Thursday, June 16, 2011

Age? What's that, then?

Our last house had a very large garden with an added orchard. There was a venerable chestnut tree which, after some 300 years standing in the hedgeline above the sunken lane, produced good fruit, though the top part had no leaves or bark, and stood out against the sky on late summer evenings like a thunderbolt. In the same orchard were walnuts, hazelnuts, old apples, plums, a special variety of hedge-pear, a medlar, and vines. There was also a pear which was so hard we had to wear protective headgear when passing the tree, for fear of being smote down as though by the jawbone of an ass. Most of these trees required annual  care and attention, which we couldn't always manage, having plenty of other trees to be going on with, not to mention several hundred metres of laurel hedging which was doing its best to turn our house into Sleeping Beauty's castle. The original owner of the orchard had given it up when it got a little bit too much for him: he was 92.

There is a lady in the Calvados area who has lived on the same farm since 1936, keeping cows and pigs, and making the best butter in the whole of the region - by hand. Every week she made 35-80 kilos of butter, depending on the season, exactly the same way as her mother used to make it. The only concession to modern life was to buy a car in 1954 which she still drives to market once a week. Now, aged 87, she is retiring. The house is unmodernised, the production of butter the same. She has never asked for any other way of life.

Now, the idea of retiring at 66 is hard enough, when you have been working all your life towards something a little earlier; but that's rather like going for a long walk through what you remember as familiar territory, only to find that you haven't recalled it properly, and the last ten miles are in fact fifteen. It wears you out mentally, as well as physically. Life in our crazy hi-tech world is hard and fast, and you really want to stop and have a rest. Rural France goes at a different pace. Our old neighbour, a sheep farmer, never rushed anywhere. I don't think he knew how. What was the point? The sheep would go at their own speed; and if you have ever tried to herd sheep, you will know that there is no use trying to force them to go any faster (or indeed in any direction other than where they want to go).

Wherever you go in the countryside, you will pass ancient men and women on bicycles, pottering back from the market or more likely from their vegetable plot, with leeks or lettuces or chard tied on to the back. Or you will pass some wizened old person with a wheelbarrow, sauntering up the road with turnips fresh from the soil. They dig their gardens, they plant them, they reap the rewards, all at the gentle rhythm of the growing year. The life is as complicated as it needs to be, and as frugal as need and habit has dictated.

And as for cars, old Renault or Citroen vans (always white) never die: they go on to happy new lives as chicken houses. It may not be up to the original use, but a faithful car can still carry on providing a service for its owner.

If you go for a hike anywhere in France, you can take one of the GR routes which criss-cross the country, and in theory you could actually walk round, and zig-zag across, the whole of the Hexagon, if you had the time, without using proper roads at all. We have walked along some of these routes, and without fail we have been lapped by octogenarians, all five feet tall, carrying walking poles, and smiling as they go by. Nobody has said, watch out for your knees, be careful not to fall, you shouldn't be doing that at your time of life. It's habit. It's what they do, and they will go on doing it until the day they die.

That will happen in their old age, which will come in about the last three minutes of their very long lives.

Maybe the problem for us modern types is that we believe what we are told. When the experts tell us we are getting old at 40, or 50, we start seeing the signs of ageing all over our bodies. If you think about it, middle age is unquantifiable, because unless you know how long you are going to live, how do you know when the middle is? Perhaps it is time to stop listening to all the latest medical ideas, and just go on living as we want to live - right up until the time we stop. Anticipating the end is such a waste of time. There is a whole industry out there aimed at making us believe we are decrepit, that we have a sell-by date. Block your ears, cover your eyes, and ignore them. Get out your bike, your wheelbarrow, your walking shoes. Age? It's just another number, when all's said and done.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Another Long Weekend

This is the Pentecost weekend, which in France is a public holiday.

A couple of years ago, the French government asked people not to take the day off, but to work for free. The money saved would be put towards paying off the Social Security shortfall, and thus, they implied, you would be helping yourself and those less fortunate. There were not many takers for this idea, strangely. If the choice was to work and not get paid, or have a day off, whether you were paid or not, it wasn't going to be difficult to guess which would be the chosen option.

Had they gone about it in a Comic Reliefish sort of way, making it a fun day at the desk-face, but with a charitable goal, perhaps more people would have signed up; but to appeal to people's consciences to help the government out of a fix was never going to succeed.

So it is a holiday weekend, and all sorts of events are planned. Driving back from town, we found, as we entered out village, signs warning of dangerous junctions, and strange little arrows painted on the road. This means there will be a cycle race coming through. Cycling is a national pastime. Wherever you are in France, and particularly, though not exclusively,  on Wednesdays, you can be passed by pods of lycra-clad figures, mostly men, on bicycles with the narrowest seats and the thinnest tyres possible. These men, if you can catch a glimpse of their faces as they whizz by, are frequently in their sixties and seventies. They have legs like whipcord, the colour of walnuts, and they chat. They will set off for the entire day, for 50, 60, 70 kms and more: and at the end of that feat of endurance, they will still be chatting. They will go out there in all weathers, and they will apparently enjoy themselves.

It's not natural.

Another sporting activity this weekend is the three day international eventing competition in the next village. Whilst some are in it to win, others will go out there and ride horses cross-country for up to 110kms, for the sheer pleasure of it.

So they could go to work, and sit at a desk, and do nothing, for no pay: or they could go out and get wet (it always rains in Brittany for the big events) and saddle sore for the sheer pleasure of it.
Rather to my surprise, I can see their point.

This summer the Tour de France is passing though Brittany. The newspaper says that there is no best place to be a spectator, as the whole lot will pass through rather fast - it is a race, after all, and not a circular one - but people will go out in their droves, with picnic lunches, just to see the blur, and to say they were there.

A man cycled past our house this morning with "Mon Petit Tour de France" emblazoned on his rucksack, which he was towing behind him. Not only is he cycling round the whole of France, he is doing it on a racing bike pulling a trailer.

I feel I should rush out, unhook the bike from where it is hanging from the roof of the shed, wipe the grime of ages off the saddle, pump up the tyres, remove the cobwebs and shine up the spokes, de-rust the wheels, check the puncture repair kit and the brake blocks, and search out a helmet and some lycra shorts with something the shape of a skateboard stuffed down them to protect the unwary.

Or perhaps I'll just go and cheer on the racers, in a heartfelt manner. Some things are best left to the professionals, the ones with the whipcord legs the colour of walnuts, and the specially-toughened bottoms. I think I'll stick to walking: I like being overtaken by octogenarians. But that's another story.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The View from the Top

Now, here's the thing: I don't have a head for heights. I have been known to take a death-grip on a banister rail, when a staircase seemed too steep. As for cliffs, I will walk miles out of my way to avoid them. But when we moved here last year, the only available place for a desk was on the mezzanine above the bedroom, right under the eaves, with no staircase.

The answer was a ladder. I hate ladders. More than that, I hate stepping off ladders at the top - which is bad enough in itself - in the certain knowledge that I am going to have to get back onto the darn thing in reverse.

Nature has not equipped me with a reverse gear. I am great at driving a car, but as soon as I am asked to go backwards - to park, for instance - I start having trouble. Why would I want to go somewhere without actually turning round and facing the target? Why would anyone? Think of the chaos on a busy street, if everyone started doing it.

However, gravity being what it is, having got up here, I had to get down. It is possible that I now have the strongest grip of any woman in northern France, as a direct result of hanging on to the top of a ladder which was not fixed in any way, and stepping into the void.

The telephone was at the bottom of the ladder. I learnt how to hurry. I didn't always make it, but if it was you calling, I tried - I swear I tried.

It couldn't go on.  He Who Does Everything Around Here built a staircase. It's not a proper one, in that I still have to go down in reverse; there is only so much floorspace and head height available, and the angle is steepish. But it has steps that a foot can fit on to and a hand can grasp. What more could I ask?

So I come up here, to my desk under the eaves, with a Velux window to my left, to write, and to think, and to pretend to do both whilst dozing quietly with a book open on my lap. The view is wonderful: defined by mist, it's possible to see the dips and rises between here and the far ridge of hills, with a high point marked by a single tall tree. When the light is right, I can see the glint of a tractor crossing and recrossing a distant field; and swallows and buzzards wheel and float overhead.

The top of the house is a very pleasant place to be, and so healthy: I've got two staircases between me and the cake tin. And I have made an important discovery: it is possible, with a certain amount of care, to manage a ladder and carry a glass of red at the same time - without spilling a drop, too.

There's progress for you.