My Lovely Little Village in the Heart of France
I love my little village in the heart of France, or as they say in France, in la France profonde.
I don’t get to be here all that much–just a few times a year, when I come here to meet with my Writing from the Heart students, or to spend some time with my sons in the place I just call “paradise” for short.
Essoyes is a very typical little French village in many ways (which means that actually it is a very special kind of place). It also has some special claims to distinction, most notably as the village where Renoir loved to spend his summers for much of his life.
But today I want to focus on a couple of the ordinary things that are so special to me, the things that soothe my soul and inspire me every time I am here, and cause me to fall in love with Essoyes all over again.
First of all there is the sense of continuity that is so comforting. I first came here more than 30 years ago, and I have been drawn back here for a variety of reasons for all that time. In the first period, I came here often. Then there was a 16-year period when I was not able to come at all. When I came back then after such a long time, I harbored a secret fear that it would have changed a great deal in my absence.
I need not have feared. One of the things I love most about Essoyes is that, as in much of France, change happens, but it happens slowly and thoughtfully. There is not “progress” for the sake of progress, with no thought given to whether that “progress” will actually make things better or worse.
Along with recognition that change is both inevitable and good, there is recognition that respect for the past is also important. So change happens, but it does not happen haphazardly. It happens slowly, deliberately, and with respect for local and traditional aesthetics.
This time one of the things that is new is that the Petit Casino grocery that used to be on the corner in the main square in the center of town has now moved to a larger new building a short walk away, toward the edge of the village. Probably some villagers do not like this. My guess is that most of them do: certainly they are continuing to shop in the new store, which is run by the same kind, friendly grocer and his wife who ran the old store. “The new store is good for you?” I asked him today, not having seen him since before the new store opened. “It’s good for everyone,” he answered, smiling.
What is not new is the reliability of the lovely bells that ring out from the church on the hour, the quarter hour, the half hour, and the three-quarters hour, marking the passage of time, reminding villagers when the shops are about to close for lunch, when they will reopen again for the early evening hours, when it is time to go to bed, when it is time to get up again. Hearing those bells again makes me feel grounded in a way that is deeply comforting and feels quite simply, right.
What is also not new is the text carved into the stone wall of a building I walk by every day on my way to the village from our place. “Posée par Emile Barré, age 11 ans, 1 mai 1872” it says on one of the stones. And every time I read it a little boy, aged 11 in 1872, remains alive for me in some kind of wonderful way. I don’t know what he looked like, or Essoyes looked like then, what private griefs or joys were his, how long he lived and whether his life was on the whole happy and successful, or not.
I do know that he lived, that he was a boy, a boy who lived in Essoyes; that on the first day of May in 1872 there was an important occasion, the construction of a building that would last well into the future; and that someone thought that this boy, and this day, were important enough to grant them this little piece of immortality, this connection between past and future.
There is more, so much more, to say about Essoyes. There will be more to come on another day.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris, Hawaii, and Cuba for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. You can read more of her work about France, about Paris, and about the Champagne region, at Bonjour Paris and Smithsonian.com.