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.
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