Before the snow came and rendered transport a lottery, we travelled from the Lot into the deepest Corrèze to take afternoon tea with old friends. They live half an hour further into the interior from our old village, so the journey is significant.
When we left the Corrèze, already almost a decade ago, we would tell all our French friends, We’re only moving to the next department; it’s not as if we’re moving to another country. But they were right. Effectively it is a different country. Reputedly, even now there are still Corrézians who have never set foot out of their department. I remember when some London friends moved from Kentish Town to Crystal Palace. At the time, other close mutual friends complained that they were moving south of the river and that they would never see them. So it has almost proved.
It’s not just the geographical distance involved; it’s travelling back into the past that complicates matters. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ L.P. Hartley’s narrator recognises at the beginning of The Go-Between. They do indeed do things differently there. Being an incurable optimist, my wife believes that life is all about enjoying the present and looking forward to the future. Being a melancholic romantic, I spend far too much time à la recherche du temps perdu.
Our friends Régine and Bernard live now in Marcillac, a little market town of less than a thousand souls, not far from a 230-hectare artificial lake that was created when the river Doustre was dammed in 1949 for hydro-electric power. At over 600 metres above sea level, it certainly qualifies for the label ‘Haute Corrèze’. In summer it becomes a holiday destination and a centre for water sports. In winter, it’s a gateway to the Land of Nowhere.
You follow the Dordogne past Argentat, past the final dam and hydro station along the river’s upper reaches, and past what must be one of the world’s most scenic campsites, in the grounds of a fairy-tale château built hard by the river on the opposite bank. And then the road winds up, up and almost away to a plateau planted with acre upon acre of geometric pine forests. It was here that our friend Jean-Claude, the ethno-botanist, whom we christened the Wild Man of Wongo, brought the three of us to hear the brame du cerf one cold, dark night in autumn. We followed him by faint torchlight into the woods, no doubt watched by assorted curious eyes, stopping dead in our tracks to listen to the haunting mating calls of unseen stags. One echoed another and soon the night was alive with what sounded like hounds of the Baskervilles baying for blood.
And it was along this main road, which runs as straight as a chalk line for several kilometres, dotted with menacing bands of Sunday-afternoon hunters with their parked 4x4s, their day-glo hats and cradled rifles, that I walked one fiercely hot afternoon in late August with a band of virtual strangers and a trio of docile donkeys. We crossed the road and took a side road, which led us to a house whose garden almost fell away down to the Dordogne far below. That afternoon, I gorged myself on the most refreshing peaches I’ve ever yet tasted, picked from one of our hosts’ copious trees.
As we drove through an isolated roadside village, we marvelled at our naivety as young parents: to think that we could survive the long winters with a young child in a cold house heated only by an underperforming fire that consumed wood like the boilers of an old battleship. But people do, and we did – without going stir-crazy. The past is a foreign country and we both agreed that we couldn’t do it now. We love our insulation and our creature comforts too much, and our proximity to a transport network.
Back in those days, Régine ran a restaurant in the village where our daughter went to nursery school. Bernard worked for France Telecom, when it was still a public utility. He was one of the first people in the area who was able to talk sensibly (if only I could understand him) about mobile-phone and computer technology. Now that it’s privatised and Orange, he still works at the office in Tulle, where countless people ask for him by name because they know that he will look after them.
They sure looked after us when we arrived in France. Debs fine-tuned her colloquial French at the restaurant each morning after depositing The Daughter, chatting to Régine, Jo-Jo and other regulars who made up a morning salon. Then, when she was ready to set herself up here as an aromatherapist and reflexologist, Régine took her in hand, managed her publicity, engineered promotions and provided a market at Christmas and mid-summer for her creams and oils. When the school canteen refused to provide Tilley with a vegetarian lunch, Régine even met her from school and give her lunch at the restaurant. Meanwhile, Bernard did whatever he could to maintain my first computer, an unwieldy Compaq Presario, which cost so much money at the time that I had to ask my father for a loan. At Christmas and on other traditional family occasions, they would have us over to eat with their extended family in their crazy, chaotic house on whose upstairs walls the kids and parents alike would scribble jokes and pensées.
So a trip to see them is never just a trip to see old friends, it’s like visiting family, patrons and the Oracle at Delphi all rolled into one. Régine certainly holds one of the keys to life. Eight or so years ago, she was diagnosed with some very rare life-threatening disease. No one really knew how to treat her and she was given just a year or two to live. For a restaurateur, she had to bear the indignity of ingesting the liquid food that sustained her through a tube inserted up her nose. They sold the restaurant and moved to Marcillac and Régine re-invented herself as a broadcaster and author of books about regional cooking. She’s now on her 12th. Every November, she signs her books and holds court at the celebrated Foire des Livres in Brive. Once more she’s become a local celebrity. Sometimes, before I slide a CD into the car stereo, I catch her voice on Radio France Bleue Limousin.
We were greeted like the prodigal son and daughter and taken proudly into their salon to meet all the other guests gathered around the all-purpose table to drink tea and/or mulled wine and eat all the goodies Régine had prepared. One couple, we realised, had spent their wedding night in the gîte we used to run rather half-heartedly. I had completely forgotten.
So we sat and we chatted and exchanged snippets of news about our families and mutual acquaintances. Régine, I noticed, wasn’t wearing her once omnipresent food tube. Neither of us asked about the state of her health, because she hates to talk about it, but we both assumed that she was better – which isn’t ever guaranteed because, such is the irony of her condition, she can look her best when at her worst. The fact is that, x number of years down the line, she’s still confounding the doctors.
Their middle child, Charlotte, came and joined us after she’d run around the lake or wherever she goes now that she’s in training for the Paris marathon. Charlotte and I share a birthday and we’ve known her since she was a nipper. Once she’d finished her education, and without a word of English, she found herself a job in a Southampton hotel. My sister lent her the money for the first month’s rent on a flat she shared with some local girls. She lasted six or so years, loved living in the UK and now speaks English like a native. Back in France now, she’s got a job in La Rochelle, but the experience has given her an interesting perspective on life in France and, especially, life in the Corrèze. We told her how difficult Tilley’s finding it to make close friends at college in Paris and Charlotte revealed how much easier she found it to make friends in England.