Frida in Montolieu

“Bet you don’t know what they’re saying,” the Frenchman said to me in accented English as he clicked on the laptop that sat on his desk. Intrigued, I listened. To my surprise it sounded like someone speaking in the Irish language. Sure enough when I glanced at the screen I recognised the logo of RTE Raidió na Gaeltachta, Ireland’s Irish language radio station. The speaker was introducing, of all things, Roger Whittaker singing “New World in the Morning.”

We were holidaying in the Languedoc area of France and I had just met Michel Chrétien, proprietor of the bookshop Latitudes in the village of Montolieu, the village du livre, or village of books. This is the French version of Hay-on-Wye. A few minutes earlier I had been sitting under the shade of a tree, in the square facing L’Eglise Saint-Andre, taking stock of what I had already bought in this village and ruefully considering the weight implications for our flight home. I had already found a bookshop that had the entire first floor dedicated to books in the English language, and as Oscar Wilde expressed it “I can resist anything but temptation.” As much as possible I had chosen books that were desirable but slim(ish). Two books related to Vincent Van Gogh—we were in the south of France after all—The Yellow House and The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout; Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. Now Joe, my husband, came up to me, excitement in his voice, saying “Margaret you have to come into this shop.”

I protested, “But I can’t buy any more books.” Well, ok, I could, but Ryanair would likely to make a killing when the bags were weighed. Michel, the proprietor, laughed at my protests, disarmed me with talk of his time living in Clifden, Connemara, and his experience of Kenny’s bookshop in Galway and its founder Maureen Kenny.  I scanned his small English language shelf. Nothing there attracted my interest. Then, I glanced at shelves further back and there she was.

Frida. A whopper of a five-hundred page biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera. Still protesting about airlines and baggage restrictions, I took it off the shelf. Michel laughed, pointed at Joe’s canvas hat and said, “Let your husband wear it under his hat! And ten percent discount to Irish customers!” Michel knew his customer. At home I already had the film Frida, based on this book in my hands, also a copy of Frida’s diaries plus Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Lacuna which features Frida’s tempestuous relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera, and her affair with Leon Trotsky. How could I desert Frida now?

Today the book sits on my desk, the cover showing Frida’s direct gaze, pink roses in her hair against a passionate red background. Did it travel to Ireland under Joe’s hat? Reader, my lips are sealed.


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