The Good Life...can she take it?

The heavy iron gate squeaks open and there she is, an estate in south west France that friends have leased for the blossomy month of May. What do do?  Gasp, offer gifts, accept a glass of wine, and then...

A villa perhaps two centuries old, situated in the midst of Languedoc Rousillon wine country, among undulating vineyards, this place is anything but simple.  Original terra cotta floors, a marble spiral staircase whose dark oak bannister was burnished by hands that probably lifted clusters of grapes only to inspect their quality and order them picked or not. Four bedrooms that include sitting rooms lofty with cushions.Two smaller, charming bedrooms that overlook the red roof tiles of a cottage where once resided some of the many workers required to maintain the estate; two living rooms, a formal dining area, a snug with a table big enough for a large family or a family of friends to sit around while a wood fire crackles beneath a mantle lined with maquettes of roosters in various sizes and materials.

There is much eating and drinking. The plan for the week is for each guest to present a five course meal in return for his or her stay. One evening, a young British wine lecturer arrives to offer the eight visitors from Canada, England and Dubai a tasting of eight local wines, including the blanquette particular to nearby Limoux, and a port that enhances a creamy, locally-produced blue cheese, and dark chocolate-covered prunes from Agen. The charcuteries plate includes sangliers, wild boar, and is paired with a Cuvée Classique, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourverde grapes, from Corbières.

In the groggy morning light serrated by the vista of the Pyrenees, she thinks, this is too much. Of everything! Too many perfect croissants, too
much wonderful cheese, certainly too much wine, and more daily conversation with people she barely knows than she can normally abide.

She has known lean times, when she borrowed from her credit card to pay her credit card bill. She drives an antique car, so called, because it is over 25 years and still runs. She instinctively follows Thoreau's advice to "simplify, simplify"; and it is not a hardship to do so. She has never felt deprived.

And then.... it is her turn to present a meal. She visits a local market, and simplicity - farmers in stalls, piles of radishes, fluffy heads of green and purple lettuce, petit pois, broad beans, asparagus, small, sweet melons  de Maroc, refrigerated cases of recently killed chickens and ducks - segues into excess. She buys not just one canette, but two. Fraises des bois. Chocolate that will become the dark chapeaus atop flutes of the berries she plans to drizzle with orange Armagnac she brought from Lectoure. Fromage de brebis, de chèvre, des vaches des Pyrénées. Following Julia Child's recipe for Duck à l'orange consumes the entire day, but her frequent trips between the kitchen and the pantry take her over the flat, sun-warmed stones of the terrace. She takes off her shoes.  She can sit beneath the awning to peel the oranges, stem the haricots verts, the slender kind that seem so particular to France. While the sauce is simmering, she walks down the hill past vines producing the season's first grapes, past a horse farm where mares and foals graze on an emerald hillside.

The sautéed new potatoes are perfectly crisp, the berries impossibly sweet, and the temperature mild enough that the company can enjoy tea and the Armagnac outside. As the host is filling his glass, a pink spot of sun just going down at this hour hits his forehead. Everyone is smiling.

The good life... hmm. She gets it.

Quebec to Montreal to New York

Aur revoir, belle ville, this cold sunny morning. Cold, sunny. On to snappy Montreal, St. Catherine's Street a profusion of red ...  poppies for Remembrance Day,  roses for Hussain, luscious long stemmed red roses, one of which survived the long walk up St. Urbain to Mile End, and fit perfectly in a wine bottle at Hil and Lil's place. Lunch at the Local Café, smoked salmon on a Montreal bagel. Leonard Cohen singing Halleluhjah. Snow flurries outside the window later that night, and in the morning.

Yes the morning, over the bridge, a last look at the St. Lawrence. Stop, the border; go, welcome to New York. Lake Champlain, Champlain, Champlain. The one long whistle blowing around bends, rock-cobbled coves. Thoreau came this way in 1850, started in Boston and travelled to Montreal for a fare of seven dollars, his goal being to take one honest walk in Canada "as I might in the Concord woods on an afternoon."
    Lake Champlain, then darkness, then New York City. Up the subway stairs at 14th St and 1st Avenue, and it's like someone has injected me with a sudden spurt of oxygen. Everything is faster, crisper. Nine-thirty, people indoors, out of doors, wind blowing, garbage blowing, darrrk, yet bright under the lights of Tompkins Square where the yellow leaves of a spreading tree glow as if with fairy light.

   Up a flight of stairs, up another, another, another, finally arriving at Five W, where friend Liz greets me with tea and we talk and talk and then sleep and morning breaks. One day. One day?  Heading down and over to Soho, I hear a man calling from a shaded door well. Bunny, Bunny! A cardboard flat of pizza slices rests on the edge of a garbage can, just in case somebody is hungry enough to ignore the proximity of God knows what. Walk, walk. There, McN's, the bookstore with its see-through book printing machine and an African American barista who styles his hair in an exuberant Mohawk. Good fusion, that. African American hair texture holds the Mohawk proud. And Allan, at last, in person, this native of the neighbourhood who is the King of graffitti photography and fills in his life story before we move on to Housing Works Bookstore and its tempting bins, tempting cases, beautifully arranged, the dark wood shelves, the dark wood railings around the balconies. But one day, one day! We say goodbye, we will meet again.

Uptown, Petra with the thin eyebrows, the blue shadow, the Slovak accent everyone mistakes for Russian. In the next booth a thin faced woman in dark glasses, her fine blown blonde hair, her lipstick smudged, with her maid. Or her attendant, or maybe I am making assumptions. Maybe this is not her only possibility for lunch but a joyous choice. Out the window of the Lennox Hill Grill city workers with brown Central American skin. A generation away from their indigenous ancestors who dressed in parrot feathers, perhaps, now outfitted in fluorescent vests and hard hats on the crazy streets of NY.

The day is going, what to see? William Kentridge's The  Refusal of Time. Fabulous. A non-linear narrative that comes together in a statement/observation as I sit on a chair between three huge screens, looped images, music that haunts, hollers, itself underscored by the elephant behind me, the machine that labours, the breath, the heart,  the tock of the clock, the beat of time that dares us to refuse it. More! More! Poetry! Seamus Heany's imagined butter coming up from a deep bog still white and salty, the precise sound imagery of his diction, all those poets and writers reading Heany's work with reverence and affection. Even Paul Simon, and the prolific Colm Toibin, all with memories of the great late man, but paying tribute with his own words. On, on, Venezuelan arepas, sleep. Goodbye till next time fifth floor Liz. On the crosstown bus fathers taking their children to school. Little Henry's boots are printed with orcas and they keep slipping off, as if the orcas are straining to swim away through the snow flurrying about the neighbourhoods of Manhattan.

To Penn Station, coffee from Zaro's, where two servers speak to one another in French, and I think of Pelagie, but no. L'homme vient de Haiti, l'autre de la Côte-d'Ivoire. "That's in Africa," she says. "My mother taught me."

11:35 AM, the Regional, #125 pulls out right on time, with stops in Trenton, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Wilmington Delaware, and Baltimore, Maryland, the city/state names rhythmic as the swaying car that carries me to Washington, D.C. Union Station. Be careful when you disembark ladies and gentleman. There is a space between the car and the platform.