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A Working Holiday
Chapter 1: We Leave for France
Chapter 10: Looking for Mr. Goodstone
Chapter 11: A mission to la Clape
Chapter 12: Dinner at Château de Lignan
Chapter 13: Antiques and plunder
Chapter 14: The vintner next door
Chapter 15: The rooftops of Nézignan-l'Évêque
Chapter 2: Comes the crusade
Chapter 3: The 13 colonies
Chapter 4: Our curtains are dreadful
Chapter 5: Naked beaches
Chapter 6: A visit to Château des Estanilles
Chapter 7: A pilgrimage to Toulouse
Chapter 8: Remembering Collioure
Chapter 9: The priest and the mayor
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A Working Holiday
Chapter 2: Comes the crusade

Valros spills down the southern face of a gently eroded volcanic pimple. Commanding the view on top, a 12th-century Roman-style military ruin, called "The Tower." When rain washes the air spotless, the snow-capped Pyrenees leap tall across one horizon. To the north, shown here, the very hikeable Monts de L'espinouse, a half hour away.
I'm reading Chasing the Heretics, by Rion Klawinski. Its subtitle: "A Modern Journey through the Medieval Languedoc." Langue d'Oc vs. langue d'Oïl: how the word "oui" was pronounced in the south vs. the north.   Klawinski drives and walks the route and battle sites of the Albigensian Crusade, which started in 1209 and ended in the rat holes of the Inquisition a hundred years later. He stands at a well sealed by a catapulted stone. At a gate where a one-eyed knight led away 99 others, all of them blinded at the order of Simon de Montfort; noses and lips hacked off for spite. They had broken their oaths to him. But Simon was an invader from the north, stealing their lands for himself and an obscure French king. He was commander of the crusade, a staunch fighter, energetic, relentless, stunningly savage: 140 heretics burned here, 400 slain there, fields of dead knights. In his first siege, his troops slaughtered every living soul in the cliff-top city of Béziers: at least 7,000 men, women and children "hacked, run through, bludgeoned, or burned to death by the forces of the north...the killing took less than three hours." Satisfied, the Vatican's man on the scene reported to the Pope, "Neither age nor sex nor status has been spared."    Simon's army undoubtedly passed through Valros, on its march to Béziers, which is just 15 minutes down the road by car. The road is the N9, a major north-south artery: two lanes with passing. You can take the N9 almost into Spain; a few miles from the now-meaningless border, on the low coastal crest of the Pyrenees, where wild boar thrive in the thickets, the road dons a new number.   Today, Béziers has 76,000 people; a massive Roman Catholic church built by the victors as a reminder of the true faith; slums, suburbs, and a content, prosperous air. It has a weekly flower market: heather in paintbox colors including yellow are a specialty, as are cactus, which grow well here.    The biggest supermarket is in Béziers. Béziers is where we buy our appliances and hardware. The third-best Emmaüs in the region is also in the city.

New paint on the shutters and new lace curtains on our dining room window frame Nadia from the mayor's office. When we don't know, we ask Nadia.
The Emmaüs is like a French Salvation Army, a charity selling cast-offs. We've bought an armoire there (in a stone house without closets, the answer to the question, "Where do I hang my things?"); a demure marble-topped vanity; and a butterscotch leather arm chair, worn like an old face, comfortable, for all-day reading. That chair is my Siege Perilous, my refuge. I flee there whenever I can, with a Campari and soda, two fingers of red, bitter liquor, one finger of fizz.    By 2 pm we're in the house. I have a pretzel-neck migraine, which succumbs quickly to pills.   Errands. We need groceries, which means a trip to Béziers. I call the Browns: Ann invites us over for a debriefing the next night. I have one other immediate chore: measuring 14 glass lamp shades and phoning the dimensions back to Alain in the States, six hours earlier. Alain will order shade mounts, called setters, over the Internet; and bring them with him to France. The brass wall sconces he's installed are still bare bulbs; the lamp shades will domesticate them. It's one of a list of improvements requested by an art school for 60-somethings; the director wants to use the house as a dormitory. But nice. For measuring sconces I've carried to France my second oldest surviving tool - dial calipers, good to three decimals. I bought them used during my two-year stint as a machinist, the best job I could find after graduate school. Joe Wright's name is acid-etched on the verso; the original owner, tall, scrawny guy. For the record, my oldest surviving tool is a dictionary my mother gave me for my high school graduation.    The house in Valros looks surprisingly shiny. Stone houses are dustier than wooden houses. The limestone blocks in our walls shed, five hundred years of constant micro-erosion, tumbling motes into the air. The sand-blasting of the vaulted ceilings hasn't helped.
A classic Citroen 2CV parked in neighboring Pézenas, a major center for antiques and "brocante" - second-hand stuff. One shop specializes in Spanish wrought-iron window grilles, another in rusting outdoor furniture. Dozens of shops open their doors to treasure-hunters. This charming town - once admired as the "Versailles" of the Languedoc - sponsors a major annual festival of theatre, music, folk performance and crafts that lasts throughout the summer.
The good work of John and Ann Brown, our keyholders. The bad news: they're cutting back. Cleaning a house as big as ours is a major pain. Three floors, narrow but deep. And they have their own rental operation to manage in Pézenas. They've converted a huge farmhouse into vacation apartments. So the first order of business is finding somebody new to clean before and after guests, a hunt that is just one of Simone's many special burdens.    I don't speak French. She learned in elementary school, in France. She worries that her accent offends, that her vocabulary is inadequate to the task of negotiating electric rates and phone service, nothing they taught spectacled little 3rd-grade American girls visiting Nice with their French-born fathers.   So for the three weeks of our stay I talk to Simone and almost no one else. The Browns are English. John Platings, our contractor, is English. The Thornes, who sold us this house, are English. I talk to them. Not to the French, except to greet them and thank them. There is an exception: Simone's French cousin Fab and her husband, Jean-Claude. They indulge me. Fab teaches English. Jean-Claude gets along in it.    I argue, "French is a niche language. Why bother learn it?" Simone thinks I'm teasing. I'm buying time.   It's curiously relaxing, being inarticulate. Having a gendarme warn me to wear my seatbelt next time is dreamlike. Watching the French argue about who knows what is like a sport. I know it puts a lot on her shoulders, having to handle all our public and commercial transactions in France. All the travel, all the shopping, all the directions, all the phone calls to plumbers and cleaners and the Mayor's Office. But I make a living with words. It's a pleasure to be illiterate for awhile, to steer by other signs and stars. Deaf to the advertising. Blind to the headlines. The verbal plug pulled. I try to be helpful in other ways. I carry as much as I can. Pack mule, a good man job.
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