A Wonderful French Market

Tuesday 10th April

Admittedly it was Easter Sunday, but the market at Issigues was something else.  Despite the unseasonal weather, with rain clouds churning up the skies above us, everyone was in a festive mood.  And this was a real street market, winding all the way up the high street, and into the village square and down at least four or five other roads too. In fact wherever you went there were stalls selling everything you could imagine.  But not like the shoddy market stalls in England where plastic and cheap tools or packets of out of stock food are sold, or piles of stuff bought cheaply from wholesalers on the hope of a quick profit looking sad and neglected.  No, here everything was good quality, well presented, and genuinely interesting.  There were one or two selling clothes or hats, and a few jewelry stalls too, but most were food, and what glorious food too.  There were of course lots of fruit and vegetables, with asparagus, chard, endives, fennel, and huge bulbs of pink garlic, as well as the more standard items.  These were supplemented by charcuterie and sausages and foie gras and cured hams.  There was a huge variety of cheese; I bought one large piece of the most beautiful semi-hard cheese cut from a wheel, I was so excited that I forgot the name of it.

In the town square there was a feast being prepared.  An old grey-green mobile bakery, which looked pre-war was baking the bread, French women were busy stirring huge industrial sized steel tureens of soup and vegetables, a marquee was being laid with trestle tables and chairs for a banquet.  The piece de resistance was a huge open air barbecue.  A raised thirty foot long metal trough filled with massive burning logs over which were suspended about ten huge legs of pork, blackening and sizzling in the heat.  A man was constantly dousing them with water so they were kept moist.  What a sight, what a discovery, what an adventure, and all happening in a really quite small village in South-Western France.

Goodbye Mr. Ed

Monday 9th April

This is another blog written before my departure, so I have no idea when, if ever you will receive this one.   Mr. Ed was a talking horse.  I had completely forgotten about it until I heard a song by David Bowie, one of his most recent I believe.  When Television was in its’ infancy there was a slew of American programmes, not only the detective/thrillers Hawaii 5 0, and 77 Sunset Strip, but a whole batch of comedies too.  ‘I love Lucy’ was everyone’s favourite, with its’ ditzy but glamorous star and her long suffering husband, but there was also the famous talking horse ‘Mr. Ed’, and a great love of mine ‘Green Acres’, about a city dweller who buys a farm in the country, and the mishaps that result, you can easily imagine Steve Martin playing this part nowadays.  Then a little later came ‘The Beverley Hill-Billies’ about a family of almost retards from the country who strike oil, black gold, on their land and suddenly become rich and move, lock stock and old trailer to Hollywood.  Another mid-sixties favourite was ‘Bewitched’ where a very young Larry Hagman marries a real life witch, who casts little spells on all and sundry.  They were all so inventive, and when you look at more recent American comedies such as ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier’, which are all about relationships and angst and living in the modern world, they had an innocence about them that was truly wonderful.  I have never seen any of these comedy shows available on DVD, which may of course be a blessing, as I sometimes cringe at old re-runs of ‘Steptoe’ or ‘The Likely Lads’ on Dave.   Ah, happy days, when we could laugh innocently without looking for irony or cleverness or postmodernism.  So, consigned to the failing memories of such a one as I, we can wave goodbye to Mr. Ed forever.

Written in England

Sunday 8th April

Just as a reserve I am writing this while still in England, so if you are reading this it will be because of poor or no internet access en France.   But it has caused me to look again at my Englishness, this central core of me, and why I feel so quintessentially English.   And yet it is almost impossible to put ones finger on what it is that makes us English; is it our diffidence, our wry sense of humour, our self-deprecation, the fact that we do not take ourselves too seriously, or as I suspect, that we know that we are actually blessed by living in the most wonderful country, so much so that we do not need to shout it from the highest hill, we do not even need to sing along to our national anthem – though we all know the words (to at least the chorus), it is more a quiet confidence that actually almost everyone else envies us.  Why else would we attract so many immigrants, not only economic but intellectual aspirants, who see Britain, (or really, as we all know, England) as a place to want to settle in and to bring their children up in.   And what a momentous decision that must be, when you look at all these brown and yellow face and begin to realise that for each of them, or their families at least, the decision was a momentous one.  I cannot begin to imagine the process of uprooting my home and possessions and going off to live in another country. Even when Edward and I had the house in Tuscany, it was always a holiday home, a place to escape to, and though we felt quite at home there, our real home always was and always will be England.

Chartres et Limoges

Saturday 7th April

Well Chartres was quite nice, though nothing spectacular, but even the smallest of French towns and cities seem to display far more civic pride than do the English.  Each town centre has a vast square or two, with grand names like Place de la Republique, and the streets are more often than not named after General’s from the two world wars or even the Napoleonic era.  And I think that it is the singular fact that the French had a Revolution, even if it was followed by a dictator who ended up crowning himself emporer which makes all the difference.  At one stroke the French dispensed with the idea, if not the actaulite of rulers, both divine and by birth.  The English of course had their Revolution too, but the king was soon re-instated and business continued as normal.  The idea of being a citizen rather than a subject is embedded in the French soul, and in many ways they are a communist country.  Not economically, though they are far more socialist than we are, but in how they treat everyone.  The ideas of Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite are woven into the constitution, and the well-being of each individual is seen as society’s goal, rather than the enrichment of certain individuals at the expense of others.

This becomes self-evident when you see how they elevate all of their municipal buildings; they love grand Mairies’ and Prefectures and Conseils and each town square is smart and well-looked after, small monuments to the idea of being a citizen; one may not have much as an individual, but as a citizen one has lots to proud of.  In England we are rather ashamed of our public buildings, and town centres are for shopping and commerce, not for ostentatious displays of civic pride.  A pity, I really like the French squares and statues and pride in their Gallic heritage; the British are rather ashamed of our once great empire I think.  So, in Chartres we have a grand square, with fountains and large public buildings.  In fact in France, in every town just follow the signs for Centreville to discover what is happening.

And today we drove almost due South for over four hours to Limoges, which is just half way down the country, but south of the Loire, and sunny and warm at last.

Well, we are en France

Friday 6th April

Up quite early (as usual) and down to Folkestone with my friend Julia, and the car loaded with dogs and enough luggage to keep us going for two months, and enough gadgets and little essentials to cover any and every possible contingency.  I do realise that they do actually have supermarche en France, and from my experience much better ones too, but as Julia explained – it is Easter, and France is a catholic country and everything closes on a Sunday, so don’t expect any shops or restaurants to be open on Goof Friday or Easter Monday.  We went by the shuttle, and I must say it felt quite strange, driving on to and through a train in your car.  We switched off the engine and relaxed and waited, and then the strangest sensation as you could feel a slight motion but the car was obviously stationary, only the slowly moving scenery gave away the fact that we were on our way.  In no time at all we were en-France, and driving down very fast very clean auto-routes, with lots of Aires on the way; sometimes these are full-blown motorway services, but more often than not just a very clean toilet and few picnic tables, a great convenience on a long trip, and one wonders why the idea hasn’t caught on back home. Money obviously, someone would have to pay for it.   Our first night is in the cathedral city of Chartres, we have just unpacked a few things in our hotel, and I am snatching a few minutes to write to you before we explore our temporary new home.

Off to France for a few days

Thursday 5th April

I am heading off today for the Dordogne, and although I am taking my laptop with me I am not certain of internet access, so you may not be receiving blogs with the same regularity as you have come to expect for a few days.  Relief, relief, do I hear you shout?  And why not?  I have struggled dear reader to keep this blog going for about nine months, through good weather and bad, through colds and depression, through hectic busy days and bouts of lethargy too.  Many was the time I really had nothing to say, to you or to anyone, but a sense of duty, some vestige of the Victorian work ethic instilled in me all those years ago by Grandma forced me, even at eleven at night when my bed was crying out to me, to write you a few lines.  I will take my laptop with me, and will attempt to write something every day.  So bear with me, and though there may be some slight interruption, internet permitting you will get your daily dose of pessimism, sarcasm and prejudice, interspersed with a modicum of good sense, and maybe a hint of humour.

I am actually really looking forward to the holiday, I have felt so tired lately.  And this is a part of France I am quite unfamiliar with, with its’ Bastide towns and ancient history and the links with English kings in medieval times it should be quite interesting.  My first real holiday for about nine months too, so I think I deserve it.

It doesn’t matter who you vote for the Government always gets in

Wednesday 4th April

One of the groups which Adrian used to play, seemingly ad-infinitum, was the Bonzo-Dog-Doo-Dah-Band, or Bonzo’s for short.  They attempted to inject humour into pop music, with scant success I might add, but Adrian thought they were really funny, so what do I know.  Anyway, digression again – there was one song which sticks in my mind because the refrain was that it didn’t matter who you voted for the Government always got in.  Slightly amusing I accept, but it masked a few serious points; that all political parties were much the same; that once elected no matter how they ridiculed the silly hats and wigs of the ruling elite as soon as they won power they couldn’t wait to try them on (witness the Lib-Dems who were going to be so different, but have ended up just the same); and most important that the establishment eats people and parties whole.  It has the marvelous ability to swallow up and ingest and accommodate the strangest of ideas and turn them into a rounded consensus.  And it isn’t just the civil service, but the whole panoply of advisors, lobby groups and business consultants and party officials and most important of all it would seem, the PR team who manage to massage the original message, the carrot that was dangled, the promises, the aspirations, the pledges even, into some sort of programme for government.  And here in Britain it is managed pretty seamlessly too.  Even the mighty Anthony Wedgwood Benn once succumbed to the charms of Whitehall and while in Government at least toned down his rhetoric to acceptable levels.  And right now we have a Government that bears little resemblance to the one that stood for election only a couple of years (but it seems like an age) ago.  Already they are almost unrecognizable not only from their aspirant selves but from Messrs Blair and Brown and Major who went before them.  So, you see, it is true – no matter who you vote for the Government always gets in.

Sunset seen from a train window

Tuesday 3rd April

I was travelling back from Wales catching the 5.20 from Bridgend.  Don’t ask me what I was doing in Wales, too long  a story to retell here, suffice it to say that in the early evening I was on a train heading due East.  Contrary to my normal behaviour I hadn’t reserved a seat, and was slightly worried that I might have to stand.  A three hour train journey was daunting enough without having a guarantee of a seat.  Luckily I found one amongst the almost entirely reserved section, but it was facing the rear which I hate.  I do love to see where I am going; I also feel slightly travel sick travelling backwards, but a seat is a seat I reasoned and took it rather than scouring the whole train for a better one.  I had a music magazine and my trusty kindle, but neither really appealed to me.  I read for a while but was quite bored, besides the young man who took the seat next to me (I was fortunately by the window) had plugged in a laptop and was watching a BBC thriller on i-player ‘Inside Men’, which I had caught a bit of a few weeks ago.  He did have earphones so I wasn’t too distracted, but actually just seeing the flickering images without the sound was more annoying than if I could hear the words; how the deaf must be frustrated by trying to watch just moving pictures.  I was forced to half turn and stare out of the window and thank goodness I did.  The sun was hanging low in the sky, and just preparing to set. And facing West as the train hurtled East I was in the perfect position to watch as it made landfall and seemed to get larger and larger and a beautiful bright orange.  It started to dip below the tree-line, and then I had this wonderful optical illusion.  The sun being so far away stayed in exactly the same place, the furthest and now almost silhouetted trees, houses and occasional church steeple, slowly moved across its’ face, while in the middle distance trees and houses moved quite quickly and the bushes and small trees next to the train sped past in a blur.  So, all at once I was seeing four different images, the blur of foliage, the fast moving of middle distance, the slow stately sweep of the horizon, and fixed yet slowly sinking my old friend the sun.  I watched for a full hour until the sun had completely gone and the last vestiges of pink had faded to indigo too, and the night came on black and cold.  The best bit was when there was only a faint haze of pinky-orange in the sky and everything was in silhouette, with the orange globes of street lights skittering past.  Quite spectacular.

Blooming Marvellous Magnolia

Monday 2nd April

And now for a fabulous three weeks, but three weeks only folks, we have the blooming of the blooming marvelous magnolia.  This quiet boring little tree that inhabits many a suburban garden quietly minding its own business for forty-nine weeks a year, growing slowly and steadily, but honestly – not that much to look at – suddenly about now, bursts into bloom.  And it always takes me by surprise and absolutely takes my breath away.  Because actually you aren’t looking for it, the tree is no innocuous that you forget about its’ once a year spectacular display.  Too busy admiring all the ground level plants, the crocuses and daffodils, the hyacinths and early primroses.  Then suddenly it is the turn of the trees, the apple and the cherry, in all shades of pink and white tiny flowers that seem to light up the neighbourhood.  But they are all put to shame by the magnificent magnolia.  And the flowers are huge, and on every branch and all pointing upwards to the sky, the buds burst open all on the same day to reveal large spikes of creamy white and pink and dainty yellow, then they swell out from the base, and all at once the petals open to exclaim hallelujah to the very heavens.  The tree is suddenly a riot of colour and each flower a perfect copy of its neighbour.  The symmetry is gorgeous; the whole tree is balanced like a great big birthday cake aflame with hundreds of candles.  It makes you stop and wonder at the perfection of nature.  The petals shine for a few days then they open up wider and wider until they droop under their own weight and in a day or two they are gone, momentarily carpeting the lawn with a blanket of pink and white and palest yellow.  Then it is over for another year; one of natures’ finest displays and the humble magnolia settles down for another year of obscurity, just another boring tree.   The colours are always startling, often the deepest of rose pink at the base and a clear white at the tips or an even gentle pink or warm yellowy white.  Which makes it such a surprise when you open a tin of magnolia paint to find the dullest of colours, a completely nondescript nothing of a colour, almost an apology for or an absence of any real colour.  Magnolia paint must be the most badly named paint in the world.

I am never ill

Sunday 1st April

Am I tempting fate with that statement, I hope not.  But if this is the last ever post on this web-site you will know it was a foolish statement to make.  But compared to everyone else I am actually never ill.  I worked for about fifteen years before Edward insisted I stop, and then I did charity work for many years after that.  In all that time I never had a single day off sick.  At school I always won the book-token prize for attendance, though this was probably down to Grandma and her “Now come on girl, buck yourself up.  Staying at home won’t make you better, let’s be having you.  Come on, you’ll be late for school if you don’t hurry up.”

Of course I get ill, I get a cold every year, but there is a difference between feeling a bit off colour, under the weather, and deciding that you are ill, because it is a decision that you take; to be ill.  At a certain point, either through physical pain or discomfort, or embarrassment, or concern that it may be something worse one decides to be ill, or at least to consult a doctor.  And some people actually love to be ill, they love the cosseting, the sympathy of others, the wallowing in self-pity that ensues from declaring that they are ill.    And why is it such a female trait to love discussing their ailments, in quite revolting detail too I am afraid.  I don’t think that men generally indulge in intimate discussions of the state of their penises as us women seem to love with relation to our genitalia.  I am so fed up of hearing about cystitis and thrush from my girlfriends that I always try to change the subject.  I really do not want to discuss with anyone my own bodily functions, thank you very much.  And maybe it is this natural reserve I have that stops me from deciding that I am ill; maybe it is inherited, my mother though often depressed was never physically ill, and though in her eighties now is still going strong; maybe it is that I walk everywhere, I gave up driving years ago, but maybe it is just luck.  Whatever the cause I simply am never really ill.