BROSSAC, France -- Wanna bet my alarm clock's cooler'n yours? See, mine's a real live rooster, and she wakes me every morning at 4:30, even on the days I wish she wouldn't. And I hang my wash on a clothesline. And I've cooked for my fellow volunteers. And they come from all over the world. And this year's Bastille Day fireworks by the lake were the baddest in the total history of the universe.
And you've heard of the days almost beyond recall, when people felt safe enough to leave their doors open? Get this: One family here keeps its house unlocked so the mailman can get at the bottle of wine that awaits him on the living room table every day.
That's Brossac for you, a southwest France village whose stated population of 530 seems many times larger than all that. There are two reasons for this: The area's dozen or so towns, about an hour north of Bordeaux, sit practically on top of one another, and there's a global enterprise unfolding at the cultural sanctuary that is La Giraudière. This is the place I've been working at during July, comprising the reconstruction of a 16th-century master's farmhouse into a 20-plus-room center for cultural exchange.
Everybody works and plays under one roof, taking French or English lessons and otherwise bringing nothing to the table but their skill sets; the righteous expansion of the human family is the inevitable result, with more than 400 participants from all over the globe having visited since 2007.
French history is loopy with just such projects, which at the time cornered the market on western thought – even today, French intellectuals are often held in greater regard than French officeholders. They got that way because they invariably operate outside a vacuum. For them, the French intellect weighs heavy in world affairs. So too does La Giraudière, with its phalanx of hardy volunteers, appeal to man's better angels amid its international scope.
"I don't have to travel the world," British builder and campus administrator Paul Rice says, "because it comes here."
I'm currently working with Rice and two women from England and Slovakia. We cook, clean, maintain the grounds, handle accounts, eat lots of pizza and otherwise prepare in-house marketing material (I've helped put together an application for La Giraudière's accreditation across Europe, and a since-departed Irish gal, at all of 18, has proven a master plasterer). Londoner and numbers maven Clare Skinner thinks Springsteen rocks the total galaxy (she's right). Amid her command of five languages at age 22, Slovakian Eva Smininova looms an invaluable associate.
A smiley young French law student named Tibor drops by with some sage advice for a broken-down old editor who's determined to speak fluent French someday. "If you want to learn the language," he declares, "study French poetry." He quickly forces the issue, showing up three or four days later with five books.
Meanwhile, departed Aussie Maree Johns fueled the family atmosphere, nodding toward the river of red wine that threatened to swallow me whole on my first night. "It's France," she rasped in explanation, wielding a carafe of vin rose my way for the 37th time that evening.
Brossac is known as much for its authentic exteriors as for its support of the local grape industry and the area tourist trade. Local businesses reflect the roily tenor of the village's founding (in about 1793, four years after the end of the French Revolution); buildings look more like strongholds than shops, and stands of grape trees and sunflowers roll endlessly along the highways, betraying no hint of the squalor that may have helped shaped the country's modern destiny.
From all appearances, this is the authentic French republic, whose pesky battle scars have helped shape a nation and a world. And if La Giraudière is nothing else, it's an ideal example of communal learning within the French influential sphere.
Those Bastille Day pyrotechnics were gnarly in the extreme; the happy irony is that La Giraudière and its current occupants sit directly beneath what the fireworks represent.
For more, see lagiraudiere.com.