Christie’s Trip to Nohant
Nohant, France, summer of 1951
It was with trepidation that Christie dropped the note in Franz’s hotel box telling him the time and date she and Roger would be visiting Nohant. He had suggested the visit to the country home of George Sand, several hours from Paris, since Christie was writing her master’s thesis on the writer. “One day at her country home would be worth two weeks of research in the library,” he said. She knew he was right, but she was apprehensive about traveling alone with this journalist she had only recently met. She decided to bring her adviser, Roger, along.
When Christie descended the spiral stairway of her Paris hotel ten minutes late, she saw Franz in a freshly ironed white shirt and chinos, an army bag slung over his shoulder. “Where’s Roger?” she asked.
“He’s coming,” Franz said, gesturing out the lobby window to Roger huffing and puffing up the street. Franz led the two of them on a fast pace to the Austerlitz train station. Roger was pink from the exertion, and Christie, wearing her new red pumps, had to slow Franz down.
“Boy, when you put your mind on something, you go at it full steam ahead,” she said as soon as she caught her breath.
“But I can slow down for you,” Franz said.
“Bien,” Roger whispered as he limped along behind them. “Yes, I have also noticed that about you,” Roger said. “You make a powerful argument because of your one-track persistence. You always get where you are going.”
As usual Roger hit the nail on the head. She realized that today Franz’s determination was directed at her. He wanted her and he was pulling out all the stops to impress her. She couldn’t help being flattered.
It was during her coffee klatch discussion group in the Café de Flore when she first saw Franz sitting at another table. She felt his stares. She got up to go to the loo. He followed. He stood across from her in the narrow alcove. A tall man with wavy, dark-brown hair. He was sweating profusely. She didn’t know how she could make him so nervous. She invited him to her table. It didn’t take her long to know that she would love him. Yet she held him at bay.
Franz looked very dapper in his tan chinos and white shirt, Christie thought. His shirt sleeves were rolled up high. His arms were not big but very muscular.
“Back in Flore when I first met you, you mentioned how you grew up on your uncle’s farm and not your parents’ farm. What happened to your parents?” she asked.
“My parents died when I was young…nine when my father died and ten with my mother. It was then that I started playing baseball. I felt alone and I knew I had to be good at something and baseball was it. Life is often a challenge, just like baseball.”
Christie’s father left when she was two. She never knew him but she always felt she had to find out what happened to him. At nine years old her mother, in Mississippi, sent her north to New York to live with her aunt and uncle. That Franz experienced similar pain made him vulnerable and more attractive. He’s a lonely man, Christie concluded.
As Franz dozed and Roger continued his nap, she had her chance to look at Franz. She stared and leaned slightly closer to get a better look. She never had the chance to really look at a white man close up. His taupe complexion was weathered from hours on the playing field and farmyard years. His dark-brown hair was growing out of a cheap haircut. He seemed to have a slight hint of a smile as he slept. She wanted to touch his face, to experience its feeling. Would his skin be rough or smooth? The face of a white man was new to her. She caught a whiff from him of what seemed like a fresh smell. Could it be the odors of the grassy meadows, the dandelions in spring and the powerful westerly wind that had caused these smells to seep into his very being? For that solitary moment he ceased to be a white man. She saw him napping under a huge Delta willow tree with his pants rolled up, a large straw hat strung over his face shielding him from the powerful afternoon sun. Just the way she had seen her colored men as a child in Mississippi.
The gentle roar of the train gradually brought her back to the present. At Chateauroux they learned they would have to wait two hours for the bus to Nohant. Christie watched in amazement as Franz created a hitchhiking sign and stood the three of them at the crossroad just north of the village. A three-wheeled cycle stopped for them. Christie cringed as Franz paid the driver for the ride with two packs of Camels. They stopped at a local store to buy lunch, long, skinny loaves of bread, creamy Camembert, and an apple tart for dessert. Franz had bought some wine, which they passed around as they ate.
Christie was surprised when he touched her. She later wondered if he was aware of what he was doing as he swiped his finger across her cheek and then her mouth. He then stuck his finger in his mouth and slowly sucked it clean. “Your cheese tastes good,” he said with a laugh. Christie was beginning to see that Franz was eager for physical intimacy.
Nohant was a disappointment. Christie had expected a beautiful house with tended lawns. Instead it was a rickety chateau with very few furnishings except panels in one room that Sand installed to keep out the noise when her lover, Frederic Chopin, practiced the piano.
“I read that they will be restoring the house and surroundings as a museum,” Franz said. “Christie, stand there, in front of the house. I want to get this shot for my article…no, further left toward the door.” Franz stepped back, holding his hands up to form a frame. “You did something different with your hair today. I really like it braided and twisted in front. It’s very beautiful.”
“I experiment a lot with different styles…but thanks.”
Christie thought about how she must look with her blue skirt, white blouse, and cardigan sweater. That morning she had braided her hair in two and then pulled the braids over the front of her head, pinning them on the side. It seemed like she had hit the jackpot. That pleased her.
Franz’s enthusiasm continued. “Christie, come see! Here is her private chapel!” he called to her. She walked down the dirt path to join him. The roof was made of red tiles, and the building had been stuccoed with masonry cement to keep the beautiful stone façade from falling in. Roger remained outside, sitting peacefully on the grass. The tiny chapel was cool and dark. Franz took two candles and placed some coins in the receptacle.
“Who are the candles for, Franz?”
“You know, for Mom and Dad.” Franz held out two more candles for Christie. She lit them and placed them on the candle rack. They were for her mom and dad as well: for her father, whom she never had known, and for her mother, whom she knew less and less each year. The candles fluttered in the slight breeze as they sat in silence.
Sitting peacefully next to Franz in this old-world chapel gave Christie a sense of reverence. She remembered watching the gull in the harbor as her ship steamed toward France a month ago. She had wished so hard to be free like that gull, but something held her back, like a tether keeping a falcon from flight. She had tried some freedom, risking friendships with white people like her cabin-mate, Maureen, and Roger. She said a little prayer of thanksgiving for the courage that had enabled her to take some chances. Though she knew that this was her chance to pray for more of that freedom, she could not. Franz’s whiteness was not merely a color but a state of being as well. She was afraid to let go of who she was.
Sensing that Franz wanted to be alone, she stepped outside. Beside the chateau Roger, always ready for a good meal, had already spread the blanket out on the grass. The mosquitoes and midges buzzed around Christie as she sat down with him.
“So you are finding something to like about l’Américain?” Roger teased.
Christie nearly choked on the wine Rogers had given her. “What do you mean?”
“You are not standing off from him as you do in Paris. It is always a good idea to change locations because we come to let our spaces define us. Here you are getting to know your great heroine, and Franz is getting to know you.”
Franz returned. “What’s up?”
“It is lovely here,” Christie answered. “It’s interesting that Sand spent half the year here and the other half in Paris.”
“I think that the pastoral life here brought her close to the people,” Franz said. “As she walked in this village and prayed in this chapel, she came to understand how the common people of France lived. The crowing of the cocks in the morning, the horse carts bumbling over the cobblestone streets, and the men walking to the field with scythes drawn over their shoulders at dawn and then returning upon dusk to their tiny cottages. There is a rhythm to life here that corresponds to the land, the sun, and the rain.”
“But what about when she returned to Paris?” Christie asked.
“Paris was cosmopolitan, the place of ideas. It had its rules, just like the rules of nature, except that these rules were man-made. They were constructs to maintain the privileges of the haves against the have-nots. And she rebelled against them,” Franz said.
Christie smiled. Franz knew how to woo her intellectually.
Once they got back to town, they discovered that the trains were on strike. A short walk down the narrow country road, they arrived at a stone house with a small barn to the right and some goats inside a fence. Madame Blanchard, a stocky figure wearing a work apron over her dress and a scarf to hold back her gray hair, spoke to Roger in rapid French. He turned and said, “She has only one room to let. She will rent it to us for six hundred balles.”
Franz got the price down to three packs of Camels if they would milk her goats and clean their stalls. The earnestness of his negotiations made Christie laugh. This Franz really was a home boy!
She helped the old woman in the kitchen while Roger and Franz changed into loose work clothes. They looked like the Negro sharecroppers in the Delta that Christie had known as a girl. She was pretty sure that Franz knew what he was doing in the farmyard, but she worried about Roger’s manicured nails. Once dinner was ready, Madame Blanchard called the men to the yard, where they stripped down, and she splashed water on them to remove the stink and the mud. When Christie came out with towels, the men turned away in embarrassment, but Madame Blanchard saw nothing unusual about bathing full-grown men in the raw.
But Christie had already seen all and she was not disappointed. Franz’s body was sculptured, muscular, almost like a Greek statue. He wasn’t hairy, which she liked. Although she should not have been evaluating his body, she did, and enjoyed every minute of it. His penis was, well, pretty nice and he wasn’t circumcised. Fact is, she couldn’t stop thinking of what she saw. She had seen those pointed penises in paintings and sculptures but never for real. The Baptist in Christie told her to put Franz’s penis out of her mind. But the woman in her wanted the image to stay. So it stayed.
At dinner Franz didn’t seem embarrassed. Since they missed the main meal of the day at noon, Madame Blanchard served a cold dinner of rich garlic soup, ham, pâté, tomatoes, and pear tarts for dessert. After their hard work Roger and Franz seemed to devour everything, especially the country bread served in an abundant quantity. Franz tore a piece of baguette, dipped it in his soup, and, with three fingers, slid it into his mouth. He chewed with determination. Christie tried not to stare at him but she did. She admired the gusto with which he ate.
After Christie helped her clean up, Madame Blanchard brought out bottles of pinard for the fine work the men did in the stalls. “Santé!” she said as she downed the first glass. The wine flowed all evening long. Roger fell into deep discussion with Madame Blanchard over the ingredients she used for the meal while Franz and Christie made small talk.
“You seem to be enjoying your stay in Paris,” Franz said. “What do you do when you’re not in seminars or studying? Surely you must have some free time?”
“I read a lot, write letters home. I just sent a bunch of postcards to my students from last year. I promised them that I would.”
Roger stumbled by them on his way into the bedroom. A moment later Franz went in to check on him.
“He’s out, Christie,” he reported when he returned. “Your friend’s okay. I know that he’s an aristocratic kind of guy, so that wasn’t easy work for him. I appreciate that.”
Christie yawned right in his face. “I want to tell you all my adventures, Franz, but right now I’m so tired that I can hardly move. I think I will turn in. You should do the same.”
They stood and Franz walked toward Christie. Standing apart for what seemed like a long time, he leaned over to kiss her. Instinctively she turned her head. Franz dropped his head and walked quickly into the bedroom. He struggled to get into bed next to Roger while Christie crawled in the other little bed. She could see that Franz, good-looking and on the move, would be in a position to hurt her. She needed more time to get to know him. Already she had noticed that he was a loner. A country boy who was intelligent and eager to learn about the world. And he was white. None of her girlfriends, nor any woman she knew in Harlem, had ever crossed that line. She closed her eyes and tried to review the day she had just spent with him. Already she had learned two important things about Franz: that he cared about his family and believed in God. And that comforted her. She fell asleep in a flurry of romantic images and confused feelings.
* * *
Christie woke early. She took her clothes to the creaky old faucet in the back and stripped down to wash herself. Mme. Blanchard had laid out a cloth and a basin. She was stepping into her panties when she felt Franz’s eyes on her. “So sorry,” Franz said. He was still half-asleep at the door.
“Turn around,” she cried. Franz stepped back into the bedroom.
Roger was awakened by her cry. “Ahh, we have a Peeping Tom,” he teased Franz.
Roger chuckled appreciatively and Franz joined in. Mme. Blanchard looked mystified. Christie did not know whether it was because they were speaking English or whether seeing someone naked was no big deal to the old French lady. Christie wondered how much of her Franz saw. And more importantly, did he like what he saw?
Christie had enjoyed getting to know Mme. Blanchard and was sorry they had to rush for the train. On the way to the station, they passed a flea market. Christie picked out a low-cut gypsy blouse with ruffles at the shoulders. She went in the back of the stall to try it on. When she came out to pay, she realized that Franz had already bought it for her.
“Used my handy cigarettes again.” And then Franz looked at her. He paused. “Christie, you are a very beautiful woman. I wanted to tell you that,” he stammered before he walked away. That moment of intimacy had passed but its imprint on Christie remained.
Franz and Roger were both sleeping as the train rumbled along. How could men sleep so easily? Christie wondered. She could not stop herself from looking at Franz. It had been so much fun with the two of them, but she suspected that once she was alone with Franz, he was going to make demands on her that she was not sure she would be able to deliver just yet.
At Austerlitz Station Roger declined to hike with Franz and Christie, preferring to take a taxi to the Sorbonne. Franz and Christie walked over to her hotel. “Christie, I’d love to show you the sights of Paris when you are free…”
“Franz, I need to catch up on my writing since I lost two days at Nohant. You’re staying at the Hotel Soufflot, right? I’ll drop you a note when I have a little time.”
“It’s right over there,” he said, pointing north from her street. “I will be waiting to hear from you.”
Christie was ready to go up to her room, but Franz stood there, tongue-tied, exactly as he had been at the flea market when he was trying to tell her how beautiful she was. Christie wondered if he wanted to say something or maybe even kiss her. But he didn’t do either of those things. Instead he turned around and walked away.
Franz wrote her many notes that summer. He wanted to show her the sights of Paris. To spend time with her. And to show his love for her. Christie could not let go of who she was. She never saw him again.
* * *
Nohant, France, summer of 1971
Christie strolled through the Sand Chateau. It had been transformed into a beautiful museum. Cautiously she entered the tiny chapel where she had sat with Franz twenty years before. But this time she was alone. She had gotten her PhD, one of only a handful of Negro women who had done so in 1956. Franz had told her, that summer long ago, that she had stolen his heart and would not let it go. She had never had a chance to hold his hand or even kiss him. But she knew how much he loved her and she him. Now he was gone. There had been some men since Franz. In the beginning all were like her. As she sat alone in the chapel, she prayed for the freedom to be free. Now she was with Steven. He did not have the fresh smell of the country and meadows like Franz. He was a city man, a professor from West End Avenue. A Jewish man. She was tired of being alone. She would try to love him, the way she had loved Franz.
Max Bayer has a BA from City College of New York and a PhD from Rutgers University, and he currently works as a health care consultant. His short stories and essays have appeared in Silk Road: A Literary Crossroads, Carbon Culture Review, Existere Journal, Forge Journal, Adelaide Literary Journal, and Streetlight Magazine. Max has also worked in the Peace Corps.