08 November 2012

Maisons et chateaux

Chateau Chenonceau on the Cher river

Our past weekend in la vallée de la Loire (Loire Valley) was one in which we caught a glimpse of the former and current lifestyles of the rich and famous.  At Chateau Chenonceau, (pictured here) we walked through the opulent bedrooms and the large kitchen and servants' dining room (think Downton Abbey), and we saw how Catherine de Medici competed with her husband's 'favorite' mistress Diane de Poitiers for the most elegant bedroom and prettiest garden and eventually, the ownership of the castle.  At Chateau du Clos Lucé, we walked through the Leonardo da Vinci's retirement lodgings and the gorgeous gardens, and at Chateaux Cheverny, we were treated to photos of the current Marquis and his young family who reside on the upper floor and who open their home year-round to the tourists who want to see how the elite live.  (This marquis apparently hunts, as the castle grounds include kennels for a pack of hounds.)

Seeing the insides of French maisons et chateaux (homes and castles) can be so revealing about a people and their society, but most of the time, the French are extremely guarded about their private homes, treating them almost like real fortresses that are NOT open to public viewing.  Many single dwelling homes in France and the yards around them are surrounded by tall iron fences or stone walls, with locked gates controlling access to driveways.  We have not noticed many neighborhoods where casual passers-by can see inhabitants watching television in their living rooms, or preparing food in their kitchens, or sprucing up their gardens.  With the locked gated entries, door-to-door soliciting is virtually impossible as is trick-or-treating (which is not a tradition here anyway), and going on a walk in Aix is often a bit frustrating for me.  I'm always a little bit of a voyeur, peeking through holes in the fences or looking to see what I can see as gates open and close.  The French also use their wooden (or electric) window shutters regularly, at night or in the heat or extreme cold, and often even during the day, which can have the effect of closing up homes and buildings to the outside world.  On our drives to castles and towns across the eastern part of the Loire Valley last weekend, the effect was rather depressing; it seemed as if all of the houses were painted the same non-descript white-ish color and on many of them, the dingy windows shutters were tightly closed.  (The shutters and homes in some towns, in the south especially, do have a little more color.)  But where were all the people in central France, in the lieu-dits (tiny localities) and villages, and what were they doing? 

Because we rented a holiday house this past weekend, a gîte as these are called, (pronounced 'jeet'), we were able to see a little bit of life from the inside of high stone walls and iron gates.  Our owners lived in the adjacent white manoir (manorhouse) which had unusually bright blue shutters, and we saw when they were out and about, leaving for the Saturday market or wherever, and we caught a glimpse of one of them working at their computerThese are the kinds of things we normally see in our community in the U.S.  If I were to walk to the store from my Seattle house, I would pass by the fronts of all of my neighbors' houses, and it would be unusual not to exchange a quick wave with a resident in her kitchen or a child in the front yard.  Not only that, in this same house I can talk on the telephone at the window in my living room and gesticulate to my neighbor across the street who can see me from her living room window as she answers my call on her phone.  And, the houses in our Seattle neighborhood are green, blue, red, taupe, yellow.  Some do have have shutters beside the windows but these are purely decorative, and most front yards are not fenced in, nor are driveways closed off.  Our cars are parked on the public street, across from our neighbors' cars and we often see each other as we come and go.   

Perhaps the differences between how the French live and how we live is related to the different valuations of privacy and security.  (Earlier I wrote about French privacy in regard to first names, see Noms et prenoms, Sept. 2012.)  The English saying about a man's house being his castle does speak to the idea that privacy and security are important values, and these seem to be valued here on the other side of the Channel as well.  Just recently, I ran into a French employee at a local frame shop whom I recognized as my eye-level neighbor.  (She and her family live in the building across a street and a courtyard from us, on the same floor as we do, and I recognized her face from having seen her at her window occasionally in the spring and summer.)  The woman and her co-worker were startled when I asked her if she lived on a certain street and then suggested we might be neighbors, that perhaps we had seen each other across the street?  Perhaps I was being too forward, invading her privacy.  On the other hand, the French do seem to focus a great deal on property crime and perhaps she felt a bit vulnerable.  The French go to great lengths to protect their things, with the barricades around private family homes, the shutters, the iron bars, and for us apartment dwellers, the ubiquitous buzzers at our building entrances.  Perhaps she was feeling protective of both her privacy and personal security.  In any case, I was relieved to discover a few weeks later that this French neighbor and I actually aren't all that different.  On a very stormy day in which torrents of rain were creating rivers out of the old town streets of Aix, both she and our family were drawn to our windows at exactly the same moment, to watch the amazing weather.  Astonishingly, she waved to us, so we waved back, and then, I pointed to the street and gestured with my hands to show how deep the water was.  She smiled and nodded, et voilà! We had ourselves a normal, friendly neighborly interaction.

What we see most days looking out our windows

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