A Place You Weren't Thinking About CHAMBON-SUR-LIGNON

This small, mountain village in central France has a storied and heroic past, and balls to spare

Chambon-sur-Lignon has balls. Lots of balls. Various sizes and degrees of fuzziness. Mostly orange, pink or yellow, or a kind of pale yellow-green to be precise. On first arriving in the little village situated at sub-Alpine heights in the Auvergne-Haute Loire region of France, the omnipresence (or “ballnipresence,” as I took to calling it) of the balls was frankly puzzling. The things were everywhere, hanging from trees, affixed to streetlamps, in the window of the patisserie, stacked in a pyramid on a counter in the local café. One was as big as a beachball, but was not a beachball, while the majority were the size of tennis balls, because they were tennis balls.


I understood the spherical profusion soon afterwards while leafing through the local newspaper, which consisted of three pages of farming news (M. LaGrange got a new tractor!) and a five page fold-out section devoted to the international junior tennis tournament that was being held that very week in Chambon-sur-Lignon. Mystery solved, though I admit to being slightly disappointed at the prosaic explanation. I had been hoping for something to do with wood nymphs. Still am, actually.


Chambon-sur-Lignon has metaphorical balls, too. (You thought you were done with balls? Think again. I will extend this conceit until it snaps like a perfectly circular rubber band back in my face.) During World War II, the village was famous as a shelter from the storm for Jews fleeing Nazi and Vichy-occupied French efforts to round them up and send them to death camps. At great personal risk the townsfolk helped hide, feed, and in some cases even transport to Switzerland a large number of Jews. For its efforts, Chambon-sur-Lignon was recognized in 1990 by Israel as “Righteous Among Nations” with a small garden and a plaque dedicated to the village on the grounds of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.


You can find out about all that on Wikipedia. What Wikipedia won’t tell you, however, is that the French resistance was organized principally by Communists, and that a good number of the surviving descendants of those fiercely Communist farmers are still Communist, though perhaps not as fiercely so. Being a bad capitalist myself, I can’t help but admire the perseverance of pink in an erstwhile Trump-orange world. Being a Communist is still a source of pride for some in the French countryside, though not so much as being a farmer. In Chambon-sur-Lignon, being a farmer is a source of great pride.


All this was patiently laid out for me during a lengthy after-hours conversation at a sans website bar called La Gargouille with a local farmer called Pierre (name has been changed because I accidentally threw away the sodden bar napkin on which he wrote down his contact info). Pierre described himself as a “tree doctor” but told me that “tree doctor” doesn’t mean the same thing in English as it does in France. I’m not quite sure what the difference is exactly, because we were interrupted by another round of drinks. Pierre also grows and sells Christmas trees, which, although a seasonal business requires year-long attention. More drinks. He also has a website, which I have been unable subsequently to find, despite spending whole minutes on the Internet, all about farming at higher altitudes. Then we had a long conversation about political philosophy. Oh no, sorry, we had more drinks.


I was in CSL, as no one but myself calls it, because my rock band was touring Europe, and we had earlier that night played a show at La Gargouille to a diverse crowd of hipster, hippies and at least one very vocal tennis fan, who, when I facetiously asked the audience “Anyone here into tennis?” provided a lengthy answer in rapid-fire country-accented French that I understood only dimly but the gist of which seemed to be that Chambon-Sur-Lignon takes its annual international junior tennis tournament very seriously. Which I already knew, because of the balls.


Much later, at the bar, as Pierre and I struggled to understand each other through the twinned fogs (brouillard) of whiskey and my bad French (only the next morning was I to discover that my bar tab alone had eaten up almost half the band’s earnings from that night’s show), I noticed out of the corner of my eye our drummer, who does not speak a word of French and moreover had never been overseas, drunkenly slow dancing with a very sweet cotton-haired lady. Over the PA a waltz of indeterminate provenance played at medium volume. A few other couples, urged on by our drummer, joined the waltzing pair. I shrugged and turned back to my conversation. Not surprising, after all, that Chambon-sur-Lignon should have impromptu balls.