Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Aston Martyrs

Summer brings so many good things to the Quercy that, even were I finding time to write regularly, it would be hard to do them all justice. The evening markets, the medieval festivals, the families pouring down from England and Holland to rent our cottages and lie in our pool – it’s all great stuff, and after the long quiet of winter, the summer season often seems like one giant party. A party at which, granted, we in the hospitality industry spend a lot of time making beds, but a party nonetheless.

And with all of these tourists and summer-house-owners come the cars.

This sounds like a negative, and to some degree of course it is. The roads get more crowded, there are lines at the gas stations, and sometimes you actually have to look around for a bit before you find a parking place. Many newcomers here aren’t used to narrow country roads, or are overawed by the scenery, or are just plain lost. Or just plain bad drivers. Or in the general excitement have taken too much or too little of their meds. Hard to say, but between the ones going half the speed limit, the others going twice the speed limit, the lost Dutch motor home drivers who stop in the middle of intersections to consult their maps and the enthusiastic English new arrivals who forget about that little matter of driving on the right, summer in the Quercy becomes largely a question of getting from A to B alive.

That being said, the Quercy and surroundings are ideal motoring country. Not just driving, but motoring around in a car you love because it’s old or collectible or stylish or convertible (and please notice that “fast” was not in that list) just for the sake of watching the scenery go by and knowing that, in your snazzy car, you are an interesting part of it.

This draws a lot of unusual machines down here in summer to stir up the everyday selection of 1950’s tractors and tattered 1990’s Renault 5’s. As with dogs, the interesting thing about cars is often their juxtaposition with their owners. There are a few patterns. There are the gay couples celebrating their youth in their well-tended little convertibles. There are the retired English couples celebrating their second youth similarly well-tended and slightly larger convertibles. There’s the occasional elderly couple in something outrageously classic like an old Bentley, or sleazy middle-aged guy with salt-and-pepper hair and dark sunglasses in his Ferrari, or smug overgrown boys in dune buggies. Recently one sees more oddly-matched couples in motorcycles with sidecars, the ultimate way to travel with someone without actually having to speak to them.

I think my favorites though are Aston Martyrs. They all tell the same story. He is an old car buff. He wasn’t when he was younger, but at some point he became obsessed by classic cars and acquired a vintage Aston Martin. He learned everything about it. He knows all the trivia, much of the mechanics, and has poured his soul into restoring the old beast to pristine condition. She at first found this charming. Oh, Richard and his old cars, she’d say to friends, but it was more boasting than complaining. She found his enthusiasm charming, and was relieved that it was directed at something attractive and stylish.

But as the years went on, she realized that the Aston Martin had become part of their marriage. It was his mistress, they had become a ménage a trios. And now their trips to the Continent are all the same Рinstead of flying down to the Mediterranean coast, instead of a city break somewhere in Italy, every year the Aston Martyrs have to drive all the way south through France. They always break down somewhere, and always have to attend another interminable classic car rally somewhere else. She smiles, makes the best of it, and of course looks utterly charming in that classic English way sitting in the passenger seat of a vintage roadster driving through the French countryside. But it is a grim, enduring sort of smile.

I can’t help but smile back at her. Every year the Quercy offers its visitors a very full schedule of markets, festivals and concerts to liven up their holidays, but she is part of the unscheduled summer entertainment that visitors bring here with them. Even though we’ve tucked ourselves away among farms and villages of France profonde, we are given a regular glimpse of the outside world as the tragicomic parade of humanity marches by for a few months every year. I would feel bereft without it.

And next week, if all goes well, I’ll write about my own classic car.

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