Thursday, March 27, 2014

Matters Canine, or the Tale of Everydog

We do not own a dog. 

In fact, this is the dog that we do not own. His name (or one that he answers to, given by our French neighbour whose dog he is also not), is Pepsi. 

We buy biscuits and chewy treats for him. He is gentle of mouth, and his table manners are excellent. He comes into our kitchen and sits to be hand fed, and he will keep us company in the garden whenever the need arises. (His or ours is debatable.) 

He brings a friend for afternoon tea, and the pair of them lurk about in the sun on our doorstep looking hopeful until we give in. Which we do. 

This proves that we are a) soppy and b) English. 

The French attitude to dogs comes as something of a shock to subjects of Her Britannic Majesty (as we all too often appear in the French press).  A dog is an animal that lives in the garden, if the fencing is up to it, where it is frequently ignored for most of the day. It may, but may not, have access to a shed or garage should the weather be inclement.  It is rarely walked, and may not know how to behave on a lead – and certainly not off it. 

Our visitor, as far as we know, is a farm dog who prefers to be elsewhere. One day we set off for a walk, and along came Pepsi, happy to be with company.  All went well until we passed, as one must, a field of cattle. The little chap the size of a corgi ran amongst them barking his furry socks off, and generally showing them who was boss. It was a toss-up whether the cattle would stampede or he would be trampled to death – and there was nothing we could do about it. He doesn’t wear a collar or identity tag; there was nothing to grab, and no leash to hold. 

Only by walking away shouting his name did we manage to get him to follow.  Note to self – don’t take village dog on country walks. 

In fact, to the canine community, we have somehow become known as the doggy tuck shop - though it is a false rumour, as we confine our treat-giving to Pepsi and his lady friend. It is possible, on any given day, to see a venerable golden Labrador, who obviously sleeps in a cattle shed, in the garden too; also a rangy black and tan number, and the two often travel together. They are all good natured animals out for a constitutional (though the wandering Rottweiler we had once was not assessed for his friendliness) with, presumably, owner consent. This in spite of the fact that a busy road runs right through the middle of the village.

On one recent occasion , I fell off the steps that lead up here while trying to watch a full-grown St Bernard that was wandering in and out of the Little House.  You’d think that you’d notice a dog that size missing from your garden, but it’s not the first time he’s been here. He strolls up from the next village 4kms away. They have a good fence there; they just leave the gate open.

We also had a neighbour’s boxer dog chasing the same neighbour’s cat, but the man kindly erected an electronic dog barrier that prevented a repeat. He’s since moved out. The cat stayed. 

You may wonder why we don’t have fencing around our garden. On the one side we have a hedge. The shorter dogs have made holes under it. On the other side we have nothing. Why would we? 

We do not own a dog.

©lms 2014

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Light in the dark

It’s the end of the year; only a few hours to go, and I’ve been reflecting on light. 

We’ve gone back in time recently, battered by a succession of storms that left us, for two days over Christmas, without electricity. No lights, no heating, no hot water, no oven, no internet, no telephone.

At first we thought, we’ve had unscheduled power cuts before and the longest has been a couple of hours. So we waited. We lit the log-burning stove. We made soup. We read books. After a while, as the light began to fade, we realised that the problem wasn’t going to be sorted that day, so we found candles, and a large pan in which to boil water for all sorts of things, on the hob - the hob for which, in the midst of the gale, we had gone out the day before to buy a new gas bottle. 

It’s an odd feeling, knowing that you are left in some strange historical place, at Christmas of all times. It’s one of those backward-looking seasons, and here we were, re-living some piece of our own history.   

Christmas Day was still powerless, so we adapted. We had an old gas cooker in the garage, which we heaved out. We bought it when we first moved in down south, and there was no kitchen except a sink. We used it for a couple of years, even though the oven has no thermostat; it has just a large gas ring like any other, under the floor, and the only way to turn down the temperature (it has two – over 400F or below 150F; in between, it either gets over-excited or sulks) is to open the door and fan a tea towel as though it were a maiden lady indulging in a fit of the vapours. This is not a device to which to confide your Christmas leg of lamb; we let it work on a cashew nut roast instead. Vegetarian for Christmas! Shock, horror! (Well, for He Who Does Everything Around Here anyway.) 

We went up to the beach for a walk in the sunshine, leaving all the blinds up and curtains well back, for maximum gain. (This is the one time when the solar water heater doesn’t work, even though it is precisely the time that we need it most; it needs electricity to pump the water round.) On the way there and back, I charged my mobile phone, and so was able to speak to our family and wish them Happy Christmas. 

In the evening, we were able to read, and navigate, by Kindle-light. 

The weekend before Christmas, we went to Poitiers, and watched the polychromies - a light show that puts the original colour back onto the front of the church of Notre Dame le Grande, as the people of the 14th century would have seen it.   

Modern technology brought us a representation of the past. Two days later, modern technology reminded us that we’re only a gust of wind away from that past; and while we survived, without too much aggravation, our 50 hours without electricity, that was because we had the alternatives available. 

So as the year ends, and we look forward to 2014, maybe it’s worth remembering that we aren’t masters of all we survey; we don’t own everything, and we can’t control everything. A little humility, a little acceptance of our limitations when faced with nature, and maybe a dollop of good old common sense, and 2014 could be the year we begin to appreciate what we in the West actually have, and what we’re wasting, beyond hope of replacing. 

Maybe this year, we’ll begin to see the light. Bonne fin d’année, bonne année.
© lms 2013

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Woman's Work

Laundry. We gather it up, sort it out, stick it in the machine and press the button. Sometime later, we unload it, hang it out or put it in the dryer. We may or may not iron it. We put it away. And we moan about having to keep on doing it. 

Back in the days when I was a student, our flats didn’t have washing machines. We either trekked to the laundrette (complaining, obviously), or did our laundry in the kitchen sink. Washing jeans by hand was no fun, but we did it, wringing them out, and putting them to drip on the rack. 

There is somewhere a recording of me singing my heart out whilst doing my laundry in the basement of a flat in Notting Hill. It was preferable to sitting in the laundrette surrounded by silent strangers watching the stuff go round and round, and at least I entertained the neighbours, whether they liked it or not. 

Laundry has always been a chore; but in the not so distant past it’s been much more than that. It was hard labour, and it was an escape for which women were actually grateful. 

The one thing men did not do (and I’ll leave you to debate whether they do it yet) was the laundry. France has always been a very patriarchal society, and women, especially in rural areas, are still very much second in command. Doing the weekly wash got a woman out of the house, and into the company of others, in the one place where no man dared to tread: she went to the lavoir

Make no mistake; this was back-breaking work, and it went on all day. She would push a wooden barrow containing her washing and a three-sided box with a shelf, inside which she would kneel to scrub and dunk and soak and rinse the household linens. She could expect to spend the entire day at the task, with harsh soap, in cold – frequently freezing – water. At the end of it, she would reload her barrow and trudge back home again. 

The lavoir was fed by and drained into a stream; it was constructed of stone, and, if you were lucky, had a roof. The woman would set up a pitch, and get to work, chatting to her neighbours as she did so; and here was the liberating part of the whole hard, exhausting exercise – the company of other women.
According to the words on the wall of one lavoir, they cleaned the linen and dirtied the people. They exercised their power in the making and breaking of their neighbours’ reputations. Here they could moan about their menfolk without courting the possibility of a clout round the ear. 

In our last village, the lavoir was sited between the Priest’s house and the church. Cleanliness may well have been rather too close to godliness in this instance, and the women were roundly condemned for their coarseness and their loud voices. It made no difference. Here they made the rules, and if men wanted their clothes and their sheets cleaned, they had to put up with it. 

Some of these lavoirs are now being restored, and seen as an important part of social history.  It’s an acknowledgement of the hard labour that constituted domestic life for women well into the last century, whether servants or members of the family, which is rarely given so much as a nod; and perhaps a grudging admission that behind every good man was a woman with a square bar of Marseilles soap and a scrubbing brush. It’s as good a place as any to start.
 © lms 2013

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

To market, to market

The French market is a wonderful thing. I’m not talking about the tourist ideal of strolling through stalls of sun-fed produce, and cheeses of all shades, ages and textures, and purple dried sausages, and glistening fish; I’m talking about the market itself. 

It can be anything from three stalls on a Friday in a village square to an entire town centre taken over and pedestrianized, as at Lamballe and Quintin. The traders arrive in their purpose-built vans, designed so that one side can be folded down or removed, and the top opened out to make a canopy; or they set up traditional trestles with sun umbrellas (no matter what the weather). They will arrive by 7.30am, and leave by 2pm – and the only sign that they were there will be a stray cabbage leaf, and the puddle where the fish stall dumped its ice. They have got clearing the site off to a fine art. 

You can find a market pretty much every day, and in big towns like St Brieuc, twice a week. To the English, the market has been seen as a place to buy things cheaper than in the shops; not so in France, where prices are monitored. The whole idea was to bring the goods to the people in their own towns, in an era when they didn’t or couldn’t travel. The quality today is as good as, and frequently better than, in the supermarket. 

At the moment there is a debate about Sunday trading – as in, there isn’t any, and the few big chains who have tried to implement it have been taken to court. There are, however, Sunday markets, though few and far between. 

There is one at Croix Saint Lambert in St Brieuc. It’s held across the parking space in front of a row of shops, and across a petrol station, right up to the pumps; and it is very popular, in spite of the fact that by the very nature of the site, there is nowhere legal to park your car.  So every Sunday, on the dual carriageway approaching the place, there are vehicles abandoned not only along the verges but along the central barrier, and round the edges of the roundabout. Drive down that way and you have to beware of car doors opening on both sides of the road, and people stepping out into the traffic with their minds on meat and mussels, not safety. It’s a nuisance, but it’s tolerated. 

The market at Neuville de Poitou has been tolerated since the 10th century. A large congregation would come for the Mass from far and wide, and it was too good an opportunity to miss: a market began to be established right beside the church. By the 16th century it had become huge, even occupying the cemetery. The Church deplored this commercialisation, the noise of which disturbed the church services, and as for the taverns – well, that sort of behaviour didn’t belong on a Sunday and should be banned. During fairs and assemblies, there was even dancing amongst the gravestones! It was not to be permitted! 

Well, it was, and it continued to be. Even the Revolutionary powers couldn’t ban it. On went the Sunday market, though they did take Easter off.  In 1829, the municipality tried to replace it with a Friday market, but as ever it was doomed to failure. And so it is still there, every Sunday, eleven centuries old and going strong. 

In 1903, it seemed a good idea to tax the stallholders, so the powers that be came up with a list of what could be sold there:
Hens, chickens, capons, cocks, ducks, pigeons, quails, rails (a kind of water fowl), thrushes, turkeys, rabbits, hares, foxes (why?), badgers (again, why?), sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, mules, donkeys, beef cattle, cows, chestnuts, hay, hemp, wool, wines of the Haut Poitou, dairy, fruit and vegetables; but also song merchants, dancers, acrobats, travelling musicians, puppeteers, hats, materials, tools.  And finally, there were eels, which since the Middle Ages had been grilled on the braziers there. They still are, and that’s a smoky scent you won’t find in a supermarket on any day of the week. (Which, on reflection, is a good thing). 

So today, you may not be able to go out and browse the shops on a Sunday, but you can go to a market and buy pretty much anything you could possibly need. Just don’t stand downwind of the eel man.
 © lms 2013