This last 10 days has seen a huge shift in life in France, after so many months of restrictions that saw us under curfew from 7pm, unable to sit at a cafe terrace with a morning coffee, or buy anything other than food at the local markets.
It has been a strange time, and we had got used to having to carry an attestation for any trip that would take us further than 10km from home, simply to evidence that we were justified in travelling so far. The towns felt almost eerily quiet, with just a handful of essential shops open, and none of the bustle and babble of life that we love so much. We have been up to Simiane La Rotonde to get breakfast, but have sat elsewhere to drink the coffee and munch the pastries, as the terrace has been shut.
And on wet days, have walked up to Saignon, to buy a takeaway coffee from the boulangerie there, sitting by the fountain, or in the shelter of the lavoir to eat and drink.
As always, I have continued to go to the market, but have been getting into Apt for 8am, dashing round to fill my bag with fresh produce, before being home again by 9.15 for coffee on the terrace here.
It has been very, very strange, not difficult at all, just strange, and we have found that our lives have taken on a slightly different rhythm to before, to the extent that our ‘second breakfast’ habit has been curtailed, and Millie has been walked before 7pm, when we have been battened down at home, with the evenings feeling very long indeed.
Happily, we have both had our first vaccinations now, and are keenly awaiting our second, with Andy just having to go to the local Pharmacy, where he got a plaster (for being such a brave boy), whilst I managed to get appointments at a nearby ‘Sapeurs Pompiers’ centre, where the process was slick, professional and incredibly impressive.
Then ten days ago there was a big change in the restrictions with the curfew being extended to 9pm, but more importantly for us the terraces on cafes being allowed to open again, and non-essential shops and markets to be allowed to trade again.
So last Saturday, we pottered into Apt to get some bits in the market and were almost overwhelmed by the difference. The minute we walked towards the town centre, there was a difference in the atmosphere. The main car park, that during ‘confinement’ had been filled with food and plant stalls, had exploded with colour and scent, with soap stalls, clothing stalls and more general stands, that had been absent for so long.
Walking through the Porte de Saignon, into the heart of the old town, there was a bustle that had been missing for so many months. Once again, stalls were packed into the side of the narrow, cobbled streets, with a band playing by the terrace of the coffee shop, which was already busy with customers.
The artisan stalls were back, selling handcrafted jewellery, signs, soaps and candles, their stalls filling the gaps between shops whose displays were back out on the street, helping to bring real character back to this most superb market.
I hate to admit it, but I felt my eyes well with tears, it seemed almost overwhelming and felt like seeing the first swallow of summer, or the simple joy of watching shafts of sunlight coming from between the clouds after a long period of grey and dank weather. It was very simply that it felt normal, the smell from the lavender stall, the brightly coloured bags racked up under colourful canopies and above all, the sight of people sitting at tables outside cafes, catching up with friends over a coffee, with their packed baskets at their feet.
The sound and bustle of people simply going about their daily business was just a joy, something that has been missed for so long, in a country, where it is an intrinsic part of life. Yes it was muffled by the masks, and the ‘bisous’ (3 here) are still absent, having been replaced with a fist or elbow bump, or in some cases an ankle-tap, but after 15 months of on-off confinement, this was pretty much perfect.
Of course we’ve been out for long rides on the bikes, enjoying being able to cycle beyond the 10km radius again. As ever it’s just lovely to be out and we’ve been up for coffee and croissants, back on the terrace at Simiane. It just feels like we have put on a comfy old pair of slippers that we had lost for some time. I had no idea that I had missed these little bits of life, as much as I had.
We’ve done an early evening walk to Roussillon, where we stumbled across a newly married couple walking out of the Mairie into a guard of honour, blowing bubbles … Everyone sitting in the cafés was clapping too, it was just uplifting, simple joy.
Today though, saw another bit of normality, when we headed up the hill to Saignon, for their ‘Vide Jardin & Vide Grenier’ that had been moved from April, so that it could take place. It was the first local event in a while, and by the time we arrived (just after 9), the car parks were full, with cars being abandoned on verges, all around the village… It appears that we aren’t the only ones who have missed events like this.
We joined a steady stream of people wandering into the village and ambled around the stalls that were spread out in the carparks below the church. There were so many stalls, almost as if people have spent the confinement clearing out the attics and boxes, determined to get rid of things that they no longer need. We’ve already managed to pick up some bits that didn’t get as far as a vide grenier, like these wonderful, rusted iron urns, which we found by our communal bins, whilst out cycling … Now embedded in a border waiting lavender plants
On our list for today”s event though, was a piece of ironwork that we could use as a barrier at the top of the steps to the new garden, simply to stop Millie wandering out to say hello to anyone walking up the road. We didn’t really know what we wanted, but just had an idea that an old piece of iron would look nice, as the old iron bed, we bought from the recyclerie, has made a perfect fence….
As we wandered by one stall, we caught sight of an old piece of ironwork lying on the floor, originally designed as a guard for the bottom of a tall window, it seemed perfect, and Andy was certain he would be able to make it fit. So, a deal was done for the princely sum of 6 euros, and the heavy iron guard was carried back to the car …. As ever at events like this, one person’s junk is another one’s treasure, and this was our treasure today
Not only had we spent a lovely, normal morning, but we also had the ironwork we had been hoping for. Once home there was no rest for the wicked, as Andy started to build a stone pillar at the top of the steps, which allows us just to slide the piece in place. Half way through, I heard a shout as a scorpion scuttled across his toes, but as he said, he really should have put some shoes on to build a wall!
So, the afternoon has passed, with the decorative piece now having had a first coat of paint to match the rest of the fence, and I am sure that once it is in place, it will look as if it has always been there.
All of a sudden it feels as if life is starting to return to some form of normality, and I have everything crossed that it continues in this way. In recent years I have found myself longing for the peace of the shoulder seasons, when there are fewer visitors to the area, but at the moment, I am happy to see visitors exploring the villages, browsing through the shops, and hiring bikes to explore the area, which looks incredible at the moment, with the poppy fields in full colour.
Small businesses have had such a tough time over the last year, and I can only hope that this time the infection levels remain low and the vaccination programme continues in the way that it has over the last few weeks, with now over 25 million (nearly 50% of the population, having received at least one dose), which has to be positive news. I desperately long for travel restrictions to ease, to allow the boys to come to see us, and for me to be able to go back to the UK to see friends and family again, but that will happen, and I just have to look forward to that too.
In the mean time though, I am just going to make the most of this new phase, enjoying the simple, little things that I have missed so much. I don’t need fast cars, fancy restaurants, or glamorous evenings out, to make my day, just simply a coffee, a croissant, and the happy babble of people getting on with life.
Long may it last….