Mme Rancourt is Cambodian but she has lived most of her life in France, where she moved in 1980, about a year after Vietnamese troops chased the remnants of the black-shirted Khmer Rouge army out of Phnom Penh. She is Cambodian but she is mostly French, and she is French in a peculiarly French way—in a light, understated, occasionally brooding, but inevitably elegant way. Her weightless tailored linen pantsuits are testimony to her style and easy understanding of the demands of a tropical climate. She looks fit and much younger than her fifty-seven years. When in Battambang she always stays at Le Pavillon, an old colonial hotel run by a French management company. There is a timeless feel about the hotel’s interior, or rather it feels like it’s always 1934—the coolness of the checkered black-and-white floor tiles, the whirring of phlegmatic ceiling fans, the friendly hotel dog resting by the mahogany reception desk, the clunky black rotary telephone. The doors to the rooms, solid wood and curved at the top like ovals, are painted white. Mme Rancourt’s room is on the second floor, facing the pool where a couple of elderly guests (French? Scandinavian?) are lounging in the shadow of an old mango tree. It’s always the same room, reserved months in advance. Olivia, the hotel manager, originally from Marseilles, will make sure that the room is available to her friend—they have known each other for years and once even vacationed together in Portugal. These days Olivia doesn’t have much time for travel. Le Pavillon has been featured in several guide books, and Anthony Bourdain once stayed here during one of his whirlwind tours of Southeast Asia. TripAdvisor ranks it as the #1 hotel in Battambang. More work (which Olivia performs cheerfully and without a complaint) is the price of success.
Mme Rancourt lives in Vertou, a fashionable suburb of Nantes, a lovely city in Brittany that Time magazine recently determined to be “the most livable in Europe.” A reasonably successful real estate attorney, she runs her own agency, which is really just a two-person operation, consisting of Mme Rancourt herself and her scatterbrained but loyal assistant of many years, Mme Guillon. Mme Rancourt is married to Pierre Rancourt, an architect, and theirs has been a happy marriage, a marriage of equals, a marriage of mutual respect, of tenderness and understanding, and love of jazz and Italian vacations. They have two grown-up children: Dominique, who is expecting, has recently moved to London with her Swiss-born husband Daniel, a financial analyst whose joviality and easy laughter defy every common stereotype of a Swiss financier. Dominique is a serious and gentle soul, a foil to her outgoing husband. And then there is Bastien, Mme Rancourt’s adored son and a kindred spirit, with whom she enjoys a raucous friendship that makes her feel younger than her age. Bastien studies computer science at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He is obsessed with artificial intelligence and Eastern European women; sometimes his mother wonders about the connection between these two preoccupations. And Pierre, her dear Pierre, it’s been almost thirty years and not one regret, not a single disappointment. They were introduced at an office party back in 1988 and he immediately won her over with his easy charm and intelligence, his ability to be empathetic and accepting without indulging in liberal grandstanding. They slept together on their second date, which was not like her at all, but being with him, kissing his kind and open face, having him inside of her—passionate but keen on giving pleasure, not hurting—felt like the most natural thing in the world, like finally falling asleep in your own bed after a long absence from home. It was so easy to be with Pierre. It still is.
The Rancourts usually vacation in Umbria, where they own a modest three-room stone house in a sleepy lakeside village, some forty kilometers southwest of Perugia. They both harbor a strong preference for lakes and wooded retreats over crowded beaches and seaside resorts, and they both cherish solitude but do not mind having it occasionally interrupted by visiting guests. The children still claim to love the Umbria house but mostly stopped coming once they left for college. Last year Bastien showed up unannounced, with a tall Ukrainian girl in tow; they stayed for a few days—roamed the countryside on a rented scooter, swam in the lake, noisily made love at night—then grew visibly bored and eventually departed for the sun-drenched joys of the Amalfi coast. “Oh, that’s what it takes to really appreciate the quiet,” laughed Pierre after the pair left.
Throughout the year Umbria beckons, and Mme Rancourt sometimes sees the lake and the stone house and the unkempt garden in juxtaposition to or perhaps as the opposite of that other trip—a weeklong annual trek she’s been taking since 1996, a year when for the first time in more than two decades Battambang became safe to visit. It’s a very different journey and it usually begins at five on a Saturday morning. Against Pierre’s vociferous protestations, she absolutely refuses to wake him up so early; instead, she kisses him goodbye before they go to bed because “really, don’t be silly, no need to drive me to the station, totally unnecessary, I’ll call in a taxi.” It’s a ritual, of course. He’ll wake up around ten (he likes sleeping late on the weekends) and by that time she will have already arrived in Paris, a smooth two-hour dash by a TGV train. Her bus transfer to Charles de Gaulle Airport takes less than an hour and she finds herself at the terminal almost three hours before the scheduled departure for Hong Kong. After a twelve-hour flight there will be a two-hour layover in Hong Kong and then another three hours by air to Phnom Penh.
The moment she gets through customs, the noisy crackling of scooter engines, the shabbiness of the buildings outside the airport perimeter, the pungent smells, the humidity, the familiar colors of Cambodia fill her with apprehension and uncertainty but she gets over them quickly enough. After a moment’s hesitation she gets into one of the waiting taxis—it’s only a twelve-dollar ride to Phnom Penh’s French Quarter, where she usually stays at a quaint but meticulously maintained guesthouse, popular with Australian backpackers. For people like her, things are ridiculously cheap in Cambodia and she could easily afford more luxurious accommodations, but somehow it would feel wrong; she needs some time to transition to Le Pavillon—colonial luxury can wait, at least until tomorrow, until Battambang. Right now her desires are straightforward and simple: a shower and a bed with clean sheets. The guesthouse is happy to provide both. By the time the driver carries her luggage into the guesthouse lobby (which doubles as a bar) the sun has already slipped behind the Sorya Shopping Center and the street outside turns nocturnal: the girl bars and techno clubs stir out of a daylong slumber, revving up for the coming night; vendors set up food stands; tuk-tuk drivers jostle for fares by hotel and restaurant entrances; foreigners—some looking self-assured (the experienced backpackers and veteran sex tourists), others slightly overwhelmed and disoriented—emerge from their various air-conditioned hideaways, ready to partake of the tropical night’s pleasures. All of which holds little interest for Mme Rancourt, who never liked Phnom Penh, for whom the capital has never been anything more than a layover station, its noise but a superfluous soundtrack to less significant segments of her life story. The din outside hardly bothers her—she is that worn out. The blinds are drawn, the room is immediately steeped in a comforting darkness, and she keeps thinking that she’ll notice the exact moment of transition from wakefulness to sleep, but she really doesn’t.
She takes an early morning Mekong bus to Battambang. The Chinese-made bus, comfortable and air-conditioned to a fault, carries her north along the recently repaved National Road #5. Once she spent almost three weeks walking down the same road; she was walking south then, there was no asphalt and no Honda dealership signs, there were no cars, no buses, but there were a lot of people, thousands of them in fact, bedraggled and emaciated, carrying their meager possessions in wicker baskets or pushing rickety carts. It was a strangely silent crowd; the dispossessed, she learned then, are inclined to silence. The driver keeps honking to forewarn the occasional motorcyclist, but this honking seems more of a custom than a necessity as the traffic is light and grows even lighter the farther they get from Phnom Penh. They make frequent stops—restroom stops, stops to let people off, stops to take people on, and those mysterious stops when the driver appears to engage in commercial transactions with people waiting at the curb: packages and massive cardboard boxes are brought onboard or unloaded, dollar bills change hands. Mme Rancourt observes this microcosm of the Cambodian everyday with the cool detachment of someone who finds it neither foreign nor exotic. She never leaves the bus. By midday they reach Battambang. One of Le Pavillon’s tuk-tuk drivers, Mr. Samang, is waiting for her at the municipal bus station, which really is just a dusty open field on the outskirts of town. Mr. Samang walks with a distinct limp and drags his right leg, damaged years ago in a motorbike accident, but she knows better than to insist on carrying her bag to the tuk-tuk. He would have none of it; they both pretend that he is not disabled, which is a privilege she can exercise as an enlightened Westerner. Mr. Samang appreciates the well-intentioned insincerity of his foreign clients; he once told Mme Rancourt how lucky he was to work for a Western-owned hotel—no Khmer-owned establishment would ever hire him. For the Khmers, he insists, there is no shame in prejudice. But prejudice doesn’t insult him, he sees it as a matter of practicality, also a cultural trait that she suspects he shares. He is just lucky to have landed the job at Le Pavillon. . . .
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