Several readers have asked about the dog who lived at the Château de Montclair during my stint as an au pair in 1979. Fabien was an endearing, scruffy, shepherd mix who lived outdoors, except in the winter months. The children, especially Antoine, loved the dog, but most everyone else either ignored him or shoved him aside. Some days, he was a “hazard” and this excerpt from my memoir, French Illusions: My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley depicts this sentiment perfectly. In this scene, Marie (a domestic helper at the chateau) and I are tending to the laundry.
“Three hours later, the two of us walked out into the brilliant sunshine, a basket of wet clothes between us. We strode unhurried along a familiar path, with Fabien leading the way. He was in a playful mood, barking as he pranced around us, but we didn’t dare encourage him around the baskets of clean clothes.
Along the way, I attempted some conversation, throwing in a few French phrases I had learned during the past few weeks. “Il fait beau, n’est-ce pas?” When in doubt, lead with the weather.
“Ah, oui, il fait beau.”
I swallowed and went on to the next time-hallowed subject: health. “Et comment allez-vous? Comment va votre santé?”
Marie’s lips twitched with amusement. “Ma santé est parfaite,” she confirmed. My health is perfect.
“C’est bien,” I said politely before offering a positive opinion about myself: “Je suis aussi en bonne santé.”
It didn’t take long to exhaust my repertoire, but I was pleased when, five minutes later, Marie told me my French was improving and congratulated me on my progress: “C’est bien, Mademoiselle. Votre français s’améliore!”
Buoyed by her declaration, I reverted to pointing and asking her the words for plants, trees, and other things as we walked along. Both of us laughed aloud as she corrected my pronunciation and tried, without success, to get me to roll my r’s.
When we reached our destination, Marie picked a few items out of the basket and pinned them to the line, showing me the best way to hang the wet garments. From time to time, we worked as a team, folding over sheets so they wouldn’t touch the ground. Periodically, a gust of wind materialized, and the clothes billowed on the line blowing a fresh scent our way.
Fabien trotted over at one point and barked at us, trying to entice one of us to play with him. When he lunged toward the washing, Marie screamed, ran in front of the basket and spread out her arms. “Fabien, sors d’ici! Tout de suite!”
Defeated, he strolled over to a grassy patch close by, plopped down and watched us with sad eyes. Once we completed our task, I encouraged Marie to return to the house while I stayed behind with Fabien. For twenty minutes, I hurled a stick for him to fetch until he detoured over to a birch tree to rest. When I took off toward home, he ran to my side, his tail wagging as he escorted me home.”