During the siege of Paris in 1870/1 the enterprising fellows at Thomas Cook created war holidays: for a few pounds a train and a boat, and then…see where those communards fell. These days the insurance premiums would be too high, though – if the war is old enough, as with WW1 - the tourists will come. Just as they come now to Bosnia and Croatia; though Serbia still lags a little.
Well, middle France isn’t a war zone, and its signs and signifiers not as complex as the English-heavy northern towns of France and the chic semiologies of Paris. However, it is one hell of a mystery zone, a battlefield of mis-readings. Buried beneath the “foreign” myths of the Loire, the French countryide, the tourist spins, the easy-observations (and frankly the stuff downloaded onto the famous memory stick in which I live) there is a subtle and complex community that does not give up its secrets with anything like the carelessness of those Knight Templar societies.
Perhaps Nevers with its friendly families was a clue to its true way, but in Moulins it can seem as though – like “The Lady Vanishes” – nobody is as they seem.
The tourist in the corner, is actually a headmistress, school ended, reading a biography of Garibaldi. She’s come to Moulins only recently. When her husband died. The gang in front of me, French students…are a few French students and a bunch of French-Canadians on exchange for a month (that none were smoking should have been a clue). Perhaps the late: “I’m not carrying a bunch of fucking coins,” from the eldest boy should have been another one.
There is one Parisian, definitely. Except that Alexandra and boyfriend are local, from just outside Moulins; she is the only Hipster in Town. She’s a freelance graphic designer: gets work in Clermont, it’s so-so. Sometimes she goes there, other times she emails designs. Their dog, Kiki, is the second hipster in town, wears a motif collar and nods to pass the time, indifferent to scrutiny. The pony-tail in Metallica shirt is a decorator. Franc. “A home, a drink, someone to love, what else?” he says. He renovates houses in the region for foreigners like me. But not today. Monday? “Rest day,” he says. “Is it Monday?”
Instead the four sit and watch the world. Trapped? “It is the question of a city person.”
City people by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier: not happy, I'd say
“Sun, and a drink,” Franc repeats. The storm breaks, inevitably. And so the Graphic Designer, the art teacher, the decorator and the silent minder – and Kiki – wander off in the rain, and I have as much idea of their lives as of the Paris Commune of 1870.
Actually I know more about the commune; the facts and figures, anyway.
And here: a web quickie, if they help.
This is more helpful: Vargas Llosa's book on Victor Hugo, but beware:
"...as Vargas Llosa admits, it is impossible to know this great author of the Romantic period - even after spending "two years totally immersed" in his books."