How come I'm living in the French Pyrenees
“Me,” James said.
He had flown to England from America to help me vacate my apartment and sell all my belongings. In five days I was heading for India to research a book. Why fix yourself to one holiday home when there is a whole world to explore?
The next morning we took a ferry to France.
“I was wrong,” James confessed twenty-four hours later. We had reached the Mediterranean. “I can’t take on a house this far from home. It’s impossible.”
I turned right. The Pyrenean mountains silhouetted the blue sky ahead of us. My heart opened. I recognized home.
“You’re going to India,” James reminded me. “Coming to this house is a crazy idea. You can’t have it. Turn around.”
I drove on. It was February 1995. Orchards of cherry trees stretched back from the road, rich with pink blossom, mountains shining bright with snow above them.
We turned onto a mountain road.
“Is this right?” I asked.
We had climbed high, and our road now plunged toward a river valley. James did not answer. He had taken a vow of silence that would last till we were safely on the road away from here. We followed bends in the river to the village.
Its houses cluster around a hill like cells in a honeycomb. To be in one house is to be joined to all the others, their shapes curved and rising snug against each other with their shuttered windows and orange-tiled roofs. I found the house we were looking for, opened the door, and took my first steps inside French mountain village life.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, pushing back the shutters and looking out along the valley. You could look down and count the trout in the river below.
Behind me James reached a finger into the wall and pulled off several feet of plaster. The house’s rear wall was the bare rock of the hillside, which leaked like a spring onto the floor. The house wiring was strung along the copper pipes of the plumbing, which ran below the ceiling.
“It needs some work,” I admitted.
James was studying to become a Zen priest. He pulled out a wooden chair, sat on it, and closed his eyes. He would stay in meditation till I was ready to go. I brought in my boxes of remaining possessions and took them upstairs, away from the wet floor. They were my pledge that I would return.
I did go to India, but for the last time. This little home in France has contained my wanderlust. Every year, for months at a time, I return. The house was once the goathouse for the monastery of the founding monks, and so dates back to the middle ages. It has watched generations come and go. Perhaps that’s one reason I am a traveler who is learning to stay still. Living in this village is like travelling through time.
A bell tolls and a party of people dressed in black come out of the new village hall built across the river. They cross the bridge and mount the steps to the church that crowns the village. Twice my return has seen me witness such funerals. Old people retreat indoors then die. Every morning I meet a widow on her way back from the cemetery, visiting her husband who was once my neighbour.
History passes in lives like these, but as seasons too. Those February blossoms fall and cherries grow. I wait for the ripeness of wild figs, apricots, brambles, almonds and pomegranates too. Bats stream out along the river at dusk, nightingales return to sing from favorite branches, frogs croak mating calls, and in summer young folk from Paris return to their ancestral homes. A show band brings crowds to dance in the village square at the end of August, then the rock pool and its imported beach empty of holidaymakers, grapes ripen for the October harvest, and in November vines stripe the landscape in red and gold.
I come downstairs to find a dog sitting on the window ledge. We take our regular walk through hillsides worked with terraces as ancient as any in the Andes. That’s what wanderlust means to me now. Walking my hills with my friend the dog.