Tuesday 31 December 2013


Nous voilà déjà à la veille d’une année nouvelle.

Dans mon petit monde à moi…

Déjà encore une année dans les Pyrénées.

Déjà toute une vie se construise dans une vallée au bout du monde ; riche en projets, découverts, chers amis et moments forts.

Déjà des heures et des heures de cours de langue en freelance

Déjà des centaines de mots traduits...

Déjà une montagne de difficultés surmontés.

Déjà des accomplissements. Pas (encore) de regrets.

Déjà, la vie.

Sunday 29 December 2013

sewing machine

I was really spoiled this year. Father Christmas my mother-in-law kindly gave me a magnificent Singer sewing machine. To be more precise, she very kindly entrusted into my care her first ever sewing machine. I'm so excited! I can hardly contain my enthusiasm to get a project properly on the go, to thread up the machine and get to know one another.

Saturday 28 December 2013


What a year of ups and downs! We've had our fair share of personal struggles and collective tragedies. More than our fair share of uncertainty, but also moments of great clarity.

Stood at the tail end of this year, I can now see that the overall pattern drawing this seeming mismatch of sometimes tangled threads together has been one of deep rooted and over-arching growth.

I wonder what 2014 will have in store for us?

Sadness gives depth, happiness gives height.
Sadness gives roots, happiness gives branches.
Happiness is like a tree going into the sky.
Sadness is like the roots going into the womb of the earth.
Both are needed and the higher the tree goes, the deeper it goes, simultaneously.
It is always in proportion.
That is balance.


Sunday 22 December 2013

the abacus of the days

The autumn comes as a thief,
creeping in when our backs are turned.
An icy wind blows through the stillness. A gilded leaf,
clings to a silver birch; holding, hanging, hugging.
But then falling nevertheless,
spinning back to the cradle of the earth.

The autumn lingers, coming a little
further each morning.

Up on the hillside, grass
is dry, ferns tarnished, and berries sour.
A flock grazes an ever decreasing pasture; soon the shepherd
will come to bring them in for winter.

All the while, you are as the late afternoon sun;
though growing lower in the sky with the passing of each day,
Never do you falter nor let your fire grow cold.

The autumn withdraws.

Too soon, the sun slips beyond the distant hillside
and we are left in the shadow filled valley.
Yet even now, the warmth of your rays
lingers on our cheeks,
going with us into the night.

In early Autumn 2009, my aunt was diagnosed with cancer of the pancrease. Sadly two days before Christmas, she lost her short, but bravely fought battle with the disease. Tonight, as I write this entry, I still can't quite believe that already four years have past.
The final time I saw her was in September, on one of the last glorious burst of sunshine before the Summer lead us into Autumn and then towards Winter. The next day, I returned here to France to experience my first Pyrenean autumn. Everybody told me that the Pyrenees are at their most beautiful in the Autumn. And they were right. Every day, the beauty that the changing of the seasons brought to the mountains grew more and more breathtaking.

It seems so ironic now, when I think back to that period of my life. Living in a place where life is so deeply intertwined with the rhythm of the seasons, and all the while I was blissfully unaware of just how keenly I would later feel the abacus of the days...

Thursday 19 December 2013

dark skies

The Milky Way, seen from the Pic du Midi de Bigorre
One night in early September, N and I went stargazing. It was an exceptionally clear night, with neither moon nor wisps of cloud in sight. It had rained earlier in the day and there was a smell of damp earth rising from the ground as we walked out from the forest onto the little grassy knoll jutting out into the valley.

Shielded from the street lights of nearby Bagnères de Bigorre, the Milky Way was visible, a rich speckled band of million of stars. 

We stood on the hillside for what seemed hours, heads turned towards the heavens. 

We exchanged the names of stars, his Grande Ourse for my Big Dipper. Satellites traced a path between the constellations, and shooting stars fell towards the earth. We clung together, transfixed by the beauty of the night sky. 

The distance from the earth to the sky is always hard to comprehend, the fact that the light we can see now is so old that the star itself might actually be dead. 

Yet it is even harder to comprehend that we too are made of stardust, that almost every element on this earth was first formed at the heart of a star...

Stargazing at the Pic du Midi
Many thanks to Nicolas Bourgeois, leader of the Pic du Midi Dark Sky Project team, for the accompanying images of the night sky...they are stunning.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

knitting by the fire


It was a week of infitite busyness with such a bumper crop of language lessons, my feet hardly touched the ground. By Thursday I was flagging and come Friday, I was in need of a few days of quiet hibernation. 

The week-end was then spent in a state of general lazing: knitting by the fire, playing card games with N, and lots and lots of herbal tea. I had long sleep-ins, plenty of siestas and in between, read and read and read. 

Now we are into a new week, and I am doing my very best to embrace the winter haze and just take things that little bit slower.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

white peaks, blue skies, visits from friends

November has ended as it started: every Friday night we've gone to bed with barren trees and every Saturday morning we've awoken to a world that looks quite different. This weekend was no exception.

If the Winter is as long and as hard as last year, perhaps by the Spring, I'll be worn down by the weather. But for now, I am beguiled by the change of the season, enchanted by the transformative power of snow.

All the better then that a good friend from university has come to visit for a long week-end...and that there is fresh snow, sunshine and blue skies to enjoy together.

Thursday 28 November 2013

out before the lifts open

It’s been snowing heavily over the last fortnight out here in the Pyrenees. It's still only a few days until the ski stations open this coming weekend, but some people just can’t wait that long!

Last weekend we dusted off the ski touring equipment and went out for our first outing of the season up above the ski station at Luz Ardiden.

It was gloriously sunny lower down but as we climbed higher up the slope, the wind picked up and the sky gradually became overcast.

At the top of the ridge, we were greeted with a freezing wind as we hurried to get our skins off and ready for the descent, through half a metre of powder.

Whether we are out on snow shoes, skis or simply a sledge, the first time out in the snow is always magical.

Tuesday 26 November 2013


Having been hunted for so long, isards on this side of the watershed are notoriously secretive and discreet creatures.

Which makes any encounter, no matter how brief, with one of these gracious animals even more magical.

Spotting an isard on our way up the col des mulets earlier in the month.

Saturday 23 November 2013

autumn falls, winter snows

Wake early. Throw back the shutters. Lying in bed watching the snowflakes softly tumble from the slate grey sky.  

Early morning snow on the Eglise des Templiers
No secret what it all means. I've heard the storks overhead in the night, flying south to sunnier climbs. I've felt the chill in the morning air. But with the appearance of the first snows on the mountain tops and down here in the valley this past week, it's made it all that bit more official.

Autumn leaves, snowy peaks

The clocks went back a month ago this weekend. Summer is a distant memory. Autumn came, but it appears Winter was not far behind. We are nearing the end of  November and the scale is already tipping. Darkness is starting to win out as night falls sooner and the sun lingers less and less.

Defiant oak leaves at the Napoléon monument

Winter has arrived earlier than expected, already got her feet under the table. Not that I'm complaining. Not yet, anyway...

Quick stroll before lunch to Solférino chapel

Tuesday 19 November 2013

la braderie d'hiver, le pull d'automne

Ça se passe toujours beaucoup plus vite qu'on ne pense. En retrouvant la neige sur les cimes samedi matin, on se disait "Voilà l'automne, bientôt l'hiver."

J'aime l'automne, cette parenthèse avant l'hiver. J'aime novembre, sa variété. Dans la journée, de la brume le matin, suivi souvent de cieux bleus sur les feuilles jaunes. Le premier sur-poudrage de neige qui fait parler tout le monde. Les vrais nuits de gel.

Alors, il fallait un nouveau pull. Samedi matin, tout le village est venu fouiller parmi les fringues et les skis de la braderie d'hiver. Sur une table de pulls d'hommes, j'y ai trouvé mon bonheur: un magnifique pull en laine. Ample. Bien chaud. 

Vert, bleu, écru, orange. Porter sur moi l'automne: les potirons, les châtaignes, les sous-bois. Refléter la saison dans la douceur de laine. C'est bien, un nouveau pull...d'occasion.


me: only sun, 
clouds, the wide azure 
arc of the sky. Below me: snow, 
mountain, the Earth. All that needs knowing 
is that with every step, I am moving ever forward, 
ever upward. All that needs knowing is that the law of
 altitude dictates that which goes up, must surely come back down.

First back country ski of this Winter season

Saturday 16 November 2013

first snows

The first cold of the season blew in Thursday night. I couldn't sleep, so I snuggled up by the fire with my book, listening to the gentle flic-floc of sleet falling onto our chimney top and migrating storks fly due south overhead. 

The snow continued all the next day, making my drive down to work quite exhilarating. When I got back later in the evening, we ate steaming veggie curry by the fire, listening to the satisfying sound of snow sliding off the roofs.

This morning, we awoke to blue skies and white peaks: the first snows of autumn.

Our village, Luz-Saint-Sauveur, beneath the first snows of autumn

This will be my fifth Pyrenean winter. But I'm never quite ready for this, the abruptness of the seasons. What happened to balmy nights, sleeping with the doors and windows open? What happened to foraging for chestnuts and walnuts and mushrooms? What happened to our autumnal rambles in autumnal knitwear?

This being the Pyreneans of course, it only takes the wind to turn and we may well be eating lunches out on the balcony again by next week. That's the way our weather goes down here. But even if it warms up tomorrow, it's too late now. The cold has happened. A new pair of mittens has been cast on. The first fire has been lit.

And we've had our first ski of the season. More on that later...

Thursday 14 November 2013

a school

Story time in English with the Infant class
At the breakfast table a week or so ago, I was asked by a curious couch-surfer what brought me to the Pyrenees. So early in the morning and with a busy day of teaching ahead of me, I was initially stumped. As I drove to a neighbouring valley for my first lesson, I shifted through the layers of reasons, trying to pinpoint the exact reason: university, necessity, university...

Later in the week, I was invited to an evening of poetry in Esquièze, and I stumbled upon the real reason I came here: une ecole.

It is so long since I last set foot in that school as a visiting English Language Teacher that I had almost forgotten...

It was only a couple of years ago that I hang up my coat for the last time, but every time I walk past I feel I could reach out and open the door to that school, finding my seat and guiding the children through the basics of the English language. Change is inevitable and is of course hard. But were there not a constant stream of comings and goings in that little school, it wouldn't be such a wonderfully rich and dynamic place of learning and exchange.

This valley has been a place of so many firsts for me, sometimes it seems as if every gushing stream, jagged peak and rounded stone has been instrumental in shaping the course of my life.

And here, a school. My first as a teacher. Here in this hallway we helped the little ones out of their ski boots each morning in the winter. Here in the garden, we planted daffodil bulbs in the Spring. We lit candles in December and I taught the children to sing English Christmas carols. They scuttled in with their new pencils and school bags in the first week of September.

All so long ago now as to have been a dream. But it wasn't a dream. I have the evidence right here: "Oh Fran, tu venais nous voir quand on étais petit..."

I walk past that school, bump into pupils and parents almost every day. Perhaps that was the reason for the inexplicable deep sadness that filled my days since moving back here last year and until very recently.

I am no longer in my beloved school, but the memories will stay forever fresh.

Life has moved on and the children are growing up. But then if I take a moment to think about it, I realise that so am I, in both ways...

Tuesday 5 November 2013

around the table

Around the table this evening we are two gardiens, four mountaineers, one walking guide, and me, a linguist.

There is plenty of good food, good wine and goodwill. Moments such as these make staying the night in a réfuge worth the hard slog up the hill.

When the soup and wine inevitably run dry, the words continue to flow. The conversation, as is often the case in a refuge, is excitingly multilingual and diverse, flowing effortlessly from French to English and back to French. No need to be formal in situations like this, a friendly tu is enough to do away with any shyness.

Where have you come from? What are you doing tomorrow?

The mountaineers continue to talk as the tables are cleared and wiped clean. They form small groups, huddling around maps and guidebooks, or warming themselves by the stove, sharing stories and advice.

We leave the mountaineers to it, joining Boris and Pauline in the kitchen as we help them attack the mountain of washing up the others have left in their wake.

Saturday 2 November 2013

autumn in the Gaube Valley

Last weekend, we were invited by our friends Boris and Pauline to join them up at their Mountain hut for their last weekend of the season. 

High winds and rain were forecast. We went anyway, making sure to pack our waterproofs and down jackets. 

In the early morning light, we climb through the woods from Pont d'Espagne to the Lac de Gaube. We've been expecting the leaves to change for weeks. Now they seem to have done it overnight. In the lower part of the trail, we walk through tunnels of red and gold towards the turquoise lake. We slide through piles of dried leaves, shrivelled and crisp under foot. 

It is a Saturday, in the middle of the holidays, so there are plenty of other walkers out on the trail. We pause briefly by the shimmering waters of the Lac du Gaube. From here, the north face of the Vignemale is usually visible, but this morning, he's wearing a cloudy hat, pulled down low over his eyes. Leaving the crowds behind, we continue the trail along the eastern side of the lake, being careful not to twist an ankle as we hop from boulder to boulder. Next time we come here it will be winter, and we'll be able to ski straight across the frozen lake.

Above the lake, the path rises slowly as the valley opens out into a series of long water meadows. Beyond, the lower part of the vertical cliffs and glacier of the Vignemale are always in sight as we edge our way southwards, blocking the head of the valley and the way to Spain.

At the final plateau, we overtake a French couple. "Is it far to the réfuge?" they ask us. "Oh, only about another twenty minutes or so," we reply. The wife is clearly exhausted. The husband looks crestfallen. They decide to turn back, and leave us to continue alone.  
When we arrive at the hut, Boris is outside chopping wood ready for the winter. Pauline is inside, finishing off this evening's desert: chocolate mousse for thirty ravenous mountaineers. N stays out to give Boris a hand. I'm happy to get out of the biting wind, take off my pack and find a place beside the wood-burner with my book before we lend a hand with the evening service at 7pm.

Thursday 31 October 2013

farewell summer, welcome autumn

A rainbow over our valley, October 2013
Slowly but surely, it feels as if the darker days are getting further away. The rainbow has finally appeared after the storm.

The hillsides around the village are starting to turn from green to gold to rusty red.

Spring is usually thought of as the season of renewal. Yet for me this year it is in the Autumn that I can feel myself waking from my hibernation, venturing out into the world once again. Reconnecting with my surroundings, and slowly finding peace with my life and myself.

I've just got to remember to go slowly, that's all...

I hope this will also be true for the wider valley community as we move into Autumn and brace ourselves for Winter.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

la balaguère

The wind turned last week. The sound of banging shutters has woken me early almost every day since. Yesterday, we were back in t-shirts, sweltering in unseasonal heat. The digital thermometre outside the pharmacie read 25°. Summer seems to have ridden back into the Valley on the the tail of the southern wind, la balaguère, riding in at full speed.

Halfway to Spain, via the col des Mulets

Some Valley dwellers will swear that the balaguère drives people to madness. Others will say that the warm wind sweeps a feeling of restlessness through the Valley.

But for me, the balaguère is always a source of comfort. In the heart of winter, it takes the chill off even the most bitter of days. When I’m feeling blue, downtrodden by the season, this warm wind fills these sails of mine with hope and expectation. It blows from the plains of the Sahara, sometimes bringing sand to turn the snowy mountain sides pink.

And sometimes when the balaguère blows that dust-laden wind stirs up a wanderlust deep inside of me. In this golden atmosphere, strange, unreal, windswept moment, the southern wind seems to be beckoning me elsewhere…

Over the weekend, we took the wind up on her offer.

More about that adventure later...

le soleil des herbes

La Carline appartient à la famille des artichauts.  "Cardouille" et "cardon" sont les autres noms désignant la fleur de cette plante sauvage. Les paysans la cueillaient pour son cœur comestible et se servaient des feuilles épineuses pour démêler ou carder la laine de leurs troupeaux.

Cette plante a la particularité de capter la lumière solaire en s'ouvrant en son centre. Mais celui-ci se referme lorsque tombe l'humidité et qu'arrive la pluie. La cardabelle une fois séchée est, dit-on, un porte bonheur que l'on accroche volontiers à la porte de sa demeure.

Saturday 26 October 2013

au bord de la mer

La Bretagne en famille...c'était déjà il y a un mois...

On est sur une plage, au presqu'île de Crozon. On marche sur une plage bretonne. Le sable mouille sous les pieds. On respire l’air de l'Atlantique.

On longe les vagues charges d’écume, des explosions blanches. La mer est agitée cet après-midi. Elle s’est retirée loin des dunes. La grande marée. 

Nico est dans les vagues avec mon papa. Je marche avec nos mamans, au bord de la mer. On les regarde surfer.

Je suis au sable, au vent, au ciel, au ciel. Je suis avec ceux que j'aime le plus au monde. Je marche d'un pas nouveau et je me sens bien.

Thursday 24 October 2013

heavy dew, morning mist

Heavy dew and a strong autumnal sun made for a magical, misty morning stroll up in Gavarnie this morning. 

The Silver Birch and Beech trees are just starting to turn on the northern slopes, and the purple crocuses sprinkle the grass around the hay barns.