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Of mice and ….

Walking before Christmas out of Saignes towards La Table Basaltique de Chastel, an extraordinary monolith that sits in the middle of the plain twixt Saignes and Antignac, in thick dry leaves I was contemplating as I often do a dry stone wall stretching out before me.  The Bean, at my feet about an inch from my heel as she ever is when we are in untrod territory since the latent leader only appears when she has walked a walk before and can scent a trace of the familiar in the air and on the ground she treads.  All of a sudden I spied a tiny little mouse clad in the softest grey coat, his naked pink legs skittering over the leafy carpet.  He kindly (or probably terrifed-ly) stopped and allowed me the time to take a picture.

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The Bean was good enough not to go ferral and back to her rat-catching roots and stayed still at my stage-whispered request.  Once snapped (by camera, not Bean-jaws) the little creature busied on his way and we continued our climb gently upwards to the lovely village of Chastel Marlhac built into the shoulder of the Basalt.

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But all the way I thought.  And the think I thought was of that tiny little thing in this place.  In fact the first mouse I have seen.  I have commented before that mice are not a nuisance here.  But what he seemed to represent to me is the vastness of this place, the unspoiled, untouched nature of the place.  Not a wilderness.  In fact this place reeks of history – from pre-history, through the Romans to the 16th century and beyond, The Auvergne was a crucial territory and the evidence is all around.  Churches, Fortresses, Chateaux abound.

No.  Not a wilderness.  But a pays perdu.  A forgotten land.  More recently Auvergne has ceased to be the rich territory that was fought over and has relaxed into a rural idyll that is under-developed in modern terms.  It is vast – 25% larger than the whole of Wales, the size of a smallish US State (think New England for size that matters reference)  and yet unlike its big sisters, The Alps and The Pyrenees, it is accessible.  So very often I am this tiny solitary person with only a far tinier dog for company and I am miles from the nearest dwelling.  I look around me and I have a real sense of how insignificant I am.

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If you click on the right hand picture it will enlarge so you can read the text.

As I sit at my table writing this it is less than 4 hours before the fireworks are let off in France to see in La Nouvelle Annee.  I raise my glass not only to my family and those I love but to this place.  I raise it to the little mouse living his simple life in this beautiful unspoiled land.

I raise my glass to Cantal.

I don’t mind making jokes – but I don’t want to look like one

There is always a why.  In every situation there will be a reason.  Sometimes it burnishes the surface and gleams for all to see, sometimes it lurks deep down but take a look and there will always be a blazingly obvious reason why.  For many a move to France is all about the lure of more house and land for your money.  For some it is the culture – the perception that life in France means wine, food, wine, more food, wine.  You get my drift.  For us it was about people.  We had friends here.  French friends.

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When we announced our intention to friends in other parts of France they literally laughed, then looked puzzled when they realised we were serious and then set about trying to dissuade us from such terrible folly.  The Husband with Two Brains had lived and worked in Grenoble for 9 years in the 80s and his friends there who had always suspected him to be nuts honestly now knew he was and is certifiable.  It is possible that he could be a danger to himself or those in close contact with him because he has, we have, chosen to live in le Cantal.

DSCF3193_croppedLet me explain. Le Cantal is one of the least populated departements in France. It is, as a matter of fact one of the least populated places in Europe.  The locals will tell you, only half jokingly, that there are three cows for every person living here. The perception of those looking in is of a backward community who have only recently started to walk on their hind legs.  In fact as you will discover on my journey here that is absolutely not true.  As the cast of characters are revealed you will meet interesting, forward-thinking, intelligent, decent, delightful people.

My husband first brought me here in August 2012.  He had just asked me to marry him and when we returned in November it was to agree with Monsieur le Maire de Champs sur Tarentaine-Marchal that he would allow us to be married here in June.  Which we were.

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That is another story – you will by now realise that I have stories and stories and stories and if you stick with me you will hear them all one by one.

Cantal is one of four departements that make up the Auvergne Region.  The others are Haute Loire, Alliers and Puy de Dome.   Cantal is definitely cast as Cinderella.  Her biggest town is Aurillac with a population of 28,641 in 2008 which given that the population has been steadily declining since 1990 is probably down on that figure now.  The total population is 148,000 in a departement (that’s a county if you are in the UK or the US)  covering 5,726 sq km.  Her three sisters are all more densely populated.  In fact even with my tenuous grasp of mathematics (when he was alive it was dangerous to mention my name and maths in the same sentence in the presence of my Nuclear Physicist father) I have worked out that Cantal has 25 inhabitants per square km, Allier has 47, Haute Loire 45 and Puy de Dome a positively whopping 79.  Across the departement more people are moving out than in.

DSCF6396For now we live in a rented appartement above the Ecole Maternelle.  I work to the sound of young children aged 2-6 (about 12 of them this year which is pretty much as big as the school has ever got – the numbers have been as low as 5 tiddlers).

We have rebuffed that British thing of immediately buying a great big old house in grand terrain and then moaning because the French don’t do things in the way they should be done.  Translate that to ‘they don’t do things the way we do them’.  I say  ‘Get Lost!!’  We have moved into a community and we move amongst them.  We are les etrangers.  It is for us to bend and blend not for us to expect that the people who were born and raised and lived all their lives here should adapt to us.  Every day I practice my French.  Mostly to The Bean.  My neighbours are young and often stand smoking on the balcony – I fear they know what you will discover … that I am entirely whackadoodledoo!  What do you expect?  I did marry a nutter, after all.

DSCF2704Now as I let my roots feel the earth and take a hold I will take you on a journey if you care to join me.  Who knows what we will find.  I already have a hatful of stories.  None of them are about me.  Most are about this place, her people and my attempts to become at one with it and them.  By writing of this place, I hope to encourage you to come and visit.  See for yourself and bring a little revenue into an area that needs just a teeny bit of help to survive.  A meal at one of the wonderful Auberges, staying at one of the simple hotels, buying a little pate from the boucher, a morceau of cheese, some bread from the boulanger and a cake from the patissier.  Maybe even a bottle of wine to wash your picnic down as you sit in the stunning terrain breathing in the clean clear air … tempted?

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PS:  The title is a declaration by Marilyn Monroe … I think we can all agree that she was right.  I can agree that my choice of place may be eccentric in some eyes but is absolutely, with certainty, not even slightly, a joke.