Life in Southwest France

Welcome to La Lune, French for the moon. This is the name of the lieu-dit (locality) in southwest France where our 18th-century farmhouse is situated. We have lived here since 1997. The name almost certainly has nothing to do with the moon, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.

I’m a British writer and novelist. You can see my books, which are set mostly in France or on the French island of Corsica, in the right-hand sidebar.

Life on La Lune includes episodes from our French life, snippets about French history, culture and customs, and details of things happening in our area.

I try to tell it as it is and not to romanticise life in France. After so many years, je ne regrette rien, and I love living here, even if aspects of French life are still unfathomable.

I also love hearing about other people’s experiences of France, so do leave a comment underneath a post if you feel moved to do so. I always reply.

If you would like to subscribe to my blog (completely free and you can unsubscribe at any time), please click on the email link in the right-hand sidebar. Your email address will never be publicly visible.

Life on La Lune now has a Facebook page. There, you’ll find additional photos, info and snippets about France that don’t fit on the blog. And you can comment on posts there, too, if you’re on Facebook. I look forward to seeing you there.

Bonne continuation!  

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Abandoned Village: Saint-Amans-le-Vieux

Today was a beautiful, if still too dry, autumn day, so the SF and I decided to bestir ourselves and make the most of this fine weather for a walk. “Where shall we go?” We are faced with an embarras de choix, since so many walking trails criss-cross this area. Walk from here or take the car? In the end, the car won, and we parked down at the lake in Caylus, where several footpaths converge.

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Bowled Over: One of France’s Favourite Sports

Under the plane trees on the outskirts of a southern French village, an ancient tradition is taking place. A knot of men is gathered, fortified by glasses of Pastis. The sun dipping behind the trees makes zebra patterns on the dusty patch of earth. The “chock” of metal striking metal alternates with voices raised in dispute. What are they doing? Playing France’s 10th most popular sport: boules or pétanque. This has become one of the classic symbols of French culture, along with the beret, the baguette and the bouteille de vin.

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Cordes-sur-Ciel: Dramatic and Timeless

I’d forgotten what a long way up it is. Seventeen years had obliterated our memory of the steep hike up to the cité of Cordes-sur-Ciel perched on its hilltop, which was long considered inaccessible. But we weren’t going to wimp out and take le petit train, which deposits less athletic, but maybe more sensible, tourists at the top. The effort is worth it to see one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the region. Luckily for us, by the last weekend in August the tourist hordes had largely disappeared, but it was busy enough.  

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From Monks to Mona Lisa: L’Abbaye de Loc-Dieu

Imagine a place the locals dreaded so much that they named it locus diaboli, the devil’s place. A lonely, remote spot near the major trade route between Rodez and Cahors, with dark woods bristling with bandits lying in wait. And yet this was where a group of Cistercian monks founded an abbey in the 12th century, and the name of the place was transformed to locus dei, or Loc-Dieu, God’s place. I revisited the abbey, which is now privately owned, last week, after a gap of 12 years or so.

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Missing Cat: Chat Perdu

I wrote this post this morning after our cat had been missing for 15 days. An hour later she miaowed and walked back through the door as if nothing had happened. She was hungry and a bit perturbed, but apparently unharmed. We are so relieved. But I will leave the post here, because it might help others whose animals have gone missing.

Our cat, Bella, has been missing for a fortnight without trace. This is why I haven’t been posting recently – I simply haven’t had the heart. It’s a long shot posting here, but since this blog reaches quite a number of people in SW France, it may be worth it.

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Rally Round: the Caylus Car Rally

It isn’t exactly the Paris-Dakar rally, but it’s an annual event that we really enjoy taking part in. The Caylus rally is not about speed; it’s about discovering the local historic heritage during a 50 km circuit with eight checkpoints. Organised by Caylus Notre Village, which has been instrumental in restoring the lavoir (wash-house) in Caylus, the theme this year was – no surprise – lavoirs.

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Timeless Monument: The Cathedral of Cahors 900 Years On

2019 marks the 900th anniversary of la Cathédrale Saint-Etienne in Cahors. The cathedral is even older than the ill-fated Notre-Dame de Paris. Yesterday, 27th July, was supposed to be the official anniversary, since it was on that day in 1119 that Pope Sixtus II consecrated the high altar. Unfortunately, after weeks with no rain at all, the heavens opened, and the Tourist Office website says that the fête has been put back to Tuesday 30th.

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The French Countryside isn’t Quiet: Spread the Word

One of our co-residents in full song

Lying in bed early this morning, through the open window I heard cockerels crowing, a tractor doing some heavy-duty work not far away, cow bells jangling, dogs barking, pigeons cooing and the sparrows that nest in our walls chirping and bickering. So it wasn’t exactly silent. But I would far rather hear these sounds than constant traffic noise, emergency services’ sirens, thumping pop music and neighbours’ domestics. However, it appears that not everyone appreciates the sounds that accompany life in the French countryside.

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Drought in Southwest France

First, let me wish you a joyeux Quatorze Juillet. Today is la Fête Nationale in France and one of the most important holidays in the calendar. Today is sunny and hot. In previous years, we have been known to light a fire on 14th July. This year, the firework display in our local village seems to be going ahead, despite the sécheresse (drought). It has been cancelled before, notably in 2003, owing to the fire hazard.

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Summertime, and the Living is – Busy

Life on La Lune has been a bit quiet recently. One non-negotiable reason is that we had huge problems accessing the internet during the past week. While it is back, it’s wobbly. The other reason is that summer has arrived, and with it a raft of activities that all seem to have come at once.

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Favourite French Films: Marcel Pagnol’s La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère


A few months ago, I posted on Life on La Lune’s Facebook page that we were re-watching the films of Marcel Pagnol’s classic Provence novels, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Do watch them if you get the chance. Someone commented that I ought to write about the films of his childhood memoirs, La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère. Your wish is my command. I will try not to give away any spoilers.

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Quirky Quercy Art – or Quart

Some of you will remember the late lamented Fyfe Robertson, a British TV journalist known for his trenchant views. A somewhat quirky figure himself, with his tweeds and deer-stalker hat, he had his own series, ‘Robbie’, in which he roamed Britain debunking myths and pouring scorn on affectation. In one programme in 1977, he turned the spotlight on aspects of modern art. This was the era of the bricks in the Tate Gallery and other such installations. Robbie labelled these “Phoney Art – or Phart”. So he was in mind when I came up with the title for this post.

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Noses to the Grindstone? La Meulière de Clayrac near Cordes

Our walking group has recently taken some interesting routes, which have introduced us to the patrimoine (historic heritage) of the region. Some of the sites are quite off the beaten track and we hadn’t come across them before in our 22 years here. Last week, we took the road to Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn, to explore the countryside around this perched hilltop town.

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How Does Voting Take Place in France?

For people like me who are not French citizens, voting here is a rare event, confined to the municipal elections (every six years) and the European elections (every five). The last time I voted was in March 2014, for the conseil municipal. I am not permitted to vote in the UK, having been out of the country for more than 15 years. So I was determined to exercise my vote today in the European elections, and we duly presented ourselves at our village Mairie.

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A Walk Around Caylus

Caylus. The lake is on the other side of the hill, below the ruined château

It’s been an eventful 10 days or so. My latest novel is now out, involving quite a lot of last-minute effort. And the Irish Embassy in Paris phoned on Tuesday to say that my citizenship application had been accepted. My certificate arrived yesterday and was, in fact, a bit underwhelming. It bears a photo of me looking as if I’m going to the scaffold as usual, plus some bare personal facts. It doesn’t even mention my grandmother, by virtue of whose birth in Ireland I became eligible for citizenship.

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The Life of an Agricultural Labourer in France in 1900

I posted this on my writing site, since it’s background to my latest novel, but I thought Life on La Lune readers might be interested, too. It’s the results of my research on female agricultural labourers in France in 1900: how did they get hired? What did they do? How much did they earn? What were their prospects?

Vanessa Couchman

Market place in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which had several large monthly agricultural fairs at one time. The fountains are a 21st century addition.

At the turn of the 20th century, the world of agricultural
labour in France was a patchwork of different métiers and social positions. Wherever you were on the social hierarchy,
your life was governed by the tasks associated with the different seasons.

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Saving Face: Some of the Less Obvious Gems in SW France

Disrespectful stone carving in Caylus.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’m following the example of fellow blogger Midi Hideaways, who wrote a recent post about the statuary and carved stone faces on buildings in the towns of the Languedoc. In this post I look at some of the less flamboyant, but often charming, architectural patrimoine in our area.

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A Special Day for Life on La Lune

Eglise Saint-Corneille in Puycelsi.. Stark on the outside…
A riot of colour inside
Puycelsi – hilltop fortress town

Today is a rather special day for us. More of that below. It’s been a rather eventful couple of weeks, which explains my erratic blogging record just now. Having taken part in a concert in the hilltop village of Puycelsi in aid of restoring the church, the following day saw the semi-destruction by fire of Notre-Dame de Paris.

A couple of days later our cat, Bella, went missing and didn’t return for 72 hours, when we were starting to give up hope. It’s almost impossible to settle to anything when that happens. Fortunately, she was unscathed, if starving, and has hopefully learned a lesson. In addition, I’ve been getting my latest novel ready for publication and attempting to stop the garden turning into a jungle.

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Emma Calvé: Forgotten Singing Star of the Belle Epoque

I posted this on my writing blog, since it concerns my latest novel, but as this post is about a famous singer who was born in Aveyron, SW France, I thought readers of Life on La Lune might be interested, too.

Vanessa Couchman

Emma Calvé, Wikimedia Commons, SIP 89-12, by Reutlinger

Have you heard of Emma Calvé? I hadn’t, until I read about her in a French novel. However, she was one of the brightest stars of her time in the singing world and had a highly-acclaimed international career. Hers is a fascinating rags-to-riches-to-rags story, which has inspired my latest novel, Overture.

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Centuries to Build, Hours to Destroy: Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame intact

One of France’s – no, the world’s – best-loved icons, Notre-Dame de Paris, caught fire shortly before 7 pm last night. The flames quickly took hold and, although the fire brigade was quick to react, it was impossible to save the roof, composed of tonnes of wood and lead. This morning, thanks to the tactic of playing water over the stonework, the towers and the walls are still intact. And no one was killed, although a fireman was badly injured while fighting the flames.

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Clock This

I hope you remembered to put your clocks forward last night if you’re in Europe, otherwise you’ll be a bit behind everyone else. We posted reminders throughout the house so that we wouldn’t forget, but there’s always at least one clock that slips through the net. However, in 2021, we will change the hour for the last time.

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Say it with Flowers: France’s Villages Fleuris

The garden is burgeoning and it’s that time of year when one’s thoughts turn to planning and planting. While driving around France, you might have noticed village signs declaring “Village – or ville – fleuri(e)” and sporting one to four flower symbols. I had never really thought much about this until Le Figaro published an article celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Villages Fleuris organisation. Rather like the plus beau village label, these accolades are not given out lightly.

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Tilting at Windmills

Windmill at Saillagol

One of the things I love about living here is local people’s interest in le petit patrimoine, the vestiges of a rural life that has faded away. Groups of enthusiastic volunteers contribute to their restoration to rescue them from oblivion. Today, I dragged the SF off to visit one of these projects, lo molin de la Gaventa, a windmill outside the village of Saillagol.

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The Story of the People at La Lune

Our house, almost at the point of no return in the 1960s.

I’d love to know who lived in our house long ago. Elderly neighbours have always been hazy about this, perhaps because it doesn’t really interest them. This week, at last, I discovered a story about previous occupants.

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Very Welcome Visitors

Who’s hiding in here?

We knew they were there, because we’d heard them. But we didn’t know exactly where. They kept themselves well concealed, only moving about at night, until we stumbled upon their secret hiding place.

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The Post-Impressionists Head South to Rustic Provence: Guest Post

Arles on the Rhône, one of the places we’re visiting today
Main square in Arles

Life on La Lune: I’m very keen on art, so whenever I visit a place, I always seek out the art gallery. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists particularly appeal to me. They have a few connections with Southwest France: Toulouse Lautrec was born in Albi, Renoir in Limoges and Suzanne Valadon in the Limousin. However, they are better known for their attachment to Paris, Normandy and Provence.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Jeanette Gory, whose website follows in the footsteps of these artists. She’s written a post for us on Cézanne and Van Gogh in Provence, including helpful tips on visiting places associated with them. Her post has certainly whetted my appetite for revisiting their haunts (the two images above are from my visit to Arles a few years ago on a very cold May day).

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New Technology Lands on La Lune

La Lune - Shot in the dark

Life on La Lune passed its 9th  birthday last week on 14th February. A few things have changed since then, not least our ability to access the internet. When I published my first post (the present one is the 628th), we were still using a dial-up connection. After all this time, the electronic tune the modem played each time we switched it on is engraved on my memory.

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The Bells, the Bells: the Magic of Church Bells in Rural France

Paris - Notre-Dame 2

Notre-Dame de Paris, of Quasimodo fame

In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the loud ringing of the cathedral bells has turned Quasimodo, the bell-ringer, deaf. Some of you will no doubt have seen Charles Laughton hamming it up inimitably in the 1939 film. I love the sound of church bells pealing, although I must admit I wouldn’t like to live next door to them. This week, news reports revealed that a part-time resident of a village in Vienne is taking the commune to court because he finds the church bells too loud.

As ever, this snippet inspired me to look closer to home for stories about local bells. Continue reading

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La Chandeleur: Candles, Customs and Crêpes

Corsican sunset on Cap Corse

Return of the sun

Today is la Chandeleur or la fête des chandelles. I had never heard of it before we moved to France, but I had heard of Candlemas – lovely name – which is the British equivalent. To those of you in the States, it’s also Groundhog Day. Nowadays in France, it’s an excuse for eating crêpes (pancakes), but, as ever, it has a host of traditions behind it. Continue reading

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Maigret: France’s Favourite Flic

selection of our maigret books

A small selection of our Maigret books

Before you ask, flic is colloquial French for a police officer. Commissaire Jules Maigret is probably the best-known French fictional detective, created by the novelist Georges Simenon (who was actually Belgian). When we first moved here and my French was lousy, I cut my teeth on the Maigret novels, which are not that difficult. Recently, we’ve been watching DVDs of a long-running series of Maigret stories starring Bruno Cremer in the title role. Continue reading

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