France's hidden treasure

When Parisians in the know want to get away, they head for the wild wonders of Creuse.

By Mark Hunter

Published November 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Antoine is acting strange, and the grown-ups -- two expat Russians, a Frenchwoman and me, the expat American -- are sitting on Mischa's bare concrete terrace under the pavilion tent overlooking a hillside in the Creuse, trying to figure out what it means. All summer Antoine has been a model 10-year-old. He doesn't bother Mischa during writing hours, or me when I play the guitar, or torture the kittens, and he hasn't broken anything in his body, the junk depot or the stone barn that Mischa has been turning into a three-story house over the past few years. In fact, Antoine learned more masonry working on the barn than some men in the Creuse, where stonework remains a skill as common as knitting. So why is he brooding, when he isn't chirping like a hysterical bird?

Finally someone says: "He doesn't want to go back to Paris."

"Who does?" comes the reply.

For most people, Paris is a city of dreams, and most of those dreams are true. But Paris is also what the French escape in the summer. Paris is where you make the money, and where there must be more money, as D.H. Lawrence's rocking-horse winner said before he died. Paris is where everything you do must have a purpose, because it is the capital, the place where you find all the brains, prizes and risks.

The Creuse belongs to an anti-Paris, another France, that was rich when Lutetia was still a swampy Roman outpost. Its wealth is in the ground, and the ground has been shaped by humans for millennia, until you can't always tell where nature stops and human nature begins. It's damp, misty and wild -- capital-R Romantic country, if you judge by the fact that Georges Sand and Chopin summered in Gargilesse, where the moonlight on the castle overlooking a strategic bend in the river Creuse makes you hungry for a deep kiss.

After 17 years in France I don't mind playing tourist -- hey, the French do it, and it's their country -- but the only tourism I really like is parking myself in a place long and often enough to forget that I don't live there yet. And the Creuse, unlike a lot of paysan France, allows me that illusion.

In medieval times it was called La Marche -- the last long blood-soaked step between the lords of Limousin and Aquitaine to the south and the church-backed kings to the north. The highest hilltop for 15 miles in any direction from Mischa's terrace is capped by the sinister ruins of Brosse, a 12 century fortress ringed by a stream and stone terraces, staring down on the ghosts of shivering battalions armed with dented iron and wood. Local lore tells that after one battle, 100 defenders were hanged from the walls. Well, anyone who survived an assault on that hill would be eager to celebrate with a lynching.

Most of the high ground is just high enough to make pushing a bike over it pleasant work. The bottom land is sculpted by sand-bottomed streams like the Anglin, the pastures divided by stone walls into pastures for sheep, cattle and donkey (the main cart animal here until World War II), bordered by beech, oak and thorn hedges, with marked trails cutting across the hills. The weather can be hard: One April day, I saw snow, hail and rain in a single afternoon. Winter comes early on the sorth wind from the Massif Central. But I'll take that blast any day to escape the monotonous plains of grain and sunflowers 40 miles north, broken only by the forests and lakes of the Sologne, where nobles and executives and politicians keep their hunting lodges and castles and drink Chinon and Touraine wines.

I haven't seen evidence of great fortunes like that in the Creuse, just well-kept fields and houses that speak of a solid prosperity. The few chateaux are either in ruins or small, like Gargilesse. Even the owners of the shirt mills in Argenton-sur-Creuse -- once counted in the dozens, but now only two -- were discreet with their wealth, and Georges Sand's house is too small for company (Chopin excepted). It's a sweet contrast to the wannabe rusticism of the Vaucluse, which like much of Provence has become a Gallic version of the Hamptons.

The Creuse is too far from Paris (three hours south by car) to be completely overrun, but the locals say that within five years it will be another kind of place. The English and Germans and Swiss and Belgians and Dutch have found it, and their Rovers and Mercedes can be spotted beside quietly ostentatious rebuilt stone houses in the summer. Mischa, who drives an Opel with the back seat torn out and the top dented from transporting anything he can tie to it, pioneered that change in a low-budget way. He bought his barn and an acre of stone-fenced land for a few thousand dollars and started learning how to fix it up. Aside from the time he found himself standing on a ladder with one of the main support beams loose in his hands, and a hand infection that nearly turned to gangrene this summer, he's avoided disasters, though locals say that if he cuts one more window into the barn it might come down on anyone inside.

The locals are changing, too. A certain kind are disappearing, the kind who knew animals better than machines. One of them was Marcel, who last winter was standing on a ladder pulling a bale of hay out of the barn to feed his platoon of goats, when the bale slipped and drove him into the ground. They say in the village that the fall isn't what killed him, and I believe it. Marcel had to be pushing 70, but he was built like a beech tree, purple where the sun raked him and with arms like heavy branches. So it's easy to suspect that the hospital cut him down to coffin size, putting a needle filled with the wrong stuff in the wrong place. His sister may not keep the farm, a three-sided complex of barns, sheds and a house with a few half-wild mongrel dogs and a pack of cats dominated by a chatte with three legs, because the other heirs are fighting for it.

There were 6 million farmers in France when Marcel was a young man. Now there are 300,000, whose wives go to the coiffeur (like Madame Bernard in the next village, who sells us our milk and fromage frais) and whose kids go to the university to study agronomics. They still eat what they grow (Madame Bernard also gives us her spare beans), but their notion of economy is closer to Greenspan than Thoreau. They make their cheese in outbuildings that look and smell like laboratories, and they don't live as close to their animals as Marcel did, either. The distance from his front door to both barns is about five running steps, which leaves you time to hear a certain sound in your sleep and get up, shod and out to the animals before they kill a goat that got herded into the wrong shed by mistake.

Nature is still violent, even in a countryside as civilized as France. One of the reasons I go to the Creuse is to remind myself about that violence, and how to handle it. It's simple, really: You watch where you put your feet, head and hands, whether you're shaking plums off a tree to feed yourself and the yellow jackets or crossing the Anglin. That isn't the way you move in Paris. Urban alertness means knowing what's coming down the street at you, not worrying about whether you're stepping on a crack or a piece of dogshit.

The Creuse requires that you watch the grass you're walking on, because that tangled carpet could hide a hole, and that shady spot might be a lounge for snakes. There is a drugstore in nearby Chaillac with a deep collection of vipers in glass jars, and they weren't imported. Nor does local lore recount the legend of a viper that turned into a woman for the sake of pornographic fantasy. Our neighbor Chris, a Parisian who married into the Creuse, casually asked Mischa one night as we were sitting around a fire beside the apple tree, "How many vipers are there on your property?"

"I've never seen any," said Mischa.

"That's right. There's at least a dozen, but you haven't seen them."

Chris, a bearded former radical anarchist, has had surprises of his own in the woods. He was taking apart a junk car he found one day, when he heard humming inside the door panel. "So I opened it slowly," he said.

More exactly, he slowly opened a nest of frelons, a species of large, slow-moving and terribly venomous wasps. They followed him back to his house at the edge of the village, but he had enough of a running start to close the door and windows before they arrived.

So when I walk across Mischa's acre, which hasn't been grazed in years and is now overrun by neck-high nettles, I look first and test the grass with a beech stick I cut in the woods. You think I'm chicken? The yellow jackets whose nest I discovered and avoided might agree, but a snake didn't, and his opinion counts most with me. I saw only his back end as he rocketed away from my stick into the weeds, and it was big for a viper, maybe too big, a good couple inches in diameter. But it was the right color for a viper, a dull brown like dried manure, and the right shape, the blunt back narrowing in a taper that looks hacked-off.

The only time you see the unmistakable triangular snout of a viper is when you surprise him or he rears back to strike. A desperate, wounded viper showed me his fangs in the Pyrenees, a few hours' hike from the nearest help, and I haven't forgotten the sight. Nor do I possess the skills of the local kids, who test their courage by trapping vipers with forked sticks.

Chris says he's seen vipers swimming in the Anglin, which gave me a chill after spending an afternoon probing the bottom rocks with my hand for a pair of sunglasses his little daughter Diane owned until I dropped them crossing the stream one night. But vipers don't really dive under rocks.

Crayfish do, though, and walking along the Anglin with my lover Sophie, Antoine and two other borrowed kids, we met a young man catching them. He told us the technique, maybe because we didn't look like competition. You take a wire basket that costs $4, a fish head doused with a fluid fishermen use to excite their prey and put it in a shady part of the stream. "They like the shadows," he said. That's all, but his haul that day included eleven crayfish in one basket, and one of them was nearly as big as his hand.

That was a good sign. A few years ago fertilizer runoff had poisoned the Anglin, but now even the trout are back. So are the children, mainly kids of summer people from Paris, but with enough local relatives to be accepted in the village. Even the farmers turned out when the children staged a Sunday night party, to watch the older girls show off the latest dances from the city. There hadn't been a village festival in years before that. The "animations," as they're called here -- fireworks, an occasional flea market, a weekend of sideshow rides for the kids and disco for the teenagers -- are concentrated in St.-Benoit-du-Sault, a town with a stunning medieval back end of winding terraces and a hideous front of cheap 1960s roadside construction. Most French politicians took a cut of everything built in this country until the latest generation of magistrates indicted them for it, and it shows.

Yet this little corner of a little country is so perplexingly deep, so tough, that it is hard to wound. One day we took our bikes down a dirt road in the next village, and found ourselves in a marshy lowland where the pastures had gone wild. It only takes one wet summer for that to happen, as Mischa knows. After three blistered mornings with fresh-sharpened sickles, we had barely and badly cleared a small room's worth of nettles and thorns off his acre, and the roots remained. When I asked a farm woman what we could do, she said with the faintest shake of her head: "Plow it under." When we are gone, the ground will remain.

I believe in omens, and we saw one on the dirt track that a Roman legionary would understand. A bird of prey -- a very big hawk, or an owl -- exploded off a branch, showing us the way down the road. Fifty yards along in the woods, we found what looked like an iron mine -- the same rusted rock face you see in the Mesabi range, the same still water that's turned black, the outbuildings equipped with a sluice -- but I rejected the idea out of hand until a local told me that many were started in the Creuse after World War Two. In one of the outbuildings, its walls overrun by vines, someone had set up home with junk furniture. I followed Sophie up the trail in back of the mine, but I kept an eye out for whoever lived there. If he was around, he didn't show himself till we rode back.

I know where he found his furniture, because I've been there. The town dump here is called the dicharge, and Chris goes there nearly every day. His barn is filled with junk lumber he chops for the cooking fire in his kitchen, and a dozen junk bikes he'll never fix up, but which we cannibalized to fix ours. We drove over with Mischa one morning and threw out our kitchen trash, then started picking until the car and the roof were full. Among the haul were a push lawnmower in working shape and a pair of Sunday shoes with the box they were bought in before I was born. They were probably a dead man's shoes -- which is why no one would take them when we met up with friends at our hangout in Argenton, a terrific bistro called the Potiron.

My prize was an illustrated edition of Alexandre Dumas's version of the legend of Lyderic, first Count of Flanders, whose magic powers didn't save him from investing a fatal confidence in his jealous friends (well, Paris still works like that). Beside it on the dirt were a full set of between-wars wedding photos, plus one lonely picture of a young man in infantry regalia. Judging from the county's ever-present monuments to the war dead, his chances of returning weren't higher than his sisters' chances of finding a husband instead of ending up in an Argenton shirt mill.

Scholastic notebooks dated from 1936, decorated with Popular Front-style photos of workers' pavilions from international fairs -- the Creuse still votes on the Left, unlike most of France -- told a tale of academic misery across three Republics. Creusois children learned French (as opposed to the local dialect) by copying out dictations, losing one point out of ten for every mistake. A farmers' union taught them home economy, including how to calculate the monetary value of their butter and beef. These people -- one of whom was born in 1952, the year of my birth -- are probably as dead as the ghost in the Sunday shoes, their attics emptied by relatives eager to sell the house or newcomers with junk of their own to store.

Antoine went back to Paris with his mother -- "Antoine is crying! Antoine is crying!" yelled Fabien, another of the summer kids -- the morning I set out with my Frenchwoman to pick blackberries for jam. We learned one rule fast, following the vines along the hillside trails by the Anglin: Don't get greedy. A perfect berry always hangs just within your reach, but your fingers will come back with thorn points stuck in them, and they'll still hurt when you spot the next cluster within easy picking range. The vines look pliant until you realize that they're woven through every branch and stem for a radius of at least five yards (folks say they can run like that for a kilometer, and I believe it).

But only a fool or a politician gets greedy here. And I'm sorry, but only a fool would tell you the name of the village where he wants to find his own piece of ground and peace of mind. Antoine is still just a kid, but he isn't crying for nothing.

Mark Hunter

Mark Hunter has written for the New York Times Magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique and Modern Maturity, among other publications. He has won numerous awards, including the H.L. Mencken Award.

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