Road to Roussillon
Amid the crowd of travelers darting in front of the Avignon train station, the delivery boys on ancient bicycles swerving between children and horse carts, and the automobile drivers honking their horns, André stood relaxed, eating an apple from a fruit stand. Meanwhile, I paced in a tight circle around our carpetbags, our valises, and our crates filled with everything we could take with us from our apartment in Paris, plus the tools from his workshop, plus the dream of my life sacrificed.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I asked.
“Yes, Lisette.” André plucked a broad leaf off a nearby plane tree and laid it on a cobblestone. He touched my nose with his index finger and then pointed to the leaf. “He’ll park right there. On that cobblestone. Just watch.” He squeezed my hand. “In the south of France, things happen as they should.”
But apparently in the south of France, buses didn’t operate on schedule, as they did in Paris. Nor did the light have the same effect as it did there. Here, the light singed the eye, wrapped itself around edges, intensified colors, ignited the spine. If it were otherwise, I would not have recognized the loveliness in a bare square that was not Paris, but there it was—a shimmering watercolor of fathers and grandfathers sitting under the plane tree, their white shirts blued by the cornflower sky, which found openings in the foliage, the men eating almonds from a paper bag, passing it from one end of the bench to the other and back again, perhaps talking of better days. They looked content, sitting there, while I withdrew my hand from André’s and made another senseless circuit around the modest pile of our belongings, feeling his gaze following me.
“Look at them,” André said in a low voice. “All members of the Honorary Order of Beret Wearers.” He chuckled at his own invention.
Eventually a boxy little bus, a faded relic once painted orange beneath its rust, sputtered to a stop, the right front wheel crushing the leaf on the cobblestone. André tipped his head and gave me an excusably smug but tender smile.
The stocky driver bounded down the steps, nimble-footed, pointing his toes outward as weighty people do to keep their balance. He hailed André by name, reached his thick arm up to slap him on the back, and said he was glad to see him.
“How’s Pascal doing?” André asked.
“He gets around all right most days. Louise takes him his meals or he eats with us.”
The driver bowed to me with exaggerated courtliness.
“Adieu, madame. I am Maurice, un chevalier de Provence. A knight of the roads. Not, however, Maurice Chevalier, who is a knight of the stage.” He sent André a wink. “Your wife, she is more beautiful than Eleanor of Aquitaine.”
Foolishness. I would not fall for it.
Had he said Adieu? “Bonjour, monsieur,” I responded properly.
I was amused by his attire—a red cravat above his undershirt, the only shirt he wore, which dipped in front to show his woolly chest; a red sash tied as a belt; his round head topped by a black beret. Black hair curled out from his armpits, a detail I could have done without noticing, but I am, thanks to Sister Marie Pierre, the noticing type.
He placed a hand over his fleshy bosom. “I deliver ladies in distress. Enchanté, madame.”
I gave André a doleful look. I was in distress that very moment, already missing the life we had left behind.
“Vite! Vite! Vite!” The driver circled his arm around our bags in three quick movements, urging us to move quickly, quickly, quickly. “We leave in two minutes.” Then he was gone.
“One vite was enough, don’t you think?”
With a wry twist of his mouth, André said, “People in Provence speak robustly. They live robustly too. Especially Maurice.” André began loading our bags and crates. “He’s a good friend. I’ve known him ever since I was a boy, when Pascal used to take me to visit Roussillon.”
“What’s the red sash for?”
“It’s a taillole. It signifies that he’s a native son, a patriot of Provence.”
We waited ten minutes. Two men took seats in the back of the bus. Soon I heard robust snoring.
Our self-proclaimed chevalier finally scurried back. “Sorry, sorry. I saw a friend,” he said, working every feature of his round face, even his wide nostrils, into a smile of innocence, as though having seen a friend naturally justified the delay. He pumped up the tires with a hand pump—robustly, I observed—and started the engine, which choked in resistance, then lurched us ahead under the stone arch spanning the ramparts and out into the countryside to the east.
The road to Roussillon between two mountain ranges, the Monts de Vaucluse to the north and the Luberons to the south, kept me glued to the window. I had never been to the south of France.
“Stop here!” André ordered. The bus came to a shuddering stop and André hopped out, plucked a fistful of lavender growing wild along the roadside, climbed back in, and presented it to me. “To welcome you to Provence. I’m sorry it’s not in its full purple bloom yet. In July you’ll be astonished.”
A sweet gesture, sweet as the fragrance itself.
“How far is it to this Roussillon place?” I asked the driver as we started down the road again.
“Forty-five beautiful kilometers, madame.”
“Look. I think those are strawberry fields,” André said. “You love strawberries.”
“And melons,” Maurice added with a nasal twang. “The best melons in France are grown right here in the valleys of the Vaucluse. And asparagus, lettuce, carrots, cabbages, celery, artichokes—”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I get the idea.”
He would not be yes-yessed. “Spinach, peas, beets. On higher ground, our famous fruit trees, vineyards, and olive groves.”
He pronounced every syllable, even the normally mute e at the ends of some words, which made the language into something energetic, decorated, and bouncy instead of smoothly gliding, as it is in Paris.
“Apricots. You love them too,” André said. “You are entering the Garden of Eden.”
“I see one snake and I’m taking the next train back to Paris.”
I had to admit that the fruit trees, laden with spring blossoms, exuded a heavenly fragrance. The grapevines were sprouting small chartreuse leaves, wild red poppies decorated the roadside, and the sun promised warmth, so welcome after a frigid winter in Paris.
But to live here for God knows how long—I had more than misgivings. For me to surrender the possibility of becoming an apprentice in the Galerie Laforgue, the chance of a lifetime for a woman of twenty with no formal education, had already caused resentment to surface in me. When André had made what seemed an impulsive decision to leave Paris and live in a remote village just because his grandfather had appealed to him to keep him company in his failing health, I’d been shocked. That he would so easily abandon his position as an officer of the Guild of Encadreurs, the association of picture-frame craftsmen, a prestigious position for a man of twenty-three, was inconceivable to me.
I had gone crying to Sister Marie Pierre at the Daughters of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, the orphanage where I had been raised, complaining that he was shortsighted and selfish, but she had given me little sympathy. “Judge not, Lisette. See him in the best light, not the worst,” she’d said. And so here I was, bumping along in clouds of dust, despairing that I wasn’t in Paris, city of my birth, my happiness, my soul.
Following Sister Marie Pierre’s advice to try to see the situation in the best light, I ventured a possibility. “Tell me, monsieur. Does this town of yours have an art gallery?”
“A what?” he screeched.
“A place where original paintings are sold?”
He howled a laugh from his belly. “Non, madame. It is a village.”
His laughter cut deeply. My yearning for art was nothing casual or recent. Even when I was a little girl, this longing had been a palpable force every time I stole into the chapel of the Daughters of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul to look at the painting of the Madonna and Child. How a human being, not a god, could re-create reality so accurately, how the deep blue of her cloak and the rich red of her dress could put me, a young orphan without a sou to my name, in touch with all that was fine and noble, how such beauty could stir something in me so deep that it must have been what Sister Marie Pierre called soul—such things drenched me with wonder.
André jiggled my arm and pointed out a cluster of red geraniums spilling over the window box of a stone farmhouse. “Don’t worry. You’re going to like it here, ma petite.”
Because of geraniums?
“Certainement, she will,” Maurice chimed in from behind the wheel. “Once she becomes accustomed to les quatre vérités.”
Four truths? “And what might they be, monsieur?”
“You see three of them right here.” He took his arm off the steering wheel to wave vaguely at the countryside, apparently able to drive and listen and talk and gesture all at once. Presumably that was a skill of living robustly. “The mountains, the water, the sun.”
True enough. The sunlight made the snow on the peak of a mountain to the north blindingly white. It shone on a river to the south in dancing specks of brilliance and turned the canals into iridescent silver-green ribbons.
“And what’s the fourth, monsieur?”
“It can’t be seen, and yet its mark is everywhere.”
“A riddle. You’re telling me a riddle.”
“No, madame. I’m telling you a truth. André, he knows.”
I turned to André, who tipped his head toward the window and said, “Think and look. Look and think.”
I studied the landscape for some mark.
“Does it have to do with those stone walls?” They were actually only remnants of walls, piles of flat stones forming barriers nearly a meter thick, some with wayside niches for figures of saints, I presumed, although I hadn’t seen any.
“No, madame. Those were built in the Middle Ages to keep out the plague.”
“Not a comforting thought, monsieur. Neither is that scraping noise. Is there something wrong with your brakes?”
“No, madame. You are hearing the sound of cigales. Insects that make their mating calls when the temperature gets warm.”
Definitely something I would have to get used to. Thickly planted cypress trees lined the north sides of the vegetable fields. Their pointed shadows stretched toward us like witches’ gray fingers.
Looking from side to side, I noticed another peculiarity. “Why don’t the houses on the right side have windows facing the road, while the ones on the left side do?”
“Now you’re thinking. Look. They all have windows on three sides, but not on the north.”
But why? Did the sun glare through north windows too strongly? No. It would shine from the south, giving light to only half of the house. The other half would be dark and gloomy.
When I asked André for a hint, he told me to look at the roofs. They were terra-cotta tiles, long, tubular, and overlapping. Flat stones had been placed at their northern edges.
Excerpted from Lisette's List by Susan Vreeland. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Vreeland. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.