Nov 12, 2007

Chestnuts with M. Jalabert

Last night was our annual chestnut-eating, vin nouveau-swilling soiree with our neighbor, M. Jallabert, first name Etienne. He was born in 1918 right here in Labastide Esparbairenque (which means he'll be 90 in June) and he says he never had a desire to leave. (Why would he, after all, this place has it all...views, fresh air, nice people, good food...)

I asked him if he had a period roughly historically that he liked best. He said,"Before." He made a mildly disgusted face while peeling the charred, flakey skin from a hot, fleshy chestnut. He popped it in his mouth, and chewed while we listened. "People had nothing, but we were content." He nailed us with his blue eyes. "I worked hard." He thumped his chest with a shaking hand. (He has Parkinson's but still gets up every morning at 7 to do his garden.)

Mining, factories, farming, carpentry, whatever was available, all the while with his own two hands rebuilding stone by stone an old ruin here, where he still lives with memories of his wife and echoes of his now grown boys.

One of the sons, Renee, known to locals as "Jeff", we call in French Strongman. The boys call him "The hairy Jallabert" for his perfectly round beard blended into his perfectly frizzy head of hair. Jeff always collected animals, including a crow. The only remaining wild pet is a wild boar Jeff found four years ago and keeps in a pen in his father's yard, an excuse to come by every day: to feed the pig. It was a baby when he found it, no doubt cute, and he named it Zoe. Now, she's very very large but seems perfectly happy to sit in her little cave all day waiting for Etienne to come and caress her, then Jeff to come bring her leftovers. I never realized how expressive a huge, slimy snout could be. She certainly seems happy.

Etienne still gardens vigorously in his subsistence-farming-size plot of land, with its long, clean, even, abundant rows of salad, green beans, tomatoes and beautiful fruit trees, preened to look more like forks (i.e. 2-dimansional). He brings John down every now and then to give him a tutorial in growing things. No honest Bastidole would buy potatoes from a store.

The boys ate about fifty chestnuts each, one after the other, watching and listening to M. Jalabert. Seamus asked why his voice was scratchy, why were his eyes floppy, why his hands shake. Both boys kissed Etienne on the cheek when we left. Every year he says this will be our last such gathering, and he said it again. "This time, for sure."

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