Sunday, August 23, 2009
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Summer brings so many good things to the Quercy that, even were I finding time to write regularly, it would be hard to do them all justice. The evening markets, the medieval festivals, the families pouring down from England and Holland to rent our cottages and lie in our pool – it’s all great stuff, and after the long quiet of winter, the summer season often seems like one giant party. A party at which, granted, we in the hospitality industry spend a lot of time making beds, but a party nonetheless.
And with all of these tourists and summer-house-owners come the cars.
This sounds like a negative, and to some degree of course it is. The roads get more crowded, there are lines at the gas stations, and sometimes you actually have to look around for a bit before you find a parking place. Many newcomers here aren’t used to narrow country roads, or are overawed by the scenery, or are just plain lost. Or just plain bad drivers. Or in the general excitement have taken too much or too little of their meds. Hard to say, but between the ones going half the speed limit, the others going twice the speed limit, the lost Dutch motor home drivers who stop in the middle of intersections to consult their maps and the enthusiastic English new arrivals who forget about that little matter of driving on the right, summer in the Quercy becomes largely a question of getting from A to B alive.
That being said, the Quercy and surroundings are ideal motoring country. Not just driving, but motoring around in a car you love because it’s old or collectible or stylish or convertible (and please notice that “fast” was not in that list) just for the sake of watching the scenery go by and knowing that, in your snazzy car, you are an interesting part of it.
This draws a lot of unusual machines down here in summer to stir up the everyday selection of 1950’s tractors and tattered 1990’s Renault 5’s. As with dogs, the interesting thing about cars is often their juxtaposition with their owners. There are a few patterns. There are the gay couples celebrating their youth in their well-tended little convertibles. There are the retired English couples celebrating their second youth similarly well-tended and slightly larger convertibles. There’s the occasional elderly couple in something outrageously classic like an old Bentley, or sleazy middle-aged guy with salt-and-pepper hair and dark sunglasses in his Ferrari, or smug overgrown boys in dune buggies. Recently one sees more oddly-matched couples in motorcycles with sidecars, the ultimate way to travel with someone without actually having to speak to them.
I think my favorites though are Aston Martyrs. They all tell the same story. He is an old car buff. He wasn’t when he was younger, but at some point he became obsessed by classic cars and acquired a vintage Aston Martin. He learned everything about it. He knows all the trivia, much of the mechanics, and has poured his soul into restoring the old beast to pristine condition. She at first found this charming. Oh, Richard and his old cars, she’d say to friends, but it was more boasting than complaining. She found his enthusiasm charming, and was relieved that it was directed at something attractive and stylish.
But as the years went on, she realized that the Aston Martin had become part of their marriage. It was his mistress, they had become a ménage a trios. And now their trips to the Continent are all the same – instead of flying down to the Mediterranean coast, instead of a city break somewhere in Italy, every year the Aston Martyrs have to drive all the way south through France. They always break down somewhere, and always have to attend another interminable classic car rally somewhere else. She smiles, makes the best of it, and of course looks utterly charming in that classic English way sitting in the passenger seat of a vintage roadster driving through the French countryside. But it is a grim, enduring sort of smile.
I can’t help but smile back at her. Every year the Quercy offers its visitors a very full schedule of markets, festivals and concerts to liven up their holidays, but she is part of the unscheduled summer entertainment that visitors bring here with them. Even though we’ve tucked ourselves away among farms and villages of France profonde, we are given a regular glimpse of the outside world as the tragicomic parade of humanity marches by for a few months every year. I would feel bereft without it.
And next week, if all goes well, I’ll write about my own classic car.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Okay, it was inevitable. You start a blog. You try to keep it highbrow, literary, interesting for a wide audience. But sooner or later, you post pictures of your dog. Here's Koffie, doing his best impression of a charming stray.
Monday, July 6, 2009
After many weeks of silence, I’m back. And I am not alone.
A small black dog watches me as I type this. It’s early morning, the weather’s good, and I’m out on the terrace overlooking the vegetable patch – the tomatoes are huge and just starting to ripen, long green cayennes twist and dangle from the slender branches of the pepper plant, courgette flowers raise their crinkled yellow faces to the warm summer sun and the rather terrifying pumpkin vines grow several inches a day as they quietly plan world domination. The tiniest of caterpillars is working its way, millimeter by millimeter, up the edge of my screen.
On the other side of the field, the cottages are full of newly-arrived guests, tired from their long trips from England, Belgium and the Netherlands. All our frantic work of this spring is now being paid off by happy holiday-makers enjoying the beginning of the summer season in the Quercy. I’ll be running to the village baker in a few minutes to buy bread – still hot from the oven this time of morning - and croissants to deliver to the guests. It’s our busy season, and it’s not all bad.
But suddenly this dog has been added to the equation. He is now officially named Koffie. He is officially ours. And, given his taste for 6:00am walks, I am officially ambivalent about it.
Koffie showed up last week. Strays aren’t uncommon here: we often get visits from the dog of the previous caretakers of our house, who now live in a hamlet a few miles away. The occasional disoriented and famished hunting dog wanders onto our land in winter. But this was different: this friendly little terrier/dachshund/n’importe-quoi mix we’d never seen before, with no collar, suddenly taking up residence in the playroom of our cottages was a visitation of a different order. We called all our neighbors, took him to the vet to scan him for a chip, asked the mayor and the baker’s wife. No luck. Or rather, luck. Sebastian has dreamed of having a dog for years now. We’d already fallen in love with the little creature, much to the chagrin of our cat (also a foundling). No tag, no collar, no one to claim him – make yourself at home, Koffie. And stop chewing on my shoes.
We’ve spent some time puzzling over just how he got here, but the locals all have the same reaction. Someone didn’t want him anymore, so they drove at least 20 km from home, found a lonely little country road and dumped him out of the car. Apparently it happens all the time. The vet didn’t even blink. It is, I suppose, a reminder that until very recently this was a region of subsistence farmers where animals served two purposes: food and labor. Dogs were for hunting, for herding sheep, for killing rats. And when they no longer served a practical purpose, they were discarded. That attitude lingers today, not just in the despicable way in which some hunters here treat their hunting dogs, but even among townspeople with regard to pets.
But it’s not all so dire, as I was reminded yesterday evening when the three of us took Koffie for a walk. We walked up towards the neighboring farm keeping Koffie on a leash to prevent him from chasing Madame’s sheep, who are deeply ambivalent about his arrival. Madame came out of her house to say hello and to meet the new member of our family. It’s always a bit of a linguistic adventure, these chats with Madame. She dishes out her generous portions of local lore in a thick Quercy accent, heavily seasoned with Occitan words like “nosotre” instead of the French “nous.” And then, of course, we get onto the subject of animals.
Madame has her own fair share of animals. Her own little foundling dog Chocolat vanished last year, but was quickly replaced by a beautiful white foundling cat. And while she isn’t a self-sufficient farmer as she was when her husband was still alive, Madame still manages, with some help from her children, to care for a small flock of sheep and an enclosure full of smaller animals. While I held Koffie, she took Sebastian around to show him the rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese. I could hear Sebastian telling her about the rabbit we used to have, rescued from Cazals market where she was being sold as an ingredient for a stew. Sebastian came back with a handful of feathers and a beaming face, and then Madame took us over to the cage where she keeps her doves.
“This one is also a foundling, a wild turtle-dove” she explains, pointing to a small dark bird among the dingy white doves fluttering around the cage. “You know the Souveton family, who sell their wine at the evening market in summer? Last year, la fille was there, selling wine, when this dove fell out of the big mulberry tree right in front of her. She cared for it a while, then gave it to me to keep.”
Stray dogs, lost cats, wild birds falling from trees. Everyone around here has similar stories behind their own accumulation of foundling animals. If there is much cruelty here, there is equally an impressive amount of kindness towards lost animals that find their way onto farms and into village houses.
“I like to hear the doves sing in the mornings,” Madame tells us just before we go. And then she gives us one of her wry smiles.“They’re not for eating,” she adds.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Okay, apologies for producing absolutely nothing for weeks now. By way of apology, pictures of the potager. I'm toying with the idea of treating this blog as, well, as a blog, ie posting little blurbs and photos more often. Thoughts? At least then there would be something to fill space between the rambling essays. Let me know. In the meantime, our first tomato, about the size of a marble as of today.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
I spent the better part of this afternoon upside down with my head in our rainwater cistern battling the all predatory forces of heaven and earth. I think I’m winning.
Spring is the time for grand designs, and having both finished half of my gate and said goodbye to our first large group of guests, I figured it was time for something more ambitious. For years now, we have aspired but failed to keep up with the Jones’s, or more precisely, the Bousquets. But this year will be different.
Whenever I am in the village and have a spare moment, I peek into the Bousquets’ vegetable garden. It is immaculate, every year. There is never a weed in sight. Their perfectly staked tomato plants always produce beautiful red fruit by the hundreds. Their lettuces march in perfect rows and seem blessed with some sort of natural slug-repellant. Their spring onions stand up straight like little soldiers. They even have a row of grape vines, tendrils neatly tied up comme il faut. And they manage all of this in a modest village garden. If they weren’t so nice, I’d hate them.
Here in the French countryside the potager, or kitchen garden, has long been an art form and, I suspect, a badge of rural civilization. Our various neighbors seem to produce huge quantities of beautiful fruit and vegetables with almost no effort, possessed as they are of the local lore passed down from generation to generation of farmers and country gardeners. Their generosity is equally as effortless, bringing both the lore and the results of it regularly to our door: eggs and figs from Richard and Barbara, tomatoes from Madame up the road, mushrooms from Monsieur Dubois over the hill, and a dire warning from our roofer about the upcoming Saints de Glace (the “ice saints,” the last days to expect a late frost, specifically the 11th-13th of May). From bottles of homemade walnut liqueur to bags of meat, we have received, through the kindness of others, the fruits of this overabundant earth.
I can’t help but suspect that this generosity is not unmixed with pity. The results in our own potager over the years have not been stellar. We did well with tomatoes one year, but the next year they all rotted after a very wet June. The raspberry bushes Claire gave us are still alive and produce a handful of berries every year, but they seem resentful about it. There was one courgette plant that seemed unstoppable, but we had to search for the courgettes among a forest of weeds that relentlessly invaded the garden. And our attempt at growing lettuce led to nothing more than a few very happy slugs. Only the young fig trees and one ferocious cayenne pepper plant could be called an unmitigated success. Even the basil seeds Sophia sowed carefully in pots in our guest bathroom to protect them from frost have not deigned to grow more than a few millimeters above the soil before mysteriously beheading themselves like self-hating Bourbons.
But this time we’re getting serious. There’s no point living out here, we decided, if we don’t start to produce our own food from the land, to take another step in our efforts to be more self-sufficient and rely less on the big bad corporate controlled world beyond our horizon. So first things first, we plotted out a new potager on a very fertile sunny patch of grass behind the house, in plain view, and as close as possible to the kitchen. Once Serge had come with his rotavator and done the heavy work of removing the grass layer and plowing up the rich red earth, we could get started.
As rational, educated people, Sophia and I did our research, and in the process were reminded that vegetable gardening is more than a hobby – it is an epic struggle against the forces of nature. The potager is not a playground, it is a battlefield, and reading about all that could go wrong I became determined to march into it well-armed. I would start by working high quality fertilizer into the soil, a sort of compost available here called Or Brun, or brown gold, which would improve the chemical composition as well as the structure of the soil. I would get an electric wire as they use to fence in livestock in order to keep away the deer. Good quality seedlings, some sturdy stakes for the tomato plants, and a carefully chosen variety of crops to deter pests. A few essential extras – slug pellets, various organic-farming-approved potions to deter this and encourage that. A back of the envelope calculation suggested that we would be paying about two euros a piece for our home grown tomatoes. This was a sort of self-sufficiency a credit card company could get very excited about, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Clearly nature is not my only enemy – the false comforts of the capitalist machine were also hell-bent on luring me to my ruin.
So this is where lore comes to the rescue. I was sad about losing the electric fencing, but the lore is particularly rich when it comes to keeping the deer away. A length of twine soaked in gasoline is said by some to keep the lovely little beasts at bay, but a garden reeking like a mechanic’s workshop falls just a little short of my idea of bucolic. Scattering human hair is said to help, and human urine is also supposed to be effective. Great. I think I’ll start with the suggestion on one website of hanging bars of perfumed soap at intervals. I’m all for following expert advice, but finding the right expert isn’t always easy.
Keeping the cats from turning the garden into a litter box requires garlic, but slugs are more exigent. They like beer well enough to drown in it, so apparently I’m meant to place little bowls of Kronenbourg here and there to lure them to an inebriated end. These things I can deal with. On balance, I’d say better the radishes smell like an Italian restaurant or a pub than a garage or public toilet.
The other basic needs we need to fill, preferably without doling out too much cash to chemical-producing corporations or the water company, are food and water. We collect rainwater in our cistern (hence my subterranean adventures this afternoon recoupling some pipes that had come loose over winter), but fertilizer is a challenge. The answer is obvious, of course, but it brings us back to the smell question, and the scent of horse’s backside might, I’m afraid, put the slugs off their beer.
The lore provides the ideal answer – you put nettles in an old pillowcase and soak them for a couple of days until they form a dark, hopefully only moderately smelly, tea. Our pampered vegetables will be drinking nettle tea and inhaling the scent of lavender soap, doing their dignified best to ignore the slugs as they sing off key and pick fights with each other.
Well, I’ve already made a concession or two. I did buy a bit of chemical fertilizer to get us started, and I found some inexpensive garlic pellets designed to last outside specifically in order to scare away cats. This evening our cat curled up amongst the scattered pellets and licked himself in flamboyant contempt.
These tomatoes had better be damned good.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Friday, April 24, 2009
This week marks an important milestone on our little estate. After many months of debate, planning, getting quotes, and of course actual labor, the refurbishment of our swimming pool is nearly complete.
That word “nearly” might trouble some people. I can sympathize. Milestones should be about actually finishing something, about achieving a sense of closure. I mean, how inspiring is it to hear “Just do it, eventually?” Who brags about giving a job their 85%?
Ah, but this is France.
To say that things here move at a slower pace would, I think, be missing the point. Yes, it’s southern Europe as opposed to northern Europe, and it’s countryside rather than city, and each of the respective stereotypes of general slowness have some ring of truth to them. But it’s not so much the slowness of pace here as the intermittency of work that leaves us in so constant a state of almost-arrival. Anyone we hire to do anything seems to be perpetually coming and going, starting and stopping. There are always extra parts on order, or extra machinery needed, or additional experts to be consulted. Any process here seems to acquire extra steps, like the random baritone vowel sounds that characteristically insert themselves into the sentences of the southern French. Behn, euh, c’est preque euh, finit euh.
I’d love to say that after living here for four years I’d figured out a reason for all this. I’ve trotted out a few theories, and I think I might well be onto something with the idea that it all relates to the French capacity for appreciating nuance. In this slow quiet corner of an already introspective, abstract nation, people accomplish things in fits and starts because at every step they perceive issues that might simply be ignored in a more straightforward culture. Our nearly finished pool, like our half-repaired boiler or the perpetually about-to-be-overhauled transmission on my Renault 4, is in fact a Gallic form of celebrating the bedazzling multifariousness of life. Maybe.
The problem is, I’m finding myself doing the same damn thing. Our house and land is generously peppered with nearly-completed projects, half-hearted attempts and partly-realized ambitions. The most colorful of these can be traced back to that most dangerous of books, the great lexicon of country-living ambitions, John Seymour’s Compete Guide to Self-Sufficiency. The wreckage of Mr. Seymour’s well-intentioned encouragement is all around me.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, including and especially my back, the drystone wall I dreamed of building has yet to evolve beyond the accumulation of a large pile of rocks at the edge of the upper field. Our yearly stab at a vegetable patch has seen more success. We have managed to acquire a collection of tomato, courgette and pumpkin seedlings, and have staked off a new patch of earth for this year’s potager. It is promising, at least, and the years have proved it more realistic than my early-aborted plans of bee-keeping.
But my favorite project, and the one that best illustrates just how these things get slowed down, is my farm gate. The field that separates our house from our rental cottages borders on a small road. This isn’t such a problem – it’s a narrow country lane that ends at the next farm, the sort of road where two cars couldn’t pass without one pulling off the side, the sort of road where two cars rarely pass anyway. But that field bordering on that road spoke to me. A vision rose in my head, a Seymouresque vision of that field separated from that road by an old fashioned hedgerow, á l’Anglaise. I’d seen many of them during our years in England, read about them in Winnie the Pooh and the Wind in the Willows. I wanted one, and the good Mr. Seymour was telling me that with a little work it could be mine. A hedgerow, with an old-timey farm gate (important to allow access for my beloved jaunty blue tractor) was within my reach.
That was three years ago, and I’ve been reaching for that gate ever since. I started with the hedge itself, each winter setting aside a bit of time among other projects to carefully gather saplings in the surrounding forest – hawthorn, hornbeam, maple and broom – and slowly planted two staggered rows of rustic bushes that will one day, I’m certain of it, grow large enough for me to interweave them as befits a proper hedgerow. In the meantime, I put in two sturdy fenceposts – thick chestnut, also from our woods – and set about planning the gate.
Enough care and planning went into this gate to make it worthy of St. Peter himself. Two years ago I settled upon a design, measured, cut good long chestnut poles for the top and bottom and shorter ones for the sides and crossbeams, and bought all the metal parts (hinges, bolts, screws). It would be a double gate, one half large enough to allow access for the beloved JBT, the other small and easier to open for foot traffic. It had taken a while, my priorities were always elsewhere, but I had just about everything gathered together and ready to go.
And then, that spring, one of the guests in our cottages had the idea of building a little hut for the kids. He asked if that would be alright and if he could use some wood from the pile at the edge of the field. It seemed like a fun project, something our various guests could enjoy all summer, so I said okay and went about my business. He was a builder by trade, and he put together a wonderful little pyramid. The kids loved it. And I did too, until I noticed that its frame was composed of all the posts I had so carefully cut to size for my gate.
So my gate spent the next two years entombed in the traditional Egyptian manner, as honored and useless as any dead pharaoh. Other priorities reasserted themselves. Life went on and my hedge slowly grew. My fenceposts stood silently, watching that pyramid like two great sphinxes, waiting, waiting.
But this spring, the mummy awakes. The pyramid was becoming unstable, so I took it down, excavating the lost pieces of my gate and with them a renewed determination to complete this long dreamed-of project. I have replaced the pieces that could not be salvaged, gathered my tools, found the hinges that had been gathering dust in a corner of my shed, and started building.
And it’s nearly finished.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Spring is a magical time – the maples and hornbeams are budding, dusting with pale green the grim lattice of dark bare branches that enclosed us all winter. With the birds back in force, the wisteria flowering and Wordsworth’s hosts of golden daffodils just finishing their annual march through the Quercy, the warm poetry of nature renewed can at last return to our frozen souls. I suppose my soul’s up for it, but quite frankly the rest of me is just too tired.
Every year it’s the same. When we close up the cottages for the winter, Sophia and I tell each other that this year, this year we will get most of the fixing up work done early, so that spring will not be stressful. And we always make a good start of it. But then winter makes its own demands and imposes its own limits. The cottages – not built with winter in mind – grow too cold to heat efficiently. So rather than struggle to get paint onto the walls before it freezes onto the brush, we shift our energies to the house, the land, other obligations. And next thing we know, there we are in March, every single March, making a mad dash to get the place in order before our first guests arrive for the Easter holidays.
It’s not just us – the entire countryside is on the move, getting ready for summer. Caves and castles are opening for business. Even the farmers seem intent on beautifying the place, carving the earth into immaculately ploughed fields, row after row of red-brown clouts of soil snaking deftly in synch with the surrounding landscape. When the tourists arrive, they will see the Quercy in its rightful state of pristine beauty, a land of sunshine and vineyards and clean tidy medieval villages.
Unfortunately the mass of work that goes into making everything picturesque seems to come all at once, and it’s not always so charming. Amid all the efforts to restore our surroundings to their perfect state of pretty, amid the cleaning and digging, the frantic painting and one particularly astounding feat of amateur electrician work that I honestly think could be compared to brain surgery, I found myself faced last Monday with yet another inconveniently-timed reminder of life’s less-picturesque side. I had to attend a school Parents Association (the “APE”) meeting.
I’m not going to prevaricate - these meetings are like dental surgery. I like the people, at least. Catherine the baker’s wife is the APE secretary, and she’s a good guarantee that the meeting will stay lively. Claire, Sylvie, Jean – I suppose I should be grateful for the social aspect of it. But after a few minutes of friendly chit chat, the fun and games stops, and the dark side of this otherwise idyllic world raises its venomous head. You see, apart from always cropping up when everyone is at their busiest, these meetings are entirely in French.
I don’t mean the language. That’s hard enough, granted, but the real issue is the French approach to doing business. There is a persistent Anglophone stereotype of the French as obsessed with talking in circles and hanging themselves up over bureaucratic nonsense. I get very defensive when confronted with stereotypes about the French, but this one’s true. Monday proved it. I spent three hours of my life listening to my dear friends talk about sausages.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss arrangements for the Marché des Ecoles, the second annual plants and pastries sale we hold to raise money for everything from books to school outings. It was just growing dark but there was still a faint red glow on the honey-colored stones as I drove up the winding narrow road to the tiny hilltop village of Cassagnes for the meeting. This is good, I thought, this is real. We live here not to be permanent tourists gawking at pretty villages, but to integrate, to do my part. But the rosy glow vanished as soon as I entered that village hall. There were twelve people at that meeting, and at no point were less than four of them speaking. While the G20 tackled the global economic crisis in London, the Quercy G12 negotiated the details of sourcing and preparing the sausages and frites that are to be sold as lunch at the plant sale. The frites are sold in little open carton boxes. So do we need plates for the sausages? No, people put their sausages on top of their carton of french fries. But what about those people who want sausages but no fries? And what about bread? Is it included in the price of the sausage or do people need to pay extra. Should those who eat their sausages without bread be penalized by having to pay for bread they don’t want? We wouldn't want to show prejudice against all the Atkins diet aficionados in the Quercy, now would we? In English, viewed from a distance, it would have been worthy of Monty Python. Up close and in French, an hour of this becomes a human rights issue.
And then, as if the various sausage and fries controversies weren’t enervating enough, things got political. I think there is some kind of strange rule that the smaller the community, the more complicated the politics. The three villages of Montcabrier, Cassagnes and St. Martin-le-Redon share a nursery and elementary school. The nursery school is at St. Martin and the elementary is in Montcabrier. Each of these schools has a separate Parents Association board, each with its own President, secretary and treasurer, as well as a second for each position. That makes a total of 12 Parents Association board members for a total of 48 kids.
Even in France this bureaucracy/constituency ratio of 1 to 4 seems kind of extreme, and yet, the simple suggestion of merging the boards has become a battle that makes the run-up to the invasion of Iraq look congenial. We Cabrimontains, as the largest village of our three-village regroupement scolaire, tend to let our power – we are nearly 400-strong, after all, compared to just under 200 souls in Cassagnes and in St. Martin - give us imperial pretensions. Or so you might think listening to the debate. The fact is that the “debate” seemed to center more around how to organize a vote on the issue. Is it appropriate just to let people tick a box, or must we hold a meeting? The conclusion was that if we hold a meeting, only the people against the merger would bother to show up. But the by-laws seem to require a meeting, and a group of die-hards from St. Martin would insist on their God-given rights. We discussed the various options, and heard several impassioned pleas for a democratic resolution (including assured anonymity in the balloting procedures) until midnight rolled around. Had we stayed any longer, I have no doubt we would have discussed dimpled chads.
As it was, we finally all agreed not to vote on whether or not to have a vote, and then opened a bottle of cider and a packet of cookies to celebrate. Democracy was tested and endured, and the treasured independence of the good people of St. Martin was preserved.
We all stacked the chairs and tables back against the wall of the village hall, turned out the lights and locked the doors before heading home. It was a clear night, the roads silent and empty as I wound my way down the Theze Valley toward home. The moon hung as a yellow crescent low on the horizon, a Cheshire Cat grin suspended in the darkness. Not a single reason to object to the merger had been produced in that entire three-hour meeting. The moon kept smiling, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Sometimes I have no idea why we’re here. I’m still glad we are.