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July 1st - Home again, home again

Ooop north in Brussels it’s difficult to explain why anyone would want to live in the Cevennes. Visiting colleagues there last week, the word “buried” kept erupting into the conversation and my bleatings about beauty and tranquillity sounded more and more lame as the (Belgian) beers went down.

True enough, when you live in Brussels, (or Amsterdam, London or Paris, come to that) you’re surrounded by a multi-cultural international culture and recreation. Yes, there are exhibitions, displays, concerts, plays, fancy bars, fashionable restaurants, glitzy shops, loads of friends and parties just falling over themselves to invite you to drinks, dinners, lunches and impromptu picnics by the lake. There is money to be earned, too. It’s so much easier to build a career in the city.

And town life is exciting, stimulating, energising. In town you sleep less, vibe more, have ideas, razz from place to place, give it the old sha-boom. Up in the backwoods of the Cevennes, you eat slowly, think inconsequential thoughts, stare at the distant peaks, wonder about watering the garden. (And that’s on a busy day.)

Fabulous for a holiday, said the colleagues. But what on earth are you doing there all year round?

I wasn’t sure. What do we do up here in the Cevennes all year round? Walk the dog, make pickles, er... I built a dolls’ house one winter, made a huge patchwork quilt another, and one winter I actually bothered to re-upholster the sofa.

Hmmm, said the colleagues. Retirement activities. When are you coming back to join in with life in the fast lane, life as we know it, real life? When are you coming back to earn some decent cash, interview ministers, run round the Parliament, go down to the Commission every lunchtime, hang out at every Council?

Hmmm, I said. I’ll just shuffle off to watch the battle of Waterloo before I answer that question, if you don’t mind.

Just south of Brussels, in and around the village of Plancenoit last weekend, there were four bivouacs housing at least 3,000 people who had come from all over the world to remember the 190th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo by re-enacting it. They were staying in period tents, wearing period clothes and eating period food too - judging by the suckling pig I saw being roasted over a camp fire.

But that wasn’t all. I was reliably informed that the real die-hards had even abandoned the comfort of M&S next to the skin in favour of period detail ie no knix at all.

The first day I interviewed dozens of people, including Napoleon himself (who turned out, in a bizarre twist, to be an American from Virginia), walked at least 10kms across dusty fields in boiling heat, went bright red under the blazing sun and had to resort to lurking about underneath an umbrella.

The second day was a dawn start, a car park 2kms from the action, a consequently long march, hours of standing in crowds, another 10km tramp across the fields still clutching my brolly in one hand and my notebook in the other, and six hours breathing cordite fumes.

“Why?” I asked the re-enactors. “Why? What’s it all for?”

The answers came thick and fast, ranging from straight declarations of insanity to complicated explanations of historical interest. But by that time, I could hardly see straight. I was way beyond comprehension.

Fours hours later having filed the story and the pix to the editor at the Beeb, I couldn’t see at all.

Which seemed like a good moment to start partying. Several days later, I couldn’t stand up. Which seemed like the opportune time to come home, whether or not it meant turning my back on real life.

And back in the Cevennes, it all fell into place. The point about living in the mountains is nothing to do with being able to sleep easy here. It is nothing to do with the evening air always being fresh, or the beauty of the green hills or the blooming flowers. There is time to listen to birds singing, to smell the scented night stock at the door, to admire a new baby, enjoy a siesta, a leisurely supper, a relaxing bath - but that isn’t the point either.

The point is, re-enactors like dressing up in uncomfortable clothes, sleeping on straw mattresses and running up and down fields firing muskets.

They do it because they like it.

And us lot, buried in the foothills of nowhere, dreaming our lives away, turning our faces away from the hustle and bustle of modern life... well, we’re just the same. We do it because we like it.

Whew, it’s good to be back home.

And the famous article, by the way, is here:-

Next column will be uploaded around 15th July.

This article is protected by all international copyright agreements, and reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author.


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