This makes Alba’s dump quite the hotspot. The village employs someone whose official job it is to make sure you toss your trash in the right place. Unofficially – but much more importantly in the eyes of the village – she keeps an eye out for anything that can be récupéré. If you are a real regular, you can place orders with her, and she will keep an eye out for the things you need. Going to the dump is an event in and of itself, and quite often you come back with as much stuff as you went to throw away.
Even businesses in Alba participate in la récup’. When I waitressed at La Petite Chaumière, La Roche’s only restaurant, people recuperated dry bread for their horses; we kept all our wine corks for someone who made cork insulation, and we saved all our bottle caps for reasons I have yet to understand. The butcher will set aside the plastic buckets he orders olives and mayonnaise in if you are looking for free containers, and Charlie, who raises goats and sells their cheese at the market, will save the whey to wash your face in if you ask him. I recently phoned Marco, our grocer, to ask if he had any fresh cilantro, and he exclaimed, “You should have called five minutes ago! I just threw it out. You want me to fish it out of the garbage for you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Si tu penses que je peux la récuperer – if you think I can rescue any of it.”
“It’s on the top,” he assured me.
“I’ll be right there.”
Transposed into English, an epicerie would be spicery - a place that sells spices. Epiceries have existed since the middle ages, when they actually sold only spices. They evolved into dry-goods stores in the 19th century, and now an epicerie is a small grocery store. In the city, an epicerie is like a bodega, a place you go when you forgot something at the real grocery store, but in a village, it’s all you’ve got. Alba has two of them. They both have actual titles, but everyone refers to them as the epicerie d’en bas and the epicerie d’en haut, the grocery store down there and the grocery store up there. The grocery store down there has a dull, oversanitized feel to it, and though the owners are nice, almost no one goes there unless the grocery store up there is closed. The grocery store up there is a tiny cavern crammed with just about everything you could possibly ever need, from cotton balls and kitty litter to organic hair conditioner, locally grown heirloom tomatoes, even fresh cilantro. It is cool, dimly lit, and twice as long as it is wide. The checkout counter is beside the door, and there is nearly always a traffic jam in front of it. To get in you have to jostle past tourists picking out postcards, children gazing longingly at the toy shelf, and grandmas at the register waiting for Marco or Béatrice, the owners, to loosen a jar lid for them or count out their change.
When I arrived Marco was issuing instructions to a customer on how to fry the tiny spring artichokes he had in from a farmer in the Vaucluse. The line was backed up all the way to the produce bins. I caught his eye and he handed me a bundle of damp paper towel. “I sorted it out for you and rinsed it off,” he said with a wink. “Good as new.”
When I got home I heard a jingling from our neighbor’s terrace, which forms a bridge over the street between her house and ours. “Yoo-hoo,” she called down. “You want a toy for your baby?” She shook a large yellow and red ball with a bell trapped inside of it, and it jingled again.
“Sure,” I said, and she tossed it down to me. I fingered a place where the plastic had broken in just the right shape for Estelle to put in her mouth and cut herself.
“It came with the cathouse,” she told me. “Wash it before you use it.”
By Alba standards, at least compared to some, I am not a real recuperator. I freely admit that I threw our neighbor’s broken cat toy out.
Our friend Silvann, on the other hand, is a pro. When Julien and I bought our house (you talk about something that needs recuperating), he took Julien to the dump to celebrate. They returned with two sinks for our house, one for the kitchen and one to recycle into a vessel sink for the bathroom. Silvann had collected an array of items, including some chairs for his garden, a wall-mounted sculpture of cherubim playing around a fountain, and a metal funerary urn.
“Who would throw out a funerary urn?” I wondered.
“Well, once you scatter the ashes, what are you going to do, keep it on top of your television?” Silvann pointed out.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I’ll find a use for it,” he said, with a dreamy look.
That afternoon, we all went to the trou de Saint Jean to go swimming. A trou is a hole; in the Ardèche there is no need to specify it is a swimming hole. The path to the river was lined with blackberry cane spilling down the hillside in treacherous curtains and prickly tufts of dark purplish green, brimming with ripe fruit. On the way back from our swim we were all hungry, and straggled out along the path to eat the berries, the adults holding up the children so they could reach the fat and juicy ones higher up.
I don’t know whether it was too many blackberries, or the hot sun and the cold water, or way Françoise and Silvann’s van swayed and clattered on the mountain, but suddenly, out of the lazy August afternoon silence, Jaëlle, their seven-year-old daughter, called out that she was going to be sick. We all scrambled for a receptacle, or even a towel, and just like that, la récup came to the rescue, and Silvann found a use for his funerary urn.
Photos: this may look like a pile of rubble, but it is full of stones that we sorted out for Julien to use when he added height to the streetside facade. (Can you see where the new part of the wall begins?)