I have fallen deeply in love with this village, Luche-Pringe; with the village, with the life we have here. There is the village–streets that radiate the feel of history, that fall into silence at night as lights go out and the village is wrapped in darkness and silence of near total sensory deprivation but for the skies, the spectacular starry skies unlike anything I have ever experience before, save when miles out to sea, far from land. But mostly, there are the people.
On most mornings I quickly dress and walk less than one minute to the bakery. Along the way I pass the boucherie of Manu. Nearly destroyed by fire in February, it reopened in August to a wave of heartfelt joy and excitement throughout not only the village but the entire region. Manu is open! People celebrated, people smiled, Manu and Magali were back in business! With the reopening–all new, better than ever–life in the village returned to normal. Each morning as I walk past, through the window I give a big wave, and Manu and Magali catch a glimpse, stop what they’re doing and wave a big, smiling wave back.
It is instinctual for us to smile and a wave as we pass by, but it is not something the French are inclined to do. Maybe it’s just us, maybe it is an American thing. When we first arrived in the village and gave a wave as we passed, I suspect Manu and his wife were a bit puzzled but wrote it off as it being The Americans. Then one day they waved back. Soon it was with a big smile and a wave. Now, even the customers will often wave back; where once we were The Americans, now we are Our Americans to many in the village.
A few steps farther, the boulangerie, where I am greeted by the irrepressibly cheerful Sylvie. In something of a game to her, she knows my usual baguette of choice–there are several kinds–and will reach for the “tradition” with a look over her shoulder to see if she’s got it right this morning. Sometimes they will all be gone and she’ll tell me, “I will have new at noon!” Her husband, Guillaume, is the baker. He is in the back making his magic, rarely makes an appearance, and when he does it is only long enough to bring out a new batch of bread or pastry, give a smiling “bonjour” and “ca va” and then be gone, back to his work.
Sylvie, meanwhile, will total up my purchase and, knowing that I, like anyone who is not native French, cannot fathom French numbers, turns her calculator to me to see the amount. Then we play the game of me trying to come up with the correct coinage to match the price. More often than not, I get it wrong, and she will reach into my hand and pull out the correct coins, and we both laugh. As I leave, wishing her “bonne journee,” or “a bientot,” she will proudly respond with what is apparently the only English she knows, a hearty “Bye!” and we both laugh. It is something of a daily ritual.
I feel it every morning now. Back out on the street, carrying warm loaves of bread, croissants, or pain aux raisins, it bubbles up and I think to myself, “My God, how I love this place. How I love these interactions, the feeling of being a part of this village.” I feel a surge of joy. It is as if a light suddenly went on in my head and my heart, and living here in this village, with the woman I love beyond words, I understand what it means to be truly happy. There have been happy times before, of course; things and times when I have been happy. But here, now, I understand what it is to know deep, soulful happiness. I revel in the thought as I return home, bread and pastries in hand, to linger over coffee with Karen, watch the smoke of wood fires rise above the roofs of the village, and think to myself, “What a wonderful way to start the day. What a wonderful life.”
Americans think wistfully of days gone bye, of life in a small town where people are friendly and life is good. It is a Norman Rockwell image, more myth than real, of times past and longed for. But here, in this village of Luche-Pringe, life is the quintessence of small town. It is our reality.
Karen and Alexandra frequently go to the village cafe, where Karen meets the mayor. It is that kind of village.
Cecile is the owner and manager of the pharmacie. Another pharmacist owns and works the organic farm a couple of kilometers outside of town. On Friday afternoons they open a stand and sell fresh produce to anyone who can manage to find the place. One Friday we showed up to buy some produce and when I walked up to the counter she recognized me and told me my prescription was in and I could stop by any time to pick it up. It is that kind of village.
Our arrival in the village the first time, a couple of years ago, turned out to be somewhat more of an item than either of us expected. It didn’t take long for word to get out that there were two Americans living in town. People took note. They were impressed when they saw Karen slugging down oysters and wine one rainy night at the tiny Marche de Noel fundraiser. They took note when they saw us at the park playing petanque with a bunch of locals: “Hey, the Americans play petanque!” Then we showed up in the newspaper.
Alexandra is a reporter for the daily regional newspaper, which covers a large area here in the Sarthe. One day she asked if she might interview us for a story in the paper about those two Americans who had, surprisingly to the natives, decided to live in Luche. Next week, in the Sunday paper (which apparently has the biggest circulation of all) the story of us appeared. And that pretty much blew our cover.
Now, we are aware that wherever we go, whatever we do here in the village, people recognize us as The Americans. Their Americans. Our friend Yveline, a genuine piece of work, did her part to make sure everyone knows. Not long after the story appeared in the paper Karen and I were at the cafe. It was crowded. Yveline showed up with the newspaper in hand and with great flourish, asked for our autographs. We reluctantly complied, telling her to cut it out, but she ignored us and then went around the cafe showing off the paper and bragging that she had gotten the autographs from The Americans over there, pointing to us the entire time. It is very difficult to hide behind an espresso cup.
It is the place of course, and it is the people. Of all the people who have made this place home for us, it is Anthony and Celine who have done so much, for whom we are most grateful and who we have come to love very much.
It is so improbable. Anthony and Celine have made this all possible, have done all of this out of their pure goodness of person. They have embraced us, first as friends, but almost immediately, as family. They and their parents…Yannick and Joelle, Anthony’s parents, and Michel and Genevieve, Celine’s parents…all of them, have embraced us, looked after us, offered us their help and support at every turn, in order to make this wild dream of living here in a village in France come true.
It all comes down to Anthony. Somehow, for some reason, something clicked instantly when we met that first time at the restaurant in Maryland. Since then it has been Anthony and Tom at every turn. Karen and I are older than Anthony and Celine’s parents; Anthony and Celine are younger than my kids. And yet, the four of us do everything together. We go to restaurants, take road trips, when there is work at their place I am there, when one or the other of us needs to go to Le Mans for something, the other will join for the ride. Karen cooks, and sends Thai food to Anthony; Michel sends cuts of sanglier…wild boar…to us. Two years ago Anthony and I fantasized about creating a team to go endurance kart racing, and now that team is a reality with our first season already behind us. Anthony’s mom calls us the playmates.
Anthony is simply one of the most good-hearted souls and best friends I have ever known. He is also a goof, and a source of much hilarity to us and his family. I routinely offer my condolences to Celine, “Madame Blot, I am so sorry for you and for what you must endure,” casting a knowing eye at Anthony. She will reply in equally somber tones, “Thank you, thank you so much for your sympathy. Yes, it is very difficult.”
Anthony’s mom, Joelle, has taken to calling us “Les deux idiots du village.” Even I, scant though my French may be, understand what that means.