all dressed up….

On her first visit here a cousin described our home as having chateaux every direction…which is true and she didn’t even know about the one in the Correze at around eleven kilometres to the north of us. That one I visited many years ago with our local history group. I had no idea why at the time as it seemed a gloomy edifice and we couldn’t even visit the interior. Built at the turn of the 20th century as a hotel with great views it is now one of the ubiquitous chateaux featured in Escape to the Chateau DIY, just in case anyone is looking for a wedding venue!

But to ‘return to the sheep’, as the French say, my favourite chateau, Montal, of the three in easy reach of home, had advertised it was holding an exhibition of Renaissance costumes, not originals but those created for films and theatre. This sounded very interesting and by the time we get to February I am always desperate to get out after days spent inside, especially since doom virus stopped a lot of activities and the bitter January weather meant I was disinclined to walk, preferring to ride my exercise bike in the warm.

It was a gloriously sunny morning when I parked up in a deserted car park below the chateau. Lots of scaffolding suggested the roof was receiving attention. The chateau used to be in private hands, the last owner’s descendants benefitting from usufruit until fairly recently. When I first visited in the 90s there were private apartments closed to visitors. Since the Historic Monuments department took over they have steadily restored various parts. When it closed in 2015 for a big refurbishment I was very anxious that the intimate quality that I had loved so much would be lost. Happily, when I was finally able to visit again I discovered it was still ‘my’ chateau, just a better entrance and tiny shop having been created and the garden opened up for visitors.

Maybe it is its size or the fact it was designed by a woman that appeals to me but I love it. Not much is known about the original chateau, simply a mention of a repaire Saint Pierre in 1474. The northern and western facades have retained their typical medievil defensive architecture, pepper pot towers with cannon slots.

But it is the southern two sided courtyard that is the main attraction. refurbished by Jeanne de Balsac, daughter of Robert de Balsac, seigneur d’Entraygues, widow of d’Amaury of Montal, seigneur de Laroquebrue. She had two sons and a daughter and it was for her eldest son, Robert, away fighting with the French army in Milan that she dedicated the work, starting around 1519. Sadly he was lost in battle in 1523 and the work was finally suspended at her death in 1534, meaning the completion of at least one more wing around the courtyard never took place. The medallions set into the walls facing the courtyard are of herself, her husband, their sons, Robert and Dordet and daughter Nine and Nine’s husband, Francois de Scorailles.

Much later, after several disinterested owners, in 1888 parts of the chateau were dismantled and sold off. Just before the scheduled dismantling of the central staircase which apparently would have meant the building collapsing, a saviour, in the form of an industrialist and well connected art collector, Maurice Fenaille, bought the chateau in 1908 and set about reuniting all its treasures, in some cases commissioning artists such as Rodin to recreate certain items.

This is a potted version of its history, gleaned from various sources, but such a romantic one. Saving these old buildings for posterity isn’t just a modern phenomenon despite what the tv shows would have us believe. The nearby Castelnau Bretenoux (joint ticket of 12 euros gets you into both) was also saved about the same time by a tenor of l’Opera Comique, Jean Moulierat.

The girl at the box office was probably glad of my arrival. The chateau was deserted apart from the sound of a unseen guide delivering his version of its history in the courtyard. Armed with the printed guide to the costumes I set off, pausing to feel a piece of ‘brocatelle’ as instructed by a small tablet beside it. This was a chance to appreciate the ongoing conservation work of the fabric covering several of the walls in certain rooms. It is a fabric woven from a mix of mostly silk and cotton.

I went into the large hall that runs at right angles to the corridor from the entrance. It is beautiful with a ceiling of low ribbed vaulting, a huge dining table, a flagged floor and splendid fireplace with the blazons of various Balzac family members . The costumes were placed sympathetically around the space with small explanatory panels.

Moving through to the ground floor bedroom, my eye was taken by a beautiful yellow dress. During the renaissance this colour was obtained by using saffron imported from the Levant or so my brochure told me. The turret room in the corner of this bedroom has two gunports, used for cannon and firearms, so although elegant this chateau clearly wasn’t taking any chances!

I peeked into the kitchen built in the 17th century and saw it has a souillard as indeed does our house. This was the food preparation area, big stone shelves on each side and a sink with a drain out to the exterior on the rear wall. If you ever see a small hole in the wall of a house in our area with a stone beneath with a small channel cut into it, chances are there are the remains of a souillard on the other side.

Now it was time for the upstairs rooms but first I had to stop and admire the staircase, the removal of which might have caused the chateau to disappear forever. It is truly beautiful and I am so glad it survived. I always have to pause to stroke the marble and try to make out the symbols, ‘putti’, carved on the panels, amongst them candelabra, birds and dolphins.

The stairs look slippery so, for me, progress is slow but it gives you time to look at the carving underneath the upper steps as you ascend, carefully!

And a pause to note the scallop shells indicative of the Compostela route said to pass nearby as pilgrims made a detour from Figeac to visit Rocamadour. Plus a peep out of the window as you catch your breath.

The upstairs grand hall has several tapestries from Fenaille’s collection. There is a sumptuous fireplace topped by a magnificent seated stag. I much prefer the stone versions to the stuffed ones that used to be much more prevalent on restaurant walls when we first started visiting this area.

The dresses in here were pretty special too. Several were worn by Cate Blanchett in the film Elizabeth. I was delighted to find they came from the Angels collections in London. Many years ago when working in repertory theatre, it was my job to collect costumes from Angels. Ah, memories.

Beyond this huge salle is the master bedroom, furnished in the regency style by Fenaille. There is a beautiful bed with lots of golden curtains to keep out the draughts. I love the tiled floor in here as it is the same pattern as the tomettess that make up our kitchen floor but much shinier.

Another glorious dress but I forget which film. In the corner is the master dressing room with a modern ensuite which always makes me giggle at its incongruity.

Crossing past the top of the stairs (access to the next floor is not permitted) you find three more bedrooms which are kept dark. I assume it is to protect the brocatelle. In the first I found costumes from ‘Shakespeare in love’, the dress stunning but looking very uncomfortable to wear.

As I turned I was momentarily spooked by a figure in the tiny bedroom in the corner. This was Rhys Ifans, or rather, a costume he had worn. The bed in this room reminds us how short our ancestors were.

I still had the chateau to myself, if you didn’t count all the headless mannequins.

In the last bedroom I was amazed at how small the dress was worn by Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn. I wish!

It was past midday and the chateau closes at half past so, reluctantly, it was back down, carefully, the beautiful staircase and,

after a quick peek in the courtyard where the guide was still talking to one other person, it was home for lunch.

ps the costume exhibition runs until 8th May 2022, closed on Tuesdays 8 euros to visit the chateau, exhibition free

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city break…part three

Before entering the Basilique de Notre Dame de Fourviere I was warned I might find the decor a bit too much. However, once we were allowed in (numbers being carefully monitored) I was stunned by both the enormity of the space and the fabulous decoration. It moved me to tears, in fact. On closer inspection, I realised every surface was embellished in some way. The glowing colours on the walls were not paint as I had assumed but mosaic. It was like standing inside a jewelled cavern that reached up way over our heads.

I put my phone on its widest setting but failed to capture the sheer height and magnificence of it all to my satisfaction.

We stumbled out into the dusk somewhat stunned.

Walking across the place alongside the Basilique we came to the wall on the edge of the Fourviere hill and found a space to take in the view of Lyon.

Ahead of us it is sometimes possible to see Mont Blanc apparently but I couldn’t make it out that evening. But we see could the Croix-Rousse away to our left and the big wheel lit up in place Bellecour and the river Saone at our feet..

Not too far away there is a Roman theatre still used for concerts but that would have to wait for another day. It was time to return to Vieux Lyon and more wandering ..

First a goodbye to the Virgin on her tower….

And then the funiculaire… perversely I can cope with funiculars and never suffer claustrophobia when travelling on them. But metros and cable cars..!

The lights were on by the time we began our stroll through the old streets that run parallel to the Saone river. These are full of the grand Renaissance houses standing cheek by jowl with beautiful carved entrances that lead to courtyards behind. There is wealth of history here to discover but that would need to be another visit, possibly with a specialist guide to take you into places hidden from the general public. French tourist offices are very good at organising these.

This part of Lyon is famous for its ‘traboules’, passageways that linked courtyards and alleyways that thread their secret way between the streets. Sadly closed at the time of the fete but we entered the beginning of one at 16 rue de boeuf with its famous Rose tower.

Complicated staircases were very a la mode during that epoch and we managed to glimpse one at the Maison des Avocats with its balconies

And all the time as we came out into little squares we would see the Basilique shining above us with its huge illuminated sign with its ‘Merci, Marie’ message.

Eventually it was time to turn back along the Saone and say goodbye to the captivating streets….

We were caught at that time between business life closing down before the fete took over so the junctions were full of gendarmes closing roads and drivers desperately trying to get out before they did!

On foot it was easy to slip through and begin the walk beside the river that looked so much better than it had in the morning now lit up on each side with reflections hiding the muddy surface.

Our friend continued to point out favourite local features like this famous ice cream shop then the Palais de justice with its 24 columns while further on, the Primatiale of Saint Jean-Baptiste..

A return visit is clearly a must!

Aperos on our minds, we walked back through place Bellecour with the souvenir stalls opening up for business,

past the torn paper installation….

And back to our friend’s apartment for a lovely family evening of ‘do you remember…?’

A footnote…

The snow we had avoided going to Lyon lay in wait for us for the journey home. Very scary but ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ brought us safely through it…


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City break….part two

After a long and busy day it was a slow start to our one and only full day in Lyon. The ibis breakfast buffet had fresh fruit decoratively presented in tumblers so was noted as an hotel to return to. Love fresh fruit in the morning, especially if I haven’t had to prepare it myself!

Virginie, our pet guide to Lyon, had suggested we meet later, giving us a chance to explore the Croix Rousse. We were very close to the Mur des Canuts, a huge trompe l’oeil, representing the life of the silk workers, so that was our first stop.

It was enormous and truly ‘tromped’ our eyes. We debated whether the bank depicted at street level was indeed a real one…it wasn’t!

Walking further on we came to Place des Tapis where a less stylised painted wall rose behind us. This place had several cafes and an Irish bar. There was a definite village feel to the area and I was glad we had a dry day for exploring it.

We turned a corner towards the Croix Rousse metro in order to find the viewpoint from beside the Gros Caillou. But first there was a wander past a fish counter with oysters, a cafe terrace and Christmas trees being sold. Shouts from the children playing in a nearby maternelle added to the cheerful atmosphere

The sun was trying to come through but the view when we got to the edge of the plateau was too misty for good photos. we had decided that to walk down the long and apparently magnificent descent into the centre ville was too much for either of us. my dodgy knee meant I was walking with my souvenir walking stick from the Great Wall of China! yet another thing to juggle with, but we had popped into an optician next to the hotel and bought a string for my glasses to dangle on when i got exasperated by the ‘bouee’ caused by my obligatory mask and it was proving to be really useful.

So it was back to the nearby metro where we bought a day ticket for all transport from a machine that offered English amongst its choice of languages. this city is really well organised.

Once back by the Hotel de Ville we walked towards the Saone river. our friend’s daughter had suggested we look out for the Mur de Fresques of various Lyon celebrities. however, on arriving at the river side we discovered the water was running high and the lower quai was underwater. assuming, wrongly, we found out later, that the Mur would be partially submerged we headed south along the embankment.

It was a pleasant walk as we spotted interesting buildings down side roads and traversed a market with the usual display of fabulous cheeses…

and all the time with the cathedral on the Fourviere hill looking down on us from across the river.

We walked as far as the pont de Bonoparte and texted our friend where we were. desperate for a sit down and a coffee we walked into place Bellecour and down a side street to a patisserie/salon du the. we were told later that it was a branch of the best patisserie in Lyon! although it was French lunchtime we were able to sit in a corner with our coffee and recover.

Out into place Bellecour once again where we met up with our friend near the torn paper installation looking sad in the daylight…

Virginie had suggested some of her favourite places that we might visit, the first being the Grand Hotel-Dieu. What I have been calling the centre ville is actually referred to as the Presque-Ile, nearly an island, the area between the two rivers, Saone and Rhone. The Grand Hotel-Dieu faces across the Rhone for several hundred metres and truly lives up to its name.

We entered through one of its many doors on the opposite side to the river. Our friend remembers it as a huge hospital but after closing in 2010 and lying unused for a while it has been refurbished and now houses boutiques, restaurants and a museum and is recognized as a UNESCO site, as is most of the area around it.

There are a series of beautiful courtyards with neat gardens, some of which are furnished with sunbeds in summer for lazy passing of the time..

The walls and window frames have been painted in the original 18th century colours and architectural features retained where possible. There were tantalising glimpses of towers and cupulas above the roofline. Finally we came out into the Place de l’Hopital outside the front entrance of the Chapelle Hotel-Dieu.

pausing to photograph a particularly spectacular door, our ‘guide’ pointed out the stone above it commemorating a poetess.

the Lyonnais equivalent of a UK blue plaque?

now we headed for the vieux ville across the Saone, threading our way through the streets past the place des Jacobins where lumigions were being sold the night before to raise funds for this year’s chosen charity. I hadn’t realised the significance but took a photo as they looked pretty!

historically, this square has changed its name several times and evidence of Roman settlement has been found here. In the Renaissance era, Florentine merchant bankers moved to Lyon and adopted a now vanished church on this ‘place’ as their own. There is so much fascinating history to Lyon that I look forward to discovering.

in place Celestines we passed a theatre and crossed the river by pont Bonoparte and into place Saint Jean. Feeling peckish we sought out a restaurant still happy to serve us a late lunch. A surprising possibility for us in a French city used as we are to country kitchens that shut firmly around 1.30pm!

we were now in vieux Lyon, an area saved in the nick of time for posterity when about to be demolished in the gung-ho 60s. The buildings are mostly of the Renaissance era with arched windows and entrances on the ground floors and rising three or four stories above narrow and cobbled streets.

Virgie led us up a steep chemin to the entrance of a narrow alleyway with a sign that announced this was the oldest building in the area. Somewhat neglected but presumably with some sort of protection order on it. It still had typical wooden balconies on each floor.

i wondered aloud if we could contemplate carrying on up the hill to Fourviere but was advised it was a tough climb. Better to take the nearby funiculaire. Happily, as we all had day tickets, we could bypass the queue! Virginie had said she wanted us to see the view from the top at dusk and we had timed it well but first the cathedral or rather, the Basilique of Notre Dame de Fourviere….

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City break…part one

Well, despite the unexpected recent rise in doom virus numbers, we are off to Lyon for the Fete des Luminaires. We have been staying close to home except for occasional forays and as we aren’t going to blighty for the annual family ‘do’ and lots of regular activities are on hold we find ourselves free to do something we have often talked about but never got around to doing. we have both been triple jabbed and as the main events are all outside we are taking a calculated risk and going for it before France decides to lockdown again or, at least, limit travel….

The fête des luminaires takes place every December, starting on the 8th, the day the Lyonais put candles in their windows to thank the Virgin for saving them from various disasters down the centuries. I had forgotten this fact and thought it was an odd but kind gesture to be given on arrival at our hotel a decorated bag with maps and guides and a candle in a small glass. We had no windowsill and I wouldn’t have left a lighted candle in our room but a lovely gesture even if I didn’t quite grasp it at the time.

The drive to Lyon is about four hours from chez nous but longer with a lunch stop for our ham sarnies, crisps and a shared Twix. We have our traditions too! We had coffees in the aire towards the end of the A89 and were pleased that the snow we’d seen was on the fields rather than the road.

The drive is beautiful as you go east from the Lot, crossing the Correze with its forests and then Puy de Dome with its ‘volcans’ and snowy mountain tops. A flat bit after Clement Ferrand then up into the Livradois-Forez. The GPS gets muddled around the autoroute changes north of Lyon so we ignored him for a while but listened once we got into the outer suburbs. He took us straight to the hotel, crossing the Saone river and winding up the hairpins to the Croix-Rousse plateau above Lyon’s centre ville.

The Croix Rousse hill is traditionally called the hill that works as opposed to Lyon’s other celebrated hill of Fourviere as the hill that prays. Croix-Rousse was the home of the silk workers, canuts, from the 19th century and is now known as the boho and artistic quarter. With a dodgy knee and claustrophobic to boot I had decided that buses would be a good way to get down to the centre ville. Searching online as ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ rested his eyelids I discovered that due to the fete all buses would be stopping some distance from where we wanted to start our wander. So the metro it would have to be. All public transport was free from 4.30pm on Wednesday 8th so, after looking at the tube stations online and finding one was in the open air, I braved it.

After landing on the wrong platform we ascended back to the street, crossed over and tried again. The platform was hardly any distance down from the road so I didn’t feel too much entombed. The trains run frequently so we were onboard and away pretty quickly. Just three stops and one of those was outside with a very steeply inclined platform!

Hotel de ville is the terminus for our line from Henon so out we piled and followed the ‘sortie’ signs. Our very dear friend who lives in Lyon was very excited that we were coming and had booked a restaurant for 9pm so we had time to wander around looking at the lights. As we emerged onto the square it was clear that things were very well organized. A posse of security people checked bags and reminded people about mask wearing. We noticed that most people were heading in one direction and, after checking with a security girl who confirmed it was a ‘spectacle’, we joined the flow. The Place Terreaux was on my map of places to visit and it was pretty spectacular when we arrived. The commentary was beyond my translation skills but the lights on two sides of the square were not!

As the show ended ‘sortie’ with a big arrow flashed across the facade of the Musee de Beaux Arts and the crowd obediently exited stage left! We got a bit concerned at the closeness of the crush but with some dodging into side streets we got back to the main rue, that of la Republique. The restaurant was at the southern end of the centre ville and we started in the north so were able to saunter along enjoying the atmosphere and light installations despite the slight drizzle.

At one point we felt the need for a sit down and some liquid and plumped for a Starbucks. I went for a fruit juice as even their small coffees come in gallon beakers! We sat in an neglected window and watched the people enjoying the evening outside. Lou wanted me to buy a crown of lights that were being sold everywhere but I resisted. Juggling misted up glasses and a mask plus phone camera was quite enough…

place jacobins

Finally we arrived at Place Bellecour where an enormous big wheel was slowly turning and an affair that I nicknamed the torn paper tent was changing colour as music played. I tried to work out if the colours related to the different notes but gave up and just enjoyed it.

Wandering out of the Place into a long square we passed several very busy restaurants and arrived by the river Rhone.

It was nearly time to meet our friend so after a few more photos it was along the rue des marroniers to Maison Mounier, a ‘bouchon’. We have learned that these are emblematic of Lyon. Tiny, usually, and very authentic bistrots that serve the traditional dishes dearly loved by the locals. Not so much by our British palates, andouilette, tete de veau and tripe. Happily, boeuf bourguignon and the famous quenelle of Lyon were listed on the menu so we chose the quenelle filled with pike which arrived bathed in a delicious fishy sauce.

We had been led through to a tiny and busy back room just off the kitchen which our friend, when she arrived, assured us was typical of a bouchon, bottleneck in English. We loved it and pushed our anxiety re doom virus to the back of our minds, almost.

It was fabulous to catch up on family gossip as we hadn’t seen each other since 2013. Her daughter and I giggled about the lady at the next table who was clearly fascinated by the mix of English and French being spoken at ours.

Finally we dragged ourselves away and with help from our local ‘guide’ found our way to the metro and back to the hotel. The security was very much in evidence down on the platforms so, despite the late hour, we didn’t feel anxious and they were happy to point us in the right direction when we needed to change trains.

I was getting braver on the metro ….but, then, it hadn’t stopped in any of the tunnels!

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Back when I was working I used to wonder about my retirement, those sunny uplands awaiting me after the hard graft of the working years, always assuming my health would still be sound, god willing. Probably helping out in school (once a teacher and all that) going in as a helping granny (not that I was one) rather than a mum; visiting the theatre; joining the national trust; travelling to London for the art galleries that I loved so much (and still do) and getting around to writing that novel we are all meant have inside us.

but we moved to France.

This had been the plan for several years but I suppose a part of me didn’t believe it would actually happen. And when cancer struck ‘i’m only the driver’ I really thought it wouldn’t. In fact, the future vanished and a black hole loomed where our shared dreams should have been. Mercifully, speedy action by the consultant meant he was spared, albiet with only one kidney remaining.

and we moved to France.

For a while my new life was taken up with the learning curve that emigration to a country where you struggle to understand and be understood is much steeper that you imagined it would be. Gradually life calmed down, especially after the seemingly interminable restoration work on our retirement home finally finished and we moved out of our tiny holiday house. By now we had three cats, a circle of multilingual friends and several dinner table anecdotes on creating a new life in a foreign land.

As for my intended activities a few obstacles needed to be overcome.

In order to help out in school it gradually became clear that things in France are very different. No offering my services and having my hand snatched off by a grateful staff. There were issues surrounding insurance, I discovered. In fact, insurance looms large in several extra curricular activities. Before starting any kind of sport activity you need a medical certificate from your doctor confirming you are fit enough to undertake said activity. For the ‘primaire’ school this proved insurmountable without my taking a ‘formation’ to gain a qualification. Not happening! Unbelievably, I managed a short trip away as a helper with my friend’s class of infants despite not being allowed into their classroom on a regular basis. Go figure. Several years later I discovered a homework club where I was welcomed with open arms as a native English speaker. This is with secondary level youngsters. We all agreed that my language skills are not a good enough model for helping primaire children. The ‘college’ kids enjoy pretending not to understand and correcting my grammar.

Visiting the theatre is stymied by those poor language skills. This is a shame as we have a vibrant theatre in a nearby town working out of a sympathetically converted suitcase factory. They hold a music festival each summer which is more accessible for obvious reasons. However, for several years, our own village hosted a story telling festival, something embedded in french culture. I resolutely attended every spring and slowly began to understand more and more. Storytellers use a steady delivery and there is only one voice on which to concentrate that makes it easier. A quickly delivered punchline often had me cursing my incomprehension or appealing to a friend for a translation although the moment was lost.

I’ve not discovered an equivalent of the national trust in France. In fact, one of the odd things we discovered was that our retired status doesn’t afford us any discounts at ticket offices of any attractions we visit. That ‘liberte, fraternite, egalite’ constitution? The only place we have paid less was at an art gallery in Toulouse in the early days where we had to show our passports to prove our ages. I’m not sure which thing pleased me the most, the discount or being thought younger?

Which brings me to the art galleries. Paris is a six hour drive away and we haven’t visited it as much as we could have done despite its having several fabulous ‘musees’. But we have exercised our mutual love of photography and grabbed the opportunity to visit photo galleries and exhibitions when we travel, often the first thing I google. Recently we have discovered a tiny gallery an hour away dedicated to one of our favourite photographers.

We have been known to drive down to beyond Carcassonne, about three hours away, to visit another favourite venue. Living in la France profonde doesn’t necessarily mean we are in a cultural wilderness. There are always exhibitions advertised in the local paper. Some of these might be arranged by a local painting group and be somewhat erratic regarding talent but there are often happy surprises, several of which are hanging on our walls. But it is photos that are the biggest attraction for us both and recently we have had some real treats.

Last month we went to the tiny gallery, la gare Robert Doisneau, to look at black and white photos by two African photographers, Fatoumata Diabete and Malick Sidibe. These were black and white street photographs apparently posed in a pop up pavement studio while others made use of strongly patterned background or clothes to make dramatic images.

Afterwards, we had lunch at a rather idiosyncratic auberge that scatters fruit across its salads. On the way back we stopped at Souillac where an abandoned church makes a beautiful exhibition space, the Salle Saint Martin and about which I had read in our local paper.

The current exhibition is inspired by Nancy Cunard, a 20s socialite, who, we discovered, was a champion of African artists and writers and had once lived in the Lot, our department. Reading the brochure I realised the photos we had just seen were all part of the same celebration and that there were some paintings in another gallery over on the causse the other side of Rocamadour.

So another outing was organised. We drove out to Rocamadour and beyond, through the glorious autumn landscape. There is a particular tree that flares orange and looks magnificent against the limestone of the wild and rugged causse.

I had found a restaurant in Cales,the same commune as the gallery. As the exhibition wouldn’t open until 2pm we had time to enjoy what turned out to be a sumptuous and fairly expensive lunch. The bistrot menu I was expecting is a summer season only offering. Tant pis, we treated ourselves to two fabulous courses each.

We had passed the gallery entrance on the way so easily found it again. The house and attached gallery lay at the end of a long and bumpy track with stunning views. A dog barked and a woman came out with the keys and opened up for us.

The artworks were colourful and naive and there were not many of them. Our eyes were caught by a few photos on the wall and these turned out to have been taken by our hostess. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ perked up straight away, paintings not being his thing, and while I chatted to our lady he leafed through her photo books on a side table. Of course, we bought one, moody black and white prints of scenes from the causse around us. So, replete with a good lunch and a chance meeting, we drove home very satisfied even if a little lighter of pocket!

On Guy Fawkes day we had another foray but closer to home. In St Cere, a local town, the one with the theatre, there is an association called le lieu commun. They are an eclectic group of artists, crafts people, musicians and interested locals who promote and/or agitate about issues close to their collective hearts. A subset regularly chooses three or films each month that are felt to be deserving of promotion by being shown at our nearest cinema. Sometimes they put on exhibitions in St Cere and this week it was a photographic one. More importantly, it was of China, a country we had visited in 2007 and the reason this blog came into being.

I was a little sceptical as I had made the mistake of attending a talk and slide show by one of the members on the theme of local birds many years before. It was poorly attended and the slides were blurry. I had to impatiently sit it out as my departure would have been too obvious as we were so few!

This time was very different. The photographs of Tibetan festivals were colourful and beautifully presented. The photographer was present and very eager to explain her experiences plus she had had several leaflets printed to give some historical background. We were fully absorbed by it all and I felt sad that it wasn’t better attended especially as it is school holidays. Just the sort of thing I would have encouraged my former pupils to visit.

Afterwards we had an excellent lunch in a local restaurant that was full of families with children. An abiding feature of French culture.

And so retirement is busy, just not with the things I had anticipated. Certainly not the rock class that I have attended since almost the beginning and only stopped due to the dreaded doom virus. My last jive dancing had been as a teenager. ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ is notorious for having two left feet and never dancing. And that novel? Well, I took a writing course the second year we were here and was fascinated by my fellow students. I quickly realised who were the talented ones and I wasn’t amongst them. But, as I noted earlier, within a couple of years along came the growth of social media and with it the ubiquitous blog. So here I am writing the words without having to convince a publisher but not being paid for them…swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts! 😊

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Promenade de Roy….cowslips galore

After the steep ascent and even steeper, slippery descent of our walk around Vaillac we unanimously decided to try a flatter walk next time. The weather the following week was unsettled and ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ felt a bit poorly after his second vaccination so it was two week later that we set off for Labastide-Murat, the departure point of the promenade de Roy (I still have no idea why that name unless Roy was instrumental in suggesting it).

We used to go through Labastide-Murat en route for Cahors on our holidays here before the autoroute opened nearby. A pretty town surrounded by farmland although still on the Causse, just, and now edged by the A20. We parked in the place opposite the mairie and I was struck by the hubbub of building work going on. In fact, building work and its associated noise would be the motif of the day.

The first part of the walk follows the GR46 as it passes through the town. I like walking on a GR trail marked by its distinctive red and white balises, not that I could ever contemplate walking the entire length of one. That would involve several days if not weeks! But I assume these paths have been trodden for generations, long before they became mapped and numbered. I like the notion that I am treading an ancient way, long before mechanised transport came along.

We swung right by a stone cross after skirting yet another building site and dropped down a steep but short stony path before joining a small road. There was a path indicating Goudou, a hamlet we would pass through later but that was not our direction at this point in the walk. Facing us was one of the ubiquitous Causse ponds with a stone wall on three sides. To my astonishment it was full of goldfish! Green water with lots of redgold bodies appearing to be sunbathing just below the surface. They sank as our shadows crossed the water but a few came back for a photo..

We continued along the road passing raw looking new houses, one of them resembling a factory unit rather than a home. Glorious countryside around it but just a few tiny windows. Another one further on looked as if it had been designed by the same architect..

Then we moved on to a track between hedges gently descending. Away to our left and ahead I could hear more building noise and that beeping you get when a lorry is backing up.

I remembered from my researching in Google earth that the aire on the motorway, Les jardins du Causse, wasn’t far away. As we got to the bottom of a slope a lavoir appeared on our left and beyond it a pretty fishing lake. Up on the hill and intruding on my photos was that aire and its attendant building noise!

The banks around the plan d’eau were manicured with benches and picnic tables. A spot to return to for our picnic? Maybe the building work would stop for lunch?

We carried on past the water and continued on the GR with the verges full of cowslips. The French call them cuckoo as they arrive at the same time as the bird. We were yet to hear our first one of the year (actually during the next week’s walk!)

I spotted a sign saying we were on the Compostela route. note to self to check later…

Another lavoir beside the track with its water filled with a thick and verdant weed…not what you’d want to wash your clothes in. Did the water run faster into the basin back in the day or was it someone’s job to keep the weed out?

We left the GR at a junction with a signpost that named it the fountain of Goudou. I pondered it was a long way to bring your washing especially as the track then climbed all the way to the village. Imagine humping your wet washing all that way?

We were walking between pastures with views opening up to the right and behind us across the Causse to the west. The noise of the aire had faded and birdsong had taken over. I bent down with my app to identify some thick tulip type leaves and was told it was death heads scabious…a bit disappointing!

Goudou was appearing ahead, a hamlet that straddles the main road into Labastide-Murat. As we crossed carefully the church loomed above us on its slope.

This was meant to be the biscuit break as a small carpark had a bench and a picnic table. Unfortunately the biscuits were back in the car. We slurped water instead.

My mother could never walk past a church without peeping inside and I’ve inherited that curiosity. My eye was taken immediately by a rather gory window behind the altar. I thought of St George slaying his dragon but the body on the floor was human. This needed some online research as there was nothing in the fiche to enlighten the reader. (It was only later I spotted the head being brandished!)

There were some lovely old buildings around the church which I assume is why we were instructed to walk right round it and back down to the road.

A few paces down and a left turn onto a narrow tarmacced track between two houses. Further on this became grassy and was the narrowest path thus far. I’d opted for trainers rather than walking boots and, so far, the ‘facile’ on the fiche was spot on. More cowslips and pastures…

A gentle slope upwards until we reached a t-junction. Around here there was meant to be a ruined windmill but I could see no sign of one but there was a pretty view back to Goudou..

This was another walk down and then up which brought the windmill into view on our left. Well, it made sense it would be on a hilltop! It didn’t look too ruined but had lost its sails. There is another windmill on the southern edge of Labastide-Murat that was turned into a pigeonnier at some point in its history. Maybe this one too? It appeared to be on private land so no chance for a closer look.

Back onto the main road at the bottom of the track turning left and a short walk, keeping close to the side as traffic whizzed past, up to the lotissement of Labarte where we crossed and headed into the fields again.

As we walked an even narrower path between small bushes and saplings just beginning to leaf I realised we were on the path that we’d seen next to the goldfish pond…and so we were.

Back up the short stony path, past the building site, dodging a reversing digger, and back to the car.

We decided that the church car park had been a tad gloomy and that the plan d’eau was a better option for lunch. There was a parked car at the far end but all the picnic tables were empty and the noise from the aire mercifully absent.

After lunch I wandered along the edge of the weedy water near the lavoir and was surprised by a sudden plop. At first I assumed a fish jumping but then realized as I walked further that frogs were leaping from the bank and into the water. I managed to get a photo of several basking on the stone of the sluice and later investigation seems to suggest they were male toads waiting on the waterside in order to mate.

I left them to it!

Now some background on that window.

The church is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and has existed since the 14th century despite ravages of the 100 years war when the village was deserted. It was repopulated with the ‘accensement collective’ of the baron of our very own Castelnau Bretenoux in 1457. There was further pillaging and rebuilding until, during WW2 the cure of Labastide-Murat, Abbe Levet decided to completely refurbish the church at Goudou. He commissioned the window ‘La Decollation de Saint Jean Baptiste’ from his friend, Georges Emile Labacq, 1876-1950, a Belgian painter staying at Gourdon who loved the area. Francis Chigot, 1879-1960, a glass worker, in Limoges created the work and it was inaugurated in August 1941 but only after some colours had been changed plus some details such as the ‘biceps’ of the executioner that Labacq wasn’t happy about.

It was only later that I realised the window had been caught in my photo of the entrance ..

So a wonderful footnote to our walk. They should rewrite the fiche!

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Here we go again….again!

Tonight at 7pm, the start of curfew, we go into our third ‘confinement’. It isn’t unexpected as the signs were all there. Rising infection rates and, more worryingly, the increase of ICU beds being filled with covid sufferers. After the lockdown of sixteen departments and then three more, the time had come for the whole of l’Hexagon to go into it too. The first confinement prohibited our exercise to one kilometre from home, last autumn’s extended it to twenty, this time it is ten. We are facing four weeks of limitations and who knows how things will be after that?

Conscious that this was imminent I insisted we walk and picnic last Wednesday. The Depeche had had a small piece about the commune of Cressesac Sarrazac creating three boucles so I had downloaded and printed them off, tout suite. The violet one of 6.3km looked doable, the fiche stating it as facile with faible denivele. Hmm, more of that later.

The weather has been glorious all week and Wednesday dawned chilly but with the promise of high temperatures during the day. L’Hopital Saint Jean was the starting point and is an area we have only walked in once before when we took part in an organised walk that seemed to go on forever. We haven’t joined one since!

L’Moulin d’Antoine at the top of the high street opposite the school was where we found our point de depart. Bright new wooden arrows indicated our direction of passage and off we went.

Across the road and up (up?) a right and then left hand fork. Given that we had driven to the top of a hill to find the village that note about faible denivele was worrying me!

But nevermind, we were soon on a track with fantastic views across miles of the Causse and surrounded by small trees in blossom. These were called St Lucie’s cherry. Then we heard our first cuckoo of the year!

The violet arrows took us down to the main road and then up again before plunging down into a wooded and grassy track lined with cowslips below the village. We came out on a road again and parted company with the blue arrows we had briefly joined by a stone cross marked 1777.

Following the road (down) we took a left up (!) towards a lovely old farmhouse and past a restored pigeonnier that the fiche told us to observe!

From the farmhouse we took a track to the left and wound down (!) to another road. Up…! …to a gate where we were instructed to enter and view the statue of ‘Notre dame des Nieges’. Two elderly sheep stood guard by said gate. A level path to the Virgin on her enormous plinth. Narrow steps took me up to the platform where, to my surprise, I found myself looking down on the village of Sarrazac, known to me as a favourite lunch spot for my ‘ladies wot..’ group.

We had a biscuit break in her shadow and then returned to the gate. Up and over the ridge and onto a narrow grassy track between fields. Coming out onto yet another road, we crossed over and followed the sign for Champ de Lafon.

Once past a large house and garden this was the longest part of the walk that kept us away from ‘les routes’. But also the second steepest! A long drag up between mossy drystone walls with not many flowers but several small brown butterflies.

At the top the views opened out and we could see the church spire and village roof tops of L’Hopital Saint Jean along the crest of the hill across the valley..

Down and up, I groaned. Well, you chose it, replied ‘I’m only the chauffeur’! We followed the edge of a field full of sheep down to a road..again! We saw our first spring lambs of the season…sweet..

Crossing the road our violet arrow pointed us to a broad track running down to the valley bottom past an orchard full of dandelions.

Then, of course, it was up and up to the village centre. Once there we got to the crossroads and opted to turn up the main street for the moulin and skip the last bit of the violet path which was clearly going to take us on one last dip of the roller coaster!

Past the church where I heard my first redstart of the season and on to the moulin, a collection of farm machinery under a shady roof next to the boule pitch where we had our picnic..

Faible denivele…pah!

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Walking season has started…

After one of the wettest winters for fifty years (so the Depeche said the other day) opportunities to step outside, let alone picnic have been non existent. But with the spring slowly beginning and some glorious sunny spells now and then the time had come to put our best foot forward. Plus I was tired of riding the exercise bike with the same view and the horse had started to ignore my apples when I ventured up to his field between the showers.

Through Instagram I had become aware of a new nature reserve at Argentat, a town with a pretty riverside, and, apparently, gravel pits which had recently opened as a biodiversity site. We were still under the autumn lockdown when I first looked it up online and estimated it was just within our new permitted 20km exercise zone.. but that weather!

But a Monday in early February dawned bright and sunny and not too cold so I suggested an afternoon ride along the Dordogne to check it out. The family cyclist does this particular route often but we were in the car. The road is limited to 50km and cyclists have preference. The countryside looked pretty and the sun glinted off the river. We twisted through a couple of hamlets and tried to spot a campsite we’d used back in the 80s. More by luck than judgement we found the reserve. A very neat carpark and lots of smart signs directing us around it. We were surprised to see families there it being a Monday afternoon and a school day. Schools closed due to positive covid cases? We noticed everyone had masks so we put ours on despite being outside. I checked with a family walking in the opposite direction and they said masks had to be worn in Argentat. So be it.

The reserve looked raw still and very bare. It was still February after all. The sun was being overtaken by high white cloud and it felt cold. We walked across the boardwalk that is featured on the website and looked for wildfowl. The commune hopes the place will become a stop on bird migrations but the number of people plus two small girls on noisy bicycles would seem to militate against that hope!

We carried on around the largest expanse of water and, rather than recross it, followed a path next to the Dordogne. The river was in full spate and I hoped no one would get too close. An accident waiting to happen? The path seemed to be leading us out of the reserve and finally, after passing a hide busy with walkers, it dumped us at the boggy end of a gravel pit close to the main road. We realised we had two options, walk back the way we had come or walk back up the main road to the car park. It was walk up the road to the car! Curiousity satisfied we drove home under gloomier skies. We still didn’t find that campsite but I did spot a beautiful arched window in a broken down building. So a photo opportunity at least!

‘i’m only chauffeur’s birthday arrives in late February and ever since we moved here in 2004 we have spent it in mountains in different parts of France stomping about on raquettes. A couple of years ago we decided the time had come to give in to our age and creaking knees and opt for walking in boots instead. Last year we went up to La Bourboule, its closeness making it a favourite, and we found everywhere green. It was a novelty walking on ski de fond pistes we had never explored in snowier times. This year its appeal palled as all bars and restaurants are closed due to doom virus and a 6pm curfew would curtail any after-ski fun.

Happily, the weather of the birthday week looked good and himself said his birthday promised the best of the sunshine. We even made up a picnic in hopes of eating it in a sunny spot. I had found a walk up on the Causse only half an hour away by car and entitled the ‘tour of the dolmens’. The Lot has a multitude of these neolithic remains despite the looting of their stones over the centuries.

Driving to the start at Les Feux I was surprised by how many trees had burst into blossom suddenly. The car park had only one other car and the start of the walk was very well signposted. This was looking hopeful.

cornelian cherry

What followed was a lovely walk through an abandoned village, past dolmens in fields, beautiful blossom my app identified as Cornelian cherry, curious cows and calves, indifferent sheep, honking geese and always between or near drystone walls. We puffed up the hills of the first half, gazed across the Causse to the far off Segala and Limargue and rejoiced in the descent through fields full of birdsong and the first flush of wild flowers.

The only picnic table we saw near the start of the path had a family well ensconced as we came back past it towards the end of the ‘sentier des dolmens’. Tant pis, we picked one of the many big stones decorating the carpark, spread our picnic and relaxed in the perfect tranquility of the Causse.

arrival beer for the birthday boy

Having made a start on the walk and picnic days out, I watched the weather forecast closely and googled earthed to find something interesting but not too challenging after the winter somnambulance. I found what looked like a gem just an hour away from home and in a direction we hadn’t explored last year.

A little village called Vaillac, complete with a chateau, had a walk that looked like the outline of a butterfly on its fiche. Closer investigation showed that halfway through the walk we would come back to the centre ville thus giving us a chance to give in gracefully if feeling a bit puffed! The closeness of the contour lines suggested climbing would be involved. Sadly the chateau is privately owned and doesn’t open for visits.

A goodish day was picked and the road we took is the one that takes us to the motorway, many happy adventures have started at that junction! This time we drove under the A20 and just a little further on down narrow lanes under a blue sky.

I glimpsed a huge chateau on a hillside and suddenly we were in the village of Vaillac. And a very pretty village too. It had looked good on Google earth but that was a summer picture so I was a bit anxious it would look gloomy in early March. I needn’t have worried, it was picture postcard.

I wandered down from the vast church to find the little stream that I believed was the start of the walk. Sure enough, there was the familiar yellow balise clearly indicating we cross over the foot bridge.

Boots on, water in backpacks and two sticks each (remember those contour lines) and we were off.

Leaving the village we turned up a grassy track past a large pigeonnier….

and then climbed…and climbed.. and climbed! Around 90 metres I calculated. Views of the chateau opened up and early on there was a bench handily placed for catching your breath.

those big pale shapes are the towers of the chateau

On the ridge we turned left on a wide track and walked for quite a time between wire fences topped with barbed wire. Protection for whatever was in the fields or repelling marauding sanglier and deer? We could see other deep valleys on our right side away from Vaillac…more googling for another time?

Me with one of those lovely Cornelian cherry trees

Eventually we turned left again, just past some donkeys, and began to drop down into the valley…

Although easier to be walking down, the last part of the path became quite difficult as it was very steep with a lot of loose stones, lethal if it had been a bit damp!

Back in the village we decided we had walked enough for that day and found the picnic table I had identified online and had a very pleasant lunch. The few cars that passed were quite expensive models and I came to the conclusion this was quite a well heeled village, given how beautifully restored the houses seemed to be.

We noted where the second half of the path left the village and will go back and walk the rest of it….when we’re a bit more match fit!

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Moments of joy…

I have been feeling guilty that I hadn’t managed to get myself back to secours populaire on Tuesday afternoons. Before Christmas we had a saga here with our ‘chaudiere’, the oil fired boiler which, we realised with surprise, was fifteen years old, the average life for one according to Google! That wasn’t much comfort as we filled up every camping bidon we owned and turned the mains water on just long enough to flush the toilet. Two weeks it took for two hopeful repairs to prove it was ‘mort’ and the replacement (ouch) which happened Christmas week. We still have a drip pronounced ‘pas grave’ by the plumber as he ignores us to deal with the umpteen broken down boilers during the recent frosts and snow.

Then there was the replacement of our internet with fibre optique. We moved furniture and a lot of dust in anticipation of where the new socket may be located. Then when the two man team arrived they chose somewhere we hadn’t thought of..more moving of ‘meubles’ and more surreptitious cleaning!

So what with that, an unanticipated snow fall and waiting for a possible plumber visit I hadn’t got around to going back to do my volunteering. Then today I read that our ‘antenne’ is closed as someone on the team has tested positive. That’s scary. We all wear masks, use gel religiously and keep our distance. I don’t know if the person contracted it while working at the shop or elsewhere but scary that I could now be isolating if I had gone in.

January is a gloomy month at the best of times but you can ward off dark thoughts by planning summer holidays and spring breaks. But with an imposed 6pm curfew and disturbing new virus variants and horrendous figures coming out of the UK and stubborn resistance here at home of our own significant numbers refusing to fall, it all looks pretty desperate and thoughts of holidays seem far too frivolous.

When the weather was better we could go out for walks which is always good for the morale but wet and windy days don’t encourage being outside for long. Our elderly cat, marmalade, sums it up well. He burrows under the top cover on the spare bed and sleeps the afternoons away hidden from the world. Would that I could too!

I’m trying to keep positive. My Christmas present of an exercise bike is being used every day. I’m up to ten kilometres in twenty minutes, not that it is making an iota of difference to the weight gained over Christmas! I do fifteen minutes a day of Duolingo French lessons, an irritating online course, extremely repetitive and cursed with advertisements but is slowly filling gaps in my knowledge of conjugation. I continue to take photos in the garden and places I go to entertain Facebook friends although the weather and time of year means they might as well be in black and white, the countryside is so grey at the moment.

Last Friday, the day I nearly heaved a sack of old clothes into sec pop, we went to St Cere to take back our old livebox. The relais was an electronic vaping shop. Now those are something relatively new. A shop full of flavours and fake cigarettes. I listened to the sales assistant explaining to a customer how you can mix your ‘aromes’. Wierd. As we were nearby we popped into the camera shop and had some photos taken for our eventual, we hope, carte de sejour permanents. If we ever get called by the prefecture, that is, to go down and be fingerprinted. We did all that in march 2019 but my Facebook group page tells me the photos will be too old. Presumably not the fingerprints? Of course, we emerged with photographs that make us look like elderly criminals as is the way with photos that don’t allow for disguising gestures; the merry smile, the hand under the chin to hide the ones sagging behind. Usually, trips into our biggest local town end with a coffee in one of the many bars but all are closed due to doom virus and not even a chair is to be seen on their terraces.

The beautiful plane trees that shade you so prettily in summer have had their annual winter mauling and stand like so many twisted and bent witches, black against the grey sky (it was a very wet day).

Our weekly drive shop had been unable to deliver clementines the day before so I went along to the Carrefour, a small supermarket I rarely use, but hoping I might find their own brand cereal as well as some fruit. Yes to clementines, oddly carrying a label stating ‘avion’. Do they have customers opposed to air freight? And no to the cereal. But as I queued for the checkout on the obligatory strip of plastic a metre distance from the customer in front I spotted my favourite tea…in tea bag form ..and not costing an arm and a leg! I buy loose redbush tea but the other half (a coffee only drinker) hates the faff of leaves and prefers a bag when making me a cup. My blighty supplies have dried up due to no trips across the channel last year. I took a box and then another…and then a third, just in case. Oh, joy, the comfort of my favourite redbush vanilla tea in the morning when himself brings me that first cup. I smiled all the way back to the car.

And on reflection, I’ve decided that’s what will get me through the next few difficult weeks,months…looking for those little moments of joy each day. Meanwhile, I’ll just finish this cup of tea..

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Calendar crazy

We’re getting to that time of year again…whisper it… Christmas! I know this, not because of the unrelenting volume of Christmas ads on the TV but because I have had the first bundle of paperwork from a charity. The foot and mouth painters,which always seems an unfortunate title, have sent thier usual bundle of slightly naff Christmas cards and a calendar. Gosh, how churlish I feel writing that but one must be honest. I shall send off a cheque even tho the cards were unsolicited and stick them in the card box to be used in the event of running out of my preferred and, in my opinion, more tasteful ones. More about the calendar to follow…

The next bundle to arrive was from the guide dogs charity which I do support. A pen, a notebook, a few Christmas postcards featuring guide dogs, bien sur, with a festive message in braille alongside the printed one. Every year the teacher in me thinks what a useful classroom resource even if it is nearly twenty years since I last taught six year olds the story of Louis Braille. But the most significant thing in the bundle is the calendar. This one is on A4 card and has useful score lines so it can be folded and propped on a shelf somewhere.

When we first came to live here it was in late September and I remember being surprised by the proliferation of calendars at every turn. Of course, calendars are a staple of Christmas just as slippers are or joky onesies but here in France they are seemingly the gift you cannot be without.

Of course, not all are free and deciding how much to pay caused some head scratching for us at the beginning. Our initial experience of this was when the pompiers arrived at the door around the beginning of our first December. Two smiley chaps in uniform stood there obviously assuming we knew the drill. We didn’t. It soon became clear we were expected to buy one of their calendars and to pay whatever we felt was appropriate. This led to a whispered conversation a deux in English hoping we weren’t being understood.

We’re old hands now and invite them in, offer ‘un verre (never accepted) and hand over some notes. Ever since we had an unfortunate incident with the flue pipe at the back of the woodburner catching fire necessitating my calling an emergency number for only the second time in my life, we greet them with heartfelt thanks and a more generous donation. Especially as the majority of our local firefighters are voluntary. I was chatting to a neighbour in the bricolage shop when his pager went off. He headed for the exit immediately, shouting excusez-moi over his shoulder as he went! The calendar is a very professional one, full of smiling pompiers, fire engines and bowsers and photos of emergency situations. I use it to record bookings for our gite.

It was only recently that I realised that the calendar from la poste has disappeared. Our first postlady would always make sure we didn’t miss out. Their calendar was a very informative missive. Not just days and months in its pages but maps of the larger towns in our department, recipes, helpful hints, proverbs related to the weather. There was always a choice available too inasmuch as the different cover pictures. These were a range I can only describe as chocolate box; flowers, kittens, puppies or countryside scenes which included the Pyrenees and Alps, of course. I miss that one but was surprised to see certain of them offered on eBay. I should have kept ours!

10euros on eBay!

Certain shops offer freebie calendars too. These aren’t to be compared with the ones already mentioned. These are the handy to have style, sometimes a simple rectangle of card, printed on both sides and easily slipped into a handbag but more often s folded affair, the business bit inside while the outside carries publicity for the shop and maybe a new year greeting. Our local pharmacy used to have them on the counter but recently they have moved up a notch. When using the pharmacy near Christmas you used to receive a small gift, eau de cologne, then it was shower gel. More recently I have been offered a choice, an eco folding shopping bag or the calendar. I opt for the bag.

Then there are the business calendars. Now these are in a form I had not experienced before. On very stiff cardboard starting out in A4 size but can be bigger, sometimes much bigger. Last year we were given one by the oil delivery man along with the usual printout of the ‘facture’. We got one from the plumber once who came to sort out the boiler.

Until now I have accepted this as just one of those little differences that, as an expat, you notice. But with reconfinement limiting more exciting ways of passing the time, I have pondered why the calendar has become so essential. And I think I may have come up with a possible explanation.

I was chatting about bank holidays recently and trying to explain that the UK bank holidays, in general, are Mondays, neatly tacked onto a weekend. This had never caused me to stop and think until I moved to a country that had its holidays on the allotted date. If it falls on a Monday or a Friday, a cause for a long weekend. If it falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday there is the possibility of a ‘pont’, ie taking a days annual leave on the day in between and getting a four day break. If it falls on a Saturday, not a working day for many, then a gallic shrug but to fall on a Sunday? Quel horreur. So there is a clear necessity to know when the long break possibilities are likely to fall. I have become adept at highlighting all bank holidays on the kitchen calendar…always a version with big boxes for each day so important stuff can be noted, ‘worm cats’, ‘chimneysweep’, payday!

On the subject of bank holidays or jours feries which are often religious holidays another addition to French calendars is the saint days. Every day of the year has an associated saint. Once upon a time French children would be named after the saint who shared his or her birthday. My saints day is 17th January, Rosaline, but as I go by a nickname not many congratulate me on it. But the particular Saint is always mentioned at the end of the TV weather forecast along with the date. Rather sweet, I think.

But I think I have found a much more important reason for all these calendars. School holidays. At the time of retirement there was a heated debate going on in UK schools about the Easter holiday and should it be fixed as due to the fluid nature of when Easter occured there would be either be a short spring term and a long summer one or a long spring term and an Easter holiday that tipped straight into the SATs, obligatory national tests. I have no idea how it sorted itself out but the idea of an Easter holiday that didn’t encompass Easter was a strange concept for those of us at a certain age.

In France it is taken as the norm. The second half of the academic year looks much the same for all students but the first half is a different story, especially to the uninitiated. Despite having a similar population as the UK but with four times the geographical area, there was concern that the ski resorts and other tourist areas couldn’t cope with the press of holidaymakers arriving all at the same time. So for the purposes of alleviating such pressure France is divided into three zones, A,B and C. We are zone C. So now the calendar comes into its own. Close inspection of any one of the forms above will reveal continuous stripes down one side each day/month. Usually blue, green and red, they signify the three zones and the periods allocated for the winter and spring holidays. Without school children these dates have never carried much import for us except when working out when the ski resorts will close. It often seemed that as soon as one colour finished another was waiting to take over. To complicate things further the zones order moves around so one year we may be the last to have our holidays, another year the first. All this only became personal to me when I volunteered for a term time homework club. But I still find it confusing…probably my age!

So, already I have two free calendars but, sadly, I read the other day that, due to covid, the pompiers will not be visiting with theirs. Mind you, with reconfinement and sober reports about a hard winter, I assume there will be no exciting upcoming events to record on the kitchen calendar…other than worm cats!

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