You don’t see a lot of pickup trucks in France. No Ford F-150’s, no big honking Dodge Rams, no Silverados. What you see is little white vans. They’re everywhere, the French equivalent of the American Pick-Up. Unmarked, families use them. Adorned with signage, businesses use them. And hunters use them; little white vans. During hunting season you can see rows of them parked along the side of country roads, hunters hauling out their gear and setting off into the woods en masse in search of their prey.
Once, on a trip through the Dordogne region we spotted a sign indicating a site prehistorique ahead. The sign pointed down a narrow country road. We almost always go off-road looking for prehistoric sites, usually a dolmen or perhaps a tumulus, remnants of the time when prehistoric man lived in this place. On this occasion we had one sign pointing down the road heading off into the woods, and before long we came upon a string of a dozen or more little white vans parked along the roadside. No sign of anyone, they clearly belonged to hunters who were already off into the woods.
A little farther we spotted another sign with a symbol indicating the site prehistorique, with an arrow pointing further into the woods, and nothing more. Not knowing how far it would be we set off down a barely visible path in the general direction of the arrow on the sign. The farther into the woods we got, the more noticeable became the sound of hunter’s gunfire. By the time we began wondering out loud exactly how much farther we needed to go, it was sounding like we were in the middle of a running gun battle. And there we were, not wearing bright orange or anything else that might indicate to the armed mob that we were something other than dinner on the hoof. That was when we saw the pheasant.
Sitting on a low-hanging branch no more than ten feet away on the side of the path was a pheasant; a big, fat pheasant. With the sound of a furious fusillade of field artillery close by, he sat on that branch unconcerned, wearing a look of supreme calm. We stopped in our tracks. The pheasant and I exchanged looks. He didn’t move. I walked a tentative few steps towards him, but he just sat there, watching me and, apparently, taking in the sound of gunfire in the distance. It was as if he was enjoying outsmarting the hunters.
Eventually, he drew himself up, dropped to the ground with a rather undignified thud and sauntered off into the woods, away from the direction of the gunfire. It was at that moment that Beloved and I discovered that yes, it is possible for a pheasant to look smug.
Those little white vans seem to be everywhere you go in France. Another common sight is the roadside rest area, a far more regular sight than in the US where truckers and motorists pull over to have lunch like clockwork at noon each day. There is one such roadside rest area on the road from our village towards the large town about 10 kilometers away. When we first arrived in the village several years ago it took a while, but after a time, traveling to town and back, I took notice of a little white van that seemed to always be parked in that rest area, and I never saw anyone there.
It was one of those things that you notice while driving and make a mental note to ask someone about, but then you get to your destination and forget it until the next time you pass along the road, see the little white van, make a note to ask someone about it, and then forget about it. Which I did the entire time we were there. And then we returned to the US.
Time passed. We returned to the village. Driving along the road we passed the rest area.
“Hey babe, look. That white van is still there. You think someone is living in it?”
“I don’t know,” said Beloved. “We should ask Anthony. He may know.”
But of course, we didn’t. We forgot to mention it the entire time we were there. And we returned to the US.
A year ago, last November, we returned to the village and sure enough, as we drove by the rest area we spotted…but wait! The little white van was not there. In its place was a small camper van. Whoever had been parking the little white van there for the last God knows how many years had apparently upgraded. NOW, we were going to ask questions. It was time to go to He Who Knows All Things.
“Say, Anthony. Are you aware that there’s a little white van that has parked in the roadside rest area for like, years?”
“It looks like its been changed to a camper. So like, what’s the deal? Is that a homeless person, or what?”
“Oh, that’s the local prostitute. EVERYBODY knows that.”