For six weeks in a languid summer four years ago, deep in the south of France, I lived a simple life in a medieval village of 83 residents lost in time. If I had known what magic I was living then, I would have savoured it longer, squeezed out the essence, stored the juice in a bottle and drunk from it daily in the years that followed.
The village of Labastide-Esparbairenque is accessed by a winding road that makes its way from the fortress walled town of Carcassonne, through ancient hamlets perched on riverbeds and lined with summer flowers. This French enclave of old world living sits halfway up a bushland hill, with a smattering of stone dwellings centred around a tiny chapel and a village hall.
There are no shops, no cafes, no retail to be had. Food trucks visit weekly on different days. The boucherie van for fresh meats and sausages, the boulangerie cart for bread baked better than you would at home, a grocery truck for everything else.
The elderly locals hobble down the lanes with walking sticks to buy a week’s worth of produce and banter with the butcher, the baker and the grocer. They supplement their bought fare with local eggs from backyard chickens and plots of vegetables between tumbling homes.
The locals speak a dialect here that’s guttural, with every syllable drawn from the belly and swirled around the mouth before it’s vocally spat out like savoured wine. An Occitan language as ancient as 960 AD, loved by troubadours in medieval times and now only shared between native tongues.
Yet they welcomed our band of merry English speaking writers into their village, invited us into their homes, to wedding celebrations of couples we’d never met and to watch the soccer on big screens in the village hall. A mix of schoolgirl French, hand gestures and 3 Euro bottles of wine ensured we understood each other.
I found myself here thanks to a Google search in a café in Chamonix trying to find a place in my travels to stop, write and finish a book I had bursting under my skin. La Muse writer’s colony beckoned, a community of artists from around the globe who regularly descend upon a rambling 12th century manor house filled with bedrooms that support the next Kerouac, Dupleix and Atwood for a week at a time.
I signed up for a three (that would become six) week retreat, caught the train to Carcassonne and headed into the hills to share a summer with an eclectic mix of wild writers, each creating a thread in a season’s throw to keep the outside city chills at bay.
Days were simple. Wake, steam espressos on a stove top, drink them on a sun filled terrace of weather sodden boards threatening to give way into a tree filled valley that falls into a crystal creek. Wander with a fellow writer to the village Source, a spring of natural water, and fill our bottles for the day. Walk half an hour through the bush to Roquefere for baguettes and confiture served up on a terrace by a charming French couple under the shadow of a “real” castle.
Write on the terrace, or back in your room at a desk, on a blanket by the creek, or hike the hills, or talk about writing, or fall asleep under the sun, wake, and write or hike some more.
When the breeze spoke through the trees as dusk held its hand to the sky, we would meet each other in the kitchen and create dishes to bring to the table to share. Some afternoons I’d walk solo to the pêche a la truite and pluck 12 fresh trout from the canal, stuff them with garlic butter and lemon and roast in the oven for my new found friends.
For dessert, we’d share what we’d written that day, or sing along with the Irish and chant songs with the Germans and laugh with glee. Other nights we’d invite village neighbours to dine by giant candlelight on rusted chairs under a balcony cover held together with vines.
Hair went unbrushed, feet went bare, makeup melted in the heat in the bathroom drawer where it remained. Wifi didn’t exist, unless you sat halfway up the back stairs and held your laptop high, and a weekly visit to Carcassonne to shop at the Carrefour sufficed for any other urban needs.
We bonded through pranks and hijinks, giddy on fresh air and home baked food. Haunted cottages woke us in the night with screams from within and kept us awake by day with tales from the town mayor of torture chambers during the inquisition.
Rosè was drunk like water with no hangovers to be found and a drive to a nearby lake cooled us down when we went mad with village tales, valley claustrophobia, and the humid heat that forever stuck to our skin.
It felt, like childhood.
But like childhood it, too, peaked and the days were too soon bruised with longing for the days we had just days before. The heat of the afternoon came with a clip of cold air as the sun dipped. Friends departed and strangers took their place. The ecstasy of holiday connection gave way to awkward new faces whose shape did not fit the spaces left behind.
Kids rush to be adults and when they get there, they wish they were kids again. We were kids that simple summer and as adults we thought we knew what was coming.
Some ripped the summer off like a band aid and left without looking back, others lingered around the car that was to drive them to the train station and the journey home. We hugged, and cried and waved goodbye, knowing each person that left was one person closer to us leaving too.
Then one day, we were all gone, the chairs on the terrace packed up, empty rosé bottles on the kitchen sill now filled with dripping candles to keep the encroaching winter dark at bay.
Those carefree weeks are the slow life barometer from which all other moments in my now pandemic life are measured. Here I sit in my sun burnt country with international borders closed for those coming in and those going out, in a state tarnished by other states who refuse to let any of us cross their borders.
My family and friends are all banished to a life of waiting for some magic vaccine that will hopefully give Australians their freedom back. Those languid days under a Languedoc sun are a luxury now, a landmark of what has been lost and a pinnacle to return to, if we can.
I often think back to that time. When speech was free and flowing and rooms came with open arms and generous hugs with heart. I wish for that guttural romantic language to savour and spit out like wine.
Instead I choose my words in 2020 carefully, if I speak at all, for the world I inhabit is angry and I risk 1000 citizen marshals telling me what I say and what I feel is not right and is not valid, before I even utter a moan. When I do speak, there’s no room for forgiveness, it is I that then doubts my intentions, my experience and my worth because the world we felt certain in has proven there is no certain at all.
Everything in the old world is amplified in the new, the macro has become micro and time’s passage has taken on a different realm. What once took an hour, takes five, rooms are impossible to read and so better to choose not to enter them at all.
I didn’t think of my future that summer, not the way I lust after those past days now, sucking that bottle of essence through memories to relive the joy of living barefoot and wild.
I know what I’ll call that juice when I bottle it – “la vie d’un enfant adulte” or the life of an adult child.