Culture in the Sticks

November 21, 2018

I was born in the hospital of a small Swiss village called Männedorf, a place on the northern shore of the Lake of Zurich. It was one of the coldest years of the century and I have been told that my father came to see me in the maternity hospital on skates from our home in Uerikon, a sleepy place which is known for its pretty wedding chapel and its two imposing knights’ dwellings.

During my childhood, my mother went weekly to take organ lessons in the protestant church of Männedorf. It was partly because of her teacher that I started the trumpet, as she knew an excentric trumpet player who came especially from Germany on a motorbike to teach me at home.

The old organ in the protestant church of Männedorf was known in musical circles, because it was constructed in situ by one Johann Nepomuk Kuhn, who at that time worked for a Swabian organ builder. After the job was finished in 1863, Johann Nepomuk, charmed by the beautiful lake, decided to stay in Männedorf, where he set himself up on his own. The factory boomed in the late 19th century, and was awarded the organ contract for St. Gallen cathedral and the Grossmünster in Zürich. The firm is still going strong, now mainly specializing in organ restoration.

In 1963 the chapel next to my childhood home in Uerikon was equipped with an organ and my mother became the chapel’s organist. Not surprisingly this instrument was manufactured by Kuhn of Männedorf. I have a vivid memory of my mother, who was a small lady, perched dangerously on the edge of the organ bench struggling to reach the pedals with her feet.

Kuhn organ in Uerikon

She played mainly for weddings, and I clearly remember her taking a trowel and a bucket into chapel, so she could scoot out after the ceremony to collect the horse dung left by the animals who were employed to pull the bridal carriage. Apart from music, she loved gardening, and in her opinion there was nothing better for roses than fresh horse manure.

Markus with his mother some years ago

Now this does not seem to have much to do with the Ardèche. But wait!

Kate and I are part of a cultural association, based in Désaignes, a pretty medieval village close to Lamastre. The ACD is an independent organisation which co ordinates diverse activities from chess and scrabble to hiking, circus arts, yoga and bee keeping. The logo on our membership cards is a stylized drawing of a church with three organ pipes.

A few weeks ago the Cultural Association of Désaignes celebrated its 50th birthday and marked the occasion with a  concert performed by the local choir, conducted by Laurent, choir master and director of the ACD, who had been rehearsing the choir for over a year in preparation for the event. The concert took place in the Temple, the protestant church, which was packed.

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Concert 2018 Ars Nova choir Desaignes

In the same venue 50 years earlier a memorable concert had attracted a television crew and hundreds of people to mark the launch of the Cultural Association, an idea which was considered rather unusual in the 60’s, when villages and small towns all over France were suffering from an inexorable drain of their population towards the cities and the traditional cultural events and meeting places were in decline. Désaignes could not reverse the trend, but could give the people the opportunity to meet, to improve their skills and to share their interests. So this concert would be the symbolic start of cultural events to come.

1968 outside the church

1968 filming the concert

The driving force behind this idea was the young vicar of the protestant parish. The church had been rebuilt after a recent fire and he expressed the wish to install an organ. Shortage of money meant that a new instrument was out of question, so the vicar, who originally came from Switzerland, looked for an alternative and found a bargain in Lausanne. But how to get it to Désaignes? The parishioners readily took up the challenge and despatched eight of their number in a blue lorry to Lausanne. There they stayed for a week, dismantling the organ, numbering the pipes, and packing everything into crates, after which they returned in triumph to Désaignes. They were later heard to observe that the Swiss eat too much cheese and that the wine glasses are too small, but the operation was an undoubted success. The organ was re-assembled, not without difficulty, as the ceiling of the church was too low for the big pipes, and had to be cut out – no problem for our eight heroes.

 

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But finally there it was, ready for the big concert. A recital performed by the organist of Lausanne cathedral in front of 1000 people.  A spectacular launch of an institution that is still going strong and includes the whole community.

And of course ……. the organ was manufactured by Kuhn of Männedorf, thus linking my childhood place, a tiny little dot on the map with my region of choice, another tiny dot on the map.

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Kuhn organ in Désaignes

Just before this year’s celebrations in Désaignes I wrote to the director of Kuhn and told him the story. I received a polite letter in reply, thanking me and telling me that Kuhn had been interested to update its archives, as they had no record of the removal of the organ from Lausanne. I haven’t yet told him that the organ is kaputt, and it would be very nice of him to restore it. But unless sacks of Swiss Francs are forthcoming, it is probably wiser to rely on eight guys with a blue lorry to sort things out!

Ardèche Bridges

October 28, 2018

 

The Bridge across the Duzon on the way to Tournon

Due to an operation on my hand, Kate is doing all the driving for a month, which gives me the opportunity to admire our beautiful landscape and to appreciate the marvellous engineering of our roads. Just for fun I started to count the bridges that we cross on our different runs to Lamastre, St.Félicien, Tournon and Valence. For example on the short trip to Lamastre, which is just 6 miles, we cross 9 brooks or rivers. Intrigued, I checked the Internet about the number of bridges in the whole of the Ardèche and it transpires that there are 2345 bridges included in the departmental road system. That excludes all minor roads, village streets and hiking paths.

There are in fact more bridges here than in the Alps. The reason – expressed in the language of a kindergarten-geologist – is that the glaciers scooped out motorways in the Alps, whereas erosion in the Ardèche had to fight against hard crystalline rock, thus creating a topography resembling the teeth of a comb.

As the Romans were keen to get from Marseilles up North, there are several Roman bridges in the Ardèche – or at least several which are called Roman. Traditionally, old looking bridges are very soon qualified as Roman, but in fact there are only two still in use. The language of course does not help: roman in French is Romanesque – romain is Roman.

Bridge at Boucieu-le-Roi

Then there are a great number of medieval bridges, including the one closest to us crossing the Doux to Boucieu-le-Roi. Once a Roman bridge, the present construction dates from 1492 – that is not counting the bits that fall off when big lorries get stuck on it (last patched up in 2017).

Setting up a Picnic for Walksweeks by the Boucieu bridge

Very often while hiking one comes across an old bridge in a remote places.

Bridge on path from St. Félicien to Nozières

The picture above is of a bridge near St. Félicien and is at the moment our favourite one. It is on the old path between St.Félicien and Nozières and only about 6 miles from Les Sarziers. We discovered it only last year, when we were asked to mark a path for the Tourist Office.

We have walked across some extraordinary bridges in the South Ardèche, many of them spectacular and often built in impossible places. Some we are told have had the generous assistance of the devil. (As a Swiss I do feel obliged to inform you that there is only one genuine Devil’s bridge in the world, which crosses the Reuss on the St.Gotthard pass road. The others are all fake and the guy they thought was Satan was a farmer with a strange hair style and a pitch fork).

The Devil’s Bridge near Thuyets across the Ardèche river

The Ardèche boasts two famous inventors. In the 18th century, Monsieur Mongolfier from Annonay invented the hot air balloon. It is not clear whether his invention was prompted by the winding roads, and whether he thought that if everyone had a hot air balloon you could stop building bridges. Anyhow we are very proud of him and so was the king of France.

Suspension bridge across the Rhone from Tournon to Tain

Some 30 years later Marc Seguin, his somewhat more down-to-earth great-nephew, turned his attention to bridges and came up with the suspension bridge. Admittedly the concept was not completely original, as there were already chain bridges in the States and in Great Britain. What was new was the use of steel cables instead of chains. His first big bridge was built across the Rhône between Tournon and Tain in 1825, and his design became the prototype for the whole of France.

Spanning the Rhone is quite a feat and worthy of another post.  But tucked away in our side valleys, small ones like this will do.

Hiking up the River

October 19, 2018

In this blog we sometimes touch on our “other lives” in which we escort tourist groups around various parts of Europe as professional Tour Managers. It is this experience which motivated us to set up Walksweeks, but generally the two worlds – touring and sightseeing versus walking and staying at les Sarziers, do not cross over. That was until Road Scholar, an organisation for which we have occasionally worked since 2013, asked us to create a hiking itinerary to complement their excellent Provence and River Cruise programme which we have led many times.

This was an exciting project and we really enjoyed the research and planning that went into devising the itinerary. The challenge was to find interesting and varied walks which would fit around the progress of the boat as we cruised from Martigues, where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean, up-river to Lyon and then along the Saône as far as Chalon.

I have recently completed the first of these programmes with a delightful and enthusiastic group of Americans and Canadians. We started with three nights in St Rémy de Provence, discovering the Roman sites, following the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh, hiking around les Baux, tasting olive oil and enjoying the hospitality and delicious cuisine of this lovely area.

Then we headed off towards one of the most famous wonders of the Ancient World – the Pont du Gard. I have known this monument since I was a very little girl but have never approached it as we did on the hike Markus cleverly found. We discovered many more traces of the acqueduct than we had realised were still visible, and exploring the terrain really brought into focus the incredible engineering feat involved in supplying Nîmes with over eight million gallons of water daily.

And then suddenly there was the bridge itself, stunning and silent, its golden arches striding over the valley as they have for almost exactly 2000 years. Breathtaking!

After lunch and the afternoon in the bustle of lovely Uzès, the group boarded the welcoming MS Van Gogh and settled in for our delightful five night cruise.

A well deserved sit down in Uzès

Markus and I love this journey up the Rhône, stopping in Arles, Avignon, Viviers and even on our doorstep in Tain l’Hermitage, where the group hiked through the vineyards, before visiting Vienne and Lyon.

In the vineyards of the Hermitage at Tain

The two days cruising up the romantic and peaceful Saône are even more enchanting as the ship drifts past small villages, grazing cattle and fishermen seated on the banks or bobbing about in tiny little rowing boats.

What made this trip special was the opportunity to visit the various monuments, villages and sites in a rather different and more intimate manner. Walking helps one to understand the natural features of each landscape, the way that the climate influences vegetation, agriculture and the situation of settlements, giving a deeper appreciation of a “sight” than when you just roll up in a tour bus.  A good example was our hike to the village and castle of Brancion in Burgundy, which dominates the fertile wooded territory which its owners controlled for centuries.

The boat is beautiful and all the staff are so charming and helpful that it was a wrench to leave them in Chalon sur Saône and head back to the real world of traffic and hotel check-ins.

Dawn breaks over the Saône in Chalon

But the hike from tiny Avenas on the forested northern slopes to a stupendous lunch overlooking the sunny vineyards of the Beaujolais was enjoyed by everyone and the next day we had a great time visiting the Croix Rousse area of Lyon, learning about the heritage of silk weaving and exploring the long traboules.

On mange bien en France!

We always enjoy our assignments with Road Scholar, not least because of the wonderful people we meet. The participants on this programme were no exception, curious, open minded, well-informed, adventurous people who were up for the challenge, even, in some cases at a pretty advanced age (encore mes félicitations Diane!)

For me, it was a special pleasure to have had the privilege of leading a new itinerary which I had devised myself (with Markus of course, who was unfortunately unable to join us as he was valiantly leading a band of forty people All Over Italy at the time). With this project we have been able to combine our love of walking and knowledge of France with insights from our very own region and explorations of our particular interests: the silk saga, the wine saga, the Occupation, French food, traditions and customs – so many subjects that we have touched on in this blog.

The weather was glorious, the group was delightful, the MS Van Gogh and all her staff are fabulous … we can’t wait for the next one!

 

 

Turning Water into Wine

September 8, 2018

Tomorrow will be the start of the 2018 grape harvest at Morlanche. Our neighbours Brice and Lisa have been busy all year to make this the best vintage ever! And yes, the grapes look pretty promising!

 

 

A few days ago, last year’s wine was finally bottled – a necessity, as the vats need to be filled with the new grapes. This is the reward for all the work done in 2017 and for the constant checking up on the quality over the last 12 months. We think that they can be proud of themselves – the wine is extremely good – so sales can begin and feasts can continue!

Bottling at Morlanche

Lisa sealig the corks

 

But the big event for Brice and Lisa this year was the creation of a new vineyard on the hill opposite Les Sarziers on the way to Arlebosc. 5,300 plants were to be planted – approximately half red (Gamay), and half white (Marsanne and Roussanne) on roughly two acres of land.

 

Throughout the coldest and windiest period of the winter Brice measured out the terrain and planned the geometry of his new plantation.

Then in January and February the planting started.

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Everything seem to go according to plan …

… until the sighting of some rabbits (which for some reason seem to hold no interest for the chasseurs). So bamboo sticks and nets for each of the plants had to be purchased and put into place.

Then in the early spring the first leaves made an appearance and things looked promising. The wettest spring of the decade encouraged the plants to grow fast and steadily. Of course the weeds knew the same trick and were slightly better at it! This cohabitation, which is just about tolerable when it is raining, became a nuisance and later a problem as the summer drought and the high temperatures turned the soil of the vineyard into the equivalent of an airport runway. The vines started to wilt and gasp for water – even the weeds were ready to give up the ghost. We prayed for rain, but there was none in sight.

So Brice called for a desperate rescue plan. With no spring and no mains water nearby he had to find another way of getting the water to the plants.

And this was when the solidarity of the neighbouring farmers kicked in. One of them provided a water tank on wheels and offered the water from his pond that could be pumped into the container twice daily, another lent a tractor, which Brice learned to drive after a one minute driving lesson, and a third gave us access to his well above the vineyard, which could provide water by gravity. Still others (ourselves included) helped with the chore of manually watering the vineyard, using miles and miles of garden hose.

 

Brice and Lisa set up an app on a phone which beeped every 17 seconds, alerting us to move on the next plant. Each one got 2 litres of water and then another two on the return up the rows – a job that took two people seven hours, three days a week and needed to be repeated week. Fortunately, after about 20 days there was some rain – not much, but enough to relax for a bit.

In the last few weeks the temperature has dropped and we had some rain on Thursday – so the panic is over. What looked like a loss of 30% has turned out to be around 5%.

Oui, on a eu chaud!

So let’s cheer ourselves up and look to the vendange …. Santé!

Markus

Charlie meets Roger

August 21, 2018


After the massive success of Swing aux Sarziers last August, we had considered taking a break from our annual summer concert. But then our friend François told us that some of the tour dates for his group Latin Bird had been cancelled. Would we be up for a concert, in which Markus would be playing all of the second set? You don’t refuse an offer like that!

François is an amazing musician, who plays double bass and heads up several jazz groups, exploring different styles. For Latin Bird, his idea was to re-work Charlie Parker tunes in Latin and Cuban rythms, with Linda, his wife on keyboards, Pierre on a specially adapted and pretty amazing percussion set and a brass solo instrument (usually Selim on saxophone in homage to the legendary “Bird”).


The result is intoxicating and unpredictable, and they kicked up a veritable storm at les Sarziers last Saturday night. Everyone, including Markus, was on top form and around a hundred people enjoyed a memorable evening of music, followed by the traditional buffet dinner under the chestnut tree.

Our neighbour Claude did a one-man animation du parking with his bass clarinet and cymbal contraption and Julien, a guitarist newly arrived from Belgium, performed a couple of solo numbers to start the evening off.

People often comment on how beautiful the setting is for these concerts. The musicians love their perfomance space in the calabert and the great accoustics, whilst the audience enjoys settling down in the lovely summer courtyard as the moon rises, the bats flit about, the stone walls glow gently in the fading light and the music takes over everything.

Guests also tell us how much they enjoy mingling and chatting to old friends and new in the interval and during dinner. It is true that the atmosphere is quite unique and, as we were mulling things over later we were struck by the hugely diverse range of people who gather for such events round here.


As you can see there are always quite a few children, either with their parents or brought by the grandparents with whom they are staying for the summer. Ages range from under two (hello Boris!) to well over eighty and our guests included a vet, a mason, two poets, a psychiatrist, an electrician, a winegrower, a painter, a translator, cheese makers, teachers, social workers, blacksmiths, photographers, philosophers …..
and ….
in an absolute first ….
our neighbour Roger!


Yes, there he is, accompanied by two neighbouring ladies, sitting on three of his four kitchen chairs, up on his field above the courtyard wall. Roger is extremely shy and has never accepted our invitation to join us for a concert but this time Anne-Marie managed to persuade him out, and even to come down and sit in the courtyard for the second half. We haven’t seen him since, but we are delighted that he came and from the big smile on his face and enthusiastic applause, we are pretty sure that he had a good time.

PS The following morning we had a gig with a different group to kick off a Swing Dance Festival in Vernoux. I don’t know how we managed it but Markus swung that trumpet, I sang and we all had a great morning in an enchanting little square, playing for the local café crowd and and a bunch of talented and enthusiastic dancers.

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PPS we’ve just received a some great photos of the concert (merci Margote!) here they are.

Par Ici les Artistes!

August 13, 2018

If you have followed this blog over the years you will probably have realised that  apart from hiking in our lovely hills a considerable amount of our energy has been put into encouraging the musical events in the area, mainly as spectators, but also as performers and organizers.

Now we rarely talk about the presence and activities of the artists, painters and potters  who have settled in the area.  This does not mean they don’t exist.  Like all of us, they have been attracted by the beauty and diversity of the Ardèche landscape and by the affordability of food and lodging.  Like all artists they come and go, but we have some real pillars in the community.

To celebrate this, the ever inventive Laurent – now joined at Kaopa by his very creative partner Sandy – recently  organized an event which he called “Art à la Criée” in the little alley in front of his café in Lamastre.

La Criée is normally associated with fish markets  (especially the one in Marseille) where the catch that has just come in on the fishing boats is sold off in a boisterous and noisy auction, in which shouting has an intrinsic role.

Lamastre is landlocked – so no fish from the Mediterranean, but art work freshly produced by local artists!

Fifteen artists, using diverse media, set themselves up and worked away steadily all morning, despite the rain and the crowds of people chattering and peering over their shoulders.

It was impressive to see how calmly absorbed they were and to observe different techniques and ways of working.

Periodically Laurent and the auctioneer , a professional tourneur , would select a piece to be sold.

Bidding started at 5 euros and the final amounts were mostly very modest, but the notion of acquiring a work of art which had scarcely had time to exist before being sold made for a lively auction and an exhilarating atmosphere.

The morning concluded with a Match d’Improvisation  between two teams of artists – the idea being that the teams had to create a painting on a single given theme, with handicaps introduced from time to time, such as closing one eye, painting with the left hand or using an imposed colour.

Unfortunately our day was busy and we couldn’t stay …. so we don’t know who won.

Gammes, Gamay …

July 25, 2018

Yes I know, these blog posts are like London buses: nothing for weeks and then they all come along in a row.  Its not that there’s nothing to say, rather too much going on!

Brice and Lisa, our neighbours, were far too busy in the vineyards to make it to the concert unfortunately.  The long wet spring meant that the vines – and the weeds – were growing great guns and they have been out working all hours to keep things under control.  More of that later.

Instead, Brice dropped off a case of their 2017 cuvée, the bottles beautifully inscribed.  The word games are very clever, but difficult to translate, for example un carton means a case (of wine) but also a huge success.  Other jokes revolve around Gamay (his main varietal) and gammes (musical scales) and the sound of Markus rehearsing, which he could hear floating across the meadows as he toiled in the vineyard.

But for all you French speakers out there, here they are.  We were very touched, and his wine, by the way, is excellent!

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Photo credits: Markus

Photomontage: Brice Banchet

Echoes from April

July 23, 2018

Faithful readers may be wondering how Carla’s concert went.  It’s taken a while to get hold of these great photos (merci Gerald), which give a good idea of the atmosphere.  It was a hugely successful event, with full houses for both dates and a powerful experience for all of us.  Carla is a tremendously engaging performer – as you can see – and the audience loved her music.

 

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We are still waiting for an audio file of the concert, but meanwhile, here is the text of one of the songs – words by Elena Hoyer, set to music by Carla and sung by Kate.

Corridor 

Down the corridor of my family tree

Hidden skeletons silently beg

to come into the light,

Like dangerous fireflies

And then . . .

 

So let’s take a walk down memory lane,

The longing of a long forgotten land

Exile – and dreams to come.

The rising of a fuller moon

So far . . .

 

So many times – You cried and bled and fled away

My dear Elders – I swear I’ll try to heal your wounds

Leave it to me – I’ll find a way to set us free.

Open the book –

Where do I fit in?

Where do I belong?

I am the black sheep,

I’m the question mark,

I’m the bearer of tomorrow and the early morning star . . . .

                                                                                                dancing on chaos.

 

Down the corridor of my family tree

Forgotten heroes send me strength

And hope – For my blue days,

The falling of the golden leaf

And yet . . .

 

So let’s take a walk down memory lane

I see their shifting shapes dissolving . . . .

Silence – heaven and back

Leaving behind a trail of roses

For me.

Photo credits Gerald FAY

Le Grand Evènement

June 11, 2018

Roll up, roll up!

 

… there’s something going on in Arlebosc.

Excitement and anticipation …

It’s a big moment ….

and everyone is here ….

Can you spot a theme?

Yes!!   “habemus pistorem!”  No Papal balcony for the announcement, but in the village the arrival of a new baker is almost as momentous an occasion!

Our previous baker left Arlebosc in the early spring and it felt as though the life had gone out of the village.  Although he never really seemed to have his heart in the job and the boulangerie was not exactly buzzing, the fact that we would no longer be able to pick up our bread still warm from the oven, and chat to other villagers as we did so, was a huge blow to everybody.  So much so that the Mayor and municipal council put everything into finding a successor, and to this end bought the premises and bread oven (which is installed next door in the “château” with the tower that you see on the photos), greatly reducing the financial burden on anyone wishing to take up the challenge.

Now for the speeches

The mayors of four neighbouring villages were present, together with representatives from the local region and the Département.  They all echoed the speech by the mayor of Arlebosc, Jean-Paul Agier, emphasising the importance of farming, craftsmen, small businesses and artisans to the rural economy.  The municipality was offering a free baguette to everyone present, and as Jean-Paul said, we’d all be back the next day, since bread needs to be bought fresh daily.

… couldn’t agree more!

Smiles all round.

This really does look like a new beginning.  Nathan, our new baker (he’s the one looking a bit shell-shocked to the right of the mayor) is only 19, and has just completed his professional training.  The great thing is that he is accompanied by his parents, who will be running the shop and organising distribution of depôts de pain to other villages less fortunate than we are.  They are friendly and welcoming and are all obviously prepared to work hard and make a success of the venture.

Nathan and his father David

The boulangerie has been spruced up, reorganised and repainted and Nathan is making rye bread, wholemeal and country loaves as well as the traditional baguettes and flûtes.  It’s a tricky business getting the hang of a new bread oven and pleasing all the clients.  The locals generally like their bread well browned, but not so crunchy that the denture-wearers can’t get their teeth into it!  Nathan is getting a lot of feed back, and the general opinion is that his bread is really good.

Nathan’s mother selecting a loaf

He is also turns out excellent croissants and pains au chocolat, no mean feat, since for the time being he has to bake them in the bread oven whereas they should go into a pastry oven, fan assisted and with no steam.  All this really pinpoints how crucial a boulangerie is to local life.  Each baker is a true artisan: absolutely everything is made fresh on the premises – no question of freezing dough or baking industrially produced items – so inevitably, each baker has his own touch, within the basic sacred parameters, just as everyone’s pastry comes out slightly differently.

So it’s all good news!  The Milhots are a local family from Satilleu, about 20 miles away, so they know that the Ardèche, although wonderful in every way, is not all sunshine and holiday makers, and that the winters are much quieter.  Best of all, Nathan is also a qualified pâtissier, so once he has got his head round the business, they will be investing in a pastry oven, and cakes will be back on the menu.  Hooray!

 

 

Life goes on ….

June 5, 2018

It was Roger’s birthday on Sunday and we popped round in the morning with a present.  It’s not easy to get him to accept a gift: in the past I have managed an enamelled coffee pot to replace his, which had sprung a leak, and once I made him a new red flag with which he could warn traffic when he was bringing his cows home for milking and needed to get them across the road.  This year it was Markus who had the perfect idea.  Roger’s transistor radio had got stuck on the wrong station and, in order for him to hear the Mass which is broadcast on Sundays by the local radio station, he was obliged to go outside to sit in his van and listen on the car radio.  He has been doing this for some months now, all through the bitter cold of February, and Markus decided it was time to recycle our portable radio.  Roger was (discretely) pleased with his gift, and after the regulation pastis we said goodbye – he was off to lunch at his cousin’s.

As we scrambled down the short cut over the bank we realised that a group of  about a dozen people were milling about interestedly in the courtyard.  It was a family, en route for a get-together in Empurany, involving more than a hundred people, and this group had stopped at les Sarziers so that the patriarch could show them ‘our’ house, where he was born.  The inverted commas are because we have always felt that we are simply custodians of a place which has had a long history before we came, and will probably continue its life long after we are gone.  Over the years various people have shown up and told us about their memories, living here as the children of tenant farmers.   In this way we have learned about the animals they kept, the crops and vegetables they grew, how the water supply worked, and how hard it was making a living on poor, dry soil, enduring long freezing winters and baking hot summers.

This family were delightful, and so grateful to be shown around.  Michel had lived here for just one year, from 1939 to 1940 when he was sent away to be brought up by a relative as the family had grown too large for the farm to sustain all of them.  He told us that he came back to visit his parents from time to time and showed us photos of himself as a toddler sitting on a rug in the courtyard with a sibling.  He remembered the wine barrels in the big cellar and was delighted that they are still in situ (although unfortunately now empty!)  We have long wondered who was the Marius who carved his name into the kitchen window sill, and it turns out that it was his uncle, who worked locally as a builder.

It was a lovely visit, and he thanked us with a gift of a bottle of vin de noix and reproductions of a little watercolour painting that he had made of the house.

Just a few weeks ago, at the reception after Carla’s concert, I got talking to a lady I had met just once at a friend’s house, who worked as a district nurse here in the 1960’s, braving the twisty lanes in all weathers in her 2CV.  I could see that she was very struck to find herself in our kitchen, and she asked me if I knew anything about the last people to live here before us.  Indeed we do know that the family left after a tragedy – first the father died and then the son fell ill with terminal cancer.  It all came back to her then, it was she who had come daily to care for him in his last months.  I showed her his room and she gazed around, her eyes full of memories, it was a very moving moment.

On a cheerier note – the widow and daughter moved only a little way away, down closer to the river, where the family still owns a little land, on which the daughter has a mobile home.  Years ago she stopped and asked to have a look at the house and garden and told us that what she loved most was the little medlar tree which grew by the Doghouse, she even confessed that in the winter, when the fruit had bletted, she sometimes came up and picked some if we weren’t here.

We told her of course that that was fine, but after she had gone we were left in a quandary.  The medlar tree was seriously in the way of plans we had to reorganise, but now we simply could not cut it down as we had intended, without planting another somewhere else!  We hastily bought a sturdy specimen and installed it under the garden wall where it continues to thrive, producing masses of fruit every year.  Personally I’m not a big fan of medlars, so I do hope she still comes up foraging for some in the winter!


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