It could be said that mine is a curious existence, living here in one of the least populated areas of Europe on my own. I came here 5 months ago with horribly rusty French. I came here with few possessions – so much either sold or abandoned along the way as I moved and moved and moved again. I came here for love. But my husband, my love, lives in Boston. Yes, its a curious life. One day I’ll explain.
The last week, though, has been punctuated with knocks on the door. I inevitably feel a mild panic when this happens because it means I will HAVE to listen, understand and respond. I am fluent in shopping as previously acknowledged but a knock on the door could herald anything at all. Particularly an unexpected one. Like the time when the post-lady brought a letter each for signature for Two Brains and I. I managed to explain that he wasn’t arriving from the US til the weekend but I was so flustered I couldn’t find my passport as ID for her – she became equally alarmed as she thought I had permanently mislaid it and explained very patiently to me that I can’t travel out of France without a passport. It was only afterwards that I began to wonder if she was alarmed at the prospect that they might not be able to get rid of me …..
March 23rd is polling day in France. Les Elections Municipales. They happen every 6 years and will result in new Conseils Municipales and new Maires across France – some will be returned, some overturned. In essence, we vote for the governing body for our Commune and they in turn will vote amongst their triumphant team for their leader and deputies. We are fortunate in Champs – our Maire, his adjunct and the Conseil are proactive and hard-working. I see the Maire tearing around the place at a rate of knots on foot and in his car. He is very hands-on and has the most fantastic gaelic shrug to ice the bun. I know him reasonably well as a person (he married us last year and graciously accepted our invitation to attend our wedding breakfast and is tireless in his support of the lightning lab.) and I know he has the interests of his, geographically very large, commune and its relatively small and scattered population genuinely at centre stage in his life. As the ruling party, as it were, his get the opening crack at canvassing. So the first knock was from ‘Dialogue et Action’ and I was treated to two smiling faces, an acknowledgement that I know Monsieur le Maire and was left with lists, biographies, an overview of achievements and their manifesto for the next 6 years.
A few days later, the oppostion are allowed out. A further knock and I am greeted with another pair of smiling faces, a further list of names, biographies and their manifesto for the next 6 years. Of course on closer scrutiny they are critical of the old guard and it is not a surprise that their collective name is ‘Champs Avance’ with a strapline declaring an intention to donner un nouveau souffle a Champs (invigorate or quite literally give fresh breath). That the opposition are highly critical of the old guard is hardly newsworthy. This is politics.
I will not reveal my hand – both manifestos are interesting, my opinion is not. Both highlight the issues facing this pays perdu. I am priviliged to be allowed to vote. I am European and I pay taxe foncière and taxe d’habitation so I am eligible. I take the responsibiity seriously and have reflected hard.
In doing so I walked from Montboudif, a little over 10 miles from here, this little village is the birthplace of Georges Pompidou and the people of Cantal are justly proud of the fact. Pompidou was France’s longest serving prime-minister under the fifth republic. As a little girl, I loved his name – it was one to be uttered and repeated annoyingly to my mother (mummy, mummy, mummy – I can say POMPIDOOOOO) and I remember him as President and his death in 1974 whilst in office. I also remember visiting Le Centre Pompidou in Paris first in 1977, shortly after it was opened, as a 17 year old and again on honeymoon with my first husband when he took a picture of me with my mouth wide open next to a huge funnel to demonstrate the size of my gob. Let’s face it – the marriage was doomed from the start!
That Pompidou was a diplomat and chose peaceful means to resolve issues such as the angry student uprising in the late 60’s, is no surprise to me given his heritage. It is also no surprise that he came back to the region often. I imagine he breathed the fresh, fresh air and felt the beautiful fertile earth under his feet and returned to the frey invigorated as Two Brains does these decades later. Along the way I chatted to two elderly men – one splitting logs with all the vigour of a man half his age, pointed out that his little tiny tangle of houses looks at the Monts Dor in one direction and Monts du Cantal in the other – he asked why he would ever want to live anywhere else? I could only agree.
The other, thrilled to find I live here definitivement told me to come look him up if I need a steer on houses to buy in Montboudif … don’t use an Immobilier, he said – they are all crooks! I hastened not to comment, feeling that virtually in front of Mr Pompidou’s maison natal I should adopt the line of least contention. But having local ears to the ground will certainly prove invaluable when we come to the search for Le Manoir ….
The third knock came and I assumed there must be a third list. I should have remembered my youngest daughter’s apharism that ‘assume makes an ass out of you and me’, but instead I opened the door onto the dark landing (I will tell you all about the unique nature of the electrical system here another time but suffice to say that the lights in the communal area were having a bad hair day). There stood a slight elderly man on his own. He did have a leather bag under his arm which I assumed (there’s that word again) as I hastily said entree s’il vous plait to get him out of the gloom, contained the list of names, biographies, and manifesto plus critique of the old guard. Then I heard the words that strike terror into the hearts of most …. je suis le temoin de Jehovah. Panic coursed through me – I had allowed a Jehovah’s Witness into the appartment and I needed above all to get to the boulangerie before it shut at 12. It was now 10:30 – this could be difficult. I smiled and told him I am Buddhist. This has always worked in England. It isn’t strictly true but I was married to a Buddhist for several years and I do still live by some of the rules as part of my own gobbledegook belief system. He smiled gently and asked how I explain the creation.
Remember this is all in French. Remember too that I was slated to read Philosophy at Cambridge when whatever God you attune to was still in nappies so I am hard-wired to theological debate. Yet it was not combat but his gentle spirit that captivated me and I was away – all fear of spoken French disappeared and I passed what I can genuinely tell you was a lovely 30 minutes. He told me his son in law (not a JW) spent 2 years in England and he would happily introduce me if I need any help with understanding documents and so forth, he listened as I told him that Two Brains is a scientist of some note – he was particularly interested in the Trous Noirs and hopes that the presentation will be repeated – gave me his number so I can let him know when/if. He told me about a lovely Indian fellow who lives in Bort who has done some notable research into the workings of the mind. I told him that my life is about learning, learning and learning. I also apologised for speaking French comme une vache espagnole. He said he liked my modesty. It actually was not modest just simple truth but the comment was kindly meant. He left after 30 minutes, did not give me a copy of Watchtower and I hope I run into him again. Whatever his beliefs, you see, he is a kind and lovely fellow.
The two men on my walk were kind and lovely fellows.
A friend of mine mentioned a film called ‘Field of Dreams’ on FaceBook the other day. If you build it they will come, says the voice. I am fortunate to be in a place steeped in history with the most fantastic natural landscape (volcano? Two a penny here mate!) and a population of genuinely content people. The pity is that they are leaving, the young seeking employment in the cities because they have no choice. I would like to breathe life back into this place. So that this place will breathe vibrantly for all the years to come. I have started and little by little I will achieve what I can – how can I resist when I am surrounded by such simple charm?
If I build it, will you come?
PS: I have broken most of my rules in this post – don’t talk about politics, avoid talking about religion, step away from the too-personal but the one I would urge you all to adhere to is this:
Never, ever, EVER eat anything with surprise in its title, in a restaurant …..