Sleeping at Cezanne’s: Penniless in Provence, I dodged trouble and landed at the Chateau Noir

On a southbound train from Paris with forty bucks in my pocket, I had a simple wish. It was extravagant, but simple: I wanted to spend the summer in Provence. I closed my eyes and leaned back as all of France whizzed by in a blur of green and yellow, and imagined the details. I pictured myself in a stone cottage with a bicycle and a cat for company. There was no reason to believe this possible, but no reason to believe it impossible, either. I was twenty-eight, seasoned enough to make my way with confidence, but still unjaded enough to see the world as a vast orchard, full of fruit for me to pick and eat if I could reach it. I greeted the occasional worm or rotten spot as expected, then moved on to the next prize.

The weeks I spent in Paris with my friend, Amélie, had turned into a bit of a worm. I loved the city, indulged in all its flavors – eating pastries, drinking too much wine, even making-out with a handsome stranger – but Amélie had been a surly companion. She fell into drunken moods, complained about everything, and ordered extravagantly when we went out, claiming poverty when the bill arrived. I was worried about her, but as the six hundred dollars I had brought to France dwindled, I knew I couldn’t afford to stay and help. Then I purchased a used bicycle that was stolen a day later. I had to get out of town, fast. I bought a ticket and was on my way.

After the train trip and a few days camping, my money was gone. From a phone booth in Aix-en-Provence, I called Amélie and asked her to send a hundred dollars she owed me. She agreed, though she couldn’t do it until the next day. I would have to be creative while I waited. In the U.S. I often stayed at youth hostels, and sometimes I had seen guests cleaning fridges and scrubbing floors in exchange for their night’s stay. The youth hostel in Aix refused, but I would try the one in Marseille. I just had to get there.

I stood at the entrance to the freeway, arm outstretched, thumb pointed skyward, until a car stopped. A dark-haired man leaned across the seat to open the passenger side door. In French, I asked him where he was going. This was my play; I always asked them before they could ask me. Eliciting their answer gave me a moment to size them up before accepting. If I felt uncomfortable I could decline graciously, claiming a different destination.


I couldn’t get a read on him, but he was small, unintimidating, and anyway it was the middle of the day and the road was busy. I heaved my pack into the backseat and hopped into the front.

We exchanged niceties and fell silent. Watching the road, I thought about Marseille, Amélie, and the money. She could be unreliable, but she understood my predicament. At some point I glanced over at the man, his hand on the gear shift, his hairy legs protruding from cotton shorts, and I noticed something else sticking out of his shorts. The stubby end of his erect penis pressed against his thigh, stretching the fabric so it looked like it might split. He said nothing, but smirked. Oh good lord.

I put on my best bossy voice and commanded him to drop me off right there, in the middle of the auto-route.

“Ici?” Here?

“Oui, exactement ici.” Yes, right here.

I must have sounded authoritative, because he swerved and stopped abruptly on the shoulder. I got out and retrieved my pack from the backseat. “Merci.” I slammed the door and he drove away.

I stood on the pavement in the sun for a few minutes before another car pulled over. Two young guys laughed and joked as if they were high, but they let me sit quietly in the back. Soon the limestone cliffs of Marseille came into view, gleaming against a clear sky. The sea rolled toward them, all froth and sparkle, the waves breaking in a white ruffle at their feet. The sight moved me, but I held my breath and remained silent. I had been listening for any sign of bad intent from the front. The guys delivered me to a street corner and I waved goodbye.

It was mid-morning and the lobby of the youth hostel was empty when I arrived. A tall, burly man emerged and I asked him if I could work in exchange for a night’s stay. He looked me over, considered for a moment, and agreed. Then he led me down a corridor to a room next to a linen closet, isolated from the rest of the building. I didn’t like this arrangement at all, but what could I say? I needed a place to sleep, and surely this would be safer than the street.

I dropped my bag on the bed and followed him upstairs. He introduced me to a middle-aged Algerian woman who was cleaning and told her I would help her for the day. She nodded. For the next hours we rinsed and wrung towels we used to clean shelves, toilets, floors, every surface of the building. The woman was kind, but our small talk was limited by the rigor of the work.

At one point she sat down on a step and pulled an orange from the pocket of her loose-fitting shift. As she bit and slurped at the fruit I tried not to watch, but my stomach churned. When she offered a section, I politely refused. I was embarrassed that she had seen my hunger.

By the end of the day the heat, the lack of food, and the work had exhausted me. The owner brought me to a table in a large, dark room where he had placed a chunk of greasy pâté and some bread. I thanked him and ate it while he and a friend watched from the doorway, laughing. I could tell they were mocking me, and for all I knew the pâté might have been dog food, but I was too hungry to care.

That night I lay on top of the bed with the overhead light on, completely clothed, reading. I still wore my heavy leather work boots. Their tread snagged at the bedspread, but I wouldn’t remove them; I wanted my armor intact. When my eyelids began to sag and I let the book close, I heard the electronic buzz of a card unlocking the door and jumped to my feet. The owner pushed into the room and started when he met me face-to-face, fully dressed.

“Tu es réveillée?” You are awake?

“Oui, je suis réveillée.” Yes, I am awake.

I glared into his eyes. To my surprise, he cowered a bit, and then backed away and left. I lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling for the rest of the night, and in the morning I packed my things. On my way out I scolded him for disturbing me. Then I used the last minutes on a phone card to call Amélie; she had sent the money to a post office in Aix en Provence. I sighed. I would have to hitchhike back.

copyright Mindy Haskins Rogers

I arrived around midday. Aix is a pretty city, with tree-canopied streets and moss covered fountains spouting the healing waters that give the town its name. “Aix” means water in the Provencal language. I found the post office and waited in line to retrieve my money, which I assumed Amelie had sent as a “monat” – a sort of transfer that would get it to me the same day. When I explained to the willowy young man at the counter, he exhaled loudly through his lips and turned to a bunch of cardboard boxes on the floor behind him. Each one contained piles of envelopes. He leaned over and shuffled through a couple of the boxes, then turned back to me and told me my money had not arrived.

My chest tightened. That’s it? I looked beyond him to the boxes, doubting the thoroughness of his search, and skeptical of his filing system. I implored him to check again, but he was resolute. I could try again later.

When the office reopened after lunch, I approached the window again. The young man met me with an impassive expression. “Non. Ce n’est pas arrivé.” No, it did not arrive. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t even looked. I huffed a bit, unsure of what to do next.

“Vous êtes certain?” Are you sure?

I refused to forfeit my spot at the window until he looked once more. Finally a woman in a blazer approached him to find out what was holding up the line. I listened as he explained to her in the twanging French of the region that I was waiting for a monat, but it had not arrived. He added, barely under his breath, “Elle devient presque chiante.” She’s getting a little bitchy.

They both turned toward me now, studying my face, the one self-righteous, ready to be rid of me, the other with a look of mild concern. I appealed to her as politely as I could, but nothing could make the money appear. They sent me to a branch on the other side of town, where my monat also had not arrived, but a kindly employee loaned me a hundred francs, or about twenty dollars, so I would have food that night. I took her name and returned a couple of months later to pay her back, but I never managed to see her again or to thank her properly.

As the workday came to a close and the dinner hour approached, I sat on a sill in the middle of a street marked “piéton,” pedestrian. People flowed by on their way home from work without noticing me and my pack leaned against the closed up storefront. Where could I sleep? I remembered the place on the outskirts of the city where I had camped two nights earlier. Maybe I could walk back to that field and pitch my tent. A woman about my age rode by on a bicycle, her overalls spattered with paint, and I wondered if she would let me stay in her studio for a night. She was gone before the idea could evolve into anything more.

Finally I rose and strapped on my pack. On a hill beyond the roofs of the shops I saw a steeple. A friend once told me about sleeping in churches when he traveled in Czechoslovakia years before. It was worth a try. I started trudging upward, the pointed spire of the church as my compass. Oh no, please don’t ask me to accept Jesus after all these years. I just need a place to sleep. I laughed. When I reached the heavy arched doors of the church, a sign proclaimed it closed for the evening.

Across the street I noticed a few young women standing in front of a placard: Institut Américain. Should I look to fellow Americans for help? At least they might know of some options for a newcomer. I crossed the street and addressed the girls in English. They replied in broken sentences, and I realized they were French. “Oh, you are American! One moment – we should find Madame Jourlait!” One of them darted around the corner and returned with a stately woman in an overcoat with a book bag over her shoulder: their professor.

“Hello! The girls tell me you are American. What are you looking for?”

I blushed. I don’t know what I had expected, but this woman was willing to speak to me simply because we shared a home country and a language. “Yes, I am. I am looking for a place to stay. I was supposed to pick up some money today, but it didn’t arrive.”

As the woman listened, she looked toward the street where the girls had fetched her. “Here, please walk with me. I am meeting my husband in a few minutes.” We walked briskly as she asked questions, and I answered. I told her about the post office, the undelivered monat, and my hope to spend the summer there.

I realized I ought to offer some explanation of why I was there, abroad, without money or a place to stay, and with nobody to call. I hesitated. I knew poverty was at best a suspicious condition, at worst a shameful one. If I simply told her I am poor, but I travel anyway, I travel because being poor is difficult everywhere, but it is more interesting when I travel, and I can’t stand to stay in one place, working every day for nothing more, nothing less, she would have thought I was crazy or reckless or perhaps even criminal. I could have tried to explain about Amelie’s decadence and the stolen bicycle, but I sensed that would lead to the same question of my being there without enough money. So I lied.

“I was robbed – I think.” My voice broke as I struggled to shape the story. “There was a girl in the train station – a Romani girl. She asked me for money and said she was hungry, and when I opened my bag to offer her my sandwich – I think that’s when she stole my money.” I hated myself for this lie, and I hoped this kind woman wouldn’t see the shame burning my cheeks and forcing my eyes downward.

Part of the story was true. The girl was real, and she had asked me for money. I didn’t have any, of course, but when she said she was hungry I offered her half of my lunch. She had refused and acted irritated, and I had laughed. I thought about her now: how in my position she might stage a similar deception, and I used this imagined kinship to soothe my shame. But I felt evil; beyond the crime of lying, I had tossed my own drop of poison into the cauldron of hatred aimed at the Roma.

Luckily the woman was distracted, waving at a car that pulled up next to us. She invited me to get in. “Why don’t you come home with me for now – the thing is, I have a colleague who is looking for a nanny – and anyway, you can stay with us tonight and we will figure something out.”

“Thank you.”

I had no time to hope it might be true before I slipped into the car and she introduced me to her husband, a stout French man who seemed unfazed by his wife’s acquisition of a young American woman. They took me to their apartment, fed me braised rabbit, and gave me a comfortable bed for the night.

By arrangement the next day, I met the man whose children I would nanny. He picked me up in a minivan, the kids sprawled over the back seats, limp in the late-day heat, and drove me to their home, where we discussed the hours I would work, my particular responsibilities, and my lodging. I would stay in their spare room for a few days, but he had a colleague who needed a caretaker for his apartment at the Chateau Noir. Had I heard of it?

The chateau stood on a nearby hillside, partly unfinished, and obscured by trees. Paul Cezanne painted it and many of his famous canvasses of the Monte Sainte-Victoire from the grounds. In exchange for staying in the apartment for the summer, I would care for his friend’s cats. I was welcome to use one of the bicycles he kept in the shed.

The rest of the summer unfolded deliciously, a worthy harvest for the rotten spots I had endured. I fell in love with the children and spent my days cooking, playing, or cuddling with them, in between shuttling them to school, camp, or doctor’s appointments. The money Amélie sent arrived a week later; she had placed some bills in an envelope and mailed it by regular post. By the time the clerk received it, word had spread about my affiliation with Madame Jourlait, and he sent it to her office. When I went to get it, I delivered a handwritten thank you note. It was all I could offer in exchange for her kindness.

I was asked to repeat my story about the Romani girl a few times; each time my shame deepened.

In the evenings I returned to the rocky old chateau on the hill, where a band of half-tame cats greeted me, waiting for their daily meal. At least a dozen of them swarmed outside the apartment door, wild-eyed with a hunger I recognized. I prepared bowls of food and cooed at them as they ate. I found them tragic, dependent on humans they would never trust. I couldn’t blame them. Only one dared to come inside. She rolled on the floor while I petted her, and we enjoyed each other’s affections for a few moments before she rejoined the others and disappeared again among the scrubby trees that covered the hillside.

The apartment’s owner was a large man. I lived among his possessions, sliding into bed next to enormous slippers, a giant bathrobe draped over the bedpost. I felt like Goldilocks, occupying a stolen space, living in the impression of a man, as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. But of course I was, wasn’t I?

copyright Mindy Haskins Rogers

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