The first sign was when my hair went extra curly. The next sign was when I had some paper to cut and fold, and the paper felt more like pie dough than like paper.
This was humidity, in full force. For a few days, we had some sprinkles of rain and light showers, and then suddenly one evening, the winds blew high and mighty, and the rain came down hard, fast, and steady. It was said that several months’ worth of rain fell within the space of three or four hours during the wee small hours of the morning.
We awoke the next day to a continuation of the bluster and the pounding, and then there was an email telling people not to go out on the roads, for any reason. I had a house guest, and I had planned to take her sightseeing. With the announcement of road closures, though, our day took a different path.
We decided to walk into town, and we set out from my house. We arrived in the middle of the ancient village and stopped in our tracks at the sight of a lake of water where the road usually was.
I steered my friend back uphill, and we turned toward the bridge, walking past little huddles of people speaking in hushed tones. A glimpse toward the promenade, the very heart and soul of town, confirmed the flood. As we walked toward the bridge, I began to recognize friends and other townspeople, standing around wearing muck boots and worried expressions.
On the bridge, we saw the cause of all the trouble and worry. Our usually-quiet little river was a raging torrent. It had risen high enough to skip right over a 12-foot wall and into town. It carried several large beaver-dams’ worth of twigs, branches, and small trees. There were cresting waves.
I heard from friends that our little footbridge—now completely lost from view—had carried pedestrians an hour earlier, as had the promenade and the streets of town. Now the little grocery store, the bar, a restaurant and countless homes were chest-deep in water.
In an area that is distinctly not arid, where rain is nearly always present, it is breathtaking to consider the possibility of several months’ worth of rain falling within a few hours. The fact that there was a flood was not the surprise; it happens. All the locals will tell you that there is always a lot of rain sometime around late September. The surprise was the sheer speed. To look out your window one moment and see people walking along a bridge and then an hour later not even be able to see that same bridge: that is a shock.
This corner of France suffered mightily. People died, one man swept away as he slept. Homes were destroyed and businesses shuttered. Roads were closed for days. One friend told me she was 15 minutes from home when she came to a closed road; the complicated maze of detours she needed meant that she arrived home five hours later.
This isn’t something that people recover from quickly, but I was impressed with the numbers of helpers and the speed of the aid. Doors were knocked on to be sure that residents were safe and dry, and those who were not were evacuated, some by boat. (Boats on streets, now there’s a sight.) By the end of the day, the waters had abated and most of the streets of town had been hosed clean. Countless people arrived to help others clear out what was destroyed and begin to clean up what remained. The long job ahead is no match for a community working together.
And that is truly the heart and soul of a town.
Shortly after the flood, there was a unique event for my town’s social club. The club has regularly-scheduled hikes on Tuesday afternoons, but this one was special, and even had its own name: castagnade. We met, not at the usual 2:00, but at 9:00 in the morning. A cavalcade—perhaps we could call it the castagnade cavalcade—of cars eased out of town and snaked its way to a place where everyone parked near a small building, which turned out to be a hunters’ cabin. Someone in our club knows one of the hunters who use the cabin, and we had permission to use it this day.
Around 20 of us enjoyed a lovely blue-sky day and a 9-kilometer hike in rocky, forested, hilly terrain. Many other folks had arrived to join the festivities by the time we returned to the cabin.
The cabin: a one-room building, about 15′ x 25′, with lots of windows, a fireplace in one corner, and an open kitchen. There were tables and chairs for around 30 people, already there and helping with the food.
The food: I had brought my lunch, my usual hiking fare of a sandwich, plus some tomatoes and olives to share. There were also dishes that some people had brought to share with the whole lot of us, now numbering around 60 or more. Apparently, one dish that must be served is beans, not green beans, but dried white beans. There were mini quiches, mini pizzas, and an onion tart, all homemade. And there was wine.
The wine: another aspect to this event was the sampling of this year’s new wine, which was plentiful. Those of us who were enjoying our lunch outside were using chairs borrowed from those who regularly pack a folding table and chairs in their cars (note to self: get something for my own car, because this is a frequent occurrence.). So we sat in the warm sun, eating a lot of food, drinking plenty of wine, and thoughts of a nap began edging into my consciousness.
I noticed a few men gathering wood for a fire, using cuttings from grapevines. Soon the sunny day was punctuated with the scent of smoke, and I got up to investigate, arriving to see several men orchestrating the roasting of chestnuts. A spit had been set up over the fire, and on the spit was a large metal drum that looked just like the drums that are used in the southwestern United States for roasting chiles. One man was assigned the task of occasionally turning the spit to rotate the chestnuts.
On a clear autumn day, with vivid blue sky and a little wine coursing through the veins, the pièce de résistance was definitely the scent of roasting chestnuts. When they were ready, they were brought to a table outside the hunters’ cabin and the feeding frenzy began. People used plates, cups, and my favorite, the rolled-up newspaper that is used by street vendors. We all dove in, burning our fingers on the hot chestnuts, turning those fingers black with soot, and slurping down the new wine as quickly as eager servers could pour it. A dandy way to spend a day!
A jazzy Sunday
The trumpet player said it: “This week marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. When the United States entered the war, they brought two things to France: chewing gum and jazz.” And the French do love jazz.
Each year, the town of Conilhac hosts a month-long jazz festival that brings artists from around the nation to perform in a casual and intimate setting. Attendees can chat with the musicians, and the venues are small and simple. This year, we had tickets for two events, the first being a Sunday with the Jean Santandrea Jazz Band.
It all began with a gospel-infused mass at the town’s church; afterward, the band led people on a jazz-filled parade through the streets of town, ending up at the Cave à Jazz, where we had apéro (wine of choice, some snacks, and more jazz) in the courtyard. A little later we went inside for lunch, which was a three-course meal that featured a fantastic melt-in-your-mouth daube à bœuf (beef stew). Daube comes from southern France, another of the slow-cooked meat dishes that helped make French cooking famous. This one was pretty much perfect.
Then the plates were cleared, the lights went down, and we grooved to a three-hour concert featuring a variety of beloved jazz tunes, both French and American. The trumpet player and lead singer belted out some tunes in the deep, gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong, including one of my favorites, “What a Wonderful World.” Near the end, the audience roared, clapped and sang along with the encore of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
And in preparation for the other concert we’ll attend, I learned a new phrase: faire un bœuf, which has nothing to do with cooking beef, but rather refers to a musical jam session. Bring it on!
This just begged to be photographed. The Rue des Bons Vivants does not even qualify to be called an alley, much less a street; it’s really a sort of open concrete space where one house is set back from the road, rather than being built right up to the edge. But someone with a jolly sense of humor lives there, and put up this, er, street sign. Facing the street sign is a windowsill that displays some of the trappings of the good life, including a corded telephone and one shoe. “Window Sill Blues with a Shoe.”