Thursday, March 31, 2011

Letter from Ariege, by Sebastian Sinclair

I’m often quizzed on the extravagances of France, with the same set of questions.

‘Have you been to Paris or seen the famous artworks at the Louvre?’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but have you heard of the southwest?’

The Ariege region nudges the border of Spain, divided only by the Pyrenees. During winter, the powdery snow litters every object and every rock, blanketing the mountains in a thick white. In summer, the snow is stripped bare revealing a plethora of rocky outcrops and sun scorched grass. The ancient and weather worn country-side is mimicked by the people who inhabit it. Unshaven shepherds in their flat caps and faded vests call out to herds whose goat-bells ring throughout the valley.

In the shade of an old elm, I sit, watching closely as my Pepe picks apples from a nearby tree. His rigid straw hat and large round glasses rest still as he struggles to free the yellow fruit. He tosses me one and tells me to take a bite.


I scrunch my face up.

He has caught me off guard.

‘Cest pas bon.’

It isn’t very nice, I tell him. But he assures me that they ripen once they have been picked.

I sit for a while more, soaking up the familiar surroundings. I have memories here as a young boy. This area never changes. The scent of wildflowers and freshly mowed grass. I can see cows on a nearby farm where I once met a young boy. And the sun, arrogant and persistent, reveals an array of blues, purples and yellows across the hillside.

My grandfather signals me, time to go back up to the house. I follow closely behind and watch as his Labrador comes over. Together we make our way across the grass and up to the porch where my Meme, mother and sister are playing cards. I feel at home here, things make sense. Vines grow and mate passionately, in this way and out, across the walls of my grandparents two story stone house. Large shutters wrap around the windows locking in the warmth of winter and blocking out the sun during summer’s unforgiving days. Australians prefer fans and heaters, but I find shutters to be much more practical.

Lunchtime is ready. I watch as my Meme produces dish after dish accompanying each fitting course. I pick at my food inquisitively as a conversation unfolds. At first I listen and absorb. Eventually I lose track and struggle to follow the words tumbling from the adult’s mouths. I brace myself. My Pepe slams his fist hard on the table, sending cups flying into the air.

“Non, je dis non,” he yells.

He’s angry about something.

But my mother doesn’t care.

She picks up an empty plate and slams it onto the table causing the cutlery to shake.

“You’re my father, but you don’t understand me,” she screams, flushing red.

My sister and I look at each other, cheeks full of food.

We are trying hard to not be included.

My Meme stands to stop the violence that has erupted on her back porch.

“Desert,” she says airily and sweeps off to the kitchen.

The table is silent once again. She returns moments later with a large ceramic bowl of ‘amity’ apple puré. It is her homemade recipe, using freshly picked ingredients of the tiny yellow kind.

‘C’est normal.’

To be at each other’s throats is a usual past time.

I remember once, when the mail was delivered, my Pepe strolled down the gravel driveway with his dog to play fetch. The dog returned with a roll of newspaper in his mouth while my Pepe clutched a fistful of letters. Excited by the arrival of some news, I stood patiently waiting beside my grandfather as he sat and opened the first of the letters and began reading to himself. I glanced over; big mistake. I was clipped across the head by the full force of my grandfather’s strong hands. Apparently, it is rude to read one’s letters, especially over one’s shoulder.

But how was I to know? I can’t even read French.

My Pepe showed me the tough kind of love.


Sebastian Sinclar is a Journalism student at QUT.