Thursday, August 19, 2010

The World comes to Montrejeau

Every August our local market town sees an invasion. It has been going on for over 50 years, fortunately for the townspeople, the invaders are friendly. They arrive in coaches, rather than tanks, and they fill the streets with colour and a wide variety of languages.

It's the annual folklore festival of music and dance, and it happens in many a French town during the summer.


It began for Montrejeau in 1959, and many of the countries taking part came from parts of Europe that were still firmly behind the Iron Curtain. I suppose it was one way of getting out and seeing what was going on in the rest of Europe - cultural visits being allowed, but I wonder if all the dance groups went home with as many as they came with?

Today's dancers and musicians come from all over the world as well as Europe. Most of the African or Caribbean performers come from former French colonies, and they certainly give the town an exotic air for a day or two. South America gets in on the act too, I remember one year a large Puerto Rican group brought traffic to a standstill, and almost took the whole show over in their wild enthusiasm.

One year, to our amazement, we heard what sounded like a Scots pipe band coming into the square... and it was. They went down a storm. Last year there were some Morris Men from Plymouth complete with fool ... they were greeted with bewilderment. Pipes, the French can do, a lot of French departments have a history of bagpipes... in fact the Breton group that came a couple of years ago had 'baguettes' that were almost identical to the Scots variety. Not so sure about their understanding of men with flowers in their hats and bells on their legs, waving coloured ribbons in the air.

It's nice to know that this wonderful cultural exchange is still going on after 50 years, and with no sign of the enthusiasm waning, certainly not on the part of the performers. On the last day they are here it's market day, and with summer tourists,plus 400 dancers, musicians and back-up teams (mostly still in national dress) the town is absolutely jammed packed. When it co-incides with a public holiday(The Feast of the Assumption)it's even worse. Thank goodness it's a good-will invasion.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Harvest Home

In the Christian church the first Sunday in August marks (or marked) the start of Lammas-tide (one never knows with modern liturgy these days- it could be totally obliterated from the list of Anglican festivals ) Anyway Lammas runs from now until Michaelmas(Sept 29th), in other words through the harvest season. It derides its name from the medieval English word ‘lam’ meaning bread, and traditionally a loaf was baked using grain from the first sheaves brought in from the field.

Living where we do the seasons are as marked as they were in medieval England, just that bit earlier. Our hay harvest is all but over. The hay has been cut, left to dry (unfortunately we’ve had the wettest July since we’ve lived in France ) and for the past three or four weeks we have become accustomed to the rattle of tractors and over-loaded trailers roaring up and down the road in a frantic attempt to get it all in and under cover. It would seem an awful lot of hard work – they’re still at it at 11 o’clock at night – but there are beef cattle to be fed all through the winter so hay is money. The more you can store the less you’ll have to fork out for commercial feed, and the better fed the cattle will be.

Being a secular country, whilst hiding under the pretence of being a Catholic country (or should that be the other way round? One never knows with the French) old religious ceremonies seem to have been forgotten, but from a non religious aspect the bucolic celebrations associated with the harvest and the land are still observed here.

From the middle of July the rural community is gearing up for old time markets and harvest fetes.

The Marche L’Ancienne in Montrejeau acts as a good advertising platform for the August harvest celebrations. Out come the ancient tractors that rarely see the light of day, puffing, coughing and burning a small hole in the ozone layer immediately over the town.

There are teams of oxen, shepherds on horseback with their dogs riding side saddle, decorated farm trailers and the ubiquitous majorettes, the tinys looking vaguely worried as they try to keep up with the ‘big girls’, and not drop their batons.

The old copper still, that to this day pitches up in the local villages to distil the fruit harvest into something very alcoholic and inflammable, is brought out and joins the parade. It’s the same-old, same-old every year and although there is a smattering of tourists in the main the crowd is the same. You know that by the leg-pulling, joking and laughing going on as the older generation recognise old friends and neighbours.

The first weekend in August (which coincides with Lammas Sunday) sees the first of two Fetes de Moissan held in Le Cuing and Lecussan. The old farm machinery that’s been in the barn all year is dusted down and brought out, the threshing machines are checked out and a huge meal consisting of multiple versions of chicken is served in vast airless marquees.

All the old skills are on display, oxen grinding grain on a giant millstone, hand reaping, and threshing.

The air is oppressively hot, and the smell of steam and oil mingles with the aroma of roast chicken.

The stubble scratches unprotected toes, and nothing runs to the published timetable …. but what the hell ? It’s fun, and like the Marche L’Ancienne it’s the same every year which is how our rural neighbours like it.