January 28, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
The modern world doesn’t teach many lessons worth learning. One of the few that is worthwhile is: “It’s later than you think.”
For the past 14 months France’s so-called périphérie has been warring, politically and culturally, with the country’s municipalities since President Macron increased the fuel tax as a means to reduce pollution and help sauver la planète. Naturally the cost fell most heavily on people living away from the big cities, in the rural villages, and in the countryside. The result was L’Attaque des gilets-jaunes across the country that nearly brought down M. le Président and gravely weakened his presidency, as it continues to do. Now France’s regions are divided again, or rather certain individuals representing them are.
As in other Western countries, wealthy urbanites in France have been buying up rural properties for second homes and urban retirees for quiet retreats in which to spend their golden years. A saying in the American West has it that East and West do not lie well together. Nor, very often, do city and country, in France as elsewhere. An example of their incompatibility is the increasing number of lawsuits filed by city slickers against the good country people they have chosen to live among (at least part of the year) for causing their ears to be assaulted by country church bells tolling for morning Mass, cocks crowing the sun up, cattle lowing, sheep in their verdant pastures bleating, and frogs croaking from their ponds; and their olfactory nerves offended by the offal of livestock wafting across carefully surveyed property lines. Recently, a rooster named Maurice (doubtless a tenor) was acquitted of making a public nuisance of himself on the íle d’Oléron, and possibly saved from being translated into coq au vin, when the court decided that the case leveled against his owners by his human neighbors had not been proved. Thus the legal principle that, as someone involved in the case put it, “A rooster has a right to express himself” was affirmed. However, the law being famously fickle—and lawyers even more so—all parties in the French Assembly have agreed a proposition recognizing the notion of a patrimoine sensorial rural that would allow the various regions of France, with the blessing of their départements, to inscribe inventories listing the sounds and odors characteristic of their territories for defense and protection in perpetuity. I wonder why the Sierra Club never thought of such a thing. Perhaps because the large majority of its staff are politicized urban bureaucrats who, confined to their office cubicles, couldn’t smell the difference between a cow pie and a ripe beef taco. Anyhow, this business of nationally branding smells, tastes, sounds, etc. is obviously catching on in Europe. Italy is presently trying have traditional Italian espresso recognized as an item in UNESCO World’s intangible cultural heritage. How coffee, being brewed to be imbibed, could be an intangible substance seems a mystery, but then of course we are listening in on bureaucrats in private communication with one another.
All of which is beside the main point: What do urban people expect or hope from country life? Complaints about crowing roosters, braying donkeys, babbling brooks (perhaps), and noisome hog pens are not only unreasonable, they are inexplicable. These are among the many things that people used to move to the country to find. I recall a steward aboard Queen Mary 2 telling me that what passengers want from an ocean liner today is absolute stability in the roughest seas and a complete absence of vibration. Such people ought to rent a room in a posh hotel in New York or London and remain on secure immoveable ground for seven nights. It is as if country people should move into a city apartment and then sue City Hall to stop the subways from rumbling under the building, the cabs in the streets from honking, the garbage trucks from making their collection at six in the morning, and their operators slamming cans around. Quite properly they’d be ridiculed as ignorant, unsophisticated hayseeds who belong back on the farm pitching dung and impregnating milkmaids (if there are any left) in haylofts.
One would assume that Parisians with money enough to afford a home in the country would also have the education and the sophistication to appreciate the appeal and human value of rural life. Education, after all, implies contact with reality. But education, even for the best, the brightest—and the richest—is no longer what it was in the now-vanished bourgeois age. We mustn’t expect overmuch from it, and from the deracinated, “nowhere people” to whom it awards degrees at graduation and thereafter passes out into what they think of as the “real” world.