old soul: on the charm & melancholy of small towns

September 2018: Newly engaged, I am visiting Victor’s hometown for the first time, to meet his family and (let’s not forget) to complete wedding paperwork. La Ferté-Alais is where our wedding would take place two months later.

As a kid, I daydreamed about being able to walk to school or to the store. There was something romantic about going somewhere without wearing a seatbelt. It seemed to me, I think, like something out of a book. Independence! Excitement! My friends in town didn’t know how lucky they were. The closest it got for me was a walk to the gas station up the street, where I was occasionally allowed to choose a wrapped ice cream from the freezer. 

But my husband grew up in one of these places, navigable by foot or bike. The house where Victor grew up, where his parents live now, is just down the street from the town’s main drag. 

I found, on my first walk around the place, that La Ferté-Alais is a town that recalls a simpler time. The past is quite literally built into it, from the imposing steeple of the Catholic church Victor attended with his grandmother as a small boy, to the wide stone basin near the river, where generations of women gathered to scrub their laundry. The river stirs in the wind. It is crossed with delicate bridges, cheery flowers woven into their sides. Under bright sun and skies, this town of not-quite-four-thousand is beautiful, yet there is always something about a place like this that feels so melancholy to me. It’s too quiet, temporal, and I feel as if I’m seeing its hushed final years. 

Once upon a time, people could walk down the street to faire les courses, stopping at the boulanger for warm bread in the morning; the butcher and fromager for carefully weighed meat and cheese. They still do, but the population is clearly lopsided: dominated by petite mamies shuffling behind rolling grocery carts or pulling fussy little dogs. Lone cats strut on quiet paws, clearly comfortable as lords of the sidewalk. Overhead sit two to three stories of apartments, windows covered by sweet white lace curtains.

In this mysterious past that I have never seen, the same cobbled street addressed a whole host of needs: neighboring each other were a bank, librairie, fleuriste, record store, clothing shop, optician, and a papeterie for office and school supplies. The framework still stands, but today, every other storefront is dusty, with closed or up for rent signs in the windows. Did residents once mill in the streets like you see in movies about the past, where people are always marching past each other industriously and calling out greetings while they dodge a merry bunch of horses, dogs, and chickens? That’s an exaggeration, I know, but I wonder if visiting this same street ever felt like going to “town.” 

The morning market, with its whole fish on ice and lopsided fresh goat cheeses, still seems to attract a good crowd, but I wonder how long that will last. The younger people I know simply don’t seem to consider getting their groceries that way. It’s too easy to hop in the car, leave the town in a quick minute, and land at big boxy stores like Carrefour, where most everything you need waits beneath one massive roof. I get it. No one wants to oppose progress. Still, I’ve always ached for small towns, having grown up in one and regularly driven through towns of tiny unrounded numbers–46 or 103–numbers small and specific enough to make you wonder about the individuals they represent. Now and then I read something about an exodus to the country, a supposed renaissance of the small town, but I’ve yet to see such a transformation for myself.

La Ferté-Alais still seems somewhat self-contained, with its schools, church, city hall, retirement home, park, swimming pool, and hiking paths within easy walking distance. There are several tabacs, with the ubiquitous cloud of cigarette smoke and crowd of old friends drinking espresso around small outdoor tables. There is–perhaps most importantly for the town’s survival–a train station that provides a quick path into Paris.

Victor shows me the old gym where he learned judo, his elementary school, even the spot in the forest where he and friends once cut an electrical fence as a practical joke. Boyhood in a couple of acres. We visit his grandmother at the retirement home and he shows me her old house, the one he grew up visiting, just a couple of houses down.

When school lets out, Victor’s niece and nephew can run to grandma and grandpa’s for le goûter–the classic 4pm snack that usually involves some combination of bread and chocolate. They actually run there, that’s how close it is, backpacks flying behind them. For all my love of cities, there is something unspeakably touching about this simplicity, about the kind of place where your child could still ride their bike all around town and promise to be home for dinner. Maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to mourn these places; maybe they will evolve and survive. A town’s soul, after all, has more to do with its people than with places to buy artisan bread or local beef.

We follow behind the kids and I am soon shoeless, laughing, jumping on the trampoline, the three of us getting used to my new title: tata. Aunt.

the off-season

In Cannes, land of silver screens, someone has pressed pause. The town sleeps, stirring occasionally to prepare for things to come. Since November, the wind has carried visitors away.

The air holds a bitter chill. Even on sunny days, it lurks in shadows waiting to pounce.

The clink of cutlery and smell of frites at the beachside restaurants have been replaced by the violence of jackhammers. Dingy red carpets mark a safe pedestrian path through construction zones.

At the beach, bulldozers have scraped all that soft sand into small mountains. The beach chairs have disappeared. Scattered in their place are new bags of sand, tires, orange mesh fencing…detritus of a beach facelift.

Closed for congés annuels: the signs dot storefronts and windows. 

I hide out at a café I like, quiet and good for writing. Shelter from the wind. The barista, Jérémie, tells me that in a few months, the place will be packed. In January, I often have it to myself.

On days when the sun peeks through the clouds, shining like hope, I scurry to follow it, sitting outside in a patch of light at one of the cafes near the Hôtel de Ville and the port. These are the people-watching cafes, inhabited by groups of men smoking, travelers toting body-sized backpacks, and stately older women in sunglasses, sharing a glass of wine with no one.

I like the camaraderie, the shared newspaper, the way newcomers greet everyone around them. I like the smoke less, but that comes with the territory. 

Soon, the clouds close in again, impending doom. Shivering, I cross the street to wait for the daily hypnosis of the bus, stunning redundancy. There are people I’ve come to recognize from regular travel: the man with the hair. The woman with the perfume. The curly-haired little boy who busily eats his afternoon goûter, crumbs falling on his down jacket. His feet barely reach the edge of the seat.

We stare like zombies, the bus’s rocky turns and weak light a call to sleep. We are thinking, off in our individual worlds, or else not thinking at all, who can tell.

Soon the city blinks into darkness.

It is the off-season, no doubt about that. This is not the city that never sleeps, but one in hibernation.

It’s my off-season too. Winter does this to me, but I thought maybe I would escape it in the South of France. The listlessness, my mind like some caged animal. The cold fingers. Alas, winter has cast its frozen curse like always.

One day, late January, I am walking to school with the usual frozen toes and bleary eyes. I turn a corner and notice the mimosa trees have burst into bloom, the yellow blossoms a brilliant contrast against the cold blue sky. It’s not quite spring, but the sudden color is a cheerful preview: this season will pass

Not just winter, and the way it shall inevitably surrender to spring, but my own personal winter. This year has contained much joy…and many disappointments. I’m not where I wanted to be, and I don’t know where I’m going. I am not happy. Lonely, yes. Disillusioned. Sick with the constant dull ache of a sinus infection. Challenged by my financial situation. And the worst thought: did I make a mistake by coming here? Did I force something that wasn’t meant to be? Am I wasting my time? 

It’s easy for me to get lost here, staring out the bus window at gray clouds, eating canned soup alone and counting my problems. Forgetting that this, too, is a season.

I’m not happy. Not in the way I had come to count on, to expect, even.

But I am trying.

Working.

Thinking.

Reading.

Writing.

Teaching, to the best of my ability.

Learning, I think. I am just beginning to see that. One day, I expect, I will look back and count all this a victory. Much beauty comes from working through the off-season.

war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.

 

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”

 

how to speak to Santa Claus in French

We’ve survived a bleak November, and Montluçon is getting its Christmas makeover. bienvenue

Music plays and lights sparkle into the night. The festivities are a little haphazard: instead of one cohesive carnival, there are attractions scattered around the city. Bumper cars at the foot of the chateau, some food stands across the street. A five minute walk brings you to the main attraction: the little marché de Nöel in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

France loves its Christmas markets. Typically, they last all throughout December, and are set up like a little Christmas village. You stroll around and eat, drink, shop, and play games or go on rides.

I was pleased to find that Montluçon does one too. It’s small but quite charming, with little booths that look like elf-sized log cabins forming the perimeter of the space. At these booths you can buy wool scarves, fine chocolates, sausages, fondue cheese… There’s a tiny skating rink with a big Christmas tree in the middle, an oyster bar, and, my favorite, several stands selling cups of vin chaud, steaming hot and ladled out of huge silver pots.

Vin chaud, or hot mulled wine, is a magical drink, tasting more like Christmas than anything I’ve ever tried. It’s made with red wine, wintery spices, and something to make it sweet, such as honey.

My favorite café here does it best. The flavor is perfection and they give you a little spoon to capture the grosseille berries and orange slices at the bottom of the glass. The café is in the medieval part of town (a circular area near the Cher river). It’s called Les 12 Apôtres (the 12 Apostles) and is right next to a medieval church and across from a used bookstore selling ancient Tintin comic books. montlucon-dusk-moto

du-vin-chaudLast night we went to the marché to have a glass of vin chaud for Mary’s birthday.

The wine wasn’t as good as my dear 12 Apôtres, but the atmosphere was festive, and who did we see but Santa Claus.

It was definitely him, Père Noël, but his shoulders were stooped, his steps slow. He trudged around the festivities in a slow circle. Even from behind, he looked decidedly unjolly. And disconcertingly thin.

Still, we wanted a picture. I didn’t want to catch up until I had my approach. Typically, Santa does the work: well what would you like for Christmas? But I had a feeling that French Santa, probably unaccustomed to the demands of American consumerism, would stare at me blankly after my bonsoir. What do you want and why are you bothering me? No twinkle in his insouciant French eye.

We walked slowly behind him, waiting for the right moment. “This looks creepy. We have to stop doing this,” Mary said as I took a picture of him with my camera.

“Fine, let’s just go.” As we sped up, something came to me. “Wait! Do you tutoie Santa Claus?” Tu versus vous (informal vs formal form of address) is often ambiguous even for the French. There are some clear rules: you always use vous with strangers (unless, say, someone runs off with your purse), you never use it with children or animals (inquire after a cat’s well-being with comment allez-vous and look at the smirks you’ll get). Usually I do okay, not without my share of accidental tu‘s and hasty corrections, but this was one of those situations they don’t teach you in school. Does politesse entail using the formal form of address with Santa Claus, a Christmas character in a velvet suit?

Probably. 

We got our pictures, and as expected, he was not exactly full of cheer. No Joyeux Nöel, even. He did, however, leave us with a mumbled à bientôt (see you soon).mary-et-pere-noel

I won’t get my hopes up. While my list would include perfume, Chanel nail polish, travel money, a food processor, and a nice pillow, French Santa would probably just tell me to appreciate what I already have; eat more salad.

I’ll have to count on American Santa, if he can find me here. We don’t even have a fireplace.hotel-de-ville