By December 27, 2010January 27th, 2021Peter Sprague

I left Paris in the evening, headed south on an overnight train. It was late June, 1954, I had been fifteen for about two months. The night train was the way to travel. Trains have the right pace for going somewhere. Someone was going to meet me with a car and take me to a village in Provence called Tourtour. I don’t remember the train station where I arrived. It might have been Draguignan. I don’t remember who met me or how they found me.

It was very early in the morning, we drove for a while through beautiful countryside, rolling hills with cultivated fields and villages that seemed part of history but not part of any world that I had seen before. I felt like a time traveler. Only the car seemed familiar.

The someone who met me delivered me to Madame Rolland, a lady in shades of grey on the darker side of 50. She lived in a small 500 year old stone house that was built into the houses next to it on a narrow street in the tiny village of Tourtour. I was where I was supposed to be.

I later learned that almost nothing ever happened in Tourtour. It should have been very quiet that morning. Instead I arrived at the beginning of a day long celebration of some important annual event. 1000 or more people from adjacent villages poured into Tourtour which normally had less than 200 residents.

I was immediately asked if I had white pants to go with my white shirt. I didn’t. Skinny pants to fit my skinny frame were produced from somewhere along with a red cummerbund and stringy black tie. I soon resembled every other male in Tourtour, or at least my outfit did.

I did not know what was going on but everyone else did and I had no choice but to go along. There was a parade with a band that I walked in, and ever stranger, there were dances that I sort of danced in, along with the rest of the village. I felt like a martian dropped into a square dance in a barn in the Berkshires who did not know any of the steps, or the rules, or the music.

More than half the time when the dancers moved left I moved right, and vice versa. If I was not part of the dance I was certainly part of the amusement. I tried to grin through my embarrassment. 15 year old boys don’t naturally like being part of anybody’s amusement. I had no choice and the smiles around me were kind, which helped.

It was a real Festival for the enjoyment of the locals. I did not see any tourists with cameras. there was a wonderful exuberance.

At the end of a long day I found my room – up two flights of stairs in a medieval house that might have been 14 feet wide but seemed narrower. My room was about half the width of the house and had one window with shutters. I opened the shutters and looked out at a countryside that was even more beautiful than I had seen that morning. A spectrum of fields with a predominance of green, yellow and lavender. I lived with the aroma of lavender for the next 6-7 weeks and in my memory until today. It was good place to be.

It became even better as the weeks went on. Tourtour seemed to have been there forever. The population was shrinking and no one had built anything new for hundreds of years.

The town was built around a fountain, shaded by two gigantic elms. the town square was about 80 x 150 ft, surrounded by ochre colored stone and stucco buildings that seemed to have been all built at the same time. They flowed into each other in mutual support.

The ground had been pounded flat by centuries of feet although it was soft in one area where the men played boules. There was one significant building, a 400 year old small castle with turreted corners set back with a small lawn in front. It was divided into the Town Hall and the Post Office and whatever other functions the village and Paris decided were necessary.

Looking up from the square there was an ancient church with a bell tower and almost no windows. It was on top of a hill and about five minutes walk from the village and about 200 feet closer to God. You could see the Church for miles in every direction.

The square had a bar that was generally occupied by the men of the village and a few women. It sold tobacco, wine, odd things I didn’t know like Pastis, and the occasional ham sandwich. There was a baker on the square just up the road from our house. There may have been a small grocery store with fruits or vegetables outside. The butcher arrived twice a week in a truck that opened up on the side. That was about it for commerce.

There were no restaurants. I ate in the ground floor kitchen with Madame Rolland, her husband and usually one or two others. We had only a tiny stove and no oven. Madame would make a casserole and I would carry it to the bakery with instructions. “vingt trois minutes s’il vous plait”. We would then divide the meal into eight portions and I remember regularly eating half. Boys with an appetite are always appreciated by a good cook, and Madame was a good cook. I have been searching for her onion omelette ever since. Garlic was purple and herbes de Provence were outside the door.

I don’t remember any routine. Or anybody who particularly worried about me. Someone loaned me an old bicycle with no gears. I rode around a lot, always uphill. One day I rode up a long driveway a few kilometers form Tourtour. There was a big house occupied by a family from far away. I had a creepy feeling that I was way out of my league and trespassing. Instead I was discovered by a French family from Paris with three young children who invited me to join their family picnic.

I later learned that a certain class of French people at the high end of the social structure mimic the British Gentry. They had it down pat including a 1929 Roll Royce 7 passenger convertible and passable English. The Rolls was the first one I had seen that wasn’t in a picture. It was very impressive.
We all went off in the CAR and drove across open fields to somewhere nearby. There was even a wicker hamper with all the ingredients.

That was the high point of my local adventures. Mostly I hung around the village. The men taught me to play boules. The boules pitch was in front of the two benches where the widows sat, lined up in a row like black crows. I had the idea that when one flew away there would immediately be a new one to take her place,

One day I rode out to a farm about ten minutes outside the village. They were threshing wheat on a circular stone platform. A horse with blinkers or a blindfold was plodding slowly around a post pulling a large stone roller. The roller separated the wheat from the chaff. we would sweep away the chaff and collect the wheat. It was 9 years after WW11. Somehow the farm seemed much further back in the past. For my occasional efforts on the farm I would be rewarded with a simple lunch while drinking rough red local wine diluted with water and sugar for fortification. I remember the heat.

On July 14, Bastille Day, I went to the church bell tower with the village priest. We climbed 20 feet of stairs into a small stone chamber about 10 feet on a side. At the appropriate time he began to pull the rope that rang the bell over our heads. He went into a state of religious and political ecstasy The ringing seemed to go on forever, reverberating off the walls. The room filled with the ripe aroma of priestly sweat and fanaticism. It was one of the few frightening experiences I had that Summer. I was very glad to get out of the cell like room, away from the priest, and into the fresh air.
I went to Sunday services a couple of times. The women went to the Church – the men went to the bar.

I have a very shaky memory about the kids in the village. I guess the older teenagers were elsewhere, continuing the tradition of leaving the village for the bright lights of the city – any city. There were not a lot of kids my age. I was slowly developing an interest in girls but I don’t remember any event that increased my interest. I was reportedly the first foreigner who had ever lived in the village. I was the “American” and probably perceived to be an odd duck. I was an odd duck.

Despite the fact that I came from a different world we had little stuff that differentiated us. I had a Swiss knife and a borrowed bike. At home in the States I had a portable radio. A year later I got a kodak pony 35 mm camera. No kids in Tourtour or at home had any stuff and what little we had was the same as everybody else’s. I rarely used a telephone, Madame did not have a phone and I went to the post office to use the phone. I don’t remember anything about money but I must have had travelers checks, and M. Rolland had been paid for room and board.

I remember spending more time with adults in the village. I had enjoyed being a kid until I was about 12. I was not good at adolescence. I wanted to grow up quickly and get on with my life. Adolescence seemed an awkward way station.

About half way through the Summer I discovered that I was an orphan – that was what the village had concluded based on the evidence. I was by myself, I had no parents they knew about, I must be an orphan. Everyone had been so kind to me that I decided to remain an orphan.

I could not easily explain why I was there at all. The truth was that I flunked French in my first year at Andover. My French teacher, M. Jean Rolland explained that I had two choices, I could go to Summer school at Andover or go live with his mother in the South of France for the same expense, It was an easy choice. I got my dentist’s secretary to witness a passport application. I made a reservation on a plane and then called my parents to give them the happy news that I had been invited to go to France by my French teacher. They thought that was very exciting, Later in the conversation I kind of mentioned that I had flunked French.

M. Rolland showed up about 2 weeks after I arrived for his 1 month annual vacation in his home village. We never tried to have formal lessons but my French was improving.

He arranged three excursions in his small car. We went to the beach in St Raphael between Cannes and St Tropez. The bikini had not yet arrived at the beach but I enjoyed a 2 day stay and ate fresh fish, which we never had in the village. On a different trip we visited the rough landscape of the Gorges of Verdun which was a bleak and somewhat touristy thing to do, and then we went to Grasse where a French Artist named Picasso had an pottery atelier that sold one off pots and platters for the outrageous price of $100 plus. That was way over my head and any budget I could conceive of.

Life moved at a slow pace in Tourtour. Life moves at a slower pace when you are young. My stay came to an end. I looked forward to taking the train back to Paris, reuniting with my parents and heading home.

I left Tourtour at the creak of dawn, around 5:45 am. I was stunned to find that most of the village was there to see me off. I hugged a lot of people I hadn’t realized cared all that much. Rough cheeks of the Boule players, warm bosomy hugs from the widows, hugs and awkward hand shakes from the kids. I still remember having tears in my eyes.

Tourtour changed my life. It made me realize what an extraordinary world there was beyond Williamstown, Mass. I discovered that I could make my way in that world. It left me with a permanent affection for the French and the quality of life that exists in a village in Provence.

A few years after I left the French government made Tourtour a Monument of France. I went back to Tourtour in the early ‘60s and again in 1969. Not much had changed. At least they could make sure that the stones and mortar would stay the same.

I would return regularly in the following decades. Madame Rolland joined the ladies on the bench and eventually flew off. The Elms died and were replace by large olive trees. A Restaurant or two found space in cellars and served tables that appeared in the square.

The last decade has not been kind to the village of my memories. Tourists have discovered Tourtour. No longer do my French friends smile when they hear the name. It used to sound to them like the name of a child’s toy.

The square had been paved, the boules court is no longer. The widows are in hiding, More restaurants, boutiques, art and craft stores have found ways to somehow infiltrate the buildings. Festive lights hang over the square all summer, but I doubt that the innocence of the festival lingers on.
I too have gotten older and my grumbles should be forgiven.

If you walk over the hill past the Church there is a lovely Inn, the Bastide de Tourtour, built with same material as the village. If you open a bedroom window and look in the right direction the hills are still beautiful, the spectrum of colors seems the same as my memory, and the air is still filled with Lavender even if there is a hint of automobile exhaust.

I still love Tourtour – it was my village and still is.