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The moment my partner, Mac, and I stepped from our rented Peugeot, we heard the accordion. Mac asked if the music was being piped over loudspeakers for mood and effect for visitors like us to the tiny French town. But the alluring scales and chords sounded live.
We had driven to a high mountain town called Hyelzas, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southeastern France. Our first stop there was the Rural
Life Museum, a collection of structures that had once been a functioning farm. Although the buildings date from different eras--early 17th to early 20th centuries--they look the same: rough-hewn limestone walls, pitched slate roofs, paneless window openings fitted with wooden shutters. Many structures are linked by flights of stone stairs without railings, terraces, archways, and bridges, which make the complex look like a stage for a Gallic Romeo and Juliet--a production set not in the dense medieval core of a city but at the top of a mountain with undulating green fields and the wisp of a constant gentle wind.
Within these cave-dark dwellings--decorated with bee-cultivating masks and copper-bottomed pots and pans, scarred oak tables, and painted crockery--we kept hearing the accordionist.
Nearby, we spotted three teenagers--two boys and a girl--playing boules. Each toss resulted in a firecracker-scale explosion of dust followed by the click of the metal balls. Here, the accordion music was nearer, and the teenagers paused before each toss, singing snippets of the featured song--loudly and mockingly, but really because it was fun for them and they were showing off for us.
We neared the source of the music, a recessed patio above which hung a sign that read paniers ("baskets"). Elderly men and women sat in folding chairs around the perimeter. In the middle, a man stood playing the accordion, encouraging the audience to join in. The tunes were traditional caf? songs made famous by Piaf, Brel, Gr?co, and Aznavour.
When the accordionist and his audience noticed Mac and me, they gestured to us to join in. Theirs was a scene of perfect happiness and group spirit. When the accordionist raised his eyebrows in a beckoning gesture, all I was able to do was respond with a shrug and a swing of my head to a bar of the tune. The accordionist and the old people laughed in genuine merriment.
One elderly man stood and said, in French, over the suddenly hushed accordion music, "You and your friend are welcome to join us. You can even dance together, we don't mind."
The invitation told me something dramatic. Perhaps Mac and I looked like a true couple. And even in a remote hillside town in France, the sight of a gay couple was no longer startling or disconcerting. We were being welcomed to a town and the lives within. Shyness overruled us and we eventually waved goodbye, and several people called out au revoir.