BACK TO FRANCE
I'm back in France after an unrelenting winter, with bitter winds and rains that fell like lead pellets. The news of flooding was pretty every other day, and the poor school kids would pass in their yellow bus looking gloomy and resigned. We kept getting battered by offshoots of the polar vortex, which sent down sheets of icy weather once a week, while the tiny little flowers in my garden peeped up their heads and took a wary look at the way things were going. They had no choice. Spring has no clutch, and no reverse; once you're up, out of the bud, you take what you get.
I was sick of lighting fires and digging around in the mossy ruins of my woodpile trying to find some log that wasn't eaten through by the bugs. If I found one, it had to dry out in front of the hearth before burning. So there I sat by the big bay window gazing at my book, not really reading it, waiting for dark to settle over us before pouring a small glass of Rhone and settling in for a long night. The house ticked and the walls took the buffets of cold wind, and the mice that used to scamper across the carpet with fearless arrogance, were now discouraged by my nasty little traps and had disappeared.
But that's over. We have spring here, on the long easy slopes above the Calavon river, with their gray and silver olive trees and the dense rows of grape vines, the corduroy stripes of lavender weaving downhill like the legs of a well-dressed medieval king. Corduroy, in case your French is rusty, means threads of the king, since the fabric was difficult to make and only the higher nobility could afford to buy it.
The village never changes, to the casual observer. But under its evasive stone face are many human alterations occurring all year long. The old guard quietly loosens its grip on property and wealth and slips away; the kids we watched grow up now push prams or hold the hands of their lanky daughters. I'm especially amused to see some of the tougher kids who smoked early on and cussed a lot under the plane trees suddenly become strict parents. What did they learn growing up, I wonder? That there are limits to one's rebellion, dangers beyond certain rash acts that only the arch rebels undertook? Somehow, having kids straightened everyone out. The village has many eyes and gossip is a deadly toxin to one's good name. So there they walked in slow motion heading to the little store, the epicerie, to buy treats and a chicken from the rotisserie, and came home looking a bit smug and virtuous. How funny it all is, and unless you keep coming back each summer, you miss the comedy of the passing years.
My neighbor is gone, sequestered among the crypts and monuments in the cemetery, which overlooks a broad, grass-covered valley broken up by outcrops of sandstone. The clouds sail overhead and the feel of eternity is very strong up there. His beloved grape vine, hung on the wall of his house, put out luscious black grapes each year, but is now untended. Last year's grapes have withered to raisins and still hang there in a ghostly motion when the wind picks up. His wife, a stout woman with coiffed hair and an ironed house dress, comes out each day to empty the trash and to say hello to passers by in the street. Her bedroom window is thrown open each morning and the linens are hung on the sill to air. She makes lunch for her son, a muscle-bound mason who lumbers up the street for his lunch, sometimes lugging a large plastic bidon full of white wine from his larder. Their lunches are not like they used to be, when the patriarch was alive. He liked food and the aromas of madame's kitchen would leave me weak in the knees. His breath was faintly perfumed with the wine he had sipped. It was a good life, and he lived it well, worked hard, and went to his death crippled by respiratory problems from when he breathed in the plaster dust. Now the son tells me he can't wait to retire. He smiles when he says it, but he knows old age can't be much fun in this profession. He already has bone spurs in his elbows, a professional hazard. By thirty or thirty-five, masons need to hire and train apprentices or they will wear out their bones lifting rocks. He still hefts the small boulders by the road to make walls, and spends his days throwing mortar into the cracks with unerring precision.
Others have drifted away quietly, after living modest, uneventful lives. I don't really miss them much, but I do sometimes feel a dull ache from the accumulated changes from when I first arrived. It's not the same village. The kids have brought in their own times, and have not learned much from books, or their own village history. It's not a literary town, and no one has a shelf of books in the living room. It's a different order of things, and TV plays a major role in what people come to know or value. I hear the voices of TV shows as I pass under the windows, canned laughter, and bright music, and a few muffled chuckles from the family slouched on the sofa and easy chairs. I'm a bit sad that the new century has erased a lot of the consciousness that once bound this village; but no one here would agree with me that this is a lesser age than any other. They're all the same, they tell me. What difference would it make to be able to quote Jean Giono or Maupassant or any of the other geniuses who told the story of their own day?
It's very quiet now. It's lunchtime, and the old steeple bell has bonged one o'clock. The lanes are empty; the tables are loaded with plates of food and steaming platters, and the talk is random, but joyful. Kids complain of being slapped at school by a new, draconian instructor who doesn't take any crap. A father beams his approval. The mother frowns. The kid looks for sympathy and gets none. That's life. Stone is not just lodged in the walls of houses, but in the mores and rigidity of the people. You can't change anything much, except through the adamant rhythm of mortality itself.
At night, the sun's fierce argument with the ground has abated. No truce has been declared. It will shine tomorrow and heat the vines into driving their tiny little beads of grape into darkening globes. The sugar is already rising in the fruit. The almond trees are hung with pale green nuts; the chestnut trees stand there like vast wooden monuments with their fruit just starting. Gardens are bordered with hollyhocks and dandelions, and the rows are already dark green, almost black, with shoots and melon creepers. The old women in black tend to them as they have always done, right back to the crusades or before. The role gets passed on by some mysterious language of women, mother to daughter, and no one seems to complain or want to run away. The burden of making food rests easily on their shoulders, even though a few girls run off to the cities to escape.
The church at the top of the village is a big, empty building where a priest comes once a month to give communion to the elders. Kids are not to be found. The young are not religious anymore. They have drifted off and won't be back any time soon. So the priest falls back on old habits and scolds the congregation for being self-indulgent, forgetting to practice charity and concern for others. It seems odd to hear such words, when in fact hardly anyone is self-indulgent these days. They live sparingly, and shop at the peasant markets where farmers bring in their produce each week. France has suffered the same blows as other big nations; the rich are super rich, the poor are homeless, and the middle class, such as it is, lives by their wits and whatever they scrimp from their social security and a few investments. The new cars in the parking lot are the work of families pooling spare money to buy a young couple a car. Or they belong to the visitors who used to live here, who bring with them the largesse of big incomes from the technical professions.
It is the raw reality of life that I like. No one tries to hide how hard it is to live, or how delicious is the smell of a ragout on the stove. Food is the real luxury, with great platters of chicken coming to the table like temple offerings. Baskets of ripe cherries and plums are on the sideboard, and the bread, fresh and tangy smelling, is being sliced into woven baskets. Lunch is what makes life sacred, and no one would ever think to doubt the wisdom of the hands that made it.