Sunday, June 01, 2008

Gers, part I

I surprised myself and did get a bit of writing done during our vacation last week. This is the first of two blog entries I wrote "unplugged." I'll post the second one tomorrow.

We arrived in Gascony three days ago, in the southwest corner of France, the département of the Gers. I cannot shake the suspicion that if I lived here my life would be golden-hued and perfect and nothing could make me unhappy again. I have decided that one day I must have the chance to prove myself wrong.

The Gers is just far enough from the Pyrenees for the valleys to settle into gentle, civilized slopes, but close enough that you can still see the snow-capped peaks on a clear day. Over rolling hills, fields of wheat and sunflower, vineyards and pasture alternate with groves of trees. You almost cannot look in any direction without seeing the steeple of a half-hidden church or a ruined watchtower, all built in warm, gray-ochre stone. Swap cypress for the plane trees that line the roads and the landscape could be the background of a Florentine painting.

It is the only place I know in France where houses that have seen more than a few decades of history don’t just huddle together shoulder to shoulder in villages but stand watch on the crests of hills. Gascon farmhouses are imposing rectangular stone buildings pierced with two rows of windows, with white or pastel blue wooden shutters and roofs of pink curved tile that slope off at a lazy angle. There are villages too, of course, where slighter but no less inviting houses lean into one another around an arcaded central square.

Roses grow everywhere in the Gers. Pink damask roses curve around doorways, bright red vine roses cling to church walls, and five-petalled wild roses play hide-and-seek in the hedgerows. They’ve made themselves so at home and cover themselves with such shiny green leaves and profusions of blossoms that it seems cruel to ask them to grow anywhere else.

I have been told, although during my days of wandering here I choose not to believe it, that this land was once ravaged by war. Empire-building Romans, conquering Moorish armies, English versus French in the Hundred Years’ War, Protestant versus Catholic during the wars of religion: the ruins of fortified castles and the vestiges of churches, temples and villas are their witnesses, but the calm of the landscape is such that I can picture none of it clearly.

An invasion of sorts is taking place now. Armies with foreign license plates are driving down semi-abandoned dirt roads and staking claim to ruined farmhouses and empty châteaux. Once more the British are here, and this time they’ve neither lances nor swords but plentiful pounds sterling and a love of the perfect countryside. And although one is inclined to distrust them after Aliénor d’Aquitaine and Jeanne d’Arc, their taste in wine and architectural restoration can only be commended. Local farmers are often only too happy to sell and build a new house of cinder blocks and stucco with modern comforts and central heating and leave the drafty old heap of stones to an eccentric foreigner.

I am not rich or brave enough to be that foreigner yet, so I come here on vacation and dream. We have rented an old mill house which spans a branch of the Arros river in the village of Plaisance, towards the southwest corner of the Gers. The mill house was recently restored from a near ruin. The water wheel is long gone, but the current still rushes under the main bedroom and the noise of a small waterfall competes with the chirp of crickets.

It has rained ever since we arrived, and spring showers and thundershowers have been shifting through with just enough clearing in between to tease us into planning and cancelling hikes. Yesterday we did go for a long walk, and in the afternoon a briefly cloudless blue sky gave us a glimpse of the Pyrenees. I am reminded that the climate here is more Atlantic than Mediterranean, and if most villages have streets lined with arcades there must be a good reason.

It can rain, it can hail, but I’ll traipse though the mud with a stupid smile on my face because I am here in my personal land of milk and honey and nothing can make me unhappy for long. I play a game with myself and choose which villages and which farmhouses are on the imaginary short list for where I will move someday, when… not if, but definitely when.

In the meantime, I have four more days.


Kathleen said...

I found your blog through the comments on Ask Moxie. The Gers sounds lovely; I've never been there but you make it sound like a paradise of sorts.

I am a Seattle-ite with a four-month-old daughter. I speak French, have visited France several times and would love to live there one day! I've bookmarked your blog and I'm looking forward to reading more!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Thank you, Kathleen! It's nice to hear from another Seattle-ite who's also a new mom!