WHAT BINDS US. TOGETHER
We’ve had two small heat waves since I arrived here in southern France in mid-June. Neither was terrible, neither quite made it to the level of a canicule, a blistering heat bloom usually starting out its career in northern Africa and drifting down onto western Europe where it stagnates over the red-tile roofs until streets start to melt, the stone sides of houses begin to heat up like pizza ovens, and the old folks sit under a mulberry tree and ply their paper fans until the sun lowers enough to go back home. We didn’t get that. I am writing now in my upstairs study and enjoying a refreshingly normal breeze coming through the window. This morning it was even chilly. One must be grateful for this relief, this fragile moment in which the threat of heat seems faraway. But not deterred in its morbid intentions. It will come, and I will report on it, if I can dab my face with cold water and keep tapping at my keys.
The fruit in the open-air markets is abundant; the figs are from Greece, the plums and grapes are coming in from Spain and Italy. Melons are from the patches around Cavaillon, the town that gives its name to the striped, round, close cousin of the cantaloupe, with dark, sugar-sweet orange meat inside. It’s served as a dessert in many places, and cleans the tongue after munching on goat cheese and bread. The vines are leafy in the vineyards around my village, and the average price for a good red table wine is about six or seven dollars. You can’t beat the local economy, which sells its wares at a much cheaper price than I can find in Vermont. The only thing that tightens my belt is the price of diesel, about eight bucks a gallon. Restaurants have hiked their prices considerably after the pandemic rolled through. Maybe it’s the shortage of waiters, or the added cost of freighting food into the area. So we eat at home, and we give thinks with each tasty bite of lamb, the sweet, tender shallots, the astringent juice of lemons sprinkled onto our tomatoes. After such pleasures at the table, it’s always good to go into our back room and watch an episode of “Downton Abbey” or some mystery series like “Endeavour.” I don’t much care for American TV shows, which smother our emotions with so much gunfire and rage that it’s hard to keep watching. The news is bad enough, but at least PBS has a soft touch and some discretion about how much gore and mayhem to include in their daily news hour.
By then, my bed is calling to me, and I am now reading the middle chapters of Dickens’ Bleak House, maybe for the fourth time. Sorry, but I do seem able to lip-sync the dialog now and then. But it’s entertaining, and good Dickens prose is like eating some hearty Irish stew in a pub full of the tangy odors of ale and the latest soccer scores on the telly. Can’t complain about the sheer beauty of ordinary life. It has its hidden blossoms, its tiny surprises, like a knock on the door and some old friend coming to pay a visit. I hardly ever open my mailbox, unless some envelope is hanging out the slot and beckoning to be opened. Usually it’s a bill for the water, or the electricity. My email gives me all the personal stuff from the U.S.
A simple life, not unlike some hermit’s days. I think of the Cold Mountain poet, Han Shan, a devout Zen Buddhist hermit, who wrote endless short poems and meditations in his cave and hung them from the branches of nearby trees for passersby to enjoy. I have no such discipline in my life, but I can almost imagine the pleasure of lying there in the deep silence of the mountains thinking about the stars and the meaning of the wind as it glides by without wings. Maybe Jack Gilbert was living a similar life on the Greek island of Paros, where he was joined for a time by Linda Gregg. He had removed himself from literary life and went inward for a time, like the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, after rising to the top of his profession. Gilbert won the Yale Younger Series award and would eventually be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, but those brief years in Greece, in a stone hut on a hillside, is where he may have reread his soul for a time. He emerged stronger, more elemental, his language pared back to essential phrases and bared emotions. That’s what cool night air does to a soul; one doesn’t need the constant bombardment of news and entertainment, of longings for gadgets, a new car, for another town or city to live in. Time stops in such remote places, like here, in this ancient stone village lying sprawled out on a rocky hillside with no obvious connection to the outside world.
Don’t get me wrong. I side with John Prine who once said, “I still love America. I just don’t know how to get there.” Even in my dark green jade world in central Vermont, among the ancient maples and oaks, the roar of cars hurtling down the hill outside my house tells me of the frenzy and panic of youth as it careens toward an uncertain future. The voices I hear on the radio, the shrill dissonant wails of guitars in most rock music, all that sounds like suffering to me, like pain and frustration that there is no serenity, no deep well of peace to flee to to shake off the anxiety we feel. America is still out there, lingering in our dreams and memories, calling to us like some ghost hovering over the blue hills all around me, but not tangible as it once was. My father’s spirit has no voice for me; my last vestiges of childhood patriotism have all curled up at the edges like old photographs. I can’t harvest those old emotions and find them attached to reality, to the front porches, the public park with its peeling band box, the dimly illuminated public library tucked among the sycamore trees. The heart longs to embrace the old aura of America, with its powerful heart and generous nature. But the static of life overwhelms our senses, and I sit here in the nearly perfect silence of the village in mid-afternoon and wonder where they have gone.
I find other Americans walking slowly down the streets of Apt, our market town, gazing at the windows, the cakes of soap, the bottles of olive oil, loaves of dark bread, or at the trays of dressed chickens bearing ribbons and certificates of the farmers who raised them. These are the fruits of nature, and of the human hand that patiently raised them or cured them, and washed them in well water and brought them into town for loyal clients to purchase, at a fairly steep price. But each prized object from a field or a sty is guaranteed to taste good, and satisfy a family gathered on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy the social hours.
I remember a poet friend of mine telling me of the time he and his wife were invited to dinner at a house in western France. The host was gracious and his wife came from the kitchen with trays of delicious canapes. The wine was good but not extraordinary. My friend identified the grape and said he thought the finish was short. The host jumped from his chair, rushed down into his cellar, and came back with two dusty bottles which he promptly uncorked. This time the taste was profound, layered with smoke and nut flavors, and a finish that lingered at the back of the throat for a full minute. My friend said he was astonished wine could taste this good. Those bottles were drained down to the lees, and a final bottle was brought up with considerable reverence. It was a very old Petrus from the Pomerol region near St. Emilion. The vineyards are only about twenty-five acres in all, and there is no second yield, just this one precious harvest. He was saving it for something special, but as he told my friend, so few appreciate wine the way he did, and he wanted to show his gratitude.
The earth here is full of magic and ancient myths, and for a man to take down this precious heirloom and share it with invited company said something about how one reveres the sanctity of the green world. There is such devotion to nature here that it borders on a religion that long preceded Christianity. The cultivation of wine has to do with animism and ancient gods. The aroma of wine is rich in earth’s own tangy breath, and the soul of creation. To share it with a friend is a kind of communion without a church around it. It is the veneration of wilderness and mystery, and fruitfulness. Maybe that is what gives me the feeling that peace is still that dove that descends into the mortal world at the summoning of some host pulling the cork and passing it around for others to sniff and go blank a moment before smiling.
So long as the weather is kind and doesn’t punish the fields, we will stay in touch with the distant heavens. Above us is not only the stars and infinity, but the spiritual wind that blows out of ancient cultures and spreads its inspiration to the living.