We arrived in the village late on Friday, seriously discombobulated after a night flight and then a complicated trip across Paris—complicated because the bus we had expected to be able to take from the airport to the train station was on strike. Just that one bus, and just for that one day. As long as I live in France, I will never understand how they organize these work stoppages or exactly what they hope to gain! In any case, we found our house more or less in order, our neighbours more or less as we’d left them, and we went to bed. Saturday we pottered about, but by Sunday we were really ready to go out and face the world.
And what a surreal world it was that particular day! You should understand, first, that the village is tiny (about 200 year round inhabitants), medieval, and walled. In the old days, most of the inhabitants were farmers, raising dairy cattle, but they’ve retired, and their children have tended to opt for less arduous lives and moved to the city. There are three big working farms left. There is one industry, in the form of a candy factory that employs about 20 people; there’s a little shop, a café and a restaurant, and that’s about it, except for the two large religious establishments: on one side of town, a traditionalist seminary housing young men from all over the world in training for an extremely old fashioned version of the Catholic priesthood, and on the other, a Benedictine monastery housing a few dozen monks. Neither of these populations mixes much with the rest of the town and indeed they are regarded with a fair amount of suspicion, although the seminarians do like to go up and play rowdy games of soccer on the plateau with their cassocks tucked up into their belts.
So, this past Sunday was the féte de la musique, a more or less nationwide celebration. In their constant attempt to enhance our value as a tourist attraction, the Conseil Régional had plotted a series of events in town, four concerts at four different venues, to which groups of music lovers would be conducted by local guides, seeing the sights on their way, and then convening under a tent on the edge of town for a prix-fixe meal. It was rather the same concept as that guiding medieval pageant drama in places like York, where you could walk around town and see enacted all the different episodes of salvation history, from the Creation to the Second Coming. The music was eclectic, to say the least. There was a children’s choir in the church, singing traditional songs, and some kind of dreadful French rap music on the Place de Fossés, African drums down by the Trop Chaud, and a string quartet up near the fountain.
Now, I don’t know whether or not the Conseil Régional realized it, but Sunday was also the Fete-Dieu, one of the holy days that the traditionalists take most seriously and honour by taking the Holy Host, in a golden monstrance, around town under a brocaded baldaquino.. Small children go before with baskets of rose petals, and all the seminarians wear beautiful white surplices over their black cassocks. Every one sings hymns. So music enthusiasts carrying cameras and wearing shorts and halter tops were proceeding around town in one direction, listening to folk songs and French rap, while a cohort of ultra-conservative Catholics, the men in suits, the women in long skirts with their heads covered, the little children in Sunday best, were proceeding around behind the Body of Christ in the opposite direction at the very same time. The Catholics studiously ignored the musical types; the musical types, on the other hand, pointed at the Catholics and stared and photographed as though they were some strange primitive tribe—which I suppose they are, in a way, but their behaviour was by far the more polite and decorous.
It was a bit too much culture shock for a single day. We withdrew to our house, but we couldn’t escape the boom boom boom of the bad French rap from one direction and the plaintive and slightly off key hymns coming from the other.