If there is a line between “news” and “gossip” in the village it is a fine line indeed, and mostly it’s just considered knowing what’s going on. Karen sometimes refers to it as “jungle drums.” We got our first hint of it with the “Butter Shirt Incident.” Then, around Christmas, we left Manu and his employees at the butcher shop a small box of chocolates, a petite cadeau. Two days later, sure enough, Anthony says to me, “So, I heard you gave a box of chocolates to Manu,” proving the network moves in both directions.
After the fire at Manu’s, donation boxes turned up at local businesses. I surreptitiously slipped a generous offering into the box at the bakery one day when nobody was looking, and a day or two later after I made a purchase, when I pitched a couple of euros change into the box, Madame said, “No. No, it’s not necessary, you already gave!” I was surprised by that, and mentioned it to Karen.
“I don’t know why she did that, ” I said, “she doesn’t know we put that big donation in.”
“Oh, yes she knows,” said Karen. “Everybody in the village knows. Nobody in the village put in that much.”
Thus, a couple of months ago word circulated through town that the woman who owns the Proxi, one of the two small epiceries in town, was retiring and selling the place. Word had it, the Proxi was being bought by a couple from out of town.
The woman, they said, was British, and our spirits fell: Oh no! British food.
But, they said, her husband is Italian, and our spirits soared: Oh Boy, Italian food!
Call it prescience or just good luck for the owner, the sale was consummated early in March; call it bad luck for the new owners, they took over a couple of days before the Corona virus quarantine took effect. It is, in the best of times no easy matter for two strangers, a Brit and an Italian, to open a business in a small French village where change does not come easily, where loyalties are hard to make and harder to change. And this is not the best of times: people are quarantined in their homes, a virtual hall-pass is required to be out on the streets, and the supply chain for a small grocery store is uncertain.
My first visit to the newly reopened Proxi was, well, interesting. The new proprietor, a young man (hell, everybody is young to me these days) waited uneasily behind the counter when I gave him a cheery entry bonjour. When I got to the counter to check out my purchase, I had barely gotten out my first few words in French when he interrupted me and said, “You speak English?”
“Yes, I’m American.”
“Good,” he said, with a clearly Italian accent, “I’d rather speak English than French.”
We start chatting away, and he tells me his wife is English, he lived in England for a long time, and yadda yadda yadaa, and other folks are coming into the store for the first time, and I’m thinking to myself, Great, here’s an Italian yammering away to The Town American in English, in a village full of French people. I wonder how this is gonna work out?
His name is Maurizio, and it is apparently working out just fine. He’s a charming guy. He’s become increasingly chatty, at least with me, and he’s working hard to get whatever people are looking for. His wife, meanwhile, a month after the opening, is still a rumor. No sign of her yet, although Maurizio says she plans to bring in flowers, something that is lacking in the village, and would be pleasurably received in normal times. Not sure how flower sales will go in a quarantine.
But in a time of quarantine, news is at a premium, and there are a lot of unanswered questions. Take the post office and the mail. Nobody seems to know exactly what’s doing with the mail.
The thing is, in normal times the village post office is only open three days a week, from 9 am till noon. The office, conveniently located on Rue de la Poste, is a windowless building that requires you to ring the door bell and state your purpose into a speaker before you are buzzed in, although your purpose should be fairly obvious by your presence at the front door of the post office.
But these are not normal times, and on the door to the post office as well as on the door to the Mairie, there is a poster directing anyone who desires postal services to go to the post office in La Fleche, which is 10 kilometers away.
A couple of days ago, in response to my most recent post here in the blog, a much-loved lifelong friend offered to write me a letter, for older time’s sake, and I instinctively warned him off, as even under normal circumstances mail delivery, at least to us, has been well, a bit dodgy. Karen ordered something through the mail from a merchant in France in January of 2019, and it was delivered last January, as in this past January, 2020. So, figuring that no matter how long this quarantine kept us from returning to the US, whatever he sent would likely arrive the day after we leave, I thought it best to discourage sending me a letter.
Which brings us back to Maurizio.
Being a foreigner here, like us, he is in a constant exchange of documents with various offices of the French bureaucracy. He needs to mail stuff. He needs a post office. And, he discovered, the post office in La Fleche is now also closed. He needs to go to Angers, which is roughly a two-hour drive. And, of course, he has no idea how long that letter will take to get where its going, nor whether or not there will be anyone there to deal with it when it arrives.
And that’s how we found out where to mail a letter.
From Maurizio. The Italian guy at the Proxi who prefers to speak English.