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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Small-town life in Occitanie

Moonrise over the Cours
 It's Sunday morning, 8:30. I slept a bit late, and the sunshine is already lancing through the curtains to throw a square patch of summer promise on the wall above my bed. I need to run to the bakery to get my favorite full grain loaf before they sell out, so I hop on the bike and pedal up the deserted Cours de la République toward the town center. Around the corner I stop in front of the row house owned by my friends Marya and Bruno: I need to drop off the key to the art gallery where yesterday afternoon I took over at the front desk for Marya at the end of the afternoon. The downstairs door is ajar, and I stand my bike on the sidewalk for the minute or less it should take me to leave the key on its hook just inside the door to their apartment up one flight. On the landing, the door to the apartment is also open a crack, not surprisingly as it often fails to latch correctly, and even so they tend to leave it open so the cats can freely slip in and out.

Marya just had another chemo treatment this week and is pretty weak, though she soldiers on. She decided to stay behind as Bruno and his son and visiting in-laws left for a four-day trip to visit other relatives north of Lyon, and I assume she is still asleep in their back bedroom. I peer in just long enough to soundlessly slip the key onto its hook, then hurry on back downstairs, retrieve my bike, and pedal on.

Gallery with works by France Ballot-Lena

Most shops are closed today, but Sunday morning has its own quality of festive community life. It's quiet now, but later a few cafés will be busy, including the Café du Siècle where I and most of my social circle find one another, as in a communal living room. Right now only two tables are occupied by early coffee drinkers. I turn up a narrow lane, emerge onto the central square and park my bike in front of my current favorite bakery. 

In my first year here I began to realize one was expected, "par politesse", to say "bonjour!" on entering a shop. You don't just walk in, as I used to do till I finally twigged on the custom and the warmer atmosphere it creates. So, "Bonjour!" I announce to all and sundry: the bakerwoman behind the counter who knows by now that I will order a 'pain aux céréals' and probably one or two sweets or croissants; the three or four other customers ahead of me in line in the narrow shop with its glass-covered rows of treats along one side and racks behind the counter with varieties of baguettes and rolls and loaves stacked and racked upright in their various niches and shelves; the tall, heavy-set baker himself who emerges just then from the baking area through a door behind the pastries counter and gives me a friendly nod. A murmur of replies ripples through the fragrant air as I take my place. The line moves quickly, baguettes and croissants and sugary cakes and tarts and puffy Sunday "chouquettes" flying out the door. Shops will close at 12:30; till then it's brisk business. I take my order, just a loaf today, for 1.80€, or about $2.25 for a thick loaf of dark, soft bread, still warm, that will stay fresh for days. The bakerman deposits a tray of croissants and greets everyone with a smile. "Bon dimanche!" says the baker woman as I leave. Normally the parting words are "bonne journée" but on Sundays it's always "bon dimanche!"

Outside, the butcher shop at the edge of the square is open. The friendly British expat owner now sells meats with her son and one or two employees out of a temporary mobile trailer since the indoor market next door has been closed for over a year for extensive renovations. I wheel my bike over, park it next to the stand, and meander the length of the display of meats and cuts and patés and casserole dishes... "Hello!" we greet each other. We usually speak French in the busy times when people are waiting in line for their turn, like on Friday market days, but today, with no one there, we enjoy tossing around a bit of English. Other than with her and Marya, I rarely speak English these days. 

"Looks like the good weather is back!" I remark, because truly, it is the most remarkable aspect of this balmy, fresh morning. 

"Yes, well they say it's supposed to rain again tomorrow," she counters.

"Ah, but you told me on Friday that it was supposed to rain today, so now how can I believe anything you tell me!" I shoot back, and we both laugh. 

As I make my selections of sliced ham and brochettes of beef and of chicken that look awfully tasty, and some of their house-made herb and pork sausage, she mentions that there is a project afoot to create a bike path connecting the existing path up the hill next to the old train station to the town below and running through the town center "and it's going to go right down the street in front of your building and wind all through town, supposedly so that tourists can more easily see the town and get around." 

Bicycle activists!
This interests and surprises me, for just yesterday, Saturday afternoon, I had taken part in a little bicycle "action" with about 15 other people, cycling though town and stopping at various places, discussing the need in this place or another for bike markings or lanes, wider sidewalks, or pedestrian zones. There had been talk of a "project" but I hadn't fully understood what it was all about. That must be it, and the people behind this action on Saturday, one of the many non-profit "associations" in town, are trying to raise awareness of the project and influence it to take more into account the actual needs of residents in town, not just make a pretty path for mostly non-existant tourists. 

I'm glad of this new information. I pay, take the meat and call out "Well, bon dimanche," as I return to my bike. I cycle back down the main street by the square and down toward the "Siècle." As I pass I see Jean-Pascal, an apicultor and guitarist who sells his honey at the market and plays traditional dance music and flamenco guitar. I had seen him play with an accordianist, percussionist and violinist a couple of weeks ago on another small square in town on a Sunday afternoon, and afterwards sent him some video clips as he requested. I've been getting to know and like him more in recent months. When I first used to see his craggy, rather leathery face around town I felt he looked dark, almost angry, giving me what I took to be suspicious and unfriendly looks -- and perhaps they were -- but over time we had more and more encounters at the bar or at the market, with other people we both knew, and gradually we became friendlier. This time I almost go on past where he sits on the café sidewalk, but then turn back. I've been meaning to mention something to him and this is probably a good time to do so, this quiet morning over a coffee, which I haven't yet enjoyed this morning. So I park my bike and approach. 

"Salut Jean-Pascal!" He looks up; his face seems rather unsmiling but I am familiar with this. "Je vais prendre un café avec toi..." : I'm gonna have a coffee with you. I step inside and it is Nathalie running the show this morning, one of the three sisters who own and manage the place along with the rest of their family. I order a coffee and a minute later sit down at the table with Jean-Pascal and reach out to shake his hand. His fingers are lightly stained with cigarette smoke, like his teeth which, though yellowed and slightly brown in places, are pretty good teeth compared to many French men his age. I study his face as we make initial small talk, then I mention the subject that was in my head. 

"I have five or six empty honey jars at home, washed. I was gonna recycle them but wondered if they can be any use to you." 

He shakes his head no. He has so many of them already, he says; it's hard to get the old labels off... I nod, surprised but understanding. "Can't you soak them in water to remove them more easily?" He accepts my point, but demures. "It just takes time..." He lowers his gaze ruefully. 

Time. Now there's a subject I can relate to. We're around the same age, I think, Jean-Pascal and I. 

"I understand that. I think time's sort of relative, a psychological experience. You know, when you're young you think you have time to do anything and everything. A day seems so long, and a year -- forever. But as we get older, I'm sure you know this as well as I, time matters more and goes more quickly. You just realize there is less and less of it ahead, right? It all carries more weight." He nods eagerly, his keen grey eyes darting back and forth from mine and he rejoins:

"It was Bergson who wrote so splendidly about time. What was his book, the title..." He struggles to recall it, but fails. I recognize the name of Henri Bergson and am transported back to my studies of philosophy in my final year of high school in France. We read Bergson, I remember, and though reading academic or literary French was a far greater struggle for me then than it is even now, those texts on the nature of time had actually seized my adolescent interest. "I've read some of those writings, too. What was the title..." I too try to recall. "The book had a red cover, and yellow, something about fire?" Neither of us can recall. I may have been confusing Bergson with Bachelard, from whose "Psychanalyze du Feu" we also read excerpts, but I'm pretty sure it was Bergson who analyzed the nature of time, while for Bachelard it was about memory -- which is failing both me and Jean-Pascal at the moment. 

He goes on to tell me how he studied both psychology and philosophy years ago at Université Paul-Valéry, my alma mater for my Master's in Occitan Studies. He never finished his Master's, he admits with sorrow, neither of the two he started. There was a professor who made things hard for him, didn't like him or support him -- it's an old story he has gnawed over many times and holds in recollection as a bitter defeat. With a dismissive shake of a shoulder he tosses it away as not worth further talk.

I'm impressed by his knowledge, though. Say what you will about the inflexibility and rigid hierarchy of French schools and universities, a young French who completes the baccalauréat has gone through a rigorous course of study. Further university studies build on a strong foundation of material and practice, brains that have been taught to structure debate, to argue persuasively, to use abstract knowledge in practical ways. There is a wide-thrown mantle of literature, science, French language (but not much else in the way of world languages, it seems), maths and general culture that elevates many a conversation among French of all levels of society. I feel this, not for the first time, with Jean-Pascal.

I learn that he will be playing a little concert on the square of a town 16 kilometers up the valley later in the day, with the same group of people I'd heard recently, minus the percussionist. As our conversation winds down and the dregs of our coffees go dry in the cups, I say I'll go along on home, and go inside to pay my coffee, J-P having already paid for his. As I leave and pause to say goodbye, he says something like "it helps having some good social relations." I suddenly feel there's more of a message here; his usually rather grim features, which can lighten up so vividly with a smile and animated speech, seem more melancholy than angry. 

"Is there something difficult for you right now?" I ask, not sure how to frame the query but feeling this hits the right tone of supportive curiosity without being nosy or presumptive. I see at once there is; his face betrays some gratitude for the question, and I step closer. 

"It's the band," he says. "The guy who plays the accordeon, you know?" He checks if I knew who, and of course I do, I remember him from the dance concert on the square Fabre d'Olivet. "He's hard to work with. He's just really adamant about certain things and inflexible. He's done some things that just..." His words fail and become a shake of the head. 

"So that's making a bad atmosphere now?" 

"Yes, and I'm just not looking forward at all to this concert." I feel sorry for him; I can imagine the discomfort of having to go and work publicly with someone you have an ax to grind with. I may have offered a few more words of support, I don't remember, but as we shake hands, he half-standing to do so, I think to quote  the poem by Verlaine that is among the many I recall in fragments from my French studies fifty years ago : "De la musique avant toute chose!" He gives a broad grin at that and swipes his hand my way for a heartfelt shake. 

I unlock my bike and set it in the street on the other side of the iron railings, ready to head back to my apartment. Sitting at another table is an older woman I have run into many times, whom I avoided for a while because she always wanted to tell and retell her story of having visited the United States once, years ago; sweet, but tiresome after a certain point. She was one of the participants last weekend in that biking event around town. I feel a bit warmer toward her after our shared experience, and am glad to pause to say hello and to pet her little dog, a sweet-tempered old thing with furry eyebrows partially curtaining her limpid brown eyes. 

I have to ask the woman to remind me of her name, Olga, but I now have it planted in memory, along with Mouka, the dog (not sure of the spelling, but that is the approximate pronunciation). We agree that the bike ride had been fun. I pet Mouka and enjoy her understated but evident appreciation. "Ah, oui oui elle aim-eh bieng les gens!" says Olga... After some similar harmless pleasantries and a bit more chin rubbing with Mouka, I say goodbye and head home. As I turn onto the Cours de la République, a two-block long boulevard with garden plantings and fast-growing trees replacing the old and ailing sycamores that were cut down when the whole stretch was renovated a year or two before I arrived, I pause to gaze down to the end where my 2nd floor apartment windows gleam in sunshine (3rd floor in the American system) and feel especially poignantly how at home I feel now in my adopted town in France; how close I feel to belonging here, almost French. That will be the project of another year to come: naturalization, I hope. Somehow I feel already halfway there.