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The International Writers Magazine: Donkeys, Sheep & New Born Chicks

Country Life in France
Amanda Callendrier

It was June and damn hot already.  I wanted air conditioning.  I wanted child care.  I wanted the stores to be open on Sundays.  I wanted TV in English, or at the very least, something in French that didn’t suck.  Not this day, though.

I had lived in my small village in the middle of the French countryside for almost a year.  The honeymoon was over, and I was fed up with small-town life.  My town, which sat all snuggly up in between two Alpine peaks, boasted about 3,000 inhabitants and almost as many cows.  Americans generally find this adorable and fascinating.  For me, it was, of course, neither, beyond the better-than-average backyard view.

The occupants of my village – the non-bovine ones- were a mixed group of working professionals and farmers. There was no city planning here, just a mad scrap for any available piece of land in a community that has the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on who you ask) of being situated between prime ski country and the Swiss-Geneva border.  Farms are juxtaposed with condominiums.  Anyone who has land keeps it, and if you want to move in from the outside, someone usually has to die.  Everyone lives side by side in relative tranquillity.  The professionals try to ignore the farmers and the accompanying stench, and the farmers regard the newcomers with bemused tolerance.

In the early days, I was won over by the rural charm, though a city girl born and bred.  Having farmers for neighbours meant no shortage of cute farm animals for my children to ooh and ahh over.  On a good day, the mountain air mixed with the smell of freshly cut hay, and my children played outside happily, rosy-cheeked and strong.  On a bad day, well, let’s just say we kept the windows shut.

One morning as I was getting ready for work, my daughter Justine had announced from the window, “Mommy, there’s a donkey next to your car.”  The farmers frequently walk animals past our house, and this did not seem interesting enough to come outside.

“MOMMY!  There is a DONKEY NEXT TO YOUR CAR!”  Jingle, jingle.  I opened the door, and there he was, indeed blocking passage to the driver’s side.  I like donkeys.  I considered grabbing his halter, or his belled collar, to bring him home, but then again, where?  At least ten of my neighbours have donkeys.  Before I had too much time to think about it, he left, jingling down the road and leaving a fresh pile of droppings next to the mailbox.

A few months later, the novelty wore off.  There was a cow field across the street (hence the need to close the windows in the summer), and I was less pleased to look out my kitchen window and see a cow staring back at me.  After I recovered from the initial shock, it did seem like a bigger problem than an errant donkey.  I called the offending neighbour and asked him, as nicely as possible, could he come get his cow, please?  Implied was, and you might also consider an electric fence.  The cow situation worsened with time – manure in the driveway, cows drinking from the swimming pool.  The last straw (no pun intended) came the day I was going to my car, head down, keys in hand, and narrowly missed getting bowled over by a cow crossing my path at a full jog.  A week later, we had a new fence.

But back to the month of June, which was so hot.  After huffing and snorting about all of the 500 things that were wrong with my life at that exact moment, I grabbed the fussiest of my children, the stroller, and dumped the other on Grandma.  I wore my biggest sunglasses, and an even bigger scowl.  Mercifully, as we walked, my screaming child quieted.  After all, there were sheep to be seen.

I plodded through my little village, mentally berating it.  The sidewalks were too narrow.  The cars drove too fast.  No one had any proper sense of taste in home exteriors and colour schemes. There weren’t enough traffic lights to make crossing easy.  I had chosen an uphill path.  As I continued my litany of everything horrible about the country, I almost conjured a small tear in the corner of my eye.

A hearty “BONJOUR” rang out, interrupting my reverie of Sad.  Wonderful, I thought, a toothless farmer.

I sniffled my little tear back up into my sinuses and mustered a weak, “Bonjour.” He continued his approach.  Oh, no, I thought.  I hoped he wasn’t going to start speaking patois, the weird dialect that renders normal French completely incomprehensible.  I tried to speed up, but he had me…at bonjour.

“Do you want to see something great?”
NO. “Uhhh, oui?”
“We have new baby chicks!”
I smiled a little despite myself.  Who doesn’t like baby chicks?  “How old are they?” I asked.
“Five minutes.”

My eyes widened in real delight.  He asked me if I wanted to see them, and I nodded enthusiastically.  I tried to manoeuvre my stroller into the barnyard, but he was already gone. Just when I was starting to believe I had missed my chance, he returned, carrying an old beret with a ball of wool inside, and a brand new chick sitting atop.

It was still wet.

I must have been expecting a chick of the puffy yellow Easter variety, because the sight of this one undid me completely.  He was too much like my own little ones, seconds out of my tummy, covered in gook but oh-so-beautiful.  I think I actually gasped, and I asked reverently if I could touch him, reaching out instinctively.  Before I knew it, the farmer had, in one quick motion, dumped both ball of wool and chick into my cupped, anxious hands.

My pity tear from before wasn’t so far back in my head after all.  It finally spilled over, this time from pure wonder.  The little thing heaved each new breath, grateful for them all, and here it was – Life held in the palm of my hand.

Soon, the tiny eyes would open, and everything would be so new and wonderful.  Oh, look!  My mommy!  The sky! Some hay! I suddenly noticed my own little one, clapping his hands, and crowing, “Birdy!  Birdy!”  It was easy to forget that for him too, everything was special and new.

I reluctantly returned my precious cargo and thanked the farmer, knowing it couldn’t express the moment he had given me.  “Come back to visit him!” said the farmer cheerfully.  Small miracle, just all in a day’s work for him.

On our way back, we noticed sheep and roosters, bunnies and goats.  There were new flowers on the trees, fresh green grass, and it was nice. It was hot, but a brisk walk (downhill this time) created a bit of a breeze.  The sky was blue, and the clouds were field mice and tractors. My eyes were open, too.

 © Amanda Callendrier December 2009

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