Are We Mad?

Author: Jane Shortall

A 1000 word piece on leaving Ireland for good last Spring and some impressions of our new surroundings.

Having decided to buy our little village house in the south of France, (the bit that joins with Spain, near the Pyrenees – not the St Tropez side), and move there for good, we flew into the whirl of selling up in Dublin and giving notice in our respective jobs. I tried in vain to describe the house and the village when friends, thinking no doubt that we had totally lost our minds, quizzed me about the details. And indeed the truth was we had only seen our tiny street and the car park in the village of St. Lizier. We just knew it was right. Shops? I had no idea. Distances from major towns? Well, no, I hadn’t checked. Did it matter? We appeared to have decided the whole plan on a silly whim, according to some. ‘You will be climbing the walls within a month! ‘ warned one. ‘How on earth will you fill your days? ‘ asked another. Oh dear. And worst of all, to me, ‘You? Go away? What about money? What about Brown Thomas on Saturday?’ Yes. What indeed?

How had I filled my days for the last 30 years? Racing to and from work, driving, or on public transport, depending on whether work offered the luxury of a car space. And putting in endless hours stuck indoors when I got there. That’s how. I wanted more of the country. I had now spent over thirty years in various offices in Dublin. Money wasn’t everything. We were positive we were right. It was a terrific feeling. Freedom had beckoned.

We returned to St. Lizier, (our village!) for some financial business in March. We explored the village and could only discover one shop, the Boulangerie and a hairdresser. Hmm, where to buy a paper or the ‘litre of milk’ wasn’t immediately obvious. We then received an invitation from Charlotte, our property agency lady, to come to lunch and meet some people.

There were nine of us at the lunch, including the people who were selling us the house, Genevieve and Gerard. It was one of the best and most relaxing lunches I have ever had. We kicked off around 1 o’clock with Kirs, pink gins or whatever you fancied and we were still there getting on for seven in the evening.

We ate outside in the sunshine at a big heavy wooden table groaning with coloured bowls containing delicious food. One of the women had brought an absolutely magnificent chicken dish, which appeared to contain hundreds of whole garlic cloves and caramelised lemon slices. There were also salamis, various types of cured ham and sausages, including one made with wild boar. Gigantic and brilliantly colourful salads whizzed around the table and, enormous though they were, all disappeared! A huge bowl of tangy garlic dressing, baskets of assorted breads and numerous bottles of wine did the same!

We had five types of cheeses all produced locally, all fabulous. It turned out that the food, including the chicken dish, which Judy had brought to the lunch, had been produced locally in the Couseran hills and apart from the chicken, everything had been bought just that morning at the outdoor Saturday market in the small town of St. Girons.
‘Oh but you simply must shop at the market, when you come here for good‘, they said.
‘How far away is it from us?’ we asked, thinking how sketchy our knowledge of the area was.
‘It’s three minutes by car or fifteen minutes walk from your house’ they laughed.

There is a most extraordinary law in this area that has at last explained sightings that have puzzled me since I first arrived. I noticed that there were a lot of boys with dogs around the local town and in the villages in the hills. Now, these were nothing to be alarmed about. The ‘boys’ seemed to range in age from probably as old as me, (40’s), down to late teens. They just hung around, not menacing or anything. They all had dogs. And the dogs were mostly huge. Alsatian and other big furry types.

The only time they truly did give me a bit of a fright was when I was stopped at a small garage one day, way out in the countryside, and four of the lads in a tiny red car were in front of me at the petrol pump. In the back window, pressed against the glass, were two huge Alsatians, and two enormous bags of dog food. The chap who got out to fill the tank continued shouting merrily back into the car at the others. Then unbelievably, holding the petrol pump with one hand, he burrowed into a side pocket of his combats, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, put one into his mouth and lit it. I thought he, his buddies, the dogs, the dog food and me would fry there and then in the middle of the Couseran hills.

The extraordinary law I have mentioned is this. Vagrancy is an offence, but apparently, and I have been assured this is absolutely the case, if the person owns a dog, they cannot be put into prison for even a night, as there will be no one to look after the animal. I have to say truthfully that apart from squashing them into the backs of tiny cars – and the dogs are probably used to travelling like this – every dog I have seen looks to me to be in tiptop condition.

I was in the hairdresser’s one day and it was thirty-eight degrees outside and with no air conditioning inside. The heat, with the driers going, was simply incredible. The three lady hairdressers were handing out glasses of iced water and actually SPRAYING the customers (chests, arms and legs if you wanted) with cold water. It was simply a scream. Black plastic wraps were being torn from roasting bodies, and busts thrust out, arms akimbo, and legs in the air (almost) for the spray.

In the middle of all this, a young mother arrived with a child in a pram. Out of the basins and out from under dryers came heads, all yelling Coucou! This is how all young children are addressed in France. The child was handed round and almost everybody except me kissed and cuddled her. I was introduced, however, as the new Irish lady, so I am gearing up for coucouing next time.