Thursday, May 24, 2007

Gascogne

My French dream was ill-defined when I moved to Paris three and a half years ago. Sure, part of me imagined a sunny, Haussmanian apartment with French doors and a wrought-iron balcony, a composite image I think I constructed from lingerie and perfume commercials back in the States. I also had a vague picture of a cramped, book-lined apartment under a zinc roof somewhere on the Left Bank. Wherever I lived, there'd be a boulangerie downstairs. Beyond all that, I could picture nothing precise.

I moved to Paris not for any of that, and as it turned out, we ended up in a modern apartment in a tidy, nondescript neighborhood in a convenient suburb. I'm grateful for our 60+ square meters, our two bedrooms, our parking garage and, especially recently, our two elevators. Our living room may feel cramped and is certainly book-lined, but no zinc is visible from our window and the only glimpse we get of the Eiffel Tower is of the searchlight when it sweeps out from behind the ugly apartment building across the street.

I didn't move to Paris because I fell in love with the city. I moved to Paris because I fell in love with my husband and through him a country and a culture. I wanted our children to grow up feeling as French as American, and I wanted to become French in a way myself. I often read expatriate stories of falling in love with Paris or with some corner of the French countryside, and was amused, perhaps felt a bit superior. I felt like I was the one who was truly living and not just dreaming, and I had no need to fall in love with some neighborhood or village. I was too pragmatic for that.

Then my husband brought me to the Gers, and the love affair began.

The Gers is a department in the southwest of France, part of the historical region of Gascogne. It is near Toulouse, an hour or two from both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and on a clear day, you can see the Pyrenees from the top of any of the region's higher hills. It belongs to none of these places, however, and you feel almost as if it were stolen from much farther away. Tuscany comes to mind, and there's plenty of red-earth fields, sunflowers and grape vines to hold this illusion, but the hills are greener, the landscape less Mediterranean. Its stone farmhouses and manors almost look as if they belong in southern Normandy, but their facades are too warm for northern France. Toulouse is only an hour away but everything is built in stone, not brick, and the rolling hills have nothing in common with the flat valley of the Garonne. You end up concluding that it is entirely unique, a place that combines the best elements of other places you've been and rearranges them to make paradise.

You come quickly to the conclusion that you are, in fact, in the land of milk and honey. Or wine and foie gras, more accurately. It is no exaggeration to claim that at the crest of every hill there is a castle or a fortified village, a perfect medieval postcard unmarred by any signs of modern life. The region was blessed, in a way, to have been for centuries a crossroads, strategically important to the Romans, and later the object of endless wars between the English and the French. It was then fortunate enough to have been forgotten in modern times. There are no major cities and only one town of any importance, no industry, almost no modern construction, no housing developments. You suspect it was all forgotten sometime early in the last century, and the inhabitants all left to tend to their geese and their Armagnac vines in peace.

Of course, it was discovered recently by the British, as most of the beautiful, little-known places in France eventually are. There's hardly a reason to complain, other than the inflated real estate prices: all those pounds sterling seem to have been so tastefully invested in lovingly restored farmhouses and châteaux, it only adds to the beauty of the place. And why shouldn't they feel at home in the land of Eleanor of Aquitaine? There are still enough genuine locals to make town marketplaces resound with a particular Gascon accent, with deepened "Rs" and distinct syllables and a rhythm that seems borrowed from Spanish.

I was probably pre-programmed to fall in love with the Gers. It was a conspiracy by my husband, who grew up in Toulouse and declares everything in the southwest France truer and healthier than anywhere else on the planet. He is proud to call himself a Gascon by birth, since the Toulouse hospital where he was born is actually on the opposite bank of the Garonne from the city and thus at the limit of the historic region. He certainly fits the stereotype of a true Gascon: open and warm, boastful and prone to good-natured exaggeration, stubborn as a mule. His DNA may be from Champagne and Charente, but nurture won that particular battle.

My first trip to the Gers was a surprise weekend to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary in August of last year. My husband booked plane tickets, dinner at a three-star restaurant in Eugenie les Bains, and planned a true dream weekend, all without me knowing more than the hour we were expected to be at Orly airport. We spend three days driving around in our rented Peugeot 307 convertible eating unreasonable amounts of heavenly food at both lunch and dinner, and spending the rest of our time visiting abbeys and castles. How could I avoid falling in love with the place?

I was almost afraid of being disappointed when we went back for our second visit last week. It wasn't that I doubted the magic of the Gers, but how could we possibly recreate what was so perfect last time? On top of it, I was seven months' pregnant, so Armagnac, homemade foie gras, as well as the region's très sympatique red Madiran wine were all off the menu, so the gastronomic experience would be a bit less rich for me this time around. Not that I was about to complain, I was just ready to be a little less enchanted.

Not so. From the minute we arrived at our bed and breakfast, a stone manor house beautifully restored by an English couple, I was back under the spell. My husband took a bit more time (and a bit of Madiran) to recover from the nine-hour drive from Paris, but he soon started relaxing and picking up slight hints of his Toulousan accent.

We had four wonderful meals, two of which I'm ready to declare exceptional. We visited a château called "the Versailles of the Gers" where they make an Armagnac which my husband assured me was well worth the journey. A bottle came back with us, and eventually I'll be able to find out for myself. We visited an English garden, Romanesque churches and a bridge on the Way of Saint James, and two walled villages so calm and peaceful that you had trouble imagining what purpose the ramparts could ever have served. We spent an entire morning trekking through grapevines and hedgerows, counting birds and wildflowers.

I'll detail the interesting bits in the next few posts. Suffice it to say that when we reluctantly started back for Paris on Sunday afternoon, I started thumbing through real estate listings I'd picked up. I've found my French dream, and it's a stone farmhouse somewhere between Lectoure and Auch. It may not be mine now, but I've decided, it's waiting for me.

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