You haven’t heard from me for a while, but that’s only because I’ve been busy, not for more sinister reasons. More below. Winter has started early with an unseasonable snowfall and sub-zero night temperatures. A reminder that we are in the foothills of the Massif Central here. Our walking haunts in the Cantal, further North, are already blanketed in snow, which will remain until the spring.
Trip to the Gers
One reason for neglecting the blog was that I have been preparing, and then giving, writing workshops to two creative writing groups in the Gers. These had been postponed since April 2020 owing to Covid.
Much as I love our home, I hadn’t been away for about two years until last weekend. This also enabled me to acquaint myself with a part of Southwest France I barely know.
The Gers is a neighbouring département (county) but further Southwest. Chunks of other départements, including a small piece of the Gers, were sliced off to form the parvenu Tarn-et-Garonne at Napoleon’s behest in 1808.
We have ventured into the Gers only a couple of times, when we visited the jazz festival in Marciac, around 20 years ago. Driving there this time, I was reminded again of how big France is. I went from the North-eastern part of our département to the middle of the Gers, and that was 170 km (about 106 miles). Remembering the traffic jams in Auch, the main town, I took a different route.
Tarn-et-Garonne has a smaller surface area than the Gers but a larger population. The Gers is a deeply rural part of France, with a focus on arable farming. You’ll no doubt have seen photos of swathes of sunflower fields, which seem to symbolise the area. It’s characterised by rolling countryside and small towns and villages with half-timbered buildings and arcaded squares.
Since I was working, I didn’t get much chance to explore. And the weather hindered the promised glimpses of the Pyrénées from the house where I stayed.
An area to revisit.
My other bit of busyness was completing a course about Impressionist painting, which involved a final essay that had to be turned in by a deadline.
I really enjoyed learning more about the Impressionists and the social and political world they inhabited in France between the 1870s and 1890s, when the movement ran out of steam.
Previously, and no doubt like many people, I thought of the Impressionists in terms of Monet, Renoir and Degas. But I discovered other painters who deserve greater acclaim, such as Pissarro and Sisley, and I learned of the success of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, despite the much more restricted world women existed in.
Our brighter southern skies never appealed to the Impressionists, who preferred the pastel colours of Normandy and the countryside around Paris. Cézanne was born in Provence and developed a style that accommodated its harsher light and colours. Monet also painted down there, but his style was more suited to the North.
A gloomy November is drawing to a close, during which we have had only five days that could reasonably be described as decent.
We have noticed that the autumn colours vary depending on the weather during the preceding months. In years when there is a drought, the autumn leaves are a fiery orange brown. This was evident in 2003 after the searing hot summer. This year of much higher rainfall and a relatively cool summer has resulted in an autumn of gold.
Yesterday, the forecast quelques flocons (a few snowflakes) turned into a proper snowstorm, which settled but had melted by lunchtime. It’s unusual to have snow here in November, although we had one heavy snowfall in 2010, below. Places a little higher than us on the causse have had November snow more recently.
After a clear night, the temperature had dropped to minus 6.5 C this morning, but the sun shone from a cloudless blue sky. Frost coated the grass and twigs and sparkled in the sunlight. It is bringing down the last of the leaves, revealing the bare skeletons of trees and the countryside beyond them. It’s also frazzled my geraniums, which I had hoped to keep a little longer.
This morning in the village market and in the boucherie, the cold snap was on everyone’s lips.
“Ça va ?”
“Ça va, fraîchement [lit. coldly].”
“Oui, ça caille [lit. It curdles].”
The latter derives from the verb cailler (to coagulate or curdle). Le caillé is soft cheese or curds formed when milk curdles by fermentation. I recently discovered that la caillebotte (which, incidentally, is also the surname of an Impressionist painter!) is soft cheese thickened with enzymes formerly obtained from plants. This kind of fact appeals to my magpie mind.
Tonight, we will be snuggled in front of the wood burner, wondering how on earth it could ever have been warm enough to immerse ourselves in the water-filled pit outside. But every season has its charms and rituals, which give life down here its variety.
Keep warm. Stay safe.
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I always found the expression, ‘ça caille’ to be a funny one (why would cold curdle?) Very colloquial where we used to live in the Lyonnais. Lovely photos — the cold weather does do pretty things to the environment!
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It is an odd phrase. People use it a lot around here, too. The frost was very pretty the other morning, especially with some unusual sunshine sparkling off it.
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What a good read. Envious of you teaching again. I ran writing classes for several years in Wales and Shropshire and would love to do it again. It must have been wonderful to be with other people all being creative.
The Gers is only a stone’s throw from us, a lovely region.
Hope we don’t see snow as per your pic if 2010!!
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It was fun to do the workshops and energising for me, so I hope it was for them, too!
I’m keeping fingers crossed we don’t get any snow. Some people love it, but our steep lane becomes treacherous and it becomes a bore after a couple of days. Having said that, we haven’t had much snow for years – I hope this year doesn’t buck that trend!
thanks Vanessa, for this timely post – minus 6°C is remarkable – I think during my 12+yrs in France it never went that low….. Lovely photos, thank you.
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I hope you’re well, Kiki. Down here, we have seen minus 18 C! But that is exceptional. We are 320 m above sea level here and inland, so the difference between summer and winter is marked.