A Village Affair

Last weekend was the village fête here in Ste. Colombe. Now my experience of English village fêtes is limited; the only ones I’ve attended took place on washed-out Saturday afternoons with a few stalls of indifferent items probably destined for the dustbin after a couple of days; a bouncy castle for the kiddies with more sag than a sumo wrestler; a Z-list celeb and an assortment of sausage rolls, scones and sponge cakes provided by local worthies.

They do things a bit differently over here.

The fête started Friday night with a meal in the village hall. Take your own plate and cutlery and fill up on cassoulet accompanied by pitchers of wine. Animated French betting on which of the English present would be the first to get up and re-fill the pitcher took place and, I’m proud to say, my brother was first past the post. After the meal there was a dance and music which went on…and on…and on until around about 2.00am someone called time.

Saturday afternoon the fun started up again with a concert from the local choir and the Holme Valley choir who were on a visit from England. Great music, great fun and the delightful voices had no problem in drowning out the chatter from the impromptu bar set up outside the Foyer (village hall). Come the evening and there was the parade through all the village streets with tiny tots carrying lanterns marching in front of a small brass band – lots of oomph with the oom-pah.
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Once the circuit was completed we had yet another dance with another band shaking the foundations of this rickety old village. And the band played on…and on…and, well you get the picture. I finally fell by the wayside around 1.30. Others with more stamina saw it through to the end around 3.00am.

Sunday activities geared up with a hotly contested boule match, games and sports for the kiddies and yes, a third dance with a third band. All my neighbours turned out and we got ready to rumble. At midnight we all adjourned to the park where there was a fantastic firework display. A whole new galaxy was born as rockets shot green, red and gold starbursts out into the velvet black night sky. I finished the night at my neighbours’ house with Mikael the masseur and another guy (I hadn’t a clue who he was). We swapped rude words in French and English before toasting the dawn with chilled rosé and finished off with neighbour Sandra’s by now legendary café with calva (calvados).

Fortunately I had only to cross the road to go home but the house seemed to have moved so it took me a while to find it.

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Long Live the Revolution

There’s nothing like local politics for heating the blood and bringing together partisan groups…at least so it seems here in France. Recently my village, Ste. Colombe, has elected a new Mayor (a powerful office in a small village). The election was fought by two candidates and the new Mayor’s regular news sheet is swiftly followed by an independent bulletin issued by some of those who supported the unsuccessful candidate. This latter news-sheet is intended to give us all the real skinny about what’s going on in the mayoral offices. It’s funny, ironic and even satirical. This comes as no surprise as the village has a history of revolution and counter-revolution.

In the latter days of the French Revolution what was then the town of Ste. Colombe was joined, administratively, with a neighbouring large village, Rivel. Ste. Colombe held firm for the new Republic and its citizens were a mix of moderate republicans and anarchists. Citizens of Rivel on the other hand had always taken an opposite view. Administratively it was intended that the two villages would each have representatives on the local council.

Chief in the brouhaha that followed were the Rolland brothers, Pierre batting for Rivel and Etienne for Ste Colombe. The Rivel camp was bolstered by the Viviès family, notably Jean-Marie who had been the agent for the local aristocracy. This gave rise to the insult that they had sold out to the aristocracy.

In March 1797 the citizens of the two villages met in Ste. Colombe to elect numerous officials to form their new administration. The chief posts, President and Secretary went to Ste. Colombe men but this did not meet with approval from the Rivel faction and especially Monsieurs Rolland and Viviès. Quickly the Rivel group headed, with malice aforethought, for the President and Pierre took the opportunity to hurl a few insults and threats at his brother Etienne. So the newly-elected president adjourned the proceedings and disappeared precipitously.

This was a mistake for it gave the Rivel group time to put in place a crafty plan to overthrow the election results. Pierre Rolland (who seems to have been leader) sent men to all the hamlets and tenant farms of Rivel to tell the people of a dastardly plot on the part of the newly-elected President and his minions to expel their beloved village priest. Naturally this was thirsty work and wine flowed in abundance. Next day, the electors of Rivel headed for Ste Colombe armed with staves and rocks, oh yes…and with a large skin of wine.

At Ste Colombe, the assembly formed again and voting began to yet more official posts (the famous French bureaucracy). During the vote count the Rivel faction spread out into the town taverns to pass on the rumour. Some hardy Ste Colombe citizens tried to tell them that they had been duped – their priest was safe and it was all a ruse, but to no avail.

After the count finished, it appears that 346 votes had been cast but there were only 343 voters. Uproar followed as the President tried to declare the vote null and void. Pierre Rolland and Agent Viviès set on the President closely followed by the rest of the Rivel faction. Ste. Colombe citizens came to his aid and a right old set-to followed. Folk got hurt, blood flowed “staining the council table”. Agent Viviès so far forgot himself as to belabour some poor soul with his sword-stick, finishing him off with a wallop with a stone for good measure. He then nicked the ballot box and ran off with it “for safety”.

In the aftermath two entirely different sets of minutes documented the affair and were sent to the public prosecutor, regional governor and the Ministry of Justice. In these documents each party naturally accuses the other of being the aggressor, of creating “scandalous scenes” and of “raising the standard of revolt”.

The outcome – the newly-elected President feeling his life in danger resigned as did the secretary and one of the deputies. Quickly, the Rivel faction acted to call a new assembly and vote in their own candidates including M. Pierre Roland and M. Viviès. No-one appears to know where those extra 3 votes came from!

The Ministry of the Interior hearing of these shenanigans in south west France demanded of this new administration a full report. In response they provided a detailed account, refuting all allegations against themselves and describing the Ste Colombe faction as being responsible for disorder, anarchy and creating civil war in the canton. They described adherents of Etienne Rolland (the Ste Colombe Priest in case you’re totally lost) as “ferocious beasts calling themselves republicans”.

The success of the Rivel faction was not long lived but at least the next elections, two years later, were conducted with a little more sang-froid and possibly less wine.

The street where I live c.1900

A Salty Tale

The village I live in was one of about a dozen situated in what, up to the French Revolution, was known as La Terre Privilégiée where citizens enjoyed not only exemption from the hated Gabelle or salt tax but they could also purchase their salt at much reduced rates. This latter privilege was probably due to the ease in which inhabitants of these villages could nip across the Pyrenees and buy their salt in Spain.

The tax was the result of a 13th century opt-out clause…pay up or fight in the army and, even in peacetime it was imposed supposedly to pay for a “professional” army. By the 15th century it was a well established bit of fiscal finagling. The collection of the tax was “farmed out” to a bunch of more than usually avaricious folk known as tax farmers general who paid great wodges of cash for the privilege of becoming tax collectors.

Applied across France with a breathtaking disdain for consistency it was probably the most detested of all the taxes, bringing as it did poverty and starvation and adding yet another straw to the haystack of ills besetting France until the revolutionary fire broke out with the storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789).

The Gabelle officials were…well, officious, using stop and search tactics to prevent the smuggling of salt around the country. They poked and proddled merchandise with long metal augers and even, in one town, subjected a funeral cortege to a thorough search. They were given extensive and intrusive search rights including house searches. However one quirk in all this harassment existed – if the master of the house was sitting in his chair (he would have a relatively large and quite grand chair as generally only the better-off could afford to buy salt) he could not be moved or forced to leave the chair regardless of the tax collector’s (probably correct) suspicions as to what he was actually sitting on. Hence, such chairs became known as salt chairs.
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Salt warehouses opened up in towns across France where those of the local populace who could afford salt were obliged to purchase their ration. However, in some areas every man, woman and child over 8 years old was forced to buy salt (whether they wanted or needed it or not). This duty to purchase salt was known as “duty-salt for the pot and the saltcellar”.

English traveller John Locke saw the bullying and threatening behaviour of the Gabelle officials and heard about the severe penalties applied to tax dodgers. He warned ordinary citizens of the danger of buying any salt from anywhere but the warehouses. The penalties for being caught with “but an handful” that had not been purchased and paid for at the rate set by the tax collectors was to be sent to the Galleys – otherwise known as certain death. As a result, careful buyers would insure themselves against inadvertently buying smuggled salt.

In the years just before the Revolution, over 3500 people were arrested for having contraband salt more than 1500 were actually imprisoned and around 300 men were sent to the galleys for smuggling salt and tobacco. Come the Revolution and le Gabelle along with several other taxes was abolished and many of the Gabelle tax collectors visited Madame Guillotine.

However, taxes are a Government’s get out of jail card when finances look a bit under the weather and Napoleon himself reinstated le Gabelle so that he could fund the invasion of Italy. It remained until after World War Two in 1949 when it was finally given a state funeral.

Dance of the Seven Volets (Shutters to me and thee)

One of the attractive aspects of the houses in the street where I live is the shutters that grace each façade. They come in all shapes and shades; some dull and weather-worn, others brightly painted with blue as the colour of choice.They are of course, absolutely essential to keep the house cool during the heat of summer but also they do a sterling job keeping in the warmth during the short (so I’m told) but dry, cold winters.
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For some of the street’s inhabitants there is clearly a shutter ritual and one into whose, no doubt arcane secrets, I have yet to be initiated. It commences with my immediate neighbour, her-next-door. At 7.30 every morning, without fail, I wake to the rusty groans of her weathered shutters as she manoeuvres them open and tethers them to the wall. This appears to be the signal for other early risers (7.30 is early in these parts) to let in the light and for a few minutes a short symphony of creaks and squeaks plays up and down the street. The only back-slider being him-across-the-way whose metallic modern roller shutters remain determinedly at half-mast throughout the day.

The opening ceremony varies. Some prefer to fling them back with gay abandon from within their house; others emerge, tousled and be-slippered, to coax the gnarly beasts back to the wall whilst taking the opportunity to look around to see if anything has changed overnight and of course nothing has.

Similarly around 9.00 at night the exercise is repeated in reverse; the resultant clatter accompanied by a chorus of bonne nuit as my neighbours dart out from their lairs like demented bats to shut out any noxious night airs. If windows are the eyes of a house then shutters are the eyelids and by 9.30 they are all firmly closed. That is not to say my neighbours are early to bed. Flickers of light escape through warped wood and a gentle murmur of voices floats across the road occasionally punctuated with a harsh shout or a baby crying.

My inclination is to leave my shutters well alone not the least because those at the front of the house are of the concertina variety and have a nasty habit of trapping fingers. However, the village know-all, hear-all and see-all tells me, in a voice not dissimilar to that of a stag during the rut, that my failure to observe the ritual will lead to a “loss of well-being”. At least that’s what I think she said. So not wishing to lose my well-being I capitulate and nurse my bruised fingers in silence.

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The Storm

Whilst I have been enjoying fabulous weather down here in SW France over these past few days it is the storms that seem to blow up from the back of the mountains that engage my interest. So this offering is a brief (and probably a bit florid) account of one particular storm that caught me and a couple of equine friends unawares.

It begins with the faint growl of thunder rolling out from the mountain. In the field, two horses – a chestnut and the black and white spotted Appaloosa – stand together, nose to tail, ears flicking a wild semaphore. Deep hollows above their soft eyes tell of age and wisdom. They know what is to come.

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As the first heavy splats of rain belabour parched grass, the heat of the day swells and suffocates the scent of the meadows and the song of the birds. Banks of pewter cloud conquer the last lingering patches of blue sky.
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The menace of thunder draws nearer, the growl gives way to staccato cracks that echo around the valley. Presently its brother-in-arms, white lightning, joins the fray slashing the sky to leave cruel jagged scars.

Rain follows washing away all traces of the past sun-filled hours. The horses bend their heads in submission to the cold, wet, slapping force and occasionally stamp a hoof as though to take a firmer hold of the earth. Their coats darken as they soak up the punishment; ears droop and flatten; the semaphore ceases.

Yet as quickly as it arose, the mountain’s anger dies away to a sullen muttering. In the field the two animals raise their heads. The chestnut gives a shuddering shake and thousands of sparkling raindrops fly into the air to land in the freshly greened grass. Appaloosa moves stiffly from his spot, tail swishing. Suddenly he breaks into an arthritic trot, tossing his head and sniffing the sharp cooled air. The rain stutters and spatters to a stop as the clouds roll away down the valley to eclipse another’s sun.

Meet the Dream Team

The world cup is on its way so I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce my own team -one which will probably win no plaudits outside of Ste. Colombe but is nevertheless a winning team for me.. This is my “artisan” team, a FrAnglo mix each of whom has contributed in his own way to the rejuvenation of the Old Lady of Petite Rue and no I don’t mean me.

First on the field is Daniel, artisan mason from Normandy. Short, stocky and in possession of a fine head of streaky russet hair almost worth suiciding oneself for, or so Lydia the local hairdresser tells me. Unfortunately, in the photo he’d been cutting stone and turned temporarily grey!

Daniel the artisan mason

Daniel the artisan mason

He has an impish sense of humour and, apart from working with stone his other passion is “Calva” (calvados) which he lugs back with him in huge plastic vats after a foray to his native county. “It’s probably illegal “ he says with a wink, “made in small stills in barns and outhouses across Normandy.” Whatever. It’s rich, strong and leaves a fire in the belly. That other famous Norman, William the Conqueror, probably supped it for breakfast before popping across the Channel in 1066.

Next on the field is Tomas the charpentier whose specialty is… yes you guessed it, woodwork and specifically roofs.

Tom conquering the roof

Tom conquering the roof

Single-handedly, he has defended against rain, rot and the egregious woodworm beasties. This player hails from Berlin although his ancestry is Croatian. A perfectionist, he never takes his eye off the goal of a watertight, insulated roof. He will climb into his 30year old Mercedes bus and turn out in the fiercest thunderstorm when rain stops play to check that not a drop gets through his defences.

After Tomas we have Richard, the only local lad on the pitch.

Richard playing with plugs

Richard playing with plugs


Thin as one of Tomas’ roof laths, dark and quiet, he glides in and out of the game as the fancy takes him. He is the sparkie; his long fingers weave together skeins of red, blue, black and white wires, curbing their wayward tendencies and taming them into the fuse box. Sometimes he’s here for the day, sometimes for ten minutes but he has the uncanny knack of showing up at just the right moment to weave his magic, usually when the rest of the team are getting anxious about a possible delay.

Finally there is Eric the Giant or Eric the Viking or Papa Noel as children call him owing to the magnificence of his facial hair. He grooms his long beard into a “chin tail” and ties his greying hair into a ponytail. A philosopher, a lover of nature, a devoted dad, he is one of those rare signings…a plumber…and one with both brain and imagination neither of which he is afraid to use. There are no problems for Eric. ”A solution will be found” is his mantra for any apparently intractable plumbing difficulty. He mulls it over and next day, voilà the solution has presented itself.

Eric the Viking liberating the hot water boiler from 25 years of limescale.

Eric the Viking liberating the hot water boiler from 25 years of limescale.

To this quartet we must add the English contingent- Matt who toiled for five weeks in atrocious living conditions but cheerfully mixed in, learning a few French phrases and cracking jokes which even the non-English speakers seem to find funny. His hippo-sized appetite made me resuscitate my culinary skills since I couldn’t get away with cheese on toast.

Matt hard at work

Matt hard at work

Finally big bro, who despite marching around like Captain Mannering from time to time, ranges all over the pitch, checking here, supporting there; fills in when necessary and directs play (when I let him). His forte is coming up with weirdly creative ideas usually in the middle of the night which actually do work (now and again).

Big bro -a moment of repose

Big bro -a moment of repose

So that’s my team, cup winners if ever there was and, as their work is almost finished I’ll find a large glass, fill it with the local Sauvignon and toast them.

The Door in the Wall

“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be the same as the man who went out.” (Aldous Huxley)

In the little village where I live there is a converted textile mill now doing time as a large gite. The entrance to this edifice is protected by two magnificent bronze doors, dating from the Roaring Twenties. This pair of portals show surprising restraint (usually the French opt for ornate ironwork) in design; simple geometric style relieved by wide scrolls and backed by huge plates of milky glass.
LIFELINE - WIN_20140527_194849 However these austere gatekeepers are not original to the mill; they are imports and if you think they once graced the entrance of some chic and seriously expensive hotel well… nothing could be further from the truth. They are, in fact, the doors that graced the entrance to a lively Marseilles bordello. Well perhaps the seriously expensive might apply.

Now that opens up a whole new stream of speculation. What tales could they tell? What hands rapped, tapped or scratched on those glass panels seeking entrance? Sailors on shore leave looking for good-time gals? Portly businessmen, pillars of the community, playing away from home? A nervous first-timer egged on by his mates? The lonely or Misunderstood by the Missus?

And once through these bronze behemoths, what would we find? A sleazy fleapit with raddled whores stinking of sweat and cheap wine? Or, perhaps these doors opened onto elegant salons where the girls rustle and hustle in a frou-frou of lace and satin watched over by the all-seeing eye of the Madam. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

How it is that the doors came to be separated from the bordello and abandoned in a scrap yard I have yet to discover. But here they are, a little out of place in this modest village, enjoying a second career whilst quietly greening with verdigris under the hot Occitan sun… just waiting for someone to write a story about them.

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