20 August 2007



After Henri Boutrit retired from medical practice in the little town of Saint-Jean-d’Angély, he and his wife, Denise, spent most of every summer at L’Enclouze, the farmhouse they bought, just outside Royan, in the early 1960s. In my turn, I’ve been coming here for some 16 years. The name is Charentais patois, and it means “the enclosure,” but the house itself is more like an embrace. Surrounded by rolling lawns, a field of sunflowers and a grove of beech trees, it’s a huge old place, cobbled together (much like a family) from disparate elements and outbuildings and held together by many walls but only one roof.

The salle de séjour:
Denise's portrait of Henri hangs over the fireplace

That roof has red tiles, which are an Ancient Roman legacy bequeathed to most houses in the southern half of France. L’Enclouze lies low to the ground: you don’t know how big it is until you’re inside. To enter, you cross a little terrace, with fuchsia bushes and a defunct wishing well; a grape arbor shelters a table where, in good weather, you take your meals. Open the French doors, and you immediately find yourself in the dining area. A dozen chairs are arranged around the table, and many more chairs await additional guests. The dining area is open to the kitchen, so that the chef du jour (usually Henri, in his day, and nowadays sometimes this writer) isn’t cut off from the conversation. The dining area is open to the living area — the salle de séjour — as well, and architecturally, this is a manifestation of Henri Boutrit’s philosophy: drawing his loved ones together.

He had four children, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and countless friends, and he was never happier than when he assembled them around the table at l’Enclouze. There was always something good to eat and drink, usually three or four local specialties (or peculiarities), and plenty of vigorous conversation. For the Boutrits’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, 17 July 1995, they brought in extra tables, so that there were about fifty of us — all in one room.

With its ceiling soaring two stories above, the séjour is dominated by an open fireplace, where Henri used to grill sardines, and around which the family still gathers in the evening for apéritifs (usually Pineau des Charentes). Above the fireplace hangs a portrait of Henri in the guise of a Renaissance patriarch: a witty painting by his wife. To the right is a floor-to-ceiling window, a single pane of glass, looking onto the beech grove. In hot weather, that window turns the séjour into a hothouse, but the warmth is a blessing any other time of year. There’s a loft, where Denise kept old books and where grandchildren sometimes sleep; it’s reached by a broad wooden stair, under which grandchildren sleep, as well. The whole house is full of such nooks, where a kid or two may be parked for an hour or a night.

Henri worked with a local architect to renovate the old buildings. It was a big job. Bernard has vivid memories of workers jacking up the wooden pilings that support the séjour: the bases were rotten, but once the pilings were hoisted, carpenters sawed off the bases and replaced them with stone. The house groaned in protest, and Bernard was certain the whole place would come tumbling down on them all. The rough-hewn planks that line the séjour ceiling come from an old sawmill. At Henri’s direction, the planks were left irregular, not a straight line or right angle to be seen, and the séjour still feels rustic and old, a bit like a barn. The stone floor is always a little gritty, especially in warm weather, because somebody has always just come back from the beach.

Henri declared any furniture later than the reign of Louis XV to be “modern,” but he had some fine old pieces, armoires and commodes and a grandfather clock, candlesticks and bed-warmers and random bits of sculpture and glass. Henri wouldn’t describe them as antiques, but I do. There’s an upright piano, too, that belonged to Denise and that used to stand in Bernard’s bedroom. On school mornings she’d wake him by playing Chopin études. This experience ruined him, and ever since, it’s been impossible to get him moving in the morning.

Drawings by the grandchildren are tacked to the walls and woodwork, alongside drawings by their children and Denise’s many vigorous watercolors and sketches. For the fiftieth anniversary, the kids bought their parents a trip to Venice, and they announced this gift with a drawing I made: caricatures of Henri and Denise in a gondola. That picture still hangs in the séjour, too.

In the yard are fruit trees: quince, pears, and figs. Denise’s recipe for fig preserves was almost identical to my grandmother’s. There are blackberry vines and raspberries, more grapevines, a date palm, and a lavender bush planted strategically beneath the clothesline, so that laundry dried in the sun carries away that delicate odor.

But these bucolic charms accompany irritants, too, a whole lexicon of them: chardons (thistles), orties (stinging nettles), mouches (flies), moustiques (mosquitoes), frelons (hornets), guêpes (wasps), and araignées (spiders), along with millions of pollènes guaranteed to set off my allergies. If I’ve found a kind of second Goliad and renewed my lease on childhood here, it’s not only because I’ve been welcomed by a cantankerous old man and a gracious old woman who serve me good food in the endless summer of the countryside: it’s also because my nose is running.

And the neighbors can be nuisances, too. Ducks, geese and hens chatter all day and much of the night, and a couple of excitable roosters announce the sunrise before, during and after, long after. Some neighboring dogs bark at the slightest provocation, regardless of the hour, and one grey malkin cat lives for the moments he can drop his astonishingly foul turds at the doorstep. Then there’s Père Mortier, a grimy, grizzled, nearly toothless old farmer who lives next-door. Père Mortier doesn’t bother with plumbing when he pisses. He may not bother to open his fly, either. You can smell him coming, and on hot days, it’s a trial to stand near him.

Once Père Mortier informed me that his was an old and distinguished family. “One of Napoléon’s generals was a Mortier, you know,” he said proudly. I started to add that, even as we spoke, the director of the Paris Opera was a Mortier, too — Gérard Mortier. But then I thought better of it. Père Mortier might not be flattered by the connection.

The terrace today: empty chairs and empty table
— and a wishing well

There was a sweet rhythm to the days at l’Enclouze, especially in the summertime. I’d sleep late — I was often jet-lagged, having come more or less directly from the airport. Mid-morning I’d straggle into the kitchen, where Henri would already be eating his breakfast: coffee, yogurt, and the toasted remnants of yesterday’s bread. Denise didn’t come to the table for breakfast: Henri served her in bed.

Once I’d had enough coffee to keep my eyes open and to make intelligible conversation in French, the subject inevitably turned to the day’s menu, and what needed to be fetched from the market. As Henri’s memory began to fail, he acquired the habit of writing lists on bits of cardboard. We’d drive into Royan to make our purchases, and then drive back to l’Enclouze with our booty: this was so exhausting that I sometimes needed to take a nap afterward. Meanwhile, Henri prepared the midday meal.

Consuming that meal typically took from two to three hours, following which another nap was required. Then Bernard and I would go to one of the area’s beautiful, untamed beaches. (One is actually named “La Côte Sauvage” — not just untamed but savage.) We’d throw ourselves against the surf and play chicken with the sky, trying to outlast the late-setting sun, then hurry back to l’Enclouze for the evening meal — which lasted another two hours or so.

If anybody had any strength left, we might play Scrabble — in French, of course, and never mind that I consistently drew triple-score, seven-letter English words, because foreign words were not permitted. It never occurred to any of the Boutrits to show me the least mercy. I was not merely defeated, I was puréed.

And that was the summertime rhythm: rise, market, eat, sleep, beach, eat, sleep. Repeated for as many days as we remained at l’Enclouze. But that rhythm is elusive now.

Henri passed away last year; they brought his coffin to stand in the yard, on a kind of pit stop on the way to the cemetery, surrounded by the people who used to dine at his table. Denise now lives in a nursing home. It’s unclear how much longer the Boutrits will be able to hold onto l’Enclouze. Maintaining the house and yard requires time, money, and a lot of work, and nobody in the family is able to spend more than a few days a year there. Giving up the place would be tough.

“Maybe I should just be grateful that we’ve been able to enjoy this house for 40 years,” said Martine, Bernard’s sister, not long ago, as she discussed the possibility of selling l’Enclouze. I’ve been able to enjoy the house for a mere 16 years, and I am grateful.

Yet it’s bittersweet to go back. I have just come from a long weekend there, and Sunday afternoon, as I prepared to leave, I found myself crying. I didn’t feel the tears coming on: they just happened. It was as if I’d opened a door and walked in unexpectedly on somebody I used to know. The ghosts of Christmases past, the heat of sun-baked summers, the lingering taste of favorite foods, the echoes of arguments and tall tales: these things bounce around in an empty old house, they buzz like flies around you, and swatting won’t make them go away.

Yeah, I’m lucky to have known it, but I wish it could’ve lasted just a little bit longer.

Thanks to Kara Lack and Konrad Will for the camera that made these photographs not only possible but post-able.