Useless

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

2010Jul27_Reaper-L1000937

The farmers hereabouts have begun in earnest in the past three or four days to denude their fields of the summer’s crop of wheat and hay. If I were, in my usual presumptuous way, to assume it was about me I could almost guess they are working their butts off, as they do year round, to rub it in as I spend my last two days in my beloved Haut Var.

Driving through the countryside borrowing the fresh eyes of first-time guests, one might suppose, as they do, that what they mainly grow is grapes. So multitudinous and wide-spread are the vineyards, and so alien to the vision of U.S. Northeasterners, all these domaines do give the impression this is the chief, perhaps the only, crop. Equally alien to us Yankees, of course, are acre after acre of wheat, the deep tawny shade of a mature crop. It’s a color of great depth and richness, somewhere in a highly selective spectrum of mine, between amber and yellow ochre and gamboge. Of course, this being Provence, the color changes with the light, and the time of day, and sometimes moment to moment. And if the wind is blowing, forget it.

One does not notice the variety and the plenitude, or the vast expanse of acreage—even in a part of the country which is one of the most heavily wooded in all of France—except from a distance. The height of the hill on which our village sits just happens to be precisely right for a vantage suited either for studious contemplation, or pure esthetic indulgence. And of course, work looks best from a distance, the monstrous machines reduced to Dinky Toy proportions as they move inexorably from one end of each meadow to the next, boustrophedon, “as the ox goes” is the way the Greeks put it (a huge animal pulling a plow is most efficient turning once at the end of each parallel row); it’s a term applied to a manner of writing, which Leonardo, among others, used—be glad I don’t. There may be majesty in purple mountains, but it is nothing to the majesty of noble labor in golden fields of grain.

The machines are gigantic. One is sensible of their potency only by close observation—and there is no greater testimony to their inexorable, if not terrible, power, than to see, as I did, the operator of one these beasts, clamoring over a combine-harvester with his sinuous arms, one of them missing a part of itself ending four inches below the elbow. And instantly I can imagine that one singular gruesome harvest, a life lesson, but a man must work, and work he obviously continues to do.

In most instances, the machines travel from field to field, or farm to farm. As long as I’ve been sojourning here, I am still not clear on the division of land. In fact, I do know that often a single owner has tracts all over the place, each planted differently very often, depending on the yield of a particular parcel, or the market demand year to year. The machines are so big and so expensive there are few of them, and it’s my guess they are used cooperatively, or they are leased cooperatively, or they contract with the operator to take care of all the wheat in a commune (French for incorporated town or village). The first machine to appear is a combine-harvester, as I mentioned, which reaps and threshes in one operation, separating the grains and collecting them, and then leaving the stalks and chaff in long parallel rows along the length of the field. Next comes the baler. In these parts, and at least this year and last, they have been using rectangular balers which leave neat little right-angle parallelopipeds, box-shaped bales—to differentiate them from the rolling balers which leave huge cylinders neatly spaced in rows for the farmer to pick up with his tractor and trailer.

Haying season, which begins about the middle of July and ends with the month, means the roads are at some point, as you travel from village to village, temporarily impassable. Farm equipment by law cannot exceed a speed limit of 25kph (about 15 miles an hour) even on open stretches of highway. But the farmers are the dearest, kindest men (I have yet to see a woman operating this equipment, or driving on the open road; doesn’t mean they don’t, I simply have never seen them) and get out of the way with the first opportunity. They work, and they live for that matter, at a certain pace. And one cannot help get the notion that that pace is somehow in tune with a resonant sense of the pace of living things themselves.

All action is measured. Great amounts of work get done seemingly effortlessly. One leaves in the morning for marché. Does frenzied shopping. Leisurely sits and quaffs coffee and some viennoiserie. On the road to the market town, one sees a field of wheat. On the return trip home, the stalks have been hewn in mounded rows. On the next trip to town, perhaps the very next day, for a dinner reservation at that restaurant one wanted to try, the mounds have been replaced by neat bales. And two days later, the bales are gone. In a week, another machine has been brought in. A harrower. And the field is clogged with great clumps of the marvelous terra rossa, the red earth of this region. Often one has not seen one bit of machinery, nor a single human, as if the labor were done by unseen hands stretching down from the firmament.

In the 22 years of my visits, all too short, however long, this has been the enduring cycle of the days. It happens again in late spring, when the winter wheat, which first sprouts, in late November, an unexpected bright green of shoots quickening the frosty air of December, not very long after the grape harvest. The latter is performed by another genus of huge machinery, tall as a three-story house, and which rumbles snail-paced athwart the neat rows of vines, which have been dressed and bound, row on row, from the start in anticipation of the orientation of the maw of the mechanical picker. The more valuable vintage grapes are picked by hand, but these precious crops are truly unseen, as they lie in vineyards past woods and dales, sometimes several kilometers from the open road, hence out of sight.

Once the winter wheat is planted, and has safely begun to sprout, it’s time for the harvest of the other great fruit of this region. The noble drupe known as the olive. Again, there are mechanical pickers (actually shakers, which, with a quaking motion, force the mature fruit off the trees and into nets spread on the ground at the base of the gnarled trunks). Smaller orchards use the same techniques, but manually.

The other drupes which grow upon this fecund land, the plum, the almond, and the luscious cherry each have their own season. Watches and clocks be damned. Every village has a clanging bell to toll the hour, every hour, all through the day and night. Farmers, as I have pointed out, work to some deeper, slower temporal measure. There’s a rhythm to it. A pace.

And the effect on their lives, and on the daily life of those who devote themselves to this labor is evident even to a dilettante like me. Never mind to the extraordinary common people who inhabit the towns and villages, the hamlets, and assemblages of stone cabins so few in their aggregation that there is no name for it. Dirt roads off the paved thoroughfares that join the market towns go on for great distances, seemingly to nowhere, when they suddenly debouch upon a homestead, and then another, and another, in a small clutch of houses that must surely be the smallest indivisible unit of what can only reasonably be called civilization. And that sense of the pace and rhythm of life is evident even here.

It humbles me. It should humble any man, or woman, who comes here from there, that anywhere whence each of us arrives, usually a city, or some bustling place, filled with the hurly burly, with the Jamesian blooming, buzzing confusion of the so-called civilized world. But I am humbled further, as I consider my reasons for coming here from time to time.

I have described the work of this place, the quotidian activity that defines it, and has defined it for I would guess a millennium. I presume to call what I do, or wish to do, or hope to do work, and I end up, more recently than not, even with my age, and the accumulated experience that comes now with the package that is myself, feeling confused, not clarified. Filled with diffidence, not its opposite. Out of tune, not harmonious or resonant.

This place more than any other—for me, as I can speak for no one else—hums with the eternal, most evident in the quietest moments, when the cicadas are mute, the birds are silent, the woodland creatures have bedded down so even the rustling in the undergrowth has stopped, and the wind has ceased. And in the stillness, the black mantle of night radiant with the unstinting unblinking points of a billion stars, I am overcome with a sense of my own uselessness.

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La Pluie

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

For the first time since I arrived, three weeks ago, inclement weather threatens.

Actual raindrops just fell on my car as I returned from the boulangerie down the hill with my morning croissant and a baguette. The sky is quite dark to the west and northwest, which are the prevailing directions for wetness. And I heard actual rain falling in the alley next to chez moi as I drank my espresso and sucked down the croissant. I rushed upstairs to the keyboard, because you have to take advantage of these moments.

And now damn it, the sun is dappling the ancient tree in the place just outside my window. In fact, it’s getting stronger as I type, like one of those scenes in a bad movie as the hero’s fingers race over the keyboard (or the keypad on the nuclear device, or the dials on the safe with the exonerating papers…) or like Peter Pan exhorting us to clap ever more enthusiastically to save Tinker Bell, as her inner light dims and wavers.

I was looking forward to the village people (no, not what you’re thinking; I mean literally, the locals here in the village) having some other subject than heat to talk about on the theme of weather. The weather isn’t boring, it’s the talk. Heat heat heat. Oh it’s hot! Hot today. Wasn’t it hot?

Relentlessly, day after day, week after week, as the summer makes its indolent way through the phases of the moon (which has now been waxing itself, also since my arrival), and the sun beats down unceasingly, at least 14 hours a day. All of this so much so that it reinforces one’s natural tendency to lose not only a sense of time, but of time passing altogether. Without the internet, I am convinced, or the need to get to marché each week, or every three days, for fresh produce and a nice piece fish, no one would know what day of the week it is. No civilian that is, because the French who own the banks, and merchants who make the endless cycle of visits to villages on the marché circuit—if it’s Aups, this must be Saturday—they always know what day it is, because for the one, it’s a matter of making sure that people’s lives are inconvenienced periodically on a hebdomadal basis [irrelevant note here: writers who pledge themselves to writing about life in France must understand that pledge to include the obligation to use the word “hebdomadal,” and a few other lexical rarities, like “lexical,” in their production]. You see the banks, like many many shops are simply closed on Mondays.

The critical time unit is the week. Let’s face it, each day is the same except for the folks who have to shlep tomatoes and French tschotschkes, with cicadas embroidered or laser-cut or molded into otherwise marginally useful household objects, like little olive bowls with even tinier bowls inside, one for the pits and the other for toothpicks—I used one of these yesterday while having dinner out: it actually had the words “noyants”and “piques” fired into the surfaces, in tiny black letters, of those tiny bowls, in case you might get confused—or the bankers, who need one day a week to count their money, which they are not lending to anyone, even here in France. They know what day it is.

The bankers may be losing track of time. Like all establishments in rural precincts, in hamlets and villages, even the bank branches (never mind the post offices, the offices of the Public Treasury, sort of the local outposts of the national treasury, where you can pay taxes, and have interminable discussions about whether you really have to pay the television ownership tax since you don’t have a tv, never had a tv, can’t even stand French tv), everything closes for lunch. This is in addition to having all of Monday off. However, on this trip, I noticed something quite interesting.

There has been a radical remodeling of the local branch of the Crédit Agricole, which among its other accomplishments holds my mortgage, along with those of the majority of the populace, making it, I think, one of the largest banks not only in France, but in Europe, which might explain their difficulty in hiring local personnel for their thousands of branches and who individually have enough brain cells to rub together in order to be able to answer simple direct questions. That, or it’s my accent, but then, most of the questions that have gone unanswered have been via email. But, back to the remodeling.

Whereas formally, the bank resembled a corner branch of Fort Knox, or the French equivalent, assuming they have an equivalent; it’s also possible they’ve used up all their gold embellishing the Empire gimcrackery on the buildings in Paris: domes, balustrades, corbels, etc. etc. Instead of plate glass so thick you could not see inside to reassure yourself that the tellers were in their little stalls, the managers were temporizing behind their desks, probably playing Sudoku, which has apparently taken rural France by storm, because I know they’re not doing anything to learn the bank rules any better for my rare visits when I can pose my unanswerable questions in person in my impenetrable accent, there are now automatic doors that slide open as soon as you get within about five meters of them (that’s about 20 feet). Instead of a double door system with a waiting cubicle smaller than a French phone booth on a hot summer night when you not only have no French coins, which French phones no longer accept, but no French credit card, with their little gold printed circuit “puce” or, literally, “flea,” which contains all your personal account information and is the little key to your pitiable little financial kingdom, and is the only way you can use a French phone, unless you are making a call to a “numéro vert” or “green number,” that is, the quaint French way of saying a toll-free call, wherein (in the cubicle, not the phone booth; I know it’s difficult, but pay attention) you wait, while tiny little, well, traffic lights, they’re red and green see?, flash on an off while in some mysterious way someone or some thing inside the bank determines you are not bent on some underhanded business if they admit you to the bank and then presses a release button to let you through the second door. And it can be an ordeal in summer, because that little cubicle is not air conditioned. And then you do the whole thing in reverse on the way out, as a security measure. It is possible, you’ll admit, that you may have cleverly disguised yourself as a retired farmer in jeans or overalls, or a tired housewife in an even more tired housedress, or an American tourist in goofy shorts and athletic socks with your ankle-high Cons, and actually were coming in to do something underhanded, instead of asking innocuous unanswerable questions, and then you thought you could just sashay out of there with the underhanded ill-gotten gains of your visit. No, you must do the double-door-cubicle, stuffy and hot, the door behind you locking before the light can change to green and the door in front of you unlocks.

As I say, all gone. You just sashay in at virtually all hours. The sign proudly announces that there is access from some ungodly hour in the morning, when no one should be in a bank deep in La France Profonde doing any kind of business, until ten at night, when the sun has just set, at least if it’s anywhere near that time of year called the Summer Solstice. What they’ve cleverly done is eliminate the need for any staff with any brain cells to rub together, and provided three automated banking stations—one for deposits, one for withdrawals, and one, well, I’m not sure what it’s for, because I’m afraid to go in there. The only reason I ever went into the bank before was to get a roll of one euro pieces for the laundromat across the street, whose computerized control system only accepts one euro, two euro and 50 cent (euro) coins, and no one has that much change in their pockets or it would rip the pocket right out of your shorts, because it costs about 14 euros all told, washing and drying, to do a single eight kilo load of wash and dry. The other reason I’d go into the bank would be every three years to get my new ATM card, which they will not mail to you, no no no, but you must pick it up in person. Not so bad, as I only use the card in France, but there’s a little catch. They also issue the four-number PIN to you—you can’t compose it yourself, and I don’t dare ask if it can be changed, because I think this will fall into that category of questions I have already belabored. However, they mail the PIN to you, and only after issuing the card, which you must sign for at the bank. And well, my bank statements and all other mail go to my U.S. home address, because, damn it, I still happen to spend the preponderance of my time in the good old U.S, of A. The timing of this all gets rather tricky.

My current ATM card has another year to run, thank God, so I have all that time to sort this out once again, and muster the courage to walk between those automatically sliding doors and scope out the vision of the 21st century that Crédit Agricole has implemented. I might even run into someone who works there, so I can polish my question-asking skills. I still need to know the mortgage interest I paid in 2009 for my American tax return. That always stumps them. They can’t comprehend that the government, any government, would in fact lower one’s taxes for any reason, least of all paying interest to them, a French bank (to whom I think we U.S. citizens still owe loans they made to us during the Revolution, our revolution) on a home mortgage. So maybe their silence or confusion in the face of my questions is less ignorance or incomprehension or lousy oratorical skills, and more a form of long term shock. These are bankers, understand, so it might even be a fiduciary version of some other disorder, a kind of petit version of PTSD. I’m a little wary of trying to find out, as French fiduciaries, like their American counterparts, are now somewhat in disfavor, and they may be a little sensitive. It isn’t Monday, after all, which is their refuge.

But it will be a good day to go, because I see that the sun has, once again, won out, and the rain is no longer pittering or pattering on the ancient streets, and as the photo below attests, taken moments ago from the window I see through just above my monitor, when I raise my head, it shines once again triumphant, as it has so many thousands of times before on the ancient, inscrutable tree that is, no doubt, as insouciant of the day of the week, as it is of the prevailing meteorological conditions.

Final note, for my Cambridge readers. The subject of this blog essay is “La Pluie” or, simply, rain, because in my excitement at the prospect of some variance in my dull but strangely satisfying routine that’s what I chose to call it. No homage to W. Somerset Maugham. Not even a not so oblique reference to that carriage trade spa in the heart of Harvard Square, which demurely and in the most chic of manners calls itself “La Pli,” not only two fewer letters, but with a different meaning. No doubt aimed at their chief audience, women, and not a few men, of a certain age, and a certain magnitude of bank account (they’re a part of a group of 40 spas and salons around the country, catering to this trade, called “Halcyon Days Salons and Spas”—I will say no more), the name of the spa means, “the crease,” “the fold,” or, dare I say it, “the wrinkle,” any or all of which I know they are dedicated to preventing, or ameliorating, or—there’s no way to get away from it—disguising.

Now for all the relentless sun, which once again, and I’m saying this for the last time today, has prevailed, there is nary a wrinkle one finds the local populace worries about or, for that matter, manifests personally in any noticeable way. Les plis seem to be reserved for the venerable trunks and branches of the trees hereabouts, which seem to thrive for centuries even with the paucity of la pluie.

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