The reality of living the dream – life in the South of France.
I am in a very different ‘South’ than the region popularised by
Peter Mayle. Here the racines are Catalan – ‘sang and or’ courses
through the veins that animate the proud locals, that can trace their
history back to a time before the current frontière between France
and Spain, flying the flag for their right to be recognised.
I have had a long association with France, experiencing the realities
of daily life, as well as seeing through the eyes of a tourist.
The romance of Paris and the novelty of croissants soon wears off
when it is clear that there are many myriad expressions of ‘French’.
Life in more isolated parts of the countryside differs vastly from
any images of a ‘quaint village existence’ I might have conjured up.
Here, the past is ever present – the traces left by previous occupants
as this land ‘changed hands’ – yet it is Nature who makes her presence
known. Everything revolves around the seasons, as it always has; the
rhythm of life depends on it. We are locked into Nature’s embrace
– dancing with her through the undulating highs and lows that we call
If the sun is shining (as it is now), we embrace the moment and spring
into action – outdoors is where everything takes place, not within our
four walls. The ‘latest music’ is birdsong – even if we start listening
to a CD, it is too enchanting to ignore. The background hum is not that
of traffic or white noise, it is the bees that feast on the newly opened
blossoms that fill the air with life. ‘There is work to be done’, they
remind me, for at this time, the garden is the priority – whatever
effort we put in is rewarded in the form of a bountiful harvest.
There is no pleasure greater than picking our own vegetables and preparing
them for the table, or to keep us going through the winter months. Having
watched them grow from seed, it is with pride that our produce is first
admired, and then eaten. Greater than filling our own plates however,
is the delight that comes with sharing – with exchanging whatever happens
to be ready, or swapping seedlings, never quite sure what the outcome
will be once they grow.
Results are only part of the process; it is enough just to give
encouragement and to tend the young, giving them the best possible
chance for survival. Thus life here is what might be termed simple:
the more we do to create, the greater the response from nature,
as our environment enables us to have everything we need.
Knowledge too is the key, for without it we would miss the abundance
at hand. Taking time to notice the changes in the forest, we are
able to harness its secrets. Whether wild hazelnuts or mushrooms,
everything arrives when the conditions are right and we need to
be aware of the nuances that signal ‘ready’.
The older generations have of course lived like this, passing on
their wisdom and watching everything that occurs – aware of the
signals that can indicate the right moment to look for a treasure;
the signs that can easily pass us by. Yet even they admit that due
to ‘climate change’ – or however we choose to label the unpredictable
weather that now seems to be ‘normal’ – that everything defies
any usual patterning, and is not predictable, as it always has been.
It takes more than a keen eye and prior knowledge to find the best
mushrooms for example, because often fixed beliefs can turn into
a hindrance. If it is “always like this, and they only appear due
to the rain and humidity in certain months” and this is no longer
true, I wonder if it is better to be a stranger to all of this and
think ‘why not’ or ‘what if’ and approach everything with excitement.
This is what has led me along my new path – I am eager to interact
with my environment and to understand it. I have no preconceived
ideas or depth of experience; I am making it up as I go along.
Trial and error is my philosophy, and through this comes direct
experience as I can attest for a recipe or method, or exclaim,
to the contrary of those in the know, that it is possible!
Somehow enthusiasm opens doors and I am able to compare notes with
others – on how to prepare a sanglier or preserve chestnuts, or make
a wild asparagus omelette, or quince paste. I try and then perfect,
by refining quantities and gathering information – building a file
of suggestions and then turning them into a reality.
Of course, none of this is possible without time, the greatest luxury.
Instead of rushing off to work, this is my mission, and every moment
that is not spent writing or recording the results of my labours,
is spent contemplating the next project. A very different scenario
than ‘an exchange of labour for money that enables the purchase of food’
– a more direct approach that requires constant vigilance, love and
attention lavished, for the ‘not so immediate as a supermarket supply’
that eventually ensues.
We are not completely self-sustained or even aiming for this, simply
more conscious of what we are creating and where our energy is employed,
and in a position to be able to look out for what already surrounds us
– for living off the land and being surrounded by a pristine natural
environment has different attractions to city life. The ‘bright lights’
are the dawns and sunsets as we watch Canigou light up – at times with
the full moon above – as we too are bathed in a pink and orange hue.
‘A stroll’ means hiking boots, and one of the many unknown paths that
we can choose from. ‘Picking up something for dinner’ could be thyme
or a tiny bunch of wildflowers for the table.
The apero is often on the belvédère, listening to the river rushing through
the valley below and the cries of birds (many that are now familiar),
as they join us in a toast to life. The further we are away from city life
and everything I used to enjoy, the less I miss it, and can honestly say
I don’t feel like I am missing out – the grass is not always greener,
nor even the thought of the Mediterranean coast, enough to pull me from
my daily rêverie.
Each moment here is fleeting; already the blossoms have fallen, their
petals scattered by the wind, and there is a sense of not wanting to
miss out on anything that is occurring, for it is over in a blink.
The cerisier has buds opening, and the wild apple is already in full
flower – and we were only away for a few days. We are often in the
mountains, at higher altitude, visiting family and an entirely
different world, where this week we had flurries of snow.
The Pyrénées Orientales is filled with contrasts – it never ceases to
amaze me how we can enjoy the best of the mountains and the coast,
with such clear blue skies, for the most part of the year. It is
only the wind that might be described as annoying, depending on
which way it blows, yet it is always to our advantage – responsible
for the vast tracts of blue that lift the spirits of all who live
beneath its stretch. ‘Mediterranean’ is sun-drenched; olives,
almonds and wine, a fresh catch ‘à la plancha’, followed by a siesta.
The mountains that frame the plains of Roussillon are containers of
our spirit – we are never free from their presence and often high
on a peak admiring a view, or transfixed by the slopes of Canigou
appearing in the most unexpected places as a towering backdrop to
an orchard or village alley. Inspiring poems, stories, theatre
and constant explorations, the Pyrénées are majestic beacons that
promise more than ‘everyday’ wonders – as it is impossible not
to marvel, or to fail to be enthralled – a reminder to lift our
eyes beyond our shuffling feet and to embrace life to its fullest.
It is inconceivable to think of hiding in the shadows of a cosy
interior, even in winter, as there is always something to discover
– beyond a new cinema release, or exhibition. Although there are
many cultural events and festivals, it is still the environment
that holds count over pastimes here. Dolmens and megalithic sites
are scattered through the hills, as are ancient chapels, yet equally
there are ramparts bordering the sea – medieval chevaliers do
battle and artisans demonstrate their métiers, as Catalan barques
bob on the currents.
For a tiny corner of France, it is ‘what is not written’, or promoted
in tourist guides, that adds up to a little piece of paradise. Not the
sights or attractions, or Côte Vermeille (that swarms in summer with
queues of traffic), nor monuments or any piece of history that is
a ‘must see’, but the intangible – behind the scenes, the call to
To stop, to listen, to commune with nature – to let down defences and
to engage with wonder: whether noticing a tiny flower, or taking a
well-worn track, the power of this region lies in ‘welcome back’
– in finding our own balance.