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, August 28, 2011

Sceptic Tanks

Before moving to France, I was a lifelong citizen of the Big City. I knew nothing about sanitation. I knew that when you ran a tap or flushed the loo, the water ran away to some far-off sewage farm. I knew enough to know that one mustn’t pour paint or bleach or hydrochloric acid down the plughole because it would end up killing something aquatic somewhere.
Since moving to France and living in the country, I’ve had to put my faith in a septic tank. The trouble is, I’ve never been convinced that you can put your faith in a fosse septique. Having a tank teaches you sanitary responsibility, but short of putting all surplus paper in loo-side bins, avoiding any cleaning agent that will upset the delicate bacterial balance in the murky water beneath the big green plastic lid, and flushing down a sachet of food for the benevolent bacteria at the end of every week, there’s little really that you can do. I feel quite powerless.
I would describe myself as a septic-tank sceptic: I’m never convinced that they’re altogether doing their job – probably because I don’t quite understand what goes on under the green plastic lid. Probably because I’ve never seen a programme that illustrates the septic process with time-lapse photography.
Mind you, after 16 years or so of ‘overseeing’ a septic tank, I now understand a little more than I did when my wife and I first went hunting for a quaint stone-built house in the middle of Nulle-Part, rural France. To paraphrase Manuel, ‘I knew notheeng’. All I knew was this: we would need one. And so it became one of the principal criteria of our search. Whatever we bought, wherever we bought it, it had to have a fosse septique.
Hindsight, alas, has shown that we turned down many a shrewd investment simply because there was no septic tank. We ended up buying somewhere, which hindsight has shown that we shouldn’t really have bought. It had a septic tank – that much was certified – but it wasn’t until the thing started backing up in our bathroom and I had to scratch around the back garden to find it that I realised how inadequate it was. Sure, it was a modern plastic one rather than some deep dank leaky pit, but it failed to meet all modern standards. It was far too near the house, it was too small for our needs and there was no proper soak-away.
Subsequently, as part of the construction of the current Maison Sampson, I’ve watched our tank being lifted into a big hole in the ground and a filter bed being created with supposedly special-grade sand. And behold it seemed to be good. At least it helped to de-mystify the process. Some time afterwards, a nice man from the unfortunately named SPANC service inspected the works and pronounced them acceptable. He explained that I should unscrew the two plastic lids to inspect the overflow pipes on an annual basis. I nodded thoughtfully and very soon forgot what it was I should be looking for. He also told me that I might as well feed it with yoghurt for all the good that the special bacterial food does. But I still religiously flush down a sachet of placebo every weekend in the hope that it will keep things active down below.
Nice job!
For all my comparative enlightenment, I still have no faith. Maybe I’m not so much a septic-tank sceptic as an atheist. I wait for the day when the telltale stink in our bathroom will indicate that the tank has broken down once more. At least I know that when the day arises, I can pick up the telephone and ask for some sanitary enterprise to send a big lorry over to stick its big hose into the horrible water, pump the contents away, flush out the pipe-work and start the thing off again. Or better still, I can save a few hundred euros by asking the local farmer to come and suck the contents into some rusty mobile tank – to take away and spray all over one of his fields. So I suppose I’m sufficiently septic-tank savvy to realise that a sanitation breakdown doesn’t indicate the end of the world.
This very weekend, my lack of faith was tested by our kitchen sink. It hasn’t been draining away properly and there has been a nasty odour, which joss sticks have failed to eradicate. I have been trying to ignore it for at least a fortnight, because I was convinced that the problem emanated from our septic tank. Finally, it failed to drain away at all. Clutching at straws, I unscrewed the trap beneath the sink – but sure enough found nothing blocking the U-bend. Before I changed into my worst waterproofs and an old pair of Marigolds, I thought I might as well unscrew the plughole itself. Blistering barnacles, but holy, holy Mount Zion, I discovered a thick compacted bung of all things grey and malodorous. So that was the problem, not our septic tank after all. My relief was of Mafeking proportions.
Nevertheless, I say unto any readers of little faith, the day of judgement must surely come again. For all my due diligence, I know that I haven’t done enough to assuage the vengeful gods of the impenetrable murk. I am already thinking that – if funds should ever present themselves – our next eco toy will have to be one of these micro stations d’epuration (or whatever they call those, what are they… I guess a kind of mechanical reed-bed).
Ah! Now there’s an idea. A natural filter-bed that will provide clean water in times of scarcity to wild life around here. The trouble is, I know even less about reed-beds than I do about fosses septiques. Ideas please on a postcard…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Les Vacances de Monsieur Sampson

When we moved to France many moons ago, we had this idea of using our new continental base as a launch pad for visits to the various neighbouring countries of Europe. No Channel to cross, easy-peasy.
In fact, we’ve visited Italy once and Spain twice in 16 years. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Nordic low lands and whatever Czechoslovakia is called these days have yet to be graced by our stately presence.
The last time we went to Spain, two years ago this April, we rented a cottage in the Alpujarras, an uncommonly verdant region way down south in Andalucia, not far from Granada. It was lovely, but the drive down the Mediterranean coast put me off for life. The Costa del Sol was like a vision of some dystopian hell, where nature has been stripped bare and replaced by a sea of plastic, glistening in the fierce glare of the sun and billowing in the hair-dryer wind, under which tasteless fruit and vegetables are force-grown with fertilisers and pesticides for the voracious European market. Never again, we decided.
And so it came to pass that we have spent virtually all our holidays in France. After all, isn’t it the most visited country in the world? When you live here and you can explore the place at a rather more leisurely pace than that of the annual frenetic fortnight’s break, you realise why. I often wonder what it was the French people did to deserve such a beautiful country. It’s like the old advert for Topics: a chocolate bar that has gone the way of Tiffin bars and Five Boys chocolate. ‘A hazelnut in every bite,’ proclaimed Toby the squirrel. Well, here in France, there’s a treasure at every turn of the road. Increasingly we ask ourselves the question: ‘Why bother going anywhere else?’
I remember the excitement of seeing the Pyrenees for the first time. My spirit soared into the stratosphere. I came to the conclusion that the Béarne – with its green, green valleys under a dramatic backdrop of jagged mountain peaks – couldn’t possibly be beaten. (Now there’s a good slogan! How much could I charge the local tourist officials for that one? ‘The Béarne – it can’t be beaten…’)
Well, the thing is, it can. We’ve just got back from a few days away in Savoie, a truly stunning area that belonged to Italy until 1860. I’m not sure how it came to be French: a straight territorial swap perhaps, or the result of some financial chicanery along the lines of the Louisiana Purchase. Anyway, it’s French and I’m as delighted as Queen Victoria reputedly was when she travelled to Aix les Bains under a pseudonym to avoid the paparazzi of the time. (‘Who’s that dumpy little character?’ ‘Oh, Countess Balmoral or some such minor dignitary.’ ‘Not worth the film then?’ ‘Na.’)
Looking down on Lac de Bourget
If there’s one sight that thrills Monsieur Sampson, the holidaymaker, every bit as much as the sight of the sea, it’s that of a fresh water lake set among the mountains. Aix les Bains is at the southern end of the Lac de Bourget, apparently the biggest natural lake in France. It extends 20km or so north to the point where the mighty Rhone heads off across country towards Lyon and all points south on its epic journey down from Lake Geneva. The lake is limpid and inconceivably blue and surrounded by precipitous slabs of Alpine mountains. It’s a setting to induce a Victorian monarch to throw off her corset, unroll her stockings, hitch up her skirts and wade in the water with a song in her heart.
We were staying, the Missus, the Hound and I, up river from the lake in an old wine-grower’s cottage on the steep eastern slope above the canal that links a diversion of the Rhone for the purpose of hydro-electricity. The cottage used to belong to my friend Claude’s grandmother. She spent the entire war there, hiding away in one room with a metal sink and a small wood-burning stove. She gave it to Claude and his conversion of her cellier into a modest but comfortable cottage for four would, I am sure, have garnered the old woman’s compliments.
Inside were all kinds of artefacts and curios of a bygone age, including two pristine rolls of the most destructive-looking toilet paper ever conceived by a sadistic manufacturer of bathroom accessories. My God, they made ‘em tough in those days – the people and the toilet rolls.
The great thing about Savoie is its timeless beauty. Things have changed, of course, since Claude’s grandmother’s frugal days, but not irredeemably so. People still work the land and even in mid August the area is not overrun with cars and tourists. You can look out over all that mountain greenery and imagine that all is still well with the world.
Monsieur Sampson, his wife and dog – even his daughter, should she ever wish to holiday with her parents again – will be returning to this little piece of potted Shangri La again on future occasions. Meanwhile, he shall continue to explore this beautiful land, which has not yet been overrun by human beings nor denuded of all its natural resources.
Aren’t we lucky to live in such a country? I do hope the natives truly appreciate that which some mysterious deity has bestowed upon them. Here’s another slogan for you. It should earn me at least a million euros. ‘France – why holiday elsewhere?’

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Captain Haddock and The Plague

Last week, an old school friend of mine reminded me of French A-level classes with Chesty McKeenan. I couldn’t stand the man. He once gave me a dressing down outside the men’s staff room on account of the length of my hair, the bum-fluff on my upper lip and the fact that, by wearing my dad’s short-sleeve sweater, I was sporting the wrong school-colours. He put the fear of God in me, so I passed up the opportunity of studying Albert Camus and his kidney at A-level.
Years later, when preparing to move to France, I regretted the decision somewhat. An A-level would have been more valuable than an O-level, I reasoned. So I got hold of an old copy of La Peste and laboriously ploughed through it in an effort to build my French vocabulary. Weeks became months, as I religiously noted down all the words I didn’t understand, to look up later in a dictionary. Then my wife and I would test each other on an ever-lengthening list of vocabulary during the long drives south from the Channel ports to our house in the Corrèze.
The novel dragged into a second and then a third year. When I reached about page 150, I finally saw the light. Sod this for a game of soldiers, I thought, life’s too short to read Camus in French. So I took up my Penguin copy in the English translation and read it from cover to cover, as if a veil had been lifted off my eyes. And I gave up trying to learn lists of the kinds of words that you probably only find anyway in great literary works.
Besides, I discovered fairly early on that the French taught at school, whether at A- or O-level, was of little use once someone started talking to me in a broad Correzian dialect. The adventures of the Bertillon family – Monsieur (a customs officer at Orly airport), Madame, Philippe (the older boy), Marie-Claude and Alain (the youngest), plus of course Miquet the cat and Miki the dog (they adopted as a stray) – might have helped when asking the way to the nearest boulangerie, but it wasn’t much use when it came to more pertinent enquiries – such as, ‘Do the contents of your septic tank flow into the pond in our garden?’
After the momentous decision to give up La Peste, I figured that if I were going to read French to boost my vocabulary and general comprehension of this difficult language, then I might as well read something fairly easy and enjoyable. As a kid, I had been a great reader of comics (The Topper and The Victor were my first rags of choice). No doubt they played a useful role in assimilating my mother tongue. Since it appeared that the French were mad keen on BDs – or bandes dessinées – then why not revert to my childhood pastime in order to learn this demanding new tongue?
Whereupon, I ploughed through just about the complete Hergé’s Ad-ventures of Tintin (as the excitable voice would announce before the animated versions they used to show on British television). I graduated to Asterix the Gaul without ever quite coming to terms with all the puns and plays-on words. I even negotiated an adult BD lent to me by a kindly neighbour: the story of some Franco-Spanish freedom fighters during the Spanish Civil War, which ended up with a shoot-out on the Plateau de Millevaches. It was pretty good, though it didn’t convert me into a full-time reader of adult comic books. That was something for the locals.
Word must have got out that I was devouring BDs, because French friends would turn up at birthdays with things like the Bidochons (a family of slobs, genetically modified versions of The Simpsons, Rab C. Nesbitt and Andy Capp) and the adventures of a group of bikers called the Joe Bar Team, whose humour escaped me as surely as did Coluche’s. I don’t entirely blame the French national sense of humour for that. I admit that my own total lack of comprehension was partly to blame.
What was that, Captain?
The big difference was that I didn’t make lists of new vocabulary to learn. I looked up each new word on its appearance in the hope that it would sink in after two or three repeats. And, I’m happy to say, it worked. The only trouble being that Captain Haddock’s colourful nautical slang, say, has only a limited application to everyday life. I’ve never to this day ventured a ‘Sacré bleu!’ or a ‘Tonnère du Brest!’ in response, for example, to a price quoted in Point P or Monsieur Bricolage for a few measly building materials.
Nevertheless, Tintin and his cronies served me well for a time and I must have absorbed at least a hundred new words from Hergé’s wonderful books. More to the point, I enjoyed reading them. Now, however, I’ve come to terms with my natural level of (in)competence. I can just about hold my own in a simple conversation that doesn’t turn too philosophical. The fact that my French doesn’t appear to be getting any better no longer gives me stress. As they might say here, I’m reasonably comfortable in my skin these days.
At long last, I’ve discovered that the best way to learn the language is to accept the fact that I’ll make some mistakes – and have a go anyway. If someone corrects me, I don’t take it as a sleight to my manhood, but I smile graciously and learn from the error of my linguistic ways.
And then, following the example of le capitaine ‘Addock, I might walk away, muttering something under my breath. ‘Mille millions de mille sabords…’

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fair Weather Friends

I once read an article in one of the Sunday papers about the house-in-France that all went badly wrong. It was written (I think) by a daughter of some famous British family: a descendant of Evelyn Waugh, methinks. But don’t quote me.
The reason I mention it is that the whole dream, the whole escapade went pear-shaped largely because of friends. The family found that they were paying for a succession of friends to have a free holiday in France. Said so-called friends contributed very little and only helped to trash the place.
It came to mind because we waved farewell this weekend to old friends from Sheffield who came and stayed for three very pleasant, invigorating days that reminded us all of what good friends we were and are. They respected our space, helped with all the day-to-day tasks and even revitalised our kitchen garden for us.
Now whose turn was it to go shopping?
And the experience makes me think: on one hand, what kind of friends did that couple have and, on the other, why in God’s name did they tolerate such abuse of their hospitality? The answer leads me to conclude that perhaps they deserved what they got, which might explain why I read the article without feeling a shred of sympathy.
At the end of September we celebrate our 16th anniversary of life in France. After the first two or three years when we were fairly well inundated with visiting family and friends, the novelty wore off and visitors came and went in a more orderly and manageable fashion. This year has proved an exception, with a bewildering succession of short, sharp visits that have left us panting a little and looking forward to a respite.
In all that time, though, we’ve only ever had one visit from friends that we wouldn’t wish to repeat. Fortunately, it happened quite early on and, with hindsight, probably did us a service as it underlined the importance of ground rules. We didn’t know them that well and initially they wanted to stay for a fortnight. We managed to trim that down to a week – and even that soon became quite long enough. ‘She’ didn’t help at all and was quite happy to watch us wait on them hand and foot, while ‘he’ – the clumsy git – managed to break something every time he did help. They contributed very little in terms of shopping and, to put the old tin lid on it, their visit coincided with a spell of awful weather, which meant that they were indoors and on top of us for seven long days. No names, no pack drill; suffice to say that we successfully parried all future suggestions of a return visit.
The family I read about didn’t manage to get over the honeymoon period. The other day I was talking to some nearby friends, who have just negotiated theirs. She told me that during their first or second season they undertook something like 40 return trips to Limoges airport to pick up visitors. That’s at least 80 hours of road travel. I only hope that their visitors were prepared to contribute to the cost of all that diesel. Anyway, things are considerably easier now. They’ve found that they can get on with the business of living a reasonably normal life during the summer months.
Maybe we’ve been lucky or maybe we’ve made our own luck – by being a little firm and assertive when necessary – but in almost every case visitors have been respectful and generous. Most recognise that it’s a time-consuming and expensive business, having people to stay, and most act accordingly: doing unto others as they would have done unto themselves. Most recognise the element of truth in the adage that friends are like fish: after three days they start to smell a bit. You could add perhaps that the best are like frozen fish: they don’t start to smell for a week or so – when the fish has been taken out of the freezer and allowed to defrost in a cool place.
Inevitably, though, no matter how much you like someone and no matter how considerate they have been, there’s always the double-edged emotion when they take their leave. I think back to my grandparents, who used to have my parents, my three siblings and me to stay with them in Bath for a month every summer. I would look back from the car to see them both waving until the car disappeared around the corner, my grandmother dabbing away the tears with the handkerchief she kept up her sleeve. But I never saw them step back inside their house, close the front door and say, no doubt, ‘Well, thank God for that. We can get our lives back again’.
I’d be interested to read about the fall-out from the newspaper couple’s house-in-France misadventure. I imagine they must have sold the house eventually. But did the experience cause them to sit down and evaluate their friendships? Or did they just carry on gaily as before? I don’t know. I only hope that if they sold their house to Brits, the newcomers had a rather more sensible attitude to the conundrum of visitors.