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.


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

February: Happy Sad

January was one of those months, as it often is. A happy sad month. The title incidentally comes from a Tim Buckley album, a singer-songwriter of my youth, but one with whom I never quite clicked: his music, like the voice that many found angelic, seemed to meander, straining for a tune. Both he and his son Jeff met tragic ends long before their allocated time on this earth would have normally expired. Tim died of a heroin overdose at 28, while Jeff, the son that he barely ever saw, drowned in the Mississippi at 30. One of Tim's earliest songs was entitled 'Grief In My Soul', so I guess his life was more sad than happy. But at least he – and Jeff – left durable legacies.


I've given up making the kind of New Year resolutions probably necessary in order to leave a durable legacy. Now it's more a matter of survival: hoping that the incipient aches and pains won't turn into fully qualified arthritis; that 2024 won't be the year that I develop tinnitus in my other ear; that that new mole on my neck won't demand deeper examination; that the occasional shooting pains inside my cranium are merely linked to muscle tension.

But don't get me wrong: my month of January was far more happy than sad, which is I suppose the general state of a perennial melancholic. Life makes me sad, but I'm determined to enjoy it while feeling sad. Despite all that's going on, and despite the customary post-Christmas anti-climactic feel that always colours the first month of the year, how can you feel too sad if your child is staying in the bosom of her family?

For all the minor exasperations – like her slavish adherence to recipes that suggest, for example, you roast six cloves of garlic prior to adding them to your sauce – The Daughter, Tilley the Kid, is a joy to have around. She's forever affectionate and often caustically funny, and it's just generally good to have a fresh perspective on things that challenges the old familiar ways – even if her youthful outlook and physical beauty contrast starkly with one’s own flagging resources and sagging physique.

The trouble with children, though – and I'll wager I'm not the first parent to notice this – is that nothing underlines more the relentless march of time. Haven't you grown! And once they're fully grown physically, you watch them growing mentally, emotionally and in all other ways, watching with a mixture of anticipation as they retrace your footsteps along the continuum of time and trepidation lest they make similar mistakes and experience the same kinds of disappointments and frustrations.

But the trouble with children, too, is that they can't stay children forever. Much as you'd love to hide them away in your own cosy nest from any slings and arrows out there, there's an unspoken recognition on both sides that a month in the country is quite long enough. Any longer and there would be serious questions asked in the house. Did we carry out our role properly? Did we do all that we could? Where did we go wrong? So back to London she had to go: for the next phase of her young life. And when they go, of course, it leaves a gaping hole. Absence makes the heart grow heavier.

And another thing. Around my daughter's current time of life, there were regular weddings to attend, and cards to open announcing the arrival of this or that healthy bouncing babe. Now it's deaths and funerals. Last month, another good friend was ferried across the river Styx. Our friend Howard in the words of e.e. cummings 'sang his didn't he danced his did' and departed far too early. We knew how life-threatening his illness was, but it was still a shock to hear that he'd gone. Not long before, over morning coffee and in my naivety, I believed that he was coping quite well with the treatment, that there was a chance of recovery. I clung to the case history of Wilko Johnson, Dr. Feelgood's manic and hilarious guitarist, who'd been given a death sentence, but then granted a reprieve of several years by a Cambridge surgeon. But no...



So there was a funeral to attend – just a couple of days before The Daughter caught the train back home-for-now. It was a beautiful day for it; 'unnaturally warm for the season' (a cliché ever since we stopped getting snow). We headed south on almost deserted roads to Capdenac Gare, which is actually just across the river Lot and therefore in the neighbouring Aveyron. Leaving nothing to chance, we got there 45 minutes early, giving us time to take a first look at Capdenac-le-Haut, one of les plus villages de France. And it is.

And since we were still too early for the ceremony, we stopped off for a coffee in one of the few bars open on a Monday morning. Pushing open the door, we both did a silent double-take. 'Did you see what I see?' Debs asked, once seated at a table. I did. Both of us had thought immediately that the man in the corner, working with his back to us on a laptop computer, was some avatar of Howard: the same stocky physique, the same shiny bald head. Next time I looked, he'd gone. It wouldn't have surprised me if he'd vanished in a puff of smoke or with a rush of chilly air.

It was a simple, dignified ceremony, with immediate family and a few close friends. A young be-suited Frenchman led the service in English with a charming accent. We were invited at one point to take a little time to remember Howard silently in our thoughts. I remembered the kind of friend who would call a spade a spade. If you'd done or said something to offend him, he'd tell you that rather than leave it hanging around unsaid like a bad smell. But should you ever be in trouble, you knew that he would help you out without a murmur. He was kind and as caustically funny as Our Kid can be. Friends like that are rare, to be treasured and sorely missed.


His body lay in a simple coffin of what looked like unvarnished poplar. We were also invited to take a marker-pen and write him a message on the bare wood: a nice touch and one which I might copy when the time comes, because I'm a notorious copycat. An even nicer touch was to end the ceremony with (I think) Prince Buster's version of 'Enjoy Yourself'. It was Howard's favourite song. How it would've appealed to his mordant and irreverent sense of humour, concluding what tends to be a po-faced service not with a hymn but with some Jamaican ska. 'Enjoy yourself (it's later than you think)/ Enjoy yourself while you're still in the pink...'

I won't copy that one – I've already decided on my own funereal music, which will include Miles Davis's 'So What' (even if some may not get the joke) – but it was a happy way to conclude a very sad event. For three minutes or so I for one wore a big smile on my face. Yes, happy sad. As Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band suggested, 'Life's like that, isn't it?'

Monday, January 8, 2024

January: André Rieyeuch's Winter Wonderland

At the risk of sounding ungracious, I'd describe Christmas 2023 with my mother-in-law as 'challenging'. It's a long, long way from the Lot to Cumbria, but the journey wasn't the worst of it. Nor was it the 'outlaw' herself (as my pal Dan might call her), the brunt of all those jokes of past comedians. She can be utterly exasperating, but can also be – at times – quite sweet. No, the most indelible souvenir, longer lingering than driving down the A1 in the aftermath of Storm Whoever, was something I witnessed on Christmas Eve TV, stretched out on the floor of the outlaw's suffocating, overheated sitting room. It seemed to confirm that we are on Talking Heads' road to nowhere.

But that's getting ahead of myself. We had to get there first. A wet coming we had of it and an even wetter going. French motorways are a doddle; you could almost drive them in your sleep. But even less-travelled routes like the autoroute between Rouen and Calais can be hostile when you add darkness, rain and holiday traffic into the equation. This much I can tell you about Calais, where we stayed the night in a B&B that smelled suspiciously of powerful air-fresheners: its centre boasts a fine-looking belle époque theatre.


We arrived at our destination later than scheduled, just as a rainy night in old Westmoreland was falling. One forgets what a difference an hour makes. In Cumbria, you cannot forget the rain, which raineth seemingly every day. Once tucked up tight inside the outlaw's converted chapel, our first task was to inspect the contentious all-singing, all-dancing chair – like the one that Frasier's irascible dad sat in throughout the sitcom – that my well-meaning wife had bought from a friend whose father had just died. It hadn't worked since the contentious delayed delivery. Several assorted carers had checked it over, and the octogenarian proprietor of Appleby's electrical shop had been consulted. To no avail.

In among the sophisticated electrical doings underneath the seat, Debs and I found two cables that seemed to have come apart. After reunification, behold! Press a button on the accompanying handset and the contentious chair could perform its gymnastics: up, down; back and forth; recline, decline; foot-support going up, foot-support going down. Debs attempted to give her mother a lesson in self-manipulation. Not easy. Not only is the old dear quite deaf, but also so heavy-fingered that she has broken several phones in the last couple of years in her impatience to phone someone, anyone, when bored between visits from carers or neighbours.

Who knows what might happen if she were let loose with the zapper? What hazards might lurk? Mind you, after listening to all the crass remarks about being more comfortable in her old armchair (after all the litany of complaints about the Big Chair's non-arrival and then its non-functioning), the idea of her jabbing irritably at the zapper and catapulting herself across the room to crash into the opposite wall seemed something devoutly to be wished. Longevity had its place for Dr. King, but there's a big but in the equation...

Fortunately, dear understanding friends from our days in Sheffield had lent us their beautifully restored holiday cottage a safe 20-minute drive from the house of wounding complaints. So we were able to slip away at the end of each trying afternoon to find refuge in an oasis of sanity. Each morning we lingered longer and longer over breakfast.


We did allow ourselves half a day off to travel on the stunning Settle to Carlisle train line, across the famous Ribblehead viaduct and the windswept, rain-lashed Dales to Skipton for a visit to the Oxfam bookshop and a chance to do some shopping for stocking fillers. Skipton has been surveyed as one of the happiest places to live in England and, even in the rain, one could see why. It has a down-to-earth, attractive charm and its inhabitants seemed uniformly friendly. Its Oxfam bookshop is a treasury of fine reading matter.

Anyway... came Christmas Eve. I drove to Penrith to meet the London to Glasgow train and greet Tilley the Kid on a windswept, rain-lashed platform. After a spot of tea and Christmas cake, it was the outlaw's dearest wish to watch her beloved André Rieu's 'Winter Wonderland' on Sky Arts. Never let it be said that she misses one of his innumerable televised concerts. So we duly obliged. None of us had ever seen the inheritor of the easy-listening mantle passed down by the likes of Mantovani, James Last and Bert Kaempfert. As we watched aghast, with mouths agape, it became increasingly clear that the genial Dutchman has monetised that mantle TO THE MAX!


Superficially, at least, you can understand why my mother-in-law loves the cheery conductor. He's a man for one thing. Hers is a generation of often house-bound women who worshipped their men and forgave them their every transgression. Now that I've 'grown on' her, I myself can't do anything wrong – especially after cooking her a risotto last April with some of her frozen scallops that needed eating. I repeated the trick over Christmas and she loved it so much that she attributed everything lovingly cooked and served up by her daughter to me. The Man. At the further risk of sounding ungracious, I was both embarrassed and just a little outraged.

Yes, 'superficially': there's the rub. But it's not just the anodyne nature of the spectacle, there's a disturbing note of megalomania in the way that the genial raconteur keeps referring to his orchestra and his winter palace in Maastricht. Maybe that's why I kept imagining Vlad Put, Ben Muss and A-dolf H. in the vast audience, gaily clapping along with the gathered throng, beaming from ear to ear as the conductor and his proprietary orchestra served up the kind of pap that helps to mask all the ills of the world.  

But we endured the entertainment and it certainly gave us something to talk about. We got through Christmas, too. The outlaw told us that it was her best Christmas EVER and it would be ungracious, churlish even, to hope that we never, ever have to do it again.

All was well at home. During our absence, it was mild and wet. I spoke with my brother, who spent his Christmas in Finland. He understands completely the unease that André Rieyeuch creates – unlike our two sisters, who went to see the maestro at the O2 or some such mega-venue in London. He, too, reckons that Adolf Hitler would have loved him.

On Boxing Day, he had sent a video on WhatsApp of the season's white-out. All around his new second home was an all-encompassing whiteness. Like the icing on a Christmas cake. Trees, lake, ground, in eerie suspension under a blue, cloudless sky. Apart from the creaking of his footsteps on the virgin snow, the silence was total. A true winter wonderland. Just before he and his partner left for Helsinki for the flight back to England, the temperature fell to -24oC or some such Polar level. The cold is finally on its way.

 

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

December: Seasoning

 

On a day like this – to modify Dylan – the first Sunday of the year to be precise, it seemed that winter had finally replaced this long, wet and colourful autumn. When I took Daphne out for her morning constitutional, the frost had coated the carpet of fallen leaves and it was twice as hard as normal to cycle up our chemin. On the way back, my fingers froze inside their thermal gloves from Decathlon. I felt for the poor hunting dogs within their cold, loveless, concrete enclosures as they scrabbled up the wire fence and bayed at the pair of us, heading back for a nice warm house.


By the time I took the Good Wife to the station in Souillac after breakfast – we left 50 minutes for a 20-minute drive just to be sure – the sun was out and silhouetting the branches of trees blanched by hoar frost. What a magnificent sight; what a beautiful part of the world; how fortunate we are to live here, we agreed. Debs was off by train to Avignon via Toulouse and Narbonne, to stay with our oldest and dearest French friend, her first client and our daughter's first (and best) teacher. We arrived at the station nearly half an hour too early for a train that was bang on time.

The next day, though, the countryside was already wearing once more the sickly, saturated, post-apocalyptic look of Blade Runner. When my wife gets back, it's forecast to be 14 degrees that weekend. The meteorologists say that the coming winter will be mild again. So it could be that the first beautiful Sunday of December will be our only glimpse of true winter in these parts. All is deranged! All is perturbed!

My conspiratorial Dutch friend up the road from here doesn't believe that climate change is man-made, but merely an excuse for imposing more controls on us. He may be right, but after more than two centuries of a toxic Industrial Revolution it makes sense that we humans are responsible for wrecking the weather. After all, we've wrecked everything else. We can come up with Agent Orange and forever chemicals, so the climate should be well within our capabilities. When we talk about such matters, I generally nod and keep my own counsel. My French isn't quite up to expressing feelings or reinforcing points of view.

Anyway, winter's not officially here till the 21st December, so there may yet be time for the season to establish itself as it should. It gives me a few more days to prepare for whatever it has to throw at us. Just in case. We've already had two red days, so I've fired up the France Turbo wood-burner once more. Our wood is still not dry enough; I captured rather too much carbon when I cleaned the flue this morning.

And will we have enough to last potentially till the end of March? I've taken to dragging back portable dead trees from the woods around here to cut up for firewood. Wearing my Betron headphones that make me look like a 1950s comic-book astronaut and balancing a small tree on my right shoulder as my faithful dog trots along by my side, I must look like a queer fish to passers-by. Fortunately, there is very little traffic on our 'main road' and as yet no one has witnessed my acts of resourceful endeavour.

As for the garden, I'm too late to mow our sponge-like shaggy lawn and the strimmer waits in vain in the cave for a final outing before wintering. There's pruning... Theoretically, it's something I should be able to do. I'm a little less in the dark after speaking to Daniel by the bins during a post-meridian constitutional. He's an ageing man of the countryside, who helps out in his son's sheep-shed every day to ease him into retirement. He used to work for the local garden centre in Quatre Routes, so he knows a thing or two about horticultural matters. Not quite as genial as Monty Don, but a useful source of advice. He suggested that I don't prune the fruit trees now, but wait until February in case of late-winter frost damage. Moreover, I should prune the peach trees twice in fairly quick succession. I'll bet you didn't know that. I certainly didn't. His words of wisdom let me off the hook for a few months more.

Whether mild or severe, winter's still the time when everything shuts down for the duration. Back in the old days, in the deepest Corrèze, back when we had to struggle to keep warm in a draughty old stone farmhouse, it seemed that everyone closed the shutters and hibernated for a few months, emerging from time to time for a concours de belotte (some kind of card game whose mysteries I have never felt inclined to unravel) or, on very special occasions, an accordion-led French equivalent of a barn dance. That didn't tempt us either. Otherwise, we relied on charity in the form of invitations to dinner.

Culture and society aren't quite so limited during the long winter months here now in the Lot. There's the local art et essai cinema that shows films in version originale. Coming back from a prize-winning Italian film only the other night, I caught a magnificent stag in the headlines, ironically just across from the compound where the poor hunting dogs were presumably kipping on their cold concrete. I dipped the lights and it turned and ran off to the security of the woods.

The proximity to Brive also offers the three-screen Rex and the theatre. There's even a late-January jazz festival that has become a regular feature and next year's culminates in a concert at the theatre of the Cuban cellist Ana Carla Maza, followed by the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca. My toes are already fidgeting. Next week, there's the exhilarating Malian singer and guitarist, Fatoumata Diawara, so things have really looked up after our years in the wilderness. 

One local option has now sadly closed. The Big Drama last month was the night when Le Bar Au Coin de la Rue in the centre of Martel went up in flames. Miraculously, none of the other contingent properties were damaged, but the bar has been destroyed and, tragically, we heard rumours that the owner's two dogs were in the building. Small fry, I suppose, in the light of Gaza and the Ukraine, but still shocking. Residents complained about the noise, but it was the only real meeting place for social mixers. Last time we went there, someone came with his llama. The poor creature looked a little disgruntled, but certainly got a lot of attention.


And there are always films, music, Scrabble and books to keep us going through the dead season. I'm currently belly-laughing my way through John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces. I've denied myself a second read of it for years. I might not enjoy it quite so much, and there are so many other books out there waiting to be read for the first time. But no, it's still wonderful, and the withering diatribes of the corpulent, indolent and flatulent anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, still make me shake with mirth. My favourite insult thus far is 'Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!' What a monstrous, savage slob he is. His poor over-weaning and long-suffering mother.

And that might be an appropriate moment to sign off and to think some more about wintering the strimmer. From time to time, if it weren't for the noise and the general mayhem, a return to city life seems like an attractive proposition.  

Thursday, November 2, 2023

November: Day of the Dead

On the first day of November, my true love said to me, 'Fare thee well and see you in a week or so.' I dropped her off at Brive station to catch the 07:52 from Cahors to Paris Austerlitz. Her accountant and partner were travelling to the capital with their grandson on the same train, but The Dame's seat was right at the other end of the train. Quite liderally the last seat. Any further back, and if the train had one, she could stand on the observation platform like Tom Courtenay's Trotsky in Dr. Zhivago, and watch the rails recede.

I left her with my MP3 player, The Poisonwood Bible and a packed breakfast for the 4½-hour trip to Paris and thence to London, where she would be celebrating Our Kid's 29th birthday before heading north to stay uncomfortably once more with her frail and ailing mother. Daphne and I headed for the clinic, where I cut back the plant that's making it hard to open and close the back gates, and then – and only then – did I break my fast in the makeshift kitchen.

I remembered my working wife's cheques in my bag and my promise to pay them in at the central post office. We went there next, my trusty dog and I. The post office, however, was shut. My first thought was another day of national strikes. After all, this was France. But how silly of me! The trains would have been the first to grind to a halt. So perhaps a late opening because of staff training. But there was no notice on the door to that effect. Hmmm. Everything seemed very quiet, come to think of it. Very little traffic and a surfeit of parking slots. This town was coming like a ghost town.


And then I had an aha moment. It was the 1st November. Toussaint. All Saints Day. The Day of the Dead. Of course! The post office and the shops would be shut for the day, so that everyone can go and place chrysanthemums on the graves of their forebears. Sitting there in my car under a dark grey lowering sky, with barely a soul abroad and after all the recent engaging sound and fury of the rugby world cup, it seemed like a veritable day of the dead.

Even after 28 years in France, I still can't remember this public holiday – which only goes to show... something. Maybe how difficult it is to acquire and truly embed a foreign culture. I have no problem remembering the UK's public holidays, and yet it's decades since I've celebrated or enjoyed them. French ones still sneak up on me and catch me unawares. Strange. If ever I were asked a variation on the Enoch Powell question for immigrants about the national cricket team they supported, I would be found out as someone who couldn't remember to buy a pot of chrysanthemums for November 1st. But sir, what would I do with it? Well, don't you have a dog's grave in your back garden? Um, oui, as it happens...

I've certainly never really understood the significance of the lacklustre flowers associated with this day. I remember reading D.H. Lawrence's short story, 'The Odour of Chrysanthemums', as part of 20th Century Short Stories, one of our O-level curriculum books. It was a story about the death of some male member of the household in a Nottinghamshire mining community. The father, perhaps. The odour of the fading flowers, I remember, pervaded the tiny back-to-back house. It was a touching tale, but I can't recall the details. At that age, I was far more interested in Lady Chatterley's Lover.

This rather drab flower, it seems to me, is the perfect accoutrement for the enforced solemnity of the custom here. Death is certainly a solemn business in the West. With little joy in it, small wonder that we all fear it. Certainly it's nothing like the Day of the Dead celebrations in, say, Mexico.


Many, many years ago, I went to a wonderful exhibition in London at the Royal Academy (I believe). It was full of the associated festive artefacts: the painted and decorated papier-mâché skulls and skeletons, the little baskets, animals and other figures made of sugar, the paper skeleton puppets, the brightly coloured Tree of Life candelabra made of pottery, photographs of the superabundant decorative altars and the feasts laid out on tables for the visiting souls of the dead. It was revelatory. Death could be fun! The excuse for a genuine celebration. A million miles from the cursory regimented visits to the orderly little walled graveyards around here and all over France.

It's been raining here for about a week already and the forecast for the next week or so offers little more than rain, rain and more rain. It seems a fairly appropriate backdrop for the Day of the Dead, European style. So... what to do? I couldn't pay my planned visit to Noz, my favourite shop in Brive. It's full of bankrupt stock, customs seizures and stuff that might otherwise be classified as off-the-back-of-a-lorry. You never know what you might find. I bought two rather nice pairs of shorts there over the summer and I've done rather well in recent months for coconut milk.

Never mind. Tomorrow was another day. There was only one thing for it: go to Nazareth. Earlier than scheduled. There to meet my friend David, the Nazarene, with a view to walking our dogs and chatting about the expatriate experience. Perhaps the rain would hold off. Had we not been side-tracked by a slice each of stollen from Lidl, we might have made it. Under umbrellas and a canopy of trees, we followed a track through the woods to a rock face that overlooks the rolling countryside between the outer edge of Brive and distant Turenne on its fortified mound. On rare moments, you might catch sight of our little local train heading for or emerging from the tunnel. Even in the rain, the view stirs the soul. My own was unneasily stirred when I realised that Daphne wasn't with me. With no response to my calls, I worried that she might have plunged over the edge in a moment of misguided enthusiasm. But she reappeared, before running off again with David's dog, Timmy.

I had to get back. I had my own Day of the Dead feast to prepare. Some curries for a musical evening with Dan and Steve. Well you know, when the girl's away... It wasn't meant to be on the first evening of solitude, but the film Summer of Soul waits for no man. The 'Black Woodstock' was even better than I had anticipated. We ate well, too, though I say it myself. If any dead souls came visiting, I wasn't aware of them. My ascetic mother had a very modest appetite, anyway, unlike my father who would have seriously compromised the quantity of food on offer. There was plenty for the three of us, with enough for my lunch the following day. Perhaps when you die, you develop an aversion to spicy food. Maybe even chrysanthemums.

 

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

October: 36 Hours in Bordeaux

On our way to Tulle to meet up with our friend Steve in a little record shop called The Rev, Dan and I were chatting in the car about guilt and penance. Neither of us, it seems, is ever entirely at rest. We're always thinking about what we should be doing. And, if ever we allow ourselves to do anything creative or, God forbid, frivolous, we find ways of doing penance for our sins. Given that I was sacrificing an entire afternoon to frivolity, I performed two long-standing tasks that morning: cleaning the wires in the kitchen to which the six LED spotlights are clipped, and de-greasing the hood above the cooker.

Both tasks I performed with single-minded gusto, so I could show off my handiwork and claim 'what a good boy am I!' My dear affirmative wife duly gave me an affirmation. I'm not sure what Dan did that morning, but Thou are't absolved, my sons. Say seventeen hail Marys and proceed to thy record shop with clear conscience.

We had a lovely time for a good hour or more, and all three of us spent rather more than we had bargained for. But Philippe is a lovely fellow and running a second-hand record shop like The Rev is an act of passion rather than personal gain. He plays bass in Steve's band and his good taste and knowledge of music are exceptional. We chatted together in stilted Franglais. When he showed me things such as how his pricing policy worked, he tended to explain in English while I replied in French. After a while, I found my quite reasonable French resorting to the kind of tongue-tied unreasonable French it used to be back in the early years.


The following morning, I found the ideal absolution for my sins in cleaning the windows of our living area: unlike the vacuum cleaner, very little noise, so I could listen to my new records, not too tiring and fairly necessary. I was able to show them off to the Good Wife on her return from a hard day at the coal face in Brive and assert 'what a good boy am I!' What's more, clean windows, to translate the French literally (as our daughter once did when she was very little), 'see themselves'. The evidence of diligence is incontrovertible. As penance goes, I can recommend it.

There are only one or two days a year that don't require some kind of atonement. One of those, of course, is my birthday. This year, The Dame and I celebrated it in Bordeaux, that elegant, vibrant and notoriously bourgeois city that has become my French favourite. We took the train, early. It was cold and my wife in jeans fretted about my shorts. I reassured her by pointing to the hairs on my leggy-leg-legs. I confided that shorts are a kind of point of honour. If I can keep going till the end of October, it asserts that there's more to me than meets the eye. Hardier, tougher even than my nine-and-a-half-stones suggest. Don't mess with me. She laughed, uncomprehending.


On the outward journey, we changed at Périgueux. There was time to break our fasts in the station café, where we watched in admiration our hostess, a diminutive creature reminiscent of Edith Piaf, bouncing around in her over-sized trainers, multi-tasking for all she was worth. Which was more than her weight in gold, we surmised.

Once on one of Bordeaux's super-efficient trams, heading smoothly along beside the Garonne, we were both offered seats by polite young men. We both refused politely, but I felt like pointing out that you don't offer your seat to a man in shorts, feigning eternal youth on his 69th birthday. They'll learn.

In the warren of side streets behind the remarkable Grosse Cloche – a huge 18th century bell above a former dungeon for juveniles (best place for 'em) – we found the simple restaurant my wife had earmarked for lunch, and we sat down in the shadowy ruelle (alleyway) to the plat du jour: grilled octopus tentacles on a bed of steamed butternut squash and yellow peppers. It didn't do much for our 'fish-eating vegetarian' credentials, particular after watching the moving documentary, My Octopus Teacher, but it was nevertheless fabulous.


After lunch, I got my birthday wish of a very leisurely browse through the racks of Diabolo Menthe, a record shop I'd noted in an article on Bordeaux's record shops in a magazine I'd contributed to in an earlier life, Long Live Vinyl. It didn't disappoint – in contrast to Deep End Records just around the corner. Whereas the former was reasonably priced and hosted by a young man with charm and a winning smile, the latter was superintended by an arrogant mother-chuffer who wouldn't have given you the time of day, let alone the price of some of his unmarked records.

We had a four o'clock appointment at our B&B near the elegant Jardins Publics. As our young host took us up the circular stone stairs to our bedroom on the second floor, he explained that the previous owners had used a staircase on the other side of the thick stone wall and that this one had been revealed during the renovation of their magnificent town house. Perhaps I misunderstood him, but It all sounded unlikely and vaguely sinister, like something out of a Korean horror movie. But hey, our bedroom was grand and tastefully done, with an old door, for example, stripped and mounted as a headboard. The bed was so big that when I awoke briefly in the night, I couldn't find my sleeping beauty. This was a B&B masquerading as a boutique hotel. I didn't ask how much our night cost. It came in any case with a sumptuous breakfast, and breakfast is the most civilised meal of the day.


We ate extremely well in Bordeaux: that evening in a Lebanese establishment, and a late lunch the next day in a tiny establishment near the Musée de Beaux Arts run by an English wine trader from Hertfordshire and cooked by his Italian colleague. Perched on my stool, I watched him at work in his tiny kitchen, where he created a starter and a principal dish of quite stunning simplicity.

Our second morning in the city was consecrated to a visit to Lunettes Pour Tous, a kind of French Specsavers, where you choose your frames and leave with proper serviceable glasses a mere half hour or so later. It's the kind of thing that ageing couples with failing vision do for entertainment. And all for rather less than the price of a single night in a boutique B&B. My glasses took a little longer because I opted for my first test in about six years. The young optician with tattooed sleeves reassured me that everything was just fine, but I left with lenses so significantly stronger than my Specsavers models that I feel woozy every time I wear them.

Alas, though, we found that the Museum of Decorative Arts was closed – for five years! What a surprise... Five goddamn years. We came for the culture, you understand, not just to eat and shop. Five years! My brain hurts a lot... So we opted for a trip across the river on one of the municipal bateaux included with your 24-hour tram pass. The quais were dominated by two monstrous cruise ships tied up quayside for a couple of days' mass sightseeing. Walking alongside, they seemed about as big as Newcastle's Byker Wall estate. Were I a younger man, I would slip on a balaclava and attach to the sides under cover of darkness enough Semtex to blow them both to kingdom come.

Alas, once again! There was not enough room on the (somewhat smaller) bateau for us. Since the next one wouldn't arrive till almost four, and since neither of us fancied further queuing in the preternatural heat of this October, we aborted our riverside adventure and returned to the city centre for an ice cream before taking one last tram to the Gare St. Jean. A surfeit of armed gendarmes milled about and we figured that they weren't there for our sake. The rugby world cup perhaps.

The early evening return journey by train was direct. We sat opposite a young couple in a very crowded carriage. Fortunately, they dismounted at Perigueux, so we didn't have to try to ignore their kissing and canoodling the entire way to Brive – where we retrieved our car, then fetched our dog from her godparents' place, and slept soundly.

We had a lovely time, thank you for asking. Next morning I did a big shop: at Giselle's veggie-barn, then at Martel market and finally at Intermarché. Back home, once relieved of the groceries, I cleaned the fridge. It was a job waiting to happen.