The Real Provence

If you need to believe in the fantasy of Provence–the endless sunshine, the always friendly, fun-loving, generous people, the never-ending feast of exquisite food and wine from which one never gains weight or has to wash dishes–perhaps you should stop here. If you believe all that and can still make room for ordinary, sometimes nasty, real life, read on. When I bought my house, it came with a garage, a highly treasured item in this town. The garage is on the digue by the river, about a block from where I live. There was a preexisting tenant, but we agreed that I could take the garage back when I wanted, presumably for myself once I’d bought a secondhand car.  By that time the dollar had begun its slide and I realized I would need to rent the garage rather than use it myself. I took the garage back, upped the rental from 50 to 80 euros a month and found an excellent tenant who paid ahead en liquide every six months.  Eventually she needed a garage large enough for two cars, so I found another tenant, the daughter of someone I know. When she found a less expensive rental, she notified me she would vacate the garage December 1st. I quickly found another tenant, an older man. He inspected the garage, remarked on its excellent condition and offered to pay six months in advance by check. I preferred cash, which he promised to bring the next evening. He arrived with only 200 euros,  saying that was all he could withdraw at one time and promised to bring the rest the following week. It seemed a bit odd, but I was anxious to seal the rental as I was leaving for Paris in the morning and didn’t want him and his noxious cigar lingering in my kitchen. I handed over the keys, reminding him that the garage wouldn’t be available until Wednesday, the first of the month. I returned at the end of the week from a heavenly trip to Paris with glowing memories, many purchases and a case of la grippe. Sunday night around 9:30 P.M., my doorbell rang.  It was Monsieur Loup, my tenant, presumably with the balance he owed me.  There’s a serious problem with the garage, he announced. I hastily threw on my coat and went with him to have a look. He had had the garage only five days, but, he told me, he’d been unable to use it because the ceiling had collapsed.  We arrived at the digue and descended to the garage. It was completely dark, the moon obscured by clouds. He unlocked the doors and shone a pocket flashlight towards the interior. I could dimly see plaster on the concrete floor and a crevice in the ceiling, which held up the floor of another garage above.  Don’t worry, he reassured me, he was a mason and could easily repair it. He understood I was a foreigner and a woman alone and he was there to help me out. I asked him to faire un devis as we walked back to my house. Ten minutes later he appeared with a fully prepared two-page estimate for 6,000 euros worth of work! He explained that my insurance wouldn’t cover it, but the co-proprietor of the garage above mine should have to pay half. Once I recuperated, I informed him 6,000 euros was out of the question, I would need to get other estimates. He suggested I let him have the garage gratis and then slowly pay him off. Out of the question, plus I had no idea who the co-owner was. I had already tried without success to locate the person when there had been a small problem with the roof. My dear Monsieur Loup had thought of everything. He handed me a piece of paper with the name and phone number of the co-owner. He reassured me again that he understood what it was like to be a foreigner, to be new to a place and a woman alone. He was a foreigner himself, he added, though he appeared to have no accent. He promised to do everything he could to help ease the burden of the situation with my garage. I reiterated that I needed to think about it and said good night. Mine was anything but.  I barely slept.  By the next morning la grippe had heartily reasserted itself. I could barely move and there was this niggling idea always in the back of my mind that something wasn’t right, something else was going on, definitely.  As the French would say, there is an eel under the rock.  But where? A little voice whispered, “reexamine the crime scene…there’s something you’ve missed.” I returned to the garage in the light of the early morning sun and there it was.  I saw it the moment I opened the heavy wooden doors…A 5-foot long iron bar resting against the far wall, an iron bar that wasn’t mine and had no business being inside my garage. An iron bar covered at both ends with chalky white plaster, the same chalky white plaster that used to be on the ceiling and was now on the floor. I quickly hid the bar as M. Loup still had the key. When I arrived home there was a message on the answering machine from Christine, the woman who owns the garage above mine. M. Loup had kindly given her my name and phone number as well, though at the time, I wasn’t sure if she was allied with M. Loup or not. Accompanied by Emily, my Westie, I approached her house with caution. I recognized her from the dog walkers, though we’d never spoken. She invited us inside.  She, though French, is also a woman alone and the owner, as am I, of a large house in which she lives with her animals, two black mongrels she refers to as “les filles.”  Our dogs hit it off immediately–a good sign. She also had not slept. M. Loup…
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