When we lived in France, the easiest way to persuade a French friend that you did not have their interests at heart was to produce a spiced dish, especially one with chillies in.
‘Oh, we love spicy food’, declared Henri and Brigitte when we broached the subject of cooking them a curry. All the same, we were careful. We dished up a korma so mild that it barely qualified as spiced at all. ‘Ouf!’ exclaimed Henri, after the first tentative mouthful – ‘are you trying to kill us?’
With this in mind, it was a huge surprise to us when one Friday in Lavelanet market, we came upon a man with a stall full of chillies. Orange chillies, yellow chillies, green chillies, purple chillies, fresh chillies, dried chillies. He had no customers at all. So he had time to chat to us, and explained that he’d come to love chillies, and to be passionate about seeking out new varieties, growing and using them. He was one of two such growers in France. We bought from him. He had other English customers. The French? Not so much.
That was five years ago. After relying on northern Europeans to bail him out, slowly but surely he started to attract a few French customers too. He’s still in business. Perhaps, despite the danger represented by a Red Savina chilli rated 500,000 on the Scoville scale, he hasn’t managed to kill anybody off yet.
M. Chilli’s smallholding, devoted exclusively to chillies, chillies, and more chillies.
I can’t look at a picture of the Pyrenees without wishing I were there.
When we lived in France, these mountains were the constant backdrop to our lives. They were our playground, where we would enjoy flower-studded meadows in the spring, clear bright summer heat, autumn colours to rival those of New England, and glittering winter snowscapes. Winter and summer, we walked these mountains, climbing hundreds of feet to be rewarded over a leisurely lunch-time picnic by views of valleys, forests and dramatic rocks, before we had to descend to the foothills once more.
They were a natural boundary – often a barricade – between France and Spain, and the few roads linking these countries make wonderfully scenic journeys in their own right.
Travelling to our French town from England, we always knew we’d arrived ‘home’ when we caught sight of the Pyrenees once more – almost always as the sun was setting. The first glimpse of those jagged peaks, whose shapes and names we came to recognise so well always made me as emotional as if I’d just met once more a long-lost friend.
Back in France, in the Ariège, the very best way of getting out into virgin snow and becoming at one with a pure, glittering white winter landscape was take yourself off to the nearest mountain, strap on your snowshoes and walk through the fresh crisp air as if you were the only person in that particular bit of world. It was hard work though, and after the first hour, I’d had enough.
Three years on, and the memory of the pain, sweat and general exhaustion of the entire procedure has faded. I remember instead the vivid sunlit skies and startlingly white and unspoilt snow. And sometimes there were shadows: clear silhouettes mirroring, yet enhancing the world above the glistering mantle.
This week’s WordPress Photo challenge is ‘shadow’. The challenge is now issued on a Wednesday rather than a Friday. I think I’ll now usually respond on Saturday, not Sunday.
I felt stuck. In my head, I rummaged through my photo collection. I discarded foggy moody atmospheric mornings like this one. I rejected bright summer meadows and crisp snowy winter walks as not quite projecting the ambience I want to think about on this dismal January day.
Here’s what I’ve chosen. It’s an image that’s more than six years old now, but it sums up much of what we loved best about our years in France.
Our walking group had played its part in organising a walk for ramblers from all over the region. We’d arranged signage, helped sponsors set up their stall, marshalled the event, walked ourselves, and handed out certificates at the end before the visiting walkers departed. Now we could relax.
Here we are in the mediaeval town square in Mirepoix, unwinding over a good and copious meal with plenty of wine. The sun is shining. The afternoon stretches lazily ahead of us. We’re among friends. This is an ambiance chaleureuse at its finest.
We’re just back from France. Specifically, we’re just back from Laroque d’Olmes, the town which we left exactly a year ago, and which for six and a half years, we called home.
We felt anxious about this trip. What would we feel? Would we find we’d made a horrible mistake in leaving Laroque? Would our now rusted and un-exercised French measure up to a week or more of more-or-less constant use? Would people want to see us as much as we wanted to see them?
What actually happened was that for the first few days, we barely had time to think at all. As soon as we got there, we were launched into A Social Diary. We’d have lunch here with one set of friends, our evening meal there with another. We’d slot other friends in for morning coffee, or afternoon tea. One morning we even commandeered the local bar and held court there, in order to catch up with people whom we couldn’t see in any other way. We started to flag. We simply couldn’t keep up the pace.
And luckily, we didn’t have to. Saturday was the day the walking group had suggested we set aside for them. The planned ‘rando’ had to be kicked into touch because of the promise of rain and wind. Instead, a dozen or so of us walked for a couple of hours whilst Jean-Charles, as clerk-of-works, organised a team to transform a roofed shelter outside the church in nearby Fajou into a banqueting hall. As ever, this turned into a magical occasion in which home-made tarts and pies, home-cured sausage, cheeses, bread, wine, more wine, cakes and puddings of every kind were crowded onto picnic tables for us all to feast upon as we gossiped and sang and reminisced, trying not to notice the cold and wind only inches away from us. It felt as if we’d never been away. Part of our time was spent making plans for the group to visit us here in Yorkshire. Watch this space!
Malcolm’s been lent an Ariegeois beret, and here we both are with our friend and hostess, Tine at the end of the feast.
It’s the south of France, it’s Easter Saturday, it’s freezing… but really, we ARE having fun.
The walk home afterwards. It’s suddenly got sunny.
After that, life became so much more leisurely. Lunch in Foix on Easter Sunday with friends, then a lazy Easter Monday with our hosts, getting sunburnt in the garden, cooking and eating the traditional Omelette de Pâques.
It’s memories of all those moments with friends that we bring home with us. Memories too of the much-loved scenery of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Would we return there to live? Not a chance. Laroque itself is going through very tough times, and it shows. The shop, the once-thriving music centre, children’s services – all are struggling. Some of our French friends commented that perhaps we could have made our lives easier by not getting ourselves involved in day-to-day life there, and they could have a point. We plugged into the local networks that talked and acted against corruption here, services closing there, money talking somewhere else, when instead we could have been sitting in our little bubble on a sun-dappled terrace drinking wine and sun-bathing. But by getting involved, we hope we made friends for life, and understood a little more about the society we briefly became part of. But never fully part of. Our very different background, our lack of real understanding of certain basics of French culture left us always feeling to some extent outsiders, however much we were accepted and made to feel at home. It feels as if this is the right time to be involved in life in England once more.
And anyway, who could bear to be anywhere else but here when the daffodils are in bloom?