24. Loosening the chains?

It has to be said that the daily number of visitors to these posts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Four yesterday was a good day. It’s not the quantity that intrigues me so much as the quality. What would a visitor in Alaska have in common with one in Bulgaria? The visitor from China who used to log in regularly every day has vanished. Where or why? Anyway, to ask the question above might be appreciated in the UK but disrespectful in India, where the health service has buckled under the strain.

Here in France we tend to be sceptical about the official figures. Last Thursday was Ascension Day (Auffahrt in the German speaking part of Switzerland over the border) a religious festival, therefore a public holiday. This means that many French can ‘faire le pont‘, an ‘extended weekend’ in other words. There isn’t an exact translation into English. Google says ‘bridge the gap’ , which is good enough, although it resembles the tinny voice in the London tube stations telling you to mind it. The Germans call it Brückentag, which has a crispness about it. The UK could adopt that alongside angst, rucksack and schadenfreude.

The point being that the published covid figures are the result of testing. This requires people to carry out the checks. You can see where this is leading; a four day weekend will skew the statistics. We tend to ignore Monday’s figures for the same reason.

Do you feel that your chains are being loosened? That depends where you live of course. The UK promises to be close to normality this week, but the number of aircraft from covid hotspots landing at Heathrow may yet muddy the waters. Here we shall be permitted to stay out until 9pm! How will we fill the extra two hours? When invited to stay the weekend at Buckingham Palace Margaret Thatcher, who existed on just a few hours sleep, was told that the staff would go off duty at 11.30pm. Allegedly her reply was ‘what is one going to do?’

Cafes and restaurants are permitted to serve you on their terraces. At the time of writing it is 13 degrees and raining, so wear your winter woollies. Madame’s sister was looking forward to a trip to the local café for a hot dog, the genuine French article of course not a poor cousin that tastes like reconstituted cardboard. Why can’t she? The café is in the precincts of the supermarket, therefore not technically outside.

Bon appétit

Next post 25. Castraters Wanted

23. Selling your house?

The stress of buying a house is so endemic that a survey found that a third of Americans are reduced to tears when purchasing their first property. Were they tears of joy at owning their first love nest, or distress at what they were going to have to pay the mortgage company for the foreseeable future? The survey wasn’t specific. If buying has that effect then what about selling, reputedly more stressful than other major events in one’s life such as starting a new job or going through a divorce?

Two years ago Madame and I decided that the time had come to downsize. Surely an 1800s maison de maître would be the ‘des res’ of everyone’s dreams, or, as the French dictionary would have it in its ponderous manner, une belle propriété. Situated near the foothills of the Pyrenees, not far from the coast and the Spanish border, the agent said we would have no trouble selling it and valued it at an unrealistic figure, presumably to inveigle us into signing up, which of course we did with a mandat exclusif  at the start of 2020. Not an auspicious year to market a property as it turned out.

If you live in a semi-detached or terraced house in the UK, in a street of similar houses like this charming Dorset village, it’s not rocket science to arrive at an impartial valuation. An older property in rural France is worth what someone will pay for it. Who were we aiming at? Not an elderly couple for sure; it was not your typical Dunroamin or Mon Repos.

Two would rattle around in it

And the first viewers? An elderly German couple who grumbled about the number of stairs. What do you expect in a three storey house (four if you include the basement)?

Call it naivety if you like but Brits in France tend to forget that property is not treated in the same way as in the UK. A house is a home, not an investment. Nor is there the turnover; France is famed, ridiculed even, for its large number of civil servants or fonctionnaires, whose job for life doesn’t encourage mobility. If their post is axed, they are moved to another role on the same salary. It has been known for them to be paid to stay at home and do nothing. False? Oh, no. Take the senior fonctionnaire who continues to be paid €3,700 a month because he has not found another job after having a ‘disagreement’ with his new boss, the mayor. This largesse will end in two year’s time. Will that be the end of it? No, because he will then draw a generous pension. Then there’s a former manager of the state rail operator SNCF……………………..

For more of Perry’s masterpieces go to  perrytaylor.fr

Come down here to the far south west and you can find empty properties, ‘in need of renovation’ as a UK agent would say. When André, an unmarried acquaintance in the village, died eight years ago his desirable farmhouse was left to his niece. She lives and works in Bordeaux so the property has remained empty. If her children have no desire to live in it then it will remain unoccupied, but stay in the family. An impressive property near us has been standing empty for the twelve years we have been here. Built in 1774, and with an illegible latin inscription over the door, it’s situated down a straight 100m lane and surrounded by rich farmland. Such a waste, but one day some family member will occupy it.

Even on a dull, misty day it is a desirable property

Our house needed a young family; active parents who could keep up with the never-ending maintenance, painting, grass cutting, weeding the vegetables in the potager, cleaning out the hen-house, and keeping half an eye on the children. It was six months before they appeared; a professional French couple with four young children. There was a break then in the confinement that had started in March and which effectively ruled out British viewers. That was only the start, of course. After the signing of the compromis de vente two months later there was an irksome wait of six months while a mortgage was applied for and approved. Meanwhile the notaires and estate agent worked at a leisurely pace. We never met the notaires.

What has this to do with a change in our way of life? Covid allowing us to sign by proxy is the answer. No sitting in their office while the notaires laboriously read through several dozen pages which you then had to initial lu et approuvé. On the day of signing the final acte de vente their office forgot to validate the document . This meant that we had handed over the keys unofficially. After they had realised their error was that the end of the affair? Of course not; two weeks later we had still not received the money. Neither the agent (who had promptly received the 5% commission) nor the notaires, could come up with an answer for the delay.

Next post 24. Loosening the chains?

22. Round and around we go

Yesterday was a red letter day. Madame and I were summoned to the sous-prefecture with instructions to bring passports and new photos and with a tacit understanding that our hands should be clean for the inevitable fingerprinting. This was the second stage of our application to renew the vital carte de séjour, without which France could reject you after Brexit. This required an attestation to allow us to exceed the 10km travel limit. During the 100km round trip we saw not one gendarme or check point.

In the event the glamorous young fonctionnaire was more concerned about preserving the pink lacquer on her manicured nails than putting us through the fingerprint routine. Why mention it in the letter when there was no intention to do so? There could have been a practical reason for this. In all shops and offices there are bottles of antiseptic gel to prevent you catching, or spreading, the virus. If you’re dehydrated your skin will be thinner and drier so drinking water before being fingerprinted is recommended. Hand sanitizer, though, has a lot of alcohol in it, which dries out your skin and makes it harder to capture print details. Today’s lesson over.

This method is more hygienic than
this one.

This blog got underway twelve months ago to relieve the boredom of the lockdown that was imposed on us in March. Then, the French were encouraged, pressured in fact, to abandon cherished customs, primarily ‘la bise‘. A mayor in eastern France had already dispensed with this custom. She considered kissing dozens of people was unhygienic and arrived at meetings late or pleaded a cold. Foresight? While these posts were never earth-shaking they have attracted hits from around the world from Alaska to Indonesia. China was a daily visitor. Was someone delegated to check on western blogs?

Have you ever had a déjà vu moment, the feeling that you have lived through the present situation before? A French phrase that translates literally as “already seen”, we seem to have arrived back where we started a year ago. Yes, we can now travel ten times further, 10km instead of just 1km, but that doesn’t relieve the frustration. President Macron has kept a low profile, too low many would say, and left the unpalatable details to his hapless prime minister Casterix, sorry Castex, who looks perpetually bewildered at his own TV news conferences. We had confidence in the previous PM, Édouard Philippe, who was an imposing presence; so much so that he had become a threat to Macron and was sent packing to Le Havre of which he is the mayor. Meanwhile new cases remain obstinately high, 43,284 two days ago but 8,536 yesterday, according to the coronavirus update on Worldometer. These fluctuating figures need to be taken with a generous pinch of salt. They depend on the number being tested, which in turn rely on the availability of testers. Le weekend in France is flexible and can stretch from Friday night to Tuesday morning. Enough said.

‘Will the French way of life ever recover?’ has been modified. ‘Will our way of life ever recover?’ seems a more appropriate title as the global pandemic has spared no country. The way of life for millions has changed, in all probability not for the better. Madame and I have sold our house and are renting while we take stock. We feel there has been an imperceptible shift in France’s attitude to the British since Brexit, but we may be over-sensitive. The lethargic response of the EU, and particularly France, to ordering enough vaccine while the UK romped ahead has strained relations on both sides of the Channel.

Watch this space!

Next post 23. Selling your house?

21. Antisocial distancing

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’.

Next post 22. Round and around we go

20. An end in sight?

Don’t we all feel like this?

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?

This neat little number is an
escargot distributeur ticket ( a snail to you)

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.

The end of the tunnel?

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.

Next post 21. Antisocial distancing

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19. Flying high

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.

They fly over the house in perfect formation
Who will win?

Even bad weather doesn’t slow them down

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.

Next post 20. An end in sight?

18. Black Friday 13th.

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.

Frigga Spinning the Clouds” by John Charles Dollman (1909)

Advertised in Vogue
For Basque Americans?

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.

Next post 19. Flying high

Stunning photo by Steve Garvie

17. Phallus impudicus

This is not phallus impudicus as you will have guessed; scroll down further

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

Next post 18. Black Friday 13th.

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16. Toad’s tool

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.


Next post: 17. Phallus impudicus

15. Pigeon pie

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.

Not so discreet
You can cook and sleep in this one. Shooting of partridges forbidden; not that there are any left here

Last year Madam and I were driving back from Saint Jean Pied de Port by way of the Le col des palombières. 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.

Strung along the col were these towers
Some higher than others

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.

A carpet of feathers

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!

http://www.perrytaylor.fr/en

Next post 16. Toad’s Tool

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