Bombyx Mori part 2

November 18, 2017

Princess Leizu

So to the history of silk itself.

For centuries two Oriental products exerted a fascination, not to say an obsession in Europe.  Porcelain and silk, because of their rarity, costliness and exoticism were both irresistible to the wealthy and fashionable who all hankered after these emblems of luxury and power.  By the 18thC fortunes were squandered on porcelain collections and the word “china” was used in England as a slang term for extravagance.

The European love affair with silk however extends much further back into history: first the Greeks and then the Romans were importing it from the Far East From the 2ndC BC onwards.  But for centuries in the West the mystery of how silk was produced remained complete, since Imperial Chinese silk workers were forbidden, on pain of death, to travel abroad.   The Romans believed that the thread was spun from the leaves of the “silk tree”, which idea, although fanciful, has echoes of the spaghetti tree April fool, broadcast by the BBC’s Panorama as recently as 1957.

A much older Chinese legend would have it that princess Leizu was sitting in the shade of a mullberry tree when a cocoon dropped into her hot cup of tea and started to unwind … and so began the domestication of our little friend Bombyx Mori and the beginning of  the saga of silk.

In the 6th C AD the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, fed up with the Persian monopoly of the silk trade, sponsored a feat of industrial espionage by sending two monks on a mission to China to steal silk worms.  They managed to hide several eggs and very young larvae in their hollow bamboo walking sticks, together with a supply of leaves, and the secret was out!

Silk vestments, draperies, tapestries and wall hangings – you name it, the rich and powerful all wanted it and when the Pope and his court set up shop in Avignon in the 14thC and stayed for nearly a century the demand for silk in France really took off.  In 1466, King Louis XI decided to develop a national silk industry with a view to reducing France’s trade deficit with the Italian states, which was running at some 500,000 golden écus annually. A royal manufacture and monopoly on silk weaving was established in Lyon, with the raw material imported through Marseille and along the Rhône, and it was not long before the regions along this route began to jump on the passing gravy train and start producing their own silk.  Four million mullberry trees were planted by royal decree in the Gard, Var and Vaucluse, but it was not until 1709, when a terrible winter killed the chestnut and olive tress in the Ardèche and they were replaced with mullberries, that sericulture spread into our area.  Silk production endured for three centuries and for a considerable period the Ardèche was the foremost producer of raw silk in France.

So here we are back at the farm magnaneries and the boiling cauldron in the courtyard.  To be able to weave with silk though, it is not enough just to spin the raw threads together.  The results tend to be uneven and the remaining sericin reacts badly when the silk is exposed to hot water, for example in a dye bath, when the threads are liable to unravel.  The solution is reeling, a process where the raw silk threads are twisted together mechanically.

Different degrees of torsion give different types of thread for use in such diverse fabrics as satin, with its smooth, brilliant surface, grosgrain and reps, which have raised ribs, jacquard and brocade where a design is woven into the material, or supple fabrics such as organdie, chiffon and crêpe.  The abandoned factories which are such a common sight in the innumerable river valleys of our area bear witness to the fact that the Ardèche was always the foremost region for this activity, representing 50% of the entire French total.  There are technical, geographical and demographical reasons for this, but I am afraid they will have to wait for a subsequent post, because I am about to go off on a tangent!

I have inherited  a considerable collection of vintage and historic clothing from my family – here is my mother’s wedding dress for example – and in cataloguing and researching the pieces, I became fascinated by the origins and different types of silk.  Or maybe my interest goes back further – to “The Tailor of Gloucester” to be precise.  I have always loved those opening sentences: “In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets – when gentlemen wore ruffles and gold-laced waistoacts of paduasoy and taffeta …. he sewed and snippeted, piecing out his satin and pompadour, and lutestring; stuffs had strange names, and were very expensive in the days of the Tailor of Gloucester”  (and I note in passing that Beatrix Potter was as profligate with her use of commas as I tend to be myself!)

Those evocative names indicate that the silk fabrics were imported from Northern Italy and France, specifically from Lyon, which by the 16thC was the undisputed capital of the European silk trade, employing thousands of silk workers: the canuts.  Gradually designs evolved from the original oriental styles in favour of natural and floral motifs and the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801 made possible the production of ever more beautiful and complex brocades and damasks, like this fabric used in a 19thC ball dress in my collection.

Fabric dying techniques helped drive the development of the chemical industry, which was already solidly in place by the mid 1800s and is still an important industry today, and by 1870 the silk industry accounted for 75% of Lyon’s total industrial activity, with about 100,000 looms in operation.

So it’s possibly far fetched, but I like to think that these two dresses might conceivably have been made with fabric which started out as a hank of raw silk, produced in the magnagnerie of an Ardèche farm just like ours.

To end this post, here is my late sister Margaret, wearing the ball dress to a dance in 1976.


PS  I have made a complete catalogue of my collection and I am proposing to put it on line, since there are pieces which might be of interest for a conservation project or a heritage collection.  When I have done so I will post a link on this blog.



A short history of wheelbarrows . . .

November 13, 2017

In between two episodes of Kate’s silk stories here is a short interlude. The protagonist is this rusty wheelbarrow that has been helping us right from the moment we bought Les Sarziers with all the big jobs.  It has transported cement bags, sand and gravel, stones, tiles and – in the garden – plant prunings, leaves, manure and compost.  And last week, like the autumn before, it helped us storing our fire wood.

Last year’s log pile was starting to diminish as for the last two weeks the evenings have become autumnal and the nights longer and we started up our two wood burning stoves.

Our neighbour Roger’s nephew Dorian brought round a couple of tons last week, cut and split from timber that he had felled in the little wood below our garden, just as Roger used to do before he was reduced to crutches.

As we loaded the first of them into the wheelbarrow, Dorian stopped for a moment and bent over to look at the wheel. “Solid rubber? Haven’t seen one like this before.” I tried to explain – but utterly failed – why this is a special wheelbarrow, which started its life in Paris in 1980.


 Well, since you ask …. below is a picture to prove its early glory.

Dorian won’t be interested, but perhaps some of the readers of this blog might be intrigued or even remember. It was our first show with our Theatre/Dance Company Reflux performed in the Théâtre de la Plaine in the winter of 1981. The show was called “Kaleidoscope” and as you can see, the wheelbarrow had a starring role – just don’t ask what the hell we were doing.

Later, for the more challenging building jobs we bought another wheelbarrow – a boring standard type with blow-up tyres.  It is still with us, but has had already several punctures and is NOT orange.  Here are some archive pictures of it in action, and as long as we have the strength to push it it will continue to be with us.



Leaving our personal memories aside, isn’t the wheelbarrow one of the cleverest inventions of human kind?  I just wish sometimes it had three more wheels and an engine!


Bombyx Mori

October 23, 2017

Autumn is here and the brilliant golden flash of the mullberry trees illuminates the coutryside, contrasting with the orangey hues of vineyards and apricot orchards, the rosy russet of the cherry trees and an occasional vertical yellow stroke of a lombardy poplar.

We have been meaning to write about the mullberries for a while now but, whilst researching the history of silk production in the Ardèche I realised that the subject is too vast for just one post, so here is the first of a series we’ll be writing over the autumn. We hope that you will find them interesting: it seems worth giving this important aspect of our area’s history the attention it deserves.

If you know les Sarziers, you may well have have slept in the Pink Room, with its large window overlooking the courtyard, and you will have noticed a corner cupboard opposite the bed. These two elements are not as mundane as they may at first appear. When we bought the house, this section of the barn was divided off into a rectangular space running the whole width of the building, with two corner fireplaces, without chimneys. We were told that this was the magnanerie – a place to raise silk worms.

For silk worms to survive and thrive a constant temperature of around 23C, fresh air and plenty of light are essential. Traditionally Ardèche houses are very dark, with tiny windows, so it was necessary to create a large opening to provide light and ventilation and to install the little fireplaces, which were presumably supplied with the hot embers from the main fire in the kitchen. We redesigned the space to make the bedroom, bathroom and larder, where one of the fireplaces is still located. The happy discovery of an old door in a brocante enabled us to turn the other one into a corner cupboard and to complete the transformation of this ….

into this …

Silk worms, or Bombyx mori to give them their official title, are fussy little beasts and will only eat fresh, shredded leaves from the white mullberry tree, which they devour in vast quantities.  Gnarled old trees are still to be found close to all the farms. Sometimes grown along the access lane, their roots have gradually forced their way through the dry stone walls, causing them to collapse. Wherever there is a ruined homestead there will be mullberry trees, doggedly surviving where all the other life of the farm has vanished, silent witnesses to a boom and bust which profoundly marked our area.

The Ardèche was always densely populated but conditions for subsistence farming are harsh. The land is often stony, the soil shallow and the gradients steep. Over many centuries, terraces were painstakingly constructed, retained by dry stone walls, to provide fertile patches on which to cultivate potatoes, kale, and cereals. These were small-scale mixed farmers, raising a little livestock: goats, a few cows and a pig or two, poultry and rabbits. They were self sufficient by necessity, but often lacked the means to generate cash for other basics.

But they also grew wine and chestnuts, which could be sold commercially if the harvest was good, to provide a minimum cash income for the family. Wherever possible, farmers planted a little vineyard and made their own wine and any surplus could be sold to villagers at higher altitudes where vines wouldn’t prosper.  Sweet chestnuts could be easily cultivated.  They were an essential part of the diet and also used as fodder, with any excess being sold to generate cash.

But the real cash earner was the silk worm and artisan raw silk was being produced in the Ardèche by the 1700’s. Although the demands of our little friends bombyx kept the whole family occupied round the clock for a period of four or five weeks in May, other farm work was relatively light at that time and no other crop could be grown and harvested so quickly.

To get an idea of the complex and time consuming process of rearing silk worms it is worth taking a quick look at their life cycle. After the incubated eggs have hatched, the silk worm eats voraciously for 30 days or so, passing through five growth stages and shedding its skin four times. It will then begin to pupate, by spinning a cocoon, inside which it gradually metamorphoses into a silk moth …. or at least that is what it hopes to do! But before the transformation is complete, the pupa is killed and the silk filaments unwound. If the moth had been allowed to break through the cocoon and emerge the filaments would have been snapped into short pieces, so unfortunately thousands of creatures had to be slaughtered to make that beautiful silk scarf you love!

The process began in chilly mid April when the mullberry trees were beginning to come into leaf.  Silk moth eggs require a constant temperature of around 23 C to incubate and they were traditionally kept, either close to the bread oven which was part of every little hamlet, or placed in cloth bags which the women wore under their clothes. After about a fortnight, the eggs were laid out on slatted wooden trays, covered with a loosely woven cloth which was spread with finely sliced mullberry leaves. The emerging silk worms passed up through the cloth and started to feed on the leaves.

The next few weeks saw constant and hectic activity. The worms have to develop at the same rate, so the last hatchings need to be moved closest to the source of heat and light. They also must be spaced out so that each has access to the right quantity of food. Hygiene is crucial, and after each moult the soiled bed of leaf litter must to be carefully removed and destroyed. Silk worms require regular meals, served four times a day (so French!) and the quantities are enormous: according to Wikipedia 30 grammes of eggs will, as worms, consume 1,300kg of leaves over a period of around 32 days.

When the worms were ready to pupate, little cages of heather twigs were prepared into which they climbed to begin their transmogrification – and to seal their fate. Silk worms secrete a gummy substance from the salivary glands, working in a figure of eight movement until their body is entirely wrapped, and the filaments harden in contact with the air.

Now for the sad bit! A large cauldron of boiling water was set up over an open fire in the courtyard into which the cocoons were dropped in batches. As the gluey substance began to soften the filaments were unwound, combining the threads from around ten cocoons together into a single strand and taking up a new cocoon as necessary, so as to produce a continuous thread, which was wound into a skein weighing around 120 grammes. This is raw silk, or soie grège in French, from the word grès, meaning the gluey substance. The hanks are called flottes, which nicely evokes the airy, brilliant texture and look of natural untreated silk.

For the hard-pressed farmers of the Ardèche this almost magical process must have seemed a little like Rumpelstiltskin in the fairytale, who could spin straw into gold. The very definition of a cash crop, their flottes, produced in the simplest of conditions, were destined to be woven into the rich brocades and jacquard frabrics for which Lyon was so famous, and to clothe royalty and the opulent bourgeoisie.

But, between those two extremes lay one further step ….

More next time.


raw silk photo credit:  attache trading FZE

landscape photos October 2017: Markus

Ardèche garages

September 6, 2017

In our very hilly area, roads are not straight. They used to be straighter before the invention of the internal combustion engine, but early cars could not cope with the steep gradients which had been negotiated for centuries on foot or with animals. It has struck us that, along with the requirement to re-engineer the roads, when the first cars arrived here they presented an additional challenge – where to keep the motor?

There was often no way to park the car just outside the farm, for lack of a flat surface. The stable floors too were  on a slope (easier to clean out the muck) and were in any case inhabited by the farm animals. So a special garage was needed.

People who had the money, built their garage out of stone, and – as at Les Sarziers – they added an upper floor (in our case for the hens) and made it spacious enough to house other items (in our case, the wine vat). Our garage was built in 1936 and is conveniently located just 20 yards below the main house. The lower level once housed the previous owner’s 2CV (which unfortunately was not included in the sale). Our Walksweeks guests have probably noticed that while they are staying in our house, we decamp to what the locals still call le Garage. We actually live upstairs, which we refer to as the Doghouse (“we’re in the doghouse”: it seemed amusing at the time, and the name has stuck). It was our first restoration project 30 years ago and is a cosy place to stay, especially in the winter, when it is difficult to keep the big house warm and snug.

Over the years, we have noticed that nearly all garages in the Ardèche are separate buildings, erected close to the access road or often just in a little siding off the main road.  Somewhere where the terrain was more or less flat (can’t trust those handbrakes!”) and where it was easy to manoeuvre to join the road. As with the train stations in this area, one did not expect transport to take you to the front of your house. Arlebosc station is nearly two miles from the village, and in other remote areas you might have had to face a three hour uphill walk from La Gare to the Eglise. The novelty of the speed with which a car or a train could transport you over long distances amply made up for these minor inconveniences.

Driving around the hilly roads of the Ardèche you can’t help noticing these shacks, as most of them seem to be in strange places. They are now neglected and what was once a right angle has taken its liberty to lean where the force of gravity is the strongest. Too isolated, they are often abandoned or filled with fire wood or rusty agricultural machinery.

Understandably people are no longer prepared to add 50 yards of unnecessary walking if the car can get them to the front door and therefore in close proximity to the fridge, where most of the shopping will end up.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In contrast, and in terms of ultimate convenience, I remember when visiting Kate’s aunt in Florida, admiring her garage, which had an interior door leading straight into her carpeted dining room. The garage felt just like another room of the house with a floor that was cleaner than a Swiss kitchen.

And there is of course the English model, where the garage is adjacent, or very close to the house, although I have noticed that in most cases they seem to be a refuge for unwanted furniture and cardboard boxes whilst the car is parked outside fending for itself.

So whether you have a garage full of junk, one that is sliding down the hill or none at all, the visual effect is the same: cars are parked as close as possible to the entrance to one’s dwelling – and why not? In the 21st century all cars seem to be pretty weatherproof and our eyes have got used to shiny colourful objects littering the countryside.

But nothing beats a construction like this ….





Brexit Bulldog*

August 22, 2017

The other day we dropped in on some English friends who have had a house here for years and years.  They come as often as they can and know the neighbourhood and all the local characters like the back of their hand.  Ever hospitable, they will drop whatever they are doing to make you a really good cup of tea, and conversation is always stimulating and lively.

This time they had been intrigued to find a  novelty in the local supermarket: a packet of Digestive Biscuits, but were somewhat miffed at the slogan on the side: “C’est anglais, mais c’est bon!”  Talking it over though, we agreed that Mc Vitie’s must have come up with, or at least approved the slogan, and that after all it was rather clever.  Playing on prejudices and national stereotypes and then gently ridiculing them might actually turn out to be more likely to unite than divide and they obviously think that this is the way to sell biscuits!

I remember ages ago in England, when Gauloise cigarettes first went on sale, seeing an advertisment depicting a packet of Gauloises with one cigarette popping its head out of the top – as it were over the parapet – and exclaiming “Sacrebleu, c’est l’Angleterre!” – a harmless piece of fun, (although of course these days completely impossible).

Two nostalgic images from the brilliant graphic designer Bernard Villemot.  For more, click here. 

It often seems to me that the much vaunted mistrust between the French and English (I cannot say if it extends to the other nations of Britain, but I rather think not) is not as hard-wired as one might suppose.  Both are intrigued by the other, wary but fascinated by unfamiliar customs – le five o’clock, le cricket, versus two hour lunch breaks, the inability to form an orderly queue, andouillette  – hampered by inadequate language skills, but circling around each other, in the manner of unacquainted dogs, and admiring a certain style, un je ne sais quoi about their neighbours.

Eurostar Advertising campaigns frequently use this technique to good effect.  Here are a few examples, although it’s interesting to note that the ads for London are much wittier and  more sharp edged than the generally rather predictably sugary images chosen for Paris.

London first:

And Paris:

So to come to the dreaded B word – which we tried to avoid with our friends, but which only left us with the dreaded T word to fall back on – for all our differences, France is horrified at the imminent prospect of Britain leaving the EU.  The shock and surprise was palpable the day after the referendum.  Now nobody talks about it and everyone hopes that it will just go away.  Europe in general seems to be stongly attached to this complicated neighbour, who drives on the wrong side of the road, and is now preparing to drive away altogether, leaving an irregular, island-shaped hole in the map of Europe.


Who knows how things will pan out?  In the case that residency rights are not sorted satisfactorily, Markus and I will be relying on our Swiss passports and the bilateral agreements that canny Switzerland has been quietly putting in place for many years.  Yes, that oddly shaped white hole in the heart of Europe!  Now there’s another complicated and widely misunderstood neighbour!  Toblerone* anyone?


*With apologies to Dead Ringers

Photo credits, Leg and TWBA Agencies, Samuel Akesson, Mike Gordon & Steve Ubly


Et ça swingue aux Sarziers

August 10, 2017


When we found Les Sarziers 30 years ago, Kate fell in love with the spectacular view over the Doux Valley and I a was taken by the enclosed courtyard of the house.

Last Sunday 150 people shared our love of Les Sarziers by first having a drink in the garden and then moving via dinner under the horse chestnut tree to the courtyard for our annual summer concert.

We organised our first summer concert five years ago and since then had on average a audience made up of friends of around 60 to 80 people.

Last Sunday the number of spectators doubled and there was a slight flair of Woodstock in the air. Not really surprising as we had invited 8 musicians and 2 professional dancers to join me (on the trumpet) and Kate (singing).

The programme was made up of music to dance to from the Golden Age of American Jazz. Tunes that everyone can hum along with, like “Ain’t misbehaving”, “Bei mir bist Du Scheen”, “After you’ve Gone”, “Why don’t you Do Right”, “It don’t mean a Thing” etc.

Towards the end Les Sarziers Junction became Tuxedo Junction and the dancing spread onto the “stage”. The weather could not have been more perfect and the full moon accompanied us all along.

Many thanks to my sister Vreni and my brother-in-law Jürg for setting up and helping with the logistics of catering and of course thanks to “my Band” of the night:

Linda Gallix (Keyboard), Kate (Voice), Emilie Blache (Voice), Jean-Pierre Almy (Tuba, Bass, Harmonica), Nicolas Thé (Drums), Anthelme Millon (Guitar), Manu Falguière (Cornet), Hans Verschoor (Trombone), Thomas (Washboard), Christophe and Arnaud (Bass), Jean-Yves and Ashley, who joined us spontaneously on a couple of numbers and of course Jean-Phi and Emilie for their dance demos.


Photos by Sabine Carlier and Brice Banchet

Emerveillé par l’Ardèche

June 22, 2017

Our départment changes its slogan almost as frequently as you or I change our socks, and “Emerveillé par l’Ardèche”  is its latest version.  Overwrought and almost unpronounceable as it seems to us, we had to think again yesterday when we encountered a couple of Belgian tourists who were, literally, amazed by the secrets that the Ardèche has up its sleeve.

It is boiling hot at les Sarziers and we had planned a day out in the mountains to cool off.   So we headed to le Cheylard and from there into the region of the Boutières, a dramatic landscape of sucs – the local term for long-extinct volcanic domes – plunging gorges and wide sweeping vistas.  At around 1,300 m altitude the air was pleasantly cool, the fields still full of late spring flowers, and in the hedges the elder was in full bloom.

We headed towards the little village of Borée because we wanted to take another look at an unusual work of land art which we had first seen soon after its inauguration in 2008.

Nine years later, the work has settled into its site, the rocks have weathered on their more exposed sides, tiny bilberry bushes have taken root in some of the crevices and the sheep, who crop the hillside, have scooped out comfy places for themselves to shelter from bad weather in the lee of the taller stones.

The work,  known as the Tchier de Borée, consists of 70 irregular shaped stones, set upright in a circular pattern around a roughly paved area, with an omphalos at its centre.  Many of the stones are carved with inscriptions, symbols, runes and sculpted figures and the whole thing has a fantastically complex and symbolic meaning for its creators, Serge Boyer and Fabienne Versé.  If you are interested you can find out more here (bi-lingual text).

Whether or not you subscribe to their mystical view, this is a stunning artwork which communicates on many levels.  It is perfectly set in the landscape, on a fairly steep slope opposite the little granite village.

The stones themselves are of irregular shape, and as you walk around the geometry constantly shifts as you see them from different perspectives and in different alignments.  The stunning backdrop of the mountains frames the work dramatically and in some cases the stones have been chosen to echo the natural shape of the sucs, blending the artistic with the natural rock formations.

For a long time we were the sole visitors, the silence only broken by birdsong, crickets, the humming of insects and the sound of cowbells carrying from across the valley.  The stones had been warmed to body heat by the sun and leaning against them gave you a comfortable feeling, as if you were resting against the flank of a docile animal.

As we watched, a magnificent thunderstorm approached from the south, with spectacular lightning flashes and rumbles of thunder.

And it was at this point that we noticed the couple, wandering amongst the stones, visibly impressed and also puzzled.  They asked us what we could tell them about the work and we got into conversation.

They were staying further south, near Privas and, like us, had come up to the Boutières to escape the heat.  The day before, they had stumbled upon the abandoned abbey at Mazan – perched improbably in the middle of nowhere at an altitude of 1,446 metres, and told us that they thought it was amazing.  Today, they had been looking for a hamlet where the houses still have the traditional roofs thatched with broom.  But as the storm approached and they headed away from it towards Borée they caught sight of the unusual pattern of rocks and came to investigate.

There is absolutely no information sign, nothing but this little hand painted notice asking visitors to keep the gate shut so that the sheep can’t get out.

No leaflets, no entrance fee, no interactive screens – it is left up to the visitor to stumble upon this enigmatic work of art and ….. to be amazed.


Les Bœufs

April 9, 2017

It’s high time to get busy in the veg patch.  We borrow a machine rather like this one to turn ours over (though we don’t usually bother with the fancy get-up) and already the onions, shallots and radishes are up and running.

Man (and woman) have been tilling the soil since time immemorial of course, and very soon cottoned on to the idea of getting some four-footed assistance.

However, inspiring obedience and co-operation from the workforce is clearly not always plain sailing, as these Roman mosaics from Sicily illustrate.  So we were interested to see how Michel, one of the last farmers in France who still works with teams of oxen, manages his beasts.  The comité des fêtes organised a showing of “le Dernier Paysan” last Saturday.  It was a wet and windy afternoon, not conducive to gardening, so we went along.

The hall was packed and the documentary was highly appreciated by a well-informed rural audience who kept up a running commentary on the action.  Markus said it was like being at a football match!  We learned a great deal: for example that he shoes his oxen himself, with nifty little half-hoof slippers which are nailed, cold, onto the outside of the hoofs of the forelegs only.  It was fascinating to see how a pair of animals were yoked together, in strict order of seniority, using a prescribed number of turns of the leather strap – three times round the right horn, once round the head to hold the fronton and three times round the left horn.  It’s a laborious job and one can imagine the success that this invention for speeding things up probably must have had.  On the other hand it looks less comfortable for the animals.

Then leather fringes were buckled on to protect them from the flies and wire mesh muzzles to prevent them from snacking whilst on the job.  All this before harnessing up the two pairs and attaching them to the cart or plough or reaper-binder, depending on the task in hand.  Michel invariably talked to his animals in Auvergnat patois, and always had a pat or a friendly slap on the flank for them.  It was clear that they were content with their lot, well cared for and highly valued.

The next day we asked Roger whether his family had used oxen for field work in the past.  Oh no he said, very few in Arlebosc could afford beasts like that.  They were the equivalent of a BMW – expensive to purchase and expensive to keep, on account of the amount that such massive and powerful animals need to eat.  He could only recall two establishments (known locally as châteaux) which kept oxen.  The rest – his family included – used teams of cows, the disadvantage being that they would tire easily and could only be used for two hours in the morning and again for two hours in the late afternoon.  He said his father bought their fist tractor in 1970 and from then on no longer used la traction animale. 

He does love cows though and it’s so good to see that his cousin appreciates their therapeutic qualities at this time.

One of the pair that arrived ten days ago has had her calf and I met her on her way back to La Mouna where she lives.  Meanwhile another four have been turned out into the field below Roger’s kitchen window and are happily chomping away at the spring grass and dandelions – comparatively speaking, enjoying a life of idle luxury.




Adieu Mémé

March 27, 2017

Many of you will have met out neighbour Roger and will remember that his mother has been in residential care in St Félicien for the past two years.  In all that time Roger has visited her without fail every afternoon, sitting with her and holding on for as long as possible to the special bond which united them.

Two weeks ago her condition deteriorated such that she needed to be moved to the hospital wing and it was obvious that she was nearing the end of her long life.  Roger continued his visits, the family was there to celebrate her 97th birthday on March 17th and her son stayed by her as she slipped away, finally leaving us four days later.

We were at the funeral on Saturday and are doing our best to help Roger come to terms with his loss, together with his cousins and the many concerned neighbours who drop in to sit with him.  We all hope that, in a little while, he will be able to contemplate the much needed hip operation which would enable him to dispense with crutches and get out into the fields once again.  His cousin Marc has brought a couple of cows up to the farm so that, along with Tango the dog and six assorted cats, there is some life and movement around him and Roger doggedly works away at small routine jobs: cutting back the broom, repairing fences and looking after his hens but he is severely restricted and it is a struggle for him.

For Roger and his mother, their life was the farm and to be outside on the land gives meaning to it.  These pictures were taken about four years ago – la Mémé was already well over 90, but she insisted on helping by gleaning the last wisps of hay from the fields, tucking her walking stick – which she hardly needed – into the gnarled old hands holding the rake.  A real picture of a countrywoman.

Happily, Spring is coming and we hope that as the countryside wakes up and bursts into leaf and flower, Roger will find the strength to continue the life he has always known and to take courage from the changing seasons and the rhythm of the land.

La Plume de ma Tante . . .

February 10, 2017

. . . est sur le bureau de mon oncle.  This famous, grammatically interesting but practically useless phrase started many of us off on our journey into learning French.  The reverse equivalent is “my tailor is rich” which is supposed to reassure French learners that they already understand more than they think of the impenetrable English language, (tailor/tailleur and rich/riche).  Once again it is an improbable phrase of extremely limited use, but the biscuit has to be taken by the opening sentence for study in my German book:  “Mein Bruder hat die gleiche Harpune wie du”  My brother has the same harpoon as you!  Oh yes?


We both remember our school French teachers.  Mine was Miss Downer, a dedicated middle aged lady who drove herself to school sitting very upright in her duck egg blue Morris Oxford.  She was a grammarian and a stickler for correct pronunciation, but also guided us through the intricacies of the poetry of Rimbaud and the overwrought alexandrines of Racine’s Phèdre.  Markus cannot recall the name of his French master but describes him as an “extraordinary vehicle” with a fondness for the films of Jacques Tati, which is honour enough in itself!

At all events these two must be considered as having had a major influence on our life choices – from where we live to the fact that we ever met at all.  So thank you to both!

So it was with school-time memories and trusting to our earlier grounding that we decided to try our hands at the Dictée à l’Ancienne held in Arlebosc last Saturday.


Dictation tests are still used in French primary schools and, predictably enough, there was an article in the paper recently bemoaning a decline in standards.  For the same short text, 10 year olds scored 10.6 errors in 1987, 14.3 in 2007 and 17.8 in 2015, most of the mistakes being grammatical faults.

The chief difficulty in a French Dictée is not so much the spelling, as it would be in English, but more the agreements, plurals and grammatical traps, many of which cannot be heard but need to be applied according to the rules.  For example, qu’il soit poli and qu’elles soient polies.


However the linguistics professor writing the article did make the point that children nowadays are confronted with so many new subjects that there is not sufficient time available to drum grammatical rules into their heads.  She went on to raise the question, do we want to produce proficient little grammarians or children who can function effectively in society?

Anyway back to our Dictée.  This was an altogether less stressful affair and around 45 of us, all adults, gathered at the Mairie to be issued with a blotter, a dip pen, an ink bottle and a page of that infuriating squared writing paper that the French (and Swiss) know how to use and I don’t!


The atmosphere was good humoured with us all trying out our nibs and remembering blots, scratches and ink monitors from our primary school days.  There were to be prizes for anyone scoring fewer than ten mistakes and hot drinks and crêpes (we’re just past la Chandeleur) to cheer us up whilst marking was in progress.

In fact outside the schoolroom la Dictée has been a favourite French pastime since the 19th century.  The most famous is the fiendish text dreamed up by Prosper Mérimée in 1857 at the request of Empress Eugénie to amuse the court of Napoleon III.  Results:  the Emperor 75 errors, Eugénie 62 and ….. the punctilious Austrian Ambassador, Metternich junior, THREE!


More recently the cultural TV host, Bernard Pivot, organised regular televised dictation tests up to 2005 and it is still possible to take part in the annual Dictée organsied by the Rotary Club.

We all settled down and listened attentively.  It must be said that there were frequent calls to repeat certain tricky phrases and a great deal more chattering and comparing of notes than I remember from my school days.  A collective drawing in of breath and exclamations of Aïe aïe aïe! helpfully signalled the more fiendish traps to the otherwise unwary.  When it came to the results, the well deserving winner had made only 4 errors and a further three or four people came in under 10.  The rest of us lagged way behind but, as the only non native speakers there, we felt we had acquitted ourselves fairly well with 19 and 22 ¼ mistakes, which was far from being the worst score.

Even in these dreary dark days of winter there is always something going on in the village.  It could be a fête du boudin (black pudding) boiled up on the village square, competitions of the card game belotte or a matinée dansante – a sort of tea dance.  Spring won’t be here for a while but there’s enough to keep us all busy.


%d bloggers like this: