Old Is The Color
We’re all getting older all the time, a fact that has been forcefully brought home to me this week by having two birthday boys in the house at once. But no matter how old they get, they’ll never be really old, not by French standards.
Here old is measured in centuries, as in “we’re having a hard time finding plumbing fixtures for this part of the house that was started in the 13th century.” There a bad side and a good side to this: on the one hand, you feel like an upstart newcomer being from a country that’s younger than most people’s houses, but on the other hand, you’re not dragging the weight of all those centuries around with you everywhere you go.
When the Greeks invaded Gaul they brought the idea of stone cutting with them. Lacking power tools, each and every stonecutter left the imprints of his daily work for us to gawk at thousands of years later.
Then the Romans showed up, knocked down most of the work done by the Greeks, and introduced plumbing to the land. Lots of their plumbing still exists here,
since it was built to last forever, unlike the plumbing in our house which was built to last until the plumber put the check in the bank. In fact, dealing with the plumber has aged us more than any six birthdays combined, and we’d pretty much prefer to move into an unrestored Roman ruin than call him again.
That might actually be easier than it sounds, since around here just about every time you put a shovel in the ground you end up uncovering some priceless bit of antiquity. If I dig in my garden at home I might find that pair of pruning shears I lost a couple of summers ago, but that’s about it. It all kind of puts you in your place, if you think about it.
What trips me up, even more than the plumbing, is the idea that whatever I think here, wherever I think it, it’s all old news. People have been here for so long already, thinking what people think, doing what people do, for more time than I know how to imagine. There’s not a lot new under the sun here, which is at once the charm and the heavy burden of the place.
Buildings are in layers, modern atop Roman piled on Greek built over Gallic as far back as it goes, a busy warren of human life through the centuries. Ideas here are like that too, each new thought is sifted through the filter of a long, long history of thought. It’s hard to leave one’s mark on generations to come, unless one is a plumber, and then all bets are off. Coming from a country where the new and the now are valued more highly than whatever happened there and then, it’s an eye-opening experience.
Living as we are in a land that’s been invaded countless times, our house, like many houses, is behind a locked gate set in a stone wall. Strangely, this does not make me feel safer and more secure, but rather, in dark moments, I feel trapped. We’re starting to talk about going home. It’s a long conversation.