Summers In France

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Summer this close to the coast is a time to chase the shade. The gentle warmth of May and June has transcended into a season of heat, when days are warm at each end but a glare to bare eyes at midday, burning unwary shoulders. Time passes slowly as insects drone among thirsty plants, and any traces of life are a shuffle of noise behind shutters ajar to block the sun. Lunches last a long time…

For those who live here, summer is also confirmation of the circle of life, as dusty corners bloom with growth, and colours nod softly at head-height in the sun. The Charente Maritime has a climate so suitable for certain perennials that every street is gaily decorated by valerian, mallow, hollyhocks and swathes of roses, a flower so widespread it seems to permeate every thought with colour and scent. New tendrils of every plant reach out and caress old stone, reaffirming with their touch that special relationship some plants have with ancient buildings.

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The season dries out the damp places, and each turn of a lane reveals a serene scene to contemplate. The area’s sandstone sings with purpose, and every shutter seems to have come from a palette of pastel shades.

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Among the houses, along the quiet cobbled lanes, I walk gently past the hollyhocks, gentle spires of flowers that seem to reach for heaven like a legendary beanstalk. There are purples and blues, whites and reds, but the pinks are the ones I enjoy most, translucent in the setting sun when the light is in the right direction. I adore their spontaneity, an approach to life that seems to follow a rule that simply says, “Grow, grow tall, as quick as you can.” and so they do.

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The ancient builders used stone in all manner of ways, but when I see the lintels they created I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of the masons so many centuries ago. Man’s love of cut stone stretches back into antiquity, but it never lessens my awe of its intricacies.

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Summer also works on the grape-vines, stretching creepers out along wire stays, un-furling leaves and gently burdening each branch with a cargo of ripening fruits. It’s a scene that has been re-enacted hundreds of times, and some of the plants have perhaps been in the soil almost as long.

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Blue is a favourite colour in the area for shutters, and the use of it is as varied as the many shades a pot may hold. Every household seems to favour a certain colour – I doubt it rarely changes from year to year.

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Walk softly through that hour after lunch, when babies sleep in shadows behind closed shutters, and old men nod under the shade of a garden tree. It sounds almost rude to scuff a stone so close to a window, and it is certainly a clue for an alert dog, perhaps snoozing just behind a closed gate, ready to warn a family of a visitor. Not a lot should be heard, just the sound of swallow’s wings, perhaps, or the call of a cricket.

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Grey shutters and grey stone, a shared destiny from a cart that came from a different quarry perhaps, centuries ago. Many farmers dug the stone out of their own land, using whatever they found. Much of the stone used in Parisian public buildings came from this very region, eased across the country on wide green waterways, carefully loaded into flat-bottomed barges. By this house a brilliant red hollyhock nods gently, a reminder of where we are.

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One of the wonders of any French provincial village is the thought that all roads were once built at a width sufficient for a cart and horse to pass another. Here we are, centuries later, still regulated by that width, and the same flowers and plants that bloomed then most likely bloom now, a heritage in situ passed down from family to family. I can forgive the odd plastic recycling bin if it means we can still feel the spirits that linger at each doorway.

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Hidden down even smaller alleyways are the most intimate of scenes, some so narrow the grass must be cut or progress is impossible. The hollyhocks, their roots stretching back under the wall into a crack where the seeds are blown by wind and rain, lean out over humans as they pass. The one below was over 10′ tall.

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The hose lies in plain view, a sign of guardianship and ethics, its user almost certainly replete after a long lunch and perhaps busy sewing or reading, waiting till the mid-afternoon sun starts a slow descent into a western sea.

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Rain is intermittent in this season, and short grass dries and turns yellow quickly unless watered – a routine typically reserved for the prettier things in a garden.

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As the afternoon progresses, so clouds pass by, offering a respite to those working outdoors. Today, the church in the background has a service every third week, a far cry perhaps from the activity that may have surrounded it 900 long years ago. It is a place of worship, comfort, refuge and safety, and like all of the churches in this region it is massive in construction and character; each of them is a reflection of the devotion and sacrifice of the small populations that painstakingly built them, month by month, year by year, one bag of coins after another.

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I wonder how many lanes there are in France labelled “Rue de L’Église”? I think it may rather a lot!

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And this, the former vicarage, now a comfortable family home, where time is marked by the ringing of the church bells next door.

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Have a wonderful week and in these turbulent times, stay safe. XXX

 

20 thoughts on “Summers In France

  • Susan, I just wanted to take a moment to tell you that your photos are just incredible. Additionally, you are such an excellent writer. The phrases and words you use to describe what you are seeing while taking the photos is so lovely and deeply expressive. You are so talented! Love your blog.

  • Oh to see all that beautiful stone! It has held up so well over time, which speaks to the quality of the work of the masons who first made those homes.
    I’ve tried to recreate that in my home in the states, and while i love it, it doesn’t hold a candle to what I see in these pictures. You’ve captured it well!!
    We can’t wait to be able to travel to France again; until then, thank you for the beautiful pictures so I can dream and remember the great times there.

  • Hello my friend! Beautiful photos as always. I get a lot of pleasure from just looking at them- thank you! As for my next trip to France… who knows? But hopefully it will happen. All the best.

  • Today we were reminiscing once again of our last time in France! We are ready to sell the house, rent a small apt. here & spend 6 months in Europe & 6 months here. We love our home here but we miss the European heart-beat & culture we grew to love in our 43 yrs. abroad!
    You are a very expressive writer, making all things interesting. Thank you for sharing such insight & beauty w/us. Hopefully we will meet again.

  • Thank you again for your lovely pictures! The colors of the hollyhocks are gorgeous against the stone buildings. Love your blog and writing.

  • Susan, thank you so much! Beautiful photos and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your lovely community. I dream of being there! 💖

  • From half a world away I enjoy your use of metaphor to bring to life your midsummer village. The pictures you paint with words complement and enhance your photographs. I know I will never live in your continental haven but, after reading your blogs, I always feel as if I have been wandering about with you.

  • Your photos are so wonderful….I could feel the sun hot upon me and the call of the birds, the hum of a bee as I walked along with you admiring the stone, the flowers, and the day in general. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful journey. It was the perfect end to a not so perfect day. Stay safe as well.

  • What a wonderful read to wake up to in the midst of our dry winter! Beautiful photographs as always and your narrative is delightful!

  • This year above others most of us live within a feeling-world we may not have noticed before . . . Your photos seem to talk to me about the houses lining the streets and laneways you walked for us . . . : ‘Yes – go ahead and look! This is how we are. This is how we have always been. If you take us thus – stay . . . if you would like to change something ‘your way’, you better do that elsewhere . . .whatever happens away from here has nought to do with us . . . . so, look, you are welcome . . . .Well, my feelings walking alongside you and your camera . . .

  • Susan,
    I walked every step with you, slowly, patiently, amongst the hollyhocks and dried, crisp grass underfoot, in anticipation of the next step down the lanes. Well worn paths made centuries ago and yet they carry us on our journeys today.
    Beautifully written. Suzana from Australia

  • Lovely observations with your choice of pbotos. I live on the edge of a small French village and I love the way the summer flowers contrast with the stone walls at my house and the rest of the village and throughout France. It always makes me smile.Simple is best. 😊

  • Susan, I’d like to LIKE every comment made before me – I nodded along and smiled with agreement. You DO have many talents and qualitites; two of the many are a writers vocabulary and a really good eye for the ‘little things’ attracting your photographer’s interest. You see what I see too, daily, in my place and country, tiny ‘happenings’ others don’t take in, but giving me moments of happiness and contentment. Every day thus offers me some consolation, some glimpses of something good and enjoyable…. and you catch them with your camera as well as telling those not so fortunate what you see and experience. Thank You for this.
    as for the lovely and surprising hollyhocks – I had them in Devon, UK, but they wouldn’t grow in France where I lived. I tried it multiple times, with organic, wild, cultivated and dearly sold grains – NOPE, no joy to be had….. So enjoy them where they choose to grow (mostly just wild in nooks and crannies) and do’t be sad if they choose not to!

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