It was a fantastic summer - day after day of glorious sunshine, temperatures never lower than 26 degrees, occasionally the sort of heat that would make my late mother-in-law say she wished she could take her skin off and dance around in her bones. All except for the day of our fortieth wedding anniversary party which was grey and drizzly.
Since we are the only English in our small hamlet of twelve houses, I has always had a notion of throwing a party for all the inhabitants, so that for once, instead of each remaining hidden in our own fields, we could come out and meet each other.
I thought this might be the chance, but, sadly, it was too late.
In fact, it’s currently legally impossible (nothing to do with the British obsession with health and safety) - for reasons that will all become too clear. Still, at our little church it was the Sunday for the monthly “repas en commun” (“meal in common” which doesn’t quite have the ring of Jacob’s Join, or Shared Lunch!) so I invited them to dine chez nous and promised to make the puddings.
And despite the drizzle, French and English still sat happily under the trees, the French eating the bread, salad and wine, the English on the spuds, meat and beer, the French weaned off their habit of a cheese and fruit dessert onto one large banoffie pie, which they scoffed as if they’d never tasted it before. They hadn’t. Beware, they now have the recipe.
But to return to the reasons for the thwarted neighbourhood event - it’s a long saga that began for us late last summer. I was cycling back through the hamlet after a visit to Ernie and Bev, our nearest, fun-loving English neighbours, who live in splendid isolation some two miles away, except for a goat, 4 horses, and 3 dogs (the pig died sadly). They are the walking Wikipedia these parts to where you get what, and who’s dying - a regular hazard when you live amongst retired ex-pats.
As I was passing the first house at the top of the hamlet, I noticed a dark, handsome man mowing the lawn. (We are allowed to look, especially at my age, and in France, there’s plenty to look at). “Aha, the son”, I said to myself. And then Madeleine, the mother, looked up and caught sight of me, so I leapt off my bike, backtracked and gave her the bisous (kissy, kissy).
I don’t know Madeleine all that well as she has been working in Paris for the past few years and the house has been empty. What I do know from our brief encounters is that she is a wonderful mix of local warmth, Parisian chic and French joie de vivre, that for retirement she has finally come home to her family roots and is doing up the house, and that her recently divorced son had moved into his new flat in the attic.
“Bruno,” she says, as he wanders over to us. After barely a bonjour and a handshake, he says,
“Has anyone told you what’s going on here?”
“Ah, the aeoliennes?” I ask. (Funny how close the French for wind turbines is to aliens).
“No, no, no,” Madeleine says, “Our new mayor will use all his powers to prevent that.”
Bruno waves a hand dismissively, “I mean something far, far worse.”
Easy for them to say when the wind turbines aren’t going to be built in their back garden, I think. He points down the road, and says through gritted teeth,
“That Belgian farmer who has just moved in - he has a project in mind so massive it will change the face of our beloved countryside - forever. Do you really not know about it?”
I shake my head in innocence. And he takes a deep breath.
“He has bought almost the entire hamlet - and all the surrounding area. He plans 300 cows in huge barns that will block the sun, not to speak of our view.”
He waves at the field across the road where a huge mound of something agricultural almost fills the horizon.
“It is a vast enterprise. Imagine the huge tractors, the noisy machinery day in day out, the effluents, the smell, the flies?”
I arrive home feeling quite disturbed. We’ve had the threat of losing our property over boundary disputes, of losing our view to wind turbines, and now of losing our tranquillity to a bovine invasion. Peter as usual takes irenic approach.
“We live in a farming area, darling. We cant be Nimbes like so many townies, not wanting the countryside do what it must - produce food.”
“Apparently, it’s the Belgian farmer who’s been cutting down all the trees.”
Row upon row of ancient oaks have been hacked to the ground and are waitingin piles to be collected by whoever has bought them.
“Best not to let it upset you,” Peter says, “for your sanity’s sake.”
His parents had built a lovely, peaceful home in Ibiza. And then the owner of the neighbouring property built his villa barely a metre away, so that basic conversations, let alone blaring music, could be heard from midday to the early hours of the morning. But they made up their minds to adjust to it. And they did. I have always so admired them for that. But not at this precise moment.
“Let’s sell up and go. I’ve had enough of it all,” I shout at him. He is deeply shocked at my strength of feeling.
“Were we or were we not called to be here?”
I huff and puff and reluctantly agree. But I need to let off steam all the same.
“I’m going to plant a tree for every one he cuts down.”
A few days later we turn on the tap and only the tiniest trickle emerges. That’s worse than no water at all. No water would mean Veolia was working (without warning) on the commune’s system. A trickle usually means that a tree root has finally cracked its way through an underground pipe and we could end up paying the council thousands of euros for the privilege of wasting cubic metres of one of their most precious commodities.
Peter rushes out to our underground meter with a torch, shouting, “Run a jugful”, and returns minutes later with a gleeful expression. “The pointer isn’t moving. It isn’t us.” The next step is to check out the neighbours. Anne, our nearest, is stockpiling watering cans. That’s a good sign. It means there’s a communal problem.
It’s also a bad sign - it could take an age to repair. Anne is as elphin as she was eight years ago when we first met her - a little more wisened perhaps, but then, I see myself too often to notice the ravages of time on my own face - until I catch an unexpected glimpse in a car or shop window.
“The poor Belgian,” she says, looking up briefly from her task, “he’s dug through the water main with his digger. Roland has gone to see if he can help.” Hopefully, between the two of them they’ll know what to do.
Peter and I return to the gardening. My mother, who’s staying with us, calls after us that she has a sudden urge to use the loo.
“Use it,” Peter shouts back, “only don’t flush.”
“I may have to,” she says.
“She’ll be lucky,” Peter mutters as we get back to work. “But we won’t,” I reply.
We’ve barely started work when Martin materialises, almost out of the ether, as he has a way of doing these days, when we least expect it. The ten year old has three much older siblings and his parents busily run a small farm, so he’s permanently bored. There is always a dog, a cat, a rabbit, or some pet or other lost - and always on our property.
Basically, he comes for a nosey and my flapjack. He’s a very formal little chap, old before his years. We asked him if he’d like to swim in the pool. He went home to consult with his parents and returned to say, “He would be very happy to accept our proposition” as if he were doing us a favour - but his parents would like to meet us. Good for them. Only we haven’t managed to meet them yet.
“Got any water?” he asks. “If we’ve no water we can’t give our animals a drink.” Typical of a townie, I realise, only thinking of myself, the worst possible fate I could face being the aftermath of my mother’s urges. But in the countryside there are other considerations.
“Could you use our lake?” I ask. Peter is dismissive. “Cattle needs fresh water,” he whispers, which shows how much I know. Eventually Martin takes himself off, disgruntled.
And we have water by the evening - a miracle for France!
It happened again - a mere fortnight later, which wasn’t a good sign, and then we forgot all about it, and the potential reconstruction of our hamlet until the following December, when we were faced with a rude awakening.
To be continued...