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
My life has come full circle. Many of my earliest memories come from Sandhutton, current population 260, where my mother was head teacher of a two-teacher school which educated all the village children between five and fifteen years old. These days I visit the village weekly – it’s less than ten miles away. The school no longer exists, but my Spanish teacher lives there.
When I was five, my life changed a bit. We went to live in London (current population 8.13 million).
I was a student in Manchester (538,000). Then I went on to live in Portsmouth, in Wakefield, in Sheffield, in Leeds: all cities numbering their citizens in the tens,or even hundreds of thousands. I loved city life. I relished the opportunities only a city could usually offer, and the diverse populations living in them.
When we moved to Harrogate, some twenty years ago, I announced we were moving to a small town. A mere 75,000 people lived there.
But that was before we went to France. Laroque d’Olmes has a population of some 2,000 people, and its county town, Foix, has only 10,000. We came to appreciate small town life: its neighbourliness and our sense of belonging – the space to appreciate the countryside and mountains beyond.
When we came back to England, that small town of Harrogate suddenly seemed horribly large, traffic-infested and in every way untenable, despite its green spaces and lively community life. So here we are in North Stainley, population 730.
Shock! Horror! Unheard of! Today we could be found (a) watching day time television and (b) it was a cycling programme.
The Tour de France, to be exact. Normally we only display an interest in this or any other cycling event if it passes our front door: as it did twice when we lived in France, and once, in 2014, when memorably, the Tour began in Yorkshire.
Today however, stage 15 of this year’s Tour took place in the area we called home, the Ariège. We had to watch. The struggles of the cyclists passed us by as we grew nostalgic, even damp-eyed as familiar roads, familiar landscapes appeared on screen.
But as I watched, I was reminded of an incident that took place in Laroque, back in 2012.
Every year, just before the Tour, another cycling race takes place in the Ariège: L’Ariégeoise. It’s divided into three levels of difficulty: the Ariégeoise itself (160 km,3,500 m. of climbing), the Mountagnole (118 km, 2,500 m. of climbing) and for wimps, the Passejade, a mere 68 km, and 750 m. of climbing.
That year, the route passed our way. That year, the routes of the two main races parted company in Laroque. And that year, there were no signs to say so…. and nor were there special marshalls for the Mountagnards.
As the riders arrived at the crossroads in town , they didn’t know where to go. Ariégeoises followed Mountagnards. Mountagnards followed Ariégeoises. It was hopeless. Riders tried to turn round, collided with those behind them, swore, and swore again as they saw their hard-won perfect timings being swallowed up in the chaos. With extraordinary presence of mind, I shot some video footage.
I heard later that following the event, the race organisers used my little clip for training purposes, to demonstrate How Not To Organise a Cycling Event. I’m guessing it’s part of every year’s Tour de France training too. That’s why it always runs so smoothly.
You can read all about it here.
Everyone knows I’m a Christmas Refuser. Oh, I enjoy Christmas alright. I made our cake weeks ago, and Malcolm and I regularly ‘feed’ it with doses of brandy to make sure it’s good and sozzled. I’ll happily rehearse Christmas music at choir too.
But that’s about it. I do an about turn in any shop belting out Christmas Muzac and leave immediately. I haven’t bought a single card or present, nor shall I until …. oh…. about the end of next week . Then it’ll all get done in a flurry of cheerful activity, and I’ll enjoy it, because I haven’t been thinking about it since September.
Then the other day, I came across this six-years-old blog post, written in France. Simpler times, simpler customs. I wonder how often the window displays I wrote about here are seen these days? Innocent pleasures….
December 9th, 2012
It was 5 years ago when we were first in Laroque round about Christmas time. There were no signs of its coming until well into December, and we thought it wonderful: no decorations, no adverts, merchandise or muzak, just a bustle of festive activity from about two or three weeks beforehand.
The first signs, as in England, were in the shops. Unlike England however, most shopkeepers didn’t usually buy tinsel, baubles, and several packs of cotton wool to introduce a Christmas theme into their window display. Instead they had a seasonal design applied directly to the window. We once saw a scene-painter busily decorating a local window, and wondered what he did the rest of the year. Shops in small town high streets like Laroque’s would all be unified by being the same but different. The same folksy interpretations of Christmas motifs, the same limited palettes of white, red, greens and yellows. Some would choose scenes of reindeer amongst the Christmas tree forests, others Father Christmas, snowmen, or radiant candles.
Five years on, hardly any shopkeepers are keeping up this tradition. They’re decorating their shops, but in their own way: dressing up their window display with baubles, snowflakes and Santa Claus figures. They’re nicely done too, but I miss the particularly French idea, which I’ve seen nowhere else.
Here are the few traditional window scenes I’ve been able to find this year. Maybe next year even these will be part of the past.
Goodness. Who’d be a British citizen at the moment? We’re in need of good cheer. And I’ve found some, in a post I wrote from Laroque in November, seven years ago. Times were much simpler then …. read on.
Little Donkey: An Everyday Story of Country Folk: November 26th 2011
Every now and then, in among all the banns of marriage and planning notices on the information board at the town hall here in Laroque, there’s a poster about a stray dog that’s been found. Not cats or hamsters. Just dogs.
Last week, though, my eye was caught by this:How does anyone lose a donkey? And what do you do with it whilst you put out an appeal for the owner? ‘Oh he’s fine’, said Thierry, our Community Copper, ‘We’ve put him to work in the office in the Mairie’. I decided against saying the obvious, that he would be bound to be doing a far better job than the Mayor.
It took a week for his owner to show up. He – the donkey that is – had an exciting time. First of all he was rounded up by the three blokes who first spotted him in the road just outside town, but who had no idea how to set about the job. Then he was frisked for tattoos or identity chips. None. Next he was sent to stay with our friend Henri’s donkeys (Thierry was fibbing about the office work). That had to stop when Henri’s female donkey got all excited at the new arrival and came on heat. Then he went to stay with the vet’s partner. He escaped. Amateur detectives all over Laroque and Lavelanet tried to find out where he came from. Eventually, after a week, his owner showed up, really rather cross. ‘Why didn’t anyone think to get in touch with me?’
There we are. That’s our excitement for November over.
For non-British readers: Little Donkey is a Christmas song much favoured by UK muzak producers at this time of year. One reason to avoid shopping there during November and December. Whereas ‘an everyday day story of country folk’ is ‘The Archers’, a daily radio soap opera full of story lines such as the one above. It’s been a permanent part of the BBC schedules since 1951. You could join the fan club.
My last post showed a sunrise over Corrèze. This is the sunset from our friends’ house in Laroque d’Olmes. You can’t see the Pyrenees from here, but the foothills, the Plantaurel.
Here’s the view from town.
Lovely as it is to see our friends (five hour lunch, eating, drinking, talking and laughing on a shaded terrace anyone?), Laroque has been a horrible disappointment.
Since we left, quelques petits commerces have closed. InterMarché has come to town. And McDonald’s. They’re building a Lidl, so I took a picture of the town through the webbing and netting of the building site. It’s not a small town any more. It’s one of those out-of-town roads lined with out-of-town stores. I’m just glad we no longer live here.
This is the last Snapshot Saturday. WordPress has decided to discontinue its weekly photographic challenges. I’m a bit sad about this. It’s been fun tussling with choosing images for each week’s idea, and through it, I’ve ‘met’ fellow-bloggers and made virtual visits to all parts of the globe.
This week, we’ve been invited to bow out by posting our all-time favourite shots. That’s far too difficult. Instead, I’m taking you to the Ariège in France, where my blogging journey began when we lived there for some years, and offering you some favourite shots from there.
Click on any image to view full size.
I’ve shown these photos before. I’ve even shown them in a previous WordPress Photo Challenge. But I’ll never forget this February sunset from a few years ago in Laroque d’Olmes. ‘Dramatic’ doesn’t seem an overstatement here.
This is my contribution to this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge inviting shots of a sunrise or sunset. Click on any image to view full size.