Lauzerte wasn't even on our itinerary. Not that you could pass it by unnoticed, with its houses ranged prominently along the brow of a hill. We drove up to it not because we wanted to sight-see - we'd been doing that in a conventional Baedekerian manner for the past 10 days - but because it was 9 a.m. , because we'd been driving for three hours, and because it was time for breakfast.
Parking in its main street, the two of us climbed, crumpled from travel, out of the car and looked around for a cafe. The place looked unpromising, even deserted. A little country town, silent, rather indifferent. Apparently we were its sole visitors, and its inhabitants were elsewhere....
Then we heard the crash. We didn't see it - it was just an unmistakable and blank thud somewhere above and behind us. But were we the only people to hear it? No one came running; no one gaped out of windows....
We continued our search for a cafe, but the hotel looked abandoned, and the main street offered nothing else, so we strolled over to some steps that climbed to a higher part of the town. It was as we started to go up them that we caught sight of the protagonists of the recent, isolated drama. Their cars were at an odd angle, up in the parking area. One had presumably backed into the other. But were the man and woman involved spitting fire, brimstone, and insurance papers at each other? Not a bit of it: They were laughing and chatting like long-lost friends. The whole event was being treated as an occasion of exuberant Gallic bonhomie in the cheerful rural air. It was a great start to the week! Marvelous that they had, as it were, bumped into each other!
I think this was the catalyst. Such geniality instead of anger gave a sudden and warm flavor to the town, a lightheartedness, a touch of elation. Immediately Lauzerte seemed to become the scene of a series of little incidents and observations straight out of the whimsical films of Jacques Tati. Remember the numerous dogs at the beginning of ''Mon Oncle,'' running around the waste-ground and back streets, owning the world, before the human beings got up to go to work? Two of them reappeared now, tumbling and clowning down the steps - ragamuffin mongrels of contrasting shape and hairiness, circus characters. As they stopped to investigate the flowers in front of the boulangerie, to sniff the air for wafted scent-news, to scratch behind the ear, another dog (and its master) suddenly stuck their heads out of a downstairs window and grinned at us. ''Bonjour!'' said the man. ''Bonjour!'' we replied.
We realized unanimously that we shouldn't have left the cameras in the car. We headed back to fetch them. As we did so a man in a black beret (did he really have to look so indelibly French?) wandered across the road past us deep in inner conversation: He too belonged to Tati's amiable, affectionate view of people and places, in which the most ordinary occurrences become small moments of undeliberate wit, nuances in a game of seeing life as art.
I hadn't really expected to encounter anything of Tati's France. A tourist - inevitably an outsider - doesn't allow enough time for patient and detailed observation. Tati's vision, subjectively objective, is above all unhasty. And his films seem to record a gentle, old-fashioned France as fast disappearing.
By 1984 it had surely gone altogether.
But Lauzerte, early this summer morning, began to suggest otherwise. We photographed the dogs. I photographed the boulangerie and, though I meant no offense, it seemed that Mme. la Boulangere, organizing her vast array of long pains, may not have been too pleased to be caught inside my camera. Who can blame her? Who wants nosy tourists snapping at them first thing on a Monday morning? The Tati of ''Mr. Hulot's Holiday'' would have loved this, and would not have missed the ensuing comedy of the Englishman trying to redress his faux pas by buying a loaf of bread, and the baker flatly refusing to sell him one because, she said, they were ''reserved.''
Shamelessly, though, we went on trying to capture the character of Lauzerte with our cameras. I photographed a cat sound asleep in the window of a clothes shop that looked as if it had remained unaltered since the 1940s at least (and the cat, possibly, as well); and then, opposite, I saw a darkly closed furniture shop with tattered blinds.
Its proprietors had apparently been swept away long since, by the tide of modern taste, perhaps, or a lack of clientele. ''Meubles,'' the shop sign still read, in sloping letters, and with forlorn inappropriateness now, each window sported the words ''Entree libre.'' It had the air of a shop preserved for centuries under time-freezing volcanic ash.
I stood in the middle of the road to photograph it, and at that precise moment a lone motorcyclist appeared. I waited for him to pass in front of me, wanting spontaneously to include him in the shot. But he (or she, as it turned out) pulled up in the road so as not to spoil my picture. Tati would surely have valued this incident, too. Such touches of etiquette, still surviving today, delicately found their way into the very texture of his films. Nor would he have missed the fact that the English tourist, having thanked the considerate motorcyclist profusely, and having waved her on, managed to photograph her after all....
When, eventually, we drove out of Lauzerte, one of its canine inhabitants offered the last word. It lay in the middle of the road, unbudging. We stopped; and asked if it would care to move. It looked up indifferently, saw no reason for action, and dropped its head again. In the end we had to drive elaborately around it. Clearly this sleeping dog belonged to the obstinacy and inner laughter, the unchanging atmosphere, the individuality, of Lauzerte. Either that or it had just managed - unlike us - to get some breakfast.