Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Did you want to come, or did you have to come to France?

‘Did you want to come to France, or did you have to?’ asked an English woman at one of our very early, sometimes strange meetings with other ex-patters. There are Dutch, German, Swedish, Spanish, Italians, English and Chinese living in our department and I was agog with interest when this particular lady went on to explain to me, that as far as she was concerned, southern France - our part of it at any rate - is simply full of people (foreigners) on the run.

I was startled by this directness. We were very often the only Irish they had ever met and quite a few of them, regardless of where they were from in the UK, often began conversations by politely asking if Dublin was in the north or the south of Ireland.

‘Criminals?’ I asked, amazed, wondering if there were any at the party.

‘Good Lord, no!’ she boomed. ‘Not real criminals. Money troubles! You know the sort of thing. For the younger crowd it's usually running from the big three. Taxes. Debts. Bankruptcy. For the older crowd it's the same big three, plus children in their thirties still fleecing them. And often ageing parents hanging around ‘till they reach a hundred. Utter Hell! People cave in, you know. And then they find this place.’

The Ariège Pyrénées. Re-named officially only a few years ago because the joke was that the French themselves did not really know where it was.

‘But why would people come here, especially?' I asked.

‘Why the Ariège? Because it’s cheap!’ she bellowed at me. ‘You can still get a barn in the hills for a few pounds. Oh, they all used to run to the Dordorgne, but that’s over; it’s full up there now’ she rattled on in a voice of authority. ‘As for the Riviera, well, forget it. Everything over there costs three million, and of course these types haven’t a bean.’

‘Have you met many of them?’

‘Oh, well, no. No. Of course not. I mean not really, but one sees them around, you know. In the village, at the market on Saturdays, sitting for two hours nursing a tiny coffee or a small beer. And one hears things. We have been here a long time, you know’ she said, tapping the side of her nose with a stubby, and indeed grubby, finger.

‘Thing is though’ she continued, ‘they won’t last here. It’s only a matter of time before whoever it is they are running from, finds them. Ha! Those two old reliables, Death and Taxes, they catch up with us all! But, even if they are not found by whoever is chasing them,’ she finished, ‘they’ll clear out in a few years, this place is far too quiet, too laid back. They won’t feel important enough here you see; not enough bling-bling. That’s the new word for flash, isn’t it?’

Lack of bling. Yes, she had a point, that woman. This area is certainly not to everyone's taste.

The scenery in this part of France may be stunning; the air like champagne, very different from the dry heat of Provence or the dazzling sun of the Riviera. Here, we may have the high Couseran hills, with millions of trees against the backdrop of the mighty Pyrénées, snow capped for much of the year, where bears and eagles can be spotted in the highest parts. The common birds of prey may be always in the air, the clear rivers full of trout and, in the magnificent forests, wild boars.

But, in spite of all this, I fully understand and appreciate that this is not enough for everyone. I have had friends visit me and, looking out over the hills ask, ‘is this it then?’

That is perfectly fine. We live in one of the most under-populated places in France and we who love it are very glad it‘s not for everyone.

Before I found this place, I would not have been able to pinpoint the Ariège Pyrénées on a map. Surely then, I cannot be alone in having stumbled on this great wilderness, and felt myself quite happy to leave everything behind to come and live here? It truly is that kind of place.

So, if here, in my adopted area, the ‘hills are alive’ with folks on the run from people trying to take away their money, I must congratulate them; they have made an impressive choice of hideaway.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Welcome to the Grand Sud

Goue Den Bas - Pyrenees
Welcome to southern France, to a tiny hamlet in the Couseran hills, close to the mighty Pyrénées. Much of our department is rich, pastoral landscape, with thickly forested hills rising up all around us. In the valleys, animals graze in lush meadows for a large part of the year. We enjoy a fabulous climate here - there really are four seasons. The air has been described as being ‘like Champagne’.

Because of the lack of industry, the eco system is almost perfect and vast numbers of creatures survive here. The system supports wildlife from the tiniest insect on a leaf to the wild boar in the forests. Rivers are full of trout and in the high mountains, 'close to the sun in lonely lands', lives the king of the birds, the Golden Eagle.

There are those who find this place as wild, far too wild. Some of them are my family and friends. To the amazement of almost all, when we announced our intention to leave Ireland (at the height of Celtic Tiger madness) it wasn’t to move to the lavender fields of Provence or the glitz of the Riviera. No. Our plan was to run back to the place we had discovered only six weeks earlier; a place no-one had ever heard of. For the first two years we lived in St Lizier, a mediaeval village, where the only shop was a tiny Boulangerie.

St Lizier
Then we decamped to the hills, where our little house is one of only five. At that point we were pronounced completely mad by some friends and family.

The pace of life is slow; people are generally not in a rush to get anywhere. There isn't a greed for more of everything. High achieving is fine, but living is more important. There is little or no crime. Life is about being healthy, happy, eating well, respecting the environment and each other.

Many things are unchanged here; people live as they might have lived a century ago. The Mesdames, in their cross-over, checked aprons, do as they have always done; keep hens for eggs and eventually for the pot. They rear, kill and eat their own ducks, geese and rabbits and grow enough vegetables to feed themselves almost all year. And then they share things with us.

Bienvenue à l'Ariège Pyrénées.