We arrived in Paris on the morning of Friday the thirteenth in the midst of a transportation strike, but were caught up immediately in such a swirl of activities as to leave no moment free to fret about any possible inauspiciousness of date. Within forty-eight hours we had caught up with our oldest French friends, partied with a number of my international medievalist friends, and seen miscellaneous friends at the American Cathedral, our local parish home. We are nicely re-established in “our” apartment on the Avenue Suffren — it is a mere technicality that it actually belongs to our daughter — and I have reconnoitered a few favorite haunts, including the large second-hand book market in Georges Brassens Park. But then Paris was put on hold while we made a two-day trip to Poitiers to see Joan’s favorite cousin from childhood days, Gavin Brown. The two had not seen each other in half a century.
I was not actually too keen about going. I have a lot of work to do here, and not a lot of time to do it. Furthermore, long-lost relatives have sometimes been lost for a good reason. I tend to associate myself with a light-hearted maxim of my father’s: Of all my wife’s relations, I like myself the best. I was in for a delightful surprise.
Cousin Gavin and his wife Valerie are ex-pat Brits who for the last twenty-five years have been living in a deep rural commune of Poitou called Brux, about twenty miles south of Poitiers. There they have transformed a large, eccentric old farmhouse and its extensive grounds into a Bower of Bliss of luxuriant climbing roses, bird song, and wild strawberries.
Valerie is a former television writer who has also published several novels. After a lengthy hiatus during which she was occupied with other demands, and especially the protracted care of an ailing mother that involved much commuting between France and the north of England, she has now returned to her writing with renewed purpose. Gavin obviously has had an interesting life, but during our short visit I learned little of the lengthy period between his excellent education (Saint Paul’s School and Cambridge) and his rather astonishing (to me) current situation. He is a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and divides his time between maintaining his rustic acres, a serious job in itself, and marrying and burying people. The Catholic clerical shortage evident even in America is acute here in France.
He is also tasked, in his own humorous phrase, with “the mission to the English.” I could get no agreed-upon number for the British expatriates living in various parts of the countryside of central and southern France, but it is very large. Mostly these are retired people, many of whom, like the Browns themselves, began with a summer retreat that became a year-round abode. There are many villages and hamlets in the Poitou that are now majority Anglophone! The phenomenon has been called, not always with entire good humor, a “second Hundred Years’ War,” referring of course to the devastating English invasions of the fourteenth century.
Anyone who has travelled much in rural France must be at least vaguely aware of the situation, but our trip to Poitiers gave me an entirely new perspective on it. It is not what French people have in mind when they speak of the “immigration problem.” One could plausibly argue, indeed, that the Brits are saving the French countryside. The exodus from the agrarian to the (sub)urban has been particularly dramatic in France. Not too surprisingly, perhaps, most young French couples prefer to live in a new, nicely stuccoed cinderblock “villa” with plumb surfaces and square corners than in picturesque converted cow barns with plumbing from the age of Louis XV. Mostly they don’t like to have to drive fifteen miles to a grocery store. Mostly they like to live somewhere with plausible possibilities of gainful employment.
We were with the Browns for scarcely twenty-four hours, travelling around the edges of a railway strike. Even so, we had a few hours of quality medievalism. Gavin had an obligation to meet with an English couple who were planning to be married in the fabulous abbey church of Saint-Savin, and we were able to spend an hour examining the building and its wall paintings, which are among the oldest and best preserved in all of France, where the unpleasantness of the Wars of Religion and the Revolution tended to wreak havoc with such art. The narrative sequence of the ceiling (roughly the history of Salvation from the Creation to the Exodus and the march toward Canaan) is absolutely extraordinary. We then had an hour or two in Poitiers before our Paris train. This allowed us time for a rather breathless progress through the city, which preserves a good deal of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century domestic architecture in addition to the more famous medieval churches that were our main goal: the great church of Saint Hilary (the town’s most famous local boy made good), the Cathedral, and Notre Dame la Grande, a Romanesque jewel-box. We even got seats on the train, despite the crowding caused by the strike.