Having a midlife crisis in a quaint country village was supposed to be a beautiful thing. Then came reality. Charlotte Bauer gets flushed.
With a crash that could be heard in the next village, four tonnes of logs are tipped on to my driveway. Before I can say “Wait, monsieur!” Thierry, the log man, is driving away up the farm track in a small tornado of gravel and wood chips.
As the sonic boom dies away I stare at the pile, the summit of which I can just about see over to the winter wheat fields beyond, if I stand on tiptoe. These are not the logs you see in home decor magazines, blond and cut clean, looking so chic and Scandinavian stacked up against a statement wall next to the fireplace. These logs — blackened, barky stumps — resemble a nasty pyre of the type used round here in medieval times to burn heretics.
Stunned, I stand there, wondering how I’m going to get four tonnes of raw, chopped forest off the driveway and into the woodshed. Thanks to a short, steep slope between Thierry’s dumping point and my storage point, a wheelbarrow will be useless. Also, I’m in the weird, dreamy grip of another epiphany. These paralysing moments tend to overcome me when I am startled — by a snake at the kitchen door, an embarrassing language breakdown in the pharmacy — into thinking about how completely my life has changed, and how alone I am here, in this deep rural corner of southwest France I now call home.
Jany, the handyman who is on site that day to tile a floor in the guesthouse, materialises at my side like Banquo’s ghost, covered in a layer of plaster.
He shakes his floury curls and laughs, not unkindly. “Eh, that’s your job for the week! ” Hitching up his shoulders in the kind of shrug that is not only very French but is also intended to help me, the “Anglo”, grasp his meaning (which is basically c’est la vie), he returns to his work in a soft puff of grouting.
It’s not that Jany is unsympathetic. But as I’m paying him the equivalent of a Unesco consultant’s fee to carry out finishes to our holiday rental house, it wouldn’t pay me to pay him to drop his trowel and pick up logs.
In any case, Jany is an artisan, not an unskilled labourer, even though he labours long and hard at making lovely, practical things, all the while whistling and talking to himself. In South Africa there is always some poor desperado to do your dirty work for money. In France, for all the gnashing about dodgy politicians and falling standards, people are paid a living wage, strictly enforced by law. It is one of the reasons I was attracted to living in France in the first place, even though this relative equality makes hiring anyone to do anything an expensive undertaking.
But now here I am, a spoilt South African ex-madam who, at this moment, would give anything to pay someone else to do her dirty work. But the truth is I’m the only person around here whose labour costs nothing and I can’t do tiling.
Stifling a sob of self-pity, I return to the semi-finished barn that I live in and change into the cherry-print Wellington boots and zip-up housecoat I bought at the local supermarket when I first arrived. Back then, my cleaners’ overalls and cute faux-farmer wellies had seemed an amusing conceit, a droll comment on my new life as a working landlady in rustic France. How I laughed.
After making Jany and myself a pot of thick black espresso and smoking a consoling cigarette that I clumsily roll myself (being unable to afford the real thing and unwilling to quit), I clamber back up to the log pile.
For two days I fill shopping bags with logs and my housecoat pockets with kindling. This exercise ruins what’s left of my Johannesburg salon manicure (a “French” they call it, haha) and rips my tights as I slither up and down the hill gathering and hurling logs into the shed. It is sweaty work, despite the crisp February weather.
On the third day I wake up stiff and starving. Having survived since the Log Crisis on coffee, cigarettes, heels of bread, chocolate bars and anything else I can forage that doesn’t involve cooking, I look and feel like someone who’s been dragged backwards through, um, a pile of logs. The log hill could still make a Scottish caber thrower weep — two tonnes, three tonnes? — but I don’t care.
I get dressed in one of the past-life city outfits I’ve barely had a chance to wear since leaving Johannesburg, and a pair of pretty heels. With a spritz of Stella McCartney and a smooch of Mac’s Russian Red, I totter across gravel and mud to the car, feeling rebellious. I’m going to town.
I return several hours later, my second-hand Peugeot full of real food, fresh wine supplies and a bunch of early spring tulips. As I bump down the farm track and turn the corner, I see an astonishing sight.
My neighbours, Bernard and Françoise, have made as much of a human chain as two people can make, and are tossing logs to each other. The pile in the driveway has dwindled dramatically.
“Ah, Charlotte !” cries Françoise, as I leap from the car, feebly protesting at the sight of my sixty-something neighbours doing my dirty work. “Why didn’t you call us to come and help you?” Bernard and Françoise, blissfully together in their second marriages, met when they were nurses — she a midwife, he an expert in palliative care. They are small, strong and have the stamina of decathlon athletes. They are going at my log pile like a couple of Energizer bunnies. Later, they will go home and tackle their own pile.
My eyes sting with unspilled tears.
“I’m going inside to change,” I say. “I’ll come and help you finish off.”
“No,” they say. “You make coffee.”
Later, when they have left, I check out the woodshed. Four tonnes of logs are perfectly stacked to the roof. They look chic and Scandinavian. I consider calling Elle Décor.
I am not alone. Still, I am more alone than I have ever been.
And sometimes I ask myself why I couldn’t have taken my midlife crisis like a man and just got a Porsche instead of moving to another country where I can’t speak the language.
But midlife, as I’m not the first to note, is a bit like adolescence: it’s time for a change, an ID check. Certainties are overturned. You are restless. Moody. You experiment with smoky eye makeup and read Nietzsche out loud. You drive your family nuts and have to be sent to your room.
Girlfriends of a similar age roll their eyes in recognition of the signs. The M-word comes up a lot. But what is it exactly and how will I know if I’ve got it? Can I catch it? Or should I sit back and wait until it catches me? How will I know when it’s time to take my hormones to therapy?
Charlotte Bauer is a prize-winning columnist, feature writer and senior editor who, in a career spanning more years than a speech by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has worked at the Mail & Guardian (founder member), Sunday Times and City Press. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. In 2010 she turned 50, quit her job, her family and Facebook and moved to rural France to have a midlife crisis in peace. When she’s not doing the household chores she used to pay someone else to do, she spends her time watching TV and trying to fit into small French clothes. Her blog about her experiences appears weekly on News24.com.