Monday, August 07, 2006

Summertime

Amerloque is enjoying his annual quality time in the country. As every year, Amerloque has migrated with the family to Normandy for the summer and is living at the farm.

It didn't take Amerloque long to discover several decades ago that the quality of life in rural France in the summer season is incomparably better than it is in the cities. Back then, in the late 1960s, small French villages and towns were venues unto themselves, with closely-knit populations and a full range of shops and services. Each town had its own medecin, its pharmacie, its PTT and perhaps more than one banque. Wearing their inevitable bleu de travail, local farmers would come into town on tractors for the once or twice weekly outdoor markets. Priorities were different. People took their time.

A lot has changed since then, of course: what passes nowadays for modernity has struck with a vengeance. There are far fewer shops and schools, for example. Populations have aged and become more heterogeneous. There are fewer farms – and farmers now come into towns in their cars. They don't wear bleu de travail anymore, either, and they do their shopping at the local super- or hypermarket. People are more rushed.

Still, compared to Paris and its suburbs (and to the larger French cities) the advantages of the French summertime countryside are absolutely undeniable: no major traffic; no parking problems; no squawking car alarms at any hour of the day and night; no street people extorting supposedly spare change from passerby; no slow-moving lines at supermarket checkout counters or at La Poste. Less air pollution, less noise, less crime, less hassle. Too, out in the country, the food seems fresher. The bread seems more flavorsome, the coffee more pungent, the produce more tasteful, the meats more succulent, the wines more flavorful. Not heaven on earth culinarily speaking, by any means … but not far off, in Amerloque's view.

Amerloque's farm is at the end of a road that he and his family surfaced themselves, not with some sweat and toil. Many years ago, for the sum of 1000 francs or so (at the time about US$100), Amerloque purchased 10,000 old bricks that had once formed the walls of a local pressoir, the Norman building in which apples were crushed to make cider. Amerloque and the family summarily cleaned the bricks and laid them out onto the roadway, in the long, narrow furrows that wheels had previously made. A mixture of sand, lime and ground mollusk shells was scattered for strength as necessary. Hedges using local flora were planted on each side of the "paved" road. Room was left for wild blackberry brambles (mures), which were carefully transplanted at regular intervals from neighboring farms.




Now, at the end of each summer, kilos and kilos of wild blackberries are there for the gathering; to add to pancakes, muffins, and cakes, and to make jams and jellies. Neither signpost nor placard indicate that the road leads to an inhabited farm: passerby are none the wiser. Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché ("To live happily, live out of sight."), goes the old French proverb, and Amerloque has made it his own.

In addition to reading, writing, cooking, motoring and picnicking in the countryside and general pottering about, Amerloque is relaxing in his usual way. For some years now he and his family have been repairing and restoring the woodframed walls of the house and outbuildings. This must done during sunny weather. The torchis, mixed in the spring, can now be adroitly stuffed into the prepared recesses in the walls and covered with a thin layer of lime based plaster. This type of ecologically sound construction is traditional in Normandy and in other parts of France (notably Alsace). It's even coming back into style, as a matter of fact. It is low tech, though labor intensive: ideal for the vacationtime dog days. Progress in building is not measured in meters, but rather in centimeters, from day to day, from week to week, and from season to season.

According to the media, this year the French people in general have decided overwhelmingly to take their summer holidays in France rather than travelling abroad. It's quite clear to Amerloque that this is indeed the case, at least in his part of Normandy. There are more French estivants in the towns and on the beaches, more bicycles in the country lanes, more hikers on the footpaths. The somewhat lemminglike rush to holiday in the countryside (les vacances vertes) is said to have three causes.

The first in the economy. With the rise in the cost of crude oil, the price of gasoline has hit new highs. One liter of 95-octane gas now costs a whopping 1.43 euros. That makes 5.41 euros per gallon … or US$6.97 at current exchange rates. Naturally airplane tickets to foreign parts are more expensive, too, thanks to oil prices - and to the Chirac Tax on tickets, applicable in France and in some other countries starting on July 1st.. In spite of the government announcements that unemployment is dropping, there just doesn't seem to be a commensurate uptick in business: people are incessantly mentioning that they just don't see any jobs being created around them. They are worried about the future in a general way - and hence are sticking closer to home this vacationtime.

Another reason is that apparently the popularity of the films Les Bronzés III (after a 27-year hiatus, the actors reunited to make a third film in the somewhat slapstick comedy saga) and
Camping
has spilled over into real life. The latter film, directed by Fabien Onteniente, has already had more than 5 million paying spectators, a huge figure here. This year reservations are mandatory if one wants to obtain a space in a given campground. Youths, oldsters, families, pets: in a word, camping is in, this summer.

Finally, RVs (known as camping-cars here) are à la mode, too: sales this year have increased by something like 40% over 2005. Though not strictly speaking authentic Geritol Gypsies, many of the drivers and passengers that Amerloque has seen are nearing or have passed retirement age; there seem to be few young people involved. RV campgrounds and assembly points are seemingly full – to the surprise of foreign tourists who, until recently, were the major users of such facilities.




As to the weather … once again this year, there is a severe drought (secheresse) in most parts of France. Only three of the 96 départements in metropolitan France are untouched by the phenomenon; while 54 have seen the authorities impose drastic restrictions on water use. The rest of the départements are ranked as "worrying" or "under observation". Apparently water tables in 2006 are low; the rains in the winter season were allegedly not enough to counteract the dry summers of the past three years. The July heatwave which hit Europe with record high temperatures, from Warsaw to London, aggravated the situation; authorities are concerned indeed. In some circles the drought this year is said to be as bad as the ones of 1996 and 1999, and some observers - notably the farmers out in Amerloque's neck of the woods - are unhesitatingly comparing it to the legendary one of 1976, known in the French collective memory as la Grande Secheresse de 1976.

Amerloque remembers 1976 well: days and days of sunshine and heat, nary a cloud in the sky, hardly a breath of wind. In the countryside to the south, crops withered in the fields. Prices for produce - fruits and vegetables – skyrocketed due to scarcity. Grazing land and pastures turned brown overnight. Streams dried up, while major river levels fell to historic lows. Meat and poultry farmers were forced to cull their herds in order to survive (but the price of fresh red meat and chickens never really dropped as much as it should have, Amerloque recalls …). Dairy herds suffered, too. Norman farmers, not as affected because of the naturally high underground water tables, suffered a bit less than their counterparts in the south of France. In solidarity, the Normans sent truckload after truckload of feed south, for the livestock. Solidarity is a leitmotiv, in France, et tant mieux.

The 1976 drought was so severe and caused so much grief that the French government even imposed what has since been called the "drought tax" (its real name was l'impôt solidarité secheresse). It wasn't really a tax at all, of course, but a mandatory loan decreed by the government. Each taxpayer was billed for 1% over and above the year's income tax due. The monies raised were used to assist farmers who had suffered severely from the drought. Several years afterwards, the so-called "tax" was repaid to the bemused taxpayers, along with (very) nominal, and taxable, interest.

In summertime Normandy, whatever the weather, Amerloque has a standing daily order for one liter of fresh unpasteurized milk at a neighboring dairy farm. Both freshly churned farm butter (nature and demi-sel) and properly cured cheeses are available at another farm nearby, while yet a third provides newly laid eggs and homemade cider.

Vacationing well means eating well too, in Amerloque's world. He wouldn't have it any other way.



L'Amerloque



Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
Photos © Copyright by Amerloque

16 Comments:

Blogger Stu "El Inglés" Harris said...

I'll be leading the French country way of life myself in just over a month, albeit quite briefly and much further south. Looking forward to 2.5-minute eggs for breakfast, with the bright orange yolks.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

Hello l'Amerloque,

What a beautiful post !! When I read it, it was as if I was there with you and your family ;o) I hope you enjoy your holidays (and the good food of course).

By the way, it's pretty true that for the ordinary parisian, the best vacations are far far away from Paris ! Paris is nearly empty in August, and I just love that, because the atmosphere is aso very different...

Mais, je suis l'exception qui confirme la règle, as I've decided to stay here this summer !

5:17 AM  
Blogger LASunsett said...

Hello Amerloque,

If I may say so, this was a very enjoyable post to read. Your descriptions of French rural life were very relaxing, they made me long for a summer drive in Europe. But I guess with gas prices the way they are, it would have to be a short one, with a long layover at a very peaceful spot to soak up some warm sunshine and view the great scenery.

The one amusing part I found in this piece was about the drought tax:

//Several years afterwards, the so-called "tax" was repaid to the bemused taxpayers, along with (very) nominal, and taxable, interest.//

Things aren't much different in France, I see. The government gets you coming and going here in the States, as well.

Have fun on your vaction, sir.

5:10 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Stu !

Ah, down in the South ... (grin) ... the beginning of September, when the hordes of tourists have gone home, is an excellent time to sojurn au sud de la Loire!

Best,
L'Amerloque

5:58 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Salut Sandrine !

/*/Paris is nearly empty in August, and I just love that, because the atmosphere is aso very different.../*/

Yes, Amerloque is with you on that.

It looke like nowadays the period 14 juillet to 15 aout is the time when Parisians go off on holiday. They appear to begin dribbling back after le 15 aout ... quoique ... (smile)


/*/Mais, je suis l'exception qui confirme la règle, as I've decided to stay here this summer! /*/

Amerloque hopes that Sandrine is not overwhelmed by the tourists. They seem to be out in force this year ...

Best,
L'Amerloque

6:03 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello lasunsett !

/*/The one amusing part I found in this piece was about the drought tax:

//Several years afterwards, the so-called "tax" was repaid to the bemused taxpayers, along with (very) nominal, and taxable, interest.//

Things aren't much different in France, I see. The government gets you coming and going here in the States, as well./*/

That old saying "There are only two sure things in this lifetime: death and taxes." is a universal, Amerloque feels. (wide wide smile)

Best,
L'Amerloque

6:06 AM  
Blogger Flocon said...

"Amerloque's farm is at the end of a road that he and his family surfaced themselves, not with some sweat and toil."
No blood? No tears? Do I understand that wasn't a churchillian task?

Here's the perfect noiseless friendly environmental weedwhaker: http://tinyurl.com/lh9d7

Your post makes me feel like being in the heart of the country for sure, particularly during the summer days, but when November arrives... one longs after May or even June, especially in Normandy.

Don't know if you had the opportunity to read my thanks about the link regarding the Chinese religious upheaval of the mid 19th century I had never heard of before. In which case je les réitère...

Flocon

8:35 AM  
Blogger Flocon said...

"O fortunatos nimium sua si bora norint, agricolae".

Flocon

2:03 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Flocon !

/*/No blood? No tears? Do I understand that wasn't a churchillian task?/*/

(grin) It was damn' near Herculean. Almost one kilometer of bricks, laid by hand. It took ages. The road is 470 meters long, and there are two furrows … One fascinating thing was finding bricks with pawprints. (!) Apparently in the olden days such bricks were added to buildings "for luck". These were kept out of the roadway, of course, and reused in the dwelling. (grin)

/*/Here's the perfect noiseless friendly environmental weedwhaker: http://tinyurl.com/lh9d7/*/

Yes. (grin) The ane normand has made a real comeback in recent years.

/*/Your post makes me feel like being in the heart of the country for sure, particularly during the summer days, but when November arrives... one longs after May or even June, especially in Normandy./*/

Oh, que oui. Il fait froid. Il pleut. Il y a du vent. C'est deplaisant. Fortement.

/*/Don't know if you had the opportunity to read my thanks about the link regarding the Chinese religious upheaval of the mid 19th century I had never heard of before. In which case je les réitère.../*/

Didn't see them – Amerloque is pleased that you found the link useful ! One has a, er, better perspective on the Falun Gong … (smile)

/*/"O fortunatos nimium sua si bora norint, agricolae"./*/

". . . extrema per illos Iustitia excedens terris uestigia fecit."

Best,
L'Amerloque

9:09 AM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

Hello l'Amerloque,

"Amerloque hopes that Sandrine is not overwhelmed by the tourists."

Well, no problem for me, I really like when they're here. But I don't have to stay 24 hours a day with them because I don't really live in Paris, and I can tell you that they're less numerous in the suburb (smile !)

Cela mis à part, dis donc l'Amerloque, vous parlez bien le latin, allez-vous traduire vos phrases pour une pauvre inculte ?

11:45 AM  
Blogger Flocon said...

Bonjour Sandrine,

"Ô fortunatos nimium sua si bona norint, agricolas" est un vers tiré des "Georgiques" de Virgile et qui peut se traduire ainsi:
"Ô trop heureux les hommes des champs s'ils connaissaient leur bonheur".
Le sujet et le ton du billet de L'Amerloque appelaient ce rappel, assez convenu il est vrai...
L'Amerloque vous donnera lui-même, j'imagine, la traduction du vers qu'il a cité et qui vient à la suite de celui dont je m'étais souvenu.

Flocon

2:49 PM  
Blogger blueVicar said...

I live in Antibes and summer definitely offers a different experience from other times of year. Now that we made it through the heat of July, we have the hordes that are en vacance...more Americans, more English, more northern Europeans, more French, MORE EVERYBODY! But fall is just around the corner...

Maybe we need to escape the shore and head to the countryside too...

(my

7:05 AM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

Hello Flocon,
Je vous remercie pour votre traduction (c'est qu'on se sentirait presqu'exclus de votre échange...;o)

En tout cas, vous avez raison, c'était parfaitement approprié au post de l'Amerloque !

2:47 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Sandrine !

The text ends with something like:

... c'est chez eux qu'en quittant les terres la Justice laissa la trace de ses ultimes pas.

Amerloque read (involuntarily, be it understood !) the text so long ago that from the haze of his memories there would probably many mistakes if he were to attempt his own modest up to date translation. (smile)

It's one of those texts that when "studied" young rings a bell throughout one's life.

More info about it can be found at:
http://tinyurl.com/pxkuo

Best,
L'Amerloque

12:42 AM  
Blogger Run Around Paris said...

I learned a lot from this post - tres interesting!

8:12 PM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

Hello L'Amerloque,
C'est vraiment très beau. Thanks a lot ! But it's funny that Flocon and you used this sentence. Les grands esprits se rencontrent !

"It's one of those texts that when "studied" young rings a bell throughout one's life. "

Well, it's pretty true ! I still remember this poem of Ronsard : "Mignonne allons voir si la rose". I find it sooo beautiful...

1:39 AM  

<< Home