To think that it’s been 40 years I’ve been living here in the mountains. Incredible! And since I find it hard to keep up with this high-tech world of ours (far too fast) I’m beginning to feel like an old Ariegeois fossil. Why did I come to live here? We were looking for somewhere remote – far from the city and stupid rules and regulations. In 1978 there were still many old-timers living in the valleys. The market in Massat was huge and you only heard the local dialect being spoken. The locals had sent their children to the city (sometimes as far as New York). There was a welcome here you could find nowhere else. The locals passed their barns on to us – often no more than ruins – for nothing or almost nothing. They made fun of us, of our way of life, of the clothes we wore, and they did not have much faith in our future here in the Ariège either. But most of the locals were really nice. They showed us how to do tree grafts, work the land and work with the animals. They were our surrogate parents and we their children. A perfect match! Each valley had its own ‘granpa’ and ‘granma’. They found it normal that we gave birth at home. But they did not like the idea of our children not attending school. Why? Because their ancestors (in the 1920s) hadn’t really learned how to read and write so had been cheated out of their land by naïvely signing over documents to unscrupulous “landowners”.
Patrice and I have been living with our 8 children in Bernede since 1978, our ‘philosophy’ being to live as independently as possible: 5 cows (for cheese, butter and yoghurt), fruit and vegetables, and a mill (by the river). Making sculptures, buildings built the traditional way, animal-traction farming methods, home education, it was all hard work. But we were free and keen to learn these ways of doing things. Even the 40-or-so nappies (diapers) that I had to wash each day in the wash place was a holiday for me! Believe me, 8 children and all of us living 24/7 in one room, plus the home schooling, it was a bit tiring sometimes and certainly noisy - especially in winter! So I would find myself at the wash place, on my own for 2 hours every day, my hands in warm water, lost in my thoughts and my feelings, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery that changed with the seasons. One of my greatest pleasures was to go and visit Henriette at Balmayné, a small village across the valley. Henriette was born in our house at Figuets in 1913 you see. With a baby on my back, the bigger ones at my feet, we would go once a month to see her and to listen to her stories of how things were here. She died aged 101 but she grew her own potatoes until she was 96. I remember that she would walk down to the market at Massat every Thursday with her friends Adele, Jeanne and Maria; 7 kilometers there and 7 back up the mountain, come rain or shine, summer or winter. Before the conversion to the euro (in 2001), the Credit Agricole (bank) closed in the Massat square, bringing to an end the get-togethers of the local old-timers. That was really sad. A whole culture that slowly disappeared. Now it’s us who are the old-timers.
Our children all left young to discover the world. Canada, Amazonia, Ireland, Tunisia, Peru, Reunion Island. Then they all came back to settle in the Ariege to do interesting jobs. I’ve 19 grand children now. That’s really nice. But the old timers have all died now. Gone is the self-sufficiency, there is not too much creative stuff being done, and everybody follows the herd (owning a car or mobile telephone, going to school, wanting the internet etc). It breaks my heart but that’s how it is in Europe now!
I don’t believe that the super-market or the inter-net are all that – well - super. I would rather spend my time visiting the last remaining ethnic tribes. They are poor in money but rich in spirit …… As for all those things we want through the media, happiness is not conditional you know, nor is love. I want to live in a world where we are all brothers and sisters. I really believe this. It’s just a matter of time, that’s all.