My adventure with a French socialist and cave art.
Best Day Ever
By Keri L. Allen
In the summer of 2001, I had the privilege of going to France to study French in a study abroad program. In general, it was a great trip, but one day stands out as my best day ever.
We students had one free weekend in the six weeks we were in France, so I decided to go see the caves at Lascaux. In the Dordogne region of France, cave paintings estimated to be 17,000 years old had been discovered in 1940 by an 18 year old kid and his dog. Since then, the caves at Lascaux have become a World Heritage Site. Being an anthropology major at my undergraduate institution, I couldn't pass up the chance to see something our ancestors created long before written history, agriculture or animal domestication. So, on Saturday, I and a couple of other students, took a train to the small town of Sarlat, a tiny French hamlet with the most medieval buildings and facades in all of Europe. We found a Chambre-De (a French bed and breakfast) that cost each of us about $15 U.S. for the night. We walked around the market in the middle of town and ended up at an outdoor restaurant called Le President, eating a seven course meal that cost me about $100 U.S. Along a medieval fade grew bright fuchsia bougainvillea that seemed to grow brighter as the sun set while enjoying our meal. The wine flowed, along with the laughter, as we ate the best food of our lives.
We returned to the Chambre-De and discovered that our mullioned windows opened outward overlooking a courtyard. We could smell the honeysuckle growing on the wall outside the window as the breeze wafted through the open window. Our room was in a castle turret, so it was round. Dark, hardwood floors, plastered walls with exposed brick, and a large fireplace set the mood for the evening. I had the best sleep of my life that night.
We awoke the next morning to a bright, sunny day, maybe 75-80 degrees, and not a cloud in the azure sky. After a quick breakfast in the tiny dining room, my friend Laura and I were off to find a bus to Lascaux. What we didn't know was that in this tiny hamlet, and throughout this region, buses do not run on Sundays. Not to worry, we thought, we'll just take a cab. The pricey fare would be worth the experience of Lascaux at the end of it. However, when we phoned from a local pay phone, all the taxi companies hung up on us because our French was so bad. We were in a quandary as to what to do. There was no train service to Lascaux from Sarlat. Despairing that my dream to see Lascaux wouldn't come true, I was about to give up when a middle-aged man with a scruffy beard, fly-away rather long brown hair, and clothes that hadn't seen a washing machine in a while, wandered over. I had noticed him selling paintings out of his beater car, a sad little Deux Chevaux with more rust than paint so that I couldn't tell what color it originally was, while singing and playing the guitar. But, he had been paying attention. I was feeling wary about this man sauntering up to us.
He introduced himself as Francis Jemais, his English quite good. He had overheard our dilemma and offered us a ride to wherever we wanted to go for 100 francs (about $15 U.S.). While his appearance was definitely an homage to hoboes, he had a kind smile and seemed quite friendly. After talking it over, my friend and I decided to take him up on his offer. He packed up his guitar and stowed the paintings in the trunk of his car. We were off. Laura sat in the backseat amongst a heap of sleeping bags, pillows and assorted junk. I sat in the front with Francis, noticing a rather large hole in the floorboard on my side, rust coloring the edges. I handed him the 100 francs, and he drove to the nearest petrol station, putting about three liters of gas in his car. He ambled to the small store next door and returned with a bottle of red wine. I'm assuming he pocketed the rest of the money, were there any left. After opening the bottle of wine with his handy corkscrew stowed in the overflowing ashtray, instead of drinking straight from the bottle, he poured himself a cupful into a cut off beer can. He didn't offer me or Laura any of the wine. Thus began our journey to Lascaux.
As he sped off onto the winding mountainous road, driving rather fast, I wondered what I had just gotten myself into. But, being the chatterbox that I am, having rarely met a stranger, Francis, Laura and I were soon talking like old friends. As our hair whipped around us wildly from the open car windows, I hardly noticed that he said the word "fuck," or some iteration of it, at least three times per sentence. He had fucking lived in Britain for ten years (that's why his English was so good). Mostly he couch-surfed at friends houses or slept in his car. He was a free-spirit. The paintings he sold out of his car were actually painted by a friend of his. The guitar, on the other hand, belonged to Francis.
After about 30 minutes, we arrived at Lascaux, about 25 kilometers from Sarlat. Laura and I went to buy tickets, while Francis stayed behind in the parking lot. What I hadn't known before we arrived was that the caves at Lascaux were closed to the public. To see the original paintings, one had to have special permission, usually only granted to archaeologists and other such researchers. Instead, Lascaux II had been constructed - a replica of the original caves. Initial disappointment turned to excitement after watching a film detailing the construction of Lascaux II and showing footage of the original caves. Because CO2 is released as we breathe, after years of human visitations and viewing the original caves, a film had begun to cover the paintings. Fearing these priceless artifacts would be ruined, most people were banned, but Lascaux II was constructed down to the very millimeter, along with meticulous copies of the cave paintings, so that people could still have the experience of the original caves.
Once the film had finished, our tour guide, along with about 15 guests, headed into the caves of Lascaux II. What I saw that day is still vivid in my memory. Beautifully rendered paintings of horses, deer, aurochs. Human handprints in relief, surrounded by red or black, obviously blown from some sort of instrument reminiscent of a straw. Odd creatures, half human, half animal. Various dots in red or black, sometimes grouped together, sometimes randomly spaced. It was a window into the past. Some human beings, 17,000 years ago, had rendered animals and handprints and alien creatures and dots onto these ancient chamber walls. I lost all sense of time. I don't remember how long the tour lasted, but it was half as long as I would have liked. I was transfixed at the beauty of it. The thought that human hands, thousands of years ago, had created these incredible images of their natural and supernatural world was an ecstatic religious experience for the anthropologist in me. I could have stayed a month, and it wouldn't have been long enough. Alas, the tour ended. We emerged, blinking and squinting into the sunlit day, after so long in the darkness of the caves. I couldn't speak. I was in awe.
As Laura and I approached the parking lot, we heard music and laughter. There, in all his glory, was Francis, playing his guitar and singing, paintings arranged carefully around the tires, fenders, and bumpers of the beater car. He had drawn a crowd who were singing and laughing along with his slurred French singing. As he saw us approach, he bid adieu to the crowd and began stowing the paintings in the trunk, yet again. Laura and I took up our positions in the car, and Francis asked, "Where to?" I mentioned that I would like to see Le Thot, a Cro-magnon site about 10 km away. Off we went. He did mention, on the way to Le Thot, that this had been his most profitable day in quite a long while. He seemed very appreciative.
We arrived at Le Thot in no time and proceeded to the museum while Francis, yet again, stayed behind in the parking lot. I have no doubt he was anticipating a nice haul of francs while we visited the site.
Le Thot is a 30,000 year old site where remains of anatomically modern humans were discovered. The museum was quite nice and outlined the discoveries there. Afterwards, we visited the animal park that showcased animals that had been indigenous to that area for thousands of years and likely were prey for our ancestors. While not quite as exciting as Lascaux, walking along paths that were likely tread by our ancient ancestors, I couldn't help but be overcome with pre-historical awe.
Back in the beater car, Francis drove us back to Sarlat. I also noticed that he had made a pretty good dent in his bottle of wine as he drove madly through the semi-mountainous region. When we arrived in Sarlat, Francis gave us deux-bise after we presented him with a gift of a shot glass we had purchased at Lascaux, thinking he might appreciate a more appropriate vessel for his wine. We watched him careen off in his beater and then turned to walk toward the Chambre-De. We were both curiously silent, at home with our own thoughts of the day. The magic of paintings created thousands of years ago, by people much like us. The wild mountain ride with a half-drunk socialist who lived in Britain for ten years. The laughter and recognition of each other as people on the journey to discover each other, and in the process, ourselves. And I realized. This was my best day ever.