La campagne

It’s the mud on your shoes. The smell of manure heavy in the air. The green and yellow waves of densely planted fields. The baa-ing of sheep, the cackle of hens and the incessant crowing of roosters. Yep, this is the ode of an adopted country girl, folks.

I first discovered the countryside shortly after arriving in Paris. The irony of a Canadian coming to France and getting back to nature escaped me completely at the time. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, a very big city. There were no farms nearby. The closest I ever came to a cow was at the fair. Eggs came from the store in pristine white shells from which any trace of chicken shit had been removed.

Imagine my surprise in discovering that that just outside of la capitale are huge farm fields, pastoral landscapes dotted with cows and orchards. The drive from Paris to Evreux in Normandy, where my husband’s family are from, only takes an hour and a half. Driving out of the city, you quickly leave the urban sprawl behind.

France is defined by its countryside: pastoral landscapes, rolling green pastures, vineyards, fields of rapeseed, lavender and sunflower.

Many local farmers keep just a few cows and sheep.

Where we live now, residential buildings and houses surround the still-working farm fields. Just around the corner, where I walk my dogs each day, is a field with a few sheep. A house down the street keeps goats in the yard and the next to the apartment parking lot next door is a hen house with a wired-in chicken run.

We can get a fine for not picking up after our dogs but the horses leave droppings on the sidewalk that can last throughout the winter.

It is part of what it means to live in a country village in France, even one that in a peri-urban area that is also close to the city.

You put up with the noise and the dust of the tractors in the neighbouring field, even as you hope that whatever they are spraying is not toxic. I remind myself to be grateful that the farmers do their noble job to put food on our tables. It’s a hard life and one that barely allows them to make a living.

Each year, as I’ve posted before, the Salon de l’Agriculture has its annual hay-day* as farmers from all over France mingle with politicians seeking photo ops to showcase their finest produce and beauteous beasts. And each year, we hear reports of the dire straits of modern-day agriculture in France. Les paysans, the farmers (or peasants, but without the negative connotation) use this platform to draw attention to their plight: encroaching urbanisation, land being bought up by Chinese investors, EU quotas, drought.

Factory farming, industrial agriculture and the intensive cultivation of crops is less developed in France than in North America or even Spain. Which is not to say it doesn’t exist – but it is balanced out by many smaller operations, mom-and-pop family farms that make up the majority of agriculture land use in France.

The concern is that land formerly devoted to farming in France is gradually shrinking – from 32 million hectares in 2006 to 28 million in 2010. It’s being taken over by tourism and housing development,  increasing urbanisation.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I would be able to adapt to city life again. Thinking towards a possible future downsizing, a return to a more urban lifestyle. Yet I know that I need a certain amount of peace and quiet to be happy, so it wouldn’t be in the heart of a big city. And I also know that I don’t want to be far from fields and trees, to hear the birds greet each day. But the advantage to living in provincial France is that the country will always be just across the doorstep.

Guess I’m a bit of city mouse, but mostly a country mouse.

How about you?

*A pun is the lowest form of wit, just as the bun is the lowest form of wheat.

46 thoughts on “La campagne

  1. I think I might have become a total country mouse, since we’ve been living mostly in Normandy. Of course, in Athens we also live in a sort of suburb, since the city encroached upon our village years ago. Plus in Athens one is always within easy reach of the sea. But I find the quality of life in Normandy very soothing- no rubbish, parking everywhere, charming villages and towns. Just the climate needs a bit of getting used to, for a Mediterranean!

    1. Definitely a switch for you getting used to weather in Normandy, but one I could make more easily than the reverse! The sea in Athens is definitely the redeeming feature of the heat, though. I’ve heard that even the locals flee to the islands in the height of summer…😅 Your country mouse must also be your muse given the beautiful artwork you do!

  2. After 15 years in a very small village that is the bedroom community of a very small town, I am still 100% city girl. My spirits lift whenever I go to a real city. Where I once would have sniffed at a city as small as Toulouse, now it’s the gleaming metropolis escape that I never see enough. Barcelona–bigger and better (also twice as far, so I see it only every few years now).
    Our village has doubled in population since we’ve been here, and more houses are going up, like cancerous tumors metastasizing across the countryside. It’s the same in all the villages. Meanwhile, Carcassonne has granted permission for yet another shopping center. After the last one, just a couple of years ago, about half the shops in the town center closed to move there. The latest will be less than a kilometer from the city’s first shopping center and will certainly kill it, leaving another vast, empty building and parking. There’s no economic reason for a new shopping center, and plenty of reasons against, but it’s making somebody rich. I saw the same thing in Belgium–what used to be fields as far as the eye could see had been turned into strips of big-box stores, each with its own parking lot and no way to go from one to the next except by car. With more shopping done online, these stores and shopping malls seem like they’ll soon be dinosaurs. Will the land go back to agriculture? Is that even possible?
    If you look out a few decades from now, what France and Europe have is rich agricultural land that is less polluted than ever. It will be the prized possession, the natural resource nec plus ultra. We would do well to protect it, and to protect the farmers.

    1. I’m so sad to hear that there’ll be yet another shopping centre in Carcassonne – and all that just to make more money for someone who probably already has enough!

    2. Wise words indeed. I am surprised that Carcassonne is so eager to allow shopping malls to ruin the life of its commercial heart. 😢 How interesting that you witnessed a similar phenomenon in Belgium; the big box industrial zones are sad places indeed; we have several nearby which I avoid like the plague. As you say, with online shopping taking over, how will the land be used in future? My faith in the French keeping a healthy balance in their country has always been absolute but lately I must admit it is looking worrisome.

      1. Oh, and I forgot to add: very surprised that you consider yourself a ‘city mouse’ after all this time? Do you really think you would adjust to living in a city the size of Toulouse? I look upon cities as essential places to have nearby, which I love to visit, but am not convinced about living in one anymore…

  3. Nice article (as always) I wouldn’t, however trust that what they spray on the fields isn’t toxic. France in general and the wine industry in particular have a long tradition of working closely with the chemical industry. Hence the support to the farmers working with “Bio” is crucial!

    1. I agree! 😢 However, it has recently been pointed out to me that even ‘bio’ allows the use of certain fertilizers and pesticides; I suppose we should realize as consumers that whatever produce we buy is subject to some sort of processing and additives. The best solution I have found is to buy local, bio if possible, and eat fresh food in season (even though I confess to not always following this rule…) Thanks for chiming in!

  4. I adore city life, but just as a diversion from country life – culture can be in short supply in small villages in the sticks! But the quality of life in the country is so much better than in the city, food being much fresher and local produce so much better than supermarket supplies.

    As for the farmers, they are driven to the brink by the big boys, the supermarkets that screw down the price of food to the minimum, and by the consumers who want to pay less and less money for food. Growing food is hard work, and the resulting produce should be fairly paid for. The fact that farmers are going out of business or killing themselves attests that they are not getting a fair deal, unfortunately!

    1. Hard work indeed! I would certainly have the space to grow a few vegetables but cannot find the time and energy it takes to keep it up. I admire our hard-working ‘paysans’, especially those who are working within the very restrictive ‘bio’ framework. Sounds like you are a decided country mouse with a taste for a bit of city culture. Thankfully you seem to get quite a bit of both in Saint Chinian!

      1. Well, if I can’t get to the city for culture, I have to bring the culture here!! 🙂 As for growing things, I’m a fairly lazy gardener, but it’s amazing what can be grown with minimal effort… You’d be surprised!!

  5. Bravo for the late line pun ! I really enjoyed it .
    I partly grew up in my grands farm in the 60s somewhere in the south-west . My granddad had only 5 hectares (if you know what it means), a ridiculous surface nowadays, 6 cows, 2 pigs, a few rabbits and poultry . My grandma had a huge garden only devoted to fooding, a few warious fruit trees, and with that we lived in a complete autarcy, and with no chemicals .
    In my youth I was a big city folk and a long range traveler . Very far, very different was my goal . Then in my 30s I felt like discovering Frances ( the plural is not a mistake) and started many trips in different regions, doing only wild camping . And Bang ! I discovered a tender passion that had been hidden inside me for decades, an incredibly strong love for all the sorts of countrysides and skies that compose the several Frances, and I understood the old famous song “Douce France, cher pays de mon enfance” . I thing I sympathze with you on this aspect .

    1. What a great recording…love the paroles! There is something about ‘la chanson française’ that I love to listen to but cannot manage to sing along with. Just a light way of hitting the lyrics. As for the pun, I must in all fairness give the credit to my English teacher…penned upon an assignment in which I apologized for all the bad puns! 😅 Like you, I began by hating anything to do with the ‘sticks’ and wanting a big city life, then becoming a late but devoted convert to country life. I think once these different ‘Frances’ get into your blood, you are a goner.

  6. I grew up in a small town, I’ve lived most of my life now in a large city, but I need time in the country to ‘recalibrate’. I love the city, but I NEED time in the country.

    I had been wondering where you were from. I had guessed Canada, but thought perhaps Quebec. Toronto raised? – cool 🙂

    1. Interesting, where did you grow up? I cut my teeth in Scarborough but escaped to Toronto and spend my early adult years there before moving to France. Too long ago already! Just checked out your other blog and it looks like we are the same age. I admire your adventurous spirit doing all that hiking!

      1. I live in Scarborough now – Agincourt, actually. I can’t say I like it here, but convincing my husband to move is proving difficult.

        I’m originally from Northern Ontario – Cochrane, near Timmins – a very French part of the country.

        Thanks for checking out my other blog. Normally I hike all year round, but the weather this winter has made travelling to the trails a lot more treacherous that usual. Either that or I’m getting old 😉
        I have a lot of plans for when the warmer weather arrives!

        In fact, I’ll be in France in April. We will be exploring the north coast from Saint-Malo to Brugges, including a few days in Rouen. This is a part of the country we haven’t seen and I’m quite excited.

      2. Agincourt! Oh my, small world…my family lived there for years after moving back to Toronto from the US (Minneapolis, 5 years) and I went to Stephen Leacock CI. Never been to Cochrane but I bet it is even colder there! 😅 I don’t know Saint Malo but Rouen has a beautiful cathedral (as you probably know). Hopefully you will still see lots of pretty orchards blossoming in those parts in April, the season is a bit early this year but it should be perfect timing.

      3. omg – it IS a small world. I live relatively close to Stephen Leacock! God – I love blogging!!

        I appreciate that the weather can be pretty iffy in April, but I have such wonderful memories of Paris in April from one of our earlier visits, so we were willing to take that chance.

  7. I am a lifelong Londoner, if you take a look at my blog or ramblings , it explains more , but i dont think I could adapt to rural life . My parents moved away to Southend on Sea to find a peaceful place by the sea when my dad retired ( there a joke there if you know the place) but he died at 65 . i dont think he could take moving away from East London . I wouldnt make the same mistake I am so used to the city and having all the amenities nearby. I think a person is at their best with the things they are used to I do have a flat in Spain in a beautiful place and and we have the country and the sea and mountains and restuarants all nearby but I m not sure it could be permanent but its a possibility as there is an Aldi and Lidl nearby 🙂 it all depends how bad Brexit becomes .
    I am disappointed by your leaving the horse droppings. My wife is from Mauritius and we have been married for over 30 years and she has often proudly told me over this long period of time how her dad would scurry after any passing horse witha bag collecting what the horse left, for their garden which had loads of spendid mango trees to feed..

    1. If only I were that diligent, my garden would certainly grow a lot greener! I do think the city should clean the sidewalks from time to time, given what we pay in taxes… I’m sure as a lifelong Londoner, I would have a hard time leaving too. As for Brexit, fingers crossed — it isn’t over until it’s over, eh? Sorry about the loss of your dad so soon after retirement. Sadly, it seems to be an all-too-common occurrence. BTW, what is the joke about Southend?

  8. Southend is the nearest seaside town to East London. For old time East Londoners it was once looked upon as a resort , I think my mother still had that image of the place when they decided to move . Without wishing to run the place down I could describe it now as an extension of East London . It does have a beach and sea and you can take a nice walk along the promenade and there are some very nice spots such as Westcilff and Leigh on sea.so its not at all bad. However It was a long time ago when they moved there and the place where they lived was not so good. Lots of Pubs and amusement arcades and rowdy at night with drunks on the street.. During the day there was a sense of desolation I dont know if it has improved, but then it was not so nice for retirement and it still makes me think they would have been far better off if they had stayed in London .

    1. Hello . When you mentioned Southend on Sea it reminded me the summer of 76 . There was then a huge derelict hotel whose ballroom was used every saturday night by the Teddy Boys of the whole area . So I spent all my saturday evenings among them, practicing their acrobatic dance they called “the jive” . The first song of each night was always “Jailhouse Rock” . Ha ha, so long ago, looks like another life, another world for sure but I remember this Southend .

  9. Your blog and particularly the comments turned into a trip down memory lane for me. I can remember my Grandad Lewis shoveling the manure from the bread and milk wagon horses onto his small garden at 8 Wineva in Toronto during the 40’s and 50’s. There is nothing really new under the sun.

  10. Wow ! Fantastic ! I didn’t imagine this could exist, grazie mille; though we don’t see much Teddy’s”jive” in this footage .
    (Since you’re a magician, by chance don’t you know the equivalent for Bristol in 75 summer ? I never could remember how all this happened but I soon spent all my evenings in the local Hell’s Angels disco, and I’d be in an outer space if I could see this !)

    1. If I could pull that magic rabbit out of my hat, I’d be delighted to! It appeared after a bit of googling to discover what the Teddy Boys in Southend were all about. But the jitterbug, to my mind, was a much older dance, from the 40s and 50s. 1976? It was already the punk rock movement! (Although even for ’72, some of those tattoos were amazing!).

      1. Thanks for jitterburg, if it was this acrobatic dance they all did and I learnt from them (all the guys around were calling it “the jive”) . Well, in 76 it was not in this place, and it was a special huge gathering from London area . With them I discovered the Punks while discovering they were enemies ha ha . A few street encounters occurred …

  11. I’m like you – a lover of the things that city’s bring, like exhibitions and quirky shops, but a fan of the peace and space of the country. How balancing it is to walk in fields, among sheep and cows, with distant views! Farming has been headlining our news in Australia most of the season thanks to a devastating drought, terrible floods and the crazy temperatures that climate change brings. Many farmers have simply given up. And yet there are those who still fight the idea that the climate is changing and support coal mining, land clearing, etc, etc. I think France will be clobbered by climate change, too, to a far greater degree than people think. So cheers to les paysans… and hopefully we’ll all come to our senses before it’s too late!

    1. It is already happening, at least anecdotally. We too are witnessing the alternate droughts and flooding, warmer temps and general ‘perturbations’ of the change. A bit like a grand dame entering menopause, methinks. 🥵 The change is coming and it’s beginning to feel too late already, sadly.

  12. I’m a small town person though I’ve lived in Ottawa for nearly 4 decades. The nice thing about Ottawa is that it is relatively quick to get out into the country if I need a fix of clean air and quiet or want to hike and swim away from crowds. I’m kind of afraid of the country – all that space and all those creatures that skulk in the woods and in the grass.

    1. I’ve often thought that Ottawa is a city of a scale that would suit me now. Although possibly not the weather! I know what you mean about feeling afraid in the country, although we do seem to have less scary stuff like bears and poisonous snakes around here.

  13. We live on the urban fringe and it feels a lot like where you are. Three of us neighbours run a couple of alpacas to keep the grass down, and two doors up a neighbour has goats and some chickens. I honestly can’t imagine living in a suburb again. 🙂

    1. How lovely! I suppose it depends on how you define ‘suburb’ but I agree if it means rows of similar houses with box-like backyards. A bit of both is really ideal and it sounds like you have that with the city not too far.

      1. Most Australian cities are just giant suburbs growing from a small commercial hub. We don’t have high density living the way you do in European cities. We do have inner city areas which fit the row-house-with-box-backyard model, but until recently, suburban blocks were all on 1/4 acre. In fringe areas like Warrandyte, most of the blocks are much bigger; mine is 1.6 acres and kind of average. Then you get out into the real country. We’re very much into urban sprawl.

  14. I’ve always marveled at how quickly the landscape in France shifts from urban to rural when you leave the large cities (even Paris). I’ll appreciate that shift even more now that I know much of that land is still worked by families, although I imagine their lives must be very hard. But how lucky you are to live among all those open spaces! Although I live in a city I’m much more of a country mouse, so it looks like heaven to me …

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