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 a month, 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.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

January: The Gulf Between Us

With dotage looming larger by the week, talk in this house has inevitably turned to the future. Do we want to stay in this country for the rest of our days? Should we consider moving back to the UK? And if so, where?

With summers here getting hotter and hotter, we’ve discussed cooler climes. I would move back to some rural enclave of Norn Iron like a shot (despite strong reservations about the lunatic fringe, who wave their red-hand-of-Ulster flags with no hint of irony nor the lessons of history), but the Good Wife is not so keen. Understandably: she’s never lived there nor had any direct dealings with the people of the province, other than a few delightful friends. So we’ve talked about a return to Yorkshire, where they refreshingly call a spade a spade. Or maybe further afield, like Scotland. The Dame was born near the border and spent her first years in the Lowlands, so she feels about Scotland as I do about Norn Iron. I’m not quite so sure; the Scots hate the English after all, and when all’s said and done I am an Englishman at heart, for all my dual nationality and Northern Irish posturing.

The trouble is, neither of us wants to leave this house. We built it and shaped it with our own hands and it’s the most comfortable accommodation we could imagine. If we could lift it up by helicopter and drop it somewhere in the UK and preferably near the sea, then maybe we would. A couple of things during and after the Christmas hullabaloo have underlined the gulf between our native land and our adoptive country.

Every year at around the end of February – ever since the tsunami in fact, way back in 2004 or whenever it was – a bunch of us, expatriates and natives, have put on a cabaret to raise money for a nominated worthy cause. So I wrote a short piece for three people: a very dark satire on the way people abandon their pets come holiday time, mixed with a dig at the way that old women can treat their husbands when they’ve outlived their usefulness (if ever, that is, they were useful in the first place).

I called it SPH, Société pour la Protection des Hommes, a play on the SPA, Société pour la Protection des Animaux. A woman, perhaps played by my radiant wife, brings her husband to a refuge that’s bursting at the seams with abandoned husbands. He’s an old Corrézian type and she’s up to here with his endless talk about the weather, his kitchen garden or his DIY tools. After failing to persuade her at least to swap him for a long-term resident who’s a little quirky but very handy, the SPH official leads the abandoned husband off stage to introduce him to all the other inmates and to try to make him as comfortable as possible until the right taker comes along.

I sent it to a chap I know who’d talked about doing something with me – to highlight the contrast between his French-ness and my English-ness. I thought he’d make a good abandoned husband: someone whose slightly lugubrious, shambling physical presence would surely win the sympathy of an audience. I reckoned he’d be game enough for a laugh to enter into the spirit of the piece. So I sent him the script. I heard nothing in reply. Then, maybe a fortnight later, which suggested that he had thought carefully about his reply, I heard from him by e-mail. He was shocked and insulted and didn’t find it at all funny. I wrote back apologetically, explaining as best I could in my written French about the dark British sense of humour and so forth, while making a mental note: Why continue to bang my head against a brick wall when it could be swaddled by a soft pillow? Just let it lie. I should have known better of course; my quips and asides have regularly gone down in native company like deflated balloons. Admittedly it’s still hard to express myself clearly in a foreign language, but when it comes to humour never the twain shall meet.

Someone, perhaps my wife, suggested that my intended abandoned husband might have been less insulted had the idea come from a Frenchman. A fair point, although the idea of a French man or woman conceiving of such a scenario in the first place is as unlikely as snow is now in winter here.

I’ve also proposed, fruitlessly, that an animal charity might benefit from our annual cabaret. Fat chance. Another case of banging my head against an immovable object. There's a cultural chasm in this respect, too. The other Sunday, for example, we were invited out to eat with friends from Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Bring Daphne along, our hostess gaily suggested. We did, thinking it would be a sit-down affair with a handful of people – only to discover that it was a full-blown party. Amy had done her bit for the entente cordiale by inviting all her French neighbours, who promptly turned up an hour early. She invited them all in for a drink and sent SOS texts to expatriate friends who could speak at least a little French.

Anyway, it wasn’t the best context for a greedy dog, with low-lying snacks dotted around the house. But she wandered around sniffing legs and things and didn't disgrace herself. My personable wife and I chatted to the French neighbours in our customary diplomatic fashion. It helps to boost the score of Brits in France if the natives perceive that some expatriates can actually speak their language. A couple asked the name of our dog. ‘Daphne,’ I replied. ‘Gafny?’ ‘No, Daphne.’ ‘Kafny?’ ‘Daphne.’ ‘Baphne?’ ‘No, Daphne. With a D.’ Eventually, they got it. I don’t think they were hard of hearing or my pronunciation was at fault, but simply that the French don’t grasp our propensity to call pets by regular first names. It’s more common to give a dog the name of a fruit or a nut. Provided it begins with the decreed letter for that particular year (which is actually a useful way of remembering your pet's age).

They tend to think of animals differently to us. Not that I believe entirely that the British are a nation of animal lovers. Nevertheless, there is some truth in the old cliché. It hurts me to walk our dog past the compound where a local farmer incarcerates his hunting dogs on concrete inside wire fencing. Prune, their border collie, is allowed out on good behaviour to help with the chores. She’s a lovely dog, who likes to run up to us both and say hello – only to be commanded to heel by her masters. I try to suggest that she and Daphne like to have a little play, but it’s another case of head-banging. What I really want to say is something like, ‘Wise up, you ignorant tossers!’

The other day, Daphne and I encountered the hermit-daughter of the old be-whiskered hermit-woman, who live together in a sad, dark bungalow piled with an incredible miscellany of clobber outside on their porch. The shutters stay shut night and day. God knows what goes on within. They seem to care for their cats and dog, however. Said daughter was out walking the miniature Sasha, who’s no bigger than a fluffy pyjama case. We walked together in the direction of their house of anything-but-mirth, exchanging pleasantries and inanities. While Daphne trotted on ahead, at liberty to sniff and generally dilly-dally, poor benighted Sasha was tugged back by her mistress every time she wanted to wander off the bitumen for a bit of olfactory exploration. This was accompanied by a petulant complaint and an insistence that the miniature beast should obey the two-legged beast holding the leash. I bit my tongue, but what I wanted to say was, ‘Wise up, you ignorant tosserina. Why don’t you let that poor creature off the lead and let it do what the Spirit in the Sky intended? Get a life, woman, and in the process give your poor dog a life, too.’

I didn’t. But living among heathens sometimes triggers these home thoughts from abroad. The thought of enriching our lives with a bit of culture – and a culture that’s not alien to us – is very tempting. We’re not getting any younger and feeling more acutely the need for a more sociable existence. But where to go? Yorkshire? Scotland? Morecambe Bay? North Devon? West Cork! Now there’s an idea. That seemed like a surprisingly international place. But the boffins still haven't invented the kind of heavy-duty, military-style heli-porter capable of picking up and deposing a large straw-bale house. Until that day...


Saturday, December 17, 2022

December: Red Day! Red Day!

We are but two of the apparent tens of thousands of worried French people who have chosen to sign up to EDF’s Tempo. They called it other things in the past, but it’s a binding contract by any other name. With the surging price of power, it seemed like a sensible thing to do: you opt to cut your consumption during 22 journées rouges when the price of electricity is about three times higher than what you normally pay. In return, you receive a 10% or so discount during 50 or so journées blanches, with a hefty 20% or so off during the remaining journées bleues.

It requires the kind of frugality that my mother – someone who lived through the war and rationing – tried to instil in her four children. For some reason, the principles have only lived on in her two sons. My brother, a master plumber by trade, still lives in a flat where the water from the sink flows into an old plastic rubbish bin christened The Ganges, which he periodically flushes down the loo. Me, I assiduously save paper bags and elastic bands, while the clothes that I’ve finally finished with are demoted to work clothes, which are then demoted to rags at the end of their protracted lives.

So I'm well equipped for Tempo. As is the Good Wife. Despite foreign travel with her family from an early age, she went to an all-gels private boarding school where she froze to death and ate bread heated on a hot water bottle to serve as ersatz toast. Later, she was a student, so we have both survived the type of accommodation that would normally have been condemned by Social Services.

Our first Red Day occurred a couple of weeks ago, causing panic and consternation in the household. It means that after six in the morning, you have to turn the thermostat down low enough so there’s little risk that the heat pump will switch itself on. It means that we can’t use the oven, the dishwasher or the washing machine. Under no circumstances should the Dame dry her hair with a hair-dryer. Lights should be illuminated sparingly and the vacuum cleaner is off-duty. But – and it’s an enormous one – we do have a wood burning stove in our living area. Even though our wood is limited and still not dry, we can at least keep warm without having to spend the whole day in bed.

Our daughter doesn’t understand it. How can we possibly cope with such inconvenience? She’s accustomed, like most of us in the western world, to having every convenience at the flick of a switch. I say ‘NEPA’: 'never expect power always': a corruption of the National Electric Power Authority as devised by Nigerians resigned to the vagaries of their electricity supplier. (I’ve never been to Lagos, nor would ever wish to go, but it’s the title of a very funky album by Fela Kuti’s famous former drummer, Tony Allen.)

Things have moved on, though. When I first encountered Tempo in a previous guise, chez friends in the Alps, you were notified by a light that EDF installed in your house. These days, of course, notification is online or by text. What’s more, a Red Day lasted (I believe) 24 hours. That wouldn’t wash today. To tempt those aforementioned tens of thousands, between the hours of ten at night and six o'clock you’re charged as you would be for a journée blanche. Or something like that. Preferential, in any case. Which means that – play your cards right – you can put the heat pump back on while you’re tucked up under your 13-tog duvet and set off the dishwasher or washing machine. And if you’ve got chocolate brownies to make for a dinner party, you can cook them in the over after ten. If that means having to hang around for half an hour or so when you could be horizontal in the best place on earth, well... needs must.

So, this is how we cope… We set the alarm for half an hour earlier than usual. Half five rather than six. One of us gets up promptly: to attend to the fire, to boil a kettle for our hot lemons and to turn the under-floor heating thermostat down to something like a pusillanimous 14 degrees. There may be just enough time for the water heater to catch-up after a quick shower before the witching hour. And after that, it’s a matter of superintending the fire diligently and boiling water on the gas hob for hot drinks. I've been too busy stoking the fire to ask myself what happens when that nice Mr. Putin cuts off the supply of gas to the West.

You could say that it gives us a flavour of the war-time spirit that my parents always used to swear by. The people of Britain were never so happy as when they were mucking in together in the face of adversity. According to legend. Certainly, my mother was never so cheery latterly as when she was watching a film like Sink The Bismark! on television. If we heard once about the time when she and her mother witnessed survivors of Dunkirk arriving by train at Exeter Central, we must have heard about it ten times or more.

Only 15 more Red Days till Christmas, Gran. You can tick off the journées rouges on the calendar, thus filling the void created by the lack of an advent calendar, now that Tilley the Kid has fled the nest and her parents are too blasé. With fortitude and perseverance, we’ll get through the privations ahead. My only worry is the wood. Our supply is dwindling. I have neglected what should be an important role as house-husband. Wood monitor. Ordering and carefully stacking long in advance enough logs for the duration. Last year’s mild winter threw me a curve ball. I rested on my laurels in springtime, enjoying the abundant delights of nature when I should have been calculating the number of cubic meters needed for at least two winters ahead.

Tempo fugit. It's cold this Christmas, but I'm dreaming of Blue Days, nothing but Blue Days...


Monday, November 28, 2022

November: I Kissed My Dentist

I didn't mean to. Honest. French etiquette still confuses me and leads me to do ridiculous things on occasion. I was so ashamed that I didn't tell the Good Wife for a whole fortnight – and she's a therapist, so she can help with such matters. I finally blurted it out over breakfast one morning. She almost sprayed her coffee all over the floor. It wasn't quite as bad, I suggested, as my brother tipping his dentist during his callow youth, flush with cash from his job as a waiter.

How did it happen? I was on duty at our little local cinema in Vayrac, run by volunteers. It was my first evening on Caisse#2: the auxiliary who helps the more experienced Caisse#1 by tearing the ticket in half, handing one half back to the cashier and wishing the holder of the other half a cheery bonne séance. It's theoretically a little less taxing than my tour of duty at the local mairie, helping out at some European election.

Just as I was getting into the swing of things, I was confronted by a face that I knew vaguely. He looked at me and I looked at him in uncertain recognition. It was my dentist. Last time I'd seen him, in fact every time I'd seen him, he was in his surgical gear and masked up to the eyebrows. So it was a surprise to see him in civvies. We sort of shuffled slightly towards each other and maybe our right arms twitched in expectation of a handshake. But then I kind of panicked and proffered not my hand but my face in that gesture of familiarity or affection that French males go in for, one that I've never really been comfortable with. Familiarity is the operative word here. Does one ever know one's dentist well? Should one? I suppose it's quite an intimate business, prodding about in someone's mouth with a pick and a mirror, but then again one should probably respect and retain a certain professional distance. In any case, reader I kissed him – and as soon as I'd done so, I felt a complete Charlie. I also felt like apologising, but that would only have ramped up the degree of awkwardness. So I simply tore his ticket, wished him a bonne séance and then squirmed in my seat throughout the film that I struggled to follow. Mumbled French dialogue like French etiquette still defeats me.

I've said it before and I'll say it again... this kind of thing is so much easier on the other side of the pond. I recently returned from a week in the old country (which, according to Mrs. Angry in the seat behind me when the guard announced, very politely, that we would be 20 minutes late into Waterloo due to an earlier points failure near Basingstoke, is 'going to the dogs'. Hardly surprising, I guess, after umpteen years of conservative misrule). Back home, you simply embrace family and dearest friends and shake hands with the rest. Easy-peasy.

I was there to help my sisters with the onerous task of sorting out my father's stuff. No easy matter, since he was a hoarder par excellence (from whom I inherited the squirrel gene). After a very congenial evening in London with Tilley the Kid and her three female flatmates, I arrived at my dad's flat to find my sister Jo going through our paternal grandmother's collection of pewter, while sister Gina was examining with eyeglass and phone our maternal grandmother's collection of silver cutlery for anything genuine as opposed to electro-plated. My role, which I'd chosen to accept, was to sort out my father's music in its many guises – from cassette tapes to mouldy 78s – and the books that survived the sisters' cull after my mother died seven years before. The Brother was in Finland, taking delivery of a house by a lake that he and his partner (with the Finnish connection) have just bought for a song. So he couldn't be there for the other reason for my visit: to lay the urn containing our father's ashes next to those of our mother.

The two sisters have been hard at it for over a month. It has helped them to fill the big hole created by our father's sudden departure. Jo would visit him every day for a chat and a drink, hot or alcoholic. Gina would drop by every day except her three work-days. The task has brought them close together and helped to alleviate their grief. It isn't a big flat, but they have unearthed new treasures from deep in cupboards and inside cracked leather suitcases stored under the paternal bed: forgotten photo albums and paintings by our mother and paternal grandmother that didn't make it onto his walls. Next stop, our father's clothes. Jo feels awkward about something quite so personal, but I'm rather less sentimental about it. Not really believing in any kind of afterlife nor reincarnation, I feel that once you've gone, that's it: you've gone. Might as well give it all to people who want or need it.

In any case, his girth was a little more substantial than mine, and he was of a different generation for all his laudable desire to stay smart and trendy. As it was, I took back a few of his CDs, DVDs, records and books to add to the piles here, but most of it went in bag after heavy bag to the many charity shops of Romsey. Some were glad of them, some not quite so glad. Stuff is a many splendoured thing, but one can have too much of it.

Back on French soil, I do worry about the day when my poor daughter has to deal with my stuff. Corgi toys, plastic Cowboys & Injuns, books, records, CDs, tapes, DVDs and a collection of underused tools. Virtually no one wants that kind of stuff now; they can have it virtually. Maybe even tools one day.

Oh well, she's a big girl now. Once, when she was very, very small, I took her to the école maternelle in Espagnac, a village near our former hamlet of Courbiat in deepest Corrèze. Our friend and near neighbour Corinne, her institutrice, was there at the gate to welcome her charges into the playground. I kissed her on both cheeks as was our custom. Then I noticed the gaggle of young mums hanging about after delivering their own infants, and I thought that I couldn't kiss Corinne and ignore all of them. So, driven by panic and a warped sense of etiquette, I went around the group methodically giving them a double-peck on both cheeks. I didn't know any of them from Eve. They looked a little startled and I felt more than a little gauche.

Back then, I had an excuse. I was new to the game. I really had little excuse for kissing my dentist. When my wife had recovered her equilibrium post-confession, she told me her rule of thumb post-Covid. Don't shake hands and certainly don't kiss unless you're absolutely sure that it will be welcome. I guess that makes things a lot easier, but it's a slight shame. I'm all for traditions if they don't involve blood. French etiquette may be mystifying to outsiders, yet there's something quite charming about it.


Tuesday, October 18, 2022

October: Out On Bales

I met a man the other day who's a retired inseminator. His son has been re-surfacing our drive after 20 years of ravages by time and rainstorms. He explained that his father would travel around the territory inseminating cows, but there's little call for it now, given that small-time farmers are increasingly calling it a day and the big farms that remain tend to have their own resident bulls for the deed.

I witnessed an inseminator at work a few brief years ago on a dude ranch on the Plateau de Millevaches while working on an article for the late-lamented France Magazine. Wearing a disposable glove, the man in question pushed his hand up one of the horse's back passages, half way up his arm. It was a most uncommon sight and not one that I would necessarily wish to repeat. The retired inseminator seemed happy to have quit the profession and ready to help his son as and when needed – in this case by fetching and carrying lorry-loads of limestone chippings from the quarry near Martel.

While they were hard at it, I was second-coating the front-of-house with a lime-wash from Lakeland Paints in Cumbria, part of the consignment of five tins that I boldly smuggled through customs in August. It's been ten years or more since the last lime-wash: a proper home-made one with lime, water and colour. Mix well and apply. Getting an even colour, however, is a bit of a lottery and, having turned a daunting age this month, I decided to cheat. What it added in money, it reduced in effort. The Good Wife wasn't too happy with the new colour at first, but a second coat has turned a lemon shade into the hickory colour we decided would look smart. Next time, we'll order a colour sample, although by the next time I'll have one foot in the grave.

So it's been all go this month. I haven't let up for a moment, given that the temperature is ideal for a lime-wash: somewhere between about 5 and 20o, if I remember correctly. I was even out there, up a ladder, on a Sunday morning: the tranquillity of this beautiful autumn shattered by the baying of hounds and periodic gunshots. I've signed several online petitions begging our jumped-up miniature president to ban hunting on a Sunday. Having lost so many votes in the last election, however, Monsieur Macron will be reluctant to upset the hunting fraternity. Every vote will be precious to him, no matter how moronic.

Lime-washing per se isn't so bad, not with an MP3 player and our little Anker sound-bar at least. It's the ordeal by mosquito and climbing rose that turns the air blue. The mosquitoes are a legacy of a ruinously hot dry summer. The minute they see my bare legs, they get the taste for blood. I suppose it's my own fault, wearing shorts, but it's a question of pride: I refuse to let the little bastards drive me into jeans. So it's a power struggle. And if the insects don't get me, the vicious climbing rose at the back of the house almost certainly will. Even so, once the sun gets too hot around midday, you can retreat indoors, show off your battle scars proudly, and glow with a sense of satisfaction at another stage of a job well done. It's been a fortnight already and, by the time I finish, the endurance test will have been longer than the Tour de France. The Big Question is, though: will I have enough paint?

Underneath several coats of lime-wash and an inch or so of lime render, our straw bales seem to be doing pretty well after a couple of decades. Maybe even as pristine as my friend Bret's. I took a morning off the other day to go and help my original co-baler move and stack his bales in readiness for the next stage of his build.

Bretland lies across the valley and every time I venture to the other side, I get hopelessly lost. I haven't got a SatNav in my car and will probably never have one because I prefer to study maps and fix a destination in my head. It doesn't always work. I asked for directions in readiness, but he sent me one of those Google pins, which only confuse me the more. As Howling Wolf once sang, 'I asked for water and she gave me gasoline.'

Sure enough, I was there or thereabouts in good time for the rendezvous at ten. I then proceeded to get hopelessly, tearfully lost. I toured the immediate area, driving up hill and down dale; turning round and trying another unmarked side road, and finally bumped into Bret and a trailer full of straw bales around 30 minutes later. I helped to unload them while Bret directed the stacking operation. Handling the raw material of our house brought it all back. For years they have been out of sight and out of mind, but here they were again: the giant Weetabix biscuits held together with two parallel lengths of twine. Bret's have been in storage since pre-Covid days, but they were every bit as dry and as crisp as ours were after the canicule of 2003.

It took around two hours to get them solidly stacked and then covered with what appeared like an enormous plastic tablecloth. I should mention that working with a chain gang of usual suspects under Bret's watchful eye was a rather more efficient and well organised operation than the current British government. I generally keep my head out of the news for the sake of sanity (although hearing that James Corden was called a 'tiny cretin of a man' is a positive tonic), but one can't escape the daily headlines about U-turns and endemic incompetence. It's hard to believe that the Conservative party can survive such a monumental cock-up. One has to hope.

In the meantime, I was dismayed to find an e-mail or two from the Conservatives among the hundreds and thousands requiring my attention. But how on earth did they find their way into my in-box? I can only think that it was some misdirected attempt to contact the new clueless prime minister and urge her to do something to benefit the majority rather than the over-privileged few.  Wasn't life so much easier in the days before e-mail, by the way? Once I stop lime-washing, I can return to the really pressing matters of state, such as deleting unwanted messages.

While striding around on top of Bret's bales, helping to pull the giant tablecloth over them to keep out any rain that winter might bring, I made some flippant observation about being born to bale. When the time comes to account for my achievements over the course of a lifetime, the only solid thing I can claim – apart from my contribution to a baby girl – is this one family house of straw. It requires a certain amount of upkeep and maintenance, but don't they all? Lime-washing is fairly long and arduous task for a sexagenarian, but on the whole I reckon that protecting your bales beats thrusting your hand up a cow's fundament.