Thursday 27 March 2008

On being flexible

We were convinced that when we finally turned south at Laon everything would – figuratively speaking – be downhill all the way. But one way or another, we’ve hit a brick wall instead.

From the southern Champagne region onwards there is an increasing need to stay in walkers’ hostels and on David’s trip home he had picked up extra weight in the form of sleeping bags and towels. It’s also an area where we are having to carry greater quantities of food to cover longer gaps of uncertainty. The camels’ backs had met the straw.

All along we had assumed that the changeover of equipment would coincide with shedding considerable weight in winter thermals ad excess hats and gloves, not to mention the kettle. Spring, you see, and In The South. But lo! March dawns and with it what the French call “les giboulées de mars”. Which roughly translates as snow, sleet, hail torrential rain, gales and calm sunshine all in the space of twenty minutes. I understand the UK has been experiencing something similar.

It just wasn’t reasonable. With some sadness we have decided to sacrifice the purity of the concept and try a different tactic for a few weeks: a succession of bases from which we will cover the route in a succession of day walks with light packs. Such is the fate of grand plans.

As if in confirmation of a jolly good idea #2, the morning after our decision we woke to a white landscape onto which more snow fell horizontally. Worse, while we’ve been sorting ourselves out and passing through the area in trains and cars we have realised that much of the areas we would have been walking in are meters under water. Rivers, canals and lakes in the Champagne-Ardennes region have broken their banks; beyond them the rain has created new lakes in fields and forests. Some of these we have already waded through, but we had no idea it was so extensive. In Britain it would be headline news for three weeks, but in France it must be a normal occurrence unworthy of comment.

So back once again to Reims to regroup. Back indeed for a third time to the friendly Hotel Porte de Mars where the staff roared with laughter and then claimed us as part of their family. I’d recommend anyone going to Reims to stay there (great facilities and breakfast at good prices), while for ourselves the manager is planning an itinerary of his secret Reims in case we return for a fourth time.

I have mentioned before that one of our evening entertainments is listening to BBC radio podcasts. In Our Time is a favourite and I find some comfort in at last relating one of the erudite debates directly to our experience. “Guilt”. There are, apparently, guilt cultures and shame cultures. Shame contains the notion of saving face or losing face, it is concerned with outward appearence. Guilt culture is concerned with the internal voice of conscience and self criticism.

Well, on balance we don’t feel much guilt over our change of tactic. We do intend to return to full pilgrim mode in a few weeks, although maybe with a jumping about of the order of sections to chase the weather. But perhaps we feel a little shame, in the eyes of others …

Tuesday 18 March 2008

More posts and pictures

Just to let you know I'm up-to-date and, even more exciting, there are lots more of David's photos to see. You'll need to go back over old posts and also link to his site to see them all.

The pink wave

Crossing the dark car park that separates the town centre from my hotel, I frowned at the music that made windows and car lights jump almost as far back as the main street. It was the first antisocial behaviour (besides the dog dirt and the impatience of museum staff) in a week in Reims. And on a school night.

At the top of the park the arches of the Porte de Mars face Roman peace and stability off against the memorial to Rémois dead in two world wars. Alternating blue and orange flashing lights told me the police were there; but they weren't censuring the noisy party, rather they were protecting it, waving cars on round the roundabout past the blocked-off road.

Last Sunday, the Charles de Casanove champagne house next to my hotel had been covered with rich blue placards. It was the campaign headquarters of Renard Dutreil, the mayoral candidate of the right-wing UMP party. By Monday morning the placards were gone: Dutreil was out in the gutter and two women would fight it out at the second round of elections - one from the Parti Socialist and the other an independent right-winger.

But whose victory bash was going on just down the road? If I had realised it was the PS maybe I would have gatecrashed. I like Reims; there's a lot going on. After a week here I'd started to take its municipal entanglements to heart.

French local elections take place every seven years, so journalists' and political commentators' eyes gleam as they settle in for weeks of analysis. Back in my room the presenters were talking of "la vague rose", the pink wave spreading through town halls across the country. One or two had held on to their blue credentials but of the biggest cities only Marseille had done so. Even Toulouse, a right-wing local administration for thirty-seven years, had gone pink.

Of course, much is being made of what this swing to the left means for France. The right-wing losers claim that every town has its particuliarities and the results cannot therefore be read as a national critique of the Sarkozy government. The socialists, naturally, claim the opposite. "Sarko" and his prime minister Fillon are about to publish the much-trailed Attali report into fiscal reforms aimed at boosting enterprise and attracting capital. The French are worried: even pensioners came out and demonstrated last week. Sarkozy, himself, hasn't yet commented on the local elections.

Meanwhile a new party, MoDEM, for whom these elections were the first major test, has been severely trounced. They had set themselves up as a French "third way", able to communicate with both left and right without having to be in formal alliance with either. But it seems France isn't ready for that yet. They scared themselves when they elected the "modernising" Sarkozy and the equally modern cult of the individual that he heralded. Now they are retrenching. It isn't just the rejection of a middle way that makes France feel twenty-five years behind the times. It is also the strikes which have assailed the country in recent weeks and the sight on posters and TV screens of the heavy drawing of a fist with a rose, the logo of the Parti Socialist, that was last in common currency in the UK in 1980s student politics.

This Monday, local life was moving on. From my window I watched the mayor-exaunt and the mayor-elect with several dozen dignitaries and journalists lay a wreath to Lazare Ponticelli, the last "poilu", foreigners who had come to defend France in the Foreign Legion in the First World War. He died last week, still witnessing to the absurdity of war. Across the road, the trucks of the Easter funfair were rolling into town.

17 March 2008

Saturday 15 March 2008

Losing and finding my Way

I'm sitting in the garden behind the apse of Reims cathedral, feeling sad. The yellow citrus smells of mimosa and forsythia climb above those of damp chalk paths and the pinkly-dangling, summer pudding smells of flowering current. A Japanese student with a scared sprouting of beard is sketching the street scene - quite a good sketch - and a young couple are slowly wheeling home their baby and their market baskets. While I was forgetting to look, horse chestnut leaves have broken free of their buds. For one day only we have a respite from rain and wind. A light high haze is between us and the sun, smearing but not stealing the brightness.

In Laon nine days ago we finally turned south. When we leave Reims at the end of next week we shall, at last, be following one of the recognised paths to Santiago de Compostela, the one leading from Belgium via Vézelay. We shall stay with it as far as Vézelay, or possibly Nevers, and then cut down through the Massif Central to Le Puy en Velay.

Even three weeks ago those two events filled me with excitement, especially the prospect of meeting up with other pilgrims in the act of walking. Along with some kind of terror at having our hard-won rythmns disturbed.

So why my sadness? In the hiatus we have fallen into I feel that we shall have to start the challenge all over again. While David is off in London, recounting stories to friends and burning for a return to what he sees as our 'real' life of packing, walking and unpacking, I find I have lost the knack. Lost my way, almost. No sooner installed in my hotel for the week than I have the urge to buy flowers and settle down. I remember Normandy as a golden era of quiet remoteness and gentle valleys. This enforced break, valuable for my health, is dangerous to my head. I know now more of the difficulties before us, and the fact that we haven't yet encountered a mountain is sobering.

Yesterday I looked at the great Pilgrimage to Santiago website that had been a source of so much information before we set out. It led me to other people's diaries (here and here) and I felt small. Their accounts are full of joy and optimism despite great pain and illness. These are people who bite on a piece of wood and carry on marching on their bleeding stumps. They're walking in winter like us but make only passing reference to being unable to find food and the lack of hot showers. Yet I'd been assumeing it was all going to get better as we got further south.

Compared to those people, we're just playing at the pilgrimage thing. We're the kind who would pay others to go in our place. My fears were confirmed by the welcoming man in Reims cathedral who was confused that we're staying in a hotel not in the international hostal across the square.

But the memory of others we have spoken with bubbles up. A woman shopping in Cabourg who saw our shells and tapped us on the shoulder to say a quick good luck - she'd been there herself. The blue-eyed glow of the woman in the woods above the Seine as she remembered the approach to Santiago; or the be-leathered motorcyclist sitting outside with his beer and his cigarettes in Ry who also, surprisingly, admitted his trip there once, a long time ago. Each of them had that same glow, the Christmas-morning secret they couldn't put into words but wanted to share. It intrigues me, this difference that comes upon people once they've arrive in foot in Compostela.

And I can't let my courage fail because of José and Josette who will be setting out from Gournay-en-Bray in about a week. When we met them they were half-way between exhilaration and daunted, between fully-planned and innocence. They seemed to draw strength from the fact that we were laughing and looked healthy. So for their sakes we have to tuck in our chins and carry on.

And the lovely Dominique et Marie Brigitte Ernoult. Dominique caught up with us leaving Senlis and invited us in for coffee and cake or lunch, if we would accept it. The fact that they are slowly making their way to Compostela with a group of friends in one- and two- week blocks takes nothing from their joy at doing the walk or from the peace and space to think that they find there.
As I collected my 'stamp' in my Pilgrim Record in Laon cathedral, I wondered at a cerain hollowness over clocking up yet another Gothic edifice. The medieval pilgrims' insistence on traipsing to all these places must have amounted to more than a "been there, done that" automation? Then it struck me with the force of a revelation: of course, they were threre to pray, weren't they?

Well. Occasions for quiet thought are a start.
15 March 2008

Friday 14 March 2008

Sorry and update

I'm sorry for the huge gap since I last posted - a chronic lack of internet access mingled with being distracted by the lights of the city and then illness - but I've been saving them up. Here are a few of the things I've been mulling over. And a few more will get typed in over the next day or two ... though they won't always appear in a logical order so you might want to look hard.

Thursday 13 March 2008

How to be ill

"Try to describe the smell and taste of things, not just the appearence," tutors on writing courses insist. In this case, best not.

Was it the toasted goats' cheese in the hotel restaurant in Fismes, left in the oven till the cheese curdled yellow and the bread hardened to a slate? Or an out-of-date bottle of orange juice, its deposits dusty in the bottom? Maybe it was a fleck of mud on my gloves as I'd piled in the dried apricots in Oeuilly. Whatever; one o'clock in the morning in the bathroom in Fismes was not a place to be.

I'd come to France with a small number of preconceptions, one of which was that French pharmacists fulfil a role of proto-doctor, a first point of advice on a range of illnesses and mushroom identification. Alas, I'm out of date again. Cherchez le white coat if you will, but hold tight on the mushrooms. Most people working in pharmacies shrug their shoulders and wander to the nearest shelf selling ... lice shampoo?

Above all don't, like I did, put on a heavy rucksack and go for a 6-mile hike after two days of actively evacuating all your food. Around St Leonard my head swam with red lights and my knees had to hand over to the walking poles. God smiled: we staggered into a handy bar with a cheerful pre-lunch chef offering tisane, toilets and a taxi back to Reims. We didn't have the energy to explain, just accepted the derision of the office workers (at 11 am?) when they saw such hyper-equipped walkers bottle it into a taxi at the first drop of rain.

That walk out of Reims along the canal had used up every last calorie I had in me. For the next two days my world shrank to a hotel befroom and an intense pain as my stomach swelled with the effort of processing something that wasn' there.

Ten years ago, living in Turkey, we fell foul - very foul - of e-coli poisoning, fondly referred to as Ankara Arse. After two weeks I called in a doctor whose advice in such circumstances I've followed ever since. Eat green lentils, boiled chicken or white fish and boiled potatoes. Drink mint tea. Avoid dairy and citrus, sugar and refined anything.

Fast forward to France 2008 and your only hope is to find a city with a Monoprix not too far from your hotel. Monoprix is a source of rotisserie-cooked chicken (pull the skin off first) and mounds of hot mashed potato that they'll happily shovel into a plastic dish and sell by the kilo. Wholewheat bread and bananas for fast, simple energy, and a carton of gazpacho, designed to be eaten cold, for the vitamins.

On his husbandly foraging trips David had come upon a shop selling books in English. Importantly, Agatha Christies, the most effective palliative known to man - or at least to me. David was just being understanding. Lying on my tummy with a pillow massaging the pain, swinging between sweat and clammy shivers, I let the mantra of death and blood and class and race prejudice soothe me.

A week later and I'm tentatively wondering if I'm over it. Not so over it that I can wholly enjoy walking through the magnificent Saturday market, but over it enough to eye the fresh salads in the brasserie and to order a small one with - gasp - a medicinal glass of red wine.

13 March 2008

Bons souhaits

I think I've found a softer side to the French. It goes beyond mere good breeding. They are so immensely good at wishing you things. Good things. The wealth and variety of good things we have been wished, and the precision with which those wishes are bestowed, is humbling. We must start the search, right now, for an English equivalent.

Bonjour and bonne nuit, of course. Bon matin and bon après-midi are elegant refinements. Bon apétit is practically English anyway; and bon chemin, bonne route, bonne randonée and bonne promenade are all becoming familiar as the vocabulary of the walk. Then there is bon courage, spoken bracingly or pityingly. On the other hand, we rarely get a bonnes vacances.

In shops, bonne fin de journée or bon weekend trips off the tongue of every assistant while we're still fumbling with the change and the door, forgetting our manners. Restaurant waiters go even better. Bon apétit is followed by a bonne continuation or two, then bonne fin de repas and finally bonne fin de soirée.

So what can we do to measure up to all this niceness? I manage a "à vous aussi", but it sounds belated. I dream of one day getting in there first with a beautiful, appropriate, timely bon SOMETHING!

6 March 2008

Girlie weekend

I felt uneasy at interrupting our walk for a girlie weekend in Paris; it was strange but exciting. This is an annual appointment, though usually for the middle of January and usually in London. It would have been easy to cancel this year, but David insisted: if we made an exception this year it would be far too easy to skip another year ... and then another. Childhood friendships are too important for that. And he was absolutely right. It may be only once a year, for two days, but we talk intensively, ritual conversations that revisit old incidents. An annual repointing and reinforcing of the stones.

This time we had rented a small suite with a little kitchen permitting regular consumption of tea. So we lay in a row on the double bed, our shoes kicked off after five churches, two existentialist cafés and a market. And we giggled like a wide, rippling waterbed as we recited the names of all our teachers and their foibles.

Which is not to say we didn't exercise our brains. A visit to the Pantheon (dead white males in a funky maze) with its reinstated original Foucault's Pendulum led to a complicated coffee stop with radiating saucers and swinging salt cellars as we checked the science. Sue showed an alarming passion for the reasoning behind Gothic architecture which tested my new-found knowledge. I admit it, I made some things up. And Helen kept asking the date of this or that war or treaty - Sue and I had done A Level History - then supplied the answers herself.

As for the girlieness - it was a poor vintage, I'm afraid. Champagne with our feet in the bath, but not much shopping. I seriously could not get the point of scarves in multiple colours. Though there was one skirt ... I fear I may have dragged the others down to my new standards. As we packed on Sunday morning Helen bewailed the clothes she hadn't worn. "We never even thought about changing for dinner last night!"

Gone are the days of dancing; not yet here those of evenings in jazz clubs.

So we nosed the shops of pointless gifts, looking for shiny things and chiffon things for their children. I knew I had returned to the shores of normality when I found myself urgently scanning the keyrings for a present for David. Important friendships were confirmed, the warmth would get us through to next year. It was time to start walking again.

3 March 2008

Picardy who?

Around a bottle of burgundy and a meal refreshingly full of vegetables and fruit, the Mariani family teased us about our route. "The Aveyron is empty; there's nothing there. You want to go via Burgundy. It's where the French make wine with their souls not just their pockets!"

Earlier in the day we had crossed into our second French region, from Normandy to Picardy. "Normandy, it's clear: it's apples and camembert, thatched cottages and calvados," David challenged them, "but what is Picardy?"

There was a confused silence. "Beh! Nothing! Picardy has nothing." And these were Picardy people. A fortnight later, Jaqueline Dru in La Forestière in Cessières took issue with that. "Non, non, non - ça m'enerve quand on dit ça!" She produced a charming book of old Picardy recipes. "Picardy is Ficelle Picard - a rolled pancake with ham, mushrooms, leeks and creamy sauce. It is Marouille cheese and the little pyramid cheeses dipped in pimento. It is Champignons de Paris and pork with leeks ..."

We came across the champignons de Paris - aka button mushrooms - where they are grown in old stone quarry caves around Soissons. Marouille cheese we had eaten melted as the stuffing of baby marrows and creamy as the sauce with a pork cutlet. And we ate it again for breakfast as we listened to Jacqueline, raw so we could taste its sharp crumbliness that disappears into sweet creaminess when it is cooked. And we've seen leeks aplenty in allotment gardens.

To us, Picardy is also the stone villages of the Soissonais area, pretty and well-tended and calling to mind the affluent grey Oxfordshire Cotswolds. Their gables, old and new, on every building from Mairie to dog kennel are of stepped stone blocks, serrating the sky and known as "monks' staircases".

Picardy is the department of the Oise with its wealth revealed in the big and royal or 'small' and bourgeois chateaux. It is the beautiful thoroughbred racehorses and the wide sandy tracks they ride on, meeting at white signposts that section the forests like a game of Chinese Chequers. It is money, and endless open fields, made larger and ever larger to drive that money; and it is mud and wind across the plains and it is rain. It is echos of the Great War and the trenches in those open, muddy fields, on our cold and lonely afternoons.

5 March 2008

The modern saint

We are following paths that lead to a saint. There are saints everywhere, in the names of churches, in the names of villages. Bits of saints in jewelled cases. Even one of the French kings was a saint. But the saint I remember most has a contented half-smile on her rounded, homely face. She's in a black and white photo that emphasises the whiteness of her face, the blackness of her eyebrows and the echoing head dress. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.

We met her in almost every church in Normandy, and again in Paris. It's got so I say "Hi there!" when I see her. Born in Lisieux in 1873, she joined a convent at the age of fifteen but by the age of twenty four was dead from tuberculosis. In Bayeux Cathedral was an excerpt from her diary: "I came to Bayeux with my father to pray before asking to take orders.... The rain poured down outside...."

I read the words as the rain poured down outside.

Why she was made a saint, I still don't know. I guess you don't have to be martyred anymore. Perhaps all you have to do is miracles, in which case she's been busy. Churches everywhere are lined with little marble plaques thanking her for her help after someone had prayed to her. They give dates and initials, but few specifics, and few miracles are mentioned. Maybe it's like a celestial X-Factor contest? The more people you get phoning in - or putting up a plaque - to support you, the more likely you'll be chosen ....

1 March 2008

Sodden' Soissons

Just like winning or losing a job interview in the first four seconds, it takes very little to raise a deep and eternal hatred for a place. Soissons, I mean.

We'd told ourselves the rain wasn't heavy; it was warm and not wholly unpleasant. So we failed to put on waterproofs for the half-day walk into Soissons. And yes, we knew our hotel was on the main ringroad two kilometres from the city centre. But everything else was entirely the city's fault. Soissons doesn't have any hotels in the centre, and out of all the flea-pit sounding alternatives in the tourist brochure, only this one had made it into the Michelin guide.

Trailing rucksacks through post-industrial social housing is never edifying but when the rain is lashing and the flats have been built on stilts to accentuate the wind, it is soul-numbing. By the time we spotted the half-extinguished neon of our hotel's name, Soissons had almost blown it.

Then it tried harder.

A locked hotel door and a note promising a return in five minutes wasn't encouraging but we were newly practising a pilgrim mentality and merely leaned against the wall to wait. The woman who eventually opened to us had a face like a black line and glared without a greeting. She had children around her feet wanting lunch, and two dripping travellers were of no importance to her.

We said we had a reservation. She disagreed. But she could see that I could see the computer screen and the ranks of empty rooms, so eventually she gave us one - up a dark corridor, cold and damp-smelling. The carpet was stamped with the hotel's name, a carpet so meagre we took it for underlay. On either side the rooms stood open and abandoned, exposing personal belongings in some, piled up furniture in others. The low-lying smell of cigarettes stirred as we walked.

Our room was one of those with piled furniture, which presented a problem: there was space only to put our dripping bags down on the floor, or to remove the furniture from the bed. There was a single, threadbare towel between us, and no heating.

In fresh clothes we sought escape in town. On the way out a teenage girl with her eyes wedged in the TV denied all knowledge of taxis or buses, but promised to get the heating sorted.

The best Soissons could offer for lunch was a burger bar that did paninis and hot chocolate. At the tourist office a young man proudly used his English to tell us that no, they didn't have local walking maps. No, it was not likely anywhere else in town did. No, not many trains or buses to anywhere. But yes, there was a laundrette and even an internet café, of sorts. He pressed upon us "Let Soissons tell you its story", a lush and elegant brochure outlining the history of the city and its chief sights. Beware tourist officials bearing spot-varnished print: they are likely to be overselling. Headline news was that some Barbarian king had once chopped the head off one of his soldiers after whinging that the soldier hadn't cleaned his armour properly - but secretly it was in cowardly revenge for the soldier breaking a vase belonging to a bishop a couple of years before. Wow! So no miracles then?

We plodded round the circuit. A street corner near a roundabout is announced as the hillside where the Roman circus - the largest in Gaul - was probably situated. A piece of broken stone lower down might have been a defensive tower. The town centre cathedral was eighty-percent destroyed in the 1914-18 war and has been rebuilt in a business-like way. Elsewhere, an arch here or there is extrapolated to describe an entire abbey or school.

In the Monoprix was a woman with dyed sandy hair and a square chin under thick orange make-up. Her mouth was hard and straight. I say "her", but it might have been a man in drag, deciding that femininity was defined as one of those supercilious French toiletry counter assistants. He performed the function to perfection, unable to even look at oh-so-very-unfeminine me as I asked for my Oil of Olay.

Soissons' one redeeming feature is the single remaining wall of the beautifully ornate abbey church of St Jean des Vignes, with the frame of its rose window absurdly enclosing nothing but sky. I read dry the accompanying exhibition with its audio-visual content in bad English. Everywhere people offered us the same glossy leaflet. "Yes," we said, "we've heard the story. What else?"

Back at the hotel with our only dry clothes now soaked by another downpour and no taxis, the heating still didn't work. We lay in bed and phoned the hotel in Compiègne to make sure we could arrive a day early.

But Soissons had a last barb. Next day we idled an hour in a café by the station waiting for the time the coach should leave for Compiègne. We had the time down in black and white, in a timetable. Ten minutes before it was due, the coach pulled in, spent fifteen seconds looking around then drove off, just as we were running towards it, waving. The driver in the coach behind said, "No, he won"t be coming back. Come here in an hour. Maybe I'll take you ..."

27 February 2008

Dog tired

David was musing on what makes walking in France feel so different to walking in England. Was it the signage? We've become so used to looking for the red-and-white painted flashes on all sorts of walls, posts, pipes and old farm implements. Was it the role of the English pub in the countryside? Was it that in France we can walk down roads for hours and see no cars?

No, he concluded. It's the dogs. We're English; of course we like dogs. Any straw poll would suggest that English people own far more dogs than the French. But if that's the case, where are they?

French dogs are in their gardens. You know that because they start barking as soon as they hear the tap of our sticks in the distance, and by the time we're level with their little empire, they have flung themselves against the fencing in a rage of noise. Some days it is an almost constant sound track as they pass the message from dog to dog, guardian to guardian along the road.

But why is it so different in England? We realised it has to do with the architecture here; and perhaps a little paranoia. In England you have a front garden and a back garden. The front is where strangers can come, or friends. The postman, the milk man and assorted leaflet delivery people can come right up to your door and transact their business. The dog belongs in the back, out of sight. In France, houses sit in the centre of a pool of land through which the dogs roam freely. The dogs know that everything within the perimeter fence is theirs. No longer can neighbours just pop in at will: they have to call and be let in. And the letter box is safely constructed outside the fence, to reduce the number of law suits brought by postal workers. Thus, to the dog, anything approaching their domain is an unauthorised intruder.

Having kept visitors firmly outside the home enclosure perhaps it's not surprising that the dogs adopt with such vigour the mantle of suspicion. But what came first - the owners' fear of the stranger or their alienating of all outsiders by their argumentative dogs?

Everywhere we see signs boasting of the dogs in simpering, infantile terms: "Je veille pour mon maitre", "Je monte la garde", "Attention au chien méchant", often with a sketched picture of a certain ferocious breed. Only twice have we seen a gentle mocking of the French obsession with their guard dogs. In Honfleur a house claimed possession of "Un chat très méchant et peu nourri"; and later, disarmingly, a cottage owned up to "Un chien pas du tout méchant".

"French men love their dogs more than they love their families," we were told (by a cat owner). Certainly, even in the lost ends of towns where everything is closed there will be a dog-grooming parlour open for business. "What about the English?"

"The English live with dogs," we decided, "not as little princes - but just another member of the family."

28 February 2008

Public and private life of trees

The chief, undeniable feature of our walk so far has been trees. How many days - how many photos? - have featured a long track through arching branches. The tracks have been chalk, or sand, or mud, or leaves, or paving; but the trees remain. The branches were bare when we set out and now their buds are breaking to reveal the first green haze of spring.

So many trees: the forests of southern Picardy are vast. Once again familiarity is helping us learn different ways to understand what is around us. Yes, we know that the general shape and character of a beech tree is different to that of an oak or a birch tree. But now we see that between two oaks or birches the differences are even greater. Where has the tree split, where have new branches joined it? What patterns do its arms make? Is it strong and healthy or old and failing? These things we note and weigh rapidly as we pass.

Each tree writes its own story on its skin. They have a resilient force that would leave me unsurprised, now, to see one move across my path, walking. Blight bulges and torments with growth under the bark and the smooth outer cannot bear the writhing. Sometimes the bark splits open under the pressure. Or barbed wire wounds constrict and deform the tree. Yet we
have seen trees that have joined together to become one new tree. Others that are slowly consuming their surroundings, digesting metal notices pinned to them, absorbing them into themselves.

Trees are part of French history. These swathes of forest in Picardy belonged to the vast empire of the tree that covered northern Europe. Bit by bit they were cleared and cut down, creating gaps for humans to live in, to grow crops in, to travel through, build homes and wage wars in. By the time the Romans came there was already open land enough for important orchards and vineyards to be planted. Forests became the hunting preserve of the feudal lords of the Dark Ages, symbols of their power and wealth even though trees were essential to all to build and to heat.

By the Middle Ages, deforestation and the consumption of trees for war and for iron foundaries had created shortages that influenced the development of the famous great churches of Normandy and Picardy. The Romanesque churches had solid wooden roofs upheld by large beamed heavy wood frames. These were prone to catch fire, taking the stone walls with them. The ending of the feudal wars brought a period of prosperity and population growth; and the churches needed to be rebuilt to house ever greater numbers of faithful.The master craftsmen turned their minds towards stone. Rib-vaulting, lauded as a way of opening up the walls to light, also paid off in the lighter need for trees.

Northern France's large forests were snatched early by the new kings of France as hunting grounds and pleasure grounds. Over time, they cut the networks of wide straight alleys and rides that are today still marked by pretty white signposts. The gift of the right to hunt in the forests became one of the ways the kings asserted their dominion. Of course, such arrogance hurt the poor and the peasants, excluded from the natural wealth. One of the first laws passed at the Revolution was to make the Royal forests into a national property, owned by all.

But revolutionaries don't always make good woodsmen. In some forests, like La Hallotière, the planting of vast areas of the same tree - beech - left the forest vulnerable to blight and storms. Today, France's Office National des Forêts prides itself on managing the forests sustainably. They produce wood for commercial use, certainly, but they are careful to implement a rolling pattern of harvesting and replanting. As they point out to the public taking their Sunday walks, it takes seven generations of woodsmen and women to bring an oak tree to harvest.

The ONF needs to show this example. In the face of rising fuel oil prices more and more French people are turning back to trees to heat their houses. All over the forests are sections cleared for timber and people with trees on their property cut them down. Some mourn the loss of trees; but the announcer on the local news beams as she tells of a new move to bring private wood-sellers more profits. No Normandy house was complete without its wall of cut logs stretching for meters along the property ready for a hard winter. Les Sources Bleues, where we stayed, boasted a central heating system fed by steam from a vast water trough hanging over a permanent log fire in the kitchen.

For now, the forests remain a much-valued public good for leisure and health. Each weekend we are shaken from our solitude by dozens of walkers, cyclists, hunters or flower-pickers. Around May Day, we're told, the woods will be full of lilies of the valley and people will pick bunches to sell as love tokens by the roadside. It is the one thing, on the one day of the year, that a French person can sell without paying taxes.

24 February 2008

Boredom, beer and fags

Something like a nuclear shock-wave seems to radiate out from Paris, and we walked into the grey dust of its fall-out just outside Beauvais. A disaffected ugliness of soul and place had settled over the land, and seemed to deepen the closer we drew to the capital.

The first signs came on the edges of country lanes and at forest-side parking places. Every few metres lay discarded a beer can of "Bavaria 8.6": super-strength brew for super-strength anaesthesia. The frequency of these missiles told of people - young men, we assumed - driving the lanes drinking, swearing, throwing the cans out as they went. At times there was a regular orgy in a single spot.

Looking round at the villages, it is hard to blame them. Small cottages, run-down or of that recent, imagination-destroying construction of cream Monopoly houses with dusty plasterwork and muddy gardens. Few of the villages had so much as a boulangerie at their heart. Though nearly all could boast a Mairie. No restaurant, no café, no bar to be a meeting place for the people, a place for them to talk and drink companionably. An occasional Salle des Fetes stood empty: sanitised echoing halls of stacked chairs, preserve of the very young or the very old.

Larger towns might manage a PMU Tabac, those formica hangouts which the state has designated to supply the populace with cigarettes and gambling. Desperation drove us into a couple. Their clients were exactly the men we had imagined behind the scattered Bavaria cans. In their twenties and thirties, in long greasy hair or skinhead cuts, they mostly wore old tracksuits with hoods pulled up. Chalk-dull faces, like their houses, with the tang of inbreeding in some. In the middle of the afternoon they were not at work, for there seemed no work to be had. The small factories: tanneries, cement works, dairies, chemical works, sugar beet refineries that had flanked the villages looked closed, graffitied; the work consolidated to bigger plants further away, if at all.

On the news there are reports of a growing divide in wealth between people in France, an increasing depth of poverty and homelessness which counterbalances the ease of those riding the wave. The inequalities often crystallise around a simmering racism. People are quick to say "the blacks have taken our jobs". Or the Muslims. We had seen very few non-white faces in the deep countryside but at Créil, an industrial city of chemical works and tower blocks, the station concourse was a sudden shock of dark faces; as if all the immigrants of France and their descendents had been collected together in a few designated locations to serve the factories and to travel to Paris for low-paid cleaning work. Deportations, harassments, violence against immigrants - these issues are being raised by journalists, but not the politicians.

With local elections coming up we hear what does concern people. Transport, jobs, security. The socialists still have a strong showing in France. One of the posters in the official campaigning areas shows a fist clutching a red rose, with the legend that the most important thing for France now is to better share out the wealth between people. The almost daily strikes in one sector or another across the country would seem to agree.

Low incomes are clearly deep-rooted in this troubled zone. The farms have agglomerated and cut down their labour; but somewhere in the past the response was to find pockets of land for allotments around every village and town. Something not seen before Beauvais. And they're still being worked, by old men and their wives, sometimes with holiday-marooned grandchildren in tow, learning the idea of self-sufficiency and graft.

In Senlis we found a pool of stylishness and comfort. Restaurants and cafés were open, there were concerts and markets. Within the walls of this ancient city we were on the other side of the wealth divide and the drab, mind-numbing villages were temporarily forgotten.

Back in the villages, there is nothing to do. In a long, empty afternoon in St Leu d'Esserent, we sat on a bench by the church, waiting for something to happen. The kids, filling their half-term as best they could, practised kissing in the far corner of the garden, practised throwing stones onto cars from the wall. Like them, I felt an overwhelming urge to smoke, simply to have an activity. The hours stretched away without relief, till we could reach the safety of an evening meal and the inanity of French TV. Until the they, no doubt, could peel back the rings on their first cans of "Bavaria 8.6".

21 February 2008