Her dancer's body arcing delicate, repetitive motions with effortless grace. As I crossed the courtyard, our eyes met.
She fixed me with an impersonal frown, then scraping her rake along the pavement to impale another leaf spat out: “I ‘ate ze country!” This is my indelible memory of 'Marie from Paree'.
When she is not in the capital, she is where we met at her brother’s house in the Bordeaux countryside.
Marie is, as the phrase goes, 'a woman of a certain age' exactly what age, I did not, and was not, sufficiently interested to determine.
Although her innocent revelation that she was “a few years older than my brother”, did at least give me a clue.
Suffice to say, that whether through good genes, great cosmetics, plastic surgery, yoga or all of the above, Marie would have been the envy of most women over forty.
Marie was also, to use the French phrase, a personage. A catch-all adjective that can mean eccentric, a character, larger than life, marching to the beat of a different drummer or all of the above.
Whenever he had a crucifix or two that needed a little more sheen, he knew where to send them.
Although Rene was the third generation in the 'buy-a-piece-of-an-ancient-church biz' he was the first to do it on the internet. I dug his business model.
Lives in the country. Buys low. Sells high. Ships worldwide.
The majority of Rene’s clients were in the excited States, being the World’s largest overdeveloped market, it had the highest percentage of wackos who could not face the day without fondling a napkin from the last supper, or a strap from the sandal of John the Baptist.
I’d met Rene the previous summer, (this being Autumn) when I stopped to film the converted stone mill where he lives.
Non-cooking, stranger-friendly and temporarily abandoned by his wife, Rene was more than over the moon to have the exotic stranger from the far away lands stay and rustle up some grub.
This, dear reader, turned out to be a most challenging hour. The only edible item was a jar of confit. As you’ll no doubt recall from French food preservation 101, this is a cooked dead thing, usually a duck or goose, packed in its own fat in a quart sized mason jar.
The usual method of preparation for this staple of the south west French diet is simply to pour the whole enchilada into the pan, heat and serve.
However, being a 'fat makes me hurl' kind of guy, I modified the recipe, by straining off the fat, then after washing the remaining slime off Donald, dropped him into an herbal béchamel to simmer.
Served with new potatoes (Charlottes, from Spain), bread and wine, it sent Rene into raptures sufficient to produce a return invitation.
As I said, it was Rene’s house that originally stopped me in my tracks. Mainly, because half of it is a complete ruin!
The half that does have a roof, but no central heating, is a rectangular affair, with kitchen, dining room, living room and Rene’s office on the first floor. Upstairs, three bedrooms.
The cast of characters at Chez Rene was as unique as the building they inhabited. First up, Rene.
A gentleman (like his sister) of a certain age, with adult children from his first marriage. Two young boys, two and six, with Sascha, wife number two, twenty years his junior; plus two girls thirteen and seventeen, from her previous marriage to the Mayor of the village.
Seventeen year old Nathalie, your basic teenage nightmare, lived with daddy, while thirteen year old Isabelle, Nathalie's temperamental opposite was here. And good thing.
Because she could, and did, ride hard on her stepbrothers. Most notably two year old Jean-Louis, who despite his tender age, already had a PHD in ear-splitting screaming.
Happily, his brother Benoit, the six year old, was a chip off daddy's old block as he was easy going with a playful sense of humour. When I walked him back from the after school bus, or to the village bar to get bread he was always cheery.
Displaying more patience than any adult as I stopped to suss potential photo ops, or smell the flowers.
Rene’s wife, Sascha, head nurse at a nearby hospital, was a chain smoking alcoholic. (Just who I’d want supervising’ my IV!) As a result, meal quality varied according to the amount of beverages consumed before and during preparation.
However, her blood/alcohol content notwithstanding, Sascha was capable of whipping up above average grub, if the goods were fresh, or the occasion special.
Thus, shopping days and when guests turned up for dinner, were marked on my and Marie’s culinary calendar, with the same sense of reverence and anticipation, as kids counting down to Christmas.
When Sascha worked, kitchen duties fell on the dainty shoulder of Marie et moi. Fortunately, she did not ‘ate ze coo-king, and we were, in the spirit of greaseless confit, able to elevate culinary quality to at least, 'farmhouse bleu'.
However, no worries. The scream monster’s diet never varied, gentle Benoit ate our grub and Rene was happy with bread, pate and wine. Although the French after lunch siesta is a reality, it is not an obligation.
So, most afternoons, with no searing heat to escape, Marie and I ambled though the countryside exploring ruins, collecting walnuts and talking to horses.
Marie had been married, with no children, and although she never mentioned her husband, except in the context of places visited, the bittersweet tone of her recollections confirmed that this was the love. And that it had ended abruptly and tragically. Paris was not very gay for Marie now.
The main reason she was here was that her ex-business partner had taken not only clients, but valuable materials when he left. That, and being robbed in daylight by a gang of pre-teen gypsy thieves, had convinced Marie to sell. But so far, no takers.
If she did sell, what to live on? And so, selling her apartment and re-locating to the country was the rock and the hard place Marie was stuck between.
As for Rene, if you remember Ichabod Crane you’d recognise him straight away. Hawk nose, with deep set piercing eyes, high cheekbones, an angular face and a 'fashionably lean' frame.
When I tried to visualize him at school, I first thought president of the chess club. Then, I realized, more likely, brainy loner who refused to join the chess club.
Now, hunched over his computer, heavy curtains barricading the waning autumnal light, 'computer geek' would seem to be the more accurate phrase.
But then, you’d be hard pressed to explain the lyrical piano music flowing from the living room in the afternoon. Whenever he needed a break, Rene lost himself in the keys.
He was, fortunately, self-taught, free from the strait-jacket of instruction and able to express maximum emotion with minimum technique.
I quickly gave up asking him to show me what he’d played because Rene had no idea. But he did teach me one important thing, how to be free on the keys.
'Papa tractor' was what Rene’s kids called him. The height of their excitement was to perch on that shiny, red American import, with Papa at the wheel.
He was their merry-go-round and behind that wheel, Rene was at the centre of his world.
The French countryman checking fences, moving stones, gathering wood, fixing what needed fixing. An idyllic existence. Except for one thing, Rene’s business.
Although not in the toilet, it was definitely circling the bowl. The problem was Rene. A businessman of the 20th Century attempting business in the 21st.
Rene was a gentleman of the old school swimming in a school of Barracudas, with his handshake contracts, where your word is your bond.
He hand crafted his shipping boxes from furniture quality wood, with bevelled edges, recessed brass screws and a zippered, fabric-lined plastic envelope for the shipping details.
Artistry that drew comments even from jaded parcel truck drivers. But Rene’s insistence that clients receive, inspect, and approve of the goods before paying, predictably resulted in a slow pay/no pay' situation.
It guaranteed the the ink in his accounts receivable ledger would be the same colour as his tractor.
Rene was a nice guy and although he was finishing last, he ate regularly thanks to Sacha’s gig at the hospital, so that despite the black clouds, Rene was able to put a positive spin on it all.
I don’t know whether Rene revived his business, or if Marie sold hers, or if Sascha is still working at the hospital.
If change did come, I suspect it, like the fog that cocoons the fields at dawn, crept in slowly. Without fanfare.
My hope, of course, is they got more of what they needed. On their terms.
Other articles by Christopher:
Tales from the bicycling gourmet's table
Cycling around the treasures of France
Baby steps towards a French baptism
Taking a tour of Chateau la Verrerie
The Pope of biodynamic wine
US-born video film maker Christopher Strong produced the Bicycle Gourmet's Treasures of France tour, which fulfilled his dream of cycling around the country visiting interesting places and meeting entertaining characters.