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.

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