Sunday, 29 October 2017

INDIAN SUMMER

I can't believe that an entire half term has passed since I last sat down to write. The return of the school routine has been exhausting for Little L and left us all mourning the freedoms of summer. These two weeks of holidays from school have given us the chance to pause and just practise being once again. I've been so very grateful for the moments I can pass just watching Little L free to draw for hours on end or act out her imaginary scenarios with her collections of toys and silk scarves and stones. Little I is jubilant in having her sister around day after day but her celebration is all too often an energetic destruction of  Little L's precious make-believe landscapes.

 


Lac Montbel 

 

The first signs of autumn came with the tractors hauling trailers heavy with wood through the village. Piles of logs outside front doors, hastily being taken into houses to be stacked in sheds and hallways to feed the fires throughout the winter. When we open the window to push back the shutters each morning the crisp air is scented with woodsmoke from early mornng fires.

For the most part we have had the most glorious of indian summers. Chilly mornings under blue skies and afternoons warmed under a gentle sun. The occasional days of drizzling rain or blustery wind take me home and are welcome too.


One morning on a walk to buy bread, the girls and I found ourselves under a flock of swallows. The air was light with rain and the sky grey. The swallows flew and swooped above our heads. Some were clinging to walls or lined up on telephone wires, others, nestled under the eaves along the street. We wondered whether this might be a ritual before taking off on their migration south. I talked to the girls about all the animals that migrate on long journeys for warmth or food or mates. Since then, Little L frequently shouts out 'let's go to south America!', to which Little I shouts back 'No, no, south America' and if the battle continues she runs to me with tears in her eyes and pleads that I stop Little L threatening a migration to south America. I love the absurdity of this frequent conflict between them.
Our neighbours have once again been passing us gifts from their garden and afternoon walks. Mushrooms and chestnuts and walnuts. Even in our small corner of the house, in a room still bare of plaster, the chestnuts, hot in our hands from the temperamental plug-in oven, somehow make us feel cosy.

To the south of the village at higher altitudes the trees are now ablaze with colour; browns of all descriptions, yellows; golden to lemon, red, orange and deep and dying greens. At every opportunity we have set off to walk and explore these valleys and hills around us. We found wa oodland, once the home to Resistance fighters, with such a variety of mushrooms that we hardly walked at all, instead, inspecting each clump or single mushroom pushing itself up through leaves or clinging on to decaying logs.

Maquis de Picaussel et Plateau de Sault


 
 
 

Comus

 


Labrinth Vert




 
Col du Chioula 

 
 
 
 
 
 

The swallows have left now and the leaves on trees around the village are beginning to die and fall, following those on higher ground. We have another week left of school holidays with plans to let the girls roam free and perhaps build a den by the river that passes by the village (mostly my project but the girls are kindly humouring me). The last of our visitors for this year have left (fortunately coinciding with the arrival of our first mouse... ) and the last squash harvested from the garden. It feels as if we are ready for the colder weather November will bring, the snow falls on the mountains and the layers of jumpers and extra socks.
 
THE HOUSE
 
The roof is watertight, the chimney is built and the attic bedroom is beginning to take shape. The prospect of having a seperate room for the children or just a seperate room to sleep in away from our living space seems almost unreal. A luxury we can't even imagine! Florent's had his head in electrics the last few days and Little L has been diligently producing extravagent wax crayon plans for bunk beds...
 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

AUGUST HOLIDAYS

Just before the end of the summer holidays we decided to go away in the van and explore the coast in Aude for the first time. It's an area of salty lagoons surrounded by arid hills covered in vines, set behind sandy strips of beach and beyond, the Mediterranean. 


Somewhere on the journey there, through endless forests and gorges and hills the van became jerkier and we became quieter and quieter. We tried to pretend everything was fine. Stopped. Wandered around a beautiful town, swam in a river, ate ice cream, wilted a little under the heat. Then we carried on toward the coast but unsurprisingly the van hadn't got better and by the time we arrived at the sea there was no denying that things felt disastrous. We arrived where we had planned to spend the night and stopped short at a height restriction barrier, a feature we were to become familiar with. Eventually we limped along a quiet track and found somewhere to camp for the night.




The next morning we woke up next to a lake. So calm that the reflections on it were as still as paintings. We took a walk along the track. Schools of fish were circling near the surface and occasionally one or two would flip out and disturb the stillness of the water. As we were following the path up towards the top of a small headland Little I starting calling out 'bird' 'bird', leaning backwards in my arms and twisting her head to look upwards. In the sky were the unmistakable silhouettes of flamingos flying above us, we could hear their calls and whistling sound at the beat of their wings. It was a magical moment, made more special by Little I having spotted them. We continued our walk through coastal pines and vineyards and then back down when a second group of flamingos flew over our heads.





 
Back at the van and confronted with the reality of a vehicle that felt as if it were on it's swansong journey we found ourselves making phone calls in a Lidl car park, trying to diagnose the problem and decide whether to continue and probably break down or return home and probably break down on the way. The girls were clamoring to get to the sea, Florent was desperate to get home and I was pretending to agree with him but desperately hoping somehow we could still have a holiday.

Somehow the morning passed and after one more supermarket car park emergency engine inspection and a very welcome air conditioned shopping centre toilet break we decided to try to get to the sea.

And the holiday continued like that. Episodes of tense driving, tight-lipped Florent, wide-eyed me, oblivious and sometimes very impatient girls and then some hours exploring a beautiful village, craving shade and ice cream or scanning the lagoons for more flamingos and other birds.





We did get to the sea for the girls. The length of the beach was decorated with bright parasols, bathers with sun aged wrinkled skin, children carrying inflatables twice their size and enough sand and salt water to transport the girls to their own version of heaven. Everything was in technicolor. The brightness of the light above a glistening sea and under a cloudless sky made it feel like a film set.

 
We saw the salt pans and the mountains of salt, piled into pyramids. We saw two hoopoes as we sought shade at the bottom of a village surrounded by an almond orchard and opposite a door covered in hunting trophies. We learnt that it's impossible to use nearly all car parks along this stretch of the Med with a vehicle that's 2.7 metres high. The girls washed under the jerry can but mostly didn't wash at all. We spent each night not too far from a sign forbidding us to do so and wincing at each occasional pass of headlights, waiting to be asked to move on, but weren't. I was eaten by mosquitoes but the girls were thankfully spared.



 


 
 


 
Most thankfully of all we did get home again. Both of us completely exhausted and swearing never to holiday like that again. Now with some time having passed the sharper edges have worn away and I am already only remembering the sunsets and perfect morning cups of tea whilst watching the girls play in dirt.

PS.

About half way through our trip we realised what the problem was. The kind of fuel we'd been using... It turns out that our van's engine doesn't like the cheaper petrol we'd used and so it's back to the more expensive one and a lot less stress.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

SUMMER OF SNAILS

I'm writing this to the sound of thunder crashes, in the dark of the attic. The gods of the sky groaning and rumbling, threatening downpours. Little I is next to me, asleep on the mattress, tiny beads of sweat on her nose. It's been almost two months since I last wrote and summer is passing by so fast.

Midsummer's day finished with a terrific storm, sending a river down our road and the children insane with glee and without inhibition. We went to the van with a plan to drive and watch the storm but instead played jazz loudly with the girls dancing off adrenaline from the crashes of thunder. I had imagined a midsummer meal with candles, an evening walk and wild flower wreath weaving but this turned out to be much better.




Then the girls and I returned to the UK for a couple of weeks. The girls met their newest cousin for the first time and were reunited with Little M, their long time cousin and fellow ragamuffin: Lots of joy and cuddles and some arguments and tears.
 
The weather was beautiful, we tripped to London and the girls had the time of their lives riding the red buses and discovering play parks of anyone's dreams and meeting with friends. We spent a very nostalgic day in Bristol,  more time with dear friends, paddled in Exmoor rivers, indulged in charity shops, ate fish and chips and pies (though not enough) and finally returned to France full to the brim with time spent with family and friends and completely exhausted! I swore never to travel alone with the girls again after Little I's wild behaviour in the airport had me very nearly in tears and apologising to nearly anyone in a uniform. She's certainly has proven her disregard for border controls.





Back home we have tended the garden, hosted visiting friends, continued with the building and enjoyed the simple day to day joys of summer here. On our walks Little I continues to hunt snails and often has a couple clutched in her grubby hands. If she sleeps on the way home from a trip up onto the hills or to the garden they creep out and trace their silver trails across her clothes and hands. Later, we negotiate and she reluctantly returns them to the wild.
 


 




This summer has also brought more questions from Little L than ever before. Not so long ago we came across an injured stag beatle. It's entire body had somehow been hollowed out leaving just it's head and front legs and one hind leg. It was struggling on it's back, miraculously still alive and desperately fighting to right itself and somehow continue to live. Little I was intrigued but too young to notice anything amiss. Little L was wide eyed and whispering 'what's wrong?'

We come across the end of life often. A body of a swallow chick, fallen from it's nest, a moth lying in a pathway, beating out it's last wing beats of it's short life or a squirrel, casualty of the cars on the road.
 
I have an urge to protect the girls from every sadness or tragedy however large or small but I also know that to hide them from this would be a disservice to them. The end of life is part of our life and the end of life gives life and makes space for more life. We challenge ourselves to be honest and enable them to see the wonder of life and death and be in awe of life because of death. It's been humbling to see how Little L seems to understand this.

And there is also the very beginning of life. Today we met a neighbour's tiny, day old kittens ; slowly scrambling over one another, nudging in to their mother, pushing their faces into her chest and searching for her milk. Then in the garden a newly fledged bird, still unable to fly, hopping under the bushes and fixing it's gaze upon the three of us with a perfectly round eye.
 





PS. Just to provide some balance, for each time we marvel at the wonders of life there are many daily frustrations! Their ongoing habits of deliberatly wearing shoes on the wrong feet (creating all manner of painful rubs and sores) or the elaborate negotiations around brushing teeth in their daily quest to make bedtime that little bit later are some current challenges... Highs and lows and all that.
 

THE HOUSE

So, we have the courtyard ! An outdoor space which we have eaten nearly every meal in since it has been finished. It is also already a sea of dens, soft toys, colouring pencils, story books, 'treasures' from every walk we take (mostly sticks and stones and one badger skull...) and sometimes there's space for Florent and I to enjoy a drink together in amongst it all. The BBQ isn't finished and there's a small about of pointing yet to complete but they are mere details.
 
Over the last few days Florent, along with generous help from a friend, has been removing a window and creating the space for the doors which will lead from the courtyard into the kitchen/ living area. Then we'll do some roofing and then back to the kitchen. This is not the right way to do things... Generally starting at the top of a building and then working down makes most sense but for various reasons this is how we are doing it. Every time the plans change we resign ourselves to another month or so using our trusty camping stove but these are small sacrifices and we remember often that we are indeed very lucky to have a roof over our heads at all and a leak now and then just adds character....