My first year in Champagne Ardenne

A few years ago, my job in Solihull was under threat and it seemed that I would no longer have the opportunity to make use of my languages. When I was offered a company transfer to a very rural part of France I jumped at the chance. As you can see in the attached blog, I have in the main enjoyed the very rich experience of being immersed in a foreign culture. I see no point in being judgmental about France or the French and try to go with the flow.

January 10th 2009.

Just a little update. I have now finished my first week in Mouzon as part of a friendly team of 7 in a small office next to the steel coating line. During this week, I have been learning what each member does and I have had an introduction to the computer system. I have been going for a subsidised 3-course lunch with two colleagues at the canteen each day and of course I was surprised at the high quality of the food. As part of the Lorraine customer service team, I will need to attend meetings in Florange the first of which is on Monday. Of the 18 people attending, 2 used to work in the UK, I have met 3 more and have had regular telephone contact with a further 3.

Les galettes des rois, puff pastry cakes with an almond flavoured filling arrived in the office one day – to celebrate les Rois mages on January 6th. A small porcelain object is hidden in the layers and the person who finds it, has the right to wear the crown supplied by the bakery and sometimes has to buy the next one.

The local meeting hall was taken over by the company for the traditional New Year greetings from the site manager. Two sessions were organised so that more people could fit in attendance around shifts. A bite to eat and some drinks were supplied at the end of each session by the owners of the hotel I am staying at.

I have been staying in a family run hotel about 6 miles from Mouzon. The room is comfortable and clean. Two of the regular guests are from ArcelorMittal Mouzon and a further two are clients of AM – the evening meals have been excellent and with a great atmosphere. The weather has been extraordinary – I drove to Mouzon one morning in a temperature of minus 12.

The factory is on an island of the Meuse just to the right of this picture taken in January.

February 2nd 2009.

Today is Pancake Day in France, which is popularly known as Chandeleur and officially known as the Presentation of Jesus at the temple. Our own Pancake Day marks the last day before the fasting of Lent. It seems that everyone is fantasising about Nutella pancakes in the office.

February 6th 2009.

On my way to work from the hotel in Remilly Aillicourt, I follow the valley of the river Meuse. The road climbs up to a vantage point, which is also a picnic stop. Down below the river has burst its banks and the water reflects the trees as if it were a mirror with a large, virtually unspoilt, green hill behind it as a backdrop, partially obscured by mist. Occasionally I see birds of prey but there are plenty of cows and huge flocks of crows. Further on, I pass through small farming villages with drab houses and cross redundant railway lines. During the recent cold weather, the snow, bright sun and cloudless blue skies transformed the landscape. I have to concentrate on my driving because the temperature is still freezing.

This snowy picture of Remilly Aillicourt was taken from my hotel window.

This scene was taken before the flooding on my way to work at Mouzon.

March 6th 2009.

One of the things that people most often ask me about France is about driving on the right. Most of the time, you start on the right hand side of the road and everything follows in a logical way. It is difficult to go the wrong way around a roundabout for example because of the way everything is laid out. There is one exception however. In towns such as Mouzon and Remilly Aillicourt, some junctions are with priority to the right. Even if you appear to come to T-junction with a major road, you have right of way and traffic from the left will stop to let you in. The same applies to traffic joining a main road from smaller turnings to the right – you must give way and let them in. Small towns in Germany also use the same system and it just takes a little while to get used to.
In my opinion, the most remarkable cultural difference is in the way people greet each other. At breakfast, I must say “bonjour” to the strangers in the room, who happen to be guests in the same hotel. On leaving the room, I wish them all “good day gentlemen” like something out of a period drama. Upon arriving at the office, I shake everyone’s hand except for the women, who receive two kisses instead. If I meet other colleagues during the day, the same ritual applies. At lunchtime, I have to shake the hand of any colleagues at the table that I have not seen and of course wish them “bon appétit”. At the end of the working day, I have to shake the hand of my colleagues again, kiss the women again and wish them all a good evening. It all seems strange for an Englishman abroad who was taught not to speak with strangers, who eats his meals with the minimum of formalities and who does his best to avoid physical contact with his colleagues.
There are many people in France with hyphenated Christian names such as Jean-Louis and you are expected to say them in full. This contrasts with England where we tend to abbreviate everything so Kenneth becomes Ken, Vivian is known as Viv and David answers to Dave.
After three months, I am starting not to notice the differences and everything here is beginning to feel familiar.

April 8th 2009.

I was not tempted to write about spring straight away because it is difficult to avoid all the clichés. Now the wonderful weather has changed my mind and there is so much going on.
The precocious yellow bloom of forsythia hedges and the violet of heather were the first signs of the arrival of Spring and were evident well before the clocks were changed and the evenings started to lengthen. The daisies, which decorated the lawn in front of the office, were also out well beforehand. In this area, dandelions are collected and eaten in restaurants before they flower. In the local fields there was an abundance of green trumpeted, yellow flowers known as “coucou” a member of the Primula family.
Each day, the landscape seemed to become greener, as if an artist was applying successive layers of the colour green. The bare trees of the winter landscape, disfigured by balls of parasitic mistletoe, are starting to hide their affliction as sticky buds are bursting out into new leaves.
That quintessential winter sound of grating, melancholic and lonesome crows is gradually fading into the background as other birds, blessed with more pleasant songs, gracefully fill the air. Swallows are playing on the hotel’s aerials, flitting from one to another, flirting with each other and seemingly celebrating their arrival in France.
Suddenly the roads have come alive. Tractors and their trailers full of hay, wood or even sheep hinder the traffic. But it was when I saw a young couple today, kissing on the stone steps of an apparently deserted, ancient church in Sedan, that I knew that Spring had arrived.

Part of the pedestrianised area of Sedan.

May 1st 2009.

This Friday, those who have work celebrate Labour Day in France but as usual the workers in England have to wait for their day off until Monday.

This morning, I was surprised to see Jacques, the hotel owner, going out to retrieve some things from the Village Square, which were taken during the night (including artificial flowers in a pot and an advertising sign). All he knew was that some masked children from the village had been out in the streets playing tricks on people but he did not know why. In France, the night from April 30th until May 1st is known as the Night of the Witches and it guards against evil spirits whereas it is known as the Night of Walpurgis elsewhere in Europe.

Walpurgis was an English woman in the church, who became the Abbess of Heidenheim in Germany. She died in 779 and became Saint Walpurgis. According to the tradition, there was always a Sabbath the night before her Saints day on May 1st. In reality, the Night of Walpurgis is probably related to the Celtic religious festival of Beltane.

The famous Place Ducale at Charleville-Mezieres.

I was going to go to Charleville-Mezières. Maryse, Jacques’ wife, asked me if I was going to look for Lily of the Valley following the tradition so it came as no surprise to find a dozen or so hawkers along the streets of the city. The Lily of the Valley is a herbaceous spring plant with small, white, bell-shaped and perfumed flowers. The tradition goes back to King Charles IX, who had given these flowers to the people around him as a lucky charm.

See Wikipedia for more details.

May 2nd 2009.

Today I took the E25 towards Liège but my final destination was Voerandaal in Holland. For more than 60 miles, all you see is the forests of the Belgian Ardenne region and breathtaking viaducts. In view of the distance between motorway service areas, it is important to fill up with petrol.

May 15th 2009.

Today was fairly hectic. First thing this morning, I found a note in the mailbox that a registered envelope needed collecting from the Post Office, which is in one of the rooms at the back of the Mairie. It was my “carte grise”.

Next was an appointment to register with a GP in Le Chesne, about 10 miles away. The necessary form was filled in.

From Le Chesne, the next stop was Charleville-Mézière, where I dropped off the “to let” sign at the letting agents as well as a copy of my contract of employment for their files. A short walk away, near the station there is a building called CPAM, which deal s with requests for their equivalent to the National Health registration. Once again, the Argos ticketing system was in place but it went wrong while I was there and started missing numbers. The 8 types of document I had to supply (including the form collected from Le Chesne) were accepted and I will have confirmation of registration in about 10 days. This will enable me to take advantage of our mutual insurance scheme paid for by the company. Almost next door to CPAM is my insurance office and in spite of a 45 minute wait, I was very pleased with the outcome – I had accidentally taken out two lots of contents insurance and it needed to be sorted out quickly.

From Charleville-Mézière, I went to Sedan and thanks to the “carte grise” I was at last able to have the new number plates fixed. My car will still turn heads because of the steering wheel but I will be stopped at the French border less often.

The church at Vendresse.

Homewards towards Terron-Les-Vendresse, I stopped at the Mairie in Vendresse and was welcomed by the Mayor himself, with a small booklet and 2 rolls of plastic bags for the recycling of paper and plastics. Directly opposite the Mairie is a four storey building, which used to be a brewery because Vendresse is known for the quality of its water.

Later, I went to the bar in Vendresse, a 15 minute walk, to have a drink with Jeremy, who celebrated his 21st birthday there. I first met him at La Sapinière hotel, where he is the sous chef. The public street lighting was off by the time I walked back to the house giving me a fantastic view of the night sky.

The canal at Vendresse taken in March.

June 7th 2009.

Thirty minutes walk from Terron-Les-Vendresse in the direction of Omont, the road penetrates a dense and gloomy forest. I once saw a snail here with cream coloured skin, which was at least six inches long and crossing the road – you have to be careful where you tread!

Omont used to be an important town but is now a tiny village surrounded by open countryside like this.

Today at the same place I caught by surprise a couple of deer eating the luxuriant and abundant vegetation by the side of the road. The doe made her escape as fast as she could and I lost sight of her immediately in the undergrowth. The stag seemed at a loss for a moment because he was on the wrong side of the road. Like a dog on a polished floor, the stag tried to run across the road but his legs went everywhere as his hooves slipped in all directions. Once he had reached the edge of the forest, he too disappeared into the undergrowth.

Later I went to see the arboretum of the Virgin Mary in Vendresse and passed on the way the pumping station, which supplies water for the area. Perhaps this accounts for the large number of slugs and snails on the pathway. Virtually the whole route is gently uphill but the fantastic view of the foothills of the Ardenne over 180 degrees of the horizon is compensation for the effort. Within the arboretum, there is a discovery path along which there are information panels for individual trees. There are also two treelined avenues of giant trees one of which leads to the statue and shrine of the Virgin Mary. One of the trees is 45 metres high.

Part of the arboretum at Vendresse

I discovered the French name of several trees but apart from that, I found a white egg, a dung beetle pushing a piece of, well, dung much bigger than him and an extraordinarily coloured bright orange slug all on the path of discovery.

June 11th 2009.

My drive to Brussels was completely free of hold ups and I arrived at the airport in plenty of time. We boarded the plane on time but then things started to go wrong. The pilot seemed to be chatting to the cabin crew for a long time. Eventually it was announced that a thunderstorm was passing overhead and our departure had been delayed. Half an hour later, we were on our way and we had a very clear view of Brussels’ Atomium. All of this was unknown to Helga, who was waiting for me at Birmingham airport, where the parking costs were multiplying.

June 18th 2009.

Hovering in the air just above its prey, the falcon was virtually stationery apart from its wingtips. Suddenly it swooped down for the kill. As its prey was beside the road I was driving down, I managed to reach the murder scene almost at the same time as the falcon. It looked at me disdainfully in the eyes before flying off, its tail hiding the prey.

A few weeks ago, young calves were frolicking about joyfully like puppies. Now they have become miniature cows sedately chewing the cud in the pastures. There is nothing strange about that, is there? The fascination arises from not seeing calves very often in England.

22nd June.

I have a soft spot for foxes and I suppose it is to do with all those children’s stories. After a long day at Florange, I was driving from Baalon towards the setting sun when I saw a clear silhouette of a fox jumping up the bank. As I slowed down, I found a fox cub still at the bottom of the bank staring up at me. A few minutes later, near to Chémery sur Bar, a second fox jumped up the bank but scampered around to stare at me from his vantage point.

3rd July.

We were engulfed by a stiflingly hot gust of wind as if we were just leaving a plane after having arrived at an exotic destination. This was no ordinary heatwave. It became hotter and stickier than ever and the threat of the inevitable consequences hung over everybody like a cloud.

On the platform, just before I left Stuttgart by train, I saw the lightening strikes which heralded the oncoming of violent storms. A few hours later, all trains were cancelled and the station was closed due to flooding.

Nearer home, at Epernay in the Marne valley, they had not seen flooding as bad in 64 years. At Girondelle, five cows sheltering under a tree were struck by lightening.

11th July.

It was dark at 10.30 and we were in a stand with seating for 1700 people eager to see this performance of Son et Lumière at La Cassine. More than 100 amateur actors dressed in period costume were going to perform a kind of play, in which there was a love affair between a German man and a French women during the First World war. The core message was that love triumphs over borders, conflicts and different countries. The projectors picked out the various scenes of the play, which were set in the grounds of the ruined Chateau. To view each different scene, we were literally transported by the stand, which covered some 300 metres on rails in the evening. The pyrotechnic finale started without any warning with a loud explosion.

12th July.

We had the best seats in the house to see the local village day festivities underway because our house overlooks the village square. A group of musicians played live to enliven both the dancers and the drinkers in the bar. The music stopped after a couple of hours, the revellers went home, the marquee emptied and the children’s shooting range fell silent. In evening the festivities continued much in the same way but there was a DJ from 11 through to 2am.

13th July.

In the evening at about 10.30, whole families congregated in the square. All the children, once equiped with candle lit lanterns, were going to walk the 1.1 km to Vendresse and then back to the Domaine of Vendresse for a fireworks display.

14th July.

In honour of July 14th, a National holiday in France, the war memorial in the Village Square was draped with flags. Some time later, in a ceremony we did not see, fresh flowers were also placed at the memorial.

This is the monument at Mouzon.

24th 25th July. Traditionally on the last weekend in July, Vendresse had its own village day festivities and although we were in England for that weekend, we heard all about it. The roads around the Town hall were closed and a diversion was set up. There were fairground attractions and several places to eat including a stall run by Céline and Eddie from La Mafate bar.

30th August.

Back on June 7th, I had decided that the arboretum was worth a second visit so this time four of us clambered up the track including our two friends from Holland. We tried to follow the discovery route but we discovered that we had strayed from the route and ended up walking much further than we had intended. The dry weather had seen off the slugs and the sunny weather helped us to capture the splendour of the trees in photographs.

The arboretum at Vendresse.

3rd September.

Today I took home-made Lemon Drizzle cake into work in celebration of my birthday. I thought it would make a change from the usual croissants and pain au chocolat. One of my male colleagues suddenly rushed around the corner and briefly mumbling “this is what we do around here” proceeded to plant a kiss on both cheeks. Two more colleagues followed suit. It was certainly a birthday with a difference.

4th September.

On the telephone lines between reception and the office was the annual gathering of hundreds of swallows. Although some of the birds were doing their trademark acrobatics in the air, most were waiting patiently for the start of their long migratory flight home.

The reception of ArcelorMittal in Mouzon with temporary visitors.

11th September.

Tonight the International night of the guitar took place in the town of Donchery. We spent an exceptional evening in the company of four virtuosos who played their instrument with such joyful ease in a great atmosphere.

Peter Finger, the world-renowned German organiser of the tour, can be considered the impressionist player of the acoustic guitar. With a very wide repertoire, he can change from style to style with the greatest of ease.

Karim Baggili, a young Belgian of Yugoslavian origin, played with echoes of the “flamenco”style.

Dylan Fowler from Wales is a keen fan of World music but he seems most at ease when interpreting Celtic compositions whilst slapping his guitar as if it were a percussion instrument.

François Sciortino, a young Frenchman, is developing a French fingerstyle. He cites rag and other contemporary music amongst his influences.

Each musician in turn, either solo or as a duet, presented us with a fascinating diversity of contemporary music for the acoustic guitar. For the finale, the four guitarists joined together to present “Albatross” by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.

Countryside near Donchery.

12th September.

Between the 12th and 16th September, road barriers were set up as the centre of Sedan was taken over by over 600 stands of the 74th annual commercial and agricultural fair. Each day saw famous stars liven up proceedings such as Plastic Bertrand, Eve Angeli, François Feldman, Jordy and la torride Lio. This year the theme was ecology.

17th September.

A meal with friends did not work out quite as we planned. Our chosen restaurant was inexplicably closed and there was no note on the door. Luckily we found another one nearby in Sedan and the four of us made our choice from the menu. The starters were delicious and we were looking forward to the main course. Suddenly all the lights went out and the owner ran through the restaurant and flung open the door. Candles appeared in the darkness and a few minutes later the lights went back on again. The chip fryer had ignited and melted the kitchen ceiling – only luck had prevented a serious fire. As it was the kitchen had been enveloped in thick black smoke and instead of the main course, we ended up eating a medley of ice creams served by an extremely embarrassed waiter. I cannot remember the last time I left a restaurant feeling a bit peckish but we did see the funny side of it.

18th – 27th September.

The 15th World Puppet Festival took place in Charleville-Mézières.

20th September.

We had set off in the car to have a look at the village of Omont when we saw a buzzard take off. We stopped to look more carefully and found a heron looking a bit lost in the field instead. Frogs often make for water sources at this time of year and make tasty snacks for heron.

We found the buzzard in hunting mode flying around the hills of Omont and witnessed a spectacular dive for the kill.

25th September.

A deer crossed the road in front of me this morning.

14th October.

For the first time this year, my windscreen was covered in frozen ice and on my way to work, the temperature dropped to 0 degrees C.

From the top end of Autrecourt, I caught a glimpse of low-lying mist in the Meuse valley. Treetops were poking through and looked like little islands in a white river.

15th October.

The lady behind the desk sent me to the second floor of one of the hospital blocks but the reception was actually on the ground floor. Apparently everyone has to go to the “incoming patients” desk, collect an Argos type ticket, wait in the queue, complete formalities and prove eligibility for treatment. Only then could one go back to the original reception desk so thank goodness I had arrived early. Sometimes it can take an hour to get over the first hurdle so one wonders how many people are late for their appointments.

26th October.

One of the things about having a right hand drive in France is that it provides plenty of opportunity for laughs. One of my colleagues asked me how I got on at roundabouts – had I been tempted to go around the wrong way for example. Another colleague thought I would have problems at tollbooths but I usually have a passenger to take care of them. When I described my visits to supermarket petrol stations, they thought it was hilarious when I told them I have to get out to pay.

31st October.

As we were leaving Vendresse early evening, we were surprised to see three youngsters dressed in black knocking on someone’s door. Of course they were dressed as witches for Halloween and the reason for our surprise is that somebody had told us that it was not celebrated in this part of France.

1st November.

Today is All Saints day in France but it is only taken as a holiday if it falls on a weekday. In Belgium the holiday was carried over to the Monday.

We decided to try out a circular walk recommended by our friend Marlie. We walked up the Rue de la Croix, crossed over the road and passed the newly built bungalows. At this point the route was no more than a cart track running between ploughed up maize fields. Slipping and sliding on the muddy ruts, we reached the farmhouse next to the lake. A large dog guarded the entrance to the farm and started barking. We hurried away from the farmhouse in the opposite direction hoping the dog would leave us alone. Helga was just saying something about being bitten in the behind when a cold muzzle touched her hand and she shot up in the air! This was a smaller scraggly dog and it seemed to want to join us on our walk. We told it to go back home and it eventually got the message.

At the end of the lake, we turned left up another cart track and clambered upwards over the hill. Having come to a T-junction, we turned left homewards. Unfortunately we realised that our way forward was blocked by a freshly ploughed field and had to retrace our steps. This time we tried the other direction, over very muddy and slippery fields towards a wood. The track followed the edge of the wood in the direction we needed until a barbed wire fence prevented us from going any further. Once again we had to go back to the T-junction and follow the track downhill back to the lake. This time we took the road back to Vendresse by which time it was pouring with rain and the wind was in our faces. We were kept company by a lost dog, which was running at passing vehicles with a death wish. Hopefully the drivers did not think we had let if off the leash. In spite of our rainwear we arrived back home surprisingly damp and muddy.

Back road into Vendresse.

8th November.

When we made the move to Redditch to work in Solihull in 2003, we left behind family and friends in the south of England and we were a little disappointed in the number of people who came to stay or even just kept in touch. At least in France we had far more people come to visit us here in Vendresse. My daughter Emma, Helga’s daughter Heidi (who came twice) Helga’s sister and her family, Helga’s brother and his family, Helga’s friend and her daughter (they came twice) plus friend and my Dutch friends all came to stay since May this year. On top of that, my former boss Robert Yorath (who still works in Solihull) is visiting Mouzon tomorrow with a customer.

Shopping for clothes is far more difficult than you could imagine. The clothes on offer in supermarkets are usually lower in quality than in ASDA or Tesco. Clothes in French high street chains like Burton are average and uninteresting but they charge over the top. We have found that designer clothes are only available in Reims in expensive stores (equivalent to Harvey Nicholls or Selfridges) and individual shops. They really do not have quality clothes for the over fifties anywhere that we have been - there is no equivalent to Marks and Spencers, Wallis, Debenhams, Principles and Dorothy Perkins. Younger people might be OK with Mango, H&M, GAP and Naf Naf in French high streets but the prices are double here and this is not for our age group.

12th November.

Just down the road a local farmer is keeping some geese. Just occasionally all the geese are let out of the field and the farmer takes them for a walk down the road. At first we thought the farmer was a bit eccentric. In fact, the geese are encouraged to exercise in order to develop leaner meat but this must not be overdone or else the meat becomes tough. The geese need to weigh about six kilos for the Christmas table because any larger than that would not fit in a standard oven. So towards Christmas they are fed mainly on apples in order to maintain the correct weight. All the geese are usually sold well in advance.

19th November.

We had planned to attend a classical music recital in the church of nearby Douzy but we had to cancel at the last minute because the audience would not have appreciated my cough.

20th November.

The local bar in Vendresse put on a special evening for this year’s Beaujolais tasting – I grabbed a glass on the way home.

3rd December.

Some of you read yesterday on Facebook that Sarah was suffering from a crisis of confidence about when to put up Christmas decorations. Here in rural France the customs and traditions are so different that we never know quite what to expect next. On Thursday a lorry delivered Christmas trees to some houses in our street and we thought that was a really nice touch. Luckily I found out in time that we are expected to decorate the village with these trees and not the inside of our house. By Saturday just one fully decorated tree had been put up in our street so we know now what we have to do.