Sunday, 26 April 2009

Has anyone got an ark?

It's hard to believe just how much it's been raining here over the last couple of weeks. Only a week ago we had, apparently, over 8 centimetres of rain in 24 hours; today has got to be up there somewhere too. Rivers are running high, and the avalanche risk in the Couserans Pyrénées this week was 5 out of 5. Indeed our intempéries are the talk of our part of France, with the number of leading articles in our regional daily La Dépêche du Midi growing in direct proportion to the level of rainfall. The greatest indignation is reserved for the fact that this winter the weather in France has been turned on its traditional head, with unusual and almost continuous anticyclonic conditions in the north keeping the Atlantic depressions down here in the south, where (we think) they shouldn't be, while offering bright and sunny conditions to those northerners more accustomed to winter grey skies and rain.

Bizarrely, while our track is running a river tonight and our broad beans have taken up breaststroke, Friday was almost too hot to be outside; sunhat, shorts and strappy were still too much in the way of clothing, and I had to keep taking refuge from grass mowing duties in the shade. Today, though, was a different matter. Especially when the day's task involved sorting out and organising the contents of our brico workshop to make it possible to find things in less than a week (is it me? Or does everybody's workshop get like that?). We're now on Day Three of this unedifying task (there is a reason why it's taking so long; let me just say it involves an angle grinder, a cement floor and a foresight failure) and so desperate to finish it that even the thought of getting cold and wet wasn't enough to put us off. By the end of the morning, though, I'd lost all feeling in my fingers and was becoming hypothermically challenged, so after a bowl of porridge (porridge! In the south of France! In April!) we decided - slightly guiltily - to slope off to an afternoon showing of Slumdog Millionaire at the cinema in Foix.

Going to the cinema in Ariège is always a thoroughly pleasant experience. All our cinemas are independantly owned, so no chains, no multiplexes, and best of all (at the Rex in Foix at least) no popcorn. But you do get a big basket of cushions to help yourself to, and the most comfortable seats of any cinema I know. The audience is invariably both appreciative and involved. One of the first films I saw here was La Marche de l'Empereur (March of the Penguins): when the female penguins made it back from the sea to feed the chicks that had been left with their fathers, everybody spontaneously applauded. And this afternoon's audience was no exception. In spite of the fact that the film, unusually, was being shown as VO (version originale) and so even the non-Hindi bits involved sub-titles, the whole audience joined together on a palpable emotional roller coaster: from the collective sharp intakes of breath to the empathic groans of shock and pain; from the standing ovation at the end to the clapping in time with the music of the Bollywood-style credits; and even to the two elderly women next to me shouting out the all-important name of the third musketeer ...

I loved and was in awe of the film. It was both feelbad and feelgood at the same time. It started in a Bombay that I knew and ended in a Mumbai that I don't. It was, amongst many other things, a fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales had a very dark side indeed. And it carried us all into it and with it to such an extent that it was a true surprise to walk out of the cinema and find ourselves in France, in the rain.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The pale blue dot

In 1990, when Voyager 1 was around six and a half million kilometres from Earth, the astronomer Carl Sagan pesuaded NASA to point its camera back at us, and take this picture from the very edge of the Solar System:

This is what he had to say about it.

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space] and, if you look at it, you see a dot.

That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there - on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity - in all this vastness - there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling and, I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

What's the point of all this? Well, today, April 22, is Earth Day, being celebrated for the 39th time; over 500 million people all over the world are marking it in some way. It's a great time to do something green - plant a tree perhaps, or start a compost heap, or replace an incandescent light bulb by an energy saving one. But don't let it be the only such day, because for that tiny pale blue dot, every day is Earth Day ...

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Slow Walking in the Séronais

There's no denying that the high Pyrénées, just fifteen kilometres or so to the south of Grillou, are spectacular. But as time goes on, and as we get to know it better, we're becoming increasingly besotted with our own small pays, the Séronais - so named because it's the area around La Bastide de Sérou, a small market townlet just to our east. The Séronais is the geographical borderland between the old provinces of Gascony and Languedoc, and its geology, climate and flora are a blend of the two; it's an incredibly green region of rolling foothills, rivers and woodland dotted with a handful of villages, hamlets and old farms, plus a chateau or two, an extraordinary number of small food producers and craftspeople, and a vaguely arty feel. Yes, I know I'm beginning to sound like the regional tourist office, but it really is a place to live the good life, and over two years on I still find it amazing that we had the good fortune to end up living here.

The Séronais is a great place for Slow Walking, too: tracks and paths join the villages, hamlets and farms, or lead at a stiffer gradient up to and around the estives, (high pastureland) where cattle, sheep and horses spend the summer months. A couple of days ago, when the weather was just too good to spend the day as planned demolishing an old shower room, we de-cobwebbed our boots and set off from neighbouring Durban sur Arize, through the village of Montseron and its hamlets, to the old Chateau de St Barthélémy then along the Arize river and back to our starting point.

Durban sits alongside the Arize river, not on the way to anywhere and all the better for it:

As you climb out of the village, the path takes you along a ridge, where views across the Séronais countryside open up, and before long the even more hidden village of Montseron comes into view.

The track continues through a couple of pretty hamlets, then branches off into woodland. At this point, we had some unexpected company:

(Yes, it's a calf. It walked with us for a couple of kilometres). Climbing steadily, the medieval chateau comes into view on a rocky outcrop:

More climbing, then a long, long, rocky path down through the woods to cross the river before climbing again to reach the chateau, and then - yes, descending again back to the river for the last bucolic stretch:

... where the river bank was full of flowers like these oxslip ...

... and these little purple numbers, which are new to me and which I've so far been unable to identify (any ideas, anyone?) ...

... and where I happily wasted many minutes admiring the mating gymnastics of these two orange-tip butterflies, who seemed completely unfazed by my attentions:

Ah, bless.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Ariège life ...The Ariège Network

I have, you may have noticed, been somewhat quiet on the blogging front since I got back from England. Not because I have nothing to say (heaven forfend ...), but because my head has been stuck not in a soil pipe this time, but deep in the bowels of hitherto unexplored cyberspace.

Until a month ago, there existed a low-key but useful community internet forum for English speakers here in Ariège, Ariège Life. Now it has to be said that our department is not by any means an ex-pat enclave, and those English speakers who do move here tend to want to integrate with their local communities rather than cling to an immigrant group. And thank heavens for that. But for all that, there are times when you just want to be able to connect with others who've made the same move as you, who are wrestling with the same things as you, and yes, who speak the same language as you. That was where the forum came in: we asked each other questions, we batted things around, and I met some interesting people I probably wouldn't have met otherwise.

And so when the forum was closed down rather suddenly by its webmaster a few weeks ago, a bit of a hole was left in Ariège life. What to do? "Nothing!" said John, firmly. "Leave it to someone else for once". Hmm. A nice idea, but not in my nature. So to cut a long story short, I didn't.

Now whereas I can design simple websites, and I've even set up a community site before, for our village in north Norfolk, the intricacies of content management systems and php and messageboard software were well outside my comfort zone. And long might they have stayed there but for the support and encouragement of several Ariège friends, a succession of very late nights and an understanding (if long suffering) partner who knows me well enough to just shrug, and do all the cooking and washing up, whenever I get into one of my single-pointed 'I'm not going to be beaten by this' phases.

And now for the shameless plug. (Are you reading this, Google?). The Ariège Network has just gone live, complete with rather snazzy looking forum. Here it is, as a proper link:

The Ariège Network - life in Ariège, in English.

And I'm back in circulation. Hello, world ...

Friday, 10 April 2009

Pass the pub

One of the features of life in France is pub day. No, not what you're thinking, but the day when the weekly batch of publicité hits some twenty million post boxes, just in time for the week's promos to start on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Before we moved here I always assumed, somewhat smugly, that being green sort of people with all the right credentials for Saving the Planet we would put a 'Pas de pub' sticker on our post box and thereby eschew the weekly enticements to save (and spend) money. But that was, as I said, before ...

The weekly promotions, and the publicité that announces them, really are the oil that lubricates the wheels of buying here. We learned fast that it would be unwise to think that you can just go out and shop for something whenever you feel like it. It's possible to do that, of course, but it's likely to hurt the wallet quite a lot more than going down the pub route and is therefore regarded as rather foolish. The weekly promotions cover everything from food to fridges to plants to parasols; there is a true art to understanding when, and how, to get the best bargains.

First, you need to understand the concept of seasonality. If you want garden chairs or a new garden parasol, for example, as we did this week, the time to be on the ball is the first or second week in April; if you want a good price on a wood burner, it's the middle of October. The best time to find plants, shrubs and trees on promo in the grandes surfaces is the first week of the February school holidays; we bought three small fruit trees this year for less than 8 euros each. If you're looking to stock up on a year's worth of pig, then the Foires au Porc in November are for you, when prices are often less than half their normal level. Ditto, in this region at least, the ubiquitous magret de canard. And so on. It's no good hoping to find bargains at the end of the season, as one does in England; by that time there's nothing left. If you happen to need a garden table in August, forget it (on the other hand if your child needs a new cartable for the imminent rentrée...).

Secondly, don't think you can slouch around and just turn up on the last day of the promo. You'll have missed it. No, you need to be there on the first, or at the latest the second, day if you want to find what you're looking for - because if you're not, you can be sure that any number of canny others will be.

And thirdly, if you're to stand any chance at all against the time-served local promo-hunters, you need to observe their behaviour and copy it. This means that you enter the shop blatantly carrying your copy of the appropriate promo catalogue, prominently marked with your item of choice for which you make a beeline. You examine it every which way; you find an assistant to 'sell' it to you (only the English buy without discussion, even if it is the bargain of the day); you compare it minutely against the description in the catalogue. Finally convinced, you take it to the checkout, where you check that it's gone through at the promotional price and/or that you've received the correct number of points on your loyalty card. Often it hasn't or you haven't, such things being set centrally and therefore not always being completely up to date, so you point to the catalogue and wait (as does everybody behind you) until it's sorted out.

If you're really keen, you can even check the promos of all the grandes surfaces online at I have to confess to having done this on more than one occasion, which may well make me into a slightly sad person in your eyes, as indeed it does in my own. But in mitigation, it is rather good fun; it is the French way; and in these times of la crise it certainly saves more than a few hard-earned euros.

Friday, 3 April 2009

La carreleuse

So, I'm now a fully-fledged and assessed Level 2 tradeswoman, with the certificates (and cuts, bruises, broken nails and lack of sleep) to prove it; we worked solidly from 8.30am to 6.30pm over 5 days, with 35 minutes or so for lunch and no tea breaks. And we had homework! Tiles have been scribed, cut, shaped into shapes that you wouldn't think tiles would make, nibbled, drilled, trimmed, laid, grouted and then finally, at 6pm on the last day, knocked off again. Rooms have been set out, estimates have been done, borders have been bordered, designs have been designed, mosaics have been sworn at, role plays have been role played, customers have been charmed. We students - seven of us, six Geordie tradesmen and me - have imbibed more information than we thought our brains and bodies were capable of taking in in such a short time. My language has become a little - er - richer ... even if it did take me a while to understand what the guys were saying, such was the depth of their accents and dialect. And I've laughed so much that I've only just stopped aching; I don't know what it is about Geordie humour but it felt like being on the set of Auf Wiedersehn Pet. Only funnier. I'm still missing it (and them) all, a bit.

This is the place that became home for over 50 hours:

And this was halfway through one of my bathroom projects. Not exactly my style, but a bit of a challenge: each one of those bits of tile in the panel had to be designed and cut to shape individually ...

I even developed a bit of a soft(ish) spot for South Shields, which struck me as the kind of place that doesn't have a lot of money but nevertheless tries hard to make life pleasant for those who live or go there: the Marine Parks, for instance, were beautifully kept, and I passed the street sweeper every morning; and there seems to be a relatively high level of solidarité, or community support. My guest house, the Seacrest, couldn't have been better nor its owner kinder, and I enjoyed waking up every morning to a view of the sun rising over the sea and the sound of seagulls.

I wondered what it would be like to be back in the UK after well over two years absence: would I slip back into a comfortable duvet of familiarity? Would I wish I'd never left or, a bit like a friend who after a recent trip back to England experienced - to her great surprise and against her better judgment - a bizarre attack of 'home' sickness? Well, actually, no. I had a great time, but after 10 days or so I was reaching my limit. The constant concrete, traffic, over-peopled-ness, manic-ness and general level of nervous energy that surrounded me everywhere I went was beginning to get to me. I was upset by the daily amount of rubbish produced everywhere, by so many bags in so many trees, and by not being allowed to leave Tesco's without putting my two items in one of their plastic bags. I was upset by the sheer volume at which so many people spoke in restaurants. I was upset by the fact that 75% of city dwellers seem to have been genetically modified so as to be unable to walk, or have a coffee with a friend, without talking to someone on their mobile phone. All these things I had forgotten, but to tell the truth I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Being back at Grillou, with the mountains down the road and the silence all around me, is just bliss. Even if it is drizzly, and cold, and not at all spring like.

And I heard the first cuckoo this evening, so all is well.