War, Politics, Stoats and Biscuits: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 5 Week 49 – Year 6 Week 6

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While Sarko and Sego were busy fighting it out for the hearts, souls and votes of the French nation, one of the local history groups had an earlier battle in mind, that of Frapelle in 1918. Some of you encountered Frapelle during John’s birthday festivities as the Sainte Claire walk and quiz started and finished there and one of the questions asked what vestiges of World War 1 you could spot. (The answer was: farmhouse ruins, trenches, shell holes). The local historians’ April lecture intriguingly included Americans and chemical warfare as well as Frapelle in its title.

It is hard to recall an era in which our American friends were innocent about chemical warfare. But the lecturer revealed that all that the American 5th Division, the Red Diamond, knew about chemical warfare after their training in Texas came from a six day course on gas for officers, followed by a 40 minute lecture to their troops. So they came to the Vosges, Anould sector, to learn the practicalities of attack and decontamination alongside the hardened and exhausted French troops. After that, their first solo engagement was at Frapelle. The lecturer’s assessment (French) was that they gained a little ground, but the villages were destroyed. The official history (American) of the 5th Division claims, more grandly, that it was “the diamond that cut into the battle line of the Vosges in August, 1918, and by the capture of the village of Frapelle made the only indentation suffered by the Germans in their southern sectors in three years of trench warfare.” The main gas casualties were not in Frapelle itself but in the deep ravines of no-man’s land, which formed the only communication lines and where the mustard gas lingered.

The day after the lecture, we got caught up in the presidential battle. It was a gloriously sunny Sunday and everyone was hyped up by the debate and heading down to the local marie to register their vote in the first round of the presidential election. So villages which had chosen that day for their village flea market had a traffic control problem. The first village we went to was a small picturesque Lorraine village perched on a hilltop. The cars bearing the elderly voters had to be allowed up the hill to the door of the marie, and the main square kept clear for their parking. So the stalls were in the small side-streets, and the tourists parked under the elegant row of horse chestnuts at the foot of the hill and strolled up admiring the steep colourful gardens. At the end of the day it was announced that both Sarko and Sego were through to the next round, despite Entre-deux-Eaux marginally preferring Sarkozy and Le Pen and Mandray’s favourite being Le Pen, followed by Sarkozy. Interestingly, our flea-market hill-top village had gone, more liberally, for Sarkozy and Bayrou.

The following Sunday was the day of the Gérardmer Daffodil Festival. Unfortunately, due to the mild winter and an early heat-wave, the daffodils had flowered in the high pastures around Gérardmer well before their usual date. The floats would be struggling to cover themselves in golden blooms. So we ignored the festival and went off to the annual lard fair and flea market at St Rémy, which is more picturesque than it sounds. Cows make honeyWe did very well on purchases there, and John was also much taken by a group of cows recumbent in front of beehives, looking smugly like honey-makers. Driving home beneath lowering skies, our car radio, broadcasting from the Gérardmer Festival, announced that in the event of transmission being disrupted by the approaching storm, music would be played. The heavens opened just as we reached home. The Gérardmer procession, low on daffodils, must have been a battered and bedraggled affair.

By the time Leila came to stay in May, we were doing well on our flea-market purchases. John’s prize purchase so far had been a silver-plated device for sweeping the crumbs off table cloths between courses (a major preoccupation in some restaurants, which had fascinated Viv on a visit). So when he spotted a slightly mangy crumb-sweeper in a cardboard box of oddments in a picturesque market beneath the shady churchyard trees he couldn’t resist bargaining for it on Viv’s behalf. With Leila we set off confidently for two flea markets in the plains of Alsace. The Alsace markets are much larger than our Lorraine ones, attracting dealers from over the Rhine in Germany. The first one was no exception. It was huge and very hot. The stalls started just by the marie. And unfortunately it was also the day of the second round of presidential voting. The roads leading to the marie were packed with crawling, hooting cars containing frustrated voters trying to edge through the throngs of acquisitive visitors. By the second village, most people seemed to have voted already. In the food and beer tent one unsteady gentleman in a crumpled striped linen jacket was eyeing up and chatting up all the attractive young women. He’d clearly been celebrating his participation in the democratic process since early morning. It may have been the heat, or maybe the sheer size of the markets, but after a while all the stalls began to look the same, and we left, exhausted, with nothing. Later that evening Sarkozy’s victory was announced. I wonder if that occasioned further celebration by the crumple-jacketed man.

It was also while Leila was with us that I started to notice a stain on the ceiling over my side of our bed and heard strange noises. And before travelling back to Nottingham with Leila, I was complaining about an unpleasant smell in the bedroom. So John was on his own by the time the smell got overwhelming and he was forced to cut a square out of the ceiling. I won’t go into the intricacies of our roof slope and inaccessible cavities. Sufficient to say that he discovered that a large black bird had somehow got trapped in a cavity and died above our bed, decomposition being aided by the hot weather and maggots. From a safe distance I felt very sorry for John, and followed his progress in disinfecting, filling, plastering and painting over the hole. But by the time I got back, there was a fresh damp patch on the new paintwork and a different unpleasant smell. So the ceiling was carved open again and sizeable cat-like droppings discovered. After considerable research and consultation John decided that we had a resident stoat or marten. So we started to consider our own chemical warfare.

Stoats are a protected species here, unless in specific instances they have been labelled a public nuisance. The website advice was to check at the mairie. However, on the principle that one of the mayor’s deputies, being a farmer, might feel less constrained by the letter of the law, we consulted Farmer Duhaut when he was passing on his tractor. He offered, providing we didn’t tell anyone, especially not the mayor, to put poison in a couple of their hens’ eggs (to which stoats are very partial). We should place the eggs by the entry hole under the eaves, well out of reach of any other animal. He swore that the poison was so effective that the stoat would be dead within 4 metres. However, the prospect of a second inaccessible decaying body was not appealing. So John went hunting for old-fashioned mothballs containing naphthalene. It has to be said that the smell of Jeyes fluid (sprayed into the cavity and on the outside walls) and mothballs was very pleasant after that of urine, faeces and decay. It remains to be seen how long-term a deterrent it is. There was also a series of small earthquakes while I was away, but they caused less disruption or damage than the stoat.

Outside in the garden, life was proceeding more smoothly. John had finally purchased a sit-on mower, which arrived round about the time he also realised he was suffering from hay fever. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “smoothly”, as it turned out to be very bumpy riding the bucking mower over our fields. He also got the rotavator working again, which was a great boon in preparing the vegetable patch this year. Nevertheless, everyone else had neat rows of seedlings sprouting in their potagers before I finished sowing ours. Given that we’re planning to be away (UK and a Greek island) during the key watering and harvesting time in July and August, we’ve concentrated on more winter vegetables like leeks, carrots, parsnip, beetroot, celeriac, chard, leaf beat, fennel, and Brussels sprouts with an exception for sweetcorn, salad and okra. Our futile chemical warfare against Colorado beetles last summer made potatoes an unattractive option for this year. I realised how much I dislike wildlife in the garden, rather than at a civilised distance from the house, when a mole began its earth-workings in the strawberry bed, a small tunnel opened up under the Brussels sprouts and a grass snake slithered out of the compost heap. Now why doesn’t the stoat eat all of them?

Meanwhile, back on the political front, the election of deputés for the National Assembly was hotting up. We had been a bit disconcerted to receive an invitation to meet the ambitious mayor of Saint-Dié, as he has no jurisdiction over the peasants of Entre-deux-Eaux. But then we realised that he was standing as our deputé. He was due in Mandray about 15 minutes before he was due in Entre-deux-Eaux, so was clearly on a whistle-stop campaign tour. At that speed he couldn’t be expecting direct speech with too many people at either venue. Anyway, as we gardened we were not aware of a either a mayoral cavalcade or a rush of cars heading to meet him that afternoon.

Was it sheer coincidence that the long-heralded TGV was due to make its first high-speed journey to Saint-Dié during the election campaign? Both the existing deputé and the hopeful mayor were of course claiming credit for the faster connections to Paris and the rest of the world. A weekend of processions, bands and dancing was planned for Saint-Dié. We couldn’t hear the band when we went into town at the advertised time. Maybe the wind had wafted away the strains. There turned out to be only four musicians in tropical safari kit strolling round rather half-heartedly in the drizzle with three girls in red with red balloons and leaflets. So uninterested was the general public, that no one was following the band and John had the greatest difficulty persuading one of the scarlet girls that he would indeed like a leaflet. The fares seem very high and the frequency much reduced from the original proposals.

You might think from our web-site photos that we have done nothing since our last newsletter but dine out. At the risk of confirming this impression (and with the accompanying plea that Roger and Dorinda lead us astray when they are here) I must just mention the our trip to the Ducs de Lorraine at Epinal. Epinal has never been one of our favourite towns. The administrative and shopping centre has been extensively rebuilt post-war, and our visits have largely taken us to modern museums and modern departmental administrative blocks. So it was a pleasure to park on the tree-lined river bank and walk through the ornamental railings towards an elegant mansion from the belle époque. We swept up the stone staircase and into a dark panelled hallway, off which opened a large airy room, with lemon coloured walls, long windows and dripping chandeliers. Its tables were crisp with linen cloths and bristling with cutlery and glasses. A traditional French restaurant, complete with waiters in waistcoats and striped trousers. Badly done, these stage-effects can be off-putting and snobbish, but there was a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, and Roger and Dorinda were already ensconced outside under the awning of the more informal terrace. Our amuses bouches, starters and main course were beautifully prepared (though we were sorry not to get the flaming crème brulée amuse bouche which was presented with drama to a neighbouring table). For some time Roger had been lamenting the demise of the opulent cheese board, even in “good” but trendy restaurants. Therefore great was his joy when a laden cheese trolley appeared. But even that was eclipsed by the desert trolley; choice was not a problem as one could mix and match discreetly, a few cherries, melon, peaches, strawberries, white chocolate and nut gateau, peach tart, rhubarb tart, crème anglais … and then, unbeknown to us, some, like the skewers of fresh fruits and the tarte tatin, were whisked away to be grilled or reheated and garnished with fresh fruit and sorbet … so after cold and a hot desserts we needed a leisurely coffee in order to recover.

Before Roger and Dorinda left Mandray for their parallel lives in the UK, we had a sunny day of flea marketing together in small Lorraine villages. The highlights were Roger’s lengthy discussion with an amateur rabbit breeder in a village with a pretty Romanesque church; the old glass-making village with its restored water mill wheel, its fanfare of French horns by the old factory gates, and its glass-shop among the ruins of the old factory; Indian soldier’s grave Charmesa brief stop to photograph the Indian war graves in a tiny British military cemetery; and finally my purchase of a biscuit box in Housseras. Now I’m not the kind of person who feels that life is incomplete without a biscuit box, but somehow this wooden box just drew me to bargain for it, without knowing how I would use it. “A box in the barn for all your seeds?” suggested Dorinda.

This magical box is very basic plain orange-box type wood, about 13 x 9 x 10 inches (you can calculate for yourselves how many biscuits it would hold, choosing your preferred size of biscuit). On its lid is printed in dark brown ink an elaborate picture of a shop in Reims, complete with diamond paned windows, steep gabled roof, displays of biscuits and the words Biscuits Ch Tarpin, massepains, pain d’épices, médaille d’or l’exposition universelle 1900. The lid also has a hand-written label showing it being sent via Saint-Dié railway station to a gentleman who lived on the same Saint-Dié street as our doctor, where the houses are prosperous neo-Renaissance and Art nouveau villas. Cobwebs and ingrained dust cleaned off, the biscuit box now resides in our bathroom. It’s a good size for storing those bulky packets of spare toilet rolls and bars of soap (should you ever need to find them).

Our purchases from the Entre-deux-Eaux flea market the following week were even more successful. Although it was the day for the second round in the elections for National Assembly deputés, there was no traffic problem here, apart from one sign which was at an odd angle and appeared to point down our road. While voting was at the mairie in the centre of the village, the firemen had the flea market parking efficiently organised opposite the football pitch a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of the commune. As the morning temperatures turned from hot to blazingly hot, we looked at quite a few things, but didn’t buy. After a coffee back home we drove over to the tiny village of Fremifontaine where John bought an old Ultrafex camera to add to his collection and we had this year’s best chips served in copious quantities. In the late afternoon, as I watched Federer and Nadal battle it out in the finals of the French Open, John returned to the football pitch and got two further old cameras and a cast iron Le Creuset “thing” which has become the object of correspondence and speculation. Someone sent mouth-watering pictures of food being cooked on a Korean reverse wok and finally Le Creuset confirmed that it was a chaudière and promised a recipe book.

The next day it was apparent that Entre-deux Eaux was almost persuaded by the eloquence of the mayor of Saint-Dié. 49.75% of our voters supported him (101 votes) against 50.25% of votes for the existing deputé (102 votes) (there were 175 abstentions/blank votes!). Across the district, the existing candidate won by 54.99%, a slightly larger majority.

Cafe l’Epicerie StrasbourgAnd finally, a soothing photo of a charming and cool café, L’Epicerie, in Strasbourg where we sank down for a welcome drink at the end of a sweltering day a couple of days ago. We have had several trips recently to Strasbourg, after I had a malignant melanoma on my arm removed, followed by tests and surgery to remove further tissue and to do a skin graft. It was interesting to explore the old hospital quarter afterwards as well as the more touristy streets. And this café was the treat at the end! The storm clouds gathered as we drove back towards the Vosges, and the thunder has been grumbling and the rain falling ever since. That should encourage the vegetable seedlings to grow as big as those of everyone else!

I couldn’t resist a post-script: This morning we were wandering round the hospital quarter of Strasbourg yet again, admiring the old buildings, like the Pavillon Leriche with its verandas, on which you could imagine the wounded heroes of World War 1 patiently lying in the sunshine. In places you could still see fading lettering in German. Being a Saturday it was pretty deserted. Then we came to an elegant gabled eighteenth century building from the cellars of which a man was carrying cartons of wine. Intrigued, we went down the steps to the heart of the hospital’s wealth. Hospice de StrasbourgFor these cool vaulted cellars date from 1395, from the days when people would often pay their hospice bills by giving tracts of land (usually vineyards), or on their death bequeath land. One of the long rows of antique oak barrels even contains wine from1472, a legendary vintage, which is still maturing! John was allowed a sniff and said it smelt very sweet, almost like sherry! At the far end is a door through which the bodies from executions were secretly brought in to the dissecting rooms. When the original hospice burned down the cellars remained intact. The wines of many renowned Alsace growers are now sold from there under a special label with 1395 Cave historique Hospices Strasbourg above the type, year and producer. The first bottles we saw were from Bruno Hertz, in whose Eguisheim cellars we tasted our first Gewürztraminer thirty years ago. This self-effacing man is now president of the group! Some of the profits purchase hospital equipment like a colour ultrasound machine for the maternity unit. So if you fancy a wine with a difference, place your orders now – but the 1472 is not yet available! Doesn’t it just give depth of meaning to the toast Santé!

Saints and Easter Bunnies: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 5 weeks 44 – 48

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It being Easter, I feel we should start with a rather strange tale of moral virtue. Today, Easter Monday, we stopped the car in the middle of an unknown forest, to follow on foot a signpost which pointed down a dirt track to St Alexis. Woefully ignorant of my saints, I later looked him up. He lived in the 5th century, ran away from his new wife on his wedding day, lived an abstemious life as a beggar and man of God for many years, including seventeen years living under the staircase at his parents’ palace (they no longer recognised him), praying and teaching the catechism to small children. Should you wish to identify him in church paintings, he is often depicted as a man holding a ladder or a man lying beneath a staircase.

We were on our way home from a flea market in Beblenheim, and trying a new route. On the map I’d noticed a little white forestry road which wound up the mountains behind Riquewihr and along it, in the middle of nowhere, a chapel of St Alexis. Hence our stop. As we got out, John remarked that the sign to St Alexis actually had in smaller letters underneath, the word restaurant.

So chapel or restaurant? We walked 300 metres down the dirt track, till the forest opened into a clearing with densely parked cars, a baroque chapel and a picturesque old farmhouse. There was also a strong smell of choucroute garnie, the popular Alsace pickled cabbage, smoked pork and sausage dish. The chapel of St Alexis was firmly closed, but from the terrace of the farmhouse came the happy buzz of conversation and the clinking of glasses and cutlery. It was a gloriously sunny day and the French were out celebrating Easter Monday in style. The tables outdoors were crammed with diners, and there were probably as many squeezed into various dark rooms inside. Set menus revolved around sturdy Alsace specialities of potage, choucroute, potatoes, ham omelettes, game, smoked ham and fruit tarts. It was a delightful scene to come across in the middle of a forest: a church and a popular ferme-auberge. Shame we didn’t get to see the baroque altar showing the death of St Alexis (apparently he died clutching a piece of paper revealing his true identity).

We’d had our first reminders of Easter a month earlier (just before I returned to Nottingham for a couple of weeks). Dorinda had often mentioned a favourite salon de thé in Villé with good hot chocolate and patisseries. Villé is not one of the quaint vineyard villages. It is situated on the old salt route from Lorraine to Alsace, and suffered the usual fate of Alsace villages (sacking by the alcoholic-sounding Armagnacs, pillaging, plague and famine) during the Middle Ages. The historic highlights of our stroll round the vestiges of the ramparts were the old abattoir and the prison.

The salon de thé was one of the larger and most prosperous-looking shops in the town. It was doing a steady trade in bread and chocolate Easter hares. Ville Easter bunniesTwo very colourful ladies, in floating pink, gold, black and turquoise garments, were serving more slowly than we expected, until, close-up it was obvious that these ethereal creatures must be in their eighties. John nearly swept the crumbs and debris off our table, until he realised that the heap of broken egg shells were an artistic Easter decoration. There was also a leaflet explaining the origin of the secret recipe for their traditional biscuits, which had been handed down generations of master-bakers after a pilgrim en route to Compostella (via the salt route) had given it to them in grateful thanks for his rescue and shelter one night. One of the colourful ladies gave more orders to a youthful baker for replacements for the rather ugly, lumpy chocolate lambs and hares which had just been sold, then proceeded to tie scarlet bows round the necks of the next Easter victims. She explained that in Alsace the Easter eggs are not laid by hens but brought for the children by the Easter hare. She also revealed that their papa had bought the bakery (and the secret biscuit recipe?) back in the thirties.

A few minutes before mid-day, a steady flow of single elderly ladies and gentlemen passed our table and headed through a doorway for their Saturday lunch in the restaurant in the next room. It was a versatile place. Their elderly hostesses, now transformed into waitresses, must have been exhausted by the end of the day. We left (without a lumpy chocolate bunny) to try to find, further up the valley, traces of the old single track goods line which the Germans had installed during the first world war to supply their troops up on the mountain ridge which at that time formed the border between France and Germany. We parked where the old station must have stood, and walked between high banks which would once have been tunnel walls and followed the course of the old track for a kilometre. (We had just bought, at the annual Amnesty book fair in St Die, a couple of old walking magazines from the nineteen-eighties with an interesting article and diagrams concerning the tacot and the traces of the old line).

Having explored that section, we drove further along the old salt route to the intriguingly named Chapelle de la Jambe de fer. Below the tiny chapel the Germans had quarried and crushed stone for ballast and trenches and had made another railway station for loading and transporting the stones. Before the chapel was built in 1840, there had been for a century a statue of the virgin, which a grateful shepherd had placed in a pine tree after he miraculously found his lost sheep. Inhabitants from both sides of the Vosges used to come from far and wide for the annual Pentecost pilgrimages. They would come pushing handicapped people, and would leave behind walking sticks, crutches and wooden legs in gratitude for healing. The inhabitants of the nearest village even arranged for a harmonium to be dragged up the slopes by two oxen to accompany the worship and torchlight evening procession. But these scraps of information still don’t completely explain the Virgin’s strange name, Notre Dame de la Jambe de fer.

Shortly after our exploration of the Villé valley, we had another encounter with Easter egg-shells. Roger and Dorinda had returned for a few weeks to their house in the next village of Mandray, and we planned a few restaurant trips with them. Because, as you will have gathered, we like the Frankenbourg in La Vancelle, we have always ignored the Elisabeth further up the road. But we decided that the time had come to try it. We walked through their rather dark bar, and were surprised when it opened up into a light and airy restaurant at the back. I won’t go into details of the food, as John now gives a full account (with tantalising photos) on the website. Suffice it to mention that the chef (who has only been running the restaurant for two years, after retiring from business and retraining) had prepared a little something in egg shells with which to greet his customers as they perused their menus. We don’t know if it was the very undercooked egg or the slowly cooked salmon and haddock that upset John’s stomach for a few days afterwards.

We haven’t been back since. Straw bunny at Sainte Marie aux MinesBut while I was away, John, Roger and Dorinda returned to the Frankenbourg for a reassuringly good meal. As well as the restaurant photos, the event is also commemorated by a photo of Dorinda standing in Ste Marie aux Mines with a straw rabbit towering above her. Apparently they were looking for garden leaflets at the tourist office when they encountered this alarming Easter decoration.

Our latest restaurant trip was a farewell lunch with Roger and Dorinda at the Blanche Neige on Good Friday. Those of you who dined there on John’s birthday, can imagine us first sipping our aperitifs outside in the Easter sunshine. Once inside, we ate our way through the menu in a leisurely fashion. Then after the main course and to soften us up for the dessert, the egg shells arrived! BN marzipan bunniesHowever, unlike the Elizabeth’s under-cooked offering, these contained a delicious white chocolate mousse with a vivid orange mango coulis in the centre. The perfect Easter eggs. We had our coffees outside on the terrace. On the accompanying bonbons trays we found four endearing marzipan Easter bunnies.

We thought we’d seen the last of our Easter bunnies on Easter Sunday at Plainfang’s 35th Foire aux lapins. This annual event always causes traffic to slow down on the main road from here to the Col de Bonhomme. So we approached it on the back roads. I had forgotten quite how may other things were to be found at the Rabbit Fair. We first encountered the mattress display. Then there were two attractive stalls of hand-woven baskets of all shapes and sizes to hold anything from logs to apples or baguettes. The longest stall held Vosgian bergamot boiled sweets (who buys them all?). A Disney roundabout outside the church would have drowned any music from within, while, to get to the lunch time meal of baekeoffe (a traditional Alsace meat stew) in the town hall, you had to skirt the crashing dodgems. Plainfang bunnyWe could also have bought children’s baseball caps, red plastic sexy underwear, or goats’ cheese. Finally, we came to the cages of rabbits looking for new owners. Presumably they weren’t for instant consumption but for breeding, as there were babies too. I thought the prettiest were the squirrel-red coloured ones. We were reminded of Nicola who would have wanted to rescue them all.

Finally, on Easter Monday, after gobbling up the last of John’s home-made hot cross buns, we set out for the vide grenier at Beblenheim in Alsace. This was not the first flea market of the year for John, as he had gone over to Mandray’s whilst I was away. (Mandray’s is held in the community centre almost opposite Roger and Dorinda’s house. As their front door opens straight onto the road, the cars jostling and queuing to park outside are a great nuisance to them. Entre deux Eaux, of course, is much better organised with a huge field to park on, under the efficient command of our firemen). Anyway,we have been to Beblenheim’s several times on Easter Mondays, notably with Wendy and John one year. It has a satisfying mix of dealers and inhabitants and the sun always shines. There was plenty to look at. I fancied an old advertisement for Moroccan dates. John fingered an Ultrafex camera. He has a small collection of these, which can now be seen on the website. His main criteria for collecting has been that they have to cost less than 4 euros and be in working condition. So he started to play with the camera. “I don’t know anything about cameras but it’s very old”, said the dealer hopefully, “probably from the forties”. “I think it’s about 1961” said John who’d made a study of their development, “you can see that they’re using plastic”. The price came down rapidly. Interestingly it still had a film inside. However, as it wasn’t in full working order and had a broken strap clip, it was rejected. No doubt its price went back up again.

We were approaching the last stalls and were still empty handed when we both spotted a little copper dish with three hares racing round its rim. It was green with age and had dollops of candle wax on it. We couldn’t read the inscription on the base. But we both liked it. “One euro” said the stall holder indifferently. When John cleaned it up at home the base of it read Exposition canine Luxeuil les Bains 16 juin 19?3. The missing digit could be 0 or 6. So what was the connection between the exhibited dogs and the depicted hares? Hopefully not hunting. John’s researches have found that the three hares chasing each other in an everlasting circle form a well known motif and there is even a Three Hares Project tracing their spread along the Silk Route from Ancient China to Devon. However the Project’s theories about fertility and the lunar cycle, not to mention the following quote, hardly provide a helpful link with a dog exhibition:
The theory of the Ancients that the hare was hermaphroditic and could procreate without a mate led to the belief that it could give birth to young without loss of virginity. In Christian contexts, the three hares may be associated with the Virgin Mary in her role in the redemption of mankind. This might explain why a three hares boss is often juxtaposed in western European churches with a boss of the Green Man, perhaps a representation of sinful humanity.

Anyway, putting theories aside, that was how we found the last of our Easter hares. Then on the way home we encountered our strange Easter saint (and meal) in the forest.

We hope you all enjoyed your Easter activities too!

Change: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux Year 5 weeks 28 – 43

Change comes slowly to a village like Entre-deux-Eaux. But when we heard about the death of Mme Colnat, it set me thinking about the last 16 years that we’ve known the village.

For M. and Mme Colnat were the first people we talked to here. We’d idly looked at the shuttered-up old farmhouse that is now ours, then we’d retreated to the cool of the village shop-cum-bar. In those days it was run by the Colnats. M. Colnat had inherited the shop from his father. He’d grown up there. As a young man he’d played his accordion on Saturday nights for the village dances and weddings. Later he’d delivered supplies to the outlying farms. I expect that on that first occasion we met he would have been wearing a thick grey overall or a blue one as he did after he retired. And she would have been hovering, thin, wispy and a little nervous in a floral overall behind the counter.

The shop as it was then seemed very dark. It had huge piles of felt slippers to the left, earthy vegetables in front and a counter with butter, cheese, meats and bread to the right. From the ceiling hung strips of disgusting, encrusted fly papers. And the floor was an expanse of wooden floorboards – well mopped, but unpolished, which stretched out to the back, opening up into an equally dark bar.

They were friendly and interested, but with that Vosgian reserve, as we asked about the farmhouse. Oh yes, they knew the Fresse house. They chatted pleasantly. But M Colnat never mentioned that Mme Fresse was his aunt. Perhaps they took it for granted, as everyone at this end of the village was related to the Fresses. Later Mme Colnat told us that she grew up in a big house right in the forest, over the hills from here. She was the daughter of a Cossack who’d stayed on at the end of the First World War. So perhaps that gave her some sympathy with outsiders coming into the village.

Each time we returned to the village for a week here and a week there, our first trip would be down to the village shop to place our daily order for baguettes and to get a newspaper and a welcome back. The period leading up to their retirement was an anxious one, as no one wanted to purchase a village shop. They even asked in desperation if any of our friends would like to come and own a French épicerie! Eventually the commune purchased the building and renovated it and included four apartments. During renovation the shop shrank in size, and its stocks dwindled as many people now did their main shopping at the St Dié supermarkets. But the bar became much larger, brighter and busier, especially before lunch time. The muscular-legged new lady shopkeeper dashes energetically between the gossip of old ladies in the shop and the loud banter of men in the bar.

And meanwhile M and Mme Colnat moved up the short hill that leads up to the church, to a small bungalow with a walled garden. But even so close to the centre of the village, Mme Colnat missed her daily contact with so many people. She found it very quiet. She had her garden to tend, and would go for long walks; in autumn looking for mushrooms. But as she got increasingly frail and forgetful, her husband got more anxious about her going far afield. Her heavy smoking was catching up with her too.

I remember one scene vividly. A friend, Ann, and I had been wandering round the churchyard, and she’d spotted us from her house and come out for a chat. We sat on the seat under the huge old tree between the steps up to the church and her house, and she introduced a neighbour and we all chatted happily. Suddenly both women leapt up as they’d heard Vozelle’s cows approaching. They stretched out their arms to head off the lean cows (for whom all grass seemed greener) from going into any gardens, including their own. Then they returned to the seat, clucking at the late hour (mid-day) for the cows going out to graze, and at Vozelle’s limp which resulted from a stroke, and now seemed worse than ever.

Apparently for some time now, our mayor has been trying to persuade Vozelle to give up his hand-to-mouth farming existence (not to mention all his debts) and to take his pension now rather than later. But maybe, despite the handicap of his limp (and neighbouring farmer Duhaut used to say maliciously that he only limped when people were around), Vozelle could not imagine a life without his beasts. So it was particularly sad to hear that shortly before Christmas, when Vozelle had failed to pay yet another bill or debt, the bailiffs arrived to take away all his herd. One of the cows managed to evade capture and broke free, but we haven’t heard what finally happened to it. We didn’t see it wandering around afterwards (years ago we’d found one outside our front door one morning, which had failed to make it home for milking in the dark of the night before). His farm machinery now lies abandoned in the mud around their house, and their chickens and dogs still race cars on the lane, which they regard as their property. But we shall miss coming home late at night behind a slow moving herd of cows, or finding blue string stretched taut across the road outside their cowshed.

Farmer Gaunand, by contrast, retired some years ago with dignity, doing land and animal deals with farmer Duhaut. He still lives in his family house, which is the finest house in Entre-deux- Eaux, (on the corner beyond the village shop, opposite Vozelle’s brother’s house with its plaster storks on the gateposts). His mother was reputed to keep the best cellar in Entre-deux-Eaux. His petite elegant wife still tends her garden in her smart clothes and high heels. Two of the family’s smaller houses have been converted into gîtes. If ever the village were to run a best floral decoration competition, Mme Gaunand’s overflowing geranium pots, troughs and window boxes would definitely win.

So the four main farmers who farmed the intriguingly named strips of pasture in and around the village (with names like le rêve pre, les pres des truches) have been reduced to two even bigger farmers during the sixteen years we’ve been here. None of the four have children who wanted to follow in their footsteps, for they have moved away from the village to other occupations.

But the third big change is that other young people are choosing to stay in the village or to move into it. When we first came here there were seven houses on rue du Mont Davaux (though no road names or house numbers to guide you – and according to the phone directory we shared a house number with another family further down the road!) Now there are fifteen houses, our road has a name plate, and, following the renumbering of the subdivided plots, the houses now have a smart brown and beige numbers (we are now 13 rather than 7, but don’t feel any the unluckier for the change). The cheapest way for young couples to acquire their own house seems to be to buy a plot of land and commission a local builder to put up a shell which they then complete using sub-contractors and friends and family. So houses are growing up like mushrooms throughout the commune where urbanisation is allowed (our end of rue du Mont Davaux is outside the zone). One house was built for the present shopkeeper’s daughter, and another by M and Mme Laine’s grandson, Ludo, with help from his Portuguese builder mates. “So handy to have him next door now we are getting old”, the Laines murmur happily, as they bask in the unexpected February sunshine on their balcony. Purple gauze curtains and indoor palms seem to be taking over from sturdy brown shutters and beds of leeks and cabbages. Will we one day be no more than a dormitory village for St Dié?

Of course, a few people are moving away. For us the biggest loss has been Nicola. She first contacted us from Chicago in the mid-90s to see if we were prepared to let our farmhouse to her and two dogs for several months. But as we used our house more often than that, we put her in contact with Mme Gaunand. So she stayed in the very traditional (and cold) gîte next to the Big House until she found a house to rent in Clefcy. She had been a botanical and commercial artist, but soon began to paint local Vosgian landscapes and villagers at work, which she exhibited at the annual St Dié art show and during the local art week. She quickly found her feet as a full-time resident here, and each time we returned would drag us off to flea markets, exhibitions and garden centres she’d discovered. But on her sixtieth birthday she decided she was ready for a change of lifestyle and joined a dating agency. After a whirlwind romance this summer, John from Devon moved in with her, and they began to make plans to move down to the south. And so it was that, in November when we celebrated her ten years in the Vosges, it was a rather dispiriting meal at one of her favourite restaurants. She and John were tired after their house hunting trips and we were sad at the prospective loss. A laden removal van finally left for the Languedoc two weeks ago.

So if any one fancies a bright, airy artist’s house in Clefcy, Nicola’s is now on the market! You might even get a cat to go with it. The move appears to be one change too many for Felix. Despite being born to a semi-wild mother under a pile of old roof timbers below our vegetable patch, he adapted well to a life of creature comforts at Clefcy after Nicola rescued all the litter from being drowned (in our absence). He even put up with the two Chicago cats. But the big move down to the Mediterranean was a change he was not prepared to tolerate. Or was it just his nomadic heritage re-asserting itself? He bolted a week ago.

You may get the impression from these meditations on change, that there have not been many current happenings to write about. That’s largely due to a sedentary lifestyle since my hysterectomy operation in St Dié at the end of January. And the more I hear about UK waiting lists, ambulance queues outside hospitals and hospital infections, the more thankful I feel that I was able to have it done in a calm hospital, with only single or double rooms and immaculate standards of cleanliness. There were a few language problems, but you’ll be glad to hear that following hilarious mime sessions with the nurse I now know the correct French terms for crapping and farting. I also had a wonderful view of the mountains as the hospital is at the top of a steep hill in Saint Dié!

However, since John has also spent the time peacefully at his computer, you too can reflect on our more recent years here, through the new improved website, not to mention some of the latest restaurant pictures. Now who would have thought “le hamburger” would have become quite so trendy at the Auberge Frankenbourg (even if it was hiding a piece of fillet steak)?

I could go on about the changes in the weather – so sunny and mild this winter, compared with the long months of snow last year. But then everyone’s saying similar things about the milder winter and increase in debilitating infections in the UK, so I won’t dwell on that. Perhaps the nicest way to conclude would be with the reminiscences (round a kitchen table) of a man from the adjoining hamlet of Rememont (part of our commune), which really summarise the changes:

“We used to have four cafés in Rememont and 250 cows. Now there are no cafés and hardly any cows.”

Click on this link E2Eyear5weeks28-43.pdf to download Adobe Acrobat version

Crémant, chandelles, champignons, et les garçons chimiques: birthday edition (Year 5, weeks 22 -28)

October 26th. The sun was shining. The trees were flirting with shades of lemon and gold, but resisting a total change to autumnal shades. The sky was blue. The distant hills hazy. Crisp white tablecloths covered the tables outside the Blanche Neige restaurant. Bottles of crémant basked in ice in a silver tureen.

“Bring raincoats and boots for outdoors and slippers to prevent mud trailing indoors” I’d e-mailed pessimistically earlier in October when the radio and newspapers had graphic accounts of local floods. The River Meurthe had swollen and covered bridges round St Dié. The firemen were busy pumping out cellars. The N83 linking St Dié to the routes from Calais had been closed at various points. “Maps might be useful” my e-mail also suggested, thinking of unexpected closures and diversions.

And here was this innocent sunshine, demanding shirt-sleeves, T-shirts and open toed sandals! The guests grouped and re-grouped around the outdoor tables, chatting to old friends and introducing themselves to new faces. The discreetly smart waiters (who had, unlike the many of the guests, retained their jackets and ties) circulated with flûtes of crémant. Continue reading

A load of hot air: boar hunts, balloons, and the big birthday. Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 5, weeks 9 – 21

The first sounds we heard on Sunday morning were Farmer Duhaut’s cows harrumphing mournfully as they grazed outside the bedroom window. The next sounds were shouts were from the hillside opposite. It was too early for Farmer Vozelle to be shouting at his cows (that doesn’t start till mid-day at the earliest). Perhaps someone had lost their dog?

In Nottingham, the first signs of the approach of autumn would be rows of parked cars outside our house as students young and old enrolled for courses at the nearby college. Here, the parked cars along the lanes are four by fours belonging to furtive looking men in hats. As the hillside shouting increased, it dawned on us that September 24th must be the opening day of the 2006 hunting season. The distant sound of a horn confirmed our suspicion, as did the appearance of a young deer bounding from the forest and across the field, skirting the cows and our orchard.

Later, as we were driving out of the village in quest of Sunday flea markets, we passed carloads of men in hats. John noticed that they were wearing red hat bands. As if on cue, our car radio informed us of the start of la chasse in the north of France and the need for extra caution in the forests, especially by people gathering mushrooms. As a safety measure, the newsreader continued, red arm bands (or hat bands, it would appear) should be worn by huntsmen. This measure is being credited for a decrease in accidents. Across France in 2004/5 accidents fell by 26% from the previous year to only 177 and the number of fatalities from 29 to 25. It’s a bit worrying to learn that among people in no way involved with the hunt, the number of accidents dropped from 23 to a mere 12 over 4 seasons. Maybe those poor mushroom hunters should be the ones adopting luminous waistcoats. Continue reading

The French Open and the World Cup: from the sofas of Entre-deux-Eaux: Year 5, weeks 1 – 8

It is one of the laws of nature that strawberries should ripen in time for Wimbledon. But despite their slow start, due to late snow, ours peaked in time for the World Cup. So, as the world’s best footballers kicked and fouled and collected yellow cards by the handful (I blame the humidity and extreme heat), we have been gorging ourselves on strawberries, cherries and ice cream.

But the last two weeks of May and the first week of June were wet. Very wet. This was a shame as first Leila and then Toby and his girl friend Stella visited during this period. It even snowed on the day I took Leila back to the airport. And this was May 30th. Another record was broken, apparently, for the coldest first day of June.

So, much of Leila’s holiday here was spent a) helping us to track down a new TV (as figures and scenery on our old one were reduced to lurid pink and turquoise) and b) lying on the sofa reading and watching the French Open Tennis on the new TV. All those French players you never see at Wimbledon! Fortunately Paris was enjoying better weather than us. It was galling to hear the Eurosport commentators complaining about the cold weather there. For while all we could see outside our windows was rain, on our screens we could see shafts of Parisian sunlight. What were they moaning about? Continue reading