Saturday, 28 October 2017


How complicated could it be to run a village of 300 people?  Very, as it happens and typical as everyone enjoyed pointing out - after I’d agreed to be on the mayoral candidate’s list; anyone wanting to be mayor has to gather another 10 people for her/his list in a village our size, the number varying according to the community’s population.  Not only are there 11 council members, including the mayor, but 3 of these are adjoints (deputy mayors), each of whom is paid about 200€ a month.  Keep in mind that there are about 36,000 communities in France.

Admittedly, I was honoured (flattered??) to be the first person approached AND to be asked to be the première adjointe, though what I really wanted was to help bring about environmental changes.  Knowing I had no business being first deputy mayor, I agreed to be the second.  By the way, the term for a municipal Council is a whopping 6 years - even the President is in office for only 5 years - and there are rumours that it might be extended to 7.

Squabbling began even before the elections, with three list members wanting to be the third adjoint.  As only French citizens are allowed to be mayor or adjoint, one was eliminated because she had only EU nationalité (I’ve had dual Canadian/French citizenship since December 2007).  The more dominant of the remaining two prevailed.  Interestingly, the three of them became the core of the opposition from that evening.  Even though there wasn’t a second list, there had to be elections.  In communities of fewer than 1000 inhabitants, voters can cross names off (!), so the vote numbers varied and, as not everyone had received more than 50% of the votes, there had to be a second round of voting for the entire list, after which we became the Council.

The first crisis came when the mayor insisted that his son replace the retiring employé municipal (rather like the village caretaker), bringing immediate and fierce opposition from one Council member with whom I silently agreed but, rather than publicly oppose the mayor, I attempted to convince him that, if he didn’t back down, he would incur the anger of both councillors and villagers and that, in any case, nepotism is unacceptable in 21st century France.  He assured me there would be no problem and, of course, he was wrong.  Things got worse when, carefully and discreetly goaded by the main opposing councillor, he blew up at her during a public meeting, further damaging his credibility and embarrassing me; a mayor needs intelligence and self-control.

Following increasingly unpleasant exchanges about the hiring of the new employé municipal, the mayor leapt out of his chair at a public meeting to announce that he was quitting.  I’d had more than enough of the conflict and was delighted when he asked those of us on Council who still supported him (he claimed that was my duty as an adjointe) to resign as well.  What a relief - until some idiot intending to create further havoc placed an article in our local newspaper accusing the mayor of nepotism and other bad behaviour.  In his fury, he decided to withdraw his resignation and asked the four of us to do the same.  I blew my second chance to say no and went along with him, as did the others.  What the four of us objected to most was the viciousness of the opposing councillors.  In retrospect, I know I should have disregarded his request for loyalty and maintained my resignation, but I was still hoping to exert some influence.

As it turned out - and for convoluted reasons - the mayor’s son did not get the position and affairs moved on fairly smoothly for a while, though my disillusionment grew as every request I made for change was rejected; turning off the streetlights 5-6 hours every night, ending the use of pesticides, buying benches made with recycled materials instead of new wood, organising a public meeting to explain how we could all cut down on waste disposal and what materials were recyclable, etc.

As a councillor and deputy mayor, I was on several committees and had a lot of long, usually tedious and often quarrelsome local and regional meetings to attend, as well as daily time at the Mairie (in part because the mayor spends very little time there himself), newsletters to put together and publish and announcements to write in French and English and make on the village loudspeakers.  For reasons I still don’t comprehend, several formerly friendly villagers stopped talking to me.  French friends tell me it's jealousy, typical in small villages, especially in the south - why had no one warned me before - and why would anyone agree to be on a municipal election list?!

So, when the aneurysm was diagnosed and I was sent for immediate surgery (details of that interesting experience in an earlier blog posting, called The Ides of March), the silver lining was an ironclad excuse to quit Council.  However,  the mayor needed my vote and, even as I was recuperating, asked me to stay on, saying that I wouldn’t have to go to the Mairie or attend any meetings whatsoever.  This time, it was easy to give him a definitive NON!  Knowing I was off Council and relieved of all duties was the best of healers.

Since then, two of the opposing councillors have resigned, for a total of 3 resignations and one expulsion (another convoluted story), forcing a municipal by-election that resulted in 4 new councillors, 3 of whom don’t hesitate to let the mayor know when he’s out of line.

As for me, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself, with a lot more time for Tim, cycling and walking the dogs.  We get away in our camper when we can and enjoy friends’ visits when we’re home - and I’m staying well away from the insanity of local politics.…

Post script:  Ours was the only community in the entire department of the Hérault that voted for the Front National, to our very great shame and disgust.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017



Since just-in-time surgery last year for a giant brain aneurysm (August 2016, The Ides of March), I've had the chutzpah to do things I might not have dared before.

After 14 years of renting gîtes in Languedoc and a stressful two years as a deputy mayor of our village, I convinced Tim to spend a couple of winter months in Iberia with our two mad terriers, Ratty and Badger.  In 2003, I’d read and loved Driving over Lemons, then A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, The Last Days of the Bus Club and, right now, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, all by Chris Stewart.  Knowing we would be staying not far from the Alpujarras where he and Ana live and hoping that just perhaps we might be able to meet them, I packed Driving over Lemons and a bottle of our village’s Château d’Oupia Les Barons in the limited space of our camper van and, in late December 2016, we headed for southern Spain.

When I contacted Chris Stewart (also known as one of the founders of Genesis) and asked if it might be possible to meet him and Ana, I hoped but didn’t expect to be welcomed, though, from getting to know Chris through his books, I was sure that he would let me down gently.  Not only was the answer yes, but we were invited for lunch and given directions that included a harrowing drive on a narrow, twisting dirt road cut into the mountains, with a perilous drop into the void and only the occasional haphazardly placed stone at the edge.  Some of you have already seen this 45-second video clip of our drive:

When the road ended, we left the camper and the outraged terriers and headed down to the river, where we knew from his books that there was a footbridge spanning the river and, from Last Days of the Bus Club, that it had recently been re-built by Chris and his friend and neighbour, Domingo, after being destroyed by heavy flooding.

Having misunderstood the last part of the directions and following the vague wave of the hand of a fellow we met on the way down to the river, we headed right and found a ford, but no bridge.  Back the other way, late by now and beginning to panic slightly, when Tim spotted the bridge, hidden from the track by a hillock.

Bridge is a rather loose term for the plank that perched above the stream, with a thin mesh fence on one side – an illusion of safety - but there was no time to hesitate. 

Shortly after the bridge we crossed a rill on a tottering board and followed the track, dwarfed by towering mountains, ignored by sheep in the pasture beside us, passing fruit orchards and olive groves and the occasional outbuilding, then climbed a steep laneway, where a lovely, lazy old dog barely lifted his head and tail to greet us as we continued upwards.

There was Chris’s old Land Rover, then the stone steps to the house he and Ana had built, then Chris with his hand outstretched.  Although we were half an hour late by then, we were greeted warmly and graciously by Chris and Ana, who said it's not unusual for first-time visitors to have difficulty finding their home (reminding me of a non-signposted campsite where we stayed a couple of years ago, whose owner said that's how he weeded out undesirables).  We chatted easily and comfortably on their sunny, plant-draped terrace, eating the delicious, creamy wild nettle soup and the amazing salad that Chris had made.

Chris talks as he writes, with humour, humility, sincerity, enthusiasm and just the right amount of irony.  You'll know how hard they work if you’ve read his books.  They have a large flock of hardy local sheep (unlike the Suffolk/Hampshire crosses Tim and I had in Canada, where I was often up to my armpit inside a ewe in mid-January, trying to separate twins or tug out a wide-shouldered lamb), they grow and sell organic lemons, process their own olives and, with the challenges of a dry climate, grow their own vegetables and a profusion of flowers.

An 8-minute YouTube video of Chris doing a public sheep-shearing of Chuleta:


The breathtaking view from their terrace and the tranquility made it easy to understand why they had chosen to live for 30 years on this isolated farm in the Alpujarras, a quiet, mountainous region in sharp contrast with the overdeveloped, overcrowded coast of the Spanish Mediterranean.

We found a lot of common ground, including books and music (Michael Ondaatje and Leonard Cohen).  When I mentioned having met Leonard Cohen many years ago (November posting), Chris told me I was the 3rd woman in the past month to have said she’d met him….

Having well over-stayed our promised one-hour visit and nervously eyeing the dropping sun,
we hurried back to the camper and the relieved dogs (who always think we've left them forever) and on to the campsite in Órgiva.  Admittedly, the video looks more frightening than the drive itself and I’ve found no mention of Chris or Ana, who regularly take this route, having qualms about the drive.

Everyone I know who has read any of Chris’s books has loved them.  They’re funny (very often at Chris’s own expense), touching, surprising, at times ribald and completely enjoyable from beginning to end, with not the slightest arrogance or condescension.  If you haven’t yet discovered Chris Stewart as a writer, start with Driving over Lemons, which I’ve recently re-read and enjoyed even more than the first time.  Here’s a list of his books, all still easily available:

  • Driving over Lemons:  An Optimist in Spain
  •  A Parrot in the Pepper Tree
  •  The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society
  •  Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat
  •  Last Days of the Bus Club

Please share this posting if you know anyone you think might be interested in Chris, his story and his books - and I can't imagine who wouldn't be!