Somewhere Only We Know: Daddy’s Château

In the humblest of places we find a sense of who we are, writes Heinrich Keitel. 

When I was a child, my family would spend summer in Provence. I mean, of course, the European summer. We would leave Australia as soon as the first winter squall touched Point Piper: there was nothing to keep us, for this southern land lacks all hibernal charm—no yuletide balls and no snow worth skiing on. So we boarded the jet and took off: first to Paris, then to Marseille and then, by limo, to a little château. The Château Rivau-le-Vicomte Mansart.

Each year, as we drove through into the countryside, I would sigh with a pregnancy beyond my years. Here were fields, verdant as the hills. And here were wheat crops, humming with the movement of a Sisley or a Renoir. Later, if the summer had been hot, the farm hands might begin an early harvest. They would cut long swathes through the wheat, their scythes a rhythm of work and all that is good. I always longed to join them, just as Tolstoy’s Levin works with the peasants, reaping the fruit of the land with the sweat of his brow. In those moments, I feel sure I understood Anna Karenina.

Before long, the Royce was winding up our long gravel drive. And there it was, set against a copse of old maples. A sweeping cream façade—counter-reformation, with the undular beat of Borromini’s San Carlino on the Quirinale. Above—a pitched roof, cresting into four, tiled turrets.

In summer, the days passed like an endless golden shower.  At the breakfast table, maman and I would practise our Français. Eggs became oeufs, bacon became jamon, a piece of toast un toast. Later, we would walk in the French garden. Why of course it is French, I would exclaim to maman, we are in France! She, sage woman, would smile, as she explained the geometrical order of the jardin.

Only later did I visit English gardens. They are cruel things, with their terrible overgrowth.

We would take dinner at midday, and I would then pass the afternoon with Gaston, the vintner. Our cellar was an arsenal of refinement. Sometimes, if I had shined my shoes especially bright, he would give me a taste of the Rothschild ‘56, or the Dom Perignon ‘69. I fancied myself a country lad, flush with the pleasures of his first feast, like the splendid wedding banquet in Madam Bovary.

Often, I think back on moments like these, and pity my contemporaries. They will never understand the world that made Flaubert into Flaubert, or Dumas into Dumas. They will never know what it is to conjugate one’s verbs under the summer sun. Or to beat local boys with a stick when they come to poach one’s pheasants. I have known these things.