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A Picture of Plaisance

A short story about a family who move to Plaisance du Gers...

As the open roads stretched out before her, pot-hole, parked-car and traffic-jam-free, the sudden switch to the right reminded Stevie she wasn’t in England anymore. She’d taken a leap of faith and placed it in France, the country she’d lived in at the exciting age of 20. There, she’d shared a flat in Residence Beausoleil on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, said to be the chicest place outside of Paris. No matter what the season there, throwing open the shutters always revealed a sunshine sky with buildings of pastel blue and the St Victoire painted like a picture in the background. Provence days were sun-baked three-hour lunches over olives and rosé and all-night parties, packed into underground discos and croissants for breakfast before bed. From that time forward, France had taken a piece of Stevie’s heart, the same as it had for millions of others who crossed within her borders.

Fifteen years later, the jam-packed car with a trailer full of photos, books from the French revolution to the rivière, Beauvoir, Baudelaire and Balzac headed not for the palace of Monaco, the red carpet of Cannes nor the brilliant blue of the Cote d’Azur. Instead, it headed for an all-together different area of the South, Gascony, in the direction of the Pyrenees.

“Charlie would be delighted if he knew the cat was asleep on his knee right now,” remarked Patch, as he smiled at the image of his son in the rear view mirror.

“Yeah, he won’t be so delighted if the cat decides to relieve itself on his knee though,” replied Stevie, all too aware that the cat had done England north to south, a ferry channel crossing followed by France north to south. Still, there wasn’t long left to go now. They’d long since passed the Paris periphery with its grey graffiti high-rises, the Loire valley with champagne chateaux and tight stone turrets, the gentle slopes of la Charente, the wide, wide river Dordogne and down to beautiful Bergerac and the braking bottlenecks of Bordeaux. Left and right, the familiar forest of les Landes framed the roadside. The smell of palm trees prickled the air and occasionally, a pig snout peeked out from between the trees. The vast pine-packed land was home to the wild boar and families of them roamed around, rubbing their backs on tree trunks and kicking up the sand with their trotters.

When at last the pines began to thin, the familiar forms of the Gascon landscape they’d come to call home laid out before them. Stevie recalled the day her and Patch had come to sign the contract on their old French farmhouse. They’d flown into Toulouse and taken the country roads two hours driving through nothingness. She’d worried and wondered what the hell they’d done – bought a house in the middle of nowhere, where they knew no one, and where she was the only member of the four-person family who knew some of the language. Everyone said they were mad. Maybe they were. That day, she’d panicked at the remoteness of the place. She was a Manchester girl, loved the city sights, the comfort of the crowd. But she didn’t want that for her children. In a changing climate, in every sense of the word, she wanted her children to know nature. Well, they’d certainly know it where they were headed.

“Here we are!” declared Patch as they circled the roundabout past the winery, the imposing old stone building long abandoned in its grassy ocean on the left and the little white sign welcoming them to Plaisance du Gers, the village they’d now call home. The cat had long since curled up back on the parcel shelf so Charlie would never know his beloved Noel had used his lap as a pillow. Eighteen hours on the road and they were finally down to the final few minutes.

The public pool stood empty behind the barriers and the mini golf course was already closed for winter. The café’s sun umbrellas leant lazily against the wall, another season over and time to repose. On the right, the little arena rested, a bull ring of bygone days now just a venue for an infrequent fête and a hint of the Spanish spirit that signalled they weren’t far from the border. It was where they’d first arrived in Plaisance, beside the rugby pitch and its stadium. They’d discovered rugby was the religion of the region of Occitanie, which stretched out right across the southwest of the country. Still, they’d been surprised to find a full-on stadium in a village of just over a thousand inhabitants, most of whom seemed to be well past their scrum playing days. Beside it was the kayak club, bordered by the river and the little lake with a secret island, tickled by weeping willows and home to a bed of buttercups in the spring. Plaisance had its own cinema, a sports hall, supermarket, schools, pick-a-mix sweet shop, farmer’s market and all – they’d never have to leave, unless they wanted to.

The car humped over the bridge and the trailer rattled behind it. Beneath the bridge, the River Arros snaked one side to the other. In summer, it bobbed the boats of the kayak club and local teenagers in search of adventure. Fishermen feathered its flanks with patience in the bucket-load. Tourists from the big cities strolled the paths, taking in the peace and breathing in breath unburdened by smoke and polluted particles. This was la campagne. This was Gascony.

This was where the people came to escape, to eat well, to sleep in silence except for birdsong, to forget for a while the ticking of time and to just lose themselves in the natural world around them. This was where the hills curled upwards to reveal a patchwork of farming fields, an agricultural outdoor factory of crops from corn to cauliflowers. And on the horizon, never to be forgotten, the magnificent mountains strung along the landscape, the precious Pyrenees with their Pic du Midi, wandering wolves and big, brown bears. The picture was precious, as painting-like as Provence had been but in such a different way. Stevie could understand why some French said they’d never left France. It’s true it had all a person could wish for.

Stevie hoped Plaisance would give the kids all they could wish for. It was the thought, the doubt, the hope, the fear, the wonder that played in her mind as the car crossed through one square and into the next. Plaisance was what the locals called la double bastide because unlike other villages, it didn’t have one main square but two. One square was home to the Mairie, the Hôtel de ville, that every French village has, decorated with red roses and draped in the drapeau of red, white and blue. The other was home to the church, a former Michelin starred restaurant and the market on Thursday mornings. It’s said that Plaisance was formed in 1322 by Jean I Count of Armagnac, forever tying the tiny town to an alcohol ancestry and France’s oldest eau de vie. Armagnac would later be joined on the shelves by the black bottles of Plaimont, the wine created by the vines that ran in rows like ropes winding round every hilltop. But when people had asked Stevie what had brought her to Plaisance, it wasn’t the wine, like it was for many other Brits. In fact, it was the name. Said to be borrowed from the Italian town of Piacenza, the name Plaisance had simply sounded pleasant and pleasant it most definitely was.

What it wasn’t was flashy. Indeed, it was the opposite of everything they’d known back on their little island that was so drastically drifting away from the continent. There was absolutely nothing showy about this place, no judging you on your jogging bottoms, classing you by your car or lamenting your lack of labels. This place was just simple, honest and warm. The car was finally reaching their road, Rue des Pyrenees, so-called because from the top of it the mountains could be seen quite clearly. Their house was the last house on the road before the sign showed a cross through Plaisance to signal the boundary of the village. It was a long road and felt longer still now that they’d come so far and were suddenly so near but still had to pull the heavy trailer and two giddy kids bouncing around in the back and desperate to be let loose.

Stevie looked out at the run-down houses and the grass-covered pavements in need of attention. Plaisance definitely wasn’t a place of wealth. In fact, the entire area of le Gers was one of the poorest in the country, in monetary terms anyway. For Stevie what had made it rich was the warmth of the people they’d met there. The friendly smiles and bonjours as faces faced forward, eyes looked you in the eyes and people took their time to acknowledge you. In Plaisance, time was not money. Time was a gift and one the people there loved to give. If that was all her children Charlie and Ella learnt whilst there, for Stevie it’d be enough.

Amongst the shut-up shutters and peeling paint of some of the less lived-in houses of Rue des Pyrenees, some testaments to the village’s former grandeur remained. During the Age of Enlightenment, Plaisance had acquired its maisons de maîtres, the grand houses that still stood proudly dotted amongst the later, definitely less luxurious additions. These were the houses said to have been occupied during the Second World War. Now, they were usually holiday homes, occupied just several weeks of the year by wealthy Parisians retreating from their offices for foie gras and Floc de Gascogne, yet another alcoholic beverage the area was famed for. But France’s neighbours to the northeast had not been Plaisance’s only invaders. Many centuries prior, only thirty years after Plaisance had formally been given its name, le prince noir, the black Prince and eldest son of King Edward III of England, rode through on his chevauchée, a mounted raid that went from Gascony to Bordeaux to Narbonne on the Mediterranean and back to Gascony again, devastating everything in his path. In fact, Gascony had been ruled by the English for three whole centuries.

Stevie hoped her neighbours wouldn’t see them as the occupiers returned. The house was in sight now. After their tiny Victorian red-bricked Manchester semi with postage stamp back garden, this early 19th century Gascon farmhouse loomed large on the roadside. Patch jumped out to open the rusted iron gates and drive the car into the overgrown grass. In front of the house, the little patch of trees made Stevie smile inside. She was sure she’d bought the trees actually and not the house. It was the trees she’d loved. Two immense sequoia towered their tips to the sky while their branches licked the land below them. The house was adjoined on one side by an L-shaped barn, once home to cows and hay bales and still home to a wine press and immense vats for storing whatever the vines could produce. An ancient vine still crept up the cracked walls of the building, framing the ornate, wooden door with wrought iron swirls set against glass.

The door reminded Stevie of fairy tales and she imagined it creaking open to reveal fur coats and a snowy Narnia beyond. But really the Narnia was outside, in the huge overgrown garden with the mountains peeping out between the trees framing the end of their land. And in the ramshackle hen house and hay barns full of old furniture, ancient books and bottles long emptied of their liquids. The kids would have fun here. She was sure of it. It didn’t matter if they’d be sleeping all four on one blow-up bed and cooking on a camping stove for months to come. It’d be camping indoors, a glamping of sorts.

“Do you want to do the honours, Ella?” Patch asked his daughter, handing her a key bigger than her hand.

“What do you mean, daddy?” Ella asked as she unfolded herself out of the cramped car where she’d sat surrounded by boxes, blankets and more of her mum’s books that took up most of the space.

“Open the door,” said her dad. “Do you want to open the door to your new house?”

“OK,” she shrugged, underwhelmed by the massiveness of the moment.

“Wait!” shouted Stevie as Charlie and Ella stood dwarfed by the big door before them. “I need to capture this moment,” she said as she cemented the scene in time with a photo. Ella struggled turning the big bronze key in the lock but finally it clicked and the door creaked forward a little. Patch pushed the door wider and the damp, musty smell reached their nostrils. A hint of burnt wood from days gone by hung in the air, a smell that would remain forever after, etched in the fabric of the historical house.

It was a typical two-up two-down but in Gascon style with collombage walls and winding wooden staircase going up once and then twice into a huge, dusty attic. Stevie stood taking it all in but the kids were already gone, running excitedly from one big room to another, elephant feet on old wooden floors. Ella was already screaming at the spider on the floor and Charlie was trying to catch it. Stevie closed the door behind them and reached for the old brass kettle they’d found on their first childless trip to bring some of their things over.

“I think we’ve done the right thing, haven’t we?” she asked Patch as he bustled in with the first load of bags.

“I think so,” he said. It’d been a wrench leaving family and friends but they were only just across a narrow strip of sea. Patch stood looking out of the kitchen window and suddenly, he ushered Stevie over his way. “Look!” he said. In the garden, a stag stood staring back at them, perhaps confused by the strange contraption parked in front of his field. Stevie had never seen anything so beautiful, its antlers sharp against the picture of the Pyrenees. Except it wasn’t a picture. It was Plaisance. And they were all there.

“Look!” said another voice, snapping the pair out of the moment as the deer darted onwards and out of the frame. “It’s Noel!” shouted Charlie, stroking the confused cat who was tiptoeing around the unknown space. “Noel’s here,” declared Charlie. “We must be home then.”

Of course, this one is our story, my little family and me. Here are some photos of our Gascon home, and the wonderful surroundings.

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