Monday, April 28, 2008

Sunday outing

Colette, C's French teacher, invited us up to her village yesterday. She lives an hour or so north of here; the population of her village is about 400, but half of those are summer people. It is a lovely place, perched between a high granite face and a canyon, 50 or so small stone buildings sheltering together on a half dozen streets. There is a bakery, a bar, a crêperie, a school, a church, a château (in ruins), a town hall, and two fountains. And a monument aux morts: there's one in every French village, listing the names of those who died in the First World War and then, added on 25 years later, the names of those who died in the Second.

It was at the monument that the village had business yesterday. Colette had told us that there was to be a wreath-laying ceremony. She is newly elected to the conseil municipal, and so she had to go. The plan was for us to come along and then all go on a picnic and hunt for wild mushrooms. I am always up for a ceremony, and especially one outside in the village square, so off we went. C. didn't know exactly what the wreath was for--he thought maybe something about the war in Algeria--but we were up for anything.

The temperature an hour north and a hundred meters higher was colder than it was here, and it was cloudy. We met Colette at her house in the village and walked over to the monument together. A couple of dozen people were standing around visiting, gossiping, chatting about this and that. Mostly they were older people, people of a certain age, in solid, dark, sensible clothes, worn in layers against the wind. But there were children and parents, too, the children running around the village lavoir--the elevated pool in every village where everyone did their laundry for centuries, before Whirlpool and electricity--and squealing, the parents checking their watches and thinking about nap time. There was an umbrella set up on the terrace above us, and under the umbrella, a small sound system, with a man to operate it. A microphone stood on a stand in front of the monument.

The monument in Colette's village is little more than a small obelisk, set aside with a low wrought-iron fence and a couple of pots of marigolds. Two dozen names from 1914-1918 are inscribed on the monument: 24 young men from a village of a few hundred. It must have been almost the entire generation, and many of the young men from the same families. Fewer names from the second war, because France fell so quickly. There was a large spray of gerbera daisies, snapdragons, roses, and greenery, done up in a tricolor ribbon, and pinned with the carte of the florist we used when Olivier's mother died. The spray was resting outside the monument's enclosure.

At a quarter to twelve, the conseil municipal members walked over to the microphone, and the rest of the villagers fell back to a respectful distance. We stood at the edge of the crowd next to the village vegetable garden. The mayor stepped to the microphone.

We gather here on the fourth Sunday of every April for a terrible reason, to remember a horrible thing, he began. We remember today all those who were deported from France under the Nazi occupation, all those who were the victims of racism and oppression, and were sent from France to horrible deaths.

I could not get a lot of it: distortion in the microphone, and accent, and then, of course, it was in French. But I know the mayor talked about the horror of the Holocaust, and the shame of France, and he talked, too, about all those today who suffer under unjust governments, all those who suffer because of prejudice and racism and hatred. Then, after only a few minutes, he stopped. He handed his speech to the conseilleur behind him, and walked up to the monument and lifted the spray over the low wrought iron fence and placed it at the base of the obelisk. Then the mayor went back to the microphone and asked for a moment of silence to honor the deportees.

Behind the conseil, parapentes floated through the air, people attached to giant brightly-colored parachutes slowly coasting on wind currents to a gentle landing in the large fields at the edge of the village. One of the village children got the giggles, and his father shushed him. E slipped her hand into mine, and G leaned a little against my other side. At the end of the minute, the sound man turned a switch, and there was a prerecorded drum roll. Then--just as you would expect--there came the Marseillaise. The recording was a little scratchy, and it was of a man with a strong baritone voice singing. Not an operatic voice. Maybe it was Maurice Chevalier; maybe it was Charles Trenet, someone who played into the dramatic potential of the hymn. No one sang along--everyone listened soberly, the way you would listen to the soloist at a funeral--except for the elderly woman standing next to us. She was about E and G's size, with short white hair, thick glasses, thicker-soled shoes, a sensible skirt, sweater and blouse. She carried a handful of yellow roses, held together at the base with a damp paper towel and aluminum foil. She sang in a sturdy soprano and blinked a little as she did, looking straight ahead.

And then it was over. I walked over to look down into the village gardens and collect myself. E followed me. Write about this, she said. You have to write about this. And so here it is, E. But I can't say anything more about it than what it was. What do you say about such a great sorrow, what more can you say than Colette's friend the mayor said? You say it was a horrible thing; you say it was wrong; you say we must not let it happen again. And then you listen to one of the great hymns of liberty, and you collect the children before they fall in the lavoir, and you speak to your neighbors, and you go home.

We went on a picnic in the forest, and didn't find any mushrooms. But G found half a stag's rack of antlers, and Colette's daughter climbed some trees. Colette and C and I looked at wildflowers and listened to the silence, the silence that was interrupted only by our children calling out now and again, and the wind in the treetops, and two cuckoos calling to each other.

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