When I fantasized about living in France many years ago, I imagined a shared passion with new found French friends for the simple pleasures in life; I never dreamt it would actually come true.
There’s a hint of spring in the air this week, and all around us our neighbours are at work on their land. January is already but a memory; the days are getting a little longer and dusk falls a little later each evening.
On Tuesday we reached a staggering 16C/61F, incredible warmth for the last day of January. Our first daffodil is in flower, we have primroses and violets blooming and the blossom on the plum trees is not far away. Roddy has already seen the first of the early bumblebees (Bombus pratorum) amongst the emerging flowers.
and the gendarmes (Pyrrhocoris apterus) are on the move, so called because apparently there is a fanciful likeness to the uniform worn by the gendarmes (police) at the end of the 17th Century!
With so much activity it’s easy to forget that today, the 2nd of February, is actually the midpoint in winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring Equinox. But for all the tiny signs of warmer weather the landscape still had a distinct wintry feel.
Making the most of the warmth we have headed out into the garden and it feels good to be able to amble feeling the sun on our faces rather than a hurried dash as we shiver in the cold.
Some radical winter pruning has been required and the centre of attention are the very long line of hazel and cob trees which run down the middle of the garden.
One of our very best friends in the village is a Paysagiste, a landscape gardener; he is a very knowledgeable man and I have picked his brains on many, many occasions. I am always asking him for a little bit of advice, how I should do this or that. He has lived in this area all of his life, he knows the soil, and he understands the climate and which plants thrive here. It has been something of a mystery to him as to why our hazel and cobs never produce any nuts. The trees have catkins, they look extremely healthy, and they are neither too young nor too old; however, they remain resolutely nut-free. A radical prune will certainly not harm any harvest, as we have no crop to start with! But the secondary reason for this major job is to provide a little extra light.
You see, on one side is the chicken garden, and on the other a more formal garden with a long herbaceous border. We believe this was established many decades ago, and it is edged by a lovely old cobbled path. But alas, it is this border that is now in semi-shade, the flowerbed faces north. Theoretically, this is not a problem because it also gets both easterly and westerly sun, and morning and evening light. However, the long line of hazels and cobs to the south have kept out a great deal of light during the summer months when the sun is high in the sky; but I hope that once they have been cut back it will once again benefit from that summer sun too. We can see where the trees were once pruned on the branches themselves, some time long before we bought the house, and we’re going back to this height.
We’ve worked hard at this all week, it’s a big job and we’re taking off at least eight feet. Yesterday afternoon, Annie, our neighbour’s mother-in-law, popped her head over the wall to say ‘hello’. Annie lives about twenty minutes away but often we see her next door as she helps her grandson with his chickens. At her house she has an enormous garden and like most of the local French I have met, she is a fountain of all knowledge. She nodded approvingly towards the hazel trees we were working on, and said, “My neighbour grows a few hazels commercially, and he was pruning his back today too, to the exact same height”. My heart sang with relief; this was high praise indeed, we were obviously doing just the right thing.
We often ask Annie for advice, and yesterday we sought her experience for something else, too. Our rooster Fritz is sadly suffering from a very injured leg; he had a fight with his younger counterpart a couple of days ago and he’s been in the sickbay since. We picked him up and took him over to show Annie for she has frequently helped us with chicken-related problems.
We asked what she thought we should do, as we had already prepared ourselves for the worst. Annie doesn’t beat about the bush, so you can imagine our shock when she said “You must save him at all costs!”. In the past we have taken a chicken to our local veterinarian, sensed the unseen smirk and silent whispers about les fous anglais (the mad English), and retreated in shame at our pathetic feelings for a condemned bird. Who would take a hen to a vet, ask the French, typically?
We fully expected Annie to tell us to put him out of his misery and to prepare him for the pot (her pot I might add, because despite being a farmer’s daughter, I just wouldn’t be able to eat him). However, it just shows how wrong one can be, for on this occasion she felt sure it was a damaged tendon and that he could very well get better enough to lead a life on one limping leg.
Meanwhile, her husband was quietly working on his grandson’s hen-house roof. We exchanged bisous, commented on the weather, and asked him to pop over and check we had been pruning our vines correctly; last year with his advice we had a bumper harvest. All was well – we’d done the right amount of pruning in the correct places on each vine.
This is just as I hoped our life would be, with easy friendships amongst amazing, real, people – where life consists of seasons, growth, worn but comfortable clothes, a car that might not be the latest model but always gets us from A to B and a house that might have a window that occasionally leaks and a draughty front door. I cannot tell you how happy and content we feel here, nor how welcome we have been made to feel. When I speak my accent might be a little different but I don’t feel like an outsider, I feel at home.
A sad but wonderful thing happened this week. Roddy was perched 30’ up atop a ladder on the side of the house, peering into the innards of the satellite dish, when a man in his late 50’s shuffled to a halt in the entrance to the gate, peering inside with curiosity. The gates were most unusually wide open and Roddy watched intrigued as the man stopped to gaze. There was something about the situation that made Roddy start down the ladder, and as he did so, a woman came into view and tried to pull the man away.
Roddy wandered over to the gate and gently asked if he could help.
The man looked at him, confused, and the woman spoke up instead. “I’m sorry, he just wanted to look inside, we’ll go…” and her voice trailed off as the man pushed a little into the drive. It was at this moment that Roddy realised the man was obviously not himself and perhaps was suffering from something unseen, which indeed proved to be the case.
“I,” stammered the man quite abruptly, the words rushing out, “I was born here,” and turning to the little gîte, he pointed and continued, “I was born in there, 58 years ago; my father was the farmer here for the owners of the house,” and with that he swept out an arm to encompass all around him. Roddy stood there stunned in amazement.
The man’s wife shuffled a little with embarrassment, and plucked at his sleeve, pulling him away, but Roddy wanted to talk with the man, and invited the couple in to look around.
The story continued in fits and bursts as the gîte was duly visited, and continued during a tour of the garden that followed, much of which has changed in the intervening 40 odd years. The man pointed out some features which were new to him, and lamented the passing of others. His favourite tractor-shed had gone, and so had many trees (as though we needed more!). Roddy said later it was so sad to see someone so relatively young with the first signs of Alzheimers, a recent diagnosis which explained much. It was also heartbreaking that the man had so few memories, and seemed at a loss to explain or understand what had happened since he had last been here.
It was his wife who gave up most of the details. The man’s name was Pascal, and he had indeed been the son of the farmer, spending most of his childhood in the little cottage alongside our house, before moving on in the 1970’s. Pascal had eventually gone to sea for a living, working as a carpenter on freight ships for much of his life, but he’d sadly suffered a work related accident some ten years previously with some solvents in an enclosed space that had left him with brain damage. Now he lived in a small house further down the village, his wife looking after him full-time. It turned out that they often passed our gates on their walks around the neighbourhood, but this had been the first time they’d been by when they had been open.
Roddy suggested taking a photograph of them to sit on their mantel, promising to print it out and put it in their letterbox. As they left, Pascal’s wife turned to Roddy and with tears in her eyes said that the visit was something that would not be forgotten, a culmination of a burning desire on Pascal’s part to go through the gates, back to his childhood, something he has wished for each time he had passed the gate on the couple’s walks through the village over the years.
I would love to have stayed and talked to him too, but I was, as is far too frequently the case, already late to collect children from school. I suspect we will have them to lunch this summer, and hope we can learn a little more about the history of the house and the ancient 15 hectares (long since sold off) that once fed a village.