Notarial Office, Versailles, mid-morning on a gray Monday in June. It was closing day on the apartment. We were four seated around a table big enough to seat fifteen, made of solid, ugly wood and institutional bad taste: there was my husband and I, dressed overly nicely and cloaked in I-don't-really-belong-here anxiety; the relaxed, slick owner of the real estate agency; and a serious-looking, middle-aged woman behind an imposing pile of folders.
We were waiting for our notary. Notaries in France handle wills, real estate transactions, and other periodic unpleasantries of life, fulfilling many of the roles of lawyers in the US. But whereas in the US you can often bypass a lawyer for the sake of simplicity, in France notaries are unavoidable. They pocket a large percentage of any real estate transaction they handle (although a much larger percentage of what's called the 'notary fee' goes to the state), and they drag out the process to make their added value felt.
The notary, our buyers' notary, finally arrived and sat at the head of the table with a formality that almost made me wonder if he was going to say grace. He arranged his short stack of papers neatly in front him, then turned to the woman and addressed her gravely.
"I'm so sorry. I heard the news."
"Yes," she said, and stared down at her files, "It was such a shock."
As they continued to talk, I pieced together that the seller's notary who had handled the preliminary contract back in February had since died of a heart attack. The woman, another notary from the same étude, was still shaken, and understandably so, since her colleague was stricken unexpectedly while at the office. It was clear it was a subject she didn't wish to relive or discuss, but both the other notary and the real estate agent (who seemed to know all the details -- small world, real estate in Versailles) appeared oblivious to this.
"He was young, tout de même," said the other notary with affected pathos. "I mean, he had his little problems, like we all do," he continued with exaggerated delicacy (my husband later explained that the late notary was quite obese), "But still..."
The conversation continued. My husband and I mimed our concern, but became more and more anxious to move on, as it became increasingly clear the woman was, too.
Then the real estate agent joined in.
"But he died onstage!" he boomed. The woman looked at him confused.
"He died onstage!" he repeated loudly. "In the heat of the action! He died onstage, just like Molière!"
"No, no," the woman protested quietly, "He died at the office."
"Or actually at the hospital. The ambulance came for him, and then..."
"Don't look at each other," I thought to myself, as my husband and I were both caught in a tense silence that could have finished in either explosive laughter or a primal screen.
"But he died onstage!" the real estate agent continued after the woman finished her sad story. He was making reference to Molière's famous apocryphal finale, with a misplaced humor and bad taste astounding even for a guy in sales. He repeated it again, and my husband and I finally laughed politely, almost soundlessly, because it was clear that unless we acknowledged the joke he wasn't planning to stop.
And with that, the notary at the head of the table picked up his stack of papers, tapped them even against the ugly polished wood, cleared his throat, and began.