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March 22, 2011

A Winter’s tale...

 ...in a French province.

What is a French country scene in winter? Typically, it is something the tourist would rarely see . . . a study in dull greys, sepia, brilliant hues of sunset refracted on an icebound earth.

To find out more about this special isolated life, which might only be compared to parts of the snowbound Midwest in winter, Charles and I went down to the Rouergue region, 100 miles north of Montpellier (and the Mediterranean), east of Albi and just south of the Auvergne.

It can be almost terrifying. We stopped the car in a nearly-lunar landscape, amidst endless agglomerations of calcareous rocks, tufted with scrubby evergreens veiled by snow.

This, we were told was the region of the causses, the high plateaux that emerged after the Jurassic period, and for a few minutes, we felt as if we had taken an H.G. Wells trip millions of years back, as the car settled into a whirlpool of whistling wind, knife-cold and eerie. Our concern was only momentary, and we were reassured when the car was puttering along again on to a no-man's-land of jutting rock formations known as Montpellier-le-Vieux, so named by peasants centuries ago who thought the formations looked like the city of Montpellier. The whole Rouergue region, in fact, is dotted with prehistoric dolmens and tumuli.

There also, the cold was too bitter for a long exploration around the rocky grounds, though we were able to spot a "camel," a "bear" and a few other curiosities among the strange rock formations.

We were happy to rush back to Millau for a cup of tea in one of the warm cafes in the picturesque Place du Marechal Foch, arcaded with sculpted columns, and frequented by locals of all ages.

Charles of course could not get enough of the viaduct bridge.

Millau was built by the Romans in 122 B.C. and became a big pottery exporter all over the Roman empire. The surrounding land is rich in smooth clay, and is fine for grazing; the other activities that keep local people at least halfway occupied are sheep herding, and making Roquefort cheese in the nearby farms and Combalou Mountains. MiIlau, in the southern part of Rouergue, and Rodez to the north, are the two poles of the rural region, rich in monuments, chateaux, churches, old fortified towns, and there is a friendly rivalry between them.

Millau people are considered hotheads and Mediterranean in temperament by Rodez people, and Rodez people project a cold and aloof image among southerners.

Winter in all the towns, in the burgs and isolated farmhouses, is a time to withdraw, to sit by the fire and reflect; occasionally to forge out to the local cafe (when the weather turns up a warm Mediterranean breeze) for lots of gossip, red wine and card games.

The shepherds' life in winter has hardly changed from what it was centuries ago. Charles and I braved the road and went for lunch at a shepherd's house perched just over the spectacular Gorges du Tarn ... France's equivalent of the Grand Canyon.

The ice was dripping off the cliff side, and fortunately the car was able to negotiate a rutty, steeply climbing slope with hairpin turns and dizzy views down into the canyon. As we reached the barren, flat causse (plateau) at the top, a postal van passed, going in the opposite direction. "The first time we've had mail for over twelve days!" said the shepherd who greeted us Gabriel, a thick-set, leathery-skinned man who looked like my idea of what a French peasant should be. He and his wife Jeannette had turned their back on a picturesque stone farmhouse at the end of the road and built a concrete box that had a definite resemblance to a wartime blockhouse. "It's more comfortable," explained Jeannette, though this was hardly obvious.

Gabriel's sheep were warmly ensconced in a stone shed. "I haven't much to do in winter," he said, "and pass my time whittling wooden ash-trays. I can't stand television. We won't have it here." We enjoyed a hearty lunch, with lamb chops. Plenty of 12° red wine was drunk, and Gabriel reminisced about the adventures of being a shepherd, which mainly involved getting lost on the rocky plateaux, where everything looks alike.

Going to town is a rare pleasure for farmers and shepherds like Gabriel and Jeannette, and another highlight for anyone who has a pig is the great day after New Year's when the itinerant pig-slaughterer stops by. This is an occasion for merrymaking, as the animal in one day is literally turned into sausages, bacon, ham, tripe, blood sausage, pork roasts and meat for pates. This one pig will last as saucisson at least all winter, and probably through the summer too.

Rodez, the other main Rouergat city further north, gives the impression of a small city rather than a small town. There are many cafes, cinemas and concerts in the town theatre, a couple of museums, the curious cathedral in ruddy stone. There's enough to do in and around Rodez to keep a visitor occupied at least a couple of days.

No visitor is allowed to get away without seeing Conques, a beautifully-proportioned Romanesque basilica an hour's drive from Rodez. The site was named Conques by St. Louis because of its shell shape, and in winter a walk through the medieval streets transports you right out of this century ....

Every native has a different version of the story of the "treasure" of St. Foy, a symbolic figure in wood and gold leaf, glittering with jewels. The gist of the story is that during the 9th century, abbeys were sprouting all over the country, and each one wanted to possess important relics of saints. The monks at Conques owned only second-class relics, whereas the nearby town of Agen owned the body of St. Foy, a twelve-year-old girl who had been a martyr in the 4th century under Diocletian's persecution. After being saved from martyrdom once (she was tied down to a bed with a fire under it, when a white dove arrived in the nick of time to spray a dew all over that put out the fire), she was beheaded in 303 A.D.

Recovered and hidden by Christians, the body was placed in a special basilica in Agen, and the jealous monks of Conques formed a rather unchristian plot to spirit it off to their own territory. A monk from Conques called Aronisde disguised himself as a pilgrim, and with irreproachable conduct, he insinuated himself into the monks' community at Agen, where he got himself appointed as guardian of the treasure and other relics. After ten years, he finally had his chance to steal the saint's body when the other monks were invited to a banquet for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Apparently St. Foy approved of her own kidnapping, since she appeared to Aronisde in a dream and told him she would make a spring gush forth at the place he was sleeping; sure enough, the spring appeared, and a chapel built there is still standing today. Miracles went on apace as St. Foy arrived in Conques, and a new basilica was built, which was consecrated in the middle of the 10th century, and became a main stopping place on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Today, the inhabitants of Conques are still proud of "their" saint, and of her miraculous cures for rheumatism and gout.

"But you should come back later in the year," said a local shopkeeper. "We've got special summer courses all over Rodez for people who want original holidays you can study icon painting with a Russian in one town, sculpture in another; they've got basket-weaving, tapestry, metalworking ...You can even camp out on a farmer's property. If you're a fisherman, we've got the best trout streams in France; and by the way, how do you like our food?"   In all honesty, we'll give Rouergue top marks for gastronomy.

(illustration Christian Voltz)

March 4, 2011

Chairpersons and Standees…

…a short disquisition on the chair as a status symbol
(triggered by a scene from the movie “The King’s Speech”).

At dinner parties many years ago, a topic often discussed was what a woman presiding over a meeting should call herself. Progressives insisted on “chairperson”, and conservatives stuck with “chairman”; conservatives who wished to be thought progressive argued that in English the word “man” can signify all humanity.

All took for granted, however, the importance of the “chair”. The person in charge was “chairman” or “chairperson,” not “benchman,” or “stoolman,” and certainly not “footman.” All understood that sitting on a chair confers the highest status.

Students of social history won’t be surprised by this. The chair has been a status symbol since the dawn of civilization. In ancient Egyptian art, the pharaoh and his family were shown seated on chairs while everyone else stood, kneeled, or sat crossed-legged on the ground. In medieval Europe, only the highest churchmen-the bishops and abbots-had chairs; the rest sat on benches or stools. The bishop’s chair was so important that the Latin word for chair, cathedra -“from his chair”-he spoke with the authority of the church. Kings always sat in chairs while others stood (recall the little episode in “The Kings Speech’?). When parliament began to challenge the authority of the king in 17th-century England, the presiding officer of the lower house sat on a chair. All other members sat on benches-as indeed they still do.

Chairs confer status for an obvious reason; sitting on a chair, especially a chair with a high back and arms and possibly a footstool, is more comfortable than standing or sitting on a bench or stool.

This was especially true in the days before central heating. A high backed chair with a footstool trapped the sitter’s body heat, what little heat there was from hearth or stove, and kept his feet off the cold floor. For most of human history, chairs were thrones, and only kings and bishops sat in them.

Today, of course, most kings have been dethroned and chairs are too common to be highly prized for their own sake. The average household has at least several chairs for regular use (including the driver’s seat in an automobile) and others for occasional use or for guests. Yet chairs still convey a clear distinction of rank.

This is conspicuously true at the opera, where good seats are still scarce and expensive. Opera goers who can’t afford them are known as “standees.”

And the top executive in Hollywood…well! As Gloria Swanson reminded us, Cecil B. De Mille had a chair in his private office that not only had a high back and arms, but also was placed on a platform so that Mr. De Mille (as she always referred to him) could look down on his visitors.

Old pharaoh in Egypt could hardly do better than that, though his modern counterpart does almost as well. The first head of state of the People’s Republic of China was known simply as Chairman Mao, whether seated or standing.

When the American president signs an important bill in front of the television cameras, he sits while senators and representatives stand behind him.

All of which leads us to the fundamental social distinctions in modern times when everyone who is anyone has a job. So let’s take a tip from Chairman Mao, henceforth we shall refer to all people sitting down at work as “chairmen” or “chairpersons” regardless of their rank in the hierarchy. We can than refer to all the people standing up at work as-well we can’t call them “footpersons,” can we? Perhaps we could borrow a term from the opera house: “standees.”

Definitely “chairpersons.”