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Postcard from Aquitaine: the delights of midwinter

February 9, 2022

A few days ago my wife and I drove through France to our new second home deep in the countryside south of Bergerac. It was the first time we’d stayed there in midwinter. Whereas last time was in November, when the remaining embers of the summer were still glowing, In February the province of Aquitaine takes on an entirely different complexion.

The house itself was freezing – a reminder of my student days living in a draughty house huddled over a gas fire with broken elements. In those days we used to put cling film over the windows to keep what little warmth came from within, and to prevent the ice from forming on the inside of the glass at night. Luxury. Used to dream of having glass in t’windows, as the late Barry Cryer would have said.

Not quite as bad as that, but in rural France most houses that serve as summer homes don’t have central heating, so in the winter we have to rely on wood fires and a couple of electric radiators. It took two days to reach the point at which I didn’t have to wear a woolly hat inside.

The garden hasn’t changed much since last time, though some strange weeds that look like cabbage have sprung up around the place. I must find out what they are, since I’ve never seen them in England. Perhaps we can eat them.

The land is soaked, which explains why it appears so verdant in the summer with what appears to be minimal rainfall apart from the odd violent thunderstorm. The surrounding fields are starting to look green again. What was ploughed earth a couple of months ago is coming to life with little shoots that will eventually become sunflowers, corn or perhaps winter vegetables. Which shows how much I know about agriculture.

Yesterday I saw a wild boar cantering across a nearby field towards some woodland. It was good to know that some have so far survived the hunting season. Though I suspect that given the presence of a couple of guys with rifles whom we passed by this morning, the poor boar is probably by now no more.

On our first night we went down to our local town to eat. In the summer it has about five restaurants catering for the tourist trade. Not a single one was open. The square was empty but for a couple of teenagers having a laugh about nothing.

So the day after we went to another town for lunch. The only restaurant in the square was packed. A four-course meal for thirteen euros, all served within an hour so that the locals could get back to work. Potage, salade, poulet roti with ratatouille and crème brulée, not to mention the demi-carafe of wine and the coffee.  Magnifique.

We hadn’t intended to come down at this time of the year. But most roads into the Far East, where we usually spend February, are closed to all but the most dedicated form fillers. After our experience in Singapore, where my wife was locked up for a few days following a false positive COVID test, we decided not to bother. Plenty of stuff to be done in the French house, so why not?

As everywhere in France, COVID seems to be rife. We’d planned to meet a local carpenter to kick off a project that would make our mezzanine habitable. He and his family are isolating, so no guarantee that we’ll be able to see him. Other people we know in the vicinity have come down with the virus. So despite the mandatory face masks and the requirement to produce a pass sanitaire at restaurants, the bug is getting though, as it is in England only more so.

One aspect of our trip that sent me into raptures of childish excitement is the little tag we bought that enables us to pass through the motorway toll booths without having to stop and feed euros into a machine. This thing goes beep, and we sail though the barrier. The toll charge gets debited from our bank account automatically. Oh joy! No need to wake the sleeping partner every time we hit the peage. I’ve been known to rain about the tyranny of apps. But this is big tech at its best, and you still have a choice whether or not to use it.

The French do this stuff well, which is more than can be said for that well-known multinational, Orange, whose incompetence is monumental They were supposed to connect our internet service in November. Ten weeks on, still nothing. After a couple of conversations with arrogant call centre agents and a visit to the local Orange shop (whose surly indifference to our problem could have been inspired by Aeroflot), we’re still not much closer to resolution. Fortunately, mobile data gets us by.

I can’t use Orange’s attitude as a typical example of the French approach towards customer service, because EDF, our electricity supplier, were quick to resolve another problem, which was that every so often, with the radiators radiating and fan heaters blowing, the power supply would cut out. A call to the English-language help centre diagnosed the problem, which they fixed remotely. No need for a visit from an electrician, sucked cheeks and a massive bill. All done through a little green box at the end of our garden.

The next few days will be spent clearing all the crap from the mezzanine, figuring out where to pay the local taxes, introducing ourselves to the maire of our commune and picking up a token that lets us use the municipal dump. Exciting stuff, huh?

As for entertainment, in the absence of places to go out to at night we’re spending quiet evenings in front of the fire reading books. Just like our grandparents, I guess. Next week there’s the brocante (flea market) to look forward to in the nearby town, followed by another four-course feast in the same restaurant.

Without the complications of Christmas, winter can be a simple season. I love coming to places in hibernation. What better than a few days in your own home, where your isolation is voluntary and you’re as likely to see a wild boar as a person outside your back window?

Hard to believe that in a few months’ time the ground will be baked, the temperature will be in the high 30s and producer’s evenings in the local squares will be thronged with Brits, Belgians, Germans and Dutch. No bad thing for the local economy. But as I look out over the fields and hills dotted with the occasional house, I sometimes feel that I’m in ancient Gaul, not France. Perhaps that’s because the area is said to abound with undiscovered Roman villas and settlements, and what lies beneath the soil seems to speak as quietly as the empty fields above. Perhaps also because the brick canopy above our wood fire contains masonry that would be familiar to anyone living here two thousand years ago.

But dreams of Gaul, garam and Gaius Julius Caesar are quickly dispelled as we turn out on to the main road, where several posters bearing the face of Eric Zemmour, a right-wing rival to Emanuel Macron in the forthcoming presidential elections, are slapped up on a billboard. He’s the only candidate whose posters are to be seen in the vicinity. Does this suggest that his politics – anti-immigration and no friend of France’s Muslim population – strike a chord round here? Maybe, but perhaps he doesn’t have it all his own way. Because on every poster we’ve seen, someone has given him a red nose. Clown, populist, journalist and, er, admirer of women…sounds familiar?

But Zemmour cannot rival our clown-in-chief, so I intend to forget about him unless or until he becomes president. Instead this is a time to savour the bread, the cheese, the solitude and the winter sun. We’re already planning the next trip down, and the one after that, by which time the countryside will have exploded into spring.

I’m a lucky man, I reckon.

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