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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July: Take Three Girls... Two Books and One Doctor

At the Saturday morning market, I bumped into the local antiquarian. As camp as a bottle of chicory essence, he speaks with a tiny voice that you have to struggle to hear. Normally he comments about the amount of time that has passed since we first shook hands way back before the Great Recession and chides me because I still haven't dropped into his shop to look at his wares. This time, he muttered something about another summer, another influx of tourists, another crowded market. 'It's so boring,' he suggested: a nice new variation on the so Breetish refrain. I replied that I found it somewhat reassuring to know that certain things don't change.

But I get what he means. The stifling heat of summer only makes me listless and aimless. I stare at a blank electronic page on the computer screen, scan our book shelves, regard the bedraggled garden choked with weeds and just come to the conclusion that I can't be bothered. It's so boring. The relentless, repetitive march of time can be so dispiriting.

Conversely, that familiarity can be a reassuring anchor when things around you are changing at a seemingly breakneck speed. And it's never so apparent as when you're a parent. The Kid is with us now for what my instinctive wife reckons will probably be her last summer at home with the Aging Ps. We met up in Romsey, Hants. for my father's 90th birthday celebrations: one of those periodic excuses for a family conclave. Despite the occasional simmering tension, everything went off as (long) planned with no outbreak of hostilities. I even had to put the old fellow to bed after the Friday night meal for the first time in my life. It's a strange business, removing your parent's socks. I was transported back to the days (of never reputedly having it so good) when he would help me undress and tuck me up in my bed. Now I'm the adult and he's reverted to the egocentric child. Will the circle be unbroken?

The three of us travelled back to deepest, hottest France, taking this time some of the old byways that we hadn't driven down for years, not since the completion of the various motorways that now speed us home. I had a rendezvous near Selles-sur-Cher, to visit a producer of the area's celebrated goats' cheese. The indignity of being the last car off the ferry, the post-Brexit queue for passport checks, the aberrant bottleneck outside Dreux and the deviation for a meeting that failed to transpire all added up to at least three hours on the journey time and a reminder of just how epic the long haul south used to be in the old pioneering days.

No sooner settled in her old familiar bedroom, than our grown-up girl was driving to the local airport to pick up two friends from college. It wasn't quite the boyfriend moment, more an underlining of sorts that our girl now has very much a life of her own. Significantly, too, it was the first time since she left school that she's ever brought anyone home with her. From what I can gather, she hasn't even kept in touch with any of her colleagues from a miserable two years in Paris. So it was rather nice to hear the three of them sitting outside at night on the back balcony, chatting and laughing together. Rather reassuring, too, to know that she felt comfortable enough to bring back friends to meet the parents. During my student days, the idea would have been preposterous. There was no one I would have wanted to subject to the primitive discomforts of our dysfunctional domestic life.

For a week, the house resounded with the happy noise of three female housemates. I like girls, but they don't come cheap. When you factor in all the extra food and the hot water required for daily beautification, it emphasises the sheer cost of bringing up a big(-ish) family. I would have had to go out and get myself a real job. No way could we have lavished so much on our daughter's education, not with two others to subsidise. Little wonder, now that I come to think about it, that my mother attempted to divert me from higher education. She even arranged for me to talk to a colleague at the gas board. Fortunately, he was someone who hadn't read her script. He recognised me as a brow-beaten teenager and counselled me not even to consider passing up such an opportunity.

A full house carries certain compensations. Like delegating dog-walking duties to three girls only too happy to oblige. And sneaking off to bed for a read unnoticed at an earlier hour than usual. Perhaps also symptomatic of my aimless response to heat, I can't seem to settle on any particular title at present. The narrow space between wall and edge of bed is currently a litter of books, magazines and old newspapers. I'm dividing most of my precious reading time mainly between two quite incompatible tomes: a fascinating biography of Edith Sitwell and Bass Culture, a seriously entertaining history of Jamaican music. Much as I'm interested in the literary and artistic figures loosely associated with the Bloomsbury set, I'm beginning to realise that about the only thing I can get truly excited about these days is music.

Well, actually... there's always Wimbledon. This year like every year we gather for the highlights programme – now fronted by the awful Clare Balding, whose high-heel shoes and Crimplenesque jacket do her no favours at all – or catch part of some titanic struggle in real time. The fifth set between Nadal and the previously anonymous Luxembourgeois, Gilles Müller this July was one of the most gripping conclusions to a match that I've ever seen. It occurred to me how often over this era such gladiatorial combats have featured the charming Majorcan. No one I've ever seen in my years as an armchair tennis player has displayed such an insatiable will to win. People talk of the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe, but it dims in comparison to that of Federer and Nadal, the sporting equivalents of Hector and Achilles. We may never see their likes again...

Our two auxiliary girls went home just before Wimbledon and without giving me any real clues about the kind of music that they and their contemporaries were currently listening to. Being polite, well-brought-up young gels, they made us a nice meal on their last evening, which we washed down with a posh wine that they could probably ill afford. It was a pleasure; you can come again any time.

Now that they're gone, I've got no excuse for not knuckling down to the task at hand. The trouble is, there are so many that I know not where to focus my energies. I'd just sat down to make a start the other day, when the phone rang. I answer any unidentifiable callers now with the utmost caution. An 06 number means a mobile phone and probably less chance of being some concerted scam or hassle. It was our local family doctor. A problem of translation. Would I s'il vous plaît come over to the surgery to listen to a message he'd received from an English patient?

Poor man. Such is his dedication to his job that he will spend an hour or more with a client. Frequently, he works well past his surgery hours and often misses a meal in the name of duty. This is a man who listens so keenly to what you have to tell him that you can see the cogs whirring behind his eyeballs. I compare and contrast to our family doctor in Brighton. A nodding man who would start scribbling on a prescription pad as soon you'd opened your mouth. Good for the occasional sick note, but nothing more.

I listened to our doctor's messagerie on his mobile phone, straining to catch the words that were distorted by a poor connection. It was impossible to discern the name of the medication about which the client was concerned. I heard just enough to tell our doctor that he was American. The English have a bad enough reputation  here without Americans and Australians being lumped into the equation. Our doctor apologised for his schoolboy English and suggested that he should find the time to study the language. But he has no time and why on earth should he? For one thing, English is not yet an official Esperanto. For another, I fervently believe, if someone chooses to live in a foreign country, then it behoves them to learn the language. And if they can't, then they have to accept the consequences.  

How thoughtless and selfish to put such a conscientious man into such an invidious situation. Knowing him as I do, I can imagine how awful he'd feel if something serious were to happen to his patient as a result of a lack of mutual comprehension. What was the man thinking of? Or, more probably, not thinking of?

Our doctor told me that he can read English better than he can either speak or understand it orally. He asked me if I could recommend any novels that might help him with his education. I suggested that perhaps the purest English I'd ever read was to be savoured in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Or something by either Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian, or Joseph Conrad, a Pole. Lovers of literature through the ages will be thankful that neither of them deemed it unnecessary to learn the language of their adopted countries.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

June: High Society

We were in England last year, so we had the perfect excuse. Besides, the event was cancelled at the last minute due to a local tragedy: the death of a communard's teenage son, hit by an overtaking car as he turned right on his moped onto the main road. No one would have been in the mood for a communal jamboree.

It's one of those events that fills you with ambivalence. I was kind-of looking forward to it, but not sure why. Maybe it's my insular, solitary life and the periodic need for society. Maybe I envisaged some kind of Impressionist scene of people pick-nicking among wild flowers in the grass as the sun set over the horizon. Anyway, having found semi-legitimate excuses over the last three years for not meeting my fellows from the upper echelons of the borough, I felt compelled finally to accept the invitation. Politically, it seemed correct.

The upper echelons. It feels like Sugar Hill here sometimes. From our lofty position, we can look down on the lower part of the commune, just as the more well-heeled negroes (as they were known in polite circles at the time of the fascinating Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s) could lord it over the brethren of lower Harlem. That was Harlem BG then – before gentrification. More an accident of purchase than an accident of birth in our case. Seduced by a view, we never even considered the disadvantages of being down in the valley: thick mist till midday sometimes, restricted sunshine and the possibility of flooding.

The lower part of the commune is circumscribed by steep outcrops of limestone rock and built around a railway station that once was quite an important railway junction – with one branch line heading for Aurillac and all points east, and the other heading south towards Rodez, which might – rather fancifully – be termed a gateway to the Midi. Both are now under threat of closure, a fate that befell a third branch line that carried trains to the main Paris-Toulouse line across a mighty 19th century red-brick viaduct on the outskirts of Souillac. Now abandoned to its fate, it's still floodlit at night.

Our local station is quaint and quintessentially French, but the surrounding houses are a random mix of old and new and the sum is no better than its parts. The man down the road in the grandiose wooden house, who climbed the social ladder last year from down below to the rarefied air up here, tells me that a model of the station as it used to be is on display every Wednesday in a room somewhere at la gare. As a once-and-former owner of a train set, I'd like to go and see it, but the road to hell – as we all know – is paved with good intentions.

The premise of my impressionistic picnic on the grass was a low body-count. An exclusive few of us made even fewer by the lack of a spouse, who sensibly cried off after a heavy day at the coal face, massaging sweaty bodies and listening to people's woes. So when I turned up with my neighbour, whose partner was too ill to attend, it was a shock to see all the parked cars. A multitude was busy assembling in a big metal hangar, where Jean-Louis normally stores his light airplane – and, I discovered, an old Renault 4, an old motorbike and one of those rural equivalents of a beach-buggy. Back in the '60s, it might have been full of young Frenchmen in stripy shirts given to singing in harmony jaunty songs about agricultural pursuits. Let's go turfing now, everybody's turfing now...

Jean-Louis and his wife Martine are sufficiently community-spirited to host this annual gathering each year. They're a nice couple; backbones of local society. We hired Jean-Louis to dig our foundations and install our septic tank, and Martine, in her capacity of a peripatetic nurse, administered to my stricken wife when she broke her shoulder one ill-fated Christmas. Their son was elected to the communal council, which he served (briefly) as an IT specialist. Their daughter has probably just had a child, as she's of the appropriate child-bearing age. I also met and chatted to their charming donkey, Nesquick, who keeps down the grass on which I had imagined we would have spread our blankets and shared our hampers.

At least we got there before everyone else arrived, which made the task of kissing or hand-shaking or of not knowing which form of greeting was appropriate a little easier. Late-comers had many more to go round, which is a lot of names to remember. However, I got the impression that most people there knew everyone else, whereas I gave up early on trying to distinguish my Jean-Claudes from my Jean-Lucs. The two main clans in these parts have probably sired a significant slice of those present and I didn't do my credibility any good when I addressed the mayor by the name of the other clan. No wonder he ignored me.

What gets into me in such situations? I've addressed him by his correct clan-name on countless occasions. I think it's some kind of short-circuit between right and left brain due to the demands of a foreign language. There are times when I can conduct myself reasonably efficiently even on the telephone, and times – especially when my confidence dips – when I'm given to imbecility. The next day, for example, I asked the woman from whom I buy our vegetables whether Gérard, the stocky man who actually dug our foundations in Jean-Louis' JCB, was her son-in-law. No, husband! I meant husband! It was effectively like telling a middle-aged woman that she looked 65. What must they think of me? There I was, doing my utmost to reflect a favourable light on the expat community, and I probably came over as a moron. It's a lot easier sometimes to converse with donkeys.

Certainly, my little problem was exacerbated by hunger. The French in such social circumstances must think that they're Spaniards. They stand around drinking aperitifs and nibbling nibbles until dusk has fallen. Then and only then do they settle down to the bouffe. Having so little to contribute to the customary conversations only intensifies my hunger. I kept looking longingly at the three long refectory-style tables set up in the hangar, hoping to spot an equally ravenous soul bold enough to sit down and start noshing. Finally, the respected couple who used to work as cabin crew for Air France seized the initiative. Where one sheep leads, the others quickly follow.

I shared my tuck with my Dutch neighbours down the road. This wasn't entirely selfless. I knew their kids wouldn't eat much of the fancy pasta salad I'd made, which meant more for us grown-ups. And I happen to know that Madame is a superb baker of cakes and other desserts. She'd made a plaited apple and currant tart for the occasion. It looked like something you might find in a boutique bakery in Vienna. It was even better than that and I had two helpings to prove that the earnest representative of the expat community was nothing less than a greedy sod.

My Dutch friends and I chatted with Jean-Louis and Martine from the table behind us. It was nice. Martine placed an affectionate hand on my shoulder at one point, which suggested that I wasn't such an imbecile after all. When a young couple arrived to show off their newborn baby, I took it as my cue to leave. I'd brought my temporary partner with me on the understanding that I didn't want to stay any later than 11pm. That would suit her fine, she'd assured me. But when push comes to shove, leaving such a do is never the easiest thing. It's a fine line between prudence and rudeness.

I bade the other guests a collective rather than individual au revoir, then stood hovering on the threshold like the Lemon-drop Kid, waiting for my neighbour to extricate herself from the web of social niceties. Come on, come on. I bid a fond farewell to Nesquick and slipped him a heel of baguette that I'd smuggled out to curry favour. It strengthened my resolve to adopt a donkey or two as soon as we can work out the practicalities of building a shelter.

Making conversation at the market the next day, I learnt that my vegetable merchant had nattered on till well after midnight. Yes it was a very nice affair and a shame that I'd had to leave early because I was so tired. Soon after such sycophancy, I made my monumental faux pas about the over-age son-in-law and exited stage right, pursued by a toxic cloud of embarrassment.

Now, when I sit on the back balcony drinking my morning coffee and/or surveying the landscape, I imagine Jean-Louis in the cockpit of every passing light aircraft, looking down on me looking down on the tiny people below and the miniature tractors baling hay. He will have seen the new building site up above the nearby hamlet. For a week or more, I've heard the sound of a digger cutting laboriously into the bedrock. It looks like they'll be building a mansion up there. I've walked up that way in the past. The view is even better and you can see for miles and miles. From up there, our own house looks quite small and insignificant.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May: Too Hot, Too Soon

Early one summer morning in the merry month of May, I came upon a fellow dog-walker near the top of our drive. He panicked, because their Golden Retriever was off her lead. Oh let them play, I urged him. My French neighbours, perhaps the race in general, seem to want to keep their charges on leads when out walking, and yet will let them roam in the hamlets and villages. Is it a control-thing, or some vestige of the code of correctness? Like so many things in life, it seems to make no sense at all. It did at least offer us a brief opportunity for small talk. Yes, the weather was very nice, but it was too hot, too soon. August in May. I told him that I didn't 'support' the heat these days. Being of a slightly darker hue, perhaps Portuguese in origin, he likes the heat – but at its appointed time. Not so soon. Not before June.

Once the search for something to say became too excruciating, he put Pêche back on a lead, while I cycled off with Daphne trotting along by my side. I hadn't mentioned the elephant in the woods: global warming. Right about now, the presidential yob of the once United States is busy glad-handing the great and morally compromised of Europe, who are – one hopes – trying to persuade this denier of the obvious not to abandon the probably futile Paris Agreement. What does he care? He's rich, old and morally void. Why should he worry about Pacific Islanders, Bangladeshi, Inuit people and Polar Bears? His thoughts are focused firmly on the next round of golf. His descendants are already wealthy enough to buy a bolt-hole in New Zealand for the day when everything finally goes too pear-shaped to rectify.

Earlier in May, just before the mythical Ice Saints packed up for another year and took their annual cold snap with them, I wandered up the same track with the same dog. It was just after the relief of hearing that the French electorate had voted for a young, thrusting independent as their new president rather than an extremely bitter, vitriolic extremist. The acceptable face of Fascism had been rendered unacceptable by some injudicious remarks on television and a clever campaign on superimposing a Trump-face on her image. I stopped to open our green metal letterbox. It was full for once and there were three intriguingly similar letters within. One for each of us. Aha! I twigged. To be honest, I'd rather given up hope, and put it all to the back of my mind. I was quite convinced that François Hollande had instructed his Minister of the Interior – or whoever decided these matters – to block any Brits applying for dual nationality. That'll larn them for their Brexit betrayal. I had resigned myself to recommencing the whole costly, time-consuming application process once the new regime was in power. I wasn't even sure that I would bother a second time.

The letter was actually dated towards the end of April. Perhaps, if someone had pulled his or her finger out of the in-tray, we might even have been able to vote in the recent elections. But as I read on, I realised that things of course could not possibly move so swiftly. It would be another six months before we received our official gubbins: an identity card, one of those livrets familials in which are detailed the facts of your life and those of your parents and, I've read somewhere, a new birth certificate. Surely not. Anyway, there will be some official ceremony in our departmental seat of Cahors. It may feature the singing of the Marseillaise, so we'll have six months to brush up on the lyrics.

I walked off with a new-found spring in my step. Strange, I thought it might all be rather anti-climactic given the time elapsed since that hot August day of the collective interrogation down in Toulouse. Maybe I'd even be a little blasé. It's only paper, after all. Well no, it's not. On one hand it gives us a legal basis for staying on in a foreign land, on the other it's a kind of official recognition that we have served our time and merited our recompense. Now, whenever I get that inevitable enquiry as soon as I open my mouth to speak French – Anglais? – I can reply, Oui mais Franco-Anglais. Or even, to really confound them, Mais non, Français! Whereupon, I can whip out my big 10" identity card.

Actually, I felt a great surge of pride. I wanted – and still want – to tell everyone I encounter. To shout it from the highest hill. Typically, though, there was no one abroad, so I dropped in on our Dutch neighbours who are building their family home further along the crest. They were sitting round the back of their embryonic home, enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun. I accepted their best wishes but refused the offer of a beer, because the sky was ominously grey and I didn't want to subject myself or our post to the kind of soaking that had recently deepened the gullies in our track.

Had I been a couple of decades younger, I could have made an announcement on Facebook, but I don't necessarily want the trolls out there to know our business. But the Good Wife and I got the chance to crow a little at yoga later that week and then again that weekend when we were invited to eat with friends in a beautiful part of the Lot/Corrèze frontier that I'd never seen before. Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Englishwoman, the Dutch woman, the Portuguese woman and the two Frenchmen? One of the Frenchmen used to teach Portuguese. Well anyway, it was one of those lovely international affairs when the cultural blend makes for a rich, relaxed social entente. After a protracted meal, we took the various dogs out for a two-hour walk that kept providing stunning vistas – south and west over the térritoire de Brive and east as far as the mountains of the Cantal. It made me think back to the yoga class, when one of the women there implied that Brexit had prompted our application for dual nationality. I don't think on my feet very well and I should have answered simply, No, it's because I'm proud and privileged to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth (despite some of the maddening individuals who live here).

Now the heat of summer is upon us. Politically, things will be heating up if young Mr. Makron is to fulfil some of his stated objectives. Shaking hands with Trumpus Le Rumpus has already kicked up a little media firestorm. Pruning the civil service will no doubt prompt the next round of divisive strikes. Initially, though, there are the legislative elections – for which we will still be ineligible. There's plenty, though, for a downhill gardener to be getting on with in preparation for the dog days of summer. Strimming, mowing, fighting off the army ants, swatting flies and mites, ushering inquisitive and intimidating hornets out of the house, shutter management, tomato and lettuce watering et cetera. Oh, and learning my lines. Allons enfants de la patr-i-e! It's a fine, rousing anthem, but the scansion alone is hard enough for a foreigner. Still, there are six, no make that five, months ahead of us.