The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Posts Tagged ‘traditions’

Killing pigs and other stories

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on November 17, 2012

I live in the countryside. As does my grandfather. I tend to move around quite a lot, travelling to and from town, in and out of the country, using an armada of busses, trains, planes and cars. My grandad is not quite so mobile. So when I am around for a couple of day, I drive him around to visit his friends. Emile, Marius, Hélène, Dauphin… all the people who have known him since the good old days. I love it. I love meeting these people and listening to their stories, sitting in their dark kitchens with cast-iron wood-burning stoves, hand-painted tiles and various other compound adjectives.

These sparsely toothed men and women bring out cake and tiny glasses of red wine or sweet coffee and start lisping stories of days gone by. About being a mischief at catechism and locking up the altar boy in a wardrobe “accidentally”, while fathers were protesting against boring sermons by leaving church halfway through to have a canon of rouge at the bistrot. Striking, some things don’t change. Or a few years later as young adults, cycling 23 kilometres downhill on a summer night to go dancing in Issoire and then drinking too much and having to carry the bicycles back up the mountain, sometimes spending the night on a haystack. Have you ever tried drunk cycling? I have. Thankfully in well lit, reasonably flat streets. And even then I did not get very far before dismounting and pushing the bike in front of me like a walker.

The most interesting topic hat afternoon was certainly 90-year-old Marius’ recollection of the pig-killing season. You see, November was the time of year those things were done. Maybe because that’s when apples are ripe and apples and black pudding are a match made in heaven. The more rational explanation is probably that people would want to stock up the larder before winter. Marius was, and still is, an expert at pork slaughtering. Even non-farming families sometimes fattened a pig, so he showed them how to go about killing it when the time came, and how to make boudin and chops and hams and dried sausage… He also explained when the factory opened, how people started killing their swine only on saturdays so he sometimes would have to “do” three pigs in one day. We were treated to a few details about  blood and guts and unpleasantness, about the thickness of  the layer of fat on the back of certain pigs’ neck and about how everything was kept and used, except perhaps the tail. It may not be very P.C. but in spite of the goriness  and the acrid smell of burning hairs, I would still love to see it done; not because I like the idea of killing animals, but because I don’t think that sort of knowledge should just disappears when Marius dies.

The last story of the day was  that of a man loading a sow in the back of his van. He drove all the way to his house and never noticed that the door was open and the pig had walked of. He got back to his farm and his wife said… something. Marius unfortunately delivered the punchline in patois, the local dialect. My grandad found it hilarious.

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Ah the spirits of christmases past…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 27, 2010

I know I keep saying I need to write more regularly, and every time my messages and my apologies stretch out over longer periods of time.And yet, every day I find reasons to write, lovely inspirational moments like last week as I lay underneath the Christmas tree, peering at the twinkling lights through the branches. I had a sort of epiphany, remembering moments, glimpses from my childhood. Since then I have been visited daily by the ghosts of Christmases past.

On Monday Mam and I were in the kitchen cooking… something (so much gets cooked and baked over the X-mas hols, I just lose track), and listening to BBC radio 4, as we often do since Mam borrowed Dad’s chequebook for her birthday and bought an internet radio. And on the radio that day, it was Women’s hour Christmas tradition call-in. People from all over the UK were calling with their anecdotes and family customs. Stuff that had been around their families for generations, or habits they’d started a couple of years back. From ancient traditions from Denmark, to truly modern british oddities involving motorbikes…  It just reminded me of all the things we used to do when we were small.

Christmas was such a big affair! I will not discuss here the long weeks of secret plotting it took my Mam to let our aunts know what presents we might like, complicated toy names she had to spell backwards in foreign languages over the telephone to make sure we didn’t know what she was going on about. I mean, that certainly was fascinating in its own right. But there was so much more to come. First of all, we had to travel to Christmas land. A long two-day car journey from the middle of France to Newcastle in the North of England, with three kids in the back, can you imagine it? And the evening before we left, when all our things had somehow been squeezed into the boot and under the car seats, my gran would invariably turn up with a massive crate full of “presents” for the family in England. A bottle of my grandad’s home-made walnut oil, boxes of french biscuits, freezer bags full of broad beans and various other  home-grown produce… All of which of course was rather voluminous, weighed a ton, ahappened every year, even when we started travelling by plane.  To this day I don’t think we ever told grandma about the stuff we just could not take with us.

And then it was two days of I-spy, unhealthy snacks, are we there yets, and  audiobooks.  We also had a small suitcase in plastic faux-leather which held a wealth of musical audio-cassettes. Each year there would be a different selection, my parents had very eclectic taste, but we kids would just pick the amusing and cool-sounding titles, not necessarily knowing what was on them… I think that ended with our primary school teacher asking mam why my little sister was humming chansons paillardes in school… So that lasted two days or so.

And then we got to my Grandma Thompson’s house in Jarrow, near Newcastle. I loved that house. There were so many little things different from home, so many details. And so many people. Since we only went to England once or twice a year, the world and his wife turned up for a visit, along with their second cousin thrice removed. And when we got to 8, Greenbank Villas, we had a quick and delicious dinner of Stottie-cake and bacon sandwiches and we children were sent upstairs to bed while the grown-ups retreated to the living room with a glass of wine or something to fill the room with presents. I think. Looking back, we were very good about that actually. Maybe we didn’t go to sleep immediately, but we never peeked. The threat of the omniscient Father Christmas stopped us from tiptoeing down the red-carpeted stairs, or even leaning over the landing railings. It kept us safely inside our room where we skipped from bed to chair to bed, to table, to windowsill never touching the floor so it wouldn’t creak and no-on would suspect we were awake. We would listen at the door for people walking up the stairs or talking in the corridor, and watch the metro trains rushing past the back garden out of the window. I don’t remember ever deliberately going to sleep.

Somehow on Christmas morning I would find myself waking up in bed. But mam always told us not to come downstairs too early, because we’d have to wait for everyone to wake up anyway. We’d also received instructions not to wake one another either, so I’d turn over as slowly and as quietly as possible to see if either Géraud or Lucile were awake. If one of them was, we might sign to each other, mouth “Merry Christmas”,  or whisper and giggle. If not, well I could just daydream; I was very good at it at the time. But come on, how long can you expect children to stay quietly in bed on Christmas morning? I can’t quite remember what made us come out of the room at last. It was so long ago. I think our whispers and giggles and the unavoidable running around would probably end up waking mam and dad in the room next door. Mam would lead us to the kitchen for breakfast. We would eye the determinedly shut sitting room door as we walked past it, trying to guess what lay inside, but we knew we weren’t allowed in before every single person in the house was up and had had breakfast! To keep us busy, we would be allowed to open our christmas stocking. In our family by the way, we use proper socks. None of those massive things no-one could ever wear on their foot and that can fit massive toys. The biggest thing we had in our stocking was a tangerine. And there was a pound, and chocolate money, and usually a novelty soap, and Starburst, and a pencil.

And then, finally, we were allowed into the living room. The tree was in the bay window-area, and the rest of the bay window was piled with presents. There were so many of them. Many of which weren’t to be opened by us and would lie there for days and days, but they were there all the same and helped making the moment, the room even more magical.

There are many other things we used to do, but it’s twenty minutes past midnight, and I want to go to bed with  the image of this amazing christmas tree at the front of my mind. I’ll tell you about the carols, the fenwicks windows, the mass, the shopping, the cousins, the ham and stuffing,… another time.

I hope you are, like me, still basking in the afterglow of a wonderful Christmas. Good night.

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