Mark Lee Hunter's Paris Journal
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Antoine is Crying
Antoine is acting strange, and the grownups -- two expat Russians, a Frenchwoman, and me, the expat American -- are sitting on Mischa’s bare concrete terrace under the pavilion tent overlooking a hillside in the Creuse, trying to figure out what it means. All summer Antoine has been a model ten-year-old. He doesn’t bother Mischa during writing hours, or me when I play the guitar, or torture the kittens, and he hasn’t broken anything in his body, the junk depot, or the stone barn that Mischa has been turning into a three-story house over the past few years. In fact, Antoine learned more masonry working on the barn than some men in the Creuse, where stonework remains a skill as common as knitting. So why is he brooding, when he isn’t chirping like an hysterical bird?
Finally someone says: “He doesn’t want to go back to Paris.”
“Who does?” comes the reply.
For you, maybe, Paris is a city of dreams, and most of those dreams are true. But Paris is also what the French escape in the summer. Paris is where you make the money, and where there must be more money, as D.H. Lawrence’s rocking-horse winner said before he died. Paris is where everything you do must have a purpose, because it is the capital, a place where you can’t afford to fool around.
The Creuse belongs to an anti-Paris, another
France, that was rich when Lutetia was still a swampy Roman
outpost. Its wealth is in the ground, and the ground has been
shaped by humans for millennia, until you can’t always tell
where nature stops and human nature begins.
It’s damp, misty and wild -- capital-R Romantic country, if
you judge by the fact that Georges Sand and Chopin summered in
Gargilesse, where the moonlight on the castle overlooking a strategic
bend in the river Creuse makes you hungry for a deep kiss.
After 17 years in France I don’t mind playing tourist -- hey,
the French do it, and it’s their country -- but the only
tourism I really like is parking myself in a place long and often
enough to forget that I don’t live there yet. And
the Creuse, unlike a lot of paysan France, allows
me that illusion.
In medieval times it was called La Marche -- the last long blood-soaked step between the lords of the Limousin and Aquitaine to the South, and the church-backed Kings to the North. The highest hilltop for fifteen miles in any direction from Mischa’s terrace is capped by the sinister ruins of Brosse, a twelfth-century fortress ringed by a stream and stone terraces, staring down on the ghosts of shivering battalions armed with dented iron and wood. After one battle, 16 knights sent to defend it were hanged from the walls. Anyone who survived an assault on that hill would be eager to celebrate with a lynching.
Most of the high ground is just high enough to make pushing a bike over it pleasant work. The bottom land is sculpted by sand-bottomed streams like the Anglin, the pastures divided by stone walls into pastures for sheep, cattle and donkeys (the main cart animal here till World War Two), bordered by beech, oak, and thorn hedges, with marked trails cutting across the hills. The weather can be hard: One April day, I saw snow, hail, and rain in a single afternoon. Winter comes early on the wind from the Massif Central. But I’ll take that blast any day to escape the monotonous plains of grain and sunflowers forty miles north, broken only by the forests and lakes of the Sologne, where nobles and executives and politicians keep their hunting lodges and castles and drink Chinon and Touraine wines.
Around here the few chateaux are either in ruins or small, like Gargilesse. Even the owners of the shirt mills in Argenton-sur-Creuse -- once counted in the dozens, there remain two -- were discrete with their wealth, and Georges Sand’s house is too small for company (Chopin excepted). It’s a sweet contrast to the wannabe rusticism of the Vaucluse, which like much of Provence has become a Gallic version of the Hamptons.
The Creuse is too far from Paris (three hours by car) to be completely overrun, but the English and Germans and Swiss and Belgians and Dutch have found it, and their Rovers and Mercedes can be spotted beside quietly ostentatious rebuilt stone houses in the summer. Mischa, who drives an Opel with the back seat torn out and the top dented from transporting anything he can tie to it, pioneered that change in a low-budget way. He bought his barn and an acre of stone-fenced land for a few thousand dollars and started learning how to fix it up. Aside from the time he found himself standing on a ladder with the main support beam loose in his hands, and a hand infection that nearly turned to gangrene this summer, he’s avoided disasters, though locals say that if he cuts one more window into the barn it might come down on him.
The locals are changing, too. A certain kind are disappearing, the kind that knew animals better than machines. One of them was Marcel, who last winter was standing on a ladder pulling a bale of hay out of the barn to feed his platoon of goats, when the bale slipped and drove him into the ground. They say in the village that the fall isn’t what killed him, and I believe it. Marcel had to be pushing seventy, but he was built like a beech tree, purple where the sun raked him and with arms like heavy branches. So it’s easy to suspect that the hospital cut him down to coffin size, putting a needle filled with the wrong stuff in the wrong place. His sister may not keep the farm, a three-sided complex of barns, sheds and a house with a few half-wild mongrel dogs and a pack of cats dominated by a chatte with three legs, because the other heirs are fighting for it. Meanwhile the woods his goats used to eat clean have filled with thorns.
There were six million farmers in France when Marcel was a young man. Now there are 300,000, whose wives go to the coiffeur (like fortysomething Madame Bernard in the next village, who sells us our milk and fromage frais) and whose kids go to the University to study agronomics. They still eat what they grow (Madame Bernard also gives us her spare beans), but their notion of economy is closer to Greenspan than Thoreau. They make their cheese in outbuildings that look and smell like laboratories, and they don’t live as close to their animals as Marcel did, either. The distance from his front door to both barns is about five running steps, which leaves you time to hear a certain sound in your sleep and get up, shod and out to the animals before they kill a goat that got herded into the wrong shed by mistake.
The Viper in the Grass
Nature is still violent, even in France. One of the reasons I go to the Creuse is to remind myself about that violence, and how to handle it. It’s simple, really: You watch where you put your feet, head and hands, whether you’re shaking plums off a tree to feed yourself and the yellow jackets or crossing the Anglin. That isn’t the way you move in Paris. Urban alertness means knowing what’s coming down the street at you, not worrying about whether you’re stepping on a crack or a piece of dog doo.
The Creuse requires that you watch the grass you’re walking on, because that tangled carpet could hide a hole, and that shady spot might be a lounge for snakes. There is a drugstore in nearby Chaillac with a deep collection of vipers in glass jars, and they weren’t imported. Nor does local lore recount the legend of a viper that turned into a woman for the sake of pornographic fantasy. Our neighbor Chris, a Parisian who married into the Creuse, casually asked Mischa one night as we were sitting around a fire beside the apple tree, “How many vipers are there on your property?”
“I never saw any,” said Mischa.
“That’s right. There’s at least a dozen, but you haven’t seen them.”
Chris, a bearded former radical anarchist, has had surprises of his own in the woods. He was taking apart a junk car he found one day, when he heard humming inside the door panel. “So I opened it slowly,” he said.
More exactly, he slowly opened a nest of frelons, a species of hornet with a fatal sting if enough of them hit you (a half-dozen can do it). They followed him back to his house at the edge of the village, but he had enough of a running start to close the door and windows before they arrived.
So when I walk across Mischa’s acre, which hasn’t been grazed in years and is now overrun by neck-high nettles, I look first and test the grass with a beech stick I cut in the woods. You think I’m chicken? The yellow jackets whose nest I discovered and avoided might agree, but a snake didn’t, and his opinion counts most with me. I only saw his back end as he rocketed away from my stick into the weeds, and it was big for a viper, maybe too big, a good couple inches in diameter. But it was the right color for a viper, a dull brown like dried manure, and the right shape, the blunt back narrowing in a taper that looks hacked-off.
The only time you see the unmistakable triangular snout of a viper is when you surprise him or he rears back to strike. A viper once showed me his fangs in the Pyrenees, a few hours’ hike from the nearest help, and I haven’t forgotten the sight. Nor do I possess the skills of the local guys, who tested their adolescent courage by trapping vipers with forked sticks before the snakes became a protected species, and I didn’t know about vacuum snakebite kits until Chris showed me his. So I didn’t follow the snake into his thicket, any more than I’d follow a Thieves’ Market dealer home in Paris. He owns the ground, and I don’t, and knowing his true name won’t change that.
Chris says he’s seen vipers swimming in the Anglin, which gave me a chill after spending a afternoon probing the bottom rocks with my hand for a pair of sunglasses his little daughter Diane owned until I dropped them crossing the stream one night. Sophie and I, the grownups in charge, had stupidly taken Diane hiking on the overgrown far bank with no better blazing tool than my pocketknife, and when night started falling the water was the only way out. (In this country you always carry a knife and something to make fire.) But vipers don’t really dive under rocks.
Crayfish do, and walking along the Anglin with my lover Sophie, Antoine and two other borrowed kids, we met a young man catching them. He told us the technique, maybe because we didn’t look like competition. You take a wire basket that costs $4, a fish head doused with a fluid fishermen use to excite their prey, and put it in a shady part of the stream. “They like the shadows,” he said. That’s all, but his haul that day included eleven crayfish in one basket, and one of them was nearly as big as his big hand. A few years ago fertilizer runoff had poisoned the Anglin, but now even the trout are back.
This little corner of a little country is so perplexingly deep, so tough, that it is hard to wound. One day we took our bikes down a dirt road in the next village, and found ourselves in a marshy lowland where the pastures had gone wild. It only takes one wet summer for that to happen, as Mischa knows. After three blistered mornings with fresh-sharpened sickles, we had barely and badly cleared a small room’s worth of nettles and thorns off his acre, and the roots remained. When I asked a farm woman what we could do, she said with the faintest shake of her head: “Plow it under.” When we are gone, the ground will remain.
A bird of prey -- a very big hawk, or an owl --
exploded off a branch, showing us the way down the road.
Fifty yards along in the woods, we found what looked like an iron mine
-- the same rusted rock face you see in the Mesabi range, the same
still water that’s turned black, the outbuildings equipped
with a sluice -- but I rejected the idea out of hand until a local told
me that many were started in the Creuse after World War Two.
In one of the outbuildings, its walls overrun by vines, someone had set
up home with junk furniture. I followed Sophie up the trail
in back of the mine, but I kept an eye out for whoever lived
there. If he was around, he didn’t show himself
till we rode back.
I know where he found his furniture, because I’ve been there. The town dump here is called the décharge, and Chris goes there nearly every day. His barn is filled with junk lumber he chops for the cooking fire in his kitchen, and a dozen junk bikes he’ll never fix up, but which we cannibalized to fix ours. We drove over with Mischa one morning and threw out our kitchen trash, then started picking until the car and the roof were full. Among the haul were a push lawnmower in working shape, and a pair of Sunday shoes with the box they were bought in before I was born. They were probably a dead man’s shoes, which is why no one would take them at our hangout in Argenton, a terrific bistro called the Potiron.
My prize was an illustrated edition of Alexandre Dumas’s version of the legend of Lyderic, first Count of Flanders, whose magic powers didn’t save him from investing a fatal confidence in his jealous friends. (Paris still works like that). Beside it on the dirt were a full set of between-wars wedding photos, plus one lonely picture of a young man in infantry regalia. Judging from the county’s ever-present monuments to the war dead, his chances of returning weren’t higher than his sisters’ chances of finding a husband instead of ending up in an Argenton shirt mill.
Scholastic notebooks dated from 1936, decorated with Popular Front-style photos of workers’ pavilions from international fairs -- the Creuse still votes on the Left, unlike most of France -- told a tale of academic misery across three Republics. Creusois children learned French (as opposed to the local dialect) by copying out dictations, losing one point out of ten for every mistake. A farmers’ union taught them home economy, including how to calculate the monetary value of their butter and beef. These people -- one of whom was born in 1952, the year of my birth -- are probably as dead as the ghost in the Sunday shoes, their attic emptied by relatives eager to sell the house or newcomers with junk of their own to store.
Antoine went back to Paris with his mother -- “Antoine is crying! Antoine is crying!” yelled Fabien, another of the summer kids -- the morning I set out with my Frenchwoman to pick blackberries for jam. We learned one rule fast, following the vines along the hillside trails by the Anglin: Don’t get greedy. A perfect berry always hangs just within your reach, but your fingers will come back with thorn points stuck in them, and they’ll still hurt when you spot the next cluster within easy picking range. The vines look pliant until you realize that they’re woven through every branch and stem for a radius of at least five yards (folks say they can run like that for a kilometer, and I believe it).
But only a fool gets greedy here. And I’m sorry, but only a fool would tell you the name of the village where he wants to find his own piece of ground and peace of mind. Antoine is still just a kid, but he isn’t crying for nothing.
Epilogue: The Viper in the Cellar
Soon after I found that piece of ground and the buildings that went with it, I stepped into the cool basement tool room on a hot day and found myself looking at the back end of another snake. It fled into a corner, and then it coiled up like a spring and faced me. There is only one species of snake around here that makes those moves, and protected or not, you can't leave it alive in a dark place with stuff you need.
I picked up a shovel and kept the wide blade between me and the viper – You wanna bite something, bite this – while I waited for my knees to stop trembling. Whatever I did, I had to do it in one move. It crossed my mind that I should have remembered to sharpen the cracked edge of the shovel. I hoped it wouldn't break off on me now.
I lunged until the metal touched the snake, then shoved down and in, hoping to crush him. I did. Then I picked him up with the tool, carried him outside, pointlessly chopped him into pieces, and fed him to the neighbor's chickens. For them, killing a viper is no big deal.
I wish I were so