The French Alps. Spring 1977. Four young girls aged from three to seven are digging in the dirt for empty sardine cans. The days have been getting warmer and the snow has almost completely thawed, revealing the treasures beneath. The girls dig with their hands, and with sticks. The ground is cold but they barely notice. They collect anything interesting that they find, but what they are really looking for is old empty sardine cans. There is no greater treasure to be found here. Sardine cans are vessels in which to make perfume from the fresh fragrant mountain leaves which they will collect later. Sardine cans are for storing collected pretty stones which they know are precious fairy gems. Sardine cans are plates and cooking pans for use in the many camps they will build over the summer. Sardine cans are houses or baths for any little insect friends that may be found. Sardine cans are beds for the dolls they will make out of grass.
Today’s excavation yields three cans. A good haul. Before they can be used though, they need to be carefully cleaned. The girls use a stick to scrape out the dirt from inside and then take them to the spring to wash them. The water from the spring is freezing cold and their hands quickly turn red and numb, but they won’t stop until the cans are as clean as they can be. One of the girls gets a little cut from the can while rubbing it under the water. A drop of blood. Nothing serious. When the cans are clean they are left out to dry. Soon they will join other cans, along with pieces of broken plates and glass, ready to fire the imaginations of four young girls on their mountain home.
One of those girls was me, and that was a little glimpse into the year I spent living in an abandoned village in the French Alps with my mother and another family. No electricity. No plumbing. Nobody else but us. The other village homes were empty. Everyone else gone. We grew, or reared, or found, our food. We didn’t really have any toys. But we had a mountain, our imaginations, and sardine cans in the dirt.