The Centre de la Mémoire sits just beyond the eastern edge of the new town, the nouveau bourg. Its architecture is deliberately discreet: a low sign, a staircase, and an elevator are the only indications that the museum and historical center lies beneath the hillside. Located a 20-minute bus ride from Limoges, the Centre exists to preserve the memory of a singular event in the history of the region, and indeed, in the history of France: the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Present-day Oradour lives in the shadow of its former self. The town center is small with gray buildings accented by white shutters. Travel down the Avenue du 10 Juin, and you’ll pass by the box-shaped town hall, a pharmacy, the post office, a coiffeur, the restaurant—Le Milord—and the new Eglise Saint-Martin, structures all completed around 1953. From the war monument just behind the church, a path descends to the Centre de la Mémoire; on a hilltop to the east lies the village martyr, preserved as it was found: its homes and businesses destroyed, its valuables ransacked, its inhabitants murdered, their bodies burned.
Saturday, June 10th, 1944: shortly before two in the afternoon, a company belonging to the 2nd armored division of the Waffen-SS surrounded the town and worked its way inwards, emptying houses at gunpoint and forcing the inhabitants into the main square. Many country-dwellers had come into town to fill their tobacco rations, distributed on that day, along with others visiting friends and family, swelling the number of people to well over the town’s usual population of 500. The Nazis rounded up everyone, including children in school, and announced they would conduct a search for illegal weapons and other contraband.
This was a ruse designed to ensure their victims’ cooperation. Soldiers of Heinz Lammerding’s Das Reich division now stood before the inhabitants of Oradour, methodically executing a plan they’d perfected during their previous campaigns on the Eastern Front. For over an hour, the villagers stood in the afternoon heat. Then the SS separated the men into groups of about five dozen and stuffed them into barns and garages that they’d identified during their initial sweep. A machine gun crew blocked the exits. Around 4 o’clock, the sharp report of a signal weapon rent the silence, and the soldiers opened fire. They finished off the wounded with handguns before piling up straw, wood, and other materials and stetting the stack ablaze.
The others remained behind in the Champ de foire for a short while, before the Germans led them off to the town’s medieval church, the Eglise Saint-Martin, and shut them inside. At the same signal, the SS slaughtered Oradour’s women and children in a quadruple whammy of death and destruction. Asphyxiating gas shot out from a box placed in the sanctuary, causing mass confusion and panic. Machine guns roared to life, firing at knee level, mowing down the tall and short alike; then, as they did to the men, the SS piled up flammable material before setting off an incendiary device and burning their victims alive. The ceiling collapsed, burying the bodies beneath the rubble.
General de Gaulle himself gave Oradour the title of Martyr Village, elevating it to the status of a national symbol despite a lack of answers. The village did not have a demonstrable link to the Resistance, whom the SS labeled “terrorists” and vowed to destroy, even at the expense of civilian lives. Dieckmann, commander of the SS regiment whose 3rd company had committed the massacre, had no obvious motive for attacking Oradour. A museum guide giving a tour to a group of high schoolers explained that the SS had possibly decided upon Oradour because of its convenience: the town lay along the route from Saint-Junien, where Dieckmann’s Der Führer regiment was probably looking for two officers captured a day before, to the rendez-vous point at Nieul where the division would regroup for its march to Normandy.
This is half of the explanation at best. Local collaborationists are suspected to have attended a meeting in Saint-Junien on the morning of the 10th and likely helped identify Oradour as a symbolic target. About a hundred refugees from the German-annexed Moselle and half as many foreigners—principally exiled Spanish republicans and a few Jews in hiding—had taken up residence since the beginning of the war; moreover, for a community its size, Oradour boasted a flourishing local economy, with restaurants, cafés, car garages, and all the character and charm of life in a close-knit small town. Faced with a looming Allied threat and the near-impossible objective of eradicating the region’s maquis, the SS wanted to make the largest impact in the shortest amount of time possible. And so they did what they had done many times before: strike in a terrific show of force; drive fear into the hearts of the Resistance; wipe a village from the map.
A sign hangs in front of the gate at the entrance to the village. Souviens-toi, it says. Remember. The museum visit concludes with a dark, semicircular room lit, it seems, only by a blue glow coming from etched glass blocks in the floor. The blocks contain inscriptions, with about half of them quoting the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The other half solemnly display the quote, here attributed to George Santayana: Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. But the words seem strangely hollow, like a musical passage practiced too many times in a row. I remember walking around the ruins the same way I might tour any other historical exhibit, taking photos and ambling about from one stall to the next, admiring the quaint fuel pump on the main street, the interurban rail line and its overhead wire still running through the middle of the town. There’s a strange beauty to the place: it’s quiet and meditative, with grass growing in the streets and inside the buildings, in between twisted metal beams, burnt-out and rusted automobiles, and piles of brick and stone. The old Saint-Martin church is now an empty shell.
It may be possible to imagine, but for me, at least, it is impossible to truly know the terror, the pain, the despair and hopelessness of the 642 people who lost their lives on that day. And it is for this reason that I think that memory is a necessary component to preventing a future Oradour, but it is not sufficient. Memory alone will not prevent us from killing each other in the name of some trigger-happy authoritarian. Memory is a human construct; it has no more power than that which we give it. It can be manipulated by our own desires, twisted to serve political agendas even if nothing has actually been forgotten. But this leads us to what I consider to be one of the vital lessons of Oradour-sur-Glane. It’s what we do with memory that counts: whether we sit by and lament the past, or if we use the knowledge to increase our sense of shared humanity.
Whatever that means.
Last summer, I attended a retirement celebration for a public university official who directed the school’s scholarships and financial aid for many years. The event was held in the ballroom of a fancy historic inn located just off campus and featured piles of food, drinks, and a round of speeches. I did the rounds, talking with various people, and listening to the speeches, but my appetite quickly got the better of me. I mean not to disparage the speakers, for their words were inspiring and thought-provoking, but I had just driven for several hours and wasn’t about to pass up a golden-brown and crispy opportunity. As the person on the podium delved into a lengthy anecdote, I did the same—into the pile of potato chips on my plate.
I quickly realized that the man standing no more than ten feet away was the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost—he would have been the university’s #2 bigwig were it not for the fact that he was bald—and the noise I produced while enjoying my potato chips was certainly loud enough to reach well beyond where he was standing. Worse, though he’s probably forgotten now, he knew who I was, as we’d introduced ourselves a few moments before.
But in retrospect, the part of the afternoon that lodged itself the most firmly in my memory was entirely unrelated to annoying a top administrator with my chewing noises.
I had arrived a bit early and loitered around the lobby as the first guests trickled in. The check-in table was covered with the name tags of attendees—current students and alumni (such as myself), friends, colleagues, and university administrators. Next to the name tags were slips of paper, each containing the last stanza of the state toast, which was to be given following the speeches. Most people announced their name to the person at the table, who would then find their name tag and give them one of the papers before sending them into the ballroom—but upon seeing his slip, one older gentleman furrowed his brow.
“Hey!” he said feigning an indignant tone of voice, then turned to the woman behind the table. “That’s not the version I learned.”
Oh yeah? the woman replied.
A sly grin spread across the man’s face. He cleared his throat and recited:
Here’s to the land of the long-leaf pine,
Where the only liquor they have is moonshine,
Where the people are lazy and the trains are always late;
I don’t give a damn about the Old North State!
I arrived back home after a tiring, but otherwise uneventful trip—I somehow managed to resist eating more than one bar of chocolate from my carry-on bag, and made it onto all four of my flights without much trouble despite Keflavik Airport being extremely crowded for a Sunday afternoon. Flying in low over the North Atlantic, the water seemed unusually choppy, with the crests of the waves whipped up in to white peaks. The plane seemingly got hit by a gust of wind a second before it would have touched down and rose back up into the air slightly before dropping onto the runway, swerving back and forth as the brakes and reverse thrust kicked in.
I spent the night in that amazing, top-rated, five-star hotel in DC known as Washington Dulles International Airport, sleeping and staring around aimlessly at half-hour intervals until 3:45 AM, when the check-in counter for Southwest opened and I was able to ditch my suitcase and backpack and head to the gate. The plane departed right on schedule, four hours later; at 10 AM, as I was standing in line to board my connecting flight in Atlanta, a woman in front of me sighed, “It’s too early in the morning!” My phone must have thought so, too—walking down the jetway, it buzzed to notify me that I had a flight in a quarter of an hour.
But by far, the best thing I heard wasn’t during my trip—it was after I’d already returned home. While retrieving a bunch of grocery bags from the family car, I heard my neighbor’s screen door slam. He’s a Korean War veteran and has lived in the neighborhood for nearly as long as my parents have been alive. I could tell he was working his way down the sidewalk parallel to our driveway to pick up the newspaper. So I figured I’d go say “Hi.” I walked over, my hand outstretched.
A sly grin spread across his face.
“Well,” he said. “Hello there, Frenchie!”
Imagine if Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner formed a political party in 2015, got a ton of support, beat out both Clinton and Trump for the top spot in 2016 and then became President of the United States.
That’s sorta what’s happened with Emmanuel Macron.
During a Facebook group chat a few days ago, a couple of my friends suggested I give them my thoughts on the French election that occurred last Sunday. I’ll keep this short.
(EDIT: define “Short”.)
To recap: France’s president is elected for five-year terms, and may serve a maximum of two. The current president (until Sunday), François Hollande, was fantastically unpopular—an October poll by Le Monde put his approval rating at 4%, though there was a neutral option in the questionnaire that some say made his score lower than normal. This led to Hollande making a decision previously unheard-of in the 5th Republic: he refused to run for re-election, making this the final three days (as of this writing) of his first and only term in office. (One other guy ran again and lost; Hollande is the first to not run at all).
Early in the school year, during a brief discussion, I mentioned the French election in passing and my students took the opportunity to inform their classmates who they thought was going to win. “Je pense que ça va être Fillon, hein?” one girl said to her deskmate. “Ouais,” replied the other, in a very French tone of voice that means “Pretty much,” as if the election of conservative then-candidate François Fillon was all but assured. But it wasn’t. Shortly after the staff of Le Canard enchaîné, France’s oldest satirical newspaper with a bad (or good?) muckraking habit, published details of his misuse of public funds, Fillon’s support began dropping. The Canard has been around since 1915; its website contains not a single article. They make you go buy a physical thing in a store, and yet they still managed to take down a presidential candidate.
Perhaps The Onion and The Borowitz Report should only sell paper copies and Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert should perform exclusively on street-corner soapboxes.
France doesn’t have the Electoral College—it’s therefore impossible for a candidate to become President with a minority of votes cast—but it does have two rounds in the election, if during the first round no candidate reaches a majority. Only the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round advance to the second.
And here in the first round, more so than in the second, was the real surprise. But to call it a “surprise” is perhaps inaccurate, as the results of both rounds closely reflected polling predictions, even if it was unprecedented. I forget who pointed this out to me, but previous French presidents of the 5th Republic (since 1958 and including Hollande) fall into a fairly predictable right/left binary, and with the notable exception of the surprise first-round victory of Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, the candidates in the second round don’t look very different. But this time, neither major-party candidate made it past the first round. Benoît Hamon, the heir to Hollande’s Socialist party legacy, made a pitiful showing. A leftist candidate whom many saw as the French Bernie Sanders (if Sanders wanted to pull out of the EU), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, gained a fantastic amount of support, particularly among youth, but came in fourth place behind Fillon, who fell short of a second-round spot by a mere 1.25%. The top two spots went to Macron, a former banker and finance minister under Hollande, and the far-right leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen.
Of all the candidates in this year’s election, Le Pen was the only one I’d heard of before. It was no less than her father, Jean-Marie, who lost by a huge margin to Jacques Chirac in 2002. She replaced Le Pen père as the head of the party and tried to distance herself from her father’s blatant antisemitism while keeping all the rest—anti-immigrant fervor, Islamophobia, a mean anti-EU streak, and more. One of her proposals was to pull France out of the Eurozone, and though she waffled about quite adeptly during a TV interview I saw of her, it appears she meant to replace the euro with some version the franc.
Predictably, Le Pen lost. Bigly. 66% to 34%, I think, was the final count. On Sunday, just seven days after being elected, Macron will become Président de la République.
It’s a huge relief. Macron is appears to be intelligent and level-headed, with a plan that supports the European Union and strongly rejects the fear-mongering politics of his opponent.
But all is not over yet.
Imagine getting stung by a bee to avoid being bitten by a copperhead. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but I suppose that’s how a lot of people feel. Macron was swept into office by a diverse coalition of voters; many of whom probably would have preferred to choose their own candidate instead of voting to eliminate Le Pen. In fact, as Mélenchon noted in his own speech, the historically low turnout rate (just under 75% of voters participated) plus the number of blank or null votes meant that more people didn’t vote for either candidate (36%) than voted Le Pen.
There’s also the question of the legislative elections, scheduled for June. Though the President holds a good deal of power, my guess is that bypassing the legislature might result in another round of mass protests and would preclude any thought of a second term. Macron needs a workable number of his own partisans in the National Assembly to accomplish much of anything, and this is not a guarantee. He’s also a centrist candidate—neither truly left or right, so his policies are likely to anger just as many people on both sides as they are to please.
Finally, there’s Le Pen and her supporters, who aren’t going anywhere. During her concession speech, Le Pen made it clear that she sees herself as the leader of the only true political opposition in France right now. It’s easy to see her point—Macron has rallied both the mainstream right and left to his cause. A worst-case scenario: Macron screws things up massively and neither camp can successfully extricate themselves from the wreckage, leading to a large swing in the direction of the National Front.
Some people are certainly less optimistic than others that France will change for the better—after all, the country has a laundry list of problems both internal and external that Hollande has (I think it’s safe to say) failed to redress. There’s the elderly gentleman I met in Carcassonne, who told me “Ici, rien ne marche“—here, nothing works—before predicting that of the world’s current liberal democracies, France would be the first to see its institutions collapse. He had a good reason to think this way, I thought: he’d just limped his way upstairs to his room only to find that his key card didn’t work and the receptionist had just left for an hour’s break. Three days later, a social event I attended at a bar in Lyon was momentarily interrupted by a protest against both candidates—“Ni Le Pen, ni Macron, ni Patrie, ni Patron,” they chanted (neither Country nor CEO). Then there’s my grandmother’s cousin, with whom I talked on the day before the first round. She still didn’t know who to vote for. Their promises were all far too unrealistic, she said. There was no way anyone was going to accomplish what they promised. She was certainly no fan of Le Pen, but was otherwise entirely lost.
Others, though, disagree—like my professeur référent, the main teacher I worked with these past two years. She spent Sunday as a poll worker, she told me, and couldn’t be happier with the result. I wasn’t in France that day—I was in Switzerland, attending a watch party organized by a cousin of mine and his girlfriend, both university students and members of a politi-phile organization through which they put on the event. We had a French-style apéro and watched Macron’s supporters jump around with glee once the results were announced. His speech wasn’t particularly inspiring, nor did it provide lots of detail, several people observed, and I personally thought Le Pen’s concession speech was more noteworthy. In her characteristic tight-lipped style, she announced that the National Front would probably cease to exist in its current form and that she intended to continue the fight, perhaps under a successor organization.
So before you start pulling out the clips of jubilant Munchkins singing “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” take a moment to reflect. The millions of voters who threw their support behind Le Pen aren’t going anywhere, at least not for the time being. With that said, I look forward to the next five years under President Macaron—sorry, Macron. Hopefully he’ll be able to live up to the message of unity which my great-aunt so admires.
And if you’re disappointed that the fun is all over, have no fear. Germany and England are up next.
In the United States, it’s practically a president’s constitutional duty to end major speeches by saying, as Trump himself did, “God bless you. And may God bless America.” Both Le Pen and Macron ended their election-night speeches with the same two sentences and six words, which didn’t reference any religious figure but expressed a sentiment no less patriotic than Trump’s. Vive la République, vive la France. And young or old, left, right, center, or neither, French or no, most everyone I’ve talked to seems to agree. Long live the Republic, long live France.
Here’s to the next five years.
Bellac. Because the weeks-old snack wrappers and empty liquor bottles in Place Jourdan can hold one’s interest for only so long.
In response to a particularly bad stretch of December weather, the Facebook page for a local satire magazine wrote, “Note: Stop complaining about the cold. Remember that there are people that live in Bellac. All year. In Bellac.”
This drew an indignant reaction from a friend and colleague of mine, the 2016-17 American assistant for the town’s high school. But even she admitted that when she told people where she was living, most of them would reply, “Je suis vraiment désolé.”
Considering that Limoges is to the French like Iowa or North Dakota is to Garrison Keillor, one finds, unsurprisingly, that the Limougeauds in turn have found their own scapegoat, their own wine in a box that everyone likes to criticize. Though opinions are divided over whether Bellac or Tulle should get the honors (more on Tulle later), I nonetheless resolved to visit Bellac, hoping to see just what about this town of 4000 people drew sarcastic comments even from the inhabitants of Limoges.
I was expecting pure crumminess.
I was sorely disappointed.
The railroad arrived in Bellac the same year it did in my hometown—1880. The two accomplishments have nothing to do with each other, mind you, but I think it interesting all the same. Starting in 1867, one could travel between Poitiers and Limoges via Le Dorat with a transfer at Saint-Sulpice–Lauirère on the Paris-Toulouse route; later, once crews laid direct trackage from Le Dorat to Limoges, the original line was abandoned, nowadays no more than an overgrown grade traversing the countryside and devoid of any serviceable infrastructure. Bellac lies about 40 minutes northwest of Limoges on the 1880 route, seeing a handful of daily services in each direction from the trusty B 81500s that ply the single track linking Limoges, Bellac, Le Dorat, and Poitiers, with a few smaller stops in between. The green, white, and blue Bs, as I’ll call them (in the absence of any formal, Wikipedia-endorsed nickname) are just as much at home under diesel power on single-tracked country lines with moderate traffic as they are on the electrified main, serving stations too small for the locomotive-hauled Intercités.
Bellac occupies a south-facing concave bluff with its train station anchoring the western edge of the town (though the formal limit is a bit further out). Hike up the road to the east and slightly to the south, and you’ll soon arrive at an infamous roundabout, the site of many a traffic jam during the years when one of the main routes between Paris and southern France went right through Bellac. Nowadays, the A20 autoroute (called “l’Occitane”) has siphoned the cars and trucks out of the town, putting an end to the days when reports of enormous lines of vehicles would make national radio reports. Turn right at this intersection; this is the rue du Coq, entering the historical neighborhood, where you’ll find an idyllic group of streets complete with old buildings, bakeries, pharmacies, hair salons, and a small selection of restaurants and cafés—not to forget the obligatory kebab shop. The beautiful weather made for a picture-perfect scene: tan houses and their tiled roofs set against blue sky, accented by splotches of green from various trees.
It’s a town, I hypothesize, that is no more severely afflicted by aging demographics and the declining number of small businesses than any other of its size, and therefore no more worthy of ridicule than any other; but Bellac is, inescapably, a small town, with all of the consequent pros and cons. But the streets were almost entirely empty, even for a place such as this, and I was at a loss to explain why, despite my friend’s repeated attempts to remind me. She pointed out the leafy sprigs in the pedestrians’ hands as they headed towards the Eglise Notre-Dame de Bellac.
Finally, after far too long, I realized. “You know what day I forgot it was?” I said.
She responded without hesitation. “Palm Sunday.” And so it was.
By this time, it was about ten thirty in the morning: the only train before the afternoon had arrived at 8:47 with me on it; given that I arrived before nine, on a Sunday, in early April, on Palm Sunday, and in Bellac, it should be of little surprise that there was little else to do besides explore the town, something we accomplished inside of 90 minutes. The view from the hill is spectacular: the church sits on the eastern wing of the ridgeline, overlooking the Vincou and the railroad viaduct beyond. Down below, there’s a medieval bridge that crosses the river, plus a pint-sized manufacturing district, where the old tannery buildings are located, long since disused. On the opposite side of the river is a sort of warehouse for the tannery that now claims to be a museum—but even this, despite its claim of being open all year, appears abandoned, padlocked, with only a few chairs and wall posters visible through a crack in the door.
We climbed back up a flight of uneven steps to the church in time for the bells to begin ringing, just before 11:00. Here, as if it was a scene from an old movie, we suddenly found a great many Bellachons, greeting each other and chatting animatedly as they walked inside. Palm Sunday in French is Dimanche des rameaux (the Sunday of Branches), and instead of using palm leaves like in the US, churchgoers use what looks like hedge clippings; those who couldn’t get their hands on one before coming could buy theirs from the pair of nuns in black habits who had set up a table just outside the doors. Many of the cars in the parking lot looked like they were at least thirty years old, including several old Citroën Deux chevaux (think an antique VW Bug, but French), one of which we saw the nuns driving just before we had lunch.
My friend and I took the rest of the morning to visit the Chapelle Saint-Saveur, roughly a kilometer away; it was entirely rebuilt in the 1800s but the decorative piece above the entrance already displays an ominous crack and is supported by a steel pole which blocks one of the doors. Having successfully managed to spend another hour, the two of us headed back to town and ate lunch at a crêperie—I made a minor blunder by attempting to order the very dish our server had just informed us was unavailable—before heading to a nearby park with a monument that commemorates Jean Girardoux, a Bellac-born writer. Slightly further away is the parking lot where the Saturday market is held, followed by a large cemetery.
But walking around the cemetery and the parks only got us to the early afternoon, and so we decided to go on a hike, which took us by an abandoned mill on the Vincou upriver from the town, plus a variety of cow and sheep pastures that we were not in the least surprised to see. The day had turned out to be quite warm, well into the mid-20s (the mid-70s for you Fahrenheitophiles), and the water I carried heated up to the temperature of a few of the lesser-quality hot chocolates I’ve had in Limoges. The trail ended on the road that ran by the chapel we’d visited earlier.
Bellac, then, is far from the glorified sheep pasture I’d been led to believe it was. True, it’s far more appealing to British retirees hoping to experience life in the French countryside than it is to language assistants hoping to meet other people their age, but it’s still a charming little town, at least when the sun is shining. You won’t find any nightclubs here (at least I didn’t see any), but there’s a theater that puts on a show every once in a while, plus a community band, the médiathèque, and a couple of really interesting water towers (châteaux d’eau). The regional transit is a big fat joke after 8:00 at night, which severely limits your options for going to Limoges, so if you’re used to coming and going at all hours of the day and night, you may simply have to change your schedule (or stay with a friend and get up super early in the morning). If you’re looking for the lake, as many people do, you’ll be disappointed yet again, as the town’s name (according to one explanation) comes from the Latin bellum—war—and doesn’t in fact mean “beautiful lake.” But aside from that, the town makes no pretensions to any sort of grandeur. Don’t set your expectations too high, and you’ll do just fine. Truthfully, I don’t think I’d live there. But I greatly enjoyed my visit. And in fact, I’d like to go back.
Most trains traveling south from Limoges head towards Brive-la-Gaillarde across the stately viaduct that spans the Vienne. Leaving Limoges, you’ll have a brief view of the river plain from either side of the train before being engulfed in the hills and cow pastures of the surrounding countryside. But while this is today the main line between Limoges and Brive, it wasn’t always so: prior to 1875, those wishing to travel between the two cities had to go through Nexon and Périgueux, tracing a jagged “L” on the map despite Brive being almost directly to the south. A direct line from Limoges to Brive was constructed in 1875, starting at Nexon and tracing a snakelike path through the southern half of the Haute-Vienne, but any hopes of routing Paris-Toulouse traffic over this single track didn’t last long: Uzerche won the honors and a third route south was laid just before the turn of the century over the newly-constructed viaduct.
The 1875 line today sees five trains each day in both directions on weekdays, but the traffic remains extremely light. Take the TER Line 5 and chances are high that you won’t be traveling in a proper train at all, but in an X 73500, a single-unit, double-ended autorail that, according to Wikipedia, bears several different nicknames (cucumber, for example). It’s a diesel-powered machine with a hydraulic transmission instead of electric traction motors; the small engines are mounted beneath the cabs at either end and emit a growl more reminiscent of a poorly-muffled pickup truck than a full-sized locomotive. They trundle in and out of small, wayside halts at regular intervals all across the region, day after day; despite having a maximum speed of 140 kph (87 miles an hour), track conditions rarely permit them to travel faster than half that. Indeed, along most of the route, the SNCF has never bothered to install welded rails, meaning that as soon as you clear the junction at Nexon, you’ll hear the tell-tale percussive rhythm of wheels running over the fishplate-jointed track.
Last Saturday, for want of anything better to do, I woke up early in the morning and jumped on the 8 am Cucumber out of Limoges bound for Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, a small town of some 6,000 people two stops down from Nexon on the old Limoges-Brive line with which I have just acquainted you. I’ve spent nearly 14 months living in Limoges, and despite visiting several of the larger cities elsewhere in France, I’ve done very little exploration of the region in which I reside. It was partially for this reason that I decided to visit St.-Yrieix—but I was also acting upon a gracious invitation from a friend and colleague who is the town’s English-language assistant.
My friend pointed out landmarks as we walked from the station towards the historic center: there was La Popote, the traditional restaurant that regularly holds a “karaoke” night (mostly a group of drunk people half-singing, half-shouting along to YouTube videos, she explained), a choo-choo train sculpture* in the middle of a traffic circle, an Asian restaurant, and so on. But she’d spent far less time in the city center—no wonder, since it’s barely within walking distance from her school flat—and so our walk through was one of discovery for both of us.
We stopped briefly in the Office de tourisme and got the last map they had before making for the cathedral, the Collégiale, a large building whose construction began in the 12th Century, though only a small part of the original structure remains. It was rebuilt a couple of centuries later into its current form—still in a plain Romanesque style bearing little of the flamboyant Gothic ornamentation that adorns its younger siblings. We stepped inside the front doors to find four heavyset men in black sports jackets milling about just inside, with a small group of people in front of the altar. The lady at the Tourism Office had invited us to check out the cathedral as long as there wasn’t a service exceptionnel, an unscheduled service, as if such a thing were quite unlikely—and yet something didn’t feel quite right. We should have picked up the clues right away: the four men threw open the main doors to reveal a black van parked outside, then walked down the aisle as a recording of Schubert’s Ave Maria began playing. And there indeed, with its narrow end to us at the other end of the aisle, was the casket. We quickly let ourselves out the open doors.
Following this brief moment where we thought we were in a morbid spinoff of Wedding Crashers, we walked downhill to the small brook that cuts through the town. There’s a path that runs along the water; points of interest include a pasture momentarily occupied by a flock of contented chickens pecking for insects and a secluded bunch of wood-frame houses. Aside from the TV antennae and the power lines strung up between the buildings, it’s easy to think you’re walking around a movie set minus the movie stars, only everything is real and it’s probably three hundred years old or more.
Lunch was fairly straightforward—a kebab, a subject about which I could write an entire post—and we had a cup of tea in my friend’s flat before setting off again in search of a 12th-Century bible on display at the public library, another recommendation from the Tourism Office. We found the library soon enough—it had just reopened for the afternoon—and began browsing through the rooms. I was expecting to find the bible in a display case somewhere at the end of a shelf, but finally decided to inquire at the circulation desk after coming up empty-handed. One of the librarians stepped out from behind the desk and pulled a foot-long key out of a drawer. She then walked over to the opposite wall, which I hadn’t noticed when I walked in. Built into the wall was an enormous walk-in safe, complete with a combination lock and a keyhole. After setting the combination and turning the lock, the librarian heaved the door open, turned the light on, and let us inside. The bible is enormous and in excellent condition—looking closely, one can see the faint guidelines and texture of the page (I want to say it’s vellum, but I’m not sure) that merely restates the obvious: the whole thing was created by hand. The particular pages displayed were a series of psalms, written in Latin, of course. The whole thing exudes an aura of mystery and beauty, heightened further by the dim lighting within the storeroom, which unfortunately strained my phone camera beyond its usual limits.
We returned to the Collégiale shortly afterward. Though a rival of Limoges’ Saint-Etienne in size, Saint-Yrieix’s church isn’t a formal cathedral—and as mentioned before, the architecture predates the Gothic period. The layout is still that of a Latin cross, but there is no déambulatoire with chapels ringing the choir, no rows of buttresses on the outside. But the bare stone walls on the inside make for fantastic acoustics. Several other people had been exploring the inside, but stepped out for a second, and my friend decided that it would be an excellent time to sing Amazing Grace. As her voice rang off the vaulted ceiling, I was instantly reminded of my great-aunt.
The last notes of the song echoed back and forth across the sanctuary for a full two seconds after my friend stopped singing.
But just as we had eaten a kebab in an attempt to balance out the overwhelming Frenchness of the town, here, too, we quickly atoned for our virtue by heading to the nearest Bar-Tabac for a hot chocolate. Whereas in the US you can buy cigarettes at grocery stores and gas stations all across the country, here in France you’ll find tobacco shops that also sell one or two beers on tap and coffee. And true to form, as soon as we walked in across the stained linoleum floor, a poster of a topless woman stared orgasmically at us from the far wall; pictures of models in various states of undress decorated the shelves behind the bar. And yet, although one might decry the tasteless décor, the hot chocolate, thankfully, was anything but.
Other things we did: browsed around a two-story porcelain shop, treading gingerly on the loose floorboards as the thousands of cups and dishes rattled ominously, and had a few pieces of chocolate from a local chocolatier. On the walk back to my friend’s flat, I saw a lizard along a rock wall; several days later, my friend texted me to say that she’d found it, dead, along the same wall. I jokingly offered to write it a eulogy, hence the title of this post. But I think it insensitive to make such an offer, even in jest, without intending to follow through. So farewell, friend lizard. You were an ambassador to your town, an inextricable part of its history, its culture, its patrimoine. You may not have realized it, but you made a rainy afternoon into a fascinating encounter. You may not have realized it, but you were the highlight, the movie star, as it were, of my visit to Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche.
*I feel obliged to mention that for those who think I’ve lost all sense of ferroequine taxonomy, “Choo-Choo Train” in fact quite precisely describes the sculpture’s cartoonish disregard for any sort of realism.
I first discovered the Cinématheque de Nouvelle-Aquitaine on Facebook—one page I had recently “liked” cross-posted a link to a video clip that I found immensely fascinating, and within thirty seconds I’d followed the trail to the CNA’s website—at the time it was still called the Cinémathèque du Limousin—and found a veritable treasure trove of historical footage. The Cinémathèque operates more than just the website: the group provides archival and restoration services for film relating to and showing the heritage and history of the region. A good deal of the really old stuff appears to come from newsreels or hired documentarians, such as footage of a septennial religious festival, the Ostentions, that is specific to the former Limousin, but many of the clips on the website are the work of amateurs. They’re snapshots of daily life in Limoges and in cities all across the region—the horses and buggies may have gone, but the streets are still there, as are most of the buildings.
Back in January, the Cinémathèque put on a projection of some of their materials—starting with films of Uzerche, Guéret, and Aubusson, accompanied by a student cello ensemble from the conservatory, then moving on to a chronological history of Limoges. The earliest clips dated back to 1914, showing Avenue des Bénédictins in the throes of a cattle auction, with people and cows clogging the street. The next sequence was filmed, again, most likely by an amateur, in April 1939. Many of the locations were instantly recognizable—the audience whispered excitedly with each change, pointing out the street corners to one another. I was mildly annoyed at the background chatter, but I could hardly blame my fellow viewers: the footage was in full color and showed scenes all across the city center—the train station, the small crowd at the fountain on the Champ de Juillet, a flea-market-style brocante on Place d’Aine, a green tram trundling down Place Denis Dussoubs. Subsequent reels showed Pétain’s visit to the city during the Vichy regime, the Mai ‘68 protests, car races during the ‘80s, and more. While watching the ‘68 protests, I realized that two older ladies seated next to me had picked themselves out of the crowd onscreen and were trying to identify the rest of their friends.
Of all the eras represented, it was the footage from 1939 that captivated me the most. It’s fascinating to see just what has and what hasn’t changed. The buildings, most of them, are still there; the storefronts have been updated (glass and illuminated plastic lettering replace painted wood and brick), and cars have now chased pedestrians and horses off the streets. You’ll still find plenty of people on the Champ de Juillet on better days, but they spend their time playing soccer or chasing each other around on the playground instead of gathering around the fountain. And so it was that last Sunday afternoon I found myself taking a walk through the city, following in the footsteps of my predecessor, with my camcorder and its obnoxious microphone, attracting bemused looks from passers-by (including, rather embarrassingly, one of the professors at my lycée). Back at my flat, I was able to download a copy of the 1939 footage, and, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of smart alecks to whom we owe computers and software, was able to produce the following.