Monday, July 27, 2015

A Literary Gift from France

Byrne Fone & Alain Pioton
Most readers know Byrne Fone as the author of the favorite book of Hudson history, Historic Hudson: An Architectural Portrait, which was published in 2005 and remains in print. In 2008, he and his partner, Alain Pioton, left Hudson to take up an idyllic life in the France. Recently, Byrne shared these memories of his years in Hudson with me. Because it tells of a time before many readers found their way to our beloved city, I asked Byrne if I could publish it on Gossips, and he agreed. 

Alain Pioton and Byrne Fone
In 2008 Alain and I left Hudson, by 2008 a glittering and indeed fabled place, and moved to a quieter life in France. For three decades we had been involved with and for part of that time lived in Hudson: Alain running the antiques shop that he had opened in 1982, thus making it the probably the first, while I helped out with various civic organizations (as one of the founders of the Hudson Opera House and as a board member of TSL, and Historic Hudson, and for a time President of HADA). My avocation was looking into the history of the city, research that eventually resulted in Historic Hudson: An Architectural Portrait which told the 200-year-long history of Hudson and illustrated it with engravings from the 18th and photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

We came to Hudson after years in New York City, for in the late 1970s we bought a house in Pine Plains, and on a Sunday drive we discovered Hudson. We did not know there was a city there at all, but when we turned the corner at Third and Warren on that Sunday in 1980 we both said, "Oh my god, look at that!"

What we saw was, of course, history, running the length of Warren street from the 18th century to that day. We both had no doubt that Hudson was going to "happen," as is said, and so confident were we that we eventually bought two houses on Allen Street and two on Warren, a purchase not so gilded or grand as it sounds if one recalls prices in Hudson thirty years ago.

One of them, on Warren, became the shop, first called The Hudson Antiques Center and then Alain Pioton Antiques. In the Center, opened in 1982, Alain soon had a few intrepid dealers, who found they did well in the shop and so opened their own shops and that is how the Hudson antiques phenomenon began. Some of those early dealers in Alain's shop are there today, among them Jennifer Arenskjold, then Jennifer Kermath, who, now that Alain has retired and closed his shop, has surely and deservedly inherited his "title" of doyen, to become the doyenne of Hudson dealers.

During those decades Alain saw Hudson fantastically change. From lonely days at 536 Warren Street in the 1980s when he was the only door open, to 2008 when he closed the shop to return to France, he saw the city become gentrified and his clientele grow and change from anonymous browsers to major designers and celebrity names. He saw what had been an empty city of empty shops become known not only for antiques, but for art, music, and food, as well as for celebrated shoppers and flaneurs, and saw Hudson itself become a celebrity; become indeed almost unbearably well-known.

We had been going to France and the Dordogne for many years, vacationing at our first house, a 15th-century rambling affair near Seint-Cyprien, and then later from our present house, La Millasserie, and from both we made buying trips around France searching out French antiques for Alain's gallery--pretty things from the 18th to the 20th century--that came in container after container over the years.

Those buying trips all over France were business for Alain, but they were also fun for us both, and they were a summer respite for me from my work as Professor of English at the City University of New York, where I taught 18th-century English and 19th-century American literature and where later in my career I began to teach a course called Gay Literature, one of the very first in the U.S.

We had always felt that France had charms that perhaps we could not resist, and we began to think about living permanently there. By 2003 we decided we wanted to do it, and we began to make plans for a new life, not one selling antiques, nor for either of us living in idleness, which we couldn't afford to do in any case. The obvious choice was to rely on past experience and open a B&B, for we had had one in our house in Chatham. So there it was. Our French house didn't have extra bedrooms, and so in 2005, for the B&B, we began to build a four-room addition to the 17th century house in the style of the period and the region.

But before we could make the final translation to another life we had to go back to Hudson, to sell our house on South Fifth Street and move into the apartment above the shop, and to begin the long process of selling that building, and Alain to begin the equally long process of closing the shop. 

I had to finish an uncompleted project. I had been working on my pleasant labor of research and love, Historic Hudson: An Architectural Portrait. It appeared in late 2005. It would be my last research project and the last book I would write in the U.S. In France, I have turned to fiction.

At end of summer in 2008 Alain closed his shop after almost 30 years in business. Indeed by the time Alain closed in 2008, Alain Pioton Antiques was the oldest shop in Hudson. In October we said farewell to Hudson and the U.S. Our last address in the U.S. was on Warren Street in Hudson. My first address in the U.S. was on Warren Street in Brooklyn, an unanticipated omen of closure and a pleasant circularity. I brushed up my French, and Alain came happily back to his native land. We have never regretted it.

We are here now, and when the B&B isn’t keeping us busy, as it does from May to October, I write--novels now. We see our friends, French, and expat English, Dutch, and American. We go to the village farmers' markets where we can get fresh everything. We met in America in 1977. We were married in France in 2013.

I often think that the sensations are heightened here in what the French call la France profonde, deep France. The taste of food, the sweetness of the country air after one of the spectacular late-summer thunderstorms that role ominously though the region, suddenly etching the sky with alarmingly jagged bolts of lightening. The drowsy rich summer days, followed by cool autumn nights and then the chill brilliance of a mid-winter frost, not just the light millimeter thick coating of American frost, but a thick, glittering covering, laid on as if with a brush, like brilliant icing studded with tiny diamonds on some elegant pastry.

Perhaps because men and women have for so long worked the fields and every inch of land that can be tilled, the entire countryside has the effect of having been landscaped by some master hand. That stand of ramrod straight dark green cypress trees just over there—is it by chance that it grows in such an elegant placement, seemingly deliberate in its arrangement against the amazing blue of the late summer sky, standing as a vertical backdrop to the vast horizontal swath of golden sunflowers that cover the hillside, yellow heads peering up at the sun and turning to follow it? Picturesque sheep graze. Complacent cows, mellow red coats alive against the green, stand or lie together beneath a shady tree. A lonely donkey forages in a field. Bells sound from church towers--it is the time of the Angelus.

History sounds in those bells, and it is present there just as it is in the lichen-covered golden stone of every ancient house, in the narrow streets of ancient tiny villages, in the hauteur of a forbidding and crenellated chateau that towers imposingly next to a rushing river. History seems to infuse the very air of the Perigord, heir to all the ages of eternal France. There is indeed mystery here, and some say that it was born with the magic that scholars claim the ancient cave paintings may have been trying to conjure.

Whatever the cause, the Perigord is indeed the most magical and the most beautiful region in all of France, and as you drive along a narrow country road, the rich dark forest bordering either side, you suddenly see in the distance ghost-like towers rising above the trees, floating, it almost seems, on the horizon, the misty towers of a castle in the air.

But Hudson was a fable too, and fabulous. How fortunate we were to be in Hudson in 1980, at the beginning of it, and we listen now with amazement to tales of what Hudson has become, always reinventing itself, as it always has. Here in deep France, we remember Hudson, and just a little bit, we miss it. 
--Byrne Fone

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