Category Archives: French Alps

Hurry Back Valerie

Me and girls in France

From L to R: Me, Emmanuelle, Joanne, Valerie. France, 1976, shortly before we moved up to the mountain.

Visitors to the mountain were extremely rare. In fact, aside from the night that I’m about to recount, I can only remember one other occasion in the year when we had visitors, but that’s a tale for another day.

The other children and I slept in the same room. We had a motley assortment of beds and mismatched bedding, and I was in charge of making the beds every morning. We generally slept well after our daily wanders in the mountain air. On this particular night, we had gone to bed. As usual. And drifted off easily. As usual. I couldn’t tell you what time it was, but sometime after we had fallen asleep, we were awoken by the sound of loud bangs. Pounding bangs. We sprang up sharply in our beds. Confused. Fearful. More bangs. After some whispered discussion we concluded that it must be someone at the door. Somebody was pounding at the door. Who? It wasn’t a noise we were used to.

We sat very still. Unsure. Afraid. Shortly afterwards, we heard the adults lumber down the stairs. More bangs. Raised voices . The door must have been opened because the banging stopped, and new voices were heard. Muffled. We couldn’t make out what was being said, and people were shouting over each other.

Next, the sound of something being dragged. Furniture being moved? Why? Doors being open and closed. Still the raised voices. What was happening? Why was nobody coming to tell us what was happening? We had instinctively clustered together on the same bed now and held each other tightly. Joanne said that she would creep down the stairs a little to peep. Joanne was brave, but we said she was too young, so Valerie went instead. We urged caution, and let her go. We waited. Clutched each other in the darkness. Hurry back Valerie.

After a short amount of time, she scampered back in. She didn’t speak until she was right back into our huddle, and in urgent hushed tones announced “C’est la police!”

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This is my fourth memoir piece from the year I spent as a child living self-sufficiently with my mother and another family in an abandoned village in the French Alps, with no electricity, or any modern conveniences. If you missed the previous parts, they are here: A year in the French Alps

How Vivid the Painted Rainbow Stripes Were

Vanessa and Emmanuelle

Me (bottom) and Emmanuelle. France, 1976

There were rainbow stripes painted on the upright canes. So pretty. Magical almost to our young eyes. There were four canes, wedged firmly into the ground, and they formed the four corners which supported the makeshift roof. The whole thing was no wider than the width of my arms stretched out, or rather Emmanuelle’s arms, as she was the one that took the measurement. And probably half the depth, but I can’t be sure because we didn’t measure that. The canes were of the type that might be used in gardening, for plants to know which way to grow, thicker though than the ones my Dad used for his tomato plants. The sides and roof had been made from branches and grasses that must have been found close by. It was difficult to tell though where the structure ended and natural growth started, because they had become intertwined over time.

We pushed through the growth and sat inside. There was just enough room for the four of us to kneel in there. We looked up at the sky through the gaps in the branches of the roof. We knew there would be much fun and adventure to be had here, but not today. Today was for sitting and looking up and around and feeling happy at our new discovery. We imagined children such as ourselves must have made it, maybe with grown-up help too. We were sure it must have been made for playing in though, we couldn’t imagine grown-ups having a use for it. This was a place for make-believe.

It must have been there for some time because nobody lived in that part of the mountain any more apart from us. It had somehow withstood the adverse weather that is prone up there, and still it stood. Perhaps more surprising was how vivid the painted rainbow stripes were still. Yellow. Red. Orange. Green. Blue. It aroused the curiosity of young minds. We wondered whether the children would come back sometime to play in it again. Or just to see if it was still here. Perhaps we would get to meet them. What fun that would be. New people to play with. But maybe they were too old to play now.

We had ventured a little further than usual today, probably further than we were allowed if we were to check. Sometimes it’s best not to check.

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This is my third memoir piece from the year I spent as a child living self-sufficiently with my mother and another family in an abandoned village in the French Alps, with no electricity, or any modern conveniences. If you missed the first two parts, they are here: A year in the French Alps

When Your Greatest Treat is Butter

Packet of French butter

This is my second memoir piece from the year I spent as a child living self-sufficiently with my mother and another family in an abandoned village in the French Alps, with no electricity, or any modern conveniences. If you missed the first part, it’s here – Sardine Cans In the Dirt
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In my memory it was once every three or four weeks, but it may have been more, or less, often. Probably not at all in the depths of winter. The men in our house, of which there were two, would make the long walk down our mountain to the nearest village at the bottom. They would go on market day. They had no money, but they would take things we had grown or produced on our mountain to trade for things that we couldn’t produce ourselves. They would leave very early in the morning and come back late in the evening. The main thing they would bring back was flour so that we could make bread. Enough flour to bake a fresh loaf of bread every day until their next trip. There was always a treat for the adults in their haul; coffee, and for the next few days after a market trip, the morning air would be filled with the scent of coffee to complement that of the freshly baked bread.

I don’t recall what other items were in their bags, because the only thing us children really cared about, the one thing we would be most anxiously waiting for when they returned, was butter. We made goat’s cheese on our mountain, but not butter. We knew that the morning after one of their trips, and only that one morning after, our freshly baked breakfast bread would be spread generously with the deliciously rich, sweet, golden butter. When your daily food is simple and basic, then butter becomes a luxurious treat.

I would sit with the other children around the huge solid wood slab table, bathing in the glow of the morning sun that crept in through the windows. We sported huge smiles, and our wide excited eyes would be drilling into my mother’s back, willing her to hurry up as she cut up the rustic loaf, then unwrapped the paper from around the heavenly gold bar, and slathered it over the slices. A plate piled high would be placed in the middle of the table; in my mind, it radiated light. Within minutes it was gone, and we would be on with our day.

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Butter Photo attribution – By Lionel Allorge (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Sardine Cans in the Dirt

French Alps

The French Alps. Spring 1977. Four young girls aged from three to seven are digging in the dirt for empty sardine cans. The days have been getting warmer and the snow has almost completely thawed, revealing the treasures beneath. The girls dig with their hands, and with sticks. The ground is cold but they barely notice. They collect anything interesting that they find, but what they are really looking for is old empty sardine cans. There is no greater treasure to be found here. Sardine cans are vessels in which to make perfume from the fresh fragrant mountain leaves which they will collect later. Sardine cans are for storing collected pretty stones which they know are precious fairy gems. Sardine cans are plates and cooking pans for use in the many camps they will build over the summer. Sardine cans are houses or baths for any little insect friends that may be found. Sardine cans are beds for the dolls they will make out of grass.

Today’s excavation yields three cans. A good haul. Before they can be used though, they need to be carefully cleaned. The girls use a stick to scrape out the dirt from inside and then take them to the spring to wash them. The water from the spring is freezing cold and their hands quickly turn red and numb, but they won’t stop until the cans are as clean as they can be. One of the girls gets a little cut from the can while rubbing it under the water. A drop of blood. Nothing serious. When the cans are clean they are left out to dry. Soon they will join other cans, along with pieces of broken plates and glass, ready to fire the imaginations of four young girls on their mountain home.

One of those girls was me, and that was a little glimpse into the year I spent living in an abandoned village in the French Alps with my mother and another family. No electricity. No plumbing. Nobody else but us. The other village homes were empty. Everyone else gone. We grew, or reared, or found, our food. We didn’t really have any toys. But we had a mountain, our imaginations, and sardine cans in the dirt.

photo credit: WouterKvG via photopin cc