We have been telling ourselves for some time that we really ought to invest in a good sofa-bed, to put up extra visitors or Walksweeks guests. And endlessly putting it off. It’s not easy to motivate yourself for this kind of purchase when you live in the middle of nowhere. There are no huge furniture warehouse chains in France, no frenetic TV advertising in the run up to Christmas (why?) and in any case we haven’t got a television. Add to that the fact that French furniture makers have for some years followed an unfortunate trend, set by the up-market Roche Bobois, for sofas with such deep seats that your guests are obliged to sprawl almost flat to reach the back, and so tend to perch uneasily on the edge of the seat, whilst you pass them cushions in an attempt to make them look and feel more comfortable. No, we didn’t want to get caught out like that again!
Of course there is always the trusty Ikea, and indeed we have turned to them many times and always been pleased with the results, but it’s a trek to our nearest store, too much hassle for now, so we kept putting it off. In any case the questions just mounted up: could we get it delivered? would it go up the stairs? what colour? what to do with the old one? (a rash purchase at the first auction we ever attended, almost immediately regretted) . . . and so on.
And then I was passing La Maison Richard in Lamastre, a family run establishment which sells everything from sewing cotton to furniture, and spotted what looked like a very possible sofa in the window, reduced by 100 €. A few days later Markus came to have a look and realised that it was indeed a canapé convertible. We went inside to investigate. It turned out to be perfect, made in France, reasonably priced, comfortable, with a human-dimensioned seat and a high back, and amazingly easy to transform into a full sized bed with just one flick of the wrist. No cushions to store and a very comfy mattress: c‘est un Dunlopillo confirmed Monsieur. Deal done.
Could they deliver? Mais certainement! Would that evening be convenient? (it was about half past three) Perfect. Would we mind if they came after they had closed the shop as Madame likes to go out for a spin after spending the day indoors? Yes they would take away the old one for recycling, no we didn’t need to pay, we could write a cheque later. What address? We started to explain that we are les Sarziers not Sarzier but Madame stopped us. Of course I know she said, I was born in the house!
Yes, it’s another of these stories, but each one adds a little to the history of our life at les Sarziers.
They rolled up at about seven and made very short work of getting the new sofa upstairs, re-assembling it, showing us how it works and stowing away the old one in their van. Then we settled down in the kitchen and Markus opened a bottle of Brice’s wine from the La Mouna vineyard in Empurany. They took one sip, looked at each other and exclaimed “c’est exactement comme le Gamay du grand-père!” They explained that Madame was only eight months old when her father died and the family left the farm. Her mother needed to complete her nursing training and so the baby was looked after by her maternal grandparents, who lived above the village of Empurany. Grandpa must have been quite a character, to judge by the stories they told us.
In the 1920s he travelled with with his ox cart to the Beaujolais, north of Lyon, to buy Gamay plants for his vineyard. Arlebosc and Empurany were well known at the time as winegrowing villages and Gamay was, and still is, the favoured varietal. Goodness, we said, how long did it take to get there? Oh about a week, they replied, adding that it was just as well that the oxen knew their way on the final stretch of the return journey, since there had been a lengthy pause at the village café to celebrate the event, and le Davidou had to rely on them to get him safely home with his precious load.
Later on he had a 2CV which he was liable to drive off the road because he was always interested to check on his neighbour’s crops and animals and was inclined to “turn the steering wheel the same way as his gaze”. He once famously “harvested” a neighbour’s wheat with his Deudeuche, by driving through a patch without noticing!
He drank only his own wine, which he also supplied to all the neighbouring restaurants and cafés, not forgetting his own family. When his older sister had to go into a nursing home he kept up the supply until she died at a ripe old age. He himself died about 15 years ago, accidentally as they said, at the age of 94!
Madame’s husband also lost his parents at a relatively young age and he too was brought up by his grandparents. They both remarked that they were fortunate to have known their grandfathers, since so many of that generation did not return from the Great War and frequently their contemporaries never knew theirs. This particular young man had lied about his age in 1914 – he was 16 – and joined up so as not to be separated from his older brother. They both only expected to be away for a few months (“over by Christmas”) and instead spent four years at the front. Both brothers survived the battle of Verdun, which lasted from February to December of 1916, claiming 360,000 French lives, and is remembered by French people as the defining battle of WW1.
The family business will celebrate its centenary next year, having been founded by the grandfather in Lamastre in 1920. They started out as matelassiers and Monsieur told us how he and his boss would travel each year to distant farms to remake some of the family mattresses. As he said, with families of fourteen or so, there was always the need. These were wool mattresses which the family would have unstitched, before taking out the wool and washing it – some people better than others, he added dryly. Then the wool was re carded and the mattress remade, with 3 or 4 kilos of new wool added to each. He certainly knows all about mattress making, and his approving comment of le Dunlopillo took on new significance for us.
I have always found Madame to be a trifle intimidating, although she has an unbeatable eye for matching colours when it comes to zips and thread, but on this occasion I discovered her softer side and passed her the tissues as she looked around the kitchen and tried to picture the father and the family life she had never known. They stayed for a couple of hours and as they rose to leave, the carefully prepared, hand written invoice was produced and we made out the cheque (everyone uses cheques for everything here, even in the market).
After they had gone we reflected on the enormous difference there is between this sort of transaction and the “couple of clicks”, totally automated kind. La Maison Richard will not continue after this generation as both their daughters are trained district nurses and love their jobs – so crucial to rural areas like ours. But as long as local businesses like this exist it is a real pleasure to have an opportunity to support them. We are delighted with our new sofa, and just as delighted with the experience of purchasing it.
PS. A while back we noticed this rather saucy description on a double mattress, displayed outside the shop. So French!