I was a French major in college and lived in France for two years when I was in my twenties. Now that I’m talking with Le Mazel’s guests and neighbors and dealing with bureaucrats at the post office, I’m seeing the re-emergence of the French-speaking side of my personality—the one I had forgotten when I was in New York in my thirties, swallowed up in the pursuit of a career as a journalist and the search for a suitable husband.
French people really do know how to enjoy life, it’s true. I’m certainly enjoying life more now. Every morning is fine when you don’t have to go to a job but can just spend a couple of hours eating breakfast and reading on a sunny terrace visited by fat bumblebees and butterflies. We also have a nighttime terrace where we eat snails and look at stars.
My spiritual guide during this time is Ninon de Lenclos, a 17th-century Parisian courtesan who was known for running a school of love and giving great dinner parties. Her salons at the Hotel Sagonne on the rue des Tournelles gave rise to the myth of Ninon as an enchantress, and she chose her salon guests with as much care as she chose her lovers. Some were both, of course, including Louis II de Bourbon, the Marquis de Sévigné and his son, and the Comte Gaspard de Coligny. The Comte’s wife also was a salon guest as were playwrights Jean Racine and Molière, poet Bernard de Fontenelle, painter Nicolas Mignard (who used Ninon as one of his models), writer Jean de la Fontaine and cleric François le Métel de Boisrobert. Yes, a cleric. Ninon didn’t discriminate against theologians—arguing with them amused her.
I gain strength from Ninon, a classic bad girl who never married and lived to a ripe old age pleasing herself with no apologies. She was a devoted friend, but her lovers came and went. People said she had three classes of admirers: payers, martyrs and favorites. She's still revered in France for being a brainy sexpot from the time of the Bourbon kings who wrote witty little maxims such as: “A sensible woman will consult her reason before she takes a husband, but her heart when she takes a lover.”
As for me, my summer at Le Mazel is starting to feel like my summer of love—a sometimes disastrous summer of love, but my summer of love just the same. I’ve passed the six-month mark of running away from my husband, and my hormones are starting to kick into overdrive. I need a boyfriend, and now I’m asking myself, “What would Ninon do?”
On one special weekend in late June, Denise, a techno deejay and Kent's office manager, visits us from London. During all the fun, wine and music, I start to notice Erik more and more, the only boy out there on the terrace, so his maleness is imprinted on me and I fall in love with him. Oops.
Of an evening, Erik would rather sweep the kitchen floor, dry the dishes I’ve washed, and chat amiably about intentional communities and how he and the young wife he hasn’t met yet are going to raise their someday children amidst organic goats and chickens in the European countryside. This pleasant conversing is nice, and helps me remember how nice men can be, unlike my mad drunk of a soon-to-be ex-husband. But it’s not enough.
I try to be like Ninon and just think of Erik as one of the many available, sexy men in my life. Lalala. Bella’s French boyfriend, Jean-Michel, advises me to sneak into the young Texan’s bedroom one night and jump his bones, confident courtesan-style, but I just can’t do it.
I can’t do it, Ninon or no Ninon. But that summer I also meet Nigel, one of Kent’s friends from the London music scene, and we go out together—once. It’s lovely because it’s the first time I’ve had been kissed since I ran away from Jack, but it’s also a mistake because now Nigel’s maleness has imprinted itself on me, and I can’t get him out of my head, even though he’s gone back to London. What would Ninon do? What would Ninon do?
“Bella,” I say. “I’m thinking about going down to the pay phone in Banne and calling Nigel in London.”
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea, Joyce? I mean, technically speaking, Nigel was a one-time fling.”
“Huh? One-time fling? We had a real connection. Anyway, I wasn’t just snogging Nigel. I was romancing myself, like Kent says I should do. It’s got nothing to do with Nigel. I’m just like Ninon de Lenclos. I’m empowered. I choose my own lovers.”
“Ninon de Lenclos was a prostitute, Joyce.”
“She was a courtesan! There’s a big difference.”
“You’re really under the influence, aren’t you?”
Sigh. Silence. Some summer of love this is turning out to be. Maybe it’s time for me to forget about these boys and start looking for a new bad girl.