Thursday, 15 February 2018
Should you look inside one of my kitchen cupboards, you'd see a large range of drinking glasses - mostly recognisable as former jam, pickle or Vegemite pots. Open another door and a plastic bag, bulging at the seams, will not launch itself at you, as it has been solidly packed with flimsy supermarket shopping bags, ready for their second and subsequent uses, and wedged against the cupboard hinges. Look closely at my right summer sandal and you might detect the faint marks of the clamps and glue used to reattach the strap to the sole, and if you flick through family photos of a decade ago, you won't see those sandals, but you might see the jumper, jeans or dress that appear in my recent holiday snaps. I am not a hoarder (my children's memorabilia and my teaching books aside), so that's not the reason for such peculiarities. It is; however, one of the reasons that I adore everything about the French vide-grenier.
These joyous community events give pre-loved trash and treasure the opportunity to begin afresh, just like my array of glassware. Up and down village streets on vide-grenier day, I wander, intermittently aware of the friendly banter, good-spirited bargaining, occasional loud-speaker announcement or distant chimes from the cows and goats in the surrounding fields. The excitement does not leave me until I have perused, assessed and walked past each stall, picked up and cradled several items and made eye-contact and subsequent small talk with one or two stallholders, deserving of my attentiveness after a night of minimal sleep and maximum preparation to enable my colourful, visual tableaux.
Unsurprisingly, such events are not as frequent in winter. So, there is no alternative during these months, but to head further afield and discover more beautiful country routes and picturesque hamlets. Hardly a chore, this is exactly what we did recently and which led me right past the subject of today's blog - cheeseboards.
I hadn't paid much attention to the details of our destination. I didn't know the village, but knew that the drive through the Bauges would be possible, as the big dump of snow predicted for the week would not yet have impacted easy circulation. Usually, it is enough to note the name of the village, type it into our GPS and, when within a two-kilometre radius, follow the line of people walking from make-shift carparks to vide-grenier central. This time, we parked in front of the church...easily, which was not a reassuring sign, and, stretching from the drive, looked around. No crowds, no sounds, no tempting hot oil smells from the barquettes de frites.
Avoiding eye-contact with my own tribe,
"I might have got it wrong. Perhaps I misread the date, but let's go for a walk."
It took as long to get dressed - hats, scarves, gloves and jackets - as it did to check out the village. There was a sign on the school fence saying that a case of chickenpox had been confirmed at the école, but, whether directly related to this or not, there was no-one there.
My family are kind. They made no fuss, pretending that this crumbling wall on that ancient barn was an excellent reason for an hour-and-a-half in the car.
After fifteen minutes of sustained, deliberate looking, I turned to my husband,
"What if we were to actually look up the address?"
And, lo and behold, we were in the right village, on the right day, and nearly-the-right place, with fifteen minutes before the event was due to conclude.
We raced back to the car.
It looked promising from the road. With each newly sighted piece of bunting, van and trestle table, my spirits lifted.
Leaping out of the car, not bothering this time with careful dressing, I raced to the first stall, noting that there was a flurry of newspaper at the three alongside. Yikes, they were packing up and I had not even begun my slow browse.
A chipped Ricard jug caught my attention. I'm not opposed to chipped anything, but searching for the price, my eyes slid downwards to a circular piece of pock-marked wood.
"What do you think?"
"Get it", said my husband.
"Mmm, do you really think so?"
Interpreting my cautious decisiveness as a reluctance to pay the price, the stallholder offered me a five-euro reduction.
"Plus the jug?" I asked cheekily.
He nearly went for it, too, but outsmarted me by proffering another, even more battered than the first, and suggesting that I pay for just the more expensive and get the two.
"That's ok. Thanks anyway. Bonne journée, Monsieur."
Grinning happily, I thanked my son who, taking the board from me to carry it back to the car, allowed me to fit in a quick, unencumbered lap of the Méry event.
If you would like to read more stories from our family's French adventure, please don't hesitate to contact me on email@example.com for a print copy of 'But you are in France, Madame' or click on the following link for a Kindle copy.
Tuesday, 6 February 2018
We made it to February 5, our day of departure, and against all odds we were ready. Busy until the very last minute and with the pressure of being the only responsible parent, I had no time on that last day to give in to excessive emotion. The children on the other hand cried through the morning, again on the bus home from school and as I turned the key for the last time in our beautiful old wooden door before hiding it under the stone in the corner of the garden bed near the barren wisteria, and taking my seat in the car. This time our suitcases, like us, were well-travelled and worn; this time the excitement of our departure four years previously had been replaced by a dullness, and this time, it was not the rain but the snow, which had stopped falling to make possible our departure, which started falling in earnest the next day. (extract 'But you are in France, Madame')
It is hard to believe that five whole years have passed since our return to Australia. I look at the photos of the castle above, as we looked at them every day and in all seasons from our balcony in France, and the emotion is still there. I was weary, exhausted actually, from packing up a whole house, three children...our entire French lives. Some items, I sold on the French equivalent of eBay, le bon coin, some things I gave away, I sorted and packed boxes and boxes to be shipped back to Australia, our travel suitcases had to be carefully packed to include items that we would need immediately upon return, utilities had to be cancelled, the house had to be cleaned, friends had to be farewelled and normal everyday cooking, shopping, washing and mothering had to be fitted in, too.
We arrived back early in the morning to a hot summer's day. On the other side of the world, we had been suitably dressed in jeans, jumpers, thick coats and scarves but sweltered uncomfortably through the long customs queues in Sydney. Fragile and smelling less than desirable, we emerged into the Australian sun where underneath the animated chatter of our reunion with my husband we were silenced by the different light intensity and the sounds and smells that were no longer familiar.
The following day, I ventured into an Australian supermarket feeling lost and decidedly out-of-place. I wandered aimlessly picking up, putting down and picking up again a packet of Hot Cross Buns from the shelves, needing the comfort of my favourite bun despite wanting to resist the judiciously placed display for an Easter still far away. To these I added a few items that I thought I could use for making up the long-forgotten-about school lunch boxes, wincing at the copious layers of wrapping that enveloped all of the easy morning options. That was enough, I had to leave. Passing through the checkout, I realized that I only had one little foldable bag with me, a grabbed souvenir from the roadside throwaways on the Tour de France and apologized to the male cashier as I was trying to squash everything into it as quickly as I could. He looked at me and asked kindly if I was ok packing my own bags. For a brief moment, I had no idea what he was talking about and then realized that that was no longer how things were done. (extract 'But you are in France, Madame')
For many of you who have been following our adventures through this blog, or who have read our story, you will know that the adventure did continue. But, in both directions, I still make mistakes. It takes time before I remember to take our re-usable bags to the supermarket when we return to France, to say 'bonjour' before beginning a conversation, to find the right words once everything is properly back in French, to anticipate the shops shutting at lunchtime, or to hop into the driver's seat on the right side of the car in order to remain on the right side of the road. Despite the passing years, the emotion is still strong. Our last week in France is always hard, as I countdown not only all the jobs that need to be done to restore our house to perfect holiday rental conditions, but the days left to savour morning walks to the bakery, throwing open the shutters to greet the day and the mountains, unashamedly sitting idly by the window watching the snow fall, anticipating the treasures that I will find (not necessarily buy) at the permanent second-hand stores, perusing the lunchtime set menus and knowing that there is no need to schedule further afternoon activities, catching up with old friends, walking and skiing amidst the grandeur of nature...
To finish, let me share some village news. Jean Sulpice, head chef and owner at Le Père Bise in Talloires has just been awarded two Michelin stars, which is another excellent reason to visit our special place in France. Click here to read the full article from L'Express
Or, as always, if you would like to read more of our family story, 'But you are in France, Madame' please don't hesitate to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the following link for a Kindle copy.