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.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

February: Life, Death and the Cultural Divide

My friend Bret dropped by this morning to help me with a problem that was preventing access to the internet. While I was waiting, I wrote an episode of my monthly journal. When he got here, he shut down Word without saving my work, so now I've got to start all over again. Friends, eh? Who'd have 'em?

So where was I? Total recall is an impossibility at my time of life, so I must make the best of a bad job. I think I started by telling how this month I've come to the conclusion that, barring unforeseen circumstances, I'm probably not going to die of either skin cancer or asbestosis. Not just yet, anyway.

That may sound like the ravings of a diehard hypochondriac, but I've learnt to keep an eye on what's happening on my face. I treat every new mole, mark, stain or simple liver-spot with suspicion. Back in the early 80s I went to Ibiza late one sunny September. It was one of those trips to get away from things for a while. To let things blow over.

I stayed in Ibiza's main town in what I suppose was a kind of prototype Air B&B. I rented an airless, window-less room off a sunny courtyard from an old man with brown leather skin. On probably the first hot afternoon, I pegged my youthful body out on the beach without even a smear of sun cream and suffered severe sunburn as a result. It's something, of course, that you would never do now – not unless you were really, really stupid.

The old man gave me a tube of some soothing emollient and mimed how to slap it on my glowing face and shoulders. He couldn't speak a word of English and I couldn't speak a word of Spanish, but I've lived long enough thus far to be very grateful to that old hombre. It was not a happy holiday, even though I made friends with a screamingly funny English ac-tor, a screaming queen who probably with hindsight fancied my youthful pants off. He was more fun than the rather severe young German girl I tried to chat up one night in a bar.

So anyway... when a new mark appeared above my left eyebrow sometime last year, I eventually summoned up the courage to go and see our local doctor. He referred me to a dermatologue or skin specialist in Brive. Just to be on the safe side.

The cabinet of this particular Dr. Caligari was at the end of a corridor in a residential block above what used to be a bank. Since there was no evident receptionist, I sat down with the other attendees in the doctor's waiting room, feeling the opposite of intrepid. Eventually, a man in a white medical jacket appeared and called out a name that bore some resemblance to my own.

I sat down at his desk and handed him on demand my Carte Vitale. This was not going to be a bundle of laughs. Eventually he got up and examined my most obvious mole. I diverted his gaze to the extrusion above my eyebrow. He lit it up with a palm-sized torch and pronounced it benign. I would live another day.

Perhaps his relief was as marked as mine because, after I'd written out my cheque for €46, Dr. Caligari opened up a bit. We chatted about my origins and his trips to Ireland and Scotland. When it came to scenery, I ingratiated myself, France had all you would ever need. He agreed, but as he showed me the door, he revealed that France had one serious thing wrong with it: the absurdity of its government. I wasn't sure whether he meant the political system or the current incumbents.

So that was one worry off my list. Only the persistent cough to fret about now. It's been hanging on for weeks and I haven't been able to shake it off. Perhaps, I figured, it was a lingering remnant of a common cold. Or perhaps it was the onset of asbestosis. In our previous house in the Corrèze, I struggled to remove an old flue wedged inside the chimney that we needed for our wood-burning cuisinière. It was only when I managed to remove it – finally, triumphantly, like a dentist holding aloft a stubborn molar – that I realised it might have been made of fibrous asbestos.

For a few short but tight-chested years in my early 20s, I suffered from periodic asthma attacks and I've recognised the same kind of irritability in my trachea. But then one night I realised that if it were asbestos, surely I would be coughing both day and night. As it is, it's a daytime phenomenon. The Good Wife, whose work is based around a premise that just about every physical complaint or illness has a psychological root, reckons that this cough is symptomatic of my reluctance to face my daily to-do list.

It's not that I'm a lazy bastard. I'm quite an industrious human worker bee. It's just that I spend so much time alone here in the hive that I'm subject to protracted bouts of self-doubt and loss of bearings. So much so that I thought it might help re-orientate me to write a series of brief theatrical pieces for the annual cabaret, which our local association puts on to entertain the populace and raise money for a good cause.

I even managed to persuade my busy spouse to come out of her theatrical retirement for the role of Madame Picamole, a woman of a certain age in search of a new partner from a refuge for abandoned men. It's a satire on the way we humans treat animals and the humour is accordingly dark and discomforting. We made the mistake of casting a French woman for the role of the official at the refuge.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Per se. The woman in question is a sweetie. She's well travelled and even likes Absolutely Fabulous. But the experience soon shone a spotlight on the extraordinary gulf between our two cultures. First, she insisted on certain changes to words that weren't words commonly voiced in French. Me, I love to play with words in either language and put them together in phrases that sound faintly absurd. So such literal translation felt like a dilution of both the humour and my own enjoyment.

Then, it became clear in rehearsals, she could not or would not bring herself to speak any lines that were simply too uncomfortable. And so she took to improvising her own lines and missing the cues on which poor Madame Picamole was counting. We tried it on stage last Sunday and it was quickly apparent that it was, in the immortal word of Ted, our friendly Sheffield builder, 'abortionate'.

On the way home in the car, we agreed to pull it. Put it down to experience. The steep learning curve of life. If I felt relieved, I also immediately started fretting about coming over as the precious petulant child who takes his ball away and won't let the others play the game.

Wracked by guilt or wracked by coughs. Which is worse? I can't honestly say. I do know that guilt is not necessarily life-threatening, even if it's often the root cause of suicide. As for the cough, I've almost completely decided that it too won't carry me off prematurely. It's all part of life's rich tapestry and despite all the problems that can befall us, I'm still very glad to be alive this transitional month of February.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

About This Time Eight Years Ago

How quickly time passes and how quickly things change. Eight years seems like a fairly long time, seen from both before and after. In the American sense of an 80% decade, eight years represents two presidential terms.

About this time, in January 2009, President Obama – the first black US president, itself a cause for celebration – was inaugurated. Four years of hope lay ahead of us. If we were lucky, we could make that eight. Coming after the catastrophic double-term of an ignoramus and a dunderhead, distinguished from his not-quite-so-inept father by a middle initial, the sense of promise was akin to that wonderful moment when the Iron Lady walked away from no.10, tight-lipped as she clutched her ubiquitous black handbag.

Back in 2009, we were acquainted with an American couple from the Bay Area in California, who had made a temporary home for themselves in Martel. Their son went to the same local primary school where our daughter served time. They invited us to an inauguration party in the house they had just finished renovating.

Since I'd been working all day with my friend Bret – doing some judicious coppicing in the woods and hauling out the branches for stacking and drying – I took him along for the ride. The girls were still in Brive. In those days, Tilley the Kid would hang around in the kitchen of the cabinet after school, waiting for her mum to figuratively finish off her last client, clean up and head for home. It would have been her first year at Arsonval, the big educational factory just behind the shopping centre now re-vamped as Les Passages.

Bret and I found the house near where it was supposed to be, in the same narrow street as the charming old boulangerie that has subsequently closed. The day room or whatever it is that Americans call the sitting room was up some dark wooden stairs on the first floor. It was a hive of expectant noise. Our hosts, Dan and Patricia, had laid out some canapés on a central table and hung a white sheet on an internal wall onto which they were projecting the images from what was probably CNN News.

Everyone in the room was drinking a cocktail christened an Obamatini for the occasion: gin and blue Curacao, I believe. Holding my glass tight enough to crush it as I fought off surging emotion in the name of manly decorum, I watched with everyone else there the new president's inaugural address. It was an incredibly measured and polished bit of oratory, almost up there with Martin Luther King in some respects. I know these things are written, edited, polished and rehearsed to within an inch of their lives, but you surely have to mean the words in order to sound so utterly convincing. The word 'responsibility' cropped up enough times to make you hope that this man's considerable intellectual energies would be channelled in a positive direction.

Even the most diehard cynic would probably agree that it was a magnificent speech. Everyone watching it must have felt that they were witnessing something quite historic. And when it was over, everyone cheered and applauded and raised their glasses of Obamatini to wish each other a 'happy new era'. Being tired out from my labours, afterwards I chatted mainly with the American contingent so I could stick to my mother tongue, and we speculated what that era might amount to.

On the way home, I realised that I was driving with a little less prudence than I would normally have done. It must have been the sole Obamatini I'd allowed myself. We got back about 8.15 and Bret went off to whatever temporary home he was living in at that time. I ate the dinner I'd prepared earlier with the girls and described what it was they'd missed earlier. After all the logging in our wood that Tuesday, I slept like a log all night.

My customary Wednesday morning found me waiting in the car for E. Leclerc to open. Parked under a street light so I could read whatever book I was half way through. Maybe without reading glasses. It was dark and wet and miserable. I'd dropped The Kid off at her school and made arrangements to pick her up at lunchtime. She left me in no doubt at all that I was neither to be seen nor heard. She'd rather come and find me than my coming to find her and thereby running the risk of being spotted by an inquisitive school friend. C'est ton père, Tilley...?

Between the shopping and the pre-arranged rendezvous, I went to the cabinet to try to unblock the loo. It was cheap and you get what you pay for. A narrow evacuation linked to an extraordinary cast iron waste-water junction in the cellar, compounded and compacted by paper-happy clients, constituted a recipe for disaster. Having tried and failed with a length of fence wire, I put the mop down the pan and used it as a kind of suction pump. It did the trick. I heard the blockage disappear into the main drain under the street. I felt so thrilled with myself that I bought a new music magazine. World Sound probably doesn't even exist eight years down the line.

Nor does the slightly tricky adolescent version of my daughter. She's a young lady now, who loves her parents so much that she doesn't mind who sees her socialising with them. She's a happy student enjoying a more liberal education system in a motherland that she's still just getting to know. So that's all good, to quote the deliciously glib catchphrase of W1A's harassed hero.

There's not much else good, though. Those contrasting photographs of the Washington inauguration crowds do not lie. How did we get from there to here in eight short years? What happened? Syria, a slow-burning financial crisis, a few hundred more terrorist outrages, a few thousand more elephants slaughtered for their tusks, a few million more acres of Indonesian rainforest burnt to the ground in the name of palm oil for colas, biscuits, breakfast cereals and choco-nut spreads?

But does that explain how and why we've gone from a cultured, educated man at the top, a family man with moral values, to an ignorant bile-fuelled cheating billionaire who wants to turn the clock back 50 years or so? It's the end of an ear. Left wing, right wing; swings and roundabouts; thrusts and counterthrusts; booms and busts; progressives and reactionaries. Just when you think you've taken a step forward, you spring back two. And doesn't it always seem to go that you never know what you've got till it's gone? In the name of my daughter and her contemporaries, as we naughty tittering boys used to sing in the morning assembly at school, Wise up, oh men of God!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

December: A Dog's Christmas in Cumbria

'A cold coming we had of it, /Just the worst time of the year /For a journey, and such a long journey...' Such a long, long journey. And like T.S. Eliot's Magi during their arduous journey, there were at times voices singing in my ears, saying that all this was folly.

All those kilometres at such a hard time of year for the sake of a mother-in-law and a dog. Christmas! it's over 800 kilometres to the Tunnel, then another 600 or so via England's teeming roads to the wild north-west frontier. It may be slightly shorter when you go via Paris rather than Rouen, but they drive like creatures possessed the nearer one gets to the capital and the traffic can grind to a standstill for no perceptible reason. There's nothing on the autoroute north of Rouen, so I stuck to my route-map.

Like those Magi, we came bearing gifts to mark the birth of a child in some far-off time in some far-off land – only we bore them by comfortable polluting car (with boot immaculately packed by my good self) rather than by 'sore-footed' camel. We had our own beast in the back: not of burden, but of leisure. Daphne sat strapped into the back seat, surveying the landscape and periodically grinding her teeth on a bone of rawhide. Not a curse nor a grumble did we hear from our indomitable dog of the meadow.

Normally, we would take the ferry at Dieppe or Le Havre (and I still find it hard to credit that we go au Havre according to the French language), thence to Newhaven or Portsmouth and on for an overnight stop with family near Southampton. We were, however, reluctant for our Terrierdor to experience the anxiety of sitting in an empty car among other empty cars on a crowded car-deck while the ship ploughed its way across the Channel.

And so we committed ourselves to the extra kilometres and the extra cost of an overnight stay on the way up and the way down. But what are time and money compared to the comfort and equanimity of a mutt? We would have paid for 'silken girls' to bring her sherbet had it been absolutely necessary, but the resistant rawhide treat proved just what the vet ordered.

It was our first Christmas abroad in 20 years or so and only the second time we have driven our car onto a transporter-train at Le Tunnel to be whisked in a trice under the sea and out the other end. But first there was the presentation of our passenger's passport at an office that hadn't even existed the first time, back when your animals were seized and locked up in quarantine for months at a stretch, without even time-off for good behaviour.

It went smoothly enough, but I was rendered anxious, 'galled' even, by a little barking dog that was tied up to the desk and apparently abandoned. It coloured my experience of the administrative process, as did Daphne's refusal to pee or poo to order in some dark corner of the car park. We even paraded her around a purpose-built paddock with artificial grass, prepared if necessary for the ordeal of pooper-scooping with a black plastic bag. But why of course would she stoop to such abnormal behaviour when it must have felt to her like she was padding on carpet?

Despite the dark and the rain at the other end, manfully I volunteered for the next leg of the journey. It was a matter of necessity – a matter, as Joseph Conrad might have put it, of immersing yourself in the 'destructive element' – because a refusal to get back on your bicycle after a spill is a recipe for phobia. The last time I'd driven in England, I'd been so traumatised by the sheer volume of traffic on the M6 that I now doubted my ability and courage to drive in the motherland.

I was wrong. Look mum, I can do it! After the first 20 miles or so of intense speeding traffic on the M20, the circulation returned to my bloodless knuckles. The M25 was easy-peasy all the way to the Dartford tunnel – for which I'd bought a one-way ticket thinking that the return across the bridge was free (in an era when nothing is free apart from the NHS and newspapers handed out at railway stations). At the Stanstead Services, where you could have reached out and touched the air traffic above, the Good Wife took over and took us to the Grantham Travel Lodge. There they like pets so much they charge you £20 for letting them sleep in your bedroom.

The following morning, I got up early to walk our doughty passenger around the darkened industrial park and the empty early-morning shopping centre that went by the name of Downtown. Cue Pet Clark, trigger pet's waterworks. There was even a bowel movement to report – on the hitherto unexplored grass behind our lodgings. What a good girl!

Later we mounted up, hollered our yee-hahs and took the car if not as far as Montana then all the way to Wetherby on the A1. Which offered further evidence that I could drive in England, even up a busy arterial road in daylight. The road that, before motorways, was once the most dangerous trunk road in the kingdom. Bathed in balmy wintry sunlight as far as the A66. as soon as we crossed the border into beautiful wild and windswept Cumbria, the rain came down like a Monsoon curtain. The North West welcomes careful amphibians.

Only 10 minutes from our destination, we ran into a very British traffic jam. The kind that goes absolutely nowhere for hours. It was, we surmised, either flooding on the road or an accident. So we followed some army boys from Pippin Fort and backed off the dual carriageway and down a slip-road in search of an alternative route to Appleby. Unfortunately, so did half the cars in Cumbria and the minor roads around those parts are barely wide enough for single-file tractors. There followed a nail-biting circuitous journey back to the A66 where, further on up the road, we discovered that the traffic was moving once more.

Thereafter, though, Christmas 2016 was characterised by a lack of incident. True, we couldn't find the little station, later that same day, when we went to pick up Tilley the Kid, who'd travelled north to join us by Megabus coach and via that most scenic of train journeys, from Leeds to Appleby-in-Westmoreland. So her eagerly anticipated mother-and-child reunion and (or maybe more pertinently, dog-and-child reunion) were tantalisingly delayed. True, too, that our pre-festive shop in Penrith was almost washed away by a deluge of Walt Disney dimensions. Otherwise, incident-free.

Because my mother-in-law now lives in a converted chapel no bigger than a shoebox, we rented for the week a cottage just a brisk windblown walk away across the Fells. Right next door to a working sheep-farm and hard up against the Fell-side, it was perfect for our needs. The Kid could comfortably sleep with Daphne in her room and there was a fully decorated tree in a sitting room that offered a view right across the Eden Valley (when weather permits visibility). It was a far cry from the 'villages dirty and charging high prices' that gave the Magi such a hard time of it.

There was even a hot-tub on the terrace outside the kitchen door – because apparently every cottage for hire should now have one if they want to compete for paying guests. Ah, there once was a time... Readers, we used it. Not once but thrice. And twice it triggered the strange sensation that comes from sitting in bubbling water waving at the gnome-like farmer next door as he roars past in his quad-bike. On the starry night after Boxing Day when we swapped a George Michael tribute for a quick nocturnal plunge, we discovered that night time is the right time for a hot tub.

Above all, our stone cottage afforded my wife the chance to re-discover her childhood roots. On with the waterproofs and off she would yomp across her beloved Pennines with our skittish dog, who needed no invitation to run off and inspect the odd cadaver of a sheep that had given up its relentless battle against the elements. Quite apart from giving her mother the kind of Christmas for which absence makes the heart grow fonder, this was I suspect the real reason we made the epic journey there and back. The Emily Brontë in her northern soul.

We wondered what Daphne made of this curious trip: into the car, out of the car; into one house, out of another. Through a tunnel darkly, not once but twice. All the way back, her view and our visibility were shrouded in thick stagnant fog. It was indeed 'the very dead of winter'. A hard home-coming we had of it, even on empty French roads. But there was Otis, waiting for us round midnight on the front porch. And there inside the house, his canine sparring partner found once more the familiar half-chewed wicker basket where she spends more than half of her life.

Oh! what joy it was to be home again and to climb once more into 'the world's most comfortable bed', as our PR company has labelled it. We slept the deep restorative sleep of Lethe. The river of forgetfulness. A hard going and returning in some respects, but we could rest now and be thankful. We had given an old woman the kind of Christmas that she has, reputedly, been yearning for. And we had given my hard-working wife the opportunity to walk the dog across her beloved untamed Fells.

Whether or not the dog felt that it was quite worth the disruption, however, remains to this day a mystery.