Category Archives: Life in France

Being Benevolent

What could be better than spending 4 days at Cognac’s European literature festival, surrounded by books?

OK, winning the lottery, maybe. Or creating world peace.

But within the constraints of my little bookish life, what did I find even better than just attending last week’s Littératures Européennes, as I do every year?

The answer is being a volunteer (in French, we say a bénévole). Yes, I had my first voluntary experience there, last weekend, in a team with the 40 other book-loving volunteers and it heightened my appreciation of the whole literary festival.

As you’ll know if you’ve read my 2015 and 2016 blog posts about the festival, the idea is to get to know our fellow Europeans better through reading books. Each year one country or region is selected: for this year’s 30th edition, the theme was the Mediterranean islands.

The Littératures Européennes association chooses books set in the country of honour and translated into French. The shortlisted ones are sent to libraries and schools all over Poitou-Charentes, who vote for their favourites. All the authors are invited to the festival to meet the public, and the winners in each category receive prizes.

courtesy of Le Texte Libre

I have avoided volunteering up to now (apart from odd slots at my favourite Le Texte Libre bookshop stand) because I like to be free to explore, to listen to the talks and to meet the authors. I thought that as a volunteer I would be stuck in one place, dealing with complaints and telling people where the toilets were while exciting events sparkled all around me.

No, Harriet. Wrong again! Well, some people did ask where the toilets were – and I must admit that I made a fab list of the most bizarre things I was asked – but I certainly wasn’t stuck in one place. We were able to take part in our choice of events, since we worked in pairs. And instead of suffering complaints, we were kissed with compliments.

It was great to work alongside the other association members and get to know them while we welcomed authors and translators, prepared rooms for round table events and helped out visitors. In fact, if this blog post is rather light on photos of people, it’s because I was far too busy looking helpful to use my camera!

La Salamandre (Courtesy of the VIlle de Cognac)

I knew that the festival was free and that you could watch discussions between authors on specific European themes. These take place at La Salamandre conference centre, which has an auditorium, an onsite literary café and smaller rooms.

I’d also been to the popular panel between shortlisted authors for the Prix des Lecteurs, (readers’ prize) which is held at Cognac’s Avant Scène theatre.

Prix des Lecteurs, Avant Scène theatre

What I didn’t know about were the numerous events organised outside the boundaries of the talks, prizegiving ceremonies and bookshop stands.

Thursday was dedicated to secondary school pupils, who came for special activities led by a selection of authors. The booktubing session – where real-life booktubers Lizzie and Gwendoline filmed pupils talking about their favourite festival books – was a highlight for me. It was also useful because a high school will be booktubing on my own novel, Tree Magic, next spring.

Friday saw high school students take over the conference centre. Their sessions taught them about careers in publishing and they also filmed each other interviewing the authors. And primary schools were not forgotten, as children’s authors and illustrators drove all over the region to speak to classes.

Children were also an important focus of the festival during the public opening at the weekend. A whole room was allocated to children’s workshops, films, musical siestas and readings, which ran all day on Saturday and Sunday.

This year the variety of public events was much wider. Authors gave readings, which you could listen to on headphones while drinking a coffee or wandering round the stalls. There were photography exhibitions, performed plays, book signings, film projections and readings accompanied by music.

I loved the fun ‘tarot-card’ game with mysterious goddess Circe, who would find the text to match your mood and read it to you. In the evenings, festival partners provided entertainment, including a play at Hennessy’s theatre, ‘Les Quais, Ici ou Ailleurs’, and a film projected by Eurociné.

As the theme was the Mediterranean Islands, you could hear authors speaking in Italian, Sicilian, Greek, Corsican, Cypriot, Maltese and Croatian. There were also plenty of discussions about insularity, war, the Mafia, leprosy and the refugee situation. I did hear one British accent among the authors: Emma Jane Kirby dropped in and talked (in excellent French) about her novel The Optician of Lampedusa.

Other authors present included 2012 Goncourt winner Jérôme Ferrari and the current writer-in-residence, Sicilian Davide Enia. Davide is the author of Palermo boxing novel On Earth As It Is In Heaven, and was everyone’s darling. The audiences laughed at his jokes and he spoke in a charming choreography of Italian gestures. During his six-week residency he worked hard, visiting schools, libraries and bookshops throughout the region to talk about Sicily and his work.

I had a coup de coeur for Sophie Chérer, author of L’Huile d’Olive Ne Meurt Jamais, which is based on a true story about mafia resistance. She talked to a group of secondary school pupils and made them think about what success actually means, in terms of a book. She also asked them how they felt about books being put in competition with each other to win a prize, and explained why she found this odd. Ironically, Sophie later learnt she’d won the secondary school readers’ prize.

One of my favourites from a previous year (see my 2015 blog post about the London edition of the festival) was also present. Henriette Walker, etymologist extraordinaire from the French Academy, was back to fascinate the audience with her talk about the origins of language in the Mediterranean islands.

Imagine my delight when I saw that her latest book was all about the names of trees. Needless to say, we had an interesting discussion, which ended with a simultaneous book signing.

Sunday evening’s magical, musical reading by refugee story-collector François Beaune, was followed by clearing up and then a drink and pizza for the volunteers.

We’ll be meeting again in a few weeks for a debriefing – which is, of course, an excuse to catch up with all our new friends.

Next year’s festival, held from 15-18 November 2018, will be honouring the countries around the Baltic Sea. Why don’t you come along and discover them through their authors’ voices?

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Joining the Dots

(A wrap-up of the 2017 Charroux Literary Festival):

Have you ever been to a series of unrelated performances and found that a common theme emerges?

This is exactly what happened at this year’s Charroux Literary Festival, and I wasn’t the only one to notice an intangible thread weaving through the author talks. See if you can spot it from my summary below.

So, for this second edition of the Charroux festival I was a speaking author, which meant I was invited to the pre-festival dinner (ah, the joys of fame!).

I was so excited about meeting everyone that I arrived a few hours early and had plenty of time to walk around the medieval village. This included discovering the fascinating abbey ruins where I dawdled among the spirits of times past.

I also came across the house where French writer Robert Charroux lived, and learnt that he was a pioneer in Ancient Astronaut theories: the pseudoscientific theories that suggest aliens visited Earth in antiquity and prehistoric times.

I knew I wouldn’t have a spare minute for contemplation once the festival began – and I was right. Even without the festival, Charroux is a superb destination for a day’s exploration (and I’m not just referring to the pub that has Guinness on tap).

During the 3 days, I went to 4 talks involving historical authors Barbara Erskine, Tracey Warr, Alison Morton (Roma Nova) and James Vance (World War II). I’ve never been tempted to write historical fiction because I know nothing about history and would be afraid of getting everything wrong. But the discussions I heard helped me understand why writing historical fiction can be so alluring.

For Tracey and Barbara, who write about the medieval period, there is very little documentation. We know what the historical figures did but we don’t know why they did it and how they felt about it.

This means that joining the dots to create a picture of events leaves plenty of room for imagination – which is exactly what novelists like to explore: in other words, the ‘unknowability’ of the past, as Tracey quoted.

Even the facts themselves can be dubious: there isn’t just one story about what happened, there are many stories – and bards and pilgrims played a role in this as they passed on news orally. The difference between Welsh and English records for the same events are a good example of this.

All four authors talked about being conscious of the past when they visit historical places, as well as the importance of imagining their characters going about their daily life in those places. Barbara added that it’s as if the past is trying to get through to the present, an idea she explores fully in the ghostly elements of her fiction.

Nick Inman, author of Mystical France, talked about the idea of science being able to explain how mystical symbols and sculptures were created, but not being able to explain why it was done. He suggested using your intuition when you visit ancient places to try to find your own answers.

He has done this over the last five years, and he captivated his audience with the slideshow of mystical symbols and sculptures he has collected during his travels around France. No wonder so many people surged forward to buy his book after his talk.

Not quite so many people rushed to buy Tree Magic after my session about the road to publication, even though a major theme is how science can’t explain certain spiritual aspects of life. I guess I have some lessons to learn from Nick Inman there. But I did sign plenty of copies and get some great feedback – and nobody actually fell asleep.

The talk that created the most discussion was Mike Welham’s presentation about mixing fact and fiction. His novels are based on events that have never been satisfactorily explained; for his chosen themes, he has researched and summed up all the mysterious inconsistencies to suggest huge cover-up operations, which he has published as fiction.

He presented his conspiracy theories about frogman Buster Crabb, The World Trade Center Building 7 and David Kelly’s death. We were lucky to have Andrew Lownie, an author who has spent decades researching Guy Burgess, in the audience, as well as TV and Foreign Office specialist Jane Lythell. Their points of view as experienced researchers added to the charged atmosphere during the session.

The common thread (have you spotted it yet?) didn’t reach all the creaky-floored rooms of the Maison Charlois during the festival, as the sessions on the craft of writing had nothing mystical about them (although you could argue that the whole writing process is rather mysterious).

photo by Jacqui from French Village Diaries

This category of talks included a useful analysis of humour with Chuck Grieve; a detailed session on playwriting with Gordon & Jocelyn Simms; an exploration of character and an insight into psychological thrillers with Jane Lythell (what a lovely lady); and workshops with Vanessa Couchman.

I talked about writing for Young Adults and persuaded my audience to wield their pens – which produced some promising beginnings.

There was also a New Writers Workshop, chaired by Susie Kelly and including Jane Lythell, myself, Alison Morton and Blackbird publisher and author Stephanie Zia. This was an interactive event in which we all gave our advice for new writers and then circulated among groups to answer questions.

The author talks are, of course, central to the festival and I wish I’d been able to find a Harry Potter time turner so I could attend them all – both French and English. But they were far from being the only element to the three magical days in Charroux. The other elements came from the festival supporters.

There’s nothing like having a drink or a meal with other festival-goers; or having a laugh with the lovely ladies of the Hope Association tea tent, who delivered a constant supply of drinks, English food and good humour. Cheerful volunteers were everywhere, from the helpful people at the reception desk, in the bookshop and at the Enfants de la Rue charity stand, to the behind-the-scenes drivers and hosts. It was great to see so many familiar faces and make new friends.

But my biggest thanks have to go to Kate and Chris, the festival organisers, who made this all possible. Did they create the mystical thread on purpose, or is it just in my head?

photo by Tracey Warr

Charroux 2019 seems a long way away. Luckily, we have the 2017 edition of another intimate literary festival full of interesting people in October: Parisot. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Extraordinary Ellia:

Harriet thought she’d died in the accident. She was standing in a French library full of English books, and French libraries normally have just one English shelf. A heaven full of books seemed fitting to Harriet, though misfortune had placed the library in Angers, a four-hour drive from Harriet’s home.

I pinched myself and realised I hadn’t died. I wasn’t dreaming. This wasn’t heaven – and in any case I hadn’t had an accident (unless you count what happened in Angers’ English sweetshop, but that’s another story).

If you’re confused here, just read the beginning of Tree Magic, which is free to ‘look inside’ on the Amazon ebook page, and everything will become clear. Ish. Well, it may sound vaguely familiar.

Anyway, back to the library: when I met Phoebe at the St.Clémentin literary festival last year and she told me she worked in an English-Language library in Angers, I imagined a cosy little nook squeezed between two houses in a back street.

So when she invited me to talk to the library coffee morning group about my novel Tree Magic, I presumed the audience would be a handful of people huddled between bookcases.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Let me begin by telling you about this amazing library, which is a non-profit organisation called Ellia (an acronym for ‘English Language Library In Angers’, since you were about to ask).

It has 30 000 English books, 4 staff, 1600 members and 100 volunteers – making it the biggest English language library in the west of France. There’s a catalogue on the website so you can check if the book you want is there before you drive to Angers, and you can even borrow ebooks to download onto your e-reader.

But the library is far more than a series of numbers and a list of services. If you’ve read my blog posts about Le Kairn, the brand new bookshop in the Val d’Azun, you’ll know that I talked about how I believed it would soon become a hub for cultural activities.

Well, the 23-year-old Ellia library is exactly that: a community hub. It’s a meeting place for English speakers who love books, of course, but also a base for a diverse range of activities ranging from French conversation groups and English creative writing circles to gardening, knitting and film clubs.

Phoebe

What has made it so popular, in my opinion, is the warmth of the welcome that visitors receive. While I was having coffee with Phoebe (you get a bottomless cup of tea or coffee for a euro), she greeted the people who wandered in and chatted with each of them.

It’s hardly surprising there are so many volunteers – some of whom I met as they sat around a table covering books with plastic. The other staff and interns – including Mandy, Sandrine, Oksana and Dominique – are just as friendly. There’s absolutely no reason to feel lonely if you live in or near Angers and like books.

Half of Ellia’s funding comes from a combination of City Hall, the two Angers universities (students receive free membership) and Maine-et-Loire county council. The rest is made up from membership fees and fundraising events.

An example of an event is the food stand they’ll be manning at the street theatre festival Les Accroche-coeurs on 8-10 September. The festival’s 2017 theme is ‘So British’, which means discussions at Ellia are currently underway to decide on the most suitable British dish to serve.

If you have any ideas (please, no Marmite or jelly), let me know and I’ll pass them on.

Now you know a little about Ellia, you can appreciate how it was that over 30 people came to listen to my Tree Magic talk. (I stopped counting at 30, as they were looking expectantly at me and I thought I’d better begin).

It’s always scary to stand up in front of people and talk, so I was relieved when it was over. My relief, however, was short-lived.

‘Do you mind if Isma interviews you?’ Phoebe asked me.

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘It won’t be filmed or anything, will it?’

There was a silence.

Silly me… This was the point at which I discovered that the computery stuff on the shelf was actually filming me for the whole talk. Which means that those scandalous secrets I accidentally revealed…

I sat in the armchair beside Isma and did my best to answer questions that were only difficult because I had to answer them on the spot.

It was decidedly worse that the radio interviews I did when Tree Magic was first published.

Am I the only person whose mind goes maddeningly blank when I’m asked questions in front of a recording device?

The best part of doing author talks is that you meet so many interesting people afterwards. I had a great chat with William, one Anne Woodford’s writing group members.

Anne is a talented writer whom I also met at St. Clémentin. Her short story was placed 2nd in the 2016 Segora International Writing Competition, run by the St.Clémentin festival organisers, and you can read it here (you’ll have to scroll down a little).

I had some lovely feedback about how people felt inspired to go off and write after my talk. Some people even bought a copy of Tree Magic!

If you have a chance to visit the lovely city of Angers, pop into the library. You’ll see exactly what I mean about Ellia being extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

Hide and Seek with Bears and Boys

Writing Residency Day 9 (last day *sobs*):

I understand now why mountainy people get up early:

1st photo: from my room at 7:30 am.

2nd photo: from the office window 7:35 am.

3rd photo: from my room again at 7:45 am.

So what does a writer do on the last day of a writing residency at Arras-en-Lavedan?

Easy: instead of doing one research trek, the keen writer does two. Especially when it’s so misty that there is zero visibility at the top of the mountain.

The first trek took me to the Col d’Arras, where I was sure I’d be able to find a path onto what looked like summer pastures under the Pic d’Arragnat. I wanted to know whether Eole, my protagonist, was hanging around up there.

Perhaps he was. But with heavy bracken vegetation and little grass, I didn’t think it was likely. OK, I admit I wasn’t very persistent. Nor would you be if you heard a kind of growly-barky roar in the bushes and you were very much alone on the mountain.

I hot-footed it back down the non-path, got lost, panicked, struggled over a barbed wire fence and landed on my butt in the mud. I felt much better on the other side of the fence, despite the ripped trousers, and even a bit silly. After all, I could easily have defended myself with my swiss army knife. Couldn’t I? That’s what the bloke in the shop said, anyway.

(Don’t tell my sisters about this: they already split their sides laughing the time, aged 10, I was chased by a herd of cows and ended up clinging to a pole in the middle of a field).

As I write this, I’m listening to brown bear noises on Youtube, and I must admit that the noise is exactly what I heard. Though I guess that’s like looking up illnesses on the Internet to check your symptoms.

On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, the original race of Pyrenean brown bear died out and Slovenian brown bears were introduced in the 1990s. In 2016 there were 39 bears, of which 2 in – omigod – this area… perhaps its just as well I’m leaving tomorrow! And, reading on through my informative source, if you come face-to-face with a bear you should retreat progressively. Not panic and run. Oh dear.

My Col d’Arras mission had aborted but, happily unaware of the real possibility of meeting a bear, I decided to attack the mountain from further along. There was definitely a path from Arcizans-Dessus up to the Col de Liar, and it passed straight through the said pastures.

Arcizans-Dessus is a tiny village that hugs the flank of a mountain – and boasts 22 watermills. Here are a few of them, lining the Anisaous stream and looking like a Pyrenean version of a housing estate. Some of the cute mills have been restored as cottages, while one serves as a demonstration mill.

The photo below resumes my morning’s research.

It took me an hour and a half of walking up steep z-bends to reach the silent, deserted Col de Liar. I did hear the eerie ring of bells through the mist on my way up, and there was a cold bonfire spot in the flat land at the top – but there was no sign of Eole and his sheep.

At least I determined that what looked like lush green pastureland from a distance was actually bracken (animals don’t eat bracken), so I guess that’s why this land isn’t grazed.

Coming back down, I was struck by a change in the mist. High up, its cold fingers creep down your back, soak your hair and drip dewdrops onto your eyelashes. But lower down it feels warm and steamy, like a Turkish bath, and the sappy, green tang of bracken gives way to the sweet aroma of elderflower. I’ve never experienced this with mist before – so my morning wasn’t a total waste of time, after all.

Back in the village I visited the church (Eole’s mum is dead religious) and found this guy sitting outside looking at MY mountain. He was made by Pedro Frémy, who also made the village carousel I mentioned in Day 6’s post as well as the other metal beasties around the Maison des Arts. Cute, eh?

Finally, I went to Le Kairn for my 5pm talk about my novel Tree Magic. Once again, I had to struggle through the crowd to get inside (actually, there was a crowd, but they weren’t interested in me).

It was lovely to catch up with my Lumineuse writing group friend Min, and I was delighted to see Bob from Laguépie, who I met at the Parisot Festilitt last year, and who had driven for 5 hours to see me.

Maybe they’d heard I’d be serving Pineau after the talk?

Pineau is the traditional aperitif in the Cognac area, and I’d brought a bottle for a farewell drink with all the lovely people who have hosted and befriended me this week: Françoise Gourvès, stained-glass artist extraordinaire and also my host at the Maison des Arts; multi-talented Karine from Le Kairn; Dominique Gainza with the strong, cheese-stirring arm muscles from the Val d’Azun sheep&goat farm; and Véronique the costume queen.

Many thanks to you all, and also to those who couldn’t make it: Alex from the mairie & Maison des Arts, Pascal Gainza, Valentine from Le Kairn, Caroline the costume-maker, Charles the Mayor and all the individuals who answered my (sometimes strange) questions.

And thanks to you who have followed these writing residency blog posts and those of you who came to my talks.

I’ll calm down now, and go back to my monthly posting habit.

Bye-bye, Arras-en-Lavedan. I’ll be back to say hello (with more bottles of Pineau) before too long.

Stories of Art and Legend

Writing Residency Day 6:

This was my view when I opened my shutters today. I almost jumped out of the window, I was so desperate to get outside and melt into the mountains.

But first I’d been invited on a guided visit of the contemporary art circuit in Arras with Alex, the cultural specialist at the mairie.

He was doing a special tour for Manoell Bouillet, who is going to use the circuit as a basis for a children’s writing workshop. This is an activity I’d love to offer, one day, so I was intrigued to see how Manoell built her project.

I’m a fan of guided visits, as I explained in my blog post Can I Waste Your Time?. At first sight, the exhibits in the village are pleasant to spot, but it’s not until you listen to a tour guide that you really look at and appreciate them. Unfortunately for non-French speakers, Alex doesn’t do the visits in English.

The theme of the circuit is the village’s heritage, and it is designed to make us think about what we have inherited – and what heritage we’re leaving future generations.

The visit began at the garden beside Le Kairn, which is NOT a private garden belonging to the bistro-bookshop. There are two exhibits here, and you can enter freely.

The first is a favourite with children. This pedal-powered ‘Carousel of Legends’ was created from scrap metal by local artist Pedro Frémy in collaboration with Richard Rewers. Richard is one of the members of La Machine, which is famous for its huge metallic animals that tour festivals in France and is based in Nantes.

Alex brought the legends to life with his storytelling. The Lake Isaby snake and Le Bécut (Cyclops) come from traditional Pyrenean legends, while the Ferme Andriu goat comes from a village legend. All of them feature local geography and monsters, and can be traced back to glaciation and the dangers of the mountains.

It’s interesting to see how legends change over time, each storyteller interpreting and modernising the story so that it appeals to new audiences. This is a form of living heritage, and Manoell had ideas of using Chinese Whispers in her workshop to demonstrate this point.

The next landmark is one you can’t miss: a marmot pushing (or retaining?) a rounded granite rock on top of a hillock, surrounded by circular beds of fruit bushes. You definitely need a guide to understand that this exhibit is all about what belongs in the valley and how long we should live in a place before we can consider we belong.

Let me explain. The hillock is a drop of water falling into a lake and the circular gardens and ramps are the ripples that emanate from it.

The marmot is a popular symbol of the Pyrenees – yet it isn’t indigenous; it was brought in from The Alps. Likewise, the Val d’Azun is largely limestone. The lumps of granite we can find – such as the Pierre du Balandrau in Argelès-Gazost – are erratics, dropped by the glacier when it retreated.

The Val d’Azun is a hanging valley, and was once under 600m of ice. And did you know that the Lac de Lourdes is the furthest glacial lake from this glacier?

Both the marmot and granite are ‘foreigners’ in the valley, yet they are so integrated that they’re often chosen to represent it. There’s a lesson there!

The visit continued along the route of the black signs. These 26 signs, in black and pink (pink is the extension in the lower part of the village) draw your attention, via a quiz, to diverse landmarks in the village.

If you are disappointed because some don’t highlight the most aesthetic features, this is a normal reaction. It’s deliberate. We’re being encouraged to look at objects we don’t normally notice, such as fences and old TV aerials. These pollutants are part of the heritage we’re leaving future generations.

I won’t describe all the exhibits, but I liked ‘Birth of the Globes’. These three works were created by three different artists on the theme of how man continues Nature’s work. We’re talking about buildings, here, which is why the materials used are wood, stone and clay. If you do the guided visit, ask Alex how the tree and the granite stone arrived here.

The visit finished at the labyrinth outside the church, where I learnt about some original uses of labyrinths in France.

One use was for people to take a meditative walk to the centre (there were no dead ends) and prepare themselves spiritually to meet God before entering church.

Another type of labyrinth was used by the Compagnons du Devoir (an organisation for developing manual skills, dating from the Middle Ages), who used a labyrinth to check the people entering a site. The bona fide workers would pass through in minutes, while imposters would be lost in the dead ends.

Many labyrinths have been destroyed – and the purpose of this one is to make us think about the heritage we don’t pass onto future generations.

It was great fun to work with Alex and Manoell. As we walked, we brainstormed ideas for exploiting the exhibits to create fun and meaningful writing exercises for kids. I’d love to participate in one of her workshops.

After such a thought-provoking morning I headed up to the Col des Bordères – the site of Pascal Gainza’s summer pastures – and took a delightful stroll with my protagonist Eole.

 

We went up to the Pic de Predoucet, where I spent the afternoon writing, mountain-spotting and watching clouds sneak in from backstage and dress the peaks…

…Which reminded me of costume designers Véronique Strub and Caroline back at the Maison des Arts. Now they’ve got rid of the two dead birds they found in the storeroom they’re busy with their pencils and mannequins.

But more about that tomorrow.

In Pastures High

Writing Residency Day 5

Today I risked my life for my protagonist.

I would have been perfectly happy to sit and write at my desk all day, looking at the shy mountain from my window.

That’s what I did do until lunchtime. Then my protagonist – let’s call him, say, Eole – woke up. He’s a teenager, which explains the late rising.

“Let’s go climb,” he said. “Got to check on the sheep.”

It was nice to have some active company rather than the usual passive paper characters. My boots had dried out, the sun was kind of shining in parts of the valley and I had promised him we’d go out together today.

So off we went in the car to Aucun, then up the hairpin bends to the Col du Couraduque (1367m).

Eole’s weekend task is to check on the family’s flock of ewes, which graze up on the mountain pastures above the treeline from June to September. He has to check their feet, spray antiseptic on any cuts etc., and if any are hobbling too much he brings them back down to the valley.

Eole is too young to drive, so he often gets a lift up to the Col with his mates from the paragliding school, who run-and-jump from there. I think he spends more time watching the colourful wings floating in the air than minding the ewes.

I was relieved to discover that mountain roads are far less scary when you’re driving than when you’re a passenger.

(I was in tears last year when my partner drove us between the Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque in a thick mist. As passenger, I was on the steep slope side of the road, which fell into swirling white nothingness. And he was going far too fast at 30kmh).

I parked at the Col, and Eole and I walked towards the rocky ridge.

“Just forget I’m here,” I said as I followed him up the path.

I think that was my error. Because – unusually for a teenager – he did exactly what I suggested.

Why is it that teenagers walk at the same speed as grandparents when they’re in town, but as soon as they’re on a mountain they race up it?

I was trying to take photos – so that we would remember the scenery when we’re back in Cognac and Eole returns to his passive state on paper – which meant I was much slower than him.

On and on Eole walked, higher and higher into the pastures until we found his sheep, grazing in a loose group and clanging their bells as they walked (yes, I know those are cows in the photo…).

To begin with, all was well. Eole threw himself down in the springy, heathy grass and gazed upwards, while I admired the flowers, insects, hoofprints – anything that was firmly on the ground. Above us, clouds skimmed the rocky heights, and he seemed fascinated by them, probably because there were no paragliders today.

But the sheep kept wandering off and climbing higher. Eole followed. I followed Eole, taking pictures and jotting down notes as I went.

At one point I saw the following sign: ‘Passages Délicats’, which translates as ‘dangerous paths’.

Last time I saw this sign, I nearly lost my daughter (flesh and blood, not a story character) down the side of a mountain, so you can imagine I was a little nervous. I mean, Eole wasn’t exactly going to throw me a rope or call the emergency services if I had an accident, was he? And there was nobody else about.

I suggested we could perhaps take the forest variant, but he just shrugged and jerked his head to the unperturbed sheep. “No grass in the woods.”

So on we went, me looking nervously down at the steep drop to one side and Eole looking up at the sky.

I was just getting used to it when we arrived at a ridge, a rocky crête, and there were suddenly two steep drops.

By now we were pretty high, and I noticed some birds of prey circling. A helpful information sign lower down had mentioned that Griffon vultures fed on dead animals up here, so this wasn’t reassuring either. All it would take was a slipping foot as I crouched to photograph a butterfly.

At which point I slipped

And rolled

A little.

Grabbed grass

And very quickly came to a standstill.

 

Strangely, I felt better after this. I threw myself down (well, lowered myself gently) into a safe-ish position and followed Eole’s example of looking up and around instead of down.

The view was stunning. I tried to remember the names the old man had given me and pin them on the peaks. There’s a quality to the silence – when combined with the cold, thin air and the view – that tastes of freedom.

I started to understand why Eole likes it up here; why he’s the one in his family who deals with the sheep all summer.

But I think there’s an additional reason why Eole comes up here. I think he has a secret.

Anyway, I let Eole do his stuff with the sheep, and, as I watched him, I realised that he needs a sheepdog.

The clouds were blackening, so I left Eole up there with his sheep and made my way down, having agreed to meet him tomorrow afternoon in a different pasture with a different flock of sheep.

Back at the Maison des Arts a plastic bag was waiting on the doormat outside the door. A present? For me? I picked it up.

Inside were two freshly dead birds.

I flicked through my knowledge of French superstitions and witchcraft, to no avail. Puzzled, I left them there and opened the door.

A lady was waiting on the stairs.

“Hello,” I said.

But she didn’t reply.

Well, she wouldn’t, would she? Not without a head.

Upstairs, three of her comrades were huddled together by my door: naked, beautiful – and also headless.

There’ll be no sleepwalking for me tonight.

***

Thank you for reading right down to here. I’d just like to remind you that I write fiction, so there’s no need to take everything in this post as being 100% true…

Spying and Lying

Writing Residency Day 4

I wonder if people in the village noticed the way I hung around today, scribbling in my notebook and taking photos of strange things like the grill on the road?

Perhaps the old man I said hello to was suspicious. Perhaps that’s why he came out and pretended to be weeding while I was taking a panoramic photo from his front gate – though it’s hardly my fault that my protagonist is going to live in his house (not the one in the picture, I hasten to add).

Luckily I had my map. Maps are useful for times when people are unlikely to understand the link between research and peering in through windows to take photographs. I think I convinced him I was lost… And actually I learnt he was born in the valley and knew the names of all the mountains. And he also told me loads of useful stuff about sheep.

Yes, today was calm, which meant that after a morning of writing I let myself slip into my protagonist costume and go for a walk around the village of Arras.

There’s an art circuit where you have to find what features in the landscape the silhouettes on the signs depict, and my protagonist thought he’d take a photo of one for you.

Outside, I discovered the mist had lifted from the valley and the sun was coming out. I had water in my bag, boots on my feet, a map in my hand and a swiss army knife in my pocket. (The swiss army knife was in case I saw the bear).

So it was no surprise that my protagonist found himself walking up to the top of the nearest mountain instead of around the village. The tops of mountains are much more his type of thing.

I say mountain but, at just 1097m, the Mont de Gez is really a hill. It was playing at being a mountain while all the real, rocky mountains were being snooty with their heads in the clouds. There’s a gorgeous view from the top: you can see valleys heading off in all directions. A group of dancers in a previous residency created a stunning video set there.

On my way home, I popped into Le Kairn, where I managed to get a photo of Karine. For once she was actually sitting down, relaxing – well, testing new recipes (read ‘eating lunch’ there). So here is the lovely lady! You may recognise her from one of the many mountain refuges she’s worked in.

Back at the Maison des Arts, I was surprised to find the doors wide open and the exhibition rooms empty.

Had thieves broken in? I hoped the man weeding hadn’t given the police a description of me.

Then I remembered: it was the final day for Raphaël’s photos and Roxane’s ceramics displays: tomorrow, Véronique Strub is moving in with her Dracula costumes.

Which means, I suppose, that I may bump into headless, half dressed vampires in my museum if I happen to go sleepwalking.

Never mind. It will be worth it if I can see how costume-makers work, in which case I’ll talk more about Véronique and her project later this week.

In the evening I watched the clouds lift as I wrote, and it wasn’t until night had fallen that I remembered my walk around the village.

Hoping the man wasn’t still out weeding, I picked up my camera and went out on a night expedition (with my swiss army knife).

I may not be courageous enough to spend a night alone at the Col des Bordères, with Pascal’s sheep and cows, but the village was another matter.

And this is what I saw: cool, huh? An owl and THE EYE!!!

Now it’s time for bed. Tomorrow I’m going to brave those hairpin bends and crazy French drivers and hit the heights (which is what my protagonist does the minute he can).

Goodnight, sleep well.