CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
In which three generations of Berlinskis, finding themselves in possession of a château and an Armagnac distillery in Nouvelle Aquitaine, spend a week impersonating the French landed gentry without being arrested. A family memoir.
My family was at its leisure in a château on an eleventh-century Armagnac grape farm in Nouvelle Aquitaine. There was no Internet, no cellphone. We had no idea what was going on beyond our vineyard. Everywhere else, even Paris, began to seem abstract.
My father has lived in Paris for decades. My brother and I have lived in Paris intermittently for many of those years, but never once had we all gone on vacation in the French countryside, the way everyone else in Paris does in the month of August. We never managed to pull it off, logistically. Either my brother or I were too poor to go on vacation, or we needed to use that time to visit our other relatives. My brother’s wife, a UN Peacekeeper, comes from a tiny village in the Abruzzo, in Italy. Our mother lived in Seattle. Maybe we’d also reckoned that we were getting along so well these days, why take the risk? Berlinski family get-togethers can really go either way. Sometimes they’re immortal; other times, you’re looking at years of therapy.
Early in the summer, my father received a check. “Let’s go on vacation,” he said. “In July. I’m inviting the whole family. I’ll pay for everything. You guys get the whole family together and organize things. Find a house, rent a car, book the tickets, figure out how to get there. Just make sure we’re all together, for once.”
By “you guys,” he meant me and my brother, who lived in Mauritania, where his wife was keeping the peace in the G5 Sahel.
We were delighted and touched but daunted by the scope of the challenge. What if we screwed up and disappointed him? My father doesn’t travel well. We had to come up with a plan and find a destination that would meet all his desires—at the last minute, at the height of the tourist season.
Where would we go? Our destination had to be beautiful. Tasteful. Quiet. Comfortable. The weather had to be perfect. My father has back problems. Sitting in a car aggravates them, so driving from Paris was out of the question. It had to be accessible by train. But not too close to the TGV line or it would be booked already, even mobbed. The train had to be exactly on time and there could be no complicated train-changing or waiting around in train stations; that sort of thing makes our Pop wildly stressed.
We needed a big house, we thought, in a lovely old village. Or perhaps one in the countryside. There couldn’t be any hazards to children or the elderly. My father complains that his balance isn’t what it used to be. He has taken to walking with a cane. That ruled out routes with tricky escalators, uneven staircases, slippery floors. But he never misses his daily Stairmaster workout—if he felt like it, he could charge to the top of the Empire State Building. He hates missing a workout, so we needed a place where he could go on a brisk daily walk. In clement weather. But on a path without cars. He doesn’t like walking on roads where you might be hit by a car.
The destination had to be appealing to children, too. The entertainments would need to be sufficient to ensure that my nephew Leo wouldn’t whine that he was bored. That would drive my father nuts and result in muttered imprecations about the way things were when he was a child. A lad his age should be mastering his Greek declensions. The place couldn’t be overrun with tourists. My father hates tourists.
Mischa and I discussed the logistics at length. So many things could go wrong. The car rental depot had to be right by the train station. Otherwise, our Pop would insist upon carrying his luggage. He would throw out his back and lament for the rest of the week he was in agony. He does this every time he travels. My father views wheeled luggage as a modern abomination. He won’t let us carry his luggage, either. It’s a matter of pride. When Mischa’s wife was assigned to the UN logistics base in Brindisi, we’d had a family reunion in Puglia. We spent the better part of it driving our father back and forth to see Zdravko the Sweaty Balkan Chiropractor. He had arrived carrying his handmade Age-of-Steam leather traveling valise, the kind now sold only by Etsy as a “a statement coffee table.” After his pummeling by Zdravko, he finally accepted the concession of a wheeled suitcase. So he did own one. But we were certain that given the chance, he would find some excuse to carry it.
We needed a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out. Eating out en famille is nerve-wracking. My father can no longer eat in his own neighborhood because in half the restaurants, the waitresses are in love with him. (“We can’t go in there. She’ll grab me with those octopus tentacles and we’ll never get out.”) In the other half, he has so savagely reprimanded a waiter for serving him a dish topped with a cheese that he abominates that he is no longer welcome. He never remembers to bring his reading glasses and he can’t read a menu without them, so a bad cheese is always a threat.
Then we saw the weather forecast. God save us. They were predicting a canicule. That meant we definitely had to go to the beach. But the beaches would be mobbed, and my father won’t swim in public. He’s self-conscious about his heart surgery scar (it is covered by chest hair and invisible to the naked eye) and revolted by the unclothed human body unless it belongs to a woman who reminds him of the young Anita Ekberg. We had taken him to some of the most beautiful beaches in Puglia, fondly envisioning him splashing in the water with Leo, the way he did with us when we were children. He stared at the wine-dark Mediterranean for hours in the blazing Puglian sun, wincing, refusing to go anywhere near it.
“Pop, it will really help your back if you swim a bit,” my brother said.
“I don’t want to.”
“Why doesn’t Grandpa want to swim?” Leo whined. “You promised Grandpa would swim with me.”
“Non infastidire tua nonno. È pazzo.”
Mischa and I were thinking about all of this. We couldn’t get a single one of these things wrong. Mischa lived in Nouakchott and I lived in Paris, so there was no way personally to examine our destination. We’d have to pick it sight unseen.
Mischa spent days going through listings on Airbnb. But it was just too last-minute. Rentals in the parts of France we were confident would be beautiful, like Provence or the Alpes Maritimes, had long since been booked or were far too expensive. We just didn’t know about the other places. Most of rural France is gorgeous, but unless you’ve been there, you just can’t know whether the village of St. Bernice de l’Aisselle Moite is an undiscovered idyllic medieval gem or another Andorra. (In the age before the Internet and Yelp, when it wasn’t common knowledge that Andorra is a carsick-making road snaking through ten thousand duty-free shops, I went there with my then-boyfriend for spring break. We were graduate students in England. We figured, “An ancient sovereign microstate on the Iberian Peninsula, nestled in the Pyrénées? That’s got to be so charming!” Imagine our surprise.)
None of the listings looked right; or at least, the things that looked right were absurdly expensive. We couldn’t ask our Pop to spend 10,000 euros a night on a five-star, 22-acre château in the Loire.
Then my brother sent me this photo. “What do you think?”
According to the listing, the Domaine de Laballe was “a large Gascon country house surrounded by vineyards and a remarkable landscape.” We Googled “Domaine de Laballe.” The website said it produced Armagnac.
Not only was it still unreserved, it seemed to have been vacant all summer. The listing said it had a pool. And fifteen bedrooms? I’d never heard of Parleboscq, but when I Googled it, it looked lovely.
But why was the price so low? For fifteen rooms? Why hadn’t it been booked already? Why weren’t there any reviews? What was the catch? The listing said there was no Wifi. It’s true that most people won’t go anywhere without Wifi. Could that be why it was still available? We could live without Wifi. My father hates the Internet and cellphones, anyway. He holds them to be modern abominations.
But there was no air conditioning, the listing said. We were expecting a massive, record-breaking canicule. Would it be unbearable? We tried to figure out what could go wrong. “What if the heat melts the train tracks?” I asked. That happened during the canicule in 2003. “Will we wind up trapped on the TGV with our Pop screaming ‘Go!’ and trying to beat the conductor with his cane?”
“I think the train’ll be okay,” my brother said uncertainly. “But is there some other reason no one wants this place?”
“Maybe it’s near a toxic sewage dump?”
“Maybe it doesn’t really exist?”
Finally, my brother decided to book it. Before someone else did.
I was in charge of reserving the train tickets, which was easy in principle but in practice required persuading my father it could be done without a travel agent; indeed, it could be done on the Internet; indeed, it must be done on the Internet; what’s more, travel agents no longer exist. In the end, tickets in hand, he conceded this was theoretically possible. My brother booked the rental car. The rental agency was right across the street from the train station.
We’d solved this.
Problem one. Mischa’s wife, the Italian Peacekeeper, refused to come. She suspected it was a scam, and besides, if she was going to spend her vacation time in some depopulated European village where there was nothing to do but watch the corn grow, she’d rather spend it in the Abruzzo, with her family.
Problem two. My father’s mistress, the Algerian Wildcat, declared she too refused to come. She was suffering from a severe outbreak of hypochondria, she said, and there was no way she would risk her life by trekking off to some dubious “château” without Wifi or air conditioning.
Problem three. The Unmotivated Turkish Genius announced he wouldn’t come, either. He could not possibly accept an invitation, he told me, that he was unable to reciprocate. He had no château. Quod erat demonstrandum. Besides, he found begging for visas to come to France too undignified.
Nor did any of our friends want to join us. The last-minute planning was probably the main reason, although Phiroze wrote, “Very candidly, I think three Berlinskis would be too much for me.” Claudia had a new boyfriend who didn’t like to fly. Gaby pleaded an urgent appointment for chemo and radiation. It seemed no one really wanted to be with all of the Berlinskis, even in a château with a hundred acres of land and fifteen bedrooms. A bad sign. In company, I figured, we’d be too self-conscious to bicker. But just the four of us? A serious risk we’d all revert to childhood (and not the good parts of it), and from there it might be a swift descent into cannibalism.
Problem four. When my brother called the Domaine de Laballe to be sure it existed, the woman who answered said she “knew nothing” about a château. She did not sound friendly, either.
Problem five. My brother sent an email to Fabrice, the owner, asking which route to take from the train station to the château. He did not reply. Mischa called me to tell me I had to call Fabrice. “Why don’t you call him?” I asked.
“Because I want you to be involved.”
I called Fabrice. No answer. I reported this to my brother. He told me I must call Fabrice over and over. Non-stop. It was urgent. Why wasn’t he answering? We had to know what was going on.
Leo was already in Paris. He had come for some pre-vacation bonding with his aunt and his grandfather. It was his first trip without his parents. The Peacekeeper, I think, was at a conference in Burkina Faso. So Mischa was rattling around their empty house in Nouakchott, trying to finish his long-overdue novel. His voice was tense. He sounded strung-out, as if he was calling from the county hoosegow in the throes of an unscheduled detox.
Now, as I explained to my brother, it was Bastille Day. No one in France answers the phone on Bastille Day. Indeed, it would be rude for me to call Fabrice over and over on Bastille Day. I didn’t think it was inherently suspicious that he wasn’t answering the phone on a holiday weekend.
But Mischa did. Coupled with the lack of reviews on the site and the habits of mind he’s cultivated over years of living in places that need UN Peacekeepers, he became growingly persuaded the whole thing was some kind of scam.
“Relax,” I told him. “This is the First World.” He’d also been worried I’d forget to pick his son up at the airport. My brother’s state of mind was beginning to concern me. An empty nest and an unfinished book are a hell of a combination, the more so if you live in Nouakchott. I began to imagine him typing “All work and no play makes Mischa a dull boy” over and over again, scrawling REDRUM on the walls.
Directly after Mischa arrived in Paris, the day before we were scheduled to leave, he panicked. He’d had no sleep and had been obliged, immediately after getting off the plane, to trudge off to the banlieue to pick up a new credit card from the DHL depot. Fabrice had at last returned my call, but Mischa wanted me to call him again to ask where we should go to dinner after our train arrived. This seemed to me unnecessary; France isn’t the Sahara; you’re not really at risk of starving if you don’t plan this out to the last detail, but I didn’t want to argue.
I called Fabrice, who answered and began giving me a complicated run-down of the gastronomic pros and cons of every single restaurant between the TGV station and Parleboscq. As I tried to take notes, Mischa began yelling at me. I couldn’t concentrate on Fabrice and Mischa at the same time. “Here, you speak to him,” I said, passing him the phone. He refused. Fabrice continued to expatiate, unaware that no one was listening. He was unstoppable, as the French tend to be when asked for gastronomic advice. There was no shortage of options, certainly. I had no idea what Mischa was so vexed about. Thus did our family vacation begin, inauspiciously, with my brother and I getting into a massive screaming fight.
When finally Fabrice exhausted himself and I was able to hang up, Mischa’s arms were crossed sullenly, his face ashen, his eyes rolled heavenward. At last, he inhaled dramatically. “Details matter, Claire.” He said this in the manner of a man whose buddy is bleeding through his fatigues and screaming for a medic, and Private Shithead, here, forgot the QuikClot—he just left it in the fucking chopper—
“Mischa, what’s wrong with you? Why are you yelling at me the day before we go on vacation?”
“What’s wrong with me? You told him our train got in at five—
It degenerated rapidly from there.
We got it together because we didn’t want Leo to be traumatized for life—or our father, for that matter—but I had a bad, bad feeling. I was stressed in the way only a three-generation family vacation can make a body. Whether or not there was a 200-year-old, fifteen-room château with our name on it in Nouvelle Aquitaine, it wasn’t going to be big enough for me and my brother. We’d bet all our father’s money on the proposition, “There’s something worth visiting there,” so this place had better not only be there, but be sublime.
By nightfall, I was Googling my afflictions. Yep, I had every one of the symptoms. For sure, I was coming down with Saint Vitus’ dance. Incurable and fatal.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
It was sublime
The trip was perfect: a silky-silent air-conditioned TGV whisked us there at 300 kph and arrived right on time. The car was perfect: a handsome BMW, waiting for us across the street. No line, no hassle.
The “so-called château,” to our astonishment, was a real château. Not just a “country house.” Fabrice welcomed us, handed us the keys, introduced us to the groundskeeper, then cheerily bid us adieu, leaving his entire château and his Armagnac distillery with perfect strangers and entrusting us, for no reason we could understand, with his antique furniture and oil paintings, his porcelain dining sets, silver tableware, tangled rosaries, and his statues of the Virgin Mary. There were four floors (if you counted the turrets) of vast, slippery corridors and bedrooms, along with rooms dedicated to every species of entertainment—or to a more mysterious purpose.
Leo’s eyes were wide. He had never seen anything like this. Neither had we. We kept discovering new rooms. There was a parlor with a grand, untuned, strange piano—about half as long as a regular one, which is how it sounded when Leo tried to play it. There was a library that housed, among many other books, a hundred-volume history of the French Revolution, and a room dedicated to board games, with cards for playing piquet or bouillotte and a Ouija board. In the next room was a pool table: Leo was mesmerized and began consecrating his life to becoming a pool shark. The massive kitchen had everything I’d ever dreamt of using to cook. Copper pots hung on the wall, one the size of a water heater. They must use that one, I imagined, to cook things like fondues and cassoulets for massive wedding parties. We found a separate servant’s kitchen, and a children’s nursery, and a formal dining room—where we never ate, because the veranda overlooking our vineyard was lovelier. The laundry room was bigger than my whole apartment in Paris.
We were in possession of our very own Armagnac distillery, filled with aged barrels, redolent of grapes and oak and Armagnac that had been sleeping quietly for decades, waiting just for us.
Fabrice entrusted us with his rolled lawns and his clipped hedges and his manicured, formal gardens—in which, among other things, we found pink roses in bloom, a sapphire-blue pool with a slide, a swing, a trampoline, a tennis court, and our own private stone church should we wish to baptize ourselves. Behind it was the family cemetery, in which every member of the family had been buried. Every day, the groundskeeper laid fresh flowers and candles on the graves. Above every bed was a crucifix, some wrapped in dusty fronds. The glass in the window panes was so old it had begun to melt, lending the views a gentle waviness.
There were rooms for everything. On our second day, we found the room for the defloration of brides. The family had just married off their youngest daughter; we knew because we saw a sign on the lawn, in elegant French handwriting: “Au revoir Mademoiselle, Bonjour Madame.” The names of the bride and groom were handwritten on a card that hung from the doorknob. The sheets were still rumpled.
There was “the Countess’s room,” which we were instructed not to enter because “she has passed.” We didn’t want to know what was in there and Leo was scared even to walk by it.
It was all ours.
That was the day we realized, too, that we were in possession of very own Armagnac distillery, filled with aged barrels, redolent of grapes and oak and Armagnac that had been sleeping quietly for decades, waiting just for us. Christophe, the vintner, offered us a tasting from every barrel.
The château came with a complement of servants: Olindo, the groundskeeper, told us he had raised and fostered 46 children. He was “croyant,” he said cheerily before setting off in his finery for Sunday mass. Micheline, from the Pays Basque, would have been our cook had I not been so keen to cook with all those antique devices in the kitchen. (What woman can resist a bronze apothecary scale, with engraved brass weights tucked into a carved slab of walnut?) Near-incomprehensible local accents, the lot of them. The accent sounds as backwoods and provincial in French as a thick Alabama accent does in English. Mischa claimed he heard people speaking Occitan—it would have been Gascon, I think, to be precise—in one of the nearby villages.
We were the first people ever to rent it on Airbnb. That was why there were no reviews. After a bit of Armagnac and gossip with Olindo, we discovered the Laballe family is feuding. Their family is as complex as ours. That explained why the woman who answered the phone when we called claimed to “know nothing” about the château—that part of the family doesn’t speak to this part.
In 1820, Jean-Dominique Laudet returned from the Caribbean, where he had made his fortune in the spice trade. He purchased the Château Laballe, whose original foundations date from the 11th century, along with its 600 hectares of forest and farmland. Included in the deal were the property’s 120 laborers. “I’ve just acquired a beautiful estate located a few miles from Eauze,” he wrote in his diary. The estate has been passed from father to son for eight generations: Jean-Dominique, Alexandre, Julien, Fernand, Robert, Noel, and Christian all committed their lives to Armagnac. In the 1970s, Noel turned into a rebel; he began experimenting with dry white wine.
But this generation is different. Some members of the family are not as keen as their forefathers to produce Armagnac. The combination of the family’s wealth and French public education has given them the chance to pursue exciting modern careers. They live in the cities—Bordeaux, Toulouse, Paris. The last thing they feel like doing is farming the land in a boring, depopulated region of rural France.
Fabrice is trying desperately to keep the property in family hands. He views the idea of selling it as a modern abomination, a travesty, an affront to eight centuries of tradition, labor, devotion, and his own ancestors. Other members of the family see the place as an albatross. It’s easy to imagine their side of the argument: Our ancestor is a man who struck out for the New World to make his fortune, surely he’d understand? The upkeep on the property, Olindo told us, amounted to more than 50,000 euros a year. That side of the family just wants to sell the damned thing already and be rid of it.
Once, the château was bustling with family and servants. Now it is not. It has not been renovated or modernized in many years. Many rooms had no electric sockets. Even on the hottest day, it was cool inside. It smelled strongly of wood fires and must. There was no central heating, we noticed; they must use the fireplaces to warm it in the winter. We wondered if that was cheery and cozy or cold and miserable.
No item in the house seemed to have been purchased after 1950. We found an old-fashioned telephone cabinet, containing a wall-mounted dial phone and a yellowed copy of the yellow pages (they were yellow in France, too). A handwritten list of numbers was affixed to the wall: the doctor, the cousin, the aunt. The telephone did not work.
The château isn’t financially viable. It would need serious renovation to be an upmarket tourist attraction, and no one in the family wants to spend that money, given they can’t even agree that they want to keep the property. The problem isn’t the Armagnac: that sells well. It’s the château that sucks up money in upkeep and property taxes and produces nothing in return. It can’t be rented as a high-end B&B: It’s an old family home, not a luxury tourist destination. The ceilings leak. There’s no air conditioning. A whole room is devoted to ancient golf trophies and dust. There’s no Internet save for a spot on the lawn, if you stand in just the right place, and no cellphone access.
These financial exigencies, and the complexities of the family feud, explain why at the last minute a frantic Fabrice decided to try renting it on Airbnb. And that is how, by some insane stroke of good fortune, we rented the place at the last minute and spent a week impersonating the pre-revolutionary French landed class without anyone getting suspicious and arresting us.
It is true that the place was run down in some ways—the towels, my brother noticed, were not plush—but every room was in its own way beautiful. And it was rare, too, in that there was not a thing, as far as the eye could see, that was vulgar. That is so rare that only by discovering a place of where we noticed this did we realize it was rare.
TIME SLOWS DOWN
This region of France is, and feels, profoundly civilized and ancient—the footpaths we walked on were trampled by Roman legionnaires—yet tourists don’t know about it. Or at least, we saw none. Literally none. There are thermal baths in a nearby village, Barbotan, to which elderly Frenchmen and French women repair, but we saw no other foreigners in the whole time we were there, not in the villages, not in the markets, not on the hiking trails, on which we saw only two other hikers and one shaggy dog. We saw not a single piece of litter.
The region has only recently become French. I learned this from one of the books in the library. The Duchy of Gascony was part of the Duchy of Aquitaine until 1152. That sentence triggered memories stored in some disused recess of my mind, names and dates I’d crammed into my head before taking a medieval history exam. … Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine; Henry I; the Angevins and Plantagenets; the Hundred Years War …
This was the place.
The region’s depopulation and the frozen-in-time aspect of the château lent to everything a pleasant mournfulness. Christophe told us they had replaced the farmhands with machines. The French, he said, were fainéant. They refused to do farm labor. Only the Portuguese were still willing to work the fields. But given the way they wouldn’t work if it was too hot, or too cold, or raining, it was easier just to use machines.
On our second day, my brother took my father to the thermal baths for a therapeutic back treatment. I stayed with Leo, because children aren’t allowed in the baths. Believe it or not, in France, a doctor can write you a prescription for a trip to these baths. Many medical conditions are considered amenable to a cure by thermal bath. The state will not only pick up the cost of your spa treatment but treat you to the train ticket and the hotel. The Algerian Wildcat’s mother goes to the baths—not these, some other baths—every year, for her rheumatism. The Wildcat goes with her for God-knows-what. Vive la France.
While my father and Mischa took their cure, I taught Leo how to kickbox in the garden, then raced laps with him in the swimming pool. Afterward, I set myself to the task of cooking lunch. When I asked Leo to set the table, he mentioned an urgent assignment elsewhere. I thought nothing of it. Ten minutes later, my father and Mischa returned from the baths, marveling about them. So clean! So charming.
Perfect timing. Lunch was ready. We called Leo—“À table!”—but he didn’t answer.
Nothing. We called him again, this time louder. Not a sound.
First, we calmly looked through every room in the house—at least, the ones we knew about. Then we became frantic. We began running from room to room, through the garden, shouting, “Leo! Leo!” Mischa was screaming his name, I was shrieking it, my father was bellowing it: Leo! Where are you, Leo!
Leo is emphatically not the kind of child who would wander away without telling anyone. He’s the kind of child who has to be urged to exercise. I could barely convince him to finish that kickboxing lesson. He was thoroughly spooked by all the secret rooms; he would never deliberately hide in one.
He wasn’t in the swimming pool—thank God!—but he wasn’t anywhere else, either. We were miles from anyone who would kidnap a child. There were no predators in the region. As far as we knew.
My brother was becoming apoplectic, and I knew just what he was thinking: This is Claire’s fault. She had one job. She just had to supervise my kid for a half hour!—and I’d fucked it up. The rest of my brother’s life would now be an unspeakable horror of police inspectors, tabloid headlines, and genetic samples taken from Leo’s toothbrush … Mischa and the Peacekeeper would be that tragic couple whom everyone crosses the street to avoid because they just had no idea what to say, and it was all my fault.
But it made no sense! He’d been with me just ten minutes before! Where could he have gone? “Leo! Leo! Leeeeeooooooooo!” I was becoming furious, too. When I find that kid, I’m giving him a hiding.
“Leo!” My father was walking from window to window, calling Leo’s name. He was walking slowly and pretending to be calm but using the tone of voice he used when we were kids and our German Shepherd ran off into the woods with the local pack. My mom and I would call her to no avail. Only my father’s voice could Alpha-male that dog back from the call of the wild. He was using that voice.
Then Mischa found him.
He was fast asleep in the board-game room. Right by the kitchen. There was a child-sized bed wedged against the wall so that it was just out of eyesight when you poked your head in the room. He was sleeping in it—utterly unconscious and impervious, drooling cherubically. All that kickboxing and swimming had plum tuckered him out.
My brother beckoned us over, his finger on his lips: Shhhhhhhh.
We couldn’t stop laughing. We laughed so much we woke him up.
DISCOVERING NATURE’S BOUNTY
The region has its own microclimate. It is gentler, more lush, less arid, than Provence; there are emerald-bright ferns on the footpaths, not lavender. The landscape is made of gentle hills, wooded valleys, cultivated fields of grapes, sunflowers, corn. It is completely rural. All the farms are family affairs. The path behind the château, which we walked every day, passes through an Arcadian forest and cornfields—tall, well-ordered, lush stalks holding forth ripe cobs. We saw deer bounding in and out of the cornfields. One puzzled fawn stopped to stare at us for half a minute, as fascinated with us as we were with him, before bounding back into the corn.
The corn was golden, perfectly ripe, and to our surprise, sweet; it was meant for humans, not animals. One day, we decided impulsively to pick a few cobs and bring them back for dinner. Then we began to fret: The corn wasn’t wild, after all; it belonged to someone. Mischa, who believes himself an expert on agrarian customs by virtue of his morganatic marriage, insisted that it’s absolutely normal to help yourself to corn from someone else’s field. No one in the Abruzzo would think twice about it, he said. It’s just what rural people do. But as I reminded him, France isn’t Italy. In France, there’s a rule against everything. Besides, our culture takes a dim view of stealing.
We had no idea if it was okay to take the corn. The deer clearly thought it was, but isn’t that why deer are considered pests and shot? My father envisioned a maddened French farmer with a thick local accent and a rifle pitching up at the château as we tucked into our buttered corn: “Well, looky here. I found me them corn-rustlers.” Embarrassed, we walked home like idiots with the contraband corn stuffed into our pants.
The lushness of the countryside really struck us, the intensity of the greens. The region is known for its douceur de vie. Everyone from the earliest days of prehistory must have known they’d lucked out when they arrived here. Fertile soil, temperate climate, no predators. Fruit trees grow in abundance. In the morning I stepped outside and collected the plums and apples that had fallen to the ground overnight. The massive, stately deciduous trees in the garden were hundreds of years old, planted by someone who knew he wouldn’t live long enough to see them in their maturity but certain his descendants would. No city noise at all, no mechanical noise, no human noise, even—just crickets, an alto chorus of frogs, birdsong, and the wind in the trees. None of us could identify the birds, which made us sheepishly remember what urban imposters we were. I knew some of the wildflowers—poppies and cornflowers, coquelicots and bluets. I had no idea what the French called Queen Anne’s Lace.
The night sky was perfectly clear. All the constellations, all the stars in the constellations, were visible. I could see Vega and the rest of Lyra—I think. Amazingly, there were no mosquitos. We couldn’t figure that out, given that right behind the château was a brackish pond and a well. There was no shortage of insect life, so it wasn’t owed to the Insectageddon. Butterflies and moths, ants, wasps (as Leo found out the hard way), but a blessed absence of mosquitos. I found a lizard in my shoe, and a bat in my bedroom.
We took to calling each other Seigneur.
LIFE AS AN ARISTOCRAT
Mischa had lived in Haiti for many years with the Peacekeeper. “Any Frenchman who got that rich in the spice trade in the Caribbean was one ruthless motherfucker,” he reflected. The Domaine’s Armagnac is sold now through a spiffy modern website, but poking around, I found an old website the family had failed properly to take down. I presume they rebranded after some hair-gelled marketing consultant told them that calling themselves “Dictador Masters” wouldn’t strike the right note with a younger generation of American consumers.
The château was a three-dimensional novel. Each day, we uncovered more clues about the family we were now impersonating. The walls were covered in sketches, oil paintings, and photographs of the family—in military regalia, as blushing wedding brides, the patriarchs and the matriarchs, their issue. With each room, we came to know them better. We learned what they’d been reading for the past two hundred years. They—or perhaps we, since it was now our home—were highly literate, we concluded, admiring our taste for history and geography. The Virgin Mary played a central role in our lives. My father and I sat in the parlor one evening as he stretched out on the chaise-longue and smoked a cigar. How could this be monotheism, I asked? Just look, I said, pointing at the paintings on the wall, the saints, the icons. If that’s not supernumerary, what would be? My father made a desultory effort to explain Christian theology: it was complex and deep, he said. I could see that, but I couldn’t see how it could be monotheistic. Not a criticism, just an observation.
SEVEN CENTURIES OF INDULGENCE
I had never given any thought to Armagnac before. I had tasted it once or twice. I learned there are Armagnacs that smell of prune, apricot, orange peel; Armagnacs that taste mellow, like wood, and Armagnacs that burn like fire; fruity and floral Armagnacs; Armagnacs that are best enjoyed with a Cuban cigar; Armagnacs in which to soak a fruit salad made of apricots and plums. Christophe told us the soil of Sables Fauves was characterized by iron oxide, which made the region’s Armagnac subtle and full. Armagnac is distilled by simple stoking. The alcohol vapors go up, from tray to tray, and cross the cold wine; more aroma is retained this way. Putting your nose in the snifter is like smelling a host of alcoholic angels. The Armagnac rests in barrels made of pedunculate oak from the Bartholomo cooperage in the Landes, one of the last cooper craftsmen in the region. These barrels provide, Christophe said, “the serenity” the Armagnac needs to age. We drank that serenity all week.
Since the Great French Wine Blight, most of the grape in cognac has been Ugni Blanc. Cognac soils are predominantly calcareous. Ugni Blanc is resistant. Armagnac soil is more diverse, with quartz sands, river sediments, siliceous clay. It is friendlier to grapes. The Baco 22A, Colombard, and Folle blanche all grow in the Armagnac region. Hence its complexity. The personality of an Armagnac, it is said, resembles the men who make it—the way dogs come to resemble their masters, I suppose.
In the 14th century, Cardinal Vital du Four wrote that Armagnac had forty medicinal virtues:
… It enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility. And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit, if someone timid from time to time himself permits.
I can confirm this. For reasons unclear to me, the effects of Armagnac are more subtle than the effects of the wine from which it is made; it brings forth mellowness; it leaves no hangover.
My father brought with him a box of Romeo y Julietas. I did not nag him. I invented a cookie recipe involving beaten egg whites, ground almonds, Armagnac and the ripe red fruit that grew on a tree outside the kitchen and fell during the nights on the lawn. It seemed to be a cross between a plum and a cherry. I asked Christophe what kind of tree it was, expecting a long, learned lecture about the history of the tree and its particularity to the terroir, but he shrugged and said, “No idea. Looks like a cross between a plum and a cherry.”
We spent the whole time soaked in Armagnac, cooking, eating, walking, laughing. No arguments, no tension, no bickering. My father was in hilarious form, and tender. Lying down in the grass by the cornfield, he remarked that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that—just sprawled himself out in the grass. Splendor in the grass, glory in the flower… On our last day, over an Armagnac-soaked lunch, he told us stories we’d never known about our mother. She emerged, from his memory, as a young woman, in the year 1966.
I’ve rarely seen my father so relaxed and contented—not since we were children, certainly. He ate the mystery-fruit cookies with gusto. “To hell with dieting,” he said. “I’m on vacation.” The cookies were perfect with the Armagnac and those really well-slobbered-up Romeo y Julietas. As if the Virgin Mary had meant for them to be together.
It was a happy coincidence, in the end, that everyone else refused to come. It was lovely to have just the Berlinskis in that ridiculously massive château; it was intimate and deeply touching to see all three generations of the family walking, together, in the slanted evening light.
The Armagnac made us gentle, mellow, expansive. Armagnac, it seems (and absolutely, ridiculously good luck) is the secret to the perfect family vacation.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.