Greetings on this sunny Easter Sunday. For weeks the shops have been full of chocolate eggs, hens, rabbits, hares and fish. And Jean-Robert’s patisserie shop window also includes his pride and joy, a huge and hideous chocolate racing car (which will no doubt be melted down, unsold, after Easter and turned into individual sweets). Traditions vary in Alsace and Lorraine (and we’re right on the border) as to who delivers the eggs. In Alsace it is the Easter hare who hides the eggs (traditionally hard boiled and hand painted) in gardens. But in Lorraine it is the Church bells which leave their towers and go to Rome to visit the Pope (which is why you don’t hear bells ringing in the days leading to Easter Sunday). They then return on Easter Sunday to their own village carrying the Easter eggs.
As I walked back from the village shop with the newspaper this morning, our neighbour, Danielle Laine, in a smart lime green tweed suit, came bounding out of her house. “I thought, as I saw you going to the village, that you were on your way to mass,” she said. “It’s not just Easter, it’s the golden wedding anniversary of Jacqueline and Roger. Come quickly and join in”. We only have three services a year in the old church in Entre-deux-Eaux (the remainder being shared between the post-war churches in Saulcy and St Leonard). I’d quite forgotten that it was “our” turn, let alone that it was a golden wedding anniversary. The village electrician and his wife, M. and Mme Fresse, who used to own our house, had five daughters (who are also cousins of Danielle Laine), the second being Jacqueline. We’d met her twelve years ago at the formal signing of the house contract between ourselves and all five inheritors, and later on in the afternoon when she and her husband and various other relatives arrived to bear off battered furniture and planks of wood that they’d suddenly remembered were family heirlooms. Jacqueline and Roger had been married fifty years ago at Entre-deux-Eaux church, and today’s mass was celebrating that. So although I wouldn’t have recognised them again after twelve years, I did feel that the old family house should be represented. So I hastily changed out of jeans and into a suit and high heeled shoes (dusty in the cupboard, unworn since our arrival) and drove back to the village. Half the village was at the Church (which must have heartened the priest who is used to an audience of ten), and Jacqueline and Roger had special seats of honour at the front. The Resurrection and fidelity in marriage were linked in a masterly way in the short address, holy water was sprinkled on all the congregation, and mass celebrated by the faithful few. As we came out onto the steps and looked out across the village, the bells pealed out long and loud (Having, obviously, delivered their eggs earlier.)
“Fifty years is a long time”, I mused. “Well, I shan’t make it” said our neighbour Gerard sadly (his wife having run off with a dentist). “There are three marriages which have lasted fifty years in this village”, announced Mme Laine, as she passed John and I in the evening, “my parents, my uncle and aunt (Jacqueline’s parents, who lived in your house) and finally Jacqueline and Roger themselves”. (There must be others, surely, outside of her family?).
The other half of our marriage had meantime spent Easter morning in his dusty old overalls sorting out last bits of wiring in the kitchen via the attic. Our many visits to Cuisine Schmidt (last newsletter) resulted in our finally placing an order for base units (mainly huge gliding drawers), cooker, hob, oven, and work-surface. This must be our greatest expenditure since the boiler and underfloor heating. Poor Muriel, the kitchen designer, was too exhausted to look relieved when we finally signed the contract (all forty sheets of it – every page of two copies!). Various visitors had successfully taken our minds off this investment for a couple of weeks, but with their departure, John’s mind reverted to wiring and plumbing diagrams. Our electrician came over last Sunday to discuss changes necessitated by the new kitchen layout (his partner – small world – is a niece of Danielle Laine, so stopped off there with their toddler for a chat, whilst John and Fabrice talked wiring). We’d originally had to guess where we wanted the sockets for the dishwasher and oven when the wiring was put in a couple of years ago but they’ve ended up on completely different walls. And then there was the need for wiring for the extractor, under-shelf lighting, and different ceiling lighting. However, Fabrice, who always seems to be suffering from a heavy cold, is behind with the re-wiring for a shop due to open on 25th April having been off work for three weeks, so couldn’t do anything for us until the beginning of May, when we want to be in England. However, the chat clarified things for John, who has now completed the re-wiring himself. Nicola’s plumber has installed the copper pipes for the bottled propane gas for the hob (to keep in line with regulations), and John has plumbed in the water and waste pipes for the sink and dish washer. So all the plasterboard is back in place, ready for the joins to be plastered. A luxury would be to paint the walls and ceiling before the units arrive – if there’s time!
Some of our recent visitors were gravely concerned by the number of visits we make to IKEA in Strasbourg. They assure us that there is treatment available for addictions like this. However, we’ve been very pleased with the IKEA book shelving, wardrobes, and glass light shades that we’ve bought on various visits, not to mention the two red sofas which were delivered before breakfast on the morning critics were due to fly home). So it was with high expectations that we set out last Wednesday to select some ceiling spotlights for the new kitchen (which would enable John to position his wiring.) In the end we chose three fluorescent lights, which should give even better lighting from the sloping ceilings. So after Kitchen Installation Day on May 14th we should be able to eat food straight from the new kitchen (rather than food cooked in the old farmhouse kitchen and carried across two barns and upstairs to the new dining room). For that matter it may soon be warm enough to eat dinner outside on the new balcony (perhaps balcony is rather a posh word for the slab of un-tiled concrete without any railings – but it does have a lovely view of the sunsets! And it’s been warm enough for lunch out there the last week. And it will be prettier with a few geraniums and bay trees).
Not all our “retail therapy” involve the international chains like IKEA and Cuisine Schmidt. There is also shopping village-style. The village shop, which nearly died a few years ago when the old proprietors retired, now flourishes – more on the bar takings than shop sales, I suspect. A few elderly ladies still pedal up laboriously on their push-bikes, take their time over their weekly purchases and gossip, and have their euros counted out and explained by the vivacious shop-keeper. And the shop keeper must have heard somewhere that the English like to talk about the weather, as she now usually tells me what weather is predicted (either in the newspaper I’m about to buy or on last night’s TV). But for every person in the shop, there are four or five men in the bar (and yes, it does seem to be all men). The shop no longer runs a bread delivery to remote parts, but there is a weekly fish van, whose nearest regular stopping place is outside Danielle Laine’s. Flashy mattress and linen salesmen call from time to time, sounding like con-men. And Beatrice sells more patisseries from her old yellow van parked at weekly markets than she does from the St Die shop. When as I child, we lived three miles from the nearest shops, I remember the weekly excitement of the small battered van that called. I never knew how it’s owner’s name was spelt, but it sounded like Mister Geekie. He sold earthy potatoes, liquorice boot laces, mounds of spring greens, seed packets and sherbet dips. Those were also the days of onion sellers and knife grinders on bicycles and gypsies with little log baskets filled with primroses – not to mention the rag and bone man.
So has been a pleasure to discover the local modern French equivalents. The Red Cross collects old garments, children sell wild daffodils from the hillsides around Gérardmer and, on May 1st only, posies of lily of the valley, and most exciting of all there are several hardware vans that tour the villages. These hardware vans turned out to be enormous articulated lorries carrying huge stocks. The postman distributes their catalogue stamped with their nearest venue and date and time. Whilst our English visitors were with us, we had an unusual occurrence. Both enormous lorries were due in Saulcy on the same date and time! The men all bundled into one of the cars, and I leaped in at the last moment as I saw then setting off (this was man stuff, but I was allowed along as the more fluent French speaker). One lorry was spread-eagled in front of the Mairie, but the other was harder to find. Its scarlet bulk was wedged between old cars in a garage off the busy main road. It was a masterpiece of parking, and we wouldn’t have easily spotted it had it not been for its flamboyant scarlet livery patterned with yellow and blue spanners. Getting across the main road on a busy Sunday evening was another matter. Our purchases were most satisfactory. We bought an awning for the terrace and two garden arches and Alistair bought a case of spanners. Then in a rash moment John asked if I wanted to look at their weather vane. As we were by now major purchasers, the driver obligingly unpacked his boxed-up copper weather vane. This was perhaps not quite as fine as the hand-made-by-small-artisan one which I’d coveted months ago, but it was a tenth of the price and most handsome and gleaming. Next morning Alistair and John were to be seen on the workshop roof fixing the cock on the ridge and positioning the arrow and directional arms (disconcertingly spelling NOSE, rather than the NWSE pictured on the box). It’s very soothing to stand by the window watching it twist and turn, but I hope that it is never subjected to a wrenching gale like the Great Tempest of Boxing Day 1999.
Its been lovely having recent visitors from England and from Germany. The cheap Ryanair flights make popping over for a long weekend from Stansted, almost quicker than driving through the Black Forest and over the German / French border at the Rhine. And perhaps we should point out that the highlights of their visits were more varied than just a trip to two hardware lorries! With our Nottingham visitors, my main memories are of a Saturday investigating (in the rain) the sculptures on the storm-devastated Col de Mandray, walking (through the snow) and picnicking above the frozen Lac Blanc, wandering through the sculptures, paintings and altar pieces of the Musee Unterlinden in Colmar and ending up sipping coffee outside (in the late afternoon sunshine) in a Colmar square. A day of all-weathers! Then there was the Sunday morning stroll for the newspaper (and beyond), followed by lunch at the packed Auberge in Le Valtin, then the Art Exhibition at St Die Museum which included two of Nicola’s paintings. With all the hot weather, there wasn’t enough water in the rivers to make canoeing interesting (or dangerous), but the shady forest walks were agreeable, if strenuous. Who will forget the views from the orientation table at the Sapin Sec (or Alistair hanging dangerously from the tree at the summit – surely not the original dry pine?). Or scrunching through the crisp autumn-brown beech leaves to the foot of the Nideck cascade (in the forests where a mediaeval Saint Florentin lived alone with the wild animals, and where robber baron castles were built on rocky pinnacles).
And of course there were the long leisurely evening meals over which John had been slaving (voluntarily) whilst we were often out gallivanting. And then there were the expeditions with Margrit – several of them re-visiting places she’d previously enjoyed, like the book village at Fontenoy la Joute and the Celtic hill site at La Bure (another lovely forest walk). The visit to the local farm museum was a success as was the Monday lecture on Byzantium (as Margrit is an ex Latin teacher with a good historical background and could date all the Emperors mentioned).
Since our visitors left, one final piece of retail therapy has entailed a surprising amount of work. John can never resist a free, no-obligation competition and he’s often been lucky in draws. So it was hardly surprising when he won second prize in a beauty contest ( or was it a garden centre) draw for which he, Nicola, and I all submitted identical entries; however, justice was done as it was he who’d looked up the answers to the three questions about the early history of the Truffauts who founded the garden centre and completed the entry forms. I think second prize was best, the first prize being a year of beauty treatments, the second a year of garden plants (four quarterly vouchers totalling 300 euro), and the third a year of jams. The garden plants have to be chosen each season and the voucher spent in one visit. For Spring John chose a quince tree, a thornless blackcurrant, and some herbs, and I helpfully added an old fashioned scented rambling rose and some packets of sweet pea, French marigold, sweet William, rocket and dwarf bean seeds, and some potting compost. This prize has resulted in the total re-organisation of the herb garden. All the black plastic has vanished, metre square plots surrounded by paths created and the herbs divided and replanted in orderly squares. I’m always taken by the French potagers with their colourful flowers surrounding the vegetable plots and strips. So I was rather surprised when Farmer Duhaut (who’d come to make peace and agree which bits of our meadows he could cut and graze this year) asked whether the English always made so many paths round their plants. Mme Laine was more understanding when I pointed out the advantages of the cook being able to gather fresh herbs in his carpet slippers in all weathers! The arches from the hardware van are in place down the central path, and the rambling rose planted out (in one of the herb squares, with some strawberries).
Planting out the blackberry was not a simple matter of digging a hole, as the space intended for it still contained roots and the stump of a Fresse family Christmas tree that had grown huge in the middle of the vegetable plot and we’d felled five or six years ago. And we still have to agree a spot for the quince tree! However, in the meantime, I’ve also been able to take advantage of the light and sunny potting area which John has created for me behind the boiler in the middle barn. Sowing seeds in trays in there has felt like playing gardens! I’m not sure what we’ll want to buy in summer, though! And then there’s still the Autumn and Winter parts of the prize to come.
With all the work on the kitchen and garden involved as a consequence of our purchases / prize, it will be quite relaxing to leave it all behind for a week or so in England at the beginning of May. Exactly a year after we made the great move, it will be lovely to spend time with our mothers, Toby, and friends and contemplate with them our first year in the Vosges. We’ve also promised ourselves a few second-hand bookshop visits, culminating in a weekend in Hay-on Wye … we’ll soon be needing a trip over to IKEA for some more shelving!
Just imagine, by the time of the next newsletter, we’ll be into our second year here. A la prochaine!