Are you becoming just a bit nervous about someone standing too close to you in a queue? Do you have nightmares about being the MELON in the middle of the collage above? It would be surprising if you didn’t. Most of us were resigned to following the rules the first time around. Now there is opposition and the trend is stubbornly refusing to go down. As if we don’t have enough to contend with, the UK’s departure from the EU is becalmed in a windless ocean and Boris is threatening to send in the navy to stop French fishermen from scooping up Britain’s fish.
There was a queue outside la poste but it was necessary to brave the drizzle to post a packet to Australia. We haven’t yet worked out why the post office queues move at a snail’s pace. Probably because it’s all things to all men. (No, I’m not being sexist. It’s a phrase from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, ch9 v22 to be precise, or so I am told). Unless you are clever enough to use the machine inside and weigh and pay yourself then it’s up to the counter. If there is a suspicion that the packet is more than 2 cm thick then out come the calipers. If it is to be recorded then that entails more paperwork, and so on.
Our factrice, a gem of a postie, has exceeded the call of duty during the lockdown. She will take our mail to be posted then return the change with a neatly written calculation. She doesn’t blanch if it’s a parcel for the other side of the world. It is people like her that keep the wheels turning when you think the planet is slowing down and in danger of stopping all together. When we lived, briefly, in the Charente we had a neighbour who was a prolific letter writer. She had welded an old car aerial on to the top of her metal letterbox and attached her letters to it with clothes pegs like miniature washing hanging out to dry.
Anyway, the point of this is to say that the woman in front of me in the queue had what looked like a creature on her hair. Our paths nearly met on the way out and closer inspection showed it to be a sticker. Now this could turn into what you might call a personal crusade.
Madame and I went shopping for fruit and veg yesterday. Every single item of fruit had a sticker on it; thankfully not the veg. Imagine a label on each sprout or leaf of spinach. Precautions mean we should wash all fruit, which we did. Soon the sink outlet was clogged with these pesky adhesive stickers. You have to take care eating an apple in case you swallow one and it glues itself to your throat. If you are a gardener and throw your waste into a composteur you will find when you come to turn it that, guess what, the only item that has not decomposed is that. Do fruit packers employ someone who has made a career out of firing a special sticker gun. They could save money and not torment us. Rant over!
It was announced on the news tonight that we cannot expect the vaccine any time soon. As mentioned in the previous post the decision as to which one to use would have to be taken by committee, i.e. the 27 members of the EU. Imagine if Macron’s grandiose scheme for a European army had borne fruit.
Scene on the battlefield:
‘Can I pull the trigger now sarge?’
‘Steady on there lad, let’s not be hasty; I’ve 27 calls to make first’.
We thought, and hoped, that TV news had stopped showing interminable pictures of people having swabs poked up their noses and substituted ones of needles being thrust into bare arms. But no. It was a bad mistake eating supper in front of the TV at 8pm tonight. No less than eight shots were shown of swabs being shoved up slimy nostrils. We are treated to incomprehensible images of microscope slides show wriggling cells that only microbiologists can comprehend. The UK has ‘won’ the race to produce a vaccine, much to the chagrin of other countries, some of whom have expressed doubts about the speed at which it has been introduced. Meanwhile, the rest of us wait patiently for our turn. France is in no hurry; its problem is that the decision about which vaccine to use has to be decided by committee i.e. the 27 paid-up members of the EU, not renowned for speedy decisions.
Church restarted last weekend. The word cultes has sinister connotations; the translation, ‘worship’, is much more acceptable. Note the limit.
But how do you limit the number of worshippers to 30? Today the clouds were throwing down buckets of rain and the temperature couldn’t climb into double figures. Some parishioners have already exceeded their threescore years and ten and can’t be expected to queue. Maybe shops have the answer but when does the countdown begin? Half an hour before the doors open? Will worshippers camp overnight to be first in the queue?
These days you can book most appointments on the internet; that’s if you have a computer. In this corner of France many don’t and even paying a bill by cheque is commonplace. We watched an old lady in the market try to pay for a bunch of grapes by cheque. The stallholder told her not bother and gave them to her. Perhaps she tried that trick regularly and ended up with a week’s free groceries.
Président Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who died recently, was keen to nudge France into the modern age and the Minitel was born. The little beige box, given away free, was the pride and joy of France for 30 years. If you had a telephone line you simply plugged it in and you were away. You could book tickets, check your bank account and visit chat rooms, if so inclined. Only problem at the start was that France had the worst telephone service in the industrialised world. Eventually the internet took over and Minitel was retired.
A 90-year-old UK grandmother has become the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. Her picture will be publicised around the globe, probably with that of the Health Secretary, Matt (what’s wrong with Matthew? Not blokey enough?) Hancock, who shed a tear or two when he announced the news.
Is the end really in sight? With 14,595 new cases in France yesterday the answer is’ not yet’ and we must wait for the results of the vaccine. France will eventually announce a programme for vaccinating. When the restaurants reopen we’ll know that the war is being won. The uninspiring prime minister has just announced that the curfew will commence at 8pm and will continue over Christmas and the New Year. Not much festive spirit there then.
We were sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine (what else?) our first October here when there was a honking and squawking high above us. That, our neighbour told us, was the start of the autumn migration of the cranes (les grues) on their way from Scandinavia to Spain or north Africa. Even so high up you can tell that they are big birds, among the largest in Europe apparently with a wingspan of 2 metres.
It’s now December and still they come as they have for six weeks, trumpeting their way towards the Pyrenees; not in hundreds or thousands but tens of thousands. Their route over our house is not the only one but some 150,000 must cross during the migration.
Those who know about aerodynamics tell us that they fly in a V formation for a good reason, but not directly behind each other. It’s to do with the ‘lift’ and less turbulence that they get from the bird in front. That’s tough on the leader who gets no assistance and tires before the others, so they change every so often. It took the invention of the aeroplane for man to discover what the birds have known for as long as migration has taken place.
Our house seems to act as a beacon on this particular flight path. We could not understand why the formation broke up over us and they started flying around in circles. Naively we thought that they were lost. These birds have flown from Scandinavia without GPS and know precisely where they are going. A friend patiently told us that they were searching for thermals to help lift them up over the mountains.
Life can be hazardous for the grues. Over the border in Spain deforestation has deprived them of acorns. The use of chemicals in farming can poison the birds or cause infertility and drainage of their nesting areas tells its own story. One year a few spent the night in the field below us which slopes down to the river. Ideal damp conditions.
We found this one when out for a walk; presumably it just fell out of the sky as it hadn’t been shot (it would have been illegal if it had). Maybe it had been poisoned. For whatever reason this magnificent bird had had its journey cut short.
While Friday 13th is considered unlucky in the UK it’s the reverse here in France. Many people will put off buying their lottery tickets until that day, hoping luck will be on their side. It didn’t work out that way for us. We were about to climb out of bed when Madame received a text message from our neighbour to say her husband had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. We’re not superstitious about Friday 13th, but this news woke us up with a jolt because we had been in contact with him earlier in the week.
We’d been sitting on the terrace having coffee when he came in through the garden gate, without a mask, to discuss an estimate. If we had been prudent we would have fetched masks without delay. But there are times when logic eludes you and this was one of them. We did what we would have done in normal circumstances, offered him coffee and biscuits, which he was happy to accept, and we then discussed the devis. He sat at the other side of the table but leant forward occasionally to emphasise a point or two.
After he had gone we replayed the meeting and ticked off, too late, what we should have done. Mugs were thoroughly washed, the document was wiped with a disinfected cloth and we hoped for the best. It was a calm day and the sky was cloudless so we trusted that the virus hadn’t leapt in our direction.
We waited a week before being tested.; that presumably being the dangerous period. Our médecin traitant emailed us prescriptions to avoid going to the surgery. You couldn’t just pitch up and expect to be checked. It was efficient; the swimming pool changing rooms had been converted into testing rooms, you didn’t pass anyone else and we were seen on time, surprisingly, as midday is French lunchtime and the world stops. The negative results were received with relief by internet that evening.
Today completed the two weeks after meeting our neighbour so we ventured to the supermarket to pick up the shopping ordered on-line. The fruit shop was closed and the cheese shop; even the boulangerie was on half time. The town was uncannily quiet and parking was no problem. It’s compulsory to wear a mask, not that we saw one gendarme. The police have been drafted to hot spots in the larger towns.
Are you superstitious? Glad that the cat you nearly ran down was jet black? Hang that horseshoe on the stable door like a U so that the good luck doesn’t drop out? Over the border in Spain walking into a room with your left foot first will bring you bad luck. Don’t walk on manhole covers; going home one night in the pitch dark someone had stolen the manhole cover from the road in front of the house. It could have been a wet drop and, possibly, a broken leg!
Maybe you cross your fingers or touch wood, as many of us subconsciously do; superstitions are so deep-rooted. Take not walking under a ladder. Apart from the practical reason of not wanting to be hit on the head by a tin of paint, to the ancient Egyptians a ladder against a wall formed a triangle which was sacred. (Look at the Pyramids) If, as an adult, you still avoid walking on the cracks between paving stones, as you did when a child, people might well look askance you.
There’s even a word for those who have an irrational fear of Friday the 13th. No prizes for pronouncing it correctly. Paraskevidekatriaphobe, from the Greek words for Friday and thirteen, with phobia tacked on the end for good measure. A variation of this is Friggatriskaidekaphobia based on the name of the ancient Scandinavian goddess Frigg (Anglicised Frigga) who was associated with Friday (the witches’ sabbath). It makes her sound a cold person, an ice queen, but Norse mythology depicts her as a woman who was generous with her favours. End of lecture.
Inevitably masks have become a fashion accessory. Are they this year’s ‘must give’ present?
This is one that you won’t be able to afford. It’s made of 250 grams of 18c gold and is set with more than 3,000 diamonds, which makes it the most expensive mask in the world. That’s unofficial, but no one else has come forward with a similar claim. The mask is made with an opening to insert a disposable protective mask. A lavish fashion accessory.
Some mushrooms appeared on our lawn. Well, that’s too grandiose; weedy grass would be more accurate. They looked like those you can buy in the shops, white on top, pink underneath and they peeled easily. Living in foreign parts we decided on caution and took them to the local pharmacie. The chemist looked at one closely, turned it upside down, sniffed it then said he wouldn’t touch it. With thirty deaths a year in France from eating poisonous mushrooms he had every reason to be cautious.
To the unwary, or those who are long-sighted, there doesn’t appear to be much to choose between these two sets of white mushrooms. You would probably suffer no adverse reactions from the first, but would be unlikely to survive the second. With a name out of a Harrison Ford film le calice de la mort is the chalice of death. Just one Death Cap mushroom could kill you.
If you go down to the woods today you will find, despite lockdown Mark II, the occasional car or van discreetly hidden among the trees. Conditions are ideal here at the moment; a warm, damp end to October has prolonged the foraging season and mushrooms are abundant in the oak forest. Those who know where to find the les cèpes and les bolets make sure that nobody else does.
Pre-Covid Madam was often often given a basket of cèpes. They are an acquired taste and we did not appreciate them as much as we should have. Maybe it’s their unappealing look that doesn’t set our taste buds tingling.
This easily recognisable mushroom is known for its foul odour and shape. Despite its obnoxious smell immature Stinkhorns, as they are commonly known, are eaten here in France. A 16th century botanist referred to it as the pricke mushroom. You don’t need to forage for long to find them; the stench ensures that. Victorians were so disconcerted at their shape and tried to destroy them to stop the spores spreading. A waste of effort; the purpose of course was to avoid impressionable young ladies being embarrassed if they came across them during an early morning walk; presumably those same prudes who covered piano legs to preserve their modesty. This has been debunked as a myth by the author of The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners. Impudicus? from the Latin for ‘immodest’ or ‘shameless’.
Even if we had permission from our local Mairie we couldn’t just go and forage. We would have to make sure we weren’t on propriété privée; the landowner owns the mushrooms. We would have to carry the mushrooms in a wicker basket (plastic bags ferment and damage the mushrooms), they must be picked only when they are a certain size and they must only be cut with a special knife with a curved blade. What’s more, we would have to leave some of the mushroom behind (cut so that you leave the stem and spores in the ground) so that they can regrow the following year. Are these rules adhered to? Maybe.
If we were fortunate enough to find truffles some must go back in the ground for the same reason. Pity really as they are not called Black Diamonds for nothing. We would have to go north to Périgord as they’re not found here. Well, not as far as we know. We don’t own a truffle hunting dog or tame pig to help either.
‘Journey into a blissful state of mind exploration as a myriad of flying colours dance in front of your eyes. Embrace the happy feelings and let your senses flourish to awareness levels never experienced before.’ So says an advertiser of magic mushroom Growkits. Le champignon hallucinogène is not hard to find here. But, a word of caution; whatever ‘benefits’ people say they might have, in France psilocybin mushrooms are listed as a narcotic. The possession, use, transportation, sale and collection are illegal.
Let’s finish on a more agreeable note again. Stuck for a Christmas present? We met Perry a few years ago when he had an exhibition at Sauveterre de Béarn. His humorous drawings of life in South West France capture the essence of rural French life. He has books, prints and cards on sale on his website http://www.perrytaylor.fr/en
Forget playground jokes about how the fairy became pregnant. This is a serious post.
Toad’s Tool is the first, and only, graphically oriented Super Mario 64 level editor. Does that mean anything to you? Me neither.
An acclaimed scientific journal claims that ‘mankind has hankered after a tool that can detect impending seismic activity’. It seems the common toad (Bufo bufo to you) could fit the bill. The evidence comes from a population of toads which left their breeding colony three days before an earthquake that struck L’Aquila in Italy in 2009 (BBC report).
Why write about toads, which are abhorrent to some of you, in a way that frogs are not? After all, frogs’ legs are a delicacy here (for some). Haven’t seen toads’ legs on a menu in France though. A man did die from poisoning after eating toads he had mistaken for edible bullfrogs. You can make frog soup according to the Google recipes , but, if in doubt, avoid! Those that know about these matters tell me that, technically, toads are a classification of frog. An apostrophe slipped into the title where it shouldn’t have so you’ll have to wait for the next post about toadstools (and mushrooms).
Toads deserve a more sympathetic press. Attracting them into your garden is a natural way of reducing your pest population. They live exclusively on insects, so encourage them. Autumn can be a hazardous time for them. Leaves are falling by the barrowful in our garden and have to be cleared. Raking a pile that had blown into a corner disturbed a toad which presumably thought that there was a safe place to shelter from the winter. It was picked up carefully and given a safer home. It had a dry, bumpy skin unlike the occasional frogs we see.
In the warmer days of spring we can hear them calling to each other. One evening we disturbed a toad carrying eggs on its back. It’s the male that has this job apparently.
Our Australian family tell us that not all toads are universally appreciated. Cane toads were brought to Australia from Hawaii with the intention of controlling the cane beetle in the sugar plantations in north Queensland. The beetles live high up on the upper stalks of the plant. The toads can’t jump that far so…… it was a wasted exercise. Scientists estimate that there are more than 200 million of them hopping around Australia causing havoc to the ecosystem. (Fact: Female toads can lay up to 30,000 eggs, twice a year!)
Did you read Wind in the Willows when you were young? If so, you could not forget Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, a character lacking in even the most basic common sense and with a reckless interest in cars.
Well, here we are, again, back at square one; maybe square two as the schools are open this time. It makes the title of this blog, freefromlockdown.com, look increasingly jaded. Not that many people actually read these posts, although there is one stalwart from China who rarely misses a day, but never comments. We are not free, not even remotely and won’t be until a vaccine is perfected. Will the French way of life ever recover? Optimistically yes, but maybe the traditional French greeting will be less intimate.
It took a world war to put a stop to hunting. Posters were nailed up in every town square after France’s occupation declaring that persons who failed to turn in their firearms within 24 hours would be subject to the death penalty. Not all obeyed of course; many guns finding their way into the hands of the resistance.
Fast forward to October 2020 and our local préfet (the state’s representative in the department) has just issued this order ‘la chasse est fermée sauf les battues aux nuisibles‘ , in other words no hunting except of pests, which might, in true Gallic fashion, be generously interpreted. In this SW corner of France the sanglier, or wild boar, is the number one pest. What Covid-19 has done is shorten the hunt for the palombe, the wood pigeon, on its annual migration south. In the narrow mountain passes between France and Spain the flocks become denser and easier to snare.
Guillaume, our plumber, came to investigate an unpleasant smell from the bathroom. One problem of living in an old house is that ancient plumbing can be dodgy, more so if you’re connected to a fosse septique, basically a hole in the ground with a tank in it. Aucun problème he said, just run all the taps in the house and the smell will go away, which it did. We were fortunate to catch him this month because la fièvre bleue strikes men of hunting age. His fellow plombiers had succumbed to this ‘blue’ fever and could be found self isolating in discreet locations up in the hills.
Last year Madam and I were driving back from Saint Jean Pied de Port by way of the Le col despalombières. There’s a long straight stretch of road leading up to the col and there was a barrier across the road manned by hunters who made it plain that they were not pleased to see us. Hunting, after cycling of course, is sacred in France but we live in the country and you accept the traditions that go with it. The fact that a public road was blocked would not have been factored into the equation. We were content to wait until a whistle blew from above and the barrier was lifted. At the top men were removing, reluctantly, a net that had been suspended between two trees on either side of the road.
The two traditional methods of hunting palombe here are with shotguns or, much more complicated, with nets. This link http://www.gourmetfly.com is to a company which organises hunting and fishing trips in France. They published an article which explains the origin of this practice. A monk from Roncevaux Abbey some 700 years ago observed that hawks were waiting for the pigeons as they flew through the passes. He noticed that the pigeons were too tired to gain altitude when attacked but dived down and flew close to the ground. If you’re ahead of the game you will have realised by now that the Basques use the hawks’ method by forcing the palombes down towards the ground and into waiting nets.
To do this high towers were erected; the skilled individual at the top, the abatari, throws white paddles or bats high into the air which, theoretically, cause the pigeons to dive down. Those that aren’t trapped in the nets will be caught by the guns further on; that’s the theory.
Guillaume suggested that we go up to the nearest col before dawn at the weekend and see the the action. The air was sharp so we took refuge in the hotel for a hot drink. Over the door to the kitchen was a stuffed pigeon; very realistic we thought. It was so authentic that it proceeded to relieve itself. It would have the authorities in the UK jumping up and down.
By the time the sun was up a sizeable crowd had gathered and we did not have long to wait before the first wave of palombes swept down the valley. Horns blew, there was much shouting, the abatari threw his bats and down they swooped. Just two were caught in the net but there was much popping of shotguns on the other side of the wood.
In the woods near our house we came across this elaborate contraption. A pigeon is strapped to the perch, called a stool (useless fact: origin of the expression ‘stool pigeon’ i.e. one who betrays colleagues). This is then raised to the top of the tree and the unwary migrant sees the tree as a safe place to land. If the thought of hunting disconcerts you it may be better to stop here, but country people had to hunt to eat in the days when they did not know where their next meal was coming from.
Pigeon on the menu today will set you back at least 40 euros in the humblest restaurant. Roasted wood pigeon flambéed with Armagnac is a favourite. Personally I find the birds rather tough!
WARNING: gruesome picture!
Further north in the Landes where the land is flat hunters devised alternative methods to snare the pigeons. Adult pigeons were fed alcohol soaked grain and used as decoys.
You were warned! The practice of temporarily sewing the eyelids of the decoys was common practice until the 20th century. The cries of distress of the restrained bird was supposed to attract the unwary.
Let’s finish on a more cheerful note with one of Perry Taylor’s humorous drawings of life in South West France.
Don’t go mushroom hunting under a tower when the abatari has been up there all day!
We were having breakfast on the terrace when we heard the hounds baying among the trees up on the hill in front of us. We have nothing against hunting per se because we can see the damage that farmers have to tolerate. The main culprits around here are the sangliers or wild boar and it seems impossible to cull them. But we take a proprietary interest in the deer. For some weeks now there has been a small family of parents and fawn down in the corner of the field below the house. We need not have been uneasy because they were not in danger, but they didn’t know that. After a lengthy horn blast they came leaping gracefully across the field directly away from the hounds and disappeared.
Arnaud, our nearest neighbour, owns several hectares of land including woodland which abounds with wildlife. He was brought up on the family farm in the heart of the Pays Basque and understands animals, wild and domestic. He came across a very young fawn which had been abandoned so took her home and fed her. Bambi (yes, banal I know) became so tame that children could pet her. For reasons best known to him he preferred us not to talk about her to anybody. He never found out what had happened to the mother but it would not have been (or should not have been) because of the chasse. There are very strict rules for hunters in France and only selective shooting of male roe deer may be allowed in late summer and a specific permit is needed from the mairie.
She thrived under Arnaud’s care but inevitably one day she leaped over her paddock fence and returned to the wild. Two years passed and we forgot about her but out of the blue she reappeared near Arnaud’s house with a foal. He knew instinctively that it was Bambi and he likes to think that she returned to show him her youngster as a way of expressing her gratitude for his rescuing her.
Late one evening Madame and I were driving back from town where the cinema had been showing an English language film. It was pitch black and the trees on either side made the road even darker. Without warning a deer leaped into the centre of the road about 50 metres ahead of us. It stood and looked at us, temporarily blinded by the headlights, then jumped the ditch on the other side and vanished.
This unfortunate deer (Bambi’s mother?) was not hit by a car nor accidentally shot by the hunters. Nobody could explain how she came to be trapped between the bars of the gate. She had not been injured so the consensus was that she had tried to leap over the gate but didn’t make it.
Usually the deer keep their distance and it’s almost impossible to film them, hence the poor quality of this photo. Walking down the track beside the house early one morning a stag leaped over the hedge in front of us. He looked at us enquiringly with his large, gentle dark eyes then jumped into the trees. Needless to say neither of us had the time to film him. They are nervous animals and sense your presence before you even see them. Only once has one strayed into our garden, a young and spindly legged foal, but the visit was brief.
Living in the country during the lockdown had its advantage when exercise was limited to a kilometre from the house. We could leave the garden and walk down to the river then follow it round in a horseshoe. One’s senses were heightened during the confinement, at least ours were, and we became more aware of what we were seeing, like the tracks made by the deer for instance.
If you walk two kilometres downstream you come across the ‘laundry’. The parents of a ninety-four year old acquaintance once owned our property. She was not born in this house but eight of her siblings were. There was an outdoor privy and no bathroom. We are talking twentieth century here. Somewhere there was a well but we’ve never found it. Going to the river was not an option; somehow family laundry was dealt with here.
One Sunday at the start of the lockdown we went for a longer walk, down to the river then climbed up to Marc’s farm and back, about 4 km. No rules were broken because at no point were we more than one kilometre from the house (well, that’s how we interpreted it). It meant that the last twenty metres to our house were by road. Almost at the front gate and a police car materialised from nowhere. My attestation didn’t pass muster as the date was in pencil (it did save the ink cartridge when you had to change it daily). Anyway, it was their lunchtime so they didn’t linger.
We were lingering over a long Sunday lunch when there were two loud bangs which shook the windows. The military don’t fly over us at weekends so they weren’t the culprits. Beside the house is the orchard and opposite, on the other side of the country road, is a converted barn – the home of Arnaud and his wife.
He had fired both barrels of his 12 bore across the road from an upstairs window at a frelon’s nest in the top of one of our trees. The shotgun pellets seemed not to have stirred up the residents nor had any effect on the nest. Maybe he had had a good lunch too and his aim was suspect. If he had aimed slightly lower he could have hit the electricity cable and then there would have been fireworks.
During the strict lockdown I went to collect the eggs one sweltering day. Didn’t have time to lift up the lid of the nesting box before I was savagely stung by a wasp (and don’t they pack a powerful sting). The nest had to be sprayed when we found it as there were young children about.
The structure of the wasp’s nest was interesting; made from chewed wood pulp and saliva it had thin, papery walls. Nests are usually built in sheltered spots with easy access to the outside, like another one we found (only because we were stung) in a hollow gate post. When you opened the gate they resented being disturbed. As gardeners, we are reluctant to spray. A garden without wasps would be one with a much larger number of pests such as greenfly and caterpillars.
The Asian giant hornet has no such fan club. It is thought to have come to France from China in a container of pottery. For anyone with allergies the frelon’s sting could be fatal and they can penetrate clothing. Generally it’s best to avoid them. Official advice to anyone who has a nest in their garden would be amusing if it wasn’t serious.
Forget that alluring perfume ladies (and aftershave, men). The frelons become over-excited at the scent.
Don’t run away from them – they can outpace you.
They are attracted to bright clothing.
Hide the alcohol.
Have a jolly BBQ!
Madame and I were having supper out on our terrace last week. It was yet another balmy evening and a few frelons were circling around an outside wall light but seemed harmless. I made the mistake of going into the kitchen and switching on the lights. Within seconds half a dozen frelons had swooped in behind me. It was not amusing to be in a room with them flying around your head. Madame had the foresight to switch the light out and give a powerful shot of wasp spray. We have not yet discovered where their nest is which concerns us.
National Geographic reports that the hornets have arrived in Washington State and scientists are concerned that they could spread. ‘Murder hornets‘ earned that name for their ability to behead honeybees, an entire hive of them, raising worries they could decimate entire colonies. There are moves to stop them spreading but it might be as effective as putting your finger in a hole in a dyke to stop the water.
We had to do something about our nests; we had discovered a second under the eaves at the back of the house near a bedroom window. First port of call was the fire station. The girl in the office said she was désolée but the pompiers did not deal with pests any more and we would have to try a private contractor. She did recommend the only likely one. Yes, he would come for 100 euros a nest!
It has to be said that he was very efficient. Whatever he sprayed them with was to make them sleepy, or kill them. He then wrapped a big plastic bag around it, cut it off and brought it down for us to see. They are a work of art inside but you do not want that kind of art in your garden.
If you’ve driven through towns or villages in this south west corner of France you must have passed a fronton, like this one adjoining the church in the captivating village of Ainhoa. Look for a church and you’ll probably find a fronton, maybe sharing one of its walls. This is the playground of pelote(pelota over the border in Spain). A variation of this is Jai alai, traditionally played in an indoor fronton but our local version of pelote is Joko Garbi, played on the open court. Cancelled at the start of the lockdown our annual tournament restarted this month.
Other local events were not so fortunate and have been postponed until 2021. The Basque Games, that demonstration of masculine prowess (tug-of-war, bale carrying and so on) is not just a pleasurable afternoon’s entertainment; it provides valuable cash for the local church and parish. Traditionally our parish priest chairs the panel of judges. The proceeds of the annual village petanque (boules) competition go to the local primary school. Even lone cyclists were banned, not just the lycra clad pelotons that labour up the hill in front of our house.
Primitive balls have been hit or thrown since recorded time but 12th century French monks are credited with inventing a game hitting an improvised ball against their monastery wall with their bare hands and which developed over the centuries into the pelote we know. Whether this is authentic is not significant; someone had to invent it so the monks may as well receive the kudos. What they could never have foreseen was the abundance of games that were spawned from this. It was the French, again, who devised the game ofJeu de paume, literally ‘game of the palm’ and played with bare hands, a more sophisticated variation of that played by the monks. La pelote à main nue is alive and well in our village. It’s not much different from the game of ‘fives’ we played at school but, being British, we wore leather gloves! It is a game of precision and wits and where hard hitting is not an advantage.
When I said to an acquaintance that a version of pelote was the fastest game on earth he dismissed the idea saying that it had to be real tennis. There is a grain of truth in that because real tennis is descended from jeu de paume. Somewhere around the 16th century someone hit on the idea (apologies for the pun) of hitting the ball with a racket, either a solid bat or a rudimentary affair with a wooden frame and strung with sheep gut. The game then took off, particularly with the aristocracy. To list all the games that have proliferated since our monks started the ball rolling, as it were, would make your head spin.
This august bible of statistics is in no doubt that the version of pelote known as Jai Alai is the game with the fastest projectile speed of any moving ball game at 302km/h 188mph. It is also one of the most lethal as Madame found out when we were watching our local team.
It also has the distinction of having been an Olympic sport. The winner of the gold medal in 1908 was an American, Jay Gould II, while the silver and bronze went to Great Britain. The Basque region obviously could not provide a competitor, probably for financial reasons. Moreover, it is the oldest ongoing annual world championship in sport, first established over 250 years ago.
Its high speed makes the ball (the pelote) capable of causing serious injury. The spectators are sometimes protected by a chain-link fence, but this is rare in the villages. The players on the other hand have no such protection, and injuries are not uncommon. You should never, ever, take your eye off the ball when it’s in play.
Last year Madame and I went down to the fronton to see the regular Wednesday evening joko garbi game. Entrance is free but a former player comes round with a basket for contributions. A villageois, Gerard is our deputy mayor and the local undertaker. Young players give you a ticket which could win you a gateau basque. The winning team is the first to score 40 points. The accruing score is first sung in Basque then repeated in French.
We tend to sit on the highest concrete level trusting that it is safer up there. There is chain link fencing but it’s not to protect spectators from random balls but put there to stop people falling back and rolling down the slope to the car park. It was one of those calm, sultry evenings and the ball was being hit higher up than usual, so high that its flight was obscured by the line of tree on the opposite side. The next we knew was the ball hitting the iron stanchion next to Madame‘s head with a resounding crack then ricocheting off the post on to her shoulder. The game came to a standstill. Hundreds of pairs of eyes swivelled in our direction, the anxious players gathered round and Gerard came to assess the damage. A few centimetres to the left and Gerard might have been looking at a potential customer. Fortunately the iron post had taken the sting out of the trajectory but had still left an ugly bruise.
It is the Chistera (cesta in Spanish, meaning basket) that gives this version of pelote its appeal. The Basque word is xistera. It doesn’t begin with a ‘c’ because there isn’t one in the Basque language. (Nor will you find q,r,v,w or y). The long, curved basket (starting with a leather glove) ideally is made from steamed chestnut wood and woven reeds. The genuine article is not factory made. Tests showed that plastic chisteras cannot cope with the temperature changes that they undergo during a game. Players are able to put enormous spin on the balls which makes them less predictable. Needless to say they are expensive. I looked for a secondhand one last year for a present and it was 100 euros.
It requires strength and good eyesight to handle the chistera. During World War II Ernest Hemingway suggested that jai alai players should be used to lob grenades down the hatches of German submarines. He didn’t explain how they were to approach near enough.
Not far from here is a memorial to Victor Iturria who was evacuated to England during the battle of Dunkirk where he joined the Free French Forces. In 1944 he parachuted into occupied France and fought with the French resistance and was killed in an ambush. This memorial shows him throwing a grenade adding…. exécutant le même movement comme un joueur de pelote basque.
Madame and I went to town for the final. While the linesman always has to touch up the boundaries we have never seen the court watered. Still, it was the final and we have had a drought for two months. We were warned to wear masks – a warning that most people ignored. History repeated itself. A high ball came dropping swiftly in our directions – but was fortunately caught by me! Years of youthful cricket practice paid dividends. During the game four gendarmes appeared. Masks miraculously appeared. They watched the game for a while then went away. Maybe it was too much hassle to interrupt a final. Result: Baïgorry 40 Navarrenx 29.
Should you ever find yourself in Madrid try and find time to visit the Prado Museum, Spain’s national art museum, widely considered to have one of the world’s finest collections of European art. Unlike French museums Spanish ones are bilingual and English is used for all exhibits. There you should find this masterpiece;
Once somebody had the idea of putting a net across a court then the dynamics of ball games changed dramatically.
Tennis was born and, for the first time, there was a game that ladies could play. Come to think of it, in all the years we have been here, we have never seen a female pelote player.