A Sunday morning in the countryside sees the fields quiet with the sleep catching up after a week of dawn- to- dusk work. The late morning comes and the church bells begin to ring – all of a sudden, the few inhabitants in the neighbouring hectares are seen mounting their vehicles to head to the village church.
With so few inhabitants and so few churches in the area, the best preacher can be spotted from a mile away and quickly becomes a regional favourite. In the town of Condom, a Catholic preacher attracts croyants from near and far, who gather in the spectacular cathedral guarded by the four musketeers, in a modest town, to listen to the humble words of this green-robed man.
But for those who find themselves lost in the Sunday service, unfamiliar with the translated heavenly prayer, it is the congregation after the service that is of interest. From the low glow of the early Gothic church, gently painted in the primary tones of the stained glass, one emerges at the end of the hour in the blazing sun of the French South, where blue skies dominate and aggressively fend off all clouds, and bounce off the white stone of the houses and cottages that stand so at ease in the midday sun. Volets open to let the day into the village homes, and hanging pots of flowers thrive in the glorious tail end of the season. It is in the midst of all of this, outside the tall wooden doors of the church about to close for the day of rest, that the congregation dissolves into a simple village group, a melange of familiar faces (for it is hard not to become a familiar face when there are only a dozen others to be seen), each representing another agricultural sector, another functioning part of the pastoral machine of life.
After rounds of the bise and handshakes that one who lived in the city would have believed long lost in the pandemic, one became familiar with the métiers of each individual: the rough hands of the beekeeper, face permanently glowing red from endless days under the sun; the stained hands of the farmer harvesting plums this season; the clean-shaven face of the tradesman. And each man and woman in the countryside can be recognised by their pure, smiling eyes, which bend with each lifting of the ends of the lip and illuminate the face with unconcealed amiability, as well as by their ruddy complexion, their worn-down nails and thick finger joints, all marks of life on the land and the toil of the soil.
Sunny Sunday afternoons are reserved for swimming chez la grand-mère. A walk on the single, white gravel road leading to the grandmother’s home, one will pass a plum tree orchard, a patch of giant pumpkins, and sunflower field. In the month of September, they are past their season, and begin to take the look of sad men with heads lowered, brooding, with such a melancholy air that one feels quite sorry for them!
But arriving a few minutes later at a home of rustic luxury, one rather forgets about these poor anthropomorphic plants. Indeed, it is the opulence of the pastoral life that one has several hectares of land to enjoy for oneself, a grand cottage (though perhaps grand is not quite the right word!) decorated with great ancient cabinets, sturdy wooden pillars and exposed beams in the white-coated stone interior, somehow giving the impression of a homemade cake. Near a tremendous fireplace sits a little old lady awaiting her guests, on one of the four charmingly mismatched, cushioned wooden chairs surrounding a small round table. Hardly will the guests have taken a seat will she have already stretched out a hand holding a silver cigarette case, offering one of her daily pleasures in greeting. And so the room begins to fill with smoke, mixing with the haze of a hot summer’s day and creating a sort of metallic mirage in the light of day. A woman of eighty years and still going through as many cigarettes as a French lady of society in her twenties, it is a shock to see her healthy and as sharp as the latter, too, with calm and piercing eyes that peer into her visitors through light conversation.
After an afternoon in the cool waters overlooking the paysage vallonné of the countryside, with swallows swooping above and below, and speedy lizards zig-zagging up the stone walls, one returns back home, now found in the middle of a botanical garden that makes old visitors proud of their region. The collégiale of the village rings across the land, heard clearly without the noisy interruption of the cityscape, and announces the hour of dinner.
One might have imagined dinners being a happy, indulgent affair, dining on the wholesome home-cooked meal of fresh garden produce taken from the soil that very morning. Indeed, the latter is true, only the air of the bon vivant and the spirit of pleasure, recreation and appreciation belong to those echelons of society that have not touched the roots of the produce which lands on the dining table. Indeed, dinner conversation, in this grand, rustic cottage made for seven children and surrounded by hundreds of species of flowers and happily buzzing insects, is dominated by talk of the work of the day, the work of tomorrow, machine repairs and the kilograms of harvest amassed in the morning, and to be done in the next; there is the need to find a suitable man for the youngest daughter, the unsuitability of one in another agricultural sector for which the girl cannot work, a future of work to prepare for, and the plans for the Winter…
The evening sun disappears for the day and the gardens settle in the dusk. Here come the jovial ducks to feed on the leftovers, and a swan to keep watch. Night comes early so that work can begin at dawn the next morning; there is much to be done, alors!