August in Essoyes
The first clue was the open doors of the church the other morning. The church doors in our village are rarely open. France, as you have probably heard, is a fairly secular nation nowadays.
But the French love holidays, and so it is that the Catholic holiday of the Feast of the Assumption–August 15–is still a national holiday in France.
I knew that, but I did not quite realize what a big deal it was until the sound of music came floating across the fields toward me from the direction of the village square–or was it the church? the other night…
From a distance all I could hear was the sound of music, and occasionally an amplified voice speaking. And so I took a stroll, to investigate.
It turns out that the celebration was neither in the church nor in the village square, but just outside the church. There a band was playing music that sounded vaguely Celtic, to listeners seated within a contained area, so the event was apparently at least semi-private. But it was public as well, of course, since the music was reaching across the fields even to me on the edge of town. As I strolled into town, along the way several of the houses I passed had many cars parked outside, and in one yard I saw several long tables set up in the backyard, children playing, adults gathered in a circle talking, clearly awaiting the time for a grand feast.
August in France is famously when most French people take their vacations. The general exodus is not quite as total as it was thirty years ago–there has been an effort in recent years to get people to stagger their vacations, which has been somewhat successful. Now many people begin their vacations after the 14 of July (what we call Bastille Day), instead of on August 1, so that now at least the traffic is not all going in the same way on those crowded weekends of July and August that start and end the famous, month-long French vacations.
Here in Essoyes, some people leave to go to the South of France on vacation, and others come here to vacation, mostly from Paris, but also from Belgium and other places. You can tell the tourists from the townspeople (or the summer people) by the little maps they clutch in their hands as they walk the streets, following the trail of Renoir in Essoyes. I enjoyed leading the participants in our new “mini” writing workshops around the town this month as well, telling them about the connection of the Renoir family to this town.
One Sunday, late in July, in fact it was July 31, I heard the sound of taps being played somewhere in the village. I ticked through the list of holidays in my head, and couldn’t figure out what it might be for. I still don’t know but I suspect it may have something to do with commemoration of the evacuation of the Maquis Montcalm from the forest near Mussy-sur-Seine and Grancey-sur-Ource, on August 2, 1944.
Every year on August 2 there is a commemorative randonné (hike) that leaves from Mussy and takes villagers and visitors along parts of the trail where these local résistants set up camp in the summer of 1944, and from which they were mobilizing and preparing to help liberate this part of France when the Allies drew near. Unfortunately they were denounced and during the wee hours of August 2, had to break up their camp, evacuate, and attempt to disappear into the population again. There is much more of this story to tell and I plan to tell more of it in another post. For now I will just say that for the second time I went on one of these randonnés, which are organized and led by Guy Prunier, a 82-year-old retired engineer who has devoted his retirement years to documenting, honoring, and telling this story. In the course of this year’s randonné I learned that every year on the last Sunday of July, there is a commemorative ceremony held in the church in Mussy. Perhaps there was one in Essoyes as well, or more likely a commemorative laying of flowers in the war memorial section of the cemetery. It sounded to me like that was the general direction from which I could hear the bugle playing taps.
I also learned that on that fateful day in 1944, the Gestapo had rolled down the road we live on on their way to Mussy. Ghosts of the past…
The wheat and rape seed have been harvested, and the farmers are beginning to till the fields. Soon the vendange, the annual harvest of this area’s most important agricultural product, the grapes used to make champagne, will begin.
And another very significant project began in Essoyes in July this year: namely, the restoration of the Renoir family home, which is scheduled to open to the public, as part of Du Cote des Renoir, next May.
But more about all that in another post…for now, I hope wherever you are, you are enjoying August…
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.