This very special Summer

Last Thursday, I took my first coffee at a café since March.  It was a special ceremony, akin to arriving in a new place for a holiday.  I chose with care my pavement table to afford me the best view of the town coming to life in these early days of deconfinement (as the French call the easing of Lockdown).  And even though I have sat in this spot many, many times it was strange and yet familiar.  Life carrying on as normal, visits to the dry cleaners, the charcuterie, the newsagents, chance encounters in the street, a child having a tantrum because his mother would not give in to his wishes, a man loading boxes into the back of his van.   Yes, everyone wore masks, but they have become such a normal sight that they are now almost invisible, like someone wearing glasses or a hat.

The Lockdown in France has been strict and rigorously imposed.  For 8 weeks it was necessary to remain at home and only to venture out to get food or other essentials, go to work, or see a doctor.  Exercise was limited to a maximum of one hour per day within 1km of home.  And every time one did venture out, it was necessary to complete and sign a dated Attestation Form stating the purpose of your journey and the time you left your home. The Gendarmes have been everywhere, even here in the depths of the countryside checking forms and fining people 135 euros for infringements.

During this period apart from my daily dog walk up to our tiny village and back, the only other time I left Maison Lamothe was to do my twice weekly shifts in the local co-operative Épicerie in our neighbouring village of Miradoux, which is run by volunteers.  The Épicerie which was established when the local supermarket closed down, celebrated its first anniversary in April and rather than the celebrations and party that had been planned, it was a case of all hands to the pump as it became the primary source of food supplies for Miradoux and Flamarens and the surrounding villages.

Keeping the shop fully stocked and increasing the products available was intensive, but despite unprecedented demand stocks of flour, pasta and toilet paper never ran out.  Some people discovered the wonderful and extensive local product selection for the first time, whilst others knew that they did not need to venture further afield to get amazing foods, wines and beers.

So many things have been put on hold this Spring, but Mother Nature did not stop and so the shop was filled with the scent of strawberries from the nearby village of Sainte Chapelle, bundles of asparagus from Sempessare and in this last week or two cherries and apricots from Dunes.  And of course here in the Gers, we really do live in the land of the grape and the duck.

Of most importance was the community service that the shop was available to provide, ensuring that everyone could have the supplies with deliveries for those who needed to isolate.  In addition there were the order forms for plants – so many keen to get the vegetable plants and annuals that needed to be planted at the time of year when we were in Lockdown.  And also it was a place to learn the latest local news and to have just a little social human contact which was so necessary especially for those that live alone.

Then on 11th May the first steps of ‘deconfinement’ were taken.  Non-essential shops opened and it was no longer necessary to complete an Attestation provided we remained within 100 kms (as the crow flies) of home.  For me it was exciting.  I could vary my dog walk and take Bertie for long walks along the Canal Entre Deux Mers at Valence D’Agen, a particular favourite of ours.  I could also visit towns once more and wander around shops just to browse.  Best of all I could see people again.  Gatherings of up to 10 people were allowed. Sales of cheese and the wonderful charcuterie products from the village of Sempessare went through the roof, as did crisps and olives and nuts.  The sacred ritual of inviting friends and neighbours around for Apéro had been restored.  The lovely people of Flamarens could meet up and chat again.

For many it was still tough, lots of my friends and neighbours have children and grand-children living further afield and had been hoping that this was the time they could be reunited.  And of course for those of us with family in other countries, the borders have remained closed to all but essential travel.  Focussing on the positives I rejoiced that I could now make a hair appointment, and immediately made a list of all the places I had never visited within the 100 kms of Maison Lamothe, as well as wanting to return to the towns I had missed so much.

My first trip further afield was to the wonderful town of Montauban.  I love parking near the railway station and crossing the old bridge high up over the River Tarn, the majestic buildings of the old town rising up even higher ahead of me.  It was sad to see the main colonnaded square which normally buzzes with café life empty, except for piles of stacked tables and chairs, but the shops were open, and it was amazing to be able to wander around an empty cathedral again.

And as the days have worn on, the towns have become more lively, as more people are venturing out again.  Lectoure on market day felt strange with all the stalls widely separated to ensure safe distancing. A trip to Auch felt almost normal – the lady at the Cave Gourmande on the Rue Dessoles was pleased to see me again and we chatted for an age about all manner of things including how much we have missed our hairdresser, Erik.  As for a trip to Erik’s, I was as pleased as ever with my hair, but sad that I can no longer browse through countless copies of Paris Match to catch up on celebrity gossip or drink the excellent bitter black coffee.

A first-time trip to Cahors, was a revelation, so close to home yet a totally different landscape of limestone cliffs and the wide and fast flowing river Lot, topped with a turreted bridge straight out of Grimm’s Fairytales.  Even with no restaurants open for lunch, there was plenty on offer in the indoor Market to take to eat in the little garden squares or on the grassy river banks. And of course Cahors produces wonderful wine – the black wine that is reputed to be the darkest in the world.

This week France has moved on to the next stage of deconfinement, with the opening of restaurants and bars and hotels.  Everyone is frantically preparing for the opening of the European borders in the next couple of weeks, ready to welcome back visitors and to make sure that everything is as COVID safe as possible.  With very low rates of COVID infection here in the Gers (23 deaths as at 9th June) and Flamarens’ neighbouring departments of Lot et Garonne (9 deaths as at 9th June) and Tarn et Garonne (6 deaths as at 9th June), we are all very keen to keep the area safe for our visitors and ourselves.

At Maison Lamothe, we’ve been very busy making our rooms even nicer than before and the garden is looking wonderful and is bordered by fields of golden corn and Lectoure’s famous melons.  Up on the hill the village is a blaze of roses and geraniums and lavender and a huge flag blows proudly in the wind above the tower of the chateau which will be open for visitors in July and August, by which time other fields will be full of sunflowers.

This has been the darkest of starts to any year, but it can still be a very special Summer.

Michelle Martinez – June 2020