I knew I was French before I knew what it meant to be American, thanks to my grandmothers who spoke French at home. But my love affair with France began in the pages of books.
It was a gift from my father, Kay Thompson’s “Elouise in Paris,” that ignited my early passion for Paris.
(In fact, I rather patterned my behavior after Elouise’s own mischievous antics, something my father encouraged, even rigging a toy telephone hookup between my tiny bedroom and the kitchen so I could call “room service.”)
My attraction for points south of Paris began long before Peter Mayle even considered moving to Provence.
It started with a box of used paperback books. I was 14.
“Here, you’ll like this one,” my father said, as he handed me a copy of Dorothy McArdle’s suspense-cum-romance novel, “The Dark Enchantment,” set in a perched village in the Alpes-Maritimes.
He was right. I was hooked.
Words like “Languedoc,” “Provence,” and “the Midi” soon began to conjure up images of sun-warmed aubergines and deep rich wine and mysterious olive groves.
So as the train inched out of Gare d’Austerlitz for the southwest of France, there arose inside of me a sort of breathless anticipation.
Paris is lovely and layered and enchanting. But it is the south that resonates with me in a deeper, more atavistic way.
As the train made its way through banlieu and brickyard, my excitement grew. Somewhere south of Chateauroux, I sense a subtle change, a shifting of the light to be sure, but an insouciance, a spirit I could not define.
But I knew we were heading south on a train that cut a swath through the green heart of France. I could feel the south, sense its allure, smell its perfume.
At Limoges, I noticed the passengers who boarded looked like they could be my relatives, not surprising since the branch of family I most resemble originates in not-so-distant Poitiers.
Somewhere — perhaps Limoges — we saw old cars from the legendary Le Mistral rusting away on a sidetrack.
At Brive-la-Gaillarde (Brive, the strapping woman), the south was palpable. Red tiled roofs on sunny yellow and tan buildings. Place names ending in “ac.”
The Lonely Planet called Cahors “a sunny southern backwater.” It was sunny and southern, certainly, but no backwater in my book.
It could have been Aix. Plane trees and bougainvilla. There was a festive holiday feeling, one that continued as Gérard drove us up into the hills. Vineyard after vineyard. Pink and tan houses with dogs in the yard. Lilacs and juniper and a hint of sea breeze in the air, in this place midway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
At the house, we unpacked and settled in chaises at the pool, surrounded by olive trees in deep pots. We drank the sunshine and the rich dark wine of Cahors.