Plus ça change

This time last year, as I bravely confronted the first deadline for 2004, my insatiable desire for distraction was being well served by the view. Through the window to my left I could see high, leafy hills under a cold, cloud-scudding sky. And straight ahead, over the top of the monitor and perfectly positioned to capture my errant attention, regiments of vines, grey and knuckled in their winter uniforms, stood to attention in the gusty wind.

If that wasn’t enough, I could let my imagination follow the machine-gun crackle of a chainsaw echoing along the valley below the village as the always-smiling Monsieur Dufours tackled that morning’s pile of green wood which his customers, wreathed in smoke and shivering with cold, would soon be trying to coax into ignition in their fireplaces. Or, I could give up on the muse and stroll down to the village in the freezing air, along those narrow streets named after victims of the Nazis in April 1944, and chat to Louis the butcher about his great passion, ‘le Roogby’, and then have a coffee at the Café le Progrès before tackling the vertiginous hill that was my way home.

When February dawned last year, I had been living in that small Provençal village for about a month. I’d emerged from the terminal at Marseille airport on New Year’s Day 2004 into a temperature of minus eight, having 30 or so hours earlier walked gratefully into the air conditioning at Tullamarine to escape Melbourne’s nearly 40 degrees. The shocks—cultural, chronological, linguistic, meteorological, psychological and, for all I knew, biological—were queuing up to shake and stir me, and they duly did. But by the beginning of February I reckoned that, despite the inexhaustible capacity of life in a foreign country to produce alarm and confusion, I was well ensconced.

As I write, it is roughly one year on—4 February 2005. Framed in the window on my left are the dry hills and eucalypt scrub that circle the Clare Valley, while straight ahead—vines again, swathed in thick, camouflage green, marching up and down the hot summer slopes and across the ridges. Just to top off the military imagery, loud gunshot reports drift up from the vineyards at random intervals. They are ‘scaring off’ birds that have long since become used to them.

In place of Louis and Monsieur Dufours and Carmen behind the bar in the Café le Progrès and Madame Gaugin and the others is a very different rural backdrop. There’s Jonno, who, when I first encounter him, rings me up to say, ‘I’ve got a fridge for you and a post office box number. I don’t reckon the fridge’ll fit in the box so where d’you live, mate?’ And Shane the builder, who, when I incautiously ring him on his mobile at just before five on a Friday, explains that he’s in the pub with ‘the team’ and could I ring the office on Monday morning; and Melanie, who will expertly make some curtains for the odd bare window; and Bill, who leaves us a two-cubic-metre skip to fill with offcuts and flattened cardboard boxes and paper and all the other stuff that emerges when you ‘move in’, but doesn’t get round to retrieving it for two weeks; and Luke, who confronts the most mystifying of electrical problems with a sunny ‘No worries, Brian’; and Butch, the mechanic, who arrives within 15 minutes of an emergency call to ginger up a thoroughly dead battery—‘not a kick in the bastard, mate’.

And then there’s Baz. During our years away, Baz has annually slashed acres of paddock, meticulously avoiding young saplings—though not ‘those stunted bloody wattles. They last six years then turn black on you’—turning it all into beautiful, rolling, tree-studded slopes.

When we finally meet, having communicated for years only through the estate agent, he parks his tractor with the slasher in tow up near the shed and accepts our invitation to have a drink. I ask him if he minds drinking VB.

‘No, mate,’ he says, ‘I’ll drink whatever you’re having, though I draw the line at green paint. Used to live just over the back there’—he waves a brown arm at the hillside—‘but I lost the place along with a wife. Bloody disaster all round, really. Stuck with her 20 years, mind you. Very long bloody years, I can tell you. I’m a peaceable kind of silly bastard but I tell you what, I could have murdered that bloody big Maori that ran off with her. All in the past, though.’ He takes another swig of his stubby.

We discuss the next job, which will involve bringing over his earth-moving equipment, as the long summer dusk turns the newly cut, dry grass golden, and parrots and magpies bicker and swoop, mopping up after the day’s marauding. Wild ducks and a lonely heron dip and forage at the edge of the shrinking dam.

As darkness falls, we turn inevitably to footy. He’s a Port Adelaide man, and as I listen to his amiably passionate tirade with remarkable aplomb—after all, Port put the Saints out of last year’s Grand Final by one solitary kick—I could be 17,000km north, listening to Louis on ‘le Roogby’.

Plus ça change …    

Brian Matthews is a writer who also holds professorial positions at Victoria University, Melbourne, and Flinders University, Adelaide. He lives in the Clare Valley in
South Australia.



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