Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Joe's Neighborhood

South of France

10/23/2013

“South of France.” I never thought I’d see those words in anything but a trashy romance novel. You know, that same old story where Blake, the Chicago fireman, says to Rose, a kindergarten teacher: “Darling, how can you leave me now after I’ve devoted my life to saving widows and small dogs?” And Rose coyly responds: “Oh, I have no choice but to go with Henri to drink flutes of wine while his pilot flies us to the south of France.”

See, there it is. “South of France.” But no one really goes to the south of France. South of Des Moines? Sure, people go there. Heck, even I have been to Graziano’s Grocery on the south side. Multiple times. Without a pilot. But south of France? I don’t think so.

So, here we are in the south of France. In the small village town of Vaison-la-Romaine. For me, it is vacation from my vacation in Holland. It is an exhausting life. When I’m not eating pastry and drinking wine, we are walking the cobblestone paths in the medieval city up on the mountain looking for places to eat pastry and drink wine. I’ve tried to convince my wife that eating pastry and drinking wine must be what they mean by the Mediterranean Diet. She seems unkindly skeptical.

joes1But in the course of climbing to the high castle in the medieval village, I was a little perplexed. My confusion began as the small path became steeper and steeper, and as the cobblestones became more and more eroded and dangerous to walk upon. I was gasping a bit for air as we slipped and slid on the ancient stones, when around the bend came a woman in three-inch heels and dressed in her Sunday best, clutching her purse. And, by the way, not a young woman. In deep discussion with the man at her side, she might have been strolling at Jordan Creek Mall as she tip-tapped across the cobblestones. Instead of the Apple Computer store below her on the first level of the mall, there was a 300-foot cliff with no guard rail. Otherwise, it was a Sunday stroll.

joes2Fine. It must be some local eccentric out for a walk. Right? Then, coming down from the mountain top, we passed another woman, perhaps in her early 80s. She was wearing high-heeled, scarlet suede shoes and a dress. You heard me correctly — scarlet suede heels. When I offered her an arm at a particularly steep section, she broke into a wide, big smile. “Non, merci, ca va,” and strolled on. I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to.

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Finally, on a steep portion in the middle of the climb, there was an elderly man navigating the treacherous cracks in the cobblestone. To my eye, he was perilously close to tumbling down the mountain path as he wobbled precariously. As I passed, thinking I’d rather not witness his imminent fall to death, I saw he was walking with a thin wooden cane. On cobblestones. Successfully. OK, that’s enough of this.

What is going on with these people? Are they some kind of mutant race of super French Methuselahs?

joes3I found the answer on the other side of the mountain stream, which is home to the original village. As in… the original Roman village. This Roman village is remarkable in that the ancient streets, house foundations, statues and a 6,000-seat amphitheater are preserved. All from around the first century B.C. to the third century A.D. Older even than the Polk County Courthouse.

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Pretty amazing. But that’s not the key to the mystery of this super race of humans. Check out this close up of one of the ruins.

Yup. All of you who have ever visited a two- or three-hole Iowa outhouse will immediately recognize the camaraderie of this six-hole set up. The mystery is solved. The French of Vaison-la-Romaine descended in part from the Romans. And those Romans were the kings of flowing water. Flowing water worked perfectly as an automatic flush while the Romans sat on these cold stone toilets. Cold stone toilets created a hardier stock of inhabitants. Thus, French octogenarians are climbing up the cobblestone paths of mountains because of cold stone toilets.

joes5See, travel does broaden your mind.

But what of Henri and Rose in our romance novel? Ah, good question. All I could find was a white slip hanging in a darkened window late on a chilly night. With both shutters flung wide to catch the light of the moon, I’m sure her own pair of high-heeled, scarlet suede shoes were carelessly discarded in the center of the room. Such is romance in the south of France. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

Best of DM