Dark days

The longest night has come and gone, but the days are still short and dark. The snow was washed away by persistent rain, making the campsite into a bit of a quagmire and leading us into a losing battle with mud and grit, a constant stand-off at the step to change our clogs and knock off as much of what was adhering to the soles as possible. That’s despite our blue tarpaulin carpet to the edge of the road. We have also had a few days of traditional Alsatian fog on the plain. Cold, foggy, damp, dark, no we have not been feeling particularly festive.

We’ve been seriously questioning what we are actually doing here. Increasingly we have a sense that we are being tolerated, just, and maybe humoured, slightly, but viewed with some suspicion, mostly, and kept at arms length, invariably. It’s as if all of our energy, preparation and effort for the last few months was focused on getting here and little or none on what we were then going to do. ‘Et maintenant qu’est-ce qu’on fait?’

The Peters are very kind and welcoming but we are unable to explain to them just why we think it’s such a good idea for us to be gardeners in Alsace and perhaps there’s a reason for that. There are local colleges training cohorts of young people in horticulture, garden design and specialist fruit tree pruning. Municipal gardening is of a really high standard but all taken care of by local established businesses. Private gardening costs are tax deductible if incurred through contracted work with established businesses. We’re nuts to think we can break into that.

We’ve not been able to find anywhere suitable to rent that is habitable and within our budget. Prices for house rent and purchase seem ridiculously inflated, and the on-costs of renting and purchase are prohibitive. We’d need to go right up into the mountains to find somewhere reasonably priced to live, but then heating would be a problem and so would getting around. We need not to forget that we are trying to set ourselves up to be comfortable and self-sufficient as we get even older, able to go for long cycles and walks and grow as much as possible of what we eat.

We don’t feel very comfortable in Alsace, which is a bit of a facer. This is one of the most politically and culturally right-wing parts of France. It’s as if while Germany has softened to become more open and liberal since unification and the development of the EU, the German bit of France has hardened and entrenched its traditional values and customs. Of course we are here at the time of year when traditions are most evident, but no amount of vin chaud or pain d’épices or kugelhopf or choucroute can hide the fact that visitors are welcome to come and taste but would they please make sure they have all their belongings with them when they leave.

We’re thinking of heading back up to Belgium. We’re missing that faint whiff of surrealism in this eminently rational land and think maybe we’ll fit in better where everyone is a bit odd, nothing works like you think it should, but everyone is welcome and everything works all the same.

That said, we had a lovely afternoon in Strasbourg today. We had an excellent lunch in a vegetarian restaurant called Le Poêle de Carottes, thanks to a recommendation by Laura K Lawless who writes about all things French on about.com. We went back to the bank and met a helpful woman who sorted access to internet banking and gave us a cheque book. We came back to Obernai for a glass of vin chaud and are back in the van, warm and cosy and waiting for the temperatures to drop outside again as promised.

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