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, 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.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

April: The Sound of Sirens

I love New York, but it was good to get back to the peace and verdure of the Lot after all that urban brouhaha. Ten days in another place is a long time at this time of year. When we left for Toulouse airport early on a Wednesday morning, everything was light green and succulent. Nature still unfolding. When we got back on a Sunday afternoon – just before a vicious hailstorm – the landscape had been coloured a thick dark all-encompassing green.

Not that nature hasn't established a foothold in Manhattan. My old friend has a little garden that he tends at the back of his subterranean apartment, where he lives with his books and his enviable vinyl collection. Surrounded as it is by the towering walls of the sheltering apartment blocks, it's a haven of peace and comparative quiet, visited by the local birdlife. You can sit out back and listen to the chatter of friendly neighbourhood bright red cardinals and almost blank out the constant background hubbub.

Open the building's front door and climb the steps up to the street, however, and the noise hits you like a barrage of video games in an amusement arcade. Traffic, sirens, drilling, the constant stream of passers-by. Maybe I was particularly sensitive to it this time, because it was seven years on from my last visit and I am that much older now and my ears were still reeling from the subliminal roar of jet engines. The auditory repercussions of air travel distorted every sound and magnified its impact. Assault and battery.

We were not built to fly. As usual, I spent the days prior to travel believing that I was going to die – and then, as soon as I got to the airport, I realised that I was just being idiotic. We flew across the Massif Central to Nice and, on such a cloudless day, I looked down on the extraordinary rumpled scenery without a hint of vertigo. Despite each visible fold in the landscape, it was impossible to orientate oneself. Where were the gorges of the Tarn, where were the Millau suspension bridge and the A75 motorway?

Overseen by the Maritime Alps, Nice is the most beautiful of airports (if that doesn't sound like a contradiction in terms). You describe a big sweeping circle above the Med as you swoop down on a runway built on reclaimed land between the esplanade and the sea. A uniformed official of Air France was waiting for us on the tarmac and we felt like visiting royalty. He saw us onto the bus, then guided us to the departure lounge for the trans-Atlantic leg of our trip. We whispered urgently as we were emptying our pockets at Security for the second time that morning, Should we tip him? Maybe we should... But the loot-carrying Good Wife had nothing smaller than a 50-euro note and I'm sorry, no matter how good the service is... So we shook his hand and thanked him warmly and hoped that he would put the oversight down to the ignorance of foreigners. Both of us boarded our plane weighed down by guilt. I even thought of writing to Air France with a card and a smaller banknote, but reckoned that the pourboire would be pocketed by whoever opened the letter. Later, The Kid, who is wise beyond her years, sent her mum a text admonishing her for our folly. Oh for goodness' sake. You don't do luxury very often. Just sit back and enjoy the ride...

So it was we came to Immigration at JFK. As usual, the uniformed officials were smiling, polite and welcoming. Not. Surly, rude and thoroughly off-putting, rather. You can stuff your precious United States down your outsized 'pants'. However, having come this far, I was keen to pass the test. Would they, wouldn't they let me in? They did. What a relief. I could start signing petitions again to protest against this or that latest callous absurdity of the Trump administration. I'd be long gone before the CIA could flag me up as an undesirable pinko bleeding-heart.

Seven years on and my God! the cost of New York living seems to have risen as high as the Trumpland skyscrapers that blight the contemporary skyline. It's partly to do with the disproportionate exchange rate, but nevertheless... My friend reckons you have to earn upwards of a hundred grand these days if you want to enjoy some of what New York has to offer. Every trip to a museum costs a limb. Thank God for the Met, an endless source of cultural bounty, where you can pay what you wish rather than the suggested price of $25. After imbibing your full, you can slip away into Central Park – the most beautiful municipal park in Christendom, particularly in the spring when the cherry trees are laden with blossom – and all for just a few bucks.

One thing we've always promised ourselves to do is to go and see some good jazz in Noo Yoyk. But throw in the compulsory drinks and you're talking a small fortune these days. Desperate prices demand desperate measures. I wrote to Eddie Palmieri II, whose dad I had arranged to interview on the second Thursday, to ask if he would put me on the guest list for the Monday night concert at the hyper-trendy new Subrosa club downtown in the now gentrified Meat Packing district (where I'm sure on reflection that some of Scorsese's nightmarishly comic After Hours must have been filmed). We've always taught our girl that there's no harm in asking. The worst that can happen is that someone says no. Nevertheless, being a big old hypocritical Hector, I'm always reticent about asking for favours. Silly boy. The three of us waltzed in like dignitaries past the young woman on the door. Had my request not been granted, with the $20 cover charge per person for drinks, the evening would have cost a cool two hundred bucks. It's hard to put a price on a living legend and it was a damn fine concert, but not that fine.

By then, Debs was back in triumph and able to relax after her weekend conference in New Jersey, where she addressed the multitudes on her work with essential oils. Her absence gave us boys a little male downtime during which we were able to swap music, share a smoked salmon bagel and watch three entire matches of English football. My friend is a contrarian. He chose Stoke City when most kids of our age would have chosen Liverpool or Man U. As we watched Stoke fail again to net a single goal, he reminded me that the team has never won a trophy in over a hundred years of existence. His weekly dose of frustration sure puts Arsenal's current travails into stark perspective.

Another dear friend came down by train on Monday from Newport, Rhode Island. We met him and a younger sidekick at Grand Central. After a couple of splendid exhibitions in the Met separated by a bite to eat in the basement cafeteria, we hired a skiff for a lazy hour on Central Park's boating lake, which affords the best possible views of the Central Park West skyline. Since James once rowed for England Schools and since he still plays football ever week (like a latter day Stanley Matthews, once of Stoke), we were happy to let him row, row, row the boat gently 'cross the pond. Later, we passed through Strawberry Fields where the customary crowd was gathered to listen reverentially to a busker sing yet another version of 'Imagine'.

Imagine all the people that a National Jazz Museum in Harlem should be attracting. Arguably it's the most important music form of the 20th century; along with the blues it's the root of almost everything that has come since. Imagine our disappointment in finding that it amounted to a single room staffed by an uninformed mealy-mouthed Ivy League type with attitude and no social graces. We were the only punters there. Sure, there was Duke Ellington's white piano and Cootie Williams' pristine trumpet, but where were all the grainy photos of all the giants of the genre that I had imagined guiding my wife around? That's Wardell Gray. The Thin Man. He was found dead from a bullet wound and dumped in the Californian desert. This is Fats Navarro. Fat Girl. Another great trumpeter who died in his early 20s. Not a bit of it. I looked through a pile of old records dumped unceremoniously on a shelf like thrift-store rejects... and we shuffled out. None of us brave enough to speak the truth to the man at the door. As my friend so wisely observed, If ever a place needed a big fat donation...

I'd never been to Harlem before. When first I visited New York almost 40 years ago, I wouldn't have dreamt of crossing 110th Street. Even that far north was pushing it. The inexorable rise of rents, which is shoving more and more shops, restaurants and small businesses into extinction, and the march of gentrification have rendered Harlem respectable now. The sun was shining and it looked a little like a north London suburb in places. The tourists were queuing up at Sylvia's famous soul food restaurant. Only the junkie nodding on a stoop and the drug-crazed bare-chested man brandishing a belt and the bombed-out woman dancing sinuously at her reflection in a shop window and the man crossing the main road under the elevated railway, furiously venting his anger at police harassment, suggested a disquieting world. I felt out of my depth and impatient to get back to the comfortable midtown norm.

We walked as far as the Apollo ballroom, where Eddie Palmieri's wife, he told me, would wander down from her family home in the upper West Side and pop in to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. As with the jazz museum, there was nothing much to see inside. In the foyer, we stood with a desultory bunch of tourists and gawped at a counter of disposable souvenirs, trying to imagine what the place must have been like when Chick Webb, Lionel Hampton, James Brown et al were playing to a packed house of steaming dancers.

On the way back to the subway station, my friend was collared by a street vendor who tried to persuade him to 'buy a book for a brother'. One thing he doesn't need is more books. As it is, he seems to have digested a collection as complete as the NY Public Library's. Our excursions were a constant source of education. Off the beaten tourist track, there is so much to see and learn about. One afternoon, for example, we discovered a beautiful Art Deco church on 5th Avenue – with no spire. It was built on land donated by the Carnegie family, whose home now houses the splendid Cooper Hewitt Institute (of decorative arts), on condition that it was built stunted lest a spire cast a shadow across Mrs. Carnegie's beloved garden.

Another time, we trooped up towards Morningside Heights for lunch at a dimly lit Ethiopian restaurant. At one point, we walked under a span of scaffolding. My friend explained that landlords now erect these 'temporary' 'sidewalk sheds' whenever there's any potential maintenance work to be done and thus the slightest possibility of some chunk of masonry beaning a pedestrian on the sconce (thereby incurring some astronomical legal settlement). The city fathers ordained that all wooden panels should be painted a particular shade of bottle green. This being the US, some enterprising individual bought up thousands of gallons of the requisite shade of paint – and made a killing.

You can kill someone with a cricket ball. Fortunately, my friend and I didn't even come close when we gave the bat and ball an airing in Central Park late on the final afternoon. Not the team game, you understand. Just the equivalent of a friendly knock-up. It was the first time in maybe 30 years that either of us had picked up such implements and it underlined just how difficult it is to bowl a length or hit the ball with a straight bat. We both got lost in Geoff Boycott's corridor of uncertainty. It wasn't helped by having to re-tune our cricketing antennae in front of casual spectators. They probably didn't even know what kind of game we were attempting to play. Are they mad? No, just horribly nostalgic.

New York, New York. So good, they named it twice. With twice the amount of skyscrapers than its nearest municipal rival (apparently Toronto), New York is emblematic of our whole 20th century industrial and cultural heritage. To Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl', it also stood for Moloch, the ancient Canaanite idol into whose fiery belly sacrificial victims were thrown. Yes, indeed, it's an endlessly ambivalent and fascinating place. After 10 days of clamping my hands to my ears whenever yet another police car or ambulance blared its way through the traffic, I was glad to be sitting on an Airbus 380 bound for Paris, watching Genius, a meditative film about the now forgotten literary giant of the '30s, Thomas Wolfe, and his relationship with his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Only a week later, the French electorate voted for an investment banker as its new president. We'll see how that goes. At least it seems like a breathing space for dispossessed expatriates. Four more relatively undisturbed years, or is it five, of signing anti-Trump petitions in the comfort of my own home.