And then they were gone…
“Not so much nomadic by nature, as that they were never allowed to stay…” quoted by Cecilia Woloch in “Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem,” from its original source, “Bury Me Standing,” by Isabel Fonseca
They weren’t there yet when I left my home in Essoyes on the morning of September 12 to go to Paris. But when I returned, late at night the following day, they had arrived.
The gypsies. Or, as French law has it, les gens de voyage. They were here for the vendange, and they had set up their tents and parked their motorized caravans in the field I drive past in order to get to my house. As I drove past, I saw the beautiful flickering light of a campfire, and heard the sound of singing, saw silhouettes of people young and old outlined against the fire.
Now they are gone again. About half of them left a couple of days ago: half were still there this morning, working to the very end of a historically “catastrophic” vendange. They were still there when I returned from doing some errands in the village, preparing their lunches on outside fires. A few of them waved to me as we went in our opposite directions down the road, and we shouted Bonjours to each other. It was, in 13 days, our first such encounter. They are shy, and so am I.
Then, by the time I walked down the road again later that day, to mail a letter and pick up my pain au chocolat for the next morning, they were gone. The field was empty, and bare. It was far more empty and bare, in fact, than any field I’ve ever seen after it has been the site of a significant amount of human activity. Protest marches, rock concerts, New Years’ Eve celebrations. We could all learn something from these gens de voyage.
These gypsies left that field spotless.
Like many people, I suppose, I have many questions about gypsies and their lives. For 13 days we lived in close proximity of each other and for the most part I kept my distance, only once venturing near the camp to quietly lay a shirt that had blown off a clothesline and onto the road where I was walking. It was the quiet hour after lunch and, not wanting to disturb anyone, I just draped it over a cooler outside one of the caravans, where I knew someone would find it.
If I am here again next year at this time perhaps I will have the chance to learn more, to move beyond a bonjour, to find out more about gypsy life. Maybe, and maybe not. The gypsies are very private and guarded, and actually so am I.
For now the two impressions that remain from my semi-close encounter with this group of gypsies are the sound of their singing around the campfire on a late-summer night; and the spotless, empty field they left behind.
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. She is currently leading a book group at the American Library in Paris, and in January will be teaching “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the Queens College (CUNY) Education Abroad Program.