Entertained by a houseguest from history
The real estate brochure seemed irresistible: a 200-year-old farmhouse within reach of my husband's office at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. After years of wedging our family of five into apartments from Hong Kong to New York, the six-bedroom fixer-upper in a Swiss village looked perfect.
This sprawling stone "dump" had been a working farm, a ski getaway, even a failed art gallery. My husband, Peter, returned to Manhattan singing its praises for one overriding attraction: While Geneva huddled under a fog blanket, our house basked in the winter sun bathing the Jura mountains.
Happily, my husband is a former architect. Many a New York night, he sent blueprints chugging by fax into our sheet-rock Swiss bedroom-to-be. Peter messaged the contractor to connect up the poky rooms and raise the kitchen ceiling two feet. I'd have a wok burner and the kids would finally have their own rooms.
In midsummer, the contractor said the house was "ready." But we arrived to mud floors, no stairways, no kitchen, gaping holes in bedroom doors, and a poison ivy garden littered with take-out cartons. The genial painters waved from their ladders. The jovial gasman puzzled over German diagrams and asked us what a wok burner was.
Undaunted, we unpacked on mattresses one story above the whining saws and cooked on a hibachi. When we refused to decamp to a hotel, the workers' lethargy disappeared.
As a team, the family braved the Franco-Arab radio and dawn intrusions. A tsunami of loneliness swept over me once the workers departed, the kids started public school, and Peter drove off to work. Their busy Swiss lives magnified my isolation when the impact of emigration literally hit home.
The lifestyle of a Swiss housewife was full of hidden restrictions. After years of square-foot anorexia, I'd fallen so quickly into square-meter gluttony that I'd ignored some essential questions. Did any neighbors speak English? Could I pull in the BBC World Service by shortwave? If children had two hours' lunch break at home every day, when could I see the city?
Why had I opted for a country idyll that locked me out of the international community? The locals came for a stilted cup of coffee, then departed. Occasional forays to Geneva (thanks to an overpriced baby-sitter) didn't relieve the depression. I didn't know anyone there, anyway.
I stubbornly resisted well-meant suggestions - join a women's group, tutor English, take up quilting - and instead settled into a marathon of reading.
"Reading nurtures the soul, but an enlightened friend brings it solace." I stumbled across this saying by the French philosopher Voltaire. Intrigued that he'd hosted the notorious Casanova, I read on. In 1758, Voltaire was 64 when, having fled the political hounds, he settled in the hamlet of Ferney near the Swiss border. We were neighbors!
Soon I was collecting essays, soaking up biographies, and exploring the reign of Louis XV. I delved ever deeper until the irony hit me: A friend does bring solace, and my "enlightened friend" was none other than Voltaire himself.
If a man called "the King of the Enlightenment" could thrive on distant gossip, books, and homemade entertainment, well, couldn't I? If I was driven insane by solitude, why not go crazy in the best of all possible company?
In my loony state, I chatted to Voltaire about kids, career loss, and homesickness. He emerged from between dusty pages as an ambitious playwright who looked down his elegant nose at our locale as he found it - "40 savages without shoes." He chatted to me from a sadder middle age of his disappointments in love, professional rivalries, social comeuppances, and publishing failures.
As an octogenarian, he counseled me on the resilience needed to survive decades of banishment from the lights of the city.
His biting wit put my griping in its place, though I could see him becoming the houseguest from hell. I imagined him wanting to relaunch his campaigns against injustice and hypocrisy with a website "l'infame.org" - using my laptop. Or occupying my office with science experiments until I nixed the proposed forest fire in the backyard to measure rates of oxygen conversion. He'd be the sort to check his amazon.com sales every week, only to pout for days over Shakespeare's higher ranking.
Through a snowy, bleak winter, my friend matured. His thoughts drifted away from his standing at Versailles toward how to improve the welfare of his neighbor serfs. He worried less about box-office sales in Paris or how many books he'd smuggled past the Royal Censor. Instead, he aimed his rapier pen at religious hatred, slavery, and executions based on testimony extracted under torture. He ridiculed, then broke, the power of a despotic church and a decayed throne with facts and persistence.
Exile gave him his true voice and all the "greats" - from Catherine in Moscow to Frederick in Potsdam - heard him. He learned to work with what life threw at him. With no children of his own, he became the patriarch of a whole town.
When my own marriage seemed listless, he goaded me into throwing my husband a dinner party worthy of a Madame Pompadour.
We were such an odd couple; how did we share so much and laugh so hard? I marveled at how much I could learn from the past, provided I took the time to examine it.
Voltaire eventually became known as the "Innkeeper of Europe," his house a beacon of hope in an age of celebrity folly, war between "tall hats and turbans," and social divisiveness. Sound familiar? My own farmhouse became my "Ferney" and all the friends and relatives who made the trek to our door, my personal "Lights." Our echoing dump became a lively refuge of hospitality, debate, and fun.
Recently my youngest child saw Voltaire's statue and, with a straight face, told her teacher, "Oh, that guy. He's a friend of my mother's."
And lucky I am, too.
Voltaire (the pseudonym of François Marie Arouet) was a giant of 18th-century French culture at a time when French culture dominated Europe. Ironically, the famous playwright, novelist, poet, philosopher, and self-made millionaire spent much of his life in exile and in fear of being arrested for his outspoken views on reform.
Voltaire was born into a cultured middle-class family in 1694, but gave up the study of law to pursue a literary life. In 1717 he was thrown in the Bastille for nearly a year due to a false accusation. In 1726 he was arrested again. The second incarceration resulted from a witty remark he made to a nobleman. Voltaire was released only when he vowed to leave the country.
He went to England, where he greatly admired the freedom of thought. It was then that Voltaire became deeply committed to using his talent and wit to promote judicial, social, and political reform in France. After a few years, he was allowed to return home.
Life as a reformer was hard. Censorship was oppressive. One could be flogged or worse for writing, printing, or buying unauthorized texts.
Eventually Voltaire settled in Ferney, where he was not under the rule of the French kings. His outspokenness and his fame grew. Kings, nobles, foreigners, and others flocked to see him. He died in 1778.