On Angela's last night visiting from the US, she and I traveled up north a few hours to meet some other American friends who'd kindly invited us to join them at a chateau/chambre d'hôte. France is a big country, with the landscape changing subtly and/or sometimes drastically from region to region. We drove to the north of the Limousin towards Bellac, where the rolling hills become steeper, the villages perched up on rocks. Then we cut across east to the autoroute (A20), passed the Pays D'Oil sign which means you've officially passed from the southern part of France to the north and exited near Chateauroux.
The immediate area was called La Brenne - flat with marshland, darker trees and lighter-looking soil. Following the GPS, I turned down a tiny road and was hurtling along at 30 miles an hour (okay, 30 feels fast to me on this type of road) when I saw a car stopped to the side (no shoulder) and a man standing there facing away from us. I slowed down and saw a little pickup truck stopped several yards further down the road and another man standing outside of it, looking in our direction. We thought it must be some kind of accident.
And then I noticed something lying in the middle of the road - a vague pink and light brown shape.
"Oh my God, Angela - one of them must've hit something!"
"What is it, a deer? A dog?"
"I don't know - maybe some kind of big bird? Oh, I think I see blood. I guess I have to drive past it. Oh shit, this is awful."
We rolled closer and as I got alongside the man, I could see he looked distraught.
"What is it?" I asked, afraid to look. He shook his head sadly and pointed towards the shape on the ground.
It was a bag of cement. The pink and brown bag had fallen out of the back of his truck and broken open with the impact. Half of it was spread across the road.
I offered my condolences and drove off. Looking in the rear view mirror I saw him and the other man pick up the bag, one man on each end, and carry it carefully back to the truck like a limp body.
You live in a place and think you've seen backward and then you realize there's a whole other level of nowhere. Maybe because the Limousin is the famous French back of beyond they've become rather sophisticated with that idea - pictures of cows and old peasant faces on postcards. No one's bothered to tell the area around Chateauroux that it's hicksville. First impression is that it lacks the determined downhome charm I've gotten used to further south.
My pals Kate and Scott, their two kids and a teenage friend traveling along were high on France, having just spent a wonderful week in Paris. We beat them to the chateau, and I immediately felt almost apologetic - what looked magic on a website was a little shabby and down at heel in real life. I don't know why I felt like it was my fault, but I think it's only fair that visitors be spared the reality of France, at least for six months or so. Then it can start to dawn on them that the food's often lousy, the clothes and home furnishings sometimes hideous, the town centers a mess of bollards and planters, ill-placed wrought iron fences, ugly 90's-inspired graphics and charmless "snack" places selling frozen pizza. But first you want them to see only the beauty.
Once we got over the shock, which included the son of the house mutely shaking his head "no", sending Kate away the first time she had knocked on the door and asked if this was, indeed, the chateau, we had a good time talking and drinking wine while we waited for dinner. The house was once a grand place, no doubt about it - a tall Creusoise-style brick beauty. We'd all had a gander at a dark wood dining room, almost formal, and having arranged via email to eat dinner there, pictured ourselves feasting like nobles.
The lady of the house was nice enough but hadn't been very forthcoming about how anything worked - just showed us to our rooms and poured some wine when we'd asked for it. The host, who'd been in frequent email contact with Kate, was not in evidence.
Around nine, Kate's son Hugh said "Mom, I'm hungry."
Kate explained that the people were preparing us a meal and to be patient. We all wondered what it would be. Something simple but expertly prepared no doubt. Country cooking with a twist? I'd seen the website - they'd mentioned homegrown veal, pork and beef from the Limousin.
Nine thirty came. Angela went up to peek into the kitchen. She came back outside looking concerned. "There's no cooking going on in there," she said. "Just the lady and kids sitting at a table eating dinner."
A half hour later I went in and asked didn't they get the email that we were planning to eat dinner here? She shrugged and gave us a xerox'ed and laminated menu, with prices handwritten, crossed out, written again. No veal, no pork - some salads, chops and pasta. Or croque monsieur. All nestled conveniently in the freezer, awaiting our commandes.
We groaned and gritted our teeth, knowing there was no other option. Ordered what we could. And it wasn't any worse than a lot of the restaurants I've eaten in near Limoges. The French fries were really good.
We kept wondering what had happened to our host. He'd seemed so hospitable and charming in the emails, but now he was missing. And the rooms we were supposed to be staying in were now "off limits".
Maybe the lady was keeping so much to herself because hubby was bound and gagged, or stuffed and mounted in one of the bedrooms? We spent all night listening for howls and screams.
Next morning, he called in from Luxembourg, still very much alive. He was alive but his car had broken down and was pronounced "morte" by the lady of the house. He explained that paying for the rooms by credit card was not possible.
"No problem," said Kate. "I'll just go into the village and use an ATM."
Turns out there'd been a vicious storm in the region back in January, which explained the fallen trees all over the property. We'd thought it had just been lack of funds to pay for landscaping help. The power lines were still impaired, so - no ATM.
It was possible, however, to go into another village and use a card in the bar/tabac. The bar owner would then fork over the cash.
I had to get Angela to the train station in Chateauroux. The last we saw of Kate and family they were heading to the village bar/tabac. I hope they made it out of there okay. It was probably difficult to get the bar owner's attention, what with the two guys telling how they rescued that half bag of cement.