Back in France, we go out with our walking group most Sundays. ‘Most’, not ‘all’. Some are just too damn’ tough, but more often, it’s because the walk’s been cancelled. Rain stopped play. Unlike their English counterparts, no French hiker wants to hole up behind some convenient rock at midday to fuel up on a damp spam sandwich. No, lunchtime on a French walk is the opportunity for an extended picnic in some scenic spot, when someone will produce a pastis, someone else a home-made cake or chunks of chocolate, and the whole thing will be rounded off with sugar lumps soaked in some potent home made hooch. And you can’t do that when the weather’s poor.
We English are made of sterner stuff. As we discovered just after Christmas. Our Friends Hatti and Paul arrange a post-festivity walk for about 20 of their friends each year. It blows away the cobwebs and gets rid of some of those unwanted calories we all seem to absorb throughout December.
On the day, it was intermittently raining. The wind was gusting and the sky was solidly grey. Did anyone cancel? Certainly not! Instead we were all welcomed at our rendez-vous point with hot coffee or a warming nip of home made sloe gin, and route -maps to send us on our way.
The walk itself was under 5 miles long. But we got our work-out alright. Leg muscles strained to heave limbs out of gloopy mud, or to leap from stepping stone to stepping stone across overrflowing streams. Vocal chords often gave up the unequal struggle as wind whipped away shouted attempts at conversation. Our feet became heavier and heavier with the weight of solid clay sticking to our boots .
But it was fine, dear French reader. We had fun. Along the route, we spotted a rainbow which accompanied our path for much of the journey. Welcome pauses in the wind and rain gave us the chance to appreciate the scenery: the skeletal trees set against the grey-green hillsides: the stone farm cottages and the folly at Azerley and the rushing tumbling streams which punctuated our journey.
No soggy spam sandwiches for us. At journey’s end, we were snug and warm in the Queen’s Head at Kirby Malzeard. Paul and Hatti had organised sandwiches and chips to be be ready and waiting as we arrived. And that, surely, is the perfect walk. A good work-out in good company in lovely countryside, followed by the chance to relax and laugh with friends and food, knowing that nothing more taxing than a hot bath and cosy evening indoors remains to conclude a well-spent day.
Round about now, most people in England will be gearing up to Christmas cards. They probably bought them a while back and are in the middle of sending them right now. To all their friends and relations.
It’s not like that here. People do send them, but not on anything like the same scale, so there are no cheap-and-cheerful boxes stacked up, or whole aisles given up to displays, or mail-order charity cards. And they tend to send them later too – often between Christmas and New Year. English people here who like to keep up with their English card-sending traditions need to get organised with supplies from the UK or English outlets in France.
For years and years I made my own. Then e-cards, with a donation to charity, seemed the way to go, and so that’s what we do now. But I miss those hours spent with scissors and glue and sequins and paints and multi-coloured card, with the radio on in the background. So I make a batch anyhow, and those few friends who aren’t on email get a homespun card as they always have done. And I send them to French friends too – even the ones on email – because they seem to appreciate this further evidence that we English, though clearly barking mad, are quite nice with it
The runaway hit of ‘The Story of Christmas’ in Lavelanet library which I posted about last week, has been the chance to make Christmas cards in the English manner. Children and adults alike have hunkered down in the library and considered the craft items on offer before turning their minds to creating a selection of cards for all the special people in their lives. I wonder if they’ll acquire the habit, and do the same thing next year?
A good old-fashioned English Christmas has come early to Lavelanet. To the library (oops, mediathèque) to be exact. The librarian there enjoys children’s literature, and is a bit of an Anglophile. So she’s mounting a small festival of English Children’s literature featuring everyone from John Burningham and Quentin Blake to, of course, Charles Dickens and Beatrix Potter.
What a disappointment I am to her. I can’t produce a pretty tea set awash with rosebuds, and she can’t believe I really don’t like tea very much: and that when I do drink it, I decline to add milk.
She’s wheeled in Découverte des Terres Lointaines to help with all the activities for schools, retirement homes, and the general public. And DTL have wheeled me in as Consultant on All Matters English. Together we’ve chosen recipes and we’re baking biscuits and cakes and we’ve planned craft activities round, for instance, our ‘so British’ Christmas cards. From tomorrow, I’ll be reading stories in English, helping pull crackers, and unpacking – many times – a stocking which dear old Father Christmas has delivered to me early.
My other job is to correct the misapprehensions learnt from French websites and children’s books about England. Who knew that the English enjoy tucking in to a huge plate of oysters at the beginning of Christmas dinner? Or that all British schoolchildren have a free bottle of milk every morning? Margaret Thatcher abolished that back in the early 70’s. And Sylvia misunderstood me, and thought we served stewed cherries, not sherry sauce, with our Christmas pudding (cherries – sherry: easy to confuse when you speak no English). And so on.
But it’s been fun transforming the community room in the library into an impossibly cosy snug, full of Christmas cheer. Let’s see what ‘le tout public’ think, when we open the doors tomorrow.
Christmas is coming. How do I know? Not from the Christmas decorations or shops full of Yuletide Cheer, although that’s beginning, a bit. No, here the first sign of the impending end-of-year festivities is the appearance of The Calendar.
The other day in Laroque you’d have passed two volunteer sapeurs pompiers (Fire and Rescue service) in full uniform, trudging door-to-door with a pile of calendars. They need us all to make a donation in exchange for one. I wouldn’t dare not.
They don’t expect very much money: the loose change in your purse is fine. After all the calendars are entirely paid for by the adverts inside and all the rest is profit. But you’ll get a receipt, your first Christmas card, and your first calendar, with each month illustrated by some thrilling event in the life of our local stations. Photos of the local crew too. Though not the sort of hunky photos you sometimes see in England, with Mr. Universe types stripped to the waist the better to display their tanned and rippling muscles. These men and women are all the guys-next-door.
Anyway, don’t think that this purchase represents the end of calendar-buying for this year. Any day now it’ll be the Majorettes, and after that….who knows? But there will be others. And we’ll have to buy from all of them.
Every now and then, in among all the banns of marriage and planning notices on the notice 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 at this time of year. 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.