The French countryside is studded with little gems of villages, often boldly at the crest of a hill, from where its church steeple and, likely, a fortress tower, bristles above the horizon. Others are nestled in valleys, nearly invisible until you get close.
In this part of the south of France, les anciens--the people of old–used the building materials at hand–namely large stones pulled from the fields. The stones provide great insulation and are surely one of the reasons people here continue to resist air conditioning. The roofs are covered with red terre cuite tiles, laid in overlapping waves, which usually (not always) are heavy enough to resist the high winds that tear through. Some are cemented down for good measure. Imagine the weight.
The buildings predate any zoning or urban planning. People added on here and there over generations, resulting in a crazy quilt of red roofs.The church is at the center of the village, its steeple often topped with a rooster, the Gallic coq. The rooster was a religious symbol in medieval times and during the Revolution became a symbol of France. Many of the villages are so small they don’t have any baker or grocery store. The sole businesses are wineries, or the odd artisan like plumbers or electricians who work out of their homes. Some don’t even have a school. Parents drive their kids to school in bigger villages nearby on their way to work in town. Only the elderly are left in the villages during the day. Bigger villages have a grocery, a baker, a café, even a butcher and tabac, or smoke shop, which once were vital for such items as bus tokens, cards for making calls on public phones, stamps and other essentials that no longer are essential. Elderly villagers shuffle out for their daily baguettes while wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. The bakery is also the place to get the most accurate weather forecast.The tiniest villages are served by itinerant vendors, who stop for a few hours a few days a week and provide a place for locals to not only buy necessities like fresh produce but also catch up on gossip. In one village, I passed a fishmonger truck, surrounded by a clutch of little old ladies in animated conversation.
The older residents perch on the benches under the ubiquitous platanes–plane trees. The ones who use canes cross their hands limply atop the handle, a little like Psy dancing in “Gangnam Style.”When my kid was in the last year or two of primary school in the village, I was informed that it was dishonorable to be escorted by one’s mother. Already, it was dishonorable to walk to school. Even kids who lived a couple of blocks away were driven by mothers who then drove straight back home. To be walked to the door by a parent was the worst.
So I bowed to this declaration of independence, and watched my kid disappear around the neighbor’s hedge. I felt pretty confident about safety in the maze of medieval lanes too small for cars, and completely confident that my kid would dutifully go straight to school. But I’m a worrywart, so I would slip out and do my best spy impersonation, tailing my kid while staying just out of sight. There was a spot along the former ramparts, where the street (more like a passage that would be a tight fit for a Smart car) stretched straight for the final block to school. I would crouch behind a parked car and watch until my kid was swallowed by the playground.This was endlessly amusing to the bench full of little old guys. Every day, they would be perched there, like so many swallows on an electric line. Sometimes, my kid would decide to run, and I would round the corner for my final vantage point and see nothing. My little birds would tip their caps and nod that my kid had passed as expected.
The little old ladies flock in the afternoons at the park, on a bench that in summer is shaded by an enormous magnolia tree and in winter is protected by a south-facing wall warmed by the sun. They bring knitting, and their fingers fly as fast as their tongues. But the main entertainment is the children. The lawn under the tree is a favorite place for mothers and nannies to get their very small charges outside while they enjoy some precious moments of adult conversation. The path’s gravel has been scooped, carried and dumped a few feet away by countless toddlers. Far more amusing than cat videos.The little old ladies and little old men used to go for walks, all together, around the vineyards. A pack of them would set off every afternoon–early morning in summer, of course. There was a high point where one could get a glimpse into our yard, and I would find them straining to see in. Foreigners in the village must have been so fascinating. I hope we lived up to expectations.
Over the years, the group dwindled in number. They probably had been together their entire lives. Many were related, varying degrees of cousins, otherwise by marriage. They now are too old to hike around the vineyards. They stay in the village. Several have died. Time marches on even when we no longer can.When someone dies in the village, a few strains of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass crackle over the public loudspeakers, and the mayor’s secretary announces the funeral services. Everybody stops what they’re doing, to hear whose name is announced, if they don’t already know.
Most of the time, though, the loudspeakers announce happier things, accompanied by happier music, usually Europop hits from the ’80s. The pizza truck will be at the square from 6 p.m. on. The football club is organizing a dinner; sign up at the bakery. The school is holding a loto. The secretary gives every announcement all the extra syllables and richly rolled R’s of the regional accent.
Today is a holiday, and the village is hushed beyond even Sunday standards. Although we have two more weeks of summer, August 15 signals the apex beyond which is a downward slide toward la rentrée–the re-entry, aka back to school, back to work, back to normal life.