There’s something somewhat sinister and deathly leery about a small, rural French town during Winter. We set our bags down a month ago, after having our plane redirected to Montpellier thanks to densely profuse Fog loitering around the river Lot and its frost-laden tree-clad valleys, within which we were to call home for the next 8 weeks.
No sooner had we unladened ourselves of our bags, the European ‘Big Freeze’ hits. The hovering Siberian Low pressure stubbornly refusing to allow any clouds or precipitation to pass overhead, ergo, day after day after day the heat escapes and nothing, zero, zilch is retained.
At nights we warm ourselves in the converted chic farmhouse, huddled by the log fire, watching Dexter, or Birdie or Mr Nobody, or Rabbit Hole or one of the other mass of DVDs on offer as shelter from the -13c that’s engulfing ‘the outside’ every evening.
But this is what we expected, assumed, imagined. This is what we were promised. This is what we had hoped for. For years, hearing about the ghastly winters of Southern France. The unbearable cold, the frost-nipped fingers and toes, the burst water-pipes, collapsed trees, snow ploughs, permafrosted hamlets, cracked lips, frozen waterfalls and never enough layers. This is what we were promised.
But the truth of it is this. This is abnormal. The locals tell us so most days. It’s the talk of the town. Although my French is basic-conversational only, I comprehend far more than what I can speak, and this is ‘the word on the street’.
Yet as we meander through the abandoned streets, admiring the myriad greys and whites, the shuttered shops that won’t open again until spring and the occasional bark of a nearby dog, echoing through the village as everybody else is locked in their hibernation, it gets me thinking. I have so many questions and qualms that hammer on my curious mind. So many queries that I need answering else I’ll be left wondering for eternity.
How can people live here all their lives? How is everybody occupying themselves? Where do they get their money from? What do they do with their time?
I want, no, need, to know how these people live!
And then all became clear.
While we’ve been here, we’ve been lucky enough to meet a few expats as well as a few locals, and were last night invited to a wine-tasting dinner party. This part of France seems to house a disproportional number of artistic, creative individuals and the house we arrived at encompassed that completely, with a beautiful, open plan interior, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the town and valley, and some of the most amazing artworks, produced mostly by local artists, hung delicately and perfectly around the house.
As we sat and chatted, and tasted the wine, nibbled on the bacon-wrapped dates and home-made hummus, Slovenian desert, and home-fermented ginger rum, it became apparent that this was the answer to all of my questions. Right there. I was sat, nibbling and listening and translating the answer I’d been searching for.
The social life, close connections, hearty laughs and sporadic, lively conversation. What more could people really want? The whole evening reminded me of that quote, ‘truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget’, but more importantly, it reminds me of when Tennessee Williams uttered ‘life is partly what we make it and partly what it is made by the friends we choose’. Never a truer word uttered. Forget the wide world, and focus on the narrow planet we each inhabit.
Being here, as we are, without that close-knit group of friends to fall back on is bound to encourage us to question how it is that local residents are spending their time, and how they can overcome the boredom that must necessarily ensue after decades worth of Winters spent here (in Summer, this is an adventure sport paradise, apparently). But when we take, with grasping hands, that opportunity to partake in the lives of the locals, and to truly see how they choose to spend their time, how different the outlook, how fuller the understanding, how simply the questions are answered!
A winter spent with real, close friends; drinking, laughing, conversing, eating, sympathising, sharing, shouting, tasting. No matter where you are, what more could one want? How ironic those nights spent watching DVDs looks now.