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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 9: The priest and the mayor

October in Béziers: Simone and Linda huddle for warmth. Photo by David Smalley
It is easy, having experienced English restaurant fare, to forget that the country does other things well.    David and Linda arrive in France fresh from a few weeks traveling in the U.K. Chasing history in Wales, art in London. The food, they report, was laughably expensive, lousy, even occasionally inedible, if you had working taste buds. And you couldn't just blame native tradition. In a Cornish town, David ordered Italian food at a place run by a recent Greek immigrant. A zesty fellow. The spaghetti resembled rice soup. After two bites, David laid his fork down, stunned, his appetite erased.   Restaurants in England obey one dictum, nailed above the kitchen door: boil everything until ingredients stop struggling then begin to dissolve. Cooking is an artless trade, like street sweeping. Something required for the public good. The only real proof the English are making food: stuff arrives on a plate and sometimes it's hot.    Which leads David at our lunch table into a discussion of gout, an Anglophilic disease usually illustrated by a plump and ruddy 18th-century squire with his bandaged foot elevated on a stool, a trophy to his membership in the well-fed classes.
Our cleric santon dries his brow
We're eating at our white Herman Miller pedestal table. Alain bought the table for a song in the U.S., at his local university surplus. We're surrounded by medieval stone. The dining room stands where once there was a street. The house was cobbled together from pieces, over time. An outside staircase converted to an inside staircase. Old nailhead exterior doors gone into reclusion as interior doors. Half a tavern (the good half) become a living room and lounge.    David has had gout. He's a well-exercised 21st-century sculptor and college professor. What is gout? we ask. When the body fails to eliminate enough uric acid, he explains, sharp little acid crystals form in the joints. Like tiny shards of glass rubbing the flesh. Gout is associated with rich, monolithic diets: beef, cheese, port. An absence of mineral water. Happily, it's a curable condition.   While David and Linda sleep, Simone and I go for a long walk-run through the vineyards, to Nézignan-l'Évêque, a neighboring town. It's still lunch. Two hours of suspended animation. The roads are nearly empty. Occasionally, a car rises in the distance, over the swell of the land, and Dopplers past intently, like a messenger hastening on important business. We stare at the driver. The driver stares at us. The car rocks and leans on the curves. You rarely see a car here that doesn't rock with speed.

A santon prospect: our neighbor across the rue
Nézignan-l'Évêque is another hill-town, with a tall church glued to a steep rock, visible for miles above the fields. It's between Valros and Pézenas, and more gentrified. Valros is enclosed. Nézignan-l'Évêque is a town with views. The name suggests a former bishop.    We're out an hour. On the haul back, I recall for Simone some of what Rion Klawinski has said. "The southern clergy did not shine.... The majority of the clergy of the Languedoc were either slackers or shysters." Thirteenth-century Catholic clergy considered themselves God's franchisees, charging for every service. They did not minister, they fleeced. You could not get to heaven without paying. Cathar clerics gained a reputation for piety, purity, poverty and caring. That must have seemed a relief.   A year ago, Simone had sought out the priest in Valros. He was hard to catch. He commutes among several towns. But she intercepted him one morning on the cobbled church plaza to ask if he would say a few words to mark Alain's marriage to Aimee. They were coming to France to be married.    Simone explained that she wasn't looking for anything official. Or Catholic even. Just a blessing in the town's old church, a few steps out our door. Something to get the marriage off to a good start, in an old setting. Out of respect for culture and history.
A sea of tiles: the Valros church as seen from our roof.
The priest was perplexed.    "Is this his first marriage?"   No, said Simone, Alain was married before.    "Then he's divorced."   Yes.    "And he's not Catholic?"   No. Antithetically. Alain and Simone are the intellectuals of the Joyaux kids. They were raised to be existentialists by their French father, who lectured about Sartre and Camus on Michigan public television. They're true believers in personal responsibility. But not churchgoers.    "Madam," said the priest, affronted, "even in America, I'm sure the church has rules about who can marry!"
Simone next talked to the mayor's office, and the mayor agreed.    January 8th, 2000, Alain in his tuxedo, Aimée in her green antique silk, Hawaiian wedding music on the sound system, Mayor Blanc said his words. The vaulted ceiling room was filled. Guests flew in from Indiana and Michigan and Oregon and Hawaii, where half of Aimée's large family has migrated. It was our first full house and a crash test of its systems. John and Ann Brown came. John Platings and Theo Simon came. The Danish neighbors came. Some townspeople who had once lived in the house came. The mayor was happy to do the officiating. He even wore his sash. He understood the need for ceremony, for Alain's desire to have a foot somehow planted in his father's country.

"Alain Joyaux et Aimée Bott invite you to join them in the celebration of their marriage on January 8th, 2000 at 3pm at 'the France House.'" On the right: Valros Mayor Blanc.
I imagine a comeuppance, though, for our uncooperative priest: embodiment as a santon (little saint). Santons are a Provençal tradition. They are painted clay Nativity figures that originated in Marseilles during the French revolution. Politics had closed the churches, where for centuries parishioners stared at large crèches during the Christmas feast days. A santon fits in your pocket. People could set up private crèches in their homes. Santons reproduce the entire cast: Mary, Joseph, the Christ child, the three kings, the shepherd.    Some of the brushstrokes are no wider than a hair. Santons capture and will sometimes fondly and gently caricature village types: our collection includes a brow-wiping cleric; a young couple on a small white Camargue horse; a hunter, lapin hanging by its ears from his fist; an old woman on a bench; a village watchman with his lantern; a woman knitting beside a basket of yarn. And now the priest in Valros, stiffly denying succor to the lovestruck.   For a history of santons, visit http://www.leparadou.com/. Le Paradou is a U.S. distributor of quality santons from recognized masters. They have a brochure.
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