Monday, 4 August 2008

Ariège en fête

Since early July, Ariège has been en fête in a big way, and will be until la rentrée on 2 September, when the streets will empty, the pace will slacken and life becomes (a little) more serious again. When I was a mere traveller in France, I always wondered at and about the national obsession with the summer: why, for instance, does the entire world and his poodle want to travel south for their holidays on exactly the same day every year, causing traffic jams of over 800km on the autoroute system? Why are just two months of the year so full of life and activity, while in much of rural France - not here, admittedly - you'd be forgiven for thinking that the population had been evacuated during the remaining ten? Where do French villagers go in the winter? What's the big deal about la rentrée anyway and why does everybody, from plumbers to politicians, go on about it?

I confess that throughout my whole working life in England, I avoided school holidays like the plague, taking my own summer breaks in June or September when anyone under 16 was safely incarcerated in school and out of my way, and staying home to do the cleaning or something equally exciting - and crowd-free - on Bank Holidays. Apart from vacations spent working here as a student (which don't count, because I was - er - working), the first summer I'd spent in France was last year ... and that was in a village near Castelnaudary, which I do have to tell you is not one of my favourite places - though that's another story. To be honest, it was a bit of a culture shock, and at first we took our Anglo-Saxon view that July and August were to be strenuously avoided at all costs. But the summer sense of joie de vivre and what-the-hell-let's-have-a-good-time soon crept up on us, and before long we were out there fêting with the best of them, although we did give the 'pig's leg roast and piano disco' in the village where we lived then (population 76, mostly older than that) a miss. And it's true - there is a kind of magic in the air in the summer months here. It's as if you enter a kind of time warp - a different culture, almost a different universe, in which the so-called 'normal' rules of engagement with life are suspended. It becomes a perfectly normal thing, for example, to find yourself sitting in a café at 2.30am after an open air concert alongside what feels like an entire townful of other people, of all ages, from 1 to 101, all doing the same thing, or promenading, or just standing talking to friends. Or sharing a long table with twenty-plus strangers at lunchtime. Or staying at Lac Mondély until after midnight just because it's a beautiful night and the moon is full.

Over the last two weeks we have, amongst other things:

... danced ourselves half to death at Terre de Couleurs, where I haven't smelt quite so much patchouli and dope since the seventies. Toumani Diabaté was fantastic but so were the other bands, especially Anakronic Electro Orkestra (sic), who are from Toulouse and play new wave Jewish music (known, I can now reveal, as new electro klezmer. But you already knew that, didn't you?). And watched a seriously awesome pyrotechnic show:

... danced ourselves slightly less than half to death (bodies getting back into it now!) at the Louis Bertignac concert at St Girons. Who? No, I didn't know either until I read about him in our regional rag. He's a rock guitarist, France's answer to Keith Richards and something of a cult figure here, having been around pretty continuously since the seventies and now playing as part of the group Power Trio. For me, a (middle-) aging hippy of the same era, it was pure bliss - Stones meets Led Zep meets Hendrix. They played, without a breather, for three hours, and I turned back into a groupie. I haven't been to such a loud and intense rock gig since the days of Hammersmith Odeon. I'm not sure that St G has ever heard anything quite like it either ...

... discovered an exciting new African band, Les Espoirs de Coronthie, at the festival Ingénieuse Afrique in Foix. Great music, a bit Mali, a bit Senegal but not quite either (they're from Guinea), great sound and great energy.

As does the whole three day festival. We had huge fun processing round the town with some drummers and dancers:

... and (now for something completely different) travelled back in time at Autrefois les Couserans at St Girons, which for the last 15 years has been putting on a major celebration of the heritage and the 'olden days' of life in our local valleys. It was heaving! Apparently it attracts around 25,000 visitors every year; we were there yesterday, and I think all the 24,998 others were as well, enjoying / enduring temperatures well into the thirties. It's a really good 'do': a huge procession lasting nearly two hours in which 600 people, 50 vintage tractors and more animals than I can count take part, endless stalls and demonstrations, even a farmyard set up in one of the local squares. At lunchtime every square centimetre of space is taken over by tables and chairs as restaurants and cafés both temporary and permanent face up to the daunting task of feeding the twenty-five thousand, all between the sacred hours of twelve and two, naturally. John (bless) got very excited by the (working) steam-driven threshing machine that apparently looked just like the one that used to turn up on his family farm when he were a lad; I got excited by the food market, where I got into a somewhat heated discussion with a militant Ariégeois about bears. Not perhaps the most sensible thing to do, given that the reintroduction of bears into Ariège-Pyrénées a few years ago is probably just about the most contentious issue round here and raises more steam amongst sheep farmers than the afore-mentioned steam engine ...

Here's a glimpse of St Girons (I took this yesterday. Not bad weather, huh?):

... and a part of the procession:

The costumes are for real (including the clogs), and are a feature of the valley of Bethmale. These days they're only worn on ceremonial occasions though. There's still a clog-making workshop in the valley.

This is for John - the famous threshing machine:

Phew. Time for a break. So after our festival fest (can I say that?), something approaching normal life will be returning to Grillou this week - shutters will be sanded, the potager hoed, kitchen cupboard doors stripped and painted, and thousands of kilos of plums (okay, so I exaggerate. But only slightly) will be picked, bottled, jammed, crumbled, compôted and given away. Allez ....

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