Trip Start Nov 27, 2009
147Trip End Ongoing
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As we flew back to Limoges and then drove two hours north, we gazed at the space. So much green and brown space. During our few days in Kent and London, we had grown used to shortened horizons, many people in close proximity and advertising. Lots of advertising. In comparison, middle France is deserted. The younger generations are leaving rural areas and heading for bigger cities. And without the population there is much less advertising. So land is cheaper here and there is plenty of woodland to gaze at. A more critical look reveals that much of the coppice is overstood rather than being regularly cut in rotation. The combination of reduced population and a move towards more convenient but less ecological central heating has reduced the need for firewood and the unmanaged woodlands will lose much of the coppice stools, becoming unproductive in the future. Still we love the outdoors and the woodland and we are happy outside of the urban lines of brick boxes. Nature will reclaim the woodlands into a less human controlled state if given a chance.
Watching mile upon mile of greenery pass by the windscreen, I am reminded of the wonderful traditions in the countryside. I've written about the fêtes, fairs and other events that celebrate the old ways with modern attractions alongside. Daily life is also a mix of the old and new. For example, the boulangerie van visits two mornings per week, tooting her horn to announce the arrival of fresh french baguettes for sale. These aren't my favourite but she also sells really good croissants, pain au chocolat and pain aux raisin which are all really bad... for me. Just to make it a truly French dining experience, the bakery van sells wine! Lots of old customs still survive, too. When entering a shop, it is exceptionally bad manners to fail to say bonjour to all the madames and monsieurs in the shop. When entering a packed bistro or bar, the etiquette is to say "bonjour messieurs-dames" just to the first table. Often everyone will say hello back. Very welcoming and friendly experience!
The lack of population means emptier roads but when you do come across another driver it is worth remembering that the customs are different here. The obvious one is that the French drive on the right. Or in the middle of the road. There are some funny looking little cars that do not require a driving license. These are definitely worth watching out for. Almost always driven by very old French men and women in traditional work clothes, the vehicles go wherever they like, whenever they like... Many countryside road junctions have no right of way for either road and relies on drivers slowing down and looking. Indeed until recently, the right of way at a junction was that the minor road turning onto the major road had priority. Not everyone has heard about the rules change. And when you are at a junction that you have to give way, don't expect anyone to let you out, even if it would make it easier for them to negotiate the turn without a large van sat in the way.
A real benefit of staying with those who have settled in to a life in France is finding out what it's really like. We admire those who have managed to start businesses, navigating the paperwork, rules, regulations and local requirements. France is built on paperwork and bureaucracy. Although some things are easier, like not needing planning permission for a cabin in the woods, some things are awfully difficult. A new account requires a leverarch file of forms - in triplicate, and proof of identity and status that probably includes your nursery school reports. Not that the UK is without bureaucracy but at least it is in English. We could improve our French and one day we could even speak it well. But we've seen how there is a difference in response from agencies between a native French speaker and a good speaker and we've even seen how non locals can be discriminated against by the locals. In one town, a good measure of your acceptance is the price you are charged for a coffee in any of the bars. If the price is as per the menu then you are still considered a tourist. Locals get a cheaper rate.
We love that there are still people wandering off in a bucolic manner to collect wild mushrooms and asparagus. It's not seen as odd to be pulled over on the side of the road rifling through the leaf litter to retrieve the fattest sweet chestnuts. Those in the countryside still eat from the wild and this includes hunting. I've no comment to make on the rights and wrongs of the pastime; "la chasse" is intrinsic to rural French life. What gets irritating is that it happens on any day. Yes it is more prevalent on a weekend and generally only during daylight hours but yet with minimal light on a midweek evening a shot will ring out. The hunters are known to shoot other people's dogs - accidentally it is claimed which, to my mind, is even more dangerous as it suggests a shoot first, identify later policy. We've had Hamish and Willow who are from deerhound stock (so big, stupidly friendly dogs) with us in the woods and on numerous occasions we've spotted the hunters too close for comfort and rapidly hidden the dogs in the caravan. The hunters meander wherever they want, a hunting dog has appeared in our camp in the woods and they frequently wander through the fields adjacent to the farm. Friends have had dogs jump into their pig compound and set about the piglets. Last year I caught one of the dogs in the farmyard. Unfortunately too late for two of the very free range chickens that were brutally mauled. We held the dog to ransom and the surprised hunter stumped up the replacement costs of the birds when he came to collect his dog. That night we had chicken curry.
So to answer an oft asked question, "Are we moving to France?" - I can positively state that we have no plans to move to France at the moment. But I should also point out that we have no plans at all.