As the saying goes, March came in like a lion, and it left like a … lion. Lots of wind, cooler temperatures, a little rain. In between, we had some lovely lamb-like days that had colorful spring wildflowers popping out all over, giving all of us a cheerful sense of hope and life and renewal.
I’ve been thinking of this time as a lock-up, although there are other terms for it: quarantine, hibernation, and the more cooperative-sounding “social distancing.” No matter what you call it, there is something important to know about it: by the time this is over, we will know everyone’s natural hair color.
In addition to the hairdressers, nearly every kind of shop and service is closed. We’re only allowed to leave our homes for a very few reasons, and we must have the attestation document with us—a new one printed and signed each time we leave the house, and if the journey involves two stops, we need two signed documents. For a nation that has a history of being careful with paper products, this strikes me as a colossal waste of paper. I’ve read that all levels of police, plus drones, have been deployed throughout France to be sure that everyone is in compliance. By “everyone,” I might be talking about Parisians, because in my brief and rare forays to the outside world, I’ve only seen a couple of gendarmes.
There are certainly no flics in the garrigue, for which I’m grateful. I’ve found a different path to take, one that isn’t as well-traveled as my usual walk. I go up the hill from my house, past the farm where peacocks shriek and chickens lay eggs, and into the garrigue. A left turn puts me onto the seldom-used trail; it’s narrow and steep, and very rocky with pointy large rocks that jut out in every imaginable direction, and then lots of small rocks that are perfectly rounded to act as ball-bearings beneath your boots.
We’re limited to one exercise outing per day, of no more than one hour, and it must take place within a one-kilometer radius of home. I’ve been fudging that last bit. Um, maybe also the middle bit. I thought I’d time myself on that trail, to have a sense for just how much I’ve been fudging the rules. I found that if I hasten along at a speedy clip, I can be at the top of the sizeable hill within 20 minutes. There’s a splendid view from up there, a couple of capitelles, and some nice stone walls. One day I returned home clutching a fist-full of wild asparagus. These outings are for physical health and for sanity, and occasionally, they help with dinner.
Last week in the news from the United States, there was much discussion of the idea of re-opening American businesses because maybe the covid cure is worse than the problem. We’ll see about that, but it got me thinking about how the elderly and the vulnerable are treated in our society. An example of a different approach is Japan, where there are people who are designated as living national treasures. These are people who are recognized to hold particular knowledge that Japanese society wishes to preserve and protect for the future. What a great idea!
Today I have decided that this is the perfect time to celebrate the old ones, the cultural treasures who have so much to offer to humankind, as it has always been.
I’m here to tell the tale of a few of the old folks—les anciens—in my little corner of paradise. I’ll begin with my friends Maryse and Claude, who are hovering in the neighborhood of 75 years young, and are remarkably fit and active. We go for walks that often involve tracks that barely qualify as walking paths, on steep slopes with skittering pebbles, surrounded by large plants with stickers. Both of them are quick and agile, and often leave me in their dust.
Speaking of plants, Claude—ever the patient professor—keeps trying to school me in the local flora. This is not my strong suit, but I’m grateful for his depth of knowledge and his eagerness to share it. Maryse, whose family has lived in this area for many generations, can turn any walk into a forage for food and/or culinary herbs. She always has spare bags and a sharp knife with her, and she has a keen eye for edible goodies. Depending on the season, a walk with her could result in a harvest of thyme, rosemary, or fennel; asparagus, figs, capers, pine nuts, or mushrooms, to name a few. Claude also paints, and exhibits his work, and he makes pen-and-ink sketches of scenes in the area that he turns into postcards that the tourists (and I) buy by the dozens.
If I find myself trying to either leave my house or return to it at around 11:45 on a weekday, I will bump into a traffic jam at the school. The street will be full of people awaiting the kids who leave school to have lunch at home. Who’s waiting to collect the kids? A few older siblings, some parents, and a lot of grandparents. In fact, grandparents are the de facto day care providers for a good portion of the children throughout France; it’s simply the way things work for many French families.
Our town has a social club, Lou Recantou, which offers a wide array of activities, outings to see performances, and multi-day voyages. In the club, there are the people who participate and teach the arts: painting, mosaics, singing, dancing, sewing, needlework, and more. There’s also the garden club, sharing a wealth of information about how to have a productive, successful and beautiful garden. And all the folks who work hard behind the scenes to make events happen and to keep people connected.
There is the sister organization, Bize Patrimoine. “Patrimoine” means heritage, and this remarkable group of mostly-retired folks works energetically year-round to rebuild and repair local places of cultural and historic interest. Here’s a partial list of their projects: clearing brush and maintaining the area surrounding our Visigothic tower; cleaning and repairing an ancient well and the water wheel inside it, plus clearing bamboo from the adjacent creek and waterfall; rebuilding myriad stone walls and capitelles (300-year-old stone huts) that dot our hillsides; clearing the dense brush from a one-kilometer length of a medieval stone irrigation ditch; chopping trees and clearing brush on a very steep hillside to allow a view of an a large, ancient stone landmark; clearing the area around a nearby 5th-century chapel. They also signpost many of these projects, and write historical explanations. This is an incredible service to our community, and a valuable gift to current residents and visitors, as well as to future generations.
Two people who are very active with both organizations are Eliete and Claude. Eliete is the one that I call the queen of Carnaval, because she corrals all of us together to work on the decorations and costumes, and she wants everything to look as great as possible. She’s a seamstress extraordinaire, plus she makes great cakes. Claude used to be the president of Recantou, and he’s a treasure trove of information about the history of the town. It doesn’t happen often enough for me, but I love going out for a walk with him, because he always shows me some fabulous (and usually hidden) treasure. Recently he took a few of us to see a dolmen dating to around 5,500 years ago.
There’s a genial fellow in town named Jean-Louis. He used to be the town mailman. Now that he’s retired, he’s another of our experts in the lengthy history of the region, writing articles and books on topics ranging from the earliest traces of human activity (dating to around 40,000 BC) to the Romans and the Visigoths, to the Cathars; the activities of various French kings, local nobility, and archbishops; the effects of famines and wars and religion. The man is a walking history text book, with a friendly smile.
Living national treasures, indeed.
The musical playlist at my local supermarket includes a lot of English-language material, and sometimes the choices surprise me. One day a few weeks ago, just before the world changed, the song was “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” by Joe Cocker. It’s one of the all-time great sexy songs, and it’s on my sexy songs playlist. Now that the world has changed, I’d love to see someone do a cover titled “You Can Leave Your Mask On.”