A couple of months ago, I drove to a pretty little village in the Vaucluse to photograph for an American friend a property that was for sale there. When I had a hard time locating the exact address I stopped the car and asked a man dressed in the farmer’s cornflower-blue overall for directions. He stepped back and checked out my (local) license plate before answering. It was a natural reflex, and once he had assured himself that I was local enough to be trusted he was kind and helpful. I should drive in the direction of that church over there on the hill, he indicated, and then follow the overhead electric wires for another kilometer or so.
Fifteen minutes later I found myself facing a fork in the road and unsure which branch to follow, so I decided to ask a nearby man on a tractor, explaining that someone in the lower village had directed me up here. Again, my license plate was inspected before he signaled me to follow his tractor to the place we were looking for. After a few hundred meters he made a sharp left turn and stopped in front of a small house where a woman was watering her front yard. He spoke to her, pointing to us, and a few moments later Madame wiped her hands on her housedress and came over to suggest that we leave the car there. The house we were looking for was nearby but invisible from the street, she explained, and she offered to walk us over. On our short walk she asked us if this was for ourselves? (I thought it prudent to say Yes); where did we live now?; did we have children?; would we live here year-round?; and suddenly I felt that these people had accompanied us the way your designated guide Olga used to accompany you in Moscow in the days of the USSR. Helpful, yes, but watchful even more.
Traditionally, peasants in these villages are suspicious, and this place was no exception. “What do they want here?“ they seem to wonder; “let them go elsewhere.” Foreigners were to be avoided, if possible, or at least left to their own devices: “Don’t count on any help from us; we don’t like étrangers here,” which may mean foreigners, Parisians, or even people from another département. Images of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources came into my head. I saw peasants banding together against my American friends, pitchforks at the ready, bent on protecting the sanctity of their village, and suddenly the dreamed-of “house in Provence” was a lot less attractive. At least in this corner.
French villages do have their charm, however. Clustered around a chateau on a hill or nestled in a valley and surrounded by a quilt of brightly colored fields, they can be picture-postcard pretty. The church, the Mairie, and the café were the beating heart of the old village that lived from farming, where local sons married local daughters, and where the mailman would have his first pastis at the village bar during his morning round. But today, tourism is changing the picture, and little restaurants, boutiques, souvenir shops, or even art galleries are cropping up and houses are being renovated all over.
Old habits die hard, however, and in the evenings the older villagers still move their kitchen chair outside and lean back against the wall to watch the comings and goings for a while, their solid wives by their side, as they have always done. They largely keep to themselves and to their old ways, even if around them the world is changing. “Just imagine,” they’ll tell each other, “houses being bought and renovated, to be used only a few weeks a year. No good can come of this.”
One year we rented a house in such a village for our summer vacation. Coming out into the garden the first day, I saw the neighbor, an elderly peasant, who was watering his large garden full of fruit trees with a simple watering can. Wiry and bent over, his face shaded by a straw hat, he passed me as he worked his way back to the house and I said Hello to him. He barely lifted his head, spit a grunt at me, and continued his watering. As time went by he seemed to soften somewhat and by the end of two weeks he managed to nod his head in greeting. We had come a long way and were almost on speaking terms. I learned later that the owner of our house and this peasant had had an unresolved dispute years ago. In typical village fashion—never forgive, never forget.
Just like two branches of the same family who ran the two grocery stores in this village. Generations ago, a family dispute had caused a rift that remained as wide today as ever, and even though their shops were located on the same street, practically across from each other, the respective owners refused to bury the hatchet and kept a flinty eye on each other at all times. Memories are long here, and grudges run deep.
At the same time, villagers will always protect each other against outsiders. This popular and touristy village had a village idiot—let’s call him JoJo—a man in his forties who lived with his father and a little dog. Their old house, just in back of the main street, was one of the few to have a balcony. The garden of the house we rented was within earshot of this balcony, where JoJo would sit on summer evenings with his instruments. As soon as he heard voices—of outdoor diners and their guests— he would start blowing warning blasts on his trumpet. When we stopped talking the trumpet would stop, but as soon as we resumed our conversations so would JoJo, this time switching to a “cacerolazo”—banging metal spoons on pots and pans as in Argentine street demonstrations. JoJo turned out to be totally intolerant of noise, even quiet table talk some thirty feet away, and we had no choice but to whisper or go back inside. Other neighbors had long ago given up reasoning with JoJo and accepted his bizarre behavior with a Gallic shrug. “Il est nerveux, Madame” was all there was to it. JoJo might be an idiot, but he was their idiot.