“Bonjour tout le monde!” Djuna said to all of us standing in a circle sipping what tasted like motor oil out of plastic festival cups. Ocelot had her hind legs stretched out, straddling shadow and sun on the line where hot light peeked over the mountain.
Oh! And was licking a small dead bird.
The festival cups (some older than me) held thousands of memories of conversations, dancing, food, music, laughter each with their own name, font, and logo. Thee Bellowing Bee was yellow with black lettering, on it an iconic bee wearing a suit with a business-like posture as if trying to make a deal. Potate Cabaret had a potato playing a triangle guitar, summoning spirits across the valley in the form of several m's (depicting birds amongst clouds). Or, my favourite, Soiree Plouf? A translucent purple cup with a diving board and tiny splash drawn with zigzag lines. It had a slightly absorbed smell of pastisse that lingered for a decade. One of the teenagers from Marseille always took it.
“Did no one hear me?” Djuna said to me. “I speak good English, non?” I nodded my head as if I were the resident grammarian.
He laughed, then immediately shouted to the group a forceful but raspy:
“Oui!” Half the group responded.
The Shepherd walked by with his shepherd stick and shepherd dogs in front of him, his head straight down. Cat stopped mid lick—gauged importance—and promptly returned to her arduous morning regiment. I remembered a dead lamb in my arms during my first year. Then, applause. I missed something.
“Aujourd’hui on va faire un petit Ice Breaker!” The people not from France looked at him blank-eyed. “Oh, sorry! In English. Today we will do a little Ice Breaker.” God, where was I, a kid camp for Marxists? Pretentious lady wearing a skier’s pullover and lime green sneakers gave me the look, she saw I’m not into it and judged my ripped shorts with her eyes. I was in a daze watching Toons, a dog who had almost blue fur and loved to put pebbles on people’s shoes. Unexpectedly, I felt tapping on my back. It was someone’s fists and fingers.
“What the—” I said and jumped back.
“I’m making a pizza,” a little girl said, “Olives and cheese, olives and cheese, tomatoes, tomatoes, peppers.”
And she changed the shape of her hand from a circle-form to elongated fingers running parallel. “Ok ok,” I said annoyed. It’s not that I don’t like kids, Pizza night was just a big commitment. It was designed to make friends with people we normally wouldn't talk to. A chance to stand in a long line and roll dough and go to the oven and stand there, etc.
I became fascinated with Toons and the shuffling feet around him that seemed to do a dusty swing dance. He tried to keep control of his pebble, but feet kept kicking it, which prompted him to jump around and lower his head close to the ground. He whimpered.
Djuna stopped the game abruptly and said, “Oh wait, merdre, that’s not tonight. Today is Lundi. It’s Soirée BBQ!” The girl still had her hands on my back in the form of a tomato.
“Who wants to make the fire?”
Mondays we grilled greasy merguez on a rusted fold out bird cage. If chosen to be in charge, you had to start making the fire at around four in the afternoon. The whole endeavor took up to six hours easy by the time we were done singing songs around the fading embers. We burned everything that wasn’t considered 'dangerous' but that definition was vague. I saw myself raise my hand for this Soirée BBQ and kept saying ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ But, since I was on a long term stay I needed to put in a little more effort than, say, someone staying for the weekend (they had the most fun and the least amount of responsibilities).
Starting a fire and watching it burn for a few hours sounds like an easy job, even pleasant, and it downright was (if you didn’t step on a piece of wood with a nail in it). But during the peak of July—what I didn’t mention before—is that at this morning meeting, after the Ice Breaker and after the Jobs are distributed among the volunteers, three to five kids are chosen to “help” the lone adult out for the afternoon. These kids come running at four on the dot—or in this case the chapel bell, yelling superlative slang in Marsiellian or Parisian French. “Ouesh! On va faire du feu!” Like yo, we gonna get lit. I forced a smile, the kids looked so excited. But I thought of the plus side—you only do a half day of work. Yes, yes. I can take it easy today. Get into thirty-minute conversations going to wash my hands at the Hôtellerie. At this point in the year, we were just moving river stones or clearing up weeds in the cracks of the walkways anyway. The main goals as a volunteer are to conserve all energy for the nighttime, to do as little work as possible and to appear like wherever you are is the place to be, and to acquire free wine (which was actually the place to be). We wanted to save the world one international party at a time.
I stood with my leg perched on a termite infested log. I snapped a branch to be thrown in with the crushed wooden crates we used to store vegetables. Crate crushing was an olympic sport at the Village. People became masters at kicking, stomping, jumping on crates for demolition.
The kids and some teenagers were talking about Messi while doing impressive tricks with a deflated soccer ball. One was overhand throwing a metallic pétanque boule like a baseball, saying he was Bab Rooz. Did I know Bab Rooz? He asked me, being from Aux (pronounced Oh) States and all. Bab was a legend, my grandfather. Charlie Chapleen too, on my mother's side. Being from California, I was automatically part of Hollywood's immortal elite, practically invented the Oscars, surfed with Brad Peet. Aren’t I an expert on barbeques? These were the conversations. Exchanging clichés was like a pleasurable confirmation that, yep, there are stars in Hollywood, yep, France has good cheese, and apparently des chouettes femmes très chaudes.
After watching the metal pétanque boule fly through the air for a while, I finally gathered enough wood to start a fire. The kids were restless after helping me with three branches. I grabbed the plastic green lighter out of my ripped back pocket. Whenever I touched that lighter, I thought about the PmPm Gas Station near my house back Oh States, and those visceral sweating hot dogs rolling on the heating rods.
I always found myself asking, where are the other long term volunteers—the ones my age? They seem to turn into mythical creatures during BBQ prep, but once it’s all ready, they’ll stay out for the whole evening. I see a friend now walking by with a charcoal sketch they drew of a tree this lazy afternoon; they strategically keep a distance of over fifty meters to make it seem like it is just out of their way to come by—just a wave? Yep, just a wave. Oh wait, they speak, going to take an afternoon nap, they say.
While I flicked my lighter with my thumb to start the thing, a kid said they wanted to be the one to light it. They grabbed the lighter and put it up to the newspaper and waved it in the air once it caught. Another kid hit the self-proclaimed-pyromaniac on the arm and told him to stop, he’ll burn the whole village down, in his deep-toned accent, “ey, tu vas brûlé tt le village.”
“Ey ouesh, regard, c’est du feu!” We were lit alright. Just start the fire kid. Monsieur Pyro, as he liked to be called since one minute ago, set down the burning Figaro newspaper, which ironically on the front page cover had an image of the California fires.
“Hey look, it’s chez toi!” the kid said. “It is burning.”
“Oui, it happens every year, there’s Hollywood for you,” I said and pointed to the iconic sign in the photo.
“Where will the stars go? I heard they live there?”
"Bonne question. Je ne sais pas,” I said.
“They just jump in their swimming pools, it is certain,” a cute kid with large circle glasses said pushing the frames up higher on his nose.
“They come here perhaps?” another kid said.
“You speak English Jack?”
“We should have a pool party!”
“There’s an idea–hey that’s enough wood man.”
Mr. Pyro piled on enough branches to offer sacrifice to a God. Another guy, a teenager, wearing a purple corduroy hat, was entranced by the flames; and when he took a step back, he slipped on one of the stones.
“Aieee!” Laughter ensued. It was kind of funny, but the fire was now the size of a tent. Djuna took notice all the way from the garden and began to yell. During a four-year drought, we weren’t technically even allowed to have this fire in the first place. The grandeur of the flames was indeed remarkable. I was immersed in the fascination of a contained inferno. It made me recall those times with my friends in high school, where we would collect dried up Christmas trees from the sidewalks of our neighborhoods and have meditative evenings in various abandoned park garages and beaches. People who were going about their day in the Village flocked to the glow one by one. Even Djuna was now invested in watching the piles of wood scraps, tree branches, and Figaros burn.
“You made it very too big,” Djuna said.
As the fire died down to the desired embers, everyone wandered off. I was then left alone to cook two hundred merguez on that wretched-whatever-it-was-metal-thing. That was the job though, all the adults had to do it, even the vegetarians and vegans did it. The real stress started with the cooking of the meat. The ‘grill’ unhinged and folded itself at the middle causing mass hysteria, and it was as if that PmPm hotdog machine lost all of its screws and went tumbling off the counter. In that moment I managed to singe my flip flops (a terrible thing to wear in a fire pit). Hot dogs now scattered over the embers—the grease leaking from their fatty, sausagey tip ties. No one saw that. I scrambled to pick them up one by one quickly tossing them back on our foolproof grill, and separating them from the vegan brochets; and then dusted off the ashes.
When sizzling grease was audible from the pétanque court, a wave of people appeared with a new interest in me. I had become a magician who could metamorphose and transcend energy. I stood there with the sounds and odors wafting in the sweet summer air. There was a lot going on amidst basketball bounces and laughter echoing off the mountains.
One of the Shepherd's dogs came up to me and I tried to pet her—but all I got was drool. She ran away with a vegan brochette in her mouth. The rest of the volunteers finished playing pétanque and were walking up from their evening tournament. Who's a good doggie? someone said and patted her on the head as she trotted by. It was amazing—that a dog chose vegan over all those sausages. The chatter stopped and everyone looked at the grill. Half were burning half still raw. I’m getting hungry, someone said. Then there seemed to be many strong opinions of where to place the sausage over which part of the embers. Good, I wasn’t in this alone now. The kid with the glasses said Mr. Hollywood can’t BBQ, that’s a fact. I reminded him that I wasn’t from Hollywood, but it was too late to rip that label off. I hadn’t been invited to enough pool parties, he said.
The kitchen team provided the tabouleh, salads and dessert. They set up the dishes on a table outside. The meat cooked to the best it was going to be. Everyone started grabbing their plates and someone made an announcement that there were two merguez or three brochets per person. People stood in line for a plate and served up healthy portions of couscous and grabbed a third of a baguette and squirted on mustard and mayonnaise—this is how the French do BBQ—an old woman said.
“How is it? Awful?” I said to a group of four sitting cross-legged on the grass with their plates in their laps.
“Personally, I like the burnt char,” a teen said.
Once everyone had eaten and the kitchen team took away the dirty plates and leftovers, the majority of the Village sat around the fire and put on more logs to get flames back. I didn’t know this—there was a group staying with us that had just recently come to France on life rafts from northern Africa. A volunteer in charge of activities organized a discussion for the evening. We talked about what it means to have a nationality. What does nationalism mean? Does it structurally change over time in relation to individuals?
Twilight glow had passed and it was now totally night and the stars were out. The kids had gone to bed and the wine appeared. The whole village seemed quieter. Someone was tapping their fingers on a djembe as people hung on words of the discussion.
How can we better love each other? Better Connect?
Everyone paused and thought about it, and we all looked at each other and smiled. Someone said, right here. A comet skimmed across the sky near the Big Dipper like a skipping stone and we went to sleep.