Kiwi in France: Wintering over in the Pyrenees stuff nation

When the snow finally blankets the nearby hills, there is plenty of choice of slopes for tobogganing and snow fights.
Jennifer Andrewes

When the snow finally blankets the nearby hills, there is plenty of choice of slopes for tobogganing and snow fights.

In early 2014 we took our family to live in France for three months. Having fallen in love with the experience, we returned to the Pyrenees for a second time in late 2016, where we have been living the dream in Quillan, a small town in the foothills.

In Quillan, things generally happen at a quieter, less urgent pace than in the bigger towns and cities. Life goes on, with all its attendant chores, but with a quiet, unhurried calm that somehow seems fitting for the setting in all its magnificent isolation.

Nothing is so urgent that it can't wait until after a coffee, a conversation with a neighbour, or a wee walk in the sunshine.

In summer the days are long, warm and unhurried. In winter, however, those moments are restricted to the shortening daylight hours. The opening of the Café du Fleuve is guided not by a regular timetable, but by the reach of the sun's warmth onto the terrace as it finally raises its weak rays over the rooftops.

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Foot traffic across the square is minimal until that time in any case, so there's little point in opening for any custom.

As a fellow blogger observed to me early on in our stay, Quillan can be a little forbidding at first glance, austere, particularly in winter with its closed shutters and boarded houses. This is not something I had previously experienced here, so I found this description hard to reconcile with my own perspective of a sunny, warm and welcoming town.

Foot traffic across the Place de la Republique is minimal but one (fool)hardy soul makes last minute preparations to ...
Jennifer Andrewes

Foot traffic across the Place de la Republique is minimal but one (fool)hardy soul makes last minute preparations to avoid winter leaks.

As we move from December into January though, I can see what my friend means. 

On the first day of the New Year, which dawned cold under a thick blanket of mist, absolutely everything is closed and houses tightly shuttered. It's mid-morning and nobody has emerged. Ours are the only un-shuttered windows in the square.

Even the familiar Alhumetur newsagent that can normally be relied in for its cheery neon lighted sign from first to last light, is closed and by 10am not one person has crossed the square yet. It's cold, closed and depressing. Only the foolhardy are out before the sun.

It's also a taste of things to come. While some businesses have already closed in December, in January, almost everything but the essential services closes for the winter. It's the opportunity for tourist facilities, shops and their owners and staff to take an extended break, in the quieter period of the year. In the summer, peak tourist season they'll be in demand, open long hours, so no chance of a holiday then. 

In many cases in the higher Pyrenees and on the tops of the foothills, villages, castles and paths are snowed in from January so it would be treacherous and as good as impossible to access tourist sites in any case. This year there is, sadly, no snow in the early weeks of winter, but the approach remains the same in principle.

Some of our favourite Cathar castles closed to visits in November when the prevailing winds already make access via the precipitous cliff-edge pathways unwise.

After a generally mild winter to date, nightly temperatures by mid-January are regularly below zero and mornings are increasingly frosty. Icicles cling to branches in the surrounding woods and make beautiful snowflake patterns on fallen leaves and grass, with the last gasps of autumn colour still evident. In some isolated valleys the permanent frost indicates slopes that never see the sun and creates an incredible localised frost 'haze' phenomenon. The car windscreen has to be scraped clear of ice before we go anywhere in the morning.

On a day walk in the local countryside, Tom (12) studies the frost haze hanging over the field.
Jennifer Andrewes

On a day walk in the local countryside, Tom (12) studies the frost haze hanging over the field.

In Quillan, there are few enough shops at the best of times, but many of our favoured little boutiques and art shops are owned by English or Dutch, who close and return 'home' to winter over from Christmas.

The likes of Tatie Divine, on the rue de l'eglise, with its bright window of colourful artisan pieces and homemade creations is closed until spring. This is a loss, as it fulfils a community role as much as a commercial one, given its nature and location. Expatriates and even French locals are known to pop in for a browse and stay for a chat over a coffee in the warm.

Other shops restrict their hours. Instead of opening early and for full days, they open half days, or only from mid-morning. They may only open certain days of the week. 

All of this makes that passing impression of closed, cold austerity from my blogger acquaintance entirely credible. For tourists, there would be little of appeal here at first glance.

When you live here day to day though, through summer and winter, you start to break the surface.  Behind those closed doors are people living here permanently, with full lives and plenty of opportunities to come together with others. In fact, this is one of the great qualities that Quillan has over many of the other towns and villages in the region, thanks to the nature of the event programme and the sheer number of groups and associations you can join.

As Claudine, one of the organisers of the local walking group says: "we carry on right through, with just a little pause for Christmas". In this climate and context, maintaining human connections is important and the locals know it. The cinema screenings roll on, as long as they get the minimum numbers for a session, with new films to choose from each week. The English Library, with its conversation classes, administrative advice, book club and window right onto the Place de la Republique, is open again mornings from the New Year.

At this time of year, with people relatively starved for warmth and good cheer, everyone comes out to play at the slightest opportunity or ray of sunshine. This year is a glorious winter season with little rain, but with bright blue skies and full sunshine after the morning mist lifts, which makes getting out and about easy, and a true delight.

The Fleuve opens sometime after 10am. The owner, Mike, walks in across the square and opens up, his trusty companion Milka the dog by his side. The chairs and tables are set up, Mike winds the striped overhead veranda out and the sun umbrellas are positioned. If the sun is up, they are useful over lunchtime. The first custom comes as the sunlight hits the tables closest to the café windows, under the veranda, locals rugged up to the cold, faces turned to the sun over their espressos. The same people turn up most days, in roughly the same order. There's simple pleasure in simple routines. By 11.30am on a sunny day it's busy, and remains steady through the lunch period if the sunshine holds.

Market day is the one day of the week we can rely on foot traffic in the square. In a concession to the cold, the few hardy stallholders start arriving only after 7am rather than before 6 as in summer, though customers only trickle in as it gets light. At 8.15am the street – and Christmas – lights are turned off, and more people pass through. Parents accompanying their children to school stop for vegetables and chat on their way back home. Mid-morning custom is still sparse, but after 11am there's a pleasant hum. 

Along with Saturday market day when the stalls are set up on the other commercial square, it's the busiest day of the week for the Fleuve. At lunchtime the outside tables are full from 11 through 2pm, with accompanying lively chatter to the sound of guitar music from whichever busker has set up on the day. 

The rhythm of our own day adjusts in winter to this wider community context. We linger in bed in the darkness, shutters closed tight in the mornings to retain warmth. We rug up in all our layers to walk to school in the cold, stopping for fresh bread, or market vegetables on the way home.

We drop in to the English Library for a chat, and get our jobs done while the shops are open in their three-hour morning windows for business.

When the sun is up and the Fleuve open, we take the opportunity to join friends for a coffee, maybe a warm fresh pastry at a window-side table facing the light. We linger, because what's the hurry? There will be plenty of time for indoor activity later, when it is cold, and the light fades, from mid-afternoon. 

On a Wednesday we follow the lead of locals and eat out, at an outside table amidst the bustle, if it's warm enough. Perhaps a cheeky kir (blackcurrant liqueur with white wine) as aperitif, a plat du jour, a post-lunch coffee and excuse to dwell a little longer.

The crowd – and sunshine – provides an opportunity for Tom to set himself up with drawing pad and pencils on the fountain to sketch local scenes. After a while he attracts some interest from the Fleuve customers, and is offered a free drink. He makes some pocket money by selling some of his artworks in Tatie Divine and gains a private commission or two. If you have artistic or creative talents it's certainly a good way to travel.

The Café du Fleuve is busy on market day.
Jennifer Andrewes

The Café du Fleuve is busy on market day.

In the afternoons we write, read, or head out to explore country roads or villages further afield. We arrange to view houses that have tempted us. The hunt for a long-term pied-a-terre continues unabated.

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Behind the closed shutters, and away from the public places, it's also possible to discern life if you know where to look. In the afternoons, the sun having warmed the air, the shutters are flung open on those inhabited houses to let daylight and fresh air in. The sound of music wafts on the breeze.

Coming home one afternoon from a short walk, down the curving side road that leads into the square from the river, I spy the open windows of a street-front house, turquoise shutters pushed back, and bright flower pots on the sills. What a pretty sight. Coming closer I spy friend Jenny through the windows, redecorating her front room. Toddler Nicholas and I stop for a chat before moving on.

Tom turns his hand to sketching what he sees around him.
Jennifer Andrewes

Tom turns his hand to sketching what he sees around him.

When the snow finally arrives, rather later than the snow buffs would have liked, we take to the hills. Just a short drive from town, where snow is only lightly drifting, the fields are thick with fresh powdered snow, and chains are needed if you're driving any distance. While Tom is at school, we make a quick trip to a sports shop in Carcassonne for cheap toboggans, pack a simple baguette lunch, and head for the nearest slopes in the long lunch hour.

It's a great town, a great community in any season, and we will return home with fond memories of our daily life, and (with luck) lifelong friends.

Follow Jennifer and her family on their French adventures at putitontheslate.wordpress.com 

Behind the closed shutters, the community hums with life.
Jennifer Andrewes

Behind the closed shutters, the community hums with life.

 - Stuff

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