• The Other South of France: My Year(s) in the Pyrenees

    Of Wine, Wisdom, and the Last Castles of the Cathars

    Roussillon, France–

    I always called Michel Bardagué le philosophe des champs: “the philosopher of the fields.” He had a little vegetable garden just across the stream that runs behind our moulin—our mill—in the Eastern Pre-Pyrenees in France, a couple of hours up the autoroute from Barcelona, just over the border from Spain. This is the poorest and least populated part of France: a place of twisting roads with sharp drop-offs on one side and stern, monumental climbs on the other. The soil here is very dry and good only for growing grapes. This region is quite isolated and a world away from the quaint villages of northern France. As one friend who came down to visit from Paris said to me, “Parisians don’t even know a place like this exists in their country.”

    I bought the moulin with a childhood friend just before Europe went to the Euro in 1999. He had the cash, and I had the knowledge of France, so we went in together on the purchase. Precisely because the area is poor and remote, land is inexpensive here. We bought the moulin cheap, or, to put it in French, for trois fois rien: three times nothing.

    The mill consisted of three structures. The principal one was habitable, though it needed work. What we got was, in fact, two mills: the old flour mill, which was the one a person could live in, and then a second, smaller mill that had been used for pressing olive oil. Finally, there was an old stone barn whose thatched roof was caving in but which had recently been used for livestock. The deep channels, where part of the Matassa river had been diverted to run first through the olive mill then under the flour mill, were still intact. So, too, were the old millstone and millworks in the cavernous room under the flour mill. It turned out that our mill was the best preserved in the whole region.

    When people think of the South of France, they think of Provence, which has become a prettified vacation destination for the wealthy. But the hills that rise up from the city of Perpignan are rugged and inviting only to those who like a challenge. This is the area where Catalonia melds into France—a region that was fought over for centuries. This is also where in the 13th century the Cathar “heretics” refused to accept the authority of the corrupt popes in Rome. The only crusade ever mounted by Christians against Christians came down from the north and chased the Catharist members from fortress to fortress until their final castle at Monségur fell in 1244, whereupon some three hundred unrepentant heretics were burned at the stake. You can visit the partially destroyed defense castles the Cathars built at the top of seemingly impregnable crags. The effort that must have been required to drag thousands of pieces of cut stone up to such heights is staggering, and the Cathars did so at site after site. Knowing they would be targeted by the Catholic Church one day, they constructed a line of fortresses that could communicate easily with one another. When Simon de Montfort led the marauding “crusaders” down from northern France, everyone knew it would be bloody. The crusaders’ leaders set the tone in Beziers, the first city they conquered, when they told their men to slaughter everyone because afterward God would be able to separate the Catholics from the heretics.

    Through the many centuries and right up to the present day, the region has been peopled by subsistence farmers who make wine to sell in the larger cities. Almost every village still has a cave coopérative that produces wine from the surrounding vineyards. The nearest grocery store or café may be over ten kilometers away, as it is for us at the moulin, but there is always a cave coopérative nearby where you can buy cases of the local wine.

    My friend Michel Bardagué, like all the villagers, had lived almost his whole life within a 20-kilometer radius of the village just up the road from the moulin, and he had spent his life working in the vineyards. He was now retired, but he still had his vegetable garden, and he would come down every couple of days in the late afternoon to irrigate the potager and pull weeds. I would leave whatever I was doing and go across the stream to help him. Then, after we had worked up a sweat, I would invite him to take an apéro—a before-dinner drink—on the patio of the mill. He would accept a glass of muscat if that was all I had, but what he really wanted was a pastis, the anisette drink of the South of France, so I always tried to keep a bottle on hand for his visits. As we had our drink and the sun began to decline, I would ask Michel about the region and what it had been like to grow up there. Michel would recount what he remembered of the last miller’s wife, Lise, who went blind while he was still a boy, and he would tell anecdotes about avoiding German patrols along the roads during World War II, when he and his friends would sneak out at night. I called him the “philosopher of the fields” because it was clear he had thought deeply about life as he was staking the grapevines or trimming away excess leaves, and he had slowly become wise in the process. “You have learned all the lessons of the great philosophers,” I once told him, “while toiling in the hot sun day after day. You have listened to the wind, you have breathed in the soil, you have watched the shadows washing over the hills, and in the course of it you have meditated on what it is to live and die.”

    “J’ai fait tout ça?” Michel responded with mock surprise. “I did all that?”

    Michel was one of the three oldest men in the village. His best friends were Jeannot, who was the same age, and Monsieur Pla, who was already over 80 when my friend and I bought the moulin. The three of them would meet every morning on the little village square to chat after breakfast. Michel was a bit mischievous, always amused by life’s foibles, while Jeannot was calm, quiet, and unassuming. You would not be inclined to leave a large amount of money in Michel’s safekeeping, for instance, because it just might get spent, but Jeannot was the sort of fellow to whom you could entrust your fortune, go away for ten years, and come back to find it intact. He and his wife Janine held the keys for thirty-five residences in and around the village, one of which was mine. When I was away, Jeannot would come down after a storm, open up the moulin, and check to make sure that all was well.

    As for Monsieur Pla, since he was oldest, he was the one with the deepest memories of the place. If you asked him about his souvenirs, he would begin by waving you away and saying he didn’t remember anything, but if you persisted, little anecdotes would gradually resurface in his mind, and he would begin to speak.

    “The hills that rise up from the city of Perpignan are rugged and inviting only to those who like a challenge. This is the area where Catalonia melds into France—a region that was fought over for centuries.”

    Understanding what Monsieur Pla said, however, could be something of a challenge. The French that the older people in the Pyrenees region speak is unlike anything you have ever encountered in a French class or heard in a Godard film. Most fluent French speakers, beginning with the Parisians, hardly recognize their national tongue in the heavily accented language of the Pyrenees; to their mind, it is more Spanish than French. The French of the Roussillon is very nasal, and people roll their r’s, as in Spanish or Italian. They also pronounce all the silent e’s that are dropped in standard French. For example, “une bonne petite chose” becomes “un-a bonn-a petit-a chos-a,” four syllables becoming eight, all rolling out in a staccato rhythm. But there is more to it than that. The old folks all speak three languages: French, Catalan, and a dialect of Occitan called Gabatch. Michel, Jeannot, and Monsieur Pla, when they would meet on the village square, would speak to each other in Gabatch, because they had been doing so since they were children. They switched to French only if someone else was present. Moreover, there were times when one language would bleed into another, jumbling the communication for outsiders yet more. When friends from northern France would come down to visit, they would be dumbfounded that this French made any sense at all to me. It was just a question of becoming habituated.

    If Michel was the philosopher, Monsieur Pla was the archivist of the village. At one reunion with a group dedicated to the study of the local mills, Monsieur Pla began, as usual, by saying that he didn’t remember anything. But then, yes, he did remember something about the olive oil mill. There was a passageway that you had to crawl through. And oh, yes, this was because there was another mill, a little third one. It was a clandestine mill—one that didn’t officially exist and that nobody paid taxes on. No one was supposed to know that it was there, but the children knew all about it.

    And so, within minutes, one of the nagging enigmas of the moulin was cleared up. I had always been curious about the remains of what seemed to be a third mill beside the olive oil mill. I was told once that the miller’s helper was allowed to build a mill there but that he never owned the land. The building does not figure on the official surveys of the land. If the mill was in fact not legal, that would explain why there is no official trace of it.

    The old fellows like Monsieur Pla also remember Lise, the widow of the last miller, quite well. She went blind after World War I but continued to live in the mill. She was a music teacher, though no one from the village took lessons. What they remember most is her bad temper. They tell stories of sneaking down to the mill to play tricks on Lise, just to hear her stand at the doorway and curse them.

    By the end of World  War I the mill was no longer in operation, though for centuries prior to that it had been the clearinghouse for news of the whole region. Everyone had to bring their grain to be milled into flour, and the olives had to be pressed for their oil. It was a whole day affair as the villagers waited for their flour and oil to be ready. They tied up their pack animals, made a picnic, went swimming in the stream if it was warm weather, and shared stories about what was happening in all the villages in the area. But it would be wrong to think that the scene was idyllic. As I was to learn from Michel, there was tension between the miller and the villagers.

    When my friend and I bought the mill, we also bought its contents. This seemed easier for us and for the sellers, Monsieur and Madame Rifa. Otherwise the Rifas would have had to pack up and move all the furniture to their house in Perpignan, and we would have had to find and haul chairs and tables to the moulin in the middle of the hills, in the midst of the August heat.

    Real estate closings in every country seem to take on the flavor of the national culture. In the United States, buyer and seller meet in a room with their lawyers; the first time I went through this, my lawyer’s only advice was, “Bring your checkbook,” which I found a bit ominous. In Canada, things are much the same except that buyer and seller never meet. In Argentina, the people pile up cash on the table (US dollars only) and count it. No trusting checks and bank drafts! People also hire armed guards if they have to go out into the street carrying the money afterward.

    The process in France is very civil, the buyer and seller meeting at the notary’s office. For Mme. Rifa, however, the most important aspect had nothing to do with the sale price or the notary’s commission. She was supremely concerned about two bottles of old Bordeaux wine that were down in the cave. When I mentioned to her that she had the right to remove all personal items from the mill, including the wines, she responded that in her mind the wines in the cave went with the moulin.

    “Most of them are no longer good for anything but cooking,” she said, “but there are two bottles of old Bordeaux that will be excellent.” She looked at me rather sternly. “But you need to open them up and let them breathe for at least two hours before you drink them.”

    I nodded.

    “This is very important,” she added. “Do you understand?”

    Oui, madame,” I replied in my most obedient voice. I realized that she probably considered Americans to be only a few generations away from Neanderthals.

    Then, as the notary went over all the terms of the sale, Mme. Rifa twice turned to me and repeated that I must remember to open the bottles of Bordeaux at least two hours before drinking them. Meanwhile, the notary was explaining that in addition to the land right around the mill, my friend and I were also coming into possession of two small parcels of land a couple of kilometers away, one of which we would now own along with eighteen other people and the other with six people.

    “Perhaps one of the old folks in the village can show you where they are,” the notary said. “Though the parcels have no real value.”

    “Does it say who the other owners are?” I asked.

    The notary shook his head. “No, you would have to do some research to find out.”

    Mme. Rifa now broke in.

    “The parcels have no value,” she reiterated. “But let me remind you about the two bottles of Bordeaux, because they do have value.”

    Then, at the end of the closing, we all went for a drink at the nearest café. While there, Mme. Rifa mentioned that she and her husband had documents from the mill that went back to the Revolutionary era. Was I interested in having them? The oldest document, she said, was a marriage contract that dated from when Napoleon was emperor. The rest were letters from the family and some legal documents.

    “If you want to have them, I will bring them to you,” she said.

    Of course, I was interested, I told her. “That would be very kind of you.”

    For a second I thought she might mention the wine yet again, but she seemed finally content that she had made her point.

    The marriage contract from Mme. Rifa’s papers was indeed from the Napoleonic era, and was written in a faded but florid hand and dated at the top: “Year 11 of the Republic and the thirtieth day of Brumaire.” That date translated to a day in October 1801. After the French Revolution of 1789, the leaders imposed a new calendar, one that was then used in France for about eighteen years until the country reverted back to the old one. The new calendar was supposed to be more logical than the traditional one—which it indeed was—but it did not catch on.

    The reform of the calendar was of a piece with the Revolutionaries’ desire to make everything in their society more logical. We can thank them, for example, for the metric system that based all measurements on the number ten and powers of ten. They attempted to do something similar with the calendar. There would henceforth be twelve months of thirty days each, and each month would be divided into three weeks of ten days. The remaining five days each year would be special days with names like “Industry” and “Paternity.” They also renamed the months so that they corresponded to the activities and atmosphere of the four seasons. One of the months of springtime was called “Germinal” because seeds germinated at that time. And the month of our marriage contract was called “Brumaire” because there was often morning mist (brume) in the fall.

    By decree, everyone had to switch over to weeks of ten days and new names for the months and days as well. I now had possession of a contract, written out laboriously by hand, that adhered to the dating method Napoleon decided the whole world should have. But the other countries were unwilling to give up their calendar, marked as it was by many liturgical events, for the ungainly, if logical, system the Emperor thought they should have.

    Up in the village there were many stories that circulated about the mill and the miller’s family.

    “Has anyone told you about Hippolyte?” people would sometimes ask me. Hippolyte was the son of the last miller and his wife Lise. He had studied piano with his mother, and when he came to be of university age he was sent up to the prestigious Paris conservatory of music. For the miller to send his son to the Paris conservatory was a mark of his success in the world, since it certainly represented a social ascension.

    The villagers had tales of what a scandalous young fellow Hippolyte was. After he became tainted by Parisian ways, Hippolyte returned on vacation with not one but two young women, one on each arm! The family letters confirmed the villagers’ view of Hippolyte. While most of the letters were those of the dutiful daughter to various members of the clan, there was a remarkable letter from the miller’s brother-in-law—Lise’s brother—with whom Hippolyte was lodging in Paris.

    Indeed, it turns out that Hippolyte was living the dissolute life that is a cliché of 19th century novels, in which the university student goes to the big city of Paris and is soon living what is either a high life or a low life. The pièce de résistance in the correspondence is a handwritten letter from the miller’s brother-in-law.

    “My dear brother-in-law and sister,” the missive begins, “it is with a heavy heart (le cœur bien gros) and much regret (beaucoup de regret) that I have resigned myself to writing you this letter.” He goes on to say that he has contemplated writing for quite some time but has held off because he knew how much pain his letter would cause. “But everything has its limit,” he says, and now he has an obligation to speak up.

    “It’s about your son. I think I have told you many times that I consider that your son is completely heartless and lacking in any good sentiments . . .” Such is his opening gambit.

    Next the uncle lays out these affairs in more detail. Having become suspicious of Hippolyte’s activities, he paid a visit to the conservatory only to find out that the miller’s son had not been to any of his classes for months. In fact, Hippolyte’s professor of piano told the uncle that he could not in good conscience take payment for the young man’s lessons because he had not seen the student for so long. Hippolyte’s last exams were déplorables, the uncle was told, and he was informed that Hippolyte would be thrown out of the Conservatoire in June.

    “Most fluent French speakers, beginning with the Parisians, hardly recognize their national tongue in the heavily accented language of the Pyrenees; to their mind, it is more Spanish than French.”

    In short, Hippolyte, like so many literary characters of the period, was spending his parents’ money in bars and cafés and on women. He had also been stealing from his uncle’s coffers.

    “When I confronted him about all this, your son was more arrogant than arrogance itself,” he says. According to the brother-in-law, Hippolyte tells his uncle he doesn’t “give a shit” about what he thinks. Then, when the uncle’s wife comes in the room because she hears an argument, Hippolyte calls her a sale vache (dirty cow) and a putain (whore)!

    This would be very strong language even today, but such speech to a family member in 1903 was unthinkable.

    The letter closes with the comment that Hippolyte grabbed his things and decamped from the brother-in-law’s house and has, the uncle believes, been working in a bar in the Rue Soufflot, just down from the Pantheon.

    After I read the letters of this family drama, I would stand in front of the three large photos that hung on the wall of the moulin: one of the miller and his wife, one of the sweet daughter, and one of Hippolyte. I could only wonder what became of this young man after he slipped into the bas monde of Paris. Did he, like a Balzac character, make a fortune only to lose it all and die in poverty? Did he turn to the criminal life, as in the 19th century bestseller Les Mystères de Paris, and end up with a knife in his chest? Perhaps he ended up in a rented room on the Ile de la Cité, not yet a tourist mecca, but a cramped and dangerous neighborhood of hovels, inhabited mainly by the very poor.

    Not all of the mill’s documents were as revelatory as this letter. Many were mundane receipts for taxes paid or items bought. The moulin had an old pedal Singer sewing machine with all the attachments, and among the documents were the bill of sale from around 1905 and the original user’s manual in pamphlet form.

    But sometimes even a very mundane document has a story behind it. There was, for example, the receipt for a fine paid by the miller for fishing out of season in the stream behind his house.

    How did he get pinched poaching on his own property? I wondered. And why would the garde-champêtre, who would have been a local fellow after all, fine him?

    I showed the document to Michel one day over our afternoon drink and asked him.

    The philosopher of the fields took one look and said, “It’s obvious.” “What’s obvious?” I said.

    Michel held up the little piece of paper and chuckled. “That someone tipped the warden off.”

    “How do you know?” I asked.

    Michel was clearly amused by the whole situation.

    “You have to remember,” he said, “that there was always tension between the miller and the people in the village. They didn’t like each other.” “Why not?” I asked.

    “Partly because of money,” Michel explained. “You see, the miller was richer than the people in the village. He was able to send his son to Paris to study, yes?”

    I nodded.

    “The Paris conservatory was a status symbol.” “Et alors?

    “People had to have flour,” Michel continued. “And they had to have olive oil. That meant that the miller made money every year. In good years and in bad years. If there was a meager harvest the farmers had hard times. But the miller still made his money because they needed their flour and their oil.”

    “I see,” I said.

    “Plus they didn’t trust each other. The villagers couldn’t be sure that the miller was giving them all the flour their grain actually produced.”

    “I know about this,” I said. “There are stories in medieval writers like Chaucer about how the miller cheats people.”

    Michel laughed. “Well, those stories exist for a reason. How could they know if the miller was honest or not, especially as he got richer and richer? Same for the water. The miller had the right to divert a certain amount of the water from the Matassa. He was always convinced that the village was denying him part of his due, while they were convinced he was taking more than his share.”

    “I see,” I said.

    “A miller always had enemies.” Michel smiled. “And someone wanted to get back at him. And since the warden answered to the mayor . . .” His voice trailed off and he shrugged.

    I looked at Michel. Then I looked at the little piece of paper I had in my hand.

    “Michel,” I said, “do you realize that there is a famous school of historians here in France, the Annales, who are very proud because they do exactly what you just did?”

    “What did I do?” Michel asked while tipping his glass of pastis toward me in a mock toast.

    “They take a small detail—a piece of paper or an object in an old shed—and see everything it represents about the people’s lives and the world they lived in.” I shook my head. “That’s exactly what you just did. You should be a professor at the Collège de France!”

    Michel was grinning now. He gestured toward his old, faded pants and the shirt that bore the signs of hand-sewn repairs.

    “You really see me at the Collège de France?” he asked.

    As far as Michel was concerned, he was just telling me what everyone knew.

    Laurence de Looze
    Laurence de Looze
    Laurence de Looze has been a member of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Western Ontario since 1994. His research ranges widely, with much of it in French, Spanish, and Icelandic culture and literature. In addition to De Looze's research publications, he publishes fiction and plays jazz piano.

    More Story
    Lev Grossman: Why We've Always Needed Fantastic Maps Until very recently there was a large foreign-language bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. called Schoenhof’s. Before it closed...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.