Alfred Sisley, La Terrasse à Saint-Germain, Printemps, 1875.
One summer, a woman I know worked at a farm in the French countryside. I know this because I rented her Brooklyn apartment while she was gone, a massive space owned by a family of mysterious busybodies in a building filled with unsavory characters. My friend was enrolled in a program that places volunteers on farms around the world in exchange for room and board; the estate where she ended up had vineyards and produced a small amount of wine.
The estate was large and beautiful and decrepit, and owned by a titled Englishwoman who claimed to be descended from royalty on the wrong side of the blanket, plus a number of minor literary figures. This woman was tall and imposing and draped in robes, and followed at all times by a pair of wolfhounds.
The volunteers did work in the vineyard by day. At night, their hostess demanded entertainment. Each evening brought with it an amateur theatrical, a series of tableaux vivants, a concert. It became clear that no one was there by accident; their hostess had reviewed all the volunteer applications and selected only those guests who had some sort of theatrical or artistic background. My friend, who had attended art school, was made wardrobe mistress. She also had to perform in a production of The Swan. After the end of a long day in the fields, this was the last thing anyone felt like doing, but the hostess would brook no opposition.
And her demands did not end there. Dinner table conversation was closely regulated. Topics were dictated; one did not speak unless addressed. When one did speak, it was with trepidation: one could not know what seemingly innocent mistake might send their hostess into a rage. One of these was the use of the word blanket. Another was any mention of the weather. Her particular bête noire, however, was the telling of anecdotes. It was absolutely forbidden to relate any story in which the speaker himself was not the protagonist. No my friend did this or I heard about that—no, if you wanted to tell such a story, you were well advised to place it in the first person, and sharpish.
The summer dragged on. The castle was very cold at night and fraternization was strictly forbidden. My friend engaged in a secret romance, partially out of defiance.
Then one day in August, two boys arrived. Canadian nineteen-year-olds. They had not been handpicked; they came from a nearby farm that was overstaffed. The hostess was visibly displeased. At table that evening, the atmosphere was tense. The new visitors were happily oblivious, chattering away; they spoke without being spoken to, they commented on the wet weather, they may have mentioned blankets.
Then one of the Canadian nineteen-year-olds launched into a story.
“And so this one time, my cousin—”
“No,” said the hostess calmly.
The boy looked confused. “Sorry, I just wanted to tell about this one time—” he continued.
“No!” she said again.
“But, my cousin—”
“BO-RING!” she sang out. “Nobody wants to hear about your cousin!”
And that was that. Order was restored.
“And,” said my friend, “she was right.”
She was. And in fact, it is a good rule to live by, though I know I’m breaking it now. But I’m being honest when I say it didn’t happen to me. I was back in Brooklyn, living in my friend’s apartment. And that is a story for another day.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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