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Holding out for a Hero

I have alluded before to more than a passing obsession with the weather so it is hardly surprising that Le Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Foudre which has it’s home in our village is on my radar, even without the involvement of my two brained husband.  Even less surprising that I was down the drive like a greyhound from the slips (no heels for me) last Saturday to bag a good seat at the Salle de Fete for the bi-monthly conference organised by the the rather super directeur of the labo Raymond Piccoli, since this month it was (as previously advertised on this very blog) a talk by Capitaine Patrick Boué of the PGM (Peloton de Gendarmerie de Montagne) – mountain rescue to you and me.

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This was a presentation in two parts – the first section was all about avalanche and we learned that there are three different types.  Actually there are also three types of lightning – sheet and fork of course, but there is a third … I digress – you will have to either name it yourself in a comment or wait for me to reveal all in a later post.  Anyway, back on piste (notice the ski-slant to this post, if you will) – I wouldn’t dream of even attempting to translate what we were shown about weather patterns and the different types of avalanche despite my long held regret that I did not pursue a career as a TV weather girl, but suffice to say they are all, of course, perilous and the most dangerous to skiers is the one where, put in my simpletons terms,  giant blocks of snow slide en masse down the mountainside.   Not to mention Corniche – that’s where the snow sits in a wave on the peak of a mountain – mountaineers can literally fall through the snow if they get it wrong and of course the snow sitting in a Mr Whippy crest can give way and explode down the slope at any time.  I was transfixed.

DSC_0053The second installment gave us an overview of the work of the PGM, the equipment they use to effect a rescue –  sonar detectors, poles and dogs amongst other things and the equipment you can wear to protect yourself – my favourite being a sac à dos (backpack) with airbags lurking within to be inflated if you are caught in a snow slide in the same way as your car airbags inflate in the event of a collision.  You can, and clearly should wear one when out skiing or racqueting in the snow as you should the Avalung simple breathing aid which means that when trapped under the snow you can breath through a tube, the spent air being blown out of a pipe on your back which prevents formation of an ice mask around your face which would clearly be fatal pretty quickly.  Its a bit like an exhaust pipe for people if you will.

There are helictopters and the film we watched at the end is as gripping as anything you will get by paying to go watch an action movie in the cinema.  Witnessing the landings on the mountain, watching the painstaking search  with poles for victims, seeing the dogs digging those caught out, their noses so honed that they can detect life under feet of snow. I did volunteer The Bean but Patrick seemed uncertain that le Chef des Chiens des Avalanches would take her seriously.

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When an avalanche occurs and people are caught a large team is mustered including Pompiers and SAMU (Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente) as well as les Gendarmes.  It brought it home to me that it really is essential to pay attention to the messages of those who know.  To be picked for the PGM (there are 9 in Cantal all based in Murat which is a lovely little town in the high Monts du Cantal) you are required to do 1400 hours of training and to have a background of life in the mountains – probably having worked as a guide or an instructor … these are mountain men.  Patrick carries himself in a way that makes it utterly unmistakable that he has spent his life on skis – that casual balance and the way he moves gives the game away in the same way that those who have spent a life in the saddle are unmistakeably horsemen or a dancer can never disguise their trained grace and I can never be anything other than Bambi on ice …..

I am keen to point out that my fascination with Gendarmes is entirely serious and that my request for an interview to talk in further depth about the work of the PGM has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Patrick, like all of them is frankly rather gorgeous – in uniform these super-fit heros are quite enough to make any girl smile.  So suffer I must and will and later in the year I will bring you a series of posts on the Gendarmerie, the PGM  and the role of both in our lives here in France.  For those of you who don’t know though – the Gendarmerie Nationale is a branch of the French Armed Forces and charged with public safety in France.

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After the talk we mingled whilst scoffing cake and Two Brains and I spoke with a charming couple from Ydes (about 10km from here).  They, of course, asked us why Cantal and we replied that the people are the over-riding factor – so lovely they are here.  They are a couple who have lived all over France and he commented that, in fact, wherever you go you can find good people, it is simply a question of attitude that allows one to be treated to that good.  We have travelled 1100 km to a new home to find a couple in a room full of strangers who have precisely the same attitude as we do.  It’s a wonderfu life.

A teeny PS:  April 26th, Salle de Fete, Champs sur Tarentaine there are treats in store … I’ll be in Russia but if you happen to be around the corner, do pop in!

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With thanks to Raymond Piccoli for the wonderful photos in this post and to Two Brains for the helicopter footage

Water water ….

….. everywhere said the poet and not a drop to drink.  That was the sea of course and the mariner (that ancient one, remember?) was further hindered by an albatross strung round his neck.  What has prompted me to write this post now is, of course, the flooding in the UK and actually in Northern France too though my English friends are probably less aware of the plight of the Breton than we in France are of that sinking feeling in the UK.  One thing I have learned here very quickly is how ludicrous the preconception the British have that the French don’t like the Brits or that they are partisan to the extent that they have no knowledge of life beyond the Atlantic, La Manche and the Med.

The sheer volume of water that is lying idle in the UK is quite breathtaking.  This is a clip sent to me by a friend whose son is at Radley College in Oxfordshire.  The Boathouse submerged: (http://www.radleyvideo.co.uk/clips11.html)

Flood The weather is a fascination for me more than the average Englishman which might indicate a minor obsession. Inevitable probably since I was brought up by a father whose quiet hobby was meteorology.  He kept charts for the entire time he lived in the house I was brought to as a tiny baby and raised in, it finally being sold when I was already in my 40s.  He watched the forecast for farmers and growers every Sunday and somehow the habit rubbed off on me – things evolve of course and my version is not one but four weather apps on my iPhone.  This winter I am accustomed to seeing rain cloud icons all over Northern Europe.  So there we have it – friends with water in gardens and worse, in their houses.  I’m not telling you anything the TV and radio and newspapers haven’t been shouting about since before Christmas.  But its got me thinking about my own relationship with water.

I was raised a mile from the Thames (in the village where J and his chums, not to mention the dog, tricked the boatman in Jerome K Jerome’s tale) and spent most of my life in various locations on his reaches – Oxford, London, villages in between.  The cheese-shop at Streatley was on-Thames.  My daughters spent their baby days and toddler-on-reins times walking the tow-path and feeding ducks.  When the youngest cheeselette was around two someone asked me to get into a rowing boat (a competitive one not a coracle) for the first time and being tall and strong and athletic (genetic fortune not anything I had ever worked at –  in fact being brushing 6′ tall I had always been self conscious) I was attractive to the club that was hosting the ‘fun’ regatta.  They suggested I give it a serious go.  I did and I ended up as an Olympic trialist 2 years later.  I have many memories of the insanity of that time – a single mother of four young daughters takes to the highest level the sport with the greatest ratio of training to competition whilst living on social security benefits.  Another time.  I will tell the story another time.

I don’t do well away from water.  I love the sea and rivers and lakes.  I love rain and I even respond quite well to a puddle.  Here I have them all.  Except the sea.

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Here I live next to La Tarentaine.  She flows into La Rhue – one of my walks is called Au Coin de La Rhue which is a lovely play on words – coin de la rue means at the corner of the street.  La Rhue in turn flows into La Dorgogne.  La Dordogne rises about 30 km from here at the feet of the massif de Sancy.  By the time it reaches Bort les Orgues (my nearest small town) she is already showing herself to have aspirations of greatness.  So many streams have flowed off the hills and into her and she is greedy for La Rhue who has already swallowed my Tarentaine.  That’s how rivers work.  The strong survive, the weaker serve.

It is a myth that all rivers flow to the sea.  Most do.  Some, though, flow to a lake and some actually just meander to nothing.  All flow downwards but there is no law about direction.  I love them all.  The babblers, the strong silent types.  All are beautiful.  All should command respect.  When I am walking with The Bean we cross many streams but I am cautious of her, small as she is, stoic and intrepid as she is – some are just a little too strong, particularly when the rain has fallen for a while or the snow has thawed, and if she got it wrong she would be swept away.  I sat once by the river at Wallingford as they dredged it for a teenager who had gleefully dived in and under and not resurfaced.  A couple of barmy hot sunny days before, out sculling, I had pleaded with he and his mates to respect the river.  When he came up his life had left him.  I will never forget the anguished cry of his mother cutting the air like the sharpest scalpel on the heart.

And there are lakes here.

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Formed from volcanic craters in the main but some the result of a barrage – a dam.  Hydro-electric power is vital to the grid in France.  And they have it right – in the UK we buy much of our power from France.  Water is a powerful force and it seems that water is running amok like a badly behaved toddler in the UK just now.  Perhaps the clever boffins should look at harnessing more of that bad behavior and not just for reservoirs but for its sheer energy.

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For me water has shaped my life.  When I walk, it is by water, through water and often with water hurling down on me from random clouds above. My sculling boat is still in the UK.  I miss that feeling, that weightless feeling and the sound as the blades slice into the water, the boat gliding forwards.  Actually, the reality is that often the boat is tipping from side to side, the blades enter the water unevenly and the whole damn thing is a mess.  Much like the relationship of man to water just now.  Untidy, unkempt and unfortunate.

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