A visit with Dr Guimberteau

Passac, on the ring road around Bordeaux, is unremarkable (except that every possible bit of earth between the streets and tiled-roof houses is replete with vines) until the taxi drops us at the pillared gate at the entrance to Dr Guimberteau’s house.  ‘House’ will do; ‘chateau’ would be too grand – but Misty (my daughter, 22 and bilingual) and I both spontaneously lift our small wheelie’d suitcases up off the gravel driveway to carry them rather than make any grating noise in this haven of quiet.

The drive curves gracefully among fragrant, rough-barked pines – although this is the Atlantic coast, it feels more like the Cote d’Azur or Provence within these cream-coloured walls.  The house is slowly revealed, proportioned for the ages and dark with ivy vines. (I was told it has foundations that go back 1000 years, but in its current form, a mere 700 years ago, it was owned by Bertrand de Got, who left here in 1299 to become Clement V, one of the few popes who reigned when the papacy lived in Avignon rather than Rome.  These poor popes knuckled under to France’s King Phillip IV, and Clement allowed Phillip’s soldiers to obliterate the Cathars, a sad tale of the death of an interesting heresy told in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, supplying grist for a host of potboilers for our time, including the execrable The Da Vinci Code.)

Tall and expansive, informally dressed but courtly of face, with wire rims and a dramatically curling moustache, Jean-Claude comes out through the large French doors to greet us, with his wife Danielle just behind.  We introduce each other in a confusion of Franglais, and then step from the hot and sticky afternoon into the cool atmosphere only a thick stone house can impose on summer air.

The interior is done in a more Italian style, with intricate stencils painted on the tall off-white panels.  The furniture is pure French – baroque fabrics on the stuffed chairs and couches, wonderful rickety-looking wood tables – and the decoration is pure whimsy: Jean-Claude and Danielle have traveled the world – often by car with their two sons, on the cheap – and brought back glass from Murano, sculptures from Hungary, Babylonian panels from Iran (1981, just after the revolution), Byzantine icons from Russia (1985, Brezhnev), dragons from Hanoi (operated there for months in the early 90’s).  They have not just seen the world, they have lived it.

The boys are gone now, living in Paris, and Danielle has retired from teaching English (though ‘retired English teacher’ would not evoke this petite but muscular brunette (like Michelle Obama, she has earned her right to bare arms), who looks at you squarely from her dark eyes, and will brook no nonsense beyond Jean-Claude’s flights of inspiration – a perfect companion for a genius: practical, dynamic, feisty, and game – chic on the outside, but don’t miss the steel in the middle.)

After dropping our things in the capacious bedrooms up the worn stone stairs, we tour the grounds.  Not large, nor overly cared for, but beautiful and organic – a row of gnarly trees probably 200 years old line the path to the bottom of the garden.  We have had all their rain – the fountain is dry, its lion head spout dusty, its pool ankle deep in leaves.  Behind a screen of bamboo and dogwood, the vineyards stretch to the real chateau perched on a knoll in the distance.

We hop in Jean-Claude’s large Volvo to zip back to the airport to pick up a rental car. While we drive, we deal with our out-of-kilter business with his DVD – and here Misty earns her keep as a translator.  Neither he nor I are really business people, so we are uncomfortable with the details, which spill out of him in a rush of French and English.  I hasten to reassure him, but it seems I will not get the deal I want either, so I subside – I vastly prefer having good contact to this pioneer over making a few more euros.

It’s Avis, but it’s still French – they take their own sweet time coming up with a car while we talk some more in the waves of heat from the tarmac.  But then it turns out that they are all out of their ‘deal’ VW’s so they give us an Audi A5 (VW? Audi? In France? Where’s Citroen and Renault? The war is really over.) for the same price.  I am almost embarrassed – this low, growling sports car has every amenity known to the automobile – but I get over it and slide onto the enveloping leather seat.  Jean-Claude drives like a madman for his hospital, and we follow, me getting used to the car’s grip on the narrow French roads, Misty fooling avec la systeme de navigation.

Institut Aquitain de la Main – we have to don the full regalia to enter the operating area – silly hair caps, scrubs, socks outside our shoes, masks.  The hand part of the hospital is open, and green-clad nurses holding charts bustle between patients with bandaged arms tucked on gurneys in every nook. The camera J-C uses to get such fabulous images of our working fascia sits in the middle.  It is a simple but expensive affair (do you think $10,000 is expensive?  I do) on a thin rod that he can insert through a small incision and have a look around.  He shows us the equipment – not much to look at, the usual metal boxes of electronica, switches, and wires; I wish we could see it in action but it is not to be.

We stand around it in a fast-moving discussion of how he gets his footage.  I am glad Misty is there, for the more excited J-C gets, the more his English deserts him.  She falters on the scientific words, but I impatiently wave her on – these words I know, the terms easily transferred in my brain.  It is the small words I miss and need to hear, the adverbs, subjunctive modifiers, and most of all the images – for J-C may be a scientist in his head, but he is a poet in his heart.

So we are wailing away on issues close to us both – the differences he observes from individual to individual (some are dark in their fascia and nothing can be seen) / hours of filming are necessary for 10-seconds of useful images / the limbs must be shut down with a tourniquet or you see nothing but blood / the curious near-absence of fibroblasts or mast cells in his films – with Misty doing her level best to keep up.  Behind him a colleague is operating, and we are talking over the buzz of the saw and the gabble of the team bent over a woman’s swollen arm, but when the smell of burning bone wafts under our noses, we abandon the hospital and our priestly garb for the more easy-going ambience of his consulting rooms.

Surrounded by a welter of ‘hand art’ donated by grateful patients, we meet the thin, gentle osteopath who is attached to the clinic (small world – Jim Jealous is his mentor [he waxes lyrical about Jim’s talents; I bite my tongue] and Dr Frank Willard, to whom I just showed my dissection videos, is coming here next summer for a seminar).  Then Louise and Pierre arrive, two French-Canadian practitioners of the Bowen Technique (I met her when I gave a talk for the Ossie Rentsch Bowen group at Yale a few years ago), who, like me, have shown up to sit at the feet and give thanks to the one surgeon who has given fascial workers such a boost.

Louise and Pierre in hand, we repair back to the house to see J-C’s new DVD, now in the last stages of production.  In it – I will need a couple of more viewings – he extends the original concept up from the subcutaneous fascia up through the dermal layers to the very skin itself – showing why the skin is arranged in polygons and how the collagenous connections work all the way down.  On first viewing, I suspect it will be of more interest to dermatologists than bodyworkers (and indeed, he is off this week to show his work to the research end of Armani and Oreal), but it has the same neat holism, tensegrity, and satisfying feeling of internal logic that his first film did.

I did a bit of ‘show-and-tell’ on my dissections and the Harvard ‘Lives of a Cell’ video, and then we all repaired outside for an aperitif.  Tucked into a corner (behind Clement’s dovecote) is a perfect wrought iron pergola, its graceful Victorian curves covered in grape vines.  Here we sip on Martini or Pastis 51 (refined ouzo, as far as I am concerned) as the sun goes down, turning all the world the colour of Italian blood orange – the fields of vines, the house, the trees, our very animated faces – unused to drink I am feeling it already, embarrassing Misty by speaking English with a phony French accent.

And here follows one of those long European dinners I so love, but in fact am glad happen only every so often in my life, as one is seated for far too long and consumes far too much.  From Parma ham and melon through to Danielle’s special fruit compote, the discussion ranged far and wide.  We passed easily between stretches that held the whole table, then falling into bits that involved just two or three talking across each other, with me fracturing French and throwing in a bit of German (to quizzical looks) as the second bottle of wine took its toll.

Just before bed, I focused my swirling eyes to again take on the business of DVD’s with Jean-Claude, but it’s no use: neither of us have much interest in the details of distribution or percentages, and soon we are soaring into the poetry again.  It is clear we like each other, are more enamoured of the ideas than the recognition, and the whole thing about any product is just to get the word out to as many people as may be interested.  For the moment, cela suffit – that is enough.


One Response to “A visit with Dr Guimberteau”

  1. Tifany Barnhill Says:

    Nice Blog an a lot of good Informations. Please more.

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