At the fork in the road, trestle tables were set out in the sunshine under the yellowing leaves of an old tree. Over the arch of the barn door a hand-made sign proclaimed “buvette” (refreshment stall). The strong smell of barbecued sausage was alluring. “My treat” said Nicola, and we joined the queue. The first group were served their spicy sausages in chewy-looking baguettes without any problems. Then it was the turn of the woman in front of us to order for four people. First her baguette chunks were too short, then the sausages too small, then the larger sausages too charred. The man at the barbecue looked grim as he started a fresh batch. I don’t know if she ever got the perfect sausages – if she did, I expect the mustard and mayonnaise were the wrong kind. We are obviously totally undiscriminating as we enjoyed sitting in the sunshine, watching the world go by and eating our sausages and chips (or baguette, in John’s case). I realise I’ve mentioned the sun twice, mainly because these occasional days of sunshine are such a pleasure, surrounded as they’ve been by days of damp mist, driving rain, or even, as today, hail storms.
And where was this village idyll? I’m sorry to say, for those of you who are already well bored with flea-markets, that it was a tiny village called Vimenil whose streets were lined with villagers and their stalls. We’d already had conversations with two macho men about a battery-powered motor bike (for the possible use of Nicola’s grandson), and with other stall holders about marble-topped bedside tables and a wall pendulum clock. As we walked on, there were puppies advertised for sale on a notice on a car window, a wonderful old house covered with crimson Virginia creeper (out came John’s camera), a leather belt embossed with Flintstones characters (it rather taxed our collective French to explain to the three elderly ladies on the stall who the Flintstones are and why Nicola’s grandson would love the belt – we failed to mention Nicola knowing her daughter would not approve). But, apart from the belt, purchased for a pittance, it was the wall clock that really tugged at Nicola’s heart strings, though the vendor wouldn’t come down in price. So we pooled our euros, notes and coins to show we were at our limit without any cash machine within 20 km, Nicola bought the clock, and we drove off with the chimes murmuring gently (depending on the road surface) in the back of the car, despite the careful wrapping. (When Nicola finally unbent the rods and adjusted the spring tensions later that night she had it chiming on the hour, and every quarter and playing Ave Maria – and all through the night!).
“We’ll follow up our sausages and chips with coffee and cake at the next flea market,” we promised ourselves, as we headed towards Luneville. Luneville has a huge neglected chateau which the town likes to think of (and promote) as a smaller Versailles, and we’d assumed that their flea market would be in the huge square outside the chateau, which would have been very picturesque, surrounded by all the shops selling colourful modern Luneville pottery. Instead, after a visit to the tourist office (open on Sunday in October!) we found it was at a crossroads of high apartment buildings wedged between one forbidding wall of a military barracks and the railway station. And there were no village cakes and coffee here. The only food was an enormous stall of unsold fungi of all shapes and sizes, run by a man with walnut coloured skin and pointy ears who looked like a pixie; there was also candy-floss and more barbecued food from a stall in the mini (commercial) fair on the green at the cross-roads. The whole place felt rather daunting although the flea market had a certain buzz as it was very urban. A Revolutionary story with the guillotine would have filmed well here.
Week 24’s trip over to Marlenheim in Alsace was very different. For a start it was their wine harvest festival. Outside the Hotel de Ville sweet white and red grapes were being given away, for all to join in the celebration, by men dressed in regional costume, standing high above the thronging crowds on a wooden wagon; they were pressing more of the grapes in a huge wooden press; and both the grape juice from the spout below the press and new, still fermenting wine from an adjacent barrel could be tasted by those who had paid their two euro for their tasting glass. And there were plenty of sausage and doner kebab stalls, and endless stalls with coffee, cakes and fruit tarts. We watched Alsatian dances and looked at antiques and munched our spicy sausages and kebabs. And I bought a one euro paté dish. It felt a very pleasant way to round off the flea market season.
And now for Culture. The three groups whose existence the Museum finally divulged to us back in May when we were first investigating the cultural scene were: The Friends of the Library and Museum, the University of Permanent Culture (UCP) and the “Philomatique”. The latter publishes all the local history magazines and booklets and is currently doing sessions in the villages to involve villagers in their history (and to get them contributing their memories). A bit like our reminiscence sessions at St Ann’s Library! So on Saturday I braved the heavy rain and ventured into the Mairie of an unknown village. The first of three talks was on the register of local parcels of land drawn up some time after the Revolution. It was lovely to see the fascination of the forty participants as the names of the plots were explained (apparently the French officials were unfamiliar with local dialect so transcribed the names very roughly). I longed to ask about our plot name, les Irotes, which no one in Entre-deux-Eaux can explain (not that anyone is definitely sure of the origin of the village name), but the speaker was besieged in the interval – and I was from a totally different village. In fact I slipped out at the drinks interval (at about 10pm) as my concentration was beginning to lapse after two further sessions on roads and on the First World War.
A few days later, I noticed on our shop door that a nearer community, St Leonard, was doing something similar this weekend. Sunday 27th was appallingly wet and windy and outdoor activities were out of the question, but looking at photos and local family trees sounded quite appealing, so we both went along. St Leonard was one of the many small towns along the main road which was deliberately and totally destroyed by the retreating Germans in 1944 only a few days before they were liberated (and only a few days before that, all remaining men and boys had been rounded up and transported) and so doesn’t have the charm of the older villages like ours. Of the seven hundred houses in the commune, less than fifty remained intact. So it was fascinating to see the photos of the old church, the two hostelries, the old textile works by the stream (now occupied by a scrap car dealer), the old school – a whole vanished world. There were detailed family trees of famous Vosgians (to whom, presumably villagers would have distant links) in the community room, where, at 2.30pm there was still a lively meal going on between the display boards, with sounds of raised voices and great mirth (perhaps they were discussing genealogy!). The photos were in the Mairie, where people were identifying people in old village school photographs and we got involved in the building of the railway, the times of the “diligence” routes, the building of the barracks, the temporary wooden housing put up when some of the menfolk finally returned from the deportation, labour camps, etc. in Germany (if they hadn’t been shot or died there). There were accounts of the timber which shrank (all the local timber had been requisitioned and sent to Germany during the war), leaving great gaps between the boards of the walls, of butter that froze in winter and melted in summer, then the slow rebuilding of the village. And then there were floods in 1955 which washed away the bridge over the Meurthe that joined the two parts of the village. On the aerial photo of 1959, the village was taking shape, but the Church was still a wooden hut, though the new Mairie was there. Over at one of the former hotel-restaurants, the “Salmon”, there were old postcards, books, coins and recent videos for sale, and we could have stopped to listen to a talk about “when our grandparents married.”
Then, on the level of national rather than local culture, the Monday lectures of the UCP (see above) have started. On both Mondays it has been pouring with rain. So a warm lecture hall was more appealing than a wet field or a chilly barn. A friend has suggested that the UCP might be very similar to the University of the Third Age in the UK, but I don’t know the latter. Perhaps someone could enlighten me – though not many of you mere youngsters qualify for the third age! Their first session in the plush auditorium of the Museum started with pomp and ceremony with the presence of the Mayor of St Dié, who no doubt sees himself as a patron of the arts (he was instrumental in starting the Geography Festivals 13 years ago and running them since – he even contributed his own watercolour exhibition during the recent festival). However, after that, the news was bad – the speaker was still sitting on a train which had been delayed between Nancy and Luneville – so the mayor suggested that we looked round the latest exhibition of paintings (not his) which he’d opened on the floor above us at the Museum only two days earlier. I never did find out what the train delay was about – although for an hour or so it felt as if we were back in the UK with all its rail travel uncertainties. However I later read that on the following day five bomb threats had been issued in and around Nancy, claiming to be linked to Al-Quaida and the rail system had come to a halt for two hours. The culprit was later discovered (via his mobile phone) to be an employee who’d worked for SNCF, the rail network, for 25 years. Psychologists are still trying to discover his motivation. Ah yes, the lecture and slide show on Velasquez was excellent when the Professor of Art finally arrived by taxi.
The next week’s UCP lecture was on the divorce law. The lawyer was very entertaining. He really played to the gallery of mainly women getting gasps of horror at the very recent barbarity of French laws. An interesting insight into the cultural trips organised by UCP was provided before the lecture itself. A group had travelled to Prague (well before the recent floods) and had not found it an enlightening experience. There had been no food on the aeroplane; the cultural guide, Joseph, had spoken very poor French; there had been no illuminations on the “Prague illuminated” tour as it had to be undertaken before the evening meal and it was still daylight; and the waiters in the restaurants were rude and didn’t speak French (it all reminded me a bit of English tourists complaining about Paris, apart from the illuminations). However, as a letter of response from the tour company was read aloud the murmurs from the audience indicated that this was still a very sore subject and the ten euro refund per participant was not thought to cover the discomforts and affronts they’d suffered on their travels.
Continuing the transport theme, the quarterly regional newsletter arrived recently and one item of interest included details of the new TGV Est, which has recently started construction. Unlike previous TGVs this one is not wholly funded directly by the state and RFF (the French equivalent of Railtrack/Network Rail), but with the aid of regional (and Luxembourg) money as well. As well as raising environmental, geological, and archaeological issues which need to be solved, the new style contracts seem to have caused delays, so the project is a year behind schedule and over budget. However in (late?) 2006 there should be direct trains running from St Dié to Paris with a journey time of 2 hr 20 min as well as connecting services with French TGVs to western (Nancy-Bordeaux in less than five hours), south-eastern, and northern France (including the Channel Tunnel and onwards to London, as well as to Brussels and Amsterdam), and the German high-speed train system to Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich (and on to Italy?).
And there are still bargains on the Ryanair Strasbourg–Stansted route with single fares from 1.79 euro (plus about 10 euro for airport charges/taxes – adding up to 31 euro for a return fare with credit card booking fee). I’ve booked a cheap fare from 4–12 November, mainly to see my mother who’s had a couple of falls, but I’m looking forward to catching up with Leila and Toby and with friends in Nottingham. And John has booked a shorter trip travelling out on 10 November to see his mother and sister (then we’ll return together). At these prices one can afford to just “pop over”.
And finally back to food again – is one ever far away from the topic in France? Over recent years we’ve established a tradition of celebrating John’s birthday at different three-star restaurants within easy striking distance. Last year he was most affronted to have to have a kidney stone removed in Nottingham, rather than dining out in Alsace. This year he chose to go back to a restaurant we’d enjoyed with my mother, the Belle Vue in Saulxures (which really has got a superb view through its large picture windows) since the restaurant in Ammerschwir, identified for the previous year, has been slipping down the rankings. We did a slight detour on our way to Saulxures. A friend had asked if John had read crime writer Nicholas Freeling’s cookery books. As he hadn’t heard about them, I got them for his birthday along with the book by Monsieur Emil Jung from the Crocodile Restaurant (who presided over the gastronomy tent at the Geography Festival, as described in the last newsletter). Fired up by his present (I like to think), John discovered (via the internet) that Freeling had also written about his village of Grandfontaine in the Vosges. We ordered that as my mother’s present to John, then set off for lunch via Grandfontaine (with Nicola, as that’s also become part of the tradition). After passing through the sprawling, faded agricultural Lorraine villages we cross the border into Alsace where the mountain villages feel colder, more self-contained, and a bit hostile (till you get down to the warmer, brightly coloured tourist villages of the grape belt). Grandfontaine looked cold and boring. What a disappointment. It will be interesting to read about it now we’ve seen it.
I’ll hand over to John for a description of the food – “it was lunchtime and Helen and Nicola opted for the dishes from the “standard” menu. In summary, and rather baldly, between them they had egg on chestnuts, terrine in filo pastry, salmon, beef, cheese, and a desert of breton pancakes; since I was there to celebrate, I opted for the “menu au marché”, starting with snails on a light soufflé, fried fish on a bed of greens surrounded by shellfish (including mussels – I don’t know whether Helen noticed – but they didn’t have the effect she always attributes to them and dreads!!), sliced pig’s trotter on a bed of foie gras (perhaps unfortunately all these had a slight over-dominance of the in-season fungi), followed by a delicate prune tart. With an aromatic Tokay pinot gris from Hunnwihr and a rouge de Marlenheim (a dark rosé which we’d not previously had but had noted for sale the previous week at the Marlenheim festival)”.
Our own food production has slowed down somewhat. We did do our own grape harvest last week, but the grapes were small and limited in quantity. On the microwave sits a plastic bottle containing his year’ output – one litre of grape juice – fermenting.
However, we are planning ahead. We’ve finally planted out John LAST year’s birthday present of a mulberry tree (should be spectacular in 40 years time!), two apple trees and a peach tree. We’d not wanted to plant them out in summer in case the ground got too dry. But now, planting them out at the correct time, and on one of the days with a good weather forecast, rain still had the effrontery to halt digging and by evening my holes were full of water. When we finally resumed planting two days later, it was nice and dry but there was a strong wind, which was drying the washing well. We looked up at a slight sound and saw our yellow gazebo, which has sheltered us on the terrace from sun, wind and rain, lifting into the air, complete with upper poles, and coming to rest near our holes; the only “cheap nylon” guy rope John hadn’t already replaced had snapped as it had suffered too much UV and become brittle. So there was a pause to dismantle the remains properly (more bent poles to add to collections from previous disasters). Then just as the last tree was planted, a Dutch car stopped; a family from Rotterdam had got lost on their way to their gîte. The village shop must have sent them on to us as the nearest foreigners. Street names haven’t been used or displayed in this or the surrounding villages until quite recently – and there are no street maps either on entering villages or outside their Mairies. So the rue Lattre de Tassigny meant nothing our neighbours (nor to us!). When I phoned the number on the Dutch instructions, the gite owners turned out to be the Saulcy end of the road that everyone knows as the route de Saulcy, as, if you’re going from here to Saulcy, that is the road you take.
We hope that you are all OK on that side of the Channel despite the gales that have been rocking the UK, and that, like us, you have nothing more serious than the odd bent gazebo pole to cope with.