Hair rollers, herrings and spindles: the passing of our fourth winter in Entre-deux Eaux: Year 4 weeks 44 – 52

St Joseph’s day came and went on 19th March without the winter snow responding to the old adage by vanishing. However this first week in May (which marks the end of our fourth year living in Entre-deux-Eaux) has also provided two rather more reliable indicators that the long winter is finally over. Firstly, Farmer Duhaut’s cows are out grazing. Secondly, this weekend the Gérardmer heavy equipment team are out clearing the Route des Crêtes, along the ridge of the Vosges mountains.

As far as the first indicator is concerned, it is the cows of Farmer Duhaut not those of Farmer Vozelle that you have to observe. Like most of the farmers locally, Duhaut watches the weather forecasts and plans systematically. As the snow in our valley melted, he and his partner Olivier were out spraying muck over all his pastures. Then when rain was forecast they were out spreading fertilizer, which would need to be watered in. However even his best friends could not call Farmer Vozelle systematic. We have long been amused by the sight of the Vozelle cows going out in the summer heat to graze at midday and returning just before midnight by the light of the tractor headlights. It was not so funny seeing the poor beasts out in the field behind their stable in this winter’s thick snow, with not a blade of grass in sight. One April night at 11 pm, after a good meal out, we were returning along the road past his farm. Fortunately we were driving slowly, as his chickens are often out on the road (free range!). So we spotted the blue string tied tautly across the road between his farmhouse and stable. Beyond the blue string, cows loomed out of the dark field, plodding back to their shed for midnight. Behind them, flourishing a big stick strode dumpy Mme Vozelle. She was wearing a long dressing gown and her hair was pulled tight into enormous rollers. It was like encountering Ena Sharples in a French country lane. Continue reading

Cabbages and cardboard, anarchists and kings; everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux year 4 weeks 32 – 43

The wine route on the other side the mountains in Alsace is always picturesque. Even in last week’s cold dampness, the rows of black stumps criss-crossing the slopes formed stark but attractive patterns broken by drifts of pale smoke from bonfires of pruned twigs. The February austerity held the promise of summer’s pale grape globes and autumn’s golden leaves. And not a tourist in sight!

We were making our way to a restaurant in the mediaeval walled village of Riquewihr. One of the many prosperous wine producing villages. We walked down its cobbled main street, looking for the evocatively named street of the seigneurial stables and the Grappe d’Or. Many restaurants are closed in February; this one was re-opening that lunch-time. We felt as if we’d intruded on a family setting. The chef’s baby was temporarily propped up on the bar; kitchen-hands were getting changed in the toilets; and the waitress had no record of our booking. However, there were plenty of tables free, and we were soon celebrating Roger’s birthday with Cremant d’Alsace (the Alsace sparkling wine) and perusing the menu.

The traditional Alsace food is hearty, doubtless to nourish the gnarled vineyard labourers. Platters heaped with cabbage and sausage, mounds of potatoes and salted pork. It’s curious that there are also many Michelin-starred restaurants in Alsace serving dainty portions of tastefully arranged food. However the Grappe d’Or was definitely a traditional restaurant (décor old beams, red tablecloths and vinicultural implements) and John chose choucroute for his main course (he said he always to have it once a year). Continue reading

The smugglers, the geographers and St Nicholas: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 4, weeks 21 – 31

You’re probably all too busy with Christmas preparations to want to wade through the latest (much delayed) ramblings from Entre-deux-Eaux, so just save it for the bleak, wet days of January or even February, and in the meantime accept our very best wishes for a very happy Christmas!Here’s just a flavour of December over here: the weekends are filled with Christmas Markets, and the best ones are over in Alsace. So last Saturday, getting into the Christmas spirit, we crossed the snow capped Vosges to Barr. Its lower streets were overflowing with the colourful weekly vegetable and fruit market. We walked uphill past small shops selling bread, jewellery, garden implements, wine, houses and clothes. Outside the Town Hall we paused at a little wooden cabin and sniffed. Mulled wine. Not your coarse red wine with assorted bits of fruit floating disconsolately, but light, white, honeyed wine with thick slices of oranges wedged into the bottom of the cup! Swigging appreciatively, we plunged into the colourful hall, with its silk printed scarves, wooden dolls, home made soap, carved animals, sumptuous felt hats (round which elegant bird-like women were swooping, posing and preening in front of glittering mirrors), white and gold candles, flower paintings and displays of breads of all shapes and sizes. Slightly tipsy we emerged into the cold air clutching a large carved wooden duck. We’d started our Christmas shopping!

Last time we wrote, the summer weekend flea-markets and the summer weekday walks were drawing to an end, the winter lectures were about to start, but a long gap loomed before communal weekend activities like Christmas Markets. The very last flea-market we headed for, Uffheim, was a distant one, not far from the German and Swiss borders. And unfortunately it turned out to have been mis-advertised, being an antiques market, so way out of our price range. However, there was a small sign pointing towards a nearby Maginot Line blockhouse. It was a tiny pre-war defensive fortification, lovingly restored in recent years. It was, like many sites, closed for winter, but from on top of it the Black Forest and its blue mountains seemed very close and we savoured our unexpected non-flea-market discovery. Continue reading

The passing of summer: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux Year 4 Weeks 7 – 20

The first overnight frosts. A reminder that summer is passing, unrecorded.

Fleeting images of the vanishing summer: guidebooks on the bench beneath the apple tree; a burgundy brocade jacket; an alien stinkhorn; young mourners in black; chandeliers over a ghostly banquet; silent headstones in Hindi; jars of peach jam; the stack of apple-wood.

Yesterday was a day of nostalgia too. The last Friday summer walk of the Club Vosgien. The farewell handshakes and kisses were regretful. The companionship of summer was dissolving. Fridays this year had been particularly prone to rain. Macs and umbrellas had been much in evidence. (Yes, umbrellas. It’s perfectly respectable for serious walkers here to carry an umbrella. A silhouette of walkers on a rock on rainy day would look very Japanese – the cape macs and umbrellas shading into robes and parasols). The oldest walker, Auguste, had decided that, with his 90th birthday approaching, his days of toiling uphill were over, but most Fridays he would lurk near the car-park to greet us wistfully on our return. But the president of the group was back in action, after months of uncertainty after a heavy beam had fallen on his head. Each week he addressed the group, in a slow and careful voice, saying how pleased he was to be once more in our company. And each week the applause was warm and affectionate. Continue reading

The curious case of the fallen apple tree: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 3 week 49 to Year 4 week 6

In a charity shop in Nottingham I found a guide book to the museums of Paris. After that, nothing would satisfy me, but to spend my birthday in the museums of Paris. In all our years of visiting and living in France, John and I had never made a joint trip to Paris. So we booked a charming sounding hotel in the Gobelins area, closed our blue shutters and drove off in early May across the rolling plains to Paris. We had a wonderful time looking at mediaeval art, Egyptian and Assyrian splendours, Impressionists in the railway station and Christofle silverware in the canal-side factory. Evenings in restaurants ranged from Georgian to Japanese. And our last morning concluded at the opening of an exhibition about the Jews of the Marais area and then with vegetarian fallafel wraps at a vibrant Israeli café.

Replete, we drove back across the rolling plains. The first sight of the blue mountains of the Vosges in the distance always tugs at my heart and makes me happy to be returning home. We drove into Entre-deux-Eaux, stopping at Danielle and Pierre Laine’s to collect our post. Unusually, they had no news of village life during our absence. On our windowsill we found a birthday Oleander from Nicola. Beyond the house, fragments of wood littered the road, and on the verge lay the shattered remains of our largest apple tree. Continue reading