Little Donkey: An Everyday Story of Country Folk

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.


Bertrand and his bodhran

It’s town-twinning time again.  Our Breton friends were here in Laroque for a few days, and a Good Time Was Had By All.  It’s hard to describe the simple pleasure of this weekend.  Re-discovering the region through Breton eyes and getting to know our northern friends a bit better: getting to know our Laroquais friends and acquaintances better too: music – lots of it – thanks to the talented and eclectic musicians who always form part of the group – a singer and bodhran player, a flautist and a keyboard player: and shared eating, lots of it.

If you still think France is the land of sophisticated and fine dining, you’ve yet to discover the Ariège.  People lived close to the land, they were out with their stock, working the fields, or keeping the textile industry alive and successful.  Busy women put a pot of food on the fire in the morning and expected it to look after itself till hungry workers came in demanding nourishment.  And they were likely to get azinat.  Azinat with rouzolle.  That’s what about 80 of us sat down to on Saturday night,

I suggested it was a dish that was more than a bit troublesome to prepare.  Joscelyne, in her 70’s and a life-long Ariègeoise was having none of it.

‘No, it’s easy!  Take a large cabbage and blanch it for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, chop your onions or leeks, carrots and any root vegetables you fancy, and sauté them gently.  Add some slices of belly pork, some sausages, a couple of bay leaves and the cabbage.  Throw in a couple of litres of water and simmer gently for at least a couple of hours.

Now throw in some large chunks of potato, some dried sausage, and the duck leg confit (these are portions of duck which have been preserved by salting the meat and cooking it slowly in its own fats) which you’ve browned gently in a frying pan to remove the excess fat, and continue to cook gently for another half hour or so.

Meanwhile, make the rouzolle.  Mix together chunky sausage meat, some chopped fatty bacon, eggs, milk, a couple of slices of bread, chives, parsley, garlic.  Form into a flat cake and fry on both sides.’

According to Joscelyne, the hungry family would have as their lunch the bouillon from the dish, poured over slices of bread generously sprinkled with grated cheese.  Cheap, filling and nourishing.

The deliciously soggy bouillon

Dinner, at the end of the day, would be all the meats and vegetables.


That evening, we sat down to the soup, followed by the meats.  Followed by cheese.  Followed by croustade, the Ariègeois answer to apple pie.  Followed by membrillo – quince paste – and coffee.  Followed by an energetic evening of Breton dancing.  We needed to burn off those calories.

It took a while to get us all on the floor. But we all made it eventually. Even me.

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Good to look at. Less easy to cross

My last post wasn’t entirely serious.  That walk in the Pyrennean mists was fun despite the weather.  We were well nourished (energy bars, abundant picnic food, and a delicious walnut cake that Michel shared).  Thanks to the miracle of Gore-Tex and microfibres, we were warm and dry, and after it was over, we knew we’d be driving back to our cosy homes and family life.

But if you’d asked most of us whether we’d want to submit ourselves to a walk even more gruelling, every day for 4 days, in constant fear for our lives, maybe in the depths of winter, we’d have been certain to answer ‘no’.

Not so the men and women who during the Second World War risked their lives across the Pyrenees along paths such as le Chemin de la Liberté.  On Monday, as part of its Remembrance season, the BBC broadcast its own tribute to those who trekked for 4 days up 4,750 metres of difficult, rocky terrain, in conditions that could change from mist to snow, to dazzling sun, to sleet several times in the course of a single day.  These people – more than a 1000 of them over the whole period – were Allied soldiers and airmen who’d found themselves in enemy territory, escaped POWs and Jewish refugees: and the French and Spanish who helped them across the mountains to Spain.

Escapees had little choice.  They were brave and resourceful from sheer necessity.  But those who sheltered them as they travelled south through occupied Europe, prepared for their journeys, who shared the little they had, who interpreted, forged documents, sourced warm clothing so servicemen could ditch their tell-tale uniforms, those ‘passeurs’ who guided them to the comparative safety of Spain took unimaginable risks.

Would I have been brave enough to put my life on the line for strangers?  Especially if in doing so, I risked the lives of my own family?  I’m glad I don’t have to ask myself this question.  More than a 100 ‘passeurs’ were caught and either executed or deported. 450 Ariègeois who assisted the escapees were deported – that’s one in 330 inhabitants of the region at the time.  And they’re only the ones who were caught.  Many others, somehow, weren’t.

A couple of years ago, a friend in the choir told me a story, a part of her family history.  It didn’t happen in the Ariège, and it’s nothing to do with the passeurs, but it has stayed with me as a telling example of the desperation and bravery often shown in this period.  Her family then lived in an isolated village in the Creuse, and they’d given shelter to a young Jewish girl for the duration.  If  searches were conducted – and they were – this child was inserted into one of those long bolsters the French used to favour, and arranged on the made-up bed.  She simply had to lie there, still as a corpse, till the search was over.  She survived.  They survived.

At least she didn’t have to flee with a miscellaneous band of other inexperienced escapees: soldiers, mothers, underfed and frightened people, led by a series of local guides over often treacherous mountain passes – no waymarks and well-trodden paths here.  At least her mother wasn’t asked to suffocate her because her pathetic cries might alert a German patrol.  These things happened. Those times are over: but the memories live on.

Present day travellers take le Chemin de la Liberté

Sunday Rando

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.

François talks us through the walk. This is it, in cross-section

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.

As we finished our walk, the weather lifted a bit, and gave us a small taste of what we should have enjoyed

Later, back at home, our smug families 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……

Laïcité? Or religious correctness?

France is a determinedly secular (laïque) society.  Those of us who weren’t in the country at the time probably became aware of this during the ‘foulard’ controversy of the 1990’s, during which there was a series of strikes and other actions both for and against the right of Muslim girls to be veiled. This culminated, in 2004, in a law banning the wearing of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols: the reality was that it was the Muslim headscarf that seemed to be the target.

The law is widely seen as intended to discriminate against non-Christian faiths.  It’s hard not to agree.  Here in France, as in England, there are state schools and private schools.  But there’s a third category too. In some circumstances, private faith schools have access to state and local funding which means pupils attending them benefit from very low fees.  95% of such schools are Catholic.

It’s worth mentioning too that local authorities are responsible for the cost of maintaining places of worship built before 1905. It’s doubtful if any mosques fall into this category, and it’s certainly true that the burden of keeping often historic buildings in a state of good repair is a crippling burden for many small communes, and much resented by laïque members of that community.

And what about public holidays? Quite a few are holy days, and retain their Christian names: Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day….

Nevertheless, Laïcité cuts pretty deep.  I’m currently involved in helping the librarian in Lavelanet mount an exhibition and series of children’s events in early December about English Children’s Literature.  Because of the timing, there’ll be displays about a typical British Christmas, and Christmas-themed books will play their part.

Despite this, interpretations of the nativity story, by wonderful authors such as Geraldine McCaughrean, Jane Ray, Jan Pienkowski and Nicholas Allen (Not read ‘Round the Back!’?  You’ve missed a treat) will not be represented.  Why not?  Because telling the Christmas story might give offence.

Religious instruction is not part of the school curriculum, nor is any kind of act of worship – anything but.  This latter is, I think, not controversial.  It feels an increasingly uncomfortable and ignored part of the British school day.  But though I no longer count myself a believer, I’m very grateful that I and all my children had from school a good knowledge of the bible, and an understanding not only of Christianity, but all the major belief-systems of the world.  Without this grounding, so much literature, painting, sculpture and music remains only partly accessible.  Nobody has to proselytise.  If it’s OK to tell a good rollicking Greek myth, why not the stories from the Old and New Testaments, and even the Apocrypha?

I sat talking with friends about this the other day.  ‘Some of the English Christmas cards we’ve seen’ they said, ‘have religious imagery.  Wouldn’t that be offensive to non-believers?  And didn’t you say that lots of people, whether or not practising Christians, go to carol concerts and services and sing about the nativity?’  They found this astonishing.  Surprising too that one’s little daughter might come home from school proudly brandishing the cardboard angel she’d made for the top of the Christmas tree.

One friend, an ex-teacher, told me how she’d once done a piece of work with her students about the pagan origins of many Christian traditions.  She was hauled over the coals for promoting Catholicism.

Chartres by night?

This same friend told me that she would never send a postcard of a religious building to a friend unless she were sure that friend were a practising Christian.  It might give offence.  Well, let me tell you right now that if you  go to Chartres to visit what is among the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe, I shan’t be a bit happy if you send me one of those jokey wholly black cards that reads ‘The town by night’.

I’ve found myself as irritated by this apparent ‘religious correctness’ as I am by ‘political correctness’ in England.  I may well be missing something.  Can anybody put me right, please?

The Pronunciation Unit

The Chorale at Laroque.  We’re limbering up for a Christmas concert, and for one of the numbers, I’ve been put in charge of Pronunciation Studies.

‘Amezzing gress, ’ow sweet zuh soond….’.  Every week, we practise sticking out tongues between our teeth in a thoroughly exaggerated way to get that dreaded ‘th’ sound out of our mouths, but it’s so hard for the French to remember, even harder to do….

I’m not mocking here: I’m all too well aware how difficult it is for us English to get certain sounds right as we mangle the French language in our turn.

How can it be that we’re all born with the same vocal equipment and ears, and yet only a few short years after we first learn to speak, seem unable either to hear or reproduce the sounds and inflections of any other language?  The ‘r’ sound is often especially problematical.

We have a young English friend here. She’s eight, and has been here since she was three.  To our ears, she’s utterly French as she chatters away to her friends, but apparently, if you listen carefully, she gives her origins away.  It’s lucky that most of us, wherever we come from, find that our own language spoken in a less-than-perfect accent can sound both charming, and on occasion, even sexy.

Postcards from Catalonia

We’ve just got back from our weekend on the other side of the Pyrénées, and I’ve decided to post these ‘postcards’ to show a few happy days in Sant Cugat del Vallès, the very attractive town where Emily is now working; the not-Hallowe’en-but- la Castañada festivities; and a relaxing weekend.

Eating and drinking were important.  Straight away, as we drove across the mist and rain shrouded Pyrénées from France, there was a decision to be made. Lunch on this side of the border?  You can’t get fed much later than 12.30 here.  Or wait till Spain?  Nothing there is open much before 2.00 p.m.

We arrived in Catalonia just in time for la Castañada. Instead of Hallowe’en, they commemorate All Souls’ Tide. Roasted chestnuts are sold wrapped in cones of newspaper with roasted sweet potatoes and peddled from impromptu stalls, or by excited groups of children.  Panellets are mashed potato, sugar syrup and ground almonds – maybe cocoa or dried fruits too, rolled in pine nuts and briefly baked till the nuts turn golden. It sounds odd, but they’re delicious accompanied by a shot of strong black coffee.

Coffee shops, with tables outside so you can enjoy the late October heat seem to be in every street, and we adjusted our bodies to Spain’s very different rhythms. Food generally seems cheaper in Spain.  A pleasant pause for breakfast, after taking the children to school, after shopping or work, or just because it’s a nice idea and the sun is shining is an affordable treat, and cafés don’t seem to struggle for custom.  Nor do lunch-stops.  As in France, the 3 course lunch with wine and coffee is on offer in most restaurants, but cheaper here.  And it’s a leisurely affair.  We found ourselves spending an hour or two every day that we were there over the lunch table, eating, talking and simply people-watching.

Shopping seems less anonymous too.  Whether in St. Cugat, or city-centre Barcelona, greengrocers and grocers, wine merchants and bakers – especially bakers – all seemed to be doing brisk business.  The out-of-town supermarkets are there alright, but so far, they don’t seem to have won.

So here are my postcards.  Have a glance at them over a lazy cup of coffee.

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