On finding contentment in exploration - and uninhibited wandering in a place beyond the jurisdiction of urgency.
Travel can be enlightening, but often it’s not without some degree of difficulty. There are expectations of stimulating adventures and ultimate relaxation in beautiful settings, but this isn’t always realistic. Logistical setbacks happen, everything is more expensive than planned for, and sometimes the airbnb listing doesn’t bother to mention that the lone toilet is communal, and at the end of a shared hallway. So we attempt to adjust our attitudes and we carry on, often with an undercurrent of ever-so-slight disappointment after having an experience that was not quite as luxe or personal or galvanizing as we had wanted to have. But that feeling of the fizzle of being let down has nothing to do with this story; instead, this story is about the opposite, an experience without much expectation, almost on a whim, that became a highlight of a month-long journey and an airy and light-filled memory of a day with no presumptions and without much adventure, that nevertheless was meaningful, and gratefully, not difficult.
The road from Toulouse to Carcassone in the Languedoc region of southern France is lined with ancient, tall trees with broad leaves and puzzle-patterned smooth bark: plane trees, of the sycamore family. The story is that Napoleon had the trees planted to shade his armies while marching along the roads under the searing Mediterranean sun. The long, sloping roads led towards a tiny village on a hill that we had been told we should drive through while out exploring. “It’s a village of books, it’s cool”, our host, a South African expat, had told us while penciling out a map for us of the surrounding area. We had arrived by train to Toulouse from Paris, then rented a Peugeot SUV and driven southeast to a tiny town called Montréal: the other, other Montréal — a town inhabited since the Bronze Age, and a site of many bloody medieval religious battles between the Catholic majority and the Cathars, a sect of Christianity that arose in the 11th century - now, the town was essentially a tiny and charming and sleepy/somewhat deserted-feeling place with a massive stone church and a world-class bed and breakfast.
After navigating the maybe-slightly-excessively-large rental vehicle through the ancient stone streets, we dropped our bags and headed out to find wine and a view. Upon our hosts recommendation, we found both at a vine-covered restaurant with big round wooden tables in the grass out front that were shaded by huge, leafy trees and looked out over the Canal du Midi, which was a few yards away. The owner was a thirty-somethings Arabic man who welcomed us and told us we could get a glass of wine, but we had to buy some fries. This sounded like the perfect plan, and our two euro-per-glass rosé was whisked out to us with an ice cube clinking in each of the glasses. Everything was golden. “C’est parfait” was one of the few French phrases that we had recently learned, and it fit the moment exactly. The breeze was soft and steady, and the temperature and filtered sunlight coming through the trees felt like being inside a hyperbaric chamber, but without the claustrophobia.
There were middle-aged bikers, decked out in lycra and helmets, crossing in front of us on the path that snaked alongside the wide canal for one hundred and fifty miles from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea; the canal du Garonne connects to it at Toulouse, and stretches north towards Bordeaux, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Connecting the Atlantic and the Mediterranean seems a very French thing to do. The restaurant owner came back outside, wringing his hands in a helpful sort of way, and we had an encore.
The trance of the wine and the water lapping at the sides of the canal as boats passed by was difficult to stir ourselves from, but there was more to see and the sun was still high and hazy-bright in the cloudless sky. We studied the handwritten directions for a while, and while driving through the French countryside by handwritten directions would have been more romantic, we plugged our destination in to the cell phone maps app out of habitual dependence.
The town of Montolieu is what every French town wants to be, or at least what everyone wants a little French town to be. The seven hundred year-old stone church sits across from a town square that’s more of a circle - there’s a fountain in the center, and old men playing petanque (the French version of bocci ball and clearly a national pastime) in long pants and sandals on the dusty, hard packed ground. Spiraling outward from the center of town are streets and alleys lined with bookshops with open doors and windows and cats lounging half-in half-out. The French word for cat is chat - that’s an easy one to remember and fun to say, but French cats don’t respond to anything you call them, just like American cats. Any cat, really. Almost thirty years ago, a bookbinder from the neighboring Carcassone started an association to establish Montolieu as le village du livre, and within a few years other bookbinders and shop owners began to migrate to Montolieu. An article in the New York Times from over twenty years ago described Montolieu as town with a population of eight hundred that was on it’s way to experiencing a Renaissance - there are still around eight hundred people living in the town. Wandering around the streets on an early autumn day, you don’t necessarily get the impression that the locals are disappointed in a lack of population growth or cultural change. We wandered into a tiny wine shop with a winding staircase down into the cellar. The shop owner was speaking on the phone in French, and as we browsed he hung up and said hello. Noticing our accents, he began to speak to us in English, and it took a few moments to notice his accent sounded more British than French - it seemed as if he had to shake some dust from his native language. He led us around the shop, pointing at bottles and describing the taste and character of local wines made with little-known or region-specific grape varietals, and of the neighboring vignerons that made them, many of whom began and continued to employ ‘natural’ or biodynamic practices in wine-making long before those methods became the trend, or the standard, that they are today for many modern wine enthusiasts. We picked up a couple of bottles to bring back for a future night in, to drink with cheese and bread and olives that we would find at an outdoor market.
There were two women sitting in plastic chairs on a side street with their backs to the wall of an old building carved from rock, looking up to the left at the town square. Across from where they sat, the view beyond the clay roofs of the town opened to miles and miles of treetops and the silhouette of the Black Mountains. We waved and said ‘bonjour!’ as we passed, and although it was clear from the limited lilt of our greeting that our communication abilities were lacking, they waved us over and began to ask us things, in french. They smiled and laughed as they tried to explain something - the only word I could pick out was for the number five, and as they pointed to the three other chairs next to them we nodded in realization that they were saying there were usually five of them that sat there together. It sounded like they may have also said the word for hat.
As the daylight slowly began to retreat and we began looking for dinner, we made our way back to the center of town to a restaurant that sat opposite the church and the fountain and the petanque players. The restaurant was called Casquette et Chapeau (Cap and Hat), and it then clicked that maybe our elderly friends had been recommending the place to us earlier. The wine was flinty and green and inexpensive and went down quickly. The food was hearty and playful and simple in the best way. The waiter came outside at dusk and clapped two trays together, loudly, and a flurry of birds were startled out of the yellow trees that enveloped the terrace from above.
We drove the ten or so miles back to Montréal slowly, reflecting internally, quietly, on the day. It was just one day in a long journey that had already been and continued after to at times be pockmarked with difficulties in communication and with processing our own expectations, but that day that had been filled with curiosity and no plans to keep us from exploring, content to walk and talk, unhurried, without the need to find anything better to do, has become a memory that I’ll hold to tightly and remind myself of often. There are experiences that can be had while traveling that are more exhilarating, or risky, or grand, but that day in a tiny, hypnotically quiet town in southern France was easy, and became a reminder to be content, to walk more slowly and look up and down and side to side, and to leave room to wander uninhibited through a place outside of time.