The Parthenay Effect: How a Small French Town Might Save Civilization

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Last Spring, I moved to Parthenay, a town that, at 11,000 inhabitants, is little more than a village. It is understandable if you have never heard of it. Even my French friends had to look it up. It is also a commune, or rather what is called an ‘intercommunality’ of six neighboring communes. It sits in the Deux-Sèvres department deep in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, just South of the Loire valley. The town of Parthenay has an ancient loveliness, with few straight lines, and lots of flower baskets and red-tiled roofs. People walk around armed with so many baguettes you wonder how they can possibly eat them all. There are even automated baguette dispensaries, ready warmed for those inevitable baguette emergencies. For those who live in any of the myriad outlying villages, a bread van delivers freshly baked loaves to the doorstep (you can actually buy half a baguette for 47 centimes). There are so many people who keep chickens that fresh eggs are constantly traded between neighbors, and few would deign to consume the battery-farm variety. Even my house in the very center of town is peaceful in that bumble-bee buzzing bird-chirping way many of us remember from childhood. I had been traveling in India for months at a time, and had become used to a high level of chaos and commotion. It took me a few months to adjust to this new tranquility.

“It’s so quiet here,” I commented to a friend. “It’s lunch time,” he replied. And then with a gap-toothed grin, added, “It’ll be even quieter after lunch.”

The only time my sleep was interrupted by a human disturbance was one night during a Summer music festival. I was woken up at 3 am by the sound of a young man strumming a guitar and singing a French ballad in the street beneath my bedroom window. I lay there in a kind of swoon, before drifting happily back to sleep.

Parthenay rests (and, yes, there is a lot of resting going on here) in a bend of the river Thouet, Old French for “tranquil”. Established in the mid-11th century, its charming medieval cottages and moss-ridden castle walls give the impression of the Hobbit Shire crossed with King Arthur’s Tintagel. Parthenay is situated in one of France’s Gâtines. The word ‘Gâtine’ is known in Arthurian legend as a desolate, barren territory, which prophecy says will become fertile after the quest for the Holy Grail. The name refers to the rocky granite that makes the land stubbornly resistant to agriculture. But it is rich in wildlife. Pockets of primeval forest harbor deer and wild boar. Its hedgerows are home to rabbits and its oaks and beeches are sentry posts for buzzards and kites. Its fields are dotted with sheep and the handsome local breed of ‘Parthenais’ cows, russet-coloured and muscular, gazing placidly out through long black eyelashes. The land in the southern Deux-Sèvres is far more arable. Fields of sunflowers provide magical vistas at the height of Summer. Wheat, oats, potatoes, apples and walnuts are grown in abundance, and the Wednesday vegetable market is filled with red-faced farmers selling locally made goats cheese and tomatoes the size of tennis balls. Twenty years back, the French government paid the farmers to go fallow for a year so that they could start up again without pesticides, a quiet move towards organic produce that received little attention.

Loosely winding lanes entice one to an abandoned mill or bubbling brook, a copse of oak trees or a half-forgotten church. With no industry within miles and with the natural purifier of the Atlantic waters to the West, I don’t hesitate to inhale the Gâtine air deep into my lungs. I have lived in London, Los Angeles and New Delhi. Here I can breathe in a way I had almost forgotten. One day I was shocked to see a Coke can floating in the Thouet. But it was because the litter was such an aberration that I had noticed it.

<p>The river Thouet on a Summer day</p>

The river Thouet on a Summer day

Rebecca Novick

I have lived in the foothills of mountains much of my life and I thought I would miss them, but the Gâtine skies are so boundless that the clouds become mountains here, forming vast ever-changing Himalayan ranges. The sun takes so long to set, you can be entertained for hours with kaleidoscopic palettes of violet, vermilion, topaz and magenta. An unobstructed topographical sweep to the West provides dwellers of the Gâtine with what I call “the second sun”, especially in the summer. As the sun descends, around eight in the evening, it will often fall behind a cloud bank, but since there are no buildings or contours to block the view of its course to the horizon, it re-emerges half an hour later, offering up to two more hours of rich amber light. This topography is why Parthenay registers the second highest number of sunshine hours in the whole of France. Such spacious skies and lack of light pollution are made for stargazers. One August, a group of friends and I drove to a deserted spot affectionately called “rabbit hill” and watched in silent awe as the Perseid meteors performed their silvery ballet across the firmament.

<p>Dawn sky in Parthenay</p>

Dawn sky in Parthenay

Rebecca Novick

Parthenay and its environs have been largely protected from the juggernaut of development gnawing at the modern world. Having escaped pollution and soulless architecture, Parthenaisiens (locals of Parthenay) have also somehow side-stepped many of the the forces of cynicism and narcissism ravaging the modern psyche. The pace of life is gentle, respectful, unhurried, and this provides the perfect setting for that most endangered of all species—time.

I take a lot of walks here, exploring the narrow passages and stone staircases that lace the town together, peeking through old wooden doors that open onto apple orchards and medieval herb gardens. I lie down in the grass on beds of dandelions and listen to the songs of thrushes and blackbirds, the smell of grass and earth in my nostrils. I feel space in my life as I once did as a child. I have embarked upon photo projects with Parthenay as my subject. She is profoundly photogenic but without the self-conscious vanity of larger French towns. I study her in different lights and seasons, and from many angles and write about her in my blog, The Parthenay Project. The town has been dubbed Ville d’Art et l’Histoire (Town of Art and History). There are numerous artists living here, a surprising number of yoga and Qi Gong teachers, and a strikingly independent disabled community.

As I stroll through the streets of an evening, camera dangling at my side, cats jump down from walls, rub against my legs and angle for a petting. Locals sit in cafes sipping café noir while browsing the local papers or sharing a joke over tiny round glasses of rosé (unlike the British, the French can hold their alcohol. I have so far heard of only a single case of public drunkenness, a topic of conversation for weeks because it was so uncommon).

It is more normal to acknowledge than to ignore a stranger here. Even punked out teenage boys call our “bonsoir!” as they pass you by.

But the town is not prospering. Business are closing down at an alarming rate, and almost entire streets are for sale, their storefronts converted into mini art galleries. The former industries of tanning and textiles have disappeared, along with its train service that ferried its last passengers twenty-three years ago. A shopping complex on the outskirts of the town has sucked most of the commercial life from its cente. Timbered medieval houses straight out of a Dickens novel and elegant three story mansions are going for a song. (You can see some of the offerings here: facebook: westfranceproperty and here: The few tourists who make it to this place (often arriving on a whim in the middle of a cycling tour) walk around like they have stumbled upon their own private fairytale. Parthenay is a sleeping beauty, waiting to be awoken.

<p>Porte Saint Jacques on the Thouet, Parthenay’s ancient pilgrimage gateway</p>

Porte Saint Jacques on the Thouet, Parthenay’s ancient pilgrimage gateway

Rebecca Novick

It wasn’t always like this. Parthenay was once a thriving market town, the capital of the Gâtine Vendéene,. For centuries, it was an important stop on the Camino de Compostela, the pilgrimage route to the crypt of Saint Jacques (Saint James in England) believed to have the power to absolve all sins, that traversed the whole of France and ended at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compestala in North-Western Spain. Since the late 1980s, the Camino or ‘the Way’ has witnessed an extraordinary revival, and annually draws over 300,000 modern–day pilgrims from across the globe. The original route took months to travel, but these days even the more adventurous neo-pilgrims start their journey near the Spanish border on the French side of the Pyrenees. Still, I imagine refugees from fascism and suspicion arriving like the pilgrims of old through the ancient gate of Porte Saint Jacques, that stands gallantly above the river, welcoming the castaways of civilization’s sad decline.

On autumn mornings, sheets of mist drape low across the lanes and fields, like the blurry intersections of worlds. The fortified town of Parthenay is literally built on legend. It is said to have been created by the sweep of the wand of a magical woman with a fishes tail, named Melusine. It has three layers of fortifications made from thick granite walls encircling its inner sanctuary. Indeed, this is a place worthy of protection. Decency and friendliness still hold forth in these streets. There is less of a work ethic here than a life ethic. The only thing open on Sundays is the church. Lunch lasts two to three hours, and is treated as sacred time. Even the restaurants close for lunch much to my amusement. Most businesses don’t open on Mondays, and many are only open for a few hours a week, with hand-written signs on their doors that say things like ‘Opening hours 2-5pm on Wednesdays’ (in French, of course). Yes, it can make it hard to get things done. But it’s okay, because here there is time to do it.

<p>View of the River Thouet from the castle wall</p>

View of the River Thouet from the castle wall

Rebecca Novick

Do I exaggerate? Yes, but only a little. Of course, bad things happen even in Parthenay. There is meanness and bigotry here too. There is gossip, pettiness and jealousies. It is not for everyone. There are no autoroutes (freeways) or sprawling shopping malls. There is a tiny two-screen movie theater and few international chains. I have never heard a jet plane overhead and rush hour is a handful of Peugeots jostling for position. Not even a Starbucks (shhh!) which is somewhat ironic since their logo is based on the enchantress who created this town, the fish-tailed lady Melusine herself. But there is a lot more that is hard to find and worth to keep. I am both afraid to talk about it and afraid not to. If the town is sleeping, why not let it sleep? Recently, a friend of mine was discussing Hylozoism, the theory that inanimate objects have agency, that they can, in some sense, make a choice about how to act. Can a town in some way choose its residents? I like to think that the stones and mists of Parthenay are somehow able to decide who comes and makes their home here because, as our governments continue to fail us, we need to create more intentional communities in the world.

To me, Parthenay feels like a refuge in the gathering storm. Here, I am learning to unwind the knots of my past, to embrace peace in all ways. I am reminded of Tolkien’s House of Elrond that welcomed exhausted adventurers and provided a space where they could regather their energy and inspiration. As Tolkien writes, ‘Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.’ Parthenay is my House of Elrond. Could it be yours?