Sunday, 30 August 2009

Cows en fête

The Builders are coming back this week after their summer break (huh!), so we're rushing round like the proverbial mouches bleues trying to prepare (which I guess is a bit like cleaning your house ready for the cleaner to come in, but as I've never had a cleaner, so to speak, I wouldn't know ...). This afternoon, however, we prised ourselves away from our respective tasks - John from wirebrushing beams, me from weighing up and sourcing various heating options - to go and look at some cows.

Yes, I know we've got cows down the track, and very nice ones they are too - Gascon and Limousin, if you want to know. But the annual Foire Agricole at Le Mas d'Azil, 15 minutes away through the cave (yes, really), is a must-do. As its publicity puts it, it's a day where ruralité is put in the forefront - not as folklore, but as real, day to day agricultural life, with its economic and social difficulties as well as its successes. I like that. And it was a good day. Here's some of it, in pictures ...

We got cows in profusion:

Most of them came complete with panels showing which butcher we'd be able to buy them from when they pass into their next life. One of the things that I like about butchers here is that a lot of them have pictures in their window of the animals they're selling bits of inside. Yes, okay, it's a bit uncomfortable, at least for me; but it's straight, and honest, and it honours the animal that was killed for food. And (beware, soapbox mode coming up) one of the things I bang on about is that those of us who eat meat - even if, like me, it's not every day - need to recognise and accept that real live animals, with pretty faces and melty eyes, are killed for that sole purpose or in the service of it. But it's not for those who want to go on thinking that meat grows on polystyrene trays, perhaps ...

We also got some rather splendid pigs and piglets, for whom the day seemed just that bit too much like hard work ...

There were sheep and goats and rabbits and turkeys and ducks and geese and chickens and donkeys and horses too, naturally. Not to mention some rather fetching underwear:

I suspect their owners may have been eating too much of this:

It's millas, a local dessert traditionally served to celebrate the killing of the family pig. It's made from fine corn meal, wheat flour, raw milk, sugar, butter and orange flower water; it's made in a similar way to polenta: cooked, and stirred with a long wooden paddle, for at least an hour, then poured into trays to cool, after which it's cut up into squares and fried in butter until golden. It is, I warn you, more addictive than it looks ...

There was what in England would these days be called a farmers' market (here, it's just a market, because what else would a market be ...). This bread was being baked from scratch in a wood fired oven set up in a van:

This guy, from the delightfully named village of Camarade - between Grillou and Le Mas d'Azil - makes some of the best Tomme de Vache des Pyrénées: it's really yellow, and like eating new mown grass:

I'm very fond of Le Mas d'Azil. We're there quite a lot: at the Wednesday market, or for a coffee as we're driving through, or occasionally to eat at the pizzeria or the local hotel-restaurant, Le Gardel. It has some lovely squares, shaded by plane trees, and some equally lovely medieval columbage houses, many with gardens running right down to the Arize river, which runs through the middle:

And yet there are still corners of the town (village? I'm never sure) that we're discovering. Today, for instance, we stumbled upon an old house which was actually rather forlorn, but redeemed by this lovely old shutter, with its patina of bleu pastel (woad) and linseed oil:

And then, of course, there are the caves, and the dolmens. Another blog, another time ...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

50 good reasons ...

It's exactly two years since we signed on the dotted line and Grillou became ours. Two years! How is that possible? We've done the bottle-of-something-with-bubbles bit, and now I feel a list coming on to celebrate. So sit back and brace yourselves for, in no particular order, 50 good reasons to love living in France, and in Ariège.

1. The Pyrénées. Of course.
2. Seasons - all different, all defined.
3. The scenery. It always, always, takes my breath away.
4. Lizards. Small, huge, brown, bright green - always there, always curious.
5. The apéro. Breathing time between day and evening, work and play.
6. The night sky. So clear ...
7. Patisserie. Just looking at it is (nearly) enough..
8. Markets. Shopping at its most colourful and convivial; produce from down the road.
9. Wine. Languedoc Roussillon starts less than an hour away from here; some of its wines are up with the best in the world. And some aren't (but en vrac, at a euro a litre, who cares ...).
10. Silence. Absolute.
11. La saison. Summer - a period of time when everyday life stops, and pleasure takes over.
12. Depôts ventes. A cross between junk shop, antiques warehouse and rummage sale; I never tire of rooting around for bargains. I even find one, sometimes.
13. Butterflies. So many different species ... even in February.
14. Bof! An expression as indispensible as it is untranslatable.
15. Geographical diversity. Even across our small department, we range from orchards and wheat fields and pretty country lanes, to plains with expansive views, to rolling pastureland dotted with foothill farms and cows, to steep sided valleys where hamlets cling precariously on south facing slopes, to wide verdant mountain valleys, to rocky peaks, mountain lakes, beech forests ....
16. Shutters. Such a clever invention - they keep your house warm, they keep your house cool, they look wonderful.
17. Cheese. France produces around 1000 different types. I'm getting there, slowly.
18. Sunflowers. A summer cliché, but stunning anyway.
19. Driving. A pleasure, here in France, where roads are uncrowded, French drivers notwithstanding.
20. Architecture. And how it changes as you travel regions, departments and even villages.
21. The two hour lunch closure. Much maligned by some Brits, but not by me.
22. Blue virgins. They're everywhere.
23. Thermalism. So many spas, so little time ..
24. Pétanque, or boules. Not that I'm any good at it ...
25. The smell of wood smoke in winter.
26. Free food. Otherwise known as foraging.
27. The French language.
28. Tradition. Still alive, well, and and celebrated.
29. Bonjour. More than just form, the obligatory greeting of all and sundry in shops/before you do business/when you meet acquaintances/when you arrive at a group of friends is an unmissable - and pleasurable - ritual. People matter, it says.
30. Snow. Look at it, walk in it, ski on it.
31. Space. There's just so much of it - France is well over twice as big as the whole of the United Kingdom, for a similar population; Ariège is one of the least populated departments, with just 28 people per square kilometre.
32. Swimming in lakes and rivers. Beats the sea any day. And I won't even mention pools.
33. Festivals. From folklore to fiesta to funk, and nearly all free.
34. Oh la (la la la la la la la la...). Yes, the French really do say it. Frequently.
35. The Midi sun. Strong enough to sunbathe, and even pick up a tan, in winter.
36. The number of things you can do here with a pig.
37. Simple living.
38. The network of footpaths, both local and national, and the right to roam.
39. Tisanes.
40. Working to live, not living to work.
41. The French obsession with bandes dessinées (comic books, to you and me).
42. Being able to spend so much time, and eat, outside for most of the year.
42. Diversity: of accents, culture, appearance.
43. Body language - the French shrug, facial expressions, hand waving.
44. Things well used, re-used, and recycled. Consumerism doesn't rule, okay?
45. The lack of fashion victim-ness. Nobody cares what brand of trainers I wear; if I choose to wear my aging hippy outfits from the seventies, that's fine (everybody else does).
46. Spain. An hour and a half away: no ferries or planes required.
47. Our potager, and the sheer variety of things we can grow in it.
48. Toulouse: just over an hour away, and all the museums, opera, concerts and big city buzz you could wish for.
49. Organic. C'est normale, here in Ariège.
50. Pastis. There. It's out. I'm addicted to it.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Exposed beams

We're having a heatwave. It's official. Not quite official enough, here in Ariège, to trigger the government's canicule plan, brought in after nearly 20,000 people died in France during the 2003 heatwave; but official enough to be the ongoing subject of media coverage, not to mention many a conversation. And it is hot; afternoon temperatures are up to at least 36 degrees in the shade, dropping to a more comfortable 26 degrees or so at around 10pm. In the sun? Put it this way - my thermometer goes up to 50 degrees, and it's off the scale. Working is becoming increasingly taxing, and I keep having fantasies of diving into cool water.

So the timing was apt this week when a friend in England sent me the bizarre piece of news that the theme park Alton Towers has banned men from wearing Speedo-type swimming trunks 'on grounds of public decency'. I honestly thought this was a joke at first, but having followed up the links she sent it appears that it isn't: apparently "the style is not deemed public or family friendly" and is likely to "cause embarrassment".

Am I missing something here? Do most people not have bodies, and bits that stick out here and there, and - heaven forfend - body hair? And wasn't the whole Adam and Eve thing a long time ago, and just a fable and/or a lot of tosh (depending on your persuasion) anyway? When, and how, did we learn to be so ashamed and embarrassed about our physical form? Surely to goodness, in the twenty-first century, it's time to move on from the smutty seaside postcard ...

Here in France, if you're male and you want to swim in the vast majority of public pools you have to wear Speedos (and, usually, a swimming hat). No bermudas, no question. It's deemed unhygienic to bathe in a swimming pool in clothes that you could have been (and probably have been) wearing in the street all day. It would, the official line goes, simply turn the pool into a wash house. My friend's Alton Towers story reminded me of a story I read in our regional newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi, a few weeks ago.

Until this year, there have been two public pools in Toulouse which allowed the wearing of bermudas: a small pool, Castex, and the much larger one close by, Nakache. Castex has for some time been a favourite haunt of young people from the quartiers populaires - working class estates - in the area, and has had a reputation for being, shall we say, a bit on the lively side. Tensions between the teenagers and other pool users ran high; two years ago the entire pool area had to be evacuated when a pitched battle broke out between fifty or so teenagers and security guards, and then the police that were called to restore order. That kind of thing.

Clearly Something Had To Be Done. But what? Well, a bit of uncharacteristically creative thinking out of the box obviously took place: a solution has been found, and appears to be working. But it doesn't involve extra policing or heavy-handed rules or showcase arrests. Local officials have simply banned the wearing of bermudas at Castex, while continuing to allow it, by special dispensation, at Nakache.

As if by magic, the yoof has migrated to Nakache, which is much bigger and is a leisure pool as opposed to a swimming pool, as it were, whereas the swimmers have returned to Castex. Hanging out and joshing in a pair of Speedos and a swimming cap is simply not cool; besides, many of the teenagers are of Muslim origin and consider themselves to be too prudish to wear, as La Dépêche puts it, 'le maillot à poutre apparente' (lit: swimming costume with exposed beam' (!). Nakache has reported a high frequentation, good spirits and no problems. Castex swims peacefully. Problem solved.


Saturday, 15 August 2009

Did the earth move for you this week?

We're having A Proper Summer in Ariège this year: for nearly 2 months now we've had day after day of clear, cloudless blue skies and temperatures hovering up in the thirties, interspersed every so often with the odd thunderstorm and cloudy day or two just so that you appreciate the sun all over again. It's not exceptional, just normal. But after the previous two cool and wet summers, it's come as a welcome relief to everybody: visitors and residents alike are happy, the mood is upbeat, the rentrée is creeping up all too fast. It's not, admittedly, good for laying mortar, which is frustrating as that's what we're supposed to be doing, but hey, there are a hundred and one other jobs to be done and when everything looks as beautiful as this who's to complain?

The crystal clear skies this week meant that we had a fantastic view of the Perseids meteor shower. I've been watching these ever since someone introduced me to the show at Dance Camp East many years ago - or rather, I've been trying to watch them. It wasn't easy in England: too much light pollution - even in our small community in north Norfolk, one of the last streetlight-free villages in the country, urbanites on holiday were in the habit of leaving their porch, and even worse, halogen security, lights blazing all night. Grrr. But here at Grillou it's a different story. No street lights (no street!), no houses visible. Nothing. Just pure darkness, and the night sky.

Stretched out in the warm night air on our beach mats, heads resting on pillows, we must have seen a good hundred shooting stars in the hour and a half before the moon rose and brightened the sky. It was stunning. As was the sheer clarity of the sky, and the indescribable number of stars that we could see with the naked eye. Looking through binoculars simply left me speechless, and determined to acquire an astronomical telescope.

Most amazing of all, though, was that for the first time ever I actually witnessed the turning of the earth. Lying there, relaxed, slightly meditative without trying to be (fatal!), looking up at the spiral arm of the Milky Way, I could see the dense star clusters appearing to move oh-so-slowly across the sky as I watched and as the earth turned. Yes, of course, the same thing happens with the sun every day. But you can't look at the sun; you can't actually see it moving. I could see, and I could feel, the movement, and it was an extraordinary experience. I haven't got words to describe it, because it was the kind of experience that bypasses the mind and speaks to something much deeper, much older. Something that just is.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Rocks and hard places

It's been so long since I blogged that I feel as if I should be slinking out from behind the sofa, making sure the coast is clear before assuming a guise of innocence, eyes wide open, saying "Me? But I was here all the time ...". Not, you understand, that I'm accustomed to doing that. I'm just trying to make myself feel better about not posting.

I blame this:

'This' represents about half of the hard core that we've been hacking out over the last two weeks (the rest is behind the camera). Plus ... we've dug out and taken away around 200 huge rocks, and taken to the déchetterie two trailer loads - that's over 50 rubble bags - of self-formed concrete from the area in front of L'Atelier's terrace. I reckon the combined weight of all that to be about 15 tonnes. My back agrees.

However. It's finished. The garden is no longer a landfill site. The land is breathing again; smiling. Soon, we'll add a layer of topsoil and seed it with grass. And the terrace is constructed, framed, stepped and now awaits its filling, just as soon as the mortar in various bits of its construction is properly dry.

In the meantime, what are we doing? Yes, we're preparing to lay Terrace Number Three. The good news is that this time we have a completely flat base to pave - the only flat bit of the entire garden. It used to house an ancient and gross steel swimming pool that we removed - with difficulty - within a couple of weeks of moving in; it was so ugly that the previous owners had planted leylandii to screen it off; we removed those too, of course (nothing, but nothing, merits leylandii, in my book). The bad news is that the rocks and paths that closely surround the area were all but invisible under layers of brambles, ivy, moss, soil, leaf mould and the general toot of decades of neglect.

Five days of brushcutting, hacking, cutting, sawing, tugging, scraping and brushing later, rocks have appeared and been cleaned - and so have some steps we didn't know existed ...

Next on the agenda: laying some warm stone over the concreted area, planting the crevices in the rocks with succulents and other rock plants, and furnishing the whole area with lots and lots of pots of colourful things, tables, chairs and parasols. Et voilà (shameless plug number 694b coming up - look away now if you're likely to be offended): a lovely space for breakfast and lunch, in even winter, and the hub of long, slow dinners in summer.

I don't mind admitting that this is proving to be a long, hard summer - physically, for sure, but also mentally and emotionally. It's been hard for us both to see how this land - the land that we both love and which captured us the moment we set foot on it - has been used and abused; sometimes it's just made me want to cry. It's been hard for us both to keep up physically with the energy needed to turn it round, working from very early in the morning through to early evening. And it's been hard to keep finding new solutions to each seemingly insurmountable problem as it's arisen. At times I long to be doing something simple, gentle and creative (hah!).

In the process I've come head-to-head, for the nth time, with all the stuff about non-attachment. The end result of all our labours clearing the land is that it now simply looks as it should. And as much as I might want the entire population of Ariège, France, the world, the universe, to congratulate me for the next ten years on having done such a wonderful job of restoring it (and I do, because I'm just an ordinary, imperfect human being), nobody will, because it all simply looks Right. All the anger, the hurt, the sweat, the angst, the back-breaking graft, the hours spent working and the hours spent working it out, the pride in having done it ... there's nothing for it but to let it go.

One of my favourite Zen stories:

Two monks were travelling together down a muddy road. It was raining heavily. Coming round the bend, they met a beautiful young girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross a stream. The older monk offered to help. He picked her up and carried her across. Several miles down the road, the younger monk could no longer contain himself: "Master," he said "We aren't supposed to associate with women, and yet you actually touched that beautiful woman. You picked her up!" The master said "And I put the woman down on the other side of the stream. Are you still carrying her?"