2007June13Wednesday — In Pace Requiescat — Jean-Michel Braunstein

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We bought our house from the wife and daughter of the man named Jean-Michel Braunstein. Indeed, the easiest way to identify where we are located to locals is to say “chez Braunstein.” No shame in this. It’s like saying the Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, or that so-and-so up the street bought the William James house, or, diagonally across the way from it, the e.e. cummings house. Don’t ask me who the current proprietors’ names are. I have no idea.

In short, Braunstein stuck by way of appellation and identity. Maybe by the time we have lived here as long as they did, at least some 30 years, and with the same infrequency of residence — the Braunstein famille came here mainly on weekends, with some regularity, but that still only adds up to a maximum of 104 days a year, more or less, and we are already achieving that, I think, even with our ragged and unpredictable schedule of visits — the locals will know this venerable pile of rocks as chez Dinin-Kennedy. We’d prefer “L’Antidote,” the name we gave it when we bought it (and the specially commissioned terra-cotta emaillé plaque we ordered still sits in a drawer, for lack of incredibly thin masonry screws that will be needed to mount it because the artisan made very tiny holes for them when he fired it in the kiln), but we’ll settle for the more familiar and likely nominal, as opposed to notional, designation.

In any event, however the house is known now or will be, the no doubt estimable Jean-Michel Braunstein, like Longfellow, James, and cummings, must now be counted among the deceased. We just learned this from our neighbors a day or so ago. In fact, the fatality occurred only days ago itself, apparently as Braunstein, exiting his house in Marseille, entered the street and was struck by a motorcyclist. That suddenly, and that final.

Unfortunately we live in a time, with activities at all levels and modes of social organization, under circumstances both personal and universal, that hardly another memento mori is needed. Nor would any greater notice be taken, save that, as always in these cases, when it strikes so close to home (in the several senses of that expression in this particular case), it has a greater shock.

I never really knew Monsieur Braunstein, except by hearsay. In fact, I met him only once, a chance encounter, as he happened to be here in their weekend house, sitting on the bench that sits itself just in front of the facade, inches to the left of the only window on our street level that faces the place in front of us. The bench is in the shade of the Napoleonic-era elm that looms above everything at this end of the village. We were somewhere in the midst of the complex legal process prelude to changing hands on the property.

Apparently, the bench was a favorite, or at least a regular, roost of his. He smoked cigars. This was a fact that, to me, immediately raised the promise that he was more likely than not a regular and reasonable fellow and a civilized gentleman, susceptible to logic, and innately of good will. Who knows?

For one thing, most likely, as with all cigar-smoking men who are married, he discovered the common antipathy of women for cigars, their smoke, their aroma (though usually a stronger designation of the impact on the olfactory system is used, often a term in the vernacular), and, as a consequence, for the smoker himself, however much and in however many other ways he might endear himself to his spouse. And he found, simultaneously, that if he chose to smoke, he should engage himself immediately in self-banishment to the out of doors.

In keeping with the tricks that memory plays on us, and not knowing in advance what would prove to be the singularity of our greeting that day (we were introduced by the realtor — one of Braunstein’s myriad friends among the locals), I did not pay very much attention. And in my mind at that time, and for eternity, as I have no reason to alter my recollections henceforth, he rose, cigar in his left hand, bearded, and shuffled over to where we stood. We were introduced one to the other, and we shook hands, and mumbled indecipherable words in French in tones of amity.

That was it.

I met his wife and daughter, the legal proprietors, in the lawyer’s office when all present signed various deeds and notarized documents and the large skeleton key to the front door was handed over to us. The wife was a well-endowed shortish, well-dressed bourgeoise of a certain age. I always thought of Braunstein as much older than myself, perhaps, because, even on the day we met in the bucolic shaded and very rural confines of the village courtyard under the elms and the chestnut trees, he was wearing a white dress shirt and tie, though he was shod in soft shoes of some kind, perhaps slippers, and dress trousers, suitable for work. In fact, he was probably about my age or not very much older. He was still working, as an avocat, a specialist in certain general applications of the law, and intellectual property law, in Marseille, when he was so violently struck down as to lose his life.

His wife, and the much jazzier appearing daughter, though giving off the same air of hauteur and the custom of habits of those who enjoy great comfort with frequent familiarity, were not attractive people. Comely enough, but this is not what I meant.

I don’t recall the precise sources of the gossip we received, but the reputation of the wife suffered by it in our ken. All in all, it seemed she was a shrill, loud-voiced termagant. And Braunstein often sat on that bench. Even more often, apparently, he would repair for an approximately 90-second amble down the hill, through the parking lot to the break in the shrubs and other flora of the grove of trees along the hillside just behind the town cemetery below. In this location is situated the “jardin” or garden as is the designation given in rural France to any bit of land that is not actually serving to support a dwelling on its surface. This jardin consisting of approximately half-an-acre, and entirely detached from our house, as the required walk for access attests, was part of the deal.

The jardin consists of protected land in these rural precincts, meaning that nothing can be built on it, or even in it, and it cannot be farmed, though plantings may be made, and we could maintain a potager or “kitchen garden” for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and herbs and such for our own use. On this bit of land, our very own tiny handle on French countryside, sits a picnic table of a sort familiar to picnickers in any park in America, a sort of one-piece set of rough joinery that combines benches that face one another across a table, and which requires a half-climbing, half-crouching operation to engage oneself in its confines. There is also a stone barbecue, on which sat a grill when we acquired the property, a bit of metal-work that has since disappeared. Emerging from the stoney facade of the barbecue, at a height of about 2/3 of a meter, is a spigot, meant for water. Emerging from the opposite side of the rocks supporting this device is a length of industrial rubber hose that disappears quickly into the ground, though it can easily be traced across the road that leads to the parking lot, and into the property across the way from our jardin. Apparently Braunstein had an arrangement with the owner of the opposite property whereby for some token or a nominal annual fee, water was fed through this hose as the spontaneous need might arise to extinguish the occasional barbecue embers once cooking was done. We have never used the barbecue in 5 1/2 years. Shortly after we acquired the property in February 2002, the water that emerged from the spigot when it was turned for a period of a day or two, was promptly turned off, and it has never run since.

The only other man-made item of note in the jardin is a very typical structure for this region (and others in France). It is designated a cabanon.It is constructed entirely of stone, except for wooden framed windows of glass on two sides, a wooden door for entry, with a lock, and a terra-cotta roof of common interlocking roofing tiles. It is a quite sturdy little structure, equipped with no utility services, neither water, nor electricity, nor gas.

The cabanon was built at some time in the past, though most likely during the tenure of the Braunsteins, and entirely illegally, given the interdiction on building any new structure of any size on practically any part of the surrounding countryside for many kilometers in all directions. The  cabanon measures, let us say, approximately three meters by three meters, and is tall enough to allow a man to stand inside of it.

Braunstein used it to store a variety of gardening tools as well as other associated implements. These he used, I understand, with some regularity, following that famous dictum of Pangloss to his protegé that one must cultivate one’s garden. Indeed, Braunstein most often could be found, I am told — when not in the confines of his wife’s snug little cottage (now ours), or sitting on his bench in the place — in his jardin, a long-handled tool of agriculture, a rake, or a hoe, or a spade, in his hands, vigorously working the ground, muttering to himself, a cigar tucked into the corner of his mouth, blowing puffs of smoke as he spoke  sotto voce and at length to himself. This happened often, after a short period of time had passed from a bout of loud female remonstrances that could be clearly heard issuing from the interior of chez Braunstein.

And this is how I see Monsieur Braunstein in heaven, if there is a heaven, cultivating the celestial furrows, cigar alight, and muttering unto eternity.

My image of him is tempered further and refined by my earliest musings on this mystery man, musings that lasted only a brief while after we had bought his wife’s wonderful little house in the country that affords us so much happiness and pleasure. We quickly faced the tasks of feathering this new nest, which was left bereft not only of every stick of furnishings, but, as is the French style when leaving a house, stripped of every fixture in every room. The only thing left (we are sure because of the inconvenience and expense of removing them, though French law seems to dictate that appliances that are fixed to the floor or walls cannot be removed) was a giant, expensive, cast iron stove of the venerable marque of Godin, still in business today — an excellent stove. It has been a long time that I have thought about Monsieur Braunstein at all, never mind to muse idly on his history, real or imagined.

There are at least two legendary Braunsteins I know of, and I doubt there is a connection, though one never knows, and I now probably never shall.

The company that makes the famous zig-zag cigarette papers (so named because of the zig-zagged pattern formed by the interleaving of each sheet of flimsy wrapping used to roll a cigarette of tobacco or what have you) was started by the Braunstein Fréres of Paris in the 19th century. Their famous logo, of a Zouave, a fierce French soldier of a type originating in North Africa, features the colorful costume and the wonderful flowing facial hair of these stout warriors — and one source of that image I have in my head of Braunstein with a healthy and enviable beard.

The other Braunstein was also bearded, though with a more delicate, if not effete, though distinctive, tonsorial trim to it. That Braunstein, which was his family birth name, was better known ultimately to the world as Léon Trotsky, his nom de révolution. It is too much to expect, let alone to ask, that there is any connection with one or the other of these possible sets of forebears. In fact I reel at the possibility that Braunstein, my Braunstein, was not only somehow connected with the famous rolling papers, but, in his bones, was a rabble-rousing, trouble-making yid as well.

If so, or if not, may he rest in peace cultivating that garden of his.

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