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French Interlude in a Hidden Valley

WHEN a French friend lent us her chalet a few good years ago, we were warned that it was at the back of beyond. We made the journey from Scotland in infinite stages: by train to the Channel, over to France by boat, then on to Paris, an early morning departure from the Gare de Lyon on the Rome express. At Chambery-Challes-les-Eaux, we left the splendid Rome train for more humble cars. We dawdled along to Poncharra, and from Poncharra another snail-slow train crept toward Allevard-les-Bains. Our last means

of transport out of Allevard was a bus, smelling of hay and clover, owned by the driver, M. Gabriel Pepin.

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The bus set off up into the hills, packed with farmers, dogs, ducks in a basket, and kittens peeping out from a cardboard box. The passengers shouted to one another and made slyly sarcastic remarks to M. Pepin about his driving. He wasn't to be trusted, they said; he'd take us over the precipice. It was gloaming by now. Our ears began to tingle as we climbed higher, mountains looming around us. Finally we were the only passengers left.

"Voila!" M. Pepin called. "The road stops here." Before he went honking off he added, "When I come back for you, you'll be younger by years. They drop off you in the quiet up here." We had arrived in the lost valley, a kind of Erewhon.

We walked up to the chalet under a sky blazing with stars, and around us came the sound of the rushing, bustling water of mountain torrents, the cry of night birds, and an owl's muffled flight. In the morning there lay the valley, lit by vivid late-summer sunshine and dominated by the mountain, "la Combe Madame."

Our days took on a slow rhythm. Every morning, Albert, the postman who came strolling across the flower-filled meadow to the chalet, paused to bow to la Combe Madame - "Bonjour, la vieille!" - and to shake his fist at the hawk fluttering overhead.

We walked for miles in the region, up twisting paths on the lower mountain slopes, picked blueberries for jam and the little yellow mushrooms called chanterelles for stews, and picnicked beside the torrent, the Breda. All around us echoed the last summer songs of pipits, wood warblers, thrushes, the strange harsh cry of the buzzard. From far off, faintly blowing, came an answering horn, that of Gabriel Pepin's bus, a voice from a half-forgotten world. It wasn't time to leave, not yet.

At night we lit pine-cone fires in the wide hearth and took down from the shelves our friend's old classics - Moliere's L'Avare, Balzac's Le Pere Goriot, Hugo's Les Miserables. The fire flickered and sparked. Outside, lightning flashed over the face of la Combe Madame, and thunder went drumming along the distant Sept Laux.

We had been told that we could buy milk and eggs from the farm behind the chalet. Our visits there and our friendship with a family named Pin-Barraz were to become the chief joy during our weeks at the chalet. On our first morning, heading for the farm, we met an elegantly clad monsieur in riding cap and breeches. He nodded to us and was going to pass by when all at once he swung around and stopped. "I see that you are strangers here," he said. "I strongly advise you not to go in there. It's disgusting,"

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he added, almost spitting out the word. "The whole place should be razed. We need to develop this town."

We took to him so little that, to show it, we immediately opened the farm gate and crossed the yard. From behind pots of creamy-white and rose-red geraniums someone waved to us, Madame Pin-Barraz herself. "Entrez!" she called.

We pushed the door open and entered the kitchen. It was certainly not what anyone would call clean, nor was Madame Pin-Barraz. She wore an ancient apron and black boots, but her welcome was wonderful. She was very stout, with a broad, sunburned face and a warm smile. Around her was chaos, animals everywhere: a sheep dog and her puppies, a cat with kittens, hens wandering around pecking grain from the floor, a goat followed by a goose that hissed at the puppies, and a canary singing in its cage.

At once we were made to feel at home. Madame Pin-Barraz poured out strong black coffee, adding milk yellow with cream. She would have eggs and milk for us every morning, she said. Here was her younger son, Pierre, she went on; his brother, Joseph, would be too shy to join us. Pierre was timid, too, stealing sidelong glances at us as if we had landed on the farm from the moon. He had never before met anyone who was not French.

On our daily visits, Joseph would remain a shadow outside the door, listening to our talk, sometimes giving a gruff chuckle at some reminiscence of his mother. She spoke with the strong accent of the region and in a French that belonged to another age, as did everything around her. From her flowed a chronicle of life in the valley, the hardships and the delights, births and deaths. Woven into it all were tales of the adventures of her late husband, Gaston Pin-Barraz.

SHE told of bitter winters and how once, riding up from Allevard in a blizzard, Gaston and his horse were frozen almost solid, only a step or two from the farmstead. "How did he ever survive, you may well ask!" Madame Pin-Barraz exclaimed. Another time, high on a ledge on la Combe Madame, he had been attacked by the bearded vulture, the fearful lammergeier, and nearly crashed down the precipice to his death. "My father was intrepid," Pierre repeated proudly, whenever she paused for breath.

The more we sat in the warm kitchen, the more we became aware of all those generations who had lived on the farm, passing down from father to son certain immutable values, along with a shared love for this small corner of French soil.

As the days passed, Pierre emerged slowly from his shell. He led us around the farm, tried to teach us to milk the goat, Blanquette, and saddle the horse, Flairette, and he laughed with sudden bursts at our awkwardness. Joseph, his arm around the sheep dog, watched from a distance. It was easier for him to communicate with animals, wordlessly, than with humans.

We sometimes saw the elegant monsieur riding up the valley or working in the neat garden of his chalet, tying up the flowers and raking the first fall of autumn leaves. He gave us a very frigid bow, for we had not heeded his warning. Worse, we had obviously taken up with the incompetent, unhygienic Pin-Barazz family. We thought of the monsieur as the serpent in paradise, because he would raze the beloved farm buildings of the Pin-Barraz to make way for more and more chalets. For men like him, what matter ed was to be economically viable. There was no room for sentiment.

On our last day, we had a special invitation to the farm: Madame Pin-Barraz had made a cake for us, to be eaten to the last crumb. Out of the black stove it came, weird and wonderful, with a quite extraordinary taste. We sat around the table with more talk of the snows of yesteryear and the near-escapes of the intrepid Gaston on the heights of the beautiful but treacherous Combe Madame. The cat strolled among our tea cups, knocking over the milk jug and lapping up the spill.

"When will you return?" Madame Pin-Barraz asked. They would be waiting for us. By that time, the horse Fairette would have foaled, Blanquette might have had a kid, and we would have to learn to milk properly. We kissed her in farewell. "Dirty as I am!" she exclaimed, wiping her hands on her apron. Pierre shook hands, and, in a rush, Joseph was there for the first time, nodding to us wordlessly then vanishing behind the door.

The next morning we closed the shutters and locked the chalet door. The monsieur, working in his garden, pointedly turned his back on us as we passed. Albert had his mail bag and was sitting down in the long meadow grass to mop his brow and to call his greeting to the mountain: "Bonjour la Vieille!" Faintly the last songs of the pipits and the thrush came to us; there was a touch of frost in the air. Autumn had arrived. Then, sounding up the road, came Gabriel Pepin's bus. Yes, he called to us, we had dr opped years since he last saw us.

Down, down we drove, further and further from the lost valley. What would happen there before our return? Whatever changes the future might bring, we would always see in memory the farm kitchen. We'd hear those voices, sense the reverence of the Pin-Barraz for old values and their love for their beloved little plot of land, and we'd see the cloud shadows pass over the face of la Combe Madame.

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