Review: Four Seasons in a Day, by Deborah Jacobs, an escape to France

"Dressed in a Bretagne striped shirt, red apron and beret Basque, the vendor was waiting on other customers when I slid into the line behind them. I thought I had gone unnoticed. Then he interrupted his sales pitch, picked up a wheel of cheese from which he had cut a large wedge, held it close to my face and said, "Madame posez votre nez dans ce fromage!" (Put your nose in this cheese!)

So begins a delightful anecdote in Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call HomeDeborah Jacobs' sensual real-life tale of escape from a nightmarish "Content Mill" job in New York to an Airbnb life fraught with misadventures in France's Loire Valley, the  Basque Country and Paris.  A how-to for anybody who dreams of funding a live-abroad life via the "sharing economy," this travel memoir recently made the Wall Street Journal's list of "Best Books About Healthy Aging."

If you fantasize about escape into the exotic but worry about language barriers, you'll be glad to know Deborah and her husband, Ken, aren't terribly skilled in French. Yet they are game, always game. They can't actually return home, since they've rented out their Brooklyn dwelling. For three months they battle passive-aggressive landladies, cleaners who don't clean, antiquated electrical systems that suddenly fail and door locks from hell.  I'm sure they would do it all over again.

You just know Deborah will put her nose in that cheese--and be all the better for it. "Apparently it didn't bother the customers ahead of me. They bought half the cheese. Then I bought what had become my usual amount, which was "une petite tranche" (a small slice)."

When she returns home, Ken asks why she needs yet more sheep's milk cheese, when she has six other chunks at the house. She says it's for the same reason he keeps tasting Gauteaux Basque, the local cake. Because they're in France, not Brooklyn. Because they can.

I treasure the priceless encounters with the landladies, the desperate phone calls, the times when everything goes wrong and Ken and Deborah must rely only on themselves. I love the fact that they didn't settle in Provence but in areas less discovered by foreigners.  I enjoyed seeing these newer landscapes through their eyes and was happy for them when they fled the disappointing "winemaker's cottage" in the Loire and found a charming, drama-laden home in the Pyrenees, with easy access to those fabulous cheeses and cakes.

They return home with far too much baggage, including a two-handled griddle, a French Press and other new essentials, to discover that their Brooklyn home is a bit worse for wear. But whose house is not? They've learned how to make a cepe (mushroom) omelet, decipher obscure French phrases via Google translator, use GPS to explore the beaches of Biarritz, San Sebastian and St.Jean-de-Luz. They know that boulangeries close for two hours at lunchtime, that canned foods can be spectacular, that the French will appreciate your faulty attempts to speak their language. 

Back in her Brooklyn house, where she is sorting out home repair problems, Jacobs writes nostalgically of the welcome her landlady Laurence gave in a white-washed manor house of the Basque style near the village of Sare:

 "We took another lap around the apartment to soak up the details. There was cross-stitchery everywhere from the family monogram on the lampshades and window shades to the hand towel in the W.C. Laurence had left us a jar of homemade pate, a basket of walnuts (the tree in front of the house was dropping its fruit) and a bottle of 2008 Bordeaux. She had stocked the refrigerator with bread, butter, juice and jam for our first breakfast."

I'm happy to report that Deborah never returns to "The Content Mill."

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