It was the beginning of July and the day had started dry and hot. I felt it was time to take my morning stroll around our village of Le Puy Notre Dame, in the heart of the Loire Valley, a beautiful part of the world we have been lucky enough to call home for the last seven years or so. I imagine all French villages have a character unique to them, but Le Puy too has a certain quirkiness which I find delightful for many reasons (not just because of its reputation for making fantastic wines)! As I start off, I hear a cockerel’s serenade accompanied by hens clucking contentedly from a nearby shed, obviously enjoying telling the world what clever creatures they are in laying their eggs, as hens do! I walk along the narrow Rue St Jacques, just a one minute’s walk from Le Clos des Guyons, it’s such a tiny rue with no real significance, except, that is, until you start to reach the top and then you get it … the lovely smells drifting from the boulangerie. Smells that get your taste-buds into overdrive, you know the kind I mean, of delicious croissants, pain au chocolat, brioches and warm dough, all en-route to the shop counters from the kitchens where Franck, the village boulanger, is beavering away by the hot ovens ‘tres content’ and proud that the villagers are happily buying his bread. People are to-ing and fro-ing armed with little paper bags, ornate cake boxes and loaded with armfuls of baguettes, probably not all for themselves, orders are for neighbours, sons, daughters and husbands who will be arriving home for lunch very soon. I call in, take my place in the queue and finally reach the counter to greet Sylvie, the wife of Franck the boulanger, to order my own baguette and then placing it under my arm I bid the customary ‘Aurevoir Monsieurs/Dammes’ and everyone reciprocates. Now, with hot bread under my arm, I begin to feel the day has begun. As I walk on further, I begin to experience the rhythm of this relaxed village. There are ladies still in dressing gowns opening their wooden window shutters. I see the postman, unlocking the post boxes to distribute the mail, (no-one here has an individual post box – we all simply walk to the cluster of boxes at the end of our rue, where our names are printed on them). Such a good idea because we all know his arrival time and then we head off to collect our letters knowing it is time to converse with neighbours, to talk about the weather perhaps or state of health, especially in my case over the last year when I have made many friends enquiring as to my progress, or Brian’s during last year, when he dislocated his shoulder. Today the conversation will be about the iniquities of the French Tax system because it is those that Monsieur Le Facteur is placing in each post box. I pass by opened windows and hear conversations of family and friends, the clattering of pots and pans and drifting smells from kitchens as they are preparing dejeuner – of course the most important part of their day! They see me and shout ‘Bonjour Madame’ as if I was a long lost friend. Of course, I respond accordingly, smiling and think how friendly everyone here is and how happy I am to be so well accepted.The pleasantries in France are a delight which I always enjoy. I am prepared for the normal ‘Bonjour Madame’ or, wickedly, and said with a cheeky grin, ‘Bonjour Mademoiselle’, as the French love to joke, but then I wait to see what else they will think of next. There is ‘Bon Appétit’, of course, but it will then depend on the time. Almost every greeting from about 11.30am. is ‘Bon Appétit’, a simple assumption that from midday onwards everyone will be eating. In my case it can sometimes be ‘Bon Sante’, or on passing a friend who is working it will be ‘Bon Courage’, then after lunch it will be ‘Bon Apris Midi’, or even ‘Bon Peinture’ if you are working with paint, ‘Bon Jardinage’ if you are working in your garden or ‘Bon Arrosage’ if you are watering plants, it goes on, always finding something to wish you! Sometimes it is just ‘Bon Ap’, which kills two birds with two stones covering ‘Bon Appétit’ and ‘Bon Apris Midi’ at the same time! And everywhere a pause for a handshake or, from people you know well, four kisses, two on each cheek and then a little chattering to follow! As I approach the top of Rue Notre Dame I reach the Eglise, our lovely church in Le Puy Notre Dame, an incarnation of angevine gothic architecture with its tall triple steeples, seen from far afield because it is of great size and importance, being on the route of St Jacques de Compostelle. I hear music and a choir singing, pushing the never-locked door open I stand on the top step and for a few moments watch the people inside practicing for a concert at the weekend, it brings alive this old building, and makes me wonder what was it like when the pilgrims flocked to it on this very road, many centuries ago, to see the sacred treasure brought back by the Crusaders from Jerusalem in the XIIth century. The treasure is the Holy Virgin’s Waistband made of linen and silk. The story is that Anne of Brittany, and Anne of Austria, who later bore Louis XIV the future King of France, borrowed the relic which they believed encouraged fertility. Even now, young mothers can be seen in their praying for a safe childbirth and each year there is a pilgrimage to Saint Ceinture with an evening of prayers and singing. It is important for this village not to forget its treasure and the many centuries of history. It is also typical of this most complicated of people, how they seem effortlessly to combine the aggressive secularity of their state with a deep if undemonstrative reverence for the Catholic Church.
As I enter La Poste to take my letters and cards for posting, I find lots of people patiently waiting their turn and, in the meantime, wishing ‘Bonjour’ on entry and ‘Aurevoir’ on departure. And, because time is now ticking on, the odd ‘Bon Appétit. The time has come now to start thinking of returning home for dejeuner, in fact, I decide to return by a different route and head down a small, narrow road called Rue Sainte. On walking down this steep old road, with its marvellous vista of fields and vineyards, framed by a tall turret at the side of a small Chateau, I pass little houses and some residents here have their duvets and blankets dangling casually from the bedroom windows (a custom you see so often over here in villages – giving the bedding a blow of fresh air) and there are many opened windows, again with fine cooking smells pervading. As I get towards the bottom of the hill I quite unexpectedly start to hear someone chiselling, probably at the old tuffeau stone, and then I hear a man singing an old French song in time with his banging. His deep voice is just a delight to hear, so tuneful, and I have to slow my pace so I can enjoy his repertoire; little does he know he has an admirer! The flowers either side of the old tuffeau walls are hollyhocks buried deep into the ground and are waving high above my head. Blue, pink, maroon, white, yellow, then there are the little orange poppies and blue cornflowers attracting colourful butterflies interspersed with bees skilfully and single-mindedly collecting their pollen. The sun is now shining strongly as we approach midday and I see a tiny brown and white dog with remarkably pointed ears tranquilised in the sunshine, sitting on the ledge of an upstairs window, watching me curiously as I stroll by. There are other dogs too, either sleeping contentedly in the heat or barking in their courtyards and gardens, letting you know they are bored and waiting for the owners to arrive home for lunch – after all it has been a long morning for them too since they were given their petit dejeuner! Finally, I have reached my home in Rue du Moulin, the last house in the village that rests at the side of a walnut grove and a sea of vines. All is peaceful here and our neighbours Robert and Jeanette, with their little grandson, Joshua, are wishing ‘Bon Appétit’ as I pass their door, Joshua makes the sound of an angry lion and threatens to eat me, a repertoire taught to him by Brian when they both got bored over a particularly long meal the other week. With my baguette still under my arm, I am finally greeted by Meg, our border collie dog, jumping for joy that I have returned. Brian too is eagerly awaiting my return, after all it is noon and our turn to eat! As I make our lunch, I think how strange it is that chores like buying the baguettes and posting letters can become such a pleasure and delight. Soon our lunchtime hunger will be sated and, in a spirit of solidarity with the rest of the village, there will be time for a short siesta. That’s the way daily life evolves here – and we’re not complaining!
Bon Appétit Toute le Monde!
Sheila Warren-Barcroft (alias Madame Brian souvent) !