After the events on Bastille Day in Nice, I decided to head off into the French countryside and find if the real France was still out there somewhere, In times of crisis, we tend to unfurl the flag and fall back on our Republican bedrock, but we also like to hark back to out traditional “douce France” – within every Frenchman there is a dormant peasant. Deep down All Frenchmen and women have rural roots and perhaps still a few traces of mud on their boots. So it was on a hot and lazy summer Sunday that I went drifting.
Drifting, true drifting, is difficult. We are conditioned by a time ethic and structured by our life routines. It is difficult to just cast off and go where the current takes us – like a message in a bottle cast into the ocean – where will it go, if it actually goes anywhere?
I can’t drift, I need a destination, however random that may be. I unfold a local map and try to be as random as possible – close our eyes and point … ah, I’ve already been there. Drifting is one thing, but this is also a “voyage of discovery” – the whole point of undertaking such an enterprise is (as they say in Star Trek) “To boldly go where no man has been before,” or in my case, to go somewhere this man has never been before. In my quest for rural France, I find an obscure village on the map “Luçay le Libre” – an intriguing name and what is more, it lies beyond the local county boundary – not only shall I be discovering a new place, but I shall be crossing frontiers. So, camera in hand, it is time to hit the road.
A good day for photos – clear blue skies, and in this corner of my little world, vast, flat landscapes – fields of wheat or sunflowers stretching into the interminable distance to eventually meet the sky on a far but clear horizon. Straight roads and clean cut clear horizons – the dividing line is definite, the contrasts are clear and everything stands out – very much a contradiction to those troubled times we are living in.
You might have this common misconception that the French countryside is all small, enclosed fields, separated by charming hedgerows and each field full of Charolais grazing nonchalantly on sweet verdant pasture – and this is certainly true of the Normandy region for example – fields, hedgerows, orchards and herds of dairy cows contentedly chewing the cud – Normandy all cider and cheese – I however live in the “grain basket” of France – vast “intensively-farmed fields” and not a hedgerow in sight.
This place used to be all hedgerows, but in 1949, the French government undertook huge agricultural reforms – France needed feeding and so the government embarked on a paternalist “collectivization” of French agriculture – small family farms were encourage to merge, hedgerows got ripped out to make larger and more productive fields and farmers got cheap loans to invest in modern machinery – some still say that theses reforms ripped the heart out of rural France, but the country needed feeding and agriculture was still a case of many farmers working to near subsistence-level, selling off what surplus that had at the weekly village market. Besides the late forties and early fifties marked a massive migration from the countryside to the cities – there was no money to be made on the farm, so youngsters headed off to work in factories.
I suppose that there is no better indicator of French historical, social and economic change than the countryside – and now these rural wastelands are a sign of technological change. Out in the fields there is more growing that just wheat – wind turbines are sprouting everywhere
At this harvest time, hay bales are juxtaposed with wind turbines -modern France.
And so to those far flung villages – once thriving communities – autonomous communities who bothered little about the goings-on in the big cities. There was the café and the market and what more did you need?
I’ve ended up in a village called Vatan, until you actually reach the main square, the place looks like a ghost town – houses shuttered up against the searing afternoon heat and shops and businesses closed for the duration -in the main square, a handful of cafés open for business – mostly passing tourists, a few motorcyclists on an afternoon run and errant souls like myself. Villages like this were once the hub of thriving agricultural communities, but now everyday seems a slow death, the place has lost a great part of its raison d’être.
And then there is the Tour de France – the world’s greatest cycle race and perhaps one of the few things that still truly unites all Frenchmen – Cycling apart, watching the lengthy TV afternoon coverage of each stage of the Tour de France, all those people who rarely head into deepest France actually have the opportunity to see what the place really looks like – watching the Tour is truly worthy it, if only to see real France. Looking at the signs in Vatan, I don’t think the Tour has been here for years.
And when I finally get to Luçay Le Libre …. four or five houses, a church and ….. the twilight zone that is the French countryside.
Finally on my return, I did google my final destination and … nothing, not even an explanation of the name.