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Saturday, 3 April 2021

Guest Blog Vanessa Couchman - Why France is a Gift for Writers

I was absolutely delighted when Vanessa Couchman agreed to contribute a guest piece on my blog. Not only is she a highly talented novelist, but her writing skills also extend to producing short stories and a hugely popular blog. These abilities together with a shared love of France make her the perfect choice. Here's what she has to say. 



 

                                         Why France is a gift for writers

First, thank you, Beth, for inviting me. Your posts are so interesting. And your article about a town near us that I thought I knew well, Saint-Antonin-Noble Val, taught me some new things!

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in Southwest France nearly twenty-five years ago. My various careers all involved some form of writing. Then I turned to penning non-fiction (a blog, magazine articles) before launching myself into the deeper waters of historical fiction.

In normal times, France is the world’s number one tourist destination. Few countries offer so many attractions and advantages for visitors. France is also a happy hunting ground for writers. When Beth kindly invited me to write an article, after floundering around for a subject, I thought, “Why not explore what makes my adopted country, and my region in particular, such a writer’s paradise?”

Here goes.

The scenery

Who could fail to be inspired by the landscapes, towns and villages? France isn’t only Paris, but sadly some visitors don’t venture outside the capital to experience the wonderful variety of the provinces.

The French regions remain resolutely independent and proud of their culture, heritage and scenery. De Gaulle is reputed to have remarked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (What a challenge, to track down and eat your way through all 246! I suspect there are more than that…)

Our region alone, Occitanie, is a land of remarkable diversity. It is bordered in the South by the Pyrénées, which you can see on a clear day from viewpoints not far from us, and the Mediterranean.

To the East stretches the high plateau of the Aubrac, studded with vibrant wild flowers in the spring and blanketed with snow during the winter. We visited with a coachload of French people in late May one year. This is when the transhumance takes place. The cattle are driven to their summer pastures after over-wintering indoors. The Aubrac is only a couple of hours’ drive from us, but the weather belongs to another continent. It was freezing cold. We heard it snowed the following day.


The extinct volcanic mountains of the Auvergne, where we love to walk in spring and autumn, lie to the North. The West is bounded by the rolling, green countryside of Gascony. Dramatic gorges carved out by the rivers over aeons crisscross the landscape.


Few countries have preserved their historic towns and villages, cathedrals and châteaux more carefully than France. Our region has its share of plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France). They are often medieval in origin and set on a hilltop with stunning views.


Inevitably, they are tourist hotspots in the summer months. You can’t blame people for visiting them, but I have the good fortune to see them out of season. I like to wander around the empty streets and imagine how people lived in times past. As recently as a century ago, they were working villages, but the mechanisation of agriculture and the lure of an easier life in the towns drew the younger generation away. A wonderful backdrop for so many stories.

The history

I am a self-confessed history nut. I studied the subject at university, but it really came alive for me when we moved to France. A country that has experienced wars, occupation, revolutions, ousted its monarchy more than once, and gained and lost an empire, often in blood-stained conflict, can’t fail to stir a writer’s story-telling DNA.

Our region is absolutely steeped in history. Today’s tranquil and picturesque villages conceal tales of more chaotic times. I often wonder what happened to the ordinary people during these turbulent episodes.


Our village alone is an example. The staunchly Catholic village and its equally staunchly Protestant neighbour were often at loggerheads. During the Huguenot Rebellions in the 1620s, our village became a temporary HQ for Louis XIII.

To entertain visitors, we took a Tourist Office tour of our village, and discovered many hidden gems. High up on the wall that flanks the road into the village, we saw this figure, cheekily poking out its tongue at its despised neighbours, should they have the audacity to venture this way. That rivalry continues today. Memories in country communities are long.


I love to collect stories and snippets for later use, as a magpie hoards shiny objects. They bring history to life. Not all of them are happy or uplifting, though. We heard a tale of a young woman during the 1900s whose parents kept her shut in their pigeonnier (dovecot) when they discovered she was pregnant. Having a baby out of wedlock brought disgrace on the whole family. I have shamelessly used this one in a novel, without the identifying details, of course.   

The language(s)

French as it is spoken and French as it is taught in UK schools, at least in my time, are two different things. My husband lived in Limoges for a few years and spoke French well. I had the grammar and a smattering of vocabulary (“my postillion has been struck by lightning”), but somehow I couldn’t fit them together in any useful way.

When you combine this with the broad regional accent of the Southwest, which adds an extra ‘e’ to the end of every word, I was lost. Thus “vin” becomes “veng-er” and “comment”, “commeng-er”. Our elderly neighbours, whose first language was Occitan, were unintelligible. There followed four years of intensive French courses, from which I emerged rather better equipped to communicate.


We still made many mistakes. French neighbours invited us to dinner. The conversation turned to smoking. My husband said to the rather grand lady next to him,

Vous êtes fumier?”

In fact, he had asked her if she was a heap of manure, certainly not a compliment in French. A shocked silence ensued.

I broke the ice by snorting with laughter. Everyone joined in, and the party became livelier after that.

Before French became the standard language, the people of our region spoke Occitan, a cross between Spanish and French with Latin roots. Occitan was not a written language, and words and phrases could vary between villages. Our friend Claude, now in his seventies, recalls that his parents spoke only Occitan at home. He doesn’t speak Occitan, although he understands it. The language was banned at school when he was a boy.  

Occitan is now enjoying a revival. You can still hear it spoken by some of the older people. They get annoyed if you refer to it as “patois”, as I once did.

“It’s a proper language!” Jeanine said, wagging the inevitable finger. “Don’t call it patois.”

I recommend Graham Robb’s excellent book, The Discovery of France, which explores the different cultures of France, with particular reference to language groups. It’s full of interesting and quirky anecdotes. For instance, I learned that people in parts of the Pyrénées could communicate across large distances with a whistling language. Sadly, it has died out.   

The people

If you’re a people-watcher, as I am, or a spy, as my husband prefers to put it, seat yourself at a café table in any French village and prepare to indulge your obsession. Our village’s weekly market is a microcosm of Southern France.


You rarely see men kiss each other in the UK, but it’s part of the panoply of greetings that enlivens French encounters in the market. One year, our friend René advanced on my husband and gave him three smacking kisses along with traditional New Year wishes for good health. My husband took it like a man.

Market habitués include the huddles of elderly men who chat while their wives choose the produce; the stall holders who arrived at first light and are fortifying themselves with ham baguettes and glasses of red wine at 10 am; the queue for the cheese stall, which diminishes slowly as each customer debates the merits of the cheeses before leaving with a bag groaning with them; and the man who plays the flute to his chickens. He claims it charms them into laying better.  

As a writer, however, one has to resist the temptation to caricature people: the sophisticated Parisian, the crafty peasant, the snobbish bourgeois. You’ll find elements of all of those, naturally. But in France they are individuals, just as they are elsewhere. They share elements of culture, education and upbringing that are different from our own. This can give the appearance of cohesion. In reality, it’s a veneer.

The so-called French joie de vivre, for example, is a bit of a myth, along with the bicycle-riding, beret-sporting onion seller. Some of the local fêtes can be boisterous events. The noise level increases in direct proportion to the quantity of wine consumed. However, French people can be rather restrained and not always easy to get to know. It is worth persevering.

I recently read Two Vagabonds in Languedoc, by Jan and Cora Gordon. They were British artists who spent four months in 1923 in the village of Najac, not far from us. The book captures their observations of village life. While they make generalisations about the lives of peasant-farmers, each of the people they portray has their own quirks and character traits.


For country-dwellers, the peaceful invasion by foreigners is a new departure. Generally, they appreciate the high standards to which crumbling properties are restored, and the new life that incomers bring to the local economy and the community. You hear rumblings from time to time, but overall we have been welcomed with open arms by our neighbours.

The food (and wine!)

French cuisine is, of course, world-renowned. It’s even inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage. I would argue that there isn’t a single French cuisine, but many. Every region has its signature dishes, which inspire heated arguments among their supporters. Mention the duck, sausage and bean stew, cassoulet, to the people of Castelnaudary, Toulouse or Carcassonne, and they will all forcefully claim to have invented it.

If you haven’t read Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, you have a treat in store. When it first appeared in 1960, Britain had emerged from post-war rationing only six years earlier, and mass tourism was in the future. Her book presents a colourful, tantalising picture of France, liberally larded with anecdotes and stuffed with dishes she discovered during her travels. It’s not a cookbook. Elizabeth David assumes you know all about cooking times and techniques. Rather, it’s an analysis of a country through its food.   


We spent many happy holidays in France before moving here. We enjoyed local dishes and copious meals at ridiculously low prices compared to the UK. You can eat badly in France, usually (but not always) in places that cater for the passing tourist trade.

I have a strange talent for remembering menus from years back. Having spent a long morning viewing houses in April 1997, we were late back to our car. It was already 1.20 pm. Knowing the French attachment to lunch at midi on the dot, we were wreathed in humble apologies when we entered the village’s only restaurant.

“No problem,” said the waitress with a smile. “Sit here, and I’ll bring you the soup.”

You helped yourself from the platters the waitress placed on the table. The soup was followed by fat asparagus with ham and hard-boiled eggs, a tender veal stew with fried potatoes, a platter of cheeses and the sweetest strawberries I have ever tasted: my introduction to locally grown Gariguettes.

We drank the unlabelled bottle of red wine. It dawned on us only later that it was a whole litre. No wonder we felt light-headed.

The cost of this feast? 120 francs (about £12). For two. This wasn’t haute cuisine, but it was fait maison from carefully chosen local ingredients, appetisingly cooked and appealingly served.

Naturally, incidents like these, and the local dishes, have found their way onto my blog and into my fiction set in the region.

I had better stop there. My circuitous route through the fascination France exerts on writers (and travellers) can only be partial. I haven’t even mentioned the vast literary and artistic heritage or other aspects of French culture. Neither have I referred to the things that ail France. No country is a Utopia, and negative aspects can provide as much meat for the imagination as positive ones. But, if nothing else, I hope I’ve been able to convey the diversity of France, which offers endless possibilities.

Vanessa Couchman and her husband moved from London to Southwest France in 1997. She writes historical novels and short stories set in France or on the dramatic Mediterranean island of Corsica. She has also written a blog about French life, Life on La Lune, since 2010. Quirky true stories often find their way into her fiction or onto her blog, and she likes nothing more than pottering around ruined châteaux or exploring the lesser-known byways of France. Author website: https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com.  



 

 http://author.to/VanessaCouchman

 

 

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Pocket-sized Poste!

 

We live in a rural part of France, which has lots of benefits and a couple of challenges. Shopping, for example. With nothing close-by, it’s a drive to the nearest store. Mind you, we are lucky enough to have a tiny epicerie (grocery) and pocket-sized post office in a village near us. It was the latter I needed.

Last week, I carefully wrapped several parcels to be sent overseas. Easy, I thought, I’ll use the village post office. It may rate as reasonably junior in the ranks of French bureaucratic officialdom, but the lady in charge is deadly earnest and a stickler with forms, a must in our parts.

I walked into an empty waiting area. This complied nicely with Covid regulations since it’s a squash when three people are present. Confident of a short, efficient visit, I walked over to the sanitising gel bottle, hailing madame at the same time. I held one hand beneath the spout and pumped the top with the other.

Zing!

Out squirted the liquid straight into my eye.

Argh!

Madame gave me a harassed look, tapped her biro on the desk and motioned for me to take the step and a half to the counter. Half-blind with sticky gunge welded to my contact lens, I fumbled in my bag and produced a package. For some reason, this had a startling effect on madame.

“What is that?”

In my state of reduced vision, I wondered whether I’d inadvertently produced something horribly inappropriate. Happily not. Evidently, it needed some qualification.

“It’s a parcel, Madame. It has to go to Australia.”

“Where?”

Another curious question. This time, assuming my mask-impaired faltering French was to blame. I had another go. Madame looked thoughtful.

“Well, I haven’t done one of those before.”

“Don’t worry. I can always take it to the main post office.”

“No, no, we must try. Pass it here.”

“Thank you. I also have three others to send.”

Madame glared at the clock and back at me.

“But what about my La Dépêche?”


Obviously, I was supposed to know exactly what she meant by this reference to the local newspaper. It was 11:05 am, and everything here closes at midday, sharp. Madame either had a bulk delivery to make or wanted to pick up her personal copy from the epicerie next door. There seemed ample time for both eventualities.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, I must do my job first.”

“Thank you. Oh, and my husband has already completed the documents for sending each parcel overseas, so they should be easy to process.”

I handed over the first pre-addressed, barcoded parcel together with three accompanying documents. Madame scrutinised the sheaf of papers, scrunched up her nose and glanced at her desk. It was lined with pigeon holes each containing a pile of unique address labels. Tempted, she selected an extra thick one.

“Yours are no good. You must fill in this document for Australia.”

I looked at the envelope-sized document, which seemed remarkably similar to the one already stuck on my parcel, except it was in triplicate.

“Jack, that’s my husband, did use the La Poste website, Madame, it looked correct. If I use yours, the barcodes will be different.”

Madame shrugged, picked up her electronic wand and swished the barcodes.

“Have you pre-paid?” she asked, examining the data on her screen.

“Yes, doesn’t it show that on the website?”

“Possibly. Anyway, never mind. Fill in all these boxes and tell me the weight.”

The weight wasn’t a problem since it was sitting on her scales, but completing several boxes did take a while, mostly since I was still partially sighted. Once done, the parcel was processed, and I was given one of my original forms back plus two extras. Great.


Now for the other three packages. They were for the UK, which I assumed would be a breeze. Wrong.

I stuck the first on the scales. Madame grabbed it and started tapping away on her computer keyboard. Screen after screen flew by as she scanned whatever it was she was searching for. I asked if there was anything else she needed.

Royaume-Uni,” she murmured, still fanning through screens.

“Yes, that’s…”

“Don’t tell me. Now, I know there’s another name for it. I just have to find it here.”

I was dying to help her out, but it was no good. Madame was on a linguistic mission.

“Ahah! I have it. The other name is Grand Bretagne. We must use two more forms.”

Another one of the time-saving labels carefully prepared by Jack was jettisoned.

“Do we really need them all, Madame? That will make three, and I’m not sure there’s enough room on the parcel.”

“Yes, of course! Fill in the boxes and tell me the weight of the parcel, please, and then do the same with the rest.”

Madame handed me a fistful of new, envelope-sized forms. With a still-runny eye, I dutifully muddled through and handed over the first set.

“Goodness, one of these is in quadruplicate. They’re rare these days, Madame,” I chortled.

Evidently not. The cold stare said it all.

I watched, fascinated, as madame somehow managed to stick each of the new documents (one of which had to go in a plastic sleeve) onto the parcel. There wasn’t a millimetre of packaging visible once she’d finished. She glanced at the clock. I remembered her complicated La Depeche worries and asked if she would like to sort out the other two parcels another day.

Non!

Mercifully, the third parcel was sorted relatively quickly, so I felt that we’d cracked it. We had almost finished the final one when madame gasped.

“Batteries!”

I had no idea what she was talking about. After our trials, it could have meant anything.

“Batteries, Madame?”

“Yes, of course. Do you have some in this parcel?”

“No, Madame.”

“You must have,” she said, giving the box a rattle. “Look, here is a picture of batteries on the packaging. This could be a problem. We will have to fill in another form for batteries.”

I swear there was a gleeful glint in madame’s eye as she thrust her hand into yet another pigeon hole.

“Ah, I see. Actually, I re-used an old box. There are no batteries, I promise, definitely no batteries at all.”

Momentarily vanquished, madame replaced her battery form and dug out a fat felt tip instead. This, she used to slash crosses all over the battery image. She then cemented her sticky envelope over the top and stuffed in one of her forms together with two of Jack’s.

We had done it. It was 11:55 am, just enough time for her to nip next door to complete her La Depeche business. Still a bit blinky, I thanked our postmistress once more.

“I’m very sorry to have caused you so much trouble today, Madame.”

“Do not worry. We managed in the end. But next time, tell your husband not to waste paper by printing documents from the La Poste website. Here, in my post office, the forms are much better!”



I’ll admit I left with very little confidence that my parcels would reach their destinations. They were covered in stickers, random customs declarations and many barcodes, none of which matched.

How wrong I was.

Within the week, each of my Grand Bretagne-based friends confirmed receipt of their parcels, and two days later, the package had reached Australia. I couldn’t believe it. On my way back from the weekly shop, I popped in to give madame the good news.

“I just wanted to thank you again for your help, Madame. Those forms were terrific after all,” I said, handing her a small gift of chocolates.

Uncharacteristically, madame came over all of a flutter. Blushing, she coyly took the chocolates.

“It was nothing, no problem, I am here to help. I’m glad your friends have their parcels, and you’re right. My forms are essential!”

I left madame beaming behind her mask. There’s no doubt about it. The mistress of our rural pocket-sized La Poste does love her forms, and they definitely came good. I couldn’t have been more grateful for her help!



Saturday, 6 February 2021

New Fangled Gadgets



For some, Sunday mornings are relaxing, sadly not here. It’s that time when I reluctantly drag out the duster and other cleaning kit to do battle with the upstairs housework. Jack, my husband, has his routine which involves maintenance on our battalion of ageing machines.

Last weekend our state of domesticity didn’t last long. Aby and Max, our Australian Shepherd dogs, signalled that something was amiss in that unique way of theirs. Chairs and cats went flying as Aby howled like a demented wolverine and Max hurled himself at the door. You’d never think they were a couple of softies.

Something was amiss.

I opened the door to the sound of baying dogs, tooting horns, and shouts. It’s an unmistakable clamour. The local chasse (hunt) had arrived.

Jack, who had already reached the hunters, charged across the drive towards me. He was followed by an anxious-looking Jerome Bernaut, president of the commune hunting association. Jack was cross.

“Bloody hell, they’ve lost their dogs in the forest again. He says a boar has charged through part of the fence and they’re after it.”

“Oh dear, how many?”

“God knows, they certainly don’t. About five, they reckon, and they’re casting around the enclosed area.”

This didn’t bode well. About 300 acres of our land is enclosed by a two-metre high netting fence with supporting electric cabling.

Wild animals are free to come and go via the stream beds running through but may panic when pursued. For that reason, hunting is not permitting. Instead, we have designated the area as a nature sanctuary.

“Do you need me to do anything?”

“No, you’ll have to stay here in case any of them turn up. I’ll go in and get them with Jerome before they cause any damage.”


Jack took two orange-clad hunters to our 4x4 truck, and they trundled into the forest. Frustrated, but with nothing further for me to do, I rounded up Aby and Max and returned to the dreaded dusting.

Fairly soon after, the dogs started sounding the alarm. Once again, we were surrounded by the sounds of chaos. Much to their chagrin, I left Aby and Max in the house and went to have a look. This time, several hunters had assembled near the forest gate. 


Oddly, Jerome, an amiable chap, was with them, which suggested he had been jettisoned by Jack somewhere along the way. I asked what was going on.

“We found three dogs,” he said, pointing at a car full of hounds, “so Jack has gone back to fix the hole in your fence.”

“Well done, but what about the other two?”

“That’s no problem, I have a GPS (global positioning system) thing on the collar of mine, look.”

Jerome proudly held up his tracking unit, which looked like a walkie talkie. It’s so unlike our local hunters to have new-fangled equipment. It was clear I was expected to comment.

“Gosh, this is an impressive piece of equipment, Jerome, is it new?”

“Yes, it’s very helpful. My dog has a sensor on his collar, and I receive a signal to show me where he is.”

“Excellent.”

“Well, it would be if it worked,” he said, tapping the dial.

“Um, if it’s faulty perhaps you could shout for the dog instead? We need to get them out of the forest as soon as possible.”

“No problem, I’ll soon have this working.”

Jerome started thwacking it on his knee.

“Batteries?” piped up, Bernard, one of his fellow huntsmen.

“No, don’t think so. I only replaced them two days ago.”

He squinted at the little screen. Sadly the whack hadn’t worked. Frustrated, he gave me a half-smile.

“Okay, this usually helps,” he said.

Turning to his truck, Jerome and gave it a bash on the bonnet. He peered again, as did I and his mate. It was pretty clear to us all what had happened. Jerome had killed his GPS machine.

Woof!

Fortunately for his diminishing male pride, we turned to find his lost dog panting happily at the gate.

I opened it, and he padded up to his master. While Jerome was apparently technically challenged when it came to handling his GPS, he knows how to look after his animals. They are a lean and undeniably smelly lot, but well fed. And they dote on him.

After checking his youngster over for signs of injury, Jerome led him to the truck flatbed. I had already been having a chat with his other hounds, who were stashed away in multiple cages.



“They all look full to me, Jerome, which one does he fit in?”

“He must go in this cage on the right. They others will fight with him.”

“I see. The ones on the left are beauties, what breed are they?”

Jerome paused for thought.

“Good question. A mixture, but they’re first-rate.”

A small cage was above theirs. It contained one little dog.

“And what about this cute lad?”

“Ah, that one. This is a Jagdterrier, Beni, he’s one of my favourites.”

With that, Jerome gathered up his floppy-eared sweetie and bundled him into the correct compartment. Aside from a few introductory growls, they settled down nicely.

Meanwhile, Bernard (equally orange) was tapping a similar device. It seems he’d been given a GPS set for Christmas too.

“At last! I can see where Spiro is.”

“Is he close?” asked Jerome.

“He has just come into range, so he is a kilometre away, ooh, now 900 metres and closing. Oooh, 870 metres now.”

Bernard was thoroughly enjoying his latest pressie, which was lovely, but time was getting on, and we needed to get wailing Spiro out.

“Great,” I said, so he’s coming towards us. “Any idea of direction?”

Bernard, frowning, carefully rotated his machine.  

“That way,” he said, pointing vaguely toward the forest.

“It’s a big place, Bernard,” I said, “you’ll have to be a bit more precise than that.”

“Yes, um, he’s about 800 metres south, south-west of us. Don’t worry, I’ll find him.”

“You have three tracks just inside the forest to choose from.”

“The centre one will do. I’ll have him back here very quickly.”

Bernard opened the gate. Still glued to his screen, he strode purposefully down the track. There was absolutely no doubt about it, his hound’s excited yips were coming from a completely different direction. At this rate, we’d be here all day.

“I tell you what, Jerome, why don’t I get my quad bike and we’ll take the trail on the right-hand side? That way, if Spiro changes direction, we might see him.”

A nod of agreement was all I needed. I got my bike, bundled a rather cumbersome Jerome on the back, and we set off into the forest. 


Finding Spiro took far less time than I anticipated. We had been driving for no longer than ten minutes when Jack appeared in the distance with a hunting dog tethered in the back of his truck. He was still looking grumpy.

“Is this the last one, Jerome, or are we going to be at this for another couple of hours?”

“Yes, it’s Spiro alright, you did well to catch him.”

This was a good point. Frustratingly, in our experience hunting dogs on the loose are famously tricky to catch up. They have no interest in stopping what they’re doing, least of all when it involves being stuck on the end of a lead.

“It wasn’t difficult. He was standing bawling at the fence for no particular reason, so I just looped the leash around him.”

Jerome wagged his head in a Yoda-like manner. Jack had evidently said something of great significance.

“This can only mean that the boar they chased in has gone out again at that point. You will have no more problems from our hounds today.”

In such a large area with a multitude of different boar track scents, the likelihood of the hound following exactly the same boar was smaller than minuscule. I stared pleadingly at Jack to restrain himself from pointing out the blindingly obvious. It would only start an endless hunting debate. Fortunately, his reply was brief.

“There was no hole in the fence where I found him, Jerome.”

We returned to the cars and a new problem. All dogs were now accounted for, but we were now a hunter down. Bernard was still roaming around in the forest looking for his dog. Luckily, the only hazard he was likely to present was in terrifying a passing animal with his orangeness. Nevertheless, I suggested that we go and collect him.

“Oh, there’s no need to do that,” smiled Jerome, “he’ll see from his GPS screen that Spiro is back.”

“Not necessarily, Jerome, there are several areas in the forest where the signal cuts out because of tree density.”

“Never mind, I’ll ring him on his mobile phone.”

Jack gave a great sigh.

“Same applies, I’m afraid, Jerome. Come on; we’d better go back down and find him before it gets dark.”

Off they went, it was a while before they returned. Bernard was full of apologies and deeply disappointed with his intermittently working new toy.

“New batteries needed?” winked Jerome.

Noisy and full of apologies, as usual, they departed in an explosion of barks, promising not to bother us ever, ever again.  

I looked at my watch and shrugged, it was nearly lunchtime, and I needed to prepare a meal. No wonder I don’t get much housework done. At least the tranquillity of our forest had been restored.

As I returned to the house I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any risk of our local hunters getting the hang of their new gadgets. I rather doubted it.



 


Saturday, 2 January 2021

French Reflections 2020

 


For goodness’ sake, what a year! Attempts at recalling it are too painful for many, while others couldn’t wait to see the back of it. Here are some of the events that marked our topsy turvy year.

January 

You may remember me telling you about our annual multi-village carol concert. It’s held in January. Weird, I know, but there is a logic to the timing. Camille, our friend and her chums from other parishes, were in charge.

The idea of the concerts is for villagers to start at their local church and then hop into cars and drive to the next one. The same for singers. When the final venue is reached there exists the potential for a substantial gathering, many choristers and much confusion.

A couple of years ago, Camille had inveigled me into singing, and much to his horror I had volunteered Jack, my grumpy husband. We were now classed as regulars. The day of the concert came and, as usual, nothing at all went to plan. Here’s what happened when our shambolic choir plus add-ons arrived at the final venue.

The lofty church was already packed. A little croaky having sung for the best part of an hour, we sallied forth in a least two keys, eventually arriving at more or less the same one by verse three.


The next carol was announced as number eight on the church song sheet. This was unfortunate since we didn’t have a number eight, or a church song sheet. But we did know the tune, or so we thought.

We burbled vaguely until a spare sheet was found and passed along by the sopranos. There were lots of verses. By the final one, we felt we’d nailed it. Jack, now in top form, belted out one of his high notes. Out it rang, quite marvellous, completely wrong. It seemed the last verse was sung a little differently. No matter, his efforts were much appreciated.

Our Christmas carol concerts were over for another year. It had been another wonderfully eccentric event, a feature of country living here.

February

There was something wrong with Max, one of our Australian Shepherd dogs. Not unusual in his case as he is ridiculously accident-prone, but this had come out of the blue.

Looking dreadfully stiff, Max gave me a smiley lick, but it wasn’t his usual standing ovation-type welcome. He looked strained. I moved to his other side and encouraged him to rotate right. No. Not possible, his back was rigid. He winced.

Trying his best to please, Max manoeuvred like a freighter, shuffling in a slow sweeping motion. It was pitiful to watch. There was no doubting it a trip to Docteur Alice, the bone doc, was needed.

I had been initially sceptical about animal osteopaths, but having seen Max’s transformation after our first visit, I was instantly converted.

Once again, Docteur Alice knelt and put her arms around Max, her countenance almost hypnotic. Max stood like a wounded hero, nobly succumbing to her gentle manipulations. No yelps, no whining – unusual for him. After a while, she smiled.


“I know where the problems are.”

She continued, quietly working her way along Max’s chest, stomach and then spine. She released him.

“That’s it. He will be fine now.”

Max padded towards me. I motioned for him to make that right turn. Easy. He moved flexibly, completely relaxed.

“That’s fantastic, Docteur Alice, thank you! Do I give Max the anti-inflammatory medication from the vet? I have some at home.”

“No, nothing. Make sure he has 48 hours rest, though, his body will be fatigued after this treatment. Max is a high energy dog, so you may need to come back every three months. I have a feeling he will be ready for another session by then.”

He was.

March and April

The news had broken way back in January. Conspiracy theorists were abuzz with conjecture the world over. The much-discussed COVID-19 virus was present and making insidious progress through France. Drastic action had to be taken. The country went into lockdown.

In the reported words of Le Parisien, one of the largest, most respected newspapers in the country:

‘The measure is completely unprecedented in the history of France. The country had never asked its citizens to confine themselves to their homes all day long, as has been the case since Tuesday, March 17 at noon to curb the expansion of the Coronavirus pandemic.’ (Translation.)

Our first lockdown remained in place until mid-May. Terms like: clusters, contamination rates and virus hotspots were introduced, and are now commonplace as is new terminology such as the R number.

During the early part of confinement, I was trying to get used to the rules like everyone else. This included completing an authorisation form if I wanted to go shopping. You might remember me telling you about one of my early grocery visits.

Jack, wrinkled his brow as I was leaving. He was convinced I had forgotten something.

“Completed form?”

“Check.”

“Mask?”

“Check.”

“Gloves?”

“Check.”

“Alcohol?”

“Jack, I don’t need Dutch courage. I’m just going to the supermarket.”

“For your hands!”

“Oh, right! Check, I have that sanitising gel stuff I use after cleaning up the animals.”

“List?”

“Argh! I knew I’d forgotten something!”

Inside the supermarket, things had changed. Strips of tape were on the floor next to counters, check-outs and fresh food cabinets. All designed to encourage social distancing, all very helpful. My first port of call was the cheese section.

Forget toilet rolls, if there were a shortage of one product guaranteed to cause mass hysteria here, it would be cheese. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. I chatted to our lovely fromage lady who was stacking creamy beauties. Even a mask couldn’t shroud that everlasting smile of hers.


I headed over to the butcher, stood the obligatory metre from the counter and bellowed through my mask. This was an evident challenge for monsieur, but he listened carefully.

“And your mushrooms, madame?

“No, minced beef, please.”

“But what about your mushrooms?”

“Honestly, I don’t want any, thank you. Just the minced beef.”

“The mushrooms in your forest, madame. Are they growing yet?”

“Oh! I’m so sorry. No, nothing at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, that’s life! Now about your mince. How much did you want, madame?

Mushrooms are right up there with cheese in popularity, and our domaine has the dubious reputation for being the source of many such earthy wonders. How he recognised me behind my mask, I couldn’t say. I left to the cheery sounds of “Bon courage!” reminding me what a small, caring community we are.

May

Special hugs here for all my Facebook friends, who supported me when I initially shared the detail of this awful saga. I was on a forest trek with our dogs on this unforgettable day in April. Aby was way ahead, as usual, bounding gracefully over fallen trees, deftly negotiating uneven ground. I soon lost sight of her. My attention was grabbed by the awful sounds of Max feasting on a pile of poo close-by. It’s an unsavoury habit of his.

I was in mid-lecture when I spotted Aby. She was coming towards us but looked different. Something was wrong. Breaking onto open ground she stumbled, faltering badly. Aby was staggering on three legs, dragging her fourth behind.

Horrified, I called to slow her down, but she was determined to reach us as quickly as possible. She stopped, sides heaving, her offside rear leg tucked up. I checked for visible injuries, but there were none.

Non-plussed, I wondered whether it had been a superficial knock. Aby tried to walk. There was no whine or yelp, but she immediately lifted the leg, which looked wobbly. It was evident she could not weight-bear.

Over the next few days, Aby rested. Frustrating though it was for her, we were hoping she had twisted the knee, and it would repair itself. After ten days, Aby could walk without limping but not run. Every time she trotted, up came that leg. We had tried everything. Lockdown or not, I had to call the vet.

Our COVID-compliant consultation was conducted in the veterinary clinic car park. It was as surreal as you can imagine. Docteur Puiffe took Aby away and ran several tests, eventually returning with bad news.

“Aby has ruptured her posterior ligament, and her knee cap is dislocating. Did you hear a clicking sound?

“Yes, occasionally.”

“It is internal damage. I think she has also torn her anterior cruciate ligament.”

Shocked at the severity of the injuries, I listened as Docteur Puiffe explained the recommended prosthetic surgery. All conducted in French; he was very patient as I fumbled through many questions to make sure I understood correctly. It was a big decision to take.

We eventually decided to go through with the surgery. Once Aby was confirmed fit enough to return home, I rushed back to the vet and anxiously hung around, watching patients come and go.

The nurse finally joined me with reassurances, pills and strict instructions.

“Until we see her again, Aby must have total rest. Do not allow the bandage to get wet. She will have her stitches out in 12 days when Docteur Puiffe will discuss her rehabilitation with you.”

I was still trying to imagine how our agile girl would deal with her first period of confinement when the door opened. Out came a snoozy Aby and the biggest bandage in France.

Aby spotted me and towed the cooing nurse across the car park in a mixture of excited whines and confused yaps. Somehow forgetting COVID protocol, the nurse and I gently put our pup in the car.

And so Aby’s ligament lockdown began.

June

After weeks of lead-only walks on flat terrain, Aby started to gain strength. A highlight came at the end of the month when we joined my sister, Di, and her two Jack Russell’s for a stroll along the Canal du Midi’s towpath. This was Aby’s first day off the lead, and I was a bag of nerves. Ironically, that turned out to be the least of our problems.

We parked next to a lock gate and set off, enjoying our beautiful surroundings.

“I suppose you know what we’re walking on?” said Di, looking supremely self-satisfied.

“A path?”

“Ah, hah! But this isn’t any old path. It’s been used by pilgrims for hundreds of years.”

“Really? Which ones?”

“This is a section of the catholic pilgrimage Route de Compostelle. It’s also known as the Camino Way. The destination is the legendary tomb of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.”

“Wow, imagine that!”

“Yep, I knew you’d be impressed.”

I studied the path, which had assumed a new significance. We continued peaceably until a little while later it occurred to me that we were a dog down.

“Wait a minute, where’s Max?”

I gave him a call. Strangely, he appeared from under the bridge we had just passed. And he was looking suspiciously proud. Max trotted up to Di first.

“Oh my God, Beth, do something!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Max, he’s covered.”

“In what?”

“I don’t know, but it stinks.”

“Go on, Maxy, give Di a big kiss!”

“I’m warning you, Beth, this is toxic!”

“Okay, okay.”

She was right. Some dogs love rolling in carrion, others fox poo, but usually not Max. However, this substance was plainly irresistible. So much so, he had wallowed in it and savoured its dubious delights. We were on a public footpath. It could have been badger poop, it could have something even more ghastly. Neither of us could bear to think about that. Max reeked.  

“Right, Max, it’s no good. You’ll have to go into the water.”

Luckily, Max is a devoted water dog so getting him in wasn’t a problem. One belly flop later, and he was happily splashing around. The challenge was getting him out again. We had reached a point where the canal sides were sheer.


We eventually hauled him out. And, of course, what was the first thing he did? Joyously shake off excess water.

“Argh! Beth, he’s showering muck all over us!”

Eeeuw! And he still smells. Sorry, take your mind off it by telling me more about the canal.”

“I doubt that’ll help, but alright,”

Di’s gamely recounted potted history was interrupted by a shrill sound.

Dring, dring!

Bonjour, monsieur!” we yodelled as a pink cyclist zoomed past.

“You’d make a great tour guide, Di. Aside from being run down by a cyclist and dealing with a stinky mutt, this has been terrific.”

“I’d rather deal with a cyclist than the shower you’ll be giving Max when you get back. He still reeks!”

It had been a great walk, with one exception.

“Beth, open the car windows, please, I can’t stand that stink!” 

July

The month began with a rescue and ended with a flourish. During a regular deer feeding session in May, we found an ailing baby boar in the forest. It’s a tough life for a little ‘un out there. A skinny chap, he was being bullied by his siblings and wasn’t strong enough to fight for a decent meal.

For the next few days, we watched him dwindle, agonising over what to do. Knowing he would die if we did nothing, we took our hearts in our hands and caught him.


Little junior spent the next few days in a dog crate. We built him up with lots of feeds and warmth, and he quickly improved. As soon as his tummy was bulging, with much trepidation, we re-introduced our stripy patient to his mum.

Much to our relief, she accepted him, seeming not to have noticed he had gone. He trotted back to his siblings, this time with a fighting chance of survival.


Meanwhile, in the garden, my spring project was blooming lovely, the roses too. Completely out of control, they flowered with gay abandon sharing a sensation of heavenly scents and sights, which lasted for weeks.


August

This month brought a confession from La Poste, who admitted to losing a parcel I was due. They sent me on a mission to make a claim at the post office in the bastide town of Beamont de Lomagne – a long way from home.

I found the post office quickly. Observing the standard protocol, I waffled through my mask, and the lady hooted back through hers. After a verbal tussle, we worked out what one another was saying.

“You need a compensation claim form, Madame.”

I live in France, and this wasn’t a surprise. The lady produced a dangerously complicated-looking document with many spaces. I had a bash at filling them in, got stuck and asked for advice. She got stuck too, and the process ended up as a team-building event with two colleagues brought in to help.

I left the post office feeling a mixture of mental exhaustion and relief. It then occurred to me that having come all this way, I might as well have a potter, and why not? I was in a place of great historical significance. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.


The bastide town was developed between 1276 and 1279. Today, there is an air of tired crustiness about the place, but therein lies part of its charm. As with many ancient towns, the market hall is a centrepiece, and this one is a favourite of mine.

Constructed in the 14th century, it was the focal point for the weekly market and still is. Silly though it sounds, I love the thought of buying goods on the same site used by folks in medieval times.

I headed into the tourist information centre and asked for more information about the town. The lady’s eyes lit up.“Here you are, Madame,” she said, thrusting a wad of leaflets in my hand.

“Lovely, thank you.”

“You are welcome, and you must see this, come with me.”

Intrigued, I followed the girl out through the quad, down several steps and along a dark passage. Just as I was beginning to think something had got horribly lost between the folds of my mask, she abruptly stopped.

“Here,” she said, plunging an enormous key into an archaic lock. A clunk released the internals, and the door swung open. “Take these stairs,” she said, pointing at a stone spiral staircase. “At the top, you will see the view. Please close the door when you return.”

And with that, she disappeared.

So, there I was, down a shadowy passage looking at a flight of worn stone steps. Not precisely The Raiders of the Lost Arc, but I did feel slightly intrepid. I started climbing the stairs. Up and up I went.

Inexorably up, I finally saw a glimmer of light from skinnier steps that I presumed led to the top. Thigh muscles screaming, I finally made it. Those panoramic views of the town were fantastic.

After taking several photos, I retraced my steps. For someone who spends hours and hours dog walking, I was surprised how wobbly my legs felt by the time I reached ground level. Extreme stair climbing evidently requires the use of niche muscle groups.


I headed back to my car, traversing cobbled streets, passing crumbly shutters, massive oak doors and truly outstanding buildings. It had been a wonderfully unexpected adventure, one to remember. Oh, and did my parcel ever turn up? No, of course not!

September

For fairly obvious reasons, we had decided not to take a holiday. Feeling a bit itchy-footed, I bullied Jack into visiting a town I had been dying to see. With customary bad grace, he eventually agreed, and we set off.

  Deep into the countryside, we drove. There were none of the gentle fruit-growing landscapes we see in our area. This was big-boys rugged terrain.

“Wow! Jack, quick, look right.”

“I can’t on this bend, obviously.”

“Never mind, you’ll see it in a moment.”

There it was again. A slash in the landscape. We had reached the Aveyron Gorge, a natural feature more than 50 kilometres long. Vertical cliffs, some over 500 metres high, towered above the river flowing far below. A vast forest covered the landscape like a verdant duvet, bisected by the limestone fissure. It was an incredible scene.


We negotiated countless tricky bends, and finally, it came into view: Saint Antonin Noble Val, a secret town nestling at the confluence of the Aveyron and Bonnette rivers.

“Parking here is going to be a nightmare. You get out here while I find somewhere to leave the car.”

“Okay, where shall we meet?”

“I’ll find you.” 

I leapt out and walked beneath a massive cathedral-like archway into another world. Just for a moment, I was utterly alone on a cobbled way lined either side with medieval buildings. Some looked like homes, others, shops with living quarters above. I was entranced.

The narrow street was interrupted by openings to intriguing allies. I couldn’t resist a peek. There were balconies, twisty passageways, old and new masonry and planters – I imagined they were folks’ homes. 

Back out, and I passed several different shops, which looked as though they had been established centuries earlier. As the way broadened, cafés came into view with residents and visitors enjoying morning coffee in the shade of squashed-together buildings.


Soft pastel paint, flaky on walls provided canvasses for sprawling gnarled vines. Wood stanchions, battered shutters and balconies with intricate ironwork designs, I gazed in wonder at them all.

I returned to Jack, who was looking suspiciously relaxed, having neatly avoided the sight-seeing session. Determined he should see at least something, we drove out of the town via its ancient bridge. Inspired, at last, he pulled up to have a look.

The studded steeple of a splendid church dominated one side, surrounded by a cluster of buildings. There were homeowners taking tea on balconies. The benign river was a-bob with enthusiasts in canoes and kayaks, the perfect way to enjoy this waterway on a hot day.


Imbued by the beauty of this remarkable place, I pledged to return and spend more time here. It’ll be a highlight this year.

October

We were at the back end of a long hot summer, one which parched plants and turned our forest trails to clouds of dust. Not for the first time we’ve thanked our lucky stars for the brooks, and natural springs on our land.



The deer, being refined creatures, had taken to sheltering quietly in shady spots. We spotted some as they ventured out to feed and play in the evenings. Watching beautiful little poppets like this from observation hides reminded us of how charmed our lives are here.


Meanwhile, despite our neighbour farmers cussing the extra spend on irrigation, their sun-loving crops zoomed out of the ground and put on a dazzling show. Sunflowers, maize, apples, plums, tomatoes and grapes, were positively voluptuous.


Sadly, COVID had prevented us from participating in our friends’ vendange, grape harvest. Even Jack (who prefers the post-harvest celebration) missed it. Never mind, there will be plenty more to come.

November

This month brought a fun mission.

Di had an errand in a town called Marmande and asked if I would go along with her. Of course, I love quests!

As we crossed a bridge on the outskirts of the town, Di had a thought.

“Ooh, I wonder if we’ll see many tomatoes?”

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“Ahah! Well, clearly you didn’t know that Marmande is the largest producer of tomatoes in our part of France.”

“I’m going to confiscate that guide book of yours.”

“No, really, this is interesting. They’ve been grown intensively here since the nineteenth century. And get this. There are many producers of Marmande tomatoes, including the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Love Apple. Love apple is what the tomato was called in the Middle Ages.”

“Classic! Fancy having a Grand Master. There has to be a tomato fête.”

“Of course! They make giant ratatouilles and enormous tomato tarts, which are washed down with the local wine and accompanied by lots of festivities.”

“Sounds perfect, let’s go.”

“It’ll have to be next year. It takes place in July.”

We reached our destination too early for Di’s rendezvous, so headed for the nearest café. The pâtisserie bulged at the seams with goodies. Gawping at the cake selection, we made our choices.


I couldn’t resist a tartelette aux fraises, Di had her heart set on tartelette au citron meringues, and who could blame her? With our tray of delectables plus aromatic coffees, we tucked into what we declared were among the best strawberry and lemon tarts we had ever eaten.

We were still early, so decided to have a mooch. En route to the town centre, we passed a collection of 14th-century buildings. Fascinating though they were, what we saw next couldn’t have been less medieval if it tried.

A colossal clock with signs of the zodiac on the dial was positioned in the square’s centre. A large bell with Chinese characters was suspended above. There had to be a story behind this!

It was the incongruous brainchild of the then town mayor, Gérard Gouzes. On his return from a trip to China in 2011, he announced that the Chinese citizens of Yuncheng, with whom Marmande were considering a possible twinning, wished to offer a typical bell, accompanied by a clock.

Despite many disagreements on suitability and cost, the mayor had his way with the town’s officials. Gérard Gouzes was allegedly delighted with the furore and was quoted as saying, “The controversy will create curiosity and attract people. I do not regret it. This symbolic gesture will resonate in our relations with China.”

Still unsure whether we should be impressed or amused, we strolled on. This quirky place was deserving of a future visit, and it’ll be during the tomato fête.

December

To say the end of the year was filled with thrills ‘n spills would be an understatement.

Our plans to launch Fat Dogs Part 5 before Christmas were foiled by a last-minute technical glitch. One small meltdown later we got it back on track. The revised publication date of January 16 is just around the corner, and I can’t wait to share our latest adventures with you.

Just when we thought we had everything sorted out on the technical front, our internet connection threw a wobbly. Over the past couple of weeks, Jack, mister determined-to-fix-everything-himself, has been up and down ladders more times than a window cleaner (although he had a very different term for it), trying to locate the fault.

No luck yet, but I know he won’t give in. In the meantime, we’re bumbling along at a sedate pace, and uploading images from a special spot I found the other day in the forest, and the local supermarket car park.

As the year drew to a close, instead of partying with friends, like so many others, Jack and I welcomed in the New Year at home. Snuggled up in front of the fire with the dogs and cats, we reflected on the dramas of 2020. With no health issues, we reminded ourselves of the many reasons we have to be grateful.



Aby is now back to full fitness, Max hasn’t crocked himself or rolled in any yucky poo for a couple of minutes, and La Poste hasn’t lost a parcel for, ooh, ages. All in all, it’s a great way to start the New Year!

A million thanks to you for following our adventures here in France. We wish you a happy, healthy 2021, a year filled with hope and renewed optimism.