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A quiet life in rural France? C’est pas possible ...

by Jane Shortall

Bastille Day tomorrow. My third to celebrate while actually living in France. Two and half years ago we left Ireland and came to live in southern France for good. To St. Lizier, a dream of a village in the Couseran hills, a ‘plus beau’ village, full of history and culture. It feels like civilisation has been here forever. The Romans certainly were here; they built the original bridge that crosses the river Salat and leads into the village. There have been some significant finds of Roman remains and artifacts here. I have held in my hand a splendid piece that came from the harness of a horse, a horse that would have been ridden by a nobleman. An expert in Roman culture, who has become a friend, owns the piece and allowed me to examine it. It was thrilling, if quite a humbling feeling, handling something that was absolutely magnificent in itself, but also the thought that the piece of metal linked me with someone who had lived thousands of years ago.

Although St. Lizier itself, because of its historic importance, is one the most visited villages in Southern France, generally this is a little known part of the country. The department of the Ariege is still one of the most under populated areas. You can walk for miles and miles in the hills and not see a single person. The department has just recently been re-named Ariege Pyrenees, the joke being that most of the French themselves don’t know exactly where we are. Rural life thrives here. With very little industry, there is almost no pollution, the air is fabulous and for most of the year the climate is warm and balmy. Imagine being able to have a pre-lunch glass of champagne outside on Christmas Day? Even when the weather changes, it is still wonderful. Storms are absolutely spectacular; the flashing orange and silver light is stunning. And then the big winter, when we have the snow on the high Pyrenees but still with the bluest of skies behind them.

Because of all this, the quietness, the history, the climate and the food of course, more and more people are coming here, buying old properties and restoring them. On market days there is rather a cosmopolitan feel to the place. The crowd is made up of three different ‘groups’. They are the native French who have always lived here, then there are the people who came in the nineteen seventies, when this particular area was a Mecca for hippies of all nationalities, many of whom have remained, and finally there are the different, fairer skinned nationalities from the colder northern European countries, who find this peaceful spot a good place to live. Dutch, Belgian and Germans have all made their home here, and all appear to be thrilled with their choice. Values are different here; money is not the God it is in other places. It really isn’t considered to be that important. It is all about living a peaceful life here. And it really is tremendously peaceful, a very laid back place with little or no crime.

Here life has, for some, remained absolutely unchanged for generations. A few of the older ladies, wearing their blue or pink cotton cross over aprons and sporting a hat no matter what the weather, still use the public water system — one in every commune — for washing household linen, clothes and even their kitchen utensils. The older men, most of whom keep rabbits, ducks and hens for eating, grow all their own vegetables, all wear the heavy blue working overalls and traditional black berets winter and summer.

The more modern people hop out of their stylish cars in their ultra chic clothes, and, to my utter amazement to begin with, leave the keys in the ignition, their possessions on the seats and stroll into the Boulangerie for bread and a chat. Everybody in the queue bids each other Bonjour or shakes hands. The politeness is wonderful.

And the peace, ah yes, the perfect peace. What I came for. After years of tough grind, of the wretched nine to five treadmill, I wanted absolutely no pressure. Just a quiet life. That‘s how we imagined things would be in this magical place. Over the months, the life here unfolded and included us. The welcome was stupendous and the kindness of people continued. There was simply no end to the gifts of food. The buying of whatever vegetables and fruits were in season became totally unnecessary, as peoples generosity knows no bounds here. Gifts just kept on arriving.

I have no intention of ever attempting to make fig or plum conserves, which I thought I might. How could I better Madame Morere‘s? No more than I can better Madame Minvielle's special bean salad. As for Madame Carera’s crepes, these are so light they could float across the road on their own.

I had tried lessening off food before. It didn’t work. However, after a particularly grueling few weeks of food gifts, endless lunch and dinner invitations, one Thursday I absolutely decided, firmly making up my senior woman’s mind this time, to take four full days out, eat just a little food and drink a minimum of wine. My idea was that should we receive any invitations, I was just going to politely refuse.

That very evening, the first of my plan, I had poured myself a very small glass of wine when a friend, on his way home from a long lunch, called by and asked would we join him for a drink at the tiny hotel in the village? Other people appeared and there were six of us. I ended up having three huge drinks and at 9.30 I left saying I must eat. At 10 o’clock I heard loud, boisterous laughter floating up from the hall. They had all arrived back, to eat with us.

A tremendous feast in the garden went on until one in the morning. We tucked into baskets of crusty bread, tomato and mozzarella salads, roasted peppers and asparagus spears, hard-boiled eggs — free range, naturally, another gift, and a splendid homemade Foie Gras which Madame Morere had given us weeks before, but we hadn’t got around to eating. We finished with a selection of cheese and more wine, a thing always in stock here.

Despite my best intentions, Friday and Saturday continued in the same way. We received two invitations to drinks, and out of good manners I went, but one of the evenings turned into a full meal, despite my feeble protests that I had food ready to cook at home. Dish followed delicious dish as we ploughed through the full five courses, ending up drinking copious amounts of champagne with desert.

On Sunday I fled the village and drove up to the mountains, to where the road ends and it becomes sheer rock, where the eagles have the place to themselves. I hopped into the car without changing, I didn‘t plan on meeting or visiting anyone. The best laid plans of mice and men? Rounding a bend, I came upon a group of wild boar hunters. On the ground was an impressive trophy, a mighty Sanglier. They practically hauled me out of the car, popped champagne and offered me the first gulp. This is a tradition — to invite the first lady passer by to drink champagne to celebrate the kill.

Because I like comfort when sitting at my desk, I was wearing a longish, soft, flowing black skirt with a panel of lace on the end, a little pink top and a long multi-coloured shirt over the lot. And striking just the right note of eccentricity, a pair of thick black, over the knee, slightly avant-, Toulouse Lautrec socks and black cotton espadrilles completed the outfit. The hunters, in their camouflage clothing and leg protectors, appeared to see nothing odd in my bizarre outfit.

When I knelt down for the photo, a fair amount of blood, which was seeping from the bullet hole in the boar‘s side, seeped in turn into my skirt. Nothing for it but to keep smiling what they called ‘my Irish smile‘. Had a mad thought along the lines of how tremendous it is to be able to smile and not to be twenty and embarrassed ...

The hunters were marvelous characters, and sharing their champagne was a perfect, if bizarre note to end my four daft days and nights — my intended days of calm, quiet and diet. I wouldn’t have missed any of it — there’s always another day, another diet ....

Jane Shortall was born in Ireland and now lives in a tiny mediaeval village in a remote part of the South of France, close to the Pyrenees.

She has had various careers, including the Aerospace business - tough but lucrative and, nearer to her heart, some years with the Equestrian Federation of Ireland.

Interests: writing, reading, history of art, music, nature, food & wine, horses. She loves New York, North Africa and Italy and would live in a matchbox in Florence if she could afford it!

She intends to write full time and can be reached by email.


Copyright©2005 Jane Shortall for SeniorWomenWeb
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