Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once or twice a week, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September: 'Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee, Oh Mr. Lee'

My friend Bret delivered the bombshell when I was in the supermarket, wondering whether to buy crisps for the girls, to sustain them on their long journey the next day. I'd had to come to Brive to look for another cat flap, after Daphne had broken her second this year by thrusting her head through the Perspex door to bark with too much enthusiasm at unseen predators outside.

He asked me first whether I'd seen his orbital sander. I had, but it was in our cave and I wouldn't be back home till lunchtime. And had I heard the news about our mutual friend, Dave? I hadn't, I replied as sotto voce as possible, because I don't like talking on a mobile phone in public places lest someone mistake me for a plonker.

Dave, our friend, was dead. What??! I held onto the trolley and stopped my deliberations about snacks. How could he be dead; we'd both seen him not five or six weeks before at a party? Apparently, Bret told me, it was a para-gliding accident or something. At that party, our friend had in fact even asked me whether I'd like to come along sometime. I told him that I didn't think it was really my thing.

Mr. Lee, as I called him – in honour of that deliciously daft song of 1957 about a 5th grade teacher by the Bobbettes – was a quite delightful man. I don't think he ever got the reference when I would greet him by singing the repetitive chorus, but he always humoured me with his trademark bonhomie.

We were in the middle of constructing this house when he first breezed into my life in a bottle-green Jeep or Land Rover or some vehicle appropriate for someone who'd recently left the army. He arrived with his ex-army buddy and a Dutch acquaintance, who'd told them about a house of straw and brought them along for a look-see.

Dave and Steve had a scheme to start a business over here and always appeared in tandem. We called them 'the Army Boys' – with a nod to the 'soldier boys of Pippin Fort' from the children's programme, Camberwick Green – because they still bantered together like a pair of affectionate former comrades-in-arms. Typically of Dave, he volunteered their services here in return for some publicity that might help their nascent business.

One such publicity stunt we dreamed up together was the painting of the big beams that support the slanting roof of the mezzanine. Dave offered to bring his harness and hang from the highest point with pot and paintbrush in his hands while the camera recorded his gravity-defying manoeuvres. Surely it would have made great television, but the director for some reason didn't seem that keen.

With hindsight now, I realise that his whole life must have been defined by a dare-devil's taste for adventure. I suppose the army would demand nothing less. Coming to a foreign country to start a building business without a word of French and, initially at least, more enthusiasm and bravado than practical know-how took guts. With an ever-present glint in his eye and a clipped Brummie accent that suggested many a bollocking from sergeant majors, he would crack us all up with his early cack-handed attempts to speak the lingo.

He and Steve were there for the final frantic day of building and filming, doing anything useful that they could apply their talents to, like assembling an Ikea kitchen in a new world-record time. It was a time when my stress-level gauge was well into the red and I could feel the steam seeking release through every orifice. Dave was genuinely surprised to hear me confess this. He told me that he'd never worked with anyone who exuded such calm.

Not too long after, Steve and his wife went back to the UK for various reasons. The Army Boys disbanded and Dave became Mr. Lee to me. He knuckled down to the business of conquering French, mastering the multifarious building skills required of a successful sole-trader and, when he found any spare time, doing up his big barn near Beaulieu. It was a source of personal pride that he chose to build his internal walls of straw.

Being an army veteran, his politics were probably some way from mine. It wouldn't have mattered had I known for sure. At my 50th birthday party, I noticed how he jumped a track by Linton Kwesi Johnson: probably one of LKJ's dub-poems about police brutality in Brixton. I made a mental note that maybe Dave care for anything disrespectful about guardians of the law. But maybe he simply couldn't stand reggae. In any case, we both knew enough to steer clear of the subject in conversation. Instead, I learnt about things like his liking for fast cars and his seemingly eternal quest for the love of his life.

I remember when he lost one such love. They say that a dog's character generally reflects that of its master or mistress. It was a testimony to Mr. Lee's genial character that Rosie his Rottweiler was as sweet and gentle as you could imagine. Something of a contradiction in terms to anyone, like myself, who looks upon the breed as one of the most fearsome on earth. Dave was devastated by the loss of his constant companion and would still talk wistfully in later years of how Rosie might have been saved by a more competent vet.

By the time he came to help out with the refurbishment of The Good Wife's clinic, his skills had developed apace. His fame spread as his competence grew and we saw less of him. Others presumably learnt what good company he was to have around and profited from his pragmatic but conscientious approach to his trade.

I hadn't seen him for some time when our paths crossed one evening in a bar in Martel. We'd both come to see our friends the three Steves playing that night as two. Mr. Lee was very much on form and introduced us to the love of his life. He'd found her in Limoges: a public servant named Isabelle with the kind of quirky sense of humour that complemented his own. They were clearly devoted to each other and it was charming to witness how they conversed with a mixture of stilted French and classroom English.

During the night of the party, Mr. Lee spoke to me with almost poetic passion about the thrill of para-gliding. A previous accident had disabled him for several months while Isabelle nursed him back into shape. He told me that he, an ex-soldier, had cried in hospital because the pain was so excruciating. Nevertheless, he was back in the sky at the earliest opportunity. I guess some people crave adventure, while others like myself shy away from anything that puts life or limb in danger.

That same night, I asked him whether we could expect a wedding at some time in the near future. We could, Mark, yes we could. There's nothing I like more in life than a good wedding and I was angling for an invitation. It would have been lovely to see them both wed. But a horribly hot and parched September has just got worse. Our friend has gone in a flash and all I can think of is his betrothed, alone with her grief like a character in a novel by Henry James. That and the words of a particularly dark and ominous song by John Cale from Helen of Troy: 'The last thing they expected to see was sudden death'.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

August: The Dry Life

It's dry and arid here on the highlands above the plain. We haven't had any rain to speak of for what seems like months. The rain butts are all empty now and great cracks have appeared in what was once a perimeter lawn. I have not yet had a nightmare about either falling down one such fissure or the house disappearing into the nether regions below the foundations, but who knows? Everything now, in the words of a Sean O'Casey character, is in such a state of 'chassis'.

None of which yet renders this area California or Ethiopia – although I'm sure I spied a herd of wildebeest wandering pitifully over what was once the meadowlands below in search of a pool of water – but it does make for depressing viewing. The garden is barely hanging on and the Good Wife and I have abandoned our short-lived schedule of half an hour's weeding before it gets too hot on days when she and I are both at home. You can't pull weeds out of reinforced concrete by the roots.

Fanatical watering is contrary to all our greenest principles, so we've had to make hard decisions about which plants to help along the way and which to abandon to their fate. Besides, I still haven't got around to rigging up a drop-by-drop irrigation system, because it requires another project involving my indispensable friend, Bret, who's busy administering to others this summer. It's no good watering with a hose, in any case (I read), because the water evaporates in the heat before it can properly soak the ground. Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Watering is so unutterably boring.

Nothing much is growing, anyway. The courgettes have withered on the vine and anything bigger than a cherry tomato is as dry as... well, our perimeter lawn. The old guy in the nearby hamlet whom I call Poodle Man (because he's married to Poodle Woman, who walks or rather waddles her latest poodle, named like his predecessor after a cocktail nut) tells me that the lack of fruit and vegetables is due to the abnormally mild winter, which failed to kill off any lingering maladies. Without the water from the Dordogne, he reckons, the local petits producteurs (who are not all physically small, I should point out) would have nothing to sell at market.

Of course, it were all very different when he were a lad. And for once I well believe it. After all, he and his friends used to cycle to school at Vayrac, which is ten minutes away by car, a journey that entailed freewheeling down the Côte de Mathieu early in the morning and, more to the point, climbing back up it at the end of each afternoon, at the end of a long hard day at school. My point is that he probably doesn't look back through rose-tinted glasses. His nostalgia must be seasoned with a healthy pinch of stark reality.

Back in the old days, it tended to rain at night. The heat would build up at the end of the day and there would be a storm. Indeed, I remember that very phenomenon from our early pioneering days in the old village. But now there's no rain during July and August – and last year not until early December – added to which, a frequent pesky wind further dries things out. Where is this wind coming from? Poodle Man asked rhetorically. I shrugged Gallically. Perhaps the wastelands of the Russian Steppes. He suggested, quite convincingly, that we're now getting a Toulousian climate. Everything's shifting northwards. But we knew that anyway. I had to get on. I needed my breakfast and the two dogs wanted to get back to their ball-launching.

With two dogs to walk most mornings and evenings, I must be perceived as a serious semi-retired malingerer now. One dog is more business-like; two suggests that you have nothing better to do with your time. I've rather enjoyed these last six weeks or so with a brace of hounds. Sacha's maîtresse is back now from her long sojourn in Colorado and on Friday she's driving away whence she came with her sweet and docile sheepdog in the back. I will be sad to see him go.

And how will Daphne react? Oh, that's odd. One minute he was here and the next he's gone. Oh well, back to life as I tend to know it... She'll rule the roost once more and maybe stop showing off and acting at times like a hooligan. But it has been genuinely interesting and heart-warming to observe them building up a working relationship. When I walk them by bicycle in the mornings, Sacha trots along a little insecurely somewhere near the back wheel, while Daphne goes trail-blazing on ahead. But they come together every now and again for a casual sniff or a more concerted kind of olfactory conference and, without wishing to sound too anthropomorphic, they seem to co-exist as friends. A twosome. And it's kind of nice.

I've even worked out a modus operandi for the ball launching. Sending Daphne far off into the field towards next door's building site (to leap like an NFL receiver and pluck the ball out of the air), I get Sacha scampering off in the opposite direction, sniffing blindly as he races hither and thither in search of my short-ball. By the time that Daphne has delivered and gone tearing off after another aerial bomb, Sacha's back and there's just enough time to prise the slimy ball out of his jaws (helped if necessary by a tap of the plastic launcher on his muzzle to reinforce my words of command) and send him off again on another wild goose chase. Only when they arrive at the same time does my synchronised launching degenerate into chaos. At which juncture, I tend to lose both patience and temper and stalk off with both balls, followed by a pair of panting and ever-hopeful dogs.

Life will be easier with one. We reached the same conclusion about children – and so, generally, it has proved (and it's even easier with said single child away working during the drought in a vegetarian restaurant near the wonderful Pech Merle caves). Two dogs are more of a tie. You can't easily palm them off on a friend if you need to go away for a few days, even if this lodger's as well behaved as our full-time resident is capricious.

At least, I thought he was – until this very morning. Yesterday, even before Poodle Man delayed my breakfast with his personal take on climate change, I'd bumped into the (young) farmer's (young) wife. She was out walking the pedigree spaniel they acquired about a year ago for their teenage daughter. She clasped the dog to her bosom because she was on heat (the dog, that is) and Sacha was sniffing around her (the dog's) parts. I assured her (the farmer's wife) that Sacha had been 'fixed up', so there was nothing to fear. She (Mrs. Farmer) teaches history and geography at the local collège. Since she knows that I am a serious student of history, we talk darkly about whatever little bit of history happens to be repeating. Yesterday she told me about Putin's overtures to the Turkish crypto-dictator and we reminisced gaily about the Crimean War.

Anyway, Sacha's returning maîtresse happened to reveal over dinner that her dog has not been fixed up after all. He is simply very docile. This does not, it seems, preclude the call of the wild. Sacha went off this morning and I had to get on my bicycle and ride, with Daphne this time at my side. I found him down at the hamlet, sniffing around the sheep shed. Presumably the pedigree dog's heat had rubbed off on her master, who tends the sheep shed. These dogs, remember, can sniff out a bone dropped into the middle of Lake Baikal.

I had to raise my voice in order to bid him follow. Half way up the hill back to the dog's meadow, I realised that Sacha was no longer following. So, the paragon of virtue was canine after all. Turning round, Daphne and I sped back to the hamlet and this time I had to get very stern with the recalcitrant beast. Obviously the absence of sex can turn a dog – as it can a man – into a very different creature. I had to sort of corral him back home with my front wheel as Sacha might an errant sheep, given gainful employment.

Dogs, eh? Who'd have 'em? Well, I would for one. In return for food, exercise and affection, they give me entertainment and companionship. Perhaps even psychological insights. This much I have learnt over the last few weeks: one's company, two's more company, but three's verging on the obsessive. Whatever, I like dogs much more than I do a summer drought.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

July: Party Back in Time

Whether it had more to do with the attritional effect of constant bad news – the fall-out from the Brexit stupidity; another horrific terrorist attack in France; the relentless slaughter of the world's remaining wildlife; renewed hostilities in Sudan und so weiter – I don't know, but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness the day after the party.

It was a nice party, too. All three of us had been dreading it slightly in the car on the journey up and over the hills to our first French stamping ground. When we arrived at the little station building that was converted into our old commune's Salle de Fêtes, we were a little reluctant to get out of the car. It was an old friend's 60th birthday party and we hadn't seen her and our mutual friends for over a decade. The last time my wife and daughter set foot in the building, they had been pointedly snubbed by the mayor and his entourage. We think it was because someone had worked out that we were the ones who crossed off one of his cronies from our supposedly secret ballot papers.

The match-chewing mayor is still the mayor of the commune and our closest mutual friend is still one of his elected élus. We had been happy to give her our vote and she it was who secured the salle as venue for our friend's birthday party. She also revealed that the family from hell (who had provoked our electoral displeasure) had moved out of our old village and into the neighbouring commune, no doubt to make other people's lives miserable. Their son apparently is working his way into politics on the far right.

Everyone we encountered seemed so much older or almost unrecognisably grown-up. The first friendly face we encountered was the birthday girl's youngest daughter, who used to be Our Kid's best friend in those far-off days of école maternelle and primaire. The long curly hair I remembered had been shorn. She looked rather chic in her short Jean Seberg gamine style, but I couldn't help hearing the Brian Wilson song inside my head. Where did your long hair go...?

We had arrived early with the idea of being able to talk to our hostess before all the guests piled in. She looked if anything a little younger and a little happier despite the dispersal of her girls and the break-up of her marriage. We were rather surprised to find her ex there, too, all smiles as usual and busy playing boules with the early-birds. Hopefully, we wished, the breach was in the process of healing.

In fact, our friend kept disappearing – to check on details for the party and a little later to go and change – and we ended up chatting to a couple from the Creuse, who had come to visit our house during construction and gone away and built themselves a straw bale house of their own in the middle of nowhere. We compared satisfaction ratings and happiness evaluations.

French parties continue to unnerve me, partly because of my continual lack of comprehension. I'm just about all right one-to-one or as one of a foursome, say, but anything more than that and I start to drift away and get lost in the general babble. I don't stray far from my wife or daughter in case I should need their help with a translation or two. Hanging back on the edge of one particular group, I kind of half-understood an anecdote about our daughter making presents to give to fellow children at the party held in our honour the evening before our departure for pastures new. Why, I wondered, would she make a fly for one particular kid? It was only much later that I worked out that the woman had said mouchoir rather than mouche. A handkerchief made more sense than a commemorative fly.

In such circumstances, it can be a lot easier to forego stilted small-talk for some helpful task like washing up or putting food on the table. I hadn't doubted for one moment that there would be lots of food to take from the kitchen to the table in the party room. The doubt, though, is whether there will be enough of it for vegetarians. Promising looking tarts and savoury cakes are often laced with bacon bits. I suggested to The Daughter that she label our culinary contribution as a tarte végétarienne. That would be sure to put people off and leave sufficient for us.

Quite the contrary. At least four guests asked my wife for the recipe. They might have been queuing up all evening for instructions had not the musicians started their concert. The last time I had seen our hostess' elder daughter torment her violin had been many years before when she was little more than an earnest tot. It was clear that the years of higher musical education have left their mark. She performed as part of a trio of friends from Poitiers, where she now lives, and they made genuinely beautiful music together.

We all watched with undivided attention, seated at the U-shaped table arrangement that enclosed their temporary stage. It didn't and couldn't last too long, because it was already 10 o'clock and the bouffe simply had to begin. I never fail to marvel at the French capacity for food. Foolishly, I had thought that the table full of tarts and nibbles that I had helped to stock would have sufficed. But no. That was just an entrée. There would be a plat principal, a cheese platter and dessert – to be finished no doubt by coffee. Somewhere along the way, there would be champagne to sup, presents to offer and even a little dancing. All of which added up to an exodus in the wee small hours of the morning.

We sat opposite another old friend of our daughter's from her primary years. Physically, she was not that much taller than she was back then, but in every other way she'd grown astonishingly: smiley, witty, bubbly and charismatic, she had blossomed into a pocket bombshell. If she'd been around in the 1940s, she would be a Forces' Favourite whose face would have been painted on the sides of tanks and bombers. Now an aesthetician and masseuse, she has built up a clientele within Tulle's alternative bohemian circle. Her repartee kept us entertained till the moment I whispered to my wife that we really had to leave.

With a couple of dogs to liberate back home, we had a good opportunity to offer our premature excuses. Having slaved away for her guests, the birthday girl was now sitting opposite her two aged parents, which somehow didn't seem quite right. It was after 11 o'clock by now, so surely it was time to let her hair down. Maybe later – just before she went off to prepare the early-morning French onion soup for stragglers.

It's about an hour's drive back home, yet it feels like a journey from one country to another. There was plenty to talk about in the car and we agreed that it hadn't been the ordeal that we had feared. A swell party indeed.

So why so sad? It wasn't as if anyone interrogated us on Brexit or made us feel in the slightest bit unwelcome. Maybe it's not to do with all that bad news from the outside world. Maybe it's more like waking up after a long, long sleep full of engrossing dreams to look at yourself in the mirror and register the shock of physiological change. So much time has passed and you weren't even aware of it until this confrontation with the truth. Maybe it's because it underlines just how firmly a chapter of your life has been closed. A chapter when you were younger and more robust and your child was but a little girl – who was turned into an adult while you were distracted with all the other business of life.

Friday, June 17, 2016

June Too Soon

So here we all are, hanging on a knife-edge. On the 23rd of this month, we shall be tuning into the national news via satellite – a thing which of course we don't very often do – to see whether the ayes or the nays have it. That's yes or no to leaving Europe and, at the moment, it looks suspiciously like it's the ayes who will prevail.

There are valid points on both sides of the argument, but since the Brexit camp seems to be stocked full of entrenched conservative politicians, contrarian economists and the kind of football yobs who were provoking all and sundry in Marseille with their brainless chants, I'm inclined to vote for a far-from-perfect centralised bureaucracy crying out for concerted reform.

The European Union has at least promulgated important change in areas like the environment and animal welfare – areas about which the other camp rarely give a monkey's, since the only thing that seems to stir them is the spectre of immigration. The idea of Britain going it alone in a modern world overseen potentially by Putin on one side and Trump on the other is frankly horrifying. Let's just go back to Palmerston's day of gunboat diplomacy and see whether we can make Britain great again by gobbling up new colonies.

Without a vote, we three can but wait and see – and hope that rational thought will prevail at the 11th hour. It'll be a close-run thing and I'm not banking on it. I had high hopes of being able to deliver our paper-weighty French citizenship dossiers before the 23rd. I imagined that we'd maybe have to book up our appointments with Grand Frère in Toulouse about a week before, but Tilley the Kid delivered a bombshell the other day. No block of three available till the back end of August.

Clearly, there are many more people than I would have credited applying for French citizenship. In getting in early, my hope was that it would earn a few plus points from the adjudicators. It would show them that it wasn't a simple knee-jerk reaction to losing our EU membership rights. Ah oui, these Sampson family have clearly thought about all these carefully. Admeet them? D'accord, très bien. The rubber stamp descends with a brusque thump.

So this, too, is out of our hands. Nothing more to be done apart from checking and double-checking that every single certificate and attestation is included, so that there's no excuse for rejecting our applications on a technicality. At least it means that I can get on with other things. I've embarked at last on a long-nurtured musical non-fiction project and have set myself a target of 60 days in which to finish it.

With all this rain, I won't be side-tracked by strimmer and mower, but can sit back and watch the grass grow while I endeavour to spurn the temptation of the European football championships held, this time around, in my adopted country. With England already throwing away two precious points against dem Russkies, I'm banking on a giant-killing act from Norn Iron. Alas, this time there are no Danny Blanchflowers, Jimmy McIlroys or George Bests. Not even a Norman Whiteside or a Gerry Armstrong. Failing them, I'll root for the Welsh. And then the French.

We're rapidly approaching the half-way mark in June and have yet to see any semblance of a summer. Even the weekly barquette of local strawberries I buy from Martel market have shown little sign of sweetness. Not enough sun, you see, I can pronounce with the certitude of a countryman. Normally I'm in shorts and bare feet from about the beginning of May, but periodically I've been reaching for my fleece-lined slippers to keep my tootsies warm.

Whether this estival absence will worsen or improve my mood come the longest day remains to be seen. It's a time when I customarily go into mourning for all the beauty of spring that has just passed, but maybe the hope of warmer weather to come will give me the strength to ride out the depression and come out fighting for July. Anyway, spare a thought for the poor Sri Lankan cricketers forced to take on the hardened English in sub-wintry conditions. They must be dying for home.

It will hurt The Season of course. People like James Heath and Louise Baker, whom I met for an article on vegetarianism in France (surely a non-starter, you might protest) rely heavily on the few months of the tourist trade to keep going for another year. It's even harder for them, since they took the courageous (and some might say insane) step of opening a vegetarian restaurant here in rural France – thereby at least halving at a stroke their throughput of potential customers.

With The Daughter armed to the teeth with her mother's grown-up camera, we met up for lunch in the enchanting garden of their concern, Le Jardin de Cabrarets. It serves as restaurant, afternoon tea room and bed & breakfast, so they've got their work cut out. Cabrarets is an extraordinary little village that nestles under the scarred limestone cliff that circumscribes the rive droit of the Célé, not far from its confluence with the Lot. It depends largely on the renowned and remarkable Grottes de Pech Merle for its tourist trade.

Talking to them about the motivation behind their resuscitation of a restaurant that had lain fallow for a couple of decades, it was clear that they weren't crazy, just young and fearless. Pioneers. Five years ago, perhaps, when they first opened for business in 2011, I might have pronounced them clinically insane, but it seems now that there is some evidence to back my gut feeling about a recent gastronomic shift. Encouragingly, for example, most of their customers are actually French.

My research took me to the AVF (the Association Végétarienne Française) and I felt so buoyed by my discussion with their president that I became there and then a fully paid-up member of their community. There is such a strong vegan and vegetarian movement among the young, for example, that a district of Paris around the Gare du Nord has earned the appellation 'Veggietown'. It seems that 3% of the French are vegetarians now (compared to about 0.3% when we first moved here) and 10% have stated that they would like to be.

For once in my cussed pessimistic life, I felt positively optimistic about the future. It's not just Albert Einstein who recognises that a change to a vegetarian diet is the only way to ensure our survival on a planet teeming with billions of human beans. Currently 70 billion animals are slaughtered every year worldwide to feed us. Yes, 70 billion farting farm animals. Imagine the quantity of methane gas produced.

There won't have been many ethically or environmentally motivated vegetarians among the legions of football fans who came to France to do battle in the streets of Marseille. Yes sirree Bob, the spectre of the English football hooligan has raised its ugly shaven head yet again. But this time they have met their match in the form of a new breed of super-yob from Planet Russia, where their posturing putain of a president offers his foot soldiers the very model of modern machismo.

Enough alliteration already! What was that I was saying about optimism? Look upon the news pictures ye mighty and despair. Look upon the weather for that matter. Ridley Scott's depiction of the future in Blade Runner (be it director's cut or not) is looking increasingly prescient.