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.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Head for Festivals

My wife went into Cultura, the big multi-media emporium on the western reaches of Brive, to buy a ticket for Saturday night at the Africajarc festival in normally sleepy Cajarc. She spelled it out for the benefit of the young woman at the desk, who smiled sweetly and didn’t listen to her. Oblivious, she tried a variety of combinations on the computer: Afrique-Cajarc, Afrikajarque and so on… until eventually she typed in Africajarc.
‘Et voilà! Africajarc.’
‘But that’s what I was trying to tell you…’
‘Yes, but white woman speak with forked tongue. She foreigner. We no trust foreigners. They no know their onions.’
Never mind, she got her ticket. And promptly regretted it, because I reminded her that the festivities go on till around three in the morning and she’s got a very full week next week. So I’m going with my friend Dan, a graphic designer, who re-designed my wife’s business cards. It’s a beautiful drive across the limestone causse, which terminates in a spectacular descent to the Lot valley via a series of hair-raising hairpin bends.
Waiting interminably for the band...
I go every year as a representative of Songlines magazine, which means that I get in with a press pass and – more to the point – I get to wear the pass around my neck. I am thus able to kid myself that I’m someone half-important who has succeeded in his chosen profession. The illusion doesn’t seem to fool anyone else and I have yet to be collared by some enthusiastic youth who says, ‘I say, you’re a journalist! What an exciting life you must lead. Do tell me about it.’
During recent years of self-deception, I’ve seen some iconic (the word of the decade, it would seem – right up there with ‘awesome’ and ‘massive’) figures of Franco-African music at the Africajarc festival: from Manu Dibango, the bald-headed alto-saxophonist from Cameroon, whose ‘Soul Makossa’ was once a massive (there we go again) worldwide dance-floor hit, to Alpha Blondy, the Afro-reggae star from Guinea.
In fact, it was while waiting – still standing after midnight – among the closely packed hordes for Mr. Blondy to saunter onto stage that I came to the worrying conclusion that I was getting too old for festivals. Still in my early teens when Woodstock happened, I was only dimly aware of its impact. I had to wait until I was a student before attending my first festival – at Reading – because my mother wouldn’t allow me to go and see Pink Floyd performing ‘Atom Heart Mother’ in Hyde Park one summer when the family was staying with friends in London. With hindsight, she was probably doing me a favour.
When you factor in the journey time there and back, the hanging around, the latent claustrophobia that comes from being part of a milling crowd, the sheer weariness of staying on your feet till the wee small hours, the idea of a festival is often more compelling than the reality. And, of course, you’re fit for nothing the next day. So I’d told myself that I was ready to hang up my festival passes. But then… the prospect of seeing Staff Benda Bilili and Femi Kuti on the same bill got me all fidgety again.
The extraordinary story of the Congolese group Staff Benda Bilili was told on a recent documentary that did the rounds in France. They hail from the streets of Kinshasa: a group of older men crippled by polio, who whiz around in customised tricycles, backed by younger musicians made up mainly of street kids like Roger Landu, whose invented instrument (made from an old fish tin, a piece of wood and a guitar string) gives the band its distinctive infectious sound.
Femi Kuti is one of two performing sons of a legendary (and surely iconic) father. Despite his dodgy dealings with women (he married his entire phalanx of backing vocalists at a stoke), Fela Kuti has long been a musical hero. For many years, and despite countless beatings and general harassment, he stood up to the brutal regime that was current in Nigeria, taunting the government with the lyrics of songs that meandered on for 20 and even 30 minutes at a stretch. His backing band generated enough power to turn unwary listeners into jelly. There’s a moment every time in ‘Water No Get Enemy’ when work stops, my life freezes and time stands still: the moment when the whole horn section bursts through the low-key hypnotic intro with the combined fury of a squadron of B52s releasing their bombs en masse.
Over a million people lined the road out of Lagos for Fela’s funeral. It was comparable to the turnouts for Winston Churchill, J.F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Princess Di. Only Fela’s life, however, has been turned into a musical. Mind you, We Shall Fight Them or Winston’s War must surely be on the cards. I can just see the banner now: ‘Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Elvis Costello’. Maybe not.
Fela’s son Femi is not yet the subject of a West End show, but his smaller band still manages to create a ‘Positive Force’ (as he dubs it). He’s a crinkle-cut chip off the paternal block and I’m hoping for inspired things. But I’ll see how I feel at 3 a.m. when the clammy nocturnal river mist shivers my weary timbers. See whether I’ve still got a head for festivals.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Guilty as charged

This July weather has been testing my culpability. I don’t know what’s going on in other necks of the wood, as I don’t watch the weather forecast on telly and have little faith in the internet’s chaine méteo, which seems to change its mind from one day to the next, but here we’ve had leaden skies, persistent showers and unseasonable chill in the Lot for a couple of weeks.
The great French summer
It doesn’t worry me too much: in fact, it’s a salutary reminder of what we’re missing back home. But when I meet and greet holidaymakers – who have generally paid a small fortune to get and then stay here – my middle-class English upbringing rears its apologetic head once more. I feel personally responsible for the bad weather and generally as guilty as O.J. Si… (no, don’t say it; don’t court controversy).
My Canadian friend Bret always chides me, ‘What is it about you English? Jeez, you’re so polite; you’re always apologising.’ Coming from the New World, he doesn’t understand the burden of the Old World that has kept my shoulders round all these years. It’s true, though. Sometimes I feel like I have to apologise for my very existence.
This very morning I went up to one of the two holiday homes that blip away on the periphery of my personal radar screen. ‘I’m so sorry about this weather,’ I started off. ‘I’ve never known a July like it. June can be a bit dodgy, but usually you’re guaranteed good weather in July and August’.
My luck was in. The holidaymakers in question – a charming family from Newcastle (Tyne & Wear, as opposed to County Down) – were very philosophical about it. I guess you would be if you choose to live in Newcastle (they met at university and decided to stay), where the weather is exactly like this for most of the British Summer, those five giddy weeks that span the tail-end of July and the August Bank Holiday, whereupon winter sets in again.
They explained that the upside of a fortnight’s lousy weather is that you don’t spend each day lounging with a good book by the side of the pool, but you get out and explore the area. And we chatted about places of interest that they had visited, like the Gouffre de Padirac: a great big hole in the ground where you can climb down an iron staircase into the centre of the earth and take a boat trip to explore the caverns and marvel at the stalactites and stalagmites at the earth’s core.
So I was lucky. I came away from our farewell meeting feeling reasonably good about myself and sufficiently reassured to think that they might have had a fairly good holiday after all. It doesn’t always go so well. Sometimes holidaymakers who feel they have been short-changed by the weather can act like sharks that scent blood. They’ll drop the kind of little barbed asides into the conversation that make you squirm with the conviction that you are personally responsible for their ill fortune.
Of course, it’s totally illogical. Of course you’re not to blame. Yet you go away feeling the weight of all those pounds sterling they have spent on having a lousy time. They’ve worked hard and saved for 50 weeks or so in the year in order to spend a fortnight in France experiencing the kind of weather they’d have had if they’d stayed put. ‘Next time, pal, I’m off to the Costa del Sol, where the plastic billows in the wind and the scorching sun sears your unaccustomed skin and where you can’t stop me having a good time.’ 
The trouble is – and I’ve said it before at the Brighton Conference – people just get the wrong end of the stick about France. We do get more sun and generally better weather than they do on the other side of the English Channel, but essentially it tends to mirror roughly what’s happening in the UK. If there’s a depression sweeping in off the Atlantic, then it’s going to depress us too, and if there’s a trough of high pressure settling in over the Low Countries, then we’ll be in for some settled weather, too – only it’ll be hotter in summer and colder in winter than it is in, say, Harwich.  The only virtual guarantee of good weather comes on the Mediterranean coast ('warm wet winters with westerly winds and hot dry summers,' as we were taught).
A spell of unseasonable weather doesn’t worry me at all. We need the rain and it’ll help the flora and fauna. Besides, as a full-time resident, I know that we’ll run into some pretty good weather again soon enough. That shows how much I’ve changed after 16 years of living in France. Weather-wise, as Jack Lemmon might have said in The Apartment, I am now quietly confident. We moved here from Sheffield, where there were times when you wondered whether you would ever see the sun again.
So maybe the guilt derives from residual empathy. Since I still remember how grim the weather can be in certain parts of the Old Country, I still remember how much hope one invests in a summer holiday. So I know all about that feeling of being cheated by the elements. And I suppose that if there’s someone daft enough to assume a degree of responsibility, well why not offload some frustration on said eejit?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Comprehension Test

Only the other day, I was… No, I’ll start again lest I lapse into a Vivian Stanshall pastiche. (Are there any other British expats in France who remember the Bonzo Dog Dooda Band on the kids’ TV programme, Do Not Adjust Your Set, which spawned Monty Python?)
But I digress. As I was saying, I finished my work earlier this week and treated myself to a rejuvenating haircut at the Bio Coiffeur of Brive. Happy with the cut, I then treated myself to a d”égustation spéciale at the Café Bogota, my coffee shop of choice. You can relax in the neo-Art Deco surroundings, enjoy the smell of roasting coffee and watch the comings and goings at the counter.
I eavesdropped on a blind woman in denims and Roy Orbison-ic shades, chatting to some cronies of hers, who were fussing over her guide-dog. They were talking about the apocalyptic storm of the night before, when the rain (finally) fell in torrents. I gleaned that there had been a mini tornado in Tulle, the departmental capital.
Since the rain was still coming down in sheets and since, inexplicably, I’d neglected to bring an umbrella with me, I took refuge in a local media store (a thing which, of course, I don’t often do – unless it’s sale time). Just one look, just in case they’d added anything to the bargain box since my first visit of the sale season. They had.
So I took my booty to the cash desk, where a youngish woman was muttering to herself about something. ‘What was that?’ I asked.
She looked up at me and I registered her expression’s instantaneous change. ‘Oh sorry,’ she said. ‘You’re a foreigner.’
Nothing wounds my expatriate pride like the implication that I won’t be able to understand the lingo. I haven’t lived 16 years in this country to ignore an insinuation that I can’t hold my end of a conversation. So I told her that it was all right, I understood, and we duly started chatting.
She explained that they got a lot of foreigners at this time of year and that her English wasn’t as good as my French. Which is my cue casually to chuck in my longevity card – as in, ‘Well it should be reasonably good after 16 years’, just to imply, I suppose, that I’m not some fly-by-night who comes here to buy a crate of wine, lounge by a pool, sell for a profit and move on. I added that The Daughter went to the school just around the corner (read: fine upstanding member of the community, who pays his local taxes and helps to support the ailing economy). Whereupon – and I just couldn’t help myself, brimming over as I have been recently with parental pride – I let slip that she had scored 20 out of 20 in her BAC French Oral (read: definitely the sort of foreigner to grace rather than clutter the country, so not to be ejected by the secret police).
It was a pleasant conversation: the kind of conversation I would never, ever have imagined possible when I was mimicking the American French accents of the ‘O’-level language tapes we used at our school. (‘Where is the baker situated please? I would like to buy a baguette for my breakfast. Perhaps I shall buy a croissant, too.’) And the kind of conversation that reminds you that it’s a fair achievement to be able to communicate on any kind of credible level in a language that’s not your own.
It was nothing deep or significant, of course, but it certainly beat those awkward exchanges where someone spots your accent and jumps in with their broken English and then you are both not sure where to go next. In such situations, I generally take the line that the onus is on me as a foreigner to speak in the other person’s tongue, but this can then trigger a farcical kind of duel – the winner being he or she who sticks to their foreign language the longer. 
Just to put the old tin lid on an agreeable interaction, she even commented on one of the CDs I’d picked out of the bargain box. It was the first time in all my years here of grabbing bargains at sales that anyone has ever ventured an opinion on one of my purchases. Rosalia de Souza’s D’Improvviso. She’d heard a track on the radio and pronounced it good. I said you couldn’t go far wrong with Brazilian music. It’s a disc made by a Brazilian singer with an Italian band and it’s some of the best Italo-Brazilian jazz I’ve ever heard. Or Brazilo-Italian jazz for that matter.
Whichever way you look at it, though, as a foreigner I don’t understand a single word she’s singing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Stop the Week 32

What is it they say? ‘When the girls are away, the boy will play…’ Something like that.
Actually, I’ve been far too busy with my latest ‘project’ (the details of which I dare not disclose in case someone has sent a Trojan horse via Gobble or Yazoo into my motherboard to gag on my gigabytes and compromise my data), so the absence of the ‘girls’ has, in franglais, ‘arranged me well’.
Despite spending far too long staring at a screen, I’ve managed to drip-feed some culture into my blood during the week gone by. For one thing, their absence means that I can dig out some of the more difficult jazz that I dare not spin in polite company. I’ve even found myself pumping out a bit of Soil & Pimp Session’s Japanese death-jazz when I’ve needed an invigorating blast of noise.
I’ve been re-reading Saul Bellow’s dazzling Humboldt’s Gift in nibble-sized chunks during the five-minute windows of opportunity each night between my head hitting the pillow and the book hitting the floor.
And I’ve taken the odd meal in front of the telly so I can follow the protracted Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a so-called comedy from Rumania that has been lurking on the hard drive for almost a year, because I’ve failed to engender any family enthusiasm for it. Poor Mr. Lazarescu, who has so far passed through the hands of countless callous, patronising and/or disinterested hospital doctors… I’ve deduced from the title that he’s not going to make it and I’m very worried about his three beloved cats incarcerated in his dowdy apartment. If I manage to get through it unscathed, I might just try next the Bergman trilogy I recorded the other night. Mmm – lashings of Nordic solemnity and misery.
Probably because I’ve spent such an inordinate amount of time at the computer, I settled down on Saturday night to watch an excellent drama-documentary about the life of Vincent Van Gogh (using the correspondence between Vince and his brother Théo) only to fall asleep even before we got to The Potato Eaters.
Friday night is music night on BBC 4 and fortunately I managed to stay awake for a new documentary on the history of LA’s Troubadour club. Did anyone see it? I thought it turned into a bit of a James Taylor/Carole King love-fest. There are worst metamorphoses to be had (you could, for example, turn into a beetle), as both James and Carole are terribly nice people, but I could have done with more of the peripheral characters – like the ever-incisive David Crosby, like Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, and (I should be so lucky) like Laura Nyro. 
I’m always fascinated to see how well or badly stars from my youth have worn. Jackson Browne doesn’t seem to have changed a jot, but he was younger than the others. David Crosby is a wreck. Roger McGuinn is still recognisable. Carole King is in her late 60s now and still looks remarkably cuddlesome. James Taylor is obviously no longer ‘sweet baby James’, but he wears a hat well, which certainly endears the man to me.
In fact, I never used to listen to either Carole or James when I was earnestly imbibing lyrics as an over-sensitive teenager. Pete Hammill’s dark, doom-laden lyrics for Van der Graaf Generator appealed more to my brooding teenage sensibility. I tended to lump James Taylor with Cat Stevens as fodder for girls and I couldn’t tolerate the fact that Carole King’s marvellous Tapestry (I see it now of course) sold in its millions.
These days, apart from notable exceptions such as Joni Mitchell, I tend not to bother too much with lyrics. Half the music I listen to is African, Cuban or Brazilian anyway – so who knows what they’re on about? Which reminds me… The UK’s very own Far Out label publishes some of the best Brazilian music on the planet. They were kind enough to send me a promo of the re-formed and legendary Banda Black Rio’s Super Nova Samba Funk. If you like your Brazilian music smooth, melodic and funky, you could do a lot worse than this toothsome morsel.
On that cheery note, I must away and prepare my supper. I need to find out what happens to Mr. Lazarescu. More to the point, I need to find out whether anyone will bother about his poor cats. Ha, will they heck-as-like.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Further Dental Practice

I’ve written about French dentistry before. Still, a visit to the local surgery this week for part 2 of some pre-crown root-canal work prompts me to add some further observations on this delicate subject.
Having recently completed my field study on tartar build-up on native teeth, I’m led to conclude that the state of the national dental health leaves a lot to be desired. This is surprising given that – in my opinion, anyway – dentists here are generally more professional and less expensive than their British counterparts.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. The Butcher of Brive, for example, who performed root-canal work on my poor wife without the aid of anaesthetic. Cursed as I am with a vivid imagination and having seen Marathon Man twice, it pains me to think of the agony she must have suffered at this sadist’s hands. She dare not tell me his name – she knows I’d take my Lidl pliers from my Lidl toolbox and I’d go find that goddamn tooth-butcher and extract every goddamn tooth in his head.
Not my dentist
Anyway, soft words butter no parsnips and I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him. My fine local dentist, that is. Painless though it was, the visit on Tuesday morning was not without its ‘issues’.
There is the continuing saga of how to address my dentist. Since I have met Docteur Garcia at a couple of social events, I was torn between ‘Docteur’, ‘Docteur Garcia’, ‘Philippe’ or an indistinct mumble. Well, last week – for part 1 of the root-canal work – I took a deep breath and blurted out ‘Philippe’. It didn’t seem to faze him, so I concluded that it wasn’t such a capital breech of social etiquette as my brother once committed (as a tip-happy waiter, who stored his spare coins in a pair of stack-heeled shoes) by tipping his dentist.
This week, though, I worried about whether I should use the second person singular or polite plural. After all, if I was bold enough to address him by his first name, it kind of implied that I should tutoye him. To tutoye or not to tutoye, that is always the bloody question in France. Fortunately, I was sufficiently awake at 8.15 in the morning to catch a second person singular tripping casually off his tongue. Which makes it much easier. If he can tutoye me, the cheeky monkey, I can damn well tutoye him.
So good is mon cher Philippe that I didn’t even feel the needle push up into my gum. I lay there in the chair tapping away at the acupuncture points on my fingertips, as my good wife has shown me, trying to deflect my thoughts from terrible images of dentistry throughout the ages and experimentation on terrified animals, and there was really no need for such anguish, because the man was gentleness and consideration itself.
Nevertheless, the business of trying to decipher his constant masked and mumbled commentary kept me on my toes. I managed to catch enough single words to work out that the reason why the preliminaries were taking so long was the dogleg that one of my three root canals took, making it very difficult for him to insert the Lilliputian metal file to prepare the passage for the paste that would block it up, hopefully, for good.
These difficulties generated a new source of anxiety: namely the number of ‘radios’ he had to take. Over the two weeks I have counted something like six X-rays. I know all about the tragic fate that befell Marie Curie. I’m hoping that six tiny doses of radiation do not equal a Chernobyl proportion. One shouldn’t be flippant about such matters, but I’m trying to shunt it to the back of my mind. I try to live my life by my wife’s credo – that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Anyway, I made it out of Philippe’s surgery and I’m still here to tell the tale. There was, however, one further unwelcome issue to address. On proudly handing the secretary my new Carte Vitale, I discovered that the estimate I’d received for the crown – the one I’d thought to be so reasonable – was not the end of the story. Oh no. It didn’t include the actual treatments. That is, four sessions at however much they are a pop. I couldn’t pay, didn’t pay, because I hadn’t brought my chequebook with me, expecting to settle up at the end of the course. And yes, it’s all very well that your Mutuelle pays the difference, but I have no Mutuelle. So that goddamn dogleg in my root canal is going to cost me.
Voilà! You have been warned, gentle readers. Dentists may generally be the business here in France, but you can never be too careful. May your root canals be less complex than mine.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Stop the Week 31

I’m sure that there are friends of ours – Londoners in particular – who think that we must live in a cultural desert. There have been times, I admit, when I’ve thought something similar. There were long winters, for example, during our sojourn among the hill people of the Corrèze, when the only posters in evidence seemed to be for concours de belotte – a popular card game, which never intrigued us quite enough to investigate.
So it’s nice when you can cock a snook at the culture-vultures back home. Only last week I sent an e-mail to a friend and fellow film-buff living in The Metropolis to ask him what he thought about Terrence Malick’s wonderful new film, The Tree of Life. Debs and I had callously left The Daughter to her final revision before her last exam of the year and drove the 20 or so kilometres to Souillac’s Le Paris cinema to see this year’s Palm d’Or winner at Cannes.
It’s an art et essai cinema, which means that it also shows the less commercial current offerings, often in version originale – with subtitles rather than the dreaded incongruous dubbed voices – usually to audiences so small that the cinema’s very existence depends on heavy subsidies from some regional or central government fund. There were maybe eight of us in an auditorium big enough to house a couple of hundred. You could have heard a pin drop throughout. Everyone sat spellbound in respectful, reverential silence until the last of the credits had been swallowed by the top edge of the screen.
Burt with Debora and dodgy bathers
No, came the reply. He hadn’t yet seen the film, because we were way ahead of them in England, where it hasn’t yet been released. Which made me feel a little smug. This Sunday, the three of us are going back to Souillac to see the restored version of Visconti’s The Leopard, a three-and-a-half hour costume epic starring Claudia Cardinale, when she was quite as beautiful as Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti, and the great Burt Lancaster, when he was wearing 19th century Sicilian garb rather than those dodgy swimming trunks he wore in From Here to Eternity and again in The Swimmer.
Back in London, you’d probably have to go to the National Film Institute to see it. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it would likely involve an hour’s trip. It will take us about 20 minutes. And if it came to the Uxello in Vayrac, it would take us 10 minutes. The Rex in Brive shows nothing but V.O. films and it’s only 35 minutes from here. So we do pretty damn well really and friends from the mother country should understand that. 
What’s more, we’ve entered July now. Anyone who’s been here for more than a season will know that during July and August there are more cultural events than you can shake a sizeable stick at. So many, of course, that things often clash and, by the time you reach the end of the summer, you’re probably bent double with cultural indigestion. (‘Take winters for express relief…’)
Being ahead of the folks back home by one hour and the occasional film sometimes works both ways. My wife and daughter are travelling back to Cumbria this month to see how my mother-in-law’s doing. Tilley was hoping to see the new and last Harry Potter film. It’s out already in France, I believe, but she has resolutely refused to see any of its predecessors dubbed into French and she’s not relenting now. Alas, it doesn’t come out in the UK until the very day they travel back home. There’s rough, as they say somewhere. Wales?
She can’t complain, though. It was mainly due to her subtle and not-so-subtle lobbying that we relented and installed a satellite TV system not long after moving away from dem dar Correzian hills. So now she can watch all those great cultural offerings on BBC Four. Or, more to the point, catch up with Coronation Street on ITV, or Radio 1 on her hand-me-down laptop.
No, we don’t live in a cultural desert here in rural France. Though sometimes, it’s true, we could do with just a little more rain in the barren seasons.’