The tightly trimmed boxwood motifs in such gardens as those of Versailles are what usually come to mind when one thinks of French gardens. But I think of roses, especially roses that climb and then spill over, like fountains of color.
Not everybody has space for a garden like Versailles, but even humble houses in tiny villages–with no yards at all because they were built by/for people who worked long days in the vineyards and fields and who really didn’t need to pile it on when they got home–have found a few inches of dirt in a crack between house and street (because sidewalks are rare and who needs them anyway when the streets themselves are only wide enough for one vehicle at a time), and from such miserly roots climb the most magnificent, flamboyant roses.
Roses are a thing around here. Winegrowers plant them at the ends of the rows of grape vines–pests tend to hit the roses first, like the canary in the coal mine, and the vigneron gets early warning that action is needed. The rest of the time, they look pretty. Win-win.
Roses aren’t alone. Wisteria’s moment has passed, but other delights are on full display.
The fragrance is intoxicating. The lavender is bursting open, though even closed it perfumed my clothes when I brushed against it. The first oleander have arrived. That means summer. So does the buzz of a lawnmower somewhere in the village. Birds, so many different birds, making a marvelous chorus, even all night long. The lizards have been busy, too, darting from under a flower pot to behind a shutter to under a rock. They are as comical as cats–I should film them; do you think lizard videos will go viral? An impressive passion fruit vine. I don’t know whether the variety that grows here is edible. I loved passion fruit in Kenya. Two kinds: smooth orange ones with unappetizingly gray yet sweet, delicious insides and rough dark purple/green ones with orange innards, a little more tangy. I even learned how to crack them open. You cradle them in your hands and gently press your palms together until the shell just cracks with a satisfying pop. Too hard, and you end up with mucus-y seeds all over. When the shell is cracked, you pull the halves apart gently, then suck out the slimy insides. It took a while to get past the esthetics, but now I can’t pass up passion fruit.
Mountains of cherries at the market these days. They are labeled by variety–Burlat, Montmorency, Bigarreau, coeur de pigeon (yes, pigeon’s heart), Napoleon, Van–and by origin–Spain, France, or, more specifically, surrounding villages like Caunes-Minervois. A lot of cherries, especially the early ones, come from Céret, south of Carcassonne. Actually, it’s also south of Perpignan, right near the border with Spain.Céret has several claims to fame. Cherries, to be sure. It is in the foothills of the Pyrénées, in the neighboring department of Pyrénées-Orientales, in a little protected valley that has a very mild microclimate. Hence the early cherries, a crate of which is sent to the French president.
It also was the capital of the Catalan county of Vallespir, back before this area became part of France in 1659. Even today, there’s a Spanish flavor to the region. Although official borders are delineated down to the centimeter, in reality, countries–cultures–overlap, and you pass from one to another not by hopping over a line but in a progression, like ombre colors, with the intensity deepening the farther you go. Especially here, where borders have moved so many times, and where people have moved even more.An example of Céret’s Spanish–or, really, Catalan–heritage is its feria, with running of bulls and bullfights every July (11-15 this year). The modern feria was started in 1980, but records of the practice date to the 1500s, when the celebration was held in September for the feast of Saint Ferréol. Never heard of him? I know the name only by the reservoir that feeds the Canal du Midi. I looked him up and found this site, which warns, “Don’t mix up your Ferréols!” Who knew this could be a problem with such an uncommon name? Saint Ferréol was born in Vienne in the 3rd century. Though he doesn’t seem to have visited Céret, there’s a chapel dedicated to him just outside town, with crutches of the miraculously healed hanging on the walls.
Céret is a small town of around 8,000 inhabitants, but it became an important center for Cubism. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved there in 1911. Soon their friends joined–Raoul Dufy, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Juan Gris, André Masson and others. The little town lost in the mountains became a refuge for Marc Chagall and several other artists fleeing the Nazis during World War II. In 1950, Picasso and Henri Matisse helped establish the Museum of Modern Art in Céret. Besides those painters, the museum also has works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and many of the artists who have stayed in Céret over the years, like Chagall and Masson.Céret is another pleasant day trip from Carcassonne–about an hour and a half drive. It’s a little place, and even with a visit to the museum, you have time to include a stop at the beach.
What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!
Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profonde.
This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.
Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do.
It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?
What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.
Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….
Bugarach, a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrénées, is at the end of the Earth in both senses of the term. Well, sort of.
It was supposed to be the only place to be saved when the world ended on Dec. 21, 2012 (or Dec. 12, 2012, depending on your source). According to certain interpretations of Mayan calculations, the planet Nibiru was to hit the Earth on that day, reversing the poles and making the Earth spin in the opposite direction. However, the extraterrestrials would either come out of their hiding spot in the caves and around the supposed underground lake of the mountain Bugarach, under whose shadow the village sits and whose name it carries, or they would swoop in from space and pick up folks smart enough to be there.
Bugarach (the mountain) is indeed unusual. First, it stands alone and looks pretty impressive with its bare pech (in Occitan; pic in French or peak), which at 1231 meters is the highest of the Corbières. Tectonic movement caused it to be “une montagne renversée”–an upside-down mountain, in which the bottom layers are older than the top layer. Supposedly this also causes the magnetic poles to be reversed there, which is why–presto chango–the mountain would be saved during the cataclysmic global pole reversal. The predictions were inflated by the Internet, drawing an international throng of ufologues (believers in UFOs, though the French term is OVNI–objet volant non-identifié–same thing), illuminés (crazies) and zozotériques (a local’s fancy word for zozos–more crazies). The little village of 200-ish people was flooded with folks who went to the mountain to conduct strange rituals in the nude and who collected the mountain’s supposedly magical rocks.
Bugarach was big news in late 2012, and I kept meaning to check out the hippy dippy village–it’s about an hour and a half south of Carcassonne, a beautiful drive. Since then, it has eased back into quiet isolation. It’s a good 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the next village, making it feel quite a bit like the end of the earth…even though the world didn’t end, whether due to the nonexistence of Nibiru, miscalculations by the Mayans, or what.
This week was the start of De la Ferme en Ferme–From Farm to Farm–and the May 1 circuit included a loop from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Château, passing through Bugarach for some sheep’s cheese. The two Rennes aren’t next to each other at all; Rennes-le-Château gained some notoriety with “The Da Vinci Code,” because of a fake buried treasure a local priest cooked up, spawning conspiracy theories. Rennes-les-Bains is the site of some Roman baths, of which there are many in the area.
Bugarach’s history also goes back to the Romans, who had a mine nearby in the first century CE. Then the Visigoths turned up around the fifth century; a cemetery remains. During the Wars of Religion, Calvinists from the north sought refuge in what would have seemed to be a safe place at the end of the world, but, no, they were hunted down in several massacres between 1575 and 1577. In the 1700s, Bugarach became known for hatmaking (up until 1990, and Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterand supposedly wore Bugarach brand hats). By 1831 Bugarach had more than 1,000 inhabitants, three hat factories, five water mills and many other businesses. It held three fairs, which must have been good, because it would have been difficult for folks to get to. I imagine many residents back in the day never left the village. Today the road is smooth tarmac (but only wide enough for one car; if you meet another vehicle, one has to back up to where the shoulder is somewhat wider to let the other pass), but when it was just a dirt track, it would have taken a long time to travel those dozen miles to the next town.
Bugarach today is very cute, starting from the view from afar. Everything is little.
What was left of the château was restored and turned into a community hall and exposition space, in what I thought was a decent mix of ancient and modern–something that doesn’t always work.
The town also has two charging spots for plug-in electric vehicles, which seemed exceptionally forward thinking. And three restaurants plus a table d’hôte for a town of 200! It shows how Bugarach continues to pull in people who today come to hike and enjoy the countryside.
Saint-Hilaire is a pretty village of ancient stone buildings and a more-ancient abbey, nestled in the first hills that rise from the plain of Carcassonne until they become the mountains of the Pyrénées. The Benedictine abbey began early in the 9th century, when King Louis I, son of Charlemagne, granted it a charter. Louis was nicknamed “the Fair,” “the Debonaire” and “the Pious,” which is an interesting combination indeed.The abbey is mostly famous for having claim to the first documented existence of bubbling wine, which was made at the abbey but which is known as blanquette de Limoux, after a nearby town. Despite the abundance of bubbly, life wasn’t so good for the monks. You would think that, being monks, they would have come out well in the crusade against the Cathars in 1209, but instead they got into a fight against the formation of a Dominican abbey down the road in Prouilhe–the “cradle of the Dominicans.” By the 1300s, money was tight, but the plague, the 100 Years’ War and roving mercenaries called routiers forced the monks to fortify the abbey into a military outpost. A real litany of threats that make a person happy to be living in the 21st century.
Things went from bad to worse: by the 1500s, François I persuaded the pope to let the king appoint the lead monk instead of the monks themselves. Such monks usually were aristocrats and didn’t have to follow any of the order’s rules or even live at the abbey. The money problems worsened. I didn’t find out whether the monks sold their wine, but the idea that prices would naturally go up wasn’t accepted any better than the idea that gravity pulled objects to the ground or that the earth revolved around the sun. Prices were considered to be immutable, and you weren’t allowed to raise them.By 1748, the monk left. The abbey’s church was used by the village and its cloister used as the village square. The abbey was sold off before 1800, as were many religious institutions after the Revolution.There’s a legend that outside Saint-Hilaire, the monks had a little country getaway, which fell to ruin and disappeared after 1748. On a Christmas night centuries later, before the Great War began, a local man passed through the moonlit domaine and heard bells ringing. But no bells were within earshot. Then he heard singing, and witnessed a procession of ghostly monks.
It does seem like the kind of place where, if ghosts exist, you might find them.The abbey is really pretty and open for visitors all year. A peaceful haven.
The south of France is anything but a hardship post. As winters go, they’re the green pistes, compared with the black ones elsewhere. In fact, spring started sprouting more than a week ago. (The mimosas are exploding, as in the top photo.)The days are getting longer and milder. The air smells doux, in all the French senses of the word: sweet, soft, mild, gentle… It’s intoxicating, making you want to fill your lungs again and again. It’s been mild enough that we can open the windows and let the perfume in the house (in addition to the daily airing that all good French people perform every morning, kind of the opposite of hygge). Snow is an hour away, if we want it, in abundance.
The bees are buzzing, the butterlies are fluttering. The weeds are invading.
The majestic plane trees are still bare. They look like tortured sculptures, though the trunks of some remind me of the trunks of elephants.
The trees in the woods don’t yet have leaves, but greenery persists throughout winter here.The river is robust, neither threatening nor dry. The baby grass is so tender. I just wanted to stay and stroke it (I did partake for a few minutes, but resisted the urge to take off my shoes and feel it between my toes, too).Secret worlds come to life.
One of the first things I noticed when we moved to our little village in very rural southern France: the elderly residents would go to the bakery for their daily baguette while wearing bedroom slippers. Always plaid flannel ones. How charmingly eccentric, I thought.
But far and away the weirdest tale in the village concerns the pornographer parents.
At the time our kid was small—maybe two years old—there was quite a group of mothers who would show up at the park for about an hour before lunch and again after the afternoon nap. A very young woman came one day with her child—new to the village—and we welcomed them into the group.
She was a little odd, but we attributed it to her age. We were all older—I was a late starter, another had teenagers and then decided to have one more baby, two others also had teens and were foster parents to toddlers. The new arrival didn’t work, and her husband was a security guard, she said. They were from Bordeaux. She wore her hair tied up, no makeup, baggy clothes.
One day, we were at the park when her husband came by, panicked. Where were they? Were any strangers around? They might have been kidnapped! Calm down, they just left, we told him, wondering why he was acting so strangely.
We had playdates and birthday parties in addition to our park outings. The new mother gave a birthday party for her kid, and we all showed up. The house was indistinguishable from everybody else’s, with a kitchen opening to a dining area, with a Winnie-the-Pooh playhouse, and then to the living room. A high shelf ran all the way around the living room and held all kinds of movie cameras. They collected them, she said.
About a month later, one of the moms came to the park with big news. The young mother was a porn star, along with her husband. Another mom and her husband had been to the Salon de l’érotisme in Toulouse and had recognized them—they lived a couple of houses apart and hadn’t known until then.
I looked up the porn star’s site. There was a photo of her in a French maid outfit, leaning over the kitchen sink that I recognized, and I realized the photo must have been shot from next to the Winnie-the-Pooh house. There also was a film shot in the park!
The foster mothers were livid that the young woman hadn’t told them about her real occupation. They could have lost their jobs or faced a lot of headaches.
Two things made me furious: The porn site had lots of photos of their child—not sexual ones but it was still creepy, with captions like “if you love me, send presents to my little girl.” The other thing that made me mad was that the address for sending stuff was in the village. They didn’t even bother to get a post office box in town. No wonder the husband was worried about kidnappers.
I felt really bad for their daughter. She was very nervous and didn’t talk much. On school outings, she wouldn’t eat. She would hide her food and pretend she ate it. I remember putting her hair into a ponytail for her—it was very long but so terribly thin.
The parents divorced; he was abusive and the porn star often had bruises. They moved away—I don’t know where to—after a few years.
Not to end on such a low note, I’ll go even lower with the tale of another resident.
There’s an older guy, very tall and and thin and gaunt, and with a stiff gait. He must have looked older than his age at first, because almost 15 years later he still looks the same, and I’d still guess him to be about 70. He was one of the regulars we would greet on our way to school in the mornings. I always thought, “Aw, he’s going to tend graves at the cemetery, how touching,” because the only things in that direction are the cemetery, some vineyards and the garrigue. He didn’t carry tools for pruning vines or fixing wires, so the cemetery was the logical destination.
I recently learned that he doesn’t go to the cemetery but to the woods to do his business! Even in bad weather! Does the man not have indoor plumbing? Another villager surprised him in the act one day. And chewed him out. But it didn’t have any effect on him—he still heads for the woods every morning. Now when I pass him, I wince. And I stay away from the woods!
No wonder he has such a weird walk.
Starting a new life in a new place is fraught, but doing it in a different language and culture adds a layer of complexity.
The expat bibliography is stuffed with tales of misunderstandings and scams suffered by poor newbies ignorant of the wily ways of the French contractor and the Kafkaesque requirements of the French bureaucracy.
We experienced none of that. Everybody was very professional. But at the beginning, with the Carnivore gone at work all day and me at home with a new baby, no car, no job and no friends, the transition was shockingly hard. Happily, very quickly, many people reached out, making connections with us and connecting us with the community, much to our surprise and delight.
One of the first was our neighbor’s father, who did not quite approve of foreigners next door. However, he gave us the name of a trustworthy local, J-C, who would keep tabs on the place when we were gone.
When we moved in for good, J-C was our guide. He told us where to find a doctor. Which led to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist looked at my address, said she lived in the same village, and that I should check out the gym classes at the community center.
The gym classes became my go-to for all kinds of information. The relative advantages of the various supermarkets in town. How to sign up a kid for preschool. Where to take baby-swimming lessons. What all those French acronyms mean. Any time I needed to know something, I would ask at gym class. I exercised my vocabulary as well as my muscles during the Wednesday night sessions. (For the most accurate weather report, eavesdrop on the line at the bakery.)The park was another touchstone. It must have been a magical time, because now when I run around the park, I no longer see mothers with little ones on the manicured lawn. I was lucky to have a nice clique of three other mothers as insistent as I was that kids need to go outside unless it’s pouring rain. They had kids the same age as mine, and our four were sometimes joined by various others who were more relaxed about the park-television ratio. Even on wintry days, we would go, huddling against the wind as the well-bundled little ones (emmitoufler is the adorable French word that means “to wrap up in warm clothes”) intently picked up rocks or leaves or chestnuts from one place and dropped them someplace else, while similarly well-bundled little old ladies perched like delicate brown birds on a bench against a sheltered, sun-warmed south wall, watching the spectacle. Who needs cat videos when you have live toddler performances?When I had surgery on my foot and was laid up for a month, these mothers came by every day to visit me. Every day. They also did the school runs, while another handled swim lessons.
That is when I knew it. I was loved. The roots were sinking in.
Have you ever planted seedlings from a nursery and then later pulled them out, the roots still in a tight ball? Meanwhile, other plants are nearly impossible to get out, having sent their roots wide and deep. A difference with humans, though, is that we can have roots in many places at once. Mine are now spread across countries and continents.
I don’t like to think of having lost touch with old friends; there’s no repudiation of the time spent with them, and it’s only normal that we all devote most of our energies to those in our presence. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, yet that’s sometimes on a superficial level of headlines about what’s eating up our time. On the other hand, I regaled my mom with her faraway grandchild’s antics via email, and she would write back as soon as she read it several time zones later. My mom even babysat from almost 5,000 miles away. She and the kid would get on Skype, and talk. They would draw pictures and hold them up to the camera to show each other. I would be shooed away during these sessions, with a curt, “We are TALKING!” And talk they did. I couldn’t always hear the exact words, but they came in a steady stream, punctuated by plenty of laughter.
My dad preferred snail mail. I would get a thick envelope from time to time, every bit of every page filled with his distinctive writing, which got shakier and shakier. The topics were stream of conscious—certainly his mind worked faster than his hand, and by the time he had scratched out a sentence, he was already paragraphs beyond. He always signed off with “I love you and always will.” Always.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen my siblings or old friends, on the rare times when the stars align so we can get on the phone despite the transatlantic scheduling challenges, we pick up as if we’d last seen each other just a few days ago. The details don’t matter. I love them deeply, fiercely, and that’s all that it takes to keep the connection.This post is part of the group “By Invitation Only,” which this month is discussing connections. For other points of view, please visit Daily Plate of Crazy, where you can find not only D.A. Wolf’s sensory take but also links to other By Invitation Only participants. And tell me about the connections that are important to you.
Halloween–or as they say, ‘Alloween–has taken off in France. (I get teased about my accent, so turnabout is fair play.) The supermarkets have stands dedicated to candy, makeup and decorations.
The village holds a costume contest, and a high proportion of the residents participate in handing out treats, which are almost always not individually wrapped!!! I freaked out the first time, but I soon knew almost everybody. In fact, our kid chose a big container of not individually wrapped candies (licorice and fake fruit flavors) for us to distribute. I wanted to get mini Snickers, figuring that if there were leftovers, they might as well be something good. But my kid informed me that on Halloween, kids want candy, and chocolate isn’t candy, it’s chocolate and is for Christmas. Somehow it seems very French to elevate chocolate above mere candy status.
A perfect haunted house, in a deep, dark forest, too. (It was for sale. Probably still is.)
The French haven’t yet adopted yards full of inflatables, probably because front yards aren’t a thing here. Either you have a townhouse whose front door opens right onto the sidewalk or you have a “villa” (which includes quite modest free-standing houses) with a garden behind the privacy of a wall or at least a fence. None of those golf-course-like lawns stretching unimpeded between house and curb, unused except for holiday decorations.
In France, Halloween costumes are strictly scary. Save your astronaut and princess outfits for Carnivale on Mardi Gras. Our village is so small that it doesn’t take long for the kids to circulate in large groups. They bang on everybody’s doors, lights on or not. One time, before a house that was shuttered up tight, one of the parents hollered “Papi!” (Grandpa!) and a little old guy opened up and released a sweet into each proffered bag. The whole porch light signal doesn’t work the same way without porches.
After pillaging the village of sugar, the ghoulish kiddies traipse through the community center to have their loot weighed and costumes judged. Our kid won the costume contest one year (headless–it really turned heads), then raised the ante the next year with a zippered face, which was even more horrifying. We waited for the costume winners to be announced, but nothing happened. Then we realized the other kids had left. The lights got turned down, the music got turned up, and we were confronted with the horror of the village’s singles population, and soon-to-be singles population (I recognized a few too many married parents of the kid’s schoolmates, not with their spouses), checking each other out, and not for best costume. Most were already tipsy and you could see that Nov. 1 was going to be a day of regrets for more than a few of them. The kid was crushed the zipper face hadn’t won, but somewhat consoled that it appeared there were no prizes at all that year.
Since the kid got too old to trick-or-treat and is too young for the singles-and-swingers dance, Halloween means a trip to the haunted house, followed by a small party at home with scary movies. The haunted house operates year-round in la Cité of Carcassonne, run by the same people who have the “museum” of torture.La Cité is definitely a good set for a scary movie. Gargoyles aplenty. Stern stone walls. Today promises to be bright and sunny, with not a cloud in the bluest sky, but when gray clouds hover low and the wind howls, you can imagine it as a haunt for ghosts.While the gang goes through the haunted house, I plan to visit the cemetery just outside the walls. I have gone to cemeteries in a number of towns in France, and something about them is so interesting. Again, no vast expanses of green lawns. They are real cities of the dead, with incredible chapels and tombs, a few engraved words conveying stories of the residents’ lives.
Our village cemetery draws a parade of people every day. Mostly they’re the little old ladies wobbling along to tend loved ones’ graves and say prayers. For the past two weeks, though, the cemetery has been a hive of activity, with cars parked along the perimeter as families tidy up and bring in big pots of flowers ahead of the real holiday, Nov. 1, All Saints Day–Toussaint. Chrysanthemums are the favorite, to the extent that putting them in your garden is just not done. I got a gentle reprimand when I put a pot of mums by our front door. Too bad–they’re such pretty flowers.In Paris, the Père Lachaise cemetery draws visitors because of the famous people (Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison) buried there. I went there on a Christmas Day years ago–it was one of the few things open on Christmas. And there were lots of people! The delightful podcast The Earful Tower had a segment about Jim Morrison’s grave. Another interesting one is the Montmartre cemetery. But even small cemeteries in small places are fascinating. They’re really proof that they are more for the living than for the dead.
And below, some random bits:
Re: Friday’s post about hunters and boars: here are some prints I came upon in a vineyard:
Tomatoes are still going strong in some gardens (photo taken two days ago):
And this was such a pretty scene, with the white horse and colorful vineyards:
Gunshots cracked the Saturday predawn silence. It happened again on Sunday. I heard more that evening, as we ate on the terrace, our cone of lamplight surrounded by still-balmy darkness.
The hunting season began Sept. 10 in the forests, but not until Oct. 8 in the vineyards because the grape harvest was still under way.
With still-warm nights, we sleep with a window open, and so many sounds come in along with the sweet autumn air.
Beware Traps Danger. Hunting reserve.
Crickets. Where were they in the summer? Maybe it was too hot and dry. Now they chirp loudly in the first hours of darkness. When we first moved here, the nearby river was full of frogs that screamed all night. They didn’t croak; they shrieked like little girls in a haunted house. It was a somewhat stressful addition to the natural soundtrack, but now that the frogs are gone I miss them. Too hot? Too dry? Too polluted? No idea why they disappeared.
During the night, there are some birds that break out in exquisite arias. Soloists. Other birds blast a sharp warning during their nightly hunts; being a city person, I don’t know bird calls, but they don’t sound like the “who-who” of owls, which we also hear from time to time. The roosters I recognize, at least.
At around 5 a.m. every morning, a scooter sputters toward the village. In my mind’s eye, I follow its route up and down the hills, getting louder, crossing a bridge, rolling through the stop to turn onto a main road and head into town. The minimum age for driving is 18, but one can drive a scooter from age 14. It seems so dangerous—scooters have small engines and barely make it up steep hills, which is also where cars can’t pass safely. The way this one coughs, it’s just as well it isn’t making the journey during rush hour. The driver must be some teenage apprentice heading to a very early shift…at a bakery, maybe? I send out kind thoughts for a safe trip and a good day.
A camionette. Not the rickety one full of dogs, but you get the picture.
Even earlier, well before the first inkling of morning, a rickety old camionette—a kind of enclosed pickup favored by vignerons—rattles by with what sounds like a pack of dogs barking in the back. I used to think it was an old guy in the village who had an old camionette and about a dozen beagles. But some years ago the beagles disappeared and the house has been closed up tight, its garden overgrown, so I fear the old man died. I don’t believe in ghosts and the rickety camionette with barking dogs is quite real, so clearly it’s somebody else, most likely off for a morning hunt.
A few days ago, I climbed one of the dry rock retaining walls along my walking route in order to get a better vantage point to take a picture of a vineyard whose leaves were a brilliant orange. As I went up, I realized I would have to find a different way down. So I walked along through the wild brush, looking for a better way down. It was easy—there were clear paths crisscrossing all over, with the tall grass matted down flat. Then I got a look at a bare spot and realized the paths had been made by sangliers—boars. The prints sank deeply into the soft ground. How was the ground there soft, anyway? Our garden is dry and hard from so many days of sunshine. Maybe all the vegetation held in the moisture from the last rain.
I wondered about the boars piecing together a life in the scattered morsels of brush and stretches of garrigue between the vineyards. Houses gobble up more and more land, hopscotching farther out, like an infestation of fungus or weeds or a dread skin condition. Trees and brush are torn out, vineyards ripped up, replaced by either lotissements of identical sorry cottages or hideous Mediterranean mcmansions (post on abominable French architecture coming up). When the ancient villages were created, everybody lived close together, within fortified walls, for safety. Crime was rampant back then, with marauding gangs on the few roads. Now crime is rare, and the dangers of walking in the countryside in the dark are limited to getting hit by a car or coming nose to nose with a wild pig.
An abandoned vineyard, with food for wild pigs.
The French also have a hunting song for children. Here’s a charmingly simple video of it, because the hand motions are key. The lyrics: