Vines at Villelongue & the martyrs of the mudslick

A winter walk near Villelongue d’Aude.  It’s vineyard country, and the vines are stark and bare just now, the countryside colours muted.  I’ll only tell two stories about the day, because the photos can do the rest.  One is about Sainte Barbe, whose chapel we visited at the end of the day.  The other is about how she failed to protect us when we were in the precincts of her chapel.

Sainte Barbe lived round about the 8th century.  Her father Dioscore, a local dignitary, seems to have been a somewhat strict and unbending man.  He had a tower built to imprison his daughter, to protect her from the advances of handsome young suitors. Once, he went away, and she took advantage of his absence to make a third window in her prison tower, to commemorate the Holy Trinity.  Well, that’s the story.

Her father returned, and in a fury, denounced her to the local prefect.  Then he tortured her and decapitated her with his own hands.  But as he returned home, he got his come-uppance.  He was struck by lightning and carbonised.

Barbe was canonised and is ready to protect you, if you ask her, from flames and lightning strikes.  Nowadays she’s a patron saint too – of fire-fighters, miners, and bomb disposal experts.  And she has this chapel near Villelongue where we made our own pilgrimage.

Well, despite the fine weather the other day, the ground there is still waterlogged.  As Anny discovered when she came to try to drive off as we left the chapel.  Her wheels stuck.  They spun dizzily round.  They embedded themselves deeper and deeper into the mud.  We all gathered vine clippings to give the mud-slathered wheels better purchase.  We pushed.  Malcolm got caught by a pulsing stream of mud ejected by the spinning wheels.  We pushed some more, and eventually, had success.  We grumbled a great deal at Sainte Barbe, because she didn’t help us at all.  I think she was a little unfair.  If we’d been stuck there much longer, I think we’d have called out the fire brigade, and then, surely, she’d have to have helped.

Rain, rain…….

The banner headline on this morning’s regional paper, La Dépêche du Midi, told us what we already knew.  There’s been twice as much rain this month as is usual.  Of snow, we’ve seen hardly a flake.

Driving back from Foix yesterday, we saw meadows that have become mini- lakes.  Even more fields glistened with water as the water table has risen to the very surface of the soil. It’s made the month a somewhat gloomy one, even though the days have been pretty mild.  The mountain peaks are snow-capped, as expected, but the white stuff barely creeps down the mountainside and with all the low cloud and zilch visibility, it’s sometimes hard to know where the Pyrenees have disappeared off to.

Our regular yomps into the countryside have been a bit curtailed.  Walk after walk has been rained off, and when we do go, we choose our routes with care.  If we don’t, we’ll be lugging kilos and kilos of glutinous heavy clay with us as it clings to our boots and the bottom of our trousers.

Boots - with added mud
Boots – with added mud

Roll on the 2nd of February, Chandeleur (Candlemas), the day when Winter decides whether to stick around or push off.  Last year, it was icily cold, and Winter stayed and made his presence felt with several weeks of constant snow, ice and bitter cold.  This year, he‘s looking much more half-hearted about it all.  We blame ourselves. We invested in snow-tyres and snow chains for the car.  We clothed our olive tree and a few other plants in white dresses of horticultural fleece.

Our olive tree all wrapped up for winter
Our olive tree all wrapped up for winter

So Winter laughed in our face.  We daren’t change the tyres or undress the tree though.  We all know what will happen if we do.

There's snow on them there 'ills: but not a lot.  As seen from our roof terrace
There’s snow on them there ‘ills: but not a lot. As seen from our roof terrace

French as she is spoke

Did you do French at school?  Probably, if you’re English.  You had all that stuff to learn about not usually pronouncing the final letter, that ‘choux’ (cabbages) is pronounced ‘shoe’.  Perhaps you battled to remember when to use accents, and whether they should be grave (`) or acute (´) or circumflex (ˆ)?  With any luck, you learnt some everyday phrases to use on everyday occasions.

And that was fine for the school trip to Paris and later, that nice holiday in Normandy.

Where you’ll come unstuck though, is down here, and across wide swathes of the southern parts of France.

You’ll be OK if you visit an attractive town some 25 miles from here, Limoux.  It’s pronounced just as you’d expect, to rhyme with ‘choux’.

Limoux, Pont Neuf
Limoux, Pont Neuf

But last week, we went walking near a little village a few miles north, Hounoux.  It doesn’t rhyme with ‘choux’.  No, you must pronounce every letter – sort of ‘Hoonoox’.

A snowy day near Hounoux: Thanks Anny, for this photo
A snowy day near Hounoux: Thanks Anny, for this photo

Driving there, we passed very near another village, Roumengoux.  It doesn’t rhyme with ‘choux’ and ‘Limoux’.  It doesn’t rhyme with ‘Hounoux’ either.  Instead, the locals call it ‘Roumengousse’.panneau-roumengoux.

Here, we spend our daily round with people who don’t talk standard French, as taught in all good GCSE textbooks.  They’ll go to the baker’s tomorrow (demeng) morning (matteng), to buy their bread (peng).  Then later they may work in their garden (jardeng).  In the evening, perhaps the Music Centre will put on a concert, with one of the local ensembles (angsambles) centre stage.  Très bien! (byeng).

There’s a sort of energy and vigour in the local speech patterns I find very attractive, as local people give full weight to every syllable in a word.  So rather than Laroque, it’s Laroqu-e.  I’m quite relieved it’s nothing more complicated than that, and that in any case, everyone round here is quite prepared to listen to standard French, or even Franglais.

Painter’s Toast

You might have noticed we’ve been busy lately.  Bathroom-building.  Time-consuming lunch-time cooking doesn’t fit well with such industriousness.  I’ll often have a pot of soup on the stove, but the other day, a lunchtime treat from our days in England suddenly popped into my head.

Painter’s toast.

I think I read this recipe back in the 70’s, in an early example of the genre where famous people were invited to submit a recipe for a book raising funds for a charity.  I’ve just remembered what it was:  ‘The Shelter Cookery Book’. Was it Roger McGough who suggested crisp sandwiches?

One of Elisabeth Ayrton's best-known books
One of Elisabeth Ayrton’s best-known books
Novel by the painter
Novel by the painter

Anyway, Michael Ayrton said he and his wife were often too busy to make lunch.  Unsurprising really. He was a painter, printmaker, sculptor and designer, broadcaster, novelist and stage and costume designer.  Fascinated by the Minotaur and the maze-builder Daedalus, he created many works inspired by them.  Elisabeth, his wife, was a writer and the author of several cookery books.  So I suppose beans on toast just wouldn’t do.

Here’s what they came up with, as far as I can remember.

Mix grated strong cheese – cheddar is good – with a small amount of milk and softened butter.  Add a bit of whatever you fancy to liven it up.  Maybe mustard.  Maybe a little chilli.  Pile onto bread which you’ve toasted on one side only, and grill until bubbling and browned on top.

That’s it.  This close cousin of Welsh Rarebit always goes down well with us on cheerless winter days.  It may suit you too.  And while you’re at it, you might enjoy looking at a few more of Michael Ayrton’s works.

‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’

Take a look here at Richard Hamilton’s iconic 1956 work whose title I’ve taken for this post.  You’ll see it wasn’t our home he had in mind.

We love our house.  No architect ever had a hand in its creation.  Rather, it’s evolved as the needs of its various owners changed.

Colombages on the top floor still awaiting attention
Colombages on the top floor still awaiting attention

Oddly, the top of the house shows clear evidence of being over 200 years old, with its ‘colombages’ (lath and plaster) construction, whereas other parts lower down are clearly more recent.

One of the guest bedrooms with original woodwork intact
One of the guest bedrooms with original woodwork intact

Walls sometimes up to sixteen inches thick break drills and the will-power of anyone who tries to get through them.  No wall is perpendicular, no door standard size, and when we once tried to draw a ground plan of the house, we realised we were creating a work of fiction.

On and off, we’ve been ‘doing’ the bathroom for months.

Persuading the bathroom walls to be vaguely vertical
Persuading the bathroom walls to be vaguely vertical

The tiles were solidly concreted on maybe in the mid 20th century, and nearly reduced us to despair when we tried to remove them. But now we’re doing 21st century tiling. The walls aren’t straight in any direction.  There’s no such thing as a right angle.  Even erecting plaster board walls within the bathroom can’t compensate for the room’s wilful disregard for symmetry.  Construct a wall that is truly vertical from top to bottom, and you loose several inches of space at floor level. Even measuring up, or drawing lines that are both horizontal AND parallel with the floor are almost impossible tasks.

...but we are getting there.
…but we are getting there.

In a despairing moment last week, I found myself observing that never had buying a house on a lotissement seemed more appealing.

I don’t mean it.  Not for one second.

Lotissements are the French answer to the housing estate.  Areas of land, usually at the edges of villages or towns are divided into plots that are sold for development.  You buy your plot.  You choose a house off plan, and you get it built.  Or you build it yourself.  Or, as is more likely, you go for a mixture of the two.  You’d be a fool not to.  Deposits are lower on new build homes, as are legal costs.  You plan your home according to your budget, and once it’s completed, there you are with your modern, low-maintenance home.  There are thousands of them, all over France, and they all look much the same.  Only the roof-pitch flattens out the further south you come.

Part of a lotissement in a nearby village
Part of a lotissement in a nearby village

Whereas we who buy old houses tend to buy problems: the roof that leaks, the wallpaper that shrieks ‘France, 1960!’ at you, the impractical kitchen (so-called American kitchens have arrived late in France), and the bathroom which, like ours, requires re-modelling.

Why on earth do we do it?  Perhaps because we like being part of the town community.  Perhaps because the house, for all its disadvantages, has charmed its way into our hearts.  We recognise the character it’s acquired over the years, and enjoy the stories we hear from other who knew the house once-upon-a-time.

We look askance at the concrete boxes surrounded by grass and chain-link fencing.  We resent it that when land is sold off for housing, we lose open countryside, farmland and much-loved landscapes in exchange for sprawling village ‘suburbs’ with no community features: no shop, school, church or bar. But in every village and town centre there are increasing numbers of empty and hard-to-sell houses, many with long years of useful service left in them.  We wonder why it’s made so easy and cost-effective for those who choose to buy new, and made so difficult for those of us who decide to renovate, restore and give new life to old houses.

Anyway, I can’t sit here moaning.  There’s grouting to be done, then the painting, and then…. and then…..Cake and yard July 2011 031

…and then it’s payback time in the summer, when we get to relax in our wonderfully hidden back yard.

Charity (shopping) begins in Laroque

Charity shops.  Staple of the British High Street, and a really important source of revenue for many charities.  Some parts of English towns seem to have few other shops these days, and on my visits back to Harrogate and Ripon, that’s where you’ll find me,  stocking up on piles of second-hand books at bargain-basement prices.  And not just books.  I have a classic lovat green Loden coat, much admired by whoever sees it, current selling price anything up to £500, which I found in St. Michael’ Hospice Shop in Harrogate for £10.

So here in France, I miss charity shops.  Emmaüs, the international charity focussing on poverty and homelessness concentrates in its large, warehouse-like shops on quantities of furniture and household goods, and a bit of everything else too, but they’re often away from the town centre.  Our local one in Lavelanet is daunting in size, shabby and a little unappetising.

logo_secours_populaire.jpg 1Secours Populaire here in Laroque, as in many towns, provides a lifeline for families in difficulty. It sells donated clothes and other goods, but it doesn’t advertise itself, and is mainly appreciated by those whom it sets out directly to help.  The branch here is in an upstairs room, and is staffed for one afternoon a week only by a cheery team of volunteers who see no need to market the service they provide to a wider constituency, or to go in for careful artistic displays of the goods on offer.  It’s clearly not a shop in the ordinary everyday sense.

It was a bit of a shock then to realise a few months ago that the shop that was being refurbished up near the cross roads was going to be a Red Cross Charity Shop,  ‘Vestiboutique’.  It opened with a ceremony reported in the local press, and has been trading on 4 afternoons a week.

logo-croix-rougeIt’s a great place.  As in England, there’s a mixture of donated goods, and ends-of-line donated by clothing manufacturers.  As in England, the shop window and the stock within have been displayed with taste and care.  In the backroom, donations are mended, cleaned and pressed if necessary, before being put on sale.  Everything second-hand is either one or two euros, the ends-of-line goods very little more.  The day I first went, I found some cheerful trousers, an elegant high-quality pair of ankle boots probably worn only once by their first owner, and a new fleecy hat for winter walks: I parted with 7 euros.

The two members of staff were happy to talk. They’re not volunteers, though they’re not paid much.  They were excited to be part of this new development.  This shop is the only one in the region, and was sited in Laroque to provide a service in an area of economic difficulty.  Trade was brisk they said, and already the shop was much appreciated locally.  I told them about the huge variety of English charity shops, from international charities like theirs, to shops for charities seeking to combat disease or support animals, to hospice shops.  They were astonished, and couldn’t really imagine the picture I was trying to paint in their minds.  Though there are parts of France – Paris for instance – where you’ll find more shops like this, there are no streets like say, Commercial Street in Harrogate, where about a third of the shops now seem to be charity shops.  Vestiboutique, for the time being, is unique in the Pays d’Olmes.

Vestiboutique just before Christmas.
Vestiboutique just before Christmas.

I receive my annual report……

Just over 5 years ago, I first started writing a blog.  I was going on the trip of a lifetime, to India, and I wanted to record it.  For my family, who’d made it possible.  For my friends, who wanted  the story.  And most of all, for me, as a record of a special month.  It wasn’t this blog, but one hosted by The Travel Blog.

I found I enjoyed writing, recording, sharing my new experiences, so I continued when I got back to France.  All the same, France was my new home, so a travel blog didn’t seem quite right.  After a few false starts ( I’m really no kind of geek), I made the move to WordPress, and here I still am.

My interest always was, and still is, in keeping in touch with friends, and as a sort of diary for me.  I never expected anyone else to read it.  But gradually, other regular readers came along: people I’ve never met, and in most cases probably never shall.  From Germany, from America, from France and of course from the UK.  They comment, they encourage.  In many cases they write blogs too, and I enjoy glimpses into very different lives from mine.

Compared with many of the other blogs I read, mine has a small readership.  But it still astonishes me that something I started so I could keep in touch with maybe 30 people has resulted in several cyber-friendships, and regular or occasional readers in every continent.

I find it interesting that no one blogger’s ‘reading list’ in any way resembles anybody else’s. There are thousands, I suppose millions of blogs on offer these days, covering every possible area of life.  I read those that touch my life in some way, and comment too, just as many readers comment on my posts.  I enjoy this interaction  and so I guess that for the time being, I’ll keep writing.  The day I run out of things to write about, or it becomes a chore, I’ll stop.

Meanwhile, I’m showing you my Annual Report not because I expect you to show the remotest interest in the detail, but because you might be astonished, as I am,  at all the information that WordPress has been able to collect.  They know who you are……

‘The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.  (You might like to know that the people on their Help Desk are called ‘Happiness Engineers’)

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 14,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.