IX Defilé de Lancone

By Robert Reitter

Paris engenders varied moods. During the year I spent there at the age of 23 I felt many of these moods, strongly too, but they were not ususally the romantic moods you might first think of..

For the first month or two after deciding to suspend my studies, I did a lot of walking in Paris. From where I lived on a cozy little street near the southernmost of the ancient gates, the Porte de Chatillon, I would walk the mile length of an avenue shaded by chestnut trees, to get really good coffee at the Café Odeon. Then, walking along the elegant Boulevard Saint Germain I might turn left arriving finally at the River Seine. I would carry a book with me; for a time this was the poetry of Appolinaire. One of his poems, called Le Pont Mirabeau, has this refrain:

Night comes, strikes the hour
The days go by and I remain

Vienne la nuit, sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

The rhythmic refrain speaks of the passing hours and the fleeting days like the tolling of a muted, distant bell trying to remind us of an all but forgotten dream.

My way home in the evening would often take me along the Boulevard Arago, a beautiful avenue with old trees and a long high wall separating the sidewalk from whatever was hidden beyond it. I’d feel a pensive sadness walking by that wall.

Returning home once from this walk I met M. Pineault, my landlord, entering the outer gate to his house just as I too was arriving. He greeted me and as usual there was an eagerness he showed  about becoming better acquainted. Sometimes I thought he rented the room to me more for sociability than for the income it brought.  M. Pineault had spent most of his life in Paris, although as a young man he had served abroad as a soldier in the first World War. I decided to ask him about the Boulevard Arago, and what lay behind that long, high wall.

“It is a place of sadness, M. Robert,” he said. “Behind the wall lies the Prison de la Santé. It is very ancient, called by that name because it was  once a hospital long ago, but became a prison during the Revolution in 1789. They say that in the basement they still store there two guillotines.”

“But you know, M. Robert,” he continued, “you are walking everwhere and your mind is too full of its own thoughts. Why not get yourself a bicycle? You would get where you are going one, two, three, and once you got there you could put your mind to studying, or to being with the people you wanted to see. As a matter of fact, I have a feeling that Widow DeVisse, across the street, would be glad to sell you the bike of her late husband.”

I did buy that bike, and not long after I noticed an offer on the bulletin board of a Club I visited most days. It read:

“Two weeks free room and board at the Castle of St. Florent in Corsica, if you help get sailboats ready for the French National School of Sailing.”

An attractive offer but how would I get there? I had enough money to buy simple meals, but not nearly enough to take the train to where the ferry left for Corsica.

I decided to ask M. Pineault for advice.  For a long moment he stroked his chin and then nodded his head as if agreeing to his own thoughts and muttered the name “Les Halles,” still nodding his head. I knew of this place, it was at the time the central food market of Paris, a bustling, noisy locality.

“You will want your bicycle to traverse some of the distance,” he said.  “On the evening that you wish to depart, ride your bicycle to Les Halles and make your way to where the trucks are unloading and getting ready to return to their points of origin. Search the faces of the drivers and when you see one that seems alright, sympathetic, tell him that you wish a ride to the South, to Marseille or Provence. He will direct you to a driver who is heading somewhere down there.”

And so it was that I was given an all-night ride to Marseille by a friendly driver, who secured my bike in his truck’s empty cargo bin. We kept a conversation going through the night to keep him from falling asleep. By that time I’d been in France for six months and was pretty comfortable speaking the language.

Once we arrived in Marseille in the morning, I felt pretty tired, and he pointed me to a house where small rooms were let for little money. I slept till the next day. Then I rode my bike all that sunny morning and early afternoon along the southern coastline toward Nice, where the ferry boats left daily for Corsica. It was a fine spring day, the exercise felt wonderful and there were alluring glimpses of the Mediterranean with the sunlight dancing on its waves. In the late afternoon I reached a mountainous area where the road rose so steeply I had to dismount and walk my bike, and found myself gaining gradually on an old man walking the same road. He was carrying an enormous burlap sack over his left shoulder.

When I came abreast of him, I offered to haul the sack for a while on my bike, but he did not turn his head in my direction, only his eyes, and he made no response to me. Beads of sweat glistened on his bald head and I realized that all the strength he had was devoted to just making his way. I felt the contrast between us keenly. I had energy enough for what I was doing and then some, while he was barely able to perform the heavy tasks his life apparently required of him.

I kept going, soon leaving him far behind, but a shadow had crossed my day. And soon enough the weather started to change. By evening, heavy thunderclouds came in from the sea and as I reached the highest rise on the road a pelting rain started to fall. I put on a short field jacket I had with me. Because I had bought it in an Army-Navy store in the States, I had always imagined it to be weatherproof, but the heavy rain on the mountaintop was more than that jacket could repel. I started my ride downhill, and was soon soaked to the skin.

Bolts of lightning struck nearby on the now dark road and I began to feel afraid.  I hadn’t thought of God much during my high school and college years, though I’d been very mindful of Him before that, and now, I became aware of Him again.

Suddenly off to the right, a driveway appeared and I could just make out a sign advertising a country inn. I rode to the house and entered without knocking to find two elderly ladies looking at me with startled eyes. I could imagine what I looked like to them with my dripping jacket and anxious face. “Would there be a room to let this night?” I asked, trying my best to come across as civilized. “Ah no,” one of the ladies said while both shook their heads. The way they shook their heads in unison made it seem as if they were sisters. “We have no vacancy just now.” It seemed clear enough that the inn was empty aside from these two ladies who ran it, but what was I to do? I said goodnight to them with a heavy heart and left.

Around midnight, off the mountain by now and at the seashore in St. Tropez, about halfway to Nice, I saw a large hotel. Inside at the desk sat an elderly night clerk. He seemed rather distinguished for the position he occupied, looked at me with amusement and compassion and then showed me to a room for that night.

I made it to St. Florent and the castle before nightfall the next day.  A young man who appeared to be the leader greeted me at the entrance-way to the castle, and questioned me as if he were protecting his keep.  “But are you just passing by or did you come here expressly?” he asked.  I explained that I’d seen the notice about the sailboat programHe grudgingly admitted me within, though not without first asking, “But now, you speak another language besides French, do you not?”  An apt if somewhat insulting question. Was he implying that I’d have to be of dim intellect if I spoke no language any better than I could speak French?

The next morning, he left for the mainland as he had planned.  Only eight young women and I were left in the castle.  They were young teachers from various parts of France, there for their Spring break. We got along very well, and better and better as the days progressed.  Even a young man wholly devoid of charm would have acquired some with so many young women to coax it out of him.

I remember the glow of the next few days, the physical well-being, how good it felt to work on the sailboats in the Spring sunshine, to relax and linger over a dinner one of the young women cooked up, each one taking her turn.  But especially it felt good to be admired, to have them make much of me with no other man to make me think that he was more entitled to their attention.

In time I came to sense a gentle pressure to select just one from among them as more than copain, as my special amie.  I hesitated, unwilling to break the spell of the communal attention I was enjoying.  There was a lively, compliant, team-spirited girl with a pixie frame and blue eyes whom I considered choosing, but in the end it was Madeleine, Maddo as she was called, whose shoulder I embraced one evening after supper, as we were all relaxing by a campfire just outside the castle walls.  My gesture was seen as betokening a choice, and perhaps I had meant it to be that.  Yet some inner hesitation remained.  She was a leader among them, ruling with irony and intelligence.  I admired her, but was this love?  She spoke little English and I wondered what kind of family she came from.  Once, she spoke to me and a couple of the others in the group about some porcelain she had in her apartment in Paris, special dishes, as they came from la famille – though she said this last word with eyebrows raised in self-mockery, as if to say, “People give themselves airs but I, I laugh at them, and at myself, and perhaps also at you.”

I sometimes wondered if I had chosen well.  In one of our moments of privacy, which were few and far between, I complained that it was hard to remain chaste for so long, but she only showed a mocking amusement, and moved away.

The last day of their Spring break came amid torrents of rain.  The young women didn’t seem to mind.  A bus came for them early to take them to the ferry, and once on the mainland, they would embark on trains to the towns and cities where they lived and taught in the elementary and secondary schools.

Then gloom settled on the great, unevenly circular room of the old castle, its unpaned windows letting in both wind and water.  I turned on the gas oven to provide some heat, and unfurled the folded sails to rig up against some of the wind coming in, and huddled, waiting for the day to improve.  But my mood of gloom remained, and when the rain started to let up a bit, in the early afternoon, I crept outside for a change of scene.  The castle was not far from the town, and indeed the local constabulary were housed in a low building only a few steps away.  A short man in his fifties, seeing me emerge, approached and asked a bit sharply what my business was there.  When I answered him slowly and politely, he must have inferred that I was no intruder, because he changed his tone.  He said, “The air is very lively in these parts at this time of year.  It makes for very good appetite.  So we eat well, we eat too well.”  His face relaxed into something like a smile and we parted amicably.  But I decided to leave.  What was the point of continuing to stay in the decaying castle, now that all my friends had gone?

I packed up my few belongings, and set off on my bike late in the afternoon.  It wasn’t quite time to start thinking of a place to spend the night when, not far from St. Florent, I came upon a farm with a barn, with two men standing near the road, chatting.  I swung my bike into the earthen driveway, and said, “Good evening.”  One of them, the taller of the two, replied civilly enough and sought to engage me in the chat they had been having.  “And just what would it do for us if the Communists did win, eh?” said the taller one.  “At least there would be some hope for progress then,” his friend replied, “and not this corrupt and static system of cronyism we have now.”  “Ah, and what makes you think the Communists don’t have cronies of their own?” said the taller one with a conspiratorial glance at me.  I smiled, but thought it best to avoid finding a role in this well-worn dialogue.

Instead, I asked the taller man, “Would it at all be possible for me to sleep in this barn tonight?”  “Well, well,” he replied, “you come from far away, do you, been riding your bike all day?”  “In truth, not very long, I’ve been working for the past two weeks at the old castle near St. Florent, and have only been riding the few kilometers from there.”  He graciously said it was alright for me to sleep there this night.  “As for us,” he added, “we sleep in our houses in town.  My friend keeps me company while I work the farm, which I only do now and again.  So with that, we bid you a good rest, and pleasant dreams.  Adieu!” They got into one car and drove off.

I soon went to sleep on some hay in the barn.  It must have been only about eight o’clock, but without supper or light it seemed best just to sleep.  There were, it’s true, little creatures whose retinas made for pairs of small reddish lights on the beams of the dark barn.  But these little foragers, surprised by my presence, seemed not at all menacing, rather friendly I imagined them to be, and they placed no obstacle to a sound, deep sleep.  In the morning, I set off on my bike and after an hour’s ride came upon a meadow full of wildflowers, sloping down to a distant seashore.  A footpath presented itself, and I steered my bike onto it, pedaling more slowly now, taking in the view made vivid by the morning sun.

Coming upon a narrow brook sunk in the grassy meadow, I began to think of coffee, not having had food since the afternoon of the day before. I laid my bike down and sat, taking from its saddle-bag a small field stove and a pan to scoop some brook water for my coffee. I located the meadow on my map. It extended three or four miles ahead of me. The map taught me it had a name, the Defilé de Lancone. Defilé means a narrow pass in the mountains, but this meadow was not so narrow, being perhaps a hundred yards in width. Wildflowers sparkled on it in the morning sunlight like the stars strewn across the sky on a moonless night. I heard the sound of distant bells filtering through the quiet distance, from a flock of sheep I thought, but too far away to be seen.

Suddenly, the moment became fixed in my mind. I knew that however far I had yet to travel, I would never forget that sunlit meadow, and the sound the bells made from the great distance. I had an intuition that many strands from the past were coming together for me just then, and a future was calling.

2 comments on IX Defilé de Lancone

  • Kent Hackmann

    Robert, The title of your contribution was a hook that drew me in to your sensitive recollection.
    Thanks for your contribution.

    On a personal note, not directly pertinent to your essay, I note that after attending two reunions, I decided not to repeat what had proven to be unsatisfying experience. I didn’t have a large circle of friends at Yale, and those I knew well stayed away and are now dead.

    Best wishes in this pandemic year,


  • Don Watson

    This is a beautifully written essay, the right amount of detail and nuance…especially the moment between copain and amie. Appreciating,

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