In a previous life I was a teacher, as was my wife Lizzie. I was given my full pension years before I was ready to retire so we decided that a change was in order. We had several places on our list of “possibles” and it was on our way back from a fruitless summer in southern Spain that we chanced upon the Pyrenees-Orientales.
We rented a small isolated cottage high above Prades for four months in 2002 and that experience taught us a great deal. Yes, we wanted to live in this part of the world, no we didn’t want to be living in a steep sided valley. After all, what is the point in living in a part of France with more than 300 days of sunshine per year if you spend more than half of it in shadow?
We returned to UK, sold our house in Poole, put the money in the bank and returned to P.O. In the spring of 2003, we found a house in which we thought we could spend the rest of our lives, bought it and moved in at the end of May that year.
After many years of competitive sailing round Poole Harbour, Lizzie and I needed something to fill the void. When U3A was born, we joined the organisation with a view to playing golf and have been doing it ever since. It is a lovely group of people and we feel very privileged to be a part of it.
I can honestly say that we have both found peace, harmony and happiness in this wonderful part of the world, not to mention an anecdote or two, which I am happy to share with you here.
Simon Bridges April 2020, Terrats.
A hot story
A long time ago… May 2003 to be a bit more precise, Lizzie and I signed on the dotted line – well in reality it was probably more like thirty or forty dotted lines – and thus we had our first serious encounter with French Bureaucracy. We walked out of the notaire’s office in Thuir a great deal poorer but with a new set of keys and were the proud owners of the last house you pass when leaving Terrats village before heading into the vines.
There was much celebrating although not much sitting about because we had no furniture save for a few plastic garden chairs. It didn’t matter a jot, we had found exactly what we wanted at a price we didn’t think we could afford, but hey-ho isn’t that always the case when buying a house.
Looking back at a diary I kept at the time, I find it impossible to believe that I accomplished so much physical labour during those early years… but then I was seventeen years younger. The first real hiccup came quite soon after moving in… actually, not moving in but more re-aligning the plastic garden chairs, which was all we had in the way of furniture… I mean, we were now living in the South of France, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean and another stone’s throw to the Pyrenees and we expected it to be hot in the summer. That is why lots of people (mostly French) come to this part of the world for their summer holidays.
The climate is glorious; at least 300 days of sun every year, very short winters during which we may or may not get a frost and exceedingly cheap but excellent wine that you can buy en vrac. I mean, what more could a man wish for?
I did honestly think that we had perhaps made a mistake as the summer took over from late spring. The daily maximum temperature just kept on getting higher – and higher. We read about all the older people in big cities who were simply dying from the extreme heat. They didn’t really know how to adapt to these extremes whereas the little old ladies of Terrats had grown up with hot summers and knew exactly how to survive them.
I well recall one old lady coming round to visit – well, in truth she just wanted to have a bit of a “nose” and to find out how English people lived so she would have something to tell her fellow crones as they had their evening chat outside the cemetery having wished “bonjour” to their departed husbands. When we got into the house, I opened the curtains and opened the windows she flew into a right old paddy. The curtains are put there to keep the sun out and to preserve what bit of coolness there is in the room – and what were our blinds doing rolled up ?
You drink a lot of water and move round as little as possible during the heat of the day. You also wear a lot less clothes (apparently this is what killed a lot of little old ladies in Paris – they wouldn’t abandon their woolly combinations for fear of being considered wanton). Anyway, we endured ten consecutive days when the temperature hit 44 degrees and, as I said, I thought we had maybe made a mistake. But, we survived with the help of Jeanine (our elderly visitor) and gradually became acclimatised.
Due to her Catalan origins Jeanine was pronounced “Janeener” and even on days when she chose to wear her teeth, comprehension was difficult… but she was honestly a lovely lady and we were very sad when she died a couple of years ago. We know exactly where she is because she often took us across the road to the cemetery to show us “her spot” in which she would embrace eternity. She had an unbelievable faith.
Now, as I said, the little old ladies knew a thing or two about living in the heat and casting clouts was definitely on the list. The outrageously awful one-size-fits-all shifts with the armpits around waist level to allow for maximum circulation of air were the chosen garment and having visited Thuir market, I knew exactly what went on in the underwear department. There is a sign written on an old cardboard box and hoisted high above the parasol shading the stall. “BRIEFS” it says and I must tell you that of all the things in all the world they are not, it is brief. These garments, in wonderful pastel colours would have made very adequate parachutes for members of the resistance in days gone by.
However, in order to discover la pièce de résistance of P-O ladies underwear, you will need to visit the Terrats vide grenier. There is a lady who has her own stall with her wares strung from horizontal pieces of scaffolding pole – rather like dead grey crows. She sells second hand bras. One careful owner, never raced or rallied and all in one colour – grey – although they clearly didn’t all start out in that particular hue… time took its toll… Again it is one size fits all as long as the size is enormous… she has a large stock and the stall carries its own unique hot armpits aroma. Just unbelievable… and I promise you – totally true.
So, yet another dream of sophisticated, sultry ladies drawing deep on a Gitane and sipping a Pastis while wearing lacy thongs with matching sheepdog bras (the ones that round them up and point them in the right direction) in the heat of the summer in the south of France was shattered.
Of course, fine weather in UK has had serious drawbacks. After the dreadful pandemic and the hateful lockdown, people were desperate to get out and where better to go on a hot day than the beach? There has been much written in the press about the mass breakdown of law and order at Bournemouth and the fouling of the beach but I do think that Bournemouth Council must bear some of the responsibility for locking all the toilets which are situated between the car park and the sand. Tens of thousands of people in the open air for say six hours at a stretch and not a single loo. Yes, the councillors obeyed the government rules but sometimes we have to admit that the law is an ass and do the right thing. Locked up toilet blocks and no rubbish bins just made a bad situation a lot worse.
We all know that living here, sun cream, bar-b-q’s and hats will definitely be required during the best part of four months of the year. In UK there is no such certainty and when a hot day arrives, do you pocket your government aid for having your job taken away because of Coronavirus or do you go to work for just a bit of extra cash and forfeit a beach day… It might just be tiddling down with rain by the weekend with a SW force seven to help matters along. Clearly, a lot of people of working age chose the beach option.
In the UK, when the temperatures reach 28°C and the papers scream out “what a scorcher” people seem to lose the will to do anything meaningful apart from cremating sausages over red hot charcoal.
The word “humidity” doesn’t figure too much in English but over here we recognise that words like “muggy” are perhaps more significant than scorcher. We know that high humidity means discomfort but with average humidity 30°C is quite bearable.
Yes, in winter when it is lashing down with rain it is a lovely cosy feeling to be inside with a roaring fire and windows streaming with water and wind lashing the trees. UK pubs are wonderful on days like that and if it weren’t for the prospect of the drive home afterwards, unbeatable. On the other hand, in our adopted homeland, I have often taken to the terrace and BBQ’d in January in 25 degrees with perfectly done Catalan sausages as well as the odd kebab, whilst sipping (actually quaffing) a glass of chilled rosé. Different climates, different life styles and as they say over here vive la difference!