Thursday, 26 July 2007

Market Day

Today is market day in our village, as it has been every Thursday since 1256. It starts gently, early in the morning and soon about 30 stalls, with pretty coloured awnings, are set up around the square.

People mill slowly about, wicker baskets over one arm, no supermarket dash here. No loud music, no raised voices, just the steady hum of commerce, merchant and customer, producer and consumer, as it's always been.The pace is sedate, time is needed to consider the price of tomatoes, select the best of this season's peaches, examine the lettuces.

So many of the same goods will have been sold here every week for centuries; local fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, flowers, and bread from the local mill. Duras and Bergerac wines are there to be sampled, direct from the men who tend the vines, a missionary gleam in their eyes as they explain the complexity of their product. Above the meat counter hang huge dried hams, while on the counter, beef from the local huge Blonde d'Aquitaine cattle and then rather too many bits of the animal kingdom I haven't seen since an anatomy class at vet school.

The stall with huge steaming pans of paella, full of fruit de mer and saffron rice, is doing a roaring trade. My children are fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the glass-sided apiary brought by the lady who sells honey in 10 different flavours. She remembers us from last year and bids the boys to help themselves from her sweetie jar, honey-flavoured of course. The man with the twinkly eyes is still selling his vast range of cheeses at a stall in the shady side of the square; his broken English encourages my fractured French and we cobble a conversation together. First Husband chooses the smelliest, bluest, runniest cheese on offer; I stick to the nutty, smooth Cantal.

Neat rows of small sacks line up on the next stall, each heaped full of dry goods. Colourful piles of peppercorns red, black, green and pink. Tumeric,dried chillis, cinnamon sticks, herbes de Provence, cardamom pods, camomile flowers, pot pourri...sweet, aromatic, pungent.

But for the locals it's as much an opportunity to catch up on conversations started last week as it is a chance to shop. The same discussion that's gone on between neighbours for centuries...of travails endured and triumphs celebrated.

Finally I have learnt to shop like a Frenchwoman. I used to stock up for a week, like you do at home from the supermarket, thrilled by the variety, scents and sounds of the market. Accustomed to fruit hard as bullets,to ripen at home, I didn't forsee that fruit and vegetables from the village market would go off so quickly, as it's sold, tooth-soft and yielding, ready to eat. Now I buy just enough for a day or two. There's always another market in the next village in a few days time.

And so in my basket goes a warm spit-roasted chicken, basted in fierce quantities of garlic, from Monsieur Le Moustache in the corner arcade, a bottle or two of the Duras, a delicious tarte aux pruneaux in filo pastry from the patissier, the cheese and a few peaches. The evening meal is sorted.

Monday, 23 July 2007

French Leave

It's pouring with rain today and so we are confined indoors here in Lot et Garonne. I didn't think it fair to write about our place in the sun while everyone in the UK was suffering from an excess of the wet stuff but as we are now sharing the deluge, here is a description of our little piece of heaven.

I first came to MFQ as a girlfriend, nearly 20 years ago. Boyfriend, now First Husband, was visiting one of his old schoolmasters and his family who holidayed here each year. In summer this part of France is like a veritable Common Room for the exhausted Domine of the education system. I was enchanted, then as now, with both boyfriend and ancient village and fortunately, both passions have survived and strengthened.

MFQ lies on the slope of a hill that tilts toward the south, houses rising in an orderly grid to the medieval church with its characteristic two spires. Looking out from the vantage point on the battlements beside the church, the countryside undulates gently like a rumpled patchwork quilt; small farms, orchards and pastures stretch as far as the eye can see, gently interspersed with patches of dark green forests and bright yellow sunflowers. Narrow, straight roads radiate from this place with here and there, what appears to be a Dinky car, moving slowly, glinting in the sun. But silently, with only the swish of the chestnut trees in the gentle breeze or the twitters of the house martins to interrupt your contemplation. Far away on the horizon a real Disneyesque castle looms, the very image of the perfect fairytale princess's home but close-up, the walls are many metres thick, glowering and impenetrable.

For we are in Aquitaine, Hundred Years War territory, and for many periods of time, in English possession. Fortified by both the English and the French, like most bastides in this part of South West France, MFQ was built to the same general plan. A central square is surrounded on four sides by strong and massive arched stone arcades with huge beams visibly supporting the half timbered houses above. In the north east corner of the square still stands the house of Edward, the Black Prince who lodged there when visiting his father, Edward III's, seneschal of Aquitaine. Once there were ramparts encircling the town; little of those remain though it is thought our house is built into some of its old foundations. Both the town, and our house, have stood for over 750 years.

Streets and alleysways criss-cross at right angles. Until about 25 years ago the alleys, carrerots, were full of centuries of debris. Where once the filles de joie plied their trade, the carrerots are now cleared and, beautifully cobbled with polished stone in arching patterns, they snake down the hill, forming perfect conduits for the occasional heavy downpour. Walk through any alley, apparently devoid of people but with the sounds of life in adjoining houses emanating all around; the clatter of pots and pans as dejeuner is prepared; animated French voices gossiping, arguing, soothing; the music school pianist running up and down her scales; a baby crying. Could be any century... then the unmistakable rhythm of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon floats ethereally overhead from next door's bedroom and we're brought back to the modern age.

It's a dreamy, tranquil place, mysterious and romantic, sometimes virtually silent and at other times, vibrant with festivals and markets. Wait for me in one of the cafes, order une grande cafe au lait and I'll be with you shortly to tell you some more...

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Never mind Dr Who and his Tardis, I was catapulted forward in time today.

The “Loads of Time” Lord arrived with his assistant , not in a Tardis, though the car was blue with some interesting silver streaks down the side. It might have been a sonic screwdriver sticking out of the front wing but to be honest it looked more like a wire coat hanger to me.

This charming, tall, imposing lordly creature picked me up with ease by way of a interspecies greeting and offered me the Galaxy. Or rather a piece of his chocolate bar.

As his assistant struggled in with the baggage extracted from the Tardis-like depths of the boot, the “What’s the Time” Lord did what only he can do. Said he would be with this Earthling for only five minutes but stretched time out to at least thirty minutes. Needing refuelled, he picked up the rock specimens scattered about my kitchen, examined them minutely and popped them in his mouth.
Save giving the left over garlic bread to the birds I thought.

Have you noticed that previous incarnations of Time Lords never knew quite where they were going and this “Heck, Is that the Time” Lord was no different. Calling on the assistance of K9 or was it Tom-Tom, we found the co-ordinates of the next place at which he and his companion were due to materialise . Honestly,even if they are thousands of years old, these boys shouldn’t be let out without their mother.

But the best was yet to come. With the aid of only some common chemicals, soap and water, the “Running out of Time” Lord was transformed in what seemed like only a moment in the great space continuum.. He was regenerated from a scruffy time traveller, in ripped jeans and with a hairstyle that only a Gallifreyan would love, to an elegant, suave Master of the Universe, clothed with the very best the distant planet Mossbros could offer.

Don’t know why he had to leave that studded antenna in his eyebrow though. Perhaps it’s to communicate with his mother. She is human after all. She’ll certainly have words with him about it.

His assistant, no less richly dressed, required special visors in order to keep his body temperature down or were they really only aviator sunglasses worn indoors to look cool?

A final adjustment of the special neckware required to endear them to those aliens from the planet Venus and they were off, into a new dimension.

Yes, the delightful just finished-A-levels son of a friend, and his mate, turned up today.
He ate, drank, showered and changed into black tie for a nearby party in the blink of an eye.
And it seems, that in only a blink of an eye, he’s grown from a darling, cuddly little boy to a handsome, confident young man.
Who needs to travel through time? It’s already going too fast.

Friday, 6 July 2007

You cannot be serious!

Younger son has been having extra tennis coaching at school which he adores. His teacher is a top coach who coached her own daughters to county standard.

She drew me aside one day.
“He’s really coming on, terrific hand, eye co-ordination,” she said.
I beamed. I was rubbish at tennis.
“But I just wanted to explain why I asked your son to step out of the class yesterday,” she continued. “ He hit a bad shot and threw his racket down.”
Her head tilted to one side, looking to me for agreement that she had done the right thing.
I bit my lip. Eight year olds having tantrums, whatever next.
“Yes ,of course,” I said sympathetically, “He must learn to be a good sport.”

I told his father about his boy’s lack of manners.
“The boy’s got it,” he said delighted.
“Got what?”
“The red mist. It’s what he needs to succeed. He won’t give up. Determination. Didn’t do McEnroe any harm anyway...”

My appeal for some fatherly advice to teach my wayward son about giving everyone a chance, sharing the ball, the importance of just taking part fell on deaf ears.

The following week, younger son won the tennis tournament. At least he thanked the umpire graciously.

Game ,set and match to testosterone?