IN THE DEEP HEART OF FRANCE

In the deep heart of France
Fall 2003

Every journey has a farthest point, a deep experience of place, a moment when the traveler feels most remote from home, a moment unique to that location.  I used to only identify it on looking back.  “Oh, there it was. Yes.”  Now, I sometimes guess as it happens what will be remembered best.
Though I travel widely, I don’t know France well.  I’d volunteered to go as nanny and knew that with my son’s language skills I’d be in good hands.  Besides being a unique opportunity to get to know my first grandchild and her mother, this October trip proved a real vacation.  Unlike most of my trips, someone else made all the travel plans, solved all the problems and paid the bills.
We’d driven a couple of hours southwest of Paris to the medieval town of Villeneuve, on the Yonne River near Sens. An important church stood here before the Vikings sacked and pillaged all of Burgundy in the eighth and ninth centuries.   In 1163, Louis VII built his regional administrative center across from the church and gave the town its present name of New Town.  We stayed at a delightful inn called the Owl’s Nest, made from four old boathouses fronting the river near the arched, stone bridge.
One morning, to give the parents extra sleep, I tucked my tiny granddaughter into a Snugli sling and set off to explore the ancient lanes of the village.  We began at the stone bridge, where swans and mallards glided among trailing willow branches.  A medieval tower beside the river, like a similar one at the downstream end of the old city’s protective moat, guarded the approach by water.  Heading away from the Yonne, we followed a park-like promenade next to the deep dry cleft that had  for a nearly thousand years been filled with water, below the city walls.
At the back of the town, the big donjon tower still stands guard.  This castle keep of solid rock could shelter most of the early population and some of their animals in time of war.  At the donjon, we turned toward the countryside.  Along the back streets, pursuing my interest in unpretentious gardens, I gazed with pleasure though every fence.  I poked along, my arms around the baby, smiling and exchanging bonjours with the people passing.  The women who worked at home were coming back from shopping at the farmers’ market, carrying loaded baskets on one arm or pulling wheeled shopping bags brimming with fresh produce in the season of harvest.  I imagined the wonderful mid-day meals they would be cooking for their families, who all come home to eat at noon.
Across from the school, we stood a while and looked into the stream that once fed the moat, now a lush watercourse of cress, reeds and shrubs growing wild, a miniature landscape probably unchanged since the first church.  At that point, I knew we were on a search for origins.  At the edge of the town, a highway carries speeding vehicles that seem to belong to the remote future of a place with roots deep in the past.  We waited for an opening and crossed to a grassy path that led up a vale between two rounded hills.
My imagination took over.  We were on a forest path back when Louis VII was young.  In that era, at my age, I’d have been an old crone.  I’d have been known as a plants woman or herbalist, for my delight in wandering the margins of the world picking little green things, plucking at leaves, examining unnoticed flowers.  Like a gatherer on patrol I surveyed the land around me, finding familiar species with slight variations.
Soon, I had pulled together a credible salad to compliment whatever the family hunter might bring home.  Mushrooms of many varieties, crab apples, sloe plums, dandelion, chickweed, wild mustard, scallions, broadleaf plantain — all this for the pot.  And I’d not left the trail.
My path rose past cherry, pear and walnut trees in yards ranging from neatly groomed to abandoned.  The noise of traffic fell away.   In one garden, an old man with white hair had a big bonfire going, burning brambles and pruned twigs in the open among his grapevines, broccoli and raspberries.  France, with its ideal climate, could not be more perfect for growing foods we know.  No wonder the art of eating has reached an apex here.
Now, it was thousands of years earlier, and I belonged to a tribal culture in neolithic times.  I was a gatherer in a time before cuisine, with only Nature’s bounty to claim.  We crossed a narrow paved road, perhaps a remnant of an ancient path out of the valley.  The trail continued up the slope, then ran flat before the next rising section.  If I were on horseback, or in a wagon, my animals would have appreciated a hill road with flat stretches where they could breathe easy before the next steep pull.  Was this intentional?  Would I have thought to wonder if I’d never left the car?
Beyond a steep thicket of blackberry brambles, the hillside opened.  A harvested field curved away to sky at the nearby top of the rise.  Smooth chert with agate and flint stones lay exposed by a plow, rock so fine grained a person could chip out a sharp-edged scraper or spear point as needed.  The baby slept, giving an occasional sigh of contentment.  My pocket was filled with salad makings and I nibbled as I walked.  Ahead stood a row of small trees stepping up a narrow strip of wild grass.
Laying the sleeping baby beside the trail, I climbed up to investigate.   While I gathered windfall apples of a delicate flavor, a green grasshopper watched me from a thistle.  On the trail just below, the child breathed.  A protective instinct rose in my chest.  How could I leave my treasure even for a moment?  In a long ago century, a wolf or wild pig could bring death in seconds.  My imagination ran wild as I hurried back to my sweet innocent baby.
I carried her down a mustard field and back to the narrow strip of pavement, then followed it down.  Vines twined over shrubs, their grapes shriveled in the dry autumn sun.  A green tunnel veered into an overgrown wood.  Along the path grew big lilac bushes and irises gone to seed, pretty plants popular centuries ago and able to survive without care.  What were the dreams their planters brought to this place, and why did no one now claim these fruits of long labor? Like the trace of the hill path across a farmed slope, even more recent lanes tell a subtle tale and offer these little mysteries, invisible to fast travelers.
I looked back to where I’d been, alone on a quiet hillside, gathering from the land like any ancient grandmother.  That was my moment of penetrating connection, linking me to the long history of my own ancestors and to the simplicities of rural life today. There, on byways old as the hills, a new sense of France grew out of her earth.  There I reached back to her beginnings.  From such a France, of hidden life that smiles from forgotten corners, a nation can be built in the mind, a nation that makes sense to me.

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