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Sous des pommes

July 6, 2011

My mother comes from the sort of New England family where summer is all about roughing it. Electricity, hot water, television — these are things to do without. Hardship, remoteness, natural beauty — these are essential. My mother participated in this tradition by taking us to her family’s cottage, a converted chicken coop on the north coast of Massachusetts. I spent the summer riding horses, using a flashlight to read at night in the electricty-less “bunkhouse” and taking cold outdoor showers after swimming in the cold ocean. I knew we had it easy compared to our friends who lived in a camp deep in the woods with lots of mosquitoes. You had to drive down a long rutted driveway to reach them and, when you got there, clamber up rocks to find their clump of three sided lean-tos. After paying them a visit, I felt like we spent our summers in luxury. These friends still summer in their camp, but they also have an outpost in the Central Massif, which we drove up to see after Avignon. I warned my son not to expect luxury. And sure enough, after many hours of twisting and turning through stone villages, we reached their town, Valleraugue, drove through it, and turned down, yes, a long rutted driveway. Instead of wooden lean-tos, however, we found a dirty white rectangle of stone covered with stucco, sort of like a stack of old legos, their summer place, which, our friend told us, had once been a silk worm factory. True to her New England heritage (If you don’t know a word, look it up; be interested in all things, particularly if they are historical or botanical) she had fully researched this industry and so we learned how upstairs, right where we were going to sleep, the worms lived their silk worm life: eating, spinning, and then dying in vats of boiling water. “They were boiled to death?” asked my son. “Yes,” said our friend, “Boiled.”

Our rooms, the silk worm chambers, were on the third floor, but there were a few floors above us that were empty and although there was electricity and running water, our accommodations felt very close to my summer bunkhouse. Bare wooden floors. Narrow nun like cots. One wooden bureau each. There were even Indian bedspreads like the ones in our summer cottage, perhaps purchased in Massachusetts and imported to Valleraugue. Outside our windows, there were mountains and pine trees and rocks. There were barn sparrows, finches, hydrangea, fields of onions and carrots, a sheep farm, and two old rusting bikes propped against a falling down stone wall. We wrapped ourselves in mosquito netting to sleep and ate outside at a long table in the garden, just like a French movie, except there were flies and a stray dog. One night we went to a movie sous des pommes. Yes, under the apples (apple trees). There were rows of chairs in an orchard, a twist of christmas lights in the trees, a long table with cakes and coffee, a wobbly screen, and a lot of enthusiastic, fuzzy haired French movie-goers. This time the scene was like something from Fellini, complete with small children tumbling on the grass and lovers wearing funny hats. The movie was Japanese (with French subtitles, “The Lost Forest” or maybe “The Forgotten Forest,”), a foreign-ness which appealed to Valleraugue residents, judging from the turnout, but not to my son, who felt we could find better things to do and dragged me back to the house.

The next day we had a birthday party for our friend’s husband and then went for “a walk” in the woods. I put “walk” in quotation marks, because our friend, who is eighty years old, dragged us up and down hills of shale, saying things like, “Last year the path was better than this” and “Maybe we went the wrong way.” We clung to branches so we wouldn’t fall, but no one even bumped their knee, despite the fact that everyone (except my son) was well fortified by wine and champagne. Finally, we reached a freezing cold watering hole (dark water, sharp pebbles, unsteady boulders, life threatening path) complete with waterfall, so we could swim, although, of course, swim isn’t the right verb either. Plunge, shriek, and race out is what we all did. I did not feel so far from New England.

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