TOUS COMMERCES


Not all French villages are created equal. Some, like ours, have what they call tous commerces. The exact meaning depends on context, but the best translation in this case is "all the shops", though more accurately, it's "all the shops we've got." For example, 50 years ago there were two butchers in the village. When we arrived, there was one. They closed a few years ago. Even so, we have a baker's, a mini-supermarket, a pharmacy, a bank, an hotel-restaurant and (most importantly of all) a café-bar. We also have a medical centre; a doctor's surgery as well  (though he's looking forward to retiring); and a primary school. All this in a village of around 1000 people. 


Le Donjon café-bar. It's an interesting question: do the plastic signs detract from the rural idyll, or are they an essential part of the modern world?

Such a concentration of shops and facilities in one village means that other villages go without. For example, there used to be a cafe-bar-restaurant in the next village, a couple of miles (3 km) away, but apparently the couple who ran it fell out and it's been closed for a few months now. There's a butcher there, and an excellent baker, but no grocery shop. Going in the other direction, there are two café-bar restaurants in Martaizé but that's 5 miles (8 km) away. The nearest mini-supermarket is in Martaizé too. "Mini-supermarket" may be an odd concept, but it's the easiest way to describe a shop that's bigger than a corner shop while being smaller than a supermarket.

 

Bank.It's only actually open two afternoons a week, but at least there's a hole-in-the-wall machine, and if you have enough faith, you can go inside (using your bank card as a key) and throw your money into a sort of night safe. It's collected twice a week and counted the day after that. 

If this machine is broken or out of money, the nearest branch of the same bank (or indeed of any bank) is in St. Jean de Sauves, about 8 miles away (13 km). For  BNP Paribas, where we can withdraw money from a UK account without extra fees, we need to go either to Loudun (11 miles/18 km) or Thouars (13 miles/21 km).

An interesting thing about hole-in-the wall machines in rural France is the range of options they offer for taking out money, starting as low as 20€. Then again, there are a lot of retired people in the villages; many that are semi-retired; and in any case, there's not a lot of money about in La France Profonde except perhaps in the bank accounts of second home owners.

When we first moved to France in 2002 we rented a house in a house in a hameau (a hamlet, a tiny village without a church) for six months while we looked for somewhere to buy. The nearest village with any shops at all was almost an hour's walk away, but even then, we didn't think much about it because we were used to driving to the supermarket in England. We even looked at maisons isolées, houses out on their own out in the country. What we ignored was that the centre of our English village was only a quarter of an hour's walk away, and that we went there for all sorts of things: pharmacy, some groceries, light bulbs... There was even a butcher five minutes away, with an ironmonger all but next door to him.

 Here, the nearest place that sells nails or bug-spray is ten miles (16 km) away. It was pretty much a matter of luck that we ended up where we did. We had decided on a village or a small city, because the maisons isolées were too isolées, but we really hadn't paid much attention to the commerces. We should have. This was brought home to us very forcefully a couple of years ago when a friend of ours developed appendicitis. She and her husband live in a hameau. He doesn't drive, so he was totally reliant on friends and neighbours to get to see her in hospital, and the nearest shops were (and are) 3 miles away, 5 km, in our village: a fair old bicycle ride. 


Co-op. We feel guilty about not shopping there more, but the trouble is, the prices are higher than they would be in a full-size supermarket; the choice is poorer; and the vegetables are sometimes somewhat tired. 


Another point you may have begun to suspect by now is that the villages with tous commerces are not always the prettiest: there are simply too many modern plastic signs. Look at that lovely wooden beam in the picture above, and at the sign above it. It sometimes feels that when it comes to shop-fronts and advertising, many French villages that do have tous commerces are stuck in the 1960s and 1970s. A more old-fashioned ambience might attract more tourists as well as locals; and make no mistake, tourism is a very major source of revenue in La France Profonde.


Boulangerie. Another thing that is easy to forget in the fantasy of living in a French village is that some boulangeries are better than others. Ours is perfectly competent, but the one in the next village is even better. The drawback is that it's about two miles (3 km) with a short stretch of steep hill. I could cycle there, but it would require slightly more energy than I can muster on a daily basis. Especially if it's raining. 


Just before I wrote this, too, I heard a story about a British couple who bought their dream house, a maison isolée, and then decided as they got older it was indeed too isolée. I don't know what they paid for it, but I do know (or at least believe, as the story came from a reliable source) that like many Britons they were unable to get their heads around the idea that houses do not necessarily soar in value every year. They put it on the market at 350,000€. That was two years ago. Today, it's still not selling at 150,000€. If you're looking for a house in La France Profonde, especially if you are planning to retire to one, you may care to treat tous commerces as something of a talismanic phrase.  


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016