Showing posts with label rural France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rural France. Show all posts

Friday, August 5, 2016

French villages disappearing

The French word “désertification” designates the process that leads to villages abandoned by their former residents, who have deserted their home place and moved to big towns and cities.

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This sad phenomenon is now more rampant than ever, and there's no way of stopping it.

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In France, we also use the expression “rural exodus” to designate this sad gangrene. Today, some 15,000 rural villages are dying due to this inevitable process.

Monday, September 14, 2009


For as long as I've known Christine, I've associated this famous photo, entitled Provençal nude, taken by Willy Ronis in 1949, with my ex-wife and her family context.

There are two reasons for this association. First, I believe this image has always been a favorite of Christine's father: a keen photographer who married a Provençal girl. Second, above all, this scene of a girl washing herself in a delightfully old-fashioned rural setting evokes the context of the family's ancient manor house in Brittany.

Willy Ronis has just died at the age of 99. I don't usually publish nude photos of myself... but I'll make an exception, in honor of Willy.

Christine took this photo long ago at Le Ruflet. Clearly, I'm sure you'll agree with me that the inspiration of my wife was not solely me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rural roots

Once, when I was chatting about family-history research with my father-in-law Jacques Mafart, he told me that such investigations would inevitably be dull and fruitless in the case of his ancestors. "Although I don't have many facts concerning my early ancestors in Brittany, I'm fairly sure they were all members of ancient Breton farming families who rarely moved far away from the villages where they grew up." As an Australian, whose ancestors had left the Old World and sailed out to the Antipodes (just as I had made the reverse trip—in largely more comfortable conditions—in 1962), I wasn't accustomed to the notion of ancestors remaining fixed in the same place and leading the same kind of agricultural existence for generation after generation. I was conditioned into considering that ancestors were primarily, if not necessarily, pioneers who spent their time jumping from one spot on the globe to another, and changing constantly their lifestyles. To put it bluntly, in spite of all my personal family-history research, I had never really learned the profound everyday sense of the concept of roots. Rural roots...

Napoleon Bonaparte described England (borrowing an expression invented by the Scottish economist Adam Smith) as a nation of shopkeepers. I don't know if anybody got around to making such a sweeping generalization, but France might have been described, at that time, as a nation of farmers.

Today, as you cross the French countryside in high-speed trains that are a modern marvel of engineering, you can still see to what extent France has remained a great agricultural nation. Rural France is a vast patchwork quilt of pastures, fields, woods and vineyards, crossed by a dense networks of highways, roads, lanes and tracks. Seen from the windows of a train, the French countryside is a splendid visual poem, evolving subtly at all times of the year. Personally, whenever I travel by train in France, I never bother to bring along something to read, because it's always an intense visual pleasure for me to spend my time watching the magnificent landscapes. The various buildings on each farm property, even when glimpsed fleetingly for a few seconds, tell stories. You obtain at a glance a train's-eye view of what kind of a family it is: their basic agricultural activities, their relative prosperity or poverty, the nature and state of their residence, their life style...

With roots like that, it's hardly surprising that one of the biggest happenings of the year in Paris is the agricultural show.

For politicians, it's a must to show up and be photographed at the Paris agricultural show... otherwise they run the risk of losing the support of the vast hordes of electors with rural roots, including those who still live on the land. In years to come, no doubt, politicians will find it more worthwhile, from an efficiency viewpoint, to be seen at technology shows. For the moment, though, it still pays to drop in to the biggest farm in France. Jacques Chirac—seen here in 1975, when he was the prime minister—played a major role in elevating this annual visit to the rank of a sacred ritual.

Charles de Gaulle had evoked jokingly the difficulties of governing correctly and calmly a nation that produces 246 varieties of cheese. Chirac, on the other hand, took pleasure in taking the reins of a nation with countless varieties of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, etc. Young people laughed at Chirac when he referred to a computer mouse (apparently an unknown item in his personal environment) by the rural term designating a field mouse. But everybody forgave the French president for not being a computer geek. On the other hand, people would have been discouraged without the reassuring image of Chirac fondling farm animals, and chatting with rural folk as if he were one of them... which he was, in a way.

For Nicolas Sarkozy, the obligation of visiting the agricultural show, and trying to caress tenderly the nose of a cow as if it were a woman, is a cross he must bear.

The president knows full well that nobody in France is likely to imagine their president as a rural lad, so he doesn't have to take himself too seriously... which is fine for everybody, since the phenomenon of Sarko taking himself seriously is even more unpleasant than stepping into fresh cow shit.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Deadly level crossings

Yesterday, for the second time in a week, I caught the inter-city train from St-Marcellin to Grenoble in order to spend time exploring the archives concerning the history of my property. This excursion is truly luxurious in the sense that the traveler arrives in the center of Grenoble and gets swept up immediately by a tram that takes you to any place whatsoever inside the Alpine city.

At about the same time I was making the return voyage, seven adolescents met their deaths in a level-crossing catastrophe, elsewhere on this regional transport network, up towards the lake of Geneva, when their bus stalled on the rails.

Here's the scene today, as authorities attempt to determine what happened:

In my recent article entitled Doubling the line [display], I evoked the anguishing theme of level crossings, of which there are still some 15 thousand in rural France.

The following specimen, which I use almost daily, is a true death trap:

Normal French Cartesian logic seems to have got screwed up here in a potentially mortal manner. Since it's a dangerous crossing, lying just alongside the busy highway from St Marcellin to Romans, somebody decided that orange lamps should flash here constantly, aimed at warning motorists that they should behave cautiously. But these orange lamps interfere with the more urgent message of a red lamp that goes into action periodically when the barriers are about to descend, because a train is arriving. Motorists who arrive here regularly, like me, day in day out, end up ignoring the constantly-flashing orange lamps, insofar as they do not indicate any kind of imminent danger. Consequently, they're conditioned subconsciously to ignore also the red lamp, whose flashes signal a matter of life or death. To put it bluntly, this place is waiting for a mortal accident to occur.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Charming little town called Chatte

My favorite Leclerc shopping center is located on the municipal territory of a tiny town called Chatte (meaning a female cat in French), alongside St-Marcellin.

At first sight, Chatte appears to be a village, but the visitor soon discovers that it has all the trappings of a little town... such as a post office, for example, on a corner of a small square with a republican fountain with a tricolor-waving Marianne.

The town hall is currently decked out in German and Italian flags, because Chatte is twinned with towns in these two countries. Yesterday, the town received a bus load of Italian visitors. On the narrow pavements of Chatte, there's no room to swing a female cat, so I had to step onto the equally narrow road (where automobiles travel at twice the legal speed) whenever I ran into tourists.

It was sunny in Chatte, and the leafy trees around the church provided shade for bikers at lunch. As for the church, in spite of the influx of visitors, it remained shut.

Chatte was the abode of a future Catholic saint, who lived in a charming stone house across from the church.

The plaque informs us that Pierre-Julien Eymard [1811-1868] was the local priest for three years. [Click the portrait to visit a rich website concerning Eymard's ecclesiastic achievements.]

At the center of the town, a café is called, appropriately enough, the Café du Centre. A nearby place is marked hotel/restaurant, but I'm not sure whether it's operational. The only major tourist attraction at Chatte is a small park with a collection of model railways... but I've never been motivated enough to go there.

A tiny stream meanders gently through Chatte, past stone-walled yards of fruit trees and drooping wisteria. It surely has a source and a name, but I ignore these details.

Nearby, the imposing façade of a former spinning mill evokes an epoch, long before our modern age of outsourcing and globalization, when the villages and small towns of France hummed with industrial activity.

Up on a hill above the township, a nondescript stone building is referred to, by local people, as le vieux château [the old castle].

From this vantage point, the view extends across the rich plain alongside the Isère, with fields of walnut trees and colza, to the nearby Vercors mountain range [where my Gamone homeplace is located].

The town might appear to be somewhat drowsy, but it is actually quite a prosperous and progressive little community, with modern facilities such as this media library for young people.

Last but not least [in fact, the main reason why I've been drawn recently to Chatte], behind this children's playground on the central square of the town, there's an excellent service in physical education, equipped to take care of prostatectomy patients.

Christine and I once knew a lady who, whenever she traveled through French villages, would immediately search for the boutique of the local photographer who handles weddings, because she claimed that there's no better way of understanding the culture and general mentality of a community than to see how they get themselves photographed at marriages. Personally, whenever I discover a relatively out-of-the-way place such as the tiny town of Chatte, I'm always intrigued to know whether certain interesting individuals might have grown up there, because I take pleasure in trying to imagine how the environment might have modeled them, as it were, for their future prowess. This is a relatively straightforward exercise in the case of famous residents of a great city such as Paris, but one has to adopt a more subtle approach when you attempt to decide what influences might have been exerted upon adolescents in a place such as Chatte, motivating their later adventures and achievements.

Two local heroes are represented by bronze busts in alcoves in the façade of the town hall.

To the left of the main portal, we find an effigy of Clément Adrien Vincendon-Dumoulin [1811-1856], a hydrographer [map-maker] who sailed to Antarctica on the Astrolabe with Dumont d'Urville during the period 1837-1840. It's amusing to imagine a young man from Chatte in the following antipodean predicament:

In an identical alcove to the right of the portal, a bust depicts Alexandre Collenot [1902-1936]:

He was a daring aviation mechanic who flew constantly with the great pioneer Jean Mermoz before disappearing from the face of the Earth somewhere between Brazil and Senegal.

All in all, I like to think of Chatte, both past and present, as a typical small country town, with a little bit of everything. In saying this, however, I'm aware that the place I've just been describing, through a series of images and terse descriptions, exists primarily as a virtual entity in my head. To get to know the true town, you would have to stroll around there for an hour or so on a sunny afternoon, as I did yesterday.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fair at Beaucroissant

I spent the afternoon with Linda (a local nurse who has become a personal friend) at the Beaucroissant Fair, in a rural setting to the north of St-Marcellin.

It's a vast and ancient event, which takes place twice a year. The April session lasts for two days. By tomorrow evening, they're expecting a quarter of a million visitors.

As for the September session, it dates back to the year 1219, and is expected to attract about a million visitors.

The April session specializes in farm animals, but there's a little bit of everything at the Beaucroissant Fair. There are many presentations of tractors and farm machinery, while other stands propose kitchen stoves and cooking equipment.

The only thing I bought at the fair today was an ice cream. But I got expert advice on interesting topics such as breeding peacocks, rearing llamas and installing wood-burning ovens. To be honest, in such an environment, I would be capable of returning home with boxes of geese, rabbits, etc. As I said to Linda: "If you see me about to purchase an animal, please stop me."

In general, the people who flock to this famous fair would appear to be country folk who need to purchase goods of a practical nature. You can tell at a glance, from their typical appearance, that most visitors to the fair are not refined urban residents. On the other hand, there's a standing joke about the fact that one should never buy a horse or a cow at Beaucroissant, because you might get home and discover that the beast has only three legs... or maybe five!

Many visitors, of course, are young people from the surrounding villages who come here for the simple thrill of the fair.