The Thirteen Best Horses in the World
Searching for the Source in Writing and Life
This is the second article inspired by a trip to the Jura Mountains in France, the land of dinosaur footprints and vin jaune (yellow wine).
We were staying near the tiny village of Baume-les-Messieurs and its Cluniac Abbey surrounded by a canyon of limestone, amid the muted greens of winter and the occasional dusting of snow. The village (immortalized by Edith Piaf in Les Trois Cloches) is also known for one of the region’s small waterfalls, more a sort of water garden where boulders split the current into a dozen smaller fountains like foam horses, and the white rivulets running down form branches on an ever-moving willow.
Last July, the cascade and its source were dry.
A friend whose family is native to the region lamented that when she visited last July, the cascade and its source were completely dry because of drought. But now in winter, a gusher of melting snow surged from the side of the canyon, and a stream wound down past frosted trees to power the water display below.
Fabrice and his daughter Anouk have joined my wife Sabine, son Magnus and myself on the trip. Anouk is a golden-haired child with the poise of a ballerina and a non-stop verbal imagination. Fabrice, a film-maker, sports the shaved eight-ball scalp of many bohemians pushing fifty nowadays. Because Fabrice speaks English as the French expression goes, “like a Spanish cow,” it was always amusing when we were teamed up.
This week I drove and he navigated. Like many Parisians who use only public transportation, Fabrice understands the automobile as a concept but giving directions that an American can understand before the turn was something else. I would find myself often asking urgently, “wasn’t that where we needed to turn?” “Oh, yes,” he would reply matter-of-factly, “but maybe this road goes somewhere interesting.”
To start a blog: “An American in Paris,” the expat lifestyle — just without Gene Kelly dancing. It will be nonfiction — reality, reality, reality.
Eventually, we managed to find the fromagerie in a 19th-century frame house on a bluff overlooking the canyon. I had something else on my mind, though, the last few days. I got the idea that I wanted to start a blog . . . you know, “An American in Paris,” the expat lifestyle and all that — just without Gene Kelly dancing.
The idea was simple: it would be nonfiction — the real-life — I would just interview fascinating people, capture reality. “I am a camera,” said novelist Christopher Isherwood. Why not? I’ve met filmmakers, artists, Holocaust survivors, landless nobility, and I’ve even had lunch with the dean of the Académie Française who signed a dedication to me “Dear Edward.”
I proposed an interview with Fabrice one night at our gite (vacation condo). “A blog is a great idea, you’ve been here a while and would have a good perspective,” he said, “but, you know, it’s not as easy writing journalism as you might think.” This last he offered in the serious voice he usually reserved for politics. Indeed, he offered a good deal of advice on the subject over the next few days, but I never managed to communicate that I sort of meant, like, let’s do the interview now, and somehow it never happened. I realized later, this was probably because an interview was something one did for the press, where one had to say just this and just that, not something to be bothered about among friends.
She had a regional accent — local color — the readers will love that.
No matter. I would interview some locals — the femme de menage (cleaning lady) who had given us the key to the gite — local color — the readers will love that. She kept talking about the little “sha-meen” that leads down to the valley. It took me a while to realize she was talking about a path (un chemin). Here in the east of France and also in some regions in the south, you can find vestiges of ancient dialects. The people still pronounce the final consonant of some words — forbidden in Parisian French — so that chemin (shuh-meh) is sha-meen, bread, pain (peh) pain, etc. Anyway, although friendly, the femme de menage was scarce during the week.
He regarded me like Noah weighing whether I deserved to be told the rain was about to start.
No big deal; I would get an interview. My hopes were up as we entered the fromagerie. I’m sure this chap — a real country cheese seller — will be authentic — cheese sellers are always loquacious. But, the tall, stony-faced laborer didn’t look happy to see us so close to lunch. As Fabrice ordered, I found myself rapidly losing the nerve to ask the fromager about his life around the cows and all that great rustic stuff. When it was my turn, I heard myself just ordering a slice of the white Tomme du Jura (a tomme is a wheel of cheese) and a Tomme de Comté (yellow and aged, a bit like cheddar). He regarded me like Noah weighing whether I deserved to be told the rain was about to start. At least he made no comment on my accent, but I left with only the fromage, no rural wisdom.
All right. New Year’s day gave me another chance. Camille, Magnus’s godmother, was taking care of her mother’s place nearby. She invited us to lunch along with her brother, a Catholic priest, (previously recounted in “How to Talk to the Mountains”). I asked Gérard if I could interview him and he said, “sure.” Yet somehow, each time I asked him a question, he had something important to do — serve the coffee, show us around the cottage, step outside to smoke a cigarette. Camille later explained, “he’s on holiday; this is his chance to escape, you know; he doesn’t want to have to talk shop.” Of course, after all, I wasn’t talking shop — we were all just enjoying “the life.” It was only when I got back that evening that my unrequited blogger ambitions began to gnaw at me again.
On an outing to view another of the nearby waterfalls, we hit some real snow and passed through a magic countryside, white-laced pine branches forming an endless trellis over the mountain lanes. Descending into the valley, the kids strained at the windows whenever we passed horses. They seemed to be talking endlessly in the back seat. “What’s the commotion all about?” I asked Sabine next to me. “Don’t you know?” she demanded, shocked at my ignorance. (She always calls me “the Great Observer”). “Haven’t you heard about The 13 Best Horses in the World?” I was dumbfounded. “You haven’t heard the children at the gite; they’ve been inventing and acting out the roles of all the horses the last few days.”
Fabrice and Sabine got out of the car to go to the bouchérie (the butcher’s). A Eureka moment: “Could it be so? While seeking everywhere to find the perfect interview, the best story had been under my nose here all the time?” I grabbed my phone charging in the old cigarette lighter. I passed it through to the back seat and asked Magnus and Anouk if they could tell me about the “13 Best Horses in the World.” Unlike their adult counterparts, they began to talk freely, and as Hamlet would say, trippingly off the tongue. Here was a fountain of words flowing at last. On their return, Fabrice and Sabine complimented me on my good “get” for the blog.
“How can you delete something a little bit?”
On the way back, as we passed the white shores of a lake and negotiated the mountain turns, I heard a commotion in the backseat. Anouk cried “What are you doing? Don’t do that, Magnus!” My eyes were on the road; I couldn’t turn around. I realized I’d left the phone in the back, a sure temptation for the kids. I barked in my special annoyed blogger voice. “Don’t play with the voice memos, Magnus, or you might delete the recording.”
“Come on, Magnus,” pleaded Anouk. I feared mischief but was powerless.
“Magnus, did you delete it?!” I demanded.
“A little bit, I think,” came a timid reply.
“How can you delete something a little bit?” I groaned. At the next red light, I grabbed the phone, and, sure enough, recording 22, my only interview with real live French people was gone.
“Maybe it’s still on your phone somewhere,” suggested Fabrice. But I was furious and threw the phone down. Kids!
On our last day in the mountains, we dropped Fabrice and Anouk off at the train station in nearby Lons-le-Saunier and headed home for Paris. As you may have guessed, I didn’t get any interviews. Reality had been good to us the last week, but not so much my goal of capturing it, or so I thought. As we turned for home, though, I realized searching for others’ stories wasn’t the secret. I didn’t need a big scoop for my writing. My material was all around me — friends, family, cities, mountains. You don’t need to make an appointment with life, or swim upstream to the source. We are always already in the current.
I plugged in my phone for the GPS, and it was then, like Job who suffered from God’s neglect but suddenly received a reward at the end of his tale, that I saw voice memos does have a trashcan. There was recording 22, not permanently deleted after all. For inspiration from a true charging fountain of words, I invite you to continue on to my exclusive interview with the creators of “The Thirteen Best Horses in the World.”
 You may have noted that Edward is not my name.
Thanks to Tara Eisenhauer, Tim Singleton and Kate Sampsell.