What a weekend! Three days of happy events. July 13, a night of communal dinners and local fireworks–the villages know they can’t compete with the giant Bastille Day display above the Carcassonne citadel. Then July 14, the big deal. Plus it was a Saturday. The produce market unrecognizable–more tourists than tomatoes. Every café terrace packed. The party starts early and goes late.
Leaving the market, I was relieved to find my car still in its quasi-legal parking spot (much of the regular parking had been declared off-limits in preparation for the fireworks crowds that would start showing up). An older woman in a cheerful red dress with white polka dots approached, lugging a clearly heavy tote bag. “Is Avenue Antoine Marty far?” she asked. I pointed to it, a couple of blocks away. She peered into the distance.
I told her to hop in, I would take her. She was thrilled. It quickly became evident that she knew very well where Avenue Antoine Marty was; the question seemed to be to determine whether I was fit to ask for a ride. I was glad to have passed the test. The municipal electric minibus that usually took her close to her home wasn’t running because the centre ville streets had been closed to traffic in view of the influx of visitors for the day’s events. I suspect she was trudging home, saw me, a not-young woman pulling a shopping caddy, getting into a car with local 11 license plates and she decided to take a chance. By 11 a.m. it already was hot and she didn’t exactly live nearby.
She informed me she was 90. She was in fine form!! She had hefted her bag into the car before I had a chance to get out and do it. She wore a string of pearls and earrings and, I noticed, her sandals exposed her toes, twisted and deformed and undoubtedly very painful for walking long distances.She said 90 was no fun. She was born in Carcassonne and had lived there her whole life and always had lots of friends. But now, they were dying off, her coffee posse dwindling from 15-strong to five. “What are they thinking, dying like that?” she demanded, not rhetorically but in a clearly irritated way, like “why did you leave the lights on?”As she gave me directions, she told me about her life. Her daughter died of cancer a few years ago. “I died, too,” she said. “I am still here, but I stopped living when I lost her. It is not right to lose a child. What was she thinking, dying like that?”
I dropped her off in front of her house and told her we had to have coffee the next time we crossed paths at the market. I don’t doubt I’ll see her again. I thought of something I’d recently read by the poet Donald Hall, who recently died at age 89: “However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.” I certainly hope my new friend in the red dress felt like the self who still lives inside.
Later, our family joined the celebratory throngs in town, having dinner en terrasse at the central square (classic steak tartare, Thai steak tartare and a salade César at l’Artichaut). In the afternoon, a very good singer was belting out Aretha Franklin covers; at dinner time it was traditional bal musette, with people dancing around the fountain of Neptune as others ate at the many cafés.
As the sun set, we headed toward the river to watch the fireworks. I am constantly amazed by how polite the crowds are here. Even when the fireworks started, people stayed seated. No litter. Just laid-back, enjoying the moment.
And then, on Sunday, les Bleus delivered another World Cup championship. While my husband and kid watched (at home–no distractions), I puttered around the garden and listened, in stereo, to the collective cries of the villagers on the emotional rollercoaster–with air conditioning unheard-of here, everybody’s windows were open. Mostly cheers, but there were a couple of loud groans. Later, young people gathered on the main road to cheer at passing cars, but there was little traffic. The few cars that came by at least participated with plenty of honking.
Next up: the Tour de France has an arrival, a rest day and a departure from Carcassonne next weekend.