The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 8 - True Stories from Around the WorldLost and Liberated
by Kimberley Lovato
In a French village, their preconceptions melted away.
“I’m lost. I’m late. I’m sorry,” I blurted into the phone, in French.
“So, Monsieur Manouvrier, if it’s O.K. I would still like to meet you today.”
“You are an hour late. Do you think I have nothing better to do? You Americans think you are so important?” he bellowed, barely breathing between salvos. “Do you think we are so honored to speak to an American that we will stop everything else in our lives?”
I wanted to shout, “You know nothing about me!” But since it was my last day in the Dordogne, and I wanted to meet this man before I left, I begged. “Please, may I still come?”
“Fine,” he replied. The slam of the receiver reverberated in my ear before I could ask him for better directions.
As an American who had spent many years traveling in France, I sometimes felt like the honorary town piñata, enduring swing upon jab about my accent, my nationality, and the political leanings of our president who, I had constantly to remind people, was not a personal friend of mine. But despite the occasional bashing, I’d also become a defender of the French, charmed by the generosity of those who welcomed me, a stranger, into their homes, and seduced by their pervasive and earnest joie de vivre.
So, alone in a three-chimney village somewhere in southwestern France, at a crossroads, literally and figuratively, I had two choices: I could abandon this meeting altogether or I could exemplify American perseverance. I folded up my map and set out, knowing that the long road ahead was more than just the one I was lost on.
In France, as in many parts of the world, the best information arrives by word of mouth, or de bouche à oreille as they say, from mouth to ear. This is how I had learned of Roland Manouvrier, an artisanal ice cream maker—and the source of my navigational woes.
I’d been in the Dordogne for nearly a month researching a culinary travel book. Having amassed a stockpile of classic recipes from local chefs and home cooks, I was in search of something—and someone—a little different. One of these people was Chef Nicolas DeVisch, who had taken over his parents’ restaurant in the medieval village of Issigeac, and whose menu did not include a single serving of duck or foie gras—two mainstays of the regional cuisine. Nicolas had invited me to dinner and after several courses of his unconventional cooking, plunked a tub of ice cream down on the table, handed me an espresso spoon, and motioned for me to dig into the creamy white contents. Preparing my taste buds for vanilla or coconut, or some other sweet savor, I closed my lips around the mouthful. The cold burned my tongue, then melted down the back of my throat. Nicolas’s eyebrows arched in question.
“Goat cheese?” I guessed.
“Yes, from the village of Rocamadour,” he confirmed. “And you really must meet this guy before you go.”
After crisscrossing the Dordogne countryside for nearly two hours, I had pulled off the road to make that call to Roland. My otherwise trusty GPS had been no match for rural French addresses without street names or numbers, only titles like “The Sheep Barn” and “The Old Mill.” Finally, thanks to a helpful barista, I zeroed in on Roland’s address, given simply as “The Industrial Zone” in the village of Saint-Geniès.
When I arrived twenty minutes later, Roland met me at his office door wearing a white lab coat, a plastic hair net set askew atop his wavy brown hair, and a scowl. The archetypal mad scientist, I thought. For a second the story of “Hansel and Gretel” popped into my head. I wondered if anyone would hear me scream as Roland shoved me into a cauldron over a hot fire. Would I be his next flavor—Glacé à l’Américaine?
“How much time do you need?” he barked, interrupting my reverie.
“As much as you’ll give me,” I answered. He corrected my French.
“Because you’re late, I’m late, and I must make deliveries.”
“How about I help you? We can talk on the road,” I offered.
“Pppfff…” Roland produced the classic French noise made by blowing air through one’s relaxed lips, often done to dismiss something just said.
I followed him through his stainless-steel kitchen and helped him load frozen cases of ice cream into his delivery van. As I moved them into place, I noticed the flavors penned in black ink on the lid of each container: Tomato-Basil. Szechwan. Rose. Violet. Calvados. I asked Roland if I could include one of his unusual recipes in my book.
“What do you think? I have a formula like at McDonald’s? I don’t write my recipes down. They are not exact, and depend on many influences.”
“Pppfff…” he added.
We coursed the serpentine Dordogne roads, past fields of lemon-yellow flowers and over oak-encrusted hills, delivering the frozen parcels every fifteen to twenty minutes. Each time Roland got back in the car, he shelled me with questions: Do you like Andy Warhol? Have you been to New York? Have you ever seen a real cowboy? How about a real Indian? What is the point of baseball? Each time I answered, he corrected my French.
“Would you like to drink something?” Roland eventually asked.
Finally, I thought. A question that isn’t about America and cultural icons. Hoping to demonstrate my language prowess and keep his corrections at bay, I came up with the perfect response, an idiomatic expression I’d recently learned.
“Oui. Les grands esprits se rencontrent,” I replied. Yes. Great minds think alike. “J’aimerais une boisson froide.” I would love a cold drink.
“Une boisson FRAICHE,” Roland said, emphasizing the correct adjective. “Pas froide.” He added in a verb suggestion while he was at it, and didn’t even mention the expression I’d whipped out to impress him.
I didn’t mind being corrected. It was part of learning a new language. But after an hour of the question-response-correction routine—and what felt like nitpicking at what was, in fact, intelligible French—my patience had eroded.
I finally took a swing back at him. “If you prefer, we could speak in English. Would that be easier for you?”
“Why would I speak in English? I am in France and French is my language!” he bellowed. The sarcasm was lost on him.
My face flushed and my jaw tightened. Short fused and aching from the smile I’d been faking for the last hour, I was ready to abandon this day and this ill-mannered ice cream man. I blew up.
“You know what?” I hollered, “It’s people like YOU who give the French a bad reputation in my country. And in case YOU haven’t noticed, I am in YOUR country speaking YOUR language because YOU can’t speak mine.”
I braced myself for retaliation. Roland stared straight ahead, his hands clenching the steering wheel. After a tense ten-second interlude, he asked me about the reputation the French have in America. I quietly listened to the advice of the voices in my head. One said, “Be diplomatic, you’re a professional.” The other said, “Be honest, he’s an asshole.” I cleared my throat.
“Though generalizing,” I began, “we find you rude, arrogant, and hateful toward Americans.” A good synthesis of both voices, I thought.
Roland’s belly-bouncing chuckle filled the air, but he said nothing more, not even to correct me.
We crossed a bridge and puttered down the main two-lane street of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, our final stop for the day. The sun was low in the summer sky and cast an ochre glow on the stone buildings. Garlands of yellow and orange paper flowers strung between the steeply pitched rooftops swayed overhead, remnants of a recent festival. We parked and found a table in the sun at the town’s only café. Roland ordered me to wait while he delivered ice cream to his brother down the street. I watched him shake hands and kiss-kiss the cheeks of a few people along the way before disappearing into a doorway. When I saw him again, he was back on the street, handing out ice cream cones from the back of his van to lucky passersby. He waved me over.
I asked him if he lived in Saint-Leon-sur-Vézère.
“No. This is where I was born,” he said.
Roland pulled out another familiar white container, scooped the bright orange ice cream into two cones, and handed me one. The mandarin orange flavor couldn’t have tasted better if I’d plucked it from a tree.
We wandered through the cobblestone streets of the riverside village, and as I savored my frozen treat, Roland unlatched his memories. He pointed out the window he’d broken while trying to master a yo-yo; the home of a girl he once had a crush on; the church where he got married. We stopped in front of the brown wooden door of a village house, and Roland told me the lady who once lived there had found a rusted American G.I. helmet in her garden.
“She gave the helmet to my father, and we kept it displayed on top of an armoire in our dining room for many years,” Roland said.
“Why?” I asked. “What interest did your father have in it?”
“We didn’t know anything about the soldier. Did he come from Oklahoma? Wyoming? Did he have a family?” Roland said. Then he raised his finger in the air. “The only thing we knew for certain was that this anonymous American came here to liberate France. For that we are grateful.”
Tears pricked my eyes, and I silently blinked them away. It wasn’t just the unexpected provenance of Roland’s story, or the softening of his voice. His words had conjured an image in my head of a framed black-and-white photograph hanging in my dining room back home: my nineteen-year-old grandfather—my own hero—in his G.I. helmet.
We sat, wordless, atop a low rock wall for several minutes, feet dangling over the Vézère River.
“Thank you for sharing that story,” I eventually said.
“Thank you for come today,” Roland replied, in English.
I didn’t correct him.
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Delta Sky Magazine, Executive Travel, and in other print and online media. Roland’s recipe for tomato-basil sorbet appeared in her mailbox a month after their meeting and can be found on page 123 of her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine &Truffle Groves, which won two awards in the category of Culinary Travel: the 2010 Cordon d’Or International Culinary Academy Award, and the 2010 Gourmand International World Cookbook Award. Her website is kimberleylovato.com .
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