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A moving, funny, acid and unforgettable scrutiny of the French seen up close.
— Nan Robertson
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A moving, funny, acid and unforgettable scrutiny of the French seen up close.
— Nan Robertson
Both because of the range and soundness of its description of the culture of the village, and also because of the vividness and insight with which its people are portrayed, the book is a substantial addition to the literature on European rural communities.
— Ernestine Friedl
A sociological study of life in provincial France, but vividly detailed, full of charming characters and funny anecdotes, and with prose as humane as the author's photographs.
— Robert Eisner
Thirty-five miles east of Avignon on National Highway 100 is the turnoff to Peyrane. From there up to the village's nine-hundred-foot perch it is three miles on a gently rising black-top road. By car it takes only forty minutes to go from Avignon to Peyrane. It is even an easy bicycle ride if the wind is not blowing.
Without a car or bicycle the trip is complicated. Passenger service on the railroad that cuts across the tip of the commune has been discontinued. The only bus that goes directly leaves the bus station under the old Avignon ramparts every Thursday morning at eight o'clock. It does not follow the main road but meanders from village to village and reaches Peyrane only in midafternoon. Seven hours to go thirty-five miles!
It is more convenient to take a bus to Apt, a small town four miles from Peyrane, and wait for the bus that Monsieur Baume runs between Apt and Peyrane twice daily on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On other days of the week one must telephone the Peyrane exchange and leave a message for Monsieur Baume to make a special trip in the old car he uses as a taxi. But the message may not reach him, since he spends most of his time hunting. It avoids complications if the trip to Peyrane is made on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.
The bus trip from Avignon across the Vaucluse to Apt is slow enough to give one a chance to see the curious pattern of windbreaks and canals that divide up the truck farms of the valley. This pattern was created by the men of the Vaucluse to adjust their way of living to the four elements that give the region its personality: the sun, the water, the wind, and the mountains.
The greatest natural resource of the Vaucluse Department is the sun. There are cold years and wet years, but in most the sun is so warm and so constant that a truck farmer can harvest eleven crops of lettuce a year. Carrots and cabbages can be grown all twelve months. Cauliflower, celery, spinach, and artichokes are harvested from September to May. Peas, asparagus, green beans, new potatoes, and melons are ripe by the end of March. Tons of strawberries are picked in the early spring. All these are sent off by fast freight to the markets of the north in the cities of Germany, Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, and France. The sun makes the Vaucluse one of the best early vegetable gardens of France.
The sun also makes the Vaucluse one of the most prosperous departments of France. It ranks tenth among the eighty-nine departments for its standard of living. This does not mean that it is an especially wealthy region, for it ranks only forty-fifth in wealth. It does mean, however, that the wealth is widely distributed. On the whole, the Vaucluse is an area of small, prosperous farms worked by their owners.
In order to take advantage of the sun, the Vaucluse farmers must solve the problem of water. The total annual rainfall figures for this region are rather high, but the rain is not evenly distributed throughout the year. The winters are dry, and the summers even drier. Most of the rain comes in spring and fall, and it comes in storms so severe that they flatten the crops, erode the soil and sometimes bring hail, which means catastrophe to a truck farm.
Such storms do not produce the kind of rain that farmers pray for, and the Vaucluse farmers are not the type to pray for rain, anyway. Accepting the climate for what it is, they have elaborated an extensive system of irrigation canals utilizing the water of the Durance and Sorgue rivers. Now the fields of the low valleys get the gentle and regular watering they need.
Farther up in the hills around Peyrane, few farmers have the benefit of canals. Their fields get little more water than what the rains bring. Now and then a Peyrane farmer says longingly that when Peyrane gets its irrigation system his farm will be as rich as the farms down near Avignon, but he knows that this is wishful thinking, for no one is seriously considering the construction of such a canal. It is an attractive thought, however, for the soil of Peyrane is good, even if not so good as the soil of the valley. And Peyrane has even more sunshine than the valley, for often it is foggy in the valley when it is clear at Peyrane.
Because of its irrigation system, the valley landscape seems man made. Irrigation canals and ditches cut the fields into small, well-delineated geometrical shapes. The delineation is made even more striking by the heavy rows of cypress trees and thickets of cane that are planted along the northern edge of each field. Many of the fields are subdivided by high partitions of woven canes and reeds placed every ten feet or so apart.
These hedges and partitions are windbreakers designed to protect the crops from the mistral, a wind that hurtles out of the cold Alps, down the Rhone corridor to the warmer Mediterranean, at a rate of thirty to fifty miles an hour. In narrow passages and in gusts the mistral not infrequently reaches hurricane speed. According to an old saying, Provence suffers from three scourges - the Government, the flooding Durance, and the mistral. Popular tradition also has it that when the mistral starts to blow it will continue to blow in multiples of three: usually three days, often six days, and sometimes even nine days. Scientific observation does not bear this out, but it is true that when the mistral starts to blow it blows for hours and for days, especially in the months of December, February, and March.
This cold but dry, sunny wind has left its mark on every aspect of life in the whole region. One sees it not just in the cypress hedges that protect fields and houses (that Van Gogh found so picturesque). The olive trees all bend toward the south. The houses seem to bend southward, too, for they are customarily built so as to present a bleak wall and a long sloping roof to the north. Heavy stones are placed along the edge of the roof to keep the tiles from blowing away.
Regardless of precautions one cannot get away from the mistral. It comes in around the door. It comes in through cracks in the wall. It comes down the chimney and blows smoke through the house. As it continues to blow on and on, it gets on one's nerves. The teachers dread the mistral because when it blows the children are hard to manage. One cannot experience the mistral without being affected by it. Stendhal, in Avignon on June 14, 1837, wrote in Mémoires d'un Touriste:
A furious mistral started up this morning. That is the drawback of all the pleasures to be found in Provence.
Two weeks ago when we were going over the Beaucaire bridge the diligence had to be held down by eight men hanging on to ropes tied to the top. It looked as though the diligence might fall into the Rhone.
The north wind meets this river's long north-south valley which acts as a bellows to increase its velocity. When the mistral reigns in Provence you don't know where to take refuge. It is true that the sun is shining brightly, but a cold, unbearable wind penetrates the best closed rooms and grates on the nerves so that the most dauntless person is unwittingly upset.
It is appropriate that the six-thousand-foot outpost of the southwestern Alps dominating the landscape of the Vaucluse should be named Mont Ventoux - Windy Mountain. Since the fourteenth century when Petrarch wrote the first description of an ascent of Ventoux, writers and local patriots have adopted this windy mountain as a symbol of the windy Vaucluse. As you drive along in the bus from Avignon to Apt, the Mont Ventoux hovers on the horizon to the north, always visible when you pass a break in the cypress and cane hedges.
About fifteen miles from Avignon, the Mont Ventoux disappears behind a lower range of mountains that looms up ahead. A few moments later the road crosses the canal which brings irrigation water to the Rhone valley. This is the division line between the intensive truck farms of the valley and the more extensive farms, the vineyards, orchards, and grain fields of the foothills. Into the hills, the National Road No. 100 runs along the little Calavon River - of little use for irrigation since it does no more than drain the surface. In the summer its bed is dry; in the spring and fall after a storm it may flood its banks. The water from the mountains sinks into the limestone and flows away in subterranean channels.
Lined up parallel with the Calavon River for twenty-five miles and forming a basin of which the city of Apt is the center, are two mountain ranges - the Monts de Vaucluse to the north and the Montagne de Lubéron to the south. They are both lower than Mont Ventoux, but they are impressive because their fantastically eroded cliffs and sparse vegetation give them a wild appearance. Farms and half-deserted villages huddle in these mountains wherever water and a bit of fertile soil are found, but their poverty makes a shocking contrast with the prosperous farms of the valley below. More and more of this mountain land is being taken over for forests and hunting reserves.
The area lying between these two low mountain ranges is the Apt Basin. It is geologically complicated, but to the casual traveler it seems simple: mountains two or three miles to the north, mountains two or three miles to the south, and between them a valley studded with hills and divided in the center by a dry river bed. Economically, it is an intermediate region between the wealth of the Rhone valley and the extreme poverty of the high mountain farms.
The surprising thing, as you drive along vineyards in the center of the Apt Basin, is that you pass through so few villages - only two of them in a twenty-mile stretch, although the area is thickly populated. However, there are towns all the way. They are there, staring down at you as you pass, even though you may not see them. At almost any point along the road you can stop and, if you know where to look, you can see four or five villages, perched five hundred or a thousand feet up on the edge of the mountain, their limestone houses fading into the limestone of the background. Almost all the towns of the region are perched high on hills rimming and dotting the basin at the center of which lies their subprefecture and traditional market town, Apt.
When you first see these villages they all look alike, and they look rather like the "perched" villages characteristic of all of southern France. In most of them there is the old quarter of the town surrounding the ruins of a modest chateau at the peak of the hill. The older houses look as if they were massed in layers on the hillside, the red tile roofs emphasizing their horizontal lines. The newer quarter of the town straggles farther down the leeward slope of the hill and even ventures out into the valley. In some villages the old "perched" quarter has died completely and lies a mass of ruins above the new quarter. In other villages the process is almost completed. It seems to be the inevitable fate of these villages. It is as though they had tired of hanging on to their perch and slipped down to a more comfortable position.
When your bus drives into Apt you wonder what distinguishes it besides the yellow ochre sheds, the small winding streets, and the stagnant waters of the almost dry Calavon River. The guidebook does not add many details. It mentions the shrine of Saint Anne and the remains of the city wall, but it gives no hint of the real importance of Apt.
To understand the function and character of this city you must arrive on Saturday morning to see the market that has been held there - with the exception of a few years in the fourteenth century - every Saturday morning for the last eight hundred years. Vendors' stands fill the public squares. Streets and shops are so crowded that it seems as though all the people of the surrounding area have deserted their homes. This is far from true, of course, for it does not take a whole population to fill the narrow streets of Apt.
But there are many people, and they go to Apt for many purposes. Town officials go to discuss problems with the Sub-Prefect, who holds court then. Doctors' waiting rooms are crowded. Ear and eye specialists come from Avignon for their special Saturday morning clinic. Pharmacies do big business. To have a prescription filled you must stand in a line of fifteen or twenty people. Lawyers' offices are jammed. Notaires meet their colleagues and clients in Arène's café, the same café favored by mayors and town clerks. Each card is the headquarters for a special professional clientele, so that if you are a politician, a coöp official, a labor union officer, a hunting enthusiast, a bicycle racer or a bowling enthusiast, you know to what café you can go to find people of similar problems and interests. Blacksmiths and garage mechanics have their busiest day of the week on Saturday. Welders, cobblers, watch repairmen, oculists, tailors - all accumulate a week's work. Young people come to Apt to court. Drinking companions come to drink. Some people come simply for the "promenade."
It is this Saturday morning market that gives real unity to the Apt Basin, a unity that is growing weaker as better transportation facilities permit people to turn toward the more modern railroad city of Cavaillon. The Saturday market gives Apt its personality. On other days it is as lifeless as a church on Monday morning.
It is natural that you, a foreigner, should be attracted to those features of the market that are not very important to the inhabitants of this region but which are exotic to you. You seek out the spots where farmers are selling hares, thrushes, essence of lavender, lavender honey, beeswax. If you get there early enough you can see Raymond Caizac, poet and truffle king, buy up a week's supply of truffles from the owners of the live-oak orchards and from the less civilized truffle hunters who live up in the mountains. The truffle crop is not what it used to be, so this transaction does not last long. Then it will take Caizac only a few moments more to carry his truffles home to his mother, who will combine them with minced thrush and can them for her son to sell to city dealers.
When Caizac has finished with his truffles he will be free to introduce you to the cafés of Apt and to the experience of drinking pastas and eating anchovies. He can send word to Monsieur Baume to hold the Peyrane bus for you, and after a few more rounds of pastas he will lead you to the bus - a few minutes after the scheduled time for departure.
Of course, he knew that Monsieur Baume would not be ready to leave. Monsieur Baume has to do errands for the people of Peyrane who did not come down to the market. He still has to pick up several prescriptions at the pharmacy, get a spare part for Sautel's saw motor, buy some yard goods for Mademoiselle Pamard, and pick up some legal papers at a lawyer's office for Bourdin.
Excerpted from Village in the Vaucluse by Laurence Wylie Copyright © 1974 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission.
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