbs, although les parigos would never allow this, and then, it stops. Development ends and gives way to fields that stretch out along the highway, a city here and there, tightly concentrated, so as not to encroach on the farming that takes place in the space of the Empire State Building to the Bronx Botanical Garden, just on the other side of the Fôrest de Marly, Louveciennes, Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Real farming takes place. Men and heavy farm equipment. Harvests of grains, vegetables, and fruit orchards and horse breeding. Men hunt. Stores sell feed and neon collars for hunting dogs, alongside rifles and ammunition, camouflage and boots, and if you don't spend your day in an office, you notice the legions of fourgons and fourgonettes on the road that would just as soon run you off the road as be delayed one second in getting from here to there. They carry the men. Not the men in suits, but the men who work the job sites and who hunt. Not that they don't drive cars. They do. They also favor these vehicles that either crawl along, old men in no hurry and a dog riding gunshot, or run you off the road in a daily reenactment of Duel, younger men with toolboxes stowed in the rear and ladders lashed to the roof.

Yesterday, I crossed a line. I put on my husband's blue workers' jumpsuit, and I went out of the house, and I might as well as walked out fully unclothed for the effect that had. Women, in short, do not wear this particular item of clothing reserved for men, even when they are doing "a man's job". That they should be doing that is already questionable.

It started with the construction workers up on the scaffolding on the old school across the street the village is renovating and transforming into three apartments. Conversations stopped. No one called out to one another. One head after another turned to look at this woman, the waist of whose unmistakably blue and overly large "work" jumpsuit was cinched up to keep the crotch from drooping to mid-thigh and tripping her up. She nodded hello, straightened to make her unimpressive height appear more striking and acted as though it was perfectly normal to wear such clothing and lug bag after bag of rubble to the car. She suspected a note of derision. She wasn't certain.

"Elle est au sol la voiture," one called out.

"Pas plus que moi," I returned to the guy up on the top plank, two others crowded behind him, peering at me around his broad shoulders. "Vous travaillez chez le couvreur (that's a roofer, and I meant the one in the village)?"


"Vous allez passer chez moi tout à l'heure. Je ne veux pas dire cet après-midi, mais très bientôt." I pointed to the roof and said we had a leak, where the roof of the newer part of the house joins the higher all of the original building. I couldn't think of the word in French for "roof valley".

"L'adossement?" he offered. Yeah. I waved and headed back in for another bag of rubble, a can of paint the renovation company has left outdoors for months, a few worn out broom heads, two broken wood sawhorses, and some plastic sheeting, covered with the first paint for the shutters José lamely attempted to apply with a brush before I suggested they have them done properly in a paint shop, that needed to go to the dump. I put the car in gear and eased it off the curb -- is it any wonder it needs new shock absorber seals and ball bearings? Ahem --, bumped gently through the potholes of Méricourt -- the real reason our cars have bad knees? -- and came to a stop at the half-hearted traffic circle in Rolleboise.

Now, you have to understand that when we arrive here, we have priority over anyone traveling on the main road from our left, but not if there is anyone coming down the hill from the right. This is called la priorité à droite in France, and it is as complex an affair as French cooking. The car in front of me began to ease out into traffic, turning left in front of a car full of young bloods who were not about to let him have his priority.

I hate that.

He went for it anyway, and I started to follow, just to let them know we had the priority and they didn't.

Stupid, I know, and just how stupid is about to become clear. It must have been the testosterone effect of the bleus de travail.

What I noticed in the next split second was that there were cars coming from the right; the other driver had had time, but I would be denying them their due priority if I didn't let them go, and since there were 5 cars, the proper thing was to let everyone on my left who could pass in the time those 5 cars did go ahead. The first car to my right would have left me go, but it was wrong. You can feel the tension emanating from the vehicles behind in these situations, and meanwhile, the idiots in the tuned car to my left were making the car bounce with their agitation. I tried to put the car in reverse, but one of the heavy bags of rubble had slipped and was blocking access to the gearstick.


Not only had I been in the wrong, I was now unable to move. I struggled a little more, got the car into reverse and backed up. Traffic began to circulate again, and I looked up just in time to see a fairly well dressed woman in a dark metallic gray late model Renault minivan pass by me, from my right. She fixed me with a look of pure disgust and made the universal sign, narrowing her eyes, cocking her head toward me and rotating her index finger to show pose the rhetorical question, "Mais! Vous êtes complètement folle?"

My heart slammed in my blue-covered chest, in my old model, filthy, rust spotted Fiat Uno, loaded with rubble and garbage. Mais! Comment osez-vous? And, then I looked at myself, and I saw me as she did. I felt ashamed, and ashamed to feel ashamed. The traffic passed, and I eased onto the main road; I wanted to call my husband and cry. I didn't have my cell phone, and, besides, he had better things to do than console his completely marginal wife, who actually felt proud to be able to get on with a job most people wouldn't touch, make her house a thing of her own. I know the dirt under my floors.

Can you say that?

I know of what they will be made and how to do that.

Can you say that?

I drove along, past the eviscerated Florosny, emptied by years of poor management and a final business decision, and on under the magisterial plane trees on the way into Rosny. I told myself the hurt and shame would pass.

They always do.

I approached the intersection at the hospital, and waited for the light to turn. A fourgon moved forward at the same time I did, slowly. I looked to my left and saw the man at the wheel, a nice looking guy, watching me. He wanted me to see him watching me. I wondered if he were our BMW motorcycle mechanic. He kind of looked like him, but I didn't think so. He didn't turn like I was going to do, in the direction of the dealership. He wanted me to see him notice me, and I could feel it from where I had been sitting, surrounded by plastic bags of rubble in my bleus de travail.

"La seule chose plus sexy qu'une femme dans des bleus de travail," said my husband later, "c'est une femme sur une moto, ou," he laughed, and I finished with him une femme en bleus de travail sur une moto!

"Je pourrais l'unzipper jusqu'à là," I indicated a point on my torso, just below the solar plexus, and struck a mechanic's calendar pose. It was just what I had been thinking, looking at the guy trying to get my attention in my little beat up car.

I eased the car around the corner and drove up the low rise over the train tracks.

The man at the dump was waiting for me. He knew I was returning. He smiled and signaled me to maneuver my car in front of the dumpster he knew I knew was the one. He didn't look at me funny. These guys smiled, and helped. Maybe they laughed later, but they helped, and on the way home, I thought again about the old Italian mason from Udine, who had been happy to drink my coffee as long as he thought he could swindle me of our money, like he has others over the years he has built his personal fortune in local building.

"Je connais Langlois," he told me, as though that said it all. Langlois was the local construction scion. He is dead now, and his company has remained in the family, but moved out of the village. I had nodded politely. "Vous connaissez Langlois?"

"Je sais qui c'était, oui." I knew who he was, yes.

He returned several times after his first visit to see the room in which I want a new concrete slab for the oak flooring. Each time, unannounced. Baccarat would bark, and he'd be there at the door, waiting for me to say something, as though he had already spoken.

On his third or fourth visit, the second day, he stood in my outdoors indoors, shoes in the dust of the broken up concrete and old brick hollow block, and said, "Je pense que ça va faire 2,000 euros." He waited a second, and then he added, "Vous voulez un devis détaillé?" Yes, I wanted a detailed estimate.

"Oui. La banque le voudra," he looked puzzled, and I explained that we had taken a loan, naturally, to do the work on the house, and they prefer detailed estimates and bills. I followed him to the gate to see him off, and he promised to bring the estimate by the next day. True to his word, it was in the mailbox on the gate the next morning. A brief description of the work and the total, 2,110 euros, including the 5.5% tax for renovation work on older properties. I stuffed it in a pile of papers on the dining table and went on about my day. He wasn't getting the job.

The next morning, he called. I didn't pick up. I had things to do. I'd call him later. And then Baccarat barked, and there was his short, round form, his black cap set on his white head, hands in the pockets of his jacket.

"Bonjour, Monsieur. Ce n'est pas vraiment un bon moment. Je dois aller chercher ma belle-fille."

"Vous avez eu mon devis?"

"Oui, je l'ai eu. J'allais vous appeler ce soir."

"Alors, on fait les travaux?"

"Vous comptez combien de temps dans votre devis?" He raised his hand and made a noise to show his displeasure. He did not like being questioned.

"Vous avez dit que vous feriez un devis détaillé, mais je ne vois pas la justification des 2,000 euros. Il est quand même normal de vous demander le coût en temps et en matériels --" he made another inarticulate sound of displeasure and turned on his heel, heading for the gate. I followed him. "Monsieur, vous partez là?" He turned back to fix the cord on the gate and raised his eyes to look at me. "Je vous parle. Vous partez là, comme ça?" I'm speaking to you, I said. You are leaving now, like that?

"Vous me demandez un devis, bah!"

"Oui, Monsieur, faites-nous un devis qui justifiant les 2,000 euros, en on en parlera."

"Je peux parler avec votre mari?" I saw stars. Can I speak to your husband? he had asked. My husband. I wanted to tell him we were not in Mussolini's Italy.

"Monsieur, mon mari me fait confiance avec ce genre d'affaire, mais croyez-moi qu'il vous poserait les mêmes questions. Il serait encore plus sevère. Vous ne parlerez pas avec mon mari. Il travail dur et rentre tard. Vous aurez à faire avec moi." Which means to say that my husband trusts me with this sort of transaction, but he'd better bet that he'd ask the same questions and be even more severe about it. He works hard and comes home late. He'd have only me with whom to deal.

"Mais il est français votre mari?" But your husband is French? I saw the heavens open and Zeus himself brandishing a thunderbolt menacingly over the old chauvinist's toothless head.

"Au revoir, Monsieur." I attached the cord and watched him shuffle angrily off to his car.

"Je te l'ai dit. C'est un con," said my husband. I told you. He's a jerk. "Je ne l'ai pas aimé quand il est venu voir quelque chose ici il y a longtemps." My husband had already found it incredible that he was still alive. Perhaps he had looked older than his years then, despite his dapper clothing. His teeth only fell out recently, though. He told me about that, and the problems with his throat and the camera they put down it, and how he only drinks a thimble of whiskey in his coffee over a cup without whiskey in our living room. He never touches wine.

This morning, the phone rang. It was his number. My cell phone rang. Leaving the supermarket at 2:57 pm, I found another call from him at 1:12 pm, no message. The phone rang while I was having the car inspected.


"Bonjour Madame -- " and then it became incomprehensible. I asked several times what he was saying. I knew he was trying to offer me a lower price. I wasn't interested.

"Je ne vous comprends pas. Qu'est-ce que vous dites?"

"Le devis --"

"Oui, Monsieur, votre prix est beaucoup trop cher." Just that morning I had found an estimate from another guy who came by. He wanted 595 euros plus tax. I had laughed out loud. That was the price I had been expecting, a half day's work and materials. A third guy had told me he would figure a half day's labor, and I was waiting for his estimate. "J'ai des devis trois fois moins chers, Monsieur."

"J'ai fait un autre devis. J'ai revu le projet et j'ai changé des choses. 1,400."

"1,400 c'est toujours beaucoup trop cher. J'ai des devis pour moins que la moitié."

"Mais c'est des matériaux moins biens --"

"C'est du béton, Monsieur. On parle du béton armé et de l'isolant, pas du marbre. D'ailleurs, nous n'avons pas apprécié que vous demandez de parler avec mon mari, ni lui ni moi."

"Mais! Je peux parler avec votre mari?"

"Non, Monsieur. Il ne veut pas parler avec vous non plus. Il vous connais. Vous avez raison. Vous êtes déjà venu à la maison, il y a quelques années, mais il n'a pas engagé votre entreprise."

"Je connais votre mari." I wasn't sure if it was a statement or a question.

"Oui, vous l'avez rencontrez. Vos prix sont trop chers, Monsieur --" I heard a click, but I hung up before I was absolutely certain he had. Vieux con.

Tomorrow, I put my husband's bleus de travail on again. Maybe I'll buy my own.

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