For three consecutive summers, I stayed in a small village referred to as part of the region’s la valleé. Even that has an ominous ring to it; that being in a valley depicts the imagined claustrophobia of a people, its small-mindedness, its fear of strangers; and that I, being an Asian, from a country many had probably never heard of, was an oddity.
My village, Haybes, faces a wall of a thick green forest that people find oppressive, as if it keeps them imprisoned. I should have been surprised but wasn’t when I discovered that a Filipina has been living here among 2,000 souls, married to a retired French man and making herself as inconspicuous as possible.
Anna Liza rang me up one day when she’d heard of me while at an errand at the pharmacy situated by the river and across the steel bridge as one enters the village. That was normal: the pharmacist is my ex-husband who had had the urge to return to his place of childhood, this damn valley as he would sometimes say out of frustration.
There’s not much to be done in Haybes; it doesn’t even have a decent café. The restaurants would be far from seeing their names in the Michelin guide. The pizzeria run by an Italian is ranked lower than its counterparts in the next town about ten kilometers away. The bakery has had its ups and down with the clientele that finds the baguette a tad below its taste.
What this village has--the entire valley for that matter--is the one thing I could not escape from: nature. And so I invited Anna Liza, my fellow Pinay, for a stroll in the woods just behind my house. It was where I’d go for walks in the late afternoons and it became like a park for me, choosing any of the trails that wove through other villages, a silent meander among pines and oaks and other trees not seen in my own country.
Having been here more than 20 years, raising a daughter, tending to a household in what resembled a subdivision, the forest was a strange apparition for Anna Liza. She was afraid of snakes. She feared getting raped (although there had been no such incidents in our part of the woods). I showed her there was nothing dark to it, making her listen to the soothing run of the stream, pointing out to her the infrequent marks of caves from which stone slates known as the ardoise were gathered in the old days.
The ardoise had been the valley’s industry, along with other massive manufacturing and metallurgical factories that had made this region wealthy, enticing migrants from Italy and Spain through the first half of the 20th century. But it had been more of a relic, until the village historian made a rather impressive movie about what took place in Haybes during the First World War.
That was one of the rare occasions when residents came out of their dwellings for a public gathering. At the very least they were proud of what the community had done one hundred years ago, trying to defend the village from the German soldiers. There had been a massacre. The church survived razing by the enemy, the only structure in which Anna Liza was hoping to find solace as she would have done back home; but it has been locked to keep away vandals and is opened only for weddings and baptisms.
She arrived in Haybes in the early 1990s when prosperity was already waning, the rich protecting themselves in their enclave while the growing unemployed, the immigrants, the poor Arabs put up in social housing were pushed to the backside of the village. Anna Liza seized me in a panic when we ran into Muslim teenagers playing by the creek.
In my house made of the ardoise, thin purple slates fitted to the walls, I would wait for the sun to shine. The valley’s worst reputation is for its rain, consistently wetting the forest and filling up the river. The mist covers the village like a phantom that comes to visit from time to time. At the slight hint of the bright rays, I’d be off on my bicycle, trundling down the hill until I reached the level ground of the track along the River Meuse.
That was where I chanced upon Anna Liza a few days after our forest hike. She was walking to the pharmacy to buy some creams on a doctor’s prescription. Her legs had swollen from a rash after we’d sat on a bench in the arboretum. I felt guilty and made up for it by inviting her for a bike ride along the Meuse as autumn was fast approaching. She came for the sake of exercise when the weather called for it.
But the river for her was useless, “Walang silbi,” she said, because the sight of the water made her pine for the seas back home thousands of miles away. I came to Les Ardennes for this river looping around villages, sending out the ducks, geese, swans to the banks, displaying the hues of the verdant greens. I love this river. It made me daydream, it made me go forward, and it gave me a certain amount of strength.
The biking track from one end to another stretches to about 90 kilometers, starting from the city of Charleville-Mezieres--home of the rebel poet Arthur Rimbaud of the late 1800s--to the frontier town of Givet that Belgians flock to for the restaurants by the quai, the shops and supermarkets and the odd McDonald’s by the fields. Givet is the nearest thing to civilization from our village.
We would go there for the movies and for the patisserie that sells the Paris Brest I’d boast to everyone as the best tasting one in the whole of France--and I am, of course, exaggerating. Luckily for us, a new salon de thé opened close by this summer, in the town where my ex-husband grew up, his family home already sold when his parents retired to the Riviera. It is right across the river and I could bike to it if I wanted to.
It’s our saving grace in our corner of the valley, if you ask me. The pastries are good enough to boost us out of our afternoon gloom. We take home baguettes for our meals for the days ahead and the croissants saved for our Sunday breakfast treat. That’s how little it would take to make me happy being in Les Ardennes.
According to many, happiness is on the other side of the border. The Belgians living at the frontier know how to have fun, the opposite of the French; as if the border itself had put up an imaginary chord dividing these two French-speaking peoples’ states of mind. It is true that once we cross over, the air feels lighter, the sun warmer, and we envy the Belgians who plunge into rivers in such wild spontaneity.
Without the River Meuse of my summers, Les Ardennes would have been bleaker. By now I’d gotten the hang of biking the length of the track and I knew it by heart, capturing many vivid pictures in my mind: the old dams of needle weir (soon to be replaced by modern technology), the tunnel and the bends, the yachts and barges anchored by the banks, the gray heron that hides from me.
The most difficult route goes out to a tiny and quaint village called Chooz, where the atmosphere could be sinister, nearly 20 kilometers away from my village. The ride cuts across the highway and into the paved plaza with a beautiful dovecote church. The houses along the river are charming in a fairy-tale fashion, except that the greatness of its view is marred by two nuclear power plants billowing out massive smoke; but it was thanks to the presence of the centrale nucleaire that the villagers were lifted out of the poverty that has hit others in the past two decades of France’s economic crisis.
I am tempted to call my village simple. My days followed the weather, mostly to be able to schedule hanging out the laundry by the terrace of the garden, the clothesline tied to a rowan tree that Anna Liza made me swear never to cut because she said it was lucky. When it gets gray, other women friends come by for tea and we do an exchange of homemade fruit jams, particularly the summer blackberries picked from the shrubs along the river.
One Sunday morning, after buying fruits and vegetables from the friendly Turk who unloads his produce at the plaza rain or shine, I saw a striking, gray-haired woman getting off her bike by the river. I watched her remove her socks and then her shoes. She balanced herself on a rock by the banks, found her place to sit, and dipped her feet in the river. That was one of the small things that made me happy about Les Ardennes, and I thought that I might do the same if or when I return to my French village.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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