Alet-les-Bains, Languedoc, France
Every morning the abbey bells would ring at 7 am. The first morning they woke me up. After that, I was already awake, anticipating their reassuring sounds, as if they were the morning itself, the signal for life to start moving and rejoice in the new day. Silenced during the night, because of complaints from local people, by 7 am they were uncontainable, bursting out of confinement, throwing off the covering of sky, the 7 ringing notes followed by a carillon, fêting the morning, the light, the bird-song, the sounds of the river Aude.
But there was not much movement in the village – an occasional car or motor scooter, a few residents walking small dogs on leads.
The café opposite the abbey didn't open till 8.30 so sometimes on my own, sometimes with C, I walked round the village, with its ancient walls and leaning, timber-fronted buildings, before having morning coffee and croissant, then heading to l'Evêché, where J and L were staying, in the opulent building with its creaking wooden floorboards, carpeted in the middle, and that very French smell of ancient sun-warmed wood, polished with beeswax and laundered, dried and cosseted by time.
C expressed surprise that his French was not as good as he thought it was. I was not surprised that mine had sunk to my mind's floor like sediment, needing reviving, cajoling, persuasion. Attention, that magical key. Like the church bells, it prods, startles, revives, rejoices you. It breathes life or at least allows breath to flow, stimulates movement, desire, the exhilaration of limbs moving along paths, movement of light and shade, convinces a drooping flower-stem to straighten, like the rose I brought back from Rouen. Hunched over after travelling 24 hours overland in my bag I thought it had expired but after I placed it in water, after a few hours, its thick green stem had straightened again.
Sitting outside l'Evêché, under a massive copper beech tree, we would plan the day. Where we would go, who we would meet up with and where – most importantly in France – we would have lunch.
C and I, at the camping-site next to the Abbey, were always up first. L, still jet-lagged from her flight from California, appeared last. J was always already sitting under the tree drinking coffee, by the time C and I arrived. I consulted the weather on my tablet. It was not the best. For several days, skies were grey and one day it rained heavily, though only for a while. But it was not nearly as bad as in the north, which was experiencing devastating floods. From the north, P emailed me. You've chosen an interesting time to come he said, fuel shortages, demonstrations, strikes and floods.
I come here at the same time every year and it's always hot and bright sunshine. I've never known it like this before says J.
But we were in France. We'd not experienced any difficulty in getting petrol. So what if the skies were grey, the clouds bunched and rolled, parted briefly then fused together again, messengers from the north, bringing their rumours of swamped cities and villages, fields, rivers turning into lakes and people evacuated from their homes. Our river was peaceable. The mountains surrounded it, wooded and comforting. We were lucky.
Our first outing would be to Rennes-le-Chateau.