Friday, September 05, 2014

Psychotic Mutant Space Country

Trip to Aude / Midi-Pyrénées: Day 8
Early next morning, we headed out of Lourdes for the thing for which I had really come to Lourdes. My main interest in Lourdes, if you recall, was due to the fact that I had based one of my novels there: Perl and the Psychotic Mutant Space Cattle (Read about it here). But the town of Lourdes itself features very little in the novel: just the final climax scene happens there. Most of the action takes place in the outskirts of Lourdes, in a fictional farm in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
I had written Space Cattle without ever having seen the Pyrenees, or Lourdes, or even France. Now at last I was going to get to see in real life the places I had seen so clearly in my imagination. By the way, you might wonder why I chose to base my novel in a place I had never seen. Don’t novelists like to base their stories in places they are familiar with? Nope, not experienced novelists. Only beginners stick to the tried and true. Once you have written a couple of novels (I have written six), you like try new things. There is something so incredibly liberating about writing about people, places and things of which you have no firsthand knowledge. It sets the imagination free. Like most beginners, in my first novel I had stuck to locations I knew like the back of my hand: Bangalore, Munich, Singapore. With successive novels, I went further and further afield, until in my new novel, the one I am currently writing, I have left planet Earth altogether. Space Cattle was my penultimate novel. I was still on Earth then… just about.
If you’ve read Space Cattle, or if you clicked on the above link to read the synopsis, you would know that the novel is about a herd of Lourdaise cows in a farm in the outskirts of Lourdes, who start singing opera. Perl and Hari, scientific detectives, are called in to investigate. In Chapter 3, they land up in the town of Lourdes to rendezvous with the project manager for the musical cow project.
Right, so here we were, following the route that Perl and Hari take from Lourdes to the farm with the singing cows. Perl and Hari take D821 out of Lourdes, heading south towards the Spanish border, and the Pyrenees. A couple of kilometers out of Lourdes, they take the first branching road on the left.
Here we are, at the branch.

They then take a narrow country road heading up into the lower Pyrenees.

A bubbling brook flows along beside the road; bemused sheep dot the neighboring mountain meadows. Here is the bubbling brook exactly as described:-

I had of course seen that brook on Google Earth, while researching the novel, but I had no idea if it bubbled. I was glad to note that it bubbled like billy-o. But of sheep there was nary a one, bemused or otherwise. I checked up with a local peasant. He said that all the sheep had been driven out to high pastures in the upper Pyrenees, just days ago. Had I come a couple of days earlier, I would have seen my sheep, all suitably bemused. I was relieved. (By the way, farmers in these parts drive their goat and sheep into high mountain pastures in summer, and use their own meadows to make hay, which they then feed to their livestock in winter, when mountain pastures are inaccessible and their own meadows unproductive. All of which, as you can imagine, bemuses the sheep like nobody's business).
But there were lots of moss-covered slate-stone rustic cottages and farm houses on the way, exactly as described in the book.

On the way, Perl and Hari stop at a small hamlet where there have also been unconfirmed reports of singing cows (it turns out to be a false alarm). Here it is, a small hamlet on the way.
They then go higher into the Pyrenees, to Lanterre’s Farm, the farm with the singing cows. I describe the farm as clinging to the side of a hill, accessed by a narrow country road. A gray rock face looms above it to one side, and on the other, a daffodil encrusted meadow slopes sharply away into a valley. Now, I hadn’t really pinpointed a farm like that on Google Earth. I had made that up. But anyway, we took a high mountain road at random, and drove around till we found something interesting. 

There were lots of farms, but nothing looked exactly right. Blandine parked, and we decided to hike in the hills for a while.
And Bingo! We hadn’t walked more than about half an hour, when I saw something that might have popped right out of my novel.
There it was, a hill with a gray rock face...
...falling to a daffodil infested valley on one side...
.. and midway on the hill, a farm that looked exactly the way I imagined Lanterre’s farm to be: a main house, a barn and an outhouse. A narrow country road led up to it.
I asked Blandine to take a zoom shot of the farm with her fancy Pentax. I had no idea if the farmer would be welcoming. 

I then gathered up my courage and iPad, and approached the farm. 
I was met by two dogs barking their heads off, and a very suspicious old farmer in faded corduroy trousers. He could well have been a duplicate of old Lanterre in my book. He looked at me inquiringly. I told him I owned a website that featured attractive country houses (Liar, Liar!), and that I loved his house and could I please feature it on my website? He looked at me disbelievingly. I can imagine how much more disbelieving he would have been if I had told him the truth. He said he wasn’t interested. He did however let me take a shot of the house from where I stood (well beyond the gate, safe from the dogs).
And then we trudged back to the car. I noticed there was a small hamlet a little way beyond the farm. That fit my story too: the hamlet of Fou sur La Colline is five minutes drive from Lanterre’s Farm, in my book. This real village of Germs sur l’Oussouet could well be a template for my fictional Fou sur La Colline. (By the way Fou sur La Colline is French for ‘Fool on the Hill’. Yes, there is a French version of that Beatles song).

Like Fou, Germs has a small church and a single pub. Some of the action takes place in that pub.

I also saw many herds of Lourdaise cows, or at least, what I took to be Lourdaise cows, based on what I know of them (it is a breed specific to the Lourdes region, with a yellowish hide). 
Here is one old cow who could virtually be a template for Matilda, the old Lourdaise cow on Lanterre’s farm who starts singing opera:-
I stood beside her a long time, waiting for her to break into a piece from Aida, or at least Rigoletto. Nothing doing. Possibly Matilda was not in the mood that day.

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