HOW TO LIVE FOR EVER, ALMOST
From Water into Wine and Back Again
A bon citoyen
in Port-Vendres is someone who can hold his rosé wine. From the town’s
gratins, the big cheeses, to the oisifs, the lazy louts, being
lightly pickled is the norm, what Baudelaire called l’état premier, the
For them death is a lifelong quest to achieve a happy one. The French language conspires. While in English ‘You lose your life’, and in Gaelic ‘Death finds you’, in French ‘You find your death’ (‘Vous trouvez la mort’). It is in your hands to make it your own. Daydreaming your mortal end on rosé is one way of putting off the dark temptation of polluting your dribble with crazy juices that lead to the descent into the
Look at the dates in the graveyard in Port-Vendres. Three score years and ten is to die young. Some health experts say it is the olive oil, and it helps to remain a virgin. The old people laugh, saying they are in the pocket of the olive growers, in the drive to sell the greasy product to tourists. Moreover, making babies is the cushiest way of being supported by the government, if not for life. But bring them up well and they will support you, particularly if you have a legacy to leave.
Far be it for me to question the old people’s wisdom. But I’m not so sure that child-bearing enhances life expectancy in itself. The oldest woman in the cimetière is Rose Verdu and she was without issue, milliparous, and doubtlessly a virgin. But I agree olive oil, sometimes called l’or noir, black gold, being in essence petrol as it doesn’t mix with wine, is a dubious elixir for a long life. Some locals like Dray Margail, not knowing what to do with the stuff, at écobuage time add it to the fires that clear the deadwood in vineyards. Others dress salads with it, in imitation of the English. But since olive oil is not water-soluble, they are looking for trouble, incendiary and digestive, respectively. Fires and bellyaches. No, I believe the longevity of Port-Vendres people is due to their philosophy of ‘live and let live’, and pacing their intake. Be lightly pickled all the time, as Baudelaire recommended.
The old people claim the graves are, in fact, empty. The remains are dug up on the night of the funeral, and recycled to fertilise the vines. You can see the twisted forms of the indigenous people in the plants. So the shades of wine-preserved bon citoyens sustain their viability.
My favourite old person, Rose Lucido, sums up the place of wine in local life. The rosé is for a long life, and the rouge for the head and stomach’s sake, the white for salving mosquito bites, or for the blanc-becs, the second homers, who believe that it’s the colour in wine that’s bad for you. But that’s another story, one of ignorance and self-deception. ‘They might as well drink vinegar soaked in a sponge.’
Rose Lucido is the most celebrated woman in town. Every year her birthday makes the front page of the local newspaper. She is a hundred and six, and doesn’t look a day older than ninety. The word on the street is that she is a débrouillarde. That is, she can absorb the mists of time until they clear. Like a good vintage, with the years she gets more musky and sharp edged. It’s well known that in her youth she was a costaude, built like an outdoor toilet, and nobody dared to ask her to marry. Now the offers come thick and fast, because, it’s whispered, she hasn’t needed to spend much of her pension since the local wine growers have adopted her as their porte bonheur, lucky charm, and ply her cellar with cases of reserve rosé. She calls the suitors ‘the funeral arrangers’, and laughs them off.
On All Saints Day she visits the Lucido family tomb with an entourage of admirers, and M. Calmette, the journalist. She calls it the ‘guided tour’ and takes up a collection to pay for the maintenance of her future grave. ‘Live and let live’ does not mean it’s forever. But still it looks as though she may well become the oldest person in France in five years, assuming the competition isn’t up to it. She evidently is. The glint in her eye is not medication. When asked for her secret, she attributes her long life ‘to not doing very much’, other than ‘turning wine into water’.
The Novena Women say it should be the other way round, like the wedding feast at Cana, only M. Calmette got it wrong. But I leave what was printed in the newspaper stand, because it’s the truth. As all flesh is grass, all wine after all ends up as water. But what happens in between for both flesh and wine is your good health. Long may Rose Lucido live.