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Saturday, 5 December 2015

Christmas in our part of rural France






Just for a moment close your eyes and try to recall a montage of the best memories you have ever had of Christmas time. Do they fill you with a sense of happiness and wellbeing? I sincerely hope so. Now, open them up again, and join me in a recollection of Christmas in our corner of France.




It was our first winter here and we didn’t know what to expect. After all, at this time of year there isn’t much to do on the farms, so jobs are generally confined to maintenance and indoor work.

The nights had drawn in and with them the country folk. Their houses looked winter-ready too. External shutters were mostly closed to save on heating bills, and although there were festive wreaths on front doors, we expected that everyone would switch to hibernation mode. As it turns out, this couldn’t have been further from the truth - they’re a hardy lot here. Food still has to be bought, stories told and babies’ heads patted. There are many places where this is done, but our weekly market is the local hot-spot. I braved the snowy conditions and went along to have a browse.

The usual stalwarts were out in force, disregarding the Arctic conditions and doing magnificent battle with icy cobble stones and slippery pavements. The new-fangled trolley pullers had a distinct advantage here as their trolleys slid with consummate ease, sleigh-like, over the dicey patches. But none of that influenced the traditionalists. This sturdy bunch of basket-luggers rallied together, staggering between the stalls and occasionally into one another. Luckily, fresh foodstuffs were in plentiful supply, so there was always something close by to grab hold of in case someone lost their balance. Cheery braziers were burning next to some of the market stalls, camping gas fires close to others. These became the chat areas where the latest family and recipe gossip could be exchanged, along with multiple kisses.  




With Christmas Day fast approaching there was a truly festive feel. I strolled amongst the roast horse-chestnut sellers sipping my piping hot beaker of vin chaud and took time to appreciate the scenes. Santa Claus was well represented with several traders clad in full regalia, gamely extracting their long, flowing beards from the produce, and occasionally the till. Others, Christmas-kitless, were so layered up with warm clothing that it was a job to see a face at all – nevertheless their rosy cheeks and bright smiles still shone through, oozing bonhomie. Decorations were plentiful too. Strings of low-slung fairy lights swayed gently in the breeze, as did the many lanterns which, every now and again, caught an unsuspecting shopper off-guard. They’d been suspended over the groceries and caused the occasional head-butt, but nobody seemed to mind. This kind of mishap is expected at Christmas.  

Then, from around the corner, a band appeared wearing Santa hats. Each had an accordion which they fired up and proceeded to royally entertain us with carols that I’d never heard before. This caused great excitement, especially among the basket brigade, several of whom broke out into an impromptu spate of dancing. I couldn’t help feeling that this was marginally dangerous because of the icy tarmac, and the age of each participant involved, which was certainly not young. Dancers ended up skittering around precariously on the skating rink surface but luckily there were no casualties. I watched for a while longer, satisfied myself that an ambulance would not be required, then hurried back home, laden with fresh goodies for lunch.

We finished our meal and snuggled up in front of our roaring fire, reluctant to move. It was bitterly cold out there. Brutus the cat had installed himself on my knee and was purring gently in unison with the Christmas music that was coming from the TV. The dogs were relaxed but watchful, knowing that this state of bliss wouldn’t last much longer. Come what may, afternoons always mean walk time.

“Come on, let’s be having you,” said Jack, my husband, charging into the room.

“Oh can’t we sit here a bit longer,” I pleaded, “Brutus and I are so cosy.”

“Nope, sorry, we’ve got lots to do and we’ll be late for tonight if we don’t get a move on.”

He was quite right. This evening we would go to the fête de noël des voisins. I reluctantly peeled a cuddly Brutus off my lap and joined Jack, who was energetically pulling on several pullovers and looking twice his usual size. That done he sat down and hauled on extra pairs of fat socks. He was unlikely to freeze, but movement might be something of a challenge. My seasonal extras comprised a faux leopard-print fleece plus a Russian hat with ear flaps. It’s cosy as anything and I love it. We couldn’t be accused of being à la mode but then we’ve never been keen followers of fashion. Finally, we both drew on our chunky fleecy gloves that guarded against an early-onset of frostbite, and went out to collect our quad bikes.



The forest and fields were a magical winter wonderland. Snow lay heavy on the ground, fabulously enhanced by the deep blue sky and sun. Rays shone down making the crystalline flakes refract the light and twinkle like a million colourful jewels. It was absolutely exquisite. As we headed into the forest to feed the game birds I watched Aby and Max with amusement. The Artic conditions, if anything, had made them even livelier. They frolicked around like mad things, charging ahead of the quad bikes with gay abandon like a team of untethered Huskies. This caused Jack to groan in mock temper and remark that their antics lent a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘boundless energy’. I think he was right. 


When we arrived at the bird pens it was clear that our poor pheasants and partridges needed a soupçon of seasonal cheer. Once again sticky snow had attached itself to their cages leaving them safe, but eerily cocooned inside. We shook off the flakes, cracked the ice on the drinkers and gave them fresh supplies of tepid water. This was followed by lots of feed to help sustain them through the cold night and a helping of peanuts, a game bird’s special treat.









With our chores completed I prepared our contribution for the ‘neighbours’ Christmas party’. Although it was our first visit, it is an annual gathering organised by our friends, Joel and Andrée. Anyone who lives in the commune (parish) is invited, and we were told that our qualification was due to a portion of our land which lay within the designated territory. This was excellent news. Jack carefully stowed my cauldron of chilli con carne into the back of the car and we set off for the village of Saint Jean.




I had chosen the warm, sustaining recipe for good reason. We had been told that the venue for our soirée was a small communal parking area. Sure enough, as we approached the designated spot we saw several people milling around in the middle of the road, and children dancing around a huge bonfire. To one side there stood a recently-felled fir tree which had been stuck into an old wooden wine vat. This was the neighbours’ Christmas tree which the kids had obviously worked hard on. It was festooned with reels of fairy lights, metallic spray painted spent light bulbs and cardboard boxes wrapped in multi-coloured foil paper. It was a festive masterpiece.



French carols blared out from an old CD player which had been stuck on a couple of bricks on a trestle table. The remaining table space was filled with amazing looking foods and banks of candles. These, together with a ropey old assortment of coloured bulbs, ring-fenced the area. Collectively they gave us a certain soft intimacy and blended perfectly with the glowing fire. I stepped closer to absorb the culinary sights and smells.  

You can tell we live in fruit growing country. Someone had produced a dartboard-sized tarte tatin with a fabulous glaze which reflected the dancing flames. Nudged up against this was a plateful of toffee apples which were gently dripping warm, sugary goo, and a tureen of steaming apple and rum punch which gave off unsubtle hints of cinnamon and cloves. Next to these were even more gastronomic delights. We are blessed with having a baker living in the village and, once again, he had excelled himself. Banks of steaming cheesy quiche squares battled for air space with chunks of pizza and about six different varieties of bread. I sighed as I realised how my meagre efforts paled into insignificance beside these tasty triumphs – ooh it did look scrumptious!

The riot of delicious smells finally got the better of me and I succumbed to the offers of a nibble or two. With plates piled high Jack and I sat down on cracked plastic chairs that had been positioned far enough away from the spitting embers of the fire, but close enough to feel its warmth. We and our fellow revellers relaxed and exchanged village news, together with stories from afar.




We’re a small but multi-cultural lot in our neighbourhood. So, with Portuguese, Italian and us Brits present we described our special customs and habits during this festive period. As usual we ended up laughing about the various novel (mis) interpretations of French grammar, but were reassured by our French friends that it didn’t matter, we were part of them now and they would always help us towards our goal of précise français.

With barely a dint made in the foodstuffs, but most of the punch supped, it was time to sing. Joel issued carol sheets in multiple languages and called us to attention. At a time like this, with a raucous crowd bent on partying rather than forming an orderly choir, his previous career as a teacher of delinquent children comes in very handy. He was quite magnificent and had us organised in no time, poised, ready for the first note to be sung. In those precious moments one could have heard an ember spit. As he raised his arms for the opening line we broke discordantly into joyous song and yodelled our ways with gay abandon through the eight or so carols on our hymn sheets.

Finally, and much later, it was time to go. Always a sad moment – but it wasn’t goodbye, merely au revoir because in a couple of days’ time we would be reunited at the marché de Noël, our next festive extravaganza. We’d never been before but we’d been told that this was an event that simply couldn’t be missed. Feeling a little perky after our generous helpings of food and punch we bellowed ‘night-night’ to our pals and made our way back to the warmth of our cosy home.



On the eve of the Christmas market it snowed during the night. We awoke to more wintery scenes which, if anything, were more breathtakingly beautiful than before. I quickly pulled on some clothes, and then some more, grabbed a bite of breakfast and took the dogs out for a ramble. We started off on a white carpet that used to be the road, and quickly exited into the fields, which were less slippery. It had been a busy night for the wildlife that’s for sure. I felt like a forensic expert trying to match the imprints in the snow with our resident species. Clearly we’d had some deer and boar tramping across the fields, hare too. But there were one or two animal signatures which were far less easy to distinguish.




The dogs had a wonderful time following and ruining track marks, and playing about in the snow. It was one of those days where one felt so lucky to be alive.



The marché de Noël that we were due to visit takes place in the village of Auvillar. Several are organised throughout the region but this was the one that was especially recommended. The village sits on a rocky outcrop high above the banks of the Garonne River and is listed as one of the beautiful villages in France. It’s one our favourite places, a key reason being its architecture. It dates back to Roman times and is surrounded by ancient fortified walls and massive gateways that lead to the centre. Its worn flag-stoned alleyways, cobbled streets, and half-timbered houses simply ooze history from medieval times and earlier. I love it and could hardly wait so see how the atmospheric setting would look when transformed into a night Christmas market.  



We finished our jobs and drove the ten kilometres to our destination. It was a crystal-clear, starry night so we took things carefully on the roads – you never know what kind of animal might pop out of a hedgerow in these parts. In spite of arriving in good time, we could see that it was already bustling with crowds. Normally Jack isn’t overly keen on milling around in crowds, or with people at all come to think of it, but he made an exception on that evening. Hand-in-hand we passed under the 17th century clock tower and followed the stream of humanity, avoiding children as they
morphed into human dodgems once free of their parents’ hands. They shouted excitedly to one another, faces alive with innocent anticipation as they pointed at the fairy lights and trees that decorated the graceful arches and walkways. 


 

The main activities were focused around the Place de la Halle, a cobbled area lined with three rows of arcaded houses which date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The centre of the square is dominated by a very unusual rotunda market hall. It had been re-built in 1825 and replaced a more conventional rectangular hall that previously stood in the same position. We could see from the rising steam and smoke that it had been reserved for those traders selling Tarn et Garonne-style take-away foods. What a terrific idea. Keen as I was to savour the local gastronomy, I steered Jack towards the stalls first. There must have been over a 100 of them. Some sold jewellery, others Christmas decorations, ceramics and wood crafts too. Then there were still more that offered local produce such as conserves, honey and smoked meats of indiscernible age – we didn’t bother with those.

Every now and again we would bump into someone we knew, and fellow merrymakers from the other evening. These encounters involved the usual confusion of kisses and embraces which Jack will never, ever, get used to – especially during the colds and flu season. After pleasantries were exchanged we returned to some focused perusing, I was loving every moment of this new experience. However, patient as he had been, Jack eventually got fed up with bartering and announced his firm intention to buy a mug of mulled wine. This was a fine idea.



We followed the spicy wine-soaked smells but got stuck en route at the mobile crêpe stand. I had to have one of those, but which one? The choices were savoury, lemon and sugar, or chocolate – lots of chocolate. Jack piqued by my indecision, temporarily abandoned me in favour of the alluring beefy aromas that were tantalising his taste buds. He tracked me down shortly after (I was still in situ at the crêpe stand) proudly brandishing the biggest Blonde Aquitaine beef burger I have ever seen. My eventual choice of the savoury pancake may have been smaller, but was equally yummy. We sat down on a bench with our wine and a couple of pals and watched, absorbing the festive sounds and scenes. Market traders haggled good naturedly with the browsers. Christmas lights flashed intermittently in tune to the carollers who strolled, madrigal-style around the square. It was such a treat to be part of this simple, happiest of events. 



A further hour or so saw the reluctant end of our visit. It was getting late now and we really needed to get back to the dogs. Jack gamely carried my purchases, which had somehow grown from one tiny bag to three carriers, and we returned to our frost-covered car. We picked our way carefully through the icy patches on the way home and reminisced about our evening. It had been incredibly memorable and from now on would become a regular feature on our festive calendar. It was not for the first time we pinched ourselves in delight, barely able to believe our luck that we had found this special place.


So there we are. These were some of my special thoughts and reminiscences about Christmastime in our part of France. Christmas Day is yet to come and I know from previous experience that it will be the most perfect of days. We’ll be covered in animals, stuffed full of goodies and able to relax and contemplate the significance of the period. Our friends will be visiting with gifts of home-made produce and persuading us to spend time with their families too. The life we now lead here may be simple and uncomplicated, but it is genuine and unpretentious. We love it.

Our heartfelt wish to you is for an equally happy Christmas and the very best for the years to come. Merry Christmas!



4 comments:

  1. This is just lovely and so typical of France - I hope you will enjoy many more Christmas's.

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    1. Thank you so much Janette. We are very lucky and hope to enjoy many more years here. Have a super Christmas and new year, and thank you for your kind comment.

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  2. Knowing your place and the inclusiveness of the communities you described, I felt I was right with you, Beth. Lovely. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. You are kind Nancy, thank you. As you know we feel very blessed to be able to live here. The communities so warm and welcoming that's it's hard for us to imagine ever living anywhere else now. Have a wonderful Christmas with your family, and fabulous new year.

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