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.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

No Chateaux... no Croissants - My France

Alone in the house, I had been able to rise early (midnight) to listen to the Test Match Special team commentate on the first day of the Test match against Pakistan in Dubai.
The dogs went out dutifully then returned to their beds, flicking the odd glance at me, huddled up in my old djellabah with a cup of tea and plate of Marmite toast alongside the computer.

And then England collapsed....wicket after wicket.....exciting stuff, but not the performance expected of the team rated first in Test cricket.

The light came up, and I went out onto the balcony for the part of the morning I like the best...when the sun rises over the mountain behind the house and hits Grifo Alto across the valley, making that great bluff a soft golden ball emerging from the shadowy woods below.

The solitude ended quickly. I had hardly done the watering and fed the chicks before the Man from ICE was at the door.
ICE - the electricity board - wanted to  reroute its lines along the road rather than crossing private property....fine with me....but needed my permission to cut back two branches of the huge higueron tree which stands guard over the water tank on my land.
There was a consent form to sign, so he came in to the house and accepted a cool drink while we undertook the formalities....and I had to dig out my passport as I had forgotten my passport number.

English! He exclaimed.

I have learned by now not to complicate things by mentioning Scotland on first acquaintance so I agreed.

Big Ben! Houses of Parliament! Westminster Abbey! Trafalgar Square! Nelson!

The Man from ICE was a fan of London...big time. He wanted to go there, but...the money...

He departed and I decided to set up the lap top which I had bought in London.
I looked at looked at me...and I decided to do something else.

The weeding was interrupted by American friends bringing their visitors over for a coffee....
The conversation came round to 'and how did you come to Costa Rica?' as it always does, but on hearing that I had previously lived in France, the jaws dropped, the eyes widened and out it all came!

Paris! The fashions! The croissants! Pavement cafes! Boules! Provence! The food! The wine! The culture!

Slapping down the temptation to say

All good reasons for leaving

Which would have been neither polite nor totally accurate I let them bubble on...but when the house was quiet again I started thinking about my own images of France.....if asked, what would mine be?

The true treasure was the time spent with friends...but that's universal. The sure knowledge that you'll be greeted with a smile is one of the best feelings in the world.

But as for France itself....

Driving back from the hospital in the late afternoons over the plains around Poitiers two sights would always lift me....

The first, lying back from the road, the tiny church of St.Martin at Noize, a place of worship long before St. Hilaire brought his brand of Christianity to the pagans of the area.
Closed for years because of its poor state of repair, locals got together to put it into some sort of order and it is now, once again, a place of worship.
It is a simple building dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries, but has an atmosphere of stillness and peace sometimes lacking in more elaborate surroundings.

Then, soon after, the necropolis of Taize, the dolmens rising from the surrounding has been here a long time which could be a comforting thought after hospital visiting.

And when feeling in the mood for a good time...nothing better than Le Trianon at Saumur...

with Monsieur Jacques in fine form...
and the fellow customers giving the only example I came across in France of the craic. Good times!

And the end of holiday river festival...le Rendez-vous de l'Erdre....the river running into the Loire at Nantes, lined with the mansions of of the merchants who had made their pile from the trade in tobacco and brandy.
This always gave a great day of all sizes and shapes, from rowing boats to a steam tug via gondolas and traditional working boats....jazz bands on the river and in every nook and cranny ashore...the muscadet flowing like the river and teenagers sniggering about 'voile et vapeur'.

Earlier in the year...and earlier in my years..I used to be invited to sail in what was then le Raid du much more elaborate and called  la Semaine du Golfe, up in the Morbihan....a video clip will give you a taste...

Although as far as boats are concerned, the thrill of my life was to be invited aboard a garbare at Nantes
although not La Montjeannaise shown above, and to sail down the estuary on a cold spring day which promised rain and squalls.....a promise duly fulfilled.
Hair plastered to my face, my jeans running dye over my shoes I was absolutely exhilarated as the squall filled that vast sail and a ton of wooden boat lifted her nose and planed!

Back on dry land I have good memories of the troglodyte village at Tourtenay....not least because when taking my mother on a tour of the landing sites where a Lysander would drop off and pick up British agents during the Occupation we heard an elderly man in the group comment to his mate
'She doesn't have bad legs for her age!'...

The current village stands on a limestone bluff which, since the third century has been used as a place of refuge. Part of it has been sold off as a 'police' training area, but in the part still accessible is a wonderful underground pigonnier...
I love the revolving ladder for checking the nests...and I miss the grandad in the cardigan who owned the vines on the land above.

But my most abiding memory is one which I have no photograph to illustrate....and it comes back to friendship.
Sitting under the cherry tree in Madeleine's garden with the others she'd invited to lunch, the tranny playing in the branches to deter the birds and a glass of Suze with ice cubes in hand - all talking politics!

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  1. You've almost sold France to me... except you are not there anymore, therefore, it's allure is lessened.

  2. you reckon I could do 'alternative' tours of France?
    And that was a lovely thing to say...thank you Steve!

  3. It is often better to get away from the tourist hot spots and to see a less commercialised aspect of a country.

  4. Hello:
    Well, we must say that this all sounds like the best advertisement for France that we have ever read. We have never been particularly attracted to France, but these hidden gems sound to be an absolute delight. Perhaps that is the must get under the skin to have the 'real' experience.

    But, friendship, wherever it is in the world, then that is the place to be.

  5. cheshire wife, I so agree!

    Jane and Lance is friendship that I think of when asked about my time in France...but it is the first thing I think of when asked about life in Costa Rica too.

    Hidden're right. So well hidden that you'd be hard put to find out about any of them from the tourist bumf.

  6. I liked this post because for all your wry digs at French pomposity and process, it is good to be reminded of the better aspects. For all its faults I like France too - mid you, my boys groaned this week when I suggested going there again this year for a holiday. But then they are young, and in time they'll come to love it too.

  7. Pueblo girl, I have lots of super memories of living in France....the bits not connected in any way with commerce or government!

    Mark, it's French official hypocrisy which gets my goat....but I'd have to have been blind not to enjoy the things around me.

    Why did the boys groan? I can't imagine that you drag them round things they don't want to see...could you build part of the holiday around activities they enjoy?

  8. I started reading this via Google Reader then got slightly annoyed at Google for not telling me where Grifo Alto was in France - thinking what's all this Costa Rica stuff - so I'd read on thinking that Grifo Alto was a pet name you'd given to a modest colline somewhere in the Grand-Ouest after travelling the seven seas. Thanks for a great post and for pointing me in the direction of Le Trianon next time I am in Saumur. Looking forward to giving it a try very much.

  9. fourmenterian, it's a great place!
    It's on the river frontage facing the island, alongside the cinema....and the owner is a lovely man.

    Sorry about the glad you blamed Google....

  10. Yes, it's taken me hours to get back to this!
    I feel much the same about the beaurocracy.But I have fond images in my head of a baguette, a ripe Brie and a bottle of Chablis in a field somewhere.And Honfleur and Barfleur.

    I followed the link to the cardigan man.Not much of a step from Petain to Sarkozy, is it?

  11. dinahmow, substitute fouasse, Fleur d'Aunis and a Grolleau Gris and you can choose the field!

    Super old boy, wasn't he? He felt the same about both of them....

  12. While there are lots of fab aspects to living in France, the less one has to do with getting involved in either politics or the law, the happier and more serene one can be.

  13. What a beautiful, evocative post. I feel as if I've been transported to both countires in the space of a few moments while I sup my cup of tea this morning.

  14. Splendid!

    I'm forcing Laughing Boy to read this, it might just concentrate his mind.


  15. super post--it is the 'small jewels' which light things up and together with friends make for the perfect mix.
    Do SO know what you mean when someone says " Oh English!" Long given up on that one...far too complicated.

  16. Picked up a link to your blog from an old school friend "fourmentarian" who commented earlier.

    I will admit to being slightly confused at first until I read your "About Me" insert - then all became apparent.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your easy writing style and content and will be most definitely linking in for your updates.

    We've travelled regularly to rural France on holiday over the years...the past couple of times in the Cognac...good to hear a different take on life there.

    Only one thing...from the start of the post I took it you were a Scot. As a Scot myself there was one somewhat puzzling part of the listen!?



  17. Mark in Mayenne, glad you enjoyed it.

    Sarah, yup! In spades.

    Trish @ Mum's Gone To, I suppose this could be called a BOGOF post....except they're both free!

    SP, take him to a sailfest...he won't need medication after that!

    Niall and Antoinette, I like the 'little' places....

    Ken, as a member of a prideful and obdurate race I maintain my right to listen to cricket....we moved south when I was young....but Scotland has my alliegance for rugby, thus shortening my life expectancy.

  18. My favorite memories of France all involve people and doing things with people. We're lucky to have French friends and that makes a difference, though we spent a week with friends from Texas and that was fantastic also. There might be a trip this year, if we can afford it, with the texans, who rent the house and hand out invites. And sometimes they do a canal cruise. We would not have much fun on our own traveling, it 's the people who make it memorable.

  19. Sharyn, do hope the trip comes off!
    You're so's the people, the people, the people....

  20. aah the cricket -- N's face [born & bred Scot and cricket fan] earlier today showed that it has not gone well .... a 10 wicket loss.

  21. Niall and Antoinette, yes, I'll be wearing black ribbons....

  22. What a wonderful post, Fly, funny and affectionate and giving such a good insight into why you stayed in France so long despite the awful downsides of bureaucracy and politics.

    Your memories of France chime with what keeps us going back to spend our summers in a very quiet, rural corner of Normandy - the people and the little places that get under one's skin.

  23. Perpetua, the bureaucracy became much worse in the latter half of my time which time Mr. Fly was too ill to allow us to move easily.

    But how right you are about the friends and the little places which have you smiling while you think of them.

  24. Dear Fly,

    I'm sorry to hear the cricket did not go as you desired. I too loved this post and would like to re-visit France on a holiday. What stops me is that I don't feel comfortable going alone and no-one in my present group of friends has the time or the money for foreign travel. From the bits and bobs of research I've done, it is possible to see parts of Paris, for example, but many of the metro stops would be inaccessible due to stairs, and I don't believe wheelchair taxis are available. Similarly, getting around Costa Rica or Panama presents the same obstacles. England is marginally better due to laws, but there are currently threats to those and many of the supports and services available for persons with disabilities, according to several bloggers who live there. Life here is no picnic either. The one good thing Bush senior did was get the ADA written and passed. As a former expat, I would love to live someplace else but as with your Mr. Fly, issues are complicated. Thanks for the glimpse of your world.

  25. e, your comment made me so sad, as, if only at second hand, I know something of what it is to have physical limitations on freedom of access.
    Though with a leg in plaster I can remember having to argue my way into the parcel lift to get to the court in Poitiers!
    You're right in what you say about Costa Rica...there are laws...and there is some progress in San Jose...but you'd need the shoulder muscles of an African elephant to propel a wheelchair up and down the ramps at road crossings.
    As one asks the people who know.

    Without the building up that winters in Costa Rica gave him...we'd still be stuck in France...shivering and cutting wood. But it was no joke for him doing the journey and he could not have traveled on his own.

    Isn't there a branch of the Alliance Francaise anywhere near you? They might have some ideas to offer.

  26. Nice piece. I've decided after 10 years of battling with the bureaucrats to just live as much as I can in my own happy bubble, take the good things France has to offer and try to avoid the others. A great country to retire to, but don't ever try to be an entrepreneur here!! Love the blog, really trikes a chord!

  27. Kaz, yes, they make it really problematical, don't they!
    I like the idea of the bubble...but in my case there was always some goon with a pin at the ready to burst it...