The landscape changes somewhat if you head South across the border. Roads get longer, stretching out in to the distance, fields get larger with the earth likely being turned over by enormous machines in the early Autumn sun and occasionally you can come across stretches of sad sunflowers, heads bowed, their jobs done for the year. The sky looks huge.
The villages are not the same either, there is not the same tidiness to them as there is in the Small Country, with many houses looking somewhat tired and, in some cases completely dilapidated but clearly lived in. Hoes are leaned on, spanners dropped, brooms stop sweeping as an across-the-border car number plate is registered and met with a long, steady gaze as it passes. Even a small chat tigre will watch intently as you pass and leave the village. It could only be France.
The rural Lorraine region of France looks peaceful, sleepy on a Saturday afternoon Autumnal drive through it but if you look at the road signs it is apparent that there’ve been times when this was not so. Signs point ways to cimetières, both French and German, with hundreds, thousands of soldiers laid to rest amongst the gentle terrain and there are many whose names are not known. You can follow a sign which leads to a small memorial, surrounded by youngish trees which stand amongst strange lumps in the ground and you can look at old photos on boards which show you are standing where once stood the ‘Grande rue’ of a village. The strange lumps are the ruins of the houses, shops, church, the village détruit. There is more than one village détruit. War has left its mark here but the places to remember are tranquil, with a quiet dignity to them and it would have felt wrong to take any pictures.
If your eye is caught by a charming L’Epicerie next to a Cafe and you ask to stop so you can take a picture, you may have to wait patiently, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, as the door opens and a lady appears, gently holding the arm of an elder lady walking with a stick who is helped down the steps. You may be somewhat startled by the cheery “Bonjour” directed at you by the younger of the two and stumble slightly over your French as you try to say you’d just like to take a picture if that’s OK because it’s all rather charming. You may be surprised when she invites you in and shows you around, explaining that L’Epicerie and the Cafe is now one, offering bed and breakfast by her and her husband who’ve spent the last few months doing up the place. You may feel it would be an imposition to ask if you could take photos inside whilst cooing at the original woodwork, tiled floor, enormous fireplace, wooden bed frames and renovated bar where once the elder lady with the stick stood behind pouring beers and, surely, glasses of Rickard for the locals alongside her husband.
“She lives next door now” it is explained. “A widow for many years”.
You may later learn that this village was also détruit after the first world war but, unlike others, was rebuilt.
You will later be pleased that somebody else stepped in and took a couple of pictures whilst you cooed at bedrooms upstairs but was politely waiting outside as you thanked the lady for her kindness at the door. You may also be pleased that generally, somebody else’s pictures of that day were far better than yours and here for you to see.
This region of France is also known for its mirabelles, small plum-like fruits which ripen late July to early September. Golden yellow, they become slightly flecked with pink as they ripen and are often made into tarts, jams and brandy. Villages are, it seems, surrounded by mirabelle orchards which I suspect are privately-owned. Late summer will find what looks like whole families sitting amongst their trees sorting fruits before setting up stalls at village edges selling their wares whilst they can. The mirabelle season is short and what is not sold by the roadside will appear in supermarkets. A tip-off from my French teacher as to a particular place to buy them had me knocking on a door in a small village, watched over by a wizened lady stacking wood in to a trailer across the road. With no answer to my knock and no phone response to the number I’d been given, I found myself in the midst of a typical French conversation between neighbours which involved a Gallic shrug of “But I am French” when I asked if the wizened lady could slow down because I am English, shouting down a hallway by another, being barked at with machine-gun French as a phone conversation was relayed and finally, a motion to “Suivez-moi” in the car. This resulted in squelching my way between rows and rows of mirabelle trees in a huge orchard, their fruits already dropping on the grass and coming across a whole family shaking trees and sorting fruits before returning to the car with a bagful, supposedly of three kilos but was likely nearer eight. It cost 3 Euros. A further, impromptu trip a couple or so weeks later resulted in four kilos, carefully weighed by a dour lady who only smiled once as I helped her push up her garage door to fetch her scales as she pointed out “Vous êtes plus grande“.
The flavour of mirabelles is more subtle than plums but when eaten fresh has the same slightly perfumed taste that wanders up your nose. Leave four kilos in a bag in a warm kitchen overnight and the sweetness will hit you in the morning. Jam-making, like anything that involves lots of stirring, is hugely therapeutic, particularly when it’s been necessary to wash, halve and stone what seems like a million fruits. Left to macerate for a few hours in sugar, the heating, frothing and stirring can commence, surely the whole point of the exercise. Wondrously, the colour changes, turning amber and then darkening to orange.
I am not, in fact, a great jam-eater (batch 2 proved I’m not a great jam-maker either as I left it to go past its setting point and resulted in a too-hard, chewy jam) but there is, and will continue to be, something thoughtful, very mindful as I spread it liberally on toast or weekend croissants and think of dilapidation that the French carry off so well, charming L’Epiceries, elderly widows, but-I-am-French ladies, suivez-moi sons and hundreds of people whose villages were destroyed and thousands of sons who never made it home.