Back in New Zealand there are lots of things that we miss about France. But what I will miss most about Quillan when I return home, as last time, is the Place de la République – ‘our’ square – which gives us an incomparable outlook on the comings and goings of daily life.
Sunrise to sunset, the square is the beating heart of a typical French village in all seasons. It can take very different forms depending on the nature and size of the town, but you’d be hard pressed to find a village of any size that does not have one.
In Quillan there is more than one square, being a sizable town. The main commercial square is 300 metres away. The Place de la République is in the old centre and has retained cafés, a bar and a tabac. This used to be the quartier des boucheries – with charcuteries and chevalerie, there were four or five premises in total – all now abandoned though the signage of their former glory remains in faded paint or print in some cases.
In the spring and summer as the plane trees spread their green umbrellas over the cobbles, and the residents of Quillan shed their winter cocoons, the square is the means for people to reconnect over coffee and conversation as they pass on their way to complete chores. I wrote about the rhythm of those months in a previous blog post.
In the cooler months of autumn and winter, the square takes on a very different character, and a new, quieter, less hurried pace, to match the slowing rhythm of local life.
On our first trip to Quillan we arrived to winter bare plane trees and watch as they bud and bloom over the first weeks of spring. This time we arrive as they are at their fullest glory, and watch from our box seats on the northern side of the square as they are pruned back to bare trunks.
Monday morning on our second week, a couple of small trucks, one with crane, accompanied by several men in fluorescent jackets arrive in the square. Something is afoot. It soon becomes clear that it was time for the annual pruning of the planes – l’elegage des platanes.
First step: take the easy way up into the tree by crane. Second step: power chainsaw off the branches. Surprisingly straight forward. Gradually each tree is denuded and light floods in. Peekaboo – there’s a house behind that tree!
Branches end up all over the square – fortunately most of the work is done on the Monday when the Café du Fleuve is closed. It’s surprisingly quick to clear the square of detritus thanks to the chipper. The result is a truckload of what looks like lawn clippings. Amazing.
Pruning the trees just in this square alone takes two full days. And there are plane trees all over town. But before long, the workers are gone, leaving the trees bare and the view of the mountains revealed, in all their splendour.
The square remains as beautiful as I remember – veiled or otherwise.
In autumn, the sun rises over the hills that overlook the square and tinges the buildings with a warming glow of pink and orange. It makes for a beautiful wake-up call in our first weeks back on the square as we open the shutters to see a fine mist clinging to the contours of the valley.
As the sun rises, the square wakes to the pattern of the town’s commerce. As the days shorten, the hours push back. The tabac still opens at its normal hour, white van man appears first. Locals emerge gradually from doorways and over the bridge after 7am for bread, papers and cigarettes on their way to work. At this time of year the dark still presses in, the streetlights illuminate corners and the neon signs of L’Alhumetur and the Café du Fleuve cast a coloured glow.
On market days, the first sounds come as the meat, dairy and vegetable vans roll into the square, closer to 7am than the 6 o’clock starts of summer. The number of stalls dwindles. Gone the artisans, the paella, and the rotisserie chicken vendor. The first, hardy customers – locals – arrive as always for the best picks but not until nearer 8am, still in the first light of dawn. They exchange kisses and notes on the weather. “Cold, isn’t it?” Their breath steams in the chilly air. Stallholders rub their hands. “Here they come. Now we’re starting up.” Business is brisk. If it’s sunny, a musician appears on the street corner. Market patrons stay on for lunch at one of the cafés, umbrellas go up. The square sheds its winter cloak, momentarily.
The Fleuve is not open with the first stalls or their hardy customers, and will not likely open until at least 10am, when the sun is higher and the main market crowd starts to gather. In the winter months, when the cold forces the inhabitants of Quillan indoors, market day is the one day of the week when the community comes out, comes together, to connect, to chat for a few precious daylight hours. Over coffee and croissants, over a drink, or a long lunch.
At noon one day, men of a certain age mysteriously arrive at le Palace, individually, in pairs or small groups. There’s a gathering. Over a drink or two. A meal. Coffees. In the winter, any excuse is a good excuse for a social occasion. The cold can be isolating. This is the period they call the ‘shuttering in’. Between December and February the square, as most streets in town, is austere in its presentation to the outside world – with the surrounding windows, doors and shutters tightly closed, presenting their multi-coloured faces to the sky. That’s something for us to look forward to. How will we occupy ourselves in these months? Will there be snow? Will we be blocked as well as shuttered in?
Consequently, any sign of sunshine, any hour of the day and everyone emerges, blinking, joyous in the light to make the most of the glorious opportunity. One minute the square can be dead and cold. The next minute all other activity is dropped and it’s like Grand Central Station – the café tables are full, children play on the fountain and wheel up and down the neighbouring streets on bikes or roller skates while their parents trade the latest news.
The fortunes of the square’s traders ebb and flow around the weather. It’s primitive economic stuff. On a cool, grey and slightly drizzly late autumn early afternoon, as I linger over my quiet coffee and contemplate square from a table at the Fleuve, Mike sighs. “It’s looking deathly for this afternoon,” he remarks.
The English Library of Quillan is a new addition to the square, in the premises below the bed and breakfast. Only open a few hours a day, it is nonetheless open four or five days a week, staffed by volunteers, and provides another place for lonely residents, particularly expats, isolated by language as well as weather, to gather in the warm and share tea and sympathy or just stories written or spoken. Conveniently below us, it also brings some chatter and warmth to our own quiet lives as Tom and I rattle around the big house on our lonesome.
Dark falls quickly on the square in winter. Once school is out, and the few shops in Quillan closed for the day, foot traffic is soon reduced to nothing, and shutters are closed tight. The café tables are no longer out on the pavement. If you want to eat out, you have to eat in, so to speak. What you lose in the charm of street umbrellas, you gain in the conviviality of tables close together in the warmth of the dining room.
I hadn’t anticipated quite such a love affair with the square, but it is just wonderful in any weather, and I remain attached to old town living.