It was five days into my research trip to Rennes-le-Chateau, a village in the French Pyrenean foothills, and I was lonely. Gathering details for my novel, I had hiked the hilly red dirt of the countryside dotted with helm oaks and dry broom, had walked the narrow roads of the village to the accompaniment of squawking roosters, and had admired the humble stucco houses. I stood in the rooms of the presbytery where my characters — a priest and his housekeeper — had lived, sat in the pews of the tiny church where they’d worshipped. I’d taken in the view of the valley from the hilltop: fields undulating toward the distant mountains, red-tiled roofs bunching together into occasional towns.
I was the only guest in my B&B — it was early March, before peak season — and my host and I had struck up a friendship. I picked up enough of her French to learn that she had a fascinating history: raised a French Catholic, she’d moved to Israel in her twenties, where she’d fallen in love with a Jew and converted in order to marry him. For twenty years, she lived with her family in an Orthodox community near Jerusalem, observing halakah and leading a highly religious life. Then, one day, an old Jewish man touched her on the shoulder and said, “You know, don’t you, that Jesus was the Messiah, and without hesitation she answered, “Yes.” Soon afterward, she converted back to Catholicism, relying throughout the process on the counsel of a monk who became a close friend. One day, she heard he had unexpectedly moved to southern France, the Languedoc region. Heartbroken, she followed him, bought a centuries-old building in the center of the little town of Couiza — just down the hill from Rennes-le-Chateau — started a B&B, and practiced her newfound childhood religion while hoping for a reconciliation with her monk.
Anne was a beautiful woman — cropped brown hair that showed off her shapely cheekbones, large dark eyes that brimmed with generosity — and I was taken with her, as I imagined her monk had been as well. Though she was a devout Catholic, she’d retained a deep love for Israel and Judaism, and I longed to confess to her my own misgivings about the Christianity I’d grown up with — its subtle anti-Semitism, its insistence on Christ as the only way. I tried, but my French failed me; I managed only to get across the simplest of ideas, and ended up sounding, I’m sure, like I was whining. By the fifth day of my trip, I was fed up with my faltering French and the gaps in our conversation. I missed my husband and my daughter and the comfort of easy chatter.
In the village that day, a young South African tourist greeted me in English. He had come to the Languedoc on a pilgrimage, to hike the old Roman roads through the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. He was carless, but had hoped to get to Montsugur, the ruined castle where the heretical Cathars held their last stand during the Albigensian crusade. Though he reminded me of Brad Pitt and looked pretty good in a fleece, the thing I found most attractive about him was his fluency in English. I happen to be going to Montsugur today, I said. Want a ride?
As we walked to my rented Geo Prism, it occurred to me that I might be making a bad move. He was a strange man; I was a woman traveling alone. A happily married woman, at that. He might be interpreting my invitation as a come on. Worse, maybe it was one. But a few hours of effortless speech was too tempting a prospect.
We drove southeast along winding country roads. The scenery must have been beautiful — dormant vineyards, open fields, rustic French farmhouses and ruined limestone castles on hilltops — but I was too engrossed in our conversation to notice. Fittingly, his name was Christian, and we, too, had plunged right into religion. (What was it about this country?) I told him about my characters: the unexplained wealth that had turned my priest toward worldly obsessions, the love he shared with his housekeeper, my protagonist. He told me about his upbringing as a Protestant and the questioning he’d done, which mirrored my own. He had been at one of the Bali bars that was bombed in 2002 — only about five months earlier — and had escaped with a head injury and a new perspective. A former investment banker, his main concern had been making money, but the brush with death had reconfigured his priorities. This solo pilgrimage was an attempt to seek some new ones.
The castle of Montsugur perches on a pog — a spur of limestone that rises out of the tree-studded hillside. The day had grown chilly, so we donned windbreakers and headed toward the trail. At its base was a stone memorial dedicated to the two hundred Cathar perfecti, or priests, who had been burned at the stake on that spot. We took each other’s photos there: I still have them. Christian is wearing a casual smile, but I’m grinning madly, as if I can’t quite believe what I’m up to. By now his good looks had dawned on me, and I was enjoying myself.
Despite the steep hike up the mountain, we talked the whole way — about Gnosticism, yoga, meditation, and materialism, about apartheid, Thabo Mbeki and HIV, and children. I felt like a tap left on; I couldn’t stop chattering, elaborating, speculating, and asking questions, even though the slope was making me pant like a dog. But at the top, we finally shut up. The place and its history demanded a silent reverence. We inspected the grim enclosure of the castle keep and the sheer drop into the valley visible through the doorless entrances. Christian, showing off, climbed the castle’s outer wall. The place was filled with the ghostly desperation of people imprisoned in their own stronghold. But my mind was on talk: what clever thing I might think up to say about the place on our way down the mountain. (If I did think of anything, it was completely unmemorable.)
Back in the car, I cranked up the heat and we drove back toward Couiza, where he planned to catch a bus north to Carcassonne, where he was staying. Our conversational pace ebbed: there were longer lulls, during which we actually stopped to notice the scenery. I wondered about dinner. Would he want to eat together? Could we keep talking? Lucky for me, by the time we arrived at his stop, the bus had left. There was nothing else to do but drive him the forty-five minutes north.
It was after eight by the time we got there. I might have dropped him off and called it a night. But we still hadn’t eaten, and Carcassonne was known for its cassoulet. We found a swank restaurant within the medieval city’s restored walls, ordered a half-carafe of wine, and continued talking even as the waiters wiped down tables and stacked up ashtrays. We’d come around to love and marriage, and he surprised me by asking somewhat less-than-innocently, “When you’re married, you can’t really just have a fling, can you?”
I considered the question. We were solo travelers, intoxicated by our uninhibited conversation and the strangeness of our surroundings. I loved my husband, but he was across the Atlantic on another continent. Couldn’t I rack a one-night stand up to another adventure of the trip, something akin to exploring an ancient ruin or trying to communicate your deepest religious feelings in a language you could hardly speak? But I found myself sadly shaking my head. No, I said, no. You can’t. Even when you’re thousands of miles from home, in the company of a rugged South African stranger with a heart-stopping command of the English language.
Amy Hassinger is a graduate of Barnard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of The Priest’s Madonna (April 2006; $24.95US/$35.00CAN; 0-399-15317-9) and Nina: Adolescence. She teaches in the University of Nebraska’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and lives in Illinois with her husband and daughter.
For more information, please visit www.amyhassinger.com