The expression joie de vivre might have been invented for my dad.
Harold Wright served in World War II, married, had kids, and in 1954, while still in the Air Force, was assigned to a base in France near Nancy—where we lived for four years among a French population still recovering from the war's devastation, and where Dad fell in love with France.
Curiously and refreshingly, this love had nothing to do with the affected Francophilia popular among the cosmopolitan cognoscenti in America today. Dad was not a devotee of French art, architecture, or literature. He drinks wine but doesn't care much about it. He's not a foodie; he probably thinks a Michelin three-star is a kind of tire. He fell in love with the French people, he says, and with what he calls ''the music of the French language''.
Owning a house in France became a dream for Dad, and 16 years ago he finally made it come true. On a French vacation in 1983, he stopped by chance at a small village called Frayssinet, off the highway to Cahors, in the departement of Lot in southwestern France. Perched above the town is a hamlet—nothing more than a handful of stone dwellings and an old church—known as Le Pech. Exploring the hamlet, Dad met Robert Lacarriere, a sheep farmer who happened to be selling an ancient stone barn. Dad was hooked as soon as he saw the lines of the barn's hipped roof and its two-foot-thick stone walls. He bought it for a song.
It wasn't exactly in habitable condition: The earthen floor had grass growing from it and the stone walls were unpointed; mice, spiders, and other small creatures made their homes throughout. Today, though, the barn is gorgeous. At one end of the structure is the old barn door, now fitted with beautiful woodwork and inset with gigantic, shuttered French doors that, when open, flood the barn with light.
After Dad finally moved into his barn, he hopped on his bicycle and started riding through the surrounding countryside, stopping to chat amicably with anyone who would listen. And everyone did, because Dad is an outgoing, charming man—the kind of fellow who draws in every child in a room to play with him and who leaves having kissed every woman and made a date with most of them. He now lives in Le Pech for two to four months every year. He has become a fixture in the village, where he is known as '''Arrold l'Americain''.
Beyond a simple dish or two now and then, Dad doesn't cook—but thanks to his neighbors, he eats well. The food in this part of France has a certain rustic feeling to it, with duck, goose, lamb, beans, and truffles appearing frequently. In the Lot, the cassoulet is simpler than the more famous versions to the south, and one of the signal dishes is a simple fava bean soup cooked in duck fat. Dad drives me crazy because he doesn't seem to know any of this. ''They like to eat duck and lamb around here,'' he informed me one day.
Some years ago, I took my kids—Ali, 10; Dyala, 7; and Seri, 4—to visit Dad in France. On our first night there, I made dinner—foie gras, then grilled sausages and pork ribs and some potatoes fried in olive oil with garlic, and a salad of baby greens tossed in a walnut oil vinaigrette.
The next morning, the carillon charm of church bells woke me up at seven, but I didn't mind. The fragrance in the air was a melancholy combination of grass, apples, manure, dew-moistened dust, and sweet flowers. In the distance I heard the groan of a tractor, and a laugh came from somewhere in the village; then all was still again. We gathered the children and strolled over to meet Robert Lacarriere and his wife, Odile. Robert offered us an early morning pastis while I asked Odile lots of cooking questions.
That evening, we all headed off to a mechoui, a lamb roast in the town hall. Most of the village was there, some 150 citizens—although it seemed as if there were a thousand kids running all over. One happy local took me by the arm and told me that the whole town had accepted Dad as one of their own. He also told me that Dad kisses all the women, which I already knew. Dinner started with soupe paysanne, a broth full of carrot chunks and hunks of soggy stale bread. As we emptied our bowls, Dad suggested that we faire le chabrol—pour a little red wine into our almost empty vessels, swirl it around, and drink it down. Next came a magnificent roast duck, followed by a salade tiede de foie et gesiers d'oie—a warm salad of sliced goose liver and gizzards. After dinner everyone danced. A spry octogenarian named Germaine Cuisinier grabbed my arm and whirled me onto the dance floor. She spoke French a little too fast, but with an enthusiasm that reminded me of Dad's. ''Everyone here loves him,''she assured me. Then she told me with a twinkle that he kisses her, too.