Sunday, 7 August 2011

All that nature allows

Swifts darted just above, so fast that in the early morning silence you could hear the flapping of their wings as a little 'wooosh' overhead.

A sparrow scratched in the gutter above and, when spotted, disappeared fast, its flapping wings audible.

We have a tiny terrace here; a tiny, precious space between high stone walls. A haven in the early morning, in the evening and at night.

There are balconies at the front of the house; big enough - just - to sit on and gaze at the foothills of the Pyrenees as they rise out of the Mediterranean, an old windmill on one early rise, Fort St Elme on the next one; vineyards and olive groves all around.

But the terrace offers something special.

I prop my iPad on a fag packet on the table and write, Gauloise between my fingers, glass of wine by my side, even as the stars wink awake in the eternal blue above.

Not far away, near the railway tracks that lead to and from Spain, cicadas hum in the dark.

I remember the first time I heard them; outside the hotel in Perpignan where we stayed on our first trip to France. And then last year, in Nîmes, in the shadow of a ruined Roman temple to Diana, as dusk fell and the swifts dashed around, hunting vast dragonflies in the fire of the sunset.

There was a lizard on one of the balconies the other day. It saw me coming and scooted over the edge. Huge crickets were drawn to the light in the kitchen the other night and hopped around high enough to feature on Record Breakers while The Other Half tried to get them out. Why are they attracted to the light in such a way?

The Collioure ducks are here as usual. I love ducks - on the water and on my plate (in case you were worried I was going to get too pastoral). Some years ago, when we did a canal trip in the UK, we discovered teenage ducks: they're the ones that come over to your boat in gangs at twilight, quacking madly, demanding food, and even tapping the hull with their beaks to make sure you don't try to pretend you haven't heard them.

You can hear Mother duck in the distance, calling them home, but they're a right bunch of dirty stop outs, and stay away until first light - probably having been to duck raves somewhere else.

In Collioure, they're always near the castle, at the end of the storm drain and where the commando training centre at Fort Miradou store their canoes and dinghies. In the last two years, late season duckings have been lost in sudden storms. Last year, we saw the mother going around in a distressed way for days, looking for her offspring.

Never believe that the French can't be sentimental about our animal and bird friends - it made the local newspaper.

This year, there's one late ducking. We check every day as we pass on the way to and from Le Petit Café for our post-beach sundowner, and urge the mother to look after it.

The beach is perfect therapy. There's warmth in my skin now: before long, it will permeate to the bone - and the red will hopefully turn to a tan.

I've worked out that most people who get wrinkled skin because of being in the sun started in their twenties and have totted up a good 30 years plus of damaging behaviour.

Since I didn't convert from the cult of paleness to sun worship until I was in my forties, I don't think I'll fret too much - and that's not to say that I do 't take precautions.

There is time and space to think. No: not just time and space - but quiet.

Even the beach seems civilised in the height of the season, and our neighbours are barely any noisier than us - and all considerably quieter than the people around us in London, where making as much noise as possible would seem to be a status statement.

The older I get - and the more I visit this part of the world - the more I recall the observation of a friend some years ago, who commented that, while the UK has the highest standard of living in Europe, it also has the lowest quality of life.

It is, I think, true - but very sad.

Commentators say that France is going the way we have done; that cooking is a dying art; that Le Big Mac is in the ascendency, even here.

I know it's easy to be all romantic when you're only visiting somewhere briefly, on holiday, but France - please prove them wrong. Keep the faith. Because someone needs to. And because when you have lost what you have, it is not easy to get it back.

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