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 had informed her the entire garage was in danger of collapsing and had made sure she removed her car. I was enormously relieved to discover she too had thought from the beginning there were some eels swimming around under those rocks. She was equally relieved about me. We came up with a plan. We would each get separate estimates from other masons and stay in close touch.
I returned home and rang the bell of my friends and neighbors, the Lorcas, referred to by the French on my street as “Les Espagnoles,” though they’ve lived here nearly 40 years. Throughout my now legendary harassment problems from Mr. Charmer across the street, the Lorcas have been my greatest allies and friends. Mme. Lorca warmly welcomed me and we went up to the living room where M. Lorca, a mason, was recuperating from knee surgery. I explained the problem. They said when their son, who now heads the family business, dropped by that night he would ring my bell. Around 6 P.M., Emanuel Lorca and I went down to look at the garage. He examined the ceiling and said immediately the hole had been made manually with a sharp object. I produced the iron bar. Its tip exactly matched the holes in the ceiling, which he said, at most, would cost 80 euros to repair.
The next day, he dropped off an estimate for 80 euros to repair the damage done by M. Loup, who had constantly been calling to find out when I wanted him to start work. Christine had also gotten an estimate for 80 euros from another mason. We sat around her kitchen table with her friend, Marcel, a man wise in the ways of the world and all its crooked pathways. The three of us had done discrete research on M. Loup. We discovered he is a notorious escroquer despite his coming from an old and respected Nyons family and that he preys on old people, women alone, Arabs and foreigners. He also still had the key to my garage. Over some homemade wine, with our animals happily playing, we worked out a plan. I would get my key back and the next morning Christine and I would go with the various estimates to the Gendarmerie to file a complaint for voluntary damage and attempted swindling. I carefully wrote down the exact wording Marcel told us to use, as well as the expression “bien ciblé,” (well targeted) which we were to emphasize we had both been as women alone. I then went to M. Loup’s house to retrieve my key and return his 200 euros as I did not want to arouse his suspicions. After several minutes and repeated rings, his wife finally answered the door, saying he wasn’t home, though I could clearly smell fresh smoke from his cigar in the room. I said I’d wait and she replied he wouldn’t return until 7 P.M. I returned at 7 and his wife said he wasn’t home. I again said I would wait and within minutes he appeared. I informed him I had decided for his own protection to take back the garage and not rent it. It was much too dangerous and I was going to just leave it empty. He was sure he and I could work something out for the repair work. I asked for the key and returned his money. Without missing a beat, he wanted to know if Christine still wanted him to do the work for her. I said I didn’t think so but wasn’t sure. I then went to the Lorcas, gave them the key and wrote a check for Emanuel for 80 euros, as I was leaving in two days for a week in Germany for minor surgery.
The next day, Christine and I drove to the Gendarmerie, fortified by each other and our sense of sisterhood. We were there nearly two hours. The Gendarmes were extremely sympathetic and kind, but ultimately they could do nothing because I had no written contract proving M. Loup was my tenant. They made copies of all the documents to keep on file. They felt terrible, apologized profusely and told us to go to the Hussier, who would be able to help. The Hussier had the same problem, as did our notary. There was nothing I could do. I was out the rental money as well as the cost of the repairs, but even worse, I was hurt and angry for having been a victim. We plotted my revenge. We also made a pact to tell everyone we knew what M. Loup had done.
When I got home I called M. Loup and left a message on his answering machine saying I had thinking about the garage and had changed my mind. Within five minutes he and his cigar were at my front door. I went out into the street. He was pleased I’d changed my mind. Yes, I said, I was as well. I would like my 200 euros back. COMMENT? I repeated I had given the matter much thought and wanted my money back to pay for the month’s lost rent and the damages he had inflicted to my garage. He started to scream I was “dingue,” that I was a nobody from nowhere, a loser, a nothing, whereas he was well-known in Nyons. Around this time, Mr. Charmer, the psychopath, appeared at his front door, his ear clearly placed against the frosted glass.
I have noticed, in times of anger that I tend to be subject to intense attacks of fluent French. I corrected M. Loup, who was now puffed up like Raffarin. No, I am not a no one. In fact I am also well known, as a prize-winning investigative journalist in New York. My specialty is crime. There are people in prison because of me, I taunted him. I am very successful, how else did he think I was able to buy my house? Yes, I agreed, he was well known in Nyons–as a master con artist. I had done my research and, I added, the police had lifted his fingerprints from the iron bar he’d left in my garage. None of this, of course, is true, but I also knew there was no way he could know. The thought of his sweating it out, even if only for one long night, was enough for me. He screamed he would take me before le tribunal for defamation of character and I replied with a laugh it would be my pleasure.
I went back inside and double-locked my front door. I was tired. I hadn’t eaten and was too wiped out to fix anything. I was already in my red flannel Old Navy dog pajamas with the holes at the elbows. I was leaving on the night train for Germany the next day. I needed to pack, make lists for the friends who’d be staying in my house, spend time with my animals. The doorbell rang. It was Mme. Lorca, silently beckoning me with her hand to come to their house. I threw on my coat over my pj’s–at this point I didn’t care anymore–and went across the street. She whispered le fou was listening at his door; we had a good laugh. We entered their home where Emanuel and Monsieur Lorca were seated at the table. They had heard everything. We all laughed. Emanuel took my check and tore it up. No way, he said, would he take money from me to repair the garage. I’d already been through too much, he said, his parents agreeing. Go to Germany, have your surgery, be well. We’ll take care of the garage. I started to cry.
Many embraces later, I returned home. It had been a day. As I fell into bed, I went over my gains and my losses. I had definitely come out ahead.