Many years ago on our first trip to France, as we passed through that first tiny, ancient village, and for more than a decade thereafter as we passed through hundreds and perhaps thousands of other ancient, tiny villages, I asked aloud, but to myself, “what is it like to live in such a place ?” And always, without fail, my beloved Madame Buzzkill would answer, whether or not I actually wanted an answer, “You would always be a foreigner. You would always be an outsider. You might live there, but you would always be alone.”
We are in our fifth year in the area now, our third year here in the village, and from the very first that expectation has proven to be a myth. In the shortest of time we became familiar to folks here in the village, and after a while, when it became clear we were not just passing through like some seasonal tourists, that familiarity grew into acceptance and friendship. Our circle of friends, our social circle, is stronger here than it ever was back in the US. A knock on the door, a text or phone call announcing a gathering or event of some sort can come at any time: Let’s meet for lunch. There’s a petanque game going on. We’re having a barbecue.
One cluster of friends revolves around Alexandra and Christophe, a group I refer to as The Usual Suspects, separate from our family that revolves around Anthony and Celine. A few weeks ago the French national soccer team, Les Bleus as they are passionately called, played in the European Championship tournament. This is big stuff in France, probably only second to the World Cup, and Les Bleus have been the reigning World Champions (It’s called football here, but in an accommodating and perhaps a mildly condescending way, they sometimes refer to it as “soccer” to me, as if I didn’t know). Since almost everywhere we went people were talking about it, I was aware that France had won its first game, because I watched some of it on TV.
A couple of days later I got a call from Christophe inviting me over to his place to watch the next game, versus Germany. Sure, said I, expecting the two of us and maybe Alex and the boys to watch. What I was not expecting was the entire group of Usual Suspects and assorted other folks…about 20 in all. And although I should have, I didn’t expect a full-blown apero, followed by dinner that Christophe had whipped up in the kitchen during the pre-game show.
“We only have one rule here for these games,” said Christophe when I arrived. “When France scores you have to yell louder than the person next to you.” Got it.
This I discovered is the way they watch ALL French national team football games. It’s the French equivalent of tailgating at American football games. And when Les Bleus moved on to the next game on a balmy evening, they moved the big screen TV outside and the crowd watched the game under the stars.
I mention this because from the smallest of moments, like walking to the boulangerie each morning for a fresh baguette and an always-cheerful interaction with Sylvie, to the wave hello through the window, without fail, as I pass by Manu’s boucherie, to the social gatherings like the football game, I have to pinch myself to make sure this is real…that we we have absolutely become absorbed into the day to day life of this village. And yet, things happen that continue to touch our souls….
A lot of what happens here in the village seems to occur via word of mouth, jungle drums Karen calls it. And so it was that we learned that the village would be holding an event which we can only describe as a kind of pot-luck block party in the village square. Our task, according to Alex, She Who Knows All, and organized our table and invitation, was to bring a salad and some pate or rillettes. Translated by Beloved, that meant “Murican” potato salad (which has been known to make some of our French friends swoon), and pate, and rillettes, and some beer, and some wine. That’s how we roll in the shire.
On Saturday evening, under a positively brilliant sky, under canopies backed against the walls of a centuries-old church, the town place of Luche-Pringe was the scene of the most genuinely French experience we have ever had. It was seminal. Over the years we have characterized tourism for some people as watching the animals in a zoo…seeing them, but behind the glass, not interacting with them. Over the years that we have traveled through France we have tried to reach through the glass, if only briefly, to meet people and make friends. Last Saturday was a cosmic confirmation for Karen and me.
In that very small town square, in a tiny village in the rural Sarthe, a cluster of tables was arranged under canopies. At each table groups of about a dozen friends and family, each table jammed with an array of foods and drinks brought pot-luck style. Each table was supposed to be a separate gathering because of Covid rules, but, as I predicted, that lasted about ten minutes before tables were mingling. It was perhaps fifty people. The mayor was there, roaming from table to table, greeting everyone, sharing cherries from his tree; the village priest was there, sharing a drink and greeting parishioner and pagan alike. There was a feeling of insularity; this was for the village and we are included as friends. It was not for someone just passing through, not for campers vacationing in the campground by the river.
We made new friends. Alex and other Usual Suspects made sure anyone in the village who hadn’t already met us did so, and in the process they made sure they knew we’re Americans, not Brits. That revelation always produces the same reactions: 1. Learning we aren’t Brits, but Americans, faces lit with enormous smiles, and immediately, if they had any English, they would launch into it. 2. “You actually live here in the village?” they would ask. When we answered that we live two doors down from Manu’s boucherie, 3. Incredulous, they would ask, ‘How in the world did you two Americans end up in Luche-Pringe?” That, we assured them, is a long story.
There was music at this event that spoke so intensely and unconsciously of the French soul–a young man and three women, students, it turned out, at the conservatory in Paris, who were working with local schools. The young man played an accordion, an instrument supremely uncool in the US, now almost laughable in that culture. The accordion remains quintessentially French. Young people here do not laugh at the instrument, they embrace it, and last Saturday the young man and his accordion and the young women came to that tiny village gathering to play the soundtrack of France.
Perhaps it is embarrassing, because it may seem like caricature, but La vie en rose, the signature of Edith Piaf, has a special potency for me not only because it is so intensely French, so evocative of another time, but also for deeply emotional memories it holds for us. Last Saturday, above the chatter among the tables in the shadow of the church, in the most intensely, intimately French experience we have known, yes, I got a tear when a young woman sang the only song she could have sung in that time and in that place. And sang it beautifully.
Last Saturday evening tapped the soul of French life. Instead of looking through the glass we realized, more than ever, that we were on the other side of the glass.