Friday, January 4, 2008

Children's itinerary

In French, there's a nice expression to designate an itinerary that's considerably longer than normal: chemin des écoliers [children's path]. The idea is that kids leaving school at the end of the day are often in no great hurry to get home. So, they take the longest possible path, enabling them to meet up with friends and maybe get involved in unexpected adventures.

This morning, I had an important letter to post: the final documents completing my application for French naturalization. Following last night's fall of a rock, the road down to the village of Pont-en-Royans was closed to both vehicles and pedestrians. So, to get to a post office and back, I had to take a long and often dangerous itinerary.

At one stage, for several kilometers, I was obliged to drive slowly along this steep and narrow road on the flanks of a mountain. Fortunately, I only met up with a single automobile moving in the opposite direction. Before backing up, I was forced to stop and walk to the rear of my Citroën to ascertain the width of earth that separated us from the precipice. When I finally emerged from this small road, I had a clear view of my home down in the Bourne Valley.

On the road down the slopes, I noticed that the postwoman had stopped at the house of my Macaire neighbors. I pulled up too, so that she could give me my mail. Madame Macaire promptly invited me to lunch.

Paul Macaire is a least a third-generation native of Gamone.

Their ancestral family home was a stone house like mine, two hundred meters up the road from Gamone. When the Nazis invaded the Vercors, they set fire systematically to every residence whose front door was locked, considering that it might house Résistance guerrillas and stocks of arms. The Macaires' house happened to be locked, so it disappeared in flames. The front door of my future home was wide open, and the house survived.

The Macaires told me that the road from Presles down to Choranche had been macadamized a mere half-century ago. Before that, most residents of Presles and the Coulmes plateau would visit the markets of the Bourne Valley on horseback or in carts drawn by bullocks. In the early days, only five residents of Presles were prosperous enough to own automobiles, and the Macaires rapidly learned to recognize the distinctive noise of each of these five automobiles, as well as the direction in which it was traveling. So, without rising from their dinner table, Paul Macaire would be able to say to his young wife, for example: "Hey, Chabert is returning home early today. I'll bet his old woman scolded him last Friday for drinking wine with his mates down in Pont-en-Royans." Today, on the bitumen, all the automobiles sound the same, and there are too many to be recognized individually. But I often have the impression that folk like the Macaires know everything that's happening in the commune... often before it actually happens.

Down at Choranche, the road was opened up at the beginning of the afternoon. I ran into my neighbors Dédé and Madeleine, who had wandered down there on foot, with their delightful dog Briska, to inspect the traces of yesterday's rock fall.

Like the Macaires, the Repellins are Nth-generation natives of this extraordinary but erratic region where I'm settled, where you can be obliged at times to drive for hours over dangerous roads in order to post a letter. When I think of these friendly old-fashioned neighbors, there's an adjective that springs into my mind immediately: authentic. This doesn't necessarily mean that they provide you with facts and objective judgments whenever they open their mouths. On the contrary, the veracity of their every declaration has to evaluated instantly, as it were, with respect to the advantages they might reap if ever what they're saying were true. This means, for example, that it's pointless to ask for their opinions concerning the ongoing conflicts between local farmers and the rock-climbers who throng to Choranche, for the Macaires and the Repellins cannot easily disentangle themselves from past epochs when their ancestors would have been scandalized to find city people encroaching upon their precious farmlands. But they are authentic in the sense that, even if the land at Choranche no longer belongs exclusively to them, they certainly belong to that soil.

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