Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back to Business

The end of August. The end of summer. What summer?

Many of us in Europe are asking this at the moment. Throughout most of France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, and eastern Europe too, we have had what is possibly the wettest, coldest summer in more than ten years (at least as long as I have been here). To make it worse, when it has been warmer, the humidity levels have been so high, it has been excruciatingly unpleasant. Add that to lack of sun and you get a stuffy, oppressive warmth that you cannot relieve because it's still raining and the doors and windows have to be closed. In one word..yuk!

We had the most glorious, dry spring with long days of sun and warmth, but it doesn't help because that's when we were all at still work. The two holiday months, July and August - those months when everyone with a family, or anyone who works in education, is obliged to take their time off - have been a complete washout.

We have, however, managed a few brief days of sunny escape. Sadly, both these interludes were cut short, but nonetheless, I have already posted the photos, so you can see that we made the most of them.

Northern France was a surprise I will not forget: its emptiness, space and stunning vistas reminded me so much of parts of South Africa. We were terribly disappointed when the clutch on the van packed up two days before we were due to head home, so we had to limp back to Zeeland early.

My trip to the south was also cut short. What was originally intended to be five days there plus one day returning dwindled to a weekend visit to my sister, including a mad dash to Toulouse and back. We then had to leave early on Monday for them (my sister and brother-in-law) to catch the ferry on Tuesday morning. A misunderstanding about dates that was wholly my fault, but disappointing all the same.

Still, I did at least have two days of sun, although even there it wasn't as hot as I was expecting or hoping for it to be, and it has certainly given me a desire to go back. What a beautiful land it is. I am also completely intrigued by the still medieval customs and habits of the rural French paysan. It feels like stepping back several centuries, and I love it. The sunflowers; the Bastide towns on the hilltops; the ancient, pale or golden stone farm houses and barns, and the sense of both a populace area but one with huge spaces as well.

The visit to my former employer, Roger, at his gorgeous old farmhouse in the department of l'Aude, gave me several new insights into the character of the place, the people and their customs, not to mention the canny (and sometimes downright fraudulent) way they turn the agriculture subsidy systems to their advantage.

This is a subject that often gets my blood up, as France receives as much as 80% of the EU's agricultural subsidies and has everything its own way. On the other side of the Channel, large numbers of English farmers have gone out of business and had to leave their farms due to EU agricutural policies that have killed their generations-old way of life. I love France, but on this subject, I can get very heated very quickly - especially when I see how they abuse it.

Anyhow, at least we have been able to get away, if only very briefly. In the interim, I've made desperate attempts to paint my barge between the downpours, only to have my work ruined by hail or heavy rain. All told, though, I don't really feel I've had a holiday, and now it's time to go back to business and prepare for the new school year. I think I'll try and go away at Christmas for a week or so. Perhaps that's a better idea!

For now, though, all the best to all of you, and apologies for the slightly jaded sounding post. I promise the next one will a return to my normal cheerful enthusiasm! I'll leave you with some photos of Zeeland last weekend, when we took a lovely walk between the showers.

The only way I could get both Koos and Sin in the same photo

Zeeland scenery in the evening light

The harvesters are out. Amazingly, they have had a great crop this year!

Luxury coffee Belgian style, accompanied by a glass of advocaat and cream on top of a small scoop of ice cream. Sinfully divine...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

And now for the south

I wish I had time to write a proper post at the moment, but it's late and tomorrow I have to be out early, but in the words of Rod Stewart, or more importantly, Koos, every picture tells a story, so I'm doing just that. Here is a link to the photos I took during my recent trip to southern France this last week. I hope you enjoy the ride with me.

Another precious experience was the spectacle my sister and brother-in-law took me to see in Valence d'Agen. It was called Au Fil de L'eau and was the story of the town covering the whole of the 20th century told from the perspective of one family. A spectacle it was and an absolute delight. You can see the photos I managed to take of it here.

If you don't get the slideshow straight away, look at the menu bar above the photos and click on slideshow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The lonely beauty of northern France

One car is enough

Straw medallions are everywhere at this time of year

I sit in the van on the crest of a hill. The window is open but it's raining softly. Ahead, the road sweeps away, plunging into a deep valley and then climbing to a vanishing point far, far in the distance. Golden fields stretch out on either side of me, dipping and rising in rolling waves. They are scattered with perfectly round bales of straw which gleam bright as coins as they catch odd rays of sun penetrating the clouds. Everything is still. Completely silent, except for the rain drops pattering on the windscreen.

Then I see car lights, just pin pricks for a while until they grow and take form. They charge down the hill, disappearing for a few seconds and then blast over the rise in front of me. Suddenly all is noise as the car rockets past. A huge whoosh of sound and the van shakes. And then all is silence again. There is nothing else here. No building, no sign of life other than these strange straw coins in the well tended fields. It has a haunting, lonely magnificence

This is France in the Picardy region - the department of Aisne to be exact. Koos and I are on a few days' break and are discovering the breathtaking beauty of the north. Neither of us has ever explored this part of the country before and we are both convinced that most others haven't either. There are few tourists here and we largely have the roads and the gorgeous villages to ourselves. Last night we were in Guise, a charming town dominated by the massive ruins of a medieval castle high on its hilltop. Today we spent the afternoon in Laon, a much larger and well known medieval city, famous for its superb gothic cathedral and ancient city buildings. It is a lovely place, shabby, but clean, gracious but lively and oozing history from every ancient stone.

A real french folly - a fantastic gateway in the middle of..well...nowhere

Then this evening brought the highlight of the day. We drove to a tiny village south of Laon called Braye en Laonnais where we saw the entrance to a two and a half kilometre tunnel on the Canal de L'Aisne à L'Oise. Yesterday we had seen the rather sad remains of a collapsed aqueduct on the Canal de la Sambre à L'Oise, so it was great to see this tunnel in good repair and clearly in use. Again, it was incredibly quiet and still and the evening sun cast a marvellous warm light over the hills and scenery around the canal.

The entrance to the 2.5 km tunnel on the Canal de L'Aisne à L'Oise

My phone photo doesn't do this scenery justice

We drove further and at the village of Bourg et Comin, we saw the canal cross the Oise again by means of another aqueduct. Standing on a bridge near the village, we watched a barge pass beneath us on its way to rest up for the night and a little further, we listened to the hushed talk of contented boaters enjoying the quiet of a French canal on a summer's eve.

It is food for my soul to experience this space, this beauty and this almost lonely silence, and what it tells me is that you don't need to go south to find France at its best. It is this, and it is here. It is and has everything I love about the country, and if I could I would settle here and let myself take root in this ancient land of hills and heavenly horizons.

PS I'll post more photos when I have a better connection. The first two are courtesy of Koos.