June 20th, 2010 § 0 comments

The town is tiny and slowly falling apart. Crumbs of mortar dribble from between brick teeth arched over a window’s gape. Stone was rare in the region, but earth abundant, and so the odd creamy keystone or corbel, often sporting some worn blazon, stands out from the pink abraded brick. As you round the slow curve of a cobblestone alley, a sign juts from a storefront, but drawing abreast you find the rooms are empty, traces of departure litter the carpet, and in the window, when not soaped or papered over, a sign proclaims closure: sometimes notice of bankruptcy (A vendre: Fonds de commerce: Suite à liquidation judiciaire), or a handwritten note hopeful of better times ahead (Ose devenir qui tu es! ~ Andre Gide). The black, compacted wood of timbered houses, all the more stalwart for its warp. One worries for the gutted buildings, with a staircase in the cool vestibule, and the dark rafters where it seems owls must roost.

The cathedral can, like most, be seen for miles around: an octagonal, vaguely Italianate bell tower rising over the treetops. The town is built in rings around it, or would be, if the circle closed. As it is, the town seen from above is three-eighths of a pie, with the cathedral backing on the Save, a lazy olive river gorged on recent rains. Gaps in the medieval wall or between a fence’s rusting bars entice the eye down lush backyards to painted doors set in the row of houses forming the next innermost arc. Here and there, instead of squat guardhouses, one of the dovecotes for which Gers is known, or atop pillars flanking what was once a gate, seated stone deer blotched with lichen.

The main road runs through town along this wall, veering west to allow for a small wedge of park where the statue of a poilu mourns the town sons lost to the Great War, with an addendum for Algeria. On this road, one of every staple, as in a playset. A wine shop with a cheese counter, like some American’s idea of France. One funeral home, beside the flower shop. Two cafés I’ve been instructed to avoid in favor of the hotel-restaurant, with a tourist-priced menu, a clarinet, and a saxophone in the window. One rudimentary bookstore and newsagent, with its lotto signs and inevitable display case of watches. One grocery with shelves empty as a rural truck stop’s, and a few doors down, a sprightly charcuterie from 1879, probably the town’s proudest business, and the only one extolled to me in advance of my arrival. One bakery open, and another shut for good. A hospital, and on the hill behind, a graveyard with a few well-tended strips of green awaiting headstones. And, perhaps odd for a town slowly being relocated by its mayor across the river away from its medieval center, at least four hair salons. They don’t seem, in the early evening, centers of gossip, a social function that explains the survival of their city counterparts in poorer boroughs. In the plaza before the 14th-century cathedral, the covered market where vendors no longer gather. Hanging planters of petunias twirl slightly in the evening breeze. In schoolgirl cursive, traces of quotations on the asphalt from last year’s festival. Petrarch once spent a summer here.

Across the street from my apartment, beneath roofs of belichened red tiles, the neighbors’ windows remain shuttered all day, boards of weathered wood on crooked hinges, blind facades pierced by unblinking oxeyes. The heads of Pierrots meant to hold the shutters open droop. A few limp cables stapled to facades, and at an intersection with a drainpipe, a mess of twigs where pigeons shelter.

I work all day and go for walks at an hour when I can take over the town with my mind. It’s still light out and there’s no one on the streets. I can peer to my heart’s content into shop windows, or stop and admire a minor architectural feature without fear of seeming eccentric. Somewhere a gate squeaks on its hinges, a shutter drifts open of its own accord. There are signs saying pick up after your dog, but all I’ve seen are cats, fighting over trash left on the sidewalk. You can round a corner in the dark and five will scatter toward parked cars from the stout bag they’ve rent with their claws.

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