Mary Dejevsky: Small towns where the hustling stops

Languedoc Notebook
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The Independent Online

What always strikes me, after the brilliance of the sun and the dappled shadows cast by the plane trees in the small town where – oh wicked admission – we have our maison secondaire, is the lack not of bustle, but of hustle; the relaxed air of non-commercialism, even on market day. As a holiday region between the Cévennes and the sea, this area is indifferent to President Sarkozy's efforts to open the supermarket seven days a week. While it has enjoyed a special dispensation on this score for a while, the big stores still open for only a couple of hours each Sunday morning. For the rest of the day, the parking spaces stretch away, strangely empty. Where, I wonder, is all that pent-up demand supposed to be.

At holiday time dozens of events are advertised as gratuit. Over two weeks, our little town alone offers craft and bric-a-brac sales, a local produce fair, a puppet show, a two-day pétanque tournament, and open-air concerts almost every other night. Gratuit all. A much larger town nearby offers local teenagers two-month summer vouchers, at €20 each, for free swimming, cinema tickets and sports sessions, including horse-riding, mountain-biking and even gliding.

The first impression of our municipal swimming pool might be that it cries out for an entrepreneur. You can't buy anything there at all, except a ticket to swim. Not a swimsuit, not a towel, not a sun-hat, nor a rubber ring, nor a drink of any kind. But that's it's charm. It opens only in July and August, growing threatening-looking algae through the winter, until its miraculous refurbishment every June. Even in its short season, it opens only from noon to dinner time, with a two-hour break in the early afternoon, and it closes all-day Friday. Clearly, no one is in this to make money.

It's not just the pool that cheerfully passes up earning opportunities. You know that the locals are bracing themselves for the descent of barbaric foreign hordes when the local hotel restaurant hangs its shiny sign on the door, stating that guests are received – not, you will notice, welcomed – between 1200 and 1330 and between 1900 and 2100. In other words, don't even think about trying to get a meal outside those times.

Pooch paradise

It is a hard-hearted – or hard-up – French family that does not take the family dog or cat on holiday, too. This year, our little town provides especially good dog-watching, with a whippet, a King Charles spaniel, a brace of delightfully coiffed bichons frises and a pug dog all sheltering demurely under separate tables at the brasserie one lunchtime before parading out, with owner in tow, on the dot of 2pm. The shopping section of the local paper celebrates the imminent arrival of more visiting pooches with a big feature, "Toutou and Minou take a trip", advertising smart collars, perfume and hygiene sprays, a mini-backpack and – though I wonder how successful this restraint would be – a dog seatbelt for the back seat of the car.

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