Monday, 27 October 2008

A what-the-hell weekend in Luchon

What do you do when the clocks are about to change (and you know you'll go into mournful mode for several months), Metéo France are for once confidently predicting three clear and sunny days, and you've finally finished renovating the kitchen and the salon that you started a year ago? You make an instananeous what-the-hell decision to go away for the weekend, of course.

It took us just half an hour on Friday morning from the what-the-hell moment to actually driving away down the track with boots, binos and books (and not a lot else) stashed in an ungainly fashion in the back of the car. Even now, two years on, the idea of a weekend away still holds a rare thrill: during the resto years weekends went by in a blur of bookings, bed changes and fourteen hour days behind the stoves. (Bizarrely, it still has the power to induce more than a touch of guilt too, as though we really ought to be slogging away doing something. Isn't the human psyche strange?) But guilt or no guilt, we decided to head off to Luchon, in the far south of the French Pyrénées just a few kilometres from the Spanish border, and just over an hour and a half (on the twiddly route) from Grillou.

Luchon is a kind of reinvented spa town; if you've ever visited a 'traditional' thermal resort here you'll know that they're not exactly renowned for their - er - dynamism. Whilst still heaving with curistes in season, Luchon promotes itself as a centre for walking and snow sports as well and so attracts a livelier sort of crowd than just the dressing gown and slippers brigade. In fact it has a strangely metropolitan vibe for these parts, with people gathering at the cafés at apéro time, and in particular on Sunday morning, to drink wine and coffee, read the papers, do the crossword and watch everyone else doing the same thing. A bit Toulouse-meets-Harrogate, with which it's twinned. We loved it. Part old mountain village, complete with narrow streets, steep rooves and wooden balconies; part Belle Epoque spa town, very elegant with tree and café-lined allées for endless promenades, parks and sumptous villas.

In true Slow Weekend style, we spent a decent amount of time just hanging out (drinking wine and coffee, blah blah blah), aided and abetted by the Foire de Toussaint which took over the town on Saturday during which we were, amongst other things, force-fed endless (and free) morsels of locally produced beef and lamb (and wine, of course) with no hint of a sales pitch, or even anyone to buy from. In fact I was struck by the overall generosity of the place, unusual perhaps for somewhere so dependent on tourism. Just remember, should you go there and should you dine there (and you will), to order much less than you think you can eat, otherwise you'll end up like me staggering womanfully round the town until midnight on Friday after an extraordinary dinner of potiron soup, omelette aux girolles, organic trout from Lac Oô with almonds and seventeen thousand vegetables, including the best chips I've ever eaten (cooked in duck fat, apparently) and a crème caramel with a hint of wintergreen. Oh yes, and it cost 15 euros, at the little one star Logis de France we stayed at, Les Deux Nations, that's been run by the same family since 1917.

When we weren't eating or drinking or people-watching, we:
Had a quick trip to the Val d'Aran over the Spanish border to (a) stock up with manzanilla, which I can't do without and (b) see what it was like (over developed and overpriced in parts, on the to-be-explored list in others);

Walked, most memorably from the 1700 metre high Port de Bales above the Vallée d'Oueil where we stumbled on the most fantastic 360 degree views, including the Maladeta massif, the highest part of the Pyrénées where there are still (but only just as the climate changes) four glaciers and Aneto rises to over 3400 metres.

Watched a group of around forty griffon vultures wheeling overhead; had an eyeball to eyeball encounter with an alpine chough; saw two flocks of snow finches, several alpine accentors and two golden eagles: all birds that people travel for miles and for years to see ... and there they were.

Had our breath taken away, not for the first time, by the clarity of the light and the autumn colours.

Sometimes I just have to pinch myself and tell myself that I really live here.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Interesting things to do with bread rolls

Just when you thought that there couldn't possibly be any more to say about the financial crisis, there was.

Last night I watched a documentary on Arte about the events of the last month, which was followed by the inevitable panel discussion: two French and two German economists slugging it out to see who could be most right. "S o o o o ...." began the (German) presenter, "What can you say about why this crisis has come to be?".

"Well, it's like this" explained one of the German economists. "When we were adolescents, we used to put petit pains down our swimming trunks to impress the girls. Our financial institutions have had their trunks full of bread rolls for a long time, but now the investors have pulled them down ..."

So now you know. And I'll never look at a German on the beach in quite the same way again.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...

... life goes on. Markets might be chaotic, recession predicted and pronounced throughout the western world, but still the veg grows, floors need to be tiled, leaves need to be raked, seeds need to be sown, walls need to be knocked down, and difficult decisions need to be taken.

One of the reasons we fell for Grillou was its trees; we're both archetypal treehugging types, and a decade of tree-sparse North Norfolk plus half a year in deforested Aude had left its mark. So it's particularly hard to find ourselves now in the role of executioner. But nevertheless, starting next week out will come the chainsaw and down will come several ancient plum trees (actually little more than a collection of lichen held up by some rotting bark. The blossom was pretty though), half a dozen or more young ash trees, a big old sprawling walnut that keeps on doing its best to sprawl into the salon, six light-eating leylandii (enough said) and - most difficult of all - four beautiful maple trees.

I'm not good at dealing with damage and destruction. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement: I'm almost neurotically unable to deal with it. If I break something accidentally I'm unconsolable; if someone else does it I'm apoplectic. When my ex-partner once sat on and broke the much-loved pink sunglasses that I'd left on the driver's seat when we were staying overnight in Beaumont sur Sarthe (see how I remember the finest detail? I'm ashamed to admit that I can even tell you what we'd eaten the night before ...), I stomped off so far that it took him hours to find me and we nearly missed the ferry. For heaven's sake, even knocking out a wall or an old kitchen is traumatic. So you can begin to imagine how angst-ridden has been the decision to cut down our trees.

The maples act like a line of defence against all comers, sitting as they do along much of the west-facing front of the house, right outside the main front door. The walnut does the same at the south end, along with a lovely old ash tree that has been spared but is up for radical beheading next week. The plum trees defend the east face. While the maples remain, energy will stay stuck, and while we might issue an invitation to be here, Grillou won't. So go they must. And in the process a lot more light will reach the house, so that this rather dark and dingy corner...

will turn into something more like this (without the ridiculously big maples on the left) ...

For any other tree lovers out there, here's a glimpse of three of our favourites: the willow, that stands guard over its own bit of garden and the 'hot' potager:

and two of our centenary oaks, much loved by all our birds but especially favoured by the black woodpecker:

So let the destruction commence. But best keep away from me for a while though. Especially if I've got the chainsaw in my hand ...

Monday, 13 October 2008

So tell me - am I a Luddite?

So the renovation funds are safe, apparently. Thank you, Mr Darling. My view of life, the universe and everything, however, has not remained similarly unscathed.

Sometime in the last ten or so years the world as I knew it - or at least thought I knew it - appears to have changed without my really noticing. Call me sheltered and hopelessly naive if you like, but it's taken the extraordinary and cataclysmic (add your own superlative) events of the last week to really bring home to me the way in which The Market Rules Okay and the extent to which so much of western life has been underpinned by credit, credit and more credit. When the markets no longer have faith in the institutions and the system that they themselves have created; when the supply of credit funding that we once believed to be bottomless is suddenly no more; when governments all over the world have to sit and watch as traders swiftly and systematically reduce the value of commodities and institutions to a pittance; when all of those things happen at the same time, as they did last week, the once revered political and economic theories that created them reveal themselves to be no more than a house of cards. When they collapse, they take down more than a few banks and big companies. They take down with them our sense of safety in living in the world, for nothing is as we believed it to be, and therefore nothing is to be trusted.

Here's an example. I read an article by Seth Freedman on Guardian Online last week arguing that savers don't deserve to have their savings protected. "Anyone entering into a contract with their bank, in which they loan the bank money in return for interest paid" he wrote, "should do so in the full knowledge that there is no guarantee they will see their money again – an entirely fair and proper situation, as in any other free market financial undertaking". I'm sorry, but what????? Is this really how I'm supposed to be thinking these days? I'm not making an investment, in which case I'd be told by innumerable wealth warnings about how the value can go down as well as up. I'm depositing my savings, for which I've worked bloody hard, into a bank who agrees to pay me a reasonable but certainly not startling return for the privilege of being able to use or invest it themselves for a while. But rightly or wrongly I do so in the expectation of being able to have it back when I choose. That's the deal.

Tell me, am I the only one who still thinks this way? A financial Luddite perhaps? A hopeless idealistic liberal who for many years has banked and saved and insured with mutually or co-operatively owned companies? (Except Icesave of course ...). Who doesn't change her mobile phone every six months or borrow money to buy the latest clothes or expect to have 'it' (whatever it may be) just because she wants it? Who sees nothing wrong with some appropriate regulation and doesn't believe that because the market has dictated it, it must be right? Who finds the kind of bonus regularly paid out in the financial world not only outrageous but downright immoral?

Yes, I'm angry, because I'd failed to see how low we'd collectively sunk; and yes, I'm sad, that I and countless others had to find out the incredibly painful way that was last week, and may yet be this one too. The question is, dare I also be hopeful that things will never be the same again?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

So long and thanks for all the fish

When I sat down at the computer this morning I was going to write about the gorgeous sunny weather and the vegetable garden throwing goodies at us and the fig festival at Le Mas d'Azil and how (oh joy) the four month old electric tile cutter broke down with just two cuts to go. But then the day turned a little less good, because a friend in the UK emailed me to tell me that the merde in Iceland has not only hit the fan but in the process has been spattered a thousand miles southwards, towards him, and me, and possibly you.

I've been following the Icelandic financial crisis since the weekend, partly because it's such a microcosm of the bust bit of boom and bust capitalism that's currently bringing the world as we know it to its knees, and partly because it's a country I've always somehow felt connected to since I spent several weeks there in the seventies. Things were very different then: there was barely an 'economy', fishing and farming being the orders of the day for most people, foreign visitors were a rarity and Icelanders looked inwards rather than outwards. It was certainly one of the most welcoming places I've ever been: we were backpacking but spent very few nights in our tent and rarely had to cook for ourselves - mostly we were invited to peoples' homes on a whim as we walked on the roads and paths. And there was no TV on Thursdays, or in July. But the last 10 years or so brought this tiny country, with a population the size of Coventry, into the super league as deregulation and fish quota cash allowed it to ride the crest of the credit boom and build the highest per capita wealth in the world.

And now? A currency losing nearly half its value over the last year; inflation at 14%; interest rates at 15.5%; people drawing out money from what remains of the country's banking system up to their overdraft limits and stashing it under the bed because they fear there won't be any money left; a serious chance that the country itself will be bankrupt before the week's out ... And (closer to home; this is the bit that hurts) this morning Landsbanki has pulled the plug on its UK based internet savings arm, Icesave, freezing (no pun intended) all withdrawals and guaranteeing UK savings only up to the legal minimum of around £16,000 while maintaining business as normal in Iceland and protecting domestic deposits 100%. Even that guarantee, of course, is useless if the country goes belly up, but it feels at this point (and I hope I'm wrong, I really do) that UK savers have been sold down the river in the interests of Icelandic ones.

And here's the bit that's going to make it difficult for me to sleep for a while. The Grillou renovation fund is - was? - stashed in Icesave. After much Libran agonising I decided to leave it in the UK, where interest rates were much better than in the Eurozone, until it was needed for the first payments to artisans late this year (er - that would be in a couple of months ...). Yes, I'm aware that that'll teach me to act like a capitalist pig, but honestly, what would you have done? Word is that Landsbanki will be declared insolvent at any point now, meaning that I (and some 349,999 others, apparently) will have to salvage what we can from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and sing for the rest.

There comes a time when even I don't know what to say next.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Living a 'both-and' life

Yesterday was a real chilly, wet autumnal day - the kind of day when all you really want to do is to stretch out on the sofa in front of the wood burning stove with a good book. Given that we don't yet possess either a sofa or a stove that was not an option. So I tiled the floor instead (yes, that floor), and ruminated on life and some of the strange turns mine has taken. It's not something I do all the time, but the previous day a friend had asked me how we had come to be running a restaurant and how we came to be here, and as I was trowelling the tile adhesive onto the floor my train of thought meandered on, as thoughts do, from there.

As you probably know, I was something of a late convert to life at the stoves. Ten years ago, after nearly half a lifetime of doing Socially Useful Things - civil servant, welfare rights activist, CAB manager, advocacy campaigner - I made my move towards the somewhat more laid back world of Slow. It wasn't by any means my first break-out: the early eighties had seen me quitting the hallowed halls of the Department of Health to run a vegetarian retreat centre and guest house in North Yorkshire. Whilst being great fun, it didn't pay the bills (too idealistic ... too cheap!), so all too soon it was back to the rat race for a while until the pull of freedom got the better of me again and I set off to spend a couple of years 'on the road', living in community in west Wales and Dorset, and helping to facilitate dance retreats and camps. Then it was the turn of my more serious side again: I was accepted on to the (then) new person-centred post-grad diploma in Norwich, where I stayed as a practising therapist until the Cley years ...

What somehow came into sharper than usual focus yesterday was how I had been swinging manically between head-down all-out ultra serious work mode (and I was - am - seriously serious about what I did) and live-lightly drop-out mode. Sated with one way of being after a few years, I'd go back to the other, only to find that part of me still wasn't getting what it wanted. Because at heart - and here's the rub - I'm a 'both-and' type of person, not an 'either-or' one. For instance, whereas many of my friends are (reputedly) happy with being either lifelong career professionals or downshifting simple-lifers, I'm not. I'm both, at the same time. In the same way, I enjoy writing both serious and frivolous posts in this blog. I love good wine; I can also rave about a 1.89€ Cité de Carcassonne bargain from Leader Price. I love silence, and a raucous rock concert makes me happy. I bask in the stillness of Grillou, and I love the buzz of Toulouse. And so on. Running alongside all of that are my intense curiosity about life and seemingly endless quest for lived experience, both of which have taken (and, I hope, will continue to take) me into some places in my life, both real and metaphorical, that are probably best left unelaborated. Though many may disagree, I couldn't imagine being a person-centred therapist, or indeed a person, without either of those things.

So why am I here? Partly because living in France is something that I've wanted to experience for a very long time. Partly to find, at last, the space and a way to live a 'both-and' life. And partly to explore the whole idea of living Slow: that doesn't mean doing everything at a snail's pace, but living a simple, meaningful, sustainable, mindful and pleasurable life, in the present, in a way that honours the bizarre complexity that is me.

Maybe I should tile floors more often.