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