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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

May: Columns And Committees

After roughly fifty cheeses, it seems that my days as a columnist are numbered. France Magazine has been swallowed up by a rival publication and I doubt whether there will be room for my three hundred monthly words on the subject of a French cheese. Like wine-tasting, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find new ways of describing the subtle fruity or not-so-subtle salty notes of the cheese in question, so maybe my time was more or less up – particularly as I had just about exhausted the selection of my friendly neighbourhood cheese van at the Saturday-morning market in Martel.   

I could, I suppose, attempt to negotiate with the new editor and perhaps even work out a deal for more column inches for a bit more money, but it takes a lot of time and effort to build a relationship with an editor and, at my time of life, I'm not sure that I can be bothered. I'm on a stipend from the British government now and, frankly my dear, my fee was fairly derisory. Nevertheless, I shall miss our family tastings: gathered around the table to mull the cheese over, identify the smells and flavours, and grade its strength on the 'Robustometer' from one to ten. It taught us all truly to appreciate the difference between a cheese produced by a small farmhouse fromagerie or co-operative and the equivalent industrial version sold in supermarkets.

As a five-year old in a sedate North London suburb, or whenever it was that I tasted my first Cheddar, I never imagined that one day I would become sufficiently knowledgeable to write about a dairy product. It just goes to show. I was planning to build on my unforeseen success by proposing a monthly column on francophone music from around the world – a subject in which I am rather more invested – because I had that kind of relationship with my editor: I could pitch ideas to her without feeling guilty about wasting her valuable time, secure in the knowledge that she would take it seriously enough to read it and reply, rather than parking it in a slush folder and forgetting about it.

Ah well; so it goes, to use the immortal phrase of Kurt Vonnegut. No use crying over discarded rind. Maybe I won't miss the extra seventy-five quid per month, even with the price of everything from diesel to crisps 'gettin' higher and higher', as Toots growled on 'Time Tough'. I suspect that they're going to get tougher and tougher, with a knock-on effect on everything from social unrest and crime to deforestation and wildlife trafficking. It's not a pretty prospect. Last week, a friend and I discussed a potential positive repercussion of tough times: that we might be entering an era of thrift as opposed to consumption and waste. The one thing my thrifty mother prepared me for in life was a regimen of thrift. I'm quite comfortable with the idea of saving yet more elastic bands, paper bags and jars for storage.

While my status as a columnist is in the balance, I am now – for the first time in my life – a committee member, which means that I can bring to the round table my wealth of experience in... um, French cheese. It's some kind of cultural committee, although the first meeting last Friday disavowed me of any misguided notion I had of helping to influence cultural policy in these parts. I had this vague idea that I might be able to use my music publicity contacts to organise some world-music concert in the market place in Martel.

Thinking, therefore, that I ought to make my presence felt, I wore the new Paul Smith jacket that I found last week for eight euros in the Emmaüs bazaar for the poor and thrifty. Actually, aforementioned friend found it for me, as I was busy searching among the piles of Nana Mouskouri records for treasure in the music room. The jacket was far too small for him, but it fits me like a glove. He found himself a couple of shirts and I found an un-played copy of George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh, so we were both happy bunnies.

Any self-confidence that the jacket might have lent me was quickly dispelled. Our mayor had lent the commune's salle polyvalente for the evening and the place was full of strangers. This presents the dilemma of propriety: to quietly take a seat or shake hands with each committee member present? Since the mayor was there and I was duty-bound to shake his hand, I felt I ought to go around the room and shake everyone's hand, based on a similar logic to one employed decades ago when I deposited our tiny daughter at the école maternelle one morning. Since I'd kissed our friend the teacher, who lived in our village, I felt it would be churlish to exclude a bevy of young mothers at the gate, so I gave them all the customary peck on each cheek. They were probably as perplexed as I was embarrassed when I thought about what I had done later that day. Emotion recollected in a lack of tranquillity.

I found a seat a little removed from my fellow committee members. The young and personable mayor of St. Michel de Bannières distributed a raft of papers to each of us. But I spent so long trying to figure out what they all meant that the meeting just about passed me by. This much I gathered, however: we were there as representatives of the various communes in the canton – a collection of communes for administrative purposes (I think) – to allocate a limited amount of funds made available by the department of the Lot for local cultural events to a number of associations that had put forward proposals and demands for sums of money bearing little resemblance to the actual budget available. Little chance, in other words, of being able to organise a concert of world music in Martel's market place.

Since the mayor-chair was so efficient and so apparently invested in the activity, all I had to do finally was wear my glasses, pretend to study and assess the inexplicable figures before me in a thoughtful manner, and nod or shake my head based on her suggestions and the consensus of opinion in the room. Thus the meeting went remarkably painlessly and quickly, given that it was a French meeting in France, where meetings are characterised by endless discussion and bickering even after a decision has been reached.

I would have believed myself entirely supernumerary had I not learnt during the round-table introductions that my name hadn't been picked out of a hat, but had been put forward by our mayor. So I felt flattered, chuffed and even a little touched. So much so that, after the event and after we had chosen an item from among the departmental promotional gifts on offer – I selected a cheese board in the shape of a parallelogram, bearing the contentious new strap line Oh my Lot! – I stayed behind to help the mayor put away the chairs and tables and pull down the blinds of the salle. Ever the school swot!

The next meeting of the committee will be in September, when (I believe) we shall be assessing another tranche of proposals hoping for money from an ever-decreasing budget. Next time I'll know that I probably won't need to wear my Paul Smith jacket; that I won't need to shake everybody's hand because we'll be embarking on a new round of Covid restrictions; and that I might be able to score a departmental mug. With the end of my cheese column in sight, I decided to give the hand-crafted board to my daughter in recognition of her contributions to the in-house cheese committee. Nutty? Fruity? A hint of the cowshed or pasture? 5 or 6 out of 10 for cheesiness?


Sunday, April 10, 2022

April: Choice

At last, after more than a quarter of a century of living in France, we now have the chance to vote for our next president. Unfortunately, if the opinion polls are to be believed, it will boil down to the Hobson's choice of.... 'in the blue corner, the man in the suit, your friend and mine, the career opportunist... E-man-uel Micron; and in the even bluer corner, the bleached blonde breeder of kittens, with the far-right leanings, Maaaaarine Le Pen!!'

For the first round, however, we are presented with a choice of around ten candidates, hope-ful and hope-less. A mixed bunch of idealists and extremists. Each of us received an A4 envelope with manifestos. Given the fact that we don't watch French television nor read French newspapers, our only way of assessing their credentials is by reading said manifestos. But then, we all know that politicians lie and break promises as regularly as decent working people change their underwear. So, I shall be guided by Greenpeace's assessment of their environmental stance. Needless to say, that of the big two is flaky, shaky and ultimately untenable. Fed up with tactical voting, I'll be swayed by environmental concerns. It'll be a wasted vote, but someone's got to vote for an issue that's bigger than the old familiar concerns.

The electoral system, built upon an appalling waste of paper (since multiple duplicates of the manifestos will be spread out on the tables of the Salle Polyvalente where we vote), is puzzling – and therefore, it seems, peculiarly French. This is how it works, unless I have got it all wrong: After presenting your electoral card and your carte d'identité for checking, you go into a little booth and put your candidate's piece of paper into an envelope given to you by the card-checker. You shouldn't, as I did this morning, take a diversion to say hello to the volunteers at the other desk, thus creating confusion as to whether or not you've actually voted.

On your way to the booth – unless you've thought about it beforehand and bring your candidate's piece of paper with you, secreting it carefully in a pocket, say, to ensure that no one sees the telltale name that gives your game away – you pick up a piece of paper for each  candidate so that the volunteers don't spot your choice. In the booth, you put only one piece of paper in the envelope. The rest get chucked in a bin. You don't, as I do each time, attempt to seal the envelope, thus leaving incriminating traces of spit that could be forensically traced to you.

Finally, you take your envelope back to the team of two or three volunteers, one of whom is there to open the little letterbox affair with a knob. You pop your envelope inside and he or she announces 'A voté!' (has voted). I performed this role myself in the recent communal elections during the two-hour lunch period (because everyone knows that the British aren't like the French and don't sit down for a two-hour lunch at 12 on the dot, which makes them the ideal recruits for this graveyard slot), but I suspect that I didn't make my announcements with sufficient conviction or gusto, because so far I haven't been asked back. Perhaps if I gargle regularly and practise a bit more, the day might yet come to pass.

At this point, you sign your name in a little rectangular space on the electoral list and you are now free to walk. It's second nature to the indigenous population, but all three of us somehow find it a very self-conscious and nerve-wracking affair. Quite apart from the business of erroneously licking envelopes, there are other issues that make you question whether you carried out your citizen's duty to the letter of the law. Did anyone see my pre-prepared piece of paper when I pulled out my electoral card? Did I, in fact, put the right piece of paper in the envelope? Will my fellow communards think that I'm an idiot and therefore that all foreigners are stupid?

Come the second round in a fortnight's time, I'm expecting to abstain because I can't bring myself to vote for either the candidate in the blue corner or the candidate in the even bluer candidate. I could register a vote blanc by going through the whole rigmarole again and depositing an empty envelope, which at least means that you will have been seen to have done your duty. However, a neighbour told us that these 'white votes' are not registered statistically, whereas abstentions are – and that, it seems to me, makes them a more satisfactory form of protest.

Our daughter wondered whether you could volunteer to help out and then conveniently lose a few envelopes. I suggested that the number of envelopes would have to tie in with the voting record. If they didn't, I imagine that no one will be allowed to leave the premises until the discrepancy was resolved. So how about removing papers from certain envelopes and turning them into blank votes, she proposed? At this point, I had to exercise my full parental authority. Electoral fraud cannot be condoned in any circumstance, even by a member of one's own family.

So that's it, then. We'll have to wait and see and live with the result, which should be announced soon after typing. The conclusion seems foregone. There will be no pleasant surprises. In times of war and rising prices, people worry about survival in the here-and-now. It's only the privileged few who worry more about survival of the planet. So the silent or not-so-silent majority vote for the candidates who promise short-term solutions to current ails. If, ultimately, Micron gets back in for a second term, I'll try to be a more effective free radical in order to piss the man off TO THE MAX! I wish I had thought to deface his poster, with its ridiculously pat slogan Nous Tous, by adding Avec McKinsey. If it's that nice Marine Le Pen, we'll all have to hope that she doesn't renege on her seemingly more reasonable policies and turn into a female version of another well-known dictatorial animal lover (the one with the hairstyle and the silly moustache).

Vote Nobody – Just to be sure.

Friday, March 11, 2022

March: A Grand Day-Out


In times of war and pestilence, perhaps the last thing on the agenda should be a family day-out, particularly with the price of diesel having gone through the roof. Nevertheless, what else can you do with your spare cash when all is said and done: build an underground bunker and/or sink those anti-tank iron spikes they used in the last European war?

In any case, we had to take The Daughter to the airport in Limoges for her first trip back to the UK since the pestilential brouhaha has quietened a little. It always seems wrong to be taking an airplane, but we don't do it very often and, after reading reports of empty planes 'flying high in the friendly sky' (as Marvin Gaye once put it) simply to keep their slots open at the airports either end, it seemed to be neither here nor there in the great scheme of things. So we dropped her off, I disobeyed the notice on the door that only passengers could enter the airport in order to satisfy a pressing need to use the facilities, and we – the Dame, the dog and I – took off on our projected detour.

For years, we've been driving up and down the A20, our scenic toll-free motorway (Free at least! between Brive and Vierzon, an unedifying dump south of Orléans), and ever since they put up big painted signs to attract passing tourists, we've been aware of Mont Gargan. Somewhere in the hinterlands, just south-east of Limoges. 'One of these days,' one of us would say, 'we must get off the motorway and go and visit Mont Gargan.'

The final day of last month happened to be one of those days: a beautiful balmy late-winter's day under a limpid, cloudless sky with a distinct promise of the spring to come. Besides, a French friend of ours, a photographer by profession who is currently photographing the Limousin for a book, went there early one morning not long ago and reported that it is a wonderful place. On such a day, too, our girl might look down on us from up in the sky and see her parents waving from the summit. On the other hand, the Ryan Air pilot, driven by tight schedules, might prefer to head due north for Stansted.  

We took off cross-country north of Pierre-Bouffière, a little staging post where we once stopped for an early morning coffee when the motorway hadn't even been finished. There's an aire de repos nearby, where I paused a few years later for a rest on a long solo drive south from the Channel back when I attempted such crazy feats of endurance. I remember it well because it wasn't very restful. Alone in the deserted car park, a stray nocturnal car came and pulled up within spitting distance of our old Peugeot 205. It was either a good-ole'-boy looking for a victim or a Mr. Lonelyheart looking for love, I figured. Or perhaps a lady of the night looking for a client. I didn't hang around long enough to find out, but quickly resumed my journey. A spooky episode.

On the cross-country leg of the journey to Mont Gargan, we barely passed a car. The rolling landscape of meadows and woods is dotted with occasional settlements that might harbour a boulangerie, but precious little else. It's a lovely part of the world, but not a part to inhabit unless you have a hermit's chromosomes.

When the road became more hilly, we picked up some signs for Mont Gargan. They lead you up to a village, where you turn hard left and climb a road with woods on either side. Then left again and up to a car park. We followed two vehicles: a private car and one of those pick-ups that good-ole'-boys convert into hunting-dog transporters. It was the final day of February: the day that marks – so we believe – the final day of the hunting season. Just our luck, to stumble in such deserted parts upon a party of hillbillies bent on one last legal slaughter before they have to hang up their rifles. But the pick-up pulled into a lay-by and I watched in my rear-view mirror as it turned round and drove back off again. No doubt, this was a protected public site and they were up to something illegal. Just their luck that two private cars should materialise.

The woman in the other car let her dog out of the back just as we liberated Daphne. She heard us talking together in English and addressed us both nervously in the same language. She was sorry, she explained, but she had just tested positive for Covid. She'd had the requisite vaccinations, though, she added. I reassured her that I'd just had it myself (and didn't give a monkey's whether she was vaccinated or not, but I kept that to myself). We moved off in separate directions.

Mont Gargan is around 730 metres high, which makes it a mountain in Britain and little more than a big hill in France. It rises up out of the surrounding countryside in splendid isolation – like the Wrekin in Shropshire, only bigger – so the 360o views on such a beautiful morning were almost limitless. But even more spectacular is the avenue of ancient beech trees that leads you up to the summit: trees like the oak that once hid the fugitive Charles II from the forces of parliament, with branches that spread upwards and outwards. And although I've never seen it, I like to think that this arboreal landmark is as splendid as that tunnel of trees in County Antrim to where the tourists flock now that Game Of Thrones has highlighted the natural wonders of Norn Iron.

The summit is crowned with a ruined chapel that was built in the 19th century for some spiritual purpose that doesn't seem to have lasted long. Perhaps it coincided with the Diaspora of the local population to Paris in search of work. Without a congregation to help with its upkeep, it must have fallen prey to the elements. It sits on a grassy plateau surrounded by bracken. Perhaps in the second world war it was used as a refuge for the local Maquis.

And lo! during our circumambulation of this magical place via the department's thoughtful 'discovery trail' (which, I can confirm, is definitely not suitable for pushchairs; the 40 steps that take you back to the summit were a challenge to two fit people and perhaps even their dog), we learnt that the local Resistance was the sole unit during the war to win a pitched battle with the forces of occupation.

Just a few days later, we learnt more when we went to lunch with an old friend from our days in the Corrèze and his new partner, a retired schoolteacher from Bordeaux. We call Jean-Claude the 'wild man of Wongo'. He's spent most of his adult life leading groups around the countryside to explain which nuts and berries you can live off and which mushrooms to avoid; making films about his patrimony; or restoring old barns in which to house his eco-museums. In the days when we were scratching around for a buck, Jean-Claude gave me some pocket money to help him roof an outbuilding with chestnut shingles. He gave Debs her first break, too, by co-hosting a course in the old school in our local commune, which involved an element of aromatherapy massage. Unfortunately, the publicity they created together involved the use of the word 'massage', which they discovered – when the course was shut down by order of the medical Mafia – was an illegal term for anyone other than an accredited kinésithérapeute (or physiotherapist). For years afterwards, she used the term 'lymphatic drainage'. Now she's old enough and wise enough not to give a flying flacon of essential oil.

Anyway, while we ate our resuscitated mushrooms he'd picked in the autumn, accompanied by a salad of field-fresh dandelion leaves and a hard-boiled egg laid by the chickens, garnished with home-produced walnut oil, and in between consulting his useful notebook of natural nutrition to compare the vitamin content of dandelions, say, to oranges, Jean-Claude told us about the leader of the Resistance in the Haute-Vienne: a chap by the name of Gingouin, who fell out with the French communist party after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact, then organised the local Maquis. After the battle of Mont Gargan, Gingouin disobeyed orders from a communist leader to take Limoges by force, and the rest of his (long) life was characterised by slurs on his character and actual physical abuse from the police and magistrates whose anger he had also incurred during the war. Highly decorated by the state for his war efforts, he was rehabilitated by the commies in 1998 – to which Guingouin replied, rather splendidly: 'It's a problem the Party has with itself. It doesn't concern me anymore. I've reached the age of serenity.'

I haven't quite reached that stage of my life yet. However, Jean-Claude's revelations did inspire me to pitch an idea for an article to my very nice editor at France Magazine. She has commissioned a feature deriving from our grand day-out. So you can read more about Mont Gargan and its history sometime next year at a newsagent near you. If, that is, with the world 'in a state of chassis' (as Sean O'Casey might have had it), such familiar establishments survive until then.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

February: Incapacity Allowances

I never thought the old man would have so much snot inside him... Nor would I ever have thought that the Omacron variant would linger for more than a fortnight. Since its arrival one night when I just couldn't get warm, it has left me tired, depressed and truculent. I resent being ill, or at least unwell. It's like a slur on my character. Life is far too short to loiter in bed, even though the temptation to curl up like an embryo under the duvet has been very strong.

It was quite another matter as a child, when I would welcome every passing illness as a precious day or two off school: some legitimate quiet time alone under all my many blankets and fusty old eiderdown, and a chance to catch up on some reading or invent a few more cricket series. I was a sickly child, but a good invalid. Apart from a severe dose of measles, I didn't give my mother much to worry about; I just got on with the business of recuperation. I don't remember any medication other than rosehip syrup for tricky coughs and, if I were very good (and/or my grandparents were staying with us), a bottle of every invalid's super-strength superhero, Luke O'zade. The amber fizzy liquid came in an amber-coloured bottle, which was sometimes swaddled in amber-coloured cellophane. It tasted like it was doing you good, because glucose was a major ingredient and it wasn't quite as sweet as Fanta or Coke. I suspect it would have been equally effective and certainly a lot cheaper to have eaten instead a spoonful of sugar or two.

Actually, I wasn't much sicklier than the average child at our school. Given two thousand or so pupils in fairly close proximity, germs must have circulated ceaselessly. I never had the layer of muscle and body-fat that seemed to protect the rugby fraternity. Given the lack of nourishment we were served up in our family, the miracle is that I didn't succumb more often. There can't have been many valuable nutrients in a bowl of rehydrated chicken noodle soup.

With adulthood, I discovered nutrition and started to take responsibility for my well-being. I like to think that I'm probably healthier now than the former rugby fraternity, who've probably gone to seed and fat. A bout of flu is all that I've suffered in the last ten or fifteen years. Hence my indignation at being laid low by the virus. I had begun to think that I was inviolate or that this part of France had special properties to keep the germs far hence. Apparently not. It's in the air and doing the rounds. After many months of hardly knowing anyone among the statistics, I've now heard of all kinds of friends and acquaintances who've had a dose. Our Dutch neighbours up the road went down with it at the same time; two adults and all three children.

It's not nice, I can say that. After that initial sensation of shivering, a headache, a sore throat and a loss of appetite followed. By the second day, I re-discovered my appetite and took that as a cue to get up and get back to life. Probably my biggest mistake. Since then, I've heard the siren-calls of the invalidity bed and succumbed on a few more occasions. There are times when the thought of curling up under a warm duvet is so seductive that you'd find the strength somehow to wade through a pond of treacle to get there.

The most striking aspect of this neo-flu has been the sheer tiredness. I'm usually such a busy beaver that it has been a shock to the system to discover how little I can do. It's all that I can manage to walk the dog. Waves of exhaustion wash over me after the merest exertion; I find myself nodding off at inopportune moments and craving my bed at nine o'clock in the evening. This lack of energy hasn't been helped by a persistent cough. Coughing wears you out and saps your last reserves of energy.

The malady also underlines how repetitive the days can be. Each morning you wake up, hoping for a change in your personal weather, only to discover that you're still coughing and you're still feeling post-apocalyptic: that nasty taste in your mouth and a head that feels like you've been washed up and wrung out during a long night of fever. It's like your own protracted Groundhog Day.

One advantage, however, of feeling so enervated is the legitimacy it confers on postponement and avoidance. Being unwell is a perfect built-in excuse for not doing all those jobs that you could be doing: de-frosting the freezer compartment of the fridge; freshening up the kitchen with a lick of paint; germinating seeds to plant in the vegetable patch; cutting back the sumac before it takes over the garden; rationalising my CDs; cataloguing our films. And so on. They must wait another day. Or week. Or month.

Already into my third week of incapacity, I'm just beginning to sense a light at the end of the tunnel. At least, for all the intimations of mortality and a chastening lesson in what you are and definitely are not capable of under duress, it hasn't been life-threatening. I didn't need a vaccination and I'll have acquired home-made immunity against most future variants. I didn't take any medication and simply relied on plenty of honey, extra vitamins and regular inhalations of essential oils as prescribed by my resident apothecary, The Good Wife of Camp Street. It's certainly not like the plague that carries off the only son of Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in Maggie O'Farrell's compelling novel, Hamnet. Life as a 21st century invalid is a lot more cushy than that of a patient back in the 16th century.

Gradually, the cough grows looser and less spasmodic, the days grow a little longer and the first daffodils underneath the Clerodendron tree appear to be imminent. Up the road, the young man from up river has been pulling out the foundations of his new house with a big yellow Komatsu. There are mounds of red clay on the plot of land. By the look of it, the family won't be plagued by all the rocks in this plot, a mere four or five hundred metres along the crest. The commune is growing, the landscape is changing. When I've got the energy, I must engage him in conversation and find out what materials he's using to construct the house. Concrete blocks, I would imagine. Or wood, perhaps. Straw bales? Hhhrrmphh! A fat load of use in the Great Scheme of Things it was to have been a pioneer. Back in the distant past when I was far too busy to be unwell.