Today’s sunshine has accelerated the two-day thaw of the mounds of snow at the sides of the road, and green patches are re-appearing in the white meadows. Thinking it might be a last opportunity to take snowy photographs (with next year’s Christmas card in mind) I suggested a drive up to the hamlet of Fouchifol, a couple of miles away. The lane goes slowly uphill then emerges on a ridge with spectacular views of the distant hills and mountains on each side. There are also photogenic drinking troughs, stone crosses, memorials to the dead of fighting in the early days of World War I, ruined barns and bales of snow-covered hay. There was also far more snow still on the roads than down here in the valley despite obvious snow-plough clearance. And no possibility of pulling to the side and stopping safely on the single track roads with snow piled high on both banks. The farms seemed very isolated up on the hills with owners having to clear the snow from their, often long, drives, and I was glad we are part of a village.
With this trip still vividly in mind (alas, no photos), my eye was caught by an article in today’s paper about “le facteur des neiges”. On one of the walks in summer, I’d chatted to a fellow walker about her work as a postwoman in the mountainous countryside, with its tiny lanes and its isolated farmhouses, and appalling winter weather. So I was interested to read about postman Georges, who operates in another mountainous part of the Vosges (around Markstein, whose summit is about 1200 metres high). His daily route is between 80 and 140 km and he has a spade and his skis in the van. To deliver to his last customer in this weather, he has to park his van, put on his skis and set out in the blizzard, taking three quarters of an hour to ski there and back to his van. He did admit to not bothering to deliver if it was only advertising material! If he’s on holiday, his replacement uses raquettes (like tennis rackets strapped onto the feet) to trudge through the snow (so it probably takes him longer). At one house he puts the post in the boot of a parked car, as he’s done for years. Like my fellow walker, he can’t imagine working in a town.
This insistence on “service as usual” to the most remote farmhouses, via snow-covered lanes, rather put to shame the complete failure of local authorities to keep the M11 functioning following the snow forecast for the UK! You will appreciate how closely we were following the situation when I tell you that Leila had booked a flight to Strasbourg to see us, and was on a coach to Stansted, via Cambridge, when the snow started.
Thanks to the “joys” of mobile phones, we got a blow by blow account of the coach’s slow progress. The traffic didn’t come to a compete standstill, but they were still on the wrong side of Cambridge when her flight would have been called. On our advice, she rang Ryanair to try to transfer onto the next morning’s flight. At this stage, the Ryanair office clearly had no idea of the deadlock around Stansted and said that as it was her fault that she hadn’t reached the airport, they couldn’t transfer her (this being a budget airline), but she must book another flight via the internet. Not easy to do from a coach in the middle of nowhere (or even possible once at Stansted!). I stayed up waiting to hear what would happen when they reached Stansted, whilst John went to bed to sleep in preparation for a possible early morning drive for us to meet the morning flight (we were anticipating a difficult journey with evening temperatures already at –17C and therefore frozen snow on the roads).
After a two hour wait in Cambridge when they weren’t allowed to go to find food in case the next coach arrived and left (although it later transpired the waiting driver himself went to find food at a nearby takeaway!), a second coach took them very slowly on lesser roads than the M11 to Stansted, crossing over the M11 and its stationary traffic, and they finally got to the airport around 1a.m., twelve hours after leaving Nottingham and seven hours longer than scheduled. At the time this seemed horrendous, until we heard how of motorists were stranded in their cars on the M11 for over 24 hours.
At the airport it transpired that her flight had been cancelled anyway. So she found a space on the floor and lay down among the hundreds of other travellers. There were many Swedes amongst those stranded, and they were utterly bemused as to how a few inches of snow could bring everything to a halt when they lived without any problems with metres of winter snow. There was a mad rush to the Ryanair desk when it re-opened in the morning, and a fight was breaking out as Leila next phoned us. However the morning flight was, in its turn, cancelled. Leila was finally booked onto the evening flight without having to pay again … but then all flights were again cancelled and she settled down to a second night at Stansted. This time she and a girl she’d met went and had a hearty meal and several drinks, after which she slept better than the night before. In fact when we rang her to see if they were boarding she was still asleep!
However, her quick rush through the departure gates was un-necessary, as there was then a three hour delay in boarding. And once they did board there were delays in gaining clearance, during which their plane wheels, and those of several other planes, froze in the un-cleared snow and they had to wait for a JCB to dig them free, all of which meant another two hours delay (and no, Ryanair didn’t offer free food or drinks during any of this time).
Meanwhile we had set out for Strasbourg, as Leila headed for the departure gates, planning to meet her at the scheduled arrival time. Our little white car, which had been nick-named “Snowy” after its colour and the appalling conditions in which it had first driven back to the UK, had been parked outside the house for a couple of days and nights waiting to set out (and ready packed with emergency food and hot water, candles and matches, shovel, old towels to put under slipping wheels, tow rope, and blankets). Fortunately, given the temperature, the battery just managed to turn over the engine and Snowy started first time; although only one door on the more sheltered house side would open. The temperature gauge remained frozen at –18C even through the long tunnel under the mountains, despite the underground warmth unfreezing the electric windows and melting all the ice on the external bodywork (on the return journey the temperature gauge crept up to 14C in the tunnel, from the surrounding earth, despite temperatures at either end being well below zero). In Alsace the temperature slowly rose to –10C. The snow plough had been up our “dead-end” road several times each day (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Farmer Duhaut’s huge cowshed is at the end of our lane, and the large milk tanker needs to come up regularly to collect milk, and Farmer Duhaut is a deputy Mayor!). The main roads were well cleared and we took the tunnel which we use only rarely (a former railway tunnel under the mountains) rather than risking one of the mountain passes. We had left extra time for the journey but the roads were so clear we had enough time for an early morning coffee at a well-patronised café/patisserie in Sélestat. At the airport no one seemed to know what was happening to the plane at Stansted. So we had a wait, made even more frustrating as we expected the plane at any moment since we’d had a phone call from Leila as she boarded.
It was lovely to finally welcome Leila after her arduous journey (perhaps it’s been a good preparation for the frustrations which could lie ahead in her round-the-world travel which starts in March). Not surprisingly, she didn’t want to go sightseeing in Strasbourg. What she really fancied was a hot drink and something to eat, followed by a hot shower and a change of clothes!
Leila was fascinated to see all the changes to the new part of the house, which was just a shell when she’d last seen it, and she pronounced it more elegant than she’d imagined, and far more like home than the old farmhouse. She also liked the half of the bathroom which is finished, particularly admiring John’s tiling and appreciating the newly fitted bathroom door! Even her bed, among all the remaining packing cases in the spare bedroom, seemed luxurious after Stansted airport floor.
Not that France was immune to disruption. Various Paris airports (and Brussels airport) were shut at times because of snow. And heavy lorries were banned from roads in northern France for several days to avoid problems of blocked roads through jack-knifed lorries (seemingly the main problem on the M11). And now we have “barriere de degel” signs on some minor roads as local authorities try to avoid damage to the road structure from heavy vehicles as the roads thaw after a week or two of below zero temperatures.
As the snow continued to fall, our own postman, safe in his yellow van, with not a ski in sight, kept us up to date with road conditions, – “a bit slippery, but fine on the main roads”. (On the Sunday morning an unknown car was to be seen with its bumper in a neighbour’s fence and its wheels in the ditch, but appeared unharmed – probably over-exuberant driving late on Saturday night). Our postman is very friendly, with always a cheerful word, but I think he must be a bit shy too. Our neighbour, Mme Laine, was surprised to hear that he hadn’t asked us before Christmas if we’d like a calendar.
Now, we’d come across the firemen’s calendar during one of out first Christmases here. It was one of the few instances when I was glad to have been well prepared by Peter Mayle’s account in “A year in Provence” of the firemen “giving” calendars at Christmas in return for a donation to firemen’s funds. So we’d known what to do when our first hefty fireman turned up on our doorstep! After that we looked forward to our annual group photograph of the fire fighters together with photos of exciting fires of the past year. We were amazed in the year of the great storm, after the intrepid volunteer firemen had struggled through the snow to put a temporary covering over our gaping roof, and we’d given a generous donation in token of our appreciation, that, even in those crisis conditions, a firemen’s calendar was pulled out from beneath the black plastic, ladders and tools and presented with a flourish!
As Mme Laine described her collection of calendars, which she’d amassed over the years, it became apparent that they are a useful way to ensure the goodwill of a large number of public servants, including not only firemen but also dustmen and postmen. “I’ll have a word with the postman”, she said, “I can’t think why he hasn’t offered you one”. I duly authorised her to give a donation at the going rate, which after some work with his calculator, as they still think in francs, M. Laine pronounced to be ten euros. Next day we were setting out for Christmas in England when we saw Mme Laine deep in conversation with our postman. Apparently he hadn’t dared to ask us because all the Germans say no – presumably they’re as unfamiliar as we are with this form of Christmas box – and it must be a bit humiliating to be refused your Christmas tip! However, it wasn’t until well into January that our neighbour on the other side brought round the firemen’s calendar, whose printing had been embarrassingly delayed this year. So now we have the goodwill of our postman and firemen, though not of our dustmen!
And finally – cows. There’s not much wildlife or even their tracks to be seen in the snow at present, though on today’s drive we did spot a huge sheep huddled against a shed wall and a rather stuffed looking buzzard on a post. And there are a lot of jays, blackbirds, blue tits, thrushes, sparrows, and bull- and chaffinches responding to John’s provision of birdseed (though we weren’t as pleased when the mice found the bird seed supply in the barns and also nibbled their way into packets of noodles, croutons, semolina, etc. in what we thought was an inaccessible storage box – still more unpacked items from Nottingham). And the cows can only be heard as you walk past the cowsheds. I quite miss the sight of the cows, so I read with interest the blurb for an exhibition currently in St Dié. It was headed “Vaches interdites”. Why were they forbidden? Was it something to do with mad cow disease? I read on with increasing confusion as the text meandered between words, which seemed to be strung together in a meaningless way. A rough translation (it didn’t seem worth spending a long time with the dictionary) would appear to be; “The pictorial set of themes of the artist articulate themselves on the reality of a regional, authentic and generous nature. A nature inhabited by beings with slow and majestic postures, immutable vestiges: cows. It shows us the cow as seductress…., makes us rediscover the sensuality of a soft muzzle on the greenest, most tender grass. Evocative curves on an elegant and comforting gait, a generous, offered and magic udder, which leads us to the origin of life”. Yes, but why are they forbidden? I don’t think I’ll take up translation. And I think I’ll go and look at the cows in Farmer Duhaut’s cowshed. I don’t think I’ll understand the exhibition! (And as an aside, from a newspaper editorial on Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN, it seems the French have elephants not bulls in their china shops).
Well, I think Leila found the rural tranquillity as tedious as she’d expected, with only the postman and birds to watch! The snow continued to fall most of her stay and the temperature remained too low to want to venture out for too long. It gave Leila plenty of time to read all her travel books and to plan not only the requirements for the trip but also possible places to visit as well. We enjoyed a lot of games of (Nottingham) Monopoly and Ming, with the occasional exodus to clear footpaths through the snow and to have Sunday lunch at a popular (and packed!) local auberge. Her trip back to England, despite the early morning start was pleasantly uneventful. And life seems even quieter without her. But I still don’t think we’ll bother with the Vaches Interdites.