Stories From Gascony
Every one’s experience of Gascony is different.
Here is mine.
First it was Paris. Not Gascony at all. I came from the North- West of England with its rich valleys and thatched cottages. Timbered houses and cosy pub fires. As a child there were sheep and cows in the fields wherever I looked. I loved to cycle down country lanes picking blackberries, or (always a strange child) to visit the church graveyards and imagine stories from the names engraved on mossy stones.
When I was 21, I wanted to travel. The last thing I wanted was more countryside. I had a fairly well developed romantic vision of Paris, which involved (in no particular order) onion- soup, a creaky garrett in Montmartre under the eaves of a rickety house on the Place du Tertre, with a view of the Sacre Coeur and squeaky parquet floors. I would be penning stories on the terraces of Parisian Cafés of course. And experiencing Love with a capital L.
Over the next sixteen years, I experienced all of those things. The garrett in Montmartre turned into a suburban house with two children. I learned how to make my own onion-soup and Love with a capital L proved a bit of a challenge. Separated with two children I no longer wanted to weave my way past the house where I had once lived, or see the same sights. I was alone emotionally but wanted more than anything a new and happy home for my two children.
What was needed, I decided, was a total change of scene. An Adventure.
One day, sitting at my computer desk in my red-brick house by the river in La Frette sur Seine, I fell, just like Alice in Wonderland, into an internet wormhole, stumbling randomly upon an article about Gascony and the Gers. (How was that even pronounced?)
One month later, I was visiting houses with two slick English agents. The first surprise, having spoken only French for so many years, was to hear so many English voices in the market places or shops. Even the estate agents. It was strange. Was I in the Home Counties? – or was this really rural France as promised by Gerard Depardieu in “Le Bonheur est dans le Pré”?
Little did I anticipate the foreshadowing “English estate agents in the Gers” would be in my future life.
Recklessly, I visited only two properties. One was dire beyond words, the other, everything I imagined a country house in Gascony should be. I made an offer and flew back to Paris in a panic to sell my house in La Frette.
The owner of the “traditional maison de maitre on one hectare of land” was a writer of children’s novels. He had reconditioned a French fire-engine in order to transport his two beloved donkeys to the woods. The hectare of woodland that was sold with the house. This was clearly a part of the world that could encompass such follies. Having grown up with Winnie-the -Pooh, and the Hundred-Acre- Wood, the idea of having one’s own woodland was probably more seductive to me than the idea of the house itself.
Three months later we arrived.
The first experiences of Gascony are always unforgettable especially when coming from the city.
I did not find Eyore the donkey or Winnie the Pooh in the woods but a large barrel of water in which a coypu had drowned. It floated without any hairs on its body. A monstrous bloated specimen that belonged in a jar in the natural history museum. I ran to the house in horror. I was used to picking croutons from potage à l’onion, not coypu from water barrels!
After Paris, Lectoure felt like a make-believe village in a fairytale. My dad and I gorged on bags of fresh cheese and vegetables from the market. We slept like sloths after learning the hard way that the sweet tasting Floc is not to be drunk like wine, and that Pousse Rapiere can stick the blade of its sword into-the softest part of your meninges and twist its knife with vengeance if consumed immoderately.
As I wandered around my garden I discovered at regular intervals the remains of al fresco meals from summers past, buried beneath long blades of grass. There was a fondu-set, which harboured a frog. The remains of a camp-fire here and another one there. Dishes for snails, re-inhabited by live snails and daisies. My previous owners must have eaten outside on every starlit night imaginable and wandered under the mellow influence of local wines, back to the house without any care for the washing-up. It is a mystery how there were any plates left inside.
One day, my father and I decided that no matter how hard we had cleaned and scrubbed, or left the windows open, there was A SMELL in the kitchen.
I returned from the market to discover my father, sweat pouring down his face, on a hot August day, with a sledgehammer in one hand and a 1664 beer in the other. The paltry kitchen units lay on the floor like firewood.
“LOOK!” he proclaimed with pride “JUST LOOK!”
Under the kitchen units lay several large rats in a state of decomposition. I was starting to realise that rural house renovations Gascony are not for the squeamish.
A love of free-standing units was born that day. Ones that you can sweep your broom under with ease.
Once the new kitchen was built, a new window fitted, the Gascon Piggy- bank was ominously silent when shaken.
It was time to look for employment. In retrospect, this is something I should clearly have considered before the first visit, yet somehow, wandering through Lectoure market in the baking heat, everything had felt so easy.
Wherever I looked people around me seemed as happy, jovial and carefree as the succulent olives floating in brine on the market stands, or the sweet fleshed peaches bursting from the trees.
But now, as the first leaves from the old chestnut-tree began to fall, and a crisp morning chill crept through the rotten window-frames, the promise of autumn and then winter was in the air.
There must be something an English woman of limited means could do in the Gers to survive?
To be Continued.