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Finding Friends in France

After a lengthy survey of North American cartography, I am sad to report that the thoroughly winsome designation of ‘village’, is not a term we often use on our continent.   We possess an abundance of cities, towns, herds of houses that seem to have wandered into one another – and my favorite,  ‘municipalities’.  But we enjoy few places worthy of  the exceptional Old World title of ‘village’.   And awards given to those precious few are even more rare.   Yet in France, the land of the finer pleasures, where they seem to find time to reward even the most subtle and sometimes trifling nuances of life, there is just such a thing.  ‘The Most Charming and Delightful Village Award’ (as best translated by your author here) is annually bestowed upon some unbecoming diamond in the rough, elevating it, even for just a year, above it’s countryside contemporaries, to sparkle in the adoring light of tourism for all of France to envy. 

Previous to the award, Aubeterre sur Drone was quite unknown and remains so to those not in the know.   It perches just above the sunflower saturated hills of midwestern France, quietly enjoying its charming and delightful self like a sparrow chirping to no one in particular.  The well cobbled streets wander up and down, here and there, surrounded by the traditional red-tiled, whitewashed stone homes huddled comfortably upon each other as if they were old friends. Every now and then the avenues pass by the little lavender gardens that dot the village, wafting out their perfume and swaying with the occasional puff of wind.  

I had come, by foot, under the allure of the award-winning village, with one bottle of water, my lucky rainjacket, my unlucky sunglasses, and an unhealthy amount of bravado, more or less because someone told me to do so.   I had grown weary of searching for purpose and thought it best to play coy and let purpose find me.

The center of the mini-acropolis rests on the top of an enormous single chunk of rock and playfully tumbles over itself to a café on the river below. The Drone is a river on the eastern slope of the hill and is of the same innocuous temperament as the village itself.   I found myself on its bridge starring down a slim avenue tunneled in by walls of enormous, verdant sycamore trees  the sort of view that leads the eye directly to a small curve on the horizon, giving the impression that this road, just around that distant bend, must arrive at someplace very significant.  It lead to the campground. 

From the bridge I could see up the hillside to the top, where I was told there was a slightly discreet entrance to the largest monolithic church in all of France:  Èglise de Saint-Jean-Baptiste.  In the early twelfth century, Europe witnessed the unusual fad of building churches into solid rock.  Perhaps it prevented fires, afforded safety or just gave them something to do, but the monks and workers sculpted a gargantuan house of worship – a vaulted ceiling towering at over 65 feet supported by 4 titanic pillars, 3 levels of balconies, an intricate 20 foot sacristy and 2 expansive rooms used as underground cemeteries  all chiseled, chip by chip, from solid rock.

Yet this was not the church’s first life.  In the center laid a shallow baptistery dug in the stone with a Greek cross at its bottom, dating from the fifth century.  No one can estimate how many people were baptized and found hope in the heart of this rock.  We can say, with some degree of certainty, that though the village’s efforts at coziness were evident even then with the hollowing of little nooks and coves in the walls, filling those cavities with human remains was something of a faux-pas.

Chatea de Joux

But this mountain of holiness, for it was gaining my esteem with my every step and turn, was home to even older religions.  In the dank chambers below, by way of a thin stone staircase, archeologists had uncovered evidence of Roman rites and sacrifices.  And some even suggested earlier peoples, the Celts, had worshiped here too.  I imagined streams of Druid, Roman and Christian priests meticulously placing one foot before the other as they visited the sacred stone, chanting their separate invocations and prayers of service and gratitude in a monotone echo under the smoke, smell and flickering gleam of tallow candles, each in a state of spirit so mysterious and alien to my mind as to evoke a pulsing sensation of anxious bewilderment on my part.  I rubbed my eyes and cleared my throat.  I needed some delight.

Outside, as the sun entered its golden hours, stretching layers of honeyed light across the houses,  I felt a sudden dismay at realizing that due to my problematic bravado and obstinate refusal to plan, I had no place to sleep.  The visitor’s center, aside from cheerfully telling me that they’d seen me around and found my confusion endearing, informed me of no place to stay.
“There is a camp-ground across the river?”, she said, as if asking a question.

“Yes, there is a campground across the river,” I confirmed.

She nodded sympathetically.  As I turned away she said, “Oh, but there is, a festival medieval tonight, you could, try that, you know?”
Later I sat watching a medieval play on a small outdoor stage, on thin wooden benches, my chin propped up on the knuckles of my right fist, as the twilight’s last gleaming fell from the sky.  Though I’d had blast during the festival, I hadn’t understood a word of it and I pride myself on earnestly trying to comprehend one thing everyday.   Furrow my brow as best I might, I had to concede the play was beating me.  The players kept killing each other, the crowd kept laughing and a fellow with a giant crown of foil stars who I assumed to be Jesus kept coming out and dancing to techno-funk music under a blaze of flashing lights.  I had just about successfully interpreted it as a religious synergizing of Hamlet and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ when a soft voice sat down next to me. 

“I don’t live here, I just work.  But the town is very nice – it won ‘The Most Charming and Delightful Village Award’ last year, you know?”   

I jolted to my right, startled  by the intrusion on my meditations of the play.  My friend from the visitor’s center had found me. 

“They…give awards for that?! –  who or what gets to decide?”

“I don’t really know, the government or something.  But I think they must be right.”

A pig took the throne, got killed, Jesus came out, the music and lights came on and everyone dead got up and had a ball.  Her name was Elise and she didn’t understand it either.

We strolled back down through town to the river where we sat with her friends and tried to understand each other.   As it got late, Elise whispered something to Eric, a lanky, somewhat serene guy next to her.  He pensively nodded and said in that style peculiarly indigenous to the French,  “Oui…oui”. 

Eric had a tent.  Eric had space in his tent.  Eric even had an extra sleeping bag.  And Eric spoke absolutely no English.

I had never encountered such generosity and trust in a person.  Especially one with whom I communicated almost solely by gestures.   I half expected to be the subject of the headline “Poor Mime Kidnapped in Delightful Village, You Know?”.   But it never happened.  In fact, when I woke, he shared his breakfast of cheese and sausages with me.  I could only offer a profusion of ‘merci’s and smiles in return. 

Cellar door at Chateau de Joux

I thanked him one last time and began my return trip, again on foot, with water bottle, sunglasses and rainjacket  only this time my bravado had been replaced by something else, some kind of wisdom that comes from receiving kindness.  I thought of how Marcus Aurelius wrote, “I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favors, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.”    I wondered if the venerable emperor had dropped by here too and if the town had its panache even back then. 

The buildings themselves, the wobbly roads and sweet, fragrant gardens and even Saint Jean’s church had a certain ‘je ne sais quois’.  But any village on a hill (admittedly with a subterranean realm) can make me smile.  Well preserved and kempt buildings evidence something far more than merely postcard shots.  No one gave the award to those buildings.  Buildings just don’t win things.  

Just outside town, a car stopped in front of me.  A woman popped her head out the window and stretched her neck back to me.
“Do you need a ride monsieur?”

I smiled and ran up, losing my sunglasses somewhere in the process.  I didn’t need the ride, but.…these people, they’re just so charming and delightful, you know?

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