by Jonah Raskin
Read Next Stop: France, by Jonah Raskin (the beginning of his Travelogue to France).
Also Paris I: Memories & Laughter
Then Paris II: A Night In The 19th District
(Swans - December 2, 2013) The actor Charles Boyer was born in this rugged mountain village. Louis Malle's 1974 motion picture Lacombe Lucien was filmed here. If you speak French, it's known as Figeac. If you speak Occitan, the regional dialect, it's Figac. In either language it feels remote. No super highways lead here and it's not easily accessible from Paris, though tourists come to hike and backpack and to roam through the narrow streets and marvel at the old stone buildings that give the place a medieval flavor, especially on a night like tonight when it's foggy and drizzling.
I'm here with a French friend who works as a traveling salesman and who knows all the routes, though he doesn't often come to Figeac. Even for him it's off the beaten track. We're staying in an old hotel, though we might have taken a room in the new Best Western that's not far away. For supper we've reserved a table in the restaurant adjacent to the hotel. By the time we arrive at 8:00 p.m. the room is full, and, fortunately for us, the service isn't slow. We both take le prix fixe: a cream of vegetable soup, beef stew with carrots and potatoes, and desert. Two women keep the restaurant going: one of them old and worldly-wise; the other young and a bit flighty. We have to remind her that we've asked for a coffee and a tea after desert. Finally it arrives. Music from an old radio reaches our table. It's perhaps the oldest radio I've ever seen; the older woman says it dates from 1900.
The next morning we shower and get dressed and take breakfast in a small room behind the bar on the first floor. Two other women are in charge here: both petite with black hair, dark eyes, and dark complexion. By my standards they're beautiful, but they're all business and not a bit flirtatious. Breakfast is croissants, coffee, cold cereal, milk, slices of cheese and ham, applesauce, jams, and preserves. By noon we're on the road again climbing higher and higher into the mountains, on the way to Rodez, an old town with an ancient history that goes back at least to the fifth century BC. The road follows the river, slicing through the mountains where coal was once mined. It's raining now and the radio on the car says that snow is on the way. The higher we climb the colder it becomes.
Rodez is a strange mix of the old and the new. Founded by the Celts, occupied by the Romans, captured by the Visigoths and the Franks, it was also seized and held by the English during the Hundred Years War. Until the eighteenth century it was a flourishing market town; with the French Revolution its power and wealth declined and Villefranche-de-rougerque took its place. It's hard to imagine that so much pivotal history took place in Rodez. Recently, new money has poured into the town. The English have bought and renovated old farmhouses. There are half a dozen car dealerships -- Volvo, VW, and BMW -- and there's a new super slick mall with dozens of shops, though not many shoppers this afternoon.
We pass a McDonald's and head for Lou Cantou, a small restaurant frequented by locals and by stout working men wearing boots and overalls. We might be back in France of the 1950s. Again, we take the prix fixe meal and fill our plates at the salad bar where there are hardboiled eggs, cold slaw, pates, and more. There's plenty of dark bread, too. For the main course we eat roast pork and potatoes. One young waitress dashes about the room, serving plates of food and pouring wine.
Pigs are a big part of the local economy that's increasingly dependent on tourism and less and less on farming, hunting, and foraging -- for truffles. On the road again I see a sign that reads, Agriculture Oui, Urbanisation Non. I might see much the same sign in Northern California and in other rural places around the USA.
By 6:00 p.m. we're in Toulouse at the home of my French friends. He goes to work in the kitchen, preparing a vegetable soup. She makes a quiche with ham and a pot of white rice. Their two sons, 14 and 10, join us at the table in the dining room. On the wall, there's a photo of Bob Dylan. We've been listening to music all day in the car -- to Neil Young and Bob Marley and it doesn't stop now. After supper, the younger of the two boys watches a video on the TV screen. (He also reads; his favorite books belong to a series called "You Are the Heroes." They're like video games on the printed page.) The older brother goes to his room and does his homework. His studies are demanding. He takes chemistry, French, English, Spanish, history, and physical education. I know because his report card is fixed to the refrigerator in the kitchen. He also takes a special course about fires and fire fighting. He wants to be a fireman when he grows up -- an occupation that his intellectual, bookish parents would probably not chose for him, but that they encourage him to follow.
It's been a long day. I'm tired and ready for bed. Before I fall asleep I remember the spectacular sunset I've seen on the road from Rodez to Toulouse: the sky purple, black, pink, and blue. It takes my breath away and gives to this part of rural France that I've never seen before a touch of the sacred. (To Be Continued.)
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)