Turn and return

Every trip has its own shape and texture, its highs and lows that eventually coalesce into one or two descriptive adjectives—memory’s shorthand for all that occurred. Our three-week sojourn in France had a descriptive even before we set out: bittersweet.

This was our first trip to France and Labastide after selling our house there and saying goodbye two years ago. It was shaped by arrangements to meet up with friends, to sort and pack our left-behind belongings, and by the desire to revisit favorite sites.

The weather was perfect throughout—except for the four days we spent camping, when it rained so hard the camp owner insisted we sleep in a vacant caravan. Fortunately, it was a warm rain and the campground had a shelter with a view of distant fields and local goats, where we shared meals and conversation with our English friends John and Carolyn—who also drove us through the rain to all their favorite Gascony haunts.

The weather cleared as we waved goodbye and headed off to visit another friend, passing along the way five huge pieces of Airbus’s C380 being transported slowly across the countryside from the coast to Toulouse, logging, we were told, about 40 kilometers each night. That these unwieldy high-tech transports were nightly crawling along this curving two-lane road seemed impossible, yet there were the shaved trees to allow its passage, and there were the trucks and police, and the digitally lighted signs announcing tonight’s transport. The logistics of moving these mammoths are mindboggling, and pondering on it kept us entertained all the way to Foix.

One overnight later we headed to Labastide. We were a little apprehensive about this visit; returning is a dubious undertaking. The village was the same in its essentials, but new duplexes marred the western edge and new street lights cast an unwelcome glow over the old buildings. Sadder than this though, were the four deaths that struck the village this summer, two of them tragic. An 18-year-old boy who lost his father to a hunting accident just four years ago had been killed in a car crash, and our old friend Monsieur Ferrar, long depressed over his wife’s death from cancer, had hanged himself.

The sadness we felt hearing this news was gradually dispelled by the welcome we received, and by the gathering for “herrings and snaps” (schnapps) with our German and Danish friends. This had become a yearly tradition when we lived in the village, an excuse to sit around and drink beer and stuff ourselves and talk politics and pass local gossip. And, of course, endlessly discuss the Tour de France. This time was no different and we briefly felt as though we’d never left.

From Labastide we turned northwest to the Lot, where we had rented a friend’s gite for the remainder of our stay. This was familiar territory and we quickly settled in, visiting favorite places and shopping in familiar markets. We drove almost every day to visit an old acquaintance: Sarlat, Cahors, St. Cirq Lapopie, and more. And of course we packed, because the main purpose of this trip was to bring home the belongings we had left behind. It wasn’t easy but we eventually got everything sorted, leaving behind only camping supplies for possible future use.

St. Cirq Lapopie

A sip of Blanquette de Limoux

Puy l'Eveque

Pont Valencre, 14th c., in Cahors

Our final day was spent in Toulouse. It was a good day, hot like almost all the others, with people still in tank tops and shorts. We walked and people-watched and ate and sipped. And eventually we had to confess that with a 6:15 a.m. flight and a 4 a.m. alarm we had better call it a day. So with bittersweet reluctance, we did.