Read Deep France Online

Authors: Celia Brayfield

Deep France

In memory of Glynn Boyd Harte

Contents

Introduction

November

December

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

Epilogue

Bibliography and Information

Index of Recipes

Introduction

On the Road

It’s after 2 a.m. and I’m driving through the Landes. And driving through the Landes. And driving through the Landes. And driving through . . .

Sometimes I think the Bearnais arranged the creation of this wilderness to make sure that northerners would despair, turn back and leave them alone. If it wasn’t dark, the landscape would
be putting me in a trance. Flat, covered in pine trees, ferns and heather, a dark forest stretch­ing away to infinity all around us. The Sleeping Beauty’s best defence.

My daughter Chloe is dozing in the passenger seat. About an hour ago, I missed our turning off the ring road and we went round Bordeaux twice. She woke up long enough to point out that
we’d driven off the Pont Francois Mitter­rand before. The first time I said improving parentlike things, like: ‘See, the French are happy to name a big public monument after a
politician. You can’t imagine anyone in Manchester wanting to name a bridge after a Prime Minister, can you?’ She’s gone back to sleep now. She’s taken a few days off from
university to help me start this adventure.

On the back seat are our three cats. They stopped yowling about six hundred miles ago, but they are not happy. Tarmac – well, guess what, he’s the black one – is sitting on top
of the cat boxes keeping watch; he knows he’s the only being
in the household with a decent sense of responsibility. Piglet, the long-haired tabby, is sitting in his box
with outrage on his whiskers. His mother, the Duchess, has crammed herself under the seat. She’s a James Bond cat, a white Persian. Long pedigree, no brains. Everybody warned me not to have
one.

Behind the cats is the rest of my life. A box of books, the computer, the duvet, a bag of clothes. You’re a writer, you can work anywhere. Can I really? People have been saying that to me
for years. Now I’m going to find out if they’re right. Nobody, but nobody, warned me not to do this except a writer friend of far greater distinction, whose eyes widened in horror when
I said I was taking off without a contract for my next book. Apart from him, the hardest part of the last few weeks has been dealing with the universal envy which I provoked every time I said,
‘I’m going to live in France for a year.’

Friends, family, neighbours, colleagues. The bank manager, my accountant, the estate agents who’ve rented out our house, the lady in the dry cleaners, the guys in the garage. They gave me
back my elderly Daihatsu jeep with a card:
Have a good time in France, Easy on the wine
. That’s how the average Brit thinks of France. A place to have a good time. With wine.

I could be having a better time. I’m tired. I’ve driven hundreds of miles and I don’t actually like driving. I’ve packed our possessions into a container and turned our
home into a neutrally decorated wood-floored rental property. I’ve said tearful goodbyes to my friends, a whole ocean of emotion poured into the few stress-free moments we could find in our
diaries.

I’ve lived on the same page of the London A—Z since I was twenty. Page 73, with a few short excursions to Page 74. I used to love living in London. Now I’m tired of the
crackheads and the chewing gum on the pavements. I’ve been a writer since I was twenty; I still love writing but after eight
novels and a mountain of non-fiction, a girl
gets cabin fever. And I’ve brought up Chloe alone for twenty-two years. From the tooth fairy to the tuition fees, and beyond – that’s a long time to do two people’s jobs.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said to her about six months ago. ‘I could rent our house out and go and live in France for a year. What do you think?’ ‘Go for it,
Mum,’ she said at once. Now maybe she’s not so sure.

The guys in the garage, bless ‘em, have buggered the electrics so the stereo doesn’t work. Somewhere in Portsmouth I bought a blue plastic battery radio that looks like a foetal
Dalek. It’s hissing at me on the dashboard while it tries to pick up a French station. I don’t think I’m starry-eyed, but that’s something you never know about yourself
until it’s too late. Will I be able to live with French radio for a year?

I’m driving south, south, south. My destination is almost as far south as you can go in France. Just half a valley away from the Basque Country, an hour’s drive from the Spanish
border. Deep France in the geographical sense and Deep France in the cultural sense.
La France profonde
, the France of fields and farms, of little villages and ruined castles, of
vineyards, of cows and sheep, chickens and ducks, corn and cabbages. Actually, the Béarn is not noted for its cabbages, but for garlic and Jurançon wine, the national symbols.

What am I looking for? What everyone, French or otherwise, has always looked for in Deep France: a simpler, more authentic life. I’m a modern Marie Antoinette, I want to play at being a
shepherdess with freshly washed sheep in my model village. Well, it would be nice to grow artichokes and keep chickens, anyway. The key to my new home is heavy in my bag, a great iron key about
eight inches long. A real key to a real life.

I am also looking for the spirit of the land. For ten years I’ve been visiting this small and overlooked corner and it seems as if I’ve never been here long enough. The mountains
always call me. Of course, when you get into the mountains, the peaks beyond them are still calling. Already, I’m ten years older than when I first saw the snow shining in
the far distance beyond the green hills, and if I don’t set off now, maybe I’ll never get there.

Finally, the never-ending Landes gives way to the undu­lating hills of the Chalosse. Outside Dax, we pass the statue of the
écarteur
, the cruelty-free Landais matador who
stands weaponless in the path of a charging bull. The road from here is a Roman road, leading straight as a die into the dark­ness. I turn off and drive through the sleeping village of Ossages,
with its commanding church spire and the house of the friends who introduced me here, but they’re away now so we’re on our own.

Between the Chalosse and the Béarn is the valley of the Gave de Pau, a broad green river that rises in the Pyrenees, above Lourdes. The river has been joined by the motorway and the Route
Nationale 117, which we cross at a village called Puyoo, built a hundred years ago as a railhead and dormitory for the rope-making industry. The rope-works sign,
Tressage de Puyoo
, is
still painted on a wall by the side of the bridge.

Now we’re in the Béarn, though it hardly shows. Thick patches of mist lie across the road as it sweeps up a steeper hill, then descends to the roundabout with a fountain outside
Saliès-de-Bearn. Nobody about. No police running a stake­out for ETA terrorists or drunk drivers, no customs officers hoping to catch a foreign truck importing drugs from Morocco.
It’s November, thank God, so the begonias on the roundabout have been removed. The roundabouts of France, the nadir of municipal art, the proof that not all the clichés are right, that
everything French is not automatically more stylish than everything not-French.

Chloe is awake now. I turn off, and we pass an avenue of plane trees. They look too young to have been planted to
shade Napoleon’s army, about the same size as those
painted more than a hundred years ago, by Monet and Pisarro, up in the north, safely close to Paris. No Impressionist ever ventured this far, not even Van Gogh.

Three deer leap across the road in front of us. The road starts wavering, pottering, winding, climbing, twisting. I can feel that it’s running along the spine of the hills, following an
old shepherd path chosen for the best sight of the sheep. The night is now absolutely dark and starless.

Suddenly the Dalek radio bursts into life and the joyful voice of a Basque singer resonates through the crammed body of the car. Somewhere out there are the mountains, and somewhere in the
mountains is a lone DJ, getting ready to talk to his compatriots in the oldest language in Europe. All five of us revive instantly. We’re nearly there.

At the crossroads, turn right past the one-time
auberge
, then left by the pollarded plane trees outside the ex-bar, then right where the signpost says ‘orriule’. That will
be our village. Or rather, my village. I’m out of ‘our’ now, I’m into ‘my’. After twenty-one – well, twenty-two really – years, Chloe and I are
taking different paths.

The gate is on the right, past the bamboo. The gate is open. To be truthful, the gate is half off its hinges and looks like it’s been in an open condition for several decades. Through the
gate lies the house.

It is a tradition of the English-abroad genre of writing that somebody falls in love with a house. I did not fall in love with Maison Bergez. This is an arranged marriage. I’ve seen the
house only once before, on a sulking day last August. All I can remember are small dark rooms crammed with crazy furniture, and my friends telling me that it’ll be fine, I’ll be able to
make it nice, and anyway, it’s the only house to rent for miles around.

The door is massive and studded, and the key won’t open
it, but I’ve been warned about this, and given a tutorial in key jiggling. After some minutes, the lock
reluctantly turns and the door opens. A beamed ceiling. A tiled floor. A light switch. The staircase.

I remember the staircase, a handsome little feature of polished oak. The house has a lot of modest status symbols like this, two stone steps to the front door, a false balcony at the landing
window, the pollarded catalpa trees outside; the date carved over the front door: 1897; small embellishments to emphasize that this is not a peasant hovel.

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