SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — “Speaking of Bordeaux,” I asked my neighbor Michel after a long crepuscular discussion that started with my serving up a prune juice – eau de vie concoction for the apero and meandered into various flavors of eau de vie (fig — yum — even if the hallucinogenic quality of its skin makes the alcohol content too high to be legal ) manufactured by multiple distilleries in the big city, i.e. Sarlat, ending up with chestnut, from the trees between here and chez Josephine (Baker; I can see her chateau, Les Milandes, from the skylight), which Michel said were so good “they’re shipped to Paris, Bordeaux…” — “Speaking of Bordeaux, are you au courante about Fabrice?” “Oui, he has leukemia. Probably from serving in the Gulf War as a legionnaire.” This part was new to me, although I should have been able to put the pieces together.
It seems that Gulf War Syndrome — the disease which for years the Pentagon claimed didn’t exist, even as our boys and girls kept coming home sick from the Uranium used in U.S. explosives to help them kill more people faster — may be killing my neighbor. Fabrice had told me about his service when we first met and he discovered I was American, later explaining that his ease with American vernacular also comes from growing up in the Alsace, with its constant post-war presence of U.S. soldiers because of its proximity to Germany.
For Albert — Michel’s son in law — the killer of his partner as a highway guard was less exotic, a drunk driver who crashed through a barrier, doing 100 in a 50 KM zone, as Albert’s friend was facing the other way directing traffic, the sharp metal foot of the roadblock piercing and shattering Albert’s friends’ neck. Albert recounted all this to me, his face shuddering, after I ran into him coming out of the pharmacy while touring the Wednesday market. Albert was there to pick up pain killers for his unresolved back pain, which earned him a leave from the foie gras factory, right before his employers, like all the bird farm owners in the south of France this spring, had to kill all their animals because a few chickens had the flu.
I was talking about Fabrice and Albert’s plights yesterday evening with Emmanuelle, the retired boulangerista who still holds court on a bench outside her former boutique, whose door is always open, right beneath the parking lot of the Carreyrou de Le Hermit, our quartier. “On etait heureuse petit!” (Emmanuelle calls every one who has less than her 83 years “Petit,” i.e. Youngster, and you don’t see this 55-year-old complaining) Emmanuelle exclaimed, referring to her life with her husband, who died at 90 after making bread until he was 77. “For 47 years, we got up at 2 a.m. and went to bed at 9 p.m.” In her basement, Emmanuelle still has the long spear-like wooden forks with which she and her husband extracted the bread from the ovens, and two long troughs where the wheat and yeast were mixed. Josephine’s chef used to pick up bread at the boulangerie, and when Lino Ventura was filming “Les Miserables” at the church across the street, he’d send his chauffer every day.
Once when I asked Emmanuelle about her health, she pointed upwards: “It depends on him.” I thought she meant G-d, but in fact she was referring to the battery the doctors installed near her heart eight years ago. In fact the first effort was botched. “There was a young doctor, just beginning, and they said, ‘Start with her.'” I didn’t totally understand the mistake, but something like the placement of the battery was botched, so that Emmanuel had a reaction and, at midnight, had to be flown from Perigueux to Bordeaux, where the admitting doctor shrugged and told her, “Mistakes happen.” Even in her state, Emmanuel had the chutzpah to respond, “Doctor: I make bread for a living. If a loaf comes out bad, c’est pas grave, it’s no big deal, we just throw it away. But you are dealing with human beings!”
— Paul Ben-Itzak