Originally our quaint little village of la Magdelaine sur Tarn was the leper colony for Villemur sur Tarn, the noble and larger town downriver. We may wonder why anyone would locate their contagious sick upriver, but such was the logic of the Middle Ages, and it is not ours to question.
Presumably our house was at one end of that low-lying leper village of the afflicted and their minister-martyrs, and the cemetery was at the other end.
But today both our house and the distant cemetery appear isolated in the countryside, surrounded by fields, as far from the rest of our village as we are from the next two towns along the river in either direction. That is because the whole village moved.
After an especially large flood in 1785, the devastation was severe enough that the entire village decided to relocate to higher ground, up on a ridge about 3km away, to avoid a future catastrophe such as the one that had just passed.
They picked up their houses, barns, and even the church, brick by brick, and toted it all up to higher ground and rebuilt the village where it stands to this day. In the process they took the opportunity to improve a few things about the layout; it was about the time of the Revolution, and the Enlightenment fervor for rational redesign was a part of that foment. La Magdelaine got a facelift in the process of a literal lift in elevation.
Only our house and the cemetery remain on the banks of the Tarn, and the open fields in between which used to be the town.
That’s what you have to do, sometimes, to ensure security and longevity: You don’t abandon the project, but you alter the plan. Sometimes radically. You adjust. You take precautions. You take your bricks to higher ground, and life goes on.
I often wonder at the buy-in of every single villager in that process of relocation. I am sure there were the unwilling and naysayers. I am sure there were old people who would have rather weathered a few more catastrophic floods than leave the river entirely. But the village decided and the town moved, and whoever was not on board eventually moved with it. There was, in the end, universal buy-in, a consensus that has lasted for centuries. The very first generation born up on that hill took the location for granted, no doubt. It was a radical shift, but a permanent one.
Our home sits alone here along the river today (on a slight promontory above the floodplain, so we are not as endangered as the rest of town was, by the way) as testament to how people adapt, together in community, to survive and prosper.
It’s that time of year, the start of vacations, the kickoff of summer, though summer is already here. We will keep kicking it off, it seems, until it is about to end. And this weekend was la Magdelaine’s turn, in our annual Fête au Village. Every village has one. But because this village is ours, it’s obviously better than all the others.
We ate like last year, a cookout near the reservoir with the same comfortable group. But this year there was an addition, a wee new française, barely able to chew her babyfood. She was in the womb last year for this same fête, and this year she was fully 7 months old, and the belle of our ball, teething on a baguette and resisting creamed carrots with a squeal and a laugh.
Of course welcoming a new baby in this current environment of red alerts and terror threats is bittersweet.
M remarked last year as we walked with the crowd back from the pond after the fireworks, just days after the Nice attacks on the 18th: Those people in Nice with their strollers and grandparents were only doing what we are doing now, walking giddily back en groupe from a municipal show, feeling happy and content, full of family joys, a good dinner, and pride in the country. That is when the truck plowed through the crowd, and that was only one truck, we now know, of many.
So there is fear in these fètes now which was not there before. But more even than before, attending the Fête au Village is not just a celebration of our common life, but a patriotic act. It is the finger in the face of the terrorists. “You will not undermine our common life here.” Vive la République ! is written now with our bodies in being present.
It is now an act of defiant patriotism to even have a Fête au Village. Under constant red and orange alert for years now, and after the Nice attack, some villages have decided not to. But not ours. Our people look down on those villages as weak and cowardly! We Magdelainois barbeque’d our merguez and saucisse de Toulouse, and then we walked together as a village, solemnly and resolutely, some of us covered head to toe in veils and some of us in shorts and halter tops, to the reservoir, and we stared across the pond as the fireworks celebrated who we are, and more importantly, who we are becoming. The music this year was almost all Arabic pop – there is no way that was by coincidence.
Some might say the immigrants are winning, hearing their own music at this patriotic “native” moment, cowing the traditional français du souche, coddled and exploiting the culture at the same time that they are sinking it, but that was not the case in la Magdelaine on Saturday night.
We know fireworks, and we know welcome. Our village was making a statement, it seemed to me. You are us, and we are you. And a truck may plow through some of us tonight, under the lamplights fogged by the smoke of patriotism. But we will survive that, too, just like the floods and the Revolution before. We are together, one village united. This is our music, our light reflected on the water. We pay for it with our taxes, and it is a spectacular and beautiful show. This is our village, in common, and together we celebrate that bond, using our money and our handiwork. Watch the bombs bursting in air, and ignore those bursting on the ground. We shall overcome!
You don’t give up on the project. You adapt. You improve the plan.
After the show we walked back together, just as they were walking in Nice, under the lamplights, crowded together. On this night, there were no errant trucks, and the chapel relocated by our ancestors to this high spot stood nobly undisturbed, uplit, glowing gold in the night.
M was exhausted that night from his job’s long hours last week. He could barely hold his head up at dinner. But he made the fireworks show, and the walk back. It is a patriotic act, after all. No one is going to suspect him of being afraid.
We are both around 50 years old now, and so who better than us to lead the charge and set the example? The majority of our lives are behind us, so we have less to lose in defending our rights and common lives, and from experience we are both cautiously circumspect and wise as to what needs to happen next. We are the graybacks, and we are not afraid. Or at least we are less afraid than we are defiant. We don’t just protect our people by moving to higher ground, but we improve on the design of the village in the process.
And we carried that new baby with us, the one who will live in this village long after we are gone, so she could see how it’s done.