The day began like most mornings in Fontainebleau. Leo was licking my knuckles.
I was at the wheel of my battered silver Peugeot driving down the boulevard lined with plane trees at the edge of town, the municipal hospital on one side and local cemetery on the other. In small French towns the two are often morbidly convenient neighbours. I reached back and dangled my free right hand on the back seat, gently squeezing Leo’s little white paw. He returned my affection by licking my dry knuckles with his soft pink tongue. Oscar was directly behind me on his hind legs, peering out the window as we turned up the narrow road leading into the woods.
I was glad to be back in Fontainebleau for the weekend. After the move into Paris, I’d decided to keep my apartment here for these weekly escapes.
Fontainebleau’s unique feature is its isolation. There is no industry or large-scale commerce here. The town is engulfed on all sides by a vast and deep forest that for centuries was the private hunting grounds of French kings. Fontainebleau is just as famous for the forest that surrounds the town as it is for the royal château at its centre. Historically the château, once the principal residence of French monarchs, conferred an exalted status on the town. But the château has seen better days. Its fortunes changed in the 17th century when Louis XIV, traumatised by aristocratic rebellions and the unruly Parisian mob, fled Paris and installed his obsequious court in Versailles. The Sun King and his Bourbon successors continued to spend the autumn hunting season in Fontainebleau, but the medieval château couldn’t compete with the architectural extravagance of Versailles. Following the French Revolution the château de Fontainebleau fell into disrepair. Today it’s more associated with Napoleon than with the French monarchy. Yet not even Napoleon’s star appeal is enough to compete with Versailles and the monuments of Paris. Fontainebleau is largely ignored by tourists, except for the occasional coach load of visitors from China or Eastern Europe.
I parked at a clearing known as “Huit Routes” marking an intersection of eight footpaths heading in different directions into the woods. At the centre of this star formation stands a respectable-looking residence surrounded by high hedges. Oddly out of place in the middle of a forest, it could be mistaken for an abandoned post office. I was told it was occupied by a garde forestier, a French bureaucrat, whose duties chiefly entail maintaining vigilance for forest fires and, less urgently, clearing away fallen trees. A modern-day Keeper of the King’s Forests, the holder of this ancient office and his family occupied the house at the expense of French taxpayers. I’d never seen him. The only hint of his existence was a sternly worded sign near the house warning off rough-sleeping outsiders from camping nearby.
Oscar and Leo bounded out of my car and scampered down their favourite trail, called Notre Dame de Bon Secours. It was a warm June morning, the moist and fragrant forest bed was hissing with life. The harmonious symphony of the chirping birds was disrupted only by the cacophony of a sole woodpecker high in the trees tapping diligently, toc-toc-toc, on the bark of an ancient oak. Oscar and Leo poked their heads in the underbrush, sniffing about and lifting their legs, then bounced merrily down the sandy footpath. I kept a watchful eye on Leo, who has no instinct for danger. If I turned my back just ten seconds, he could vanish under the dense fern. I’d have to call a manhunt to find him. I might even be obliged to enlist the good offices of the mysterious garde forestier.
Soon we came across a familiar figure, Monsieur Bouton, a nattily dressed old chap who walked his dog Rouky in these woods every morning. Oscar and Leo dashed up to Rouky, a large ginger-coloured mongrel, and danced playfully around him before returning to their usual business of sniffing and poking about. Bouton and I had become regular dog-walking companions. In the Fontainebleau forest dog walkers socialise according to mutual codes, rituals and bonds established by their canines. I almost regarded Bouton as a friend, though I’d seen much less of him since my move into Paris.
Bouton, whose name means “button”, was a man of few words. Always dapper in brown tweed blazers and a fedora on his bald pate, he ambled unsteadily down these footpaths on an elegantly crafted cane in one hand and a pipe in the other. It’s often observed that there are no bone fide eccentrics in France, a view with which I largely agree. The French, unlike the British, don’t go in for outlandish difference. There are always exceptions of course. Bouton was one. He was an enigma. I knew he wasn’t a local because he’d once mentioned that he was from Burgundy, which he called “mon pays” – his country. So much for France’s unified national identity; even the Burgundians were nostalgic about their local roots. I gathered Bouton was retired, quite comfortably it seemed, and I knew he was a widower. He once referred to his late wife as “la pauvre”, a term of pity that puzzled me.
Perhaps it was the fact that I too was a widower that bonded us. One morning some time ago he ventured out of his customary silence with a personal query: “So you are married?”
He had probably been wondering this for some time.
“I was married,” I said. “My wife died.”
Startled, Bouton’s pointy face turned towards me and he scrutinised me with a troubled expression. I sensed what he was thinking. Surely I was too young to be a widower.
“She died of cancer,” I added.
Nothing more was said. Bouton sucked on his pipe and retreated into his thoughts. From that moment on, he treated me as one of his trusted dog-walking companions.
Bouton performed the familiar ritual of slowly extending his arm and offering a downturned hand to grip mine in a vague hand-shaking motion. In France you must shake hands with people you see every day, and you must do it every time you see them. A downturned grasp will do. Otherwise it’s a sign you consider the other person a complete stranger. Following the usual platitudes about the weather and murmured commentary on our dogs’ moods, I asked Bouton about the mysterious occupant of the Huit Routes forest outpost.
“I’ve never actually seen him – have you?” I said.
“Peinard,” he replied, sucking on his pipe and looking straight ahead. I understood his meaning. Peinard means cushy job, made in the shade, great work if you can get it. The garde forestier occupied a soft sinecure like so many other bureaucrats in France. Civil servants in France are envied but detested. Especially by chaps like Bouton, who raised himself up from his modest beginnings in the Yonne region to become the owner of a chain of bricolage shops selling hardware. Or so I surmised from his occasional vague remarks.
“Funny how nobody ever sees him,” I said. “He can’t be very busy.”
There was another pause.
“We once thought he was poisoning the dogs,” he said, finally.
This got my attention. “Poisoning the dogs?”
Bouton considered my question, sucking on his pipe. Then he pointed off into the distance with his cane, as if indicating the scene of a grisly crime.
“Several dogs were falling sick, fits of vomiting, one dog died. Horrible. But no proof. Now he doesn’t show his face much.”
This macabre piece of information troubled and intrigued me. It seemed like a gruesome detail from a fictional thriller set in la France profonde. Why not, provincial France was an excellent backdrop for sordid plots. The novelist Patricia Highsmith had set her Ripley thrillers right here in Fontainebleau. In a few of her books – Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game come to mind – Highsmith’s amoral protagonist Tom Ripley plots and schemes his gruesome crimes at his country house, Belle Ombre, in the quaint French village of Villeperce-sur-Seine a few miles from Fontainebleau. I had read every one of those books and, after I moved to Fontainebleau, made a game of locating the local spots that Highsmith describes – including the post office in the town centre.
“Was anyone else suspected?” I said.
Bouton turned and looked at me, incredulous.
“The police didn’t give a damn,” he replied. “They were just dogs. And they weren’t going to arrest the garde forestier.”
We meandered down a soft sandy footpath lined with massive sandstone boulders as Oscar and Leo ran ahead following Rouky. I spotted a large blue dung beetle on its back, its little limbs frantically kicking upwards. I can’t explain it, it’s irrational, perhaps even obsessive compulsive, but I’ve made it a moral duty to rescue every poor scarab I see on these trails. Some days I see several dozen stranded on their backs, doomed to perish in the heat. I scour the footpaths to make sure none is left to die, knowing I can’t possibly spot them all. I reached down, gently picked up the beetle, set it down right side up, watching with contentment as it ambled away in search of its next feast. Dung beetles in these woods never suffer a shortage of food. The foxes, deer and wild boar that roam at night keep them well nourished.
Bouton watched me, intrigued, as I rescued the condemned insect. I waited for a remark, but none came.
“Every living creature,” I said, feeling oddly obliged to explain my actions. “Just sending him on his way.”
We were soon deep in the woods on a trail called “Nid de l’Aigle” – or Eagle’s Nest – breaking onto an open clearing illuminated by bright shafts of sunlight bursting through the dark wall of ancient trees. The ambience struck the senses like a blinding epiphany. No wonder France’s most prominent artists came here more than a century ago in search of inspiration. I once saw a 19th century painting titled “Forêt de Fontainebleau: Nid de l’Aigle”, executed from the very spot where Bouton and I were standing. An upstart clique of French artists known as Impressionists had also discovered the Fontainebleau forest. Among those who came here: Renoir, Monet, Sisley and Bazille. The “Barbizon School” led by Millet, Corot and Rousseau took its name from the town just down the road. My favourite tableau from that era is Renoir’s “Jules Le Coeur Walking in the Fontainebleau Forest with his Dogs”. It shows Renoir’s friend Jules Le Coeur in an autumnal scene walking with his two dogs down a grass-covered footpath that looks exactly like one of the Huit Routes trails that I take with Oscar and Leo in the morning. The Renoir tableau is so famous it evidently can be found on coffee mugs.
“Have you ever seen any of the Impressionist paintings of this forest – Renoir and Monet?”
I provided Bouton with two instantly recognisable names to give him something to go on.
A long pause. Bouton was obviously not a huge fan of French Impressionism.
He was more loquacious on the subject of hunting. When we came upon some earth dug up by wild boar under cover of dark, I expressed sympathy for the poor sangliers slaughtered in these woods every hunting season. Bouton stopped, pulled his pipe from his mouth, and glanced at me sideways as if disbelieving the seriousness of my statement.
“J’adore la chasse!” he declared.
I hadn’t known that Bouton was an avid hunter, but I wasn’t surprised. As soon as you get outside of Paris, everyone in France is a hunter. It must be an old Gallic instinct from the tribal days of the Celtic warlord Vercingetorix. And the Fontainebleau forest was, after all, the private hunting grounds of French kings. Louis XIV went out hunting almost every day throughout his reign, even towards the end of his life despite his gout and gangrened leg. I doubted Bouton, at his advanced age, had been out hunting for some time. Rouky looked to be part retriever, possibly skilled at fetching ducks. They doubtless had retired together.
“It’s no different from you English with your fox hunt,” protested Bouton. “At least we eat the sanglier. Not much of a meal in a fox!”
I was almost pleased to get an argument from Bouton. He repeated a familiar pretext used by many hunters in France: the sanglier overpopulation was a nuisance, the beasts were running into the towns, breaking shop windows, falling into residential swimming pools. The only way to control their numbers was through the hunt.
I decided to leave aside the matter of English country gentleman galloping after the fox. Instead I treated Bouton to a brief lesson in French history. My favourite French monarch, Philippe IV, met his untimely death right here in the Fontainebleau forest during a royal hunt in the early 14th century. Philippe le Bel, as he was called due to his strong-jawed good looks, was a sort of medieval JFK. He’s known in French history books as the monarch who expelled the Jews from France, ordered the murder Pope Boniface VIII, moved the Papacy to Avignon, and had the leaders of the Knights Templar executed in front of Notre Dame. Philippe le Bel was not a man to be crossed. But the valiant French king was no match for the wild boar that mortally gored him during a hunt in these woods. There are diverging accounts of Philippe’s death at the young age of forty-six. Some reported that the French king fell from his horse during a sanglier hunt, others claimed he was ripped apart by a wild boar. I have seen a 14th century drawing from Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, a work known in English as The Fall of Princes. The image, titled “Philippe le Bel Killed by a Wild Boar”, shows the French king lying on his back in the middle of the forest as a wild boar tears flesh from his bloody torso. Some believed Philippe’s violent death was divine retribution for his wicked acts.
“You should be careful – Philippe le Bel died on a sanglier hunt,” I warned Bouton. “Though I grant you, he didn’t have the advantage of a high-powered rifle like the ones you hunters use today.”
I have occasionally come across wild boars when heading up the Mont Ussy trail with Oscar and Leo. From a distance they look like small brown bears. They usually vanish into the woods as soon as they spot you. Local hunters track down the sanglier with packs of dogs. I have seen dogs as small as a Jack Russell on these blood-sport expeditions. You know a hunt is on when you arrive at the forest’s edge and come upon a familiar sign: CHASSE EN COURS. Hunt in progress. You are not forbidden from entering the woods, but you are forewarned that you – and your pet dogs – run the risk of coming between a hunter’s rifle and a terrified sanglier fleeing in panic for its life. Most of the slaughter occurs on the high ground where the wild boar retreat at night. Sometimes you hear a distant crack of a rifle. It’s a soul-shattering sound.
Bouton was oddly pleased with my French history lesson. Despite Philippe le Bel’s inglorious end, the story supplied Bouton with a personal connection with French kings. Usually it’s the poor sanglier that dies in agony. Sometimes it’s the hunting dogs. Bouton recounted how he’d once seen a wild boar chased to the point of collapse by a pack of hysterically yapping dogs. When the beast was cornered, it suddenly turned on its canine tormenters in a desperate bid to survive. In a ferocious lunge it ripped open one dog with a violent thrust of its tusk.
“Nothing you can do when that happens,” said Bouton. “The poor dog dies gasping right before your eyes. Heart-breaking.”
I instinctively looked round to make sure Oscar and Leo were safely within sight. Oscar was bumping down the footpath close by. Leo’s attention was transfixed on something moving in the underbrush. I watched him as he bounded straight up, then pounced down like a fox on a prey hiding in the grass, scented but unseen. I shouted Leo’s name to distract him.
“Faites attention aux vipères,” said Bouton, shaking his walking stick to warn me about snakes.
“Snakes?” I said. “Are they poisonous?”
I’d been told about the deadly mushrooms in these woods. Some of them, such as the amanita muscaria variety, are identifiable by their red markings. Others, like the amanita phalloides, are instantly fatal if you eat one. Dogs instinctively keep clear of these “death cap” mushrooms. But every year a few naïve human mushroom pickers make the mistake of cooking a champignon dish with one of these deadly funguses. They collapse and expire in agony before the meal is over. Another Fontainebleau whodunit: The Case of the Deadly Mushrooms.
This was the first I’d heard of deadly snakes lurking in the underbrush.
“Ben oui!” said Bouton, taking satisfaction in the opportunity to demonstrate his superior knowledge to an Anglo-Saxon. “Be careful with your dogs. If they get bitten they will drop dead in twenty minutes. Not a sight you want to see. Never take the shortcuts in the heavy brush. That’s where the vipers are lurking. Stay on the wide footpaths. And little Leo there, keep him away from whatever is moving under the grass. If he gets bitten, good-bye Leo.”
Suddenly the Fontainebleau forest, no longer a divinely illuminated paradise, seemed like a dark and hostile place – one of the dreaded rings in Dante’s hell. I wondered vaguely if Renoir and Millet were ever worried about vipères while setting up their easels here.
I called Leo’s name again, this time in the stern tone of a worried mother speaking to her toddler. Leo looked up at me, cheekily defiant, then dashed down the footpath towards Oscar.
Oscar and Leo have no natural enemies in Fontainebleau – not even Sacha, the large white cat belonging to my neighbour Anne-Laure.
Anne-Laure is the thirty-something brunette with faintly freckled skin who lives upstairs. A lawyer specialising in divorce cases, she is a member of the local Fontainebleau horsey set. On weekend mornings I usually see her going out in riding boots and jodhpurs, leaving Sacha to prowl about in the walled garden of the residence.
I quickly gave Sacha the nickname “Robespierre”. It came to me after witnessing the lethal torture he inflicted on unsuspecting magpies, blackbirds, pigeons and any other bird that make the mistake of landing in our well-manicured quadrangle garden. A true Jacobine, Sacha’s preferred method of execution is decapitation. Shortly after moving here I started discovering, with a twinge of horror, the gruesome result of his cruel handiwork. The mounting body count of headless birds at the edge of my terrace was becoming alarming. Robespierre was no match for Oscar and Leo however. When they bounded into the garden he retreated to higher ground on the stone wall, nervously following their movements with unblinking turquoise eyes.
Once I snitched on Robespierre, alerting Anne-Laure to the rash of feline decapitations.
“C’est affreux!” she replied with mock horror. Mothers never believe their cherished offspring can possibly be capable of committing the horrendous crimes for which they stand accused.
I took the flat in Fontainebleau mainly to be close to my part-time job as a research fellow at the INSEAD business school. It was a small apartment in a rather grand hôtel particulier whose residents, I was told, were mainly Parisian professionals who commuted into the city. I was lucky to find the apartment – and I did so without piston advantages. Nobody else in Fontainebleau, except Anne-Laure upstairs, possessed a direct view of the château’s magnificent façade and “Cour des Adieux” courtyard whose black imperial gates are topped with gold Napoleonic eagles. For centuries the courtyard has been famous for its horseshoe-shaped stone staircase. Napoleon stood at the top of those steps on the day of his abdication in April 1814. Gazing down on a hushed throng of assembled soldiers in his Garde Impériale, the defeated Emperor descended the stone staircase and kissed the French flag before being forcibly escorted into exile. Two centuries ago I could have watched that historic event from my terrace with no need for opera jumelles.
I’d been reluctant about moving to Fontainebleau. During my student days in Paris I had acquired many Parisian attitudes, including a vague condescension towards everywhere in France that’s not Paris. Fontainebleau was neither suburban nor provincial – but not quite Paris either. Fontainebleau’s largely bourgeois residents – called “Bellifontains” – were known for their superiority complex towards everything beyond the thick buffer of forest that insulates them from the rest of the country. Steeped in Catholic values, monarchist sentiments and equestrian passions, the locals here have settled into a smug self-assurance comforted by nearly a thousand years of royal history in their backyard. Neither Parisian nor provincials, their inward-looking self-satisfaction was remarkable even by French standards. That observation is perhaps my circuitous way of confessing that, apart from my fellow dog-walkers in the forest and immediate neighbours, I made few friends in Fontainebleau. Apparently this was not unusual for outsiders.
According to local historians, my cloistered domicile dated to the early 16th century when it served as the discreet digs of the most beautiful woman in France, Anne de Pisseleu. More famous in history books as the Duchesse d’Étampes, Anne was the favourite mistress of the King François I, whose legendary passion for hunting was surpassed only by his appetite for beautiful women. Accounts of Anne de Pisseleu’s great beauty make it easy to see how the French king fell for her. Described as “the most beautiful among the learned and the most learned among the beautiful”, she was one of the most remarkable women of her time. François arranged her betrothal to a broke aristocrat, elevated him to a dukedom so Anne could attain the exalted rank of duchess, then installed her right across from the château de Fontainebleau, which he always referred to as “chez moi”. Anne had her own rooms in the château, of course. Her bedchamber was a masterpiece of Italian-style Renaissance art known as the Ecole de Fontainebleau, famous today for the nude portrait of another French king’s mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, posing next to her sister who is pinching her right nipple. Anne de Pisseleu’s stucco bedchamber was embellished with dreamy, erotic nude statuettes of nymphs whose sensuality must have inspired François’ libidinal passions during his nocturnal visitations.
I moved into Duchesse d’Étampes’ more ordinary house, remodelled and expanded over the centuries – and fittingly called the Résidence d’Étampes. Just behind the residence is the Orsenat auction house, which has gained international notoriety for putting Napoleonic memorabilia under the hammer: the Emperor’s silk briefs, his writing utensils, his inflamed love letters, and so on. Recently one of Napoleon’s gold-encrusted swords fetched more than $6 million. I always know when an auction is going on, usually on a Sunday, due to the large number of shiny Jaguars, Mercedes, and Rolls Royces illegally parked in the narrow side streets just behind my place. According to local gossip, the owners of these luxury vehicles are mainly Russian oligarchs who come to Fontainebleau to splurge their ill-gotten gains on France’s national treasures.
The Résidence d’Étampes, protected by a high stone wall that surrounds an elevated quadrangle garden, has maintained its Renaissance aspect. My terrace communicates directly with the quadrangle garden. Many times I have attempted to encourage Oscar and Leo to appreciate the magnificent vista across the way, holding them high in each arm so they can peer over the terrace wall to contemplate the château’s architectural majesty. It’s difficult to know what they see or think, but I never tire of these spontaneous rituals.
Oscar and Leo have one enemy at the Résidence d’Étampes – not a natural enemy but an even more formidable one. He’s the stubby, barrel-chested geezer known inside the residence as the “Little Corsican”. Like the more illustrious little Corsican who abdicated in Cour des Adieux two centuries ago, this curious little man with a large leathery face has martinet manners and imperial ambitions. From the moment we moved in, the Little Corsican had Oscar and Leo in his sights. He began pestering me with complaints about their running free in the gardens. He accused them of peeing on the flowerbeds. He claimed to have spotted crottes on the grass. Oscar and Leo were guilty of everything. I soon discovered the Little Corsican was married. His wife, an outlandish woman with buckteeth and cascading bottle-dyed hair, was omnipresent on the Résidence d’Étampes grounds, poking her head everywhere, always inspecting things. I baptised her “La Coiffeuse” because she looked like a suburban hairdresser and spoke French with an incomprehensible accent. I eventually learned that she was from Chile – or was it Peru? Everything she said required an interpreter.
The Little Corsican and Coiffeuse were quite a tandem. At first I had mistakenly assumed they were glorified concierges in our residential enclave. Some time later I learned, embarrassed, that the Little Corsican wasn’t our bin man and his exotic spouse wasn’t the lady who mopped the floors. They were fully entitled residents. What’s more, they occupied positions of authority within the Résidence d’Étampes. The Little Corsican boasted the title of “chairman” of the board that oversaw the management and good order of the place. In a word, he was our sheriff. And the Coiffeuse was, ex officio, his deputy. We were off to a bad start – and it wasn’t good news for Oscar and Leo.
Their campaign against Oscar and Leo soon become relentless. Notes began dropping in my mailbox citing règlements concerning domestic animals. One missive was slipped under my door. It coldly reminded me that dogs must be kept on a lead at all times inside the residence. I began dreading the prospect of bumping into the Little Corsican. When this happened, he looked through me blankly. When the Coiffeuse was in the garden and Oscar and Leo came bounding out and ran up to her, she refused to acknowledge them with even a vague smile. I felt like an intruder in my own home. One day when collecting my post in the mailroom, I glanced up and spotted a notice pinned to the wall. Ostensibly addressed to all residents, one curious embellishment caught my eye: a hand-drawn picture of a dog. It was a message citing a règlement about keeping dogs on leads. I was obviously the sole target of this poster displayed in full view of the other residents. Even after I started spending most of the week in Paris, when I returned with Oscar and Leo at the weekends the Little Corsican was unsmiling, clearly annoyed that we were back.
I finally turned to my neighbour Dr Olivier Sautet for advice. Olivier, a divorced cardiologist living with his two small sons in the spacious rez-de-jardin apartment just across the garden, was the first neighbourly friendship I’d struck up in the Résidence d’Étampes. He had moved from Paris to Fontainebleau several years earlier with a young wife and kids when looking to start his practice in a small town. At some point Olivier got divorced, a sensitive subject that I learned to avoid. When I’d once asked him about his wife, he described her as “une belle plante”. That’s all he said: a beautiful plant, colloquial for attractive chick. I wondered if he’d taken on Anne-Laure as his lawyer, or consulted her about his divorce. I even wondered whether Anne-Laure was the reason for his divorce. Had they had an affair? If so, I’d arrived too late to detect anything. When I showed up, Olivier had been single for some time and was throwing himself with considerable energy into the role of the divorced small-town doctor. From the number of exquisite Bellifontaine women I saw languorously sipping coffee on his terrace on warm Sunday mornings, it was a role he clearly mastered with exceptional skill. His handsome features – dark eyes, aquiline nose, fine jaw and thick mèche of hair – undoubtedly helped him in these pursuits. His local status as a doctor further enhanced his appeal to the thirty-something divorced women in a bourgeois town where one’s professional situation is never overlooked. Olivier, a good-looking and single cardiologist, enjoyed all the attendant benefits of his status as a provincial notable, a man of solid social standing.
One evening over a drink Olivier confided something to me, almost as if furtively sharing a little-known secret. Fontainebleau divorcees, he said, were not as glacial as they seem at first blush.
“Elles sont toutes chaudes,” he said.
The word chaudes is difficult to translate into English in the sense Olivier was suggesting, but he meant much more than hot. More like smouldering. The key to success with women in this town, Olivier added, was showing up at the market on Sunday mornings. That’s where everyone went to “see and be seen”. The shopping was just a pretext.
“You should go to the market on Sundays,” he said with a wink. “And bring Oscar and Leo along. It won’t hurt, believe me.”
My admiration for Olivier extended beyond his amorous conquests. His talent for making a very decent living on minimal office hours was truly awesome. He always seemed to be away on a sun-blanched holiday – in Morocco, Croatia, Tuscany, Egypt, Corsica. I was soon accustomed to receiving text messages from him asking, almost as an afterthought, if I could kindly water his plants on the terrace and keep an eye on his apartment because he was away in Turkey. His messages invariably dropped in my mobile after he’d already landed at his destination. Olivier never went away alone, of course. His romantic getaways appeared to be booked at the very last minute, giving him just enough time to drop off his boys at his ex-wife’s place in nearby Bois-le-Roi before heading to Orly airport. I vaguely wondered who was caring for his cardiac patients while he was soaking up the sun. He always returned with a dashing movie-star suntan that must have enhanced his social success at the local Sunday market.
Olivier was intrigued by my Paris apartment, which I light-heartedly referred to as a garconnière, a term once used for Parisian flats kept by respectable married men for discreet assignations with their passionate mistresses. Olivier must have been perplexed. He had gingerly queried me about my romantic pursuits but retreated from that subject once he learned of my bereavement. When I suggested that he was free to use my garconnière with appropriate advance notice, I could see from his reaction that he was baffled but tempted. I honestly wondered whether he might take me up on it.
One day I caught an unexpected glimpse into another side of Olivier’s complicated life. It was mid-morning when we unexpectedly crossed paths in the vast Cour des Adieux. I’d caught sight of him from a distance. He was lurching head-heavy through the courtyard near the château’s Jeu de Paume building where French kings once played the sport that evolved into tennis. I was startled to see Olivier looking like a dishevelled figure of defeat. We stopped to greet and chat near the base of the grand horseshoe staircase.
“Olivier, you look like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders,” I said.
He was in such a bad way that he discarded his pride and opened up.
“I feel like a fool asking you,” he said, “but could you lend me twenty euros?”
I was flummoxed.
“Of course I can,” I said. “Is everything all right?”
He looked almost pitiful.
“My ex-wife has frozen my bank accounts through lawyers,” he said. “I can’t even withdraw ten euros from the cash machine. I have no access to money. It’s so humiliating. My ex-wife is trying to destroy me. She’s a narcissique perverse.”
That was the term he used to describe his ex-wife: narcissique perverse. She was une belle plante, but completely crazy. I wasn’t schooled in Freudian psychoanalysis, but I imagined narcissique perverse was a psychopathology in the dark zones of the human psyche somewhere between bipolar and borderline. The title of a gruesome Fontainebleau murder mystery vaguely took shape in my mind: The Case of the Cardiologist’s Missing Wife.
The unmentionable subject of Olivier’s ex-wife and divorce had suddenly blown open like Pandora’s Box. I felt truly sorry for him.
I pulled out my wallet and handed him two twenty-euro bills. For the first time I realised that, beneath the dashing appearance and winning ways of this handsome and successful Parisian cardiologist, Olivier was a tortured soul.
“No need to repay,” I said. “I mean it. We’re friends.”
Weeks later when I came to Olivier with my Little Corsican problem, he was immediately sympathetic. In fact, he too had been through the same frustrating ordeal with the Little Corsican. When he’d first moved into the Résidence d’Étampes, he said, pestering notes and harassing missives began slipping through his door. The Little Corsican’s complaint against him was not the nuisance of pets – but patients. Olivier had established his medical practice in his spacious apartment, then acquired the adjoining flat across the hallway to expand his surgery. The Little Corsican claimed that the comings and goings of his patients threatened to trouble the tranquillity of the residence. More absurdly, the Little Corsican claimed moreover that there was a danger that some patients might return to the Résidence d’Étampes to commit burglaries. It didn’t occur to him that the average age of Olivier’s cardiac patients was roughly seventy – and that many of them arrived in wheelchairs, some on stretchers. A few of them are now full-time residents of the local Fontainebleau necropolis at the edge of town, across from the hospital.
“Galère,” said Olivier, using the word for an insufferable ordeal. “He sent a notice that cited a règlement stipulating that the residence was not zoned for professional practices. The harassment lasted more than a year. Finally he just gave up. I advise you to do the same. Just smile and ignore him. One day, he’ll realise you are not going to leave.”
I decided to take Olivier’s sage advice to heart. Not only about the Little Corsican, but about the Sunday market, too.
As Bastille Day approached, I wondered how the good people of Fontainebleau celebrated the fête nationale. Surely something would be organised in the Cour des Adieux, giving me a front-row seat to the festivities.
I was crossing the boulevard with Oscar and Leo one morning just as a guard was opening the château’s massive black-and-gold Napoleonic gates. I ambled over and asked him about the forthcoming Bastille Day celebrations.
“We don’t celebrate the July 14th in this town, Monsieur,” he replied.
“Really? Why not?”
“Fontainebleau, Monsieur, is a ville royale.”
A ville royale? What could that possibly mean? France is a republic – it has been one since September 4, 1870. There’s a Parisian street and a Métro station to remind us.
I looked into the matter and discovered that my informant was correct. The citizens of Fontainebleau, a conservative town loyal to the values of Church and monarchy, reject the Jacobine legacy of the French Revolution. If they must live under a republic (they have no choice on that point), they certainly won’t celebrate it. More than two centuries after the storming of the Bastille, the Bellifontains refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jacobine usurpers who decapitated the Bourbon dynasty. The locals here prefer to celebrate the annual fête of the canonised French king, Saint Louis, every August 25th.This same ambiguity towards Bastille Day, I am told, persists in other pockets of la France profonde, especially in Catholic regions such as the Vendée where Jacobine revolutionaries massacred the local population during the Terror.
It could be said without much exaggeration, in fact, that France has been in a perpetual state of civil war for centuries. Long before the French Revolution, peasants in France were revolting against the gabelle tax on salt, Protestants were leading fronde rebellions against the Catholic Church, and French aristocrats were conspiring against the absolutist Bourbon monarchy. After the French Revolution, the Jacobine republic learnt nothing from the past. The saga of rebellion and repression, order and chaos, continued inexorably, sometimes ending in tragedy, sometimes in farce. The result was five republics, two empires, two restored monarchies, a Commune and a fascist Vichy regime. During the same two centuries, the United States of America has been governed continuously despite a civil war. In Britain the monarchy has ruled without interruption or challenge to its authority. In France, by contrast, there have been ten different regimes, most of them violently overthrown.
Napoleon successfully imposed order on French society after the chaos of revolution. And yet he’d originally been pro-revolutionary, if only for opportunistic reasons. Without the French Revolution, there would have been no Napoleon. The French still don’t know what to make of Bonaparte. He remains a figure who, paradoxically, inspires pride and shame in France.
I recently spent some time with Napoleon’s heir, Charles Napoleon – or Prince Napoleon VII as he’s officially known. Napoleon Bonaparte has no direct descendants. Charles Napoleon is the great-great-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother Jerome, appointed King of Westphalia by the emperor. I met Charles Napoleon, fittingly, in the Hotel Napoleon on Fontainebleau’s main street for a newspaper profile I was writing for the Daily Telegraph. He was keenly open to publicity at the time for an obvious reason: he was standing as a candidate in French parliamentary elections under the centrist banner of the Mouvement Démocrate. His ancestor may have been an emperor, but Charles Napoleon is resolutely republican.
“In my family elected politics was considered dirty,” he said during a long discussion in the hotel’s tearoom. “But I love contact with people.”
When I asked him what his ancestor Napoleon would think of his democratic postures, his answer disarmed me: Napoleon, he said, was fundamentally a democratic. What’s more, he said, Napoleon admired the English “nation of shopkeepers” who defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo.
“Napoleon was a great admirer of British institutions, especially constitutional monarchy,” he said. “After Waterloo, he sincerely believed the English would embrace him, magnanimously, and invite him to live out his days in England. He was shocked when they exiled him.”
Unlike the famously diminutive Bonaparte, Charles Napoleon is a towering figure at six-foot-five with dark penetrating eyes and thick salt-and-pepper mane. He looks more like a dashing Euro aristocrat than left-leaning office-seeker, but his past has definitely been on the radical side despite persistent family pressures. Charles Napoleon grew up resenting his ultra-conservative father, who spent his life dreaming of an Imperial restoration. In the late 1960s Charles was a student radical in Paris, eventually earning a PhD in economics from the Sorbonne. He nonetheless complied with exalted expectations by marrying a distant cousin, HRH Princess Beatrice de Bourbon of the Italian Bourbon-Two-Sicilies dynasty. The union ended in divorce – but not without producing a male heir to the Napoleonic dynasty who could claim both Bonaparte and Bourbon blood. His father, Prince Louis Napoleon, attempted to disinherit Charles in favour of his grandson. The quarrel, triggered by Charles’ republican values, festered over time and remains a sensitive subject inside the Bonaparte dynasty.
Charles Napoleon meanwhile can make a claim that would astound many Britons: he is 1,120th in line to the British throne, thanks to the marriage in 1807 between his direct ancestor Jerome Bonaparte and the German princess Katherine of Wurttemberg. It’s doubtful Charles would accept the British crown given his resolutely republican values. Today his democratic ambitions have not been without some irony. Several years ago he moved to Corsica and forged a political alliance with leftists to take control of Ajaccio’s city council. Astonishingly, his enemy in that battle was the right-wing Bonapartist party, which Charles Napoleon dismissed to me as a “corrupt clan”.
Charles Napoleon meanwhile takes a more philosophical view of his exalted ancestry. The author of several books about his illustrious family, he argues that the Bonapartes, despite the imperial ambitions of Napoleons I and III, were in fact genuine “rebels” at heart. The title of one of his books makes that claim explicit: The Bonapartes: Rebel Spirits. He claims that while Napoleon I has been tainted by the humiliation of Waterloo, less emphasis has been placed on his early years as a visionary of the French Revolution. He similarly argues that Napoleon III has been unjustly tainted in the annals of French history for the collapse of the Second Empire, while few recall that he was the elected president of the Second Republic. He also notes that Marie Bonaparte, a princess of Greece and Denmark, was another rebel spirit who pioneered modern psychoanalysis after being a patient of Sigmund Freud.
And of course, there’s Charles Bonaparte himself. He’s the latest rebel spirit in the Bonaparte dynasty, glad-handing in the streets of Fontainebleau to win the vote of the common man. His local election campaign turned out to be something of a non-event however. He attracted only 4,046 votes – or 8.76% of the vote. Undeterred, he later stood for mayor of the small French town of Nemours – and lost again. Now in his sixties, Charles Napoleon’s political future looks unpromising.
The Bonapartes, it seems, are better suited to the heroic grandeur of empire than to the grassroots drudgery of democracy.
I bumped into the Little Corsican this morning. I was in the basement garage putting Oscar and Leo in the car to take them to the Sunday market in Fontainebleau. I was finally following my neighbour Olivier’s advice, ready to charm the locals with warm smiles while doing my grocery shopping.
And then, suddenly, there he was: the Little Corsican, half-hidden in a dark corner of the cold and damp garage. When I turned around he was staring at me with soulless unblinking eyes, like a psychopath contemplating a senseless crime. My morning was ruined.
I shut the car door and queried his presence with an exasperated glance.
“Monsieur,” he said. “I found a crotte near the bins at the back of the garden.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man had no shame. We were in Fontainebleau only occasionally at the weekend. You’d think our infrequent presence would diminish his determination to be irritating. But no.
I opted for diplomacy. The only other option was angry shouting.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said. “My dogs don’t go near the bins. And as you know, I’m not the only one in this residence with a dog.”
A young student had recently moved into a small studio rented by his parents. The teenage boy often had his family’s pet Shih Tzu with him in the flat. Many times I’d seen that little dog follow the boy to the bins when he was taking out his rubbish. Moreover, my neighbour Olivier had recently been dating a divorced pharmacist who brought round her two small children and the family dog, a King Charles Cavalier, which was always running about in the garden.
The Little Corsican said nothing. My argument was solid. He turned and loped off like a grotesque garden gnome.
I have struggled to discover why the Little Corsican was so obsessed with Oscar and Leo. At first I seized on the most obvious explanation: he was French. The French are notorious for despising their neighbours – spying on them, snitching on them, gossiping about them, slipping anonymous notes under their doors, and generally making their lives bloody miserable. But the Little Corsican wasn’t really French. Corsicans were unique. They were like Sicilians, but with French passports. French citizens who live on the “Hexagone” mainland – and especially Parisians — look upon Corsicans with deep suspicion, regarding them as tribal, hot-blooded, vendetta-obsessed, untrustworthy, and generally inclined toward criminality.
Insights into the human psyche often come unexpectedly, and so did my understanding of the Little Corsican and his motives. It came from one of my neighbours in the Résidence d’Étampes – not Olivier, but an elderly lady called Madame de Bordas. A tiny woman with waxen skin and a few wisps of gossamer hair on a cadaverous head, she must be well into her eighties. Like a once-glamorous film actress clinging to her past glories à la Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Madame de Bordas was always attired impeccably in expensive cashmeres, silk scarves, elegant escarpins and shrouded in perfumes whose fragrance seems faintly archaic, a feminine scent from a vanished epoch. Despite the great age difference between us, Madame de Bordas and I became close in an odd way.
“When I was young I was very popular you know,” she once confided, showing me an old photo. She indeed had been a gorgeous young woman.
The faded black-and-white picture dated to the German occupation of Paris when she was studying at La Sorbonne. She recounted how the streets of Paris were crawling with young German soldiers. “Some of them were quite handsome,” she said, her frail bony fingers caressing her silk neck scarf. “And when the German soldiers were gone after the war, they were replaced by American soldiers.”
After the war Madame de Bordas married a French solider who later rose to the rank of general. Her son, too, was a graduate of the Saint Cyr military academy and achieved the same rank. Her husband, from what I could gather, had been dead for more than twenty years. I never saw her only son at the Résidence d’Étampes visiting his mother, perhaps he was stationed abroad. She rarely mentioned him, except to say that he was a general like his father before him.
Our complicity was founded on mutual interest. Madame de Bordas was inordinately fond of Oscar and Leo. When we were in Fontainebleau full-time, she made well-planned trips across the garden and tapped gently on my terrace door bearing gifts of doggy biscuits. Oscar and Leo, needless to say, were great fans of Madame de Bordas. Some days they sat for hours at the terrace door, waiting for her to appear with a bag of treats. If I left the terrace doors open, they escaped and dashed across the garden to the cobbled courtyard to scratch at her door. I panicked whenever this happened, fearing they’d get caught by the Little Corsican or the Coiffeuse. I always checked my neighbour Anne-Laure’s door first, as she often left her door ajar so Robespierre could come and go in the garden. Oscar and Leo frequently made unembarrassed raids upstairs to plunder Robespierre’s food dish. If Anne-Laure’s door was shut, I knew where Oscar and Leo were.
Madame de Bordas adored their visits, which eventually established our little game of neighbourly complicity. I eventually realised, sadly, that Oscar and Leo brought joy to this frail old lady whose days passed mostly in silence and solitude. Chateaubriand observed that “la vieillesse est un naufrage” – old age is a shipwreck. Madame de Bordas, so far as I could see, had nobody in her life. My neighbours in the Résidence d’Étampes treated her with bemused indifference. One murmured to me one day that she was “une folle” – a crazy old lady. I found her not only sane of mind, but rich in wisdom. It saddened me to know that the impromptu visits of Oscar and Leo were probably the happiest moments of her day.
The last time I went round looking for Oscar and Leo, Madame de Bordas invited me to stay for tea. I knew the ritual well. In the past I’d sat stiffly in her sitting room next to a grand piano, neglecting my cup of tea and nibbling on cakes while listening to Madame de Bordas’ stories about her sparkling youth. She once invited me upstairs, as if to mark a special occasion, to show me her collection of 18th century Chinese-style faience.
“Vodka?” she said. “Champagne?”
This was the first time Madame de Bordas had proposed something stronger than tea. The scarcity of my presence – or rather, that of Oscar and Leo – had clearly conferred a special status on our visit. I drink neither vodka nor champagne, but agreed to a glass of bubbly. Madame de Bordas was delighted. She moved slowly towards the bar and retrieved a half bottle of Veuve Cliquot. I did the honour of uncorking while she produced two flutes. As she set them down the veins on her frail and blotched hands looked like large blue worms.
“How is little Leo coming along?” she asked. “He certainly hasn’t lost his appetite!”
That was true. In fact the fludrocortisone seemed to have produced the opposite effect.
“He’s doing fine,” I said. “I give him his medication every day, modifying the dosages if necessary according to his energy level. I have to watch him like a hawk.”
“Poor Leo,” she said. “He’s so adorable. I’m sure he’ll be with us for a lot longer, I just know it.”
I instinctively looked around to locate Leo. He was lifting his leg and giving a quick spray to a Louis XV chair. Madame de Bordas did not see it. Mortified, I said nothing. Oscar was observing the proceedings from the hallway leading toward the kitchen, always his favourite room.
“I noticed the note on the wall in the mailroom,” Madame de Bordas said, delicately changing the subject. She was referring to the Little Corsican.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s very embarrassing. That man is absolutely mad. I’m hardly here any more. Do you think he put it up just to get under my skin?”
“Don’t pay any attention to vulgar people,” she said with the air of a grand duchess. “We’ve all been through the same tiresome business with those awful people.”
Madame de Bordas recounted a story that was despairingly familiar. She had once placed two large potted plants at each side of her door on the Résidence d’Étampes courtyard. It had made perfect sense: she was marking the main door to her apartment. But the Little Corsican would have none of it. Within a few days, Madame de Bordas discovered a letter in her mailbox informing her that exterior plants were not in compliance with residential bylaws and consequently would she please remove the large pots at once. Perplexed, she contacted the Little Corsican for an explanation. He cited bureaucratic language stipulating that the Résidence d’Étampes must be aesthetically “in harmony” with the château de Fontainebleau’s courtyard across the road. Her plants were apparently inharmonious with the Cour des Adieux. The absurdity was astounding.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard baffling stories about petty rules and regulations imposed on the French in the privacy of their own homes. In France you can’t just paint your shutters any colour you like. You need a permit from a local bureaucracy before putting a coat of paint on any exterior surface of your own house. You can’t even pick the colour of your balcony awnings. Authorised colours only.
I learnt this with some astonishment from my friends Claude and Nicky when they were purchasing new awnings for their south-facing balcony.
“What colour are you choosing?” I asked.
“You must be joking!” replied Claude. “There is only one colour allowed. Yellow.”
I thought he was joking. But Claude was absolutely serious. All awnings in the building had to be the same colour. It was stipulated by regulation. And that colour was yellow. It reminded me what Henry Ford once said about his Model-T automobiles: “You can have any colour as long as it’s black.”
These micro-meddling customs seem outrageous to foreigners, but are not especially alarming to the French. They are used to it. There are some 400,000 rules and regulations whose purpose is to micromanage every desire, impulse, exchange and transaction in French society. In France, bureaucrats must be kept busy. There are armies of fonctionnaires to pester you about everything. Especially taxes. The French – and foreigners like me who live and work in France – spend their entire lives pouring over and filling out tax forms that drop in the mailbox almost on a weekly basis. No wonder, there are nearly 150,000 state tax agents in France – three times the number in Britain even though the populations of France and the UK are roughly the same. The only way you can escape tax inspectors in France is if you are rich enough to stash your fortune in a numbered bank account in Luxembourg or Switzerland. Many do.
For those of us who cannot escape the long arm of the Jacobine state, there is an arsenal of rules, standards, codes, circulars and decrees that regulate everything we do. In France imposing standards has reached the level of social pathology. Take the famous French baguette, for example. In France the length of baguettes is strictly regulated: they can be no longer than 55 centimetres. What if an innovative baker wanted to sell extra-long baguettes? Not allowed: the standard must be respected. The dimension of referee dressing rooms in municipal football stadiums is similarly regulated. Cities must reconstruct dressing rooms when their local team changes division. Why? Because the size of referee changing rooms must conform to standards applicable to each division. Given the huge renovation costs involved, it’s tantamount to financially punishing a football club for moving up a division. At least the referees are happy.
The word in French for standard is norme. In France there is a bureaucrat for just about everything telling you what normes must be adhered to. Apparently the last time a norme was actually scrapped was in 1789. It takes a revolution in France to call a norme into question.
The French culture of normes reveals a much deeper syndrome: the paradoxical absence of individual liberty in France. For a nation that shouts “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” from the rooftops, the French republic seems curiously designed to constrain individual liberties — right down to the choice of the household colours. In France you are required to seek an autorisation préalable before you make even the smallest change to your house – potted plants and balcony awnings included. Any foreigner who has endured the Kafkaesque ordeal of obtaining a French carte de séjour has personal experience with this form of administrative harassment. If you are missing just one piece of paper – or pièce justificative – you are sent away by an unsmiling bureaucrat. The French themselves, it must be said, suffer the most. Which is why they learn all the tricks to minimize the agony. I am reliably informed that every adult in France meticulously keeps a collection of utility bills stretching back several years – just in case a fonctionnaire asks them to produce proof of some long-forgotten bill.
It was Madame de Bordas’ anecdote about her pots that helped me understand the Little Corsican’s perplexing attitude towards Oscar and Leo. It was a classic French tale of petty rules and regulations.
“It has nothing to do with your dogs,” said Madame de Bordas. “It’s his way of asserting his authority. He needs to let everyone know that he’s the boss.”
That was it. The Little Corsican was vexed because I had never come to him, obsequiously, to bow before his authority and seek his autorisation préalable. At the Résidence d’Étampes, the Little Corsican was the boss – a micro-local bureaucrat whose job it was to enforce the rules.
“He sees you as a rebel,” said Madame de Bordas. “I’m a rebel – and I was married to a general! You must be a rebel like me. Oscar and Leo are rebels too. We’re too rebellious for this place.”
I looked across the room to find Oscar and Leo. They were perched side-by-side at the doorway leading to kitchen, looking in our direction with pleading eyes, hoping for few bits of cheese.