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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!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The French Facial

It had been a hectic few weeks and I was looking rather haggard to say the least. The bags under my eyes were now resting gently on my cheekbones, and the crows’ feet either side of my eyes were beginning to resemble flippers. With the onset of Christmas festivities and our soirée still yet to organise, I made a strategic decision. I was going to treat myself to a relaxing facial. That would perk me up and help restore some of the sheen that had been scorched out of my skin by our blissfully-long French summer.

I went along to our local institut de beauté and browsed through their menu. I’m a bit of a trainee when it comes to women’s skincare treatments, so I wasn’t entirely sure which one would be suitable for me. Rather than stabbing around in the dark and booking something entirely inappropriate, I asked advice from madame behind the counter. She gave me a sceptical once-over and told me that my therapist would know what to do. Perfect! I duly made my appointment and keenly looked forward to a long session of pampering.

A week later I turned up and was ushered into a room filled with delicious scents from the Orient, and dimly lit by the gentle glow radiating from a clump of candles. Geneviève, my therapist, looked like she ought to be at school, but that didn’t worry me in the slightest. I merely assumed that she would be hot out of beauty college, and thoroughly up-to-date with all the latest massage techniques. I’ll admit I was quite excited by the whole prospect of ending my appointment looking fresh as a daisy and ready to do battle with the party season.

Geneviève barked a few instructions about clothes removal, pressed a button on one of her machines and left the room. She did not have quite the bedside manner I was expecting, but this didn’t matter. I was now being serenaded by the gentle sounds of whale song and distant waves as they crashed and rippled up the beach. I removed my upper garments, slid under a pre-heated blanket and snuggled down expectantly.

When Geneviève returned a few minutes later I was already feeling rather sleepy. I only half-listened to what she said, so was somewhat surprised when a spotlight was turned on and positioned around 20 centimetres from my nose. I squinted in discomfort at the light, and was immediately startled by the vision of Geneviève’s enormously enlarged face staring at me. Ah, of course, a thick magnifying glass was in the centre of the lamp – what a good idea. Geneviève had begun her diagnosis.

“Alors.” (So…) she said as she pinched my cheeks vigorously, “votre peau est très déshydraté, ceci est la cause de vos rides profondes, et vous avez les pores ouverts.” She spoke extremely rapidly so it was difficult to understand what she said, but I gathered that my skin was very dry, resulting in deep wrinkles and open pores - clearly an urgent candidate for deep cleansing. Well, in my heart of hearts, I suppose I knew this. She proceeded to list a number of different treatment options that would have been lost on me in English, let alone French. I took the easy way out and asked her to do what she thought was necessary.

Geneviève was plainly encouraged by my accommodating approach to decision-making. She began by strapping my hair down with a crepe bandage, which circled my head and was then fastened with Velcro. I began to wonder whether the compression effect this had on my skull was part of the process, when I was distracted by a heap of sand which was dumped on my face. Geneviève mentioned something about gommage and used it to scrub my skin with great vigour. There was nothing at all pleasant about it. However, I decided that this must be the deep-cleaning process and that the massage would follow momentarily. Not so.

An icy cold, rather dribbly flannel was then slapped across my face several times to drag the grains off. This certainly did the job, but it also caused rivulets of sand to run down my neck and form small dunes on my collar bones. My skin now felt decidedly naked, and a tiny bit sore.

Geneviève repacked her gommage kit and barked something else at me, which I didn’t understand at all. I looked at her upside-down face quizzically and by way of an explanation she waved a metal object above my eyes. I was just trying to focus on it when she grabbed my left hand and plonked it into my palm. “Attention,” she said, “Ceci est fragile. Ne le laissez pas tomber.” This was very strange, especially since there was a curly cable attached. Whatever it was, I was being instructed to hang on to it.

Where electricity is concerned I always think it’s useful to be clear about its intended use, so I persevered and asked the question. Once again, most of the response was hopelessly lost on me save for the part which involved my wrinkles. We had now established that they were deep, very deep in fact, so perhaps this was a new-fangled remote controlled French ironing-out treatment.

Clinging on to the metal tube for grim death, I waited apprehensively for the action to begin. Geneviève was busy behind me, chattering about goodness knows what as she mixed a concoction in a bowl. She plastered the gloopy paste over my face and most of my ears with a utensil that felt like a distemper brush. So far, so good.  

I opened my eyes to comment on how pleasant it smelled when, to my horror, I saw that she was now hovering over me with a pair of tools which looked like tuning forks with balls on the end. I instinctively flinched and squashed my head into the back of my pillow, which made my crepe bandage slip. Geneviève tutted, pulled the bandage back, and continued her advance. Quaveringly, I asked what her stainless steel apparatus was and she repeated similar words to those that she had used before. Yes, it was definitely part of a wrinkle treatment so it had to be worth a go.

At first everything was perfectly acceptable. She began by tracing the deepest lines – these were the ones, she assured me, that were particularly aging. I detected a faint vibration on my skin but nothing dreadful at all. I inwardly laughed at my own silly anxieties and began to relax and enjoy this wrinkle-zapping sensation, simultaneously giving myself up to the gentle tones of the whale song. It all had such a soporific effect on me that I took very little notice of the bleeps from the machine in the background, or Geneviève who said, “Êtes-vous prêt madame?Yes, of course I thought, bring it on, I’m ready for anything. Well I wasn’t.

I have no idea what the voltage was, but when my therapist reapplied her tongs they were charged with a very strong electricity current. I had the shock of my life. My eyes started open with fear and spied Geneviève rapt in concentration as she worked methodically over my face. She pinned down a section of skin, one lump at a time, with one set of tongs and yanked up another section towards it with the other. “Ça va?” she asked sweetly, as she plunged the tongs a little deeper into my dimple. With my face a rictus of agony and probably looking like a human form of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, of course I wasn’t alright. The problem was that the force of the electrical charge had now clamped my teeth together so the best I could do was groan at her. This she took as a positive sign, uttered, “Bon” and continued.

The very worst part of the treatment was when the electrodes were traced over my mouth. I am one of those unfortunate people whose dentist in the 1960s had a manic desire to fill teeth with as much silver amalgam as he could. At the end of each tortuous session, which usually left me a dribbling mass of bleeding gums, he would gravely present me with a small tube as a gift. This contained an amorphous blob of mercury floating in a clear liquid which my mother would sagely tell me not to drink. How kind. 

It didn’t matter a jot whether or not the patient actually had cavities that needed filling, he had all the equipment on hand to create them. This resulted in me and my sister having a head full of silver before we’d even hit our teens.

I quickly discovered that silver amalgam and electrodes are not happy partners. Every time she ran over another filled tooth I had an agonisingly painful sensation that felt like its root was about to explode. I squashed my tongue behind each victim, hoping to soften the impact, but it didn’t work. By now I was convinced that she’d hit the wrong button on her machine but my ability to explain this was stymied by my present condition of lockjaw. Instead I lay rigidly on the bed, gently cooking under my blanket.

A couple of bleeps heralded the merciful end to my electric shock treatment. My therapist reluctantly prised the metal bar out of my clenched fist, set her tongs aside and appraised her work so far. She wiped off the excess gloop and gave my skin another few pinches, which seemed to inspire her next choice of product. Now I could distinctly hear the cutting sound from scissors. This was alarming.

Suddenly her use of electricity seemed to pale into insignificance when compared to what she might be capable of with a pair of cutting instruments. I feebly enquired as to what she was doing. “Masque madame,” she replied brightly, “C'est pour la peau qui est vieillissement et gravement déshydraté. Fermer les yeux s'il vous plait.”  Ah marvellous, a product to combat not just aging, but severely dehydrated skin – how gratifying. But why the scissors?

With that she launched a surprise attack by swooping over me with a sheet of a material that felt like hessian sack. She placed it over my face and neck, adjusting it to put the newly-snipped holes in place over my nose and eyes. This would not have been an ideal treatment for someone with claustrophobia, which luckily I do not suffer from. The air holes were just large enough to allow me to breathe, but at this point I was more preoccupied with the relief I felt at avoiding facial wounds.  

More gloopy matter was pasted over my face and Geneviève asked if I was alright. A fold of material had now stuck to my mouth making communication limited, so I flapped a hand cheerily in reply. She declared that I should rest for 15 minutes whilst the concoction worked its magic, turned up the volume of the whale song and glided out of the door.

By now, my nerves were in shreds. The very last thing I wanted to do was to suffocate slowly under a cloak of smelly, herby stuff that was, for some reason, getting very warm and hard. She hadn’t mentioned this. The crashing surf became very loud before it gradually transformed into a babbling brook. This was all I needed. As someone who has quite possibly the smallest bladder in France, the suggestive nature of the sound effects played hell with my waterworks. I tried to re-focus and pass the time by drawing up mental Christmas shopping lists and reminding myself of all the people we needed to send cards to. Then, suddenly, I remembered something that my sister had told me to have as part of my beauty experience. I was sure I could hang on long enough to have it done.

When Geneviève returned, despite feeling like a broiled chicken, I felt nothing could go wrong with my final request. With my limited knowledge of French I asked “Madame pouvez-vous colorer mes sourcils noir s'il vous plait?” I wanted my eyelashes tinted black, but I wasn’t sure whether my translation was perfect so I poked around my eyelashes to make the point. Geneviève checked her watch, stared at the offending area and replied, “Tout est possible, madame.”

I closed my eyes and relaxed. I’d had this done before. No pain, just a tiny splash of tint on the lashes and then 10 minutes of peace and quiet.

She prepared her mixture and began faffing around with my forehead, generally swabbing it with something that smelled distinctly astringent. This seemed to be a rather extravagant preparation for a simple eyelash job, but I assumed that she was just being diligent. She sat back. I began to wonder why she hadn’t applied the tint to my eyelashes, or put the protective pad under my bottom lashes, when I felt a distinct tingling sensation on my eyebrows. I suddenly realised that something must have got horribly lost in translation and my eyebrows were probably being dyed instead. For a darkish blonde person this would never do. I had to check.

Summoning up my best French, I asked her if she had definitely tinted my eyelashes. My eyes were closed of course so I couldn’t see her reaction but she paused and then replied that yes, it was raining very hard outside. I opened my eyes and stared aghast at this girl. It was at this point that I realised I was in the process of developing thick black eyebrows. “Non madame, mes sourcils, est-ce que vous avez teinter mes sourcils?” I demanded, plucking feverishly at my eyelashes. She looked quizzically at me and replied, “Mais ils sont vos cils madame, pas les sourcils! J’ai déjà teinté vos sourcils.” I’d done it again, I’d got my cils mixed up with my sourcils and she had done exactly what I had asked her to do. I was doomed.

She didn’t look at all pleased when I asked her to take it off immediately and apply it to my eyelashes instead. I emphasised the need for speed which caused her to look at her watch again. Tutting to herself she proceeded to scrape off the residual dye and splash a new liquid over my eyebrows which made them sting even more. Working off the old adage of no pain no gain, this seemed like a good sign to me. She produced her astringent-smelling product and told me to close my eyes. In a fit of pique, she layered the stuff over my eyelashes and told me it would take 10 minutes for the dye to take. With that she disappeared again.

There I was, left with a heavy layer of dye that was now resting on the skin under my eyes and some of it was seeping in between the lids. I knew that because my eyes were smarting. As a contact lens wearer this did not bode well at all. I fervently hoped that she was using a natty new product that didn’t tint the skin too, if not I was going to come out looking like a panda.

The 10 minutes passed like an hour; I was close to bursting and stiff as a board with tension by the time she returned. Through my closed eyes I could see that she had switched the lights on to full beam mode and I felt her energetically mop my eyelashes with cotton wool balls. My worst fears were confirmed as she realised her mistake. After her 50th or so ball, just at the point when my skin was about to disintegrate, she gave up. She explained that there might be the odd tache (mark) under my eyes but that it would soon go. She ended the treatment by re-smothering my face with yet more cream and with an airy, “Voila, c'est terminé,” she left the room.

I dressed hurriedly and avoided the mirror out of fear of what I might see. Geneviève had joined her colleague at the till and, as I prepared to pay, I could see the other madame eyeing me uncertainly. There was nothing for it, I was going to have to have a look. I took the two strides to the large mirror on the far side of the salon and my suspicions were confirmed. Even though my vision was reduced to that of looking through a tea bag, I could see enough. My face was covered in red blotches and looked suspiciously taut in places. I had extremely black eyebrows and it looked like I’d either been in a fight, or was suffering from severe sleep deprivation. There were dark purple rings under my eyes, some deeper in colour than others.

Geneviève joined me, told me how lovely and fresh my face now looked and asked if I would like to borrow a hair brush before I left the salon. That was it, I was off.  

As I drove home I tried to exercise the life back into my aching skin. I wondered what I would say to Jack, my husband, about my foray into the world of French luxury treatments. I then wondered what he would say about my black eyes.

I walked into the house and he came up to me with his reading glasses on and a pile of papers in one hand. “You’re back early darling, how was the face thing you had?”

“Er well…”

“I must say you look very shiny. I  hope it was nice and relaxing. Possibly a bit too much eye shadow in places but that’s typically French isn’t it, and you do look lovely. Anyway, must get on, I’m in the middle of designing a new back box for my quadbike.”

How silly of me, of course it was too much for me to expect that he would have noticed anything wrong. My husband is an engineer. He can spot orange peel on a car’s paintwork from half a mile, but his capacity for spotting details, such as his wife’s face looking like a bag of nails, is limited at best. On this occasion I could only be grateful.

As I prepared our lunch I reflected on my appointment. My intention had been to enjoy a relaxing facial and just a tiny bit of pampering. Instead I had been scraped, electrocuted, partially suffocated and tattooed. My therapist was undoubtedly excellent, the problem lay once again with my lamentable command of the French language. That said, my wrinkles were quite possibly looking a little smoother, and I had escaped a full jet-black monobrow. Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies. But will I return to our plush French salon? Maybe, but not for a while.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

A Grape Day

It was the third week in September and things were chugging along nicely as usual, that is until our peace and tranquility were rudely interrupted by the dogs. Aby and Max had presumably heard footfalls in the next village and were keen to alert us to the dangers they might present. My husband, Jack, wasn’t at all helpful in restoring peace.

“Would you shut those bloody dogs of yours up,” he howled.
Misinterpreting this as a war cry, the dogs instantly redoubled their efforts by hurling themselves at the front door.

“There’s no need to shout darling, it only encourages them.”

“Huh, and they’re supposed to be intelligent dogs. Dim as bloody ditch water if you ask me,” he grumbled above the continued din.

Now wasn’t the time to discuss which of my loved ones might be displaying signs of dimness. Instead I quietly sent the dogs outside to let off steam. As it happens that wasn’t such a good idea either. Little did we know that some friends of ours had arrived and were bravely fighting their way through the hyperactive furry bodies towards our front door.

Impromptu visits by our neighbours are quite common here. Many of the locals hate using the telephone which, in many ways, is a blessing for us. This is because a French person speaking at high speed on a scratchy telephone connection isn’t always easy to understand. Their preferred form of communication is always face-to-face and preferably over a cup of coffee. They will often drive out to us with a message, suggestion, or invitation, and never without gifts.

Oh là là. Ils sont tres active aujourd'hui,” panted the plucky Nicole as she fought her way to the door step.  Nicole, who probably weighs-in at around 45 kilos dripping wet, is a small lady with a big personality, but does have practical difficulties with dogs like ours.

“Ah yes, so sorry about that Nicole,” I replied, peeling Max off her chest, “you know what they’re like.”

Pas de problème, ils sont adorables,” chimed in Yves, her much larger and very jolly husband. He was gamely removing Aby, who had firmly slotted herself between his legs, and reached over to thrust a large jar of homemade foie gras paté into my hand.

“Ooh lovely thanks so much that looks delicious.”

They finally gained entry and we sat down for our ritual cup of Nespresso. Nicole explained the reason for their visit – which I will relate to you in English to spare you the agony of my appalling translation.

“We want you to come to the vendange.” This was a new word to us which sounded like ‘vandage’.

“The what?”

“The vendange.”  Jack and I looked at one another, completely nonplussed.

“Oh – er, right, lovely,” I replied, “but what’s that?”

Nicole, who speaks very rapidly, zipped through the process. By the end of it I think we both realised that it had something to do with picking grapes – others would be involved too. However much of the detail had got lost in the muddy waters of her extremely thick south-west French accent. She looked at us attentively in the way one does a small child, and sensed a hint of indecision. “Vous devez venir!” she insisted.

Ah – now this was a clear instruction. There was no doubt, we were required to go. (Our French friends are a bit like that when they think it’s something ‘les Anglais’ should experience.) Yves, who has quite the perkiest face in the world, reinforced her demand by nodding vigorously at her side. In the end, despite Jack’s sceptical expression, we agreed to join the family for this grape event the following Sunday afternoon.

Our friends only stayed for a short time. It was just long enough to issue their instruction, and enquire about the all-important estimated number of mushrooms we thought might be popping up in the forest. (Mushrooming is a passion of theirs, but that’s a story for another day.) Once that was dealt with it was time to attend to their next errand. As we waved them off Yves popped his chubby head out of the window and yelled, “N’oubliez pas d'apporter vos secateurs!” Jack, who hates anything to do with gardening, looked particularly deflated by this parting comment.

Secateurs? I’m happy to say I don’t have any secateurs so obviously I can’t go.”

“Darling, we have several pairs of secateurs, so don’t start making excuses. Just pretend they’re pliers with sharp teeth and that you’re working on your car electrics. You have to come. It’s very thoughtful and typically neighbourly of them to have driven over here to invite us. I’m sure it’ll be great fun.”

“I’m sure it won’t. Perhaps they’re short of labour and need an extra pair of snippers.”

With that he stalked off to play with one of his chainsaws.

I was still intrigued by the strict definition of this word ‘vandage’, but my normally trusty Harrap’s French-English Dictionary had nothing to offer. After attempting several permutations of the word I gave up and resorted to Google, which instantly put me right. The search box politely suggested that I should be spelling the word vendange, and once I’d arrived at the correct source it offered some useful advice.

As we'd assumed, the vendange is indeed the grape harvest. It normally takes place between September and October depending on the variety of grape and when it ripens. The time of day for harvesting is important too. In some warmer regions such as Provence the grapes are often picked either early, or late in the day. This is because average autumn temperatures of 30º-32º C (86º-89º F) are common, and if picked during the heat of the day, the crushed fruit reacts badly when it is stored in cellars stabilised at the much lower temperatures around 14º C (57ºF).

The vendange is a period of intense activity that attracts international interest. Some vineyards employ pickers on temporary contracts, others market the period as a working holiday. There are those who invite all-comers to participate. The key criteria here are that the participants should be fit and healthy, and dead keen to experience this revered event. Then there is the strictly family and close friends affair – that’s the category we fell into.  

This all sounded very exciting to me, but suspecting that Jack might not share my natural enthusiasm, I chose not to bother him with my new-found knowledge about French country customs.

Sunday afternoon came, but there was to be no lounging around. We armed ourselves with secateurs and drove to our friend’s farmhouse on the outskirts of a beautiful village. Their home has been part of the family for several generations, and is quite wonderful. Tumbledown and covered in rambling plants of various varieties, it oozes character – as does the strangely shaped rose bed outside the front door. Apparently Yves has a deep love for the plants and decided to embark on a spot of landscape gardening. The border might have left something to be desired, but he certainly has green fingers. The air was heavy with fragrances from the enormous blooms that were wilting gracefully in the late afternoon heat.

The family homestead also includes an ancient séchoir barn which has big wooden shutters. These would have been opened up and used for air-drying tobacco plants. It's a fascinating building which now houses Yves’ little grey tractor which is probably older than any of us. Then there are houses either side owned by each of their two sons. Views to the rear are over Yves’ potager and endless fields of maize and crops beyond. It’s an idyllic setting for them, and perfect for their ever-increasing brood of grandchildren to grow up in.

As we drove in I felt a touch of anxiety about the process. Were there any special skills involved? Did I need guidance on what to harvest and where to snip? We knew their property fairly well, but the other worry was that I couldn’t ever recall seeing a grapevine. And, to make matters even more bothersome, there didn’t seem to be a soul about. Had something got lost in translation? It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. However, Nicole then appeared. Bright and sunny-faced as usual, she teetered on the edge of the rose bed looking extremely eager.

Venez vite qu'elle a déjà commence!” she said trotting towards the rear of the house. Happily it sounded as though we did have the right day, but it was now 5.45pm and apparently we were a little bit late. Still slightly mystified as to what we might find, we followed her across the road and along a short track and there it was – a small vineyard tucked neatly behind a long hedge. No wonder we hadn’t seen it, and it was a hive of activity too.

There were small children, adults, and elderly people of all shapes and sizes busy harvesting the healthiest bunches of red grapes I have ever seen. The children were all wearing shorts and tee-shirts, the ladies in dresses or skirts, and the men mostly in their hunting kit.

A tractor was being driven slowly between rows of vines by a terribly old gentleman who looked far too frail to walk, so perhaps driver-duty was a safer option. The machine was towing a long flatbed trailer upon which sat a rickety machine. It had a big wheel and handle and looked just like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. Bucket-loads of grapes and stalks were being poured into this machine and then shredded through its inner workings to be collected in plastic dustbins below. The kids were clambering on and off the trailer with the buckets full of grapes and passing them to the machine operator. This was an intriguing set up.

We exchanged embraces and kisses with those that we knew, and shook hands with those we didn’t. Nicole then led us to the trailer where David, one of her sons, handed us an empty bucket each and pointed to a line of vines. “Allez!” he shouted above the din of the tractor before returning to his job as grape mangler.  

Poor Jack looked horrified. It was one of those extremely rare moments when he looks completely out of his depth. He stared at the bucket and secateurs in his hand, and then the plants – helpless. The cherub-faced Yves spotted this and chuckled indulgently at my petrol-head husband. He grabbed his arm and gave him a swift demonstration, lopping about 15 huge bunches of grapes and plunging them in the bucket in double-quick time. That was all the instruction Jack needed. He was off. Slightly slower than everyone else because, being a perfectionist, he wanted to snip each bunch at precisely the right point and in the correct manner to avoid wastage.

The next two hours passed in a flash. The air was heavy with warmth and filled with the sounds of the old tractor engine and raucous noise from us. Regardless of age, the chat was animated and gossip rife about most things including the latest village goings-on. Who was seen doing what and when, and more to the point, why? Several of the older ladies then started trying to teach us a wine-harvesting song but this ended up in gales of laughter as they gave us up as a bad job, so we sang La Marseillaise instead.

All of the children were learning English at school, but I had the distinct impression that their interest level was pretty half-hearted to say the least. That is except for ten-year-old Dominic. He knew just one word and was determined to use it at every available opportunity. His special word was 'YES!' Conversation became slightly tricky with him because one had to arrive at an appropriate final point which required a 'Yes!' but we battled on regardless.

Every now and again a lady would appear with a new variety of green grapes. Small bunches were thrust into our hands. Goûtez, goûtez!” Taste, taste! she would demand. Each flavour was slightly different, and absolutely delicious. I have no idea where they had been picked from – we seemed to be surrounded by a meadow of burgundy-red beauties. But we all munched away ravenously, and listened to her stories of their origin and uses.

Suddenly Jack stopped his detailed snippings. He’d noticed some green grapes being hurled into the shredding machine. This appeared to be a matter of real concern for him. He then began an animated conversation with David, following which he started trudging back down his side of the vines. I asked him what was going on.

“Well, I’ve been setting aside the few green ones so that the final wine mixture isn’t a mish-mash of different varieties. I’m no wine-making expert but this all seems to me to be most irregular.”

“Darling,” I said, “I don’t think Yves is shooting for an appellation d’origine contrôlée, just pick the grapes and get them into the wringer please.”

At which point the little monosyllabic Dominic, who had been standing by my side, cried , “Yes!”

The hot afternoon temperatures had not abated, but we were still going strong when suddenly there was a shout of “Merde!” from ancient-of-days on the tractor. The engine started spluttering and coughing and then petered out with a sonorous backfire – the tractor had died. This was terrible! We had to get the harvest in before nightfall and there was still at least one more line of vines to go. The assembled company were appalled – that is aside from one person, and he was grinning from ear to ear.

“Don’t worry,” exclaimed Jack, completely forgetting that there were only 2.01 of us who understood English, “I’ll get it fixed for you. Stand aside please.”

Jack triumphantly handed me his bucket and secateurs and strode, with some drama, up to the tractor. Now, happily equipped by Yves with the sort of tools that Jack considered as friends, he set to work on the engine. The team looked on apprehensively. Buckets were bursting at the seams with grapes and would have to be hauled an awfully long way if the engine problem was terminal. Then there were the dustbins on the trailer. They were full to the brim with grape crushings, and no one could possibly carry that precious cargo. A groundswell of anxious murmurings began – this could be a catastrophe in the making.

After about fifteen minutes of tinkering, Jack shouted instructions to our aged driver. He pulled a couple of levers, pumped the clutch, and the tractor rattled back into life. The team hollered their delight at the ‘mécanicien Anglais’, who was now covered in his beloved engine oil. Jack was a hero, and doubly happy because his newly-soiled hands meant he could excuse himself from touching any more grapes.

The harvest continued uninterrupted by any further crises, and when the final bucket was slung into the grape mangle we were all infused with a party spirit. Everyone was extremely sticky and most covered in purple grape stains, the exception being Jack who was just oily. But nobody cared, we’d done it. We had completed the vendange!

The tractor towed our prized cargo plus kid-pickers back to the house, where David showed me the vats they would use to make their own wine. They had been snuck at the back of the séchoir in a pleasantly cool spot. Perfect! He explained the fermenting, straining and bottling process and the time period up to the moment when the liquid fruits of the harvest would be ready for tasting. This was an important event and one which he then asked if we might like to attend. Could these people get any kinder? I asked myself.

Meanwhile the diminutive Nicole was back in charge and called the team to her massively long garden bench. This was now heavy with drinks of all varieties, and by the looks of things, the fruits of her labours in the kitchen that afternoon. She had produced multiple platefuls of differently shaped and sized canapés. They tasted exquisite and melted in the mouth, just large enough to tease the stomach, and blended perfectly with Yves’ wines.

As our evening wore on the kids played in the garden. Knowing of my love for animals, every now and again one of them would appear with a family pet. Each long-suffering animal would be presented with bash formality by the child in question who wore a hopeful expression. Of course I was delighted to respond and duly stroked or cuddled the furry treasure until it was removed and replaced by another. This enchanting process went on for some time until one of the children discovered a set of metal balls used for pétanque. Animal petting was summarily abandoned and replaced by a fiendish game of this form of bowls, which is played on rough ground. Watching the teams prepare themselves for battle, the company of family pets sensed potential danger and promptly scarpered to distant parts of the garden.

Meanwhile the adults were becoming merrier by the moment, increasingly affected by the generous helpings of Yves' superb wines. We exchanged more tales and discussed our afternoon’s work, which unfortunately inspired Jack to begin telling his dreadful jokes. It mattered not that few of the assembled company had the first clue about what he was saying, they all guffawed at the right places, and encouraged him to tell more. But finally it was dark and we really had to go. With our grape harvest safely tucked-up in bed, we said our goodbyes and kissed everyone, including those pets that had been plucky enough to reappear. We drove away to sounds of “À bientôt” and clunk of the metal balls used for pétanque – yes, we would see them soon.

We had definitely done the right thing when we decided to live in our little corner of France.