Tag Archives: sheep

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 in one day.

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. And I had to be there at 6:30pm on the dot.

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?


Hybrids on the Merry-go-Round

Crowds of sweating shoppers, feverish festive planning and a Christmas Eve drink at the pub: isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Or is it about cups of vin chaud at Christmas markets, the rich food you’re going to be force-fed at the 6-hour meal on Christmas Eve, and remembering to put the kids’ shoes under the tree for le Père Noël?

s decorate xmas treeI remember when Christmas meant singing carols in frosty streets with the other children from the village so we could peek inside people’s houses. It was crunching into newly made sausage rolls and sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream (obviously not the same year as the carol singing). Dad would cut down a Norway Spruce under cover of Christmas Eve darkness; my sisters and I iced the Christmas cake more or less together; Mum emptied turkey innards into bowls as Christmas treats – for the dogs and cats, I hasten to add.

c and s xmas tree

Ah, the good old days… when I was truly English. Yes, Christmas is the time I think about my identity and where I really belong.

This may sound familiar to those of you who live abroad. Time stopped at the point you left your country. You took a photo as you stepped off the merry-go-round, and that photo fixes ‘home’ in your mind. But the merry-go-round keeps turning. When you go back home, it’s no longer the same. It doesn’t feel like home at all.

You know what? You’re a hybrid: no longer English, not quite French. You’re unable to vote in England because you’ve been away too long, but you’re unqualified to vote in France.

I first noticed the hybrid effect when I’d been living in France for a couple of months. I studied French at Pau University and, surrounded by non-English speakers, I forgot how to speak English. It sounds unbelievable, but that’s exactly what happened (to my family’s delight when, for example, I told them how I’d wet myself in the rain instead of saying I’d got wet). The problem was that my French wasn’t good enough for me to communicate on an emotional level. I was lonely. I booked a ticket to go home for Christmas and wondered if I’d ever come back to France.

But the simple fact of booking the ticket made me feel better. My French improved, and I progressed from being a no-brid to a hybrid: from belonging nowhere to belonging to two places. Once my French was fluent and I’d met some English-speakers, I became heterotic (check out this lovely, sexy word).

Natives often accuse expats of staying together, of not integrating properly. What draws us together isn’t our country of origin. It’s not even the language, although this does play a part. It’s because we’re hybrids. We’ve faced similar situations by leaving our mother countries. We understand each other. That’s why different nationality expats become friends too.

Occasionally I get back on the merry-go-round. After 20 years, going ‘home’ is an adventure. I see England through sightseers’ eyes. It’s a foreign country with traces of déjà vu.

deck chair sign

What struck me last time was the way the state shepherds its citizens: there are recorded messages and signs everywhere telling you what to do – and what not to do. Are they encouraging you to be sheep, to stop thinking for yourselves? Or am I just too focused on the theme for my next novel?

I noticed another strange effect during my visit last summer. I had absolutely no enthusiasm to write. I spent hours in English bookshops, feeling like a child in a sweetshop. But the glut of brilliant English books made writing seem pointless. There were so many books, so many writers. What could I possibly add?

parking sign

Back in France, the need to write returned in force.

I understood. It’s nothing to do with competing in the publishing world. I write because I’m a hybrid. Writing is my way of connecting with my English origins. It’s how I remind myself that I’m more than not-quite-French.

Being not-quite-French has lots of advantages, though. It means you can serve foie gras as a starter and Christmas pudding as a dessert (if you dare). You can drink vin chaud at Christmas markets and a sherry at the Franco-Britannique Christmas church service. As for the kids – well, they can have both stockings and shoes.

Happy Christmas!

For some great links to blogs about France, check out Lou Messugo’s blog link up: All About France #12