When we left Laroque for Christmas and New Year in London and Harrogate, we thought we’d left most wildlife behind too. Not so. It seems as if wherever you are in South London, you’re only yards from a fox’s lair. Tom and Sarah refused to share our excitement at seeing so many. ‘They’re on the station every night when we come home from work’, they yawned. ‘They’re quite mangy anyway’. We didn’t think so. We loved to see them trotting spiritedly along the street once darkness had fallen, sniffing round the dustbins for Christmas turkey.
Back in Harrogate, the birds we thought would have abandoned our garden, now we aren’t there to feed them regularly, have quite simply moved in. Chaffinches hunt for seed, blackbirds tug at worms, and all of them relish the garden pond for regular bathing sessions in the all-but-frozen water. They’re obviously glad we’ve not been there to disturb them
I chose these birds because, apart from the nuthatch, they can all be seen from the house. In fact the heron cruises past down onto the river to feed once, maybe twice, every day. We still get quite excited every time it happens.
But in most cases, not so very different from England, eh?
Everyone worried about our journey back to the UK. WE worried about our journey back to the UK. The news in France, England and throughout Europe was of snow, delay, disruption. TV images showed exhausted families sleeping on luggage conveyor belts at airports, crammed train stations, lines of immobile traffic on motorways. And we were planning to drive back to England, the best part of 1000 miles away from Laroque. Friends begged us to change our plans, or at least buy snow tyres.
But we decided the information on the internet was at variance with that provided on TV and radio bulletins, and far more positive. Our planned route, as far as http://www.meteo services were concerned, was pretty much fine, apart from some snow as we neared Pas de Calais.
And so it proved.
It did snow, mainly near Rouen. And I wouldn’t have wanted to be a lorry driver. Gendarmes on roundabouts rounded them up from Dreux onwards and sent them on different routes. Just after Rouen, they closed the fast lane of the motorway, and forced all the truckers to park up there, mile after mile of lorries from France, Spain, Luxembourg, Portugal, the UK…. And there they all sat in their cabs, unfed, unwatered, puffing away at endless cigarettes, or occasionally jumping down to take a stroll along the not-so-fast-lane. I hope they’re not still there. For us, although driving was tricky for an hour or two, it was a chance to enjoy Winter Wonderland views across hills and forests, only animal tracks disturbing the perfect white landscape
The motorway snow petered out, and we picked up speed, and got to Calais just in time. But the ferry was late. It had become a refuge for those unable to fly, unable to travel Eurostar, but desperate to cross the Channel any way they could. Hard to believe we’d had it so easy. On the other side of the Channel, travelling through to London, we listened to Radio 4. The BBC was full of sad stories of those unable to get home to their families for Christmas. Politicians held forth about how Britain’s handling of the situation was ‘the laughing stock of Europe’. We don’t think so. Things were hardly better in France, to our certain knowledge, and Belgium and Germany weren’t having a good time either. Perhaps it’s quite simply that we humans aren’t quite so in charge as we like to think. Nature has her ways of humbling us after all, from time to time.
Christmas markets always used to be a German thing. They still are, I think: they do sound rather special. It’s many years now that Leeds has had its own German Christmas Market, though I’ve always wondered what would bring German stall holders across the channel to pitch their stalls. Just as I’ve wondered what the attraction is for the hundreds and hundreds of French market traders who regularly fetch up in the UK for the popular French markets, where the prices are inevitably sky high.
But Christmas markets, where you can look for all your presents, made by local craftspeople and artisans, or in sweatshops in China are everywhere. The difference is that in the UK, they began in November and are now largely over. Here they’re just beginning, and will go on in some cases, like Toulouse, until after Christmas.
Yesterday, we randonneurs headed for the Aude, for a pleasant easy 18 km. walk round a man made lake, la Ganguise. Not too much climbing, just open views across the lake itself, and to the Pyrénées beyond. François pointed out that the lake got bigger some three years ago, when more land was flooded to increase its capacity. Drowned footpaths had not yet been replaced, so we’d simply be walking at the edge of the lake. A healthy, but not too hearty day out. Or so we thought…… Here’s our day, in pictures
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 realised just what is involved in keeping the customer happy.
It’s probably because it’s just so much easier, where we live 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, she 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 bracelet, 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.
Everyone in Europe, it seems, has been battling with snow this week. Everyone that is, except us and anyone within easy driving distance of our part of the country.
Night after night the French news bulletins have been full of tales of woe, endurance, hardship, slipping and sliding and Dunkirk Spirit in Lyon, Orléans, Brittany, and Strasbourg. Before passing on to the rest of the news, we’d then have a shot or two of traffic jams on a motorway outside Newcastle, or a firmly shut-for-business Gatwick Airport. Neighbours and friends gleefully filled us in on how dire they’d heard things were in the UK.
Finally, yesterday morning, the snow arrived here too. Frankly, we knew we weren’t going to get the news crews down here looking for a story. It hardly settled, and then it began to disappear. Still, I found excuses in the afternoon not to get on, but to sit next to the woodburner and do some jobs on the computer. I got distracted. Somehow, although it’s not at all my newspaper of choice, I started to look at the readers’ photos on the Telegraph website. They’re terrific. Gorgeous snowscapes from all over Britain; funnies, such as the rabbit tentatively sniffing at a snowman; curiosities such as the milk bottles out on the step whose contents had expanded to make tall chimneys of frozen milk extrude from the top. Sorry – my links won’t lead you to the exact photos, because the Telegraph’s organized them into galleries. But have a look anyway. You too may spend quite a while browsing through for your favourite.
And now here are our snow photos, taken on the way to Pamiers, and home from Foix. We were meant to be Christmas shopping. Well, that didn’t last. A cup of decadently rich smooth hot chocolate at a chocolatier in Pamiers, and we were off. The pretty way home, via Foix, seemed a much better idea. My photos will impress nobody who’s been battling with the real stuff this last week. But we like them anyway