Friday. Walking day. But walks have finished for the summer (at least, they have for the Societé des Promenades et Sentiers Forestiers de Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.) So a brief pause to remember the strange assortment of characters straggling through the forests.
The “real” members of the group (ie the paid up ones, who also do the longer Tuesday walks, and who help repair the footpaths and build the shelters) are easy to recognise by their fitness, the fact that they act as guides, their bandy legs (are they all ex-cyclists?) and their maleness. There are those who love explaining (and can be so busy pointing out distant peaks that they fail to notice the nearby panic attack of one of the party, or the fact that one person has skidded and fallen on top of and flattened another person, neither of whom, incidentally, were seen on subsequent walks). There are also those who hate talking (especially to foreigners, who are totally incomprehensible, by definition). Then there is the 84 year old, born at the end of the first world war, taken prisoner of war during the second world war whilst manning part of the Maginot line (with only eleven other defenders at that point). There is the slightly less ancient inhabitant who can name all the edible mushrooms (and helpfully knocks over any inedible ones along the pathways with his stick). There is the dear white haired man who brings along a different young girl each time (surely they can’t all be nieces). Our guide last week seemed to have needed a lot of alcohol to fortify him before the walk above Entre-deux-Eaux (sadly when an argument broke out as to the whereabouts or direction of the Col de Mandray, my local knowledge carried no weight, as how could a foreigner possibly know). However, the real identifying feature of “real” members is the turquoise T-shirt and the matching baseball cap which they all possess!
Those who haven’t achieved the T-shirt include: the bag lady (she has hair closely shaved, a radiant smile, hardly speaks, but has been walking with the group for ten years, and is inseparable from an enormous orange carrier bag – as she also carries a large water bottle and has her pullover and mac tied round her waist, the contents of the bag remain a mystery, even to the garrulous ex-hotelier (the first one to take me under her wing, as she was used to foreigners in the hotel trade – “Is Jonathon Dimbleby famous in England?” she asks – he stayed in her hotel once, as did the Tour de France – or was it just the American team?). There’s the group flirt, in her scarlet shorts and red and white striped T-shirt, who always falls onto someone’s lap as the bus lurches whilst she’s collecting bus fares. There are the three teachers, who don’t work on Fridays and who have a different range of conversation than the others (racism in schools, literature for fourteen-year olds with small vocabularies). There’s the elegant blonde in immaculate white plimsolls (shame it was so muddy last week!), who carries no rucksack, just a dainty water bottle. There are the lovely, friendly ladies who chat about recipes and their cats. Also a supporting cast of another 30 to 40! How I shall miss them all during the winter months!
However, this weekend, the lust for culture which seems to mark the start of autumn in France just as in UK, was catered for in a big, big way by the 13th International Festival of Geography (FIG) held in St Dié. Now you may not have realised until now quite how important St Dié is in the world of geography. Did you know that the man who made the first map which showed the word America lived in St Dié? (But it still seems to need substantial train and plane reductions of up to 50% to lure people to the conference). “St Dié is full of academics”, the walkers had assured me, “it’s a great atmosphere, but the sessions are all free to everyone. It’s well worth going to.” Well the atmosphere on Friday, was very damp, and people seemed a bit subdued as they scuttled between tents and conference centres. However, once inside, there was indeed a real buzz. The theme of the conference was geography and religions, and being French, they’d somehow worked in food, mainly chocolate, whether as a religion or an everyday fact of geography was not entirely clear. There were loads of worthy sessions with professors from Paris expounding to intent throngs, but John went to the demonstration of tarte aux grands crus de chocolat and I went to a discussion on the appeal of Harry Potter. John was in a very fancy tent and didn’t think the tart tasted all that good since it was basically an almond pastry with a chocolate sponge filling covered in a layer of chocolate (and where else but France would you find attendees at a cookery demonstration bringing their dogs – who then barked loudly whenever there was any clapping?). I was in the grandly named Salon de Livres (no, not the library), which had huge publishers stands and book displays. There I ran into two of the walking group, one manning the Amnesty stand, and one wandering round because her lecture had been over-subscribed, so I instantly rushed off to get to mine early (which is an unusual feat for me!). Our professor (who’s published “Harry Potter, les raisons d’un success” as well as “Le Seigneur des Anneaux ou la tentation du mal” – she must have liked the films!) was very interesting, but some of the questions were bit tedious, along the lines of “I’ve never read the books, but this is a geography conference, so what is the geography of Harry Potter – it all seems to me to be very Anglo-Saxon and nothing to do with the rest of the world?” I suppose I could have asked my burning geographical question as to why the French needed to translate Hogwarts into Poullards when all the other names remained unchanged.
As we drove back from our Friday cultural sortie, I noticed the trees had become more yellow, and realised I hadn’t stirred into the outside world for five days! This was not due to magic spells of immobilisation, but to making the most of fine weather to sand down and paint some more shutters (Bleu de France definitely grows on you after twenty shutters!). The new part of the building is beginning to merge with the old part – only twelve more to go. Whilst I have been slowly painting, John has been rapidly constructing a dividing wall in the attic to separate a future living area from a storage area and insulating the large airy attic space further. He’s seen a bit of the big world too as he’s been to buy the essential plasterboard and food.
The scenery outside has changed slightly this week, due to cow re-locations. On Monday at 8 a.m. we had cows in our western field, but by Thursday they’d shifted down to the southern field. These are burly Farmer Duhaut’s cows, which get taken back to their new palatial accommodation at 6.30 p.m. in the evenings for milking. You never hear farmer Duhaut say a word to his beasts, he just rounds them up by revving his ancient motorbike and herding them through the gap in the electric fence. Around mid-day there is a lot of shouting, which sounds most abusive, as Mme Vozelle drives the Vozelle tractor behind the Vozelle cows, and Farmer Vozelle hangs on with one hand and brandishes his stick whilst yelling imprecations at the cows who are desperate for some grass along the way. It’s always well after dark when we hear the chug of the Vozelle tractor on the return trip. There’s no shouting, though, so the cows must be keen to get back to their shed, as the temperatures have been dropping after sunset. In fact, this week’s night heavy frost on Monday has, sad to say, killed off the riot of orange and scarlet nasturtiums which are usually so spectacular at this time of year.
Other scenery changes include the appearance of yellow posts and pink tipped posts along the narrow, bending road from the cross-roads junction on the Saulcy-Mandray road leading to Entre-deux-Eaux, an indication of the future width of our improved super-highway (at a cost of some 425,000 euro). How those wedding processions will roar along on Saturday afternoons and evenings! And they’ll be able to overtake the late night tractors and herds of cows (unless the cows refuse to give way). Hopefully we won’t get an increase in huge transporter lorries, which have now been banned (by decision of the Entre-deux-Eaux Commune Council) from parking in the village shop car park although our builder, Jose de Freitas, seems to be letting them park up our road on the forecourt of his new (about 8 years old, but as yet unoccupied) house.
But don’t let me give you the impression that we have sunk so far into rural tranquillity that the only items of interest this week have been the appearance of the yellow and pink sticks and the movement of the cows. Last Sunday was flea market day but with literary touches. We started off in the neighbouring village of Ste Marguerite (where my keep fit group is) which was holding a old book and postcard fair. The book dealers brought all their local history titles, and we had fun looking through old railway guides from 1913 (special section on trips round Verdun), then John lit on a September 1943 guide to French pronunciation for the American troops. We shouldn’t really have bought it, as it was a restricted document, only to be given to people in the service of the United States and to “persons of undoubted loyalty and discretion who are co-operating in Government work”. But who could resist a phrase book which starts with:
Help! o suh-KOOR Au secours!
Help me ay-day MWA Aidez-moi
I am lost juh muh swee payr-DEW Je me suis perdu
A few lines later, just in case the bemused peasants haven’t already realised, comes “We are American soldiers” (noo SAWM day sawl-DAHZ ah-may-ree-KANG). They obviously expected to meet all kinds of interesting people, as there are options for Are you ……. Algerian, Annamese, Belgian, French, Greek, Italian, Madagascan, Moroccan, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Syrian, Turkish, followed (when faced by total incomprehension) by “Are you from this region?” (et voo duh la rayj-YAWNG). I think I need to go back to that Geography Conference, as I’m totally ignorant (as is the spell-check) about the Annamese.
However, section 8 really gets down to the useful stuff with “jay buh-zwang duh mew-nees yawng” (just in case you can’t follow the phonetics, that’s “I need ammunition”) and “Have the troops been building tank traps?” or “lay TROOP KRUZ-tel day P~YEZ ahn-tee TAHNK?” No wonder the French think we don’t speak their language! And, undoubtedly to keep up the morale of the soldiers, phrases such as “Where is there a restaurant” and “have you a better room”… are interspersed with “I am hungry” and “I want to sleep”.
If you’ve got this far, John also spotted an 1832 local yearbook or almanac, but I won’t list all the local mayors for you! (Yes, we bought it!). Interestingly, the list of local market days still all seem to be the same. By this stage Nicola had joined us and we set off for the flea market at Bertrichamps (we used to come through there on our way from Calais to Entre-deux-Eaux, before the new road, off the motorway, bypassing the small and congested towns and villages, was built). We enjoyed its range of stalls and also the sunshine, then took a small commune road through woods, past small ponds, fields of dried maize, and tiny villages with dogs asleep in the middle of the road to the pig or pork festival and flea market of a tiny dot on the map, Mignéville. There was a wonderful antiques stall at the bottom of the hill and fascinating stalls on the way up the main street, so by the time we got to the refreshment tent at the top of the hill at just before 3 p.m., all traces of pig had vanished from the spits – all that remained was a healthy looking pig in a trailer outside the school, whose weight we were invited to guess. In the end, Nicola didn’t buy a wedding present for American friends (“kess kuh suh-SEE?” you imagine them wondering, as they looked at the antique glass cross section of an apple). Then to humour me, I was allowed half an hour at the book village, Fontenoy-la-Joute, where the last of this year’s end-of-month Sunday specials was in full flow. All the bookshops were open, and there were stalls in the sunshine on the street. As the café was open we had considerably longer than half an hour as we watched the world stroll by and then doubled back to look at some beautifully illustrated books on Lorraine.
To finish last week’s medical tale, we eventually managed to take out complementary medical insurance (that is to say the insurance broker helped fill in the forms and took our cheque of about 90 euro for the first month – we’ve still to receive any documentary evidence that the application has been accepted). Hopefully we’ll get the promised 20% discount for the first and 10% for the second year. And it seems we should be able to set it against income tax……just need to jump into that mire! Our final social insurance registration and “smart” card are dependent on photocopies of our residence permits. The “smart” card seems to hold a lot of basic details – they must need to centralise information somewhere since you don’t have a specific doctor (don’t know what they do about doctors’ notes), you could go to several different doctors on the same day with the same complaint, etc.; and there are card readers in supermarkets, etc., so you must be able to check up on the progress of your refund. Undoubtedly we’ll find out more about what the card is really for sometime soon.
So Monday was the day to phone the sub-prefecture concerning our residence permits since we hadn’t heard anything for a few weeks on progress of our applications. “But you will receive them in the post” was the reply. And sure enough, on Wednesday we received stamped addressed envelopes (we’d forgotten about them!) containing not the permits themselves but a card to say we could collect our permits eight days after 30 September (John has his suspicions about French bureaucracy only jumping when pushed!). As we were in St Dié on Friday, we went into the sub-prefecture, and, a few minutes later were leaving with our plastic laminated cards (unfortunately about twice the size of a credit card). They are in the same style as the latest passport end page, but with a different document type code (and different country code!), so should do as passport replacements as well, should we need them in the EU. So now we’re valid for the next five years here!
The week has ended in style (a reward for all our hard work?). Saturday dawned misty (the cows looked ghostly in the field at 8 a.m.), with the sun struggling to leak through. Nicola arrived (late, after a shouting match with a builder who’d broken her gate lock attempting to get in without ringing the bell and nearly caused the hunting dog and the huge black Alsatian-like dog to make a dash for the mountain tops, wild boar and deer) and we set out over the mountains to Alsace. The vineyards were golden in the sun and little vans and trucks lined the verges as families picked their grapes. I’d expected to see a much larger operation! The small town of Barr was holding a flea market during the day and various wine festivities in the evening. The whole of the town centre was closed to traffic, with the regular Saturday morning vegetable and clothes stalls, and then streets and streets of antique and bric a brac stalls. John bought most this time, with three bags of ridiculously low priced metal brackets to hold the loft insulation and plasterboard support rails and a pair of army surplus waterproof gloves (what do you call mittens that have a thumb and a forefinger, with the rest as mitten for up to four fingers – John said it was so you could pull your gun trigger), and Nicola bought two more small bottles for her blackberry wine. We didn’t stay on for the wine festival events as John and I wanted to get back to the Geography Festival and Nicola is in the middle of a watercolour (struggling with snow on the roof, as she told a shocked American friend, who took her literally rather than artistically). But as we left, we spotted a gaudy float made from scarlet yellow and white button chrysanthemums, still being worked on.
Back in St Dié John headed for the gastronomy tent for a session we’d loosely translated as eel pie, but was more of a potato gateau with cabbage and cream and topped with marinated eel. But unfortunately there wasn’t enough of the “here’s some I prepared earlier” for him to get a taste at the end. This session was of particular interest as it was given by the then second in command at the “Belle Vue” restaurant in Saulxures that we’d been to with my mother. (The chef himself had, sadly, died very recently, having been heavily involved with developing the gastronomy sessions of many of the conferences. So the tent is now re-named in his honour as the Espace Culinaire Denis Boulanger.) John’s second session was another chocolate one, but the chef had finished after half an hour (instead of his allocated one and a half hours). Meanwhile, I went to three of the local history sessions to hear about 1) the Jewish church near the Fountain des Molières, which upon archaeological investigation turned out to be neither a church or Jewish, but possibly some kind of Celtic site (no artefacts to date it by) 2) something whose subject (and mumbling speaker) remained totally unclear for 20 minutes, 3) the Egyptian symbols in the capitals of the cathedral. I also had time to look at the photographic exhibitions in the cloisters, which looked very dramatic as the only illuminated features in the twilight. (It was far too dark to see the Egyptian features at the top of the columns!) The festival finishes tomorrow, so we’ll probably ignore the flea markets and make the most of the culture on offer.