Silence and Shutters en Francaise


The second day of our holiday – and the frenetic experiences of yesterday’s flight seem a million miles away. The very purpose of an airport is to pack a large number of people into a small number of metal tins, before launching them to a foreign field. It can never be a pleasant experience. Our pleasure starts once we are released, free to disperse to our chosen destinations. Some choose even noisier, busier sea-side locations. Others select quiet, isolated quiet villages in the countryside. This time we chose the latter.

As we explored St Lizier – our little French town – for an hour last night, we saw just one other person – an old gentleman who greeted us with the traditional French evening greeting, “Bonsoir”. “Bonsoir” we replied, thereby starting and completing our communication with the locals for the day in a word.

We perambulated some more today, including a further stroll around St Lizier and then a longer walk into and around St Girons, the nearest sizeable town. There are lots of St.’s in these parts and countless religious references and monuments. There is also an unusual preponderance of medical establishments – pharmacies, orthopaedics, doctors, medical laboratories on every street. Body and soul supposedly catered for by their often over-enthusiastic protagonists.

It is hard to tell whether the people around here are relaxed or semi-comatose; content and at peace, or anaesthetised by indifference or boredom. Every house around here has shutters – and it is impossible to tell whether what lies behind them is vibrant or desolate, bustling or empty. So it is with the people. Their shutters seem to be closed. Who knows what goes on inside them.

Having said that, we did get a friendly reception in the tourist information office in St Lizier this morning. The woman explained politely and professionally the various options open to us in the locality. She seemed less impressed when I suggested we might like to drive to Andorra.

She gave us the English version of the town’s guided walk. St Lizier has wrapped itself around a small hill, crowned by a rather magnificent castle. The guide explains that the city – as it amusingly calls itself – was first established in 72BC by a Roman general on his way back from beating the Spanish. He built the impressive oppidum with the imposing ramparts which still dominate the town. It later assumed an episcopal purpose. St Lizier was named after the second bishop, Lycerius. A later bishop added the bishop’s palace in the seventeenth century. Our little tour took us around and inside these historic structures. More walls and more shutters and still very few people or words.

In the afternoon we walked down to St Girons. This is a much bigger town dissected by a wide, fast-flowing river. Tall houses build up on either side, in a manner reminiscent of third-world shanty houses.

The whole town was unfortunately rather dull – a mix of dusty brown and grey streets and buildings and very little else. Half of it looked closed and the other half opened only half-heartedly. On a scruffy grassy areas by the river a game of boules had broken out. I suspected this was a routine daily activity rather than anything spontaneous or even particularly competitive. Only the dogs seemed excited by it. But then dogs are rather too easily excited – even French ones.

St Girons gives no corner given to tourists apart from the regulation tourist information office. This, by its very existence, is obliged to talk up the features and history of the town, however meagre. So they had put together their own marked walk and allegedly translated this into English.

The leaflet described the history of St. Girons. This all sounded rather complex and mainly shaped by a variety of obscure religious orders. Some of the detail was rather indigestible “The XVth century belfry is opposite the apse and was used as a narthex”. We were too lazy to be any more curious. “In 1861 the church was rebuilt in a neo-Gothis style with an ogival shaped span”. Either their English is better than mine (and my spell-checker) or something was being lost in translation.

They definitely have a different definition of the word “lively”. The application of this word to the Place Pasteur was optimistic at best and criminally misleading at worst. Bereft of any signs of life, we admired the inanimate golden mosaics instead. These, the guide described “remind us of the Spanish azuljos with an Occitan inscription”. At which point I stuffed the leaflet firmly into my pocket and we followed our illiterate noses instead.

Walking back up the main road to our house we met a man who delivered the traditional French afternoon greeting “Bonjour Monsieur, Madam”. One of the more talkative locals, clearly.

We are both feeling extremely relaxed. We have occasional access to facebook and I glance at my inbox on my iPhone, smiling as I smugly decide not to open any of the emails. I also pointedly decide not to wear my watch. Time has little relevance here, and for someone whose daily life is governed by wake-up-calls, meetings and boarding deadlines, this is a huge release in itself.

We will wander out for food later and then maybe watch a DVD. It has been variable weather today, but each day promises to get warmer and sunnier. We uncovered the pool in anticipation.

We can only see each day becoming more relaxed and slower. Bonsoir Mesdames et Messieurs.

  2 comments for “Silence and Shutters en Francaise

  1. July 14, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Bonsoir. A very evocative post especially for so done who loves France as much as I do.

    • July 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      Merci – the quietness grows on me, and plenty of time for writing too.

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