Life for Aussies living part time in La France Profonde

 

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Those who know about these matters tell us that “La France Profonde” is any  rural area of France that has kept its authenticity (what ever that may mean). France has been highly successful at preserving the ancient ruins, the beautiful medieval towns.  La France Profonde is used in conceptual contrast to places like Paris; it is the French construction of the ages old and almost universal rivalry between town and country; the clichéd version of the opposition is between sophistication and simplicity, moral dubiousness and innocence etc.   Paris, Bordeaux and the other ravishing cities remain utterly French to their essence – to their hearts; however Paris is so expansive that to experience the rich variety of French life there takes research and time. In the country-side we see all the most wonderful things about the French on display in microcosm. Life in the country towns is France writ small and intimate.

Our area in Poitou Charentes is a perfect example of la France Profonde.  The white paths of the ancient Christian Pilgrim’s route to Compostela wind through our fields. And we have walked them. We cover a few kilometres every year in homage to its history and all the pious feet that have tramped by; and still do. We were the first English-speaking people in the village 20 years ago and though that is not the case now, the population remains mainly French country folk. Farmers and wine makers. The country side is stunningly beautiful; the South West is much more lush than the somewhat austere South. No bare rocky mountains for us. The South West is a palette of contrasting greens: of trees, hedgerows, fields. Everywhere there are flowers and grape vines. The French have an eye for landscaping just as they have a way with clothes with art and with food. Unfortunately we do not see such awareness of aesthetics in land management in Australia; much too pragmatic and phallocentric. In fact, I think it is not an exaggeration to suggest that, the French are more interested in the beauties of “outside” than those of “inside” so to speak. Indeed their philosophers never tire of mulling over just what constitutes “inside” and where “outside” might begin. What is it that separates the two notions? Inside the country French houses are extremely rustic (shabby chic my sister-in law calls it) and they treasure the continuing beauties of broken things. I learned in France in my 30s that perfect finish in decor is not necessary for beauty. Perfection can be extremely bland, overly controlled and is rarely surprising.

One day we stopped to admire a small grassed bridge that spanned a good-sized creek.  Mowed carefully, even though, as far as we could tell, it led nowhere. We were inspecting and photographing the enormous farm machinery in a nearby grange when a strapping and rather prosperous looking middle-aged man bicycled up to us to find out what we were up to. The Farmer. He explained that all the land thereabout was his – including the gargantuan harvesters and all the other magnificent equipement argricole. We asked him why he had mowed the small bridge? “Pour la Beaute” he said in a surprised tone.  Why would that need any explanation? “For Beauty with a capital B.” The farmers see it as part of their mission in life to tend the landscape for its aesthetics as much as for its produce.

Most of us are avid painters and hence we puzzle about the mystery of what we are doing when we paint. Why is it so interesting and absorbing? We devote a lot of breath to the issue every summer. Our minds fascinated by our own ideas as Jane Austen described such musings. On one level, we have all been introduced to art via finger-painting in pre-school and the skills of some have not greatly improved since that time. Others of our number however, have studied fine arts and their lives as curators, traders and artists would seem to make them perfectly positioned to tell us what we are to understand about art. But as Plato discovered when he asked the poets to explain their work:

“There is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers.”

Those who work in the art galleries and museums trained in the history of art  are experts on provenance, on cultural and monetary value of various artifacts. The edifice of the historical discourse of art but not its philosophy might be a way to understand their expertise; where everything fits. If you ask them for an analysis of a painting they give a good account of themselves by projecting vivid and fanciful interpretations onto the paintings, often enriched (indeed created) by inter-textual comparisons. If you press them further they will begin to look uncomfortable until one of their number will declare something like “Art functions to represent Reality.” And then the philosopher can strike and lay about him/herself with significance. “How does it represent reality?” and “What is Reality?”

Art requires at least a three-fold explanation and the neuroscientists who are trying to see the brain actually experience Art by observing it via a scanning device are fundamentally mistaken because to do that is to conflate the brain itself with its machinations. It is like confusing computer software with the hard drive. If I see an octopus blush red to express its dissatisfaction with some invasion of its territory I am interpreting a symbol or a symptom of that unease – not the actual experience of unease itself.

The three questions are: firstly, why do we make art? That is not the same as asking what we think we are doing when we make art.  Secondly: where does the art happen? Between the observer and the artifact or between the artist and the artifact? At one level art is an abstraction and objectification of an idea while at another level it is a communication of sorts. And, finally: art is a symptom of social concerns, it tries to articulate or express those anxieties and solve them symbolically. 

The current trend to dress small children, even toddlers, in black is an example of this last function of art. If, like any other art form, fashion is a manifestation of social concerns, it would seem that our global community is anxious for the lives of little children. It might be that we are seeing them washed up drowned on European beaches.  Heroin chic and the fashion to copy the wild glamour of terrorists, their robes and beards, are all instances of social unease being “acted out” so to speak. Artists are functioning as “soothsayers” (as Plato put it) or as “therapists” as Freud might have put it. Indeed, the consumers of art themselves are participating in the process and therapy. The spilling of the current mania for beards into ordinary secular life is terrorism being mulled over, defused and tamed by familiarization. In Queen Victoria’s day womens’ underclothes were tremendously intricate and fabulous because fashion in womens’ outer-garments were so repressed. Literally they had to keep their femininity, creativity and beauty “under wraps”.  

 

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 Fashion as “Therapy” on the Champs Elysee

To my mind, art is primarily a form of communication. It is not a normal every day communication however, but one that undergoes a “knight’s move” through a human consciousness. I say “human” consciousness because I do not know quite what to make of these cats and elephants who paint pictures. I have no idea what they may wish to achieve, but recalling Wittgenstein’s aphorism, “If a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him.” I doubt that their primary purpose is communicative. I do think it demonstrates a capacity for abstract thought however. Perhaps they simply like the effect of the different colours; perhaps they are imitating an action they have observed; perhaps, simply, they have been trained to do it. Wittgenstein must have been thinking about lions in the wild because I have no doubt that we can understand the world of the captive lion only too well. What else could he talk about other than the mystery and misery of his captors and his captive world?

The question of the function of art is a subject that arouses much animated debate since we ask everyone who comes to stay at Tourners to produce at least one work of art. Most of the people who come to visit us are brave enough to try and they seem to enjoy themselves. It is a sweet sight indeed to see absorbed teenagers and their parents lost in the process of creating a painting, paint on their hands and faces and even in their hair. Others have chosen to write poems and we have even had an enormous topiary snail carved out of an overgrown box hedge.

On one occasion, to set the pace and in a parodic reference to our discussion of Foucault’s aesthetics of existence, I mowed the lawn into an image of a sunflower with a stem fifteen metres long. The whole party traipsed around to view the work and to criticise it. I was tremendously gratified when some took it for a map of the local donkey farm while others felt sure it was a martini glass. It confirmed the notion that the best art is complex and can sustain several interpretations; that interpretation is in the minds of the audience and (perhaps) that there is “nought so strange as folk”. I was extremely receptive to all the possible interpretations offered for my grass sunflower so when the topiary snail made its appearance I found myself constrained to compliment Davis’ sister on the possible multiplicy of meaning she had snipped into her work. It seemed to me that, viewed from one angle, the snail bore a remarkable resemblance to a rabbit. That snail/ rabbit was created 19 years ago and it is lovingly restored every summer. Each summer it seems to look less rabbity and more unmistakably an escargot.  

 

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  Breakfast has to await the pleasure of our village baker. Ludwig (Ludo) the baker has a somewhat erratic timetable but he more than makes up for it with the quality of his wares. We can choose from a large variety of breads with crusts of different degrees of crunchiness. He has explained that the basic dough used in all the breads the same and the difference between the breads springs from the relation between the loaf and its crust. Some breads have more crust than others, some less. We cannot eat everything so we are forced to choose between breads and croissants, a choice that really does need the Wisdom of Solomon.

Monsieur Ludwig makes matters more difficult because when hears that the Australians are in residence in the Moinet house he immediately bakes a type of croissant that he knows we adore and cannot resist. He fills with a wickedly delicious substance called “frangipane“. It is a creamy sort of custard made from almond paste. He sprinkles sliced almonds on top of the croissant and bakes them to a slight crunch. Formidable! Each morning Davis makes the trip chez Boulanger and returns laden with warm and sweet-smelling pastries and breads. But if we could only wait a little, Madame Ludwig makes a round of the village and its surrounds in her small baker’s van. She toots her horn loudly and the villagers tumble from their beds to avail themselves of her produce. The same thing goes for fish, meat, fruit and vegetables and even just normal household groceries. It is possible to get almost everything necessary for running a house without even leaving one’s front gate.

The local paper is the source of all the information needed to make sure that we don’t miss social activities that make the French summer such a beguiling festival. Listed are the times and venues of all the village fetes, dinner dances, flea markets, garage sales, antique fairs, art shows, dramatic productions and any number of religious ceremonies. An exquisite professional choral group from the Conservatorium of Music in the nearby city of Saintes does the rounds of the small village churches. They practice their repertoire under the tutelage of various visiting conductors from places like Paris. After there is coffee and biscuits to sustain the hungry music-lovers. The acoustics in these old stone buildings are good which is why the musicians wish to use them. “A good acoustic (or any acoustic, for that matter) is essentially a product of the shape of the room. A room that does not have harmonious proportions will never have a good acoustic, no matter what one does with it.” and it is a magical experience to sit there on warm afternoons listening to the angelic voices. On one occasion a small bird of some kind sang back to them from the rafters; his territory invaded.  It was difficult to judge which was the more beautiful, but we awarded the honours to the choristers since they clearly had to work so hard to perfect their art. The sparrow’s full cry seemed to be effortless.

Most weekends we find ourselves milling around fields filled with dozens of trestles that spill over into the nearby streets and lanes. Displayed on these makeshift counters we find the most mind-boggling array of items for sale. Ninety percent of these wares are second-hand, and many are antique. The French never seem to throw anything away; nothing is too insignificant to offer for resale. Particularly attractive are the old farm tools of every kind: butter churns, paddles for stirring the fermenting brews, bottling devices, and hand-made garden tools for every task. Artists set up their stands and display a multitude of different crafts. Books, pamphlets, records, and all sorts of other collector’s items are there in legions.

Many fair-goers make a day of it and bring their own picnics or buy lunch from the stalls cooking local delicacies. The chefs at these affairs all wear extravagantly tall white hats.  And, in their hearts, they are showmen. They flourish, indeed, brandish their pans and flambe the dishes with an enthusiasm that risks self-immolation. Davis has learned a thing or two from such kitchen theatrics and when he flambes his crêpe Suzette the flames reach almost the ceiling. Everyone in the room screams and shouts and Davis is thrilled. “When you can make a middle-aged (even older) audience shout you know you are doing something interesting!”

Another variation on these afternoon activities is the garden fair. We went to one last summer that required two maps and a compass to find, but when we found it in the gardens of a small château it was worth the hunt. The château itself was very beautiful and its surrounding garden and fields were breathtaking. As I looked at the grounds and the surrounding fields populated with gentle “beasts that bite the ground” I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. They are just so absurdly picturesque. It is hard to imagine that the setting could have any purpose other than to be beautiful; like a story or a painting. That is what evokes my laughter because I am very aware of the fact that my pleasure in this scene is one that comes to me from story books; I can imagine a shepherdess and her swain in the next nibbled, green pasture. The impulse to tears is because the picture is a bucolic ideal that is so at odds with the wild and wicked ways of the world: the world of fighting and killing.

Dozens of varieties of plants are for sale and when you buy one it comes with a long tutorial on its best management. As well as the stalls selling roses, camellias, clematis, wisteria, orchids, various fruit trees and other ornamental shrubs there are many pets wandering about looking very well-loved. There are huge cages of game birds, ducks, turkeys, geese, chickens and other cages of ornamental birds like peacocks. A lovely old tower stocked with food and water is obviously the home of some rather large four-legged beast – if the size of the droppings is anything to go by.

Each village seems to have a business as its life centre. For example, one of the seven small villages that we pass through on the seventeen kilometre drive from our village to the nearest large centre is the site of a renowned dairy or cremerie.

The surrounding fields are home to handsome Friesian cows. They are black and white and have beautiful faces. The farmers name them by putting huge orange plastic clips in their ears that look like the “marked down” price tags you see in shops or like oversized and garish earrings. Twice a day, for grazing then milking, they traipse from one field to another. This involves walking the docile, generous creatures through the village and across the main traffic road. If we time it just right we can find ourselves caught right in the middle of this daily promenade. Happily we stop the car and sit there entranced while the serene and curious animals stroll, indeed, sashay past at their leisure and many of them actually peer right into the car, ruminating rhythmically as they check us out. We could easily stroke their long faces and huge wet noses if we could only permit ourselves to be so impertinent. “Oh brave new world that has such creatures in it!”