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Rheta Grimsley Johnson, April 2020
My entire life, France has given me something to look forward to, romanticize, rhapsodize about.
I have taken a boat trip down the Canal du Midi, swapped humble houses in the U.S. for month-long stays in mansions in the Dordogne and Normandy. I’ve been in Paris for the run up to Christmas and Bordeaux for a wedding in a champagne warehouse.
But I never had been for a long stay in the wintertime, and I never had been to the Charente. A good friend who is a cartoonist had worked for six months in Angouleme and suggested it was high time I visit that part of my favorite country.
My husband, Hines, and I arrived at Champ Giraud’s Sunrise Cottage late on the afternoon of Feb. 1. The hosts, Liz and Dave Johnson, had a cozy fire burning in the wood stove, wine and water in the larder, beautifully-detailed directions for everything in the nearby storybook village of Verteuil-sur-Charente.
We were exhausted from 24 hours of travel, but at the Johnsons’ suggestion drove the two kilometers back to the village and a restaurant called Café Portebleu. Oh, my. It compared favorably to good Paris restaurants I’ve been privileged to try, and to my favorite ferme auberges in the countryside.
The first month was a blur of day trips – the distilleries of Cognac, the porcelain museum of Limoges, the poignant World War II site at Oradour. We set out each day excited and never returned disappointed. All of this was within a short drive from Sunrise Cottage. If we weren’t too tired, at night we could visit the village pub, which had excellent live music on Sunday.
A more ambitious trip was to LaRochelle and the Il-de-Re, a couple of hours on beautiful backroads that made the journey almost as good as the destination.
The gite was perfectly maintained, with Liz and Dave providing guidance without interfering, and privacy at a premium. They answered all of our questions but never questioned our priorities or pleasures.
Then, early March, the coronavirus hit France hard. A lockdown ensued. We thought about flying home, but the Sunset Cottage at Champ Giraud was about as safely sequestered as anything you’d ever find. We took a look on television at the crowded airport and decided to stay put. And, after all, we originally had planned to stay through April.
I’ve said it so often that my husband tires of hearing it. But if you can love a country during a pandemic, you love a country.
The Johnsons knocked themselves out to keep us entertained – at a social distance – and to keep us in the loop for regulations that changed on a weekly basis. We walked the wonderful footpaths when weather permitted, and we enjoyed the wood stove as we’ve never enjoyed anything before.
Small things became important and pleasurable. On sunny days we sat on one of the two terraces that came with our cottage and sipped on excellent local wines. Watching the hawk patrol the fields that surrounded us, monitoring the maturity of the rape -- those were sweetly satisfying, if simple activities. Even hanging out the clothes seemed a treat, not a duty.
Our hurry to see everything disappeared. In some ways, if we hadn’t known people were dying, both in France and in the U.S., we would have been completely happy. And it might well have been my favorite visit ever.
I think it takes some doing to host guests during a worldwide pandemic and make them comfortable, entertained – even happy.
I can’t come back to France for six months – that’s the way the passport works – but if and when I do, Champ Giraud will be a destination.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Author, journalist, Francophile