Wednesday, July 6, 2016


It is the natural tendency of the elderly to remember events long distant in time, and their prerogative to remember them with approval and affection.  The discussion surrounding the “Brexit” vote in Britain has been remarkable not merely for its copiousness and its volubility, but in the peculiar fact that so much of it has been turned over to the losers’ unflattering comments on the intelligence, good faith, and moral probity of the winners.  Most of the articles I see are of the genre “Voters fail to elect Smith”.  But since it was Jones who actually won, it might be good to hear a little more about Jones from Jones’s point of view.  I was surprised and alarmed by the Brexit vote myself; but it strikes me as absurd to conclude that more than half of the British voting public, and way more than half the villagers of the English countryside, are racists, xenophobes, Islamaphobes, phobophobes, etc.  Sometimes the dogs just don’t like the dog food on offer.

The blessings of membership in the European Union may not seem omnipotent to those with long memories.  In 1962, newly married, we set off for the libraries of Europe, where I hoped to examine as many manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose as possible before settling down somewhere to write a doctoral dissertation about them.  Our original thought was to find a place in Spain—at that time still pretty primitive, and certainly inexpensive.  But to shorten the story we found ourselves at the Syndicat d’initiative (Tourist Office) in Avignon.  We asked if they knew of any rural hideouts in which we might hide out, cheap.  The lady handed us a mimeographed list of places available under a brand-new scheme dreamed up by the French government with the intention of helping a depressed agricultural economy--called The “Gîtes ruraux de France” (country hideouts).   On this list was one rental property in a tiny village with a wonderfully romantic name: Beaumes-de-Venise, four miles north of Carpentras, fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, midway betwixt two famous wine places, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas.

We went there.  The whole village was made out of stone indistinguishable in color from the mountain on which it rested.  We found the family with the gîte—we were their first clients—a couple of clean, well-lighted rooms in one of the ancient ruins.  Thus began an idyll of several months during which we roamed through orchards and hillsides sweet with the odor of wild thyme, Joan mastered Provençal cookery, I produced a dissertation, and we began the production of our first child.  Beaumes-de-Venise was a pretty dusty and threadbare place.  Our ancient Citroën Deux Chevaux fit right in.  At least a quarter of the old village residences were abandoned and boarded up.  Mangy ownerless cats wandered at will through the hillside ruins and caterwauled in the night.  An imperfect sewer system last renovated about 1670 made its presence known when the breeze shifted. The place still had a town-crier!  “Le poissonier de Carpentras sera sur la place vers les onze heures” in a booming voice.  The fish-monger from Carpentras will be on the town square about eleven o’clock!  When the guy realized Joan was English he insisted on getting some smoked haddock from somewhere or another, at a shocking price of course.  The Euro was still forty years away.  The currency was the recently instituted “new franc”, though everybody still talked, confusingly, in “old francs.”  Since the revalued NF replaced 100 OF, the numbers got very big very quickly, giving the air of a Monopoly game to the most mundane commercial exchanges.  It was a bit of heaven on earth.  You only realize how hokey books like A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun are when you have actually spent some time in Provence or the Tuscan sun.

We were hooked on Provence and happily returned as soon as possible, but for reasons I lack the leisure to explain we did not actually visit Beaumes-de-Venise again for about forty years.  When we did, we found the place was utterly transformed.  The Age of De Gaulle was done, that of the European Union vibrant.  The dust was gone.  The cats were gone.  The whiff of the drains was gone.  There were no more ruins.  They had all been bought up and tarted up by rich Belgians, Danes, and Germans whose flashy BMWs and serious Volvos clogged the charming old pedestrian lanes, now newly paved.   You could probably buy our old gîte—provided you had three quarters of a million euros, that is—at the spanking new realty place.  The general air was that of a movie set or theme park.  The village’s own fine wine is a muscatel, which in “our” day was advertised by a single home-made billboard that belonged in a Folk Art Museum.  Now there was a large and thriving Vinicole Cooperative that does a land-office business.  Englishmen drive up in Bentleys and leave with a few cases of Côtes-du-Rhone for their country cellars.  You can get a bottle of Beaumes-de-Venise muscat in any decent sized grocery store in Paris.

What sane person could fault such progress or fail to praise its attendant prosperity?  What, exactly, is so very attractive about stray cats and whiffy drains?  Is one lamenting the vanished dusty cobblestones or one’s own vanished youth?  We parked our car and strolled about a bit.  We spent an hour or so on one of our once favorite walks outside the village proper amid the ruined old terraces.  Here the vineyards had been abandoned along with all traces of active agriculture.  Here and there were fig trees heavy with unpicked fruit.   No sheep walked here any more.  Did anyone?