A lot has happened in our sleepy little corner of France this past week. Or at least a lot for a place where life ticks along at a slow pace that’s remained relatively unchanged for a century. On Thursday we had an earthquake (yes, a real earthquake!) measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was in between Rochefort and La Rochelle. There was some slight damage and schools were evacuated but there were no injuries.
Then on Friday our tiny village was taken over for the afternoon by a huge amount of gendarmes; they set up a roadblock to stop and check cars in both directions just at the exit on the east end of the village. Spot-checks are the one thing I really dislike about France; I always feel guilty, even when there is absolutely no reason why I should do so. Fortunately this time the two cars passing through the village before me had already been pulled over and so I was waved straight through. I smiled, a very guilty looking gesture I am sure as I passed within two feet of the gendarme who peered at my car, and he certainly did not return my smile! On my way home half an hour later I took a detour and entered the village along a back road. These lead into tiny little lanes which weave their way around the houses in between the old stone walls. It takes twice as long but I was not going to face the roadblock again!
However, there was a wonderful surprise, too. An elderly man lives in one of the ancient village houses, and many times I have seen him standing under the cover of his porch smoking a cigarette. When we first arrived here we would just stare at each other as I passed, then one day I smiled at him and he smiled back and from that day on I always waved and smiled whenever I saw him, and he always raised his hand and grinned back at me. We had this sort of strange but silent friendship. But then I saw him no more. I didn’t know what happened to him, but months passed and I hadn’t seen him all winter; I thought that perhaps he had either moved away or something terrible had happened and I feared the worst. I asked a couple of friends who the old man was but no one seemed to know who I was talking about. But then on Friday he was back there on his porch, as if he had never been away. I waved and smiled a huge broad smile and he raised his hand and grinned back at me with his usual friendly lopsided greeting. I cannot tell you how extremely happy I am to see him again.
Wednesday afternoon, in France, there is no school for the children and after tennis we set off for a garden centre near Royan that sells gold fish or more specifically ‘pond’ fish. We were finally going to put some fish in the pond that we built 10 months ago. They would join the frogs who have found it and who appear to love their new home! We were also there so that the children could buy vegetable plants. Their own choices for their own little gardens. Of course they chose the usual suspects. Strawberries, melons and salad for Hetty. Strawberries, peppers, peas and watermelons for Gigi. Jack chose peas and watermelon and Millie is experimenting with several different varieties of pepper, a watermelon and a peanut plant. Who needs a toy shop when you can buy and grow your own vegetables?
At the check-out there are no brightly coloured packets of sweets and candy, instead there are children’s books. Our attention was caught by the tale of Monsieur Taupe (Mr Mole) and I flicked through, the story of a mole family living their lives in darkness underground. In real life, the mole is not my friend at the moment. I know he eats the bad grubs and means no harm, but he is destroying one section of our lawn and I am finding it increasingly difficult to be forgiving. Rory sits for hours on end staring at the mounds of earth waiting patiently to pounce. Evie can feel the movement underground and uses it as a great excuse to dig, so now we have a double problem in the garden, mole hills and holes. I swear the pair of them are in cahoots and concocting all sorts of wicked plans if they ever do catch a mole.
The vegetable garden has been rotovated and is prepared ready for growing. The children and I have chatted about this on and off for a couple of months now and planned. The idea was that each of them would have their own small rectangle of garden within the potager. They could grow whatever they wished, but they must also keep it weeded, watered and tend to their “patch” themselves. I urge anyone and everyone to grow something with their children or grandchildren. You don’t need a big garden, in fact you don’t even need a garden, you can grow a tomato plant, especially the small grape variety in a pot on a balcony. There is nothing better than allowing children to make the connection themselves between the food they eat and watching it grow, for them to be able to nurture that plant and then pick the fruit and eat it, still warm from the sun is a wonderful form of education. It’s a possession that cannot be ignored, it needs attention but it also gives back.
We can’t really escape growing food here, everyone has their potager, some are tiny, some are huge and how they are maintained by some of the people amazes me; everyday I see the same pensioners toiling away in their gardens, hoeing weeds, planting, tending the soil, and the pride in their produce is immense. I am sure to the locals their gardens are purely practical; they grow everything that will see them through the year. For me, I also find them terribly photogenic.
We also have an American friend staying with us, who happened to train at a cookery school in Paris, but more on that later in the week. I told you, for our sleepy little haven, it’s been quite a hive of activity!
Last but by no means least, today is the 1st of May and in France it is the Fête de Muguet (Lily of the valley). A day when loved ones give each other a little posy of Muguet or a small pot of them. However this year with such an unusually cold April the Muguet have not grown and flowered as they should and apparently supplies are about 30% lower than last year. We have Muguet growing in the garden and I can vouch for the fact that last year on May 1st they were flowering and this year there is still no sign of any tiny buds at all. So instead we are making the most of the lilac which is out in abundance everywhere, the scent is incredible and the colours rich and vibrant, I’m quite happy to sacrifice Muguet for some lilac this year.