After a dark and rainy January, I was ready to escape the city. With icy temperatures and heavy car traffic from the public transit strike, Paris was under a haze of pollution. Last week, the air quality index peaked at 154. It hurt my lungs to even walk, let alone run.
Luckily, I have a roommate whose mother lives in Champagne. And some country air was exactly what we needed. So on Friday afternoon, the three of us boarded a TER regional train and headed two hours southeast to the tiny town of Essoyes.
The train no longer travels all the way to Essoyes. French towns used to be linked by local trains, but with the modern popularity of cars and the exodus from small villages, these local lines have become nearly obsolete. Instead, we descended at Vendeuvre, and Phineas’s mother picked us up. She only rents a car when she needs to get to Paris or to pick up one of her sons from the train station.
After following a winding road along Champagne vineyards and rolling hills, we arrived in Essoyes, a classic French village of small stone houses centered around a steepled church and split in half by the river Ource. The house of Phineas’s mom is a few minutes past the town, right at the edge of national forest land and surrounded by trees and farming fields. The house is a classic French chalet design, with a sloped roof, two mint green-painted balconies and brown wood shutters. It would look at home in the northwoods of Minnesota, too, which is fitting since that is where she is from.
The cabin’s lawn was decorated by the previous owner with carved stone chairs and a decrepit water pump, covered in ivy. Considering the house is actually not old enough to merit such antiquated features, this is an interesting aesthetic choice, but apparently the former proprietor wanted the area to appear “more rustic.”
In Paris, I miss silence. Yesterday morning, I was woken up when my neighbor’s flowerpot fell several stories and shattered right outside our window. Today, it was motorcycle engines revving and the heavy grind of the street cleaning machines. Living on the ground floor, we are often awakened at odd hours of the night when people decide to stop for a cigarette and a lively discussion right outside the window:
“ALLEZ LES GARS, BON COURAGE !”
Just another Wednesday at 4 a.m.
In Champagne, it is quiet again. Only the steady pattering of rain and the tapping of pine needles against the windows disturbed the silence, and those were welcome sounds. Often, I do not realize how much residual, repressed stress I carry around in the city until I leave. A welcome release.
Our sleepy weekend consisted of long walks through the woods (avoiding the seasonal boar hunters dressed in orange), hilly trail runs around the vineyards, a stroll into town to pick up baguettes, and evenings of card games, books, apéros with baguettes and chèvre and several bottles of Côte du Rhône wine. And of course, an obligatory Champagne toast. We were in the region, after all.
Aspects of Essoyes remind me of my summers at my grandparents’ cabin in Wisconsin. The elasticity of time. Days are unstructured and unbounded, only broken up by outdoor excursions, mealtimes and concluding another chapter, or another book. When night falls, you turn on a lamp and light the candles. When there’s a chill in the air, you add another log to the fire.
There are certainly times when I wish I could retreat to a cabin in the woods and hide out and write novels. I could go on long runs and make lots of soup and breathe in cool, clean air.
But I would get lonely. Idyllic for a few days, French villages are not easy for young people. There are few jobs — though the neighbor is a 20-year-old forestier who manages the entire forestland all on her own — and few young people around. Although there are actually more people currently moving into Essoyes than out of it, this is not the case for many French villages. It is a hard, quiet life, and even the boulangeries are closing. For now, I’ll take the noisy Parisian youths for neighbors over the boar hunters from Essoyes.
But I am very glad that I have a home away from home in France, a place sheltered from the city, and friends who love reading, bananagrams and trains as much as I do.