After a stop in hectic Florence, the pastoral fields of France inspire. And thus, a writer writes…
Amsterdam is doing it. Barcelona too. And Venice, and Santorini, even frosty Iceland and mist-draped Bhutan. It seems these fabulous meccas for sight-seeing and selfie-backgrounds have had enough.
If the airlines weren’t overbooked, their metropolitan residents might just pack their own bags and move away… addresses unknown… whole cities fleeing the inundation of a good thing gone bad—tourists!
And that’s how it was in Florence this year.
Like snakes ready to strangle the Duomo, lines coiled twice around the majestic church’s base. Heat-woggled visitors sprawled on their backs at David’s enormous feet. Along the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio seemed to slump in its middle as, heads down, tourists shouldered aside the weak and in squadron and phalanx formations writhed toward armies from the opposite side.
Grey sidewalks, viewed from above, as my feet,
like a tightrope-walker’s, feel for crevices and fractures,
up-crops and odd, dimpled weatherings, just right for cracking bones.
Beyond, in micro and often macro plastic waves,
Humanity surges into squared-piazzas,
Swelling against statues and chiseled granite walls,
A throbbing, electronic dead zone of wired-heads and gelato-covered tongues that speak in many languages, but only into phones.
Paris, Madrid, Berlin may be able to absorb the increase in tourism that the improving fiscal status of many middle-class retirees and Airbnb have provoked, but smaller cities—the ones noted for their “charm,” are reeling — some even proposing to limit the number of visitors they can welcome.
Over-booked restaurants, litter, Chinese-made local souvenirs, and pick-pocket-perfect crowds have changed the experience of a European vacation.
Those tourist sites with watery access are even more at risk for being overwhelmed with seasonal guests. Cruise ships swarm the lagoons of Venice, and in the Greek Cyclades upwards of 10,000 off-loaded picture-snapping daily visitors march up and down Santorini’s blue and white-washed streets.
It is only at night, with the ogglers safely feeding at their cruise ship’s buffet, that the cities begin to resemble the places its residents remember from only a few years ago.
Flower pots in the rustic village Puycelsi, France. (Photo: Marina Brown)
Which is why we decided this year to “slow-vacation.” Even as we and others also “slow-cooked” in France’s climate-changed temperatures, we found rustic solace in a tiny village two hours from anything resembling a runway. I had been there many times before, written about it, and dreamt about it. This time it would not be a trip about nostalgia, nor the village historical delights. This time, I would simply listen to Puycelsi.
Our apartment, it must be said, was spectacular. With a wide terrace looking across rolling, grazing-fields and forests, the view toward the Pyrenees brought us sunsets, shooting stars, and mornings filled with acrobatic skylarks.
Instead of wires, black bindings of electrical efficiency running across the sky,
I see birds scalloping the air, silent ballerinas breakfasting in the breeze.
Instead of horns, honking exasperation, I hear a soft bell from a bullock’s neck,
And his cows’ answer in agreement,
And an ivory necklace of obedient sheep calling encouragement as they ‘Ba’ their way to morning grass.
Instead of skyscrapers, erupting manfully from the earth,
Challenging the very space they occupy,
I see the skin of the planet, like a pelt, tanned here from the sun,
lush there with new growth,
A spackle of creation, of substance and scent, a dozen greens, ochres and blues,
A salmon sunset, hours out of memory,
And the new day’s lifting of this starry veil.
It seems amazing that flowers bloom everywhere when their waterers are rarely seen in Puycelsi. (Photo: Marina Brown)
The walls of Puycelsi encircle 12th century houses so ancient the stone seems to have congealed into an undulating ribbon of rock and roofs and pointed doors, all held together by geraniums and hollyhocks and guarded by drowsy cats who do a terrible job.
Though the village circles a medieval central church, few go through its always-opened door except for respite from the heat and on Sundays to weep when a choir inexplicably brings heaven down to earth.
I fly over Alps and Pyrenees,
Watching jagged purples advance their stab at Dolomites’ granite ribbons.
From my wooden bench in the churchyard’s lee
Like a child or an ant or the honey bee insisting I am sweet,
I count the ranges and fill the gorges
With a kick of moss beneath my toe,
Blessing my domain with petals.
France baked in sweltering temperatures this summer. (Photo: Marina Brown)
The lanes of Puycelsi are quiet. It seems amazing that flowers bloom everywhere, when their waterers are rarely seen. But in the afternoon, when the heat lifts, displaced by a surreptitious breeze, the old people emerge, materializing on stone benches, strolling along the parapets hands hugged behind their backs.
We babbled in French, shared squares of pate’, and made friends with a lonely, old painter who showed us his house filled with Algerian artifacts, gilded antiques, and a velvet-canopied bed where he ate his Wheaties each morning.
And thus, a week merged into two. It was punctuated by the World Cup win by France which brought the entire village into the street to crowd around a television set up in the garden of the village bistro. They all could have watched it on laptops or a television at home, but to sing the victorious Marseilles on such a day, you need to have taken to the streets. I know this. I did it.
But, it is the mornings that arrived by five and the nights that didn’t come until 10 that I treasure. It is the voices of the sheep, and the white dots of the cattle, and the second or third walk of the village parapet on which is found a spectacular snail you’ve never seen, that awaken one to the beauty of … sensorial listening.
In July, the mornings arrive by 5 and the nights last until in Puycelsi. (Photo: Marina Brown)
How long does the magic last in the new place?
With new apples to pick, new wine to taste,
A tactical reframing before the surprised gasp and the novel charm remind you of the day before
When you were even then less astonished.
In this tiny village, suspended among chattering birds, floating across ochred wheat and a Roman forest so thick the bees must wait outside,
I touch the stones from childhood,
And childhoods not my own.
I remember thoughts I’d left here, buried near the well.
And I speak a language understood by sheep who tell me not to leave.
To be an outsider, with nothing here to bind, but the beauty in the lichen and the season’s fragrant turns,
Then feel time shift with a medieval brush of a sleeve I felt when dreaming,
Is to posit that the ghosts want me still
to keep their magic potions,
To feed them wonder every day
and then return the favor.
Did we miss not notching another historically significant monument into our tourist’s belt? Did we fret that a great museum wasn’t noted on a Facebook’s post? Did we yearn to join the sweating, marching bands behind a tour-guide’s red umbrella?
Go ahead—guess. But for now, I’ll just murmur as I fall asleep…
Good night, sheep, that call with grandpa-voices and discuss grass and shady sleeping-posts all day,
Good night, sheep, who “Ba” negatives and always walk in single-file.
Good night, agreeing munchers, supporting every nay-say that you hear.
Good night, sheep, who give weight to each day and pull wool to your chins when you sleep,
And salt the meadows with silver shadows that Ba softly to me at night.
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