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Archive for the ‘Living in rural France…’ Category

I’m sure y’awll thought I’d gone… perished… gone up in smoke…  Eh non!  I’m back…

B&B La Souqueto

B&B La Souqueto

To briefly update:  my B&B had become a victim of its own success.  We were full every day with people who booked months ahead and who often adjusted their itinerary to ‘fit us in’.   A huge compliment I realise, and I thank you sincerely for your trust and loyalty.

How could I ever forget our breakfasts together (some of which could take up to 3 hours) – scintillating conversations that sparked around the table?  The many friendships that persist and plans that are being made to meet up again soon?  (Now you obviously want to know if you were among my favourite clients:  eh bein oui, – OF COURSE you were!)

But whilst I adored looking after all my fab fab clients, and even enjoyed  the daily ironing sessions which allowed time for contemplation and philosophical musings, in the end too much time was taken up by running the B&B, leaving little or no opportunity for painting, writing, or gathering inspiration..  Even the cookery and art courses had to take second place – although I did manage to give at least five each year (see http://www.petracarter.com/courses.html

So, my beloved home and B&B was sold in July 2013 – to Jon and Mel Alport whom I am certain have the fearlessness, the soul and the determination to continue the tradition of La Souqueto.  I wish them the very best that their new life can offer them.  They too have become friends in the two months we’ve worked together.

The Arches on Place aux Herbes

The Arches on Place aux Herbes

What now?   Well, I bought an apartment in Uzes not far from the famous Pont du Gard near Avignon – as romantic and beautiful a place as you’ve ever seen – much of it Roman.  If you’ve ever seen Pagnol’s epic film Jean de Florette (forerunner to Manon des Sources)  you may remember the arches underneath which Ugolin sold his first carnations.  These arches are directly underneath my apartment (see picture) where now many interesting little restaurants feature all year around.

So what else is imminent?  Not a B&B this time but a cookery school in a beautiful 15th century building with vaulted ceilings  – which I have tentatively named Le Pistou.  It’s not quite mine yet – I am still negotiating – but here are some photos to give you a flavour of what is to come.

diningentrance

Meanwhile I am busy finding tradesmen to restore both places.

It won’t be quick but I expect to open late summer/autumn 2013.

Meanwhile, I shall work at updating my website and try writing some of those village stories  of the last 10 years – they are firmly in my head and must be put on paper… So keep an eye on the blog – or better still subscribe and you’ll hear when something gets published.

Hope to see you soon…

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Did you know that there is a right (and a wrong) time to cut your hair?  And that your jam keeps better if it’s made at a certain time of the month?  It has apparently all to do with the moon.  If you want your hair to grow thick and fast you should have it cut on a waxing moon. Then again to avoid a strong regrowth (after waxing of a different kind) you’d best be doing that when it wanes.  Incidentally, if you’re planning to clean your house anytime soon, wait till the waning moon –  your house will stay clean longer…

Calendrier Lunaire

You may not know this about the French but many (well here in the Languedoc anyway) strictly abide by the rules laid down in the enduring  Calendrier Lunaire (which still sells some 210.000 copies annually at an accessible €7.50 as opposed to a pricier €36.29 for the Farmers’ Almanac in Ireland.)  No need to spend the money though – it’s downloadable for free.  And the simplified English version of the lunar calendar on the website of  Domaine de la Vougeraie in Nuits-Saint-Georges is worth a look.

But here in the Languedoc, older generations that have grown vines for as long as they, their grandparents and their great-great-great grandparents can remember, have no need for the book.  They know it all by heart.  Nobody would dream of pruning or planting at the wrong end of the moon, and they shake their head in resignation and acceptance when they see an entire peach orchard being planted at a time it shouldn’t. Then shrug their wise shoulders when the trees remain sickly…

Another thing you may not know about the French is that they consider themselves not quite as far removed from the animal kingdom as we do perhaps ourselves.  They think that this not only explains but also excuses most of their thinking and behaviour patterns.  And again the moon is sometimes involved…

dung beetle

Every French-man and woman knows that in order to explain the nightly tossing and turning and general unease we experience during a waxing moon, we only need to look at nature.  Animal behaviour changes radically during this time – marine organisms move up and down in the sea depending on the level of

moonlight and crabs migrate when the moon tells them so. On land, nocturnal animals come out on a well-lit night to hunt (think whooping owls and howling werewolves!), others stay hidden to avoid predators, while males can become more aggressive.  Even African dung beetles, oddly, have been proven to walk in a straighter line when the moon is full.

Thus the French believe that other behaviour patterns can easily be explained by these two facts. Cheating on your mate is common in societies all over the world, but only the French blame it on the moon and our analogy to animals.   “Have you ever seen a male impala refuse the advances of one of his neighbours’ wives?” they ask as if this a simple fait accompli.

But that, dear readers, is another story for another day…

     *) Photographer: Laurent LAVEDER : http://www.pixheaven.net/livre/crbst_6.html

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my trophies...

A VIDE-GRENIER  is a sort of amateur flea market. They have them all over France every Sunday – most villages offering just one in spring and one in autumn.  It literally means empty-the-attic and that is exactly what people do, displaying everything they no longer have a need for, in the hope that someone else does – from obscure farm equipment and blackened silvery preciousness, to outgrown toys, ancient embroidered sheets and granny’s last shoes.  Because of its randomness (and the fact that IKEA is more in vogue nowadays) you risk finding all sorts of goodies – many of which you’ll recognize as props in my food photography!

old madeleine baking moulds...

Last Sunday, it was the village of Olargues that caught my eye – situated high up in the Black Mountains above St Pons, the weather is not always predictable, but we dared and won.

Olargues is as typical a French village as you get – nestled into a mountain side with its steep streets running towards the church in the centre. These mountain people don’t seem to joke and laugh quite as much as ‘chez nous‘ (no doubt due to constant fog and rain) but we loved our visit and roamed around for a while, discovering at least one more bridge built by Gustav Eiffel (there’s lots of them here).

perfect retro restaurant LAISSAC

When tummies started to rumble we decided to stop for lunch at the one-and-only hotel/bar/restaurant in town.  Typically too it was run by Dad (kitchen), Mum (diningroom) and their 14-year old son who was in charge of the bar (no one worries much about under-age slavery or exposure to alcohol-abuse in French and Irish country pubs).

nuf said...

When I say we were whisked straight back to the late 60’s, this is an understatement – some of it harked back to the 50’s, complete with authentic 50’s furniture, styrofoam ceiling tiles, plastic Poinsettia decorations,  well-used vinegar/salt/pepper sets and cheap metal breadbaskets. How cool is that?

There was only one other couple well in their 80’s who probably never noticed that time had moved on. They looked as if they seriously enjoyed their cozy Sunday lunch – tucking in with gusto, still dressed in coats and scarves, dentures clicking in cheerful unison…

Mountain Pheasant with Chestnuts

Admittedly, the décor from years hence was more interesting than the menu (even the normally spectacular Chateau Gourgazaud Minervois had seen better times).  The ‘mountains’ are known for their great but seriously unhealthy charcuterie.  And their FABULOUS rye bread (which tastes like rye unlike most commercial specimens).   Thus, a copious plate of exceedingly unhealthy mountain charcuterie for himself and a salad with hot crunchy duck innards (called gésiers) for me.  This was followed by Pheasant with Chestnuts and Mountain Ceps (ugly but delicious) and an entrecote (which was more like a tough ould piece of boil-in-the-bag brisket).

...retro steak...

And then there were retro spuds… served of course in retro baskets…

... retro spuds, in retro dishes...

And here’s more retro furniture…

.... more retro furniture....

…. and then another super-retro Gustav EIFFEL bridge….

.... another Pont Eiffel....

…. and how about a retro rainbow…?

…. and a retro view of Olargues...

retroview of Olargues...

…. and the retro co-diners, the sound of whose dentures I’ll never forget…

And finally….. more retroprops saved from oblivion…..

....more props 'saved' from oblivion....

.... retro co-diners....

.... and a good old-fashioned mountain rainbow....

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mating owls

There is always lots of cheerful whistling going on in Mirepeisset but these days there’s no getting away from it.  This time it is NOT just Robert singing and whistling his happy heart out.  Everyone is at it now.  Day and night, night and day, in the streets and in the trees, in the shade and in the sunshine, beside the river, along the Canal, from the rooftops and tree branches….

Who causes all this cacophony? Well, you already know Robert. And you already know our two resident owl couples that nest in the trees behind the house – the ones that in spring announce noisily that they’re in love, and the ones that for the rest of the year keep us informed as to the exact status of their boisterous love affair simply through the different sounds they produce…  The herons are silent enough. The geese and water hens less so, and our little (more or less tame) pigeon makes a little discreet wrrrooo wrrrooo on our doorstep…

African hoopoo

But what has us holding our ears now are all those other returning visitors… It seems that all of Africa’s birds have landed here in the Languedoc today to spend their summer holidays…

A hoopoo has been sitting on my neighbour’s roof nodding and whooping right into my bedroom window from 5am every morning…

The kingfishers are more considerate – they wait till 10am before they joyously inform everyone just how much they love the thrill of skimming low over the surface of the river behind my house. How they can catch any fish at that speed frankly baffles me.

bee eater

The bee-eaters too are back from Africa – balancing on the wires in ones or twos, not decimating our precious bee population, but catching a few each day simply to survive…

Meanwhile, the bees are busy collecting pollen from every flower in the region – not just the obvious bright and colourful specimens, but they also seem to find all those insignificant little green, perfumed flowers that can only be spotted by a trained eye…

busy bee

My favourite beekeepers Miellerie les Clauses in nearby Montseret have already  filled their first jars with delicate Rosemary and Acacia honey.  The further we go into the summer, the stronger the flavour of the honey gets – garrigue, lavender, forets eventually winding up with the rugged, pungent, almost savoury, chestnut honey..  Perfect for drizzling over some young goatscheese… or perhaps adding to a light dressing for a perfectly barbecued duckbreast.  Or maybe simply dribbled over hot toast that is dripping with melted butter…

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… comes sunshine.

As many as several thousands of households in the surrounding villages of Bize and Cuxac were affected last week when 250mm of rain fell in 3 days.  Despite preventative sandbagging, many basements flooded, but it was in no way as serious as in 1999 when in villages like Salleles d’Aude houses were submerged under 2 or 2.5 metres!

Several hours after it stopped raining there was little sign of the devastation – it seemed as if the soil greedily drank it all up, and as thanks gave us peach blossoms and wild asparagus!

peach blossoms

asparagus

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…. there was quite a bit of water around! These are photos taken 2 days ago…

The Cesse in Agel is normally a dry riverbed - this is what it looked like yesterday!

Same Cesse river - same 'dry riverbed'

Same river, which is normally dry.

Bize being flooded, yet again...

Flooded cellars in Bize...

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My friend Nicola, author, literary researcher and member of the professional food writers’ forum called Eatwords, (we call ourselves Eatworders), asked a food-related question yesterday…

Help, please, literati… I have been given a manuscript to read.   It’s a food history book, and is written in US.   The author discusses French and Anglo Saxon food words and refers to ‘porque’.  I have never seen it written anything other than ‘porc’ in French, but is this some obscure historical way of spelling it?  Or has the author simply made a gaffe, perhaps by confusing it with the Spanish word for ‘because’?

Cansalada – or ‘petit salé’

Living in the part of France where patois (a local dialect with a distinct Spanish accent) is still very much part of daily life, I found that this question presented a challenge…

‘We’ here in the deep South of France, pronounce all our T‘s and S‘s and even our silent E‘s at the end of a word.  (Goodness, it is so easy to do when you’re here a while – even I have now acquired that odd local twang).   Thus, Mirepeisset (the name of our village) is pronounced ‘Mirepeissette‘, neighbouring Argeliers is pronounced as ‘Argeliesse, as is Montoliesse (Montoliers) and Ginestasse (Ginestas).  Even the word moins (as in ‘less’) is spoken with its final S well articulated.  We also say ‘paing‘ and ‘vang‘ and ‘veng‘ instead of pain, and vent and vin

I do not think this is entirely due to half of the local inhabitants being from Spanish descent (having come here as migrant grape-pickers during the early part of the last century), because the accent is rather the same in every village – from Perpignan to Provence (you only need to listen to Yves Montand’s delicious diction in Pagnol’s Jean de Fleurette and Manon des Sources).

Since it is a wonderfully balmy and star-lit evening, and the little restaurant in the square is still buzzing with the influx of diners, I thought I would pop out to the Placette and ask for an informed opinion on the subject of ‘porque‘ – seeing as  this ingredient plays such an important role in people’s lives and daily diet here.  For who could possibly survive without the salted and heavily peppered cansalada (more commonly known as petit salé)?

The ‘habitués’ sur la Placette

Our (by now famous – see earlier posts) 20 odd batchelors are out in force tonight – occupying every public bench in sight.  Some are even seen ‘mingling’ with the Parisian, Bordelais and Lyonnais tourists that have descended for their annual holidays.  I approached one such little group and when there was a brief gap in the  conversation, I posed Nicola’s question…  It was like throwing a cat among the pigeons (or rather the undisputed chat parmi les pigeons).  From the ensuing cacophony I retrieved the following comments…

more of La Placette célibataires

- “Ah beng NONG (local accent), “le porc c’est le porc” (no audible pronunciation of the final c).  “There’s nothing more to it”.

- “Ah si“, (nasal Parisian accent – not too popular here because of its implied haughtiness), “j’ai entendu, bien que très rarement, la prononciation ‘porque’ ici dans le Sud”.  This is vividly and noisily contradicted by the locals.

- “Mois aussi” (pipes up a Lyonnais accent – even less adored here because of its  self-assigned and presumed superior properties) “j’ai entendu les gens d’ici dire ‘porque’…” (Surrounded by so much local talent, he dared not call us ‘natives’ and so described us more politically-correct as ‘people from here’.)  Bad mistake.  Naturally his opinion was completely drowned in a waterfall of passionate disapprovals.  These protests were issued on principle, for what do these ‘foreigners’ know about our accents anyway?  And how dare they have an opinion on a subject as close to our hearts (and stomachs) as pork?

- A Bordelais joins in, unaware of the perils.  (Being from Bordeaux, he’s an obvious target too – don’t they sell wines over there that, whilst being totally inferior to our own sublime Languedoc specimens, they have the culot to charge more for?  And doesn’t that make them even more fair game than Parisians or Lyonnais?   “Moi aussi” he ventures hesitantly, “j’ai entendu porque des bouches fleurantes le terroir…” which translated  means ‘I have also heard porque from mouths with accents that are perfumed by the land‘.

Dead silence in the square.

That was it.  Nobody said a word. And nobody had an answer to that.  I’ve put my foot in it with this question and well I know it.  We’re not just talking about a cat among the pigeons here.  More like un loup dans la bergerie!

Undecided and confused, I retreat. Nothing more needs to be said and tomorrow is another (sunny) day.  My soft-talking sweet neighbour Serge takes pity on me and gentlemanly catches my elbow.  He volunteers that ‘the mountain people’ from the Ariege mountains, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, sometimes say porque with the final Q well pronounced. And then confesses that if a woman would eat messily and spills her food (or wine), she COULD say: “je fais la porque” – as in: I eat like a pig.

There you have it. porque versus porc.  I now need a good shot of something strong to calm my nerves…

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Mirepeissetois of a certain age

Just recently, Mirepeisset’s Mayor Andre Ratia, sent an official letter to the Mayor of neighbouring village Ginestas, complaining that a few of their youths (who are courting some of our young girls) had been ‘impolite’ towards some elderly villagers. Not that they had used foul language or thrown stones or been brandishing weapons they shouldn’t have.  No, it was that they had not shown enough ‘respect’ to the aged.

The Placette

Good manners, it seems, are still important here. They are considered part and parcel of a child’s upbringing, even though the general trend is to think of them as out-dated and unnecessary. My own sons thought it hilarious when some French guys in their late teens formally shook hands when they met up in a cafe/pub. The fact that male cousins or best-friends unashamedly kiss each other on the cheeks, had them in stitches.  Imagine an Irish pub on a Friday night. A well-placed thump on the shoulder is the usual greeting, accompanied with a “Howya, y’old wanker”. This is considered perfectly friendly and amicable in Dublin –  evidence perhaps of the deep-felt fear and suspicion most young Irish men have of intimacy and being too ‘nice’ to each other.  Maybe a lack of self-confidence too of course.

Valentine's menu for the old

Anyway, this respect the many French have for their elders (or could it be that they simply take delight in older people’s well-being?) manifests itself in many small daily tasks and friendly gestures that I witness every day. But there are also  special events and services organised in pensioners’ honour. One of these is a yearly Valentine’s meal for the over-65’s, that takes place in many of the small Languedoc villages. Each year they arrive in their droves, dressed up to the nines, to take part in this annual feast.

The all-out six-course menu this year included puff-pastries brimming with scallops and prawns in cream, seabass with champagne sauce, a pallet-cleansing sorbet well-doused with eau-de-vie de poire, duckbreast with wild mushrooms, a cheese course and a beautiful individual chocolate truffle tart. The entire lot was washed down with copious amounts of wine of course and a rose was presented to all the ladies.

Le Cabaret

But that was not all. The 5-hour-long repas was accompanied by a cabaret that could rival that of Moulin Rouge. Pretty girls in suggestive costumes dance and sing romantic (or naughty) chansons of olden days throughout the meal. What makes it all the more fun, is that the showgirls really seem to be enjoying it too – tickling the men with their feather boas and placing red lips on the bald heads (the resulting marks being proudly carried home as provocative proof of their virility.)

And in between all the eating and the singing and the jokes and the laughter, there is also the dancing to fit in.  Not just a bit of limp shuffling around the floor. No sir!  We’re talking here about waltzes, paso dobles, tangos, cha-cha-chas and even a spot of line-dancing if you don’t mind! I have to admit that the erotic Argentinian Tango has somewhat been adapted to suit the region and the elderly, but the flirting continues and it is quite evident that these oldies do not feel old.

Tangos and Paso Dobles...

In a country where the general retirement age is still set at 55 (that is if you work for the State or semi-State bodies – i.e. anything from the army, the police, fire brigade, civil service, railways, gas or electricity companies, medical personnel etc etc) these people keep themselves young by looking after their grand- and great-grand children, helping their children look after their vineyards, walking, socialising (holidaying, travelling and other such pleasant pursuits if their pensions permit it).  But there’s one thing they all have in common: they enjoy their troisieme age…


Manolo and his Julietta

Manolo is a life-loving, virile Spanish-born 80-year-old who up to 3 years ago kept his 3 girlfriends extremely satisfied. Two are no longer part of this world and so now he has promised to be loyal only to Julietta – whom he calls Marrrrrileeen Monrrrroy! Nuf said.

Jacko chancing his arm...

Jacko, also in his late 70’s and a well-known womaniser in his time, still hasn’t given up hope…

And so life continues, here in the small village of Mirepeisset.  And nobody ever seems to get a chance to be bored!

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a trailor-load of freshly picked grapes

As the vendange 2009 is nearing its end, the air is heavy with the smell of fermenting grapes – a smell that throws me back to the early seventies when I tried making wine from elderberries, and the elation that came with it when the “bubbling’ had started. Only this time the smell is ten times stronger. And it’s everywhere…

From a height I can see the patchwork of fields planted with row upon row of neat lines of vines, some already changing colour. Little plumes of dust rise behind the huge harvesting machines that steadily plow through the lines.  Tractors with trailors patiently wait for their precious load, which they must

hand-harvesting

drop off as quickly as possible at the cellers – for in the heat, the fermenting process starts as soon as the grapes are picked.
But there are still those that harvest by hand.  Firstly, the small, exclusive wine houses often choose the hand-picking method over machine harvesting because the grapes arrive undamaged and the oenologue or winemaker will have more control over the fermentation process.  Then there are those vineyards, either because they’re too closely planted or because they are too steep for machines to access, that harvest by hand.

hand-harvesting

And then there are the many small vignerons that don’t have money to hire a big monster-harvester. Not only do they pick by hand (with the help of their relatives and friends), they also turn any old van or ancient cart into a hickeldypickeldy temporary trailer to transport their grapes to the caves.  These make-shift trailers are often built up with wooden planks so as to take the extra load, and they leak like a sieve. It’s no wonder then that right now, many of our roads are stained a dark deep red and their surface is sticky with spilled grapes and juice.

But nobody minds too much battling through the treacle-like substance on the roads. Nor do they mind getting stuck behind a tiny tractor that snails along the road at a maximum speed of 20 kms per hour.  Because this is an industry that everyone depends on in the Languedoc. And one that everyone after all benefits by…

a grape pickers breakfast

In the past, the Languedoc grape pickers were mostly Spanish migrant pickers who descended on here in autumn in their hundreds of thousands. Today they still come in their thousands to help with the harvest.  Getting up at the crack of dawn they’re in the vineyards as early as 5am.  Not surprising then that at 9.30am they tuck into their robust and traditional grape-pickers breakfast – jambon cru, sauccisons, crusty bread… washed down of course with copious amounts of wine…

sustenance for the hard-working

slicing a boudin

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Well hello there, and welcome to my new blog – a diary from the Languedoc.

I have lived in this sunny part of the Europe for the last 4 years.  It hasn’t been all a bed of roses (there was an issue with termites at the start, which I shall relate later), but it has changed my life – for the better.

My plans for this large house have evolved during its 4-year renovations – it is now a B&B from which I run art and food weeks.

But let me start at the beginning.  This very first part of my story was originally written for and published by the Irish Times, soon after I arrived here in 2005…

vendange a la main

Life in the tiny Languedoc village of Mirepeisset is anything but action packed. Perhaps it is because half its population is of Spanish origin (having arrived here a few generations ago as migrant grape pickers) that its inhabitants have adopted the Spanish manana manana way of life.   Sure, if something can be postponed until tomorrow, why in goodness name would we do it today? Unless of course, it has something to do with the vendange. For when the news breaks that the grapes are just exactly ripe for harvest, everyone knows his and her role. They will work through the night and if necessary, continue the next day, without sleep and without batting an eyelid. For weeks they’ve been waiting for this moment, and for weeks they’ve been ready: cleaning and re-cleaning the gleaming crushers, rinsing out the fermentation tanks, hosing down the floors, waiting for the right moment to jump into action.

The post office, bakery shop and streets hum with anticipation and excited chatter. All those involved in the winemaking business are afflicted with the same passion. And that includes all those that are not involved. And why wouldn’t it?  Doesn’t everyone benefit from this industry-sent-from-heaven? Grannies eagerly offer to baby-sit when young mothers are called in to help with the harvest; wives take turns in providing a sustaining déjeuner for their hard-working menfolk, and everything, but everything is left until the grapes are safely brought in.

the Rigole

It is perhaps also due to the Spanish influence that the village is called Mirepeisset – patois (the local dialect) for a place where one can “see fish”. Not an outlandish name for a place where both the river Cesse and the Canal du Midi (as well as the small feeder canal La Rigole) play host to all manner of water creatures.

Directly behind my house, the Cesse also has a secret: tucked away amongst the trees and invisible from the road, is a pebble beach with clear running water that is deep enough in places for swimming and even diving from the rocks. And then there is La Garenne – a popular place for families to swim an afternoon away.  And whilst in summer the Canal du Midi is thronged with barges and pleasure boats, its adjoining tow paths allow no cars, making walking and cycling safe, peaceful and comfortable.

Even in the searing summer heat (it can get as hot as 40’C!), for the Canal is shaded by tall, Gothic-arched plane trees almost along its whole length, interrupted only by ancient stone bridges, picturesque villages and old (but still active) locks. It goes without saying that along its entire length, from Toulouse to the Mediterranean port of Agde, the Canal offers an uncountable number of reasons to have a picnic, a long, lazy lunch, a pre-dinner drink or a full-blown dinner somewhere beside the water.

The Canal

But I digress. I am here to restore my recently bought Maison de Maître. It has taken a few weeks to get organised but frustrated stories trying to cope with the French système and attempting to fight their way through the maze of Gallic officialdom and bureaucracy have all proven to be false alarms. Opening a bank account, installing a telephone line, subscribing to the internet – all with standing orders (or prélèvements automatiques) in place – were executed without a hitch, in as little as one week. I remember applying for a telephone line in Ireland back in the 1980s – it took nearly a year to be connected! Here, in my house, where there was no previous telephone line, it took six days. Even unlimited broadband was on offer in this tiny, remote village – and for a reasonable €24 a month.

Arranging insurance for the house and its contents, buying a car (a delightful 18-year-old jalopy), as well as organising its insurance and NCT proved no hassle. But it was the job of choosing and installing my own letter box three weeks after my arrival, that finally forged the realisation that I am now truly part of this delightful community.

All I have met and dealt with could not have been more helpful. And welcoming. And honest. And generous. When something went wrong with my car soon after purchase, its previous owners were so horrified and embarrassed that they insisted on paying for the repairs. Whilst many recent immigrants look upon the settling-in period as a series of chores and frustrations, I have enjoyed every minute of the experience.

the house...

But let me get back to the house . . . I have spent a few weeks picking anyone and everyone’s brain for information on how to go about finding craftsmen that a) know their boulot and b) will not take advantage of ignorant foreigners in order to make a quick buck.

Again, I need not have worried. The French are very upfront about it all. You simply explain what you need to have done and the professional will provide you with a devis (or estimate) for the work you want carried out. Obviously, several devis make it easier to make an informed choice.

Thus, the first weeks were spent interviewing potential maçons (builders), plombiers and electriciens. Whatever money is available, choices have to be made. The leaking roof is obviously a priority, whilst the giant roof terrace, though extremely desirable, is not. The dodgy attic floor and cracked walls, due to sagging lintels over the old windows on the second floor, also need urgent attention, as is the repositioning of one rotten poutre that seems to support the entire roof.

window detail

There are other difficult decisions to be made – should I replace the beautifully crafted but delicate original windows (with their intricate details and 200-year-old ultra-thin glass panes) with new double-glazed authentique but nevertheless coarser modern counterparts? Or should I just put on an extra cardigan (or three) and put up with the howling winter winds? I dream of perfect harmony between old and new, in a style that is decidedly modern minimalist. But this will involve erasing the meticulously executed marble and sandstone trompe l’oeil paintwork in the corridors and staircases throughout – an ancient craft, now lost, that required the plâtrier-peintre to plaster the walls with hot irons in order to render the surfaces smooth as lacquer, ready to be applied whilst still wet, with their artistic designs, fresco-style.

window

But I’m not going to think about finances tonight, for tonight feels special . . . Although two of the four floors in the house are habitable (meaning that I can enter the rooms without risk of personal injury), I’m still camping out on one floor: the rez de chaussée (the ground-floor – one up over the basement).

The floor, for the moment, provides me with all I need: a huge unfitted kitchen with large double doors that lead to an even larger dining/livingroom. Off this is a secret larder with a hidden but exquisite wrought-iron-and-stone balcony (perfect as wine cellar-to-be!) which in turn leads back to the hall with its ancient and beautiful staircase to both up- and downstairs. There’s also a smallish bedroom and a bathroom on this floor. Despite (or perhaps because) the main rooms are so sparsely furnished, the atmosphere is simple and serene – especially tonight, with the beautiful plasterwork lit up by soft candlelight that trembles in glass vases in the tall elegant windows.

I’m sitting at a vast but beautiful old oak table (a present from friends who live not far away) with a cheerful shocking-pink African runner across its centre, and eight well-designed, modern chairs around it. I have also bought a small two-seater canape and a modern easy chair in front of the old marble fireplace. There are candles everywhere, some soft Norah Jones in the background and a pastis by my side. Life could be worse…

ceiling

I have settled on my choice of builder. A serious and professional guy who appears to be the only one (out of some half a dozen interviewed) who seems to understand that I want to restore rather than rebuild the house – meaning that I want to keep the beautiful plaster cornices, the delicate windows and those stunning terre-cuite tiles that now cover the attic and basement floors.

Plumbers, however, are hard to nail down to do major work. But they will drop tools and attend immediately to an emergency. So when the existing bathroom presented serious problems of a hygienic nature I had the opportunity to call on two plumbers. First there was Monsieur P, who had been working on a neighbour’s house when my emergency erupted and offered immediate help.

The man was a little dote. I say little, because the top of his head just about reaches my shoulder. But he takes serious pride in his profession. His first task had been an unpleasant one, one that he nevertheless plunged into with great relish. My only reservation was that he had insisted on shaking hands afterwards . . .

But in France, like elsewhere, plumbers earn high wages and can afford to go on holiday frequently. When it appeared a few days later that the drains had not been unblocked, Mr P was on holiday. Enter plumber number two: Serge Grottin – a fortunate man, since if his name had started with a C instead of a G it would have meant ‘turd’.

rugby

Serge too appeared as soon as I explained my problem and he did sort out the problem, though rather drastically: he got rid of the blockages but at the same time removed all the waste pipes which now had to be replaced. Trying to nail either Mr P or Serge down to installing two new bathrooms, proved altogether impossible. Until… I mentioned Ireland and Dublin. “If only I could get him some rugby tickets for a France-Ireland match… perhaps he would be able to fit in the work after all…” Frantic phone calls between Dublin and Mirepeisset ensued and concluded somewhat hopefully. And thus my two bathrooms were installed – quickly and professionally.  I have left Serge’s pencil drawing of Lansdowne Road Rugby stadium on the bathroom wall, complete with arrow pointing to the place from where he would like to watch the match.

Meanwhile in the village of Mirepeisset the days pass in gentle contentment. Like all French villages, the Mairie takes care of the day-to-day running of a village or town. For instance, it deals instantly with anything from car registrations and sewerage to local water supply and road surfaces. There’s no waiting and no queuing – problems are dealt with on the spot.

the river Cesse behind my house

As there are no robberies in Mirepeisset, no drug-related problems nor vandalism, the mayor can devote all his time to dealing with matters that make life more pleasant for everyone – and that includes the elderly and the very young. Since there is no litter either (everyone uses the communal bins provided), village funds go directly towards the efficient running of a recycling plant. Every Thursday the village pick-up truck will collect whatever is placed on your doorstep: plastics, clothing or papers or old televisions – all to be deposited in its individual containers in the decheterie.

And so each day has its purpose. One thing which Mirepeisset regrettably does not boast, is a weekly open air food market. There just aren’t enough people in the village to support it. Those that own a car, visit the markets in surrounding villages or do their shopping in supermarkets. But for those that do not possess wheels, there’s an alternative system in place… At around 10am on a Thursday the loudspeaker on the Mirepeisset Mairie sends out a scratchy message that the travelling volailler (poultry-vendor) and the jardinier with his veggies and fruit are installed on the square. They stay there for an hour. Fridays sees the arrival of the poissonnier (fishmonger) and the butcher, whilst on Saturday the Mirepeissetians look forward to the patissier.

market day

And for those who like to eat the flesh of the noblest of animals, the chevalier visits on Mondays. Minutes after the public announcement the housewives of Mirepeisset are queuing, panniers in arm, to purchase today’s dinner. Despite not doing much business even the chevalier sticks to a schedule that apparently has not changed since 1930s. But then life hasn’t changed here either. If it was in black and white, it could be taken for a day in the 1950s world of Fernandel.

In the middle of the village is a small square, aptly named La Placette. There is one little shop that sells anything from fresh baguettes, newspapers and wine to charcuterie and safety pins. It also offers a fax and photocopy as well as a dry cleaning service. It is the hub of the village. Between it and the luterie (the small workshop of the highly respected violin and cello maker Bernard Ponti) is a little gourmet restaurant (La Taverna) with an outdoor terrace that is surrounded by potted plants for privacy.

the benches of Mirepeisset

And in front of this are two benches, which adhere to strict rules as to their timing and use. In the morning the seats are reserved for the aged – this may be mixed company (ie retired ladies are welcome to mix with the men at this time). Lunchtime is too hot in the summer and most people stick to their shaded houses for coolness and rest. By 4pm the women of the village are allowed exclusive privilege of les bancs – all ages congregate for the serious business of catching up on local gossip. But when the time comes for the ladies to move indoors to prepare dinner, the men come out in droves to take their place on the benches.

They’ll sit there all night, if it weren’t for their wives ordering them in for the evening meal. Some men will return to les bancs after dinner to continue the important discussion on the new traffic sign that has just been erected in the square (two hours of animated chatter), or the advantages of a van over a saloon car (three hours of hot debate), or indeed whether it’s going to be a better year for white than for red wine (at least four hours of serious discussion).

Even at the age of 80, toothless and wrinkled, these men flirt with women and life in general. It is wonderful. And invigorating. This is how life should be lived. They haven’t much and are content with  little. But by golly, they know how to make the best out of it . . .

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