One of the best things about traveling for me (besides the food) is the people I meet. There’s something about traveling that makes us vulnerable, that makes us open to bonding with people we otherwise would not have connected with. I’ll be writing about some of the kindred spirits I’ve met on my journeys over the next few weeks.
Gibi, the Mountain Man
Our trip to Saorge, France last year would not have been as wonderful as it was if we hadn’t made friends with Gibi. Gibi is in his 50s, his face lightly weathered and tanned from spending so much time outdoors, with a clean-cut goatee marking his chin. His hair, always pulled back in a ponytail, is a white/grey mixture, and gives him the appearance of an aged hippie. He wore, one day, inexplicably, a shirt that said (in French) “I don’t go out without my turkey.” There was a cartoon turkey on it. The French sense of humor is apparently lost on me.
A Self-Made Man
Gibi’s your quintessential bachelor. He mentioned no wife, no girlfriend. Though he did proudly talk about his son…who was 20 months old! I wondered at how you could date anyone in a village as small as Saorge, let alone have a child with someone. What happens when it doesn’t work out?
He was modest about his history, but the glimpses he gave us told us he’d had his share of adventures. He’d traveled to Asia and Australia before stumbling onto Saorge, just 30 minutes away from his hometown of Nice. Like so many people we met in Saorge, it was love at first sight for him. I understand completely.
While he skims over his history as an entrepreneur in Saorge, he does let is slip that at different points over the past 40 years, he’s owned both Bar Heinz and La Petite Epicerie, two essential businesses in a town of just 400. He became curiouser and curiouser to us. What was this guy’s story, really??
One with the Mountain
On our last day in Saorge, Gibi invited us to his home on the mountain for a picnic. On the hour hike straight up the mountain, I got the sense he was like a wood sprite. He was one with the mountain. He generously waited for the Americains to catch up with his mountain-goat nimbleness. He’d stop to gather some greens on the side of the trail, identifying them to us, or to put back in place rocks that had tumbled from the hundred-year-old wall.
On the way, he pointed out houses that, to my surprise, were completely abandoned. One had a rusty swingset gently swaying in the mountain breeze. What happened to these people, we wondered? Jobs, he told us. As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of jobs in the mountains, nor in tiny Saorge. So people left their homes for bigger cities with more prosperous options. I fantasized about squatting in one of those homes, of living surrounded by such beauty. But the thought of hiking one hour to town to buy groceries, and then one hour up carrying them dissuaded me from that plan.
At long last, we reached his home, a medium-sized rock house just on the path. There was a second building, a barn of sorts, that had nearly succumbed to fire…at least the roof and insides. Turns out, stone is a pretty great building material. The inside of his home was something out of Frontier House: The French Edition! The kitchen looked more like one you’d find at a restored village that displayed what it was like to cook 200 years ago. And yet, this man functioned here.
The outhouse was…fun. There was a hole for your business, and a bucket of sand in front of the seat. After some struggling with the translation, I realized that it was a human litter box. You were supposed to put sand on your #2 to keep the stink and flies off. Fortunately, I didn’t have to avail of that service.
As we nosily poked into every corner of Gibi’s home, he good-naturedly answered questions and shared stories. He even coerced my shy child into helping him with building the fire for the grilled meat. Once we sat down with his homemade juice, wine, of course, wild foraged salad, and steak, we had formed a bond that I felt would last an eternity.
Sad as we were to leave, we headed down the mountain before the sun set. After taking photos and giving hugs and bisous, Gibi pointed to a rusty, ancient key on the side of the side of the house.
“There’s the key for the next time you come. You’re welcome any time.”
It warmed my heart that this man, who had known us only days, would open his home to us, and would trust us enough to invite us back.