Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 3: OLD FRANCE
Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 3: OLD FRANCE
WHEN I WAS A SCHOOLBOY in Toronto, I wasn’t very good at things like dates of coronations or the forming of parliaments, but whenever I read something like. “At last the right man was found for the job, Samuel de Champlain, a hardy sailor from Brouage in Brittany,” I'd hear the creaking of masts and crash of seas and look out over Percy Waters Florists or O’Leary’s grocery store to a little village in France with haystacks, chickens and cows delightfully located right outside the back doors, and I'd resolve that some day I was going to go there. When I went to high school I added another place I was going to visit as soon as I was old enough to be a dropout and see the world: a medieval city named in a French poem we studied, about a peasant "bent with age” who dreamed of going to Carcassonne.
1 dreamed of Carcassonne and Brouage myself on and off for the next thirty-five years, and when 1 finally made my first trip to Europe I’d made up my mind that I was going to see both these places. But although Carcassonne is well known, when I reached Paris and started making inquiries about Brouage 1 thought for a while that I was the only person who had ever heard of either Brouage or Champlain. I mentioned both to an English woman at the American Express office in Paris and she said vaguely that they made very good champagne in Montpellier, and I told her it wasn't a drink, it was a man, the founder of Canada. A dapper little guy at the Hertz rental office, who burst out laughing when he said. "Hertz puts you in the driver’s seat,” had never heard of Champlain either, but was very polite about him and went to a great deal of trouble to find where Brouage was on a map. And another man. with a Charles Boyer accent, told me that I could get there by train by way of La Rochelle, a town he knew well, as, when he was a boy, his parents had put him in a sort of reform school there so that he couldn’t see so many girls, upon which he philosophized that we should all remember these things when dealing with our own children, and that w'e all did the same things when w'e were young and that it was all a bit of a joke, monsieur, us pretending that we didn’t.
The train to La Rochelle goes through flat farmlands, past chalky grey stone fences and buildings, green crops and hayricks shaped like little cottages. My compartment companion on the train was a shy young girl student with a heart-shaped face, sleek head and slanting eyes, who was majoring in English at the University of Poitiers, and who took the opportunity to exercise her very precise birdlike English pronunciation but had never heard of Brouage. When she left, her place w'as taken by a dark, puffy-faced man in a blue suit and black-rimmed glasses, whom I took to be a businessman on his way to make an important sales pitch. He sat at the w indow, papers spread out on a pullout table, talking to himself. He was tense and nervous and altogether a Frenchman as far removed from such things as the Can Can, existentialism and pop art as you can get. He gave silent, mirthless little laughs, moved his lips, dropped his pen. I hope his speech was a big success and that at this moment he and his six children are lying on the beach at Nice, getting a suntan.
You change trains at La Rochelle for a short twenty-minute run to Rochefort, a market tow-n that appears at times to be populated exclusively by people on bicycles, all wearing berets or black kerchiefs.
The town reminds you somehow of many Ontario villages, with straight
drab streets flanked by flat walls of store fronts; yet you could be lowered there blindfolded by helicopter and know that you were in France. 1 don’t know' what it is—something
about the pastel colors of the buildings, a pretty, peculiar, frowsy effect that begins and ends in France. I was there during a countrywide electric power strike and was able to wander around this ancient town when it was lit only by the moon and a few candles gleaming behind shuttered windows. It looked, surprisingly, as I remember the desert town of Needles. California, with its white stucco or stone walls and silvery rooftops. There was a clear blue-black sky. with Cygnus and Cassiopeia shining in exactly the same place they shone for the first navigators w'ho left this region to cross the Atlantic, and once as if with a nice sense cf theatre, a couple of old men passed me wearing wooden shoes. I was on the street just before the power strike ended and when the lights started to come on. w'hile a group of sailors marched down the sidewalk, going. "Ah. ah, AH!” in time to the surges of electric power, it was like the curtain going up at the end of a play, and one that Tm glad I didn’t miss.
Next day a vivacious auburn-haired woman in L’Empereur Bar, w'ho looked like Jeanmaire and very much of this century, recommended a taxi driver who would take me to Brouage—a lean, taut-looking man in his early thirties who wore a leather jacket and peaked cap, leaned over his steering wheel and drove like a fiend. He occasionally patted his car, a Citroën, which he said would do one hundred and seventy kilometers an hour. His English was spotty and he said, "It is possible,” whenever he didn't know' what I’d asked him, but he was an enthusiastic and conscientious guide. He said he used to do a lot of hunting until he got married; then his wife stopped him hunting and doing a lot of other things. All she'd let him do was work, he said, rolling his eyes.
He identified all birds on the way according to whether they were tough to eat or made good pies. I’d see a bird by the road in a quiet marshy countryside and ask him what kind it was. “Tough,” he’d say, slapping the instrument panel of his Citroën to indicate just how tough, wheeling out to pass a truck or another car.
"What kind of a bird is that?” I’d ask.
"Delicious,” he’d say.
We made a few wrong turns and had to double back through the flat deserted countryside, and a couple of times my driver had to pull
over and study some road signs, talking to himself in French. But finally we were approaching the outer wall of Brouage, a remote and forgotten crumbling stone town originally on the sea but now three miles inland amid lonely salt marshes. The driver walked around getting directions to Champlain's house from kids as shy as meadow mice. A little girl of about eight looked up fro m her housework, holding a broom, and directed us to a stone cottage where a handsome, friendly middle-aged woman with a ruddy oval face appeared, bunted back a big German Shepherd that tried to get past her, out the door, and invited us into her cottage which smelled deliciously of soup. She brought out a booklet on Brouage and Champlain, then put on a sweater and a kerchief and took us through some grassy lanes onto the ramparts of the old town, where we could look out over a great wet sweep of marshland. The only sign of life visible was a distant hunter prowling the bank of a little stream.
Brouage is quietly encouraging tourists, not only as the birthplace of Champlain, but as the site of an ancient fortressed town that was once the second harbor in France. You can see the old canon ramps, and arsenals that were used in holding off raids from La Rochelle and sieges that took place when Cham-
Ahead lay the storybook past: Brouage, birthplace of Champlain, and Carcassonne, immortalized for schoolboys in classroom verse — spired treasuries of castles and moats and memories of daring men vanishing over the horizon toward the New World
plain was a boy. The woman leading us between two rows of ancient crumbling foundations explained that Champlain had lived in more than one house there (she also scrupulously mentioned that he sailed for North America not from Brouage. but from Honfleur), and she took us to the ruins of the house generally believed to be his birthplace. She kept on walking, talking to the cab driver who I suspect had never heard of Champlain before and was intrigued by all this New World history lying within fifteen miles of his hack stand, and while they went ahead. I hung back and entered an old overgrown gate and stood in a patch of weeds inside the stone walls looking across what used to be the harbor of Brouage, and the lonely flatlands where once lay the sea.
Bare fruit trees are visible over the surrounding walls, and all of the town of Brouage seems close enough to hit with an Iroquois arrow, and it’s not hard to imagine Champlain looking out at a very similar sight while he pondered the shape of North America, which in those days was more of an enigma than outer space today. The place has a feeling of having lain fallow ever since, as if the people of Champlain’s day had been left there, cut off from the world by some natural catastrophe, such as a flood. It doesn’t take much of an effort to imagine that the residents are still waiting for Champlain to come back, and have no idea that the New World has been settled and has progressed to electric toothbrushes and shopping plazas since he left.
I traveled by train, again from Rochefort, to Carcassonne, a trip that takes you through the first big vineyards of southern France. The countryside changes gradually until in places it looks a bit like Florida, with subtropical greens and some palms. During the trip a jaunty little bald man with an artificial hand opened his wallet and showed me some kind of document, pointed to a little plate on the window seat which, as far as I could make out, said war amputees had priority to the window seats; but when I got up, he insisted that I stay there, adding polite apologies for disturbing me. Then he told another Frenchman in the compartment a story that ended with him singing two bars from It’s A Long Way To Tipperary. He turned to me and got out of me somehow, mostly by sign language, that I was going to Carcassonne and had no hotel reservation, and when we arrived at the city, signaled me to follow him and led me briskly, without another word, from the station to a nearby hotel. He spoke to the desk clerk, made a little bow and left. I was shown to the best room I had during my entire tour of Europe—a stately circular chamber with gilt-and-crystal chandelier, balconies, brocaded drapes, elegant beige and brown telephone and a bathroom half the size of my living room, all for seven dollars, including service charge.
The town is a quaint and cluttered jumble of treed boulevards, market place, and narrow crowded streets, with the central part crossed by the Midi canal, which extends from the Mediterranean through the southern part of France. But the outstanding sight is the old upper city.
One thing I missed coming to Carcassonne by train was the sight of this from the distance, which I understand you get driving in from the north by car. I did get this distant look at it a couple of days later, though, and it’s like something right out of a book of fairy tales—a cluster of spires, turrets, castle walls and conical towers, some of which were built by the Visigoths who sacked Rome, and most of which was built no later than the thirteenth century. I went there after sundown, but while it was still light, when the twilight gave a pale yellowish light to the green grass of the lists, and sharpened the dark green of the cypress trees that bowed over the ancient moats, across from the castle walls. I began to feel smaller
and smaller as 1 came up close beneath towers with historic names that sound like moves in a chess game: the Bishop's Round Tower; the Cahuzac Tower; the Mipadre, Saint Nazaire, Balthazar and Plo Towers. 1 crossed a heavily chained drawbridge, climbed a winding road toward the courtyard of an enormous castle built by the rulers of Carcassonne. There was hardly anyone around. I stopped a youngster to ask about getting inside the castle, which, I discovered, is occupied by the families of the people who superintend the area, and 1 had the strange experience of standing over a moat, in the middle of a thirteenth-century drawbridge, trying to talk a twentieth-century school girl on a bike into letting me into her castle — which she said was impossible, monsieur, as it was after hours. But what 1 did was just as good: 1 wandered around inside the walled city, a kind of feudal-age ghost town. The stone streets are narrow, crooked and steep, so that you’re down in a stone slot looking up past the ancient castle towers at the moon, and beginning to wonder a bit apprehensively if they pull up the drawbridge at night.
My last look at Carcassonne was a peculiarly fitting one for the place I’d thought of periodically ever since the days when 1 stood in a Toronto school room, my chin buried in my clip-on bow tie, struggling through the lines, “Je me fais vieux / J’ai soixante ans / J'ai travaillé toute ma vie,” about the peasant who was sixty years old and had worked all his life without ever fulfilling his desire to see Carcassonne. I wanted another look at the upper city, and next day I decided to walk there and
back before it was time to catch my train. It was a sunny Sunday
morning. I climbed up through the old town. The distant spires didn't seem to get any closer. I looked at my watch and walked faster. By the time I reached the drawbridge I had to stop and catch my breath and get rid of a kink I get in my back now when I hurry. The city was gleaming around me in the sunlight, serene and ancient and regal.
The last lines of the poem I’d struggled with in school are:
Thus lamented, near to Limoux,
A peasant bent with age.
I said to him. “My friend arise.
We shall go on a trip together.”
But, may the good Lord forgive him!
He died halfway there:
He never did see Carcassonne!
In a strange way I felt that he’d be glad to know that I’d made it for both of us.
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