HN, who lives in the USA, expresses what his second home in France, means to him. Clearly, a case of self-meaning. HN and BC met in Auzon last summer and again this autumn. They both have a second home in Auzon – BC since 1995 and HN only recently. They engaged immediately and the resulting friendship continues to develop. Auzon means a lot to them, for some same and some different reasons. Most of the time, however, they do not live in their second homes. This diablog has two motivations. First, it’s a way for HN and BC to keep in touch and to continue to develop their friendship, while not in Auzon at the same time. Second, it’s a way of sharing, what Auzon means to them and so enhance the meaning, which each of them takes from it.
HN – THE END OF A JOURNEY
The end is the difficult part of any journey. As endings often are, they are filled with an aching melancholy, the reminder of all the wonderful things recently experienced, yet bereft of any promise that the future will be as bright or as kind.
Today is no different. Departing France is always difficult for us, because life here seems so sympathetic to our natures. Yet this particular journey leaves an especially sharp ache inside us, though it’s easy to place a finger on the source of that ache.
It is Auzon of course, or more accurately I should add, Auzon and it’s people.
I know my partner would agree with me, because we have talked endlessly about the treasure we have been so fortunate to find within the ancient walls of the small village. It is a place where time has almost stood still. Where people appear to reflect on one another and their place in history, in order to affirm their own humanity. Auzon is at once a place, which makes sense to us through its slow rhythms, picturesque scenes, and array of people who call it home.
We have marvelled at walking into the village to buy fresh bread each morning at J-M and F’s tiny boulangerie, and how each of them come out from the kitchen to clasp our hands in theirs like they were carefully forming a loaf of bread. Their smiles are genuine and because they stand close to us, they smell deliciously of yeast and toast.
The look on their faces can be daunting for they appear as if we have brought something vitally important into their lives, something much more precious than the few euros we bring each morning to exchange for their wonderful bread. It makes us inquire about ourselves, if we are worthy of such beaming smiles and honest sincerity.
Regardless, we depart their small shop each morning smiling happily and day dreaming of soft butter and jam.
We find it hard to believe Auzon included us so quickly. A and his wife F, our new neighbours from Paris, invite us to a fete the first evening we arrive. Most people in attendance speak English, and are genuinely happy we have chosen to buy a house in Auzon.
We meet a few of the Americans that first night too. Couples, like A and V, and R and J who in the course of our stay take us under their wing, and into their hearts and homes. They guide us, protect us and it is through the kindness they have shared that I realize the thing I have always searched for, true Southern Hospitality, is alive and well in the south of France.
Certainly in Auzon.
BC – THE BEGINNING OF A JOURNEY
I studied French at school. I spent 3 months as an exchange student with a French family in Paris and Quiberon, Brittany. I studied French and German at University (1956-59). French was my professional language for 8 years. 4 years in the ex-Belgian Congo, now Zaire, in Kinshasa and in Bujumbura, Burundi. 4 years in Vietnam – Saigon. Most family holidays were spent in France, either with French friends from Vietnam or camping. One of these French friends introduced us to Auzon. We bought a house there in 1995. It was one of the best things that we ever did……
The meaning of our second home, thus comes from a more general love of France, its culture, its mores and its language. Its particular meaning has been built within this context.
The physical location of Auzon appeals. 400m. up the Massif Central in the Auvergne. A medieval ramparted city/village built on a spur between two streams and surrounded by forest.
The mentality of the people also appeals – careful with their money. Les poches longues et les mains courtes – long pockets and short arms.
Their open sociability also appeals. The village fetes are inclusive family affairs.
So, the meaning of our second home is instantiated in the history, the culture, the location and the people of Auzon.
(more details to be added)
Here is an exchange between BC and HN on Messenger.
HN – Currently, I have a few stories underway and hope to complete soon though I should be writing more. Interestingly, our conversation in the B and also at C’s has been a bit of a turning point for me. To clarify, you really got me thinking about my tendency to report on the positive side of things and so I have decided to dig deeper into the realities of my world, attempting as it were to represent a truer picture of things. It’s not that I haven’t done so before, but you and your probing comments made me realize that it’s time I take a different approach in my writing. Maybe it’s time to reveal the stakes that exist in one’s life. Or possibly, I’m just depressed. At any rate I’m investigating new territory thanks to you. And who says, I don’t appreciate your opinion?
Hn – This contrast between HN and myself and our way of viewing the world strikes me as interesting and worth developing a bit further. I shall attempt to do this by giving a parallel view to HN on some of his village experiences. We will see if this turns out to be interesting – proof of the pudding is in the eating…….
HN – RANDONNEURING IN AUZON AND THE SPIRITUAL POWER OF GÂTEAU AUX FRUITS
Having arrived in Auzon approximately eight weeks ago, the daily care of my mother has kept S and I very close to home. There are of course frequent walks in the village, and the occasional lunch at Jim and Becky’s restaurant – La Table du Charbon. New to the village this year is Au Panier d’Auzon the small but well stocked grocery store located in the building which once housed the Mairie (the Mayor’s Office). If I were to draw a straight line from our home on Auzon’s northern wall direct to the location of the grocery on the opposite side of the village, the distance would be less than two blocks. The walking route to get there however, is a steep climb up to and across the plaza and then down the precipitous path of Rue le Pavé which comes to rest at Rue des Anciens Francs bordering Auzon’s southern wall. From there, it is no more than a leisurely stroll to collect my groceries. Yet later, with grocery bags filled, I must retrace those steps.I mention the challenging geography of Auzon, because it helps to illustrate that traversing its steep ups and downs is a daily part of village life. For a southern American, and one whose earlier physical activity quotient lay somewhere on the exercise continuum between couch-potato and a mildly motivated sloth, my daily forays into the village have allowed me to lose weight. Amazingly this miracle has occurred despite the vast quantities of French cheese, bread, buttery croissants, Becky’s Truffade (an Auvergne traditional dish of cheesy potatoes with ham), her Aligot (another Auvergne traditional dish of cheesy potatoes and sausage), Jim’s duck confit, assorted pastries and various gâteaus that I have managed to consume during the past two months.To gain a better understanding of Auzon’s topography, it may be helpful to see the village in the light of its common metaphor, as a ship rising out of a small valley. The steep rock walls along its northern and southern perimeters forms the giant hull. To get anywhere in Auzon you must hoist yourself up and over those walls. It’s not as if you need a grappling hook and rappel line but prepare yourself for some serious huffing and puffing. Maybe I should write a new diet book – The French Village Diet? Next door to Au Panier d’Auzon is another new establishment, our neighbor Camille’s Cafe Des Simples. Since opening her café last spring, Camille has created a very comfortable and inviting space for people to gather. Usually on those days when I am heading to the grocery, I stop in for a chat with Camille. Luckily for me she speaks impeccable English, loves books, offers very insightful commentary on almost any subject and serves a tasty petit café in lovely cups and saucers. I also enjoy having one of her very delicious homemade cookies. Ok, so maybe its two cookies.It seems that one of the ancillary services Camille provides is to serve as a hub for the English-speaking residents in the village. Camille never thought speaking English would be necessary after moving to a small village in the heart of the Haute-Loire region of France, but the Americans and English seem to gravitate to her café, her ability to communicate, and obviously to Camille, which is not surprising at all.
Most mornings require fresh croissant and preferably a slice of fruit cake (gâteau aux fruits). After that first cup of coffee and before S or mom awakens, I often stroll to the bottom of Rue Longue for another of my favorite stops, Le Denrée, the tiny grocery found at the corner of Rue des Anciens Francs and Route de Saint-Martin d’Ollières. The owner, C is a tall, lanky fellow, with a slightly graying beard and mustache. He wears his hair very closely cropped, so close in fact, that the numerous tattoos on his scalp are still prominent. I have the feeling they emanate from a more rebellious stage in his youth, yet I wonder just how rebellious C could have been? From my vantage point, he is one of the kindest and most affable souls I have yet to encounter in Auzon and try as I might I just can’t place him as any kind of tough guy. C has kind, chestnut brown eyes which always seem to be searching. The more I have come to know him, the more I have come to believe his penetrating gaze is not born from a sense of caution, or defensiveness. I have often seen that kind of wariness in the gaze of shopkeepers, the feeling that any person who enters their domain is mildly suspicious in some way, until of course they prove themself through initiating a conversation or by making a purchase. C is different. He greets all customers equally, warmly, and generously. Yet these are people he knows well, possibly for a lifetime. Auzon is small, most of its citizens have lived here the entirety of their lives, but I am an outsider. I don’t even speak French and still C showers me with an effusiveness that is uncommon, and immediately makes me feel welcome. I want to believe C is looking for the best in people and when he finds it, it makes him happy. Maybe that is his reward? Why else would he continue smiling when the temperature inside his shop is no warmer than outside?As part of my daily forays into the village, I attempt to speak some level of French as I make my rounds. For example, when going to C’s store, I prepare a few sentences ahead of time. A greeting, as well as the bare essential of my morning’s request. This usually has to do with croissants and gâteau aux fruits. The walk down the rue gives me extra time to practice my lines. My opener: “Bonjour C! Comment ca va?” (“Good morning C! How are you?”).Then my big line: “Je voudrais trois croissants et une boîte de gâteau aux fruits s’il vous plaît. (“I would like three croissant and one box of fruit cake please.”) I usually have to repeat the big line several times as I stumble down the rough surface of Rue Longue. Then just outside C’s doorway, I take one last look at the Google translate app on my iPhone, just to make sure I’ve got it right. C always applauds my linguistic efforts before proceeding to gently correct my pronunciation. He is very patient about my slaughtering of his language, and he takes plenty of time to correct my speech. Mouthing each word slowly, then waiting as I repeat them back to him. Instead of making me feel embarrassed, it’s like attending a quickie French class. I depart feeling as if I have learned something. C also makes a very good cup of coffee.But back to those croissants. And fruit cake. The thing is, it’s imperative to arrive at C’s by 8:30am or there is a high probability all croissants will be purchased. As for the gâteau aux fruits, C stocks at least one box, positioned on the bottom shelf and tucked high above other cakey items. Lemon cake (gâteau au citron) gets a more prominent position, yet for the love of me, I don’t understand why. If its fruit cake you are after, you must bend at the waist and look towards the back row at the very top of the stacked items. Fortuitously, this position almost always insures that my cake is available. But not everyone is a fruit cake devotee. Throughout my life, I have seen looks of disdain and grimaced faces whenever it is mentioned. I have heard the word “Yuck”, spill from terse lips so many times I can’t begin to remember the number. Truth is, I have been in love with fruit cake ever since I was a young boy. My father loved it long before he ever introduced such a delicacy to his only son. Since his passing, I seem to savor those slices more than ever. Sipping my coffee in the quiet of the morning while munching slowly on candied cherry, raisin, date, and the other confiture delicacies cradled inside moist gâteau is about as close as I get to my father these days. Call me irreverent, yet those mornings feel distinctly spiritual. Churchy even. Its been a long time since I darkened the doors of a religious chapel, though I can still recall the feeling of awe and wonder upon taking holy communion. Coffee in the early morning, a slice of gâteau aux fruits drenched in the rich memories of my father seems much the same. Back home in America, finding a fruit cake with the proper cake to fruit ratio is nigh on impossible. In France however, gâteau aux fruits is everything a true fruit cake lover could want, plenty of moist cake and a nice sprinkling of candied fruit. It comes boxed, or in a plastic enclosure and of the three different brands I have tried, Les Saveurs du Clavon, Brossard, and Maison Vital Ainè all have been equally wonderful.I know my father would have loved them too.
BC – MY BREAKFAST TOUR OF AUZON
Most mornings, I do a ‘morning tour’ of Auzon. The primary function is social – to say Hello and to socialise. If I spend most of the day in the house writing, in the garden weeding and on my bike cycling, I don’t actually get to meet many people from the village, apart from the ones, who drop by the house. Not ideal for someone, who only spends 3-4 months a year in Auzon. I bought my bijou cottage more than 25 years ago, so I know lots of people. Important not to let friends and acquaintances slip away. I combine the social function with having breakfast. Very convenient. I either walk or go by bike, if I am on my way to do a big shop in a local town. Obviously, greetings are more fleeting by bike, than on foot.
I usually take my breakfast at C’s, if the Table du Charbon and Cafe des Simples are closed. C’s shop is really a grocer’s, but he serves take-away coffee and sells croissants, muffins and pain aux raisins. I take my pick from what has not yet been sold. I eat my breakfast on a public bench on a bridge over a stream about 10 metres from the shop. People passing usually smile, but also wish me ‘bon appetit’. The social round continues, in a way uninterrupted by being in a cafe.
The owner of the grocer’s shop is called C. Not sure of his surname. Not sure of his age – maybe in his sixties. Average sort of build with closely cropped hair. So close as to disclose marks on his scalp that suggest tattoos. But I have never got close enough to find out and don’t intend to, although I might ask, if we get intimate enough. Curious place to put tattoos, I would have thought, unless bald or one wants to hide them.
C greets me effusively, verging on the ingratiating. Not my style at all and I ry to discourage it, but accept it for what it is. Maybe a just a bit overenthusiastic/over-the-top. He also calls me ‘chef’ (boss), which could be complimentary or just mock politeness by which he appears to be trying to abase himself somewhat. I think, probably the latter.
C genuinely tries to please, offering this an that. Mostly, making good alternatives to stuff, which has sold out. Muffins instead of croissants, for example.
Although the above may sound a bit on the negative side, I appreciate C and what he does. He took for ever to get the shop going…..Most of us had long given up hope, given all the false alarms of progress concerning the house etc…..But it goes and is better frequented than I predicted, especially given the opening of the Panier d’Auzon. The Panier has Commune backing, larger premises, more voluntary staff and a wider selection of goods for sale. But people pop in and out of Le Denree all the time and often I am forced to have a muffin instead of a croissant…..C makes a good coffee, which I have come to enjoy without milk as none is available. He also stocks his goods effectively. For example, the bottles of beer. Only one of each sort to save space, but a good variety. He even stocks small tins of beer of 250 mls – conveniently a unit of alcohol. He puts a lot of thought and effort into the shop. It seems to be paying off. I hope so and he deserves it so to be. It’s a positive addition to the public life of Auzon. It opens and closes at sensible times for him, unlike most French shops, which seem to feel obliged to open from morning till night. People like to pop in for a chat and maybe a newspaper.
We are lucky to have C and his shop. We should all support him in his endeavours. Good old – all power to your elbow!
PS and for HN. I don’t eat fruit cake…….too many calories. Better to eat fruit.