A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It’s rainy here in southern France, and chilly. The sky is the color of winter, and a fitful sun keeps popping in and out of mountains of black rain-bloated clouds. The morning was good, with some dry sun lapping up the puddles from last night. But by two, the sellers at the local rummage sale in Villar, a village near here, were packing up and heading for home. The old saying, avoid Provence in May usually holds up, but this time, with the weather being controlled by a whimsical committee hiding in a corner of Trump’s White House, we’re watching May do its thing all over again. Two weeks ago, German tourists ruled the tourist landscape. Then the Dutch began their summer vacations in all the camp grounds. But the rumors of more rain and colder weather are keeping back the Spanish and the Italians, who liked to bake around a swimming pool or melt into the sand at Nice and Cannes. They’re not coming yet.
But this is old country, and habits have merged with the layers of sandstone and the pebbly vineyard soil, and won’t give in. No one seems to think the bad weather is the end of the world, just a bit of bad luck for the poor inn keepers trying to make a buck on the tourist trade.
The ancient market in Apt, going strong for some eight-hundred years now, meets each Saturday to sell its pungent olives; the cheese makers prop up huge wheels of tangy, sweating cow cheese from the north, and the little cakes of goat cheese wrapped in leaves called Banon after the town. There are mounds of sausage made from pigs and wild boars, and straw hats of all kinds. Yesterday, the narrow streets of the town were bustling with shoppers trying their best to bargain down stubborn merchants who had seen it all since the Middle Ages. Prices are high, but so is the expense of carting all these goods from farms and setting them up in stalls at the crack of dawn. I admire the men and women who cheerfully dismantle everything by noon before the police come along to issue warnings. A few minutes later, and the sweepers are out tidying up the place as if the market had never been there.
When my wife and I arrived here from Vermont three weeks ago, all we heard from old friends was how bad things were with Trump, bad for us, bad for them, and if the politicians on this side should imitate him, we are all sunk. Faces were long, eyes darting, and if I could see through a table, hands wringing. It’s true that some leaders here are eyeing the success of Trump’s draconian reversals of forty years of liberal policy. Americans are putting up with things, watching for signs that our economy might prosper from the sudden expansion of oil drilling and coal mining. But the results aren’t in yet, and the sudden uptick of employment in the country may be a fluke or a windfall of some sort, not a real measure of Trump’s strategies. The liberal papers are highly skeptical and eager to find fault with just about everything coming out of Washington. I can’t blame them.
The future of democracy seems to hang on the mid-term elections, according to most commentators on the left. If the Democrats can’t take back the House, and narrow the gap of the Republican majority in the Senate, things will indeed get pesky.
To breathe in the life of rural France, we go on road trips around the region and sit in cafes crowded with old timers having an espresso and nibbling on a crust of bread. The market at Forcalquier down the road used to sell live sheep and goats tied up in pens, guarded by shepherds who wore long coarse-woolen ponchos and looked like they hadn’t slept in a bed for years. That’s gone. But everything else seems about the same — rustic cheeses dripping on plates, cured hams hanging on hooks, herbs and spices sold loose in wooden bins. The real cooks are here and consult lists for the lunch menu, the main meal of the day. The sellers know not to talk too much; the old women eye everything with slitted eyes and suspicious mouths, and order twenty grams of this, a half kilo of that. I wish I knew some fraction of what they carry around in their heads. I would be a great hit at home. Alas, I’m just a greenhorn even after coming here for summers for the past thirty-seven years.
This part of Europe is not easily changed from its roots. The only big protest I’ve heard about is from the roquefort cheese farmers who are being told they must pasteurize their sheep cheese to sell abroad. The French are upset about losing their lait crut, raw milk which gives a certain tang to the powerful blue-marbled cheese. I agree. It’s what I buy it for. But Brussels, the authority over European trade, dictates the shots, and the bureaucrats who sit in judgment have determined that raw milk carries too many germs. I’m dubious. But then, I’m not responsible for any consequences.
You might remember Jose Bove, the sheep farmer, who rallied his fellow peasants against Brussels, and ran his tractor into a McDonald’s burger franchise in the town of Millau to demonstrate his ire. It made world headlines, and everyone scrambled to get Bove out of jail, and groom him to run for public office. We attended some of his protest rallies up in the mountains of central France, and marched with our fellow ideologues shouting Bove’s rallying crowd, “The World Is Not for Sale.” The furor has long passed, and Brussels moves its dictates an inch forward at a time.
These days America stands for GMO food, trans-fats, Monsanto seeds, and Dow pesticides. When you shop in a regular supermarket here, you can smell the lettuce, the onions, the swollen bodies of freshly dug beets, the sea smell of the fish stalls. Not so in America, even in the organic cooperatives where we get our food at a steep mark up. I like smelling what I carry home. It makes me feel the earth is right there in the back seat, brooding on its fertility. I can’t wait to bite into a vegetable stew loaded with different odors, with the earth’s own sweat. And wash down the meal with a glass of dark, red potent wine from the vineyards along the Rhone. What could be closer to tasting heaven?
But I have the feeling all this natural wonder I take for granted may soon fall to modernization and sterility. Already the merchandizing of food is held in fewer and fewer monopoly hands like Auchan and LeClerc, Intermarche and Carrefour. Housewives race around with enormous carts and load up on stuff that’s mostly packaged, frozen, processed. The gnarly hands that pinch and squeeze the muddy skins of potatoes at Forcalquier are dying out. Who has the time for all that careful choosing and preparing anymore? I know a few kids of my friends have gone into organic farming, and sell their stuff “farm to market,” as the phrase goes. But it’s hard work and a few are thinking there must be a better way to get the produce out of the ground than by back-breaking toil. I hope they stay with it.
Europe is so old you can taste time on the wind. You feel the age of civilization in the rough bark of the oak trees, which have been growing here since Hannibal marched through with his elephants on the way to Rome. Behind my friend’s swimming pool is a shelf of rock hollowed out with sarcophagi where the children of the plague were laid to rest. That was four hundred years ago. The moss is like velvet around their edges. The cobbled village roads bear deep ruts from the centuries of wagon wheels grinding their iron rims against the frozen stones. When you think you have found some remote hillside where no one has been before, you will find a shard of dinner plate, a broken spoon, some sign that life once thrived there.
In the town of Apt, which used to house some thirty-seven convents and monasteries, Vespers must have filled the streets at night with hundreds of voices all singing God’s praise. The ancient houses are still there, marked with plaques, giving dates and names of vanished bishops who ruled their Christian fiefdoms with iron hands. You walk there today and you hear the click of high heels, the sound of a soccer ball bouncing off a crumbling wall. You pass the curved street where Julius Caesar erected a Roman theater. It’s still there, in ghostly form, breathing out the moldy air from the bowels of time.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont and Southern France.