…AND WE FOUND ourselves in the old Anjou capital, Angers, in the Pays de la Loire, adrift in the wake of the Brexit referendum, midway through a French presidential election, turning left and right, hoping we wouldn’t be flattened crossing the road, sceptical of whoever was behind the wheel, try as we might to bid Great Britain adieu. My wife, two children and I.
It was Macron v the fascist Le Pen: high noon. This is no exaggeration, it’s just how it was; the French presidential election of 2017.
Sous le soleil exactement.
Now we’ve all moved far to the right, us in the West. It’s like a catastrophic flood, where the pipes spew sewage wholesale; spew faeces and strange mutant-like aquatic life. Our house – our body politic – has become an aqua freak show and the aqua mutants are now audible via every conceivable mode of communication. Only the radio is reserved for the final broadcast. The dialogue of the Newts has been gradual and malignant, so gradual that to express horror reads like neurosis, jitteriness, anxiety: you’re likely to get a tablet as a reflexive treatment. I am referring to the fringe morphing into the mainstream (the Newts): the fringe in Europe and Australia (regarding the Newts you can read Czech author Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts, fittingly published 1936).
This is the world we stumble further into. The fact is, we have a choice: politics, economics, history, philosophy, ideology, how we live. It isn’t fixed, we aren’t watching the world from the vantage point of a human pinnacle, from the final state of social and political evolution, let’s not kid ourselves any further, we walk dangerously close to the edge, with just the one eye open, circling the abyss.
In Angers we found ourselves scouting out a home, as the smoke settled with a victory for Macron.
La France doit être une chance pour tous.
A break in the current. Marcon offered an unashamed rebuke to the momentum of the rising right: Brexit, Salvini, Orbán, Trump, Bannon, ScoMo, populism, the Identitarian Movement, theories of the Great Replacement. Macron’s victory indicated possibilities. A chance to mobilise, to build something new, to change.
Post-election we found a house on a river town in the Sarthe, for us a shift from the bigger picture to life on the ground.
Pourquoi le Sarthe? Again and again.
Pourquoi le Sarthe I’d echo.
Sarthe is a pocket of the Pays de la Loire, historically hemmed in between Brittany, Normandy and Anjou. A crossroads, close to Paris, en route to the Atlantic Ocean, central enough to be not too far from anywhere. The crossroads make plain hard fact. The opposite of an island, the crossroads is the closest place to someplace else; an island is an endpoint.
In our town, few people spoke English. I befriended a man at the market, who had a mate who worked in one of the local factories who spoke English. We were in a factory town and it was the factory man who volunteered to teach me the language and, as it were, to also introduce me to France. In what passed as our lessons, the factory worker would talk of his retirement plan: a field in the region, prepared for the planting of truffles. We’d pause, between my lame attempts to imitate and reproduce alien sounds, and we’d chat, often returning to the subject of the field.
So, we visited the field. It was up a dirt path, secluded and hemmed in with ancient trees. An eagle nested high in the craggy hands of a mighty poplar tree, a nest at the top of the world, from where the Earth must stretch increasingly outwards, curving into a fall. From those heights it’s clear the world is round, that man has reached the moon and that climate change exists. The life of eagles gazing out on the curvature of the Earth. We really could have used a smoke.
As we walked through the field, the owner illustrated with gestures and words what might become; his plans for the future. Above us the blue sky was pinned to the heavens, a blue sky crisscrossed with the white, vaporous lines of passing aircraft, lines like the marks of penance, some act of planetary self-flagellation. It is hard to escape reality; it gazes down angrily from above. We too were exactly under the sun, on a stupidly exposed planet of fools.
Sous le soleil exactement.
The lessons continued.
My brain resisted stubbornly…
Je ne comprend pas!
Soon there was a new conversation that punctuated the stumbling that passed for my learning. The man had befriended a family of refugees from Syria.
Our conversations often returned to the family.
What was said of the family? That they were ordinary people, a family with two sons, referred to in their present more than their past. Not much was said of their past, of their land, nor their loss. We didn’t wallow in their tragedy, which was known and unforgiving. They are you and me. So, in reference, we talked of common things, of daily life and how the family faired.
The family started working that field.
Sous le soleil exactement.
The truffle field and the family converged. Two contrary dreams became entwined into something real, meaningful and rich. The shifting Earth had its own momentum and drive, the field was sold to the family. ‘Sold’ is a word that diminishes the act and the nature of the exchange, at least in this context.
The land is better understood in the realm of dreams, through a sharing of dreams. SOLD, money, economy, income, expenditure, the NASDAQ, the FTSE 100, arbitrage pricing theory, blah, blah, blah: they aren’t real, we shouldn’t make ourselves slaves to them. Land, dirt, earth, soil, sunshine, love, compassion, shelter, hunger, violence: you can feel those words, speak them aloud, know the meaning in your heart and stomach, you know they are real. The truffle field is better understood through the willingness of one man to look at his life, and perceive what he possessed, and to look at the world around him and weigh up his choices, to extend the boundary of who and what mattered. The factory worker’s decision was a decision reached with clarity and resolve, his surplus, his superfluous dream and excess wants, they were traded in for something meaningful, outside of him, outside of his own sense of self At its core, it was a simple act. The simple matters in the big picture, in day-to-day life and in the passage of real things for real people.
THE PURPOSE OF this crooked text is primarily to explore the encounter and the subsequent exchange of the field, the dynamic in its entirety. I’m certain that the encounter and the exchange are not an isolated story, in Europe or Australia. But nor does it take place in a void; it takes place in an age that needs a thousand of these gestures. I’d agreed with this publication to explore this story in detail, but the truth is that my lessons had fallen by the wayside, reality had checked in. I too was hard at the graft.
So I made a few calls and tracked the factory worker down. We arranged to meet again. Fast forward seven or eight months and into the winter.
I’d hoped for a rendezvous at the Tabac; instead, we met at his house. His missus was out and there he was with the kids.
He’d laid out a local white, some cheese, saucisson, some cornichons… I did my best to hold to the topic: the truffle field. He had other ideas…
So the truffle field… I mused.
La vie ensemble: that was how he started.
La vie ensemble, the life together, this was more important than the story.
La vie ensemble, he repeated, this is what matters! We bypassed the story of the field and got straight onto the subject of our town, of the life together! He wasn’t willing to talk about the field (what was this?). Our town, one of twenty where refugees are sent from Marseille.
There is work here. There are factories.
La vie ensemble is très important in this context, the town, the story and me being at this man’s table. That was his connection: la vie ensemble. This was what everything was spinning around. This was the axle, and why our chat turned straight to the town, and the importance of the ensemble, this is why he chose to bypass the truffle story. His position was that we must consider the big picture and see our own action in this context. That we are the picture. We are the agents. How we act shapes our word, shapes it and creates it, it is not up to others. The German artist Joseph Beuys would have applauded:
Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.
Politics is not just the domain of a political class, oligarchs, moguls, admen and bankers: it isn’t just the domain of the victors and beneficiaries of a system shaped by monopoly and competition, and by consequence defined by an ever-shrinking number of participants. No, the factory man is a political agent, conscious, awake, dynamic, earth-shaking. It is his world and what transpires matters to him, he is as important as anyone, we all are.
We aren’t onlookers.
Confronted with the question of his field, and two conflicting dreams, this was the immediate context in which this man’s actions were viewed: the reality.
People here think they are unsafe, you know; they aren’t used to seeing people who are different.
La vie ensemble flowed onto the next topic; the man was now standing as a conseiller municipal. Inroads into the local council were driven by the same feeling that the ensemble needed fighting for, it was the truffle field once again. It was all interconnected.
I’d hung out for a nice story about the field, Roque Dalton poetry in real life, I wanted to keep on dreaming, like everyone I needed to open my eyes, to open them wide.
I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
Those words of Dalton’s are dangerous. The great Roque Dalton, some time before his assassination, my friend the factory worker continued – like Roque Dalton he was all about the real thing! Poetry and bread for everyone.
This can be an eclectic, polylingual town, the man’s voice rose as if he was saying: we’ve struck gold, veins of the stuff, right here in my backyard. And the best part of it was he enjoyed all this, it was written all over him.
He’d stood, and his kids and I raised our eyes, he pushed his shoulders back, belly forward at a statuesque angle, like Danton pointing to the future on the Boulevard Saint-Germain: We should be like children, open, and save the peace – this is the final goal.
I applauded. It wasn’t 1939. It wasn’t 1781 either. Did it matter? Saving the peace was the final goal. Hell yeah! And peace built for everyone. Everyone having something, having a role, having a say, having a place and a part and participating.
Don’t mistake me. This country, like ours, has its problems, but there was something in his talking: it was bold, romantic, clear-eyed. The factory man who believed in painting the world, who knows he is just as capable of doing so as anyone.
In France, the town, the village, the commune: they matter to history. Here the smallest rock can make the whole world grind to a halt. Watch the gilet jaune. Read about the revolution. Fate is not down to some ‘great man’, not down to a great leader; fate is in common hands. There is a lesson in that, a reminder not to sit on those same hands in despair, to shake off our woes and to make the start, to be the change. And that is what this man was doing, exercising his capacity to make the world the kind of place it should be.
Yeah, right, forget the field. I’d let up.
We found the well, so the field has water, the field has water! And it looks like there will be a space for me to lay some truffles too, he added, with a twinkle in his eyes.
I could see in his face it was time to go. I buttoned my coat. He had one last point on his mind, something he had been holding off from, and he left it for the door.
In all this, I am happy, to be in Europe, and I believe in Europe, it’s a young Europe…
We shook hands, and I reflected on the audacity of his words, so at odds with the way people like to see Europe, a young Europe.
The truffle points to a solution of sorts. In an age devoid of leadership, in an age that is beset with immense challenges, in such an age we can revise our dreams, redraft them, change our needs, paint a vision of the kind of world we would dream of inhabiting, and as individuals create it. An age where the individuals, not a hollow leader, make the great change. In such a world Australia might remember that it is a young nation too.
I walked back through the cobbled streets, through the old town, over the bridge and up the Grande Rue, in the deep cold, while irrepressible fires raged back home. France in the heart of winter 2020.
Note: Sous le soleil exactement is taken from the Serge Gainsbourg song of the same name, ‘Exactly under the sun’.