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Author Topic: Lets move to the Pyrenees  (Read 1194 times)

Rhyan & Melissa

  • Joined Dec 2008
  • Lincolnshire
Lets move to the Pyrenees
« on: May 10, 2009, 10:52:22 am »
Nice Article  - worth a read


As the global economic downturn continues, Kathy Flower discovers the secret to survival in an unexpected place - the crumbling, half-empty villages of the French Pyrenees.

Madame Genis shouts a greeting in her strong Catalan accent as she strides past my house.

A sunburned 75-year-old, she is clad, as always, in her working gear of an ancient blue and white checked pinafore and an old pair of men's leather boots.

She carries a sharp knife - not for repelling attackers, or even the wild boar which roam these hills - but for cutting reeds to support the runner beans she will plant now spring has come at last.

She never buys anything if she can grow it herself or forage for it, and she knows where to find wild asparagus and strawberries.

She chats to her hens in a mix of Catalan and French. They reward her with plenty of eggs.

Madame Genis' immaculately neat patch of land produces enough vegetables for her and her son.

Any surplus is swapped for a pot of honey with a beekeeping neighbour, or sold off from a box outside her front gate.

Land which is not planted with vegetables is piled high with what looks to me like junk, but which she insists might come in handy - rusty oil drums, old metal bed frames and ancient gateposts.

Nothing is wasted. Everything is recycled, and always has been, long before it became fashionable.

Self-sufficiency

Seventy years ago, in the harsh winter of 1939, her family were among half a million Spanish refugees who poured across the French border.

They were fleeing the firing squads after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War.

Initially interned in camps, the refugees eventually settled, finding jobs in farming or the vineyards. Their Catalan work ethic blended in with French rural traditions of self-sufficiency.

The remoteness of the Pyrenees has attracted other settlers too.

After the social upheavals of 1968, many hippies abandoned the big cities and came here, bucking the trend for people to leave the land.

They scratch a living from their scruffy farmsteads, and keep up the tradition of neighbour helping neighbour.

Last autumn, on the day that Lehmann Brothers collapsed, my neighbours Henrique and Gianno appeared on the doorstep, armed with chainsaw and rope.

They offered to cut down some dead trees in the garden if they could keep the wood in exchange.

The reality of this simple transaction was in sharp contrast to the unreality of the virtual fortunes, vanishing like smoke across the world's capital cities.

No fear of redundancy

This spring, Henrique, who has worked with animals all his life, bought five sheep and two goats.

He has no fields of his own, but the village is full of overgrown plots of land where people are happy to let his flock graze.

The gentle clanging of the bell worn by the bellwether sheep echoes round the valley, as they move from abandoned cherry orchard to overgrown vineyard.

He plans to keep the lambs for the pot, and make cheese from the milk.

But, he told me stoically, the wool is not worth collecting any more as Chinese wool is now so cheap.

An old back injury means Henrique gets a small disability allowance.

With unemployment in the Pyrenees almost double the national average, many depend on social security benefits, topped up with pocket money from odd jobs.

The recession does not trouble them - with no jobs to lose, they have no fear of redundancy.

Like most villagers, Henrique has no mobile phone or internet, never goes on holiday, wears hand-me-down clothes and has neither credit card nor mortgage.

The old car he shares with his extended family is held together by duct tape and optimism.

Not for sale

“ Untended parcels of land and empty semi-derelict buildings dot the village, to the despair of town planners ”


All this thriftiness has its drawbacks though. When I first arrived here, I needed some second hand furniture, so off I went, hunting for charity shops like the ones back home.

But there are none. People do not throw things away, partly because they hardly ever move house.

Property mania barely touched this area.

Untended parcels of land and empty semi-derelict buildings dot the village, to the despair of town planners who would like to buy them all up and do something sensible with them.

But they are not for sale. They have been in the family for generations, and the owners want it to stay that way.

Even if they were for sale, the many French people who dream of a retirement in the sun-kissed south regard the old village houses as tumbledown old wrecks.

They prefer the clusters of brightly-painted new villas on land just outside the old towns.

Building these upmarket housing estates has been one of the few sources of work here.

The buyers have, for the moment at least, guaranteed pensions, so the local construction industry has not been too badly hit.

The newly retired bring in wealth, and also jobs as they get older and need help at home.

Perhaps they will inculcate the locals into the joys of property speculation and the throwaway society.

Or maybe they too will learn to barter vegetables for honey, re-use old gate posts, and hunt for wild asparagus.
Rhyan & Melissa

Pea Pod Burgundy Ltd

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