Ten years to the day of living in France, our eyes were drawn to the cloudless blue sky by a marvellous spectacle. It was ‘les grues’ – cranes – departing, a sight always magical, but heart-sinking too because it means winter is almost here. Off to warmer climes, they strike into the sunset in V-shaped curving ribbons, their strange warbling filling the air, and then they are gone – not to return until spring. It has become a marker of our year, and our decade in the Merde – sorry the good life!
A couple of days later, I’m crunching along over fallen chestnuts and autumn leaves, on a walk along the ‘chemins’ – ancient tracks and routes between fields, through woods, by lakes – that form their own hidden network all over France. A small but striking church was the start and end point, in the tiny village of la Foret du Temple. I pass through often, but had never seen the church, tucked away from the through route.
Come the end of the week was Hallowe’en. Carved pumpkins adorn every gatepost, children are shepherded around in grotesque costumes, shop assistants get even scarier than usual. We already feel the grim-faced owner of the local shop must be a witch, needing no special effects, but in Lidls the manageress, dashed round in full garb, pointed hat, face-paint, cloak, even hooked nose, scary! But bigger than Hallowe’en even is Toussaint when France bursts into a blaze of chrysanthemums, golden, purple, pink and crimson, on every marketplace and village shop front.
On his way to the boulangerie, OH (Other Half/AKA husband) spotted a fairly newbie Anglais friend, proudly bearing an enormous pot of these chrysanths. OH says, ‘Have you got a relative who’s died?’
Friend looks puzzled, ‘No, why? They’re to take to lunch at a friend’s tomorrow,’ he said. It was a joke OH made because we’d been there ourselves, another moment bringing us full circle in our French education – the sort you don’t get in school. It seems like only yesterday when it was us, embarking on this mad French affair – green as the spiky chestnuts falling all around now. We were renting a rather grim gite and our project was a des-wreck. I eyed the dazzling display of blooms on a market plaza as we enjoyed coffee in the sun with a French lady guiding us through some tedious bureaucracy. Thinking they would at least cheer up our grimy surroundings, I scooped up a pot, to a look from our friend that almost withered us and all the flowers. Oh la la! a faux pas, but what had I done? She explained.
‘You mean all these beautiful flowers will all end up on graves?’ I asked incredulously. You can’t miss the ‘cities to the dead’ outside almost every village. But now we know how each Toussaint every family will buy their blooms to be placed there in honour of their dead, lasting only until the frost. At Easter the blooms will be in hues of blue, purple and pink cineraria.
So … ten years have slipped by since two mad English, teenage son, granny, Jack Russell dog and sundry belongings left our Devon village, all stuffed into our groaning Clio. A decade of living our own French farce, not so much a learning curve as vertical ascent of the Eiger, sans crampons, where every day could swing from magnifique to maddening and back again.
Some days you feel you almost belong, sometimes that you never will, but at that little church in la Foret du Temple, I felt a strange tug of connection and discovery of a France more hidden from the tourist throng – truly la France profonde. It’s a slogan beloved by tourist promoters and estate agents, but what they mean is still the places of postcard pictures and brochures: views painted by the Impressionists, chateaux, the George Sand link, lakes and landscape, pretty villages, mystical stones – all reasonably obvious.
For me, it is the hidden gems to be discovered, on the random walks that our small band of expats of several nationalities, takes each week: the exquisite stained glass window, glimpsed through a doorway, a simple monument, an intriguing street sign.
Translating the name of la Foret du Temple is not taxing. But it had not occurred that ‘Temple’ related directly to this being a home of Templars dating to the eleventh century, which a little research revealed to be the case. So far, so Dan Brown. But I had to translate from a French internet site to learn more as there are no information boards.
Recently I was musing… we came by chance to a place little known by many French: la Creuse, which roughly means ‘hollow’ and has been rudely referred to as another sort of hole, by the hated Parisians. My husband being an artisan builder, we wanted to create our own grand design from a ruin. We would only learn later that the ‘macons of the Creuse’ used to leave their homes each year, walking vast distances, to create much of Paris. My own grandfather, named Staple, derived from Latin and most likely from Old French, was from a family of stone cutters and merchants. He was involved in major building works before his untimely death, and was a Freemason, another link with the Knights Templar. Another great-grandfather was also a stone mason. Perhaps we do belong to the fabric of the place in some way!
This is the France I’ve come to love best, the ways and corners not so travelled, to be discovered when least expected. And, of course, those moments with a coffee in the sun at a market or people watching from the bread queue – the good life, when you also forget for a while the ‘merde’ moments that the French also do so well: two hours closed for lunch, bureaucracy, strikes, routes barrees … if you live in France, you know!
The cranes were right by the way, as always – roll on their return!
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