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.
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’ve been back in the UK from France six months now, so this seems a good moment to take stock.
Did we do the right thing in coming back to England to live? Absolutely no question: we’re so happy to be here, and nearer to most of the family. There are things we miss about our lives in France though: of course there are. It was tough to leave friends behind, and we continue to miss them. Still, three have visited already, and there are more scheduled to come and see us here. And it’s sad no longer having the Pyrenees as the backdrop to our lives. Though North Yorkshire’s scenery brings its own pleasures.
Still, it’s wonderful not to have to tussle with language on a day-to-day basis. Our French was pretty good, but it was generally a bit of a challenge to talk in any kind of nuanced way about the more serious things in life. Now I feel I’ve freed up enough head-space to revise my very rusty Italian, and to learn enough Spanish to get by when we visit Emily in Spain.
Many of our regrets or rediscovered delights centre on food. This summer, we’ve gorged ourselves on the soft fruits that the British Isles grow so well: particularly raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries. Oh, they exist in southern France, but they’re wretched, puny little things, with no lively acidic tang like those of their British cousins. In a straight choice between raspberries and peaches, raspberries win every time (though of course, it’s even better not to have to choose).
I miss, though, the choice we used to have in France of four or five different kinds of fresh, dewy whole lettuce available on market stalls every single week of the year. It’s flat, cos or little gem here, or those depressing bags of washed mixed leaves, and I find myself longing for the choices I used to have of crunchy, curly, bitter, blanched or soft leaves in various shades of green or even red. On the other hand, we do have tangy watercress here. And crisp crunchy apples, and Bramley cooking apples…..
And whereas in France there were always French cheeses on offer, and jolly good too, that was all there was, apart from the odd bit of shrink-wrapped Cheddar or waxy Edam. Here we can have English AND French (and Dutch and so on): decent French cheese too, unpasteurised, from small suppliers.
And what about eating out? Surely that’s better in France? Those copious home-cooked midday ‘formules’ – often a starter, main course, pudding AND wine, preferably eaten in the open air shaded by some nearby plane trees bring back such happy memories. But, but…. the menus were entirely predictable, and were dishes that had stood the test of time over the decades. After a few years, we wouldn’t have objected to a few surprises. Whereas back in Britain, most places seem to have upped their game considerably over the last few years. Local restaurants, pubs and cafés offer interesting menus, often based on what’s available that day, at fair prices. We’ve had some great meals since our return, and we’ve hardly started to get to know the area’s food map yet. And for Malcolm, there’s the constant possibility of slipping into a tea room to assess the quality of their coffee and walnut cake. This may be the main reason why he’s come back.
All the same, we can’t eat outside quite so often, particularly in the evening. And our fellow walkers have yet to be convinced of the pleasures of the shared picnic with home-made cakes and a bottle of wine: we’re working on them. Nor have we yet had a community meal, with long tables set out in the square as old friends and new share fun together over a leisurely meal.
Like most people who return from France, we find the crowded motorways unpleasant. But it is nice not to be followed at a distance of only a few inches by the cars behind us.
We’re struggling to shake off French bureaucracy too. Tax offices and banks over there continue to ignore our letters pointing out we no longer live there, continue to demand paperwork they’ve already seen, continue to ignore requests. And as we can no longer pop into the local office to sort things out, the problems just go on and on.
Something we’re enjoying here too is the possibility of being involved in volunteering. It’s something that exists in France of course: Secours Populaire and similar organisations couldn’t function without local help. But the French in general believe the state should provide, and the enriching possibilities for everyone concerned that volunteering in England can offer simply don’t exist. We already help at a community bakery, but I’m currently mulling over whether I should find out more about the local sheltered gardening scheme for people with learning disabilities, or about working with groups of children at Ripon Museums, or simply go into the local Council for Voluntary Service and find out what other opportunities exist.
Six months in, we’ve spent more time with our families, re-established old friendships, begun to make new ones. We’re happy in our new village home, and the slightly different centre-of-gravity we now have. Poor Malcolm’s waiting longer than he would have had to in France for a minor but necessary operation, but despite that, life’s good. We’re back in England to stay.
We’ve just come back from a glorious long weekend in Pembrokeshire in South Wales, with son, daughter-in-law and her parents. We were near St. David’s, Britain’s smallest city. Its population is the same as that of Laroque d’Olmes, and in other ways too the area seems to qualify as Ariège-on-Sea. Craggy mountains; fields of sheep and cattle; tiny one-track roads where the only likely traffic is a tractor, or even more likely, a herd of cattle coming home for milking; and long vistas, from the hill tops, of apparently endless countryside. And of course, the sea.
Our objective was to cover a goodish distance along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. It’s some 299 km long: we managed about 40 km. so we have some distance to go. But what a journey. This scenery must be among the most stunning in the UK. Steep limestone cliffs and bays, volcanic headlands, beaches, inlets and flooded glacial valleys are the home to innumerable seabirds, and at this time of year, seals seeking sheltered nurseries to give birth to and rear their pups.
For me, this was the toughest walking since we’d left the Pyrenees. You know where you are there. On the whole, you’re walking up a mountain. Then you come down. Whereas along the coastal path, you’ll be scrambling upwards to reach the top of a high cliff, before descending again, perhaps almost to beach level. Then up again. After that you might swoop down to a cove before marching upwards to the next headland… and so on. Bright sunshine, warm breezes, and bracing sea air cheered us along and kept our energy levels high…. until the evening, when we found ourselves drooping and heading for bed as early as 10 o’clock.
It’s come at last. The week we move back to Yorkshire. On Saturday we did ‘The Long Goodbye VI’. This time next week, we’ll have been back in England almost three days.
So that’s it for ‘Life in Laroque’. Maybe one more post. Maybe not.
So what do I do about it? Shut up shop and start again? Or simply change the title and keep writing? I don’t know how things will change for me once I get back to Yorkshire. I’m fairly sure I’ll want to keep on writing a blog. I’ve enjoyed the discipline of getting memories recorded. I’ve loved having feedback from friends. At first, these friends were people I’ve shared part of my life with, people I’ve worked with or spent time with socially. Increasingly, they’re cyber-friends: people who take the trouble to comment, criticise, offer suggestions and memories of their own, and whose blogs interest me.
Yesterday, though, Malcolm made a suggestion, remembering the exhibition I’d had a hand in organising here, comparing the Ariège with Yorkshire. Why not change the title of my blog to ‘From the Pyrenees to the Pennines’? That’s what we’re going to be doing after all : exchanging one set of hills for another. For quite a while, having been away so long, I expect to be something of a foreigner in my own country, and this might be reflected in what I choose to write about. Or not. I just don’t know.
I’m sure I’ll lose some of you, dear readers. Perhaps your interest is in France, specifically this part of France. But I’d love it if some of you choose to continue the journey with me, as we settle back to life in the UK and travel further afield from time to time. We’re bound to come back to the Ariège too. There are favourite people to see, favourite places to visit, and new places still to discover.
So ……. new blog? Continue with this blog under a new name? What do you think? I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re one of those bloggers with whom I have cyber-conversations. Thanks for coming with me this far. I’ve enjoyed your company.