Three Years Later

Roll back three years, February 2014. There I was sitting like Dido in the ruins of Carthage amid cartons, packing cases and bubble wrap. The materials goods of my life packed and awaiting transport to France.

I remember the shivers of trepidation as I wondered what the hell I was doing yet a pleasurable anticipation that the move to France would kick-start my life which, truth to tell was a bit stagnant and aimless.

Today a neighbour asked me how it was all going, this adventure of mine and it set me thinking. I’m not going to make comparisons between France and the UK – comparisons are odious as John Lydgate said in a debate about the horse, goose and sheep. So, here are some thoughts.

Life here in my part of France is one of halves (nearly did a John Moxon there and wrote two halves). Spring through to autumn is a hive of activity with festivals, concerts, fêtes, vide greniers and a hundred and one places to visit most of which I’ve yet to see. It seems to be a law of the expat universe that you only get to see your surroundings when you have visitors.

I love the heat of these summer days on my ageing bones and, if the temperature soars over 35 degrees which it did last summer, there is always the cool, freshness of the house to revive me. This is the season when shutters stay resolutely closed during the day and opened at night. At the end of a long hot day I have the choice of two swimming lakes to wallow in followed by a glass of chilled white wine at the buvette.


In case you fear that I spend my life lollygagging around, take heart. I have my routines. Weekday mornings I write. I have my main meal at lunchtime now usually shared with a neighbour and we take turn and turn about for the cooking. Most days I have a siesta and then work in the house or garden until the sun goes down. It’s a routine… but not immutable! The weekends I cut loose a bit.

In contrast to these months winter begins with migration; the swallows that have amused me all summer disappear en masse, the cattle are brought bellowing in indignation off the summer pastures and the foreigners, mainly Brits in this village go back home. This exodus is shortly followed by the appearance of piles of logs tipped in front of the doors of the houses that line the two main streets. These will have to be carried through the houses to the little yards at the back.

The summer attractions are closed and the ski slopes are wakening. The shutter routine is reversed… open during the day and closed at night. But there is always a twilight zone when, if I happen to be walking down the street, I can sneak a surreptitious peep through the windows, lit from inside. Winter is the time when the village wakes late and goes to bed early. The only constant is Carmelite, a very old lady who, winter and summer alike, stands at her doorstep at twilight murmuring to Santa Maria and counting her blessings.

What else is new?

I like the greeting ritual, the “embrace”, a kiss on both cheeks. Once I realised that “baiser” meaning to kiss has an alternative meaning akin to a well-known Anglo-Saxon four letter word, I hurriedly dropped it from my growing vocab.

I have exchanged my smart Ford C-Max for a Nissan X-trail; old but serviceable and hopefully, like me has a few more miles left. It is far more practical for the sort of fetching and carrying I do such as taking home an eight foot solid oak cornice to make a canopy for a bed or using the brilliant search lights, whilst roaming off-piste at midnight, looking for a missing dog.

I can converse pretty well in French although telephone conversations stymie me now and again as do the very thick accents that some of the older villagers have.

I’ve become an adept at managing my shopping around the midi-break when many of the smaller shops are closed for a couple of hours. I fell foul of it so many times and made so many futile trips before I learned to organise supermarket shopping (because they remain open) at lunchtimes and all other shopping either before noon or after 2.00pm.

The famous or infamous French bureaucracy defeats me from time to time. I am still waiting for my Carte Vitale after twelve months. This is my passport into the French healthcare system. Fortunately I haven’t needed access except for the dentist and I guess “the system” is geared to the long wait since I have two years to reclaim the fees I have paid.

All in all I am content. I’ve completed a novel, currently out for editing and plan to publish a collection of short stories myself in March/April. The second novel is in planning stage too. Whilst there’s still a load to finish off in the house, ca marche as they say, it progresses.

I’ve been lucky. What started out as a spur-of-the-moment decision which could have gone seriously wrong has turned out to be probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But if the gods are smiling on me at the moment I know, capricious beings that they are, that they might yet have a sneaky trick up their sleeves to play on me. So I tread cautiously.

PS: If anyone fancies sampling a bit of la vie francaise , my brother has a lovely self-continued apartment in the house available to let, so come on down for a taste.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16714011

Spinning and Weaving

In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.

From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.

In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.

The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.

Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.

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L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

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Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)

The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.

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Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

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Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)

Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.

From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.

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Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers

Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.

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The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.

Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over.  However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.

The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:

“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”

(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).

When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.

To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.

The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.

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Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool  either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.

There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.

Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:

Weavers are worse than Bishops

Every Monday is a holiday for them

The Tuesday they have a hang-over

And Wednesday they can do nothing

Thursday they look at their work

Friday starts their week

Saturday the cloth is not finished

And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.

 

The Versailles of Languedoc

One of my favourite vide-greniers (car boot sales) of the season took place last weekend in the grounds of Chateau Lagarde not far from Mirepoix on the Aude/Ariege borders. As it happened I came away empty handed but not before soaking up the atmosphere. With all the stalls set out, colourful, gay; people and dogs milling around, chatting, buying, selling I wondered if this was the modern equivalent of the medieval fair and market.

Chateau Lagarde and Vide Grenier
Chateau Lagarde and Vide Grenier

In the 17th century, the chateau was known as the Versailles of Languedoc but it has its roots deeply in the Middle Ages and warfare. It perches, unmissable for miles around on the top of a hill just outside the village of Lagarde, on the left bank of the River Hers – a strategic placement since the river was the means of access to the Pyrenees and the plains below. The occupants could always see who and what was coming and going.

The Albigensian crusade against the so-called heretic Cathars brought a pack of land and booty hungry Northern French nobles into the area and after the defeat of the Cathars, Simon de Montfort, leader of this mob, confiscated the chateau and its lands and gave it over to Guy de Levis, a lesser lord keen to reap the rewards of his faithful service to Montfort.

At the beginning of the 14th century the castle underwent a complete makeover – an inscription found reads “Monsieur Francois de Levis, Seigneur of Montsegur and Madame Elix de Lautrec, his woman, built this castle in CCCXX.” Mmm, not sure about the ‘his woman’ bit, sounds a tad derogatory.

Francois had the choice of two castles, that of Montsegur and Lagarde. Since Montsegur is open to all the winds and snow that blow for most of the year and almost inaccessible to boot, the Seigneur (or perhaps ‘his woman’) decided to live at Lagarde.

The most eye-opening transformation of the castle took place in the 15th century when, discarding its defensive fortress role its owner and his heirs began another extensive makeover to take on the appearance of a luxurious Renaissance castle. Three stories high with twenty bedrooms, any number of reception rooms including a drawing room, the Great hHall, a gallery, the Knights Hall and a games room. Décor and furnishings of the most sumptuous.  Later still a terrace and formal gardens were added.

Chateau Lagarde De-luxe
Chateau Lagarde De-luxe

By the end of the Ancien Regime (just before the French revolution) the castle was said to rival those of the Loire and indeed, Versailles itself. When taken to task by King Louis XVI for his poor attendance at court, the owner, Gaston de Levis-Leran replied “Sire, it is obvious that your Majesty has never been to Lagarde.” Risky thing to say to a King whose pride and joy was Versailles, oh and Marie-Antoinette of course.

During The French Revolution the castle was sold as a state possession and since it had once been a fortress it was doomed to demolition.  The new owner demolished all the residential buildings so that he could sell off the stone. The demolition ceased part way and some of the castle was reduced to serving as grain and fodder storage; one part became a forge and those parts that still remained became accommodation for the locals. Over the years the stone continued to be robbed out. Eventually Lagarde was completely abandoned and classified as an historic monument. Today, the current owners are trying at least to stabilise the ruins and restore or preserve as possible.

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Life in France – ‘Tis the Season to be Merry

No, there isn’t a breach in the time-space continuum, the season in question is the start of the vide-greniers – aka car boot/yard sales and I have to admit I am a v-g junkie.

When I moved to France  I rapidly discovered that every week from about now onwards, the v-g’s start. They vary widely and I prefer the small village affairs where there is anything and everything on offer – from great-granny’s frilly bloomers to rusty scrapers for getting the hairs off a pig’s skin – once it had been swiftly dispatched first of course and a load of other ancient artefacts whose purpose escapes me completely.

Oh, the rustling, rifling, poking and picking over in boxes of…well, stuff…only to stand up, victorious holding just the thing you were looking for. The cut and thrust of complex negotiations to get the price down by 50 centimes; the waving of arms, pulling of faces ( you have no idea how many different faces a Frenchman can pull to express his disapproval and disappointment at your offer); I love it.

Among all the trash and gash there are goodies to be found for anyone like me trying to “dress” a room once it is renovated. The room in question this week is my Tart’s Bathroom (or to give it a more genteel title, Guest Bathroom). Granted there is tiling to be done, the bath to be installed – well to be honest it has yet to be totally renovated – but it’s never too early to start collecting bits and pieces together. This bathroom is to be a vision of black, white and silver, with a bit of saucy wallpaper to boot.

Saucy Wallpaper
Saucy Wallpaper

I’ve been seeking out bits and pieces for this room. This is my haul to date which includes a ceramic oil lamp for those lazy soaks, two silvered champagne buckets and a bath salts jar- a gal has so many bits and pieces to store, wrought iron hooks and a pair of opalescent glass wall lights for around the basin.

Goodies haul
Goodies haul

The V-gs are very sociable affairs and there is always time for a cup of thick black coffee, a natter with friends and neighbours (they aren’t always one and the same thing) and a reveal of each other’s ‘finds’.

The serious buyers, (dealers and brocante shop owners) as opposed to flibbertigibbets like me walk round purposefully, like hunting dogs on the scent. Eagle-eyed, elbows sharp and at the ready, their hands reach over your shoulder to whisk away the object you were about to pick up and mull over. You have to be quick to make up your mind; ‘after you’ has no place at a v-g.

Then, when you get your haul home, unpack it, try it out in its designated future place, that is the moment when you find that it is just perfect or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not quite what you were looking for. Ah well, it can go back in a box for a while, it’ll come in handy some time.