When Meeting Other People Was OK

Ariège, Blogging challenges, France, Walking

It’s that time of the month again, when I re-publish a post from our years in France. This one made me sad. It reminded me of times when people could simply be together enjoying each other’s company; where kindness and friendship were easy to demonstrate; and when an affectionate hug was nothing to fear. Kindred spirits. Ah well…

Walking for the Masses

October 10th, 2010

Walking near Mirepoix

The French love walking – as in hiking.  The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre is an immensely popular organisation with all age groups, and with a somewhat younger image than the British Ramblers.  The French walk alone, with friends, in groups such as ours, Les Rando del’Aubo, and …..on mega-rambles.

We first came upon the mega-ramble when our own group went along, a couple of years ago now, on a walk organised by the FF Randonnée Midi- Pyrénées group.  We and about 800 others.  It’s something of a military operation.  Breakfast is offered, refreshments along the route, which has to be signposted beforehand and cleared afterwards.  Photocopied maps are handed out, and when it’s all over, there are exhibits to mooch round, apéros to drink, trophies to award (the oldest walker, the person who’s travelled furthest to participate, that sort of thing).  There’s often a sit down meal on offer too, though not that day.

Interesting, but walking with dozens – hundreds – of others isn’t really our thing. This means we quite often sit out the Sunday walk, because these occasions happen pretty often.

The poster advertising the day

Today, I made an exception.  In France, basic health care is free, but most people chose to top up by insuring themselves with a Mutuelle, which covers all the bits the system doesn’t pay for.  To publicise themselves, and various health charities, the Mutuelles of the Ariège organised a walk near Mirepoix today, and they needed our help.

Early this morning, under the covered market hall in Mirepoix we set up tables, prepared healthy breakfasts (breads, cheese, fruit juices, dried prunes) and registered walkers.  Some people waymarked the route, others acted as marshals, and lots of us got to walk as well. Only 171 walkers today.  Why would we be so public-spirited?  Perhaps this picture tells you why.

Sitting in the main square in the sunshine, enjoying the meal we were offered as a ‘thank you’ for our work earlier. We’d have done it anyway. A good day.

Something else though.  Sitting down with everyone after it was all over, I reflected how far we’ve come.  This week, Malcolm’s been in England, so apart from exchanging English/French conversation on Tuesday for an hour, and enjoying lunch with an English friend on Friday, I’ve spent the rest of my time walking or eating with friends, shopping, singing, going to the gym and all the rest, entirely in French (well, I’ve done some hard labour at home too.  But I only had myself to talk to).  Over two years ago, when we first sat down for a communal meal, we could see people’s eyes glaze with fear as they thought they were going to be stuck with that English couple.  Could we speak French?  Well, yes actually, but both easy chit-chat, and more serious discussion were difficult for us in a noisy group situation.  Today I was happy to be the only foreigner in the group: instead of fearing me, it was ‘Is that chair next to you free?  May I sit with you?’

#Kinda Square

Six Word Saturday

School Dinners: a Labour of Love

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Food & Cooking, France

I was casting around wondering what to post for this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge, Labour of Love.  And I remembered a wonderful experience I had when I lived in France, when I was part of a small team invited to cook an English school dinner for a local primary school.  Truly, the experience was a Labour of Love, as it was for the charismatic school cook, each and every day. My memories of this special day are entirely positive and happy.

September 26th 2012

‘School dinners, school dinners….

 

‘School dinners, school dinners.

Iron beans, iron beans.

Sloppy semolina, sloppy semolina –

I feel sick, get a bowl quick.’*

Do you remember this cheery ditty from your days eating school dinners?  Only if you’re British, I suppose.  And most right-thinking French men women and children would be quite prepared to believe that all English food is just like that.

Not the mayor of Villeneuve d’Olmes, where Découverte de Terres Lointaines has taken its Yorkshire exhibition this week.  Back at the planning stage, he’d told us about their school caterer, M. Feliu, who uses almost entirely organic or local ingredients, and who likes to introduce the children to the cooking of other countries every time the excuse arises.

We met M. Feliu at La Freychède.  We worked together to produce a menu (Cheap. Tempting to the young French palate. Three courses that work with the kitchen facilities to hand.  Conforming to nutritional standards).

The school kitchen.

This is what we came up with:

Crudités with beetroot chutney 

Macaroni cheese with green salad

Blackberry and apple Betty with custard.

Yesterday was the day.  I turned up at 10.00 with my English friend and colleague Susie to find the work almost done.  All we had left was to churn out batons of carrot, black radish and cucumber for the first course, which was not, let’s face it, Awfully British.  But it had to fit in with other considerations as above.

11.00: The prepared and cooked food was heaved into insulated containers, and transported by van to one of the local schools.

11.30. Ditto with van number 2.  This batch was sent off to Villeneuve d’Olmes, with me following.

12.00. Children arrived at the canteen.  One of the helpers, Pascale, spoke good English.  ‘What’s your name?’ she’d say to each child in English.  When she had her reply, they could go in, and sit down at one of the circular tables, tinies in one room, and juniors in another.  I joined a table of lively 7 year olds.

One of the staff told me the rules that the children expect to follow:

  • Take turns to serve the dishes of food to everyone at table.
  • Wait till everyone’s served before beginning to eat.
  • Try everything.
  • You can have the portion size you choose.  Once it’s on your plate though, you have to eat it.

Everyone accepts this and we all sat together, eating and chatting.  The children chomped their way through all the crudités, they even enjoyed the chutney, whose sweet and sour taste is not an automatic choice round here.

Once cleared away, bread appeared on the table – this is France after all.

Two more children served the macaroni cheese and the salad.  Most of us came back for seconds.

We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ – in English – to a birthday girl.

I gave an impromptu talk on the food on offer.

The blackberry and apple Betty was served.  Yum! How could it fail?  Gently cooked fruit with a crunchy crust of soft breadcrumbs crisped in golden syrup and butter, with obligatory custard, of course.

Then the children cleared their tables, stacking dirty plates and glasses neatly for washing up, before going off to play.

I was so impressed.  The children here learn that the midday meal is so much more than a pit-stop.  The expectations, reinforced daily, are that this is a moment to spend with friends, a time to share, to think about the needs of others, and to appreciate the food on offer.  The occasion lasted well over an hour.

The view from the kitchen door.

Another view from Villeneuve.

* To the tune of Frère Jacques

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #113: A Labour of Love

Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Food & Cooking

It’s got to the point where we could almost put chilli on our breakfast cereal. Jalapeño, Scotch bonnet, bird’s eye, habanero, chipotle, cayenne: all have become everyday objects in our home.

Our love affair with the chilli began in France. This is odd, because the French, on the whole, do not do spicy foods. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’ Henri howled, clutching his throat, when we put before him one day the mildest of all mild kormas.

But on a smallholding near us, a chilli enthusiast, Jean-Phillipe Turpin was busy. He grew mild chillies, medium-hot chillies, and chillies so hot they were off the Scoville scale. We came to call him ‘Mr. Chilli’.

Mr. Chilli at Mirepoix market.

He came to sell his wares every week in summer and autumn at two local markets. Fresh chillies, strings of dried chillies, powdered chillies, chilli plants. We became regular customers, as did other English, from far and wide. The French? Not so much.

Back in England, we still buy different chillies, every week. The dozens of varieties purveyed by Mr. Chilli rarely come our way. The ones we do have are everyday objects in our house. As are jars of spicy pastes and potions.

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #111: Everyday Objects

In Search of a Druid or a Trout – Revisited

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Pyrénées, Walking

It’s re-post a Golden Oldie from France time.

August 27th, 2012

In search of a druid – or a trout

Mont d’Olmes: local playground for skiers.  You wouldn’t travel any great distance to spend a holiday here, but for locals, it’s the ideal winter sports spot.  It’s a wonderful area for walkers too.  We’ve only just begun to discover the wealth of footpaths, mainly across truly ‘sauvage’ slopes, with views downwards to Montségur, Roquefixade, and northwards almost, it seems, as far as Toulouse.

It’s alright waxing lyrical though.  For many people living in the area many years past, and until the early years of the 20th century, these slopes were the places where they came for long hours each day, working both on the surface and by crawling through narrow airless tunnels, mining talc.

Le lac de Moulzonne glimpsed through the trees at 8.00 a.m.

Talc?  Yes, that stuff you sprinkle on babies’ bottoms.  That stuff those Olympic gymnasts plunge their hands into before taking to an overhead bar.  That stuff that apparently still has many industrial uses, notably in the ceramics industry and for plastics paints and coatings.  This soft soapstone was found here on Mont d’Olmes and is still mined in nearby Luzenac.  Here though, all that is left are the gashes in the mountainside where the workings once were, and a few ancient trucks once used to transport the material down to civilisation.

Come and take the path we took last Sunday.  We walked in more or less a straight line, up and down hill after hill, as the path became increasingly rocky and impassable.

Our reward was the occasional handful of raspberries or bilberries, then a lunchtime picnic by l’étang des Druides.  No, sorry, l’étang des Truites.  Whatever.  Nobody seems to know which name is correct.  Some say the person making the first map of the area misheard and wrote ‘truite’ – trout – instead of ‘druide’.  We saw no trout.  We definitely saw no druids.  But we had a jolly nice picnic.  And I paddled.

And then I ruined a perfectly good day, in which morning chill and mist had given over to hot sunshine, by falling flat against the rocky path, cutting open my face and chipping three teeth.  I hope the druids weren’t lining me up for some kind of sacrifice.

August 2020, PS.  Don’t worry.  I’m fine.  The chipped bits, which were only small, have smoothed down nicely.

Jo’s Monday Walk

Le Cami des Encantats Revisited

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Festivals, Heritage, Patrimoine, Pyrénées

It’s that time of the month when I re-visit a blog post written during our years in France.  I’ve chosen this one because of the perspective it offers on rural life there,  a hundred or more years ago.  Because France – certainly where we were in the foothills of the Pyrenees – had no Industrial  Revolution, country life continued more or less unchanged for many until villages devastatingly lost their menfolk during the First World War.

Country life is country life, and some of these occupations would seem familiar to our own grandparents.  Others less so.  Have a look and see.

Le Cami des Encantats

July 26th 2012

Today we visited Benac, one of those  small and almost picture-postcard-pretty  villages outside Foix.  I think it’s unlikely that too many horny-handed sons and daughters of toil live there these days.  Too many freshly painted facades and cheery boxes of geraniums at the windows. Too many sleek and highly-polished cars.

But once upon a time it was a busy working community. For the last few years, every summer the villagers here and in nearby hamlets arrange carefully constructed and dressed figures into appropriate corners of both village and countryside.  These figures celebrate the way of life that persisted here – and throughout France – for centuries, and only died out some time after the First World War.  They call the route you follow to hunt out all these scenes Le Cami des Encantats: Occitan for something like ‘the Enchanted Path’.  Come with me and take a look. Click on any image for a closer look and a caption.

Square Perspectives

Revisiting Transhumance in the Haut Salat

Ariège, Heritage, Pyrénées

I struggled to decide what to re-blog from our years in France this month.  June then was an opportunity to get further away from home to walk and to explore.  Should I take you for a snowy walk to the heights of Lanoux?  Or on a horrifyingly vertiginous expedition?  Maybe le Cap du Carmil?

In the end, since we’re getting a bit fed up with being socially distant these days, I thought we’d go off and have a bit of a knees-up over in Seix.  Come with us.

June 13th 2011

Transhumance in the Haut Salat

Transhumance.  It’s that time of year where here near the Pyrénées, the cattle and sheep are moved from their winter quarters down on their lowland(ish) farms up to the lush summer pastures in the mountains.  They’ll stay there till Autumn, and then be brought down again.  And each time, it’s the excuse for a party.

On Saturday, we joined in, and went over to Seix to meet friends who live there.  The Transhumance celebrations in Haut Salat last three days, but we made do with Saturday morning.  We nearly arrived late – very late – because we found ourselves behind a herd of cattle making their steady way along the road.  Overtaking’s not an option: the cows commandeered this route hundreds of years ago.  But we managed to zip down a side road and make a detour.  A whole hour later, after coffee with our friends, the herd reached the edge of Seix and passed their door….

…and finished their long walk into town.  We went too, and arrived just as the last flocks of sheep were arriving, to be corralled like the cattle, at the edge of the town square.  For a while, and probably much to their relief, they were no longer centre stage.

Instead it was jollity of the traditional kind. There were processions of large solemn plaster effigies, local bands.  Dancers from Gascony, the Basque country, the Landes made sure we all had fun, and Malcolm and I even joined in some Basque dancing.  Stars of the show for us were the shepherds from the Landes.  Theirs is flat, marshy country, and they used to keep their eyes on their roving flocks by ranging round on stilts.  But this was a day for dancing, and that’s just what they did, up high on those stilts.  Have a look at the photos.

We went off for lunch at the end of the morning.  But there was more celebrating, more meals to be shared, particularly by those farmers and country people who over the centuries have welcomed the fellowship of Transhumance as a break from the routines of an often lonely life.

Snowshoeing x Two

Ariège, Pyrénées, Walking

I’m continuing my monthly habit of re-blogging a post from our days in France.  Now that daily life is on hold to a large extent, new material may be in short supply quite soon.

This time I’m more or less amalgamating two posts from February and March 2013, my early experiences of snow-shoeing.  I had a love-hate relationship with this sport.  I loved the peace, and the opportunity to explore pristine snowscapes.  But my goodness, it’s taxing.

Here I am in February – the 17th to be exact….

Snow shoes at Scaramus

It’s 7 o’clock.  I can’t see me having a late night.  We’ve had a day of ‘raquettes’ – snow shoes.  Gosh it’s exhausting.  You strap great oval saucers of plastic, webbing, and toothed metal to your feet and spend some minutes feeling like an ungainly baby taking its first uncertain footsteps across the endless wastes of the living room carpet.

Here I am, modelling my raquettes – snowshoes.

But equilibrium returns, and without these cumbersome contraptions, how else would you walk across the undulating white snowfields of the Plateau de Sault, with views of snow-sculpted hillsides nearby, jagged snow-crusted peaks beyond?  How else could you enjoy the sound of the satisfying crunch and crack as feet break through the crisp crust of the surface snow.  Thank goodness for that icy layer.  We found our 5’ long batons, plunged deep below the surface, wouldn’t touch the frozen ground beneath.

And with a bright blue sky, a hot sun enabling us to walk wearing T shirts and summer hats, what better way to spend a February Sunday?

But by March 4th, I had a surprisingly different story to report….

Snow Shoes II, The Sequel

We walkers of Laroque got our snowshoes out again today (well, in my case, I borrowed some), and went for a much more local sortie, just above Montferrier and en route for the local skiers’ playground, Mont d’Olmes.

How different from our last walk.  Instead of wide open snowfields with distant views, we had woodland walking and bright sunlight casting blue shadows across our path.

Instead of gentle slopes rising and falling before us, we had an upward slog; unremitting, tough.  Micheline and I, discouraged and tired, failed to reach the top, and missed the prize: a frozen lake with snow-clad views in every direction.  Most of the party stayed with us and kept us company.  Though our views were less exciting than those of the intrepid climbers, our picnic was the better one.  We low-achievers had wine, home-made cakes and hot coffee with us to supplement our bread and cheese.

And the journey down was completed in record time.  We arrived home as our gardens were gently baking in the last of the hot afternoon sun.  More of the same is forecast for several days: there won’t be much snow left this time next week.

 

A Different Perspective

Ariège, Blogging challenges, England, France, North Yorkshire

This is my second response to a photo challenge this week: that’s what happens when you get a bee in your bonnet.  I’ll settle down soon, don’t worry.

This time, Patti invites us to change our perspective when taking a photo.  Don’t just stand, point, shoot, she suggests.  Crouch, squat, get above the action, take a tour round it.

The weather being what it is, I can’t get out much with my camera, so these are all from the archives.

This first one is perhaps my favourite, taken in Gloucestershire.  I had to lie at the edge of a flower bed to get this shot of a house barely glimpsed through the ox-eye daisies.  Photography as exercise class.

Our friends Sue and Brian’s garden at Horton.

Here are some more shots, taken in much the same way, in gardens and fields.

And here are two more.  The back end of a festive lunch, and flags at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg.

Click on any image to view the caption, and to see it full size.

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge # 86: Change your Perspective

 

An Everyday Story of Country Folk revisited

Ariège, Heritage, Pyrénées

January. It’s almost at an end and I haven’t revisited a post from France yet this month. I’ve picked this one. We’re living in a village community here in England, yet it’s hard to imagine someone from here with memories similar to those of Paul, the subject of this post. Let’s have a history lesson from .

…. January 29th 2012

An Everyday History of Country Folk

Yesterday afternoon was fascinating. We went to Belesta library for a talk by Paul Garrigues, a local historian who collects old wooden artefacts. He gave us an insight into a way of life which only finally drew to a close about 30 years ago.

He’s pretty much my age, but his childhood was spent around ox-drawn farm machinery, distaffs and a host of things that formed no part of my rural infancy. Now that most Ariègeois farms look pretty much like anywhere else’s, with tractors, silos and irrigation systems, it’s rather hard to believe.

Paul’s childhood was spent in the next village to here, Aigues Vives. Later, he met and married a young woman from a tiny community in the Couserans, a part of the Département to the west of here. He was surprised to find how different the tools in his wife’s village often were. Besides that, the villagers spoke Gascon, rather than the Occitan traditional in our part of the area.

His interest began. He started to collect mainly wooden artefacts: agricultural items, kitchen tools, playthings. To him these things tell a story of rural life here as it was lived over many centuries.

First of all, he showed us a simple wooden torch, looking something like a charred rounders bat. Items just like this were in use – almost daily – since man first populated the area in Stone Are times, right up until the First World War, and in a few cases, beyond.

Next, a distaff. This item too remained unchanged almost from those early days until the early years of last century. Any female over the age of about 8 living over the last 1000 years and more, whether rich or poor, would have recognised it. Spinning would have been a constant part of her daily routine, whether she was managing a fine estate, or supervising a few sheep on the mountainside. And do you know what? Constantly licking your finger and thumb as you handled the wool made your mouth dry, so beside you, you might have a little wooden box, filled with snuff, to help your saliva to flow: he showed us samples.

We saw long wooden balloon whisks and three-pronged forks used to stir the great vats of millas (a sort of porridge made from cornmeal) beloved of the Ariègeois, wooden spoons and forks, large wooden bowls.

A couple of millas stirrers.

He showed us wooden clogs.

Wooden clogs with metal horseshoe-style heel strengtheners.

We saw wooden roof tiles. All these things are made from unplaned wood, so the implements can follow the natural grain of the wood and be strong and sturdy.

From the Couserans he had savage long thick knives, looking like swords in their wooden or leather scabbards. Their design was directly descended from the instruments of war the Gascons often saw in their battle-rich past, but in fact they were more recently used to cut rough grass, crops, and the long straw required for thatching.

There were other differences between that part of the area and ours. Here, terracing was a feature of upland farms, and it was male beasts who worked the land. There, the farmers worked directly on the steep slopes: the cows who ploughed the land (it was female animals who did the work there) had to have specially designed wooden yokes so that they weren’t strangled as one worked at a higher level than her work-mate.

A yoke. For safety reasons, it can quickly be divided in two.

But it wasn’t all hard labour. Anyone who’s ever been to a bowling alley would recognize the bowls and skittles he showed us (made from wood, naturally). They were a big feature of life round Biert in the Couserans, but inter-village tournaments were rare. They all played to different rules, which tended to make contests rather difficult. But it was over here, in nearby Le Sautel, that a game was bought to a sudden end at the end of the 19thcentury.

Wooden skittle and bowl. Confiscated from the church at le Sautel?

One Sunday, the women went obediently to Mass, and as usual, the men played with their bowls outside, getting argumentative and noisy as the morning wore on. Eventually, the priest in church could take no more. He stormed out through the church porch, confiscated the bowls, and hid them in the sacristy. Evidently completely unchastened, the men simply produced other bowls when it came to their next match.

Paul’s keen that we should regard these tools and artefacts as living objects, part of a traditional way of life extending back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. He doesn’t want them consigned to the cemetery of history. If you live round here in some old-style village or town house, you’re almost certain to find quite of few of the things he talked about in your outhouse or attic. Perhaps I should have another look.

Wooden fork and spoon. A good strong shape. The short handles ensure a long and useful life.