Saturday, 24 May 2008

Drip feeding

If this blog's been a little quiet lately, it's largely because just over a week ago John decided it was time to take the whole much-discussed business of integration to a new level by getting himself admitted to hospital. And just to make sure he did things properly, he started by trying out SAMU (the emergency services), followed by a few hours in Urgences at our local hospital and then an ambulance transfer to the neurosurgical unit one of the big teaching hospitals in Toulouse. It seems that he had a small brain bleed, which rendered him utterly exhausted for several days but fortunately doesn't seem to have left any obvious lasting effects.

Now you need to understand here that John (like me) doesn't do hospitals. Unless, that is, you count being on the other side of the bed, as it were - in a past life he spent many years working as a hospital social worker in the West Midlands. And the whole episode (he's still in there - more on that in a minute) has been a huge cultural shock for both of us. The biggest shock has been to find ourselves within - and, increasingly, up against - an enormously authoritarian, heirarchical and paternalistic system. Communication, treatment options, care plans ... nah. Stuff is done to you, not alongside you. There's no question of partnership between patient and staff. To begin with, I thought it was perhaps because John's level of French is still hovering around that of a 10 year old, but no ... having spent a lot of time talking with other relatives and partners on the unit I realise that it's The System. John's room-mate's daughter (are you keeping up here?) was so incensed by the whole lack of communication over her father that she actually brought her own GP along with her on Friday, but even he had a really hard time ...

It's pretty hard for a pair of person-centred therapists to witness and experience the way persons are treated routinely not as persons but as objects, without any awareness that there could be another way. And let's face it, when you're confined to your room, your clothes have been removed and you're wearing a paper hospital gown and paper knickers, you begin to feel so depersonalised and humilated anyway that it's pretty hard to advocate for yourself, however assertive and powerful and/or bolshie you might be in your 'other' life. The System drips powerlessness into you like - well, a drip. I talked to a friend and neighbour about all this yesterday, and she (a strong, feminist-minded, independent woman) admitted that she has always shrunk like a violet when faced with the medical system.

John is still in hospital; his scans haven't shown up any causal factors for the bleed. He's not in pain or danger (apart from from the food. But we won't discuss that). He has to have another MRI scan next week to see if anything more has become apparent; in the meantime, we wait. My tactic for trying to deal with the whole scenario is to act as if it's possible to work in partnership with and to form relationships with the staff, by trying to enter into dialogue with them. My aim is to set up a kind of reverse drip-feed, where what's being 'dripped back' is the possibility of seeing the humanity in their patients. I'm not daft or deluded enough to think I'm going to change The System, but as Gandhi said, you need to "be the change you want to see in the world".

Monday, 12 May 2008

Life and death

Today is a sad day: early this morning, the bullfinches' nest was raided and emptied. We'd calculated that the chicks were due to hatch on Saturday or Sunday but due to a bout of not-very-springlike weather hadn't been outside very much to see what was going on. Then just after first light this morning, we heard the female calling in a way which can only be described as distressed; when we came down to investigate, she'd gone but the nest had been completely overturned in the rose bush. Nothing was left except one half-hatched egg on the ground. My guess is that the culprit was a jay, alerted by the smell of new hatchlings (we have loads of them), though it could have been a fouine (stone marten). The ironic thing is that while the female had been perfectly discreet about her comings and goings, the male was a different kettle of fish: every time he escorted her back to the nest, he would sit on the outermost branch of the bush, mewing loudly and dancing about like a thing possessed (as in "Look everybody! Here's my nest!"), until she came back out and hissed at him to shut up. I wanted to explain to him that perhaps it wasn't a good idea to be so obvious, but ...

When you live so closely alongside the wildlife in your garden, it's hard not to get involved in their lives and even to feel responsible when things go wrong for them. When we lived in Cley we accumulated over the years a huge tribe of blackbirds, all of whom we knew individually; many had grown up around our house, fed on the endless kilos of sultanas that we would buy for them each year (they also grew to love couscous, risotto and all sorts of resto leavings!). Most had become very tame, to the point where they would wander into and round the house looking for one of us if their sultanas had run out (it wasn't unusual for me to be on the phone taking a dinner booking when a blackbird would land on my desk looking accusing). Each year they would bring their young, often from a very early age; occasionally they would abandon to us young that were disabled in some way. We'd end up not exactly hand-rearing them, but persuading them in all sorts of ways to eat and drink and take shelter. Mostly they survived, but sometimes they didn't. This one, who we named Hoppy, (she only had one functioning leg) did:

Back at Grillou, we still have three pairs of blue tits nesting in crevices in the stonework of the house, including one pair a couple of centimetres above our bedroom window and another between the two windows in the kitchen. One pair of black redstarts has built in the side wall, another pair in the workshop and yet another in the barn. The wrens are still in the jardin d'hiver. The bushes and trees immediately around us are home to countless other species including blackbirds, song and mistle thrushes, robins, blackcaps, nightingales, several different warblers, treecreepers, nuthatches, every tit in the book, chaffinches, bramblings, dunnocks, four different woodpeckers, cuckoos, turtle doves, linnets, serins ....

Life goes on.

Friday, 9 May 2008

(Don't) mention the war?

Yesterday was yet another public holiday (May is a bumper month), this time commemorating the end of the Second World War in Europe in 1945.

One of the things that has really struck me over the last year is the way in which the legacy of the second world war years is still, in the twenty-first century, astonishingly present here. I would guess that we've watched on TV almost a dozen documentaries on the war years - not the gung-ho bang-bang things that I grew up with, but thoughtful, critical, investigative pieces that pull no punches and glorify nothing.

I grew up in England in the 1960s on a diet of war; my father spent the war in the RAF, my mother lived and worked in the East End of London and faced almost continuous fear in the form of daily bombings, along with the loss of many of her friends. She, and I think he as well, always looked secretly on those years as the 'happiest' in their lives; my mother was never more vibrant than when she was describing the moments when a V2 rocket engine had cut out and everybody held their collective breath, or the atmosphere in the communal shelters (sadly she spent much of her later life in depression, never able perhaps to recreate those same feelings of aliveness). My father told endless war stories and we watched black and white war films every Sunday afternoon. The war, in our house, was portrayed as something rather glorious.

The French legacy is different. Occupation, collaboration and the Vichy government, resistance and finally liberation have had a profound effect on France's national psyche which continues to this day. Much - the shadow of Pétainism, anti-Semitism and the horrors of collaboration, including the exportation and subsequent execution of some 76,000 French Jews - was simply too painful to talk about for decades; I studied French and French culture in the 1970s and it was barely addressed. Instead, France developed a powerful mythology of an occupied country typified almost entirely by resistance.

More recently, though, France has begun to come to terms with its wartime shadow-self and there has been a much more greater commitment to openness, with, for example, a new round of war trials in the 1990s, endless reflection on and debate about Mittérand's role in collaboration and Chirac's public apology in 1995 to the Jewish people for crimes committed by the Vichy régime. Collaboration is no longer swept under the carpet but acknowledged more freely, as in Sarkozy's speech at the official ceremony and wreath-laying yesterday - even if it is usually a bit well-of-course-we've-moved-on-from-that-and-I-don't-know-what-possessed-us. (Yes, that was the same Sarkozy who recently caused more than a bit of a stir with the suggestion - now dropped - that all French final year primary school children should be twinned with a Jewish child that had died in the Holocaust, and should learn 'their name and their existence' to keep their memory alive).

The role of the Résistance is still powerfully present in almost an every day fashion, especially here in Ariège which was one of the strongholds, with many Résistance groups involved in (amongst other things) leading people over the Pyrénées into Spain. Being an isolated farmhouse, it's very likely that Grillou played its part in the network; our village of Rimont has a particularly shocking tale to tell (too long to add here, but I'll post the story shortly) and many of the inhabitants come from Résistance families. Interestingly, Ariège attracts more than an average share of modern day resisters - the néo-rurales, as they (we) are called here: those who come to live a different life. Some are soixante-huitards (those involved in the social and political changes of 1968); others, like us, are downshifters; still others are young counter-cultural eco-warriors.

It's all a long way from The Dambusters.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Saints de Glace

I've just done a dreadful thing. I've shocked my neighbour to the core, and probably lost all my hard-won credibility as an honorary French woman. What, you wonder, have I done? I've planted out six tomato plants before the Saints de Glace.

As you probably know, every day in France (and most other European countries) is a saint's day; last Friday, for example, was St Boris (who clearly spent his day looking down fondly on a certain English politician. However, we won't go there just now ... suffice it to say that I shall be eternally grateful that I no longer live in London). Anyway, to get back to the Saints de Glace, farming people here have noticed for centuries that every year, between the 11th and 13th May, there is a cold spell. The farmers and wine makers offered prayers to the saints of three days, Saint Mamertus, Saint Pancras and Saint Servatuis, who became known collectively in France as the ‘Saints de Glace’. St Mamertus was archbishop of Vienna until his death in 475. He introduced the ‘Rogation days’, just before Ascension, to bring blessings on the crops. St Pancras is the patron saint of - no, not railway stations, but children. He was beheaded for his Christian beliefs at the age of 14 by the emperor Dioclétien. The last, St Servatuis, was Bishop of Tongres in Belgium before his death in 384.

Priests would lead processions round the fields, blessing winter crops and praying for good harvests. A secondary purpose was to bless the main boundary markers of each parish (a bit like like 'beating the bounds' in England), in towns as well as rural areas. A cross, relics, hand-bells, and banners were carried; those taking part were sometimes given a communal meal supplied from church funds, or received food at the houses they passed. There's evidence that the blessing of crops goes back to pre-Christian Roman times.

In the 1960s the Vatican decided that these practices were all too near-the-knuckle pagan and promptly changed the names of the Saint’s days to Saints Estelle, Achille and Rolande, who had no links to the old beliefs. It didn't work though; the Saints de Glace are still a fact of life here, the traditional practices remain, and anyone who plants out tender plants before the 13th May commands that famous slow shake of the head reserved only for the very foolish, and the English. To be fair, there is, it seems, a statistically higher than average incidence of a late frost around these dates. Astrologists reckon that it's because the earth travels through a cosmic dust cloud at this time, whereas meteorologists believe it has more to do with gulf streams and the change from winter to spring (in fact they point out that the phenomemon now occurs some three weeks earlier than previously, probably due to global climate change).

In mitigation, all I can say is that (a) it's hot; (b) the soil temperature has hit 22 degrees already; (c) I'm only a week early; (d) I've only planted out six plants - the rest are still covered and in their root trainers; (e) I've got my garden fleece at the ready; and (f) I won't do it again. Promise. But if the Saints de Glace are so minded, it could all end in tears.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Seriously hot hoeing

Wow. What a fantastic weekend it's been - real summer temperatures and dawn-to-dusk sunshine since Thursday. This afternoon I decided that I really ought to hoe the hot potager (that's the one where I plan to grow my French beans, aubergines, tomatoes, peppers and such like, as opposed to the cool potager where John grows radishes, spinach, cavalo nero, carrots and everything else that likes a slightly lower soil temperature). I wouldn't have been so foolish if I hadn't come home from the market in St Girons yesterday with - er - quite a lot of vegetable plants. We grow most things from seed, but when you see so many growers' stalls stuffed full with an unbelievable variety of healthy, robust plantlets ... well, what to do? (St Girons market is something else again and deserves a post here all to itself, so watch this space). The hot potager certainly lived up to its name today, with the shade temperature hovering around 28 degrees at 4.30, but by the look of the storm clouds predictably gathering over Mont Valier this evening my new plants (looking a bit shell-shocked at the moment) will get a good soaking tonight or tomorrow . And meanwhile, what was John doing on the hottest afternoon of the year so far? Yes, he had a bonfire. Incredible, but true.

On Friday we went walking for the first time in several weeks (why oh why do we leave it so long?). We parked in the blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet of Bidous, in the lovely Ustou valley, followed the footpath along the river, then took the path that trails up towards the Cirque de Cagateille, through some beautiful beech woodland. Suddenly, the woodland opens and there it is - three quarters of a near perfect circle, with at least nine impressive cascades (not always so dramatic, but it's major snow melt time). In true Slow walking fashion we spent nearly two hours over lunch, stretched out on the rocks overlooking the cirque, so that any vain hope we may have entertained of carrying on to Etang de la Hillette was quickly discarded. But it was very hot, it's a very steep gradient, and with a view like this to gaze at, what would you have done?

We did walk to the base of the cirque to get a closer look at the waterfalls. This is one of them:

And then there was nothing else to do but stop in Seix, one of my favourite villages, for an early apéro, which stretched into a late apéro, and then an oh-why-the-hell-not dinner at one of Seix's two restos, La Gourmandine. Which was very, very good: small, friendly, unstuffy, excellent value, and with a great vibe; cuisine du terroir with a contemporary twist, good local sourcing, and a female owner-chef (I felt quite at home in fact). And the entrée was just as good as the plat was just as good as the dessert. It's only half an hour or so from home, and we'll be back. Oh yes.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Woodland, a boy called Ruby and a dilemma

At last the garden is beginning to look like - a garden. To be fair, the previous owners clearly loved it, and have done some fantastic work in it, but you know what it's like when you've decided to move ... So while the garden wasn't quite a jungle, it certainly would have been in another year or two.

Living where we do, the woodland and its undergrowth encroaches at an alarming rate if it's unchecked. Shortly after we moved in, we had a visit from two elderly local women who, it turned out, had grown up at Grillou over 50 years ago when it was still a farm (one of them still lives in the village, the other in St Girons, just 14 kilometres away; they've rarely been even as far as Toulouse ...). It was amazing to discover that most of the woodland around the house was then still pastureland, though I've since learned that much of the estive - the summer pasture -in the high Pyrénées is also disappearing fast into forest, mainly as a result of depopulation but also of the archaic Napoleonic inheritance system under which the land has been compulsorily divided over the years into ever-smaller and useless parcels, now owned by descendants of former inhabitants to whom they're no use at all except to boast to their Parisian workmates about being a landowner.

For the last fifteen years, a Shetland pony called Ruby lived here and took responsibility for the lawn mowing. The problem was that he (yes, he was a boy, and had the bits to prove it) was nothing if not selective, so while he loved clover and grass, he hated buttercups - pretty wisely, really, as they're poisonous to him. Result? An invasion of creeping buttercup, which may look pretty from a distance but when you get close up to it you quickly discover that (a) it's rough to walk on and (b) it's edged out absolutely everything else.

Actually, there's a story to Ruby. When we were buying the house, we'd asked for an inventory of everything that was to be included in the sale, expecting to see normal things like kitchen units, central heating radiators and so on (you may laugh, but it's by no means uncommon for French owners to strip their house of absolutely everything when they sell it). What we didn't expect them to leave behind was Ruby - after all, you can't have an animal for fifteen years and then just expect to abandon it to two people you don't know from Adam, can you? Wrong. 

We swiftly pointed out to the estate agent that not only did we know nothing about ponies, but that the available grazing land was much to small to nourish even a pint sized pony like Ruby, which ideally needs a hectare to itself. Plus we had plans for the land which didn't include hooves - like creating a huge potager, for example (we must have bought the only house in the entire country without one). No probs, said Bruno, but "let's not involve the owners as they'd be devastated; I know lots of people who'll happily give Ruby a home". Were we mad? Deluded? Hopelessly optimistic? Maybe, but we agreed that he would organise Ruby's adoption, to take place as soon as we'd signed the acte de vente and the house was ours. You can guess the rest: we moved in, and a week later Ruby was still here. Sorry sorry sorry sorry, said Bruno, trying to persuade us that all was in hand. By this time we'd realised that Ruby was not happy and not in a good state, and I contacted everyone I knew (plus more than a few that I didn't) here in Ariège with Ruby's sob story. Amazingly, I had an email from a friend of a friend of a friend, who has lots of land, six horses and two donkeys. A couple of days later Ruby was off to join them. He didn't look back. Here he is now:

Bless. Just after he went, I discovered from our neighbour just how much Ruby had craved company: most nights, he would take advantage of the only sporadically working electric fence to sneak onto the track and down to their house to visit their donkey. After an early breakfast of lettuce and celery from her potager, he'd trawl back up the track and into his field before it got light. Apparently he'd been doing this for years ...

Anyway, the upshot of that rather long tale is that we can no longer boast an ecological lawnmower. And that in itself is at the heart of a major dilemma that we've found ourselves faced with here: to live a simple, Slow, rural life, growing our own vegetables and fruit, looking after our land, means relying on a number of hefty, petrol driven machines to help us. That's a tough one for two people who've been trying to live a low carbon life for the last eight years, but I'm not sure that there's a serious alternative. So although we remain, out of choice, a one-car couple, and still make each car journey fulfill several functions, we're also the owners of heavy-duty brushcutter, chainsaw and lawn mower, all of which are in near daily use at the moment as we do our level (actually it's not so level) best to restore the land back to something of its original beauty.