Philippe, our French estate agent, was already at ‘our’ house to open up the shutters, when his bi-lingual colleague Leontine was still busy translating the houses’ deeds for us in the notaries’ office. We knew we still had to improve our French, but it became more evident half an hour later, when Philippe ran towards us, shouting ‘Frelons! Frelons!’
We thought we heard the French version of ‘hurrah, hurrah’. The reality was a little different.
Stirring up a hornet’s nest
Leontine explained that had we opened the shutters ourselves, we would probably not have survived. During the year or so that the house had been vacant, squatters had taken possession of the space between the shutters and the windows of one of the upstairs bedrooms. Thousands of hornets had built an enormous nest there. If a frelon, as they are called, stings you it has the same effect as being stung by four hundred wasps. The next day we stood and admired – from a safe distance, the exterminator who was called to remove the nest. In his shorts! Anyway, that was how we met one of the inhabitants of France that the travel magazines never tell you about.
Our second encounter followed a few days later when we couldn’t stop scratching ourselves. We were itching all over in, let’s say, delicate areas. As these villains appear in summer they are called aoûtats. These microscopically small insects live in grass, and should you walk bare foot through infested grass they will take advantage of you, climbing your legs in search of somewhere warm and moist to make another home, and just to let you know they have ‘moved in’ they cause small, red and very itchy fluid filled blisters.
The French swear they are immune but still sell a lot of bottles of Tiq d’Aoûtats in their pharmacies. It’s a preventative spray you have to apply a few times a day if you want to keep your body to yourself. Maybe these little nuisances are why we seldom see a Frenchman in shorts without his socks and heavy shoes.
Snakes in France
Maybe another specimen we soon stumbled upon, influences their dress code. The French told us they could never in live in Spain ‘as they have scorpions and snakes’. Their answer to the question ‘Is that not the case in France too?’ was ‘Non, non, non, just snakes’.
Well, the confirmation of that came soon enough when we (dressed in proper pants and wearing heavy boots) started clearing the brambles that were taking over the empty stables. Our walls were made of loam from our own land, and the brambles were not only rooted in the ground, but also in the walls. Tearing at the roots we pulled away a chunk of wall and six wriggling small black eels!
Neighbour François, who was passing by knew better: ‘Vipères!’ he declared.
Another deadly local resident to avoid like the plague. Didn’t we have a First Aid kit for snakebites, including syringe and serum? François was appalled that we didn’t. Everybody had one, some people never left home without such a kit about their person! He took a spade and hacked the writhing serpents into pieces. Voila!
Other ‘experts’ have told us all one has to do is make sure to reach a hospital within half an hour after a snakebite. Reassuring? Non!
Imagine how we felt when we were having a well-earned glass of wine outside and suddenly heard something rustling in an old rosebush nearby. Neighbour F. had already warned us to remove it as soon as possible as it was far too close to the house. We had not understood why and as it still had nice flowers, there by the house it remained. What now crept from under it was only three centimetres in diameter, but one…two…almost three meters long. Green, with black and yellow stripes. If it was more afraid of us then we were of it, it must have been terrified! We were panicking! If a small viper of only twenty centimetres was deadly, this monster must be a giant killer.
Fortunately, before we could call the estate agent to ask him to re-sell our property, a friend who has had a house nearby for years called by. We shared our horror story. No sweat, we were told, the monster we had seen was just a coulouvre. Completely harmless, well, harmless unless threatened, and even then a bite was just a bit painful for a week or two.
Pffft! I was already sharpening my shovel!
Peter Schoenmaker retired from advertising to run a small luxury hotel in France. His e-book Breakfast in Gascony can be downloaded for Kindle from Amazon