Rural Gothic


We went searching for a used woodburner yesterday.

Don’t be alarmed – this isn’t the same kind of woodburner that exploded last weekend. That was a rather old one in the barn that was supposed to run the heating system, an alternative to the more expensive fioul option. Though our local plumber had deemed it still capable of working, one of the neighbors told me it hadn’t been used in something like twenty or thirty years.

I felt proud that I was able to comprehend that much from Francoise. She speaks so fast and her eyes are going every which way behind her glasses so I’m either trying to follow her gaze or what it is she’s talking about. But I realized a while ago that she usually says everything at least three times, so if I can hang on a little while, it begins to sink in.

This is my fourth January in rural France. As we drove down into the Correze to check out a poele a bois, a woodstove you set up in the main room of the house, I remembered driving down that way when we’d first arrived, to pick up the bike I’d won on eBay. I had looked at a map and it really didn’t seem so far. There were lots of roads on the map, and I imagined them mostly with houses on them.

I couldn’t imagine a three hour drive where occasionally we’d see smoke from a chimney, or a tiny village and not a soul in sight. I couldn’t conceive of how empty the countryside is here.

All the things I thought about France are constantly undergoing adjustments. Like many Americans, I used to think “France – Paris. Cafes, chic people, art, literature.” I used to think it would be possible to find a nice little restaurant out in the countryside, to get a cheap lunch on one of our excursions. Now I know much better – unless you do some research, plan your route around stopping somewhere to eat, and most importantly calling to make sure the place is actually open at this time of year and serving food, you end up having to find a giant supermarket that’s open from 12 to 3. I make sandwiches.

We’d been to dinner at some friends’ house the other night, and their cozy woodburner pushed us over the edge – if we’re going to be here out in the middle of a forest, with piles of logs everywhere, we might as well take advantage of the country life and be able to sit around a glowing fire.

It’s rural gothic. People in slippers at the hardware store, a cafe with bad coffee, 50’s moderne bar and four dozen dusty pairs of thong underwear hanging on the wall, from a charity contest several years back.

It’s Michel trying to tell me the name of the composer of a particular song. “Bud E. Delay.”
Me: Bud E…Delay?
Michel: Bud E. Delay.
Me: Buddy D’Lay?
Michel (trying a little harder): Bud Iddlay.
Me: Bud Iddlay, Bud Iddlay?

Bo Diddley, I finally realized, after a few more people got involved in sounding it out.

It’s comprehending the difference between “péypère” – sort of semi-retired, laidback, easygoing (masculin) and “mémère” slovenly, letting-it-all-go, sluttish, bad-humored (feminin) and ideally, straddling the two because going in the one direction is boring and going too far in the other direction is depressing.

We found the people who were selling a nice prospective woodburner, on top of a mountain, in a housing development. When the deal was done, the three of them, a man and two women, tipped the thing into the back of our car, spilling ash everywhere. He ran and got a dustpan and brush and moved the dust around on the carpet with it. Then we drove off, leaving me to wonder how to make use of this growing understanding of the countryside. At the same time realizing that such a question is completely beside the point.

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