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
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.