Destination—Silver: By Any Other Name – A Love Story

by Kathleen Spivack

Does language birth the object/word/thing named? Or is it the other way round?

The city of Tours shimmered from the other side of the river Loire. La Touraine, the region, gleamed with its stately chateaux, silvery rivers and pensive gardens. All invited one to stayforever. It was raining that year; the cows brooded, depressed, up to their knees in water, barely turning their languid eyes toward me. Stay, stay.

Every day I walked from the adjacent small town of Saint Cyr into Tours. I crossed the garden, took a little shortcut to the “one hundred steps,” and crossed the highway and onto the vaulted bridge that spanned the Loire between the little town and the city and university where I was teaching. The river was high that year, with dead wood drifting downstream. I passed by a desolate looking island, which was flooded more and more each day and disappearing into the surrounding water. The Universite’ de Francois Rabelais fronted the wide river bank with its soggy paths and wet abandoned benches, and looked into at the ancient medieval town of Tours on the other side. The rain slanted, sent its silver needles horizontally. I was soaked after this pedestrian commute. I soon abandoned thigh- baring oh-so-chic little skirts for a more practical uniform; slacks and many sweaters.

Exceptionnel,” the local inhabitants muttered as the rain, a solid sheet, continued all that academic year. The government declared the weather to be a national emergency, as they did every year at exactly the same time. The river Loire flooded its banks, carrying protesting trees downstream.

Nevertheless, every day, at whatever moment we had free, under useless umbrellas that flapped and creaked and turned inside out, the entire university stopped everything to live the famous “art de vivre.” Lunch, coffee, aperitif: students and faculty thronged the medieval latticed restaurants, cafes. The smell of wet wool permeated unheated restaurants, cafes, and little pubs, the desolate museums and the splendid theatres. It was “La Douce France.”

Was it my gaze, held breath, Remember this, Kathleen, that stroked each sodden pastel moment? Was it memory that brought it into being? Or was it the delicate precision of that “purest French,” the music of the language so clearly spoken that it gilded the entire region? Those rivers, the Loire, the Indre, the Vienne, stretched out their languid bodies under watching watercolor clouds. The sky changed constantly. The region was full of history, and especially of the history of women, their grace and taste and beauty: Diane de Pothiers, Catherine de Medici. The air tinkled, feminine and silvery with rain; each view, each moment was watery, pastel.

The director of my department had found me a place to live in Saint Cyr, not far from her. It was the huge vaulted cellar room of a small chateauit even had its own name, and a poster in the town hall commemorated it. It was classic and forbidding as a chateau out of the novels of Balzac, and held all sorts of pent up secret passions. An impenetrable stone wall gated the entire property, with embedded shards of glass along the top.

A friend drove me down from Paris after his job one early evening just before my first teaching day. It was late January; the journey was gloomy and sunken in darkness. There were no lights in the streets and I was overcome with a sinking feeling of isolation. It was like being dropped off at summer camp; only I had never been to summer camp. Don’t leave me here! Everyone had told me that people outside of Paris were “unfriendly,” closed: how was I to manage a lifetime of nights alone in darkness.

The manor where I was to live loomed before us, a damp pile of stone. My friend was irritatingly cheerful. “But it is an adventure….” He was impatient to drop me off and get back to Paris. Listlessly, we tried to find a town center, somewhere with a bit of life and animation. He drove me into Tours; we looked at the usual quiet buildings squatting round the railroad station. The rain was falling, fallingas it would for months. We found a pizza joint, then retreated back to the darkness and Saint Cyr.

The manor had been built centuries ago. In my room one bare light bulb, low wattage, flickering French thrift French thrift clanked from a rusty chain in the middle of the space. My room at street level had iron bars on all the windows. The bathroom and adjacent toilet were freezing, crawling with spiders. I was already prepared for French thrift in rented lodgings, with its few scratchy, carefully counted out brown squares of toilet paper. The kitchen, — but I didn’t look at the kitchen area too closely. A hot plate, and sink that was to fall apart the first time I tried to use it, a little refrigerator that didn’t work. “La boheme” was clearly in evidence.

Most interesting, however, was to be the bed. Ancient, seeming as old as the chateau itself, sagging, it stood in the middle of the room, drooping on one side, the mattress always threatening to slide off the broken bed frame onto the floor. How many bodies had it contained, emerging crippled from their encounters; and for how many eons? That broken bed was to become the focus and center of unexpected moments. “Fixing the bed” became the object of multiple drop-in visits from visitors from Paris, my colleagues in Tours, and their husbands. How we heaved that clumsy bed around, trying to make it level!

One broken chair also occupied the room. A magnificent fireplace, sealed up, that didn’t work; perhaps this room had been the ancient kitchen of the manor. The plastered walls cracked and flaked. I shivered under several wet wool layers, could never get warm. My friend, it turned out, had cousins in Saint Cyr. Hastily, he introduced me to them and then headed back for the bright lights of Paris. I sat there under the dim bulb and wondered.

My new colleagues in the English department arrived en masse the next morning at eight o’ clock and banged on the iron-barred window of my street level cellar room. “Wake up, wake up!” I peered out into damp and gloom and rain and strangeness. This as to be my first day of teaching my classes, but the faculty had decided to welcome me with wine tasting in the nearby village of Chinon. Wine tasting? I was teaching my first class at ten that first morning. What better time? “Exactly,” the department head explained.

The wine tasting involved a drive through foggy roads to in an even damper colder place, a “troglodyte,” a cave hollowed into a limestone outcropping in Chinon. Photographs show me smiling bravely, a shadowy figure in wine-cellar gloom, holding aloft an untasted glass of wine, in several borrowed sweaters and scarves, gritting my teeth and thinking no doubt of only one thing, a hot cup of coffee. I tried not to wince, not to think headache, headache. But the wine of the Touraine, even in the early morning, surprise, surprise, did not give one headaches. That is, if one stuck to the only the best wines, and of course the best champagne. I was starting to get a hint of what this year was going to like. I was already starting to write funny letters about it to my family back home– in my head.

There was an active social life of dinners and parties. Most of the department, faculty and students, lived in the region, so the “art de vivre” was well developed. By the end of my first week in Tours I too was starting to give parties. I tried to find recipes that would reflect my own regional New England cuisine. For if I were to be a visiting “American” professor, it would not do to pretend to be French; I could never match their style, their cuisine. I served a version of improvised “Boston baked beans” from the hotplate, Recipe: open a whole bunch of cans, add things: browned bacon pieces caramelized onions a bit of brown sugar and maybethis was inspireda can of chestnuts. I also created “pot roast,” i.e. boiled one-pot dinners on the same. Recipe: brown a lot of garlic, put in a hunk of meat. Add a little vinegar to soften it, some herbs, vegetables, a can of beer: find some sort of pot cover and boil the hell out of the thing. Remove cover–et voila’.

My friend drove back down from Paris with a radio and a saucepan, a halogen lamp and a plug-in pot that boiled water and didn’t blow the fuses. I lived on food that didn’t need refrigeration; bread and cheese of the region, and bouillon cubes dissolved in boiling water.

Using cans of creamed corn and an improvised version of “Bisquik” (a bit of flour, egg, baking powder, a dash of salt) I made “corn bread” in the saucepan. In an extraordinary fit of martyrdom I tackled stove- top carrot cake. Recipe: dice up many bunches of carrots; cut off their long leafy tails and shake the dirt off them first. Add that makeshift “Bisquik” again, put in lots of cinnamon and nutmeg and other spices to disguise it if anything goes wrong. Pour the batter, with the irregular shaped oblong orange bits into the frying pan, set on hotplate, turn on low, put cover on pan. Hope.

I found Coca Cola in a supermarket. My hosts would have been disappointed if I had offered anything else. I had once seen an American man commit the unforgivable faux pas of bringing a bottle of wine to a Parisian couple’s dinner. The host considered himself a foremost French wine expert and the poor overeager distinguished guest was made to understand that never never should an American presume to do something so gauche again. Coals to Newcastle, but on a much higher scale, that sort of thing.

I didn’t want to leave anyone out so I invited the entire department. The Cousins came and brought their own chairs. Most of the guests sat on the bed and held on to each other for lack of any other way to stabilize themselves. The bed lurched and the food slid from the paper plates they held gingerly on their laps.

My room became a Project. By the second week I had been given, a card table, some cutlery and dishes, two bottles of good wine and of course a full set of wineglasses. The faculty and the Cousins, all with generous invitations, saved me from too many lonely evenings and cold meals. They introduced me to the area, to the markets. I bought a bright new light bulb, the brightest I could find. My guests disapproved; they preferred dim lighting, and besides, the old kings, Charles and Francois, had been just fine in the dark.

But I could never manage to accumulate a better bed. Sometimes one of the men I had met stopped by on his way to the outdoor market, a mattress strapped to the roof of his little car. “A new bed,” involved much heaving and hauling, as we had first to nudge the sodden mattress off the decrepit broken bed frame. The frame was propped up with cinder blocks since it had broken so many times. Ingenious engineering and bed-architecture took place, only to achieve the same results as before. Then we had to “try out” the new bed. This might have been awkward, only to be solved by plonking the man’s childrenwho had been waiting in the car during all thisbetween us in the middle of the new bed, insisting that we try it together. Carefully not touching sleeves, we found ourselves lying like dead bishop effigies, stiff as boards on a mattress that didn’t work either. The bed eluded all attempts. In the dark, I slid from skewed mattress into long underwear and clothes, sweaters and raincoat. Scuttling toward the penetrating dampness of Tours on the other side of the river, like the arthritic bed, I developed a permanently tilted position.

Tours was a place of generosity, celebrations, great food and wine, theatre, music, poetry and imagination. It was a place of History, all sorts. The Musee’ de Beaux Arts held paintings of the region, and portraits of its august personnel, carefully posed and dignified, aligned its halls and staircase. Its prize exhibit was a stuffed elephant, Fritz, who dominated the museum. Fritz had keeled over and died in Tours soon after descending a railroad car. He had been on tour/in Tours with the Barnum and Bailey circus. Now the enormous grey stuffed pachyderm stood at the entry of the Museum. He looked content, with fixed friendly eyes. In the garden an ancient olive tree, even older than Fritz, spread its drooping branches, the weight of its elbows propped up by pieces of wooden railroad ties.

That year the walls of the chateaux along the rivers took in so much water that they fell down or had to be propped up. In my own basement room, weird undersea ticking sounds began emanating from the region of the blocked fireplace. Animals, I thought, not wanting to investigate further. One solitary evening, in an earthquake of sound, the concrete that had been poured in to seal up the huge heat sucking “cheminee’ ” crumbled under the rain’s weight. Thunderous, it piled downward, filling the room; heavy, sodden, a huge cone shaped mass of wet sand.

It continued to rain; I wore three sweaters. An American friend came to visit some of the chateaux of Tours. We took a little bus to Chenonceau and had the whole place to ourselves, a rare occurrence. The lovely chateau floated on water, its outlines almost obscured by the rain. The American took a hotel room in Tours. It had heat! My French friend drove down the next weekend from Paris bringing a portable electric heater. I plugged it in; it hissed and began to glow for about a second and blew the feeble fuses. I wrapped myself in another scratchy blanket -I had begged my landlady for extras–and tried to sleep.

And yet it was a most exquisite year. The vast grounds of the manor sloped through wet woodlands to the river bank. It was so wet that the lawns sprayed upward when one walked on them. That year I drank wines as they were meant to be: the nectar of the gods. Silver, golden, rose, and ruby- the wines of the region Touraine. The great chateaux brooded, misty and delicate, as they rose up from their rain sodden lawns, and parapets and lakes and misty overlooks. Blois, Chambord, Chenonceau, Langeais; each had her history, looming above their own little towns, the walls, the markets, the cobbled streets. The great rivers wreathed and wound like sleeping dragons carefully bridged from time to time. Chateaux parapets crumbled, the outer wall of the castle Saumur fell in stone heaps onto a cafe nearby, the day after I had visited there. The shadows of disappointed French aristocrats still trailed their garments through the tapestried great halls. Villandry, Azay-le- Rideau, and Usse’, the forbidding Castle of Sleeping Beauty, seen from afar.

Time passed in a wave of watery drops. The language of the region was watery too, liquid and musical. Although I had been teaching in France for a number of years, communicating in more-or-less French, hearing the language spoken in Tours, the purity and clarity of it, made me want to go more deeply.

My French teacher, Joelle Blot, was retired from the famous language institute in Tours. She arrived at my first lesson perfectly dressed in a little tweed suit, high heels, a large notebook in place. Her students came from all over the world, with a wide variety of professions and interests. For me, she had prepared a series of classes centered around French poetry. We would start with the poet Eduard de Ronsard, she told me, because Ronsard was the poet of her region. She pointed firmly to a line of French, and asked me to read it aloud. Panic set in immediately. I felt like one of my own students, struggling to pronounce English, and terrified at the prospect.

“Rose,” I muttered. Mme Blot was not pleased. She pointed again. “Rose!” she gurgled, as if to encourage me. I tried again. But the combination of sounds, that “R” and that particular “oh” of the French “O” eluded my anglicized ears. We don’t have those sounds in English, and they are particularly difficult to reproduce. I tried again. “Rose.” Madame was not pleased. “Rose,” she corrected me. She pointed again at the page. I tried, but this time no sound came out. I was seized with embarrassment and fear. An overwhelming urge to laugh came over me, a paroxysm of “forget it”, but Mme Blot would have none of it. I was experiencing French pedagogystern, insistent, brooking no laughter or other attempts to deflect attention from the subject.

This was to be a long afternoon. I could not look at the word “rose” without the urge to giggle. Then close to tears, almost sobbing aloud. “Rose,” what a detestable word! I would never be able to say it. As Madame waited patiently, sitting next to me, her legs neatly crossed, her perfect curled hair and tweed suit and little ruffled blouse, I yearned for the lesson to end. Already we had been sitting there over an hour and a half. Later I found that my lessons were to last approximately two hours, or until Madam deemed I had actually learned something. I was dying to get rid of her. Finally, as the afternoon light grew darker around us, I rallied. “Now or never,” I thought, and like the elephant Fritz, threw back my head and trumpeted a sound of pure frustration: the word “RRRRRRROZZZZuhhh.” That final drawn out “UUUH” was my triumph.

” Ooh la la,” exclaimed my teacher,” Comme c’est beau! C’est magnifique!” Madame closed the notebook. She beamed; she exclaimed, she was as proud of me as if I were Helen Keller with her hand under the dripping spigot, and Madame, like famous teacher Annie, the patient self-sacrificing tutor. She offered me a little candy. The lesson was over.

Rose, the most important noun in the language. It stood for the mystic religious heart of French culture and history, as in Rose windows, a contemplation of the endlessly furled blooms. The Name of the Rose. And, in the outcry of Blake’s, that shivery “O Rose thou art sick…” The bloom off the rose, the disease, the eating away, evanescent, menaced. But for now, the word “Rrrozzzuuh” was a caress, a recognition of beauty.

Next week Madame arrived in her little car. “We will visit the country of Ronsard,” she said. And we did, touring the little roads and back ways that Ronsard had walked. This was Madame’s country. I was to spend many happy lessons with Madame Blot, journeying further into the beauties of French poetry, she reciting in that lovely pure Touraine precision of language, and me trying vainly to imitate. I learned to speak French slowly, not rushing in nervousness to blur my pronunciation difficulties.

On wet cold weekends Madame invited me to her house where there was central heating and huge working fireplaces. There was a long winding driveway, lush lawns and gardens. Her husband was kind, courtly. On Sunday afternoons, grateful students stopped in from all over the globe, students who had studied French in Tours with Madame, now professors or doctors from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Canada. We sat around the fireplace drinking tea from beautiful porcelain cups that had been in Madame’s family for generations while Madame led us in “cultural” conversation, gently choosing which of our mistakes to correct and tolerating incomprehensible accents. Ever the teacher, she attempted to “bring us out,” making sure that each one had a turndid we have a choice?to “converse.” I was reminded, had to smile inwardly, at the picture of the “teacher” that we all carry; that I am sure I project also to my own students, that ever encouraging smile, that effort not to wince at a mistake.

Madame had been Mayor of her little town during various land reforms, was a fierce atheist and socialist. A best selling book came out that year; a first person account by a mousy French professor about her attempts to pick up men in the Bois de Boulogne, a boastful “so many men in one night ” sex confessional. Madame was outraged. “She is taking the bread out of the mouths of our prostitutes!” she exclaimed. ” She is violating their union.”

My friend Joe came to visit on his way to Romania, put down his backpack in my dank room, and fixed everything. Suddenly the hotplate, refrigerator and sink were working. He cooked for me, his specialty being rice and vegetables in various permutations. There were more dinner parties. Only the bed stayed the same, stubborn, uncomfortable as ever, clinging to its tilted broken bed frame long after Joe had gone on his way.

Finally spring came to the Loire Valley; there was sweetness in the air. The damp rising from the sodden countryside smelled fresh, green as the inside of childhoods spent in the country. And finally the garden burst into flower; suddenly, late spring, the rain stopped, and the birds went crazy with song. The land sprang into flower. Wisteria bloomed on the great lawn outside my windows, and I moved outside to write, meditating with a cup of coffee under the dizzying fragrance of those pendulous violet flowers, in a daze of perfume, overlooking the silver river.

The town of Saint Cyr created a “Jardin des Poetes” across the street from my walled chateau. I had watched it take shape all that muddy spring without knowing what was going on, the yellow praying-mantis bulldozers bowing and digging beyond my barred windows. There was a Grand Opening, and the mayor and other officials made speeches. After long flowery toasts and plenty of champagne, the whole town toured the park; there were little sculptures and groupings of bushes along its carefully planned paths with quotes from notable French poets at every turn. There were quotes even on the carefully placed park benches. The “Jardin des Poetes” was only one of the many flowered parks in the town and region. Suddenly my Paris friends all came to visit. There was music, songs and poetry at dinner parties outdoors.

Walking the “cent marches” to the banks of the Loire, down the damp one hundred steps before crossing the bridge to the university I passed wisteria everywhere. The cold stone steps were fountains of spilling blossom.

In late May, the roses came alive. In la prieure’ de Saint- Cosme, a ruined abbey’ at the end of a country road, the outdoor music festival began. Among the mossed and fallen stone walls, roses dripped from every side, red, pink, yellow and white, dizzying in their heavy hot odors. We walked among them, spending afternoons in admiration for the roses, the pastel sky, the air, the land giving its bounty after a year of rain. At Saint-Cosme the scents of new mown grass, damp stones and flowers mingled at Ronsard’s tomb. Sometimes I took a book with me and spent whole days there. dreaming beside the spot where the poet lay. What better place to be commemorated? There were climbing vines of roses everywhere.

“Rrrrroooooozzzzuhh,” the winds tickled the cypress trees. “Rose,” the name of a flower, its endless varieties. “Rose,” a word used delicately French to refer to a woman’s sex. “Rose,” its petalled mysteries. Rose windows. The abbeys, the chateaux with their chapels and love secrets. That region, the Loire, that country, each vista, unfurling itself like the petals of a flower, drawing us into her history, her sweetness.

The large circular rose garden in front of Madame Blot’s house came into bloom, flooding the front yard with delicate color. Her husband had built the garden under the window of her bedroom, one year when Mme. Blot was recovering from surgery, so she could look out and see something beautiful.

Rose,” the word, almost unpronounceable by us anglophiles, with its discreet layers of meaning beyond the word itself. The decisiveness of the “R.” the glancing-off of the “oh”. That lazy languid “S” soft, trailing toward the caress of the consonant “E” which follows. Wasn’t the word itself the emblem for – the Touraine, land of beauty and wetness and flowering, music and graceful buildings and gardens? “Rose,” its mysteries like the irresistible lure of France, would beckon me for the rest of my life. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet wrote Shakespeare. Would it?

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