England? France? A six months review.

Just down the road from our house in Laroque
Just down the road from our house in Laroque

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).

Blackberrying near Harewood.
Blackberrying near Harewood.

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.

Near Malham Tarn.
Near Malham Tarn.

 

What to do next?

One of the views from our walk last Thursday.  In the distance, the ruined castle of Lagarde.  In the far distance, the Pyrenees.
One of the views from our walk last Thursday. In the distance, the ruined castle of Lagarde. In the far distance, the Pyrenees.

It’s come at last.  The week we move back to Yorkshire.  On Saturday we did ‘The Long Goodbye VI’.  This time next week, we’ll have been back in England almost three days.

So that’s it for ‘Life in Laroque’.  Maybe one more post.  Maybe not.

So what do I do about it?  Shut up shop and start again?  Or simply change the title and keep writing?  I don’t know how things will change for me once I get back to Yorkshire.  I’m fairly sure I’ll want to keep on writing a blog.  I’ve enjoyed the discipline of getting memories recorded.  I’ve loved having feedback from friends.  At first, these friends were people I’ve shared part of my life with, people I’ve worked with or spent time with socially.  Increasingly, they’re cyber-friends: people who take the trouble to comment, criticise, offer suggestions and memories of their own, and whose blogs interest me.

Yesterday, though, Malcolm made a suggestion, remembering the exhibition I’d had a hand in organising here, comparing the Ariège with Yorkshire.  Why not change the title of my blog to ‘From the Pyrenees to the Pennines’?  That’s what we’re going to be doing after all : exchanging one set of hills for another.  For quite a while, having been away so long, I expect to be something of a foreigner in my own country, and this might be reflected in what I choose to write about.  Or not.  I just don’t know.

I’m sure I’ll lose some of you, dear readers.  Perhaps your interest is in France, specifically this part of France.  But I’d love it if some of you choose to continue the journey with me, as we settle back to life in the UK and travel further afield from time to time.  We’re bound to come back to the Ariège too.  There are favourite people to see, favourite places to visit, and  new places still to discover.

So ……. new blog?  Continue with this blog under a new name?  What do you think?   I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re one of those bloggers with whom I have cyber-conversations.  Thanks for coming with me this far.  I’ve enjoyed your company.

The Yorkshire Dales.  They're not bad either, are they?
The Yorkshire Dales. They’re not bad either, are they?

 

Janus

 

Janus in the Vatican: an image from Wikipedia
Janus in the Vatican: an image from Wikipedia

We’ve all heard of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings and transitions.  He’s the one with two faces: the grizzled lived-in one looks back towards the past, while on the other side of his head is the younger version, looking with optimism and hope to the future.  He puts himself about at this time of year, and indeed gives his name to January.

He’s been putting more energy at the moment however, into clambering inside our heads, mine and Malcolm’s.  He’s got us at our own game, as we look both forwards and backwards at every moment

The grizzled half of my head is fully occupied in reminiscence.  It doesn’t even try to understand why anyone would want to look at a  future in England.  It thinks about our walks, particularly our Sunday walks with our Laroque friends. What scenery!  However characterful, green and lovely English scenery might be, nowhere is going to provide the snowy summits of the Pyrenees as a backdrop to every walk.  And there’s something about those midday picnics too which I’m not expecting to see repeated at an English walker’s lunch spot.  The aperitif that gets handed round, the bottle or two of wine,  two or three home-made cakes, coffee and digestif…..  And last Sunday, a mid-December Sunday, it was so warm that one of our number  stripped off his tee-shirt to get the sun on his back.

The Pyrenees: always there.  The constant backdrop round here
The Pyrenees: always there. The constant backdrop round here

The grizzled half of my head realises that tomorrow’s concert with the choir will be my last one ever and makes sure that my eyes mist over and my throat constricts as I try to follow the music.  It points out that those summer evenings spent in our back yard over a leisurely meal and  glass of wine are now things of the past.  Those moments with friends, those trips to explore, discover and re-discover the area we’ve called home these last few years area are all but over.  Grizzled Janus is holding all the cards when he’s in the mood.  He knows very well that we’re finding it tough to say ‘Goodbye’ to all this.

Ripon Canal in spring (Nigel Homer, geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons)
Ripon Canal in spring (Nigel Homer, geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons)

But Janus has two equally potent faces.  The young version is optimistic and cheerful.  He points out that we’ve never fancied growing old, much less infirm in France, and this is the moment to get involved in life in Ripon,  a community where we already feel comfortable, but where there is so much more still to discover.  Much of what we most appreciate in France is available to us there too: wonderful walking scenery and an active community that welcomes people who want to join in.  Theatre and concerts will be within easy reach and we’ll be able to mix small-town life with easy access to bigger towns too.  And do you know what? I’m going to appreciate those English summers, if not the winters so much.  I can’t be doing with those days when the temperature is in the high 30s: and I used to be a sun-worshipper.  It’ll be good to return to speaking English and to understand most cultural references : though I expect we’re dreadfully out of touch.

Thwaite in the Yorkshire Dales  (David Dunford, geograph.org.uk. via Wikimedia Commons)
Thwaite in the Yorkshire Dales (David Dunford, geograph.org.uk. via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear two-faced Janus, you’re a terribly mixed up sort of chap.  We expect to be terribly mixed up too.  We made a decision, and we believe it’s the right one.  But we don’t think  we’re going to get through the next few months without periods of excitement, periods of mourning, periods of confusion.  Often all on the same day.  It’s probably all going to be a bit exhausting….. and it might end in tears.

Country mouse

We were Christmas shopping in Toulouse yesterday.  A day in this, the fourth largest city in France, is always a treat.  It’s affectionately known as ‘la ville rose’, because of the predominant building material, a deep pink brick.  Elegant long tall terraces of town houses, public buildings, hidden courtyards wait to be discovered and re-discovered on every visit.  We have so much more still to find and explore.  There are fabulous churches and museums, wonderful and often quirky independent shops, appetising restaurants and bars to suit every budget and taste.  The River Garonne and the Canal du Midi pass though the city offering a feeling of space and fresh air.

And yet…..

By about half past three, we’re footsore, weary and confused like Aesop’s poor dear Country Mouse who decided the simple, yet safe country life was preferable to the riches and dangers of life in the city.  We want to go home.

A couple of more recent Pearly Kings
A couple of more recent Pearly Kings

I was always a city girl.  Raised in London, I had a childhood enriched by Sunday afternoons at the Natural History Museum or frenetically pushing buttons at the Science Museum.  We’d go to watch the Changing of the Guard at Horseguards Parade, nose round hidden corners of the city, still scarred in those days by the aftermath of wartime bombing.  We’d go on our weekly shop to Sainsbury’s:  not a supermarket then but an old-fashioned grocery store, with young assistants bagging up sugar in thick blue – er – sugar paper, or expertly using wooden butter pats to carve up large yellow blocks of butter.  If we were lucky, there would be a Pearly King and Queen outside collecting for some charity.

It was Manchester for my university years.  I loved those proud dark red Victorian buildings celebrating the city’s 19th century status as Cottonopolis, as well as the more understated areas once populated by the workers and managers of those cotton mills, but developed during my time there as Student Central.  I loved the buzz of city life, the buzz of 60’s student life.

Then it was Portsmouth.  Then Wakefield, and Sheffield, and Leeds.  City life meant living with up to 750,00 neighbours.  And I thrived on it.  I never felt too far from wide open spaces, yet a short bus ride brought me theatres, cinemas, exhibitions, shops, choices of schools for my children.  When we moved in 1997 to Harrogate, with a mere 75, 000 inhabitants, it felt small.

This is the Valley Gardens in Harrogate.  I must say it doesn't look too crowded
This is the Valley Gardens in Harrogate. I must say it doesn’t look too crowded

Then we came to the Ariège, to Laroque, population just over 2,000.  The largest town in the whole area is Pamiers, with a mere 19,000 inhabitants.  How could we still think of Harrogate as really rather tiny?    So we needed to change the way we saw things.  We’re accustomed now to at least recognising most of the people whom we see round and about.  We enjoy the fact that we count many people in the community as friends, and that we all turn up to the same events.  We relish the space, the more relaxed pace of life, the sense of belonging that we have here.

These are the kind of traffic conditions we've got used to
These are the kind of traffic conditions we’ve got used to

Now, as we plan our return to England, the idea of the clogged roads of the Harrogate rush hour is unattractive, the busy streets unappealing. Ripon, where we more recently lived is much more like it: 14,000 people.  But we ask ourselves – is even a town this size too big and scary for Country Mice?  Should we continue as we’ve started?   Perhaps we should look at Galphay, Gargrave, Greenhow or Grewelthorpe, average populations about 400?  Or Masham, about 1,250? All of these are near our centre of gravity, Ripon.

So much to think about.  But wherever we end up,  we’ll still want the odd sortie to The Big City.  Toulouse hasn’t seen the back of us yet.

Photos 4, 5, 6 0f the Toulouse series; the Pearly Kings and Harrogate’s Valley Gardens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An announcement

The church on the hill that is Laroque's main landmark
The church on the hill that is Laroque’s main landmark

I wonder what you’ll think when you read this?  Will you be as surprised as you would be if you heard that the couple down the road, the ones who always seemed to be such a great team, always doing things together, are getting divorced?    Or maybe you won’t be.  Let’s see.

We’re leaving.  Selling up.  Returning to England.  We’ve loved it here – we love it still.  We believe we’ve made friends for life: we’ve had unforgettable times.

But in the end, the call of family and England itself was just too insistent.  Throughout our time here (seven years full-time)  I’ve had recurring bouts of home-sickness which Malcolm never understood until very recently, when he too got suddenly and painfully afflicted.  We realised we don’t want to grow old here.  I don’t want to find visiting family more of a circus than it already is: I don’t want to miss out any longer on my grandchildren growing up.  So it’s time to go, whilst we’re still young enough to re-establish our English roots.

In many ways it’s an odd time to choose.  The house has developed from the unappetising near-hovel that we bought (but which, oddly, was love at first sight:  why?) to a comfortable and spacious dwelling with a pretty nice large back courtyard where we spend all our time in summer.  We’ve only just finished the en suite bathroom,  for goodness’ sake.

Before……

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And after……

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This last week we’ve been talking to estate agents, and realising that in tough times we’ll certainly have to use one – the French still usually prefer word-of-mouth and adverts in ‘Le Bon Coin’.

We’ll certainly be here till March: maybe longer.  A lot depends on whether the house sells.  And because the next move in England will be, we hope, the last one, we need to get it right.  So a temporary pied à terre near Ripon seems quite on the cards at first.  We’ve already started looking.

Don’t jump ship yet!  There’s still quite a few months to go on sharing our Life in Laroque.  And as for the next phase – who knows?

The Bunkers of Barcelona

No sooner back from England, than we were making tracks for Barcelona.

Why?  To help daughter Emily and her flat-mate move.

A trailer load Barcelona-bound
A trailer load Barcelona-bound
Saturday saw us leave Laroque with a large and unwieldy trailer load of cast-offs for Emily and her flat-mate’s new home. Two beds and mattresses, a table, a blanket box, a linen basket, a bike, ephemera from the kitchen, all kinds of detritus.  We’d spent an afternoon on Friday packing the load, carefully, and with lots of thought and planning.  Ten minutes after we set off on Saturday, it became unstable.  We stopped and rejigged, went on a few miles… and more of the same.  It started to rain, with quite high winds.  We stopped a third time, bought more rope (OK, washing line.  It’s all we could find), really had a good go at things, and finally, we had a steady load that got us all the way to Barcelona, in said wind and rain, as far as the frontier.  Hooray!  In Spain, the sun shone.
In Barcelona, we unloaded, unpacked, fetched and carried, and did our best to get the new flat …er …  ship-shape.  Sunday morning, while the girls played house, Malcolm and I were off duty.  What to discover today?  Well, look one way from the street outside her flat, and you’ll see far below you, the sea.

Yes, that's the sea down there.
Yes, that’s the sea down there.

Look the other way, and you’ll see far above you…. bunkers.

Bunkers above
Bunkers above

Those bunkers are among Barcelona’s lesser known secrets, and they looked intriguing.  It’s a toughish climb up there, but stop for breath, and your reward is increasingly dramatic views of the city spread far below you.

View part way up.
View part way up.
At the top, there are battered concrete remains: the bunkers that were built by Spanish Republican forces in 1937 in their efforts to defend the city.  Little could be done against the air power of the Nationalists.  The Republicans were under-resourced, and their best hope was to use this high vantage point as both a look-out,and a place from which to launch protective curtains of artillery fire.
Once peace was restored, the bunkers came into use once more: a chronic housing shortage in the city meant that right up until the 1990’s, the site developed into a shanty town, housing up to 600 residents, though the council resisted providing services such as water and refuse disposal until well into the 1980’s.  Remnants of this improvised town can still be seen in vestiges of tiled floors.
Now, you’re most likely to make the trek up here to get the very best views of the city: better than from Tibidabo.  It’s not the view those Republican forces saw.  From up here at La Rovira, you look down on a modern city: recent tower blocks dwarf the older buildings, though your attention will always be caught by the spires of la Sagrada Familia, still under construction.  A highly-recommended excursion.  Get yourselves there before everyone discovers it.

Climb down again: this is what you see.
Climb down again: this is what you see.

‘Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven’*

We’re in England.  We’ve been here nearly three weeks, and so busy catching up with Those Twins in Bolton and friends in Yorkshire that blogging has quite simply not been on my agenda.  But here we are in South Gloucestershire with daughter-in-law’s parents: there should be a name for this particularly satisfying relationship as it’s one we enjoy and appreciate.

On Friday they took us to Westonbirt Arboretum.  If you’re spending a few days round Bristol and Bath there’s no better place to recharge your batteries.  You could pass the morning in the Old Arboretum, a carefully designed landscape dating from the 1850’s.  There are something like two and a half thousand varieties of tree – 16,000 specimens in all,  from all over the world, planted according to ‘picturesque’ principles of the 18th and 19th centuries, offering beautiful vistas, enchanted glades and stately avenues.  After a light lunch in the on-site restaurant you could go on to explore the Silk Woods an ancient, semi-natural woodland, or the grassy meadows of the Downs

It was Robert Holford who designed and encouraged the planting of the Arboretum, back in the mid 19th century.  This was a period when plant-hunters were bringing new and exotic species back from their world-wide travels. Holford was able to finance some of these expeditions, and the Arboretum contains many of the specimens his scientific adventurers brought back.

Truly, it’s a magical place.   We arrived, let out a collective sigh, and simply allowed  stress and worry to fall away.  Strolling about, we gazed upwards at trees whose end-of-summer leaves seemed to be fingering the clouds, into copses where we could glimpse others already turning to the ochres and russets of Autumn, and then closely at the trees themselves.  It was the bark that caught our attention close up.  Smooth and silvery, brown and knobbly, grey and wrinkled, the variety astonished us.  Take a look at these.  And if you get a chance to visit this Arboretum, at any time of year, then take it.

*Rabindrath Tagore