A Summer in Gascony by Martin Calder

This is a super book. You start reading and it’s hard to stop. It’s different from the other living in France type books I’ve been reading lately in that it’s much calmer. Let me explain. Too many books in this genre seem intent on packing in as much exaggeration, desperate hilarity and unflattering stereotyping of the French as possible. They come over as false and frantic. But this one is honest, considered, interesting and informative. I particularly enjoyed discovering the history of Gascony (I’m a bit of a history buff I guess). Did you know that when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet in 1152 she owned a quarter of France? Or that the legendary musketeer D’Artagnan was a Gascon man – Charles de Batz-Castelmore? Or that Richard the Lionheart wrote poetry in Gascon? Well, you do now!

The book recounts the author’s experiences from the summer he spent as a stagiare, a temporary worker or “trainee general dogsbody” with the Cazagnac family in the tiny village of Péguilhan. The family ran a farm and auberge, and the author helped out in both of these, doing everything from watering the tomatoes to shovelling sheep poo to peeling cornichons to cooking magret de canard. He seems to have tackled everything with enthusiasm, apart from grain winnowing, which sounds to have been complete torture.

There were other stagiares, and one of these, the German girl Anja, became the author’s summer sweetheart. So, as the blurb on the back cover says, the book is a tale of two love affairs: “an idyllic summer romance with blonde-haired Anja and a lifelong love affair with Gascony”. It’s the latter that is the real essence and main emphasis of the book, but you still feel sad when Anja and Martin finally have to split up to go back to their respective homes in different countries.

There are lots of interesting characters in the book, and they’re well developed. There’s Jaques-Henri, the hardworking, proud and outgoing farmer, his quiet and efficient wife Marie-Jeanne, cheeky Nicolas, their youngest son and an assortment of local people and visitors. None of them are the flat caricatures that crop up so often in travel narratives.

There are lovely black and white illustrations at the end of each chapter, drawn by the author who is clearly a talented all-rounder. (He got an engineering degree, worked as an architect and then went on to do a French degree and become a Professor in eighteenth-century French literature. Renaissance man or what!)

My only grumble is that there is no Kindle edition at the moment. As a Kindle addict, I’d like to see that rectified asap!

There’s a website to go with the book at http://www.asummeringascony.com/

The book is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 9.99 sterling.

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