The village of Roussillon.
Somewhere along the line, without even paying attention, I seem to have slipped into sleep and floated into heaven. Unexpectedly, and most certainly undeservedly, I now find myself wandering like a not-yet fallen angel in one of the most beautiful places on earth: that Provence celebrated down the centuries by artists, travellers and poets. Living a life which suits me so perfectly I ask myself at least once every day how on earth it took me forty-four years to find my way here.
As for you, my poor Star Weekend Magazine readers, you thought you were well rid of me. But alas, just because a boy leaves Bangladesh, it doesn't mean Bangladesh leaves the boy, and I couldn't resist this chance to write for the magazine, thus keeping in touch with the place which formed and fed me in so many ways before I eased away. I'm going to write every fortnight, and I hope that these tales from a faraway French village will, despite the geographical and material distance, speak a little to you about the human family, the pleasures of community and of belonging, the hopes and fears for the future and the simple joy of being alive.
Am I sounding too contented perhaps? Forgive me a little self-indulgence, but this is how it is: I wake up at dawn, cycle towards the sunrise, along deserted paths through mist-wreathed poppy fields, buy still-warm wholemeal bread from the baker's, arrive home to an organic breakfast, work at my texts (for in this latest incarnation, I'm no longer a teacher but a translator), sip wine with my lunch, nap, cook, play saxophone, read, and stroll out into the pastel evening for a coffee in the village, or perhaps to a concert, as the place is positively awash with music and melodies. And the whole day is drenched in such warm luminous light, such balmy softness, that you have no chance but to relax and sink into it as you would into a long-awaited bath. After a long time without such pleasures, my face and heart turn incredulously towards the sun and gulp in the pure air. On a clear day, I can feel myself slowly unwind. I can hear my body sing.
Here in the village of 1800 people (approximately the size of an average Dhaka wedding), I have been greeted with open arms, and feel I am already among friends. Over the coming months I will bring you portraits of some of these extraordinary kind villagers. They have been unbelievably welcoming, and I feel like I've been here ten years if a day.
A mere three weeks in, I'm already on first-name terms with the postwoman, the grocer, the baker and the pharmacist. It turned out I was quite ill one day soon after arriving and so I phoned a family acquaintance. By the morning, the pharmacist had already heard the story and called to suggest the right medicine. There are no secrets in a village like this, even less so than in Dhaka.
Roussillon itself, painted in tones of russet, orange and yellow thanks to the natural ochre that is found in the cliffs all around, perches dramatically, stunningly, on a hilltop, looking down over a green valley which stretches to infinity. It's listed as one of the hundred most beautiful villages in France, where the competition for such an accolade is stiff. After a period of depression midway through the last century, when the ochre mines were rendered redundant by the invention of chemical-based paints, the community was resuscitated as a tourist destination, bringing an influx of attention and money, and is now mined by coachloads of white-haired querulous tourists who disembark each afternoon, cluck around the shops, take their snaps, and then depart en masse, thankfully leaving the village to sigh in the evening stillness. However, there is plenty to entertain those who choose to stay more than just a few hours: a treasure-filled, five-storey bookshop, some international-class restaurants, a high-tech lending library, an events hall which has courses, concerts and exhibitions, a vibrant market of its own every Thursday.
Yes, life in Provence is every bit as picturesque, as postcard-esque as the now-famous English author Peter Mayle first depicted in his books, which became first bestsellers, then sell-out films, precipitating a surge of immigrating English hordes unseen abroad since the days of Empire. Luckily, they are sparsely spread out across the valleys, easily spotted in their flannels and their straw hats, and just as easily avoided.
And yet, celestial though the place is, there are also coiled serpents hissing at the edges of paradise, in a way the exhaustingly genial Mayle contrived to overlook in his pretty books. The candied fruit factory on the outskirts of the biggest town in the region is about to become the latest of many nationwide to close down, as shareholders get bored with this venerable local tradition and opt to move to some far-flung Eastern European republic where the labour is cheaper and the profits juicier. That's over a thousand employees suddenly jobless, with paltry compensation for their decades of service. Over the years, the factory has consumed endless amounts of water from the neighbouring hills, forced farmers to reduce their cherry prices, and offered little in return but industrialised sugary fruits and foul-smelling effluent. Then there is a gigantic hypermarket nearby which represents everything that is grotesque about unbridled capitalism, and which I plan to boycott for the next fifty years. Luckily the abundant farmers' markets which move from village to village every day of every week make that task easy and delightful, as everything from soap to pears to wine, of astonishing quality, is made locally.
Meanwhile, the adverts on the radio I hear most often are for home alarm systems. There is fear stalking the country, and people are being slapped full in the face by the crisis. On a national level, the forces of law and order are becoming increasingly repressive. And at the very centre, the President, the hyperactive Monsieur Sarkozy, is cocooned in an opulent lifestyle with his supermodel wife, his yachting holidays, his dinners with captains of industry. He appears ever more remote from his subjects, so much so that his security men now actually empty whole town centres, apart from a few selected cheerleaders, every time he moves outside the capital, penning the local population in their own living rooms.
And there are, even beyond the serpents, some sleeping dragons. Bigger questions still, which gnaw constantly at the mind. Life here is undeniably easy, rolling along silken roads, past chocolate-box villages where the aroma of roses, coffee and warm croissants alone is enough to make you want to sell your soul to the nearest devil. But how is it that such an idyll can exist in the same world, at the same time as the Gulshan beggars, clawing their miserable living out of scraps of pity? How can one world be so rich while the other is so poor? And more troubling still, is this world so wealthy precisely because that other world is so poor? I will return to such questions over the weeks to come…
But for now, I'll enjoy this dream, aided by some fresh olives and a glass of delicate rosé wine. But as I do so, I find myself wondering if it wasn't the entire first 44 years of my life which were in fact the dream, and that here and now, in the sparkling morning light, I am finally waking up.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009