Over the years – Centuries, in fact – Americans have been coming to France. Most of them, like Hemingway, writers and artists. Drawn simultaneously by the artist’s genetic desire to experience, and the inspiration of French/European art.
Most of them famous. Most of them dead. Except this guy, already profiled.
Regardless of their motivations, circumstances, fame (or the lack of it) They all had one thing in common. They all chose France as the best place to do their thing.
You don’t get to have tea with Picasso by being an ordinary Joe. And Joe Downing isn’t. He’s an exceptional artist. With an incredible story. An honest to gosh country Gentleman from Horsecave, Kentucky. Joe’s love affair with France began more than fifty years ago, when he stood on the banks of the Seine, gazing at Notre Dame. He’s been in that state of wonder and appreciation ever since.
I found Joe in the usual way. In the ‘phone book. After surfing through local tourist rags for story ideas, (Yes, dear reader I do stoop that low) I discovered Joe was scant villages away. The whisper soft voice that greeted me was courteous and cultured. But not pretentious. I sensed, correctly, an impish sense of humor poised to pounce. Although I offered to send him some advance video; Joe pooh-poohed it instantly with a warm :” Oh no….that won’t be necessary……I’d be very pleased to participate…………….and……We have a little house where you can stay.” My arm, dear reader, had been twisted.
Joe’s good directions, plus the postage stamp size of his village, brought me easily to his door. Clocking his house, my first thought was – “This is my house!” the French country house I’ve always wanted. Weathered. Original stone. Surrounded by trees. Caressed by vines. Not too big. Not too small. Spread out. But not sprawling. Ah, Love! I leaned my bike against the the bottom wall, and inched reverently up the steps. Inhaling the paradise of stone and shadow before me. Reaching the top, I was greeted, to my right, by a large, rectangular road sign, poised on a stone slab. “Horsecave Kentucky, pop – 2254.”
A few paces ahead, the front door, a perfect marriage of old wood and iron, rested ajar. I turned toward it. There was no sound. Distracted by a songbird, I glanced away. When I looked back, there stood Bilbo Baggins. Ok – it was Joe. But, if Bilbo, in his elder Hobbit years had been a Human – He would have been Joe Downing. Short. Stooped. Leaning on a cane. Sparkling blue eyes set in a round, cheery face; crowned by a tussle of pearl grey hair. With the most sincerely welcoming smile imaginable. “It’s cooler in here.” was Joe’s opening salvo.
At the end of his short, arched “Medieval gloom” hallway, Joe’s living room began. Graced, not stuffed, with tapestries, sculptures, and one-of-kind object d’art. Suffused, as you would expect from an artist, in abundant natural light.
Although he did’nt offer me a tour; Joe did offer me lunch. (My arm twisted again!) Tuna salad and bread were today’s special. Joe asked me if I’d like wine or coke. I think you can guess my choice, dear reader, can you not? When I reminded Joe, who had opted for coke, that alcohol consumption is inherent in the artistic manifesto, Joe smiled knowingly and replied : “Oh…but I have been responsible………….Let me show you the evidence.”
Joe led me through the kitchen to his cave. And with a delicate flourish, pushed open the door. I saw an average sized room, with an average amount of wine. Obviously, whatever I was supposed to “get”, I were not getting. I looked back into the cave again. Then, I got it! The floor was completely carpeted with corks. Joe signed wistfully : “I’m afraid I’m responsible for most of those.”
Part Two – next time
THROW ME A BONE HERE, PEOPLE!
What are ya thinkin’?