All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Looking back, not forward

french larkspurImage by your neighborhood librarian via Flickr

It has always seemed a sort of frowsting about month to me, January, with only the indoor plants to liven the scene.

Can't do much in the garden, too early to start off the half hardy annuals, and in these days of eBay there is no longer the anticipation of the box of seeds arriving in the post to cheer the winter day with thoughts of Nantaises Ameliorees or Bedfordshire Fillbasket. These days, little packets arrive all the year round, in response to impulse buying, rather than undergoing the annual ceremony of assembling all the seed catalogues and working through them for the definitive orders.

Arriving in autumn, the catalogues would have been hanging around for a couple of weeks, old favourites and a few newcomers, before a rainy dark afternoon would seem the ideal time to clear the table by the fire and lay them out for proper inspection. This, at least, was my way of doing things when in the U.K. but it survived only in truncated form when I moved to France.

M. Untel saw to that.

I have spoken of M.Untel before, defrocked gendarme, expert in all things bibulous and trafficker in untaxed wine,


but it was in his role of seed rep that I first made his aquaintance.

I was poking about in the barn in the first autumn after my arrival when a car pulled up at the gate and sounded its' horn. Repeatedly. The first honk got no reaction, but by the fourth, I was on my way to the gate, loaded for bear.

A large man, face an unforgettable shade of brick red, like the facade of Hampton Court, emerged, holding up a hand as if stopping traffic.

'You the foreigner?'


'I see you've been making a garden out the back.'

By the amount of cars that had stopped for a good gawp while I had been turning over the sods of couch grass, it was a wonder it wasn't headline news on French television. Some had even got out for a closer gawp.


'Well, you'll have been spending too much on seeds. I'm part of a co op...small gardener's stuff, you know, and I can get you seeds a lot cheaper than going to the shops. Robbing bastards, they are.'

The man had unerring sales skills. First, I love choosing seeds and second, I love saving money on something.

I invited him in for further discussions and he promptly plunged back into the car...for his catalogues, as I supposed. He emerged with, yes, the catalogue and assorted papers but also with a six pack of wine....uncapsuled bottles in a sort of galvanised milkman's pannier.

We headed for the house and cleared a space at the table.

'Where do you keep the glasses?'

I brought out two and he neatly opened a bottle. It had a sort of hollow plastic cap and he used a rifled plastic plug to get at the contents. He saw me eyeing it.

'Now this is fine for wine you don't want to keep...and a lot easier than putting in corks. Look out for a pack of these when you go you a fortune.'

Well, I wasn't at the wine bottling stage then, but I bore it in mind and later trial proved him right. I use them for my half bottles of epine...never last long enough to need a cork.

He got down to business. We discussed the nature of my soil. We discussed what I wanted to grow. He told me what I ought to be growing. He opened a second bottle.

He then showed me the catalogue. He made suggestions about varieties for this area. I made an order. He opened the third bottle.

He pointed out that I had not ordered any flower seed. I pointed out that I did not yet have a flower garden.

'You're a woman. You have to have flowers. Here, you get a free packet of flowers with your cardoons...take some larkspur and by keeping the seed you'll have enough to cover the whole place in a couple of years.'

He rose to go, placing the empty bottles back in the pannier.

'What about paying you?'

'When the seeds arrive. Never pay for anything in advance....that's something else you'll have to learn.'

He departed and I wondered if I had dreamt the interlude, before tottering out to sleep it off in the deckchair. I awoke some hours later, distinctly chilly, but not in the least hungover.

A few weeks later he returned, bearing seeds and the pannier. Luckily, this was a one bottle job, but I did say how surprised I had been not to have been hungover.

'Ah. That's because I'm careful who I buy from. Some of them lace the whole thing with so much sulphur you can even smell it. That's what does for you, additives! Buying supermarket wine as you do'....eye passed critically over my stock.....'you're just asking for trouble.'

Over the years, I began to look forward to his visits - official, about seeds and unofficial - he kept a close eye on my garden from his car and when he had a glut of whatever it was that I didn't have he would deliver a large carrier bag. And the pannier.

It was he who warned me not to go into town on a Friday in November and December, as the gendarmes were making up for lost time in handing out fines before the end of the year.

It was he who showed me how to change my land from being classed as agricultural to being classed as being for leisure purposes.

It was he who introduced me to vignerons, washing machine repairmen and wood suppliers. Thanks to him, I got local's prices, not rip offs.

He gave me the entree to local life. A great gift, and beyond price to a foreigner finding her feet in a wholely strange society.

My front garden was swiftly covered in larkspur and descendents of the first packet of seeds are still with me, many moves on.

I used to see him from time to time when visiting friends in my first village....older now, the high colour even more prominent against his greying hair, asking what I was growing, how was the soil, had I had rain......and always time for a drink.

Then, last time over there, my friends' neighbour dropped in for a chat and happened to mention that M. Untel was moving back up to the north of France, whence he had originated, years ago. His wife, that shadowy woman more rumoured than observed, had died, and he no longer wished to live where they had been happy together.

The neighbour was censorious.

'He must have led her a life, always drinking the way he did.'

I have no way of knowing. But to me he had always been a 'verray, parfit, gentil knyght' and I suspect he had been so to her also.


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  1. a lovely portrait of a kind man.
    much appreciated.

  2. Zuleme, he's a lovely chap...but for the censorious, he was just a drunk. What they missed!

  3. Oh what a treasure he turned out to be. What a character. And how sad that he is moving away. You'll miss him I'm sure.

    It's a gloomy time for gardens. Ours isn't established yet. We have some young trees, and Mr Ayak cleared all the weeds and debris when we moved here, but at the moment the weeds are flourising...they are higher than the trees. I made attempts at weeding every day when they started, but the rain got the better of me and they seemed to grow overnight. I also have arthritis which makes weeding painful. I can't bear to look at the garden at the moment and can't wait for Mr A to return and have another go at it. The plan is for vegetables this year..but as your M. U says...women must have I'll have a few I think.

  4. Life is better for some of the people we meet by chance - not everyone is a shark

  5. I really relate to your introduction. There is something of a zen-like meditation in poring over seed catalogues, envisioning the flowers in their places in the garden, and the veg on your plate.

  6. Ayak, such a kind man! Drink might have been his problem but he didn't make it a problem for others...and I'm pretty sure he didn't think of it as being a problem anyway!
    What about roundup for the garden?

    Mark, chance on my part, ingtent on help out the new arrival. No, of course, most people aren't sharks...that is what makes it so depressing watching them being dragged under by those who are.

    Cogitator, I have always loved doing just that, since I was a small child 'helping' my father.

  7. Rays of sunshine can often emanate themselves from under many a dark cloud. He came venturing gifts, you got much more than the wine.

    I am sure he was much loved by all those about him.

  8. Jimmy Bastard, he was well liked by the unpretentious, but an object of derision to the whited sepulchres of the area.
    He taught me a lot about how to get on in my new life from sheer generosity of spirit.

  9. Disa, I do apologise for not taking your comment, but I could not find any way in which to translate it.

  10. He sounds lovely - I wish I knew someone like him!

  11. Roz, a super guy, yes, but you have to be aware that by being aligned with him and his friends, I was immediately regarded as unaligned by the bourgeois of the area.
    It was a different era, when in that commune there were deep divisions between the mass going and right wing voting part of the population, and the rest. He was the rest. So, then, was I.
    Don't think I missed much.

  12. He sounds like a wonderful neighbor!

    We had a great pair of neighbors a few years back. I miss them. They left for a house without any grounds because it was easier to take care of.

    The husband had ten green thumbs. In fact, he may even have rivaled my mother-in-law in that area. I used the same seeds and followed the same directions, and still nothing really grew.

    Over the years I learned to quietly follow Mother Nature's lead. Meaning, if it worked I did more of it. Even if I could only get whatever it was to grow in one spot.

    Still, I get a yearning when all the seed catalogues arrive.

  13. Every village should have a M Untel - especially if he helped you avoid the rip offs. A local Frenchman here 'helped' us and we got royally shafted. He must be very much missed!

  14. Mary Anne Gruen, a good neighbour is without price....I only once had a bad one and it was surprising how disruptive that could be.

    Frances, yes, there are plenty to ´help´, I find, in the sense of helping themselves to your goods and money and the thing is you´re not expecting to be ripped off and you don´t see it coming.

  15. That last bit brought me to tears, what a lovely soul you met! I do hope at some stage you make it 'Up North' and see him again.

    I sorely miss seed catalogues. I live in a place here in Brittany that has no garden, just several overstuffed window box areas full of herbs in clay pots and some indoor plants. I had a lovely big garden in the UK and one day, again, I'll have the place to grow, to plan, to dig in the earth again.

    Thank you for such a lovely read and weep.
    (That's a good thing, by the way.)

  16. Kitty, I do hope you´ll have your garden again..I would be lost without mine.

  17. Fly...what a great of the best I think (of yours that I have read so far). Really enjoyed that - several times over. I read between the lines that he represented the "old" (l'autentique) France which is perhaps disappearing before your very eyes?

    Do you recall how they prononced "l'autentique" in the Manon des Sources film...with the emphasis on the "e". That has stayed with me for years. Bless you for reminding me of that. (I love that film and its predecessor.)

  18. Hadriana, he was part of 'old´ France, certainly, and it had its´downsides too, that 'old' France, but, as you devine, I prefer it to the modern France...