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Another landmark in a cancelled year

September 1, 2020

Yesterday we were due to go to France for our annual visit to Lot-et-Garonne.

We planned to go through the tunnel in the car this time, away from airports, aerosols and face masks. Out into the French countryside, chipping away at the milestones we know so well: Orleans, Le Mans, Tours, Poitiers, Limoges and Perigeaux. The temperature slowly rises. The fields start to show yellow and brown with the last of the sunflower crop. The vines trace the contours of gentle hills and valleys.

When we get there, to a little stone cottage a few kilometres away from Monflanquin, a fortified village once occupied by Edward, the Black Prince, we’ve already loaded up with wine, cheese and charcuterie from the local supermarket. It’s dark. You can see the Milky Way in the clear sky.

We wake up in the morning to the usual view: fields, woods and fruit trees. Apples, pears and peaches already falling, half devoured by wasps and frelons. We settle into our usual routine. Breakfast outdoors, hours of reading. Between us we’ve packed a dozen books. Perhaps a visit to Monflanquin, or Monpazier, another bastide a little further on. A chamber concert in a nearby church. Or to Villereal, for the weekly market, with its brocante stalls full of Napoleonic maps, old books, and what we in England would call antiques and curios.

Coffee in the square with the usual haul safely secured: a few melons, garlic stalks, fat tomatoes and perhaps some fancy bit of patisserie. A spit-roasted chicken, maybe a freshly-baked tranche de porc carved in front of us. Then back to the cottage for lunch.

Of an evening, up to the town for dinner at one of the restaurants in the square. They take it in turns to open at this time of year, so it’s sensible to book in advance. Hopefully we can take in a couple of farmer’s evenings. Stalls with street food surround the tables and chairs laid out in the square. Snails, chips fried in goose fat, brochettes of duck and lamb, crepes, galettes, cold plates with foie gras and millefeuille apple tarts. Then back down to the cottage, the night sky occasionally illuminated with a distant lighting flash.

And so the days go. A couple of weeks in which I planned to devour Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Bettany Hughes’s history of Istanbul and a bunch of grittier stuff about the way we live now.

Alas, not to be. COVID cases are rising again in France, and who’s to say that there aren’t a few visiting Brits brewing the virus under their elegant M&S panama hats? The farmer’s evenings are most likely cancelled, and the markets will be socially distanced. No rubbing shoulders, hugging of friends or polite double kisses.

It was best to stay away, as much for France’s sake as for ours. But I miss the autumn warmth, the half-familiar faces, the medieval churches and the ancient town houses that have seen plagues far worse than this one. Above all I miss the French, from whom we are once again to be sundered after years of feeling, despite our ups and downs of the past, that we were part of the same family.

But I take comfort from the thought that before too long, once this cancelled year is over, no squabbling politicians or border regulations will be able to keep us from going back to our beloved France, even if its own problems match ours, and even if it’s never been the paradise our selective memories conjure up for us on cold autumn nights in England.

Until then, those memories will keep us going.

From → France, Travel, UK

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