alex jeffries

A good morning in Rignac

Published (updated: ) in france, letters from near and far.

I didn’t get to run before breakfast.

When we agreed to a Sunday morning meal with Claude, the father of the host we’re staying with for a few weeks here in Rignac, we were warned about just how heavy this dejeuner would be, especially at 8 in the morning. So, the day before, I started planning a route I could run before breakfast to clear up precious stomach space. But as the sun sets late here, and the people go to bed even later, it’s ever harder to protect that time in the morning, and that proved true once again on Sunday. An extra half-hour of lazing about led to a knock on the door. We crammed into Claude’s car, and we went to the next town over.

The meal was as heavy as advertised: a tripe stew, sausages, cheese, cake, and several wines. It was, it turns out, part of a weekly rotating Sunday meal put on by various organizations in neighboring villages, all with populations of around 200 or 300 people, to raise money for the local schools. They’re attended primarily by, as is the custom, older men, who each check in on their friends of 50+ years with handshakes, laughs and nods, hair thin and hands calloused. There aren’t many women, except a few new moms, and a few matriarchs who spend the morning making the rounds. As the steam from the tripe stew opens my pores and too-much-wine too early helps me ask follow-up questions about Claude’s butcher shop, I notice the rain.

There’s nothing like running in the rain.


Tending the vines in Balsac

For the past week, I’ve been working on an organic vineyard in Balsac, while staying in Rignac in the Occitanie region of France. As I spend the morning plucking new growths to encourage each plant to focus its energy toward the grape-bearing vines, and as I perform an endless series of squats up the steep incline of the red clay-covered vineyards, a run begins to seem like a good idea to stretch out the legs. After sausage, wine and cheese at each of our meals, that same run begins to seem like a great idea.

But time is different here. The people sit longer, and stay longer. They were born here, and live here. They love the traditions older than they are, of sports and food and farming, and they honor them. Always, there is a cheese to taste, a dessert to try, and yesterday’s to finish. Plus, the keg from the party to inaugurate the wine cave still isn’t empty, so could you drink one more beer, please? With the work and the meals melting into a fondue of oozing time, no one rushes around during these late spring days.

After breakfast and enough wine to knock out Tyrion Lannister, I expected a midday nap and a run through the now-soggy fields and by the mopey cows.

But I didn’t run then, either.

Instead, we drove. Past the house we’re staying in, past the parent’s home and the 1-year-old Border Collie, and onward to vineyards and small towns and local claims-to-fame like the largest hand-carved wooden shoe… in the world? With occasional comments about the landscape, the towns, our host’s beginnings as a winemaker, we push through breezy curtains of constant drizzle in the opposite direction of our home and my running shoes, as that run begins to seem ever less likely.

Finally we get to a park, and we see our host in a very sporty uniform. It turns out they are in the middle of a tournament for quille, a sport which to my untrained American eyes seems a lot like dusty bowling. We had arrived during their lunch break. As another team was in the midst of talking to Claude, they invited me to eat cheese.

A light snack before sports

Still full of the cheese from that morning, I agreed. Soon, I found myself behind a van with a full-on picnic setup, a plastic plate full of Aveyron’s finest snacks in one hand, and a plastic cup filled with Aveyron’s finest wine in the other. Every attempt to be demure and to pass on food was forcefully ignored. No meant yes, a taste meant a slice, and a bit meant a plateful. Paté, cheese, flan, bread, and other desserts — all of this before they were set to continue playing. Spoiler: somehow they would go on to win.

As that team kept winning, along with my host’s team, I figured that meant a quiet night as everyone recovered.

A night, perhaps, for a run.

A brief break for sports before more snack.

So after the award ceremony and a late-dusk drive back with the sun streaking through the clouds, I figured the scene was set for my own victory run.

But still, I didn’t run.

The teams came over for beer and wine and pastis, a liqueur made from anise, and cheese. We all laughed and I somewhat mostly kind of understood what was going on in, to the extent I completed several French requests with aplomb (un coteau? Pour le pain ou le fromage?).

And I didn’t run.

But for a day that I felt had been defined by what I wasn’t able to do, a continuous thwarting of one seemingly simple desire to make a dent in the thousands of cheese calories I had piled on in just one week, it became so much more.

With the traditional Sunday meal surrounded by the elder dudes of the village, a road trip led by a father proud of his place in the world, witnessing his son’s triumph in a very traditional sport, being whisked away and welcomed by strangers eager to share their snacks, having the French president of quille teach us how to play, watching triumphant teammates swig from their trophy while eating the leftovers from parties past, the day was full of moments. It’s just that staying in the moment can be a struggle, especially as waves of the new crash over, leaving me craving the islands of comfort that I know. But as it always has been, running will be there, English will be there, and free time will be there.

Until then, there are new cheeses to be had.