Le P’tit Marché d’Is@

If you live within the long oval that has Mirepoix at the top, and Tarascon at the bottom, you might be lucky enough to get your fruit and veg. from Le P’tit Marché d’Is@ – Isabelle’s Little Market.

Isabelle, a young woman from Montferrier, has recently started a vegbox and grocery business, and it really is ‘the business’.   My memories of veg.boxes a few years ago in England are of worthy offerings that always included rather more soil-encrusted swedes than anybody could reasonably want.

My panier, last week

This isn’t like that. Her fruit and vegetables are organic or Agriculture Raisonnée, (limited use of drugs, fertilisers etc. permitted, within strict guidelines) all locally sourced: this week’s panier included potatoes, carrots, radish, celeriac, cabbage, spinach, chicory, lettuce, kiwi fruit, oranges and apples, all organic, and squeaky fresh. Last week’s, apart from the basics of potatoes, carrots and apples, was quite different.

Sorting out the shopping

Besides this, she’ll sell individual quantities of various fruit and veg , and she also has other lines. Poultry, pork, dairy products including various Ariégeois cheeses and yoghourts, all from farms no more than a few miles away.   Groceries include wonderful organic flour from a mill near here, pasta, beers, and from slightly farther afield in the Pyrénées Orientales, oils, dried fruits, nuts,tapenades etc.

Just arrived and ready to deliver

It’s very simple: you order by Monday midday for delivery later in the week.

Now I really look forward to 11 o’clock on Thursday mornings when her little white van swings into the parking space outside our house, and she cheerily hands over her bulging panier of shopping for us to unpack and plan the menus for the next few days (she even has a recipe idea or two tucked in the bottom of the basket). It even beats market shopping.  AND it’s made me feel not quite so unhappy about deciding not to grow my own vegetables this year.

Her morning's work all lined up in the van
Isabelle's morning's work all lined up in the van

One lump or two?

Enfin! We are at last a real proper French household.    Pop round to us for a mid morning break these days (as Henri often does) and you’ll get coffee (freshly brewed in a cafetière of course.  Small cups.  No milk offered) and the sugar on the side will no longer be in a dinky English sugar bowl or –  even worse – bag.

Certainly not.  We have invested, as any French householder should, in a pretty box specially designed to hold the rectangular cardboard boxes of sugar lumps on sale in any old grocer’s or supermarket. C’est normale.

The Garden of Earthy Delights

At this time of year, with spring nudging the crocuses, violets and celandine into flower, and encouraging buds on trees to fatten and swell  before bursting into flower, it’s time to be busy outside.

My single patch of white violets among all the purple

Our garden’s a minute or two’s walk from the house, and out of sight can mean out of mind.  So once there (‘I’ll only be 10 minutes’….), I’ll find all kind of things to do.  The grass needs strimming already.  The vegetable patch is a disgrace.  The fruit trees need attention: they suffered horribly in last May’s heavy snow, and they should really have had careful pruning much earlier this month. The compost heap needs a bit of TLC.  Time passes while I prune our ‘vineyard’ – 6 vines. (‘Oh, sorry, have I really been two hours?’)

The pear tree: lots of character, not many pears

So I’ve taken a big decision.  No vegetable patch this year.  That way, the trees may get the extra attention they need:  the ivy and brambles may not get the upper hand quite so readily, though I wouldn’t bet on it.

I’m not going to do it on my own though.  From Easter, we’re planning new recruits to the garden: a gang of hens, whose job it will be to peck away at all the grubs, and keep the grass trimmed, whilst offering the occasional egg for breakfast.

The hens next door running free

Quite a few friends in England have re-homed ex-battery hens, and I’d love to do this too.  I’ve written emails, joined internet discussions, asked around, but it doesn’t look as if I’m going to be able to find any here in France.  But the search goes on as we plan the next project: build a hen house.

Although it’s often a lot of hard work, this garden’s a really special place for me  (and I do mean me.  Malcolm’s excused gardening duties so long as I’m excused DIY duties).  From it, I can see Montségur, the thickly wooded long chain of hills called the Plantaurel, and the snowy peaks of the Pyrénées behind .  So near to town, and away from the house, it’s where I come to get away from it all, and have a healthy workout as I dig, hack, uproot and generally try to keep Nature at bay.By the way:  greenfinch update.  Enough already!  They’ve shown themselves to be belligerent, selfish dogs-in-the-manger, who dive-bomb, use their wings to beat off the opposition, peck, bamboozle – anything to keep any other bird away, even ones who are eating their least favourite thing on the feeding station.

Greenfinch fighting

They’re also extremely messy.  I’ve told them.  I’m not replenishing the feeder till they’ve eaten every scrap of the food mountain they’ve dumped on the ground beneath.

Oh, and as our lunch guests pointed out,  it was a goldfinch, not greenfinch onslaught we had two years ago.  We’ve seen none since.  They’re all 4 miles up the road at my friend’s house in le Peyrat.

Greenfinch Day

Female greenfinch

Two years ago, on Valentine’s Day, we had friends over to lunch.  We spent much of the meal glued to the sight of a huge flock of greenfinch which had suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, descended to the garden, and specifically the bird table.  It was food they were after, and they swooped, squabbled, jostled for position, selected seeds, came back for more, and generally monopolised the garden to the astonishment of the regular tits, wagtails, blackbirds, sparrows and robin.

On 15th February, we got up, eager for a repeat performance.  But they’d gone.  And they never came back.

Male greenfinch

Until today.

We only realised they were here when over breakfast we heard ‘Bang!’ followed by ‘Bang!’ against the window.  Two finches, one after the other, had hurtled – hard -against the glass, and we found them lying inert on the ground.  We tiptoed round, knowing we had to leave them be, and hoped for the best.  After ten minutes, one of them suddenly shook her head in surprise, ruffled her feathers, and flew off.  The other never recovered.

The other greenfinches didn’t seem to care.  All day they’ve been wheeling around, careering from sunflower seed feeder to peanut net, to grain dispenser, always feeding, feeding, dropping discarded shells and tiny crumbs onto the ground beneath, where all the birds, whether finches or regular residents, continued to scavenge all day.

I wonder if they’ll be there tomorrow?

Feeding time

Bureaucracy at work – oh, and a couple of removal men

The phone rang.  ‘Hi!  This is Holly speaking.  Your furniture, all the stuff we were going to deliver to you from England on Thursday….could the lads come now, they’re ahead of schedule?’  A quick summit meeting, and we decided that no, they really couldn’t.  We simply weren’t organized enough yet.  But we’d settle for Wednesday morning.

I put the phone down, and something at the back of my fuddled brain told me I really ought to tell them at the Mairie (Town Hall) that we were having a removal van the next day.  So I did.  Thank goodness.  Not telling them would have been little short of criminal, it turned out.

For more than half an hour, they filled in documents for publication outside the Mairie itself and our house, and sent copies to the Fire Brigade, the Police and Technical Services, among others, for their information.  The mayor came out of a meeting to sign the documents.  Staff told me we needed to take responsibility for placing the barricades they would arrange to have delivered, so that nobody could park in our part of the street between 8.00a.m. and 2.00 p.m.  We would also need to talk to all relevant neighbours and ask them not to park in the street between those hours.

I came home (we live 2 doors away from the Town Hall) and as I fished around for my door keys, I saw a council delivery lorry already putting 5 barriers at the end of the road for us to erect later.  Malcolm commented that this was a tale worthy of that unmissable 1970’s children’s programme ‘Trumpton’, with its vignettes of a way of life none of us could quite believe had ever existed.

This road train's on its last trip ever. Back in the UK, it's going for scrap

It turned out the fuss was worthwhile.  When our removal van came, it was a ‘road train’, 2 waggons long, and mopped up every bit of space in our little parking area.  It had left the UK nine days earlier, and spent all that time roving all over France: Alps, the coast – anywhere the English settle over here – delivering from the UK to some, and collecting for transporting to the UK for others.   Paul and James, in the manner of removal men everywhere, tossed sofas, chests of drawers, huge boxes of books over their shoulders and trudged up and down our narrow stars for two hours till the wagon was almost empty.  Almost, but not quite.  Next stop Perpignan, before they head back at last, to be home just in time for a weekend in England.

Now all we've got to do is sort out, move round, organise......

Ooh, and by the way.  They told us that removal vans sent to Europe are almost always unmarked, as ours was, because they can attract the interest of the Mafia in Italy, and even in parts of France.  Paul had a close encounter himself not so long ago, and had to shift himself quick, never mind that his tachograph said he’d done his hours that day.  Luckily for them, we had no such excitement here.  Just a pile of paperwork for the municipal records.

...and unpack 57 boxes of books

“No sky in all France is more blue than that of Collioure”: Henri Matisse. Not this week……

Because of our 6 weeks’ hard labour, because the weather here is so unseasonably gorgeous, and most of all, because it was Mal’s birthday yesterday, we decided on a Mid-Week Break.  A friend had just posted some photos of the sea at Collioure, radiant in the early spring sunshine, and we thought we’d like an off-season visit too.  The Pyrénées Orientales are nearly always sunny, with high temperatures and blue skies, even if we’re shivering over here, so we never bothered to check the forecast.  Big mistake.

Half way through our journey to the coast, the mist descended.  The sky turned pale, then grey.  The temperature fell.  Sea mist, we thought.  It’ll burn off.  It didn’t.

So our afternoon consisted in making the best of a bad job.  Which worked.  Rather than stop for lunch first at Collioure, which we feared might be closed for business, winter, mid-week, we went on to Port-Vendre.  This is still a busy fishing port, with tuna and sardine canning factories, so we had the idea that we’d be lunching with fishermen in oilskins.  Well, not at all actually, but fishy menus are centre stage, and we ate well – very well.

Then we came back to Collioure.  As we’d thought, nearly everything was closed, and without the sun to add sparkle and joie de vivre, we contented ourselves with an invigorating walk along the front before moving on: this is a region with plenty to offer.

This is Catalan France. It’s been ruled by Spain, by France, back and forth over the centuries, and many of its current inhabitants fled from Spain during the Franco regime, so it does have a very Spanish feel.  The frequent change of rule means that many bloody battles have taken place here too, and back in the 13th century, the fortified town of Elne suffered cruelly.  Under Catalan rule at the time, the troops of French king Philip the Hardy laid waste the town.  The townspeople fled to the traditional sanctuary of the church.  There the soldiers killed the menfolk, raped the women before the altar, and flung small children against the walls before burning the church, which still bears scorch marks on the main doorway.  It was this church, Sainte-Eulalie and its cloister we’d come to see. The church itself is a strikingly simple Romanesque building, beautifully lit and inviting quiet contemplation. It’s a little reminiscent of Durham Cathedral, but on a more domestic scale.  The cloisters are really special.  Partly Romanesque, partly Gothic, the capitals and pillars have been immaculately carved with foliage, animals and biblical scenes still in crisp and fresh condition.  It’s a lovely, quiet place.

We stayed the night at a traditional Catalan 19th century farmhouse, Mas Bazan.  After a night in our elegantly simple room, we enjoyed a ‘bio’ breakfast of home made cake and jams, newly baked bread, and the company of our stimulating and cheery hostess.  It was she who planned our day for us, suggesting things we might enjoy.

The misty weather limited our choices to some degree, but we had two highlights.  As we left the coast, we climbed upwards into the scrubby, shrubby Mediterranean hillside which we now know is called ‘maquis’, rather than ‘garrigue’, because the soils are different in each.  And we spotted in the distance our first destination, Castelnou,  not destined to be twinned with Newcastle.  A mediaeval castle and village appeared through the mist, with beyond, tantalizing glimpses of the massif of the Canigou.  As we wandered round the village, a few minutes later, we wondered who would choose to live in such a picturesque museum, overrun with tourists in summer, its several restaurants and craft showrooms overflowing, while in winter nothing, apparently, happens.

We had lunch in Ille-sur-Têt, which also has medieval streets, but ordinary small town life goes on there: it’s no tourist showpiece.  We’d come to see Les Orgues, north of the town.  These take the form of an amphitheatre of cliffs which the elements have eroded, and continue to erode, into extraordinary columns and pillars.  It’s arid, quite desert like, and quite ephemeral in that it’s constantly changing as the sand from which these structures are formed wears away and is re-deposited.  The photos I took record them as they are at the moment.  In a few years they’ll be different again.

And then we wound our way home, on a series of snaking backroads through the maquis.  The nearer to the Ariège we got, the hotter the sun became, the bluer the sky.  It’s not supposed to work like that.

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Learning to speak French again after 6 weeks’ hard labour

Returning to France on Wednesday was a bit of a shock to the system.  Six weeks speaking English every time we opened our mouths, and then…..French again.  It was there somewhere, deep inside the recesses of our skulls.  But it was hidden right away at the back, covered in fluff, layers of dust and paint splashes, and scarcely fit for purpose.

Opening our mouths to make simple comments to the receptionist at our overnight hotel stop in Blois that first night back seemed strange.  Standard phrases escaped our lips, sounding odd, like some once familiar lesson learned at school, since long-forgotten.

Two days on, things are returning to normal: the language machine has been oiled and serviced, and is creaking back to business as usual, as we resume our daily round.

But in those 6 weeks in England, we scarcely engaged our brains at all.  We painted the house ready to be put in the hands of a letting agent.  We packed.  We discarded years of family life.  We sorted out bags and bags of stuff for the local charity shop: we called there so often that we fully expected them to open a new branch named after us, and were convinced that the one day we didn’t go, disgorging huge plastic bags of donations from the car, they’d put out a Missing Persons enquiry.  Things that neither family members nor the charity shop wanted got advertised on Freecycle, and we had fun helping those who responded to cram large bookcases or cumbersome chairs into rather small cars.  ‘Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them. Our goal is to keep usable items out of landfills’.

Furniture and books – 9 cubic metres – were collected by a removal firm who’ll deliver it all to us here in about 10 days, after they’ve collected and delivered other consignments all over England and France.

What would we have done without all the friends who fed and entertained us in the evenings after our 10 hour-long-days labouring in the house?  They made it possible for us to pack up virtually every cooking pot and plate days before the end of our stay.

And what would we have done without our friends in LETS?  Some of you have asked what LETS (SEL in France) is:

LETS – Local Exchange Trading Systems or Schemes – are local community-based mutual aid networks in which people exchange all kinds of goods and services with one another, without the need for money.

Nidderdale LETS is the group in the Harrogate area.  With about 50 members, many of us have worked and socialised together over the years, helping each other revitalise overgrown gardens or have a big spring clean.  People offer massages, Alexander technique, translation services, animal care, teaching and practical skills: all sorts of things.  This time, LETS members turned out in force to help us paint and clean the house from top to bottom.  We couldn’t have done without them, and working together was fun and gave us all a feeling of real achievement as we shared lunch and conversation after a hard morning’s work.

After all that, though, our bodies were exhausted, and our brains non-existent.  No wonder speaking French again seemed a bit of a challenge.