Today, as I walked back home from coffee, through the path that runs by the river and then cuts around to pass the communal vegetable gardens, ends on the road that takes us past Salomé’s beauty parlor (called the Toutou.net)… and the small neighborhood supermarket, a journey now filled with spring wisteria and daisies and dandelions and pink magnolias and decorative plums in bloom, I thought about the number of smile-wrinkles that my face was developing here in Salies. All the way into town and all the way home I smile. I smile at the downstairs neighbor who is on her terrace fixing flower pots as I leave the building, and at the lady that sweeps the stairs and cares for the upkeep; later, I smile at the man walking his cocker spaniel who passes me and at the street sweeper as he rolls his cart along. Two ladies, plump and sweatered against the unseasonably cold morning, carrying market bags bid me a jolly bon jour and I grin from ear to ear as I answer them. The woman stepping from the launderette, the gentleman carrying a baguette under his arm, the petite owner of the best restaurant in town, the mother pushing her stroller, the kid on the bicycle… smile, smile, smile as I look into their faces and recognize them again and again and again. What joy! Smile wrinkles.
I think back at the cities I have lived in or visited. People walk looking at the sidewalk or into shop windows or straight ahead if they are in a hurry. No one looks at another’s face, and if by chance they happen to meet your glance, they look hurriedly away. In the case that you have time to smile before their gaze drops, it is possible to see their confusion: are you leering at something, do you have a problem, are you laughing at them, is your smile an invitation to some private perversion or are you just an idiot walking along. If you smile and say “good morning” as is the habit with everyone in Salies, their surprise is such that by the time they recover enough to consider answering they have passed and the opportunity is gone. That’s why cities are lonely places, where people lead private lives rushing from one place to another amongst strangers, amongst possible enemies, passing scary people, circulating amongst undesirables, hustling away to hide themselves from danger in the solitude of their homes.
In Salies, the whole town is my home. I would no sooner think of passing someone on the sidewalk without smiling and wishing them a good-day than I would consider spitting on the mailman or the mail-lady (we have several here).
With the morning coffee group, the smiles turn to laughter as I listen to their bantering back and forth, sometimes laughing because I understand it, sometimes laughing because I don’t. Isabelle, the elegant lady of Salies, guffaws and slams her hand on the table every time she says something funny; Josée who is ninety years old makes risqué comments and giggles covering her wrinkled (from smiling no doubt) mouth with fingers crooked with arthritis; Eliane, the youngest amongst us, insists on calling me Bri-oon-da and laughs gaily each time she does. Nadine, Yvette, Josette… all make a jolly group. The men who join us have nicknames: there is Ya-ya and Bi-bi, Ge-ge and Jean Louis who is Isabelle’s ex-husband with whom she gets along splendidly since they divorced.
Even when I go out in the evening to walk Salomé before going to bed, there is almost always Anne Marie, who lives down the block and walks her dog around the same time, to smile with and chat for a while. What a privilege it is for me to live here.
I must suppose that somewhere under the surface there must be all the small town woes, the gossip, the meanness, the pettiness. I have heard there are even people who deal in drugs, there are those who steal. No doubt there is an under life, a prostitute somewhere, the unfaithful husbands or wives… I am not naïve enough to think that might not exist, but I can’t see it. Salies has somehow become my Brigadoon, an enchanted town where dreams come true and life is the heaven on earth it is meant to be. So I smile, and smile, and smile. Why on earth wouldn’t I?