Welcome back to our little village of Puivert, nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the “département” of Aude, noted mainly for tourism, agriculture and wine production. Locally, there is little industry and most that is here, is allied to agrochemicals or aerospace, the latter being centred in Toulouse, about 90 minutes away. Like many rural communities, most of the “ordinary” people are somewhat impecunious and coupled with the fact the population density is less than that of the Lake District, major shopping centres are sparsely spread. A trip to a city like Carcassonne or Toulouse can involve a drive of an hour or more. Our nearest IKEA is over 120 km away; something for which I am extremely grateful!

Three things result from these facts:

  • people plan their menus and shopping;
  • recycling and upcycling are popular; and
  • “Stuff” Gets Mended (le dépannage).

Menus, Planning and Shopping

It simply isn’t possible to “pop down to Tesco” for a pint of milk, or jump in the car because you forgot the dishwasher tablets and just “can’t be arsed to wash up by hand”. As for getting a curry delivered (even if you could find a decent one) forget it! It’s not going to happen when your nearest takeaway is 18 km distant. So you write your menu for the week and buy what you need. Now, I know that the more orderly among you will be exclaiming, “I do that already!” and you are, genuinely, to be congratulated; but many don’t and it’s a skill some of us have had to (re)learn. Living out in “the sticks” brings a certain level of organisation and with it, thrift. It’s harder to go “off-piste” in the supermarché or the boucherie when one has a shopping list, based on a carefully thought-out plan. Of course, we all get tempted, every so often, by tasty treats and snacks (like cèpe-flavoured crisps!) or by the “offer of the week” on a leg of lamb, but the discipline that comes with being properly-organised makes it infinitely more difficult to stray.

Mouldy Jam and Simple Science

The lack of local shopping facilities forces us to make the best use of what we have. You may recall the uproar last Spring over Theresa May’s admission that she scrapes the mould off the surface of the jam to get to what’s underneath. But why such consternation? It’s simple science that the mould forms where the jam has been exposed to the air. Remove the mouldy stuff and you have perfectly edible jam below. The same goes for fruit and veg: cut out the squidgy or off-coloured bits and items that might previously have ended in the bin or on the compost heap, are now salvaged and offered the chance of redemption. It saves money and benefits the environment.

Free Stuff

In Puivert, we have an informal book-swapping library. I have no idea who started it or when, but if you need something to read, you simply wander off to the former “lavoir” (public washhouse), where there are several shelves full of books. You take what you like: there are no rules as such but it is tacitly understood that you replace anything you borrow, adding your own when you can.

Similarly, there is a magasin gratuit (literally, a “free shop”) run by local volunteers, where you leave things you no longer want – clothing, electrical goods, crockery and so on – for those who might need them. There is no charge for anything, and you can donate both money and goods. The shop is often left unattended: such is the nature of the local folk that nobody ever takes unfair advantage or abuses the goods or property.

Getting Stuff Mended

Not having local access to big chain stores means we “Get Stuff Mended”. People become resourceful and look for imaginative ways to repair broken or worn items, instead of buying expensive replacements. No doubt you have taken your car to your local dealer to be told, by an earnest attendant, that “the thingummy box will have to be replaced” and “the replacement has to come from Germany/Sweden/Italy, which will take a week”. This is usually the precursor to the little bomb, “… and it’s going to cost X-hundred before labour and VAT”. I experienced this earlier in the year when my ageing Volvo’s air conditioning started playing up. I was quoted £1,500, plus extras, by a reputable UK agent. A pal in the village recommended David, a young local mechanic, who operates from a workshop on his mother’s property. He plugged in the latest diagnostic kit, did some fiddling around under the bonnet and confirmed the compressor needed replacing. He found a used one online, from a reliable source and fitted it, all for a measly 400€. Why pay full price to replace parts that would last another 175,000 miles in a car that might well only have another three or four years’ life left in it?

Recycling and upcycling bits and pieces are part of the way of life here, and there’s also no shortage of skilled tradespeople to knock things up for you. We needed some railings to go around part of the mezzanine when we were converting our house, so our builder got the local blacksmith to fabricate them. The alternative would have been to try to find something at a large retailer, hundreds of km away, ship it here and have it cut to shape – not very “green”!

This attitude doesn’t just apply to bigger stuff, either. Many villages have informal “repair shops”, where you take along your broken strimmer, radio or even your mobile phone, and a veteran handyman (it will, generally, be a man – this is a fact of life) or a young whizz-kid with an interest in how things work, will mend it, at minimal cost. It all helps the local economy, reduces the amount of travel and waste, and thereby benefits the environment. All-in-all, it’s a far less wasteful system than the one we left behind.

This might all seem a little distant to some readers but I come from the generation born in the aftermath of World War II, when some goods were still rationed, money was generally scarce and there was a “make do and mend” mentality; and while I have wholeheartedly embraced the benefits and pleasures that innovation and technological progress can bring, I still find something rather comforting about seeing an old boy in overalls, with a roll-up hanging out of the corner of his mouth, actually fixing stuff – even if the tune he is whistling tunelessly is an old Johnny Hallyday number, rather than a Beatles classic.

Well, that’s it for the time-being – à bientôt and… vive le dépannage !

Now, where did I leave my toolbox?

© Alan R Price 2019

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One Comment

  1. We seem to have lost this way of life in the UK. There are similarities to your way of life in France here in Greece, particularly about mending stuff. Greeks will drive their cars into the ground before buying a new/younger one. The guy who did our tiling rides an ancient moped which seems to be held together with gaffer tape. Another chap who had trouble with the fuel tank on his bike simply took it off and replaced it with a 5 litre plastic bottle.

    Because Greeks, in the country at least, tend to do a lot of DIY, there are always hardware stores nearby. There are three within a four mile radius, selling stuff you’d never find in B&Q. In the nearest city, there are streets with three or four hardware stores within 200 metres of each other, sometimes next door.

    Wood is cut to the length you want, and usually you’re asked the purpose and they will come up with good ideas of how to achieve it. Spades and forks are sold separately from the handles which means a) they’re cheaper and b) broken handles can be easily replaced.

    Plumbers, electricians, carpenters usually turn up the day after you ring, sometimes the same day, and the concept of a call out charge doesn’t exist.

    There are some deficiencies. Although there are many small nurseries, they tend to sell a limited range of plants, mainly because they grow them themselves. The larger garden centres moreover don’t have the range of tools, fertilisers, pesticides that Wyevale, for instance, stock. You get these at the hardware stores.

    As for food, small supermarkets in the sticks, big ones in the city, plenty of fishmongers and butchers.

    As you said, we adjust, and we’re enjoying it as I know you are.

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