La France Profonde

19th August 2023

I am sitting on the banks of the Allier river, which marks the border between two French départements, Lozère and Ardèche.

This is ‘La France Profonde’, a place of mountains, low population, slow change and, I note, innumerable ‘For Sale’ signs, often of properties whose front doors arrive directly onto streets with heavy agricultural traffic.

Here in ‘deep France’ – away from the obsessions of Paris – communities were conceived before Henry Ford, and they seem ill at ease with how things have turned out.

I paid a morning visit to Kaïcha, realising that days when she’s on the road are likely more positive than today, a day of rest. Donkeys bond with other donkeys for life, and feel separation intensely. My walking with her, covering these kilometres together, is likely an act of welcome distraction before she gets back to her troupe. A day of rest may force her to contemplate her fate, and I have scars to show that such overthinking can erode one’s sense of joy.

She is unusually enthusiastic when I arrive to her little stable, a luxurious ‘enclos’ with hay, oats, a slab of salt, all organised by the hotel around the corner in which I’m staying.

The one detail to be sorted is fresh water, and this is faithfully carried to her side from the Allier, by a loyal Irish manservant. I have, incidentally, also brought a sugar cube from the breakfast table, which may be an alternative explanation for her enthusiasm.

I brush her down, check her hooves for stones, and apply some essential oils around her eyes, to drive away the summer flies. This gives her head a fragrant air, like she’s expecting visitors.

I am in La Bastide, a crossroads village with seven businesses still open.

Like almost every community in France, the village has a monument to the Great War. During my ramblings I come across this diminutive, humble structure, and it attracts my attention for several reasons.

Firstly, it incorrectly notes the war’s duration as 1914-1919; surely a signifier of how intense those months really were, after the armistice was signed in November.

The First War was a catastrophic, existential event for French civilians, in which 1.3 million men were lost, and 4.2 million injured.

La Bastide’s monument draws on words of St Augustine which he used to describe the paradoxical sacrifice of Christ. The King Of Kings became the ultimate victor because he was willing to become a victim.

Augustine’s three Latin words summon everything a nation has to say about those traumatic years: Victores Quia Victima.

Perhaps this goes some way to understanding why this region, along with 45% of the French domestic territory, signed a peace treaty with Hitler in 1940 and became Vichy France, under Maréchal Pétain, himself a WWI hero.

There is no mention of La Bastide’s lost souls of World War II, on this monument, or anywhere else. Anyway, I’m not sure her residents, focused on getting by and making the season, are that interested in the whys and wherefores of war. 

Sylvie runs my hotel, the only one in town. Like a fine croissant, she has a brittle exterior and a melted heart.

‘I’ll see what I can do, Monsieur’, was her texted answer to my request to stay on the busiest day of the week. We’ll talk when you arrive.

We did, and I stayed.

For the most part, it is women who drive hospitality in rural France. It is women who note the reservations, women who prepare the rooms, women who compose the menus, women who peel the potatoes, women who serve, and women who make up the bill.

This is not to deny the role of men, whom I see daily toiling in the fields, especially now that it’s harvest season. If it is the ladies who create the recipes, it is the lads who deliver the ingredients.

‘That will be 82 euro, Monsieur. That includes your room, your evening meal, your laundry, breakfast, lodging the donkey, and your picnic for la route. You’ll like it. I made you a special salad’.

I suspect it is especially the men who suffer from isolation in this process of bringing food to the fork, and success to the season. Daily, I see them commune only with their dogs and their machines. And they are always in a hurry.

While enjoying Sylvie’s wonderful fare last night – loin of pork with a chestnut sauce, and gloriously mashed potatoes – I had been worrying about the two young Parisiennes I’d met earlier that day.

In attempting to arrive to Notre Dame des Neiges, they had become confused by the markers and walked 10 kilometres more than planned. When I met them at 2pm, they were exhausted and frustrated, and a trifle worried about all the kilometres to go.

This is the one moment when Coca-Cola is the perfect solution, and I brought them into the Monastery to inject some sugar into their systems.

The girls were planning to walk way further than me that afternoon, and they were a little concerned. I gave them my number and told them to call at any time. I meant it. I sometimes note how quiet young adults are when they really need help, yet how loud they are when they don’t.

In that moment of vulnerability, I considered these young women my family. Kaïcha and I would have walked through fire for them.

Sylvie knows me by name, and uses it liberally. I feel at home. As she passes, she pauses. Looks at me, quizzically.

Are you Belgian, Brian?

She is not the first to try to figure me out. The French can hear what they kindly call ‘un petit accent’, and want to know from whence I have wandered. Many get that I’m a native English speaker; a few hope I’m Scottish like Stevenson; a couple guess that I’m German.  And now we have Belgian.

She compliments me on my spoken French. It is so spontaneous and heartfelt, I accept rather than deflect. I like France, I tell her by way of accounting for my words. I like your language and your culture. But no, I’m not Belgian.

I had offered just this explanation to another lady from Bretagne, a hiker whom I had met on the trail.

What do you mean?, she asked, somewhat naively. When you say you like French culture, how?

She listened attentively. Perhaps no one had ever said this to her before. She pondered my explanation – how I like French cuisine, French manners, French aesthetics, French savoir faire, French film and, of course, France herself.

We have not travelled much, she said, speaking on behalf of her family, a few paces ahead. It’s hard to know what you have, when you always have it.

And that, I reckon, is what made the Great War such a watershed experience for the French. Suddenly, all they loved was up for grabs; all they believed in was up for question. And, when the harvest came, there were no men to bring it home from the fields.

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