With one of my step-daughters, Jocelyn, getting married, in Spain, to her Spanish boyfriend, Juan-Jose, the need to take some significant items of clothing, wedding and bridesmaid dresses and specific equipment for the youngest family member, preferred car seat, was causing something of a headache. It became clear that the “simplest” solution, was to use the cost of putting several large cases and a child car seat onto a plane and for me to undertake the role of courier, taking a car-full of necessities to Valencia. This also meant that we had a car for the week, which was well-used for transporting other family members from and to the airport.
The 1000 mile each way journey, a repeat of one made six years earlier for a university placement year, was planned in stages; a stop-off at my cottage in the Limousin, near Limoges being the first 370 miles, from Dieppe. The second part was to be the remainder, with three potential routes being suggested, via Santander and the north Pyrenees, Perpignan and the south, or Agen and directly over the top, through the middle.
The first stage enabled some necessary maintenance on the house, one day taking advantage of the sunshine to cut the grass and pick up some earlier rows of dried grass from a neighbour’s cutting. Moles, which we haven’t had for many years, had made a reappearance and created several natural obstacles that needs to be removed. I won’t lose any sleep over the moles, as, with nature abhorring a vacuum, to remove them would create a space for more to move in. Just as well I did cut the grass, as we had a thunderstorm in the night. Painting the kitchen had been on the cards for the past few visits. With just me to worry about, clearing the kitchen and working around an unfinished end of the first day meant an al-fresco evening meal and breakfast, sitting on the door step. It gets the morning sunshine.
Loading the car, again, the night before the long haul, meant a 5am start was planned, especially to take advantage of slightly cooler travelling conditions. In the event, I woke at 4am and was able to be on the road earlier, setting the sat-nav co-pilot for an address in Valencia, with a map of France and Spain open for reference during any stops. It became clear quite early, from the direction of travel, that the car and I were on the way to the centre of the Pyrenees, which was fine by me, as the earlier trip had been south via Perpignan and north via Santander. To go over real mountains would be a novel experience. I didn’t know quite how much.
It took some five hours to get to the foothills and then start the real climb. On the way, the changing scenery was intriguing, becoming ever more alpine in house construction and ever smaller fields.
Coming out on the other side was not just another country, but a very different landscape. Verdant pastures were less evident, but the view was stunning because of the perfect blue of the lake from damming a spring-fed river to support a huge hydro-electric dam. The lake went on for several kilometres. Using natural resources was a feature of the whole journey, not just hydro-electric, but fields of large photovoltaic panels or wind-mills that provided an alternative “crop” for farmers. Beneath and around each was a flock of sheep, to keep the grass down. I had to forget that I was still only just over half way at this point, the arrival in Valencia still a further five hours away, in total a thirteen hour stint of driving. Fortunately a comfy bed was prepared.
The following morning, I woke early, to encounter Juan-Jose’s mother Ana. Without the available two interpreters, who were still asleep, Ana and I had a “communication”, with her speaking her Spanish and me interspersing the few Spanish phrases that I had managed to remember with smiles and positive gestures. This was to be the pattern for the week when making contact with Juan-Jose’s family. It’s also the first real lesson from the week, to really value languages. While I can now speak reasonably passable French, and make a stab at reading Spanish, I can sort-of follow a conversation in Spanish, picking up some of the essential vocabulary. The need to be an active listener is intense.
The wedding took place three days later, a very Spanish affair. Rather than try to describe it, I’ll let the picture says a thousand words maxim work. Here’s a gallery of a selection of pictures.
Early morning walks showed a wide variety of different wildlife; swallows, martins and swifts wheeling in the sky; storks flew over seemingly grunting to each other; a rose chafer and female rhinoceros beetle were out for an early morning stroll, and a furry-eared red squirrel ran along the electric wire. Fishermen dotted the coastline, some able to demonstrate that there were fish in the Mediterranean.
The return journey, again broken into two equally tiring stretches, allowed me to use the very hot weather to wash and dry the clothes that we’d used during our time away and to cut the grass again, hopefully to find it in good shape when we return to France in the summer break. The house is clean and tidy, beds made up afresh, so we’ll look forward to that holiday as a real break from routine. Weddings are great experiences, but can require a great deal of work.
I’ve been over the mountain, seen the other side, seen a lot and learned a lot, the known to explore the unknown and to seek to make sense of different experiences. When it comes down to it, human interaction is communication; finding forms of words to try to make yourself understood. Sometimes this is across languages. In teaching, it can mean speaking to children in their language, bringing them into the academic language of different subjects. Teachers are effectively interpreters of learning, so that children can participate and understand. Teachers are also learners; we have to accept that we’ll never know everything. Becoming a learner again helps a teacher to understand the needs of other learners.
It’s also been an interesting period of abstinence from social media; I can live without it, but I do value the professional friendships that it has enabled. I enjoy some of the cut and thrust of debate, but, having shown that, although it serves a purpose, it is not the be-all and end-all of existence, so, at some point I will retire from the fray, but not quite yet…
The transhumance; from http://www.ariege.com/en/discover-ariege/agro-pastoralism/the-transhumance
is the leading of livestock (cows, sheep, horses) to the high mountains (or "estives") for the summer months, farms in Ariege generally being too small to support an entire herd all year round. The ascent occurs in late May and early June, sometimes taking several days. The descent from the estives takes place in early October.
Until 30 to 40 years ago the transhumance concerned mainly milk cows, and cheesemaking was an important activity on the estives. Pigs were brought up to be fattened on the byproducts of the cheese fabrication, as well as sheep which grazed the steepest slopes inaccessible to cows. A cat was essential to protect the cheese from mice, and chickens provided eggs.
In some regions up until this century, nearly all the members of a family decamped to the higher mountains with their cows, living in rudimentary stone cabins. In most cases one "pâtre" or shepherd looked after the herd. He usually slept in a tiny round hut resembling a stone igloo, called an "orri," built without mortar and the top covered with turf.
This system evolved during the middle ages and endured until the early 20th century when it began to break down as a result of industrialisation and the depopulation of the countryside. In recent times associations of livestock farmers have formed which hire shepherds and cowherds to look after the animals. A census conducted by the Fédération Pastorale de l'Ariège in June 1997 of livestock on the 66 estives counted 12,000 cows, 40,000 sheep and 1,000 horses.
The work of the shepherd/cowherd is seasonal (4-5 months) with very long hours (5:00 am - 10 pm). His task is complex: the animals in his care must be cared for and watched over to limit losses (from falls, disease, accidents) and he is also responsible for the lands he occupies. He must maintain it and indeed improve it through rotation of the grazing area and strategic transfers of the herd. He must strive for a management in harmony with the eco system.
The shepherd is assisted in his work by one or more dogs. In the Pyrenees, two breeds of herd dog predominate: the berger des Pyrénées (Labrit) and the Border Collie. As a guard dog the Great Pyrenees (Patou) is favored. Normally the shepherd trains the dogs himself, which requires a good understanding of the behaviour of the sheep and the dog. For this purpose, and for the job in general, a training program exists which prepares one for the vocation of shepherd as well as ongoing training for those already working.