Thursday, 26 August 2010

Letter from Les Landes, Saturday 14th August

Our lunch was rudely interrupted yesterday by a youngish man in camouflage-patterned combat trousers and T-shirt enquiring who owned the land next to us. We told him it belonged to the 'commune' (i.e the Mairie, or Mayor) and politely enquired why he was asking. He didn't seem inclined to tell us, so when I said that, actually, a part of the land was ours (true enough, though sadly only a metre-wide strip the other side of the stream) and that therefore we had reason to know, he informed us he was looking at buying some suitable 'parcelle' of land to make a botanical garden. The piece of land in question, full of natural springs, would, of course, be ideal and save a lot of watering...

Although, to the outsider, this may seem an admirable enough idea, his plan was to encourage tourists and schools visits which seems a little inappropriate in a narrow residential lane squeezed between two houses, thus ruining the privacy and tranquillity of both. When there is miles of forest in all directions, it seems a tad perverse to come and trample over our space - like the people who come and sit pretty much on your towel when there's acres of beach all around. The young gun in combats then further aided my sudden attack of indigestion by announcing that 'better this than a house'. I muttered that the ground had been declared 'inconstructible' - i.e un-buildable on - because of the aforementioned natural springs which have their source there. To this he countered, ominously, 'all ground can be made 'constructible' ' and that sure as eggs is eggs there would be a house on it one day. I was not amused.

This brings me neatly to a current large juicy bone of contention (not just here in France, but in my hilly English home too): it seems that wherever I find to rest my caravan that is beautiful, and which I love for its peace and natural wonders, there's always some bastard who wants to come along and destroy it. Back home, many other local residents and I are currently engaged in a battle against Barratt Homes who are in cohoots with the local authorities and want to build 550 unremarkable houses whose need has not been justified in a valley of remarkable beauty. There has been a face-saving consultation period, civil objections - and now we discover there is the stench of rotting fish within the local authority which potentially seems happy to take a quick back-hander at the expense of the local community (not least of which being that the local secondary school would have half its playing fields removed if the proposal were to go ahead). So much for democracy.

Out here in rural France, meanwhile, we are being assailed at every turn by cheap housing, supposedly for the local community, but in fact (apart from the high-density lotissements) mostly bought or constructed by second homers. (Please excuse my apparent hypocrisy as a holiday home owner, but we love this area - like the many who have found it before us - and would do anything to preserve its character and uniqueness. This is of course lost on those who have lived here all there lives and perhaps see any old building programme as progress.) The point of my objection is not in the building per se, but in the nature of the seemingly unchecked process where the Mayor seems omnipotent. Our Mayor has been in his position for 35 years and his father was Mayor before him. It seems that the local community has voted him in - but maybe it was the case of the devil known. He is not all bad and has done much to enhance community life - but he will allow no building on his side of town where he lives in a fine house with a fine private lake behind a fine dense hedge surrounded by 'la nature'. Our side of town is, of course, another matter and he is currently wreaking havoc in what seems, to the outsider, a slightly ambitious, not to say misguided, 'plan d'urbanisme' wherby forest and field is being given planning permission almost hourly, it seems, in the headlong rush to make a quick buck and for the unnaturally hasty 'aggrandissement' of a rural community. The raison d'etre for all this would appear to be more about the aggrandissement of Monsieur le Maire's ego rather than anything more altruistic. Here, as in my home town, there is a serious risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water. But hey, who am I to tell them that? I will, nevertheless, try...

And if the bloke in combat trousers manages to persuade the Mayor that his plan for the Mezos equivalent of Kew is actually rather chipper, then I shall have to consider opening up my house for tourists as a 'Classic Landaise Farmhouse', rather like the Ecomusee de Marqueze (watch this clip for a giggle!) - if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, eh?! I'm sure the Mayor would approve as he also has plans for a golf course nearby.

Meanwhile I'm just going to pop down the Amazon for a few choice piranhas to chuck in his lovely lake....

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Letter from Les Landes, Friday 13th August

And so I have moved my charabanc to France. The last time I was here the call of the cuckoos and the drill of the woodpeckers reverberated in the woods around us; now it is the soft coo of the woodpigeons or the harsh drone of hedgetrimmers and strimmers which accompany our daily rhythms.

The days pass easily enough in a mix of sunshine and clouds. When sun prevails we are on the beach, when clouds win the battle we find other amusements. There is always a wash to put in, a floor to sweep, a meal to prepare, a bed to change or a visit to be made. N has had work trickling through since we arrived nearly three weeks ago and as I sit on the beach writing this, he is at home taking a conference call. All this annoys me greatly as he is never truly allowed to rest, it seems. He deals with it by putting his head in the proverbial sand and saying that it is only 'normal'. I, meanwhile, yearn for the days pre fax and email and mobile and Blackberry - the days when you couldn't be contacted, you couldn't respond, so no-one expected it of you; when you could escape and just 'be' for a while. It doesn't seem to me too much to ask, but in this mad, arrogant, demanding world we now live in, it seems that I am wrong. It is me that is being unreasonable.

I therefore cherish the moments we have in the sea - where the elements rule and not the human ego. Forget that humility at your peril - the power of the ocean, the capriciousness of its currents can quickly show our physical frailty with little remorse.

Today the water is not too angry. The girls are out in a group of other children learning to use her power for their pleasure. I have watched them running along the beach, jumping and skipping, warming up before plunging into the foamy surf, pulling the boards they are learning to ride behind them. Philou - patient, kind, tanned and wiry - has them under his watchful eye.

They count the times they have managed to stand up and come running up the sand at the end of each hour they have been learning, announcing their scores to me proudly. And as I watch them in the waves I see how each girl tackles the task in accordance with her personality: the oldest watches, takes her time, goes out deeper and manages fewer but longer runs in; the middle one stays closer in and attacks each and every little wave with gusto and determination, always coming back with the highest score; the littlest has her chin stuck out, her sticky legs goose-pimpled, part-determined, part-lazy, but always stubbornly in control of what she does or doesn't want to do, which wave she does or doesn't want to take. I look on, fascinated, with the love of a mother.

These mornings on the beach are the best time to be there - the tide out and benign for surfing or bathing, the huge sweeps of wet sand reflecting the strengthening sun; the beach bar serving hot coffee to the early surfers or their patient partners, the soft dry sands newly swept and clean inviting you to place your towel. By mid afternoon the atmosphere will have changed completely from this sense of calm and well-being to full-on holiday hubbub.

But now the girls have ended their lesson and are running towards me in their shiny wetsuits like exciteable sealions. They will tell me their scores, I will help them struggle out of their clinging black prison and we will then all head back into the waves again for a lark about with a new sense of freedom as the water touches skin not rubber. We will then head home for lunch and to do a few chores before returning late afternoon to the beach, as the hubbub starts to subside, to share these elemental pleasures with their father too as is only right and good. He may take his board and fight it out with the waves too; we may play bat and ball, fly a kite, or just lie and read while the girls make castles and roads and endless imaginary scenes from driftwood and detritus. We will then retire sandily and saltily from the beach to find a favourite place to eat and watch the world go by. The world on holiday. A holiday world. My world for now.

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