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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
Languedoc Roussillon
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A Working Holiday
Chapter 4: Our curtains are dreadful
The Fiat Multipla rental. It has the turning radius of a supertanker. Its beetle brow makes heads turn. There are three bucket seats in front, and the gear shift comes out of the dash like a joystick.
In France, you learn to look two ways at once.    Up, to see where you are. Down, to watch for dog poop. Which is underfoot everywhere. Like dung in Mongolia. Like fallen leaves. It all gets stepped in.   My memory album bulges with hikes, strolls, the occasional jog. I can recall nearly every footfall of my travels in Scotland, Alaska, Montana, Arizona, and France. Absent the dog waste. "Feet take the best photos," I utter; Simone has heard it before. Photos in motion. Mental videos. For still lifes, I depend on a camera, my trusty Canon AE-1.
Olives grow locally. Our serving dish
has a two little pots: one for pits, one
for toothpicks.
Which, I soon realize, won't focus. At first, I'm afraid my vision is failing. Catastrophically. I look through the camera, and it's all a blur. I hear a rattle. I stick my pinkie inside the viewfinder. A lens the size and shape of a glass Chiclet is loose in there. I fetch the precision-machined set of six tiny screwdrivers that I tuck into my toiletries kit. They're to tighten my eyeglasses. Or conduct brain surgery. But taking the camera body apart reveals nothing fixable. I'm a caveman.    The camera is 20 years old. My third or fourth extravagance after college.   Learning to shoot a photograph was like learning a new language: visual spoken here. When I travel, a day without shooting is flat. Uncaptured. Less observed. Less respectful. A less humorous day. With the camera, I expose myself. I look for a story. That metal against my cheek feels like something is about to happen. The camera forces me to pay closer attention to the world, to see it through several viewpoints.    But. J'regret. The camera, she is mort.   We're off to Béziers to buy a new one.    The first place has nothing but digital cameras. Sorry (shrug): film is now passé in consumer electronics stores. The second place is a real camera store, but I don't see anything I want. And the prices! We head for Auchan.   In the battleship class, Auchan is hands down our favorite place to shop, in America or France. A third of the store is food and drink. A third is clothes. A third is appliances, computers, music, household things...and cameras.

Bolts of printed fabric in bright southern French
designs outside a shop in Pézenas.
Most are point-and-shoot or digital. But there is a nice Canon, at an acceptable price, with two lenses included. The young woman behind the photo counter takes all the time in the world with us, while a crowd of other shoppers piles up waiting for her attention. She adds a small cadeau - a gift - to our purchase: a roll of free film.   I'm happy. I can shoot again.    I can shoot Simone. I love her face. I can shoot details, the little things that say France. Painted signs. Visual silliness. Bits of history. Beauty marks. I can shoot progress in the house. The new camera is much lighter; I'm used to carrying a brick. And it's clever. With a mind of its own. It automatically loads a spool of film, a gratifying sound, like wine into a glass. Now I can shoot the air. If the October weather improves.   Which it never does. When I prepare my photos for the house Web site, I end up faking the color of every sky, changing them all to Mediterranean baby blue. Usually that's the absolute truth.    Milosevic is on the run, we learn via AOL. We're online once a day, to answer email. We keep a laptop in France.   The dictator's bolt offstage is thrilling news. Something to celebrate with the Browns. Simone and I hiss at all the villains. She's nothing like her father in that regard. Georges, who was French, thought Americans disgustingly naive, to be shocked by monsters like Milosevic. Europeans, he was actually proud to say, expected nothing better from their presumed leaders. Cynicism was a right; you had to earn it. It showed experience and intelligence. Even breeding. The perspective of an ancient, plundered history.    No matter. Milosevic is in retreat. We're in a good mood when we drive the five minutes to Pézenas to see the Browns. In the back of the Multipla, bottles of the good Montpeyroux clank.

On a sometimes dangerous stretch of the N9 between Valros and Pézenas silhouettes remind motorists
of recent road deaths.

Their teenage son, Oliver, greets us and shows us where to park.    He's not too keen on moving, he lets us know. A little lobbying with the guests can't hurt. His parents are sympathetic. John says Oliver likes high school in Pézenas, and would rather stay put until he goes off to college. But the Browns have other plans. Urgent, too.   John and Ann are looking to sell their current property - a vast, handsomely restored farmhouse, within an easy walk of downtown - and buy something else. "A final resting place," John laughs. We're all about the same age: early 50s. He's a lean, capable fellow, with large, round glasses in bright green frames. He looks surprised all the time. He's mild and teasing.    Semi-retirement, he's got in mind. I hate to hear about retirement. If retirement means saving enough to afford a comfortable lifestyle, we'll be working when we're 80. The Browns, however, seem to know exactly what they're doing.   We follow John upstairs. Since our last visit, they have moved to a different part of their farmhouse. Without a guide we'd be lost. They were on one end; now they've colonized the middle.
The vacation apartments they let are on the ground floor. You can step out through herb gardens and walk to the tree-shaded pool. When they bought the place, it was an unoccupied wreck; now it's picture-book perfect. John's a former contractor. Ann is the interior decorator. For years they operated a guest barge on the Canal du Midi. They are gifted, hospitable people. Ex-pat Brits, like so many in this area. The Brits can't seem to stay away.   The Browns have guests from Spain, another ex-pat couple who report that where they are English is the first language, there are so many Brits living on the coast. Ann, though, takes French lessons to improve her conversation. John has lost patience with the French on some issues, I've noticed: the unhurried pace (a regional asset unless you're trying to get something done), occasional unreliability, aggressive drivers.

John and Anne review the season at our house. We beg for pointers. Ann reluctantly admits that the curtains are dreadful, and the front door and shutters desperately need fresh paint.
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