One day I came back home to find one of my best friends sitting in the kitchen, grinning at me as if he had just pulled the prank of the year. I hadn’t seen Harley in a long time. On a hot June day of the canicule, he flew in from New York without telling us, to make a surprise. Since we live in a lieu-dit, a place without street names nor house numbers, all he had was a picture and the name of our hamlet, Verne, that he showed to the bewildered but sprite young taxi driver at the train station in Saint-Etienne. Finding it difficult to locate the appropriate stone farmhouse — knocking door to door and asking in rusty French if they knew of a Brazilian-American guy and his pastry chef wife didn’t seem to work (one person got really suspicious of his harlequinesque appearance, repeating to him in French “I don’t want to buy anything, I don’t want to buy anything!”) — he finally found our house by consulting with the Lapte Mairie or Town Hall for precise directions.
Only Adélaïde was at home so when I came back I was in total shock, like I had just seen a ghost. There he was, wearing a baby blue linen suit, trying out our jams on our wooden farm table in the kitchen, staring back at me and desperately trying to contain his mirth when I entered. He told me that our homemade brioche & jam was the best thing he had ever eaten.
A couple of days later, after Harley went back to the U.S., the Rabeyrin’s, our landlords and friends, were scratching their heads at how somebody could come from so far away and stay for such a short period of time. I’m not sure if they have ever met an American before (besides me), let alone an exuberant New Yorker with a flair for extravagant surprises.
This led me to think about how little I have moved around this year, in contrast to other times in my life. We stayed put in Haute-Loire, occasionally taking the car to Marseille and Paris to visit family (which is already a lot of moving around for some standards). Naturally, we stayed close to home and explored the region. In the end, we discovered that there was such a world of villages and sights to see in our immediate surroundings that the excitement of rural exploration made us feel like there was no need to go far away to discover an interesting place.
It will soon be one year since we’ve moved to Auvergne, one year of cooking almost every day, of taking the small roads. We know Grazac and its snowy trails, the best boucherie in St.-Agrève, a majestic cathedral where a medieval pope is buried in La-Chaise-Dieu, Crapponne-sur-Arzon, a virtually unknown gem of a village that stands frozen in time, and le Chambon-sur-Lignon with its antiquity and book stores & its Saturday market bringing together the greatest regional goat cheese producers in the space of a few stands. We climbed volcanoes for the views, combed forests for mushrooms, and in the process explored neighborhoods of leaves and moss and the infinitely minute populations living in a square foot of earth.
Walter Benjamin examined and exalted the figure of the flâneur: the quintessential observer of modern life who dallied about Paris at the turn of the century, strolling through its arcades full of shops and fashionable people — but who nevertheless remained somewhat distant from the object he was observing, removed in his thoughts. Balzac called flânerie “the gastronomy of the eye”. It would be facile and probably incorrect to say we were rural flâneurs, because after so many cups of tea with our neighbors, walking and photographing the roads and trails surrounding our house, after so many hours in our garden getting our hands full of dirt and plants or having meals with friends in the warm months, we mingled with and imbibed a good gulp of life in the country.
Next month we will move to Marseille. We will continue our posts, but they will look and feel different. There will be seafood, sun, bazaars, and another pace of life. We will surely continue to write about Auvergne, as this year has marked us deeply and the stream of memories, stories, and images that we have to share from here is far from running out.
Roasted fennel & lemon feuilleté + poppy seeds | Serves 4-6
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