When Meeting Other People Was OK

It’s that time of the month again, when I re-publish a post from our years in France. This one made me sad. It reminded me of times when people could simply be together enjoying each other’s company; where kindness and friendship were easy to demonstrate; and when an affectionate hug was nothing to fear. Kindred spirits. Ah well…

Walking for the Masses

October 10th, 2010

Walking near Mirepoix

The French love walking – as in hiking.  The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre is an immensely popular organisation with all age groups, and with a somewhat younger image than the British Ramblers.  The French walk alone, with friends, in groups such as ours, Les Rando del’Aubo, and …..on mega-rambles.

We first came upon the mega-ramble when our own group went along, a couple of years ago now, on a walk organised by the FF Randonnée Midi- Pyrénées group.  We and about 800 others.  It’s something of a military operation.  Breakfast is offered, refreshments along the route, which has to be signposted beforehand and cleared afterwards.  Photocopied maps are handed out, and when it’s all over, there are exhibits to mooch round, apéros to drink, trophies to award (the oldest walker, the person who’s travelled furthest to participate, that sort of thing).  There’s often a sit down meal on offer too, though not that day.

Interesting, but walking with dozens – hundreds – of others isn’t really our thing. This means we quite often sit out the Sunday walk, because these occasions happen pretty often.

The poster advertising the day

Today, I made an exception.  In France, basic health care is free, but most people chose to top up by insuring themselves with a Mutuelle, which covers all the bits the system doesn’t pay for.  To publicise themselves, and various health charities, the Mutuelles of the Ariège organised a walk near Mirepoix today, and they needed our help.

Early this morning, under the covered market hall in Mirepoix we set up tables, prepared healthy breakfasts (breads, cheese, fruit juices, dried prunes) and registered walkers.  Some people waymarked the route, others acted as marshals, and lots of us got to walk as well. Only 171 walkers today.  Why would we be so public-spirited?  Perhaps this picture tells you why.

Sitting in the main square in the sunshine, enjoying the meal we were offered as a ‘thank you’ for our work earlier. We’d have done it anyway. A good day.

Something else though.  Sitting down with everyone after it was all over, I reflected how far we’ve come.  This week, Malcolm’s been in England, so apart from exchanging English/French conversation on Tuesday for an hour, and enjoying lunch with an English friend on Friday, I’ve spent the rest of my time walking or eating with friends, shopping, singing, going to the gym and all the rest, entirely in French (well, I’ve done some hard labour at home too.  But I only had myself to talk to).  Over two years ago, when we first sat down for a communal meal, we could see people’s eyes glaze with fear as they thought they were going to be stuck with that English couple.  Could we speak French?  Well, yes actually, but both easy chit-chat, and more serious discussion were difficult for us in a noisy group situation.  Today I was happy to be the only foreigner in the group: instead of fearing me, it was ‘Is that chair next to you free?  May I sit with you?’

#Kinda Square

Six Word Saturday

Ambiance chaleureuse

‘Ambience’: this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge.

I felt stuck.  In my head, I rummaged through my photo collection.  I discarded foggy moody atmospheric mornings like this one.  I rejected bright summer meadows and crisp snowy winter walks as not quite projecting the ambience I want to think about on this dismal January day.

Here’s what I’ve chosen.  It’s an image that’s more than six years old now, but it sums up much of what we loved best about our years in France.


Our walking group had played its part in organising a walk for ramblers from all over the region.  We’d arranged signage, helped sponsors set up their stall, marshalled the event, walked ourselves, and handed out certificates at the end before the visiting walkers departed.  Now we could relax.

Here we are in the mediaeval town square in Mirepoix, unwinding over a good and copious meal with plenty of wine.  The sun is shining.  The afternoon stretches lazily ahead of us.  We’re among friends. This is an ambiance chaleureuse at its finest.


‘Our favourite walks’: a nomination

The walk begins.  St. Julien de Gras Capou
The walk begins. St. Julien de Gras Capou

We keep a mental list of the walks we’ve particularly enjoyed.  Walks we’ve treasured for the views, the flowers, the butterflies, the skyscapes, the lunchspot – all sorts of reasons.  The only problem is that the walk at the top of the list tends to be the one we did last.  There’s no such thing as a duff hike round here.

But last Sunday’s walk is assured a place of honour on this list.  It’s one we’ll want to share with you if you come to stay, and we’re keen to do it again ourselves, at every season of the year.

If you drive from here to Mirepoix, you’ll pass through a village called la Bastide de Bousignac.  Just after that there’s a road off to the left, signposted to Saint Julien de Gras Capou.  Take it.  It’ll wind upwards between grassy pastures, home to sheep and cattle and not much else, and finally deposit you in the main street of the village – current population 62.  Park near the church, lace up your walking boots, grab your rucksack with its all-important picnic, find the first yellow waymark – and set off.

The village is so-called because back in the 12th and 13th centuries, it had acquired a reputation as being the place where fine fat capons were raised to feed fine people: that’s the ‘gras capou’ bit.  I don’t know where St. Julien comes into it.  There are hens here still, and in so many ways, the village is perhaps little changed.  It’s a peaceful, rather isolated place, despite being so near to Mirepoix and one of the main roads in the Ariège.

Our walk took us along farm and forest tracks, through fields and woodland still splashed with colour from flowers and late butterflies.  It was an easy route, rising only gently, passing the tiny hamlet of Montcabirol towards the village of Besset.  Shortly after that though, we found we did have a short sharp climb, through the woods, to reach the Pic d’Estelle.

Wow.  It was worth it.  From here, we had a 360 degree panorama.  The chain of the Pyrenees marched across our horizon, its peaks already dusted with snow, or even quite thickly covered in the case of the higher summits.  As we turned in other directions, we could see Mirepoix, immediately recognisable from its distinctive cathedral spire, and the Montagne Noir beyond.  There are foothills nearby too, across which pilgrims on the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle still travel: and other sights too – the ruined Château de Lagarde, and its near neighbour the Château de Sibra.  We stayed a long time, simply relishing these views, the sky, the silence and peace at what seemed to us, at that moment, the top of the world.

When we finally shrugged on our rucksacks once more, we only had three or four more kilometres to go, along more unpeopled pathways.  After negotiating the only obstacle of the afternoon, a group of cows supervised by a bull – we let them get well ahead of us – we were soon back at base.  It was good, very good.  I just wish my camera could do justice to those peaks.  But we’ll be back, in winter, when they’re truly thick with snow

Café society

A table in the sun, a moment shared with friends... French café life in the traditional style.
A table in the sun, a moment shared with friends… French café life in the traditional style.

Think of your last holiday in France, and it’ll probably include memories of a morning coffee and croissant in a cosy little bar, or of relaxing and people-watching with an evening pastis, sitting outside a café in some pretty sunlit square.   Hang on to those memories.

In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and bars. Now there are fewer than 40,000.  Those characterful smoky rooms with dark wooden furnishings, and solitary men sitting at the bar nursing an early morning brandy are an endangered species.  All over France, cafés are closing at the rate of about 10 a week.  Blame TV, blame the smoking ban, , blame ‘la crise’, blame readily available alcohol in the supermarket.  Whatever the reason, many cafés can no longer make a go of it.

Take Laroque.  Our town of 2000 or so used to support more than half a dozen bars.  Now there are three, and they struggle.  Obé – that’s what everyone calls our Obelix look-alike – can’t make a living from half a dozen elderly men who come in most afternoons to nurse a single beer while they watch the afternoon’s horse racing.  But he can cook, so he’s reinvented the bar as Table d’Angèle, a successful lunch-time restaurant serving home-cooking, mainly to tradesmen looking for a once-a-week treat to break up a day’s plumbing, building or electrical work.

There we are.  That's Table d’Angèle.  And there's Obé's van.  He needs to offer outside catering too to bring home the bacon.
There we are. That’s Table d’Angèle. And there’s Obé’s van. He needs to offer outside catering too to bring home the bacon.

Down at Le Lounge, the owners have had to have a different strategy: food didn’t work for them.  They tried a traditional menu.  No good.  Then they had a go at offering an eat-all-you-can buffet.  When that failed, they tried Italian food.  Now there’s no lunch-time menu at all.  They make do with weekend trade, when sparkly lights and disco music attract the young people of the area before they head off for the Orient Express, the out-of-town nightclub at the once-upon-a-time station.

The Jingo’s still looking just about OK.  It’s on the main road and seems to get a steady enough stream of customers.  It may outlive the rest.

But bars can rise as well as fall.  When le Rendez-Vous in Léran, the village next door, came up for sale a few years back it was a hopeless case: dingy, unpopular and seemingly beyond rescue.  But an English couple who’d never run a bar in their lives bought it and made it the hub of village life.  Shirley cooks with imagination and flair – she even has that unknown round here menu item, the vegetarian dish.  Marek’s a cheerful and extremely hard-working host who’s always pleased to see you.  Quiz nights, open mic nights, a big screen to watch the rugby, a cosy corner with books to read and exchange….  It’s a winning formula, and both French and English from the village and beyond ensure the bar’s kept busy late into the evening, especially in the summer.

Le Rendez-Vous one busy evening in mid-summer.  There's an evening market in town too.
Le Rendez-Vous one busy evening in mid-summer. There’s an evening market in town too.

And over in Mirepoix, there’s another new café.  The Mad Hatter isn’t just another bar.  It’s hoping to cash in on the French love affair with things ‘so British’.  A nice cup of tea with a scone or slice of ginger cake might not be traditional French fare.  But it’s a welcome addition to café society, and yet another way in which the traditional French bar has to change, or sink without trace.

A welcome moment of calm, gazing out of the window over a cup of Earl Grey at The Mad Hatter, Mirepoix.
A welcome moment of calm, gazing out of the window over a cup of Earl Grey at The Mad Hatter, Mirepoix.

Rencontre des chorales

Our Chorale at Laroque’s best friend is the Chorale at Mirepoix.  The Écoles de Musique in each town are best friends too, working together and running some joint classes and performances.

The chorales and other classes get together at least once every season to enjoy singing and playing for and with each other for an evening.  The public’s invited, and comes in encouragingly large numbers.

Those cannelés….

Last Friday, all the singers started wandering in shortly after 6, carrying carefully prepared dishes of buffet food.  The instructions were to bring no more than 6 portions, but nobody took any notice of that.  Robert from Laroque had made a pile of his deliciously chewy signature cannelés, Mirepoix’s William (yup, William’s a perfectly good French name) produced meringues, Mercedes’ plate was full of the cold meats and pâtés they make their charcuterie….and so on.

The rehearsal started, and was less a question of running through the songs than organising the logistics of moving around the dozens of us involved: Mirepoix’s orchestra, their children’s choir, the adult choirs from both towns.  It had to be done to a time-table, because nobody wanted to hurry over eating that buffet or sinking some wine.  ‘Don’t drink too much alcohol beforehand!’ urged Vanessa, our director ‘It’s bad for your singing voice’. I didn’t see anyone taking very much notice. ’Well really’, said Robert ‘How can you possibly eat cheese without a glass of wine to help it down?’

It had been more than 30 degrees for much of the day, so nobody wanted to come back indoors after the meal.  But we opened the windows, finished our preparations, and the audience drifted in for….oh, well before 9.10 for a 9.00 start.

Almost ready to start

The orchestra started things off.  Lots of percussion. All good stuff. I’m always a soft touch for children singing: these were well-rehearsed and sang with verve and enthusiasm.  Joined by the Mirepoix adult choir, they belted out numbers that were old favourites to the French audience and unknown to Malcolm and me.

And then it was our turn.  Our repertoire is a catholic one.  We sang everything from Henry VIII’s Pastime with Good Company (en français bien sûr) and Moon River (en français bien sûr) to old favourites (if you’re French that is) like Mon Amant de Saint Jean.

The Chorale de Laroque d’Olmes takes the stage

Nearly the end. Time for all the singers to join together for two final numbers.  A few weeks ago, Mireille had spent half an afternoon explaining one of them, Mistral Gagnant, to me.  It features a man singing to his daughter and the allusions to a host of sweets that form no part of my own youth – carambars, minthos and the mistrals gagnants themselves, had left me totally baffled, though not the rest of the audience.

In true French tradition, we couldn’t leave without doing an encore or two.  In true French tradition, we couldn’t leave – nobody could – without sharing the pot d’amitié.  A glass of something, a chance to meet and talk to friends: the perfect way to end a busy evening