Saturday, 25 September 2021

The Little Things that Matter

 It's a small thing, but it matters.

We live on an "island", an outcrop of sandstone that is surrounded by clay farmland, which slopes down to a stream. There is a walk along the edge of the stream because French farmers have to leave a "bande enherbée" of uncultivated land between their worked fields and water.  This is supposed to reduce polluting runoff. 

During our first years here, we were fortunate that Phillipe, who farmed the land that comes to the corner of our terrain also left a "bande enherbée" along the side of his field as well as the bottom, along the stream.  He didn't have to, but he did and Tod kept it mowed using our old tractor. It meant that we could walk across our field, down the side of Phillipe's field to the stream at the bottom and then turn right along Monsieur F's field to the little bridge, cross over, walk back the other side of the stream to a grass covered culvert where we could cross again and do a nice round circuit taking about half an hour with no need to retrace our steps - something we and the dogs much prefer.

Sadly, Phillipe died and the new owner of the land lives some way away.  We do not know him, apart from a brief conversation I had with him when I first saw him ploughing three (or is it four?) years back.

Phillipe's "bande enherbée" disappeared. The new owner farms right to the edge. There are moments in the year when it is possible to get down to the stream - immediately after harvesting if you don't mind fighting with the stubble and immediately after ploughing if you don't mind struggling across muddy furrows.  Once the latest crop comes up - maize or sunflowers usually - things get trickier trying to walk on earth between the rows of young plants.  Once they are past a certain size it becomes impossible.  None of this is easy for the dogs - Bertie's pink delicate tummy gets scraped by stubble, Vita's rickety old back legs find no secure foothold in muddy furrows.  So Tod regrets the loss of one of the small reasons why it's a pleasure to live here.

Phillippe's field (we still think of it as his) abuts our other farmer neighbour's land - Monsieur F.  Gently, gently over the years we have become friends of a kind.  Not perhaps the English neighbourly way of dinner parties and shared barbeques. No, our relationship is much more reserved.  But he (with his large tractor) is there when we need help,  like getting our car out of a ditch.  

Monsieur F too farms wherever possible right to his boundaries. Yesterday, he was down in the field by the stream ploughing.  I wandered down to the edge of the cottage lawn and waited for him to come trundling back up, making yet another line of furrows. He stopped, jumped down from the cab and we stood and chatted - too close for my English social distancing but far enough apart for him.  We rarely see him or his wife so it was a chance to catch up - what sort of a year have they had?  How is their gite doing? What will he plant next year? And I asked about his boundary - yes he would be ploughing right to the edge. 

I relay this to Tod who then goes ... who knows where?

Later, the man in my life reappears.  He has done something very brave - he's been to speak with Monsieur F.  That is not easy for him. He speaks good French, but struggles to understand the reply, especially when said in the local accent.  It's not easy, but this small thing matters to him. A lot.  He's asked Monsieur F if he will leave a narrow strip at the edge of his field so that Tod and the dogs can resume their walks along the stream in comfort.

Yesterday afternoon Monsieur F does a final tour round the field with his tractor and plough.  As he leaves, there, on the far side, is a two meter wide tract of green sward - a "bande enherbée", just for us.

Tod and the dogs walk it contentedly this morning. We will be giving Monsieur F some very good wine as a thank you.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Happiness is a Tidy Ditch

It rains - a lot - round here at certain times of the year.  Not every year, but enough for the maintenance of ditches, drains and reservoirs to be taken seriously.  So, at least twice sometimes three times a year triangular warning signs go up along our country lanes: FAUCHAGE. And there, ahead, will be a tractor with an extended arm moving slowly along the verge, carefully cutting back and clearing the undergrowth to leave nice smooth banks.

We live half way down a small hill.  The land rises behind us and drops away in front, down to a stream in the bottom of the valley.  The land behind us is farmed and to reach our house we come down a farm track between two fields. Between Monsieur F's field and the track is a steep bank and a ditch.  Every year since we've been here "our" ditch has been fauchaged.  Until last year. 

Not much happened last year - well it was when COVID started and everything shut down for a time.  But then, this spring, we watched the tractor with the long arm trundle along the road up on the ridge behind us, making no attempt to come down our track.  After a year of not being done, the bank and the ditch were an unholy mess of brambles, vines and young saplings. So I ventured into the mayor's office and had a friendly conversation with the commune secretary, who promised to let the fauchage man know he'd missed us.  A few days later, we watched the tractor with the long arm work its way down the (already tidy) lane the far side of Monsieur F's field - something lost in translation we suspected, sighed, and let it be.

We have a new mayor.  Well, he's not that new now, having been in place since spring last year but COVID has meant there have been no mayoral gatherings and, apart from the fauchage, we have little reason to need him and so have not met him.  However, we sense he is a new (and energetic) broom.  The previous mayor was happy to meet and greet his communards, always in the office, chatty, available, by the end we were on cheek to cheek, kiss/kiss terms and I missed him when he retired.  The new mayor feels more remote. He has changed opening hours and requires an appointment to meet, has had a new commune website designed, has diverted funds to the schools and the insulation of the village sports hall roof.  All very laudable, but frustrating if it's at the expense of a good, very necessary fauchage.

Our ditch is important. It's one of the few that carries surface water down the hill away from the road along the ridge.  A couple of years or so ago, in torrential rain, we watched the ditch fill in minutes, overflow and form a whole new stream that poured across our field and down to the bottom of the valley. Also, at the moment it looks a mess as the brambles and vines reach out across the farm track and it's the first thing the guests to our cottage see as they turn off the road towards us.  Tod does the best he can with a mower and the heavy duty Stihl strimmer to keep the edges tidy, but clearing the steep bank is nigh on impossible.

There is a further complication. On the cadastral plans our track is described as a "chemin d'exploitation" as opposed to a "chemin rural". This non-fauchage thing prompts me to investigate further to find out if there is a difference which might explain it.  There is.  Google tells me a  "chemin rural" is maintained by the commune. Despite our experience of previous years,  apparently a "chemin d'exploitation" should be maintained by those properties who have access to it. So maybe from now onwards, with the new regime, we will have to pay for our own fauchage.

Armed with this unwelcome knowledge, in August, somewhat apprehensively, because these days the mayoral office feels somewhat less friendly, I decide it's time to have another word.  Expecting to find the secretary in situ, I walk in to see The Great Man himself - I recognise him from his photos in the (now printed in colour) village newsletter.  I start my prepared speech and am amazed to encounter the charm that certain Frenchmen of a certain age radiate.  We may not have met before, but he knows who I am and where we live (the benefits of a small commune).  He also tells me my timing is fortuitous - he is waiting for the councillor who is responsible for organising the fauchage, who proves on arrival to be equally charming.

We all laugh at the idea of a small, elderly English lady in her seventies wielding a large Stihl strimmer up those steep banks and they reassure me that "something will be done".  Not immediately of course because it is harvest time but trust them, it will be sorted.  I float back home bathed in French "je ne sais quoi".

And the weeks slip by and the brambles and vines continue to grow.  And only yesterday morning I was thinking, well not this year, in France these things can't be rushed, but I will go into the mayor's office early next spring and hope to make sure we are on the list for being done next year.

Oh ye of little faith!  Lunchtime is when I like to shop - Leclerc is quieter and social distancing is easier.  I get in the car, reverse it and turn to face our steep farm track when I see - a pristine, tidy, bramble-free ditch!  Amazing what things can bring joy to the heart.  

Thank you Monsieur le maire.

Friday, 3 September 2021

The Table on the Terrace is too Small

 Bravely, we are having friends round for a barbeque - our first meal together in more than eighteen months.

The cottage is immaculate - our latest guests have left it pristine - and seems to be the obvious place to entertain since our house is a dust and cobweb-laden mess. And it means we can enjoy the cottage surroundings for ourselves, for a change.

But the table, under the "tonnelle" (what does one call it in English?  Awning? Arbour? Pergola? Marquee?  None of these words seem quite right for the large metal frame covered in grey curtaining that affords our guests shade) feels too small.

Social distancing for me is at least two metres - not the measly one here in France and even that, barely observed.  There cannot be two metres between us on that table.  I contemplate bringing the table down from the house that is piled with Annie Sloan paints, paint brushes, old rags and knickknacks waiting to be painted and my heart sinks at the thought.  Then Tod suggests two bridge tables - result!

The terrace table becomes the buffet - divided down the middle - to the right, their salads, to the left ours.  The two bridge tables, protected with tasteful textured plastic tablecloths, sit on opposite sides of the tonnelle, well socially distanced but still within chatting range.  

Our gossip is old and familiar, the months of COVID groundhog days offer no new news, but it doesn't matter, we are together and the warm evening brings a mellow contentment.