Café flirtations, embroidery threads and maps: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 2 week 50 to year 3 week 4

At the airport bookshop on one of my recent trips back from the UK (Helen writing here), I spotted a couple of books I wanted. As it was one of those three-for-the-price-of-two offers, I speculatively bunged in “Pretty girl in crimson rose” by Sandy Balfour. One of its many pleasures has been identifying with the process of an émigré becoming a resident, by making sense of the culture through learning the rules for solving its fragmentary clues as well as crossword clues. This sense of our remaining outsiders in French culture and in a small French village, whilst relishing the occasional small insights, links the following episodes of everyday life.

We often look at the carved inscriptions in the pink sandstone above local village doorways. When we first arrived, Entre-deux-Eaux’s finest old doorway was part of a ruined house, which has since been demolished, though the lintel is incorporated into a “feature” on the site of the old public lavatories near the church. However, neighbouring Mandray has retained many elaborate doorways and even produced a booklet about them. It is interesting how the act of clutching a booklet makes it quite acceptable, even flattering, to stare at someone’s house without being intrusive. Visiting friend Ann H. and I talked to many Mandray inhabitants at we familiarised ourselves with changing door and window architectural styles. The family returning from school for lunch to the most imposing maison de maitre, where we started our tour, were not the descendants of the original peasant-made-good. But the dear old man, whose garden we so fervently admired at the end of our stroll, had lived all his life in his house with the trough of running water outside, as had his parents and grandparents. And I recently saw a lovely little old woman outside; I wonder whether she is his sister or wife?. Continue reading

Doctors, Monkeys, and Tax; the approach of Spring in Entre-deux-Eaux Year 2, weeks 44-49

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing”. Mole responded to the wondrous spring sunshine by rushing off to discover the river bank and the pleasures of messing around in boats. After the dullness and isolation of winter, the villagers of Entre-deux-Eaux respond more like toad than mole or rat. The revving of engines is heard, and out come the tractors, diggers, and lorries.

Farmer Dominique Duhaut delivers a load of manure we requested at the end of last year. Just below our balcony (and so aromatic). He also sprays the surrounding fields thoroughly. Later two tractors (at front and rear) edge an enormous metal drum up the lane towards his cow shed, doing battle with the branches of one of our apple trees as they pass. His cousin Alain Duhaut, the commune employee, starts digging trenches for a large pipe to St Léonard so that, following careful deliberations and negotiations, our commune can import water, in times of need, from the neighbouring commune of St Léonard (arrangements with neighbouring Mandray having broken down during last summer’s drought as they too ran short of water). Our builder, Jose de Freitas, decides to extend his unsightly builder’s yard still further and bulldozes some more earth to form a platform for heaps of pipes and timber. Neighbour Pierre Laine, who had a hip replacement in January, is forced out of doors for a daily constitutional by his wife (but he always seems to be proceeding to or from the bar!). However one day he stops to inspect and advise on the new potato plot I’m digging and pronounces the manure ready for use. A German “week-ender” also stops and offers advice on the manure heap – cover and leave for two years. We ignore this, as the goodness is intended to enrich this year’s potato patch (next year’s flower garden). A slow chugging up the lane is next door’s sit-on lawn mower, driven by their five-year old daughter (fortunately sitting on her father’s lap). Helen eyes the contraption with envy, having been struggling to mow our meadow grass with a Flymo! And today the cows are finally out on one of the nearby fields. Jonquils have come and gone and now we have cowslips in our fields. Spring has arrived in Entre-deux-Eaux! Continue reading

To Marrakech and back: a diversion from everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux (year 2 weeks 42 – 43)

One snowy day last winter, tramping through the white fields under a grey sky, the walkers of St Dié were all reminiscing about the bright colours and sunshine of Marrakech. They spoke with the proprietary air of ex colonialists. They’d all been there, and were amazed that we hadn’t. “Oh, you simply must go there!” However, “the police are very nasty”, was neighbour Pierre Laine’s reaction to our projected trip. “Like Algeria. I was there in the war”. One of his lengthier pronouncements!

We were curious as to how being part of an all-French package tour would influence our perceptions. Isn’t it wonderful the way the French spontaneously applaud when a plane lands! A real breaking of the tension and celebration. Then at passport control the queuing passengers left the “confidentiality“ distance normally reserved for banks, so no-one could hear vicious interrogations. Our passports received the first stamps they’d had in many years (most of the French passengers seemed to travel on their identity cards). On arrival at the four star Hotel Marrakech the tour representatives confiscated our return tickets (to be ransomed on the last day by payment of hotel tabs). They assured us this would avoid extremely unpleasant “misunderstandings” with the police over stolen and sold passports and also that, despite the late arrival hour (11 pm), dinner would be served immediately. The entire hotel was dedicated to French guests – and us. Continue reading

Of Food and Teeth: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux Year 2, Weeks 39 – 41

Everyday life in Entre-deux resumed as normal (though what is normal?) at the beginning of February. John had returned early in January , but I’d stayed on in Nottingham after Christmas until my mother was making really good progress after her unpleasant bout of cystitis which had caused memory loss. Thank you to everyone who kept up my morale (and hence hers) with phone calls and visits. You’ll be glad to hear that she’s doing well and seems to have regained most of her old acuity.

After December’s candlelight and illuminated outdoor trees, January and February can seem very dull and grey here. A time for hibernation. The underfloor heating envelops us in warmth, the barn is stocked with logs and wine, and the shelves are temptingly full of books – old favourites and newly purchased. To which should be added TV and all the new information resources at our disposal: the new, faster computer, networked older computers, and the broadband link. These latter have been providing John with car reviews (but no decision). There are times when we really miss a large car with versatile extra seating or luggage space. Our Yaris, Snowy, has coped with our great move, but was originally chosen as a small second car. Sometime perhaps, Tintin will arrive?

We have also been reading up about Marrakech. Last Sunday was dull and grey, my mother seemed stable, and we’d long been wanting to visit Morocco Last year’s plans seemed inadvisable after the Casablanca bomb and with the Iraq war looming. So it was an exciting moment on Sunday when John found and booked us a last minute French package. We fly out from the regional Metz/Nancy airport on Wednesday. “Do not engage in political discussion” advises one web-site. And the guide books we hastily ordered from Amazon offer dire warnings about faux guides. But it will be interesting staying at a hotel geared up for French tourists – the food at least should be good! Watch this space. Continue reading

Remembrance and Advent: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux Year 2 weeks 21 – 29

Candles: years ago John bought some large “church” candles from a small shop in Loughborough, and stored them in his workshop here. Two of them provided our sole lighting in the farmhouse in December 1999, when the “tempest” brought down all the power lines for miles around. And on Saturday 8th November we lit another on the night John’s mother died. She had been quietly courageous for over ten years as she endured the spread of cancer. But after the death of John’s father eighteen months ago, she was ready to join him. Sunday, 9th November would have been his birthday. It was also Remembrance Sunday. We were so glad that we’d last seen her only a couple of weeks earlier when we visited in October. The scented candle flame burned steadily for several days until we set put for England for her funeral.

As we often remark, when you walk through the hills and forests around the farmhouse, you come across frequent unexpected reminders of the conflicts which have ravaged this tiny corner of Europe. On Remembrance Sunday we drove along a small road we had never explored; the map showed it winding up the hillside above the small village of Lusse, then stopping at the grazing pastures on top of the high ridge overlooking Alsace. A perfect place to catch the last of the autumn forest colours. We drove through Lusse, through the last hamlet of Trois Masons (which has a tiny chapel, more than three houses, and a garden with mechanical water-driven fantasy contraptions) and past the huntsmen in trilby hats (taking liquid refreshment at their hunters’ hut, Sunday being a permitted hunting day). We parked at the top where the road ran out. Shafts of sunlight lit up the autumn leaves and forest tracks. A small notice on a tree identified the spot as “Gare Lussehof, 820m”. We wished that we had our large dictionary with us to find a secondary meaning for “gare”, as this seemed too deserted and inaccessible a spot for a railway station. An equally small notice high up on another tree shed some light, labelling Le Tacot, where a certain M. Jean Joseph had discovered traces of the Lordonbahn narrow gauge line which ran, during the 1914-1918 war, between Villé and Wissembach to supply the German troops. A third tree was labelled “Terminus téléphérique “Eberhardtbahn” venant du Petit Rombach”. The internet has so far provided pictures of Lordonbahn locomotives, but I would like to find someold photos of the cable car from Petit Rombach. It is hard to visualise the substantial engineering projects to put in place for defences on the mountainous eastern border between France and Germany. Continue reading

Year 2, weeks 17 – 20 Fête Champêtre: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

“Of course,” observed my neighbour to our left rather patronisingly, “you would only find this in the countryside”. “This” was an awning beneath the trees with a huge trestle table littered with the remains of crudités, barbecued sausages, pork chops, and empty wine bottles. On wooden benches round it, gesticulating with their plastic forks or shouting for more mustard or bread, the pensioners of Sainte Marguerite were putting the world to rights, and speculating as to where the approaching huge black cloud would release its rain. In the background was a shady fishing pool inherited by one of organisers of the Thursday gym, scrabble and other social events. The lunch started with a bracing (wine, port, rum, and fruit juice) punch (!) around mid day and was drawing to a conclusion by 4.30 when we left. It was designed as a bucolic “prolongation” of the long summer holidays, before the start this week of the winter programme of activities. However, so successful is that village’s programme of activities, that surrounding villagers (like ourselves) participate, as do some elegant “ladies who dine” from St Dié. These ladies are distinguishable at gym session by their shiny leotards (as opposed to our leggings) and at table by their linen jackets and heavy jewellery (whereas fleeces and tracksuits were the village attire).

The conversation round the table got louder and more animated as the meal progressed. After huge slabs of brie, generous portions of charlotte, and black coffee in plastic cups, various odd bottles of home-distilled concoctions were passed around the men – John sampled a plum eau-de-vie. Then an accordion was produced and the singing and dancing started – and even conga chain. One of the St Dié ladies whispered disdainful comments to her friends after being pressed to dance by a flushed villager. It was whilst those at table linked arms and sang lustily, swaying in unison from side to side, that our bench collapsed. Despite my undignified descent with it, I was delighted to see my patronising neighbour on her back waving her legs in the air. Of course it could only happen in the countryside! Continue reading

Le Canicule: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 2, weeks 11 – 16

Most of our recently acquired French vocabulary seems to come from DIY emporia (John) and Scrabble sessions (Helen). However “canicule” has come from bitter experience! For anyone who fears that we might have dropped them off our mailing list, or for those who anticipate that we have been off exploring exciting, remote areas, we should explain that our silence has more mundane roots. The first two weeks of August were too scorchingly hot to contemplate any action, and so there was no news. All communication was reduced to the one liner: “nothing to report apart from temperatures of 40 degrees”.

Do not think that we were just being feeble. And yes, we know that you were experiencing record temperatures in the UK, so were suffering too. But you have to add the effects of those first two weeks in August here to those of the preceding two months. Water supplies were already alarmingly low in Entre-deux-Eaux in early June, when the mayor banned watering, filling swimming pools, and washing cars. During July Farmer Duhaut was having to take pumped stream water and supplementary feed to the cows in the fields as the grass was too dry to be nourishing. On the plains of Alsace, the trees were already looking scorched and starting to shed their leaves (in an attempt, an informed friend pointed out, to conserve water). The last forest walk that was bearable was to the attractively named Hunters’ Fountain in the midst of the forest. Sadly the fountain was just dry mud. Continue reading

Year 2 Weeks 6 to 10 Drought, destruction, and liberty: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

As I start this newsletter, thunder is rolling round the valley. I am torn between longing for rain now for the parched fields and gardens, and hoping that the storm will pass before John’s Ryanair flight back from Stansted tonight (following a short pre-birthday visit to his mother).

The mayor had just delivered his ban on using the commune’s rapidly dwindling water supply for gardens, cars, and swimming pools when we last wrote. So since then the value of the old ways has been fully demonstrated. Most of the old farmhouses still have their alternatives to tap water. We, for example, have two underground tanks beneath the first and third barns, filled from the roof down-pipes, which would have been used for the animals. Other old houses have stone troughs alongside the road filled from underground sources (even before the drought one old lady regularly filled her buckets and did her washing at her trough). Monsieur Laine in his more modern house has in the past weeks enlarged his water hole filled by a muddy hillside stream, and now pumps water from it for their garden and animals. So our evening ritual now includes pumping water from one of our underground cisterns into buckets and cans to water the vegetables as the sun sets. All visitors, including my 92-year old mother, have been roped in to help at various times.

Leisure activities in the Vosges department have also been affected. At the beginning of July a departmental edict prohibited fishing and swimming in three-quarters of the rivers and streams of the Vosges (salmon streams). Oddly enough canoeing and kayaking is not affected. Nor is economic and agricultural activity. The huge wood-yard piles of tree trunks, which fell or were felled following the tempest of December 1999, continue to be sprayed night and day by water jets, being kept damp and awaiting sawmill capacity. And watering of the corn fields is still permitted, as is fishing and bathing in the glacial lakes and reservoirs. Continue reading

Year 2 Weeks 3 to 5 The sacred, the school-house, and the staircase: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

It isn’t just the occasional strikes (teachers and public servants) and the holiday-makers (Dutch caravans are on the move in the sunshine) which currently make the villages and towns seem full of idle people. It’s also the great public holidays of Ascension Day and Pentecost which have added to the bustle and festivity.

Ascension Day, a Thursday, hummed with the sound of the baler on the huge field immediately to the north of us and another to the south of the road in to Entre Deux Eaux. Farmer Dominique Duhaut and his farming partner Olivier had cut their hay a few days earlier, and our neighbour Pierre Laine had been roped in to help them turn it daily. But with storms forecast for the day after Ascension Day, it was all hands to the tractors to bale the hay and encase it in plastic (white this year, followed, when the white ran out, by a tasteful shade of pale green). However, they and the patisserie shops were the only people working flat out on this public holiday. In Nottingham it was tough luck if your rubbish collection day fell on a public holiday. So on Ascension Day we weren’t quite sure when our bins (including that of our departed visitors) would eventually be emptied. Our plastic bags used to be collected by the commune employee on his tractor and trailer, but we now have a commercial firm, who prefer real dustbins (on a canoeing trip a few years ago John and Alistair fished our wheelie bin out of a Staffordshire canal, cleaned off the slime, and we used it as a large suitcase in our next car trip out here!). I was amazed when I looked out of the bathroom window at 11.20 p.m. the following evening to realise that the noise I’d heard was created by the dustmen. They waved cheerfully. (I now have my answer to John’s question “But why do you want a bathroom blind – who can possibly see in apart from the cows in the field?”.) Continue reading

Year 2 Weeks 1 and 2 Strikes and Beer festivals: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

Last week we returned from two weeks in the UK. It was on the same date as we made the Great Move just a year ago. We’d got up and left Broadstairs early with the intention of catching the 7.45a.m. boat and were feeling slightly odd about this, until we turned on the car radio for the 7 a.m. news. This provided us with more serious grounds for unease. We were by then only fifteen minutes from Dover Harbour. The newscaster reported that another French strike over proposed pension changes meant that Calais Harbour was closed until that afternoon (as were French airports). Whilst I had some sympathy with the workers, this was rather a blow, as we needed to be back in Entre-deux-Eaux within 24 hours for those other French workers – the kitchen installers.

We continued the journey to Dover harbour. The sun was shining, the lambs were frolicking on the North Downs, Dover castle looked magnificent against the blue sea – and the lorries were filling up the available quayside waiting lanes. Not many cars in sight, though. Our hearts sank. At the P &O booth, the nice attendant got our booking on screen, smiled and said “Oh. You’ll be alright, I’ll arrange a voucher for you for the Channel Tunnel. Just return to the travel centre and collect it on your way out”. Amazing! Was this the reward for frequent travellers or for being stockholders (even more bemused as we’d only actually paid £7 for our open-dated return trip, having used up our accumulated motor points – which, in itself was something which has not, for quite a few years, been possible for stockholder rather than full brochure fares) ? We were off like a shot, after passing Go and collecting our voucher, we drove along the cliff top towards Folkestone, and were driving onto a train which edged into the tunnel only 45 minutes after our ferry would have left. It was all very efficient and peaceful. Who remembers the more aggressive strikes with farmers and tractors blockading Calais? (And were those firms with defrosting refrigerated lorries ever finally compensated?) Continue reading