Season’s Greetings?

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.

Christmas card production line

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?

Hard at work to produce the perfect card

A ‘So British’ Christmas in Lavelanet

A homely Christmas at Lavelanet library

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.

Look what father Christmas left!

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.

Mass production of gingerbread men

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.

Rather a lot of marmalade cake

Calendar Boys

The calendar....

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.

....and January.

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.

Little Donkey: An Everyday Story of Country Folk

Every now and then, in among all the banns of marriage and planning notices on the information 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.

Image from Unsplash.

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.

Image from Unsplash.

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 during November and December.  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.

Azinat

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.

Azinat

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……