Sometimes it takes very little to change mood, outlook, morale. Sometimes just a few degrees of temperature will do it. Today was not just warm as a summer’s day, there was a sense of release, as if at last there was no more fear of getting cold, getting wet, or having the umbrella destroyed in a gale.
I don’t know whether it goes back to an ancestral fear of the ‘dark’ season, when nothing grows, when animals die of cold and hunger, and babies and old people give up the struggle to keep alive that keeps us tense and irritable as long as the bad weather lasts. The spring, the change in the air, the birdsong is a sign that the winter is coming to an end, though the season is fickle, and hail and snow showers can bring down the early buds, and nobody risks going out without a coat.
But, all of a sudden, there is a stillness in the morning air, a warmth that grows until it is too hot to sit in the sun. Suddenly the breeze is warm and full of the scent of flowers. Then we let out a long sigh of relief. We throw caution to the winds, and the windows open to the soft breeze. We set the table outside, and sit long into the evening with a glass of wine or cup of coffee listening to the birds.
The streets, the parks and the promenades fill with people simply marvelling at the blue sky and the green that is covering the dry winter twigs. The scent of cut grass and wisteria fill the air, and the chore of watering the garden plants begins. A taste of summer.
Today was like that.
These large rodents have become quite a tourist attraction. They were introduced to Europe in the XIX century from South America to provide cheap fur coats. The European stock is all derived from individuals escaped from fur farms, or sprung by animal rights activists.
Their official name in Europe is coypu, the name given to them back home in the Amazonian jungle, but they are also known as nutria in the fur trade. I don’t like to think of them as nutria, it’s rather like referring to a cow as a steak, a pig as a chop, or a horse as lasagne if you want to push the analogy into the realms of really bad taste (no pun intended).
Whatever their name, coypu or nutria they have become pests. They have no natural predators once they reach the adult size, and they are quite fearless. Having got close to one of the things once I can understand why Finbar won’t even look at them. They grow quite big, up to 20lb, with huge feet and the most revolting orange incisors. I have heard of dogs dying after being bitten by a coypu.
The only thing that keeps their numbers down is the cold. Unlike beavers they are tropical animals and can’t stand it, suffering terribly from frostbite, especially their tails. Unfortunately for the Garonne our region is below their climatic limit, and as this winter was particularly mild they have taken no harm from it at all. They have spent the long winter nights reproducing like rabbits, and merrily undermining the river bank.
There is always a small crowd of admirers gathered at this particular part of the river front, either feeding the devils or cooing at them. Baby coypu, like all baby animals are sweet little things, but their grandfathers are not so lovable.
There seems a sort of irony in the fact that the restaurant opposite the place where the coypu adulation society congregates feeds them on potatoes and stale bread. The same people who coo and awww at the rodents will quite happily go into the restaurant and tuck into a nice fat steak.
True, there is a restaurant further up the river that serves coypu under the name of marsh beaver. Wonder if they know?
Yesterday I finally managed to get a few pictures of the werechicken, the beast that has been haunting our little street since last summer.
It all began in August. It sounded like a small dog in distress, a sort of ahoo hooo cry, and it went on all day. I couldn’t work, it was such a pathetic noise, and my blood pressure rose a bit more every time I heard it at the idea that some heartless individual had abandoned a little dog somewhere in the labyrinth round the back of our block.
We live slap bang in the centre of Bordeaux, a city of some 600,000 souls. The old town hugs the last bend of the Garonne before it throws itself (to use a quaint French expression) into the Atlantic, and that’s the part where we live. The housing is a mixture of low-rise blocks, no more than four floors, and individual houses. The street fronts hide a mosaic of small, secret gardens. We have one of those, but the blocks on either side don’t. Instead there is a sort of no man’s land full of trees and shrubs, and discarded building materials that extends right round the back of the houses, but has only one access, a metal door at the end of our street. The distressful cries were coming from this empty lot.
With one of the neighbours, also anxious about the little dog, we went all round the place trying to see where it could be. But the trees were too thick, and the owner of the lot wasn’t around to let us in. A couple of days later, I was on the point of calling the SPA to break in and rescue the poor critter, when the neighbour called round to say he had seen the animal, and it was a big bird. He had heard that it belonged to a bunch of workmen who only called by intermittently to feed it. The neighbour decided to take the ‘big bird’ under his wing, so to speak.
The upshot is that the ‘big bird’ creeps underneath the metal door (there’s a gap big enough for Trixie to get through, so Big Bird has no problem) and wanders about in the street shrieking for the neighbour to open his window and feed it. The neighbour, despite his background as a butcher, isn’t too hot on natural history, and pronounced it a sort of chicken that was probably being fattened for the pot.
That was last summer. The ‘sort of chicken’s’ voice has broken and it now makes an unmistakeable cock crow. All night. It also gets very stroppy when its breakfast isn’t forthcoming. Each time I have tried to photograph it, either I can’t find the camera or the battery is dead. Or the critter wanders off onto the main road. Yesterday though, I caught it, crowing beneath next door’s window.
The funny thing about this story is not so much that we have a rooster for a neighbour slap bang in the centre of quite a big city, but that nobody thinks it’s the least bit strange. I was feeding it the other day when the neighbour on the other side came out. She paused as she passed the rooster and said, “Handsome rooster, that.” And walked by.
Actually he isn’t a handsome rooster, he is raggedy and timid. His comb and wattles have been cut off, and his spurs look like metal implants, because he is obviously used as a fighting cock. We sometimes hear the metal door clanging closed late at night, and I suppose it’s ‘Big Bird’s’ owners coming to collect him or bring him back after a fight. He’s only a stupid chicken maybe, but I hate the idea of what he’s being used for.
This morning there was a lot of animation down on the Garonne. Police speedboats were charging up and down; police cars were doing their best to keep up despite having to use roads and bridges. Most of Bordeaux had turned out to see the President of the Republic inaugurate the new bridge.
It being our quay, our bridge and our river, I hadn’t really given much thought to the festivities, and we trolled upriver as usual. However, the crowds making their way to join the thousands already assembled by the new bridge made Finbar nervous. He stopped, nudged my hand gently with his nose and gestured homeward with his head.
I looked at the heaving crowd, and wondered where François was. I watched the policemen showing off in their speed boats, blocked my ears against the wailing of sirens as their land-bound colleagues raced in a great circuit over the new bridge then back across the old one.
We were about to turn back when I noticed the boat gliding under the bridge. It was The Belem, a Mexican navy training ship, a beautiful three master that always turns up for Bordeaux’s nautical extravaganzas. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea. Neither what the arrangement Bordeaux has with the Mexican navy, nor why their training ship is over a hundred years old. It’s a lovely sight whatever the reasons, and once again, I didn’t have a camera with me. The one on the picture is similar, slightly smaller, and Russian.
Finbar was not impressed, pulling in the direction of home, and I found myself looking at the scene not as a human being avid for excitement, but through the eyes of a dog who sees only dense crowds and uncharacteristic movement disturbing the river. So what? The new bridge is officially open, but it will still be there tomorrow. So, the President is in the throng, he’s not such an oil painting, is he? The river police might be thrilled to bits with their high-powered boats, but I’d rather watch the gulls fishing.
You go down that way of thinking and you find yourself listening for birdsong rather than your telephone while walking along the roadside. You look at the wildflowers growing at the edge of the pavement rather than the shop windows, and the clouds scudding overhead instead of the gorgeous shoes of the woman walking in front. You find yourself drifting away from what anchors us to society, and longing for something that can’t be bought, that doesn’t need to be photographed to exist, that might be found in the depths of a dog’s eyes, or the patch of moss growing on a stone wall.
Snow! What is it about the cold, white flakes that appeals so much to the imagination?
We live in a region where people get excited if a handful of sleet drops out of the sky. Yesterday we had a few flakes, more like ash from a bonfire, and ever since my children have been watching the sky, longing for more.
Maybe it’s because I suffer abnormally from the cold, maybe it’s simply that I empathise strongly with the people, birds and animals that have no shelter from it, but snow for me is just frozen rain.
Seen from behind well-insulated glass, in a photograph, in a film, I can appreciate the abstract beauty of it. However, I defy anybody who has read ‘Terror’, Dan Simmons’ novel about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to discover the North-West passage, to feel entirely comfortable in the presence of vast amounts of the deadly white stuff.
This morning the weather was beautifully balmy, clear blue sky and the Garonne as smooth as glass. It was one of those days when I wished I’d brought the camera. I have seen the odd cormorant flying by the house, but this morning there was a small crowd watching one fishing quite close to the riverbank. According to one local it was stuffing itself with eels. They stay underwater for an incredibly long time, leaving no trace on the surface, no air bubbles or the slightest ripple. This one seemed completely oblivious of the admiring crowd.
A little further on we stopped to see what the gardeners were gathered round. One of them had uncovered the most enormous larva I ever want to see. It was easily 10cms long, as thick as a sausage, and a hideous corpse colour. It was the second of the beasts they had found since they started spreading mulch in the flower beds. They deposited it on the grass away from the flowers, where Finbar who is usually fascinated by crawlies gave it a wide berth.
Just before we turned for home, leaving the Garonne behind, I had my first sight this year of the returning wild geese. I’d heard them several times, but this was the first of the magnificent formations I’d seen across the open sky. This must have been several groups recently joined up, because there were three or four overlapping ‘V’ formations. They make such a tremendous, joyful noise; I know nothing more evocative of the coming spring.