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House diaries
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 14: The vintner next door

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Wooden teeth once used as models at a Montpellier dental college, purchased at the Pézenas brocante fair.
Monday morning we go shopping. It's a fairly typical run. To buy an orbital sander, a microwave on sale, a can of pech melba wall paint to sunnify a bedroom, 24 rolls of toilet paper, a few dozen light bulbs, a drain pipe for roof runoff, an extension ladder that will (just barely) stretch three floors, two lighting systems for the bathrooms, a dozen rolls of paper towels, more bricks for the kitchen sink, and groceries. Including sale-bin licorice (Alain's favorite sweet), wine, five cheeses, olives, bread (still warm), cookies, and paté. I have my daily incomprehensible French encounter: a middle-aged woman in the hardware store asks me if the caulking compound she's picked will accept paint. That part I guess: she's talking the international language of do-it-yourselfing. Shrug and point. But I can't read the instructions on the tube. I don't know the answer. Even if I did know the answer, I couldn't tell her what I'd learned. Panic effervesces. I smile, raise my finger in the air. "En peu minute, s'il vous plais. I spik Anglais. Oon moomento, por favor. Simone!!!" Who is in the next aisle luckily. Driving home from Béziers, we take a chance on another tile outlet. Alain needs laboratory white tile for the kitchen splash plate. And persistence meets its reward: we finally discover in an odd corner the perfect floor tile. Small unglazed red Spanish rectangles. At an incredibly cheap price because the lot is dump fodder: marred, chipped and rife with hairline cracks. Just the way we like it. We snap up a ton and a half of the stuff, for less than a hundred bucks. The owner is thrilled to be rid of it. Delivery Thursday. It's almost lunchtime. The roads are emptying. It's nice to drive in France during lunch: traffic drops to nothing. We slide into Valros, down the back road that curves past the walled and tidy cemetery, through the tree-lined town square, with the big beauty parlor and the stop-and-go bar that opens when someone has the energy, past all the moms and dads picking up their kids from school. All the community glue that will never stick to foreign visitors like us.

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Avenue St. Thibéry: our back yard, Bruno's front yard.
Rob Thorne comes by. He owns two houses, one a wreck. He has a gap between his teeth and smokes cigarillos. He's got three kids and a wife. We negotiate a bit the final details about the art school. I tell him we'll buy the tea kettles, if it's that serious. "Good," he says. "I was going to buy them myself otherwise." Simone is staying out of the business altogether. Not even bothering with her usual dire warnings if we neglect to do certain things. Very suspicious. Not like her. She's heartsick. She wants nothing to do with a 10-week intrusion that will spoil her plans for a visit to the house next May. Yes, she understands about the roof. But. Rob and I are drinking, and the topic soon switches to wine. I've shown an interest in local wines. He talks fast, his accent as thick as shingles to American ears. I can't really follow his recommendations. The names of labels tumble out of him. He's giving me directions: "Take a right at the sign. Follow the track. Turrets. Go round back of the castle. Makes the wine in the yard. Two good vintages. Mourvèdre grapes. Okay? Mmmmm." He proposes that we meet Bruno, a neighbor who's a vintner. Bruno lives just behind us in a house I've admired from afar. The exterior plaster has worn through, exposing the rubble stone beneath, black basalt from Valros' little volcano. Huge oleanders in barrels flank the front door, welcoming guests (I decide). He's gifted, Rob says. Bruno refined his wine-making in Australia; now he's an itinerant blender, working at several estates. Bruno makes his own wine, too. But it isn't quite right. "He knows it doesn't have a finish. You can make good wine in someone else's winery. To make great wine, you need to own the vines." Bruno needs vines. The perfect wedding gift. Next weekend he is marrying the woman he lives with, Rob informs us.

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Bruno's house, as seen from our terrace.
"Would you like to meet him?" I hustle Simone and Alain into Rob's wake. We hurry across to Bruno's in the twilight. Rob rings the bell. A blonde woman in her thirties answers. Rob explains his mission. She invites our party in. We tramp through the house, cluttered with cats and somebody's miscellaneous kids. Small rooms, large furniture. Through the kitchen, where cooking has barely begun. Into the work area: a lofty, cob-webbed barn where barrels the size of tank trucks rest on their sides, bursting with newly pressed wine. Fruit flies fog the drains. In the next room, wine ages in smaller oak barrels. "The barrels add tannin," Rob explains. "They last about five years, then the wood seals up." Bruno gives us a taste of yesterday's pressing. Fit only for spitting. Bruno has a half gallon of English (compared to my half teaspoon of French). He explains some of his techniques and Rob translates. "He adds egg white to the reds to give them roundness." We mention Château des Estanilles; Bruno applauds Michel Louison's artistry. Bruno notes that a lot of local wine goes to Bordeaux, where it is used for blending and extending. Bruno winks and comments through Rob: "There's more Bordeaux sold than is actually produced during the harvest. How do you explain that?" We buy a case of his stuff, against his advice. He gives us a bottle first and suggests we try it; if we like it, then we should buy. He calls his estate Domaine Duclos-Gottis. That's his name and his girlfriend's, hyphenated. There is a punning slogan on the label, in Languedocian: Aco's Lou Goty de Moun Sang. Translation: "This is my blood." Valros has a senate, Rob Thorne tells us. The dozen or so old men who gather at the town square. On one corner, beneath the modest statue of Lady Republique, the town's youth wait to grow older and less bored. On the opposite corner, the senate sits in session, exchanging familiar insults and worn opinions. Slouch hats, collarless white shirts, suspenders, work pants. Many are going deaf. "You walk by, and they shout comments about you. To each other. Maybe they think I don't get French," says Rob. "Probably they don't care."
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The town square in Valros, absent sullen teens and grumpy old men..
We've said good night to Bruno. We're wandering back to our house. Rob and I are sipping glasses of wine. He's explaining a rat's nest of local political intrigue. Rob leaves. We go back to work. Around nine in the evening, we quit and eat. Alain's lecture tonight: how dissolved salts from glacial runoff covered Indiana during the last ice age and turned to limestone. Eight inches under the ground, the state is paved solid. I don't know if the story's true. There's something there: Indiana (Bedford) limestone clads both the Empire State Building and the Pentagon. Alain says his basement is in essence a quarry, dug out of solid rock.

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Floor tile in the master bathroom.
Enlightened, gone to bed, I brush Simone's thick hair with my fingers, feeling the ripples in her skull, massaging her scalp. This is one of our rituals, maybe our only ritual except bickering or her correcting my French mispronunciations. "Pet me," she says. I do, almost every night, soothing her, helping her shut down her circuits, turn off a busy brain. Tonight, as I drag my fingers through her hair, I brush construction grit into my eyes. Which, unlike pixie dust, is quite painful. I pad down the concrete tile hallway to flush my eyes at the bathroom sink. Love among the renovations.
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