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The fig tree chair
summertime sea and ratatouille
It took seven months,
three weeks and a few hours to get back to France, along with three sets of tests, double vaccinated, uploaded to my NHS and TousCovidPass French Covid app (which didn’t always work, so am glad I carry PDF stored on my laptop). Tracked, traced, and with a reference as long as my full name three times over.
Getting on the plane from London was an incredible experience after all this time. It was a treat, it felt so special, and from my window counted the nuts and bolts on the wings and wondered what NO STEP written in big letters means.
Just a short hop, London to Poitiers, where I picked up a share lift down south.
On the night of arrival into Tuchan a small party was lighting up the night in the newly taken over bar to make up for lack of summer festivals and a really tough French law which some call a dictatorship. Much of Occitania is in the red zone, and Tuchan with its population of 800 has 65 with the Delta variant. So, yes, it is quite an epic time to be here, ducking and diving kisses and hugs.
Summer heat also brings out bad blood, and the compulsory vaccination subject divides the village: many are refusing to be vaccinated, with weekly protests everywhere. So, to avoid tension, I decided to buy lots of vegetables from Pepu who has started his market garden, make vats of ratatouille, and finally do something I have wanted to do for years - make a fig tree chair in my garden.
RECIPE: Lashings of olive oil, heated in cast-iron pan (if possible)
2-3 Egg plants
2-3 large tomatoes
Chop to small cubes. Slice onion small, and cook slowly for about two-three hours until all the vegetables are soft. Use black ground pepper and sea salt to season.
Serve with baguette/rice or both. Can be eaten hot or cold.
I have always thought
I should make a chair tree among the fig branches in the garden, as it naturally curls open and the branches meet at the top, leaving a lovely hole, enough for a tree swing or chair.
I set to work cutting through the mass of branches and managed to cut enough to make a seat. I gathered hundreds of stones which came from the garden wall which fell in the 1999 and 2014 floods. I balanced them under a wine crate which was about to be cut up for the BBQ. Added a cushion and basket of goodies and, an hour later, it was ready to go.
From the chair the view of the garden is totally different, I now face the wall I love with its crawling jasmine and bric-a-brac.
When I lie down I have the beauty of the leaves, which leave a small space of sky to look into. The overwhelming smell of lavender, mint and vervain mixing with the sound of crickets overwhelms the senses. The world is different seen from a tree. Thoughts become less cluttered when lying back, just looking up, till no thoughts come at all.
So I name the garden after my granddaughter - Le Jardin de Violette - as she loves trees.
Tuchan seems far from the sea, although it is only 60 kilometres. It sits between dry and rough mountains, and tangled French bush - garrigue. Those of us without a car depend on the local bus to Narbonne, the nearest city, an hour’s ride away, then get the train down to Perpignan and the Catalan coast. You have to spend two nights away as the next bus is two days later. It seems so inconvenient to car owners, but to us who have never had a car, it is an adventure. We go with the flow.
Tuchan is also wild, even in the time of Covid: family feuds, clandestine parties, and with the burning whipped winds which come out of the blue, we live on primal passions. Two new traveller families have moved in, fuelling impulsivity, so going to the sea felt the right thing for the weekend.
I am off to meet Isabelle
who had driven me down from Poitiers to Perpignan with Blablacar. We hit it off immediately, and got an invitation to her beautiful apartment in Port Vendres, near the Spanish border. I packed my basket full of Tuchan ratatouille, two summer dresses, and a book I know I will never read.
I wait by the bus stop.
It is already hot. There’s Freddy who can’t stop talking, Madame A who can’t stop complaining, Madame B from Paziols who smells of old style eau-de-cologne and reads a romantic novel as the bus topples along the winding lanes. Sylvan, Freddy’s husband, frantic because who can't find his mask, Patou Perez, hung-over, with her new beau, and Valentin who is going to the Les Halles of Narbonne to buy oysters. But changes his mind and decides to take the train to Perpignan with me.
The train is full of French locals going to the sea for the day. We find a seat shared by a young lad with a party laced face who smells of pastis and cigarettes. Valentin offers him a beer, Guillaume, tells us how his women left him for another man, and he has been on a three day rampage ever since, leaving the Pas-de-Calais in the north for Perpignan his port of call where he has a drinking buddy.
Valentin stays on the train as he knows if he gets off with Guillaume he’ll end up down the endless allies of St. Jaques where the gypsies live and won’t be back for days.
He rides with me till the sea stop at Collioure which whispers sweet nothings into the sea breeze. We buy Fideuà, a variation of paella which uses fideos pasta instead of rice, at the market stall. That night a storm will blow the fisherman say, but now, the sky over the small town on the Côte Vermeille is cornflower blue without a hint of danger.
Valentin gets the train back to Narbonne in time to catch the Tuchan bus home. I walk slowly along the corniche to Port Vendres. This is where mum and dad would bring me to eat fish. A banana boat from Dacca came in twice a week, the boat tilting with fruit. (I have just read it still comes in).
Port Vendres is a deep- water-working port where cargo comes and goes from around the world. Not only for the big fish, locals sell their catch - Merlin, Mackerel, Sardines and Squid - right off the boat.
Life here is simply lovely. I take an hour before I go and meet Isabelle to muse over life. I miss China with intensity, the dear students and the film school by the fishing village but know that chapter of my life is over for now and that something else is coming in. Yet, by the Mediterranean sea, I close my eyes and I am back on Huangdao’s Golden Beach, with the same smells, the same mixture of boat and saline. As I would do in Huangdao, when I was homesick, I would close my eyes and be transported back home to Collioure.
Everything is but a film flickering in our eyes. We can turn it on when ever we want to.
Yes … today, everything seems simply beautiful.
Thank you for passing by, enjoy these next few weeks. If you like send me a comment, love to hear from you, and pass it on.