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

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

When I bought the moulin, several of the old-timers asked me, “Did Madame Rifa show you the secret drawer in the buffet?”

The whole village knew about the secret drawer. It is very cleverly concealed, and unless you have been told where and how to find it, you would never come across it. You have to know that the holder for baguettes in the center of the buffet can in fact be moved aside, and then what looks like the floor of the buffet is actually a hidden compartment. When people come down from Paris to visit, I often see if they can find the compartment, and so far no one has succeeded. My sister, though, visiting from the States, banged the baguette holder too hard, and to my surprise a second secret drawer fell out of the space above the holder! I was delighted, since to this day no one in the village seems to know that there is a second secret compartment.

In general, it is very hard to keep things secret in a village like ours. Everyone knows about everyone else, and the

can-can—the gossip—spreads very fast. When the mayor was having an affair with a woman in the village, everyone pretended not to know because it was a “secret.” The villagers often tell me that I am lucky that the moulin is located outside the village so that there are not eyes on me all the time. It is certainly politic to visit the villagers every few days, to sit and have a coffee, and to hear the news of the area. But it is nice to be able to leave again.

Hunting and fishing are of course major activities in an area like les P.O., the abbreviation for the administrative department’s official name: les Pyrénées Orientales. We are located near the middle of the département in an area called La Fenouillède, so called for the fact that fenouil (fennel) grows wild. People live close to the earth here. In the fall they go in search of mushrooms in the forest. In February they seek wild asparagus in the woods. Most of the men in the area vote for a political party called Hunters and Fishermen, which I have never even heard of anywhere else in France. And most of the men positively live for the yearly wild boar hunt, which is traditionally in September but can begin as early as June when there are a great many wild boars about.

Very soon after buying the moulin I was invited on the wild boar hunt, and at first I was quite excited to be there for it. The tradition is as old as Western culture itself. Homer tells us in the

Odyssey that Odysseus’s name means “bearer of pain” and that he got it when, as a boy, he was gored by a wild boar while out on a hunt. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, noblemen tested themselves on the boar hunt. A wild boar would gradually be corralled until it had only one way out, and that was where the nobleman stood with nothing but a sharp pic. When the boar charged, he had to drive the pic into the boar’s belly as it leapt. If he hit the right spot, he would pierce the boar and it would die. But if he missed, as Odysseus did, it would gore him.

I imagined this age-old contest between man and beast. The great king Henry IV of France, le Vert gallant, whose head disappeared during the French Revolution and was only recovered a few years ago in a fellow’s attic, loved the boar hunt. So did the string of kings named Felipe in Spain, the descendants of Europe’s great Renaissance man, Emperor Charles I. Many of the great painters painted scenes of the maddened wild boar trapped by hunting dogs: Rubens, Delacroix, Snyders.

But the romance of the wild boar hunt has been abandoned. Twenty or thirty years ago, men would hike through the woods for hours until a boar was flushed from its hiding place, but that has changed. The hunters now keep mainly to their 4

×4s, communicating on cell phones until a boar is spotted.  Then when the boar is forced out into the open they take him down with high-powered rifles from hundreds of meters away.

Perhaps I am too much of a romantic. I know that the hunters are required to keep the boar population down. The dues-paying members of the village hunting associations can be held legally responsible if they do not keep the boar population within certain limits and if the animals ravage the farmers’ crops. Boars can also be quite dangerous when they’re scared. A few years ago, a frantic boar came roaring across the public square in the middle of Carcassonne, and the frightened tourists took off running in all directions. In our own village there was a boar who kept wreaking havoc in people’s gardens and enclosures during the night. Once, about midnight, Jeannot found the boar with his snout pressed against his front door. Pretty soon everyone in the village was on the phone about the boar. They all agreed that it was the mayor’s job to deal with this, so Mayor Claude came out with his rifle, shot the boar, and the meat was later used at a village feast.

“When the boar charged, he had to drive the pic into the boar’s belly as it leapt. If he hit the right spot, he would pierce the boar and it would die. But if he missed, as Odysseus did, it would gore him.”

At the moulin, I sometimes hear the boars rooting around at night for all things edible under the surface of the dirt. In the morning I see areas of earth that have been torn up. I have also come across boars in the woods a couple of times, usually at dusk. In general, however, most boars will avoid contact with humans, and if you make some noise they will run off. Most of the time they hear you coming and are gone before you even get sight of them. There is only danger when you come across a mother with her young, or if you encounter a boar that is wounded. It is worth remembering that boars, unlike bears, cannot climb trees.

This past year the wild boar hunt opened in June. The area had been overrun with animals and, since in the past century boars were cross-bred with domestic pigs, many of them no longer fear humans. At the moulin I was awakened in the early morning by the barking of dogs and the paff! paff! of the guns up in the hills. This means that this winter there will be a lot of civet de sanglier cooked up in the village: wild boar stew. The women all know how to make it. They soak the meat in wine for days to tenderize it. Janine makes a wonderful

civet and Michel’s wife Léonce used to make it as well. People who come from elsewhere do not always take to the gamey flavor, but I love it. One year Léonce presented me with a bag of wild boar meat, frozen since the winter, and gave me detailed instructions on how to prepare it. That is the one and only time I have made a
civet de sanglier, and frankly my dish did not come up to the same level as hers. But I was also given a rack of wild boar one year, and that came out very well!

When I first met Michel and Jeannot they were in their mid-seventies. Michel was sharp and agile and Jeannot was still strong. Now Léonce has passed away, Michel has slipped into dementia, and Jeannot spends most of his time in his armchair because it is painful for him to walk. Janine is a good ten years younger than her husband and she knows that she will outlive him.

Léonce was skeptical of outsiders, and it was a real triumph when she switched over from the formal vous with me to the familiar tu. That meant quite simply that, as Michel told me, “she likes you.” In the first years that I knew Michel and Léonce, she would sometimes come down to the vegetable patch with him, but soon that proved too much for her damaged legs. Léonce was always in bad health and had problems walking. Finally even getting down the steps of their house to the village square was too much. The day came when they had to leave the village and move down to Perpignan where Léonce would not have to walk and where there were doctors handy.

What was best for Léonce was not so good for Michel, however. My rural philosopher was not made for city streets and rows of boutiques. He was made to sift the dirt through his fingers and to coax tomatoes and courgettes and green peppers out of the earth each spring. He was made for the grapes and the harvest and for morning chit-chats in Gabatch about the weather with Monsieur Pla. All that was lost when they moved down to the city.

I saw Michel only twice after the move when he chanced to drive up to the village. But I got word of him through Jeannot, who had him on the phone occasionally.

“He’s losing his memory,” he told me. “He doesn’t always know where he is.”

Jeannot told me that Michel drove up to the village twice during the winter when I wasn’t there. “The second time,” he said, “Michel couldn’t remember how to drive back.”

That was the last piece of news I had of my philosophe des champs. Michel would of course be the first person to accept that we get old, we decline, and we die. Jeannot, who turned 90 this past year, has recently had to stop working in his own vegetable patch. He has developed a limp, and when I saw him this year he was slow to get up. One of his eyes droops a bit now, and he has pain in his joints.

When I see him, I still call him jeune homme. I have called Jeannot “young man” since the day we met, but now he only smiles a tired smile.

Researchers have recently come up from the university in Perpignan to take down the oral histories of the old folks before they are lost. The old-timers have stories of the days before there were tight controls on the winemaking—when they used to carry 50-kilo sacks of sugar into the cave coopérative to add to the grape juice. What they produced back then was plonk, or, as the French say, piquette. There are tales of love affairs in which young people from two different villages snuck out at night and met in the fields, for it is not so long ago that to marry someone from further away than the next village was almost unheard of.

And there are stories of conflicts between different villages and villagers, and even a murder that took place in Fosse eight kilometers away in the 1930s. The generation that remembers such things is dying off, and there is a scramble to record it before it is lost.

I find it painful that my philosophe des champs has slipped away from me, painful also that Jeannot no longer can walk me down to his shed to show me how pristine he keeps it. I know also that I am on the same road and that there is no point in resisting it because it is a one-way street. When I first began to call Jeannot

jeune homme we both knew that it was a bit of a joke. Now we call each other “young man” for the pleasure of knowing it is not true for either of us.

When I stop by Jeannot and Janine’s house, they insist that we take a few moments in the salon to share a glass of vin de noix (walnut wine). This sweet aperitif is not truly a wine since it is made from macerated walnuts, not grapes. To my mind, the

vin de noix matters less as a drink than for how it distills the way the old villagers view time. Jeannot is fond of pointing out that the barrel of vin de noix was begun by his parents when he was born. It gets topped up with nuts and alcohol every year. “But there is some small part of the vin de noix that is from 90 years ago,” he says. And this is true. The vin de noix represents the path of time, a long walk we begin when we are born and off which we step at the moment of our death. There is an acceptance of what the ancients called “the ages of man.”

The road of human time is long and for any one of us we know only the tiniest portion. People are well aware of this in the Pyrénées Orientales. Some 25 kilometers from the moulin is the town of Tautavel where they excavated l’homme de Tautavel (the man of Tautavel), who is the oldest human body to have been found in Europe. He lived some 450,000 years ago. The archaeologists are still digging, and they hope to find a woman at some point as well. They are currently down at the level of about 500,000 years ago.

This is an area that has been inhabited steadily for a million years. It was a good habitat in all climates, during both the ice ages and the warmer periods. The area is littered with other archaeological sites. There is another major dig going on in Belesta, about 20 kilometers away in a different direction. Just one hundred meters up the road from the moulin, some fellows from the village came across bits of bone one day. They started digging and found that there was a small cave with more bones. They figured that these were animals that had been killed or died.

They got in touch with the archaeologists in Tautavel who came out and  did some excavating. They soon realized that what the fellows had come across was in fact a paleontological necropolis. The bones were human, not animal. The archaeologists asked the men to fill in the little cave and leave it, it was simply not important enough to bother excavating any further. There were, they explained, hundreds of such sites in the area.

My philosopher of the fields would point out how tiny we are in the midst of this great Earth. We are dwarfed by the hills all around us, and we are dwarfed by the long history of those who have lived and died. The mill was the center of the villagers’ world for centuries, but now the villages themselves are draining away, as people move down to the large cities. In some of the villages the houses have been snapped up by Englishmen or Danes in search of a place of beauty and warmth for their retirement years. The day might come when you no longer hear anyone speaking Gabatch on the village square.

I have begun to photograph the old people in the village. I was too late to get a shot of Michel, but I have Jeannot and Janine and Monsieur Pla carefully stored on my computer. I wonder what these images will look like to someone a century from now. When I stand in front of the portrait photographs in the moulin, the miller and his family look out at me almost as though they can see me, especially Hippolyte, who has the air of someone spoiling for a fight.

I got a letter a couple of years ago from an elderly woman who said she was from the miller’s family and had some memories of the mill from when she was a little girl. She no longer lived in the area, but wondered if she could visit the moulin someday. I wrote back to say that she was always welcome and that she should not wait for me to be there. Jeannot had the keys, I told her.

She did wait, however. She finally came with her daughter to one of the meetings of the association that studies the mills. After our meeting, she and her daughter drove down with me to the moulin.

When she arrived, she moved slowly through the front door, almost feeling the air before her with her hands, as though it was thick from the accumulation of many years.

“The road of human time is long and for any one of us we know only the tiniest portion. People are well aware of this in the Pyrénées Orientales.”

“Would you like to see the photos of the miller and his family?” I asked once she was inside.

Naturally, she said yes.

I led her over to the three large photos and left her there with her daughter for a few minutes. When I came back, she had not moved, but there were tears in her eyes.

All she said was, “je m’en souviens, je m’en souviens”: “I remember, I remember.”

Her daughter asked permission to take photos of the pictures. She pulled out her iPhone, and photographed each one.

When they got ready to leave, the mother thanked me profusely. I told her to make herself welcome anytime, whether I was there or not. “Think of this place as partly yours as well,” I said.

Before they drove off, the daughter took one final picture—of me with her mother. Then, with a wave, they were driving up the path away from the moulin. As they drove off, I wondered about the photos stored now on the daughter’s camera, especially the photos of photos. In their own way, they were one link in a continual chain that led from one generation to another. Would someone one day take a photo of the daughter’s photo?

As I turned back into the moulin, I thought of my philosophe des champs and how he had been able to see the story behind the miller’s fine for fishing out of season. I wondered if a century from now, when someone looked at the daughter’s photos of old photos, there would be another wise man or woman who would be able to look at them and immediately understand, and tell the whole story.


From New England Review (Vol. 39, No. 3). Used with permission of New England Review. Copyright © 2018 by Laurence de Looze. 

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.

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