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.

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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.

That’s SO Cheesy!

Writing Residency Day 3

Did you think that life in the mountains was tranquil?

I did. But that was before I met Françoise and Karine; before they introduced me to the friendly valley folk; before I got talking to the artists and culture-lovers who drop into Le Kairn bistro-bookshop.

It’s non-stop activities and invitations here, I’m telling you. If you want to meet like-minded people, Arras-en-Lavedan is the place to be. Even some famous bloke from French television will be here on Thursday, so I hear.

 

 

Anyway, after the exertion of yesterday’s transhumance, today was a little less physical but just as wet and busy.

It was also far less spooky (although the exhibiting photographer here at the Maison des Arts, Raphäel Paya, did have a go at making me scream).

 

 

First of all, I drove back to Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm in Marsous to learn all about a special technique. So here’s today’s challenge: look at these photos and guess what Dominique is up to:

Yes, she’s making cheese – today’s batch was Tome Des Pyrénées made from ewes’ milk. She also makes goat cheese and mixed-goat-and-ewe cheese, all of which you can taste and buy at their farm.

I’m not going to try to teach you all about cheese in a 500-word blog post, but if you read the novel I’m researching (and writing in the small hours here), you’ll pick up some tips. Here’s a brief explanation to go with the photos, though, because if I keep meeting interesting people it will be ages before my notes become a story.

Before we entered the room, which was lightly perfumed with ‘suckling baby’, Dominique had already begun her daily task of heating a vat of the day’s milk to 55°C. While we watched, she made the milk curdle by stirring it with that strange guitar-like instrument. Then she de-curdled it, this time stirring it with her arm for 30 minutes until the curds and whey separated. Next, she gathered the curds, threw away the whey (ooh, those words sound nice together), gathered up the curds into a doughy ball, which she cut into chunks and kneaded into the moulds.

I had lots of ideas while watching and listening: muscular right arms; music and goats; listeria and salmonella… And I liked the mix of traditional and modern when Dominique stirred with her right arm and answered her mobile phone with her left.

But time was pressing, and I had to go to Le Kairn to prepare my Tree Magic talk. In reality, this meant eating lunch with Karine and meeting French writer Manoell Bouillet, who had dropped by and introduced herself to Karine.

Manoell writes plays and creates soundscapes, and may help Karine create a poetical circuit around the village. I told you Le Kairn was a networking hotspot. Karine went back to work behind the bar, Manoell and I had writerly discussions – and then I introduced her to Alex (who I met on Saturday, and who works on the art circuit in the village) before welcoming my first talk guest.

Here’s a photo of me during the talk. There are actually at least 500 fans sitting just out of sight and lots of security guards to keep back the screaming crowds who forgot to book and couldn’t squeeze in.

Seriously, it was great to meet some readers and discuss writing experiences. The lovely Scottish playwright Gloria Carreno was a real inspiration to me because she writes plays in English and French.

She has produced them in Edinburgh and London – in fact one is currently under consideration with La Comédie Française – and it was fascinating to listen to her experiences of how a script becomes a play. She’s also keen to meet other playwrights – and theatres which would like to produce her work.

With the day’s activities over, I was able to return to my little room, where I typed long into the night.

Tomorrow is going to be a calm, writing day.

In theory.

Wet Sheepy Stuff

Writing Residency Day 2

Following yesterday’s apprehensions, something did go bump in the night. Several times. It was rather like a severed head bumping–… actually, let’s not go there. I kept my eyes squeezed tight shut so as not to discover a ghostly lady in long skirts standing over me, and soon fell asleep again in my museum.

As predicted, today was very sheepy and very wet. I’m proud to announce that I did the transhumance (accompanying the sheep from the valley to the mountain pastures), and I did it no less than twice.

The first was the traditional ceremony, in which flocks of sheep left from their individual farms and joined at Estaing, where they took the road up to the Lac d’Estaing lake.

There were three types of flock:

 

 

 

 

In other words: flocks of sheep; flocks of tourists walking behind each flock of sheep; and flocks of cars, driving behind each flock of tourists, which walked behind each flock of sheep. (I could go on with this game, but I’ll stop there).

It was a fascinating sight, and I particularly liked the way the sheep would snatch mouthfuls of grass from the verges at any opportunity. One flock of 5 sheep was led by a pony and children from the local villages, who sang their hearts out during the whole length of the 12km (4-hour) hike.

 

 

 

 

At the lake, the sheepdogs rounded the sheep into pens, the tourists bought local products and then everyone went off for a good, French midday meal to the music of clanking sheep-bells.

 

 

 

 

The sheep contented themselves with chewing the cud, sleeping, er…praying? singing? (look hard at that last photo, behind the black sheep).

 

 

 

 

Three hours later – I’d had lots of time to study the sheep, take photos and scribble notes by then – the flocks were blessed by a priest.

This particular priest was a visitor from Madagascar, and I loved his big smile.

He flicked holy water from a red bucket (that made me smile) over the flocks –  and then over the crowd (though I’m not sure if this was protocol or him having a laugh).

I caught the shuttle bus back ‘home’ and just had time to dry out my coat and trousers before I met up at my next appointment.

This was at Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm, where I’d been invited for a proper, real-life transhumance. An evening transhumance.

Someone, however, was missing.

“Where’s the dog?” asked Pascal.

I don’t know if this is tradition or real life, but the next 15 minutes were spent driving around the village looking for Dora the border-collie-cross. Without Dora, we could forget taking the sheep anywhere.

We eventually found her hiding in her kennel, and proceedings were able to begin at 7:15pm. 

What came next was the most magical of mountainous experiences, and I felt very privileged to be included.

With Dora nipping at the sheep’s heels and Pascal and Jerôme telling sheepy anecdotes, we threaded through magnificent, ancient woodland to the Col des Bordères at 1500 metres high.

From there, we continued upwards, arriving at a tranquil pasture as dusk fell, three hours after we left the valley.

The sheep amazed me because once we were past Aucun, they knew exactly where to go – even turning left at a road junction. They did ignore the No Entry sign, though.

I swear the horned cows we met in the open pastures recognised the sheep. They joined the woolly party and continued heading upwards all together after we left them, no doubt gossiping about the shameful behaviour of that good-for-nothing Sally Sheep from the neighbouring flock.

Or perhaps they were heading to a cow-bell rave party on the heights above the Col du Soulor.

In any case, we headed back down the track in the dark, admiring the lights of Arrens and Marsous from our lofty lodge. And I resolved that one day I would spend a night up on those restful pastures.

Many thanks to Pascal and Dominque for their generous invitation.

(The late hour and misty weather explain the poor quality of photos – nothing to do with me being exhausted).

And, by the way, I may not have done any proper writing, but I had some fantastic experiences and took lots of notes. Does that count?

Behind the Scenes at the Maison des Arts

Writing Residency: Day 1

Have you ever been locked up in a museum overnight?

No, me neither, but that’s exactly what has happened to me tonight in the empty, locked-up arts centre. And there’s an eye looking at me through the window. I know it’s just part of an exhibition – at least, I presume it is – but it’s kind of spooky.

Outside, thunder swallows the sound of cowbells and the wash of invisible rain. And every so often, the church bell chimes. I could be feeling lonely and scared – but luckily I have company. I have the company of a mountain. Let me explain.

This morning I left Pau: I could say ‘with a heavy heart’, but, actually, if there’s one thing I love more than the town of Pau, it’s what lies south of Pau…

The weather wasn’t promising and there were no mountains in sight – until I reached Lourdes, when I was able to make out some dark outlines on the horizon.

My excitement doubled, tripled, quadrupled as I turned each bend and saw the sketches of mountain gradually become rocky reality, patched with snow. By the time I reached Argelès-Gazost, the peaks began to look familiar from last year’s camping holiday.

Arras-en-Lavedan is 2km up the Val d’Azun valley from Argelès, and I overtook several brave (crazy?) cyclists on their way to the Cols d’Aubisque and Soulor before I turned off the main road and into the heart of the village.

Most of the village is below the road, its narrow streets winding in a seemingly haphazard way around the small barn-houses and colourful gardens.

The Maison des Arts, with its stone tower and metal sculptures in the grounds, brought back memories of the day I spent here last summer, discovering this exhibition centre and chatting to Françoise Gourvès, one of the Abbadiale association members responsible for the exhibitions.

Françoise showed me to the living quarters: a bare, roomy bedroom with creaky floorboards and a desk.

But I hardly noticed the bedroom. My attention was immediately drawn to the window, and what lay outside. At least, what I thought lay outside.

It was a steep, wooded valley with a cute, pointy mountain at the top, poking the tip of its nose into the clouds. The trees waved the tips of their green fingers at me in the breeze, and when I opened the window I was charmed by the riot of exotic birdsong. The whole scene was enchanting.

And then the sun broke through the clouds.

What I’d been admiring was simply the foreground of my view. Before my eyes, the clouds lifted and out of the mist loomed another triangular peak, but higher. And then a third. The effect of the misty apparitions was like the double and triple of a rainbow, and I had to watch them for a few minutes before I was convinced all the peaks were real.

Luckily for Françoise, the mist drifted back across the peaks and I was able to leave the window and concentrate on what she was telling me – which was that some costume-making artists were meeting for lunch at Le Kairn bistro-bookshop, and that I could join them if I liked.

Le Kairn has only been open for 3 weeks, and Arras is a tiny – albeit dense with artists – village. So I was in no way prepared to see it installed in a huge building in the most prominent position next to the mairie.

The next surprise was the range of books: there’s an eclectic mix of unusual works, organised by theme in such an unconventional way that you spend hours browsing because you keep coming across something unexpected. This bookshop is going to become a reference in the whole region, I believe – and people will come to the village just to linger and buy. There are even books in English.

The bistro side is light and airy, perfect for writing while drinking a coffee. My attention was caught by the artistic tabletops, covered by pages from books, handwritten manuscripts and pictures from graphic novels.

And it was here that Karine, the owner, served us a Ploughman’s style lunch followed by the most delicious strawberry tiramisu. I was welcomed into the group of costume-makers, who were preparing for the Dracula open-air theatre play to be held this summer near Gavarnie. I’ll tell you more about them in a future blog post, as they will be in residence with me later this week.

While Valentine was taking my payment, Karine mentioned a local shepherd who told her I’d be welcome to visit. So that’s what I did. I met Pascal Gainza, from Marsous, who turned out to be the husband of Dominique, the friendly goat farmer I visited last summer. Pascal invited me to take part in his private transhumance – the moving of the ewes (a ewe is a female sheep, in case you’re a townie) from the valley to the mountain pastures for the summer.

‘Be here at 6:30 tomorrow evening, and we’ll show you the best viewpoint up there,’ he told me, adding that the Estaing transhumance is good for folklore traditions, but it’s better to see a real one.

So that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow: firstly a touristy transhumance festival in the morning, then a real one in the evening.

At least, that’s what I’ll be doing if I survive my first night locked up in the museum. Actually, I have to go now, as I’ve got a burning desire to see where that staircase leads. And what’s behind the door at the top.


See you tomorrow for the next writerly instalment – a wet, sheepy one, judging by that thunder and the new whiteout view from my window.

And, yes, by the way, I did get some writing done between today’s social encounters.

Coming Home to Pau

Writing Residency Day 0 : Coming home to Pau

I’m in love. With Pau. Again.

There’s something about the town of Pau that never ceases to capture my heart and make it brim over with happiness. Is it something to do with the sunny weather, or the exotic vegetation of magnolia and palm trees?

Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s simply the Boulevard des Pyrénées – not the castle, the classy architecture and the casino on the town side, but the view over the woody foothills of the Pyrenees and the promise of the shadowy mountains beyond.

I stopped in Pau overnight because I was invited by the Pau So British club to join them at their monthly drinks meeting and tell them about the Tree Magic talk I’ll be giving in Arras-en-Lavedan during my writing residency at the Maison des Arts. Pau is right on my road, so it made sense to book an overnight stay.

Ha ha: I’ve convinced myself that this is why I stopped in Pau. But it was actually just a good excuse. I decided to come back to Pau because the town is special to me: it’s the place I chose when I first came to France, aged 26 and in love with a Frenchman.

The first time I stepped off the train and saw the cluster of palm trees, the hint of mountains, the quaint funicular and the green parks around the university, I knew this is where I wanted to spend my year learning French. Also, it was only an hour from my Frenchman in Dax.

It was in Pau that I realised that although I’d chosen to live France instead of doing an MA in Creative Writing somewhere in England, nothing was stopping me writing. This was thanks to the inspiring French literature lessons from my FLE teacher at the ‘fac’, Martine Fiévet,who was also a writer. It was in Pau that I won my first short story competition (ok, there were only about 10 entries, but still…)

So maybe my feeling of happiness was nostalgia, mixed with the knowledge that I had a whole week of writing residency ahead of me in my favourite part of France.

As luck would have it, the room I reserved on AirBnb was actually an independent studio in the basement of a villa, with a little garden at my disposal and the beautiful Parc Beaumont nearby. The hosts were young and friendly, the room was perfect and I was walking on air after a trip down Boulevard Nostalgia. I was also only a few hundred metres from the venue for the Pau So British meeting.

In fact, my bed was close to the Villa Nitot, the family home of the 19th century British doctor who encouraged his British patients to come to Pau to convalesce. This resulted in many of them staying and forming the strong English community that continues to this day.

I thought my day couldn’t get any better – until I met the French, American, Hungarian and British members of Pau So British at the 5* hotel Villa Navarre. They welcomed me with a glass of the sweet local Jurançon wine and the most generous interest in my work.

If you’re in the Pau area, you must look up this club of friendly people, who organise a whole series of outings (including a forthcoming trip to Madeira).

Despite the effects of the wine – and thanks to the relaxed company – I managed to tell the audience about the activities in the Val d’Azun this weekend.

If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know that these include the ceramics and photography exhibitions at the Maison des Arts, the mountain festival Eldorando, the Estaing Transhumance – and my talk at Le Kairn bistro-bookshop about my journey to publication.

They kindly invited me to eat with them, and I could have listened to their fascinating stories all night – but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.

As it was, I was so absorbed in chatting to adventure journalist and ultra-trail specialist Tobias Mews, that the tables were laid around us and the entrées served before I could tear myself away.

It was a wonderful beginning to my week of freedom. If the whole residency continues like this, I won’t want to go home!

Hope to be back tomorrow with an update on the first day of my residency, so see you then.