“I’m lost. I’m late. I’m sorry,” I blurted into the phone, in French.
“So, Monsieur Manouvrier, if it’s OK I would still like to meet you today.”
“You are an hour late. Do you think I have nothing better to do? You Americans think you are so important?” he bellowed, barely breathing between salvos. “Do you think we are so honored to speak to an American that we will stop everything else in our lives?”
I wanted to shout, “You know nothing about me!” But since it was my last day in the Dordogne, and since I wanted to meet this man before I left, I pleaded, “Please, may I still come?”
“Fine,” he replied. The slam of the receiver reverberated in my ear before I could ask him for more directions.
As an American who had spent many years traveling in France, I sometimes felt like the honorary town piñata, enduring swing upon jab about my accent, my nationality, and the political leanings of our President who, I had constantly to remind people, was not a personal friend of mine. But despite the occasional bashing, I had also become a defender of the French, charmed by the generosity of those who had welcomed me, a stranger, into their homes, and seduced by their pervasive and earnest joie de vivre.
So, alone in a three-chimney village somewhere in southwestern France, at a crossroads, literally and figuratively, I had two choices: I could abandon this meeting altogether or I could exemplify American perseverance. Though the first thought soothed me for a solid five minutes, I folded up my map and set out, knowing that the long road ahead was more than just the one I was lost on.
In France, as in many parts of the world, the best information arrives by word of mouth, or de bouche à l’oreille as they say, from mouth to ear. This is how I had learned of Roland Manouvrier, an artisanal ice cream maker — and the source of my navigational woes.
I had been in the Dordogne for nearly a month researching a culinary travel book. Having amassed a stockpile of classic recipes from local chefs and home cooks, I was in search of something, and someone, a little different. One of these people was Chef Nicolas DeVisch, who had taken over his parents’ restaurant in the medieval village of Issigeac, and whose menu did not include a single serving of duck or foie gras—two mainstays of the regional cuisine. Nicolas had invited me to dinner and after several courses of his non-conventional cooking, had plunked a tub of ice cream down on the table, handed me an espresso spoon, and invited me to dig into the white creamy contents. Preparing my taste buds for vanilla or coconut, or some other sweet savor, I closed my lips around the mouthful. The cold burned my tongue then melted down the back of my throat. Nicolas’s eyebrows arched in question.
“Goat cheese?” I guessed.
“Yes, from the village of Racamadour,” he confirmed. “And you should really meet this guy before you go.”
After crisscrossing the Dordogne countryside for nearly two hours, I had pulled off the road to make that call to Roland. The prowess of the GPS had been no match for rural French addresses that delight in omitting street names and numbers, replacing them with titles like The Sheep Barn and The Old Mill. Finally, thanks to a helpful barista, I zeroed in on Roland’s address, given simply as The Industrial Zone in the village of Saint-Geniès.
When I arrived 20 minutes later, Roland met me at his office door wearing a white lab coat, a plastic hair net set askew atop his wavy brown hair, and a scowl. The archetypal mad scientist, I thought. For a second the story of Hansel and Gretel popped into my head. I wondered if anyone would hear me scream as Roland shoved me into a cauldron over a hot fire. Would I be his next flavor—Glace à l’Américaine?
“How much time do you need?” he barked, bursting my reverie.
“As much as you’ll give me,” I answered. Roland corrected my French.
“Because you’re late, I’m late, and I must make deliveries.”
“How about I help you? We can talk on the road,” I offered.
“Pppffff…” Roland produced the classic French noise made by blowing air through one’s relaxed lips, often done to dismiss something just said.
I followed him through his stainless steel kitchen and helped him load frozen cases of ice cream into his delivery van. As I moved them into place, I noticed the flavors penned in black ink on the lid of each container: Tomato-Basil; Szechwan; Rose; Violet; Calvados. I asked Roland if I could include one of his unusual recipes in my book.
“What do you think? I have a formula like at McDonalds? I don’t write my recipes down. They are not exact, and depend on many influences.”
“Pppfff…” he added.
We coursed the serpentine Dordogne roads, past fields of sunbathing flowers and over oak-encrusted hills, delivering the frozen parcels every 15-20 minutes. Each time Roland got back in the car, he shelled me with questions. Do you like Andy Warhol? Have you ever been to New York? Have you ever seen a real cowboy? How about a real Indian? What is the point of baseball? Each time I answered, he corrected my French, which became irksome.
I finally took a sarcastic swing back at him. “If you prefer, we could speak in English. Would that be easier for you?”
“Why would I speak in English? I am in France and French is my language!” he yelled.
My face flushed and jaw tightened. Short-fused from the incessant corrections and aching from the smile I had been faking for the last hour, I was ready to abandon this day and this ill-mannered ice cream man. I blew up.
“It’s people like YOU who give the French a bad reputation in my country. And in case YOU haven’t noticed, I am in YOUR country speaking YOUR language because YOU can’t speak mine.”
I braced myself for retaliation. Roland stared straight ahead, his hands clenching the steering wheel. After a tense ten-second interlude, he asked me about the reputation the French have in America. I told him that, though generalizing, we found them rude, arrogant, and hateful toward Americans. Roland’s belly-bouncing chuckle filled the air, but he said nothing more, not even to correct me.
We crossed a bridge and puttered down the main two-lane street of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, our final stop for the day. The sun was low in the summer sky and cast an ochre glow on the stone buildings. Garlands of yellow and orange paper flowers strung between the steeply pitched rooftops swayed overhead, remnants of a recent festival. We parked and found a table in the sun at the town’s only café. Roland ordered me to wait while he delivered ice cream to his brother down the street. I watched him shake hands and kiss-kiss the cheeks of a few people along the way before disappearing into a doorway. When I saw him again, he was back on the street, handing out ice cream cones from the back of his van to lucky passersby. He waved me over.
I asked him if he lived in Saint-Leon-sur-Vézère.
“No. This is where I was born,” he said.
Roland pulled out another familiar white container and scooped the bright orange ice cream into two cones and handed me one. The mandarin orange flavor couldn’t have tasted better if I had plucked it from a tree.
We drifted through the cobblestone streets of the riverside village and as I lapped up the frozen treat, Roland unlatched his memories. He pointed out the window he’d broken while trying to master a yo-yo; the home of a girl he once had a crush on; the church where he got married. We stopped in front of the brown wooden door of a village house and Roland told me the lady who had once lived there had found a rusted American G.I. helmet in her garden.
“She gave the helmet to my father and we kept it displayed on top of an armoire in our house for many years,” Roland said.
“Why? What interest did your father have in it?” I asked.
“We didn’t know anything about the soldier. Did he come from Oklahoma? Wyoming? Did he have a family?” Roland said. Then he raised his finger in the air. “The only thing we knew for certain was that this anonymous American came here to liberate France. For that we are grateful.”
Tears pricked my eyes, in part because of the unexpected provenance of this story, and in part because of the image it conjured up inside my head: a black and white photo of my 19-year-old grandfather in his G.I. helmet.
We sat wordless atop a low rock wall for several minutes, feet dangling over the Vézère River.
“Thank you for sharing that story,” I eventually said.
“Thank you for coming today,” Roland replied, in English.
A handwritten recipe for his Tomato-Basil sorbet showed up in my mailbox a month later.
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Delta Sky Magazine, Executive Travel Magazine and in other print and online media. Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, was published in 2010 and includes the recipe for Roland’s Tomato-Basil sorbet. For more information about her travels and work, visit www.kimberleylovato.com