We were down to the last few days of our expedition to find a French Home. I began to sense in Davis a grim determination to see every house in the district. I was Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote in this quest and he had convinced me that the house that we had come to the other side of the world to see, Coeur de Prieur, was out of the question. Too much work needed to make it habitable. Accordingly I had subsided into sight-seeing mode. But the Don’s determination was not as easily subdued.
The real estate agent, Mme. Di., had another house to show us. It was situated on the edge of a small village. When the widow and her family who owned the property decided to sell it the angry tenants had damaged it. They left taking some of the marble fireplaces surrounds with them. This house had been the property of the one family for the last 150 years, but probably because of the difficult French inheritance laws the Moinet family found themselves obliged to sell. It was a sad thing for the family and for the house.
In its four attics, one almost as big as a tennis court, we found piles of children’s school exercise-books over a hundred years old; the painstaking copying exercises as generations of the children of the family learned to write in that distinctive French style.
As with the other houses we viewed we recorded a video of the first moments we saw Tournasol. My breath was visible in the cold air as I opened wide the rusty iron gate and made my way across a large drive-in entry area and the front garden, through another smaller iron gate. The internal courtyard gate was almost hidden in honey suckle and climbing roses even in the cold of November.
With a sense of occasion Mme. Di laid the ornate key across my palm: it was longer than my whole hand. When we viewed the main body of this Charentaise house we encountered none of the problems that plagued Coeur du Prieure’. That house was without heating and had one long dormitory bedroom with a door at either end. Tourners had seriously hideous and elephantine oil heating fixtures throughout, but at least it was there.
There were minor difficulties obvious here too and, we would discover later many problems that came with the house and with living in rural France in general. Inside, it was painted in garish, fluorescent hues, and the tenants, in their pique, had filled one of its toilets with cement. But in its absolute centre, in a modest hall there is a handmade, curving staircase that sweeps up through the two stories and on to the third and attic floor. It has a wide, graceful and rather rickety swirl. The rooms downstairs on either side of the hall were, to our citified eyes, enormous. That I had already been reminded of my country childhood was evident in my rapt comment: “big enough to hold a barn dance” I told the mystified Mme Di.
The house rests on one of the highest vantage points in the village, its “great windows open to the south.” We took along a compass to check. Its face is turned directly to the south. Hence, it is in sunshine the whole day through. In the deep shade under the Lime tree the temperature is a good ten degrees cooler than the sun filled parts of the front courtyard. In high summer, all around the village, there are colorful, wide, market umbrellas for the outdoor living that the French so love. Fortunately too, the house’s thick walls keep the interior at a comfortable temperature. From one side the upper stories look across the town and river to trees, fields and the beautiful 9th Century chateau. The sturdy church spire is visible from the southern-facing bedroom window. The church spire has a certain lumpish dignity that reminded us of Proust’s fictional grand-mere’s boast for their local steeple at Combray, “If that spire could play the piano, it would not sound tinny”.
In the front courtyard a stone table and its benches shelter under the Linden tree. The tree’s leaves had fallen, apricot and golden on the neglected front garden. In the other corner of the courtyard beside a young shapely bay tree is a small building with a multicoloured, mossy, tiled roof: It is a buanderie (laundry) still with its original fire place and huge cast iron boiler for the family’s washing. Behind the house we found a large neglected garden complete with apple trees, plum trees, cherry tree, and grape vines: so far so good.
There was also an toilet situated outside the house and it had a double seat. We had heard about the double seat thing and had thought it a leg-pull. But there it was and no disputing it.
To our surprise since, as we understood it, the kitchen was the hub of French family life, this kitchen was a rather ordinary affair. Its only interesting feature was its main cupboard inset in the metre thick wall and covered with chicken wire to keep the rodents at bay we imagined. In rural France they don’t do built in kitchens and this one was completely bare except for an ugly, leaky sink.
Immediately behind the kitchen however, where we admire it each time we pass through on route to the “barrel room” that is still further behind the kitchen, there is a wine press. The press is an enormous – over a metre and a half in diameter. It was the biggest we had seen until then. It sits majestically in its own specially built concrete trough and its huge screw is up at eye level. With all its slats, screws and weights it looks as if it would make a handy instrument of torture if ever we have need of one.
A rough conduit runs through the wall behind to empty into an even bigger barrel in the adjoining room. It is so big that I can sit in it and with my arms outstretched they do not touch its sides. Standing, I can just peep over its rim.
The barrel room is full of barrels and is the coolest place in the house since it is two thirds underground. Perfect for cheeses and wines.
But more intriguing, for Davis at least, was the fact that four keys to the dependent buildings (les batiments) were missing! Mme Jones undertook to get the keys and we were to return the next day. This meant that we had the good fortune to meet Madame Moinet who had spent all of her married life in this house. An elegant and playful woman Mme. Moinet was about seventy years old. When Mme. Di telephoned to arrange delivery of the keys she was questioned about our nationality. “Ils sont Francais ou les etrangers?” she asked. “Etrangers.” Came the reluctant reply.
Yet Madam Moinet escorted us over the house, gracefully telling its history and showing us its virtues. “In this room I had my two daughters” she said, and meditatively “the carpet was green”. She looked down at the current coir matting, her gaze dreamy. Her husband had died and we think she was obliged to sell the house because of French inheritance laws. If the family home is listed in the name of the male partner only, his widow does not inherit and it is left to the children.
In the garden Madame stooped and plucked a violet which she carried as we perused her garden. She pointed out the English roses climbing meters high and spreading wide against the walls of the barns. Her husband had planted them thirty years before, “When they bloom they cover the wall so completely, it is as if it is one single flower.” “Here we grew our vegetables.” She pointed to the vines climbing over a very rustic trellis “These are delicious grapes.” She twinkled at Davis even swishing her skirt at him playfully and before she left she offered the violet to me. I took that to mean though we are “etrangers” we would do. We hope she and her family drive by occasionally and see all the attention and love we have lavished upon their home.
It seems also that it has never had a name of its own. In everyone’s memory it has always been called “The Moinet House.” Clearly this would no longer do. We did not have to rack our brains about it because the name seemed to come to us. We like sunflowers. They are cheerful. In summer, all the fields surrounding the village are filled with sunflowers and because the house has its sweet old face turned so perfectly to the sun, we call it Le Tournesol. Tournesol is the French for “sunflower” and like so many French words it is an adaptation of a descriptive phrase. It is a fusion of “turning” and “sun”, and in the Australian way, we have nicknamed it “Tourners”. Since in our experience the naming of houses is reminiscent of the naming of cats, we have borrowed a sentiment from T.S. Elliot. A cat, says Elliot, must have three different names:
“The naming of cats is a difficult thing/ It isn’t just one of your holiday games/ You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have three different names./ First of all there’s the name the family use daily/…. But I tell you a cat needs a name that’s peculiar and more dignified/ Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular/ Or spread out his whiskers or cherish his pride/ But above and beyond there’s still one name left over/ And that is the name that you never will guess/The name that no human research can discover/ But That The Cat Himself knows and will never confess./ …A Deep and Inscrutable and singular name.
Tourners boasts an even more complex nomelacture. It has four names: the names we have bestowed upon it, Tournesol in summer, and in spring, Les Iris, since it has deep purple bearded Iris around the bases of its walls. It has the name the village people call it: The Moinet House; and finally there is that secret name which it discloses to no one, but keeps to itself and we can only guess at.
Tourners is a handsome old house, but Davis is right to have fallen in love with its dependant buildings. Flowing on from the house in a gentle arch sweeping round behind the generous driveway there is a row of connected batiments: a wine cellar, which Monsieur Albert assured us was once used to house horses. That might have been the case but when we cleaned it out we discovered several very old looking, unlabeled bottles full, it transpired, of cognac. Next, a large cobbled workshop packed full of exotic old tools, horse collars, saddles, and harnesses. Then a double shed seemingly used for trucks and the like and finally another vast building that we call “the tall Barn”. This shed housed Monsieur Moinet’s commercial sized wine vats. The roof is so high in this barn that there is a narrow mezzanine gallery. To my literary eye the mezzanine looks for all the world as if were built to accommodate a country band to celebrate the end of harvest. In fact the wine merchant used it to sample and minister to his meters-high vats. Adjoining the “tall Barn” tucked in a place we call “the Grotto” Monsieur Moinet kept his hunting hounds.
The numerous and large attics were a source of wonder to us and in need of a terrifying amount of clearing out; One above the house, and over the other workshops there are three more large Grenier. When we cleaned them we opened the shutters and threw all the decades of accumulated bric a brac into the courtyard below. The pile reached above Davis’ head: almost 2 metres tall. There are two dovecotes or pigeonnaires one large and one small. They have the special small windows built into the stonewall to allow the birds in and out. In the smaller pigeonnaire we found little roosting boxes set against the walls. They are just like the boxes in Picasso’s Pigeon series of paintings and we have painted our own homage to Picasso on the wide blank walls we discovered in the other partially refurbished pigeon coop.
There were piles of large hessian bags in the attics and we filled them all with cobwebs and dust. Neither of us can remember working as hard as this before or since, but there was something magical in the discoveries we made as we cleaned: an ancient wooden wheelbarrow, old carved pitchforks and rakes, a device with a stool for a seated peddler to turn a grinding stone wheel for sharpening tools and knives, dusty barrels and wine making paraphernalia everywhere. The surprises came quickly, one after the other, with no time to get bored with cleaning: hundreds of preserving jars and bottles and a beautiful old oak wine dray for hauling the barrels. We cleaned it and treated it for any woodworm that may have lingered. Waxed it makes a perfect receptacle for wood and now it glows warmly beside the fireplace.
Attic cleaning was like a treasure hunt and the treasure kept coming. Our bodies did tire though and after a hot bath in the evening I was always fast asleep in front of the fire by the time Davis had finished bathing too and cooked the evening meal.
In the attics there were no lights until we had them put in, so we had to open up the shutters to let in the natural light to see what was there. Generations of Moinet children had left us piles of laboriously worked exercise and copy-books in the attics; and piles of hand-sewed linen tunics they wore as wine makers and merchants. The women have bequeathed us hand stitched, nightgowns of very coarse linen and linen sheets, some turned top to middle. In one corner of the largest attic were the great arched hoops of a covered wagon that in England would be called a charabanc; its wooden arches straggling remnants of canvas canopy.
Here also there were the horse-collars and saddles for the animals that pulled the drays and elaborate and strange looking old lamps. Having no clue what these last might be since they clearly involved the use of some flammable material, we decided to ask the knowledgeable Monsieur Albert. He examined one of them with great care opening and closing its small compartment with a flourish, twisting the large knob on top and sliding the little drawer in and out with an air of tremendous expertise. “Ces sont pour le chauffage des pieds!” He pronounced. His manner was very kind and a little bit condescending since it really should have been obvious to anyone. We were enormously pleased and completely convinced by his air of assurance. It was a very long time till Davis realised that they are in fact carbide lights for some old vehicle. We began to eye our diminutive Chef du Coin with a little less credulity, but our admiration for his air of verisimilitude was only enhanced.