When you drive into a tiny village in the French countryside just before midnight, one thing you do not expect to hear is a Gallic bluegrass band performing live a cover of Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down On It.”
Only that’s exactly what we heard when we arrived in Le Monastier last Friday night for a weekend in the country. I shouldn’t have been surprised. France really is quirkier than one might imagine it to be, like the seemingly stern grandfather who sneaks behind your mom’s back to buy you candy.
Florent and I parked in front of his parents’ country home, shrugged, and followed the sound. It was a two-minute walk in the dark to the center of the town, where Les Frères Jacquard were playing on a stage in front of a centuries-old abbey. The crowd, which ranged from toddlers to centenarians, was loving it, forming congo lines and all. “That funky music” has no language barrier, and it was impossible not to move to that bass line.
It took us about two and a half hours to get from Lyon to Le Monastier, in the Auvergne region. It was a beautiful drive, all mountains and sunset, high enough to make your ears pop halfway through. When we arrived, I could see more stars than I’ve yet been able to in France, and the cool breeze called for a sweater (Lyon has been sweltering lately).
Florent’s parents drove separately, so after the little surprise concert, we went and explored the house. It was small and lovely–filled with lace and antiques, a sunny Provençal tablecloth, and postcard-perfect views from nearly every window (if you craned your neck a bit). Of course, there was also the ever-present danger of the classic French cottage: low beams and low-hanging lamps. I always joke that Florent is too grand to live in France; that they must want to kill off the over 5-foot-six population. I, too, had to avoid walking anywhere in the dark lest a concussion become part of the weekend.
The next morning, we had petit-déjeuner and set off to see the town by daylight. Which didn’t really take too long. It was charming, bursting with bright flowers, laundry drying on the line. A refreshing change of pace from the city, it was quiet. Not too quiet on this particular morning, though, as another band was playing, this time on what seemed to be “main street,” as if waking up the town on a lazy Saturday.
Around noon, we headed to Florent’s uncle’s dairy farm in Brignon. I immediately liked Thierry, though I had a bit of trouble understanding his “accent de campagne.” Accents can be one of the biggest roadblocks to comprehension once you’ve learned a second language, turning the newly-familiar back into something foreign.
The farmhouse where he lives is quaint and beautiful; with its stone walls and retro wallpaper, it looks like something out of a Bon Appétit entertaining spread from the seventies. And the view…
We changed our shoes and slopped outside to the barn. It was only a few steps away, really. When I heard “farm,” I pictured acres of rolling hills, separated from any neighbors by a truck ride or a good hike. Again, I forgot that this is France and everything is nestled close together. You’d better hope you like your neighbors.
We petted some sweet baby calves in a pen in the barn. Because they jumped when I approached them, Florent laughingly related that the calves were scared of me. His family misunderstood. “The calves scare you?” they asked in French with a smile. Ignoring crucial pronoun placement, I enthusiastically agreed. “Oui!”
One thing: if you visit France–especially rural France–as an American, everyone assumes you’re some kind of big city person. “Regarde!” they say, as they point out the occasional cow or squirrel. As an American (from New York, Miami, or Los Angeles, surely), the occasional animal citing must be big news to you, something you’ll hasten to post on “Twee-ter.”
I’ve disappointed many a person when I let them know I’m actually from a small town in the middle of Missouri, which they’ve never heard of. “Misery?” they laugh. “It’s misery?” Well. The point is, I see more animals on a single three mile morning run on a country road than I have ever seen in France. And, I assured them, I’ve seen scarier things than a baby cow.
We went inside for lunch. Veal.