Thursday, May 21, 2009
Le Perche, a very well kept secret!
People ask us if we have any horror stories associated with buying our house in Montmirail, or if our workmen abandoned us in the middle of our remodeling job. Friends and clients are curious to know if we’re treated like outsiders in our village or if the local people resent our presence. We’ve heard a lot of uncomfortable stories of Americans being the targets of unscrupulous contractors or passive aggressive neighbors. Invariably, these cautionary tales happen to Anglophones who settle in the south of France. There are entire towns in the south where the population is primarily either English or American. We’ve met people who’ve lived in France for 8 or 10 years and have never had the occasion to learn the language. They work with and for expatriates like themselves. Of course they also pay more for the real estate and drive up the prices. In a sense, one can’t blame the locals for being a bit annoyed. We have never had any kind of problem in France based on being American. In fact we’ve had the really good fortune to have nothing but delightful and helpful neighbors and extremely competent and very reasonable contractors. Northern France is a wonderful place to live and we are some of the very few Americans in our area. The villagers of Montmirail are happy to have us inhabit the beautiful house they all take pride in, and we have never experienced any negative feelings directed at us. People are open, very polite and patient with our less-than-perfect French language skills. In our region, one seldom sees tour buses and there aren’t long lines of foreign visitors queued up in the heat to catch a glimpse of some famous object or landscape. You see few people clutching guides books to their chests; traffic jams are few and far between. When we sent Rick Steves our web site address last year, he liked what he saw but couldn’t locate us on a map. When we told him we were in Le Perche, he had never heard of it. He was unwilling to come visit us because, he said, he can only keep current on the sites already in their guide books. In other words, guide books tend to replay the same old sites over and over again. This is one reason that, to foreigners, our area is almost unknown. On the other hand, to Parisians, the name Le Perche has a magical ring. It conjures up rolling green hills, deep forests, gently flowing rivers and always the idea of good food and relaxation. One city nearby, Bellême, is jokingly referred to as the 22nd arrondissement of Paris because so many Parisians have country homes. This Parisian influence on the area is fortuitous since it means there are great restaurants, charming shops and healthy economies which keep the villages vibrant. Someone once said of president Eisenhower’s project to create a freeway system from the east to the west coast of the U.S., after the war, that it was an accomplishment which allowed one to travel the entire width of the country without actually ever seeing anything. Much the same happened in France, when the autoroute system was completed during the early 70s, the Perche was passed by and it fell into a sleepy obscurity. This area was always on the frontier between English Normandy and the French Loire Valley, so its history is one of neutrality. There is a genuine peacefulness one feels in the gentle landscape. Its greatest claim to fame had always been the development of those large, gorgeous Percheron horses, bred for the crusades and for knights with their heavy metal armor. Now the Perche has become a kind of haven for back-to-the-land, city weary but very well-educated Parisian entrepreneurs. The organic food movement here is smart and enthusiastic. Cheese, lamb, produce, even snails, are all local specialties, but the most renowned product is the Baguette du Perche. One of our clients, a French businessman who lives in Singapore but who has friends in the area and stays with us frequently, remarked at breakfast the last morning we saw him that there is nothing like a baguette in any other part of the world. It cannot be duplicated. The famous Perche baguette is made with organic wheat, grown and milled locally. One of our favorite local producers bakes hundreds of loaves of bread at a time in his traditional wood-fired oven, using all the techniques and tools that have existed for hundreds of years. The recipe really can’t be improved upon. Gourmet magazine did an article about the Baguette du Perche last May and the New York times published a really nice article about the region in March 2007. http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/travel/tmagazine/03well.perche.t.html