Samantha David is a freelance journalist and writes for various publications including BBC Online, the Sunday Times, the FT, Living France, everything France, and France Magazine

Samantha David, writer

The Secret Cevennes - articles by Samantha David

 

 

Sept 15th - Indian Summer

The sleepy creak of a wheelbarrow in the village square announces that Rose-Marie has finally stripped her groaning apricot tree of fruit. Marie-France meanwhile has pushed her dozy husband out to collect fallen pears for bottling, and they’re busy on the farm, up those ladders in the sunshine, picking apples for making juice. Jean-Pierre is stacking sweetcorn in his shed for the chickens, and having duly declared his wine stocks, Francois is washing his barrels in the fountain. The onions were all snatched off the fields a fortnight ago minutes before the storms broke, so that they will keep all winter.

Out on the hills today, collecting blackberries with Dolly, we were surrounded by glutted wasps, so fat and sated that they could barely fly, let alone contemplate stinging us. The warm sun shone in a pure azure sky, there wasn’t the tiniest puff of cloud in sight. After the rains, there must be mushrooms further up the mountains, but me and Dolly don’t ever go that far afield. At heart we remain city girls.

Talking to Tantine, a laughing, weathered octogenarian with a basket of laundry on her hip, she nodded.

“Oh yes,” she said. “It’s glorious now. But it scares me. It’s worse than the rain, this is. It reminds me that winter’s coming and I’m afraid.”

She’s not alone. Half the village is saying the same thing. People stop each other in the street and say “you’re staying, then? You’re not scared?”

And the old die-hards shake their heads defiantly and say, “No, I’m used to it. It doesn’t scare me. Well, not much, anyway.”
What are they talking about? They’re scared of seasonal isolation. Naturally once the tourist season finishes at the end of August, the camp sites, tourist amusements, attractions, museums, exhibitions, festivals, swimming pools, and guest houses all close. But then, as the winter progresses more and more businesses shut up shop: restaurants, bars, night-clubs, one by one they all close. By mid December, at 7-o-clock, on a Saturday night in our local town (half an hour away by car) there isn’t a single restaurant or bar open. It’s closed. It’s all closed. For the whole winter. Nothing opens until at least Easter and even then things are slow getting going.

But the people in our village are all over 120 years old. They don’t go to bars and night-clubs, even when they are open. So what are they afraid of?

The related isolation. With everything closed, no-one comes here. The village square won’t have a single car parked on it from one month to the next. No-one will call, no-one will gossip on the benches outside the church, there will be no-one having cheerful aperos, no young people hanging round the phone box or swigging shandy in the bus shelter.

And worse, if it’s a bad winter the wind will whip powdered snow off the peaks and fling it stinging into exposed faces, we’ll all need to chop more firewood, order more coal, we’ll all be faced with the task of emptying ashes twice a day, keeping the shutters closed, staying indoors while the cold and the dark enfolds the village for months and months.

No, there’s no mains gas in the village. No, people don’t use electricity for heating. No, only one house in the village is equipped with oil fired central heating - and that house is empty all winter. And no, extraordinarily enough not everyone in the village has a car.

Which is why we’re preparing a secret weapon: a series of winter animations in the village. For Christmas we’re having a children’s party, an Oldie’s Dinner, and a bingo session. There’s also going to be a carol service (in English) with community singing in French, the Thirteen Puddings, and free mulled wine. Then after the pig killing, and the resulting feast, we’re repeating the world music evening with another demonstration on the famous digeridoo in aid of charity. We’re also planning a Scottish evening with dancing and a piper if we can dig one up, a tea dance, the annual tripe evening, and to kick it all off, on October 2nd, a day-trip to Avignon to go on a boat ride, see some famous palace or other, eat a large lunch and (presumably) dance on the famous bridge.

So you have been warned. Be scared. Be very scared. Our village is going to party all winter long.

Er... watch this space.

Next column will be uploaded around 3rd Oct.

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