What is la France Profonde?
It’s the France of farmers and fishermen, market vendors and laborers, bakers, grocers, men and women on bicycles, those who drink a hot Calvados with their pre-dawn coffee in a neighborhood café.
In one of these country cafes in the timbered town of Bernay, I witnessed a rare France Profonde moment the other afternoon.
Two men, a fishmonger named Bruno and a bar-keeper-turned-hairdresser named Gilles, were performing a short play they’d created. It was in honor of “les journees de Patrimoine,” a weekend when France honors its past. The play was based on memories, inspired by a poem given to Bruno by a farmer he knew. “No one knew the man could read, let alone write,” he told me.
It was 5 p.m, and the performance was about to begin. Strains of a radio advertisement from the early 1960’s wafted through the cafe to give a sense of time. Bar customers, unaware that a performance was about to take place, looked up with surprise.
Bruno, cigarette dangling from his lip, pulled his hat down well over his eyes to “see” his patrimoine. “I see him coming, the inspector,” he began, as he launched into a vivid story of a government inspector, come to see if a farmer was storing his wares according to the law.
“Refrigeration?” the ‘farmer’ said to his imaginary inspector, sweeping his hands expansively through the air. “Why, I park my produce truck under this gorgeous old oak tree and open the doors wide. The fresh, clean air sweeps through providing all the refrigeration necessary.”
Gilles answered with the story of a hunter who, for lack of bullets put nails in his rifle and boom! Boom! Boom! “nailed” his prey to a tree.
Hilarity and nostalgia continued for twenty fast-paced minutes, then Bruno took off his hat, held it over his heart and recited the farmer’s poem that had inspired the performance. The phrase that stuck with me as I strained to catch the flowery language was the following “and the soil opens up to my willing and humble hands.”
I looked around the café as Bruno spoke. The unheralded performance had people clapping, wiping their eyes, chuckling.
It was just another Saturday in la France Profonde.