The basic centuries-old Provençal stone farmhouse, with terra-cotta tiled roof, shutters, and surrounded by a wheat field in which also stands a lone tree of classic proportions of such beauty it drives Elaine Scarry to write a sequel to her essay is called, in the indigenous language, a mas. The “s” is not pronounced. Just as silent is a Provençal realtor if you ask him to show you one. “There are no more” my realtor told me it’s almost six years ago, when I showed up to go house-hunting.
The proverbial song for which you could buy such a treasure for pennies on the dollar, back in the 60s, or the 70s was it, is the song without words in the 21st century. They’ve all been snapped up and rebuilt and rebuilt and expanded, tricked out, and swimming pooled, and the prices are through the roof. Yet what always sells every American, Brit, Swede or what have you on trying to realize that romance instantly triggered in every Western soul whose body sets foot on the deep russet soil of deep Provence is the mas, the ancient home of man and beast living off that great red earth, and taking in the beauty that surrounds at every degree of the compass.
We first tasted the heady wine of French provincial life in a mas. It is a three bedroom beauty, or a nondescript typical entity, depending on your point of view, that was owned by a sister Cantabrigian I encountered only by the serendipity of the concentration of like sensibilities in the city that’s the home of the world’s most opinionated zip code, and the happy coincidence of my seeking something a little different for my first vacation in mythical Provence, and her willingness to rent to any vetted American with 500 bucks to pay her rent for a week in what proved to be paradise.
Joanne’s farmhouse is down on what I now refer to familiarly as the plain (as we are up another 150 or 160 meters or so in the village atop the hill that overlooks not only all the mas below, but every other grange (barn), chateau (not “castle,” but simply a very large house with many rooms and usually owned by a very rich man as traditional lineal descent of ownership is through the male), every bergerie (sheep barn), cabanon (cottage) and every sort of any kind of appartenance (outbuilding) visible from our commanding height for about three or four miles around). There are not only the aforementioned bedrooms, but one bathroom, with a huge tub next to a window through which a friendly neighborhood goat would often stick its head while you were washing your altogether, and a toilet, but no sink—on the ground level, you washed your face and hands in the sink in the kitchen, with the produce and dishes. A water closet and wash basins were randomly distributed in the upper floor, reachable by two separate, yet equal stairways. Neither stairway provided access to the other part of the floor. The stairway from the salon, or living room, curved to the right and left you at the door to a bedroom which had a separate toilette including water closet and hand sink. The other stairway, which faced the entry door, curved to the left, and left you in a hall off which were disposed two bedrooms—the master bedroom, because it was largest, with the largest bed in the house, and with a large armoire, but no amenities by which one could perform one’s ablutions, and next to it, a small bedroom with two very tiny beds accompanied in one corner by a triangular hand sink set into the walls where they met.
Off this latter hallway was another doorway, locked, about which we received no instruction in the lengthy typewritten sheaf of papers that told us a variety of things about life in “Le Cleou,” which is how I learned early on that even the most humble of dwellings had a name, and which included what to do with the poubelle (trash—trudge up the hill with it and about ten yards down the road to a town dumpster with a lid, made of puke-green thick-walled polyethylene: the standard issue throughout Provence and all France. On trash collection day, these get lifted by a hydraulic device on a garbage truck that makes the rounds). We found a key that fit the lock and turned it, and found a rustic, unfinished attic, smelling sweetly yet vaguely of hay, of which there was little evidence, and which contained a rude wooden stairway, roughly but sturdily fashioned, and fairly recently, leading to a door in what seemed to be a gable, and which offered the lure of the possibility of a view, from the roof, of the wheat field and abandoned stone piggery below the facade of the house. On the door was a sign that said not to open it, so of course we did, and found a little terrasse (a platform or deck, tiled with terra cotta) and a breathtaking view not only of the wheat field in front of it, but another to the right of the house and on to the fields and hills beyond.
We bothered ourselves not at all with the mystery of interdicting the use to guests of this little secret taste of the purview of masters of the land (probably something as prosaic and sad as an insurance constraint). We bothered ourselves every chance we got that visit and every visit thereafter for several years, by ourselves, and with friends who had the daring and the wanderlust sufficient to join us in what we thought of a poor man’s paradise—it was not, after all, a chateau—to share a glass of Provençal rosé—the wonderful secret, among so many secrets, of imbibers in the south of France, the land of wonderful reds and whites—and watch the sunset.
Also clearly evident from this attic was a part of the house that clearly was meant to be sequestered. From the locked confines of the large loft that gave out onto the deck we could see there was another locked chamber, only the upper portion of which we could see: essentially a view of the joists of the ceiling of a room below. Clearly proper access to this room, hitherto unnoticed and unsuspected, was from the ground. In our haste to enter the house through the front door, we had sashayed with our bags and baggage right past a decrepit pair of barn doors, dark with age, and with no sign of an invitation to be opened. We opened them, and discovered the source of that deep sweet smell of mown wheat or straw. Sheafs of it, scattered in odd places on the packed earth floor, for who knows how long. There was a capacious loft within this space, quite deceptively small from outside of it. Rusting odd bits of metal, of some previous indecipherable utility, hung on the walls. Garage? Storage for equipment?
I later researched the architecture of such buildings and discovered that, in fact, it may likely have been put to both uses and more. However, originally, there was a singular intent to this room. It was the home of the animals, the sheep and goats in this part of France, that belonged to the farmer who had built the mas originally, and plowed that field below, which Joanne owned, but prudently rented out each year to a neighboring farmer to plant in wheat for his own uses. No doubt it kept his donkey or horse, for the plowing, as well.
The mas, in short, was a duplex, home to man and his beasts, living close by, and sharing one another’s warmth and company. The farmer was spared the exertions of creating extra buildings to house his few animals, and their proximity ensured an economy of many dimensions, of additional effort to milk the beasts, of extra fuel and extra storage to keep them warm and keep them fed. And, though this must have been some ingrained knowledge, the lesson that we are all meant to be one, not only with the earth, but with our fellow creatures, even the dumb beasts, who give of themselves for our sustenance, and sometimes give even of their lives for our hunger for flesh. And we do not idly eat a beast we have fed, and milked, and led to pasture, and embraced for warmth. We do not idly live in intimacy with other warm-blooded creatures without learning something about the need to live a certain way with all creatures, if not most of all our fellow men.
We would no doubt call it an experiment in living today. But it was necessity in the day. And we would not do it at all in the great American cities in which we cluster and call civilization, because civilization circumscribes our lives in ways we no longer think about. And harboring a sheep in one’s house would require the sundering of dozens, if not hundreds of ordinances, all created for the public good, and our own safety.
Next time, I will speak of the way we live today, both in that great American city, huddled as close to one another as the peasant was to his goats and chickens and sheep in a time not so long ago, as well as among the descendants of those peasants, who still farm the land, and milk the sheep and the goats, and savor the rich heady golden eggs of those chickens that still cluck among my neighbors gardens in the plain down below.