Summer High

The tomato sauce needed more sarriette, so I hurried down to the cellar, where bundles of the dried herb hung from the ceiling, neatly lined up. Just when I was reaching the base of the stairs, a man opened the house door as if he were chez lui. No ringing, no knocking, but a sunny T’es pas dici, toi, he? when he caught sight of me. His familiarity was amusing, and an obvious part of le personnage: a short sturdy man in his late 60s with a moustache framing narrow lips and a big — very big — mouth. I bet this guy hardly ever says vous to anyone. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than he stormed into the kitchen with a loud Salut la compagnie! His greeting was answered in unison. Tu prends un café, Jean-Louis? Françoise and Agnès were busy kneading pizza dough, their mother Colette absorbed in crossword puzzles. When I came back upstairs, the three women sat at the kitchen table, all ears for the unstoppable talker — and friend. I joined them for an hourlong of village gossip worth a Pagnol movie. The first scene of Manon des Sources will give you a taste of Jean-Louis’s faconde: replace pastis with coffee, remove the hats, and you’ll see — and hear — about four of him at the cafe table (leave out the boulanger, too young, and the instituteur, too young as well and pas du coin).

Jean-Louis is among the 30 Rougonnais who live in the village yearlong — certainly an act of courage. Only few whiffs of mistral during the week I spent there in August, but enough of a foretaste to imagine the dread of winter: cold, very cold, and solitary. A striking contrast with the picture-postcard hamlet Rougon looks like — and is — in summertime.

Perched on a rocky outcrop high above les Gorges du Verdon — high enough to deter tourists and charm grimpeurs et randonneurs, Rougon counts one épicerie, one crêperie, the smallest-ever bureau de poste, and thousands of stars at night.

Add grey skies, majestic vultures, and a castle in ruins, and the village seems straight out of a fairy tale.

— Claire

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