We had quite an arresting sunset the other night. As with all sunsets, it was evanescent: here at one moment and gone the next. I’ll show it to you at the end of the post, together with the rainbow that briefly accompanied it in a rainless sky.
That sunset though reminded me of another sunset, even more dramatic, which we experienced in France in February 2014. Evanescent it might have been. But it’s etched in my memory forever.
Now then. Here’s our English sunset, from just a couple of weeks ago. Which do you prefer?
Back in France, in the Ariège, the very best way of getting out into virgin snow and becoming at one with a pure, glittering white winter landscape was take yourself off to the nearest mountain, strap on your snowshoes and walk through the fresh crisp air as if you were the only person in that particular bit of world. It was hard work though, and after the first hour, I’d had enough.
Three years on, and the memory of the pain, sweat and general exhaustion of the entire procedure has faded. I remember instead the vivid sunlit skies and startlingly white and unspoilt snow. And sometimes there were shadows: clear silhouettes mirroring, yet enhancing the world above the glistering mantle.
This week’s WordPress Photo challenge is ‘shadow’. The challenge is now issued on a Wednesday rather than a Friday. I think I’ll now usually respond on Saturday, not Sunday.
We’re just back from France. Specifically, we’re just back from Laroque d’Olmes, the town which we left exactly a year ago, and which for six and a half years, we called home.
We felt anxious about this trip. What would we feel? Would we find we’d made a horrible mistake in leaving Laroque? Would our now rusted and un-exercised French measure up to a week or more of more-or-less constant use? Would people want to see us as much as we wanted to see them?
What actually happened was that for the first few days, we barely had time to think at all. As soon as we got there, we were launched into A Social Diary. We’d have lunch here with one set of friends, our evening meal there with another. We’d slot other friends in for morning coffee, or afternoon tea. One morning we even commandeered the local bar and held court there, in order to catch up with people whom we couldn’t see in any other way. We started to flag. We simply couldn’t keep up the pace.
And luckily, we didn’t have to. Saturday was the day the walking group had suggested we set aside for them. The planned ‘rando’ had to be kicked into touch because of the promise of rain and wind. Instead, a dozen or so of us walked for a couple of hours whilst Jean-Charles, as clerk-of-works, organised a team to transform a roofed shelter outside the church in nearby Fajou into a banqueting hall. As ever, this turned into a magical occasion in which home-made tarts and pies, home-cured sausage, cheeses, bread, wine, more wine, cakes and puddings of every kind were crowded onto picnic tables for us all to feast upon as we gossiped and sang and reminisced, trying not to notice the cold and wind only inches away from us. It felt as if we’d never been away. Part of our time was spent making plans for the group to visit us here in Yorkshire. Watch this space!
Malcolm’s been lent an Ariegeois beret, and here we both are with our friend and hostess, Tine at the end of the feast.
It’s the south of France, it’s Easter Saturday, it’s freezing… but really, we ARE having fun.
The walk home afterwards. It’s suddenly got sunny.
After that, life became so much more leisurely. Lunch in Foix on Easter Sunday with friends, then a lazy Easter Monday with our hosts, getting sunburnt in the garden, cooking and eating the traditional Omelette de Pâques.
It’s memories of all those moments with friends that we bring home with us. Memories too of the much-loved scenery of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Would we return there to live? Not a chance. Laroque itself is going through very tough times, and it shows. The shop, the once-thriving music centre, children’s services – all are struggling. Some of our French friends commented that perhaps we could have made our lives easier by not getting ourselves involved in day-to-day life there, and they could have a point. We plugged into the local networks that talked and acted against corruption here, services closing there, money talking somewhere else, when instead we could have been sitting in our little bubble on a sun-dappled terrace drinking wine and sun-bathing. But by getting involved, we hope we made friends for life, and understood a little more about the society we briefly became part of. But never fully part of. Our very different background, our lack of real understanding of certain basics of French culture left us always feeling to some extent outsiders, however much we were accepted and made to feel at home. It feels as if this is the right time to be involved in life in England once more.
And anyway, who could bear to be anywhere else but here when the daffodils are in bloom?
Seasonal walnuts and chestnuts on a greengrocery stall
Sheepskin slippers for winter.
One of the bread stalls ar St. Girons.
A busy Saturday in St. Girons.
We’ve just come back from a Saturday morning strolling round Richmond market. It’s a pity for Richmond that our most recent Saturday-strolling-round-market experiences date from our days in the Ariège. The Saturday morning market in Saint Girons is an incomparable experience which Richmond couldn’t match.
Saint Girons has fewer than 7000 residents, but it’s the administrative centre of the Couserans, and the centre of gravity not only for its own inhabitants, but for townspeople, villagers and farmers for miles around. Saturday is the day they come to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables, charcuterie, cheeses, dried fruits, hardware and haberdashery, plants for the potager, and to link up with friends and neighbours over a coffee or a beer in a local bar. Saturday is a day when they might themselves be stallholders. Among the joys of the market is the pleasure of finding small stalls selling just a small selection of say, goats’ cheeses, produced that very week by a ‘petit producteur’, or asparagus picked no more than 24 hours before, and only available for a few short weeks in April or early May, or home-produced charcuterie, or mushrooms and fungi foraged from the woodlands and meadows round and about. There’ll usually be a crowd surrounding these specialised stalls, which may not be there every week, or in every season, because they can only put in an appearance when they have enough good things to sell. And the market sprawls between two squares, along the banks of the river, and up a couple of other streets. You won’t get away in a hurry.
Compare Richmond in Yorkshire. It too is the main town in its region, Richmondshire, and only a little larger than Saint Girons: it has somewhat more than 8000 inhabitants. But its market barely extends beyond the handsome market square. There are several good greengrocery stalls, an excellent fish stall, which is well-known throughout the region, others selling home-produced sausages and other prepared meat products, and plant stalls with herbs, bedding plants, bulbs and seeds. Best of all is the wonderful cheese van, ‘The Cheesey Grin’, whose knowledgeable, enthusiastic and cheerful owner has the best variety of cheeses from Britain and Europe, from small producers, brought out for sale when at its very best, that we’ve seen in quite a long time. But that’s all. You can be done and dusted in 15 minutes. I fear that markets, or at least the ones local to us, are in decline. Ripon too has noticeably fewer stalls of any kind than was the case only a very few years ago, and a smaller number of stalls selling well-produced or sourced local food. Still, small shops selling these things seem slowly to be on the way up, so perhaps we’re exchanging one kind of market for another. Perhaps it’s not a death knell. As a French friend of ours said recently, ‘I don’t hope so.’
We’ve been back in the UK from France six months now, so this seems a good moment to take stock.
Did we do the right thing in coming back to England to live? Absolutely no question: we’re so happy to be here, and nearer to most of the family. There are things we miss about our lives in France though: of course there are. It was tough to leave friends behind, and we continue to miss them. Still, three have visited already, and there are more scheduled to come and see us here. And it’s sad no longer having the Pyrenees as the backdrop to our lives. Though North Yorkshire’s scenery brings its own pleasures.
Still, it’s wonderful not to have to tussle with language on a day-to-day basis. Our French was pretty good, but it was generally a bit of a challenge to talk in any kind of nuanced way about the more serious things in life. Now I feel I’ve freed up enough head-space to revise my very rusty Italian, and to learn enough Spanish to get by when we visit Emily in Spain.
Many of our regrets or rediscovered delights centre on food. This summer, we’ve gorged ourselves on the soft fruits that the British Isles grow so well: particularly raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries. Oh, they exist in southern France, but they’re wretched, puny little things, with no lively acidic tang like those of their British cousins. In a straight choice between raspberries and peaches, raspberries win every time (though of course, it’s even better not to have to choose).
I miss, though, the choice we used to have in France of four or five different kinds of fresh, dewy whole lettuce available on market stalls every single week of the year. It’s flat, cos or little gem here, or those depressing bags of washed mixed leaves, and I find myself longing for the choices I used to have of crunchy, curly, bitter, blanched or soft leaves in various shades of green or even red. On the other hand, we do have tangy watercress here. And crisp crunchy apples, and Bramley cooking apples…..
And whereas in France there were always French cheeses on offer, and jolly good too, that was all there was, apart from the odd bit of shrink-wrapped Cheddar or waxy Edam. Here we can have English AND French (and Dutch and so on): decent French cheese too, unpasteurised, from small suppliers.
And what about eating out? Surely that’s better in France? Those copious home-cooked midday ‘formules’ – often a starter, main course, pudding AND wine, preferably eaten in the open air shaded by some nearby plane trees bring back such happy memories. But, but…. the menus were entirely predictable, and were dishes that had stood the test of time over the decades. After a few years, we wouldn’t have objected to a few surprises. Whereas back in Britain, most places seem to have upped their game considerably over the last few years. Local restaurants, pubs and cafés offer interesting menus, often based on what’s available that day, at fair prices. We’ve had some great meals since our return, and we’ve hardly started to get to know the area’s food map yet. And for Malcolm, there’s the constant possibility of slipping into a tea room to assess the quality of their coffee and walnut cake. This may be the main reason why he’s come back.
All the same, we can’t eat outside quite so often, particularly in the evening. And our fellow walkers have yet to be convinced of the pleasures of the shared picnic with home-made cakes and a bottle of wine: we’re working on them. Nor have we yet had a community meal, with long tables set out in the square as old friends and new share fun together over a leisurely meal.
Like most people who return from France, we find the crowded motorways unpleasant. But it is nice not to be followed at a distance of only a few inches by the cars behind us.
We’re struggling to shake off French bureaucracy too. Tax offices and banks over there continue to ignore our letters pointing out we no longer live there, continue to demand paperwork they’ve already seen, continue to ignore requests. And as we can no longer pop into the local office to sort things out, the problems just go on and on.
Something we’re enjoying here too is the possibility of being involved in volunteering. It’s something that exists in France of course: Secours Populaire and similar organisations couldn’t function without local help. But the French in general believe the state should provide, and the enriching possibilities for everyone concerned that volunteering in England can offer simply don’t exist. We already help at a community bakery, but I’m currently mulling over whether I should find out more about the local sheltered gardening scheme for people with learning disabilities, or about working with groups of children at Ripon Museums, or simply go into the local Council for Voluntary Service and find out what other opportunities exist.
Six months in, we’ve spent more time with our families, re-established old friendships, begun to make new ones. We’re happy in our new village home, and the slightly different centre-of-gravity we now have. Poor Malcolm’s waiting longer than he would have had to in France for a minor but necessary operation, but despite that, life’s good. We’re back in England to stay.
We’ve just had good friends from Laroque staying for the week. We’ve been obliged to polish up our French, which turned out not to be as hard as we’d feared. And we’ve been doing our best to show-case Yorkshire. We didn’t expect that to be hard, and it wasn’t. But we had fun exploring links between our two home areas, something I’ve talked about before here. Easy enough when you’re walking in the hilly limestone scenery of the Dales, or discussing breeds of sheep, or our former textile and mining industries, or bumbling along single-track roads in the country, with no villages in sight.
But it would be stretching a point to find a meeting point between the land-locked Ariège, and the East Yorkshire coast, surely? Well, as it happens, no. We had a day exploring the coast near Whitby: and I remembered that during the 1800s, Whitby and parts of the Ariège, Laroque d’Olmes included, had a thriving industry in common. Jet.
Back in the mid 19th century, the fashionable French and English alike couldn’t get enough of the gleaming, richly black fossilised wood that came out of local cliffs (Whitby) and river beds (Ariège) to be transformed by local workers into brooches, earrings and lockets. In its hey-day, the industry employed thousands of people engaged in finding and extracting the mineral, carving and polishing it. Queen Victoria ensured its continued popularity in England by wearing jet as mourning jewellery when her beloved Prince Albert died.
Its decline as a fashion item matched the decline of readily available sources of the material. Somehow, by 1900, jet had lost its allure, and both areas lost an important source of employment. Jet in the Ariège is consigned to history books and museums. In Whitby, however, there’s something of a revival, and there are once more a few shops selling costume jewellery and other items made of jet.
We never found a single piece, but not for want of trying. Instead, we had a more traditional day at the sea. We ate large plates of fish and chips. We seagull-watched. We paddled on the beach and investigated rock pools. And we ended the day at the higgledy-piggledy and charming settlement of Runswick Bay, clambering up and down the cobbled streets and admiring the quaint cottages with their views across the bay.
Whitby Old Town seen from a ginnel.
The harbour at Whitby.
Fish and chips at the Quayside Fish and Chip Restaurant.
Dog at play on the beach at Whitby.
A young herring gull.
Beach huts at Whitby.
Cottages at Runswick Bay. It’s not raining. The flowers have just been watered.
We’ve just come back from a glorious long weekend in Pembrokeshire in South Wales, with son, daughter-in-law and her parents. We were near St. David’s, Britain’s smallest city. Its population is the same as that of Laroque d’Olmes, and in other ways too the area seems to qualify as Ariège-on-Sea. Craggy mountains; fields of sheep and cattle; tiny one-track roads where the only likely traffic is a tractor, or even more likely, a herd of cattle coming home for milking; and long vistas, from the hill tops, of apparently endless countryside. And of course, the sea.
Our objective was to cover a goodish distance along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. It’s some 299 km long: we managed about 40 km. so we have some distance to go. But what a journey. This scenery must be among the most stunning in the UK. Steep limestone cliffs and bays, volcanic headlands, beaches, inlets and flooded glacial valleys are the home to innumerable seabirds, and at this time of year, seals seeking sheltered nurseries to give birth to and rear their pups.
For me, this was the toughest walking since we’d left the Pyrenees. You know where you are there. On the whole, you’re walking up a mountain. Then you come down. Whereas along the coastal path, you’ll be scrambling upwards to reach the top of a high cliff, before descending again, perhaps almost to beach level. Then up again. After that you might swoop down to a cove before marching upwards to the next headland… and so on. Bright sunshine, warm breezes, and bracing sea air cheered us along and kept our energy levels high…. until the evening, when we found ourselves drooping and heading for bed as early as 10 o’clock.
You’re making your last visit to Laroque today, for the time being. We left 3 days ago, and now we’re in Ripon. Those last days were a furore of packing, cleaning, ‘goodbyes’ (though never, never final farewells), and two visits from the removal firm, who couldn’t fit everything in, first time round. At this moment, perhaps, the person who bought our house is planning his own removal to Laroque.
I never told you, probably out of sheer superstition, the story of the house sale. The housing market’s incredibly tough in the Ariège just now. House prices have tumbled 25% since 2008. Properties remain unsold for one, two, three years, as unhappy owners reduce the price of their homes in hopes of at last attracting a buyer.
Whereas we had nothing but luck. A man from near Paris, house-hunting here, in the area where he’d grown up, saw our house, arranged to view, and said he liked it. A week later he came again, showing his ‘coup de cœur’ off to his mum and dad. He made a low-price offer, as you do. We refused it, as you do. But we offered him our non-attached garden, being sold separately, at a generous discount, and said we’d include some of the furniture in the house sale. Reader, he offered full price, and the rest is history. Vue-vendue.
So here we are in Ripon, ready to house hunt and begin our new lives here. Oh, and there’s the Tour de France starting in Yorkshire too, in a couple of months. We’ll keep you posted.