Thursday, April 10, 2014

Promenade: Agnos to Saint-Pée d'en Bas

One advantage of staying in a place for any length of time is that you get used to your surroundings, can find your way around, feel comfortable in your routine. One disadvantage of staying in a place for any length of time is that you get used to your surroundings, and you don't see them any more, don't appreciate their beauty and uniqueness. You can find your way around, so you don't stumble upon new places that introduce you to new people and scenery. You feel comfortable in your routine, and are tempted to stay in it, or gradually find yourself unable to leave it, the ruts in your daily road so deep that it takes a major effort to turn the wheels in another direction.

I thought about all of that as I drove the family car to and from work between Agnos and the pig farm, so familiar with the route Florence and I had driven daily since October that I made the turns automatically, circling the roundabouts along the two long legs of the triangle of roads that link them. And I thought about how much I'll miss the big stone buildings, and the wooden shutters over the windows, and the fragrant (in a good way most of the time, except when they've been spreading manure) corn fields everywhere. Jeannette needed the car on Sunday, so Monday I walked the short leg of the triangle, skirting the hill between the Vert and the Mielle.

The biggest building in Agnos is not far from the church, and to me it looks as if the rest of the buildings in town grew up around it. Instead of a huge grange for animals with a small house tacked on, it's a huge house that connects to the grange via a covered gallery. It faces an open field, and I imagine that the fields went out even further, and that this was where the local gentry lived once upon a time, within easy walking distance of the church and with a view south over their lands towards the mountains. There are usually a few cows in the field, whose once-shiny gate is now tied closed with a twist of wire. The elementary school to one side of the field houses herds of children, and there's a largish industrial zone at the far end.

So much stone in these buildings, and so much work to stack them one over the other to build the thick walls. Huge wooden beams support the lofts, and the window openings are often formed by balancing two large flat rocks on end on top of another large flat rock, and topping the whole with a fourth. There's been a town here since at least the 14th century, and some of these buildings may date back nearly as far.

Other buildings, not nearly as attractive (to me) are springing up like mushrooms on the edge of town. I was told that the new mayor wants to attract people to the area, and doesn't care as much about the farming fields currently surrounding the town. Since I started work here in October, at least a dozen homes have been built on the road leading towards Oloron-Sainte-Marie, and in the last month or so the families have started moving in.

The children will go to primary school in town, but there's no secondary school. Every morning a big Greyhound-size bus drives through the center of town, picking up the teenagers waiting on the steps of the church. It barely fits between the houses on either side of the narrow street, built when the only traffic went by on two feet or four.

There's another large building just outside of town, on the banks of the Mielle, that's for rent. It's also a big many-roomed house, with a large barn and grange in back, and what looks like a place that would be just perfect for a dairy between them. Plenty of water coming from the Mielle - more than plenty, according to Florence, who says that the road is often closed by spring floods. A few small pastures that could hold a herd of goats big enough for a decent batch of cheese every few days, and a view of the mountains that would be beautiful at any time of year. Time to buy a lottery ticket ...

But no, I don't want my own business. I think I need to learn more about goat husbandry in order to be most useful to the dairies to whom I am writing, but that's something I can pick up (I hope) on the job. Although I've considered looking for yet another school program, one focused on the care and feeding of goats, I believe I'm done with school for now. I've been copying out cheese recipes lately, the ones I looked up last year at the library in Tours, and am constantly seeing myself sharing those recipes with cheesemakers, working with them to try to decipher the sometimes vague directions. Playing around with cheese, with the exact proportions and timings and temperature-and-humidity settings in the aging rooms, trying to replicate a cheese or, even more fun, creating a new one.

Tristan Derème is the poet who used to live on this road, in his mother's house where he went home to die. I walked this road from the other direction back in December, following a herd of sheep. At this end, it was cows; they ambled over curiously when I stopped to take a picture, but I wasn't as interesting as the new green grass. There were daffodils blooming in the yards I walked by, and the wisteria was just starting to flower. The cherry and apple trees were covered with blossoms and the piercing yellow of forsythia replaced the sunshine that I'd left behind in Agnos, as I finished the last few hundred metres in the rain.

Tu parus. Mais les doigts posés sur le loquet,
Tu t’arrêtas avec un air interloqué.
Puis devant les papiers qui encombraient la table,
Tu dis. « Cette maison devient inhabitable ! »
Et ton sautoir frémit dans ses cent trois maillons.
Voici bientôt deux mois que nous nous chamaillons,
Voici deux mois bientôt que je t’ai rencontrée
Et que je sais ton goût natif pour l’eau sucrée,
Les pommes vertes, les promenades, les sous-
Bois en octobre et les romans à quatre sous.
Tu grondes, mais je sens, dans nos pires querelles,
Quand bondissent les mots comme des sauterelles,
Que tu n’es que tendresse et qu’au fond tu souris
En ton cœur plus léger qu’une dent de souris.

You stopped on your way out, your fingers on the latch, and looked around aghast. Standing before the table covered in piles of paper you said, "This house is becoming uninhabitable!" with such force that the hundreds of links in your golden necklace shivered and trembled. It'll be two months soon that we've been bickering, two months since I met you, since I learned that you like sweetened water, and green apples, and walks; that you like the woodlands in October and dime-store novels. You scold, but I can tell even in our worst quarrels, when words are bouncing back and forth like grasshoppers, that you are nothing but tenderness; you're smiling underneath, your heart light as a mouse's tooth.

- Tristan Derème, La Verdure dorée XII (1922)

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