This morning there is a stranger in the Dodge Avenger.
He wears a red turtleneck and a brown trench coat. Thin, dark grey hair and glasses. He speaks only French, and I will later learn his name is Grataloup.
Fog fills the Romanian countryside as we push north out of Sibiu, bound for Sighisoara by way of an old fortified church that Dorin (the Avenger owner) wants to show us. We pass many villages, many fields of drying September corn, many sheep, many swarthy men on horse-drawn carts, many well-dressed young men thumbing rides to who knows where. Dorin and Grataloup discuss, in French, coal shipped to China, lamb shipped to Arab countries. I see rusty blue tractor parts, like bits of sky strewn beside the road. I fail to capture the image of a white horse pulling a black cart.
I speak a bit about America, about the landscapes of my home, as best I can in French that doesn’t get much exercise. Grataloup listens carefully, responds in crisp, carefully-chosen sentences. He is from Lyon. His ancestors were, I gather, these sort of proto sheriffs who patrolled their villages in rural France — the only fellas at the time allowed to ride their horses into church to look for assassins. They stayed always on the lookout for wolves; hence, somehow, his name.
Now Grataloup is an architect, based in Switzerland. He does not use any right angles. He makes aerodynamic buildings. He is building a complex of 118 houses in Algeria. Not a single right angle. He has battled judges and magistrates over the right to build the way he wants. He has designed a modular apartment concept for towers of cities in China. You get a divorce? Just swap in a smaller apartment, you can keep your address. I don’t know what to picture, so I picture corn plants, with apartments like cobs sticking out.
We stop, and I hand Grataloup his trenchcoat; he had grown hot in the Avenger. We walk the perimeter of the old Protestant church very slowly. Grataloup occasionally wanders into the village a ways to look back and get a good view of the steeple rising blockily out of the hill. I estimate that he takes 1 picture every 2 hours. He and Dorin fall into a rhythm where they clasp their hands behind their backs and walk in sync, like this:
I see hops growing, spilling over fences. The Church contains careful woodwork and a strange locking door that was evidently used to create a safe room of last resort. The fortifications are, how do you say, intense. Grataloup gets a shot of a long staircase covered with thick oak planks. Old women come and go. Grataloup and I see an enormous snail, with its shell, riding a tiny ribbon of plaster that ornaments a house on the edge of town.
On the parapet, Grataloup pulls me aside and says that the towns, the villages, they are so strangely quiet, they seem dead, mort. I nod and have no explanation. I can tell that what he means is: we walk and walk and I see no joy. He tells me about a snail that he found crawling on the sidewalk outside a restaurant in Paris. The restaurant advertised “Escargots de Bourgogne!” And Grataloup started to laugh and laugh. I laugh too. “Il s’est échappé!” I exclaim, “he’d escaped!” He nods, explains that he rescued the snail and brought it to the Jardin des Tuilleries, where the snail looked up at him and waved his tentacles as thanks.
Later, on a sidewalk, he shows me the apartment concept for China:
We drive on, passing a trio of hawks circling above a field of American corn — Pioneer brand, I recognize the lettering from my days in Iowa.
Grataloup explains that he has not been back to America in 40 years. His wife was from America. She grew sick there on one of their visits, and – “la pauvre” – the pain grew to be too much and she committed suicide.
Dorin and I stay quiet.
Grataloup continues, after a while, “there is a funicular in Switzerland that is powered by sewage.” We’re speaking only in French now, and I ask him to repeat this so I make sure I get it right. I get it right, it’s powered by sewage, and Grataloup moves on, now discussing Europe’s laws for regulating goat cheese. There are 15 pages regulating how you make goat cheese, and one page detailing the rights of man. “C’est comique!” he says.
We make an unexpected stop to see a rather baroque (he says) Armenian Church on the outskirts of Sighisoara. Grataloup remarks that he’s done some work with Le Corbusier’s niece. There are nice churches in Peru, Mexico. Very beautiful.
The building is crumbling from the inside, peeling and cracking. Grataloup wonders aloud whether congregants wear casques – helmets – to Church. On a pillar near the door, I see a poster advertising a national humor festival.
Outside the Church, Dorin is kicking rocks and looking a little bored. I approach, and find him gazing at some crab apple trees, the ground around them littered red with fallen fruit. “When I was young,” he says, “we ate all these little apples, there was so little food in Romania. And now we’ve made a country where we let them fall to the ground.”