Monday, 15 June 2015

Provence: Driving into the Absurd



Provence turns anticlockwise, like the untwisting of a bottle cap. Like turning down the volume so you can hear the wind, or the nothing. It unwinds you; you have no choice in the matter. It laughs in the face of your plans and pending emails, it shames you with fields of crimson poppies. It pulls out a chair under a trellis of vines, pours you a glass of rosé and says, there, now spell 'schedule', define 'purpose'. You can't remember what those words look like; the sky is far too blue, everything is absurdly beautiful. You shrug, your mouth makes the little fart-like sound that's French for 'Who knows?'. You sit back and let the dappled sunshine untangle the muscles in your shoulder and try not to hum that John Denver song.

Life is better when it isn't chased. People in these little villages in the Luberon - the hilly middle of Provence - get that. The locals look like tourists even as they go about the business of making a living, earning their bread and butter. Well, baguette and sea-salted Normandy butter, in this case. All the villages in the Luberon, seem to tumble slowly down hillsides onto newly sown rows of lavender, which will all be purple come July. We spend our days sitting on stone walls that drop many feet to the hills below. Sometimes, we take our little red, rented Fiat and drive through winding roads, exploring sleepy villages, stopping for no reason. We follow miles of dirt road to hidden restaurants set in acres of wild countryside singing with cicadas. And come home to a tiny apartment that stands near the local boulangerie in the most beautiful village in Provence, where I sit and write this post.


We're in Lourmarin. A village of blue shuttered windows fringed with roses, shiny cobbled streets, pavement cafes and women in loose linens. Everyone has a dog, everyone knows everyone else, the dogs know each other. Bonjjouurrr, they sing. After the first week, everyone knows us too. They always stop to chat as we walk to the boulangerie for croissants in the morning - broken English meet broken French amidst hand gestures and big smiles. They all have a wicker basket on one arm filled with the day's groceries, and tucked under the other arm, three fresh baguettes. Always three.


The village is scattered with old fountains swimming with fish. Chotto-ma talks to the fish as we sit in the village square with our morning coffee. She comes back and tells us their names, she tells us that each fish has a distinct personality. When she's not talking to fish, she is following the little creek that runs down the alleys between the houses. We follow her, she leads us nowhere, we have nowhere to get to. When the sun gets too hot, we stop for a beer.


Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin, his house still stands in the village. When I was sixteen, I read 'The Fall' and my day shifted on its axis. His work shuts out the world with thick stone walls, it isolates you. At sixteen, isolation was the one thing I craved often. I read him and reread him for two years, till the need to read him left me as suddenly as it had come, much like Camus' own life - a short, intense burst followed by sudden death. If someone had told me then, as I read his books in my humid Calcutta afternoon, that I'd rent an apartment in his village someday, stroll by his house and the grave where he lies, I'd have laughed. Absurd, I might've said. A word Camus would no doubt have approved of.



"At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."




PS: I'll try to put together a photo-list of our favourite villages and restaurants in Provence next. Till then!