Early today it looked like the bad weather had its back broken for good, and yesterday’s warm dry air that induced shutters to open wide and flies to come out of their torpor to buzz at closed windows would stay. The temperature creaked its way just barely into the sixties, Fahrenheit. Today started as a repeat of the first day of the new year, but then surrendered to what cannot be denied. It’s winter. A ceiling of clouds dropped in the early afternoon, meaning it darkened sooner than the actual sunset, invisible behind Mont Ste.-Victoire in the distant haze.
It’s turned into an early day for me. I ate my dinner and was done by seven, the soonest I’ve dined in the evening, I believe, in several years. Afterward, I had the choice of turning in, or taking one quick turn around the village in what should have been twilight, but was pitch darkness all around our hill.
The village is even darker than usual in spots, because in one of those commonly bizarre occurrences of rural French life there are no more lights lining the parking lot that abuts the village at its entrance. The lights not only illuminated the chief parking area for buses and visiting vehicles, they marked the edge of the embankment it sits on before dropping just on the other side of a log fence, about knee high, onto the tops of trees whose trunks emerge from the ground about 50 feet below. One day this past fall, the villagers awoke to discover a tangle of wires emerging from the earth in each of the four spots where, the night before, had stood the streetlights. No one has said when they will be replaced.
There’s a re-alignment of the pools of cool intense blue-white light that spill from the leading edge bulbs they use so incongruously in this little enclave first settled in this form in the twelfth century. There are more than vestiges of how it must have looked then, even as we slowly capitulate to the advance of time, and the allure of modern niceties. Besides the streetlights, it is in recent memory, for example, that the place, the town square overseen by the huge elm in front of the chapel at the head of the houses that ring the square, had its packed earth and sand paved over with asphalt. Soon after that, the mayor at the time decided to bow to the wishes of certain villagers who wanted the parking, usually done willy nilly and as one found space, demarcated with paint, permanently. Aside from the incongruity, this flies in the face of the freedom the French feel as an entitlement to park wherever they please, as long as they leave the barest amount of room for any other vehicle to pass, going in or leaving. Not so strangely, no car or small truck is ever out of place, every space taken up in summer, and civilly ensconced between the painted lines. I chalk this up to the village being largely occupied by foreigners, like me. I am one of the only Americans in the entire village, and the only one with a house that looks out on the square. There are Swiss, Germans, Scots, British, the Austrian innkeeper and his French wife, and a Parisian or two, who in some regards are also considered foreigners—unlike the Marseillaise. And we all of us, northern Europeans and a Yank, are from orderly, constipated, society, where civility demands we not draw attention to ourselves by parking outside the lines.
There is room, all told, for about 15 cars or small vans and trucks.
Tonight, as I stepped out, and as has been true every night for the past two weeks, there were perhaps six vehicles in all in the place. I walked slowly down the hill toward the parking lot. As I walked, and behind me, I heard the slam of shutters. As I turned to look, I saw the last movement of thin tall decrepit louvered shutters, as they were pulled to, on what had been the home of Frieda, the doyenne of the village. She now resides in a nursing home in another town nearby, slowly sinking into senility. My not quite so elderly neighbors drove out at the beginning of last week to visit her and bring her champagne for her 97th birthday. She had occupied the house for likely 50 or 60 years, and always declared to me, when I greeted her on one of my infrequent visits of late, before she was moved out as too feeble, that she was Swiss, and that she was 93, and that she didn’t speak French so well. Maybe so, but better than I. The house was sold by her family to finance the move and more luxurious quarters in her retirement home.
I turned back to proceed, and a little further on, at the foot of the village, a door opened and from the lit interior of a miniature dwelling someone emerged, barely out of the door, and stooped to put down a box, between the glass-paned inner door and the shutter/doors, that remained open, even in the chill air. I walked past the tiny house—some of the houses in the village are as small as 30 or 40 square meters, about ten times that number in square feet. The shutters of the single window on the ground floor also were thrown back, and light shone out filtered and softened by what I knew were curtains that let on the kitchen. I did not peer in as I walked past, though it’s customary, I’ve noticed, to do so. At least the tourists do it.
I lit a forbidden cigarillo, ignoring the huge black lettering, “Fumer Tue” on the lid of the box. It was a little difficult in a bare, but persistent breeze to keep the Bic lit, until I turned my back on the wind. When I turned again to continue walking, a dog approached, followed by its owner, his head down as he walked around the bend in the road into the village. “-nsoir!” I heard, as I said “Bonsoir” myself only partly in response. We otherwise paid no attention to one another
I traversed the narrow parking lot, across the width of it. The lot affords room for perhaps another dozen and-a-half, or two, cars, plus the spaces established on the asphalt deck with the same trim precision as the place for two buses. There is a regular traffic of huge tourist buses in the summer. They come for a stay of perhaps 15 minutes. We are a minuscule, but important, local destination despite the absence of any significant remaining edifices. For one, we have been the birthplace of the man who, in effect, put an end to the Reign of Terror, by putting an end to Robespierre. If that wasn’t enough of a gift to the motherland, he proceeded to spearhead making Napoleon general of the armies. The little guy knew what to do from there. There’s also a tower, a salvage job on the ancient donjon of the old castle, now otherwise completely gone. From the top of the tower is an uninterrupted vista of the entire countryside, as we are the highest point for about 20 miles in any direction. My little town.
I noticed for the first time, no doubt because of the absence of the night glow of the former streetlights, that the lights of Tavernes, and farther away, only a little smaller, a much greater concentration of lights: Barjols. The visibiilty indicates the cloud cover is hanging very high. The lights of Tavernes lay under a smear of the remnant of the sunset, probably by refraction, through a tear in the clouds at the horizon, a faint salmon-pink and orange smear. Down on the plan, the plain below us, I could trace the road only by the distinct pairs of headlights of four cars in caravan, speeding toward Salernes. They disappeared as the road turned around the base of our hill.
I turned back up the hill and walked back the way I came. I looked at the wee Christmas tree, festooned with twinkling lights, with presents hanging from it, wrapped in red mirror mylar wrap and gold ribbon and bows. This, courtesy of the town’s Department of Public Works. Pathetic. I continued past my house, to go further up the hill, to the rear of the village, where I knew more lights were visible in the distance. As I walked I heard a vehicle driven hard, probably in second gear. One must drive carefully as the passage is narrow between the stone houses lining both sides of the street in an unbroken assemblage, one house to the next, as snug as townhouses on any cross street in any major city, only these are at least seven centuries old.
One must be careful, but this is France. It doesn’t mean one must be slow. I scurried out of his path, to the only thing that resembled a lay-by, a place where the street pavement bloomed into a small open area in front of the old town hall, and the tower. Sure enough, the vehicle appeared, another cheap Japanese clone of a Land Rover, possibly a Suzuki, a Toyota, or something more exotic. They’re indistinguishable especially in the almost non-existent light in an antique microscopic village in the middle of nulle part, nowhere. Naturally this mec pops out from between the house of the Foves and the ruin opposite, and heads directly at me. I was standing in his intended parking space. No lines here though. He gave me the five seconds I needed to scurry back out. He pulled into the space and sat there. I didn’t wait, but continued my walk.
A mangy cat, that was somehow well-fed, but with patchy fur, squatted in the middle of the street, his head holding malevolent eyes pivoting around as I walked past him. He just sat there. I walked to the edge of the hill to see past the trees, and there were the lights of Regusse, and beyond that village, Moissac-de-Bellevue, which sits overlooking the national forest that has its backside in Fox-Amphoux, on the road to Aups. Aups, the market town, sits in a declevity further northeast than Moissac, and its lights can’t be seen. I finished the cigarillo, and flicked it in the direction of the cat, too far away to even get close. He continued to squat.
As I walked back down, past the cat, the silent empty houses, I heard another vehicle, and yet another car starting up. Just down the hill, practically at chez moi, a pair of headlights appeared, hesitated, and then this new fellow stopped completely and proceeded in reverse back in the same direction. The imitation Land Rover had re-started his ignition, backed up slightly in my direction, and proceeded forward down the hill after the other car. A tiny mystery inside another one.
I got to the front door. I stuck the large skeleton key in the lock, and let myself in. I could be in bed by eight.