I sometimes get the impression that we live in a timeless, unchanging part of the world. Since the volcanoes have carved and engraved the landscape millions of years ago, it’s easy to automatically look at the farms, cattle, and villages in the same way. The sun rises and sets over the fields around Verne, the fields that have always and will always be there. The only thing that changes during the year is the point in nature’s cycle of growth and decay. Similarly, I have been thinking that the way we live here today is probably not unlike the way people lived here half a century ago, and it will continue looking like this far into the future. In short, I thought of country life as being somehow outside of history. But a long talk with the Rabeyrin’s made me realize I have been completely wrong about the Verne of yore.
Yesterday, I dropped by their house to give them the ginger chocolate mousse Adélaïde had just made and they insisted that I stay and have a cassis (blackcurrant) apéritif with them. Unable to resist the offer (they make their own crème de cassis, which diluted with a little bit of water tastes amazing and is very refreshing), I succumbed and we began chatting about the indian summer, winter vegetables, how to raise, slaughter, pluck and prepare a duck, beekeeping… the usual subjects of casual conversation. As they recounted episodes of village life and raising a family, I asked Madame Rabeyrin where she is from originally (it is curious to note that, after almost a year of knowing our landlords, we still address each other as “Monsieur” and “Madame”). With a coy smile she said, “Oh not at all from here! I’m from a village close to Dunières”. Dunières is about a 20 minute drive but to her (and to a lot of people we meet) that kind of distance means it’s a totally different place. And Monsieur Rabeyrin? “I’m from Verne, born and raised” he said with a proud look on his face. His father owned a stone shaping factory where they would prepare the material that would go into making houses as well as tombstones and memorials. “So you must know so much about the area, all of the families in the region, the different generations, no?” I inquired. He was affirmative. “Everyone knows us here. Well, a lot of relatives live in Verne. My cousin lives two houses up the street from you by the iron cross facing the field, and my uncle was married to a woman who ran a café by the church, the Café Pradier. Now there are less people around, some have passed, others are retired so we see them less often”.
Verne, I found out, was not always the sleepy hamlet it is today. Young people used to be able to easily find work in the area. Agricultural production and cattle raising were in full swing, and textile factories hired many people. When the textile industry declined, they were replaced by plastic factories; “plastic saved us” M. Rabeyrin likes to say. In Verne alone, there used to be four cafés (!), a boulangerie (bakery), and an épicerie (grocery store)! One of the cafés had live music on Sundays, and people would gather there after church for a drink, or as they call it un verre d’amitié, “drink of friendship”. “That was where we first met,” Madame Rabeyrin casually mentioned, and I tried to imagine them as a young and handsome couple, dancing in a crowded room full of life and joy and laughter, the clanking of glass and clouds of cigarette smoke, and of course the bouncy accordion and crooning vocals of the bal musette.
Today that street is a busy highway. Many cars and trucks pass by, but one sees few people and no commerce whatsoever. The Café Pradier, with its faded out façade and closed door, is not open for business anymore, although at times I’ve seen an elderly lady looking out the window through the white lace curtains. The tables are still there, but the former customers have passed or are now older and less prone to leave home. With less and less opportunities for finding work, the new generations left to go to the big cities, Saint-Étienne or Lyon.
I felt a strange mix of emotions after hearing all these stories; people had such a good quality of life here, living close to nature while rooted in the land their families had lived in for generations. The region hasn’t lost its beauty, but there are certainly less people, and those memories become faded like a postcard of a forgotten place that was once so vibrant.
Chocolate mousse was my favorite dessert growing up in Brazil. For years, I knew it by its Portuguese pronunciation — moossy gee chocolâchee. Here we used a small amount of sugar and added a more adult ingredient, ginger, to make things fizzle just a bit.