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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 12: Dinner at Château de Lignan

Aimée finds her focus.
Alain and I are standing in the Saturday morning outdoor market in Pézenas. The marché. It's raining. Again. The few trees are bare. The town is reflected in the pavement. Two drab views for the price of one. Alain and I are not quite getting along. Again. This happens. I like and admire him very much; and he annoys me: the bouts of omniscience, a certain seeping disdain. I can just imagine what he thinks of me. I treated his new wife like an unwanted barnacle when I first met her. Aimée, it turns out, is just plain wonderful; so that was a huge mistake. Anyway, we're working on it. I show him where to find an ATM. Alain stops to admire the chocolate-colored marble curbing, stacked around a construction site. He points out, as particularly choice, the odd little cavities that filigree the stone. Little by little, Alain's enthusiasms are rubbing off on us: Simone and I have a new appreciation of marble, old furniture, junk stores. He's almost out of Diet Coke. An Alain emergency, like a car on empty. He's hunting Diet Coke and tablecloths printed in bright, pretty patterns. Olives. Flowers. Hot Mediterranean colors. The indiennes look that Souleïado and Les Olivades peddle so dearly. There's a vendor under a long awning who sells them cheap.

The pre-tile kitchen.
The Saturday market in Pézenas ranges from household gadgets to shoes to baskets to flowers to nuts to fish to farm cheese to Spanish sausage to veal to paté to candy to roast chicken to Muscat grapes to wild mushrooms to oysters harvested that morning in a lagoon ten miles away. And more. We buy bread at one of the bakeries around the concourse. Visit one of the three excellent small wine stores within a few steps of the market. And drop by the stationery store for a copy of the International Herald Tribune, "The World's Daily Newspaper," published overseas six days a week by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Despite its roots, it has a foreigner's view of US news. You don't realize how predictable and slanted American news reports are until you hear what someone with a different perspective and stake has to say. Of course, much of the reporting isn't about the US at all. Simone rails against American provincialism and narcissism. The Tribune makes her feel better. The letters column is satisfyingly papered with expatriate Americans decrying yet another embarrassing US policy or behavior. Sauce for my disgusted goose. Alain bends over the tablecloths. They're piled on tables.

The largest of the Cathar castles, Château de Peyrepertuse, was never besieged. It clings to a limestone crest west of Perpignan, one of a chain of Cathar strongholds clustered in the southern Corbières.
We're standing in the middle of the road, except it's market day: so there is no road. Cars aren't allowed. I'm following at his heels. For the first time in four days, sunlight cascades across the awnings. Revealing that they're pregnant with ponds of glowing water. I stick my head in, to see what's caught his interest this time. Alain unbends his six-foot-three frame to look for Aimée. His umbrella pokes up into a water-loaded awning, raising it like a tent. And a puddle pours out and over my head, down my neck. A fast gallon of cold rain. Like a huge water balloon breaking. Steam starts to rise. I'm soaked; my shirt is sticking to my spine. The vendor who is selling tablecloths keeps a straight face, but the two men in the next booth burst out laughing. Astonished. Pointing. A perfectly engineered pratfall. Alain apologizes. "I'm sorry, Mr. Tom," he singsongs, in a high, operatic mock. "What were you doing there?" He's laughing, too. Simone is laughing, though she's pasted on a concerned expression. By the time we reach Jean-Claude and Fab the joke's over. Except when I drive David and Linda to the airport, and I notice I'm sitting in wet clothes. On the return drive to Valros, when it's just the two of us again, I admit to Simone that I've stopped trying to discuss things with Alain; it's too hard. He dismisses everything, I insist. Her heart is broken. She looks defeated and sad. The Espinouse foothills rumple the horizon. "I just want to drive to those mountains and cry," she confesses. The house is supposed to be a joint project, but it's turning into a three-way divorce. We snap at each other. About everything. I'm desperate for Simone to like me again. Misery becomes us.

"Bibendum," the Michelin tire man born in 1898, greets travelers on the cover of the Red Guide. For more than 90 editions, the Red Guide has rated French hotels and restaurants. Earning a Michelin star is a major milestone (and boost to business) that most eating establishments never achieve. One star = "A very good restaurant in its category." Two stars = "Excellent cooking, worth a detour." Three stars = "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."
In the afternoon, we all pile into the Multipla to go in search of the perfect kitchen floor tile. Before we leave, though, Jean-Claude phones to reserve a table at the only one-star restaurant left in the Béziers area, Château de Lignan. This is a tradition when Fab and Jean-Claude visit: we go to the best local restaurant, by Michelin standards. Last time, we ate with them at a place in Béziers called Framboisier ("raspberry cane"). That's where we first tasted Château des Estanilles. I remember Jean-Claude's eyebrows lifting in approval as he sipped. But somehow since this little restaurant on abbreviated rue Boïeldieu has lost its star. Our other local one-star, Léonce in the seaward town of Florensac, has inexplicably closed its doors. Simone gets the news from the woman who answers the phone. Simone commiserates. The woman sighs, Yes, it is very sad. Between Pézenas and Béziers, we speed to two kitchen and bath outlets, two do-it-yourself mega-stores, and a tile store...and finally find exactly what Alain has in mind: an unglazed Spanish tile about six inches square, in a warm terra cotta. The catch: it's not in stock locally. Delivery will take two weeks; by then, we'll be back in the States. Alain has planned to lay the tile himself. We talk about finding a local tilesetter instead. But what's the point? This is where renovating a house on the other side of an ocean sucks and bites. If you can't supervise the work, expectations won't be met. And the trades here are just like the trades in the US or anywhere (except maybe Switzerland, and I'm sure that's government propaganda): notoriously unreliable. Even if we find a guy, there's a good chance he'll never start or, worse, never finish. John Platings has been the exception to this rule. But John has announced recently in one of his emails to us that he's getting out of the contracting business. Why? "Well, it's everything, isn't it." The taxes, the bureaucracy, the unskilled labor. He's come into an inheritance. Who needs the aggravation?

Château de Lignan, in Lignan sur Orb (northwest of Béziers on the D19), a Michelin one-star restaurant and hotel. Reservations are required, as hotel guests fill most tables. Phone: 04 67 37 91 47.
‘No tiles' is definitely a setback. The kitchen floor needs tile! Right now it's just a concrete subfloor. Little more than a dirt road, really. In the middle of the ground floor. A spot you have to cross to get anywhere else. And every foot that walks on it is like a rubber stamp re-inked with gray dust and grit. Shoe prints lead out of the kitchen like animal tracks leaving a watering hole. As we drive back to Valros, something shocking appears in the rear-view mirror. No one's quite sure what we're seeing: blue, detailed, blocking the sky. Snow-covered all the way across jagged peaks. Unimaginable. The Pyrenees have manifested, 60 miles away. Materialized. We had no idea you could see them from Valros. They're huge. We're tiny. We're staring across the Narbonne plain; all dry, dusty vineyards. And the Corbières' limestone hills. There in the southern marches, invisible, are the Cathar strongholds and last resorts, perched castles like Quéribus and Peyrepertuse. Four days of rain have scrubbed the air clean. Optical grade. My god, you can see the Pyrenees from here.

Simone sweeps while Alain ponders.
The Château de Lignan is filled with British senior executives, a prosperous, demanding lot. The decor is grand palace (with good HVAC). The bar looks like a movie set. The service is on its toes. A mere five courses pass before us: tomato stuffed with eel farcie; then pigeon breast in fig sauce; then some kind of local fish from the mountain-fed river Orb, which flows through town, perhaps the pike-perch: the server claims the fish is particularly "wily," though clearly not too wily; then the cheese sideboard, a dozen to choose from, whatever you like; then the dessert. By dessert it's lost all distinction: it's become "more food." I have that stuffed-till-splitting feeling. The dinner defeats me. Five courses is at least one course too many. We roll out through a small hail of friendly bonsoirs. Typed across the bottom of our l'addition (the check): Le personnel et la direction vous remercient de votre visite. The staff and management wish to thank you for your visit. And in the car we all rock quietly. And between Alain and I all is healed. Kinda. Sorta.
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