The washing line outside our house here looks as if we’ve befriended a colony of gay pygmies, in that it consists almost entirely of very small items in pink and bright yellow. The reason for this drying-in-miniature tableau is however far more straightforward: my grandaughter Lyla is in residence – with, I’m glad to say, her parents, as the little lady is only five months old. She is, as we say in Manchester, a little belter: she smiles, she giggles, she eats, she sleeps, and we’ll draw a veil across the other things she does on a regular basis.
I am now (tentatively) declaring Spring officially open. There are buds on the fruit trees, within which one can see petals trying to poke through. The brown, bare hedges are slowly putting on clothes of diaphanous light-green. The love-in-the-mist – a weed really, but with wonderful cornflower-blue blossom – is sprouting through at the edge of every pathway. And the halleana honeysuckle on the south wall is thrusting forth confidently. Before too long I’ll be wishing I had some napalm to keep it under control: it is unkillable and, when it mixes with the Chilean potato vine at the height of summer, gives off an amazing early-evening scent alongside a mix of white and yellow flowers. It’s a grande bouffe for the senses, and yet another reason why I love this place.
We live close to a small town which was, around 1900, a thriving market centre with every kind of shop and other emporium. Cobblers, hairdressers, grocers, butchers, fishmongers, cheesemakers: it had the lot. The First World War memorial in the main square offers a partial explanation of what happened to the shopkeepers: they went to the trenches and never came back. After that war to end all wars ha-ha, this area of haut Agenais went into decline, until two years ago our town finally lost its butcher and even the pharmacy. Now it’s really a village wearing the oversized and tattered garments of a town: faded signs above boarded-up shop-fronts stare sadly onto a once rather grand main street. On each side of it, there is peeling paint and rotten wood, disturbed only by the huge camions that clatter past on their way to somewhere else.
But at least we have our branch of Petit Casino (a big supermarket brand here). The man-and-wife baker team who took it over three years ago – alongside their task of getting up at 3 am every day to cook baguettes, shape boules of bread, and fashion croissants – have improved it greatly. The little lady in this team is a gem: one of those oddly all-knowledgeable women in rural towns who dispense wisdom on a daily basis. For years I have struggled to open those flimsy bags on rolls that one finds at fruit and veg counters in shops. Last week she taught me the secret of how to open them instantly. I would tell you, but if I did the Societé Secret de Sagesse Rurale would seek me out and kill me, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you a short anecdote about starry-eyed Brits in southern France.
When my wife and I first came here fourteen years ago, there was a lady called Yvette in charge of the épicerie. It was a boiling-hot summer of the kind that soon persuaded us to invest in a pool, but very temperamental: we would have thunderstorms with high winds and then calm, and then without warning a cold grey day followed by three more of blistering heat. I pondered endlessly about the nature of this cycle, and couldn’t help noticing that, when I mentioned to Yvette that the weather was not sur, (reliable) she would say with absolute certainty, “Don’t worry m’sieur, tomorrow we shall have fresh winds and pleasant heat”. Sure enough we did. If I went into her shop at 5 pm to say I was looking forward to a barbecue in the balmy evening heat, she would warn, “Non-non m’sieur, we are going to have a thunderstorm”. And bang on schedule three hours later, the heavens would open.
So one day – when things were slow in the shop, and I thus felt able to raise the matter – I asked her where she had learned this incredible skill for sensing the air and making meteorological predictions. Yvette stared wide-eyed back at me.
“B’ais m’sieur,” she said, “I watch the weather forecasts on CNN”.
As I’m fond of saying, in the end it’s all bollocks. But before the grocery store and the bakers were merged into one, there was a boulangère across the street called Sylvie. She had a bouffant hairstyle piled so high, I used to think she might be the long-missing Fourth Ronette. Sylvie really did engage one in philosophical debate on the nature of being and the meaning of existence – usually while a long queue was building up behind. She would wax lyrical about Dumas, recite lines from Molière, and recount her personal view about why Charles De Gaulle was the greatest man of all time. And then without warning would come the words “That’ll be four francs fifty-five please”. One was dismissed. The lesson was over.
Years later here at the house, we hired a painter – now long retired – Monsieur Biason. Like Sylvie, he too would on occasion talk at length about the influence of the novel L’Etranger on the social policies of the Fifth Republic. I was ashamed that I had never read this famous existentialist classic by Albert Camus, and thus rushed out to buy a copy so I could keep up with (and contribute beyond nodding) to these discussions. But the painter was always one step ahead: what, he asked me, did I think of A la Recherche de Temps Perdu? Now the problem here was that, while I did actually know the Proust novel, I had never proceeded past the second volume, largely because I thought the hero something of a drip for loving the heroine. So I offered this opinion to M. Biason, and he looked at me in the manner of one forced to converse with a brainless vole. Our relationship was never the same again.
There may be many things wrong with France (and the French) but there is nothing whatever wrong with their education system. There is also very little wrong with this house which has, for the time being, become my home. My main problem with it is the sense of being landlocked: I do need sight of the sea, and the joy of swimming in it, on a regular basis. But as and when I do sell it – and I may be forced to – it will be one of the bigger wrenches of my life.
Enjoy your weekend.