Disconnected: Notes from a small village in southwest France

Note: Owing to the chaos of my life recently, I’ve had to delay posting this.

October 17, 2015

The only sounds are a fly batting against the window and radiators clicking. Church bells strike 10am, long and noisily. A gate creaks. Then, nothing. I crunch into my pain complet, breaking the silence.

This is my third day alone in the house. Tomorrow my husband arrives. Thank goodness.

Alone in a large house on the fringes of a small village (to be generous – it has no shops and a ‘cafe-bar’ that’s only open in summer) is not the same as being alone at home in London, in a row of dense terraces, two minutes walk from a main road serviced by five + buses. Here, in this collection of houses in the foothills of the Pyrenees, cars are a rarity. Residents are encouraged to leave their cars in a car park at the back of the town hall (how the village got a town hall, I’m not sure). You’re more likely to be disturbed by a herd of cows being chivvied through narrow lanes.

I feel as if I’m on a retreat and have taken a vow of silence. The modern communications I take for granted at home have all gone on indefinite strike: the satellite TV refuses to transmit any programs, insisting that its card must be updated (it’s been over a year since we were last here). Our old portable radio won’t pick up anything except static (there’s a way to tune it manually but I’ve forgotten). Since we don’t spend much time here, we don’t have a landline. S had arranged for the local electrical shop to install an internet connection but there’s a delay and now it can’t be done until next week, after we leave. At least I have my i-phone to call home, though it only works from certain parts of the house (the signal is weak due to an unfortunately positioned mountain). And it can receive texts (though none of the texts I’ve sent have yet arrived).

In the afternoon, well before darkness comes, I put my book aside, gather a generous selection of logs from the basement and stack them by the fireplace. Once again, I wonder what made me decide to arrive in a large dark very cold house three days before my husband. On my first evening, I had to inspect the house for mice then remove all signs of their previous occupation of the kitchen. Then the oil heating system didn’t come on when I flicked the switch. I went to bed early and spent the night huddled underneath three duvets, along with three wool pullovers, tights and woolly socks.

Though the heating system is now sorted (the timer wasn’t set properly) my anxiety about the fire going out continues until I’ve been poking at the logs and fiddling with the chimney’s air inlet valves for a good hour, and the fire is practically a furnace.

I eat my dinner (cassoulet, aka bean and duck stew) on the sofa in front of the fireplace. Finally, I can relax.

Apart from the heat it gives out, the fire is a source of an unreasonable amount of comfort, pleasure and reassurance. I stop being a woman with less-than-perfect French, alone in a silent, way-too-large house. I stop listening out for every creak and trying to work out whether it’s from inside or outside. I stop thinking I could go next door if I really had to, then again, it’s getting late now and they all go to bed so damned early here. Watching the leaping flames and listening to the spitting, crackling logs, I feel like dropping onto my knees and saying thank you to the God of Fire. I’ve been transformed into a long-ago cave dweller, entranced by something inexplicable, magical.

Suddenly I don’t mind my isolation. In fact, I really don’t want it to end. Who needs TV and radio, let alone computers and mobile phones? All that frenetic tweeting and posting, bleeping and buzzing… And who needs husbands, for that matter? An evening alone in front this fire is all I need. Bliss.

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