Thursday, 27 August 2009

The roads we travel...

I have just returned from my friend's house 10 minutes away. When I first visited her in this part of the world four years ago she was pregnant with her first child, long awaited. This afternoon we had a cup of tea by the pool as our children swam, played dolphin games (I found myself briefly masquerading as a dolphin, flipping my flippers, jumping for fish and making dolphin noises - a talent I never knew I had), and acted out a shark attack. Funny how their minds work sometimes. We chatted around the edges of the animated watery activity and moved seamlessly enough into aperitif time. Tea was exchanged for wine. We have much to discuss at the moment as she is separating from her husband of many years - almost as many as N and I. I understand all the reasons, and understand them more and more the more we chat. But nevertheless I am sad. And so is she. She has a very bright light shining at the end of her tunnel but it doesn't make the ending of things any easier. In the few years we have been coming here we have built up a whole new bank of memories - summers, autumns, Christmases, New Years and Easters. Time spent together. We are both adjusting to the future, not entirely sure what it will bring.

The children gamboled around the garden together. They dressed up and played their games, they swung dangerously in the hammock. We watched the sun slanting ever lower through the pines, throwing beautiful shadows and tranches of golden light towards us. I never have the camera with me when I need it. We laid the table with home-made quiche and polenta flavoured with cheese and garlic. There was a tomato and cucumber salad made from tomatoes from the garden, homemade bread, cherry cake and melon. A simple feast fit for a king. The children ate hungrily then disappeared inside to watch an ancient (yet still brilliant) 'Mr Bean' video. We were left to our chat, both our men absent - one fishing on the local beach, the other doing his accounting back in the UK. Such different lives. Such different outcomes.

She and I go back far, back to the Alps over 20 years ago. Though distance has separated us, our spirits and our intense experiences have kept us close. With the passage of time we have the advantage of a bigger picture, a better overview of all that has gone before and where it has led us. We also have the wisdom of hindsight.

Even if we travel along a road we shouldn't perhaps have taken, we see things along the way and learn from them. If you keep your eyes open, no journey is ever really wasted even if you take the odd wrong turn. And often you return to where you began, but older and wiser. You come home.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


You will be pleased to hear that I am writing this with a glass of 'Coteaux de Chalosse' rose by my side. The Chalosse is to our south, a land which rolls more than here, lanes cutting through high hedges of maize at this time of year, with glimpses of the Pyrenees in the distance. Further south again, the undulations increase and become the softly crumpled foothills of the Pays Basque, another beautiful and fascinating region. I will never forget peering from my plane window five years ago as we came in to land at Biarritz. Seeing the soft green curves dotted with attractive looking houses and blue pools, the high mountains standing proud and strong, the sea glittering to the west, I had one simple thought: 'This is where I want to live'. The memories of my four hot, sunny, intensely happy days in this vibrant 'grande ville' by the sea will stay with me forever.

While I was there, I travelled a little further north into the pine-clad flatlands to visit my friend from my days working in the Alps. She'd spent the last 20 years dividing her time between here and there and I'd hardly seen her since. But sometimes life has a way of coming full circle and the next thing I knew, later that same year, this house of ours, in which I sit now writing this, simply presented itself to us one smokey autumn afternoon. Nothing in life is ever as you plan it. All this happened at a hugely difficult time for me with everything in chaos, not least my emotions. Right then, I didn't even know what my future was and I was trying desperately to make sense of everything that had happened to me in recent years, months, weeks...yet when I saw this house, just as when I first saw our house in the High Peak, it just felt right. Some things it just doesn't do to question.

We had no formal appointment to view it - we had happened by chance on a photo in an estate agent's window and, having asked directions, came to have a gentle little look. We found it easily enough, down the end of a lane dotted with other properties before opening out into scrub and forest: a 'Hansel and Gretel' house, quite lovely, sitting at the bottom of a gently sloping woodland garden. An oldish man was wandering across the grass, rake in hand. We wondered if he was the gardener. We tentatively entered the property and explained our presence. He was German, speaking French rather than English, and we soon discovered he was actually the owner. Very sadly, at 80 years old, he was divorcing and needed to sell the house as part of the settlement. He had bought it in the mid Seventies, an almost derelict farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Landes, over an hour inland from here - a hamlet named Guiraboye on the map. His wife had wanted to be closer to the sea so they moved this perfect example of a traditional Landaise farmhouse (albeit in a state of near ruination), wooden pillar by wooden pillar, all painstakingly numbered like a giant meccano set.

And what a labour of love it was! This man was an artist by trade, but such a pure aesthete that he never sold a single one of his paintings - he chose to give them away only to people he knew valued them and made a meagre income instead by teaching his artistic skills. It is the incredible story of how this remarkable man moved this house and meticulously rebuilt it, practically single-handedly, according to all the ancient local traditions and craftsmanship, which make it so very special to us. He created small foundations (which are not normal round here - houses were traditionally built directly onto the sand and hence have many inherent problems with termites) and raised it on stone plinths about 8 inches or so higher than it originally was to create a little more headroom inside. He even bought another dilapidated property of the same era so that he had a stock of appropriate raw materials (particularly terracotta tiles) to replace any that got damaged in the process of removal and re-build. Grand Designs, eat your heart out!

What we have now inherited is a building that oozes character, warmth, charm, history and, most importantly, love. He really, really did love this place and it was breaking his heart to leave, but he had no choice. There were people who came to look it, apparently, before us, who, clearly didn't 'get it'. They picked at this, they picked at that. But for me it was utterly perfect. Ancient wood beams, rough white walls, terracotta floors. And then there were the quirky artistic touches - the vents in the chimney to allow hot air into the upper floor; the intricate system of pipework which creates the underfloor heating (not yet tested out for fear of leaks!); the 'pissoir' in the downstairs loo; the other little loo in the utility area set at an angle, the cistern all integral with the white plaster walls; the loo design and tap designs in the bathrooms the Philip Starck's of their generation; the tiles in the kitchen all hand-laid by his wife. I could go on and on (particularly about the loos!), but it wouldn't make sense unless you saw it. Indeed, it was clearly not everyone's cup of tea (just like our house in the High Peak too - many had dismissed it before we came along), but it was mine. He loved it, we loved it and he wanted to sell it only to people who loved it. I hope we are doing him proud.


PS: sorry - cannot get photos uploaded at the moment, will add at a later date when back in the world of higher technology!

Friday, 21 August 2009

And so to France....

Every August I shift my home and family from the heather-hued hills of north west England to the flat pine-strewn expanses of south-west France: from stone and moss to wood and sand, from being land-locked to being in touch with the ocean. In short, from the High Peak to Les Landes. It is a set of contrasts I adore, and a way of keeping me sane.

France has been in my heart and, I like to think, in my blood, since I was a young teenager. My parents used to take in students and teachers. One of the first ones we embraced was an auburn-haired creature called Cathy. I thought she was the bees knees. She had a fabulous French accent and I was so jealous of her ability to speak the language. I had passed many a family holiday in France, living as we did just across the water. Newhaven-Dieppe. It's etched on my psyche. The reason I particularly wanted to learn French,though, was because I am also particularly curious and I soon worked out that sitting in French bars, cafes and restaurants would just be a set of endlessly frustrating experiences if I was unable to earwig what was going on around me. Life, people, relationships. Fab. Have to see and know it all. So, no high-blown intellectual reasons or desire to read Proust. Non. Just sheer, blatant noseyness.

I did indeed go on to do French at university and have spent many months and years hanging around les Grenouilles. My intention was to marry a French doctor(who actually did cross my path, quite literally, in Toulouse), but being cautious and practical of nature I felt I had to return to England to finish my degree and continue my relationship with my English accountant (er, WHY?!). Yet here I am, nearly a quarter of a century later, finally with my own little patch of French soil. And very agreeable it is too. I don't think I ever really wanted French children anyway. Didn't seem quite right. But I love the exposure my little English Roses are getting to the land I have always loved.

And so we rolled off the ferry in St Malo in the same heavy grey shroud of rain-soaked clouds and howling gale that has greeted us for the last three years and toute de suite pointed the nose of the car south. By Bordeaux the skies had cleared and the temperature guage registered 27 degrees. That's more like it. We stopped by our friends house for a late lunch before finally arriving chez nous in the early evening. From afar, I sometimes think how boring it is to be going back to the same old place, but all I have to do is glimpse the front of this beautiful old Landaise farmhouse, bursting with character, atmosphere and stories, and all doubts retreat once more. Familiar smokey smells greet us as we open the heavy wooden front door, the hallway stretching through to the glazed door at the back and the forest beyond. The kitchen tells the most tales of the holiday gone before - the coffee cups washed up but not put away beside the sink, the children's paint brushes standing in a jam jar by the taps. A life continuous, yet gently interrupted. I open the kitchen door onto the slightly ramshackle terrace on the side with the millstone table, the rampant roses, the vine and the comforting watery jingle of the stream that embraces the house on two sides. We were last here at Easter with no leaves on the trees, so the atmosphere is entirely different now. We are enveloped by greenery, the new houses they built nearby thankfully blotted out by the lushness of summer.

The girls shoot up to their rooms and gather the soft friends left on their beds and fall to playing straight away. While they clatter and giggle about we unpack the car and sort out the goods and chattels of our long-awaited holiday. The air feels warm and we feel optimistic that this is going to be a good one. Perhaps summer, for us, has finally arrived.
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