Weeks 28–29 Musings on hats and other winter gear

It hasn’t been really cold yet, so no one is sporting ski hats. But what does the well dressed Frenchman and Frenchwoman wear in the Vosges for everyday activities? Well perhaps the Vosges isn’t typically elegant. But below are a few winter fashion hints.

For tarmac laying The other day I was driving over the hill to St Dié. There are a lot of road works at the moment. There’s the super departmental highway being commercially widened and re-laid into the village, and there are also seasonal ditching and repair works being undertaken by each commune and also bits of private earth shifting along the back road out of the village. So I was not entirely surprised to find the back road blocked by the smart yellow machine of the commune. What did surprise me was the tarmac laying attire of our Commune employee. It gave him the aristocratic look of a minor royal on a grouse moor. Whereas the commercial road-layers all have filthy old overalls and grubby old shoes, Alain Duhaut, who is tall and slim (and rather vain), was wearing immaculately pressed field-green overalls, a crisp new-looking tweed cap at a dashing angle, and immaculate green boots. Mind you, this is the man who, after the gales had ripped off our roof in winter 1999, when all the other volunteer firemen turned up in their red baseball caps, produced an immaculate shiny silver helmet with smoked “glass” visor. (Maybe it obscured his view slightly, as he was the only one who stepped through the soggy plasterboard which had been our ceiling).

For scaling house walls I haven’t seen any builders recently, but as December 1st approached, various inflatable Santas in red bobble hats have begun to scale local house walls. The first one appeared outside the bar in Saulcy. He is now surrounded by a grotto of white branches into which he has almost vanished. It must be confusing for small children as Santa is simultaneously ascending the wall of the house opposite the bar. He hasn’t reached the dizzy heights of the gutter there, where he remained stranded till February last year before being rescued and deflated. It’s all a bit confusing as it’s really St Nicholas dressed in bishop’s mitre and robes who brings the presents and judges whether children are worthy to receive them. He is due it visit the elderly and children on December 1st in Entre-deux-Eaux (I don’t think we quite qualify although we did get an invite in the letterbox), but won’t reach St. Dié until December 7th (we’ll probably watch the huge procession with its marching bands, drum majorettes, mulled wine, and fireworks, the lot). Jean Robert is preparing to bake batches of St Nicholas brioches for the hundreds of excited children who will come into the shop (ever the optimist!) – but he also sells a type of solid bread pudding.

For tractor driving Rotund Farmer Duhaut gave up his pink shorts and brown T shirt some time ago, and is more sombrely dressed these days in a navy woolly hat and dark pullover and trousers (more of a jolly fisherman than a dedicated farmer look), whilst lean Farmer Vozelle accompanies his cows to muddy pastures wearing a turquoise overall for added warmth. Like us, he seems to be getting later as winter approaches. Cows were last seen setting out at 2pm for pasture (after we’d had our lunch!). It is dark by 5pm. Poor things probably didn’t get brought back and milked much before midnight at that rate – his cows being driven back to their barn at night, on unlighted roads, can be a hazard.

For foreigners to merge into the background I spotted the perfect gear for John. Our former agricultural co-operative has opened a new superstore, and now offers a wider range of accessories in addition to seeds, fruit trees, apple presses, jam jars, and ploughs. I spotted some fetching wellington boots covered with an ivy and oak leave pattern, with matching anorak and trousers for ultimate camouflage. And for headgear, when not using the anorak hood, you can select from a range of genuine Australian leather bushman/ cowboy hats. (I did also wonder whether our local birdlife would like to take refuge in one of their fashionable last branch saloon birdhouses.)

For village elders at Christmas markets We have just got back from an evening Christmas market in the barns of a village some way from here. It was just so picturesque in the dark. The old farmhouses were ranged in a rough circle, with the Church and Mairie on one side. Being a small village, there was no street lighting but house lights blazed and the arches above the massive barn doors (high enough for loaded haywains to enter in the old days) were lit up with fairy lights. Inside some of the barns were decorated with pine branches, straw decorations, holly wreaths and candles. There were barns with wine, some with food, others dedicated to watercolours, pottery, honey, chocolate-making, breads, and lots with home made items in cross stitch, lace, patchwork. We drank coffee in the local bar and ate Croque Monsieurs in one of the barns alongside Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, and Burgundy wines. The most unusual barn interior had a loaded trestle of dried sausages on one side and perfume bottles, with a lady spraying their sickly scents, on the other! It was in this barn that we spotted an old man in the most extraordinary bright orange floppy woolly hat of the proportions of a rasta hat. He was involved in an earnest discussion of the relative merits of Spanish cold meats.

For Keep Fit The only required wear for this is plimsolls with white soles. Most people dress relatively unadventurously. So I was rather taken with the outfit of a lady in her seventies. She has short white hair and Edna Everidge glasses. She is heavily built, with cyclist’s muscular bandy legs and she wears those tight black nylon cycling shorts that were fashionable twelve or so years ago. At home time she puts on a white, cowboy, fringed, leather jacket and also some very high heels. I always wonder what she does next in this eye-catching attire.

And finally, for walks This has long been a popular pastime in the Vosges, and everyone has their own idea of appropriate gear. I rather admired the green three quarter length corduroy trousers surmounted by green waterproof jacket in front of me. The leather hunters’ hats seem popular among the older men. But I was rather surprised to see the walks organiser, a very tall, angular man, produce and wave an umbrella, whose presence he claimed was keeping the rain away. As conversation progressed he produced his other deterrent, a black beret, and put that on. You could not have conceived of a more perfect caricature of a Frenchman! – Oh, did I forget to mention that he was also wearing a striped T-shirt?

And now for the real news …

The construction of the superhighway from the crossroads to the village boundary continues with much earth moving, spreading of mounds of gravel and reconstructing or creating new ditches. They’ve also taken the opportunity to bury the telephone cable to the village – although they seem just to have put the cable into the subsoil, often under the path of the road, rather than putting it in a ducting, in case of future problems. Hopefully there is enough spare capacity in the cable for any further telephone requirements (although, according to France Telecom, we aren’t on the list to get ADSL in the near future – too far from the exchange?). It can’t be long before the tarmac goes down; they’ll want to do that before the frosts really set in. At present, it looks as though there would be enough space for three lanes but it will probably turn into two normal width lanes with wide verges. All this for a village of four hundred inhabitants – most of whom live in the other two communes a couple of kilometres over the hills. They will not benefit from the new road as, within the village the road reverts to narrow lanes; and anyway, they probably don’t use this stretch much as “their” side of the village leads both to St Dié and to a main road which goes over the mountains to Alsace.

Furnishing the “west wing” is starting, even if, at present, we are mainly just looking to see what is available. We have decided on the book shelving and its layout. That should give the 50 or so metres of shelving we think we need – we’ve never had all our books in one room before so it hasn’t been too easy to estimate. John had originally hoped to build the shelving from all the old oak planking we have stashed away in the barns and above the atelier, but there is still much else to do (and the atelier doesn’t have power or heat and John would need to buy some big wood-working machinery), so we’ve opted to buy shelving from IKEA! We’ve now installed light fittings in the main living room, so no more dangling bare bulbs. You’ll understand we’re carefully avoiding the French look of heavy, dark, ornate oak furniture. We’re also planning our bedroom furniture, though are somewhat constrained by both its size and the position of the door. We haven’t yet firmly decided on anything which makes optimum use of the available space so will spend another week browsing catalogues and furniture stores (“I can see that you like to be left alone to make your own decisions” observed one rather exasperated wardrobe sales lady – but we’re the ones who have to sleep with the wardrobe looming over us and mirrors frightening us with our reflections as we wake up!)

In between looking at furniture, there have also been the UCP lecture on Monday, and keep fit and a walk on Thursday. The lecture was on Islam, was given by an army doctor, and had accompanying slides and music. He said it would last an hour and a quarter, at which there was a slight rustle, as lectures are usually about an hour, but everyone settled down. Well, I don’t know whether it was the large auditorium, or the splendid sound system which caused him to declaim slowly and pause for effect, but the result was a lecture that lasted an hour and three quarters, and when the new president leapt up to thank him he started off again with a quarter hour discourse which could not be interrupted, though people began to walk out. Needless to say the President did not ask if there we any questions. It was, however very interesting and his slides were good too, and I think people were interested, though concentration became a problem!

The walk was also pleasant. It was mainly on roads this week, as it was anticipated that the forest footpaths could be very muddy. But we had some lovely views and passed an interesting village cross from c. 1624, with its figures intact. It was quite a sociable excursion, with 51 walkers (and no stragglers, this is the core group!).

We had a visit from Humbert, the draughtsman drew up the plans for our alterations (he freelances for our builder, De Freitas), as we’d called him to say we had some coins for him. He has collected coins since he was a boy and is trying to complete a collection of Elizabeth II coins from the UK (not one of every coin of every year, just every different style, not worried about quality, and ignoring sovereigns, etc.). For the past few years John has been sorting through bags of coins from banks and buying coins from a dealer in Nottingham for him; it has become increasingly difficult to find coins at a reasonable price, as many of the missing coins were only issued in special annual sets rather than for general circulation. This time John had the most recent £5 coins, and a couple of others. Humbert’s British collection must now be nearly complete as he has now asked for John to try to get some Guernsey coins – and set a limit of no more than 3 Euro each. This visit also gave us the opportunity to ask him about a recent form we’d received which has to be completed once building work has been completed so local taxes can be re-assessed. After a quick look at the work he said we could delay submission of the form as we didn’t have a working kitchen tap! And his wife, who had come with him, works in that tax department, so was able to get our records updated the next day.

Nicola reports the cheap Ryanair flights may be having an impact on some other routes. There is now a regular £100 Air France fare from Gatwick to Strasbourg – down from around £180 pounds last year – which her mother is using for a Christmas visit. Unfortunately no impact on the costs of the flight from Birmingham to Basel. And, unsurprisingly, bmiBaby France don’t have any news of (or are unwilling to release any information on) the possible East Midlands-Basel route.

Now that November has finished, many of the seasonal strikes seem to be over. The farmers finished their blockades last Sunday, a few hours before the transport drivers started theirs, causing flurries at the petrol pumps before the anticipated blocking of petrol depots as well as the usual border crossings etc. However, this year all was all resolved quite quickly by the simple ploy of the government announcing strikers could strike but not hinder others; and it would impound any vehicles blocking roads. The air controllers can now no longer come out in sympathy, so their next strike will be over Europeanisation of the air control (and their continuing use of French for domestic air traffic rather than the standard use of English as the common language of air control). Vive la France!

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