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.