Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Soft Landing in France

Somewhere in the Languedoc, Southern France – Talk about a soft landing! After fourteen months of cancer surgery (gone), reconstruction surgeries (done), teeth implants (done), and one final operation to allow me to swallow again, (plus a cut finger, but that’s another silly story), I have landed in the most impossibly soft bed of French lavender.

Here in the Minervois en Languedoc ensconced in a village over a thousand years old, we wake up to the sounds of the birds and the breeze and the couple who walk their dogs; sometimes the dogs wear bells. This village was built as an outlying stumbling block on the way to Carcassonne. In the shape of a snail’s shell, it winds around a central green where the ancient church serves as the final refuge after every foot of the circulade has been defended. Under the Romanesque church, there is an altar from an even earlier chapel which is easily as old as the first whispers of Christianity in Europe.

Now the village holds two hundred fifty people, mostly artisans, vignerons, ex-pats from various parts of Europe. We are only the second Americans to come here, and certainly the first Texans. I intend to put a Cathar flag and a Texas flag out front soon as it warms up.

I had no idea when we first decided to buy a little home here that the area was teeming with history, both bloody and benign. This is the home of the Troubadours and the Langue d’Oc in which they couched their poems set to music; courtly love, knightly bravery, the beauty of existence. Later it became the center of the first protestant movement and the Pope in Rome used that as an excuse to join with the weak King in Paris 

view out our front window

to come here with a band of brigands and plunderers to dethrone the Count of Toulouse, who was as powerful as the King. Money, land, and power were of course the engines of this invasion but Christianity was the cover story. Every single protestant Cathar was slaughtered, starved, or maimed and marched away to death on a bonfire. The Catholic Church resumed its collection of tithes and lands, the Counts were de-fanged, and the land became ostensibly Frankish, but in truth it never happened in the hearts of the people here. The accent still reflects the old langue d’Oc, the sense of independence and grace still flourishes, and the food is very different.

It is almost December now, and cold by Texan standards; about 45 to 60 and going down. Last night it reached 34 or so. I finally learned how to wear enough layers and a wool scarf and heavy overcoat. Some locals are still going around in shorts or normal outfits, which beats hell out of me; must be thicker blood.

This is wine and olive country and has been since the Greeks and Romans brought their cultivars here and planted them to foster trade. Grapes spring up here un-planted like Johnson grass in Texas, and olive trees stand silvery in every little corner and wedge and otherwise unusable piece of land. Apricots, cherries, peaches are on sale everywhere during harvest.

The wine is in the tanks now, the harvest finished on about October 20th. I will be tasting them this week and try to form a sensible opinion, though I don’t really know what the hell I am talking about yet. That is my next mountain to climb – viticulture in this beautiful part of this ancient land!

Next: the perils and insanity of renovating a thousand year old stable!


Ed Ward said...

Ahem. The Cathars weren't exactly protestants. Or, rather, Protestants. What they were were heretics. That's not as negative an assessment as it sounds: it simply means that they were (very much) at odds with the way the Church wanted things run in Rome. In English, their belief system was called the Albigensian Heresy, because it was centered in Albi, although some of the more dramatic moments happened in Béziers and Carcassonne. Personally, I find the Cathar belief system (everything evil is the result of mankind, we're all doomed because we're sinners from birth) very much at odds with the beautiful countryside it grew up in, and its practice (priests were called perfects, and were absolute dictators of their congregations, with literally the power of life or death over individuals: when it was your time to die, the perfect would tell you, and then you had to stop eating and drinking until you died, although this usually only occurred when it was obvious someone was terminal -- but sometimes it was a way to dispose of enemies). On the one hand, what happened to them was horrible. On the other hand, I don't think the movement had much of a future.

Protestantism is quite another matter, and it was centuries later, in the wake of Martin Luther. For that, you want to look up Wars of Religion. And yes, all around here they had immense power. To this day there are tons of Protestant churches: you can tell them because they're built in the style of a classical temple, with pillars, and no steeple. Louis XIV and the Pope ganged up on them, and if you ever come down here, I can show you exactly how that affected the local architecture. The star-fort in the center of town (now a high-school, appropriately enough) is just the most obvious example.

After the Revolution, the French finally got their shit together about religion down here and started fighting about things that made sense, like wine prices.

BobiDale said...

Love this, beautiful country and positive story. Sure hope there is more coming soon

BobiDale said...

Love this, and wonderful photo, looking forward to more. Congrats on being able to live in such a beautiful, historic place.

Anonymous said...

Great to see you blogging again.

Maybe this will be covered in the next blog post, but is it a pain for Americans to buy property in France? And how on earth did you find out about this place?

Anonymous said...

OK Joe

I found it. This is great stuff. Next thing we know you'll be hanging out with R Crumb and producing 78's


Nick Spitzer
American Routes