It is a very rare moment when France strikes me as wild.
Picturesque? Of course.
Quaint? Most definitely.
But wild? Almost never.
Not much more than a century ago, apart from a handful of relatively small cities, most of the geography of France was untamed, and unseen by the urban citizens. Not so long ago, hundreds of dialects were spoken throughout the country in such variety that villagers just miles apart often could barely communicate with one another and viewed each other as foreigners.
This was an era before all the Italian grey wolves that had originally descended from the Alps and roamed the center of France uninhibited for centuries were extinguished by an aggressive government program meant to civilize the country, and overly-effective sheep farmers brought the population of Pyrenean brown bears down to under 10. This was before rails and paved roads began to extend their webs in every direction, connecting the country but also domesticating it.
Modern France feels tame, tranquil, sleepy: a land fettered by humanity. A land stripped, toiled and tied down.
But a few weeks back I lived in an alternate reality – one in which the people of France had disappeared, their buildings, dwellings, amusements, places of worship were empty and deteriorating; their roads were broken, washed over with mud, sand and grass, and you couldn’t hear their cars – no – just waves, wind, birds and the swish and crinkle of passing storms assaulting trees and bushes.
I rode on my bicycle for hours every day through the heavy pounding rain, day after day without seeing a soul, and I suddenly found myself in a France that was momentarily unhinged – and I saw that no land is ever completely tamable.
I’ve been depressed this year. Mostly it’s just me. Personal stuff, family stuff, anxiety issues (hence not blogging much). But some of it has also been the town I live in – Pau…a claustrophobia I’ve begun to feel living here, this seemingly idyllic little French town, “a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.”
That feeling has been magnified by the truly crappy weather inundating Western Europe for the last many months and months and months.
Day after day. Rain. Chill. The rain has been falling a majority of days this year, as though the clouds are stubbornly trying to clean the landscape. And according to meteorologists last month was the most consistently cold May in France since people started recording such things.
The asphalt is crumbling on almost every street in Pau, like some cheesy metaphor for the breakdown of the glue of society. It feels like there is no reason at all to leave one’s apartment – because what is there outside besides puddles and at the very best, a few pockets of glum, resentful fortitude?
Central Pau on any typical day this year:
Blue skies surprise me, the sun surprises me, seeing human beings surprises me. And it’s definitely not just me – last week I was at the supermarket and a cashier was coming back from a smoke break and enthusiastically said to another cashier that it was a miracle, she had ALMOST seen the sun through the clouds! She said this without sarcasm. She was genuinely excited.
Two weeks ago an old Spanish man stopped us in the middle of the street in a small Basque town we were visiting, pointed at the sky and then bringing his hands together in front of his chest, said “We must all pray that it will not rain today!” and then walked on.
France is officially in a recession, as though the economy itself (along with the collective spirit of the people) has been weighed down by Seasonal Affective Disorder, by the wet, muddy, indifferent greyness of everything.
No wonder I’ve been depressed!
A few months ago I bought some Groupon deal for seven nights in a chalet on a “campsite” along the Basque coast, but it had to be used before the high season. So my boyfriend and I drove to the coast on a Saturday in the end of May in the midst of a deluge.
When we arrived it was clear that we were some of the only people in France who thought it would still be fun to go to a campsite in bad weather.
Despite the fact that we were almost the only people arriving on the property built to accommodate many hundreds of people, we were told we had to must wear wristbands at all times to help “identify” us.
The cheerful brochures we were handed advertising a sunny campsite brimming with smiling tan families contrasted beautifully with the mournful, desolate emptiness of the site, and the colorful structures at the entrance had an effect opposite of the intention – serving to emphasize the solitude.
After we’d settled in, we walked around the property and by the endless row upon row of chalets and mobile homes, nearly all empty.
I was very happy.
I usually feel claustrophobic doing French “camping.” I’m from California and Alaska – so when I want to camp, I want to go OUTside in nature, not to a fenced property full of little boxes, that are full of people packed together like farm animals pretending to be feral.
But the complete quiet of this place almost felt akin to real camping…all this emptiness almost seemed perhaps just the slightest bit wild…
My solitude increased when my boyfriend left on Tuesday morning to return to work in Pau. I had hoped there might be some breaks in the rain when I could take out my bike and explore but no such luck. I stubbornly began biking in the rain every day. Initially I only intended to go out briefly – but the stormy landscape stripped of humans was so compelling that I found myself leaving for hours at a time, returning drenched and invigorated.
Every day my adventures by bicycle took on the fantastical qualities of some particular novel or another, as my imagination in its isolation ran away with me. Every image I saw became part of a new story…and these stories had to be wordy, a bit silly and hopefully quite melodramatic.
On Tuesday, it was Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood) where Pacifica finds herself as Jimmy, the sole human survivor in post-apocalyptic world where human objects and structures have begun to break free from their originally designated identity.
Despite biking for hours I saw no other human beings, only what started to appear like the broken remnants of a civilization. Campsite after campsite, chalet after chalet, mobil home after mobil home, empty and lifeless.
I was in a landscape strewn with flimsy human constructions. Despite the intentionally transitory nature of such structures, when I walked on the muddy dirt pathways between them, I got the kind of feeling one has walking through old cave dwellings or Roman ruins: People inhabited these spaces – ate here, slept here, made love here – and the only mark that is left from all of the living that was done is the structure itself.
I felt the weight of the imagined destruction, a nostalgia and sadness for the nature of seasons, of eras, of epochs – the certainty of change. As much as it seems like the French will come to inhabit these little structures every July and August like clockwork, bringing their carloads full of mostly unnecessary camping supplies, and all the comforts of home for their time inside a mobile home in the “outdoors,” someday this too will end, and these buildings – what will happen to them – how long would they take to rot away if they were left like this, just like this – empty, uncared for, until the plants break them down into more hospitable homes for different sorts of life forms?
I biked along a fat little river into the forest.
It was so well-fed it no longer seemed to be moving quickly. Instead it seemed to take its time, moving its incredible girth with confidence and assertiveness. It was full, ripe, ready to spill out and give itself to the land.
The only life forms I spotted were some quail that darted across the path in front of me, and several horses. I felt supremely alone on the planet and despite being within constant site of human structures, closer to nature than I had felt in a long time – like the forest and river had just woken up, stretched out, and taken one deep long breath.
Wednesday I went wandered along the coast itself. As I got closer to the wind-whipped beach the sound of the sand flying became stronger and stronger, the rattle of tiny fractions of stone against stone, multiplied by the millions. It was such a complex sound, too complex for human understanding, a wheezing, rattling, whistling sound, like a monstrous invisible snake, sliding along, hissing louder and louder as it approaches you and surrounds you, the force of its movement sending sand flying. And then I was perhaps a little bit Harry Potter – facing my inner snake song, and the inhospitableness of the landscape. It was not a place where humans should be in that moment – not an environment made for human skin, for human membranes.
With grit in my teeth and my exposed skin smarting from the bite of each grain, I turned around and continued on a path North.
The only other human I saw was a man on a bicycle heading towards me, with a round leathery face, looking not unlike an apple doll. He scowled at me as he passed by.
I ended up wandering down a bumpy dirt road, stumbling into mysterious dilapidated ruins, where I found myself considering ghosts. I was transported from the beach to the moors. Then in Wuthering Heights, I myself the narrator wandering in the heath, I tried to piece together a sad story from the remnants of destroyed lives I found around me.
And as I explored on Thursday, the empty beach village of Labenne-Océane began to take on the look of a deserted carnival. I suddenly entered the science fiction world of Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes.
There is something horrible about beach paraphernalia when it’s raining, something sinister about the once-bright bleached signs hanging over barred doors and shuttered windows, something disquieting about deserted toys and games and fun left to rot.
Where is Mr. Dark? In the Fun Palace or perhaps the Reptilarium?
France is full of wide-open space and is still predominantly a country of villages and small towns; only 11 French cities currently have more than 200,000 inhabitants. But despite the fact that there are plenty of stretches of land where you can still feel far away from urban humanity, the general pulse of the land of France is sluggish and sleepy. Cows and sheep that loll across the mountains only have a vague, ancestral memory of quick hunters with sharp claws and teeth, and the prickle of anxiety that spread through their ranks at the smell of musty predators’ sweat. Now sheep, cows and horses wander the mountains, valleys and plains knowing no fear, imagining no danger, startling at no crackle of branches or quick movement out of the corner of their eyes.
It was a different land not too long ago. But what changed France? Transportation – roads, rails, bicycles. Tourism and money and travellers, radio and television and now internet. The slow enforcing of a common tongue, and this strange new thing called French national identity – an invention of the 20th century. And industrialized farming changed the landscape – cleared the land and gave it a strict utilitarian purpose, but no freedom to express itself.
Personally, almost all land in France feels like farmland or people-land. Even the mountains. So being outdoors never quite feels wild, never quite feels savage. It’s hard to find places in nature where humans haven’t left their controlling mark. The ancient forests where you might have walked for days and days, barely even seeing the light of day through the treetops, so thick was the growth, are mostly gone – manicured down and thinned out to little splotches of deep green between flattened farmlands. The forests that remain are just a little too friendly and full of easy trails.
When the people are hiding in their houses, I can feel that the land still has some mischief left in it. That much is clear. When the tourists have given up, the rain having beaten everyone into glum submission, the forests seem cheerful and the beaches are breathing more steadily.
It’s in these “civilized” places, the places that are designed to be full of people, that I see the wildness, the potential savagery of French nature. You can imagine the decay, the loosening grip of the human hand on things, and the wind and waves and aggressive roots and tendrils taking over.