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INCENTIVE FOR HOME LIFE ABROAD
THE ALLURING ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE
RENTING IN ENGLAND
OUR COTTAGE IN KENT
HOUSEHUNTING IN FRANCE
OUR NORMAN COUNTRY HOUSE
A "BONNE A TOUT FAIRE"
MARKETS AND MARKETING
"BLANCHISSEUSE VS. LAVEUSE"
HOW WE LOST OUR HOUSE
WHERE FASHIONABLE EUROPE WINTERS
A LAND OF VILLAS
HOUSE HUNTING BY AUTOMOBILE
VILLA "BEAU SOLEIL"
LIFE BY THE BLUE MEDITERRANEAN
HOUSEKEEPING ON THE RIVIERA
"BOUILLABAISSE, GARLIC AND OLIVES"
WHAT THE MAN THOUGHT ABOUT IT
HOW THE WOMAN SUMMED IT UP
THE CHARM OF HOUSEKEEPING ABROAD
SOME HOUSEKEEPING EXPERIENCES
IN the majority of cases housekeeping abroad for the American woman is merely an episode, brought about by a spirit of adventure or the desire for novelty, or, more often perhaps, that longing for a hearthstone latent in the most inveterate feminine globe-trotter, even though it be a temporary one, represented by a British grate, a German porcelain stove, an Italian copper brasier of charcoal, or the Provençal's apology for its cheerful glow – the smouldering root of an olive tree.
The woman in the case may be a mother whose daughters are "studying" something or other, and she feels it her duty to provide a home atmosphere for the "girls "; again she may belong to that increasing class of American wanderers who have contracted the "European habit," and, becoming surfeited with sights and shopping, turns to the making of a home as a welcome relief. It may be that the cost of living at home has induced her to move the family across the ocean in the hopes of finding that cheap living abroad of which she has heard such glowing accounts. That phase of the question, however, is dealt with in another chapter.
Whatever may be the incentive, it not infrequently happens that when the woman traveller lingers in a foreign land for a longer period than the conventional few months of feverish touring, her domestic instincts begin to assert themselves, spurred on by a natural curiosity to get behind the scenes and study the workings of a domestic machinery so different from that at home, its oftimes archaic features being only an added fascination, which, it must be confessed, is apt to fade away when given the personal test.
By this time she has become wearied of the banal pension or the conventional hotel, and finds herself wondering whether domestic architecture may not be as interesting as cathedrals, and markets as fascinating as" old masters" if studied with the same amount of fervour – so some day she goes house-hunting.
But more often the courage of the intending housekeeper fails; she fears to open what may be a Pandora's box of unknown troubles, and in consequence her villa by the blue Mediterranean, or country house among the leafy lanes of old England, remains one of those aërial buildings that even the aëroplane cannot reach.
However, if the woman touring abroad has time for the domestic experiment, and enters upon it with an open mind, regarding it either as a lark or an educational experience, according to temperament, she should, by all means, try it. Thus she will get a peep behind the stage-setting arranged for the tourist, and an insight into things not starred by Baedeker, but no less entertaining and instructive. It is amazing the difference in the viewpoint between the home and the hotel, and it should not be missed if one really wants to know a country intimately.
The first of these three minor housekeeping experiments was made in England. Nowhere does country life make so strong an appeal as it does in the mellow, finished English countryside. At once imagination flashes up pictures of Elizabethan manor houses, Queen Anne mansions, old timbered cottages, velvet lawns and the ideal garden; while, to the American housekeeper, who recalls her struggles in the sign language with the newly arrived Hungarian girl, it opens up a vision of trained servants to whom the service is a profession and not mere incident in their careers. On the other hand, it must not be overlooked in the yearning for a taste of home life in the little British island, that a superior service does not always bridge over a lack of conveniences, nor do picturesque surroundings altogether compensate for comforts which have become necessities in the American household and are more than likely to be wanting in the English house, either great or small.
The romantic manor-house is not likely to be heated, and the American tenant, accustomed to being parboiled between steam radiators, finds that the chills of centuries in its stone walls are but illy dispelled by the deceptively comfortable looking open fire. As to the plumbing, it may be thrilling to recall that it is the same that was installed in the time of a Tudor King, but scarcely hygienic to have under one's roof. Again, more often than not, is the rose-bowered cottage without running water, and the bathroom nonexistent (the English practice of "tubbing" by no means implies the existence of a bathroom). But if the American woman is in search of a new sensation and is philosophical enough to make the best of existing conditions, the way is made easy for her to sample, if she will, home life under English conditions.
There is no country where "renting" is reduced to such a science as in conservative England. The Englishman's house may be his castle, but he is seemingly willing enough to hand over its keys for a consideration, while the Englishwoman, without a qualm, will put her most intimate household treasures into the keeping of stranger hands with a confidence and absence of sentiment difficult for the American householder to understand – a part of the secret probably being that rented property is here treated with a far greater respect than might be supposed.
The result is that it is a comparatively easy matter, if one will but take the trouble to look about, to find almost any style of house that may be wanted and for almost any price, in any one of the counties, unfurnished, furnished or really furnished, as may be desired, even to household linen and family plate. In some cases it is possible to take on the family servants, an arrangement that would seem ideal.
One has only to make a study of the "advertisement pages" of the high class English daily or weekly journals to find a most alluring list from which to make a choice, from the "gentleman's mansion, with a banqueting hall and stabling for twenty," to a moated grange with a "ghost that walks," or a thatched roof cottage with a genuine old inglenook; where there may be "an opportunity for hunting with three packs."
Arrangements are usually made through some well-known London firm of" estate agents," though sometimes one deals directly with the owner; occasionally the renting will be in the hands of a local agent. Then again, in rambling about the country, one may stumble upon just what is wanted, as we did, which, after all, is the best way. Why not a "House Hunting Tour of England" as a varient from the time-honored "Cathedral Tour "?
England being a land of formalities there is a certain amount of red tape to be untangled, especially in the case of renting a furnished house where inventories must be made, etc., etc. The tenant for his protection usually has an inventory made out at his own expense.
When in doubt it is well to follow the custom of the country and call in the services of a "solicitor" – in our tongue, a lawyer. The English, even in the slightest business transaction, rush to their "solicitor'' as chickens scurry to shelter under the mother hen's wing. For the stranger, in almost any business transaction except the simplest, a "solicitor" is almost a necessity and will save trouble. He will some day send a bill covering half a dozen sheets of legal foolscap, carefully itemised in clerkly long-hand, to the effect that a certain style of letter written in your behalf cost three shillings, sixpence, another "seven and six," etc., etc. But don't be alarmed. The bill will probably not total up more than a few dollars at most. Minor law is cheap in England; the rather disconcerting results of such a system are that should a dispute arise with the cook or the washerwoman you will in all probability find yourself "referred to her solicitor" before you are aware that the matter has become in the least serious.
When the fogs of several London winters drove us into the country for a season, it was in Kent, the garden county of England, among its hop-fields and their picturesque "oast-houses" that we found "Rosemary Cottage," typically English, with latticed windows, an artistic thatched roof, bowered in jasmine and roses. A rent board leaned over the neatly clipped hedge, giving directions to apply to the steward of the nearby great estate of which "Rosemary" was a tiny faction.
We did so by letter, and found that "Rosemary," with all its picturesqueness, six rooms and a semidetached kitchen – unfurnished – could be ours for twenty pounds (a paltry hundred dollars) a year. At first blush it seemed as though it were being given to us. We lost no time in signing a year's lease, giving as references a London bank, and paid the first quarter's rent – five pounds – ( rents being paid quarterly instead of monthly), and prepared to move in.
We took the advice of seasoned movers and had our furniture brought down from London, thirty-five miles away, in a "pantechnicon" by road. A pantechnicon bears some resemblance to a caricature freight train that has lost its way. It consists of one or more covered vans drawn by a road engine of the "stone crusher" type, which chugs painfully along the highroads at what seems to be the rate of about one-and-a-quarter miles an hour. The pantechnicon is slow and sure, like many things English, and is the popular method, because cheap, of transporting household effects about the country. It seemed to answer the purpose, and in less time than might have been expected our household was duly installed.
Water was "laid on," as is the term, to the extent of there being a faucet installed over the kitchen sink. This was the private enterprise of our landlord, who had it piped at his own expense from a local source to the houses on his estate, and in this respect we were better off than we should have been in many rural neighbourhoods. For light there were candles, and but for our "Rochester" burner (which we had carried around with us on all our wanderings) to lighten the darkness, we would have fared badly. The European lamp is but a poor substitute, being more top heavy and monumental than luminous.
It would seem as though one servant ought to have sufficed for such a modest establishment; not so in England, where sub-division of housework has been reduced to a fine art. Any overlapping of duties is rigidly tabooed, and the "general servant" is still in the experimental stage. Three were necessary and readily found in the tiny hamlet a quarter of a mile away, though our English friends had warned us that it might be difficult to get servants in the country now. The servant bogey is apparently beginning to threaten the English housekeeper. A woman came in to cook, a young girl as housemaid (" Rosemary's" limited quarters would not admit of their "living in"); and while the cook would whiten the doorsteps, it required a man (a gardener) to sweep off the few feet of brick walk to the front gate. Because that came within the gardener's province! Notwithstanding that, the wages of all three did not equal that demanded by "the girl" at home.
It was not long before we found ourselves in the grip of the great problem of housekeeping – the question of food supply. Our sole dependence for groceries and household requisites was the one tiny "general store," where there was little to be had beyond candles and Colman's mustard. Its proprietor (who was also the postmaster) had formed a trust of one, and cornered the business of the neighbourhood; consequently, with no competition, you had to take, on an emergency, what he had or go without.
The only other alternative was a three-mile walk to a village, a shade larger than ours, where the supplies were sufficiently varied to include marmalade and pickled walnuts. As the inelastic code of English service could not be revised to meet these conditions we ran our own errands; that the walk lay through our landlord's beautiful home park mitigated somewhat against the inconvenience.
This was before the useful automobile had become – as it did later – our best ally, both in house-hunting and housekeeping. With it we could have foraged to better advantage, and saved, as well, a livery bill which also went to swell the till of the village" trust."
Having discovered" Rosemary" in the course of a walking tour, we did not realise that the railway station was four miles away, and while three shillings for the "brougham" and two shillings for a "trap" there and back could not be called dear in the course of the year it helped to do away with the feeling that our cottage in the country was costing us "nothing to speak of."
All our coal had to be hauled four miles, and no matter whether it was "kitchen," "best kitchen" or "drawing-room," the quality threw out almost the same trivial amount of heat, and the bill was nearly double what it would have been in America, had we been obliged to heat a house with half a dozen uneconomic open fires.
There was no "greengrocer's" in this little community of about four hundred souls, so we had to fall back on the favour of our retinue of servants to skirmish about for the daily supply of vegetables and fruit; the result being that their various relatives, as a great favour, would be persuaded into selling us, at city prices and something more, cabbages, turnips and potatoes, and an occasional cauliflower, the beginning and end of the usual list of English vegetables, though sometimes this was supplemented by a tough lettuce. Even these sources of supply were capricious and would fail at inopportune times.
English fruits at the best are negligible as to quality and quantity, and expensive, save the strawberry, though there always seemed to be a bountiful supply of the plebian, furry gooseberry, judging by the frequency with which our cook served us that abominable dessert – stewed gooseberries and custard. Kent is considered the home of the best English strawberry, but they were never "at home" for us; when we did capture a box, it was at Covent Garden Market prices; as for apples, they were weighed out to us by the ounce as grudgingly as if they were precious stones.
An itinerant butcher brought around daily the "joints" and chops, but anything more, such as a special steak or a fowl, had to be ordered in advance, and then was not always forthcoming; it was more often than not a see-saw between leg of mutton and mutton chops.
There was but one variety of bread – the "cottage-loaf " – heavy and stodgy, the product of a bake-oven that had come down from the time of the Georges, an adjunct of the baker's own cottage.
As an example of the futility of trying to modify tradition, we pleaded with the baker to make us something that at least looked like a roll. He promised, to do him justice, reluctantly, and next day we received a litter of six miniature "cottage-loaves," perfect replicas of the large one. As well try to alter the mould of his mind as change the shape of that loaf, which must have been designed by King Alfred when he turned cook!
Eggs in time became a luxury, and in winter could not be had at any price. The only recourse was to include them on our shopping list and bring them out from London.
We finally rebelled at a diet made up largely of boiled mutton, boiled potatoes and soggy puddings, and in desperation had all of our supplies sent from London, three hours away by rail; again a profit on the village "monopoly" for bringing them from the station. These included a stock of American canned goods at prices double what they cost at home.
In truth, our living in our English country cottage proved even more expensive than in our London city apartment.
The charm of the English countryside is very real, but its resources are apt to be meagre and unsatisfactory. It is well for the prospective householder to inquire into the practical housekeeping possibilities of the neighbourhood wherein is situated the picturesque cottage or Tudor mansion before closing the bargain. To be forty miles from a fresh egg is rather a damper on the enthusiasm inspired by the proximity of the ivy-clad ruin whose history is written in Domesday Book.
We might have thought that some of our troubles resulted from an ignorance of the local situation, except for the fact that English housekeepers in all rural communities may be heard bewailing the same conditions.
There is a live movement now on foot in England towards imitating the intensive gardening of the French. If it is successful it will do much towards lightening one phase of the burden of housekeeping.
In setting up an establishment in a small English community the stranger comes in contact with traditions and customs that seem puerile and even amusing to an outsider, but are often none the less exasperating; all the same it is well to respect them. Nothing is so out of place as originality under these circumstances, though the "outlander," especially the American, who runs counter to local prejudices, will be judged leniently, where one of their own countrymen would not be. The cult of the American is a popular one everywhere across the water these days.
Even as casual tenants we found that we could not escape certain ready-made duties. There was a waiting list of recipients for our bounty; the lady of the house was expected to do her share of "district visiting" and distributing tracts, and might be called upon to pour tea at Sunday-school "treats."
There is more or less of a code of etiquette governing the initiation of a newcomer into local society, which, if freely translated, might read this wise:
If the house is rented furnished, it implies that its occupants are birds of passage, and that therefore their stay will not be long enough to justify letting down the social barriers, though if one attends the parish church the vicar will call, and probably the vicar's wife – in which case there will be an invitation to tea at the vicarage. On the other hand, to take a house and furnish it carries with it a certain suggestion of stability and permanence that makes the newcomer worth while, in which case the squire's family will likely call, followed by other local "somebodies," and there will be invitations to afternoon teas and garden parties. This delicately graded scale is naturally modified by local conditions, but here again the American scores, especially the American woman, if she is a sportswoman and can talk "horse and dog," is not averse to long walks, and content with gossiping "teas" as her principal diversion. But as a class the American women are not sporty. Riding to hounds does not appeal to their tastes, nor does "puppy walking" along muddy lanes hold any charms for one addicted to silken hose and pumps. And so, in spite of well-meant efforts of the community, the American woman is apt to feel isolated, and become bored by the, it must be acknowledged, rather dull and spiritless existence of rural England.
Undoubtedly this largely accounts for the fact that the sociable and vivacious American woman is more often to be found making a home in the gayer and less formal atmosphere of Continental Europe, rather than in that of the alluring English countryside, in spite of its traditions of the best home life.
To confess the truth, we "funked" it, as our English friends would say, and as a tenant was forthcoming to take the lease off our hands, basely deserted "Rosemary" before the year was out.
Since then we have taken our enjoyment of the pleasures of English country life from the equally picturesque and far more convenient English country inn.
We were beguiled into another trial of housekeeping in a foreign land by one of those "beauty spots" so common in the lovely windings of the Seine Valley. It was in a little Norman village that could boast of every picturesque attribute that a village should have which dated from William the Conqueror, old timbered houses that leaned crazily over the one straggling street, an ancient Gothic church, the whole overtopped by the ruins of a feudal castle. The stage setting was perfect, while for the housekeeper it had the practical advantage of being the appendage of a large, flourishing market town, with good shops only a mile away, the two being known as La Grande Ville and La Petite Ville.
For two years or more this particular corner of Normandy had been familiar ground. We had come and gone, making the rambling old riverside hotel our headquarters for months at a time. Thus it was that when we decided to look for a pied de terre of our own, it was to our old friend, its patron, that we went for advice, and, in the course of much local gossip, finally weeded out the information that there were two houses that might be rented.
The first in local importance was a modern French chalet – the kind known as a "Villa coquette," a hideous type of country house adored by the average Frenchman who is disfiguring the loveliness of his country with these fantastic specimens of domestic architecture; an aberration from the national artistic taste that cannot be explained except by the strong streak of artificiality in the French character.
This one was of the reddest of brick, with zig-zag trimmings of yellow stone, carefully separated by chocolate coloured lines. The slate roof, all pinnacles and peaks, was crowned with a fence-like arrangement of spiked iron ornaments that made one shiver to look at. There were pink and green porcelain plaques let in about the windows, while a realistic terra cotta cat, with arched back and a "cheshire-grin," decorated the ridge pole.
The rectangular garden was garnished with a summer house and a couple of benches of imitation rustic work. In spite of ten rooms and a glass-enclosed verandah, where one could dine and overlook one of the finest views in Normandy, the colour scheme of house and cat seemed dear to live with at a rental of three hundred dollars per annum.
A real bargain was a maison bourgeoise, a good example of the ample solid mansion of the well-to-do provincial French family, big enough to have absorbed several of the average modern city flats. The ground floor was taken up with the practical working part of the establishment. On entering the massive front door, flush with the street, the first thing that met the eye, and the most prominent, in good French style, was the spacious kitchen with its rows of shining coppers, to which was subordinated the dining-room. Then came the usual number of small rooms and passages that clutter up the large French house without seeming to be put to any special use, but which, taken together, give really a vast area to be put to domestic uses.
The house was furnished in the formal and meagre French taste, in a way that would be totally inadequate to the needs of the American or English housekeeper – principally with ornate mantel ornaments and gilt tables and long mirrors, but with never an easy chair in the whole house.
While there were electric lights (scarcely any town in France is too unimportant to be without them), and the parquet of the salon had come from a real historic château, the sanitary arrangements were practically nil; and while to each bedroom was attached an elegant and commodious cabinet de toilette, the stationary washstand (why this deception no one could fathom) was pure make-believe and had to be filled with water brought in a cruche from the pump in the garden.
We could have gotten all this, with a garden and an espalier thrown in, for less than the price of the gaudy "villa coquette," about two hundred and fifty dollars per annum with taxes, the tenant, not the landlord, paying the taxes. But a family of two could do with smaller quarters. Besides, this was a type of house that could have been duplicated in any French neighbourhood, and we were looking for "local colour," otherwise why go house-hunting in the most picturesque of old French provinces?
The right combination was finally found just where the village street trailed off into a grassy path by the river. It was a cross between a small country house and an old sixteenth-century Norman farmhouse, of weather-beaten grey stone, with a mellow red tile roof of many ups and downs, with black timbers showing in the high gables and under the overhanging eaves. It stood among lush, green meadows, in an orchard of apple trees – the small cider apple tree of Normandy. There were some flower beds and a grape vine hung over the door – the whole enclosed by a high, stone wall, capped with crumbling tiles.
The owner was an avocat in La Grande Ville who made this his summer home when he went en villegiature during the fishing season. We had more than once stopped in times past to peer admiringly through the tall iron gate, and had always envied Monsieur l'avocat as he sat placidly fishing, his portly person perched on a chair in one end of a clumsy boat, with madame, his wife, at the other end, sewing industriously. This year, for some reason, monsieur had decided to forego his fishing – a sport dear to the Frenchman – and it was this which made our opportunity.
We interviewed monsieur at his étude in his town house, and offered to rent the place if the terms were agreeable; they were, and the matter was quickly arranged. A lease was signed for a year, with an option of renewing it for three. The rent, plus the taxes, came to something over one hundred dollars a year, payable quarterly. The house was even partly furnished, though not in a manner of sufficient importance to call for a formal inventory, which in France, as in England, is taken with a painful attention to minutæ in leasing a furnished house.
In the house proper were five rooms – a fair-sized salon, an enormous kitchen with a spacious hooded chimney, and a small dining-room, an arrangement which gives a good illustration of the relative importance of rooms in the French domestic scheme. Above were two bedrooms, each with its tiny cabinet de toilette, the usual adjunct of the sleeping-room in France, no matter how restricted may be the quarters in which are hidden away the microscopic bathing arrangements.
An outside flight of stone stairs led up to three large rooms, and that looked as if they had been slapped on as an afterthought. These were promptly fitted up as a studio and workroom, and proved an ideal arrangement in avoiding conflict between the artistic and literary and the domestic factions of the household. Monsieur had not installed electric lights, so we burned candles in tall, brass candlesticks and an American lamp, while water came from the pump beside the kitchen door.
Great beams crossed the low ceilings, and a high mantelpiece – a good example of sixteenth-century Norman carved woodwork – -nearly filled up one side of the little salon, and in the fireplace of which stood a pair of "basket" andirons, wrought in a fashion that would have tempted a collector to carry them away.
The furniture was sparse, but enough to build on. We got some furnishings from our Paris studio, picked up some things at local auction sales; unearthed an ancient armoire and some good "lustre" ware, and odds and ends of old china in the village itself; while for a few francs the kitchen was stocked with a generous supply of the earthen casseroles and marmites that play such an important role in the French kitchen. Thus the problem of furnishing was solved by degrees, and in the process we got not a little fun, as well as some mild excitement, in bargaining.
Our establishment ran smoothly with a bonne à tout faire – a maid-of-all work – who, for the not extravagant sum of thirty francs (six dollars) and keep, did all the work, from polishing the waxed floors to cooking simple, but excellent, meals. The French bonne rather prefers to be in undisputed possession of the domestic field, and while she does her work by rule of thumb she can get through with a tremendous lot in the course of the day.
No matter what Yvonne's work might be, her black dress and blue cotton apron were always neat, and her blonde hair tidy under the close-fitting white cap of the Norman peasant woman. At five in the morning Yvonne was up and shuffling about the house in her black, cloth slippers, slipping them into wooden sabots when she went out of doors, and as conscientiously dropping them off again at the door before stepping on her spotless floors, as does the Mohammedan shed his shoes before the sacred mosque.
On pleasant days we ate out of doors in delightful French country fashion, and Yvonne served three daily meals under the apple trees with never a rumble about the extra work that this entailed. She did the marketing, ran errands, gave the orders and was a competent "buffer" between us and the daily friction in dealings with the butcher, the baker and others of their ilk. The few sous that may have been diverted into her own pocket by the process were only her just dues – which, to tell the truth, was exactly the way she looked at it.
Yvonne was not perfection. She was unduly voluble, not at all truthful, and her manners, to more conventional housekeepers, might have seemed free and easy; but the French servant is pliable to an extent unintelligible to the starched English maid, and is not always clogging the domestic machinery by stopping to define the exact boundaries of her domain. When there was nothing else to do Yvonne would polish off the brass and rub down the bodywork of the automobile which was housed in the ancient stable.
Nothing so accentuates the difference between country life in France and that of neighbouring England as the superiority of the French local resources. Each petit pays, or community, is self-supporting and self-contained. In the chief town a weekly market focusses the produce of the surrounding villages and farms, both for the convenience of the local buyer and for distribution to points further away.
Every Monday afternoon Yvonne, armed with her black, straw-covered basket, went to the market in the place of La Grande Fille. She would bargain with keenness and relish for the week's supplies up and down the long line of market women sitting sphinx-like before their heaped up baskets. Here, in covered booth and under widespread umbrellas, nearly everything could be found, from live stock to dry-goods, and from flowers to scrap-iron. This was our bonne's only day off, nor would she have wanted any better holiday than this weekly tilt in wits and the opportunity it gave for gossip.
Only recently a law has been passed in France providing for a repos hebdomadaire, which entitles every employee to a day of rest, but so far the French servant has rarely availed herself of it. "Mort Dieu, que faire," she exclaims, and simply shrugs her shoulders and goes about her work as usual.
Beside the weekly market there came to our door each morning the marchands de quatre saisons (so called from the fact that they handle the products of the four seasons), peasant women with push-carts of vegetables and fruits from the outlying farms. They are well-named; no matter what might be the time of the year their supply of green stuff was abundant and varied, thanks to the French system of intensive gardening, which is being recognised as the best exponent of that art the world over. Winter had its salads no less than summer, nor was one dependent upon the long garden list of escaroles and romaines at any time, for the peasant woman of Normandy can go out into the fields and grub up, what, to the uninitiated, would be regarded only as weeds, and bring them into the market in the form of most appetising salads. Notable among such was the tender, white shoots of the dandelion from under the young wheat, the deluxe variety of the ordinary dandelion salad. Asparagus was a specialty of the neighbourhoods and haricots verts, which might be labelled as the vegetable of the French, were grown by the square acre in the neighbourhood. One particularly sheltered garden supplied our table with strawberries, including the highly prized white variety of Normandy, from April until December. Another fruit that seemed to come to stay was the cherry, which can take its place along with the haricots verts in the affections of the French housekeeper. But on the whole the French fruits do not rank with their vegetables.
In spite of the fact that a tax had to be paid on all produce brought within the village limits – the octroi tax, that like a belt is tightly drawn about every French town – prices were reasonable, and there was no attempt at rivalling those of the city markets.
Normandy is the dairy of France, and is the home of the best milk, butter, and the most varied number of cheeses produced on French soil, so we fared very well in this particular, though the milk came in the unhygienic tin milk-can of the dark ages of housekeeping (milk in bottles not having penetrated beyond the confines of some of the large cities), but its quality, at eight cents the litre, as well as that of the unsalted butter, could not be excelled.
In the warm months our dairy woman, for it is usually the woman who is the vendor about the French countryside, brought also the cœur de la crême, temptingly laid out on a bed of grape leaves – a small, home-made cream cheese, which takes its name from its heart-shaped basket moulds. Then there were the numerous family of Norman cheeses to draw upon – the world-renowned Camembert, Gournay, the delicate, sweet Gervais, while the little browns jugs of the rich Crême d'Isigny were also one of the products of our pays, the Pont l'Eveque, the Brie and the Port Salut coming from a little farther away.
Poultry and eggs came from an island just opposite us, and the cheerful cackle that floated across the water in no way suggested the "cold storage" fowls only too prevalent these days in our own city markets. It was here that Yvonne went when in search of a particularly fine poulet de grain – one that had been properly fattened on corn, or a basket of fresh-laid eggs, rowing there and back in Monsieur l'avocat's old fishing punt.
Fowls, Yvonne would always roast on the broche before the open fire, which was nearly lost in one end of the huge chimney, in preference to the incompetent stove, as she did also the gigot (always with a range of garlic), the leg of mutton that takes the place on the French menu of that occupied by roast beef on the English dinner table.
Nor were we entirely dependent upon La Grande Ville for household odds and ends. A well-stocked shop in the village itself sold a little Of everything from gasolene for the automobile to fishing poles and bait. There was a woman cordonnier who could re-sole shoes as well as her masculine competitors. A well-appointed butcher's shop, flying its insignia – a red cloth at the doorway – furnished good beef, mutton, lamb and veal at as reasonable rates as could be expected in a land where one must expect to pay well for good meat. There was competition in the boulangerie business, and we had several varieties of rolls, as well as brioches, for the Sunday breakfast, and as a treat even pastry on fête days.
We employed a blanchisseuse, not a laveuse. The distinction means much to one's clothes. The laveuse is the ordinary washerwoman who takes one's linen to the river bank, or any convenient bit of water, lays the clothes on a board, and pounds out the dirt with a wooden paddle. By this process in time one's wearing apparel is riddled with small holes, as if bird-shot had gone through it. Whereas the blanchisseuse does her work in tubs on her own premises, and also frequently irons, the two accomplishments, however, not necessarily going together. The work is usually well done, and one's shirtwaists cost one-half, and often a third of what they would in America, with everything else in proportion, though the pernicious use of lessive, or lye, has naturally a bad effect upon one's linen in time.
All good housekeepers in Normandy make their own cider. From October through November the village cider-press travels from house to house, and the air is heavy with the acrid scent of crushed apples. We followed the example of our neighbours and engaged a burly, blue-bloused Norman man-of-all-work for three francs for the day to set up the press in our garden and turn our crop of apples into the golden beverage of Normandy. The procedure was simple enough. The right mixture of tart and sweet apples were first cut up in a chopping machine and then packed tightly into the press. Warm water was poured in and allowed to drip through, after which the apples were pressed dry. The liquid was put into barrels and stowed away in the dark cellar, for no French house is without its cave – and eight days later was supposed to be ready to use; but Norman cider must be mellow to be enjoyed; even at its best it is a bit sour and thin even to the palate accustomed only to ice-water.
Why did we ever leave such a paradise might well be asked? Procrastination was our undoing. We could have bought our house and the four acres of land attached for something less than a couple of thousand dollars, and did seriously think of becoming permanent householders in La Petite Ville, but while dallying with the idea, little dreaming of any need for haste, we went off for a six weeks' jaunt through Holland and Belgium and came back to find that a small "boom" had burst upon the village. Monsieur l'avocat had been offered what seemed to him a fabulous amount for the property and had closed the bargain. Ultimately the vandal purchaser tore down the house and put up what was even worse than the "villa coquette" – an imitation old Norman house.
In disgust, when our lease was up, we shook the
of La Petite Ville off of our feet, and so it was that when the
germ began its deadly work again, it found us by the shores of the blue
We sat around our studio fire making plans for the winter. The cold fogs of autumn were wrapping Paris in their clammy folds. A Paris fog has not the consistency of that of London, but it has a chill of its own, and Paris has by far less adequate provision for keeping warm than any city in Europe.
"We will winter on the Riviera, in a villa," was
decision, "and be fashionable."
The most chic, exclusive winter amusement of all Europe is the wintering in a Riviera villa, on the shores of the blue Mediterranean, which by the poetic Frenchman is described as "a beautiful woman in a blue gown." Ah, but gowns cost money, even to look at sometimes! Would not even a modest villa loom to too expensive proportions on this enchanted shore, the modern garden of the Hesperides, where the golden apples are indeed golden.
How to find out! We took the obvious course and got the addresses of various house agents, beginning at Marseilles and running along the coast to Cannes, Nice and Menton. The experience opened up vistas of foreign business methods which were anything but practical, for some never answered our queries at all, while others had not yet returned from the holidays in the mountains – and so made the fact known to us by a brief message written on a picture post-card from some retreat in the mountains where they were spending their time trying to catch trout.
Our modest demand for something habitable which could shelter two people and an automobile was met by others who offered us palatial chateaux with everything to match, including the price. One quoted a rental of fifty thousand francs for three months, for which we were to have a spacious demure surrounded by ten acres of gardens and composed of twelve bed and dressing-rooms, boudoirs, billiard room, a "winter garden," endless halls and salons and servants' quarters, and as many as two (?) bathrooms, with gas and electricity, running water, an entrance lodge, two garages and a boathouse. Certainly the price was not high for what was offered. It was the automobile that did it, for when we stipulated for a garage it was hard to convince them that four additional rooms were enough.
"It is easy to see what class of Americans they take us for, or do they think that we want to run a hotel,'' said the Man in disgust. "We'll go house-hunting by automobile and investigate any, and every, place that we pass on the road that has a sign à louer hanging in front of it," and so we decided forthwith.
Two days down by road from Paris, and we turned eastward at Marseilles and plunged gaily into the real Riviera over the famous Route d'Italie which links up Paris with the Italian frontier.
From Marseilles on to Menton at the edge of Italy is the villa region of Europe. They are not converted villas – the made-over palaces, desecrated convents and mouldy ruins that the searcher after the old usually associated with the word "villa" in Italy. These villas of the French Riviera are newly built, new for Europe at least, for it is only within the last quarter of a century that this exploitation has begun, and within the last ten that it has become internationally popular. To-day the boom is fairly on. One pleasing result is that what is lost in antiquity is made up to the housekeeper in a comfort such as is rarely successfully grafted on to the monumental palaces of other days.
Villas were dotted along the grey flanks of the mountains that rise here from the sea; they are perched on rocky crags, smothered in orange groves and surrounded by sweet-scented gardens of exotic shrubs, and built on purple and ochre rocks out into the water. White most of them, or of shell tints and of what might be styled Mediterranean architecture – a blend of Moorish in open colonnades, of Spanish in the flat, projecting tile roofs, of Italy in the stucco walls and conventional balustrades, with here and there just a dash of French coquetry to give them the piquancy demanded by the exigencies of the gay life that goes on within the delicately tinted walls.
The correct type of Riviera villa must always have a brilliant frieze stencilled in colours just up under the roof, usually of a design of gaudy flowers, a decorative Italian idea, which is very charming, and turquoise blue porcelain ornaments play a prominent part in the exterior decoration.
They were fancifully named, all of these villas, in bold letters on the gate-post, and though the villa, "My Darling," seemed rather too personal as an address, the villa, "Mary and Martha," suggested that both the material and spiritual welfare of the household was cared for.
We succeeded in getting much more information in personal interviews with the house agents. Business by correspondence is not one of the strong points of the foreigner.
Nice being the hub and the metropolis of the Riviera, offered the greatest choice compared to other places. Furnished villas, the only kind to hire, on account of the expense of moving household goods, varied from five hundred dollars to five thousand for a season. This was according to size, and that desideratum of the Riviera – location.
Small villas! Oh, that was another story. There were some that rented from three to six hundred dollars, but they were scarce and had been spotted and grabbed up by the first of October.
Furnished apartments might have been had at similar prices, or the finer new ones that are making Nice as convenient to live in as Paris, at Paris prices, if that was what one was looking for. Not so with us; we had come for a villa, and a villa or some detached substitute, therefore, we would have. These prices were for the Riviera season of three months, from the last of January to the last of April.
The rent, in most cases, included the linen, china and silver, or what passes for silver, but not the water. Your water bill depends upon yourself and the use you make of that commodity.
Conditions were much the same at Menton, though the tendency was towards lower prices, and small villas set in groves of lemon trees were not unknown at three and six hundred dollars for the season. But they were all taken. "Yes," we were assured by complacent agents, "it is becoming more difficult each year to secure just what is wanted, the demand for villas is steadily increasing." So we were finding out.
In the charming, rose-bowered peninsula of Antibes, living was not so dear, and we had the satisfaction of learning that water went with the rent, but that it was the "habitude" to rent out such accessories as linen, silver and china as "extras."
These distinctions were interesting, but we were using up a lot of oil and gasolene and not coming up with the special brand of villa, suitable to artistic and literary needs of modest financial capacity.
At Cannes we were offered charming and extensive places that had been hallowed by having been the residences of Russian Grand Dukes, German Hereditary Princes or English Earls, seemingly the principal frequenters of this delightful Mediterranean town that caters for the noblesse. All this tended to advance prices, so they were not for us. It was useless even to demand prices; we were getting beyond the stage where this amused us.
"We might as well turn around and begin at the other end," said the Man. So we rushed the magnificent roadway over the red Esterels into Saint Raphael, where there were charming villas to be had, "patronised by Americans," we were told. The new golf links and palace villas under the parasol pines of Valescure were tempting, but beyond our limit as to price.
A run through the cork forests of the "Maures," and we dropped down into Hyères, the first or last Riviera resort – it depends from which way you come.
Just a few miles away, down on the coast, where a fringe of wind-tossed rock pines overhang the Mediterranean, is a little village of a single hotel, a few fishermen's houses, a wine-shop – little else. Here we found our villa.
The renting was in the hands of the proprietor of the hotel. The villa Beau Soleil was built on the usual casual architectural lines peculiar to these Mediterranean countries – rough stones, stuccoed white with a pinkish-orange roof of tiles. Solid green shutters rendered it as impenetrable as a fortress. On its gable, which was the front, was painted a golden sun, and in its centre the name. A white balustraded terrace, without which no Riviera villa is complete, overhung the water and was roofed with interlaced dry bamboo canes in the fashion of the country.
The villa was of bungalow construction, so common to the country houses about the Mediterranean, called variously bastides and cabanons. There were four living-rooms and the usual big kitchen, designed for people who in winter use the one end of the kitchen as a sitting-room. There was one room under the golden sun in which we housed our one servant. The open terrace gave us a charming out-of-doors living-room where we could set up the literary and artistic shop. Here, too, we dined, literally under our own vine and fig-tree that tempered the rays of the southern sun.
That the boathouse could be used for a garage was the deciding point in the favour of Beau Soleil. Here the Man might tinker when he felt inclined. We took the villa for twelve months (no Riviera season here) for the moderate rental, furnished, of eight hundred francs a year, say a hundred and sixty dollars. The hotel patron wrote out a curious and informal lease on an old-fashioned ruled letter sheet of papier timbré with the dregs of the ink bottle eked out with water. It seemed a crazy document but never gave us any trouble.
The cool, white-washed walls of the rooms were in pleasing contrast with the red-tiled floors, and suggested the repose of a convent cell, which delusion was helped out by the spare amount of furnishings, but there were some old pieces of Provençal furniture, some great armoires and cupboards, ornamented with huge, ornate steel locks and hinges, and a panetier, the hanging cupboard for bread, and below it the trough-like table in which the bread was supposed to be made. These two pieces of furniture to-day serve only the purposes of collectors, and drift chiefly to the antique shops of Paris, Avignon and Marseilles. There were several mirrors of indifferent reflecting ability, but with charming though tarnished gold frames.
The matter of household supplies was not an onerous one. Hyères was well supplied with shops by reason of its prominence as one of the most popular, though not one of the gayest, of the Riviera resorts. The invaluable Potin had a branch here, and there were even some American and English goods stocked. Outside of the big cities the demand for these American products is so intermittent that they are apt to be stale and the style old-fashioned, but certain of them could be made to serve once and again.
With the automobile we did our own delivering, otherwise we would have gone without. As we were in the garden spot of Europe for fruits and vegetables, from which supplies are drawn for northern Europe, contrary to what might usually be expected, we found them cheap and plentiful at all seasons. They were picturesquely brought around to our door loaded in basket panniers swung across lazy, small donkeys, or in carts, guided by women whose sun-baked faces were shielded by flapping straw hats with conical crowns bound with black velvet bands.
Our maid was a Provençal, who came from the neighbourhood of Arles, and wore proudly the costume of that pays. The tiny ribbon coiffe and shawl fichu and the uneconomic black dress that the labouring classes all over Europe cling to, clothed the girl most agreeably, and coming from the most democratic region of Europe, the "Midi" of France, she treated us as equals without embarrassment. She was a charming, handsome, warm-hearted creature who felt it her duty to entertain us socially in her rests between labours.
Celestine worked hard and faithfully, though without any system. She cooked in the nondescript Mediterranean style, a little more so if anything, which like its architecture is a composite of all the attributes of the various warm countries bordering upon it.
How Celestine cooked even as well as she did was a never ceasing marvel. The kitchen range was a high platform of brick under a hooded chimney. The fire was built on top and there were sundry little depressions into which coals were dropped and over which casseroles stewed dreamily away. The pintard – guinea hen – was the bird of the country, and when Celestine roasted it on a broach before the fire of grapevine stems, as well as rows of tiny grèves (which were certainly sparrows) strung on a tong skewer, heads flapping in a horrible, life-like way with the motion of the slow-turning broach, we usually withdrew and let Celestine eat these. We bargained with one of the fishermen to bring us fish for the daily bouillabaisse, that Mediterranean fish stew to be had at its best, and in its only true form, when made of the celebrated rock fish of the Mediterranean, and has plenty of yellow saffron, garlic, herbs and oil bestrewn upon it; either this or it is not bouillabaisse at all. Lapin garenne, stewed rabbit, with a thick wine sauce, is another specialty of Celestine's, and we sometimes longed for the "plain" cooking of England, though indeed the girl's art was a marvel.
Lamb was our main dependence for meat, and goat's milk was all that we could get in the way of lacteal fluid, save a concoction sold by the itinerant milkman who would mix sheep's milk with it. Wine was cheap and good, costing by the barrel five sous a litre, double that for something better. Our shortage on milk had to be made up on wine.
After luncheon in the warm, drowsy afternoon, Celestine would take her sewing out under the olive trees, or weave the flat, round baskets used by the olive presser, which we found, incidentally, made very good mats for the terrace. Always at such times her head would be covered with several handkerchiefs, for fear of a coup de soleil; when it was cool she sat with her feet on a tin chauffrette full of live coals. Celestine and her mode of life was more interesting to us than ourselves, and on the whole we enjoyed her and profited by her acquaintance.
All water had to be brought from the village, and as for baths, the Mediterranean alone served as our tub. The baker at Hyères sent us out each day a collection of the queer, lumpy loaves known as the "pain d'Aix," that is, when he didn't forget it; at other times we cranked up the automobile and went in search of them ourselves, bringing back on the side an occasional sack of "boulets," or compressed coal dust, in morsels about the size of an egg. These black-diamond eggs Celestine burned in the fire which heated up the brick oven on certain occasions, and so far as they went did really give out an efficient heat, though truly they proved expensive.
Without the automobile, housekeeping in our Mediterranean villa would hardly have been a practical success.
Celestine washed our clothes in the big stone tank of water at the end of the garden. This was divided into two compartments, one for the washing and one for the rinsing, and she got fairly good results, considering that she used only cold water and olive oil soap. We had a repasseuse come in to prevent Celestine giving us the household linen ironed in French country fashion by being pulled out and folded, rough dry.
All through the warm spring nights the nightingales trilled in the olive trees of our garden, while the light of the moon, big as a balloon, made a broken path of beaten gold across the water. Idyllic days those when we sat on the terrace, in broken light and shade, soothed by the chant of the cigale – the thermometer of southern France – sky and water a symphony in blue, fanned by the warm breezes from the African coast, and watching the orange sails of the fishing boats drift around the violet headlands of Cap Sicie and Porquerolles.
"Is this what you would call a fashionable winter?'' asked the Man, coming up from the boathouse, where he had been tinkering with the automobile, wearing the blue cotton overalls of a French mechanic, grease up to his elbows.
Celestine had just come from the fountain, bringing the evening supply of water, and was resting the two big, green pottery cruches beside the monumental gateway, while she flirted amiably with the boy who had led up his flock of brown and white goats to deliver the milk, piping to them as do the shepherds still to their flocks on the grey-green hills of Greece.
"Well," I said, looking back at the Colle Noir that formed our mountain background, and across to where two mammoth hotels reared their half-mile of colonnaded white fronts above the pines of Mont des Oiseaux; "there's the Costabelle Hotel just yonder that popular superstition says you can't get in at for less than twenty-five francs a day (what is nearer the truth is, you probably could not get away for less than fifty francs a day), whose guests are spending their days on the golf links and their nights at the bridge table, and two-thirds of them have English titles. Again, over there is San Salvadour, patronised by the French noblesse and the American millionairesses, where those of the guests who have not come in their own automobiles are renting them from a Hyères garage at two hundred dollars a week. That cloud of dust you see up the road was just left by the motor car of the grandest of Russian Grand Dukes taking a run over from Cannes, and besides," warming to the subject, "do we not go to the one ourselves and eat through a ten-course dinner when Celestine slips up in her good judgment and gives us a combination of all the exotic peculiarities of this region, such as moules, oursins, rabbit, aioli and grèves the same day, and to the other for afternoon tea when we want gay society? How much more of the fashionable world would you expect at our present cost of living per capita – one American dollar a day?"
"I don't suppose you include those teas and dinners up at these mountain hostelries in the estimate, do you?" murmured the Man as he went to the washing arrangement in the garden to rinse the grease and dirt from his hands by a liberal dousing in real olive oil. I did not answer, but I knew that I had made my point, that it was just such contrasts as these that make up the charms of experimental housekeeping abroad. Those dinners and teas were extras, mere amusements not at all necessary to an enjoyable existence.
"Say, do you know?" said the Man, reappearing with immaculate hands. "I think there is money to be made exploiting olive oil as a dirt remover."