French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Summer in the French countryside

I spend a lot of time ranting about French arrogance, French bureaucracy, all the rest of it. Then, every once in a while, I’m reminded of why I bother. This is a view of the Rhone Valley from our hotel room in Cliousclat, a village known for its potters, though artists in many media live and work there. It doesn’t look all that different from the Napa Valley. However our room cost about the equivalent of a nice dinner in Napa, never mind a whole room. While the whole California wine country scene is hyped and priced beyond belief, the French countryside is dotted with charming hotels, small serious restaurants — two just in Cliousclat! — good wineries and talented artists and artisans. While some places, generally catering to foreign visitors, are crazy expensive, many others are affordable, if not exactly cheap. And yes, I brought home a lot of very nice pottery, more than you see here.

Come to think of it, even the walnuts are small production, if not exactly artisanal. France is still a deeply Catholic country, dotted with abbeys and monasteries; I get the feeling convents are, these days, often called monasteries, though I haven’t really sorted that out yet. Anyway, I have a kitchen full of liqueurs and foodstuffs, made as a way of keeping these places self-supporting. I can highly recommend everything I have tried.

This whole concept of the French way of life is finally making some sense to me. In the cities it’s basically a marketing concept, that or a way for unions to justify stultifying labor laws. In the countryside it really is how people live. They grow things or make them and they are proud of what they do. Factory farming, which unfortunately is what is done around my house, and hypermarkets not only spoil the view, they drain the economic and ecological life from areas like this. Eventually, perhaps sooner rather than later, that is what will happen here. That view and my little bowls will either disappear or become so rare that the few that remain will be priced out of reach of most of us.

So, that is what I learned this summer. Fortunately that is not all that I did. I have a new crop of adorable grandkids. They spent a week at the house. No, you can’t see photos; the moms have requested otherwise and I respect the moms. I got a few things done. I got used to living here. This is now home for me. On balance, I like it.


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The Briar Patch

I have to get going on this garden. Too much of it looks like the gravel-strewn mess you see here, the place where the crew mixed concrete and left too much of the debris. The bushes behind are the only sizable remaining area of mature growth, so apart from occasionally pruning it back, I have left it alone.

You can see that it is totally overgrown. I figured that my first step would be to thin it out to give the “keeper” plants some air. Hahahaha, silly me. You see, threading its way through all this miscellaneous greenery is a happy, healthy and well-established blackberry bush. Or are they vines? I don’t know but they are viciously thorny and they are everywhere. I figure it’s karma.

When I was little my great-grandmother read me the Uncle Remus stories. That this was before they became unfashionable gives you a hint as to how old I am. I loved those stories and I have to admit, the whole racial angle totally escaped me. What I keyed in on was the trickster, Brer Rabbit. He was smart, clever, subversive and funny. Uncle Remus is a trickster himself — who, after all, is choosing which stories to tell and how to tell them? — but at the time I saw him as the male counterpart to my widowed great-grandmother, kindly and giving me permission to be whoever I might want to be.

For anyone who does not know the stories, they are a collection of African folk tales. They were collected by Joel Chandler Harris, a Southern white guy who made the black narrator, Uncle Remus, at least on the surface, completely nonthreatening. The characters in the stories were animals. I have read that Harris was retelling stories told to him, during his childhood, and were an attempt to create empathy for black people, maybe avert a lynching or two.

As I say, I was a little kid, probably preschool, and apart from my great-grandmother — I grew up in a family where a woman of 16 or 17 really ought to be married and with child, so she would have been about the age I am now — I knew that the situation I was raised in was one I wanted to get away from. And though I couldn’t articulate it, I knew that a girl would not have a straightforward path toward choosing her own destiny. I knew I would have to be sneaky, like Brer Rabbit. He became my role model and I wanted to be thrown into the briar patch like you cannot believe.

It worked. I got out. Times have changed and I have not always had to use stealth to achieve my objectives. And now look, I have a briar patch to eradicate. Serves me right. But there is some great stuff in there. I have shown you the fragrant white flowers that bloom in May. And just today, in among the blackberries, I found what might turn out to be an apple tree.