Life is a succession of lessons, which must be lived to be understood. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
After a week of chilly, dreary days, heavy granite skies, the wind whipping in circles around the courtyard, flicking leaves across the stones and spattering rain against the windows, battering down onto the cement of the terrace, the sun has arrived with springtime in tow. Again. Up and down, up and down, the only thing getting us through these odd, these oddly theatrical climatic confrontations pitting lions against lambs is the burst of peonies in magnificent pinks and magentas, the deluge of fragrant mint, the waves of deeply mauve wisteria, the blood red rosebuds in the Diderot’s garden. Always a dramatic display of energy, at once ostentatious and refined like a blowsy English garden. And the lilacs painting the hillside above the old historic center of Chinon a deep plum against the copper stone.
With the warmer, brighter weather comes talk of gardens and jams. The staff and the neighbors, whenever we bump into each other around town as we invariably do in a small village, worry about the early blooms on the cherry and peach trees, wonder aloud if the tomatoes will be harvested green for jam or allowed to ripen red for homemade ketchup, deliberate whether or not the figs that grow up on the hills are edible and if we should pick them for jam. Everyone has a garden, everyone keeps an eye on the fruit and berries that grow wild around town. My table is piled high with mint clipped from the sprays that Roseline planted for me, these first leaves dried for tea while I await strawberry and peach season, the next crop used for infusing the fruit jams with freshness.
And with the warmer, brighter weather comes high season in Chinon, the hotel filling up nearly every day now, our groups now arriving once, twice, three times a week, often overlapping, individuals arriving on bikes, decked out in lycra and helmets, tourists and lovers searching for a bed for a night or three, sleeping in, coming down to breakfast tousled and just slightly embarrassed. TV crews come to film a local winery or religious group. We’ve also been seeing an interesting parade of the illustrious and the celebrated, even if we don’t always recognize them, musicians and artists, illustrators and authors, actors, directors, producers. It’s easy to act casual and nonchalant, tease and be familiar, when I don’t know who they are until either I spend some time chatting with them or Jean-Pierre googles them surreptitiously as they breakfast. Pssssst look who’s in room #x! he’ll say, jabbing at the screen on the computer in reception or passing me his phone.
One thing that I have learned is that first impressions are often slippery things, deceptive. Occasionally, a client arrives in reception seemingly brash or snobby, difficult or demanding, or mousy and bland. The receptionist sometimes whispers a warning “They’re going to be a handful tomorrow morning at breakfast!” Occasionally a client arrives displaying all of the usual characteristics of an eccentric, mannerisms straight out of a Fawlty Towers episode. “Heavens,” one exclaims, fanning herself dramatically as she melts into one of the armchairs in reception. “a small whiskey, darling, I need to recover from that dreadful ride here!” We brace ourselves and prepare for anything and everything, quirky, capricious, troublesome.
But spend some time talking, trying to get to know the person and I have uncovered so many utterly fascinating, perfectly charming guests.
An older couple recently stayed at the hotel, arriving with a large group but staying several days after the others had left. First impressions at check in were less than desirable, he complaining about the size of the room, she rather odd and frumpish, immediately forgetting the simple wifi password. But. As she came to breakfast much earlier than her husband and stayed even after he had left, I would wander over to her table and talk, suspecting, after the first brief encounter over her first breakfast, that she was someone worth knowing, that there was something deeply interesting behind the curious facade. And I was right. A well-known writer and scenarist, daughter of a world-renown sculptor, who has lived an amazing life. She talked about her father’s work and legacy, we talked about food, the restaurants they dined at in New York when she was younger, the difference in cuisine then and now and how it has evolved with the times. She told me about her artwork, her journals she keeps and how it makes her listen to those chattering around her, watch more closely to what is going on, jotting down conversations and impressions, capturing in doodles and designs the curious and interesting. “I call it my writer’s antennae,” I told her, shaking my head in understanding as she spoke, “paying attention to things people mention in passing, paying attention to details that would otherwise pass unnoticed.”
The couple left this morning, promising to be back in the fall. I earned a kiss on each cheek as she handed me a piece of white paper on which was scribbled her personal email address as well as a long list of friends (museum directors in various major cities) that I absolutely must meet. And information about an exhibit in Paris that features her father. And a very interesting food project that she is initiating and organizing in the north of France. “Of course you must come for this!” she said when I told her that it would make a very interesting article. “And you will stay with us.”
I make a point of returning to my receptionist each time I discover the true nature of a client, and I tell her how absolutely wonderful, how impressive they really are once better known. “First impressions are often deceitful.”
Our fading violet, here last summer, clutching her whiskey to her breast (as her companion – dandy every inch of him – rushes into reception telling Jean-Pierre that he must absolutely park his car for him as he is utterly unable to do so), we will soon learn is qualified to act the diva, has earned, over the course of her illustrious career, her diva wings, so to speak. And as flighty as she was over the several days the pair stayed with us – each morning during breakfast she would suddenly pop up out of her seat and rush into reception and say “I would like to stay another night…. But can I try a different room? I want to stay in them all!” – she was intelligent, interesting, knowledgeable, even invited us to stay at her home in Australia should we ever visit.
And the hip, young British rock star with his tousled hair and Teddy Boy looks is a whiz in the history of architecture and was restoring his ancient French abode. And the hip older French musicians were simple and kind, friendly as they enjoyed their breakfast with gusto. The rather famous British actors were quite ordinary people, funny and fun to chat with.
I never know what a new reservation will bring.
Any big hotels have got scandals,” he said. “Just like every big hotel has got a ghost.” – Stephen King, The Shining
Meanwhile, spring has sprung and I harvest the mint which is headier, more fragrant than I remember it being last year, I ogle the lilacs up in the hill overlooking Chinon, and I wait impatiently for the roses on our terrace to open. “We should have calla lilies in the garden,” I said to him when I saw how gorgeously they grow in Chinon, huge and plump. “We have calla lilies in the garden if you can pull yourself away from your computer and come out into the garden.” he answered. And so we do. And the blackbirds have returned.
There is less time to chit chat with the clients during breakfast although I do try, afternoons I sit in front of the sewing machine and stitch lines across blankets and mattress pads for the girls, and I research and test recipes for my cookbook, batting away the horseflies and bees as I type, and trying to sneak in an hour each afternoon to exercise.
I witnessed a friend becoming a Chevalier de l’Ordre de Mérite Agricole, the highest honor for a winemaker, as we, her friends and family, packed into a long narrow cave carved out of Chinon’s famed limestone. A solemn, joyous, very French celebration, indeed.
And just this morning, a client from Germany sighed “we wanted to stay for three nights but we are only staying for two, the third night you were fully booked. We like it so much here.”