Tonight we are home from a brief sojourn just two hours to the north of where we live. It’s the best country, in my opinion.
La Corrèze is the home of fairy tales, and the bravery of la Gaillarde in wars since history began, and truly incredible food.
It is also strikingly similar in both landscape and cultural texture to where my parents live and grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in America.
Both places are a crossroads for armies and sit at a collision of national cultures. Both refer to themselves as “The Gateway to the South” in their respective countries. Both are located in the foothills below a vast plateau with bigger mountains beyond, and both are riddled with caves and caverns.
Both are deeply Protestant in religion and relatively poor. Both are inhabited by rugged, ornery, proud, obstinate, fiercely independent, and hot-tempered country folk who remain to this day heavily insulated from both the outside world and each other by the walls of their “hollers.”
And both enjoy roughly the same climate, temperatures, and rainfall on steeply rolling rocky hills, which fosters a farming economy based on similar livestock and raw products.
But that region in Tennessee where my parents are from is solid Trump country, politically conservative, fervently religious, and riven with meth labs, guns, bank credit, and shocking poverty. Of course like anywhere in America its mega-stores stay open 24/7, destroying community life and local profits at the same time, and its people have scant means of any retirement, ever.
By contrast, la Corrèze has produced many high-profile national socialists within a small, sparsely populated area. It is famously Huguenot in heritage and place names like “le Temple” remain, but it is now markedly secular and liberal in population, with strong unions and a booming cultural life, along with the usual French public medicine and free higher education and guaranteed pensions and lavish vacation time and early retirement, etc.
It has not just a robust middle class but a near-universal one. It has produced some leading members of the French Revolution, a large and famously active population of WW2 Resistance fighters, Jacques Chirac, and François Hollande. Infrastructure is at an impressive level of perfection. The highways are not just well-maintained, but landscaped. The retirement homes look like luxury spa resorts!
And every family there, it seems, contains at least one truly hardcore Communist of the type that still refers to the eastern part of Germany as “Occupied Germany.” In a political climate like that, it’s the Left that wields the majority power. Just as in Tennessee any Democrats per force must resemble conservatives elsewhere, so in la Corrèze the Rightists sound alot like other people’s Leftists.
That suits me just fine. And no doubt my personal attraction to that part of France is because I recognize most all the component parts of the place and people as familiar, but I cannot mistake how they have coalesced so differently in a different place. It’s both familiar and surprising at the same time.
La Corrèze for me is sort of a magical alternate universe of what-ifs from my homeland, a mirror world in which everything is the same but also reversed. In that place, a continental crossroads decimated regularly by wars of all sorts, it all came together rather nicer than it might have, or has elsewhere in places with such similar natural and demographic circumstances to it as North Carolina and Korea.
The Corrèziens have made their choices for the greater good, but without compromising their strong (indeed, chauvinistic) identity. They have in that way voted themselves into comfort, even with a relatively low average income, at the same time that they have bolstered their ethnic pride.
Curiously, while in that Corrèzien pride it seems that practically everyone believes that the local veal/bread/butter/water/wine/accent/work-ethic/architecture/etc. (even the rocks, it was revealed to me over the weekend) is the very best and highest quality there is or ever was, you don’t hear anyone say “This is the Best Country in the World.”
In fact, they are more likely to complain about the state of things, education and medicine, roadworks, etc. I believe this acts like a preservative, ensuring that high quality is maintained and keeping public officials on their toes.
Contrast this to Trump’s America where nationalistic banners are waving fiercely as the whole things falls completely apart.
It’s a fascinating illustration of how the same raw materials can be put to many different ends.
With these contrasts in mind, here are some images of the two chilly 1c mornings of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day around le Temple, a Protestant holdout during the Wars of Religion, and the home of friends who are from that village. They might as well be of Tennessee in another era.
To me these orchards, barns, and fields feel both like my own ancestral home, but also not entirely known nor predictable. In those farm houses await people not at all like I expect them to be.
That constant element of surprise in the familiar approaches my definition of Paradise, and we are lucky to be invited there so often.