A sense of place: turbulence on the rocks

Conspiracy and sabotage in the Pyrenees

corbierescanigou002-300x218Flying into the French Pyrenees over terracotta roofs and ochre buildings, I’m struck by the rectangles and circles of aquamarine. The sky is blue and the sun shining on the dusty palms at the mini airport. No doubt the residents lucky enough to have swimming pools will be dipping in a finger or toe and then retreating. It’s early spring and there is still some peach blossom on the trees, but there is snow, a dollop of white icing, on the Canigou (sacred mountain of the Catalans) and without sun, the air will be cool, even chilly.

Leaving the aircraft, however, is like entering a warm bath. The air is caressing, sweet, and the perfect temperature. We drive swiftly north west from Perpignan, through wide valleys intersected by shallow, meandering rivers, and on through peach orchards, towards the foothills of the Pyrenees.

We skirt ancient towns, each crowned with elaborate and beautiful ecclesiastical buildings. There are political posters pasted on lesser buildings backing onto the main road. It is the time of the local elections, the occasion for communes to elect their mayor and councillors.

While driving up the mountain, along the vertiginous and twisty road, where you are always between a rock and a precipice, we notice more posters at the entrance to each village and hamlet. Arriving at my hamlet I see at least five posters gracing the tiny pasarelle – the little bridge over the river.

Feeling grubby and tired, we carry armfuls of luggage and shopping up the overgrown path onto the mountain where my house stands, stony and proud. The blue house shutters are shut tight. The sleeping house frowns down on the river and the scurrying villagers. My kind neighbours have arrived to kiss and welcome us. David and Pierre, both in their seventies, and Annie a decade younger. They have tales to tell. They hint at dark deeds and disaster and invite us for apéros!

Sitting around a dining table, covered with a bright cloth and a clutter of bottles and glasses, they tell us that there has been drama in the village. There had been three candidates, each with an entourage of possible councillors, offering themselves as mayor. The spectrum of politics between these three was as wide as you can imagine and passions had exploded. One of the candidates had accused another of supporting le Front National (the equivalent of the British National Party).

Letters to this effect had been sent to all potential voters, the result of which had been that the village was painfully divided, as if invisible walls had been erected between the three factions. People were crossing the narrow road to avoid speaking to one another. Now this was proving very difficult, in a village with one main street and about 35 residents.

A week later Easter had arrived, and we were invited to a larger neighbouring village of 200 souls to take part in festivities. Here too were election posters and here too was angst. The Easter celebration was a happy distraction. A choir in traditional costume, followed by villagers and children walked door to door singing traditional Easter egg songs in Catalan, Goigs (pronounced ‘gotch’) dels Ous. Doors opened and the singers were thanked by offerings of eggs which were placed in a basket or barrow decorated with spring flowers. Some of the braver choir members managed to drink wine poured from a height from a sort of vinaigrette bottle. I declined to try! I did however accept an invitation to The Salle de Fête, where aperitifs and a feast of omelettes and sweet pastries was to be consumed.

During the jollity of aperitifs I mentioned the electoral strife in my village. My friend replied that they had suffered similar upheavals. She expounded the tale sotto voce. The previous Sunday morning, when everyone was out getting fresh bread, all the cars parked near the bakers were seen to have been fly-posted with the message: ‘The plumber’s wife is screwing the apprentice.’ The plumber’s wife was an aspiring candidate!

It seems to me that election campaigns on the rural French rocks make those of Obama and Romney look like a Sunday School Picnic.

Jean Heaven

About Jean Heaven

Who am I? Well, I'm no longer a teacher, no longer a social worker. Now a widow of eccentric filmmaker Simon, mother of Rupert, Pippa, and Jo and grandmother to their children. Living in Herefordshire and South West France, a regular visitor to the treats in London, I write, attempt and aspire to understand the complex world we're living in, but above all enjoy the people around me and my good fortune at being alive and well at a time of accelerating change.