Friday, June 09, 2006

from Pierrerue: two stories, one theme

First story:

Late in the afternoon I drive to the village of Olargues. It is in the mountains north and west of here. Even the cherry trees give up by the time you get to it. Vineyards? No, not that either. I see signs in front of houses announcing the sale of honey, so I guess bees like it up here.

Bees and the Committee for the Selection of the Prettiest Villages of France (if such a committee there is).

I have said this before: France ranks and rewards most everything you could imagine. Food preparation alone is eligible for rosettes, forks, torques, stars, young chef awards (Alain of Atmospheres in the Savoie won one of those last year), oh you name it, they give it.

And villages as well: that one is worth one flower. Another: two. Olargues gets three stars and a designation: it belongs to the elite group of “Prettiest Villages.”

Pierrerue isn’t even rated, that’s how insignificant it is in the eyes of the Committee for the Selection of the Prettiest Villages of France.

For Olargues, I think it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once adorned and adored, you start puffing yourself out (villages are like people in this respect). Flowers magically appear.

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even in pretty villages, children play

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And the tourists come. It is worth a detour, the books say.

Initially, I set out to disprove Olargues' worth. But I cave after I step into a bakery for an afternoon snack. They have the best madeleines in the world, ones that would make Proust jump out of bed for more. I mellow after that.

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But do not misunderstand (Side Story follows): in my heart, I am with Pierrerue. Pierrerue cares deeply about keeping itself nice and tidy, even though it cannot compete with medieval villages perched on mountains. It cares about its one street. It cares about its Mairie, about its little church. And it cares about its garbage.

Here’s how I know: I had been environmentally friendly, I thought and I had been saving my little plastic bags from market trips and using them as trash can liners. True, the bags are small, but so is my kitchen trash can.

Because the garbage dumpsters are a bit of a walk, I pushed the limits: I filled the damn things pretty tightly before carrying them down.

Two days ago, a neighbor came by. She said she wanted to give me my allotment of garbage bags, courtesy of the village of Pierrerue.

As compared to the absolutely neat blue bags of garbage in the village bins, nicely tied and securely holding in all garbage, my little market bags must have been an eyesore. I cannot be certain, but I am thinking they had a village meeting. And someone had une idée: give Madame Nina some bags, call it an allotment and let’s see what she does.

I got the nudge. The bins are spotless once again. Even the weeds growing around them are inviting.

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weeds and butterflies

Second story:

There is an old farmhouse outside one of the mountain towns just half an hour away from Pierrerue (that town’s rating: one star, which means it’s okay, but not worth a detour).

The farmhouse has been converted into an inn. I went there to eat dinner.

The owner, Monsieur Gilles, is an art collector and he displays paintings of local artists in a little gallery to the side. I was smitten by some pieces, especially those painted by a woman by the name of Pamella, so much so that I took a tiny something of hers home. Delighted with my appreciation of his collection, Monsieur Gilles took me around the inn, pointing out paintings that he had been especially commissioned to fit into some demanding wall spaces.

My mother does not like it that I am replacing the old stuff. She says the old decorations have been here for years! I tell her, that’s the problem: they have been here for years! (Monsieur Gilles is, I would guess, in his late fifties and so I am glad he no longer listens to his mother.)

Dinner was wonderful. The home made paté with Muscat jelly, the scallops with braised endive, the six cheeses, chocolate cakes, cookies, all of it fantastic (and all courses together, costing less than just one main dish at Madison’s upscale restaurants). Monsieur Gilles and I hit it off. I like the food, I like the paintings, what more can one ask of your guests. In return, he fusses and brings a shawl for me when he thinks the night air is getting too cool. Hearing that I was born in Poland, he puts on Chopin’s Nocturnes as background music.

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And at the end, Monsieur Gilles snips a beautiful rose from the garden and brings it to my table along with the little picture done by Pamella. He presents me with both and tells me that my credit card isn’t going through the machine, but not to worry, if it does it does, if it does not – so be it.

He walks me to the car, plants a kiss and I drive away, puffed up and determined to wear something other than a denim skirt and a zip-up hoodie next time I go out.

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a rose is a rose