Nothing’s changed. And when I say nothing, I mean rien du tout. It’s very late when we walk into the house, nearly midnight. The clock has stopped, but when? At 4:13, yes, I see, but what day? What month? What year? We’ve been gone for 20 months, and time could have stopped at any moment since then.
We walked out of this house in August of 2007, and no one’s turned the page on our kitchen calendar since then. Although we nominally had tenants for the first year we were away they spent only a few weeks here, and lived very lightly upon the land.
Things I left for them to use, salt, a welcoming bottle of bubbly tied with a gay ribbon, condiments, teas, spices, oils, vinegars,
and even some chocolate sprinkles for their morning toast, are still here, seemingly untouched.
Actually, the fact that they left it all just as they found it turned out to be a benefit at our first lunchtime in the house. The battery in the car had given up the ghost, and the market being out of foot reach, I nonchalantly opened the cupboards and made a meal from ancient foodstuffs that I’d thought they might use. It’s amazing how the passage of nearly two years hadn’t affected the cans of beans, green chilis, olives, and dried potato flakes that the cupboard yielded up. Even the spice cabinet didn’t fail me, the pungent Rancho Gordo Mexican oregano and a tightly sealed tin of pimenton disproving the adage that all spices turn to dust and need to be tossed once a year. Our first “home cooked” meal, composed of foods I abandoned to their fate so long ago that I’d forgotten them completely.
It turns out that I had forgotten almost every single thing in this house, recognizing it now on sight with an “oh wow, that’s mine?” sensation.
The music I was singing before we left is still open on the piano. Can I even still sing Un certo non so che?
The dishes, the linens, all as we left them. But what is this, the North Pole? Why do we have so many blankets? No sooner do I wonder that than we begin rooting through boxes searching for fleece and flannel. We brought summer clothes back from France, but here it’s grey, cool, and rainy. We shiver and cough and sit by the fire.
There are 43 messages on the answering machine, each marked with the time of the call, but not the date or year. Those calls urging us to vote for Obama are identifiably last year’s, a moment of history preserved. But the stranger who called twice asking me to send her some of my vinegar mother, made slightly famous by this article in Food and Wine? What would she think if I return her call a year or two late?
Only the garden betrays the passage of time. When I left the rhubarb plant was so young and timid that I didn’t dare to harvest much of it. Now, in only the middle of May, there’s enough fruit for a dozen pies.
There’s very little noticeable change on the rest of the island, either. My favorite checker at the grocery store has retired. Our neighbor has some new grey hair. Aside from that, it’s like we never left.
And because everything is exactly as we left it, it’s as if we dreamed our life in France. If things had changed here, we’d be thinking “that’s natural, we’ve been away a long time, things do move on.” But as I empty well-aged bottles of olive oil and toss dusty tea bags, find my bathrobe hanging on the back of the bathroom door where I inadvertantly left it, and wash my hair with a vintage 2007 Aveda shampoo, I have to wonder. Is there really a house in France that we called home just ten short days ago?
Wait, I know. I still have a deeply-ingrained habit of checking the bed for scorpions before I hop in. I must have learned that somewhere.French Letters Visits America