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THE JOYS AND SORROWS OF JULY


The tourists are not so abundant as in past summers. I can tell by how many camera-toting Dutch and Germans come down the main street in town, the Grande Rue, as it is called. It is hardly grande, and just barely a rue, wide enough to admit a slender European sedan, but a delivery truck has to crawl along scraping its side mirrors against the walls of the houses. This summer, now in its stride in July, feels thinner, less robust with some of the houses remaining empty at this peak of the season. Owners have tried to sell out but the agencies are having trouble persuading Brits and Belgians to invest -- what with the looming crisis of Brexit on everyone's mind, and with the euro becoming more fragile against the dollar. So the crowds have become individual families strolling along looking for something to photograph among the bread crust stones of the village houses. It's hard work.

I can't complain. I can drive down to the market town of Apt without stalling in a traffic jam as the heat ripples off the car roofs. I don't creep forward past the shops closed for siesta. The occasional cafe has chairs and tables out, tucked closely under the available shade, where a few men sip on a pastis or a small glass of beer. They look up at anyone staring at them and nod in a friendly way. I wave back. I feel the need to get my chores done, to get out of the air conditioning of the supermarket and back on the bleached-out road again. I get a little dizzy going from an arctic cave full of groceries to the parched and burning desert of downtown Apt, with its peeling iron railings, the smell of the river coagulating in a limp marsh behind the houses. Only the bullfrogs are celebrating with their deep belches, so long as the water, slimy with fronds, keeps them wet.

Every month of summer is different. June is full of expectations, eager wishes that something new is coming. You feel it in your bones. Anything can happen in June -- good news from abroad, a new friend drifting into your life, or when younger, much younger, a new love suddenly blooming in the arid wastes of summer vacation. But once June loosens its grip on the cool breezes and heat begins to penetrate the white enamel exteriors of gas stations and rusty gates, something more final and relentless settles over you -- it is July, the month named after that iron-willed, grimly determined warrior, Julius Caesar. He conquered the known world, and wrote to tell about it. The victor always gets to tell the story, you know. He broke the back of old Gaul, and harnessed the energy of the wilderness, the vineyards, the black rivers, the craggy hillsides, and the people learned to serve a new master. Such is July, a hard month full of hidden forces driving you forward.

But there are consolations. A few rogue storms can boil up over the mountains and drench the villages in a cleansing torrent. The air cools down, the streets glisten, the mouths of girls are full of laughter and musical notes. The boys saunter along in groups of five and six looking for something to do. They hang their long arms at their sides, or try to find some use for them by digging into pockets for spare change. If they're lucky, someone treats them to a soda at the bar, or a game of foosball, or even a few licks on a tattered soccer ball. But they too know that this is the month that celebrates powerful wills. You know you are far from any schoolbook, or chore around the house; you're supposed to goof off, to waste endless hours talking about nothing. When night comes, and it does with great reluctance, pushing away the veils of white heat to let in a smell of the fields, you think about your dreams. Boys are creatures torn between stark violence and danger and the kind of emptiness Beckett describes in "Waiting for Godot."

I take walks into the countryside, with the village houses heaped up behind me. The old folks find my little treks strange; no one here walks for his health or to stay trim. I'm an oddity, but then I'm one of the very few Americans who has come to live here. I like to wander down to a tiny gorge where a gulley fills up with rain when a storm blows in. The trees are dense, the rocks are all moss-covered and fractured by hard winters. Mosquitoes hum in the shadows, and the old lignite mine that once offered the hope of work for village men, stands sealed up with heavy stone, a dead dream. When I come back, I sit on one of the chairs on the bar terrace and order a Perrier and a slice of lemon. It comes out sweating with cold, with ice cubes tumbling around as I pour the fizzy water. I relish the first sip, which is like kissing a girl in the dead of winter. Everything breathes a sigh.

But July is like some doomed back road where the month of August is waiting, named after an even grimmer Roman patriarch, Augustus. He was stoical and cold-blooded, a rationalist who showed little pity for human weakness. His wife Livia was an early version of Lady Macbeth, fiercely ambitious for her son Tiberius, whom she was determined would succeed Augustus, even it meant killing off his competition for the throne. She may also have had a sexual encounter with a senator that was observed by the poet Ovid, who alluded to it over dinner. Word got back to Augustus who banished him to a backwater called Tomis, in what is now rural Romania. Ovid almost died of loneliness and pleaded with Augustus to be forgiven. Such is the month of

August, with its menacing tyrannies as summer grows old and rots on the vine.

September has no royal antecedents, its just the seventh month of the old Roman calendar. But it represents something fragrant and melancholy, the faint odor of an orchid growing at the edge of life and death. It means the schools would be opening for business soon, and that the textbooks would be piled up on the shelves of the supply room, ready for some young mind to be tortured by their dull prose. But it also meant Chinese apples, sudden delicious currents of cool air blowing in the fall. Your taste buds longed for something tart and smoky to eat, for a cool night in which to try on your new school coat. I still get excited by the promise of September, even if summer lingers on and hangs the heat over us long into the first weeks of October. But dreams of youth haunt me and cast spells over me.

The women are coming back from the village swimming pool dressed in loose wraps, their faces red from sun bathing. The kids are hungry, thirsty, antsy about everything. The chlorine burns a little on their skin. But the joy of being all day out on the slick tiles of the poolside makes summer that strange oasis of empty pleasures. They enter the dark houses and sit at a long plank table to gobble up a popsicle, and munch on butter bread. Eternity is hanging in the corner by a thin thread, and troubles no one under ten years old. Who could ask for more in this heat? In this trembling balance called July, with its dusty windowsills, the smell of warm cotton as you sink down into the pillow for a nap? Supper is a long way off, like an old farmhouse lost in the gauzy distance of the late afternoon. A cloud hangs over the cliff edge like a thought, but there is no rain in its flimsy robe. Just a warning for those who worry a lot. Otherwise, July is writing its chronicles of conquest on the rambling, circuitous flight of sparrows over the village rooftops. And the song of submission of a once wild people rings out of a child's cry in the kitchen who has drunk the last of the cold milk.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen