Robert Cohen

I mentioned yesterday that we are here in Provence because we have exchanged houses with a French family. It occurs to me that this might require some explanation.

Swapping houses is not for everyone. It is admittedly a rather wholesome and sensible way of taking a summer vacation, the equivalent of a good, sturdy, slightly used pair of shoes. It offers the strangeness of travel but in a muted, dreamlike form. You have not so much escaped your normal domestic life as, like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, taken it up in a parallel universe. The fundamentals remain in place. You still cook, you still do laundry, you still take out the trash … so grounded are you in these small irritating concerns that it’s easy to wonder at times why you ever bothered to blow all that money on plane fare in the first place. And yet there are thousands of us who swap houses whenever we can, people with youngish children who, though slightly worn out by them, retain just enough ambition or world-hunger to want to take them abroad as often as possible, but who lack the income to stay in good hotels, or for that matter bad hotels, or for that matter camping grounds. Cheap people with long summer vacations—academics, in other words—who enjoy nothing more than puttering around the house performing mental currency conversions in foreign countries. There are only two requirements: a house (or apartment), and an extraordinarily high tolerance for the idea of strangers messing around with your most intimate paraphernalia while you are far away and out of sight, messing around with theirs.

It’s not a bad life, either. For one thing, it reduces the large quotient of shame that tourists carry with them, the odd, generally unfounded conviction that you are in some intangible way better than all these other camera-toters around you. To have your own house, with its own worn-in, perfectly adjusted gravitational field, is to inherit a sense of belonging that you just barely deserve. You have a place. That it’s a borrowed place, that the pictures on the refrigerator are of someone else’s kids, more cheerful and cooperative than your own—this is a secondary concern. At least there are pictures. At least there’s a refrigerator. At least, when you’re driving back in your swapped car from, say, a long, taxing expedition through the Alps of Haute-Provence, adjusting as best you can to the French joie de tailgating, which they practice with an almost canine persistence, and you hear your child in the back seat murmur tiredly about how “when we get home I’m going to kill you,” you know the home he’s referring to is in fact your home, albeit temporarily.

This one is a modest tile-floored stone house, built of cinder blocks and stucco, as are all the houses on this, the newer side of Tourves. It belongs to Madame Menet. A spry, radiant widow in her 50s, Madame teaches sports at the College de Henri Matisse. She has gone off to Italy on an opera tour—her stereo cabinet is full of Rossini—while we live in her house and her daughter and son-in-law and two grandchildren occupy our house in Vermont. It’s a complicated arrangement, but she does not appear to mind. She has left us a great many instructions about the house, but in a cheerful, insouciant way, as if to suggest that nothing can go too terribly wrong here either.

Immediately we set about disproving this notion. We clog up both her drains, as is our habit in Europe. Then our kids, horsing around in her little plastic pool, rip the bottom, and half the water leaks out overnight. We call Madame on her cell phone to let her know. “Ce n’est pas un problème,” she says blithely, and tells us where to find the patches. We adore her. Pinned to the corkboard in her study, where I write this, is a photographic collage of her late husband—a handsome, mustachioed fellow who looks about my age—biking, parasailing, mountain climbing, camping, driving a boat. He is a stranger to us. Despite, if not because of this, the pictures are inexpressibly moving. We have no idea what his name was, or what he died of. We only know what Madame told us: that life here in Tourves is very lonely when one lives alone. 

There’s an arbor-shaded stone terrace in back of the house where, when the mistral isn’t blowing, we spend most of our hours. We can sit out there watching the sun go down over Mont Saint-Victoire, listening to the chigger of the cicadas, and thinking of the photos in our own house, the ones our French visitors may be studying right now—the picturesque settings, the beaming smiles, and the long hidden shadows behind them.