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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Transports of Delight

I’ve recently had the unalloyed pleasure of travelling across England again. 

He Who Does Everything Around Here made the decision to travel by A-road, rather than Motorway, from Devon to Milton Keynes. This was an unforced error, resulting in a much longer journey than planned; on the other hand, it avoided the M5, which is a thing to be wholeheartedly encouraged. 

The roads in England are broken. All of them. They need mending. They also need an army of litter pickers to tidy up the verges. 

The problem with both of these things is that, should the Government actually notice, and, after due consultation and a week’s holiday somewhere warm, decide to act upon these shortcomings, they would then put them out to tender. Some vast company would eventually win the right to do the job, by quoting a price which the Government will then forever afterwards insist will be the sum paid and no more. It will then be discovered that the real cost will be three or four times that, due to unforeseen factors, including the one that says that every government scheme always does come out three or four times over budget, and the company concerned is never made to pay the difference. 

Now, as the holiday season drew to a close here in France at the end of August, the road menders and builders came out in force. The national stock of ‘Diversion’ signs was taken out of mothballs and spread around the country, with rather a large proportion of them being placed on any road that we care to travel upon within a ten mile radius of here. 

There is a brand new ring road being built to take the holiday traffic past St Brieuc. When major works like this are undertaken, a big sign is put up, telling the passer-by just how much it is going to cost, and who is paying what proportion of that cost. They may be counting on the fact that the average passer-by will be travelling at some 70kph and so won’t be able to read it, but if the urge struck, you could stop and find out all you need to know. Actual numbers, upfront, with no added bit to say ‘4m€, unless they’ve underbid/got their sums wrong/decided to charge more’, which is what would have to happen in England. 

I was thinking about this as we undertook to drive my brother, aka The International Traveller, to Paris CDG Airport, to catch a flight to Australia. This is, as you will realise, a service above and beyond the call of duty, as it involved the Paris Ring Road,  Le Periph, as it is fondly known (though not by me), on a Friday afternoon. 

I take back everything I have ever thought about the M25. Well, not all of it, perhaps, but most of it. The M25 has got one major advantage over Le Periph: daylight. I have no idea how many tunnels we had to go through; and I am only glad that our exit wasn’t in one of them, and so could be signalled by the satnav, without which we would still be circling even now. They have sorted out the mad motorcyclists since our last foray here; they have the right to travel at any speed they choose, but always faster than you, between the two inside lanes, and will sound their horns to get you to shift out of their way. (Shift where? We’re in a tunnel here). 

What worries me is that one day they are going to need to do road works here – big ones. Like England’s road system, Le Periph wasn’t built for this volume of traffic. Something has got to give. If the traffic above the tunnels is as heavy as that in them – well, I leave it to your imagination;  I shut mine down somewhere underneath the French capital, while shedding several years off my life-span. 

I will never be there to witness the ensuing chaos. I am not travelling round Paris by car ever again. I will thus not contribute to the wear and tear, for which all Parisians may thank me. However, when the authorities put up their sign saying how much the works will cost, they can be assured that it will be read by every motorist passing by, for the simple reason that they will have ample time to read it. They may even be thankful for the entertainment value. What else is there to do as you sit on Le Periph on a Friday afternoon?
 © lms 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

French Horns

One of the local lads has the habit of announcing his arrival from afar by playing Dixie on his car horn – something that started with Boss Hogg and the Dukes of Hazzard and should have ended with them. 

But there are other occasions when the sound of a horn – or even a whole orchestra-worth - is welcome. 

On Saturday there was a wedding – the first we’ve seen in our tiny little church. 

You know when there’s a wedding happening somewhere  nearby, because all the guests and the bride and groom drive around the locality tooting and parping.  The cars have bits of gauze on wing mirrors and aerials, so that should you rush out ready to shake a fist at the disturbers of the peace, you realise your error and wave instead. 

There’s a civil ceremony, and a church one; and between the two there is a lot of noise to be made, and joy to be shared. In times gone by, the bride and groom might have been carried aloft by their friends and paraded through the village, so this is the modern version. They go into the church for a short ceremony, and emerge for photos, and perhaps go into the Salle de Fêtes for a couple of hours, and then off they all go again, horns blaring. 

It’s very exciting and good-natured, and it’s an invitation to share in the event even if you don’t know them – though, this being Brittany, and close-knit, you probably do. 

On Sunday morning, the Chasse was about. They are allowed out to play with their guns on Sundays and Thursdays in our commune, so you know which days not to go walking across the fields dressed in fur. They have their hunting horns, which, by and large, the dogs ignore, especially if they can dash across a road in front of a passing car and frighten ten years off the driver’s life instead. Still, it’s the traditional note of Autumn. 

The nature of the land here is such that you can hear things coming for miles, especially when they make a lot of noise. So in the afternoon, alerted by approaching sound, we dashed up to the road to wait, and our patience was rewarded by a cavalcade of old cars.  There were a couple of real veterans, but mostly they were all from the 50s and 60s. A Mini, a Frog-eyed Sprite, a Triumph, numerous Renaults, Peugeots, and Citroens, 2CVs of course, a few boxy Mercedes, some khaki Jeeps, a Caravelle; there were two or three huge American cars, white-wall tyres and chrome enough to blind, and lots of little round utility ones like Morris Minors but even more minor. People were smaller when they were built. Cramming four modern adults inside makes one appreciate the Breton fondness for the sardine tin.

There must have been 40 or 50 cars in all, all to be greeted with a wave and a smile – because it’s infectious, all this excitement. It’s people enjoying themselves in their own treasured vehicles, sharing the magic of old-fashioned motoring on a sunny afternoon, stirring some memories, and inviting us to be part of it. 

You will rarely, outside of the cities, hear a car horn sounded in anger; but you’ll hear it often sounded in fun.  I know which I prefer.

© lms 2013