It started at a charity event in downtown Worcester and ended at a 500-year-old stone house in rural France. We were at the fund-raiser with our longtime friends, Pat and Alec, and their friends, Tim and Betsy, whom we barely knew. There was an open bar and excellent hors d’oeuvres. At dinner, the waitstaff kept our wine glasses filled.
It was a night to support Devereux Massachusetts, a school for children and young adults with severe emotional, social, behavioral, and autism spectrum disorders, and in that spirit, Alec, Tim, and my husband, Bob, were pumped up for competitive bidding.
Perusing the live auction booklet, they zeroed in on Item 13: A Week in the South of France. There were no photos. No way to locate the village, Valros. Checking MapQuest on phones didn’t help. But they were charmed by the description of a “five-bedroom, modernized, 15th-century stone home 20 minutes from the sparkling Mediterranean. Conveniently located near vineyards, restaurants, antique shops, Crusade-era fortresses, early Roman architectural marvels, and charming Renaissance towns and villages.”
They couldn’t be serious, thought their wives.
Ah, but they were. The men huddled and emerged with a plan. Rather than compete against one another, they would pool their bids. When the fluid-tongued auctioneer announced number 13, Alec was the point man in the ensuing tug-of-war. Bidding escalated quickly.
Bob and I had never traveled with these people. Nor had we planned to when the night began. But suddenly the six of us would be vacationing together and four of us were practically strangers.
“At charity fund-raisers, 15 to 20 percent of the auction items, especially trips, typically go unclaimed by winning bidders,” said Dave Wahl, Devereux’s gala coordinator. It’s tempting when fate invites you to stay in a private villa, an island getaway, a European pied-à-terre. While the properties’ donors make use of idle weeks at their second home, bidders picture lifestyles of the rich and famous. After the auction, reality can hit like a splash of ice water.
“We don’t always know why,” said Wahl. “Most likely they didn’t notice particular dates were attached to the trips. Or airfare, which isn’t included, is more than they expected.” Maybe terrorist or health threats increased. A lot can happen.
But a few thousand dollars later, none of us had suffered bidders’ remorse, as far as I know. We found Valros, a pinprick on the map south of Montpellier. We agreed on a date 14 months away.
Thinking things would go smoother if we knew one another better, over the next year we took turns hosting home-cooked meals. We found common ground. We imagined collaborating on dinners in our rustic French kitchen.
One day, a 19-page “User’s Manual” arrived by e-mail. The home’s owner, Simone, had detailed everything you could possibly want to know, in English. Instructions for appliances. The complex local schedule for recycling and trash collection. Fifty suggested day trips in and beyond the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Bless her.
At long last, we followed Simone’s driving directions from Montpellier into the village along a narrow road surrounded by grapes on the vine.
Valros (founded circa 1300) charmed us at first glance. Its winding streets were designed more for horse and wagon than for cars. In a shaded, postage-stamp of a town square, a storefront bar opened late in the afternoons; its local patrons seemed suspicious of strangers. Church bells rang day and night but a posted notice said services are held in another town. A brick school appeared closed, although it was May, and Town Hall seemed deserted all week, but everywhere window boxes sprouted red geraniums and herbs grew in pots beside doorways. There was one wine shop and a single boulangerie, opening daily just after dawn.
On rue du Portail, our address for the week, 500-year-old stone houses are snug against one another, two stories high in the front, three in the back along the ancient ramparts. We found ours. White lace curtains concealed the view through a window surrounded by Mediterranean-blue shutters.
Inside it was cool and dark in the coziest of ways. According to Simone’s manual, the home’s age varies by room. The vaulted living room is the oldest, dating to around 1470. Its huge fireplace, “big enough to hold roasting boar” boasts a mantel carved with the Latin phrase, “The devil take ungrateful guests,” an old saying in tavern kitchens, which is what the room once was. Then it was a horse stable. Much later, it was the town’s official bomb shelter during World War II. In the dining room, a new addition in the mid-1500s, was pottery made by local artisans. Between the two was a galley kitchen with a tiny stove that saw little action that week.
We chose bedrooms. Each couple got their own bathroom, a point we later agreed was essential for harmony. If anything, we were overly polite, but frankly that made sharing chores easy.
Every morning Alec slipped out early to bring us fresh croissants from the boulangerie. When we didn’t eat dinner out, we picnicked “at home,” on the fruits of our foray to the Saturday market in nearby Pézenas. Superb cheeses, sausages, salad, and wine arrayed on our private top-floor terrace, beside an olive tree, under the stars.
Not everything went smoothly. Although three of us bought AT&T’s Passport international phone package, we couldn’t text, e-mail, or call one another during the entire trip. Stymied by technology, unable to communicate when apart, we grew testy.
And had it not been for the auction, I never would have chosen Valros as home base. We spent too many hours driving to historic sites. Yet sometimes the best is unexpected.
In Paris, we ate at the table of a renowned chef and it was mostly good. But our best meals in France by far were in Valros, at the far edge of town, where there’s new construction. L’Asparagus is a humble restaurant run by a self-taught chef and his wife. At sunset, we were seated on the terrace beside a wheat field that stretches to another distant medieval village. We struggled with the menu. Our Level I French was only slightly better than the English of our hostess but she helped us order well. Her husband prepared the freshest of Mediterranean dishes, cold soups, fish, and lamb. She recommended a lovely local wine, priced like soda at home, and cajoled us to have desserts she made that morning. We returned five nights later for our last night in the South of France. The meal was even better.
Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at email@example.com.