A Glimpse Within
Eight years ago, I spent a month in the small, all-but-deserted, medieval peasant village of Estoher. Located twenty-six miles from Perpignan, in the southwest of France, it sits at the foot of The Alps and Mount Canigou. The mountain, they say, has healing powers. My son, Uriah, joined me for part of the time, but this trip was a milestone birthday gift to myself. I’d chosen Estoher as I desperately longed to spend a month living outside my comfort zone, in a foreign land, to feel and experience something different—and write about it. However, the writer’s quixotic voice had been all but silenced.
The farming village comprised 152 residents, no shops, and half a dozen roads—many not large enough for vehicles. The only indication that Estoher had ever been more than a sleepy hollow was the presence of Sant Esteve d’Estoher, a church bearing the engraved date of 1601.
Moments of inspiration had occurred since arriving in France, but everything familiar and known to me had been removed, making it harder for me to express what I wanted. Their cultural differences didn’t fit neatly into my Australian language. Even if I’d found someone to converse with, my French was minimal. The only exception was a visit to Carcassonne earlier in the week. The history screamed at me from every corner, wall and space. Yet, while I tried to convey some of the feelings, they too, were moderated.
The quiet, rural streets of Estoher saw very few pedestrians. In our first week, we’d only seen three residents. Uriah had commented on seeing a man walking down our rue carrying a fishing pole. He claimed to have seen him several times walking with a limp towards the river, El Llec. Likewise, I had seen an older man with a limp. He struggled down the road with his walking stick, dragging his half-crippled body with effort to an unknown destination.
One day, as I watched this man, I caught a glimpse of his life in Estoher. From the balcony of the gîte where we stayed, we towered over two fenced gardens. I use the term ‘garden’ loosely, as next door was a fenced outdoor area only six feet by ten feet. The dwelling seemed deserted and the yard unkempt, much like Estoher.
The small garden of weeds had two entrances: an external doorway that led to our front door, and what appeared to be a weathered and holey barn-style door that led inside the building. Perhaps the yard once belonged to our gite, and the internal door led to a barn rather than a house. We’d never know.
This larger section beyond the ancient brick fence that had piqued my imagination was immaculate. From our semi-secluded balcony, we overlooked ordered garden beds, deciduous trees, and manicured lawns that blended beautifully with the backdrop of Mt Canigou. The colors of the changing season stood boldly against the darker hues of the mountain.
The day before, I’d watched a woman bring barrow after barrow of wood from under a tree on the block and wheel it up the street. As I watched, I wondered where she would put it all. The village maisons appeared small. She took at least ten barrows of wood—too many to fit comfortably inside a modest home.
Was the yard connected to a holiday gîte as many residences in the village? The tidy appearance of the garden begged to challenge this theory, though. Uriah had said he’d seen someone from a villa opposite us hanging clothing on a line in the yard. That made little sense to me. Why would someone living on the rue have a yard area not connected with their property? Surely a personal clothesline would be on one’s own land. This block was exposed to any passersby. Was it a communal green open to anyone in the village? Were others in the community able to use the clothesline? It’s fair to say this was Australian thinking where our less historic communities live in all-inclusive, well-fenced privacy.
The balcony where we sat offered a sheltered vantage point to enjoy the life of peaceful Estoher. From here, we discovered the man with the fishing pole was the same suspected stroke victim that I’d seen with a walking stick. Given Estoher’s lack of population, I’m surprised it took us days to come to this realization.
While sitting on the balcony, it appeared Uriah was correct. The woman he’d seen hanging the washing lived in the villa opposite us and was also the woman I’d seen the day before carting wood. Now she was tending the land. With her was our man—most likely her husband—who carried either a walking stick or fishing pole.
Silently, from the confines of the balcony, I watched the couple going about their everyday life. Prying? Yes, a little. People in their own environment going about their daily lives fascinated me.
I watched the man with the disabled arm and left hand shaking, trying to assist his wife with the gardening. He gathered twigs painstakingly from the sparse and somewhat bare garden beds, stacking them neatly out of sight, while his wife did the heavy-duty work. The way she spoke to him was heartwarming. Even though I didn’t recognize the French words, the intonation and sounds I gathered were gentle instructions. She seemed to give him simple commands without irritation or frustration, and he responded as best he could.
Hours passed, and the pair worked in unison and companionship. They tweaked the already meticulous garden with the removal of debris, pruning of decaying flower heads, and feeding of plants. They worked with patience. Her with direction; him with the response of half a body. It took time and effort for him to complete a task. She kept her distance and let him take as long as he needed. Never did I hear her raise her voice or show anything but acceptance in her tone.
Was it the magic of the mountain that filled me with a calm contemplation or the observance of the pair working in harmony that warmed my heart? It’s hard to know. As I sat with the sun warming my face on that cool day, clouds hovered over the mountain, darkening the valley below. However, rain was not a concern.
A gentle breeze carried the scent of the couple’s hard work. The smell reminded me of newly turned turf, cut grass, and nature being cared for. It was like a perfume releasing the endorphins of pleasure.
As I sat in muted contemplation, I felt honored to be a part of the couple’s afternoon. I’m sure they knew I was there. I hoped they didn’t know how much attention I paid to their activities. To be a part of their everyday afternoon ritual was a privilege.
It left me with a thought, or notion, that the facades of the homes in this quiet, forgotten village of Estoher were just that—a façade. While much of the vibrancy of the village had been lost, there was more here than met the eye. It was not until I sat in the shadows and made room for an internal silent space that I got a glimpse within the unseen, often missed, and truly special.
Estoher certainly delivered!