The week before we left Paris, my husband and I went to Boulinier on boulevard Saint-Michel and bought several boxes’ worth of two-euro paperbacks from the sale bins. We knew that finding books in French wasn’t going to be easy in the US, and as voracious readers, we stocked up like soldiers preparing for a siege and shipped them all tarif livres to my parents’ house in Oregon. We chose books at random: some classics, some we thought we’d heard of, maybe, and others that just had good titles or intriguing cover art. Now, nine years later, we’re still working our way through that literary plunder. One of my favorite recent discoveries from the pile is a best-selling 1978 memoir by Henri Vincenot called La billebaude.
As a little boy, Henri Vincenot lived with his grandparents in rural Burgundy, which he proudly refers to as “the rooftop of Europe.” They taught him care and respect for the land, and for the flora and fauna that provided for them so richly. Young Henri is fed on potée au lard, bouilli (pot de feu), carpe farcie à l’oseille, boudin, paté, and poule en sauce blanche, all with plenty of fresh cream. He learns at a very young age how to butcher meat and take care of the farm animals. But he is also fascinated with the people that fill his world, from the local lord and his manor to a grandmother who can magic away eczema, to a beautiful cousin who is a wet nurse in Paris. The person he admires and idolizes most is his grandfather, “Le Tremblot,” an expert hunter and woodsman who knows the region by heart and whose skills are renowned by villagers and lords alike. Le Tremblot practices la chasse à la billebaude, an adventurous style of hunting based on taking chances and on knowing the land and the ways of its animals.
As a once-vegetarian and lifelong animal lover, I have never been interested in reading about hunting. And believe me, there are a lot of hunting scenes in La billebaude. But Vincenot’s enthusiasm and passion are hard to resist. His descriptions of the hunters’ efforts are detailed and colorful, and the in-depth understanding of nature that Le Tremblot shares with his grandson is so remarkable that I found myself drawn in scene after scene.
Vincenot also offers us a child’s point of view on other aspects of village life: the tall-tale stories told by Le Tremblot and his friends; neighbors joking and teasing as they help each other with the harvest or with repairs; the excitement of welcoming visitors to the village; the arrival of new machines and other suspicious innovations; the enormous, delicious traditional holiday meals; the solemn, otherworldly elegance of church. I felt like I too was five years old, taking it all in with wide eyes. And when young Henri, cursed with strong academic ability, is forced to leave Le Tremblot and his beloved village and forests behind for boarding school in the city, my heart ached for him.
To complete our transportation into the land of Vincenot’s childhood, La billebaude is filled with Burgundian words that even the hardiest, most experienced translators and interpreters may not recognize. Some of my favorites were piolé (freckled), les chauds-réfrédis (pleurisy), and les encolpions (magician’s tools). In the Folio edition, footnotes are included to help with most of these terms. But even the ones that forced me to stop reading and put my research skills to the test were fun, because they added so much regional and historical flavor to the tale.
Vincenot does have a tendency to slip into lecture mode, bemoaning our noisy, crowded and polluted industrial society and insisting that everything was better in the olden days. But having joined him in imagination as he tracked wild deer across the Burgundy hills, explored the rich forests of the Auxois region, and stuffed himself on delectable plats du terroir, I tended to sympathize with him. In fact, many of his beliefs fit right into current environmentalist thought. Others are a little harder to swallow, such as his comment that the women in his village were content with serving the men and staying in the kitchen, and were much happier than modern “emancipated” women. But on the whole his story made me nostalgic, not for my noisy, crowded and polluted life in Paris, but for a rough, sweet life I’ll never know, in a village that once existed in a quiet corner of France.
Arwen Dewey lives in Seattle, WA where she works as a singer, actor and freelance translator specializing in the arts.