February Musings

The days are getting longer and the higher temperatures mean that the pruning of the vines is progressing quickly. Field after field of vines now show off their new hair cuts, waiting expectantly for the first touch of green shoots. How quickly the landscape changes.

A friend recently told me that I needed to check out the Google information regarding our resident artist. Nadi Ken has lived here for over 20 years. Each year we watch her become increasingly frail as she trudges down the hill from her house to the square, greeting everyone before heading to the bar. Her story is reminiscent of Colette or Coco Chanel. Abandoned as a child, she grew up among the bohemians of Paris, making ends meet by posing for artists until finally being recognized for her own artistic talent. Her work sold to the likes of Frank Sinatra and still enjoys some prestige among collectors. I am always amazed at how people here live quiet lives often leaving behind significant careers or stories. My bridge partner was a Russian ambassador; my choir mate worked at the Ritz in Paris; our neighbour, whose family have been a presence in the village for over 600 years,. see themselves as temporary stewards of the family estate. Living here gives one the chance to expand horizons by connecting with people outside ones frame of reference. Such a gift.

Recent visits to towns a half our north of us has translated into a history lesson of the last century. Both Bedarieux and St. Gervais sur Mare were thriving industrial towns until the end of the 19th century. Using the raw local resources of sheep, water, mulberry trees, tin and iron they created exquisite fabrics, silk, leather goods and metal parts for the merging industries. The houses outside the medieval centre were built with special attics to house silk worm colonies that fed on the local mulberry leaves. The silk was spun into prized fabric for the Royal courts. The river was harnessed to power the mills that tanned the sheep hides in preparation for the nearby glove designers. Old pictures show the women doing intricate, decorative hand work that became synonymous with the region. This microcosm reflects the constant movement of time as commerce changes and with it remnants of those things left behind. These living museums haven’t changed much perhaps because the communities are so connected to traditional values. There are small attempts at reviving the “old” ways of silk production, glove making and fabric production. These new artisans are enjoying recognition of the lost arts but will it be enough to revive communities. What is real progress?

Rhythms

 “Meilleurs voeux et bonne santé”, the two expressions that begin any conversation on January 1. Apparently, the custom is to use these expressions with everyone you meet up until the end of January. 

 

The day has dawned, as many of them have this winter, with clear, blue skies and warm sun. By noon, we’re in light jackets during our afternoon walks. 

 

This morning, Giles and Isa instructed us on the first meal of the new year-it should include lentils to bring us money.  As with so many of the anecdotes and words of wisdom on the local customs, we heed their advice and if nothing else, we enjoyed a good, hearty lunch.

 

The village is changing. The center is receiving a major facelift and hopefully this will rejuvenate business for the local merchants. Modern conveniences such as a small commercial center, new fire and police facilities and a large grocery store now mark the trend to development away from the center and congregation around the entrance to the village. What will it mean for traditional village life? The coming months should reveal the answer.

 

We welcomed a new/returning addition to our home this fall. At a flea market last summer, our friend, Margot, spied a painting by M Aubagnac who lived in our house from 1854-1939. The portrait is of a distinguished looking man, possibly from Montpellier. After carefully restoring the frame, we have hung him in our dining room. I recently spoke to a Servian woman who gives French lessons and when she realized where we lived, she said “I know who you are, you live in M Aubagnac’s house”. Her childhood friend is M. Aubagnac’s granddaughter and lives in a nearby village. A reunion is in the works.

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I don’t know why the rhythm of life seems so much clearer here. Is it because of the church bells ringing hourly, the street sweeper who appears every Monday and Thursday morning to clear away leaves from the square, weekly rituals such as Monday morning washes when I routinely wave to my neighbour as we both hang our items on the clotheslines. Perhaps it’s our New Years day walk into the countryside. This year we walked up Montrose, the extinct volcano that serves as a longstanding lookout point between Beziers and Montagnac. Over the centuries, it has provided an early warning system for local Occitans, Cathars and French. Today, we walked around the remains of the medieval tower that did duty as an early semiphore system connecting towns all along the coast. From our perch, we saw the patchwork of vineyards showing various states of pruning: the white varieties all stood shorn and trained while the reds spread wildly out in all directions. As the weeks progress, we will watch field after field slowly being trimmed back into orderly fashion as small white vans and men in coveralls dot the landscape bringing symmetry and routine to the region. I enjoy watching the changing landscape during pruning, “la Taille” season. Last week, I passed a vineyard with it’s rows of unruly tops. Next to it were freshly pruned vines. I had this sudden vision of a corps of young army recruits with their wild hair just before the first haircut initiating them into the regimentation of army life. The next field, all the vines stood newly clipped “en brosse”, forced into the next season of regimentation.

Our good friend, Dominique George of “Le Wine Shop” in Pezenas recently wrote about the three pruning styles used in Languedoc. The Gobelet style, which originated with the Romans, the main truck is trimmed low with several spurs left for the next year. This is one of the few techniques where the vines are not trained along wires. The other two techniques are the Cordon de Royat which leaves only two long spurs trailing along the wires horizontally and the Guyot style which leaves one long and one short spur.The long spur is trained diagonally along wires. The next time you’re driving around Languedoc, check out the various pruning styles.

 

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Life goes on in Servian, one must pay attention to observe the changes that occur almost imperceptibly. It means taking time to slow down, engage in community life and savour the small pleasantries of “la vie française”. Boone année et bonne santé a tous!

 

 

Best Intentions

Time is passing quickly and my good intentions for the new year to write a monthly blog fell by the wayside. Life is like that here as we immerse ourselves in the community. "Winter" was cool and rainy but compared to most other places, passed quickly and by late February, we could see the first signs of spring.  We are now into full spring mode. This week the Tourism Beziers office posted a contest for the best picture that represents spring. We were astounded to see that our house and staircase was one of the contest pictures. What was even more amazing was the it won the prize for the most votes. We thank K. Gregoire, the photographer, for so beautifully capturing the spring scene.

Life continues to be full of surprises here. Last week, a friend and I sat on the back terrace of the Grand Cafe for some morning art practice. With our paper and paint spread out before us, we discussed the "paysage" and how we could best re-create the scene. Before long, we each had an emerging image on our paper and were working diligently when we were interrupted by a local woman who leaned over us and made admiring comments. 

I had seen her around for several years but had never been introduced. It turns out that she is a portrait artist from Paris who has lived in the south of France for many years. She gave us tips for our work, told us about her work as an art restorer and then quickly drew a sketch and handed it to me. It will soon be framed and will hang in a prominent place. 

And Another Year Passes in a French Village

It seems to be the pattern that as the rush of Christmas and New Years passes, there is quiet time to reflect on the comings and goings of the past year. Life in a French village rarely has large, cataclysmic changes and Servian in 2016 was no exception.

As we approach the village from the south, the skyline spreads across the elevation in the same linear way as always. The church sits at the highest point with a continuous downward slope of houses demarcating the old town from the new, At the edge of town there is a new, modern "caserne" housing the volunteer fire department, evidence of a new social housing development and the new gendarmerie compound. In the old town, there is not much change except for the facades of the "maisons de village" with their new coats of stucco giving the "centre ville" a rejuvenated look.

One has to look carefully in the bar, sunny benches or the markets for old familiar faces. Several went missing this year and seeing the black condolence boxes outside various homes one knows that they will not be returning. We were personally touched this year as Monique's husband, Pierre died after a brief illness. It's good to see some village regulars still around: paunchy, white-bearded Bruno who only dons long pants after the temperatures dip below 5 degrees. Apparently, he was most disappointed this year as he was not asked to play Pere Noel at the Christmas Market festival; Claudie, the Parisien artist who gave up her dentures and fashionable clothes when she moved south, frequents the local haunts pulling her little dog behind her as she chats away to herself. One also sees new faces around and from the scuttlebutt,  the newcomers are Swedes escaping the cold, replacing those from the UK who have seen their money devalue and the French dream fade. Canadians and especially westcoasters apparently now outnumber the Irish in settling around the area.

Life for us continues much the same. We have welcomed visitors to our new home and from all accounts, they have enjoyed exploring the village and the region. Isa continues to cater and now provides cooking classes for visitors. Gwen and Nicola have had a good first year with their B&B, Le Petit Moliere. Arnaud le Gourmand has added interesting local and regional products to his grocery shelves.  

The philosopher, Alain de Botten wrote a book entitled "How Proust Can Change Your Life". In it, he describes Proust's attention to detail, quiet and enjoyment of simple things. As I sit here writing this blog, I watch an elderly man walk up the staircase outside our front door. Slowly and painstakingly he climbed the old, worn steps. As he reached the top, he paused and took time to remove some stray leaves from the succulents growing out of the tufa rockery bordering the walk. For me, he epitomized much of village life as we watch and learn from how intentionally life is lived here. Le Temps Trouvé.