When we lived in France, the route of the Tour de France twice passed our house. Before the cyclists whizz past, there’s the publicity caravan, an unending stream of advertisers tossing out toys and trinkets to the expectant crowds waiting for the cyclists to pass. Here’s one ….
These days, while travelling’s discouraged, and normal day-today life often seems difficult, many of us have come to rely on our local shops, recognising what a blow it would be if they were to disappear. Here’s a post I wrote ten years ago in France, celebrating independent shops. It feels dated in some ways. ‘Saturday girls’ seem to belong to a different era.
A NATION OF SHOPKEEPERS…OR A SMALL TOWN WITH SMALL SHOPS
11th December 2010
Depending on your point of view, it was either Napoleon or Adam Smith who first called England ‘a Nation of Shopkeepers’. But it was only after I came to settle here in France that I started to think of shopkeeping and market trading as skilled occupations, and realise just what is involved in keeping the customer happy.
It’s probably because it was just so much easier, where we lived in England, to nip down to the supermarket. There weren’t too many independent shops on our daily round: so much for a nation of shopkeepers. Mind you, we loved it when Emily was a Saturday girl at the French patissier who was then in Harrogate, Dumouchel. She would often be sent home with a couple of unsold petits gateaux for us to enjoy, or some slowly-fermented sourdough bread. It was small shop, and quite expensive, so she learnt quickly to value customers and to treat them well, so they’d come back. She learnt too that while most of the people she served were friendly and appreciative, customers could be curmudgeonly too.
So who are the good commerçants here? Well, down at the bakers, they’ll often put aside our much-loved pain noir without being asked if I’m not in bright and early, knowing we’d be disappointed if they sold out.
Today at the market, madame who runs the cheese and charcuterie stall had printed off some recipes specially for me, because she knew I might enjoy trying them out.
Down at Bobines et Fantaisies, the owner goes to Toulouse most weeks to seek out unusual scarves and accessories, so there’s always something new and worth trying at her tiny shop. ‘Let her try it on. If she doesn’t like it, bring it back!’, she’ll insist, as you dither between a couple of scarves and a chic but cosy winter hat. These shopkeepers remember us, our tastes, our whims and foibles. They welcome us, and chat cheerfully with us, even if we leave the shop empty-handed.
There’s just one shop here that doesn’t cut the mustard. ‘Il n’est pas commerçant’ we all grumble. Those of us outside the select band are routinely ignored, and as we feel our custom isn’t valued, some of us now go elsewhere.
But not to the supermarket. Oh no. Yesterday we DID pop into one, but as the muzak system was belting out a schmaltzy version of ‘Auld lang syne’ in what passed for English, we very soon shot out again. Small Shops Rule OK.
The featured image is of a cheesemonger in Toulouse.
This post is a contribution to Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Have you got a post you wrote in the past on this particular day? The world might be glad to see it – either for the first time – or again if they’re long-time loyal readers.
I keep on referring to myself as Country Mouse. That’s because I am, and have been for the last thirteen years or so. But it’s not always been like that. Here’s my back-story, written during our last weeks in France, back in 2013.
We were Christmas shopping in Toulouse yesterday. A day in this, the fourth largest city in France, is always a treat. And yet….By about half past three, we’re footsore, weary and confused like Aesop’s poor dear Country Mouse who decided the simple, yet safe country life was preferable to the riches and dangers of life in the city. We want to go home.
I was nearly always a city girl. Raised in London, after pre-school years in rural Yorkshire, I had a childhood enriched by Sunday afternoons at the Natural History Museum or frenetically pushing buttons at the Science Museum. We’d go to watch the Changing of the Guard at Horseguards Parade, nose round hidden corners of the city, still scarred in those days by the aftermath of wartime bombing. We’d go on our weekly shop to Sainsbury’s: not a supermarket then but an old-fashioned grocery store, with young assistants bagging up sugar in thick blue – er – sugar paper, or expertly using wooden butter pats to carve up large yellow blocks of butter. If we were lucky, there would be a Pearly King and Queen outside collecting for some charity.
It was Manchester for my university years. I loved those proud dark red Victorian buildings celebrating the city’s 19th century status as Cottonopolis, as well as the more understated areas once populated by the workers and managers of those cotton mills, but developed during my time there as Student Central. I loved the buzz of city life, the buzz of 60’s student life.
Then it was Portsmouth. Then Wakefield, and Sheffield, and Leeds. City life meant living with up to 750,00 neighbours. And I thrived on it. I never felt too far from wide open spaces, yet a short bus ride brought me theatres, cinemas, exhibitions, shops, choices of schools for my children. When we moved in 1997 to Harrogate, with a mere 75, 000 inhabitants, it felt small.
In 2007, we came to the Ariège, to Laroque, population just over 2,000. The largest town in the whole area is Pamiers, with a mere 19,000 inhabitants. How could we still think of Harrogate as really rather tiny? So we needed to change the way we saw things. We’re accustomed now to at least recognising most of the people whom we see round and about. We enjoy the fact that we count many people in the community as friends, and that we all turn up to the same events. We relish the space, the more relaxed pace of life, the sense of belonging that we have here.
Now, as we plan our return to England, the idea of the clogged roads of the Harrogate rush hour is unattractive, the busy streets unappealing. Ripon, where we more recently lived is much more like it: 14,000 people. But we ask ourselves – is even a town this size too big and scary for Country Mice? Should we continue as we’ve started? Perhaps we should look at Galphay, Gargrave, Greenhow or Grewelthorpe, average populations about 400? Or Masham, about 1,250? All of these are near our centre of gravity, Ripon.
So much to think about. But wherever we end up, we’ll still want the odd sortie to The Big City. Toulouse hasn’t seen the back of us yet.
And reader, we did end up in a village near Ripon. North Stainley. Population 700
Photos 4, 5, 6 0f the Toulouse series; the Pearly Kings and Harrogate’s Valley Gardens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It’s almost the end of the month and I haven’t yet revisited a post from our years in France. Becky introduced her readers to Flashback Friday. That’ll do me. Especially in the week of the Great British Bake-off final.
‘LET THEM EAT CAKE’ 27th November 2012
Back in the UK, I hear everyone’s gone baking mad, that the entire nation was glued to its screens to watch the final of ‘The Great British Bake-off’. Here in France, it’s the one branch of cookery in which the average French person will allow the average Brit some supremacy.
The French are rightly proud of their high-end patisserie, the delectable tarts and gâteaux which traditionally come to the table at the end of a family celebration or Sunday lunch: from the baker’s naturally, no shame in that.
More day-to-day baking is a different matter, however. Plainish cakes, loaf-shaped and known in France as ‘cake’, are a big disappointment, especially if they’re from the supermarket. I find them over-dry, over-sugared, too strongly flavoured with something, such as vanilla, that should be a subtle undertone. I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but even cakes available in any old British supermarket can be quite a treat in comparison.
McVitie’s Jamaican ginger cake, for example, dark and sticky, is just the thing with a hot cuppa after a brisk country walk in winter: it even has its own website. And while I’m not sure that Mr. Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes, they’re – well – not too bad.
No wonder then, that when we run our cookery workshops at Découvertes Terres Lointaines, and announce that we’ll be turning our hands to British tea-time treats, the group is immediately oversubscribed . Scones, coffee and walnut cake and a nice of cup of tea anyone?
It’s Hallowe’en today. Time to carve those pumpkins into frightening faces, and then tomorrow … throw them away. What a pity. Pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes, they’re good to eat, and it’s a shame you rarely see anything but the good old bog-standard Jack o’ Lantern here. They can be large, small, yellow, red, orange, green, even bluish or black, and on mainland Europe they’re much more appreciated.
Enjoy the pumpkins on display, many of them from Le Jardin Extraordinaire in Lieurac , near where we lived in France. And then have a go at the comforting recipe I offer here because you don’t really want to scare the neighbours with an evil orange face peering out of your front window do you?
#Kinda Square. Today is the final square in Becky’s month long squares project. Thank you Becky, and thank you fellow squarers. It’s been fun. I’ve met kindness, had my interest kindled and met – virtually of course – many bloggers-of-a-kind.
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
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.
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.
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?’
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).
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.
* To the tune of Frère Jacques
It’s that time of the month again, when I re-blog something from our years in France. This one’s probably an odd choice, when shopping for anything but the bare essentials of life is pretty much denied us, but … learning something new is one of those educational opportunities we’re meant to make use of during Lockdown. Though eight-years-old fashion vocabulary may not be all that helpful.
May 18th, 2012
Stuck in a waiting room with a pile of magazines between me and my appointment time, my idea of hell is a choice between fashion mags and ones about cars.
Less so in France, at least as far as the fashion ones are concerned. It’s not that I’m more interested in being stylish and chic here. I simply have fun reading the articles and noting the ‘English’ words and phrases on almost every line.
Are you a sophisticated lady? Cool? Relax et sexy? Show-off? Perhaps you aim for le twist sporty-glam, or like le mix et le match, le style ‘street’, or le fun et le trash.
Down at the shops are you looking for un look color block, le style boyish ou girly, arty-trendy, crazy doll, grungy girl? If you’ve any sense, you’ll have made a shopping list, to make sure you come home with le jean, le blazer, le trench, le legging, les shoes (with kitten-heel perhaps), and perhaps one or two it pièces. Then you could really get to show off and expect le red carpet treatment.
When it comes to make-up, I hope you don’t like le make-up too much. Light is so much more subtle. If you’re a beauty addict perhaps you should be looking for un effet sixties, or un twist, using liner and shadowing your eyelids en smoky or flashy to achieve le total-look of your choice. Then you’d look a real star.
It’s pretty exhausting really. That’s why keeping up with fashion isn’t very high on my to do list.
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.
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.
It’s time for my monthly trip to the archives. And an opportunity for me to remember, as I stare out at the rain sodden garden, that the grass isn’t always greener…..
November 14th 2014
7.00 a.m. Sunday. 22 Ariègeois radios were switched on for the day’s weather forecast. ‘It’ll be an exceptionally sunny and hot day for the time of year, throughout France. Temperatures in the south will reach 23 degrees in some places.’ 22 satisfied listeners, members of the Rando del’Aubo, switched off their radios…. without bothering to listen to the end of the forecast. Instead they turned to the more important business of packing their rucksacks for a rather heavy-duty walk an hour and a half’s drive from Mirepoix, la Forêt d’en Malo.
With a stiff climb of 700 metres in prospect, a 14 km. walk isn’t a stroll in the park. But the payoff as you emerge from the forest is an extraordinary panorama of the Pyrénées, jagged teeth of rock emerging from the thickly forested mountainsides: especially lovely in autumn as the trees turn from yellow, through ochre, to magenta and crimson.
As we drove eastwards, the cloud and mist descended. We parked, we walked, we climbed, we scrambled and we struggled for three hours as the mists became ever damper and more clinging, and an unexpected cold wind whipped across the mountain side. And at the top, this was our view.
We hadn’t listened to the end of the forecast you see. What we should have known that our little patch of south eastern France was a little bad-weather cold spot. There we were bang in the middle of it.
Later, back at home, our smug families and friends recounted how they’d spent the day in shorts and tee shirts. Maybe they’d had a little bike ride, a gentle stroll in the sunshine, a drink on the terrace in the hot sun……