Not many people know this, but France is a very dangerous place. And I’m not talking about the driving! No, the danger we faced last summer had nothing to do with the locals, but much more to do with the wildlife!
Given that I live in Epping, I’m used to the odd deer jumping out onto the road, but that’s nothing compared to the wild boar, scorpions and snakes that we faced down in la belle France! We were on holiday in Bonnieux, in Provence, possibly one of the most beautiful and delightful areas in the world. A treat for photography, and would have been been so relaxing, had it not been for the beasties…
Round the back of Bonnieux
The first adventure happened early in the morning, up high in the garrigue, which, as all Pagnol readers will know, is the wild scrubland that covers much of the un-populated southern areas of France. Gorse, stony ground, bush oak. Jean de Florette would be sweating away in this, but Manon des Sources would be wildly exciting… Baking in the midday heat, but fresh, crisp & fragrant in the morning. I had got up at the crack of dawn (honest) to photograph the view, driven up into the mountains, left the car, hiked up a trail and was miles from anywhere. Of course I had left the mobile by the side of the bed – who on earth would I want to phone at 6 in the morning….
I could hear a rumbling noise in the distance – early morning tractor work by the local farmer I thought. But then the rumbling got nearer. I was on a rocky track, surrounded by bush, very isolated. Not a rumbling, but more of a crashing sound. Suddenly I saw a shape in the undergrowth. Bloody hell, wild dogs! Could be dangerous. I picked up a rock. If I was going to get bitten, then I would get at least one chance to smack the bugger on the jaw! All of a sudden, about 20 yards in front of me, a huge brown wild boar charges out of the undergrowth, crosses the path, and smashes through the bush on the opposite side. Like a little tank, with tusks! OMG, a wild boar!
Shepherd's hideout - a 'borie'
But the rumbling hadn’t stopped. In fact it was getting louder and louder. Crash! 7 or 8 more boar, a whole family of them – little ones included, all tusked up to the hilt, following their leader. You have to picture me, standing stock still, a hefty rock raised in my hand, absolutely petrified that I’m going to get trampled by a ruffian load of wild pigs!
Now, I’m a photographer, but this experience shows how amateur I still am. Didn’t manage to get a photo (camera was stuck in the backpack). I couldn’t even have phoned for help if the boar had charged me. I would have been stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way of getting help. What a city plonker… Mind you, I did get some revenge. Next day at the local market I made a point of buying the sausage you can see below.
Wild Boar sausage, delicieux!
The boulangerie in Lacoste
Whether or not from the city, the second encounter with the local fauna would have scared the pants off anyone. The house we had rented, suddenly became infested with scorpions. It was the second week of the holiday, just after the parents-in-law arrived (is there a link…?) when we spotted the first one, in our BATHROOM! This one was quite small, about and inch and a half, black, and very menacing looking. I stamped on it. The second one was found in the kids bedroom, and the third. By then, we knew we had a problem. The kids were certainly not going to stay in their bedroom; they de-camped and moved into our bed for safety – with us of course. So that set the tone for the second week of our holiday.
By the time the fourth and fifth had been seen (another one in the bathroom – I almost trod on it in the dark, and one on the veranda) we had prepped our plan of action. No-one, but no-one, went anywhere without wearing sandals. Preferably Birkenstocks, because the sole is so thick that no claw or sting stands a chance. That became our weapon of choice.: Immy screams: “DAD, SCORPION!!!” I come running, thwack thwack thwack, clean up the mess.
We got up to 10 by the end of the second week. When we left we had a chat with the femme de menage. “Ah, scorpions” she said, “they live in the lavender. But don’t worry, the sting is irritating, but not dangerous” (bit late, that piece of advice…). We pointed out that the biggest we had seen had been about 6 inches in length. Her eyes widened, “Ah… now that one, that’s different, that could have hurt…” Blimey! On that note, we left and headed back north, back to the land where the insects are smaller and easier to cope with.
Birkenstock 10, Scorpions 0
Postscript: A few years ago, Isobel had an interesting encounter with a snake in France. We were working for Chartreuse, and living in a house with a long over-grown garden that led down to the distillery. Every day we walked up and down this path. One evening, Isobel complained that her leg hurt. 3 pin pricks in a small triangle just above the ankle. Being a sympathetic soul I told her she’d been complaining about mosquitos for ages, and to forget it. But the following morning there was pus dribbling from the pin pricks – we headed off to the pharmacy… I sensed I had not been overly sympathetic, perhaps a bit harshly….
The view from our villa.
“Could be a spider bite” said the chemist, and gave us some antiseptic lotion. “but if you feel any pain in your leg, anywhere, then I suggest you get to hospital to have it checked” That evening we had pizza with our Chartreuse colleagues. Suddenly Isobel clasped the top of her thigh complaining of a sharp stabbing pain. General concern from our French pals, and off we headed, in a 2CV convoy to the hospital.
So Isobel’s lying there on a gurney, while the doctor and nurse have a look at her leg. 3 pin pricks, in a neat triangle. Not realising that she speaks French, they debate what might have caused the injury. The doctor is pretty sure: “it must be a viper bite – they have 3 razor sharp fangs. She must have brushed past, scaring it; it struck, but so quickly and sharply that she didn’t even notice. I guess she didn’t get the whole whack of venom or else she would be in a fever by now…” “A VIPER!!!” squawks Isobel. A dawning realisation that she has been bitten by a snake, and I had pooh poohed her feelings and told her not to fuss so much…. Isobel has the anti-venom jab, and makes me pay for my un-feeling lack of concern. She still brings this story up when she needs too, 20 years later….
View from the bedroom, La belle France