Wonderland where winter never comes

JUST WHEN you thought it was all over, it's back. The summer I mean. It feels like a miracle. I never knew France continued to exist after the first week in September. Doesn't the whole of Mediterranean Europe, except for the Alps, close down outside of the holiday season?

Coming to France right now, at the end of September, I feel like a man who has lost his family in a car accident, only to be told three weeks later that, in fact, they are still alive and well. It is a reprieve, a miracle, a walking-in-the-face-of-nature. It is better than dreaming I had hair again. Don't ever let anyone tell you that life never goes backwards. It does, and all you need to do is travel south during autumn.

Do my grey tree swallows take their lifestyle for granted? A few short weeks ago it was the height of summer even as far north as England. A couple of weeks before that, I dare say, it was summer in Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. But here in the Tarn Valley, east of Toulouse, summer is still clinging on - and I have made it in time to experience the last warmth of its breath.

Believe me, it's all true. In every city in France, the Bar D'Etape is still serving coffee, the civic marigolds are still blooming, the town hall is still issuing forth men in blazers and women with coiffures at lunchtime. In the suburbs of Toulouse, the bourgeoisie have not bothered to cover their swimming pools for the winter, the peasants have not yet brought in their pots of geraniums, the old cycling enthusiasts have not yet exchanged their Belgian shorts for track suits.

Why should they have? The leaves on the sycamore trees lining the streets of Albi are still green. Although I have already accepted reluctantly, that 1998 is not going to be the year when the leaves on English trees finally decide to stay green forever, here in the Tarn Valley I can still cling to a tiny hope, sustained by the last mild breezes of the year, that this is going to be the first year of eternal greenery, the year that my hair stopped falling out.

This afternoon I have been taking a stroll along a section of the Grand Randonee (GR) number 36, one of those long-distance footpaths that the French are so good at. I saw ancient rusty ploughs mouldering in haystacks, trees laden with ripe figs, piles of firewood outside back doors, pre- historic maize grinders beside the chicken runs. The annual hunting season has just started and wild boar and venison are back on every menu. All the signs are there: the locals still fatalistically believe that the end of their summer is nigh. But the sun shines hot, there is a complacent fly buzzing in my ear and I am not in the slightest bit convinced.

No, don't kid me that winter ever gets down here. And I'll tell you why. On the GR 36 lives the most Bohemian artisan I have ever seen. Michael Greschny lives in a hamlet called La Maurinie built of slate where the wooden beams are carved into the forms of saints. Monsieur Greschny will tell you that he likes to dabble in art. His workshop is the epitome of rustic charm, cluttered with old canvases, unfinished works, brushes, paints, cobwebs dangling from woodworm-ridden beams. True he carries a mobile phone attached to his belt, but the one certainty about this man, you would assume, is that Van Gogh would have had more centimes to rub together than he does.

You would assume wrongly. He makes a bomb by selling the jewellery he creates to Faberge. And I do not believe that winter comes to places where gentle Bohemians get rich in slate cottages in the countryside.

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