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.
salt chair

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.
street view (2)

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.

street view

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.


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.

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.

LIFELINE - WIN_20140527_195003

Fur and Feather

I suppose it was inevitable that on the day of the village show the glorious sunshine would turn into wet mizzle-drizzle worthy of a Sunday morning in West Yorkshire. However, here in SW France it is rather disappointing. Nevertheless the show must go on and, in this instance, the show being an exhibition of small animals, market and bric-a-brac stalls. Mostly these fall victim to the weather but in the shelter of the Foyer (the village hall) the exhibition of small animals goes ahead with a vengeance.

Whilst appetising odours drift across the village square from the impromptu café set up for lunch later, (rosemary and lamb, an aromatic marriage made in heaven) an aroma of a very different nature assaults the nose from within the Foyer…parfum de farmyard. I squeeze past the huddle of men gossiping over coffee in the corner and pretend not to notice the flash of silver as a small hip flask, containing je ne sais quoi surreptitiously makes its rounds.

Inside the Foyer I find poultry of every kind.

Massive cockerels, with wicked beady eyes and sharp spur claws, square up to each other. Only the bars of their cages prevents all-out war. These are watched by pairs of docile hens, sitting like fluffy tea cosies and crooning quietly to themselves. A few Silkies shuffle and preen showing off their feathered legs and one with ridiculously curled feathers all over quivers and rustles like a Shaker at a prayer meeting. On the floor larger cages house a few geese and a couple of turkeys with drooping, lugubrious expressions.

However the highlight of the morning is the show jumping… not I hasten to add with mettlesome steeds. No here in rural Languedoc, we do it in style, this is rabbit show jumping. Today there are four charming white rabbits with huge black eyes staring rather sleepily at the crowd around the ring. My Youthful Mentor in all things French and her friend Damielle are ringside and greet me.
“Who’s going to win?” I ask.
My YM replies carefully, cognisant of my inability to understand a word of French when it is spoken at a speed that outstrips the TGV (train grande vitesse).
“I don’t know. Perhaps the one with the blue collar.”
“Non” Damielle is emphatic, “the green.”
A lively argument breaks out and I edge away.

The contest begins. Both blue collar and green collar manage clear rounds but sadly red and yellow collars don’t make it. Now it’s the jump-off. The triple bar fence is suddenly raised to six bars. The spread fence takes on enormous proportions and the bamboo barricade is raised on blocks. We wait. In comes blue collar; first fence and he’s safely over and likewise the second fence. Then, disaster! A refusal at the bamboo barricade followed by escape from the ring.

Green collar enters the ring. Do I detect a bit of a rabbit swagger? He takes the first, second and third fences in his stride. Everyone holds their breath as his handler directs him to the final hurdle – a spread of half a dozen black and white striped poles and as the furry bundle clears it with inches to spare the crowd breaks out into applause.

And the winner is...

And the winner is…

Damielle looks smug; YM exasperated; I know when to keep quiet.

Fête Accompli

Today is both Labour Day and Lily of the Valley Day here in France and a paid holiday for all workers which in effect means everything is closed and most folk are making a long weekend of it.

Labour Day came about from the efforts of supporters of the French Socialist movement at the beginning of the 20th century who were calling for reasonable working hours. Initially supporters of the movement wore a red ribbon triangle in their buttonholes to represent their call for 8hours work, 8hours leisure and 8hours sleep. Over the years, this symbol changed to a sprig of eglantine roses and then to lilies of the valley in 1907.

Lily of the Valley day has an earlier history when a tradition of giving lily of the valley sprigs was started by King Charlie IX of France who, having been presented with a bunch of these fragrant flowers, (said to signify luck and prosperity) took up the habit and presented bunches to all the court ladies on 1 May every year. Since when, it has become a custom to present one’s sweetheart and other loved ones with a bunch.

To add to the romance of the day in some parts of France a Bal de Muguet (lily of the valley ball) was held where, shock horror, young singletons could meet together without first obtaining their parents permission. The girls dressed all in white and the guys sported a lily of the valley buttonhole.

So the fête de travail and the fête de muguet merged.

Today in the village I spied some of the older residents carrying sprigs of the flower to their neighbours. Apparently, providing the flowers come from a private garden or are picked from the wild, it is possible to sell them on the street, without filling in the usual 10 page permission document and without paying any tax on sales. If only I’d known that sooner. I have a garden full of them that I could have flogged off.

I leave you with a piccy of a poster created by L’Assiette de Beurre (a sort of French version of “Private Eye” but older) to mark Labour Day. It was produced in 1907 but you can quite clearly see that work and romance are merging even though the ladies appear to have forgotten the old adage “cast nary a clout, ’til May is out”.
Happy Labour Day or for the Romantics, happy Lily of the Valley day.