BEAUNE, France – Tête de noeud, meaning dickhead, describes a lot of French labor leaders and bosses. Now they're playing chicken over train service. But the strawberries are ripe, and spring lambs are fat on clover, so I drove backroads from Provence to Paris, stopping at any excuse to investigate life in a socialist gulag run by silk-tie capitalists.
Any wine snob will recognize this dateline. The Hospices de Beaune auction each year offers velvety Burgundy vintages, redder than the Wyoming voters who can afford them. And their origin says much about France.
A nobleman named Nicolas Rolin built the splendid Hôtel-Dieu, with its colorful tiled roof, as a hospital for poor people and war veterans. He gave vineyards to the church to pay for free medical care. That was 50 years before Columbus happened upon America.
I've lived in France way too long for any illusions. It is often infuriating. No one anywhere is more galling than a prime French connard. A butthead. Yet there is also the opposite extreme. Beware of any sentence beginning, “France is…” Yet some basics apply.
Fraternité is iffy, and Liberté is getting stressed a bit. Egalité, however, is anchored in stone. Small-s socialism means you can be vastly rich, but you don't brag about it. Safety nets – human rights, not charity – keep people from starving or dying from lack of care.
That extends to politics. Short campaigns have strict rules and evenly shared TV time. Nicolas Sarkozy, who lived high in the Elysées, could be jailed for 10 years if convicted of taking funds from Muammar Qaddafi (who he later helped depose). Corruption is hardly unknown in France, but here you can get punished for it.
And that’s why unions, maddening as they are, are crucial. They keep big business and the state from tipping a delicate balance.
Rolin was an early outlier. Royalty tended toward heartless, blinded by perceived grandeur. Marie-Antoinette preferred her toy spaniels, Ivanka and Don, Jr., to the peasantry. Bastille Day celebrates an end to that, and the French have long memories.
My first long linger, in fact, was in a village of stunning beauty from where the Count of Mirabeau left his 13th century castle for that 1789 revolution in Paris. Depending on your historian, he championed the masses or was a traitor paid by Louis XVI and Austrian royals.
Mirabeau, which means beautiful view, overlooks the once-mighty Durance River into Provence. I sipped a Perrier-menthe at the Café de la Fontaine under gigantic old sycamores and tried to work out why the burbling carved rock fountain looked familiar.
A yellowed clipping inside was the clue. It's where Claude Berri filmed Manon des Sources, the Marcel Pagnol classic about a girl whose father dies trying to find his farm's underground spring. She later learns his neighbor blocked it to steal the water. Because the village was complicit, she stopped up the source that fed the fountain.
Almost immediately, civility collapsed. People in the placid thriving village shouted blame at each other. Their crops and gardens would shrivel. They demanded that the provincial government haul in water and subsidize damages.
Nelly Verhaughe, born in Mirabeau and now 27, runs the old café. “When you grow up in this little world, you learn to love it,” she said. I asked if she was troubled by the T. rex reigning in Washington. She shrugged. “If you fear everything, you can't take pleasure in anything.”
This is what that hoary cliché, la France profonde, really means. Writ large, it applies to le monde profond. Word from the outside now arrives on satellite TV and smart-ish phones rather than on horseback. Still, breaking news that matters is rooted in old books.
With that comforting thought, I drove toward Cavaillon, where luscious melons ripen, and turned right into the Luberon, with its fortresses, leafy town squares and lunch tables. From Apt, my route confounded maps and GPS, winding up Mount Ventoux to gaze out at the world that Victor Hugo declared would be alone without France.
From Nyons, where each year visitors join the running of the olives, a race among groves before the oil gets pressed, I passed Grignan Castle where Madame Sevigny wrote 10-page tweets with quill pens, and then paralleled the Rhone toward Lyon.
France is the place that civilized us all, whether we wanted it or not. It survived Romans, medieval wars, papal chicanery, German occupation, Big Mac attacks, Peter Mayle and Trip Advisor. But for better or worse, its physiognomy and its old soul are changing fast.
At the start of my trip, I happened on the Sunday market in Régusse. Near mounds of delicate gariguette strawberries picked that morning, I found a guy selling rare American CDs. I asked him about politics. He wanted talk about his trips to Austin and Muddy Waters.
But funky little Régusse is a disturbing bellwether. Its two stone windmills have ground wheat for at least five centuries. This year, drought devastated the crop. Elsewhere in France, freak downpours inundated young plants. Despite fresh pains au chocolat on the seat beside me, troubling thoughts followed me to that fountain at Mirabeau.
Pagnol knew his people - and nature. Back then, winter snow fed subterranean streams, but the balance was always precarious. The Durance fed canals to ensure supply. But newcomers sank deep wells for gardens and pools. Cities grew. Demand now soars as snows diminish. Underground streams dry by summer, and aquifer levels drop.
If a sudden crisis undoes a small village, what happens on the grand scale? In Cape Town, once well-watered, people now shower with a damp sponge. When Arizona finally takes note of its impending crisis, a vicious golf war is likely to be the least of it.
Survival is a long-term concern. Meantime, there is the matter of soul, which is a lot to cover in a short dispatch. But briefly...
My France fascination began in 1967 when I happened on the all-night party to mourn the closing of Les Halles, the huge wholesale market Emile Zola called the belly of Paris. Students splashed in the fountains, slung around wineskins, and sang, “Those were the days…” to tubas and trumpets. To the French, la bouffe means more than stuff to eat.
Fast food moved in slowly. When the first McDonalds on the Champs-Elysées opened in the mid-1970s, the French didn't get it. A friend overheard someone say at the counter: “Un Big Mac, s'il vous plait, pas trop cuit.” Medium rare, please.
In 1999, José Bové, a farmer with an Asterix moustache, led protesters on a hay cart to sack a McDonalds being built in the Aveyron, west of Provence. He was later jailed for a few weeks, but, on the way, gendarmes spent an hour and a half with him at a café drinking beer and smoking cigars. Today that McDo in Millau booms, one of four in the vicinity owned by a local Frenchmen. Another 1,500 cover France.
The hamburger has just surpassed the jambon-beurre baguette as France's favorite sandwich. Although many pronounce “burger” as awkwardly as Americans do “croissant,” it is food and therefore France now lays claim to it. On “Burger Quiz,” a popular TV show, two teams - Ketchup and Mayo – answer silly questions to complete for points known as miams. Yums.
Chefs miss the spirit of an American hamburger and use real meat, uncut with filler or floor sweepings. A few add a schmear of foie gras to familiar old steak haché on a brioche bun and jack up the price.
My dinner in Beaune was snails in garlicky butter, that spring lamb, and a glass of…what else? The next day, hurrying to Paris on the A6, lunch was a Big Mac. A meander through France affirms that la vie is still decidedly belle. But don't wait too long to do it.
Photo © Alison Harris. www.alisonharris.com