11 January 2011

So rural there's a song about it

It will soon be eight years since we left California and started a new life in Saint-Aignan. We found the house we now live in and put a deposit down on it in December 2002. Then we decided we really didn't want to stay any longer in San Francisco — France was too tempting. So we sold our house in S.F. in March 2003. A month later, we signed on the dotted line and became owners of a house in the country near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. By July 2003, we were all moved in.

What a transition! We not only went from living in the U.S. to living in France, but we also moved from the city to the country. We used to live near the ocean, and now we live well inland. We lived in the temperate, nearly seasonless, kind of monotonous climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, and now we live in the much more varied, exciting climate of the Loire Valley, with clearly marked seasons. We're still getting used to that. Winter can be cold and snowy, and summer can be hot and arid. But you can't count on much of anything, weather-wise.

The rural Loir-et-Cher département, southwest of Paris

When we first arrived in Saint-Aignan — we live about 3 miles from the town, on a dead-end road on the edge of a big vineyard — I remember how quiet it was here. I'd go to bed at night and lie there listening for some sound, any sound. There were none. The silence was deafening. It must have been really noisy where we lived in San Francisco, but I had never particularly noticed.

Now it doesn't feel so quiet any more. I must have adapted. When I listen carefully, I can hear the little train across the river toot its horn. If the wind is right I can hear the train running along the tracks. I can hear church bells from down in our village. In the daytime, I can hear chainsaws or tractor motors off in the distance. I hear owls hoot at night and a neighbor's donkey braying. The other neighbor's rooster crows every morning. Green woodpeckers "laugh" out back when they are startled. Geese honk in another neighbor's yard. Birds, that's mostly what I hear. Once in a while a car drives by in front of the house. Or a light plane, a low-flying military jet, a helicopter, or a hot-air balloon goes by overhead, always startling me.

In San Francisco, we lived one house over from a street that ran at a very steep angle up and down a hill — as streets in San Francisco tend to do. Cars made a lot of noise on that hill, at all hours of the day and night. You got used to it. We lived maybe a quarter of a mile from the 280 freeway, which was down in a valley below our house. There was a constant roar of traffic, but you hardly heard it after a while. And we were only 10 miles from the airport, so we had a lot of planes in the sky overhead all the time. You didn't hear them much, but you heard them, sort of subconsciously — in the background, like the freeway noise.

The so-rural Loir-et-Cher is framed by three major
French cities: Tours, Orléans, and Le Mans

The fact is, the French département we live in is just a little larger, geographically, than the three-county area we lived, commuted, and worked in for many years on what they call "The Peninsula" out there in the Bay Area. Those counties are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara, and they cover an area of about 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 sq. mi.).

Our département, called « le Loir-et-Cher », is — you might have guessed — basically rural. Okay, entirely rural. It covers some 6,000 square kilometers from near Le Mans on its northwest side to Saint-Aignan in the south and Vierzon on the southeast end. Blois, in the middle, is its biggest city, with a metropolitan area (called an agglomération in French) of about 75,000 people. San Francisco — and I mean the city itself, not counting any surrounding area, is 10 or 11 times larger.

The whole Loir-et-Cher département, which is barely bigger geographically than the three-county area where we lived and worked in California, has a population of about 325,000. The area in California that I've described has a population of 3.25 million! (The Paris area, by comparison, is twice as large geographically (12,000 sq. km) and has a population of 11.5 million.)

Speaking of the country vs. the city, you might not know that our département, the Loir-et-Cher, has had a popular song written about it. I can't think of any other French département (there are 100 of them — they are like counties or little states in U.S. terms) that can claim that distinction. Except Paris, of course, but that hardly counts.

The song was a big hit in the 1970s and I remember it from back then, although I didn't yet know where the Loir-et-Cher was located. I had been to Chambord and Blois to see the châteaux in the early 1970s, but I didn't know what département they were in. Now I know that the name Loir-et-Cher is known by nearly all French people, and it is synonymous with rurality, farming, and the old-fashioned life out in the country.

More about the song later...


  1. Very nice post, Ken. And a very faithful description of le Loir et Cher ... Michel Delpech couldn't have done it any better :)! Martine

  2. Merci Ken for reminding me about SFCal, a city that I love to travel to and the description of Loir-et-Cher to which " je reviendrai un de ces dimanches" if everything works as intended in May :-)

  3. I am sure the song will come back to me when I hear it sang.
    Ken, my ex father and mother in-law worked on "the streets of San Francisco". They rented a place on Tiburon. They also worked on "Coma". They actually wanted to retire in Carmel or SF but were afraid of the fog and cold summers. They opted for Kauai; they fell in love with the islands when they worked on "Hawaii five O".
    I really loved my childhood spent in La Nievre. It is probably not that different from the Loire et Cher. I would think your area is not "la France profonde" but "la douce France".

  4. I think that Enrico Macias' classic song, "Les Gens du Nord", may also qualify as a song written about a "département".
    "People who have in their hearts the sun which they don't have outside" could perhaps equally describe the inhabitants of the Loire Valley in Winter.

  5. About Mireille Mathieu's Provence, "j'ai garde l'accent" "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFzuFmowwSM
    I am not sure Michel Fugain and Gerard Lenormand sang about a particular region of France.
    More songs might come back to me later.
    Michel Delpech most famous song was "chez Laurette" if I remember right.

  6. I love your description of the 'quietness'... we found it deafening as well when we first visited our house from the noisy, student ridden area of Leeds we lived in... but over the years, visit by visit, we began to hear all the sounds you describe in that paragraph. Superb observation.

  7. I love the way you deliver and described the place. Very straightforward, descriptive and simple.

  8. In 2003, I accompanied my daughter's high school French class on a trip to France. We spent one night at the Chateau de la Menaudiere. Is this very close to your home?
    Linda from Alabama

  9. Hi Linda from Alabama, yes, La Ménaudière is near Montrichard, the next town down the Cher river from us -- a distance of 10 or 12 miles.

    Nadège, Chez Laurette was one of Delpech's early successes. I think it was before my time -- before 1970, I mean, when I first came to France.

    Beaver, looking forward to that Sunday...

    Dean, I'll have to listen to the Enrico Macias song again. I don't know if he was singing about the département du Nord or about the northern part of France in general. Not to quibble, though...

  10. Interesting post -- I like learning more about the départements. I don't know the song, however. I guess I'll have to drop back in soon!

    And bonne année if I haven't wished it to you!


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