Chasing Matisse: The Book
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February 17, 2003
Sarah, Frida, and Me
We zipped back up to Sauzon to see if the hotel/restaurant at the end of the quay happened to be open. It had the spot on the harbor, and I imagined it might have the feel of Le Grande Large in Audierne that we loved so. The Peugeot slowed, and we fondly gawked at La Maison as we drove by, but Jim somehow managed to keep his foot on the accelerator. We stopped on the road outside Sauzon to check out the little hotel perched above the lane that I'd been so enamored of the day before. Les Pougots blue gate was closed, but we looked through the slats and up the steps. No one seemed to be there, but someday we will be guests. The restaurant wasn't open, so we raced back to La Maison.
A white Boxer pooch with a brown eye patch met us at the door. We waved at Johey and Stephane, who were both working in the kitchen, and took a seat in the dining room. A gigantic Golden Lab and a little black dog were at another table with their owners, while the Boxer stood at the door and longingly gazed in. Johey told us the dog belonged to Phillipe, who had gone to Paris. They were babysitting Billie, who is deaf. This would be a three-dog lunch which pleased us so.
We ordered three different kinds of baked oysters-with crab, a carrot mousse, and sorrel (which had been picked on the hillside), bacon, and cream. Divine. Jim had chicken, and I had Belle Ile lamb baked for seven hours. At La Maison, you go to the cellar and choose your bottle of wine. Jim chose a light red Georges DeBoeuf. Perfect. Sundays are family days in France, days to relax and enjoy. We haven't done too much of that, but it seemed right today-our last on the island. We would relish it. After lunch, we stoked the fire and finished our wine in front of it. Frida joined us. It reminded her of the cantinas she frequented in her old days.
When we told Frida of the smartly placed fort at Pointe des Poulains-the one we wanted to own-she said, you ninitos (I think that's ninnies in Spanish), that's the Fort de Sarah Bernhardt which she bought and made her summer home. Sarah loved Belle Ile. Of course, we chimed together. We had to go back, Frida was dying to pay the chanteuse a visit. Frida always knew they'd get along famously, and so they did. We wandered all around Sarah's beloved fort (you can't go in) and imagined the parties with clever patter, ladies fitted in haute couture, singing and dancing, sparkling champagne-with crashing waves in the background.
I've been interested in Ms. Bernhardt since reading Liane de Pougy's Blue Diaries. The two women knew each other, ran in some of the same circles and turned Paris on its ear in their own ways. Liane greatly admired Sarah's golden voice and skills on stage, and Sarah had given Liane acting lessons. After a few sessions, she told Liane that she had no talent and better stick to her beauty and dancer's turns on stage, and that would be enough. Liane never said a bad word about Sarah that I recall, which is saying a lot, because Liane was scathingly honest in her diaries-about herself and everyone else. Frida pointed out that she was no wallflower either and fit right in. But Liane wasn't here today. It was Sarah, Frida, and me-three tempestuous women on this turbulent sea. Jim knowingly stayed out of our way.
It doesn't take long to get anywhere on Belle Ile. The island is small enough to be intimate and large enough that not everyone knows everyone else. There are many happy diversions to occupy your interests-villages to visit, lunches and dinners to be had, walks along the wild, thrashing seas and rocky cliffs. You can't get lost. Every turn you make has a sign to send you everywhere else. From a heritage of Celtic monks to Acadian families who were located here in the 1700's (having left France for Canada, on to New England and then Belle Ile), the Bellilois are friendly. (Our last night at dinner, I mentioned to our waiter at the Hôtel Atlantique's restaurant that Jim loved caramel. The waiter brought him a complimentary dish of vanilla ice cream with their homemade sauce. It was dear.)
If you're born here, it's one thing. You must love it immensely and can't imagine living anywhere else, or you want to flee. But who are the people who choose to move to this island in the Atlantic? Johey and Stephane did. Phillipe did, after being in the ad business in Paris for many years. (Did he keep his apartment there?) Do wounded souls want to hide away in a place like this-to be alone and escape the harshness of humanity, to find some peace? Peace is a hard commodity to come by no matter where you happen to be, and people create islands for themselves without the benefit of ocean expanse. (Aren't we all islands floating together in the same cosmic morass much like the French dessert with whipped egg whites and custard sauce?) Is it the call of freedom people hear? The isolation has to appeal, but the beauty of the island can't be discounted, the bucolic life surrounded by sea. It is a community that fills up in the summer with Parisians, British, and Dutch who have discovered its secret and are drawn here as well.
I think of St. Francisville, Louisiana, where our friends Ellen and Kenwood live, a small town that we also find irresistible. It's an eccentric community steeped in live oak trees with Spanish moss, darling shops and B & B's, the Louisiana joie de vivre. The residents here have also been pulled together in some way. They prefer to live on their island which happens to be on land.
These are questions I pondered later that afternoon as I watched a diet show that came on TV. That was nice after my big lunch. I probably gained three pounds. I hate them all.
I felt unsettled. Why? Is it about leaving tomorrow, getting back to the continent and the regular world and all that that implies? I have loved the spirits and spirit of Belle Ile, but I also miss my daughters. I feel so far away from my chickadees at home who have flown my coop that I flew as well. I wish we had a date to meet.
The next morning Jim discovered he'd lost our ferry ticket but still had his Visa receipt, so they gave him another one. We made the crossing back across the ocean and within ourselves. It was time to move on again, to meet Alice in Auray. She would take us to our lent house that she'd so generously arranged. We followed her up the road and drove through the blue gate. When Alice opened up the door, the house was large and lovely-older but not ancient-and the owners had lovingly redone it. A modern and good-looking kitchen with tile floors is open to the dining area with table and chairs that would hold an ideal dinner party. The owner's paintings-his own work-adorn the downstairs walls with grace and vitality, a range of solid technique and styles. I'm going to call the living room Primal Breton with hints of 30's chic and Africa. Upstairs modern furniture is mixed with some antiques, cheerful children's bedrooms. In other words, we liked this couple just from their stuff. What a place and space to work!
We unpacked the car again. Everything came out this time. We drove to the huge Le Clerc (which is like an upper-scale Wal-Mart Superstore) and loaded up on groceries for a month in the country. We're ready to eat in, for a change. I figured out how to work the stove and slid turkey legs and thighs in the oven to roast along with a mélange of vegetables. We opened a delicious bottle of Chinon, listened to music as we supped.
Afterwards, Jim played a guitar he found and softly sang the songs he knows so well, the ones which comfort him with familiar melodies and chords. As for the tempestuous two who were left, Frida found a perch in the living room that suited her, while I laid-back on the sofa. We didn't have our own fort, but we had settled into another family's home.
posted by Beth on February 17, 2003 | View All Diary Entries
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