This is the diary of a French city girl, hired as "local correspondent" by a tiny, rural, country newspaper in the South of France. Yachts' lovers, exit here. Country-life addicts, follow me...
Creative common: old-fashioned full copyright
Wedding anouncements and obituaries are sacred pillars in the rural press. I have been encouraged to mention, in my weekly listing, who are the grandparents and the great-grandparents of the babies of the week. Otherwise, who would know in the district that the grocer's great-niece has given birth, since she married a guy from town, with a "foreign" name?
Each week, I do the rounds of the tiny registry offices to collect birth and death news. During summer, saturdays are hectic, running from town halls to churches to photograph the newly weds, and, most important, the bride (wide shots only, to see the full lenght of her bridal gown).
This tradition is crumbling. The registry office in the town hall of D... had curtly informed me that it will no longer communicate forthcoming wedding to the local papers. A few couples have complained. Bad divorces, family feuds and problems, you iunderstand...To top it all, I just heard that the french Constitutionnal Court has granted the "right to a private life" to the future grooms. The local press (the other one couldn't care less) could no longer be allowed to publish the weddings announcements, only with the explicit agreement of the couple. Will the July country bride, on the photograph, sue me?
Georgette, the local correspondent for a neighbouring village, calls. She must attend a family wedding this week-end and will not be around for the annual Petanque marathon, an important event by local standards. No problem. I'll moonlight for her.
The marathon is about playing non-stop petanque from 9 AM to 9 PM, under the sun. We are in the midst of a serious heatwave. Thirty high-level petanque teams have enrolled and are coming by bus from far away towns in the greater south-eastern part of France.
At noon, I do a first round of pictures and note-taking at the mayor's official speech The petanque marathon is sponsored by a car brand and a Pastis brand, naturaly. On the Post office square, the sponsor's shiny exhibition car is decorated with rows of bottles - the second sponsor's promotional ware. The heat is blinding. Rows of free Pastis bottles on a makeshift table vanish faster than ice cubes The players have been drinking since 9AM. How can they stand it?
I came back at 9 PM for the official results and the Cup ceremony. It was still scorching hot. When I got out of the car (air conditionned) on the village square parking, I sniffed. Believe it or not, but the entire village was bathed in a distinct pastis fragrance. And please note that the petanque fields are located on the outskirt of the village. OK, the air was dry and hot enough to catch the slightest trace of humidity, even alcool-based humidity, but still...While walking to the petanque fields, I wondered how many heart-attacks, sun strokes and alcohol-induced comas I would have to report. Not one. Very pleased with the marathon, the players were all there, standing on their two feet. I took a picture of the winning team, three guys from another town, thirty kilometers away. A picture you will not see, obviously, after what has been said.
That's what the sign post says.
Translation: Do you fancy fattening a goose for Christmas, in the quiet and privacy of your home ? We sell them trained (to be force-fed).
We are having a heat-wave. I had to retreat indoors with my laptop. Am writing my country articles for the paper with full wiew on the hot and bothered cat. Small pleasures in a country reporter's life.
The conflict zone
(I cannot be more specific, otherwise, I will get in trouble...)
This is my first large scale report. The editor-in-chief in person called me in to entrust this "investigation piece" to me. A great classic of the contemporary country life: a sewage purification plant. I drive to a secluded hollow in the woods, where the opponents await me. In fact, the "action group" they just set up is made up of just one family, theirs. The one and only that will soon see a sewers purification plant emerge in their frontyard. I don't want to sound biased, but truly, they have every right to be furious.
The X... family are dye-hard ecologists. Three years ago, they bought this pièce of land because it was isolated, in full nature, bordered by a mountain brook. He works as a martial arts instructor, she as a Chinese medicine therapist. With their two children, they practically built with their hands an "organic" house . They take me for a tour. Everything is environment-friendly and organic. The walls are made of adobe and compressed straw. It is insulated with hemp. Wood reigns king inside. The frontwall, on the south side, is very special: the outer part is made of glass, the inner part of compressed earth. In winterr, it stores warmth from the sun and keeps the temperature above 10° centigrade indoors. During summer, a leafy hood shades the wall from the sun - and the family does not cook inside. They are perfectionists. The lady of the house meditates in an authentic Indian tepee, at the edge of the brook. Everything, absolutely everything, from colors to the orientation of the windows of the house was conceived according to nature and the art of Feng Shui. A fortune went into this perfect house.
What they were unaware of (and what everyone carefully hid from them): the town council intends to build a sewage purification plant in the adjacent field, to sell lots of land located upstream, behind a curtain of trees,to a building development. For the past two years, the town council discussed the sewage plant. Nobody uttered a word in front of the X family. One must say that they asked for it. Living isolated, being "strange folks from the big city", is an unforgivable sin in the country. A fortnight ago, their daughter's school teacher spilled the beans.
Obviously, they are desperate. The house and land has lost its value.Their ecologic life goes will really go down the drain, if I may put it this way. They want to fight the project, stir the population, call the press. But I quickly understand that their stiff attitude is not a good omen. The world is polluted, people are malicious, politics are rotten, so is the press.
I set an appointment with the mayor. She (it's a she) is not happy to see me. "We did everything among us, as usual ", she tells me ingenuously, but very seriously. Quite revealing of her commune, and on many others in this county. They are so fond of this cozy political intimacy that posting the reports of the town council meetings on the information board costs them. Relenting, she shows me the files, budgets, blue-prints, official red tape. There is no way out. At this stage. they just have to pick the contractor.Why have they not at least informed the X... family, verbally, when they bought the land? Or during the public survey for the new investment? "They could have come to the town hall. It was posted on the wall ". True enough.
She softens a little. Her very small village (200 inhabitants) has to grow, that is to build houses, to keep the village school running, budgets and subsidies flowing. However, nowadays, one cannot build a housing development without proper sewage collection and purification. But why choose this field, in direct view of the ecological house ? It's a long and sinuous story: conflicts between heirs and local families, personal interest, slope angle for the pipes. I understand that the X... family, isolated, without protections, of no electoral importance, and, to top it all, "foreigners", strangers from the city, was quickly selected as the ideal "Le dindon de la farce" (the joke turkey).
Afterwards, it is all routine. Call the local sewage authorities, the DDE, the DDA. I'm ushered to a "communication delegate" who can't locate the village on a map. But if his office gave its green light, obviously, the project must be wonderful. I call the project superintendent in charge of the preliminary studies. He is never to be found in his office. Always visiting a sewage plant or another. His company is the largest supplier of sewage purification in the county. The technology he picked is the cheapest, because, you understand, this village does not have much money to spend. I fear the worst for the X...family. Will there be nuisances, foul smells, overflows in the brook? No! of course not.
The article has been published The mayor had to set up a public-information meeting . Mr. and Mrs X... left in a bitter frame of mind. According to them, the selected technology causes pollution, and does not age well at all. They did not take the time or pain to thank me for links and tips I gave them to try a last-minute, last-ditch, struggle. The press is rotted, just like the world at large.
The editor-in-chief did not have to change one word in my "investigative" piece. Everyone was properly quoted, with plenty of "if" and "maybe" and conditional verbs. Nothing transpired from my personal opinions. This guy is a pro of country riots, opponents, petitions: All year round, he juggles all kinds of protesters. Against the future "rubbish sorting center", against an underground stocking site for nuclear waste, various sewage plants, a new highway, a new roundabout. He has survived the opposition to the mediterranean TGV line. But I discovered through one of his remarks that the rural local press does not live in terror of a gross mistake, with assorted "Letters to the editor" from the local authorities. Quite the contrary. To publish a prefet's letter (highest ranking local authority in the department) gives the story weight, and stirs readership. And that is good.
Of course, it was the beginning. I was still filled with wonder. But I remember discovering the town square that night, emptied of its carpark to make room for the annual Bastille Day Banquet. Entrusted with the photograph for the following week newspaper, I had a free ticket for a free "authentic" evening in a new country: the French provinces on the 14th of July.
It was beautiful! Plane trees, pink twilight that comes with heat waves, the blue-white-red flags decorating the square and the school. A tourist from Lille, behind me, shared my delight. And we reflected out loud that if a film director sought a location to represent France, it was there, now. A pocket sized city, citizens in their sunday's best, shrieking swallows in the sunset, and an outdoor feast. There would be for sure speeches, serenades, a Marseillaise. Sometimes, life is more picturesque than film.
With my press invitation I presented myself at the control table. The lady in charge was none other than the personnal assistant of the deputy mayor. He really drives them hard. Then, I had to chose a table . I landed near a small group of buddies, "down from their mountains" for the annual banquet, an event they never miss. With my meal voucher, I stood in the queue like everyone else. The mayor, a little ahead of me in the queue, highly recommended to me the local dish: sheep intestines,rolled in balls and fried. A local gastronomy brotherhood devotes its free time to maintain the tradition. Good.
But I never could swallow them. Rubber balls, with the powerful taste of cattle shed. My charitable neighbours at the table pointed to a second dresser , where "those who do couldn't make it" can nevertheless eat a traditional stew. Now, my neighbours ...I had fun. On my left hand side, a broad and jovial character, down from the mountains of the south of the department. He handed me his card , a huge one, where it was written he was a wholesaler in lime and agricultural products. Retired, he added.. Though him, I learnt that the deputy mayor owed something to his village. During a difficult patch, he went up to his village for a visit. Thanks to the trader in agricultural products, the village "went with him". Many years later, the trader had his reward: a medal of agricultural distinction. The official ceremony was going to take place soon. Could I come and photograph the occasion for the newspaper? Unfortunately,no, it is not my territory. I would have liked to witness an official handing out of agricultural medals, before they disappear.
With his buddy, from the northern mountains of the department, I had a surprise. Not at all agricultural, that one. Lacoste Sportshirt, but very shy person. To deride him, I asked him a simple question. And there, he dropped the kind of CV you read in the classified adds. "I love sports, I appreciate nature and walking, as well as movies and music ". No one speaks like this about oneself, unless one has registered with a matrimonial agency. I quickly stired the conversation towards the new tunnel project.
There were no fireworks that night. Those are saved for the local patron saint, in autumn. But this republican banquet was like a first day in a new country. I remember the gleam of the multicolored lampions, the balmy night. I always kept the trader's card . Broad, covered with old fashioned capital letters, like him. One day, I will go and visit him, in his far away mountain village.. His store, he told me that night, was so pretty that it was short listed to play in a movie called, just like him: "The grocer's son".
My little brook in France has no cultural or intellectual life, past or present. For high-flying festivals, drive further south. Local events were mostly invented by hippie refugees in the seventies. Bless them. Without their creativity, summer would be a vast, hot, empty limbo. In this village (above) remains one (1) lavender-grower and one (1) family business of industrial aromas and flavouring. That's more than enough to come up with a "traditional" "Plants and aromas Festival" every year in July.
July is good for tourists, and hell for green things. The sun burnt them all. Garden plants are scarce in this season, so the stands make do with the usual essential-oils burners, local and fair-trade artifacts, and lavender landscapes. I will shortly be allergic to lavender.
Fortunately, a plant collector from another departement (much cooler, high up on the mountains) took pity and came down with a load of rare or forgotten plants and pots. He was the one who introduced me to Herbe de la rue (street weed)
Now, what is street weed ? A wild specimen, brought to human gardens sometimes during the Middle Ages, and mostly known for its abortive powers. Yes, abortive. That's the "magic herb" burnt witches and maids in distress used to deal with the original sin. It has some other healing powers, but nothing worth mentioning. One wonders if RU, the abortion pill created by a French scientist, was named after its organic version. Now, that's worth investigating! The herbe de la rue looks very wild, as can be expected.Two female tourists from Northern France nearly bought one, then decided against it. Pity, it makes for interesting conversation at the gardening club meetings.
I did not mention a word about street weed in my report. My paper was founded by a catholic priest and is still something like the official voice of the Vatican in the departement.
The windows of the local "Offices de Tourisme" are my best informers. In one numeric shot, I've stored all coming events. I'll sort and process them at home, on my blue work table by the window, or on the terrace. The local events comitees operate on tiny budgets. A paper poster is their only way to communicate B2C. One has to keep an eye open, always, not to miss a flutering pink flyer stuck on the One-way road sign.
I now know how to identify the type of event and its location just by its flyer. If the flyer is expensive, with a Photoshop lay-out look and subdued colors, we are in the "intellectual" side on my beat. The one where leftish grassroots organizations and "summer houses" crowds launched artsy events and fairs. If the flyer is simple and bright, mostly solid fluo pink, we deal with an ordinary local folks event (a jumble sale, a local Saint celebration, the melon or chestnut fair), organized by the conservative voting side of the country. Isn't that simple? And it works.
A French 19th century council hall.
During the summer, I "cover" a score of villages and small towns. A local correspondent has to sit through the town council meetings. I like it. In those small rural communes, the elected officials have known each other since first grade. They drop home after their day work to take off their overall, shower and put a proper tee shirt, like city people. One understands very quickly, without subtext, who is conservative or liberal, who takes care of the landowners' interests or tries to break away the mould . During the town council meeting photographed above (nice village, cool mayor), I came to hear for the first time of a new law on septic tanks.
In January 2006 the upteenth phase of European water and environment protection will be enforced. Sewage communal networks and plants are all set. That much is done. And now, the latest European law will tackle the private septic tanks.That is a big one. Where I live, the brand new sewage plants hardly function to full capacity People go by with individual septic tanks, installed in every new home during the Seventies and Eighties.And they like it this way.
To make a census of unsafe, unclean, leaking septic tanks, squads of surveyors will deploy and do rounds of inspections in the most private corner of private homes.The mayor and the counsellors debate over how to enforce this new law on their territory. This will not go down well with the local citizens. Not well at all. "They can try, they will not come into my home!" says the deputy-mayor in charge of roadworks. The mayor offers to delegate this hot potato to one "Regional Committee of perilious habitat" for the time being. Everyone votes for that. This lavatory inspection squad spells trouble ahead, they know it, even with the European subsidies given away to up and refurbish the septic tank. It's a political time-bomb. A counsellor points that very few people nowadays know where, exactly, lies the septic tank on their property. The houses have changed hands many times over the years. How will the septic tanks' inspectors locate them? With a shit detector?
In a matter of weeks every town councils in my beat had put the septic tanks problem on the agenda. I saw this future national-news headline being hatched. The war of the johns! During my last town council (in a 200 inhabitants village), the deputy-mayor jumped to his feet and declared: "Let them come! They will find me and my rifle!". The hunting season for toilets' inspectors is officially open