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Apartment Swapping

Christopher Corr

Photo: Christopher Corr

Roast ducks hung in many of the neighborhood restaurant windows. "What are those nasty things?" Megan had asked the first day. She later devoured much of one with gusto. Peking duck, Paris-style, became a cultural lesson. The waiter wheeled the duck over to the table and began carving. When he had gotten the fatty skin off—the part you generally try to avoid—he presented it to us, along with a plateful of warm pancakes the size of half-dollars. "Where's the rest of the duck?" groused my husband, while we scarfed down the measly scraps. Finished, we called for the check. That's when they brought the second course: a thick, rich duck stew. And then the third: pan-fried noodles with duck.

After a week we decided to take some country air, so we eased the van out of the garage and made our way to the Peroux's Burgundian village, Villon. From the instant we could see the stone church rising, just past the sunflower fields, we were in love. Their vine-covered house, dating from the early 19th century and built as a presbytery (its original church stood across the street), was as large and rambling as the Paris apartment was small and compact. Jean-Michel had left us a welcoming bottle of 1996 Domaine Laroche chablis. We lifted a glass to his family.

As busy as Paris had been, Villon was absolutely still. From our bedroom window we could see sunflowers and haystacks, and a changing palette of Monet colors. The first dusk, as the sky darkened from rose to violet to deep blue, a new moon appeared.

There were only 85 people in town, so we quickly became a curiosity. Our neighbors across the road, the woman who is the Peroux's caretaker and a man who sells wine in a nearby shop, advised us where to go for the best wine-tastings, and seemed very pleased with our passion for all things French. The old couple in the corner house waved each morning as I jogged by. Megan and Nick spoke shyly—in French—to village children, who replied—shyly—in English.

For my morning run, I found a dirt lane between hayfields. A bicycle provided Fran with a look at back roads. Best of all, perhaps, the country gave the kids some needed space. They scaled stone walls and played tag on the church green. Tonnerre, about 15 miles away, was where we bought groceries for a fraction of what they cost in Paris. Each day a truck would pull up to the church, and a crowd would gather alongside. From the back hatch, the driver sold fresh baked goods one day, dairy products another, meat (including pâtés) another, and general groceries yet another. For our dinners at home, Megan and Nick helped fix trays of bread and cheeses (goat, Camembert, Brie) and grilled meat and vegetables—pork or veal or whatever roast looked good that day, along with asparagus, eggplant, or brussels sprouts—and carried it out to the garden.

Burgundy, of course, is all about wine. By late summer, vineyards heavy with grapes line the roads around towns with famous names such as Chablis, Beaune, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Nuits-Saint-Georges. Wine cellars are open for tastings and purchases; and champagne country is just down the road. At one vineyard, a woman wearing a navy Chanel suit and heels, with matching burgundy nail polish and lipstick, showed us to a private living room. She started to pour four glasses of champagne until the children politely declined. During our stay we visited Dijon, famous for its mustard, and hiked in the Parc du Morvan. We stopped in extraordinary medieval towns and watched house barges inch down canals. And, of course, we drank too much great wine.

Five days later, with real sadness, we stripped the beds, cleaned out the fridge, locked up, and returned to Paris for our last two days. The woman at our corner boulangerie greeted us with a grin and a free baguette. We called Jean-Michel to make sure everything was okay back in Boston. It was—they'd found Cape Cod, Concord, Boston's North End, many museums, the South Shore Plaza mall, and some "real American meals." We confessed to the dent in the bumper. "That's okay," Jean-Michel said, "I'm sure you noticed the bigger one I put in it." Whew!


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