CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

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Sagaponack, New York, 2013 Photo by Jill Krementz

The year was 1998, and we were renting a 17th Century farmhouse with a walled compound and a pool in a little village in Southwest France about 80 miles east of Bordeaux. The village was called St. Julien de Crempse and wasn’t much more than a dirt road running through a cluster of small farms, and it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. Wheat and corn drying in the fields, row upon row of grape vines in vineyard after vineyard, white-faced cows grazing in green pastures, and everywhere evidence of the French rural way of life – tiny farmers markets in even tinier villages, roadside truck stops called “routiers” where you could buy a three course lunch with house wine for $10.00, roadside signs advertising farm made cheese and foie gras…
It was the second month we had spent at the farm in the Dordogne, the previous visit having been two years earlier when Lilly was only two. Now our daughter was four and a lot easier to handle in a place that wasn’t terribly kid friendly to begin with. We spent most days driving around the region, trying out new routiers for lunch, buying wines from local purveyors, going to new farmers markets, and we made a deal with Lilly that every time we saw a McDonalds (which wasn’t very often) we would stop so she could have a hamburger and play on the playground. French McDonalds weren’t that bad. The fries were excellent, and a dollar or so would get you a glass of local white wine to enjoy with them. Our previous trip to France had been in June, at the beginning of what turned out to be the hottest French summer in something like 100 years. But this time we were visiting in September, during the vendage, the grape harvest, and not incidentally, at the height of the mushroom season.
Yes indeed, Les Champignons were in season by the middle of the month. The locals had been waiting for those succulent little suckers all through a dry, very un-fungi-friendly summer, but now their cars crowded the roadsides every morning after nighttime thundershowers. You could see them with their trunks open, pulling on Les Over le Calf Chasseurs Rubbaire, grabbing Le Baton de Marche and charging forth into the woods. It was a wonderful sight driving down wooded lanes around the village, affirming the notion that in that part of the world, if you asked them about the ongoing scandal involving Beeel and Moneeeca back in the states, they would probably figure le Crazy Americaine was trying to pronounce the name of some local Champignon.
What they were out there in the woods looking for were Ceps, Les Penny Bun Boletus, a mushroom that looked like it might have been drawn by R. Crumb – a cartoon of a thing, fat and paunchy at the stem and popped over like Mo’s haircut on top. And I was out there looking for them, fired up with a dram or two of Provencal Rose (three bucks a bouteille – I paid through Le Schnoze for the same stuff back home). I was out there crashing through Les Boonies, swatting mosquitoes, diving into tangles of blackberry bushes that tore at my flesh like the teen razor-sharp teeth of Le Grover Norquist, searching ever searching for Boletus Edulis, the lowly, dun-colored Cep, the goddamned Friar Tuck of fungi…
I was in search of Ceps because of my decades-long love of cooking, of course. But if truth be told, I had a long and checkered past when it came to Les Champignons. It went back to the week after the 1972 Republican Convention. I had been down in Miami covering that buttoned-down bacchanalia for the late lamented Saturday Review, and I had a few days free before I had to be back in New York, so it was that I found myself in a cow pasture in search of the Psilocybe Semilanceata, also identified in learned fungi journals as the “Liberty Cap,” most appropriately, I might add. It’s a conical mushroom with a pale, yellowish cap and purplish blue spore, found in open grassland, which the cow pasture certainly was. A friend of a friend knew the location of said cow pasture, so we jumped into his Datsun and hied our asses over there one evening about dusk. Luckily, cows were nowhere in evidence, so the tall grasses where Les Psilocybe like to hide were abundant, as were Les Psilocybe themselves. We quickly packed a grocery bag full of the multi-hued little fungi and Datsuned back to the friend of a friend’s kitchen, where we put two large handfuls in a blender, added some Welch’s grape juice and whipped up a hideous fungi shake.
By that time, it was getting dark and a few neighbors had gathered, so we poured each of us a six-ounce jelly jar full and slapped it back and sat down to wait. It took me only a few moments to hurl up the first dose, so down went another jelly jar full. This time it stayed down. My host, a very wise hippie who dove the reefs off Miami Beach for tropical fish he sold to pet stores, suggested we take in a movie while we were waiting for Les Psilocybe to kick in. We loaded into the Datsun and headed for a theater. About half way there, it became clear that time was of the essence, because Les Psilocybe were definitely spreading their magic across the old blood-brain barrier. By the time we made it to our seats, Les Psilocybe were in full song. The lights went down. The film came on.
It is difficult, sitting here so many years later, to describe for you how profound “Planet of the Apes” appeared that night. Charlton Heston c’est moi! The monkeys were the Republican attendees of the convention I had just covered! Nobody understood poor Charlton, just like nobody understood poor moi, and he was trying to escape from the oppressive monkey government, and they were persecuting the shit out of him, just like the oppressive government had persecuted the shit out of moi…
As we walked out of the theater into the fetid August Miami night, we had a dim understanding that we were under the influence of Les Psilocybe, but we couldn’t let go of the notion that somewhere out there in Hollywood, there was a stoned head sitting up there in a canyon somewhere who fucking got it, who understood us. We were looking around at the other moviegoers…straight couples on hand-holding dates….moms and pops taking the kids out for a treat…and their faces were blank, uncomprehending. Had they seen the same movie we saw? Not a chance. I remember in the parking lot watching one man fishing in his pocket for his keys, turning up some gum and a pocket knife and some change, cursing a digging back in there again. Finally his wife reached into his jacket pocket and handed him the car keys and he unlocked the car and they got in and drove away, arguing about something. And I was standing there watching them go, wondering what the fuck planet were they on?
It’s a question I’ve found myself asking almost every day of my life since then, and it was a question which jumped right into my head as I sat by the fireplace in the 17th Century farm house next to a gigantic fireplace with four-foot oak logs blazing away as I read the International Herald Tribune and stared at a front page photograph of Tom Delay. His pinched little face was wearing the smug little smile that all politicians wear when they think they are ascendant – think Chris Christie before Bridgegate. I sat there by the crackling fire reading the story, and it was packed with phrases like “constitutional responsibility” and “bi-partisan inquiry” and “lying to the American public,” and I was thinking, what fucking planet are they on?
And then it came to me: the whole thing about Le Beeel Cleeenton and La Moneeeca Lewinsky wasn’t about “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It was about mushrooms. There were those who partook of Les Psilocybe, and those who didn’t, and whether you did or didn’t pretty much described which side you were on back then, and which side you’ve been on ever since. We shouldn’t be surprised that the so-called “culture war” set off by the 60’s has never ended. At this moment, right at this very instant, there are hordes of pinch-faced little men in Washington who sat out the 60’s and never quite got over it. They are Les Hommes du Variety especial: non-fuckey-pas dans le college, non-smokey-pas le marijuana, non-consummez-pas Les Psilocybe – a horde of cretinous little shits with jealousy hanging from their jaws in great gelatinous folds of floppy flesh. With Le Beeel and La Moneeeca, they finally thought they had come upon a wooden stake they could drive through the heart of the vampirous 60’s, consigning that decade and its moral degeneracy to the fiery reaches of political hell.
There was only one problem with guys like Lindsey Graham and Bob Barr back then, and it’s still their problem now: every time you turn on the tube and look at one of them, what you see is a facial sauté of jealousy and glee. It’s uncommon and disturbing. It’s like some weird bile boils inside them that produces Le Glee. You remember when Nixon used to go on the tube and say grave shit and grin his way through it inappropriately? Same shit. I’ve seen Le Glee on Republican face after face after face. Gingrich, when he was running for President last year, appeared on many, many debate stages looking like Penrod, like he just threw a rock and broke Mrs. Delaney’s window and got away with it. The only one whose face is devoid of Le Glee is Mitch McConnell, and I think I know why: hemorrhoids.
Cable news killed those guys back then and it’s killing them now. First they thought they had Le Beeel in their sights, and now they think they’ve got La Hillary fixed and they’re ready to fire. But take a stab at saying Benghazi while you’re trying to suppress Le Glee. I mean, it’s like they bottled Le Jus de Raisin Psilocybe put a St. Emilion label on it and I’ve been drinking a glass every night since ’72, those gleeful faces swimming before my eyes in puffs of purple clouds…and in so many cases, it’s the same damn faces…
But forget those goofs! Huge, monciferous Ceps were out there in the woods, waiting to be picked! I fried hem up in a little sweet butter with shallots and some chopped garlic, and it was like, way beyond Le Psilocybe! Your mouth exploded with the aroma of rotting wood and damp leaves and moss, and you hungered for more and more and more. The house smelled like it must have smelled 300 years ago…damp with clotted rotten wafts of pigeon shit and fresh-killed hare…
When we ran out of Ceps, we settled for Les Agaricus Arvensis, a fat little fungi with a marvelous, rotund white cap and brown gills. Early in the morning, right after they’ve come up, they had a skirt hanging beneath their gills, dancing in the breeze, calling to you like a fungus hooker in the forest. And when we ran out of both Ceps and Les Arvensis, it was time for Les Agaricus Campestris, described in the books as the “field mushroom” Les Campestris sprouted overnight in the dew and poked above the grasses in nearby pastures. I dropped my hands like front-loaders and scooped them up in massive quantities.
It occurred to me during the time I spent in St. Julien de Crempse, and it seems to me the same today, that there is something basic and wonderful about boiling down the essence of life to the Vendage – the harvest of the grapes – and Le Saison des Champignons. The pace of life in the village was catching. The farmers in the village got up before dawn and rarely got home before dark, but there was still time for a two-hour lunch and a one-hour nap. The rest of the Dordogne was on an even gentler time clock. There are effectively two Sundays a week, since most of the Dordogne is closed up on Monday. You had to do your shopping on Saturday, because you were looking at two days with no butcher, no baker, no hardware store. You could still get gas and maybe one or two boulangeries, 20 miles apart, would open from nine until noon to sell a few baguettes, and then bang! Slam the doors shut.
The rest of the week, stores opened at nine, closed at noon, reopened at three, closed around seven. Le Lunch, by the way, was actually a three or four course meal, plus at least a half-liter of wine and maybe a little Firewater du Poire. Doctors in the good old USA over the last decade or so have contributed juicy quotes to wishful-thinking articles in The New York Times abou9t the dies down in the south of France… lots of red wine, lots of goose fat (we went through four big jars in four weeks), lots of foie gras, lots of pork, lots of fatty duck and very little heart disease.
Duh. USA docs wouldn’t have to treat much heart disease if everybody here opened at nine, closed at noon, reopened reluctantly at three, shut the shutters at seven, and spent every hour apres le noon half-drunk and half-asleep. It was a miracle that the locals found the time between drinking, eating, napping and fucking to marche after Les Ceps…but of course they did, because Le Saison des Champignons was matched in important by only soccer and Clint Eastwood movies.
One afternoon I was walking along Rue de Resistance in Bergerac (wishful thinking…Vichy collaboration with Les Nazis was endemic during WWII) when I passed two tight-lipped little gentlemen in wrinkled charcoal suits and skinny ties. I was wondering what a couple of Republican political operatives were doing there when I saw a little nametag perched on one of their skinny chests: “Elder Smith.” Mormons on a mission to convert Les Heathen du Bergerac. One of the Mormon operatives spied me and smiled. Pardon, he began hungrily, but I quickly brushed past him. As I walked away, I briefly considered going back and asking them what they thought they were doing trying to convert a people who had been through about four or five religions over the past 1800 years, finally settling on a rather non-observant Catholicism. What did they have to offer folks who eat, drink, fuck and nap all day and live to be 90, not to mention drinking cup after cup of marvelous thick black coffee and downing a bottle of Pecharmant every day at lunch and another bottle at dinner and a couple of Pernods and a pack of Galoises with their pals down at the local Tabac? Were they going to tell them to knock that shit off? What would have been next for the little Utah operatives? Tell them to stop riding their bikes, stop watching soccer, stop following Formula 1 racing? How about laying off that triple cream cheese and a stick of butter a day? I should have marched my ass back up the Rue de Resistance Which Didn’t Really Happen and told those two assholes to take their act back to Orrin Hatchville and leave those frogs alone. But no. I had been there long enough that I had actually started acting with the impeccable manners of the French. You got Madamed and Monsieured and Mercied and Bon Journeyed and Au Revoired to death, and it was catching. Drink enough wine, eat enough mushrooms, sauté enough goose fat and glom enough foie gras and you even started thinking French.
The manners of the French then and now dictate their opinions about Le Ongoing Fiasco dans Washington. Back then, what you heard in the Dordogne was that Les Politicians Americaine should leavez-fucking-alonezvous Le Beeel Cleeenton, and these days Le President Obama’s poll numbers are higher there than they are here. It’s what happens when manners extend beyond the personal to the political, and we could learn from their example. People who have a lot to hide tend to have good manners because good manners help to keep things hidden.
And the French are a people with a hell of a lot to hide. Let’s not even discuss the legendary French toleration of adultery, and let’s leave aside for a moment Le Collaboration avec Les Nazis during WWII. The shit that went down for real in the Dordogne and across France as a whole was when they had to pick sides between the Franks, the Visigoths, the Vandals and the Huns, not to mention your occasional Moor. To this day, you can tell which side people were on in the names of the villages, many of which date back more than 1,000 years. Politics was played for centuries at the end of spears and sabers. Sometime after King Louis IX ceded the Dordogne to the English conquerors, Prince Philip the Fair retook it and ceded control to a feudal lord by the name of Brantome, who enjoys a village named after him to this late date. Brantome had a brother he didn’t get along with, who had a social climbing wife called Jacquette de Montbron. Jacquette flew into a tantrum and called to a halt the rebuilding of a medieval fortress that was her home when the word came down from Paris that Catherine de Medici was going to cancel a visit. Even to this day, her fortress stand unfinished, a monument to French royal pique.
Naturally, upon her death, one of her sons started a war with Catherine de Medici which went on for years and spent the lives of thousands of peasants. At the end of the war, those who had taken the side of de Montbron had to make peace with those who took the side of de Medici. That kind of side-taking and peace-making went on for centuries in France. One civilization marched in an subjugated another civilization and another civilization followed that one and subjugated Les Previous Subjugators. Through it all, the peasants – the ancestors of the people who lived in the village of St. Julien de Crempse – made their accommodations with one conqueror after another. Call it capitulation, call it collaboration, what it was was survival. Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why it took until WWII and the advent of late 20th Century mass communication for the question of “which side were you on” to travel beyond the confines of the villages around the Dordogne.
And so when the infamous war criminal and Nazi collaborator was on trial in 1998 over in Bordeaux, the trial wasn’t really about what he had done. Neither his war crimes or collaboration were in dispute. The most important “evidence” put on by both the prosecution and the defense came not from survivors of the death camps but from historians. Collaboration with conquering hordes has a longer history in France than money, and if you can get a handle on that idea, you can understand something of why in the fall of 1998 Beeel Cleeenton was not a villain or a hero in France, but someone just like them: a person with something to hide.
I was thinking about the trials of Papon and Cleeenton in the woods one day as I followed an old logging trail deeper and deeper into the woods, poking at the leaves and moss with my Baton de Marche, searching for the elusive Cep when I came upon the skeleton of an old WWII era truck, turned on its side and covered with brush and brambles. It was nothing short of eerie. The village of St. Julien de Crempse suffered a brutal massacre on the 9th of August, 1944, when the local Nazi commander ordered that all men and boys over the age of 13 be rounded up and shot, in retaliation for the sabotage of a Nazi train that had been headed north laden with men and materiel to reinforce Nazi units fighting the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Twenty-eight were killed that day, shot at the edge of a ditch immediately in front of the house we rented that September, just down the hill at the edge of the pasture where I went hunting for Les Campestris. I couldn’t find any markings on the truck skeleton, they had long since rusted away, so I couldn’t tell if it was German or French. But standing there beside it was like stepping back in history. You could imagine the truck loaded with German soldiers making its way down the logging trail, looking for the hiding place of the men who sabotaged the train or escapees from the murderous slaughter in the village. Or you could imagine the truck filled with the French partisans who carried out the sabotage on the train. And in either case, you could see an ambush and a firefight, you could see somebody torch the truck, you could see the survivors making their way through the dense woods that hide men and their motives and morals as easily as they hide the elusive Cep.
I was standing there in the woods thinking about a building we had seen up in Brantome. Somebody in centuries past had taken a Roman ruin that was more than 1500 years old and used it as the north wall of his house, and right there on the outside of the wall, you could see the outlines of that ancient Roman civilization – stone steps leading up to a vaulted Chambre du Sleep, and below it, the remains of a beehive shaped baking oven. And I thought, I’m standing here thinking that the events of 1944, some 50-plus years in the past seem like a long time ago, but how about 15 fucking centuries, huh?
Is the United States of America young as a nation, or what? Think about it for a moment. The World Wars we fought in the 20th Century to save the world from the scourge of German armies were pimples on the ass of history. The old wars in the Dordogne between feudal monarchies went on for decades, and were followed quickly by more decades-long wars. It’s no wonder that the trial of Maurice Papon was greeted in France by a cross between a yawn and a frown. They had seen it all before, only worse. The only thing that really upsets the French is the invasion of their privacy – something Obama could learn from them, big-time – and when you think about it, that’s the way it should be. You can’t get around the idea that’s why the French forgave Beeel Cleeenton so easily, and why they bristle at revelations of NSA spying. There in the cradle of one civilization and the dumping ground of about five others, they figured out at least this much: While Le President ought to lay off the NSA data vacuum, but even so, he’s at least entitled to a long lunch, a short nap and a quick fuck.

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