At the very end of the Route of the Cold Road is a small, well-kept house with light-blue shutters.
The owner, named France, is petite, trim, neatly dressed in slacks, and has outlived many of her contemporaries.
There are tall trees and pasture all around. An abandoned church stands nearby. The highway cannot be seen but it runs along right behind her place, the sound muffled entirely by vegetation.
After arriving in my Fiat 500 rented for the stay, France served me an aperitif and olives. As we talked, she first brought out a fresh tomato salad, then fresh prawns and later an assortment of local cheese. All accompanied by fresh bread and a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.
She is cross with her sister over a family matter, she explained. She said her sister will bring it up and France will say she does not want to talk about it. Her sister will say, of course we need to talk about it, I am your sister. And they will talk about it.
We took a ride to a graveyard nearby. Her husband died some time ago. Having lived through Operation Overlord – the famed D-Day landing sites are all around us – he was a lifelong fan of the Americans, and maintained and occasionally drove a WWII American jeep.
On his gravestone were etched outlines of helmeted parachuters dropping into the region.
The small graveyard was empty. A watering can had been placed by the entrance next to a faucet. France put water in the can and watered the flowers around her husband’s grave and that of her brother.
I did not realize it but the family is from the region. Across a pathway from her husband’s grave was the grave of her sister’s husband. She told me the family story I had never understood, that he went out sailing with a friend, and only the friend came back.
It is possible they were drinking. The friend never talked about it again and suffered no consequences. I did not ask if the stone stood over an empty grave.
Such mysteries and tragedies seem imbued in the region.
As children, said France, they played in the church. But the kids began digging up the tombs in the floor. So the church was locked, as it is now.
And her sister, I knew, enjoyed an occasional stroll through a graveyard in the evening, as though the walk along the interstices between life and death was comfortable, almost relaxing.
In the evening I stayed at Hotel L’Agriculture, the hotel of agriculture, which was supported by the local commune. Two couples were having dinner in the hotel restaurant while the waitress did double duty as the check-in clerk.
The keys for all the rooms were hanging on the wall behind her. Only a couple were missing. My room was small and Spartan, with an old carpet and a plastic module for a bathroom. The walls were yellow, the room temperature thermostat was locked, and there was one, thin blanket on the narrow bed.
But there was a reading lamp and, in the end, the stay was surprisingly comfortable. When I checked out, the waitress-clerk typed out the bill and then handwrote a receipt after I paid in cash.
I saved the “facture” because it is formal and old-fashioned, and denominates the bill in both euros and old French francs.
On good, tan-colored paper, the hotel’s name in red, and a faint image of the hotel etched into the paper, with different type faces for euros and francs, it reflects the French love of documents.
I stopped by a bakery next to the hotel and bought croissants and fresh bread, then drove to France’s place for breakfast consisting of a bowl of coffee, apple juice, and the croissants and bread.
France was a member of the board of the library association in her tiny town and the state had apparently hired a new library director who was widely detested by the association.
She said the lobbying had been fierce within the board and a majority were preparing to quit in protest. In the Fiat ready to go, I wished her luck at the board meeting that night. She smiled and said, “Ca va etre a couteaux tires,” using a XVIIth century expression to say, it will be at drawn knives.
I backed out toward the church and maneuvered around it to leave, I waved and, driving away, looked in the rear-view mirror to see her small, trim form wave a moment longer and then step back toward the little house with light-blue shutters at the end of the Cold Road.