CASE CLOSED Febuary 2005

The Glory of the Low Road

Home, home on the lowest byway of a medieval French village, where the glassware has bubbles and the wines are quite cloudy all day.

I live on rue Plus Basse, "the lowest low road," in Biot, a medieval hilltop village in the south of France. When I give my address to a Federal Express or DHL delivery employee, I am greeted with the same insolent chuckle. "Rue plus basse?" they scoff, as if my place of residence was permanently pancaked at the bottom of the cultural cosmos.

What they don’t know is that life on the "lowest low road" is better than on rue Basse ("the low road"), the street immediately above mine. For one thing, rue Basse is open to vehicular traffic, but only if the vehicle in question is approximately the same size as the mules the narrow corridor was originally engineered to accommodate. SUV owners (usually with British plates) frequently wedge themselves between the walls, trapping residents who are no longer able to exit their front doors. But houses on rue Plus Basse have better views of the Cap d’Antibes lighthouse and they have bigger gardens. Mine is fitted with a iron grape arbor put in by my grandmother many decades ago.

But the best perk of the lowest low road is Dominique Pradelli, the 84-year-old self-appointed custodian of my grape arbor, an avid collector and the happiest human I have ever met. He was installed by my grandmother, although I am not familiar with their agreement. All I know is Dominique has, and always has had, the keys to my house.
When the lavender blooms, he lets himself in to collect the flowers that he sells to local sachet artisans. When the citrus trees hang heavy with fruit, he comes by to collect it for his daughter’s marmalades. And when the grapes reach maturity, Dominique quietly materializes in the wee hours of the morning to harvest them, sparing not a single cluster. One evening he helped himself to chairs from my house to lend to neighbors who had asked too many people to dinner. Every so often, I find little mounds of fava beans or tomatoes from his garden at my doorstep in exchange for his pilfering.

I learned that Dominique holds the keys to most of the houses on rue Plus Basse. Each morning he makes his way down to initiate the gardening mandate that neither my neighbors nor I have ever questioned.

If he’s not harvesting, he’s planting. I often find random vine clippings from someone else’s garden protruding from my soil in tucked-away corners.

He wears plastic Carrefour sandals and the ubiquitous Provençal beret atop his leathery, sun-soaked face. Dominique’s wife, Marie, uses a walker and can’t leave their house because of the stairs. He brings her food and medicine. His daughter, Hélène, is the elementary school teacher but never had children of her own. Biot’s Pradelli line ends with Dominique.

Each afternoon he heads to the boules court for a game of pétanque (a bowling-like game popular in the south of France). He was once the Biot boules champion but today that honor goes to a group he cryptically refers to as the "bohemians." They have stronger arms and more time to practice, he says. "Il faudrait avoir trente ans de mois," (if only I was 30 years younger) is his standard refrain.

The bohemians are not the only inhabitants with extra time in a town that doles out the easy life. If anything of significance happens in Biot, it occurs in the small space that separates its two social pillars: the Café de la Poste and the Tabac (cigarette vendor). The biggest industry is hand-blown glass. Biot glass is distinguished by millions of tiny air bubbles locked within its chunky, approximative forms. Once a friend from Venice inspected my collection and announced, unimpressed, "In Murano, bubbles are a considered a defect."

This year I decided to find out what Dominique does with my grapes. I walked up to his cluttered cave and found him working over vats containing varieties of varying hues and sizes. Enthused by my interest, he listed his treasures: Petit Framboise, Muscat, Clairette, Chasselas, Coudere, Aramon, Seibel and Seyve Villard. He had collected the fruit from the many gardens of Biot, sometimes harvesting two or three clusters per property. "I drink half a liter of wine per day," he says matter-of-factly. "Ca fait marche le coeur." (It keeps the heart pumping).

I also found Biot’s communal memory bank in Dominique’s cave. It was stuffed tight with relics of my village: a rusted railing from rue Basse, a neighbor’s cracked flower pots, my grandmother’s forgotten refrigerator and floor tiles identical to the ones in my bedroom.
There was a gift on my doorstep this morning: Dominique had left his Biotois blend in an old soda bottle with a ceramic top. I poured some. Its cloudy orange color was graciously masked by the little bubbles in my glass. I raised a toast to life on the lowest low road.

Published on February 1, 2005