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, October 16, 2011

French Resistance

We spent Saturday night and Sunday morning this weekend with some friends in their tastefully restored farmhouse. At breakfast, we were talking about some German friends of ours who seem to carry an entire nation’s burden of guilt on their broad Arian shoulders. They are the type of people who are so kind and so thoughtful that it’s impossible to reciprocate in full. It’s as if they have turned themselves into model citizens in their adopted country as a way of saying sorry for the Nazi occupation.
Made-up maquisard
My friend Howard told us about an old man of the hills, who lived in their village during a previous incarnation of their lives in France, when they lived further south in the hinterlands of Carcassonne. For years, this particular man refused to talk to them. Then, one morning, Howard plucked up the courage to confront him. It turned out that he had mistaken them for Germans. In those days, Howard still had some (fair) hair. His wife and their two daughters are all blonde; therefore they had to be Germans in this man’s eyes. Once he realised that they were English, his resistance collapsed. 
This is a part of France where the Résistance was very active. You only have to look at the lie of the land – with all its woods and caves and streams and shepherds’ stone shelters – to conjure up a picture of fleet goings-on under cover of night. While researching an article on a particular village a few weeks ago, I talked to an old man of the bourg. He was over 80 and the palms of his hands were stained black from a lifetime of working the vines. His accent was so strong that I had to strain to catch sufficient words to piece together the story of his life. I did manage to garner that, as a young man in the war, he had run errands for the local chapter of the Maquis.  
He offered to show me a couple of memorials that I’d never seen before. So he sat statuesquely in the passenger seat and directed me to a couple of fairly primitive stone monuments in clearings of the causse or scrub that surrounds the village. The first one commemorated the arrival by parachute of an English officer, who came here to work directly with the maquisards. The old man told me that the officer returned to the area after the war and he and his wife settled here until his death a few years ago.
We drove on to the second monument. It was bigger and more prominent, because it marked a day nearer the liberation when the sky had turned Technicolor with hundreds of different-coloured parachutes, all attached to canisters that contained arms and other provisions for the forces of resistance. As he told me all about it, the old man’s excitement was palpable: it all seemed still as vivid to him that afternoon as it must have been on that euphoric day over 65 years ago.
It put me in mind of the self-appointed elder of the village where we used to live in the Corrèze. When we moved there in the autumn of 1995, he only had another two or three years to live and you could tell that his life had become a bit of a chore. But every now and then we would sit together to hear his tales of the war. Briefly, they reanimated him as nothing else could (apart from his periodic rants about ex-President Mitterand). As temporary mayor of the commune during the war, he led a dangerous double-life as courier for the Maquis. He told us once of being stopped at a Nazi roadblock when he was taking money to the freedom fighters. One can only imagine the terror.
And that’s all we can do really: use our imagination. Britain hasn’t really been invaded since William fit the battle of Hastings-o. Until secrets were de-classified, we never even know about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. It was all kept hush-hush by the wartime government lest the truth should undermine national morale. Careless talk and all that.
Reading about what happened on Jersey and Guernsey only underlined that we don’t really know how we might behave in an extraordinary situation until it actually transpires. Similar kinds of things happened in the Channel Islands as they did here: on one side of the coin, acts of heroism; on the other side, acts of treachery. 
My wife’s work as a therapist certainly confirms that whatever took place here during the occupation created many deep personal traumas that, in many cases, have never been fully addressed. When you consider that they’ve had the Prussians, the forces of the Kaiser and the Nazi hordes stomping across their territory in the space of less than 150 years, it’s hardly surprising that the French seem at times so wary of strangers. ‘Xenophobic’ is a word that has slipped into the odd conversation.
We were comparing experiences of friendship at breakfast. All four of us have plenty of French friends here, but we all complained of our inability to take that final step across the Great Divide. It’s as if every time you think that – this time – you’re really getting somewhere, a No Entry pops up and you take a hesitant step backwards. Of course, there are good reasons: all our cultural disconnections and a strong family-centric culture, certainly in rural France, which makes friendship more of a luxury than a necessity.
But it occurred to me this morning that my abiding sense of French resistance is connected to the French Resistance. We the rootless international settlers are really just the new invaders. If we sense a certain suspicion of our different ways and a reluctance to let us all the way into their hearts, is that so surprising? Let’s be thankful that they haven’t yet taken to blowing up our cars.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lime-washing

About this time of year, I start to get rather more nervous than usual.
Brilliant white walls
My immediate concern is the prospect of lime-washing the wall of the house that takes the majority of the weather. One of the drawbacks of living in a house of straw bales is that you have to build up a protective but breathable skin of successive lime-washes. The idea being that over time the walls become as hard and as naturally impermeable as those brilliant white ones you see all over Greek islands.
Somewhere in the dustiest recesses of my brain, I seem to recall images of black-clad natives slopping the white stuff on with old brooms. It looked easy. Alas, the reality is rather more fraught. For a kick off, there has to be an ideal meteorological window of opportunity. From early September onwards, I scan the not-particularly-reliable internet météo, looking out for this rare but perfect window. Roughly five days without rain with a range of temperatures somewhere between a maximum of about 25oC and a minimum of about 5oC. Too hot or too cold and the stuff won’t cure properly. It will crack and blister like last year’s cover-up did. And, of course, if it rains before it’s cured, it is likely to wash that wash right off of our walls.  
Assuming that the forecast is reliable, you need sufficient notice to make up the lime-wash mixture, so that it can ‘prove’ for a few days. Which brings me to the mixture. These days, I’m a dab hand with our Sunday-morning crêpe mix, but a lime-wash is quite another matter. The ingredients are lime, water, some natural colour and some kind of fixative. I’ve discovered that there is lime and there is lime. Last year’s failure was made with the wrong lime (I was reliably informed by one of those experts who takes great delight in telling you that you don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this). So this year, I’ve ordered some NHL2 from the good people of St. Astier. It sounds good, looks good, but I haven’t made the error of tasting it – remembering, as I do, an unpleasant lesson from childhood when I ate a spoonful of Robin starch in my mother’s pantry, mistaking it for icing sugar.  
Then there’s the fixative (which, I think, is an additive that stops the lime powder rubbing off on your fingers or clothes). Up until now, I’ve used something called sel d’alum, which translates as alum salt, but don’t ask me what this is. I do know that it’s extremely hard to get hold of. And in view of last year’s failure – which I’ve got to put down to ingredients and/or conditions rather than personal (in)competence if I’m going to do this every year until I get too old to climb a ladder – I’ve decided this time to try something else.
I came across a recipe in a back copy of The Last Straw journal (ordered at great expense from the U.S.A.) that uses a wheat flour paste. This appealed to me because I can pop down to the local supermarket for the ingredient. The only trouble is that the measurements are quoted in the American imperial system. Cups, quarts and gallons are all slightly different from the British equivalents. I imagine that it was something to do with the rebellious colonists wishing to assert their independence from the mother country in more ways than war.
I haven’t yet tried to make up the paste, which is another reason for my present state of worry. Still. It’s good to have a recipe to work from. The first time I lime-washed our walls, it worked well, but I misplaced my recipe. So the next time I did it, I took care to write it down – only to discover the following year that I’d written down things like ‘1 bucketful…’ without specifying what size of bucket. So it’s all been very hit and miss and far from systematic. 
Assuming that I get the mix right this time, I’ve then got to apply the stuff. I’m not good with ladders at the best of times. Once I get beyond a certain rung, I start to picture the whole assembly tottering over and wondering whether, like the Pink Panther, I could judge my moment and simply step off onto solid ground just before the crash. My insecurity is compounded by the fact that I need to get up there with brush, bucket of lime-wash, a second bucket of water in which to dip the brush before each application, and a sprayer for wetting the patch of wall to be washed. I’ve managed so far – in a way that Heath Robinson would surely have approved of – by hanging everything from my strimmer harness with home-made hooks of green fence wire.
Then, assuming that I get everything safely up the ladder, there’s the business of painting the lime-wash onto the wall itself. Being lime rather than paint, the liquid starts to dry as soon as the brush travels across the surface. Hence the reason for a bucket of water. But then you don’t want to get it too wet or… And the brushstrokes themselves. An artistic neighbour, who works with lime mixtures in her work as an interior designer/decorator, advocates the ‘slap it on at random’ approach. Which I like. But the received theory suggests that the best protection comes when you apply it in two coats: the first with horizontal brush strokes and the second with vertical brushstrokes, down which the eventual rain will travel safely away.
Oy vay! What happened to that mental image of mine of native Greeks slopping it on with old brooms? I’m sorry to go on, but you understand now why I get a little apprehensive at this time of year. It does make me wonder why we opted for straw and not those terracotta capillary briques that you render once and once only, thus sparing the proprietor of the house this annual autumnal torment. Strange to relate, I’m all for a quiet life.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Insect Asides

Last week I disappeared off the edge of the blogosphere – rather like those unfortunate sailors did in the days before they discovered that the horizon wasn’t so much a precipice, more an ever-shifting focal point.
I was in London for the week, trying to accustom myself to the sound of cars and human beings and early-morning foxes. I got back yesterday via the white elephant that is Brive Dordogne Valley airport. Got back to my home, sweet home to discover that the willows are alive with hornets. What’s more, they’re the dreaded frelons asiatiques. This is bad news – just to compound the present misery of financial meltdown, environmental disintegration and the increasingly inevitable prospect of re-electing our diminutive president.
Death, Japanese Style
Day and night the activity in the willows sounds like a squadron of Lancaster bombers bound for Dresden. The inconceivably warm air is alive with their terrible drone. These creatures – with their angry orange ‘saddles’ – are fearsome. I watched a fascinating documentary about them some time ago. It was set in Japan, where they kill on average 50 or so human beings every year. Their sting is so virulent that you have to sever the affected limb with the nearest available blade to stop the venom reaching your heart. Well, possibly.
In Japan the indigenous bees have learned to contend with these aerial mass-murderers. A Buddhist monk explained how the colony lures the scouts into the hive and then swarms all over them so that they overheat and die before they can race off and tell their fellow killers that there’s a vulnerable hive at so-and-so coordinates. Alas, the poor naïve European honeybee – already facing extermination from pesticides and Traumatic Hive Disorder (or THD, as it’s known to the apian brotherhood) – is defenceless. The Asiatic hornet will just take them out in mid air or raid the hive and wipe out the entire colony just for the fun of it. They’re the etymological equivalent of Mexican drug gangs. 
Until I came to France, I’d never encountered a hornet. I wouldn’t have known what one looked like. Then it was suddenly frelon this and frelon that, and pretty soon I was classing it with the equally dreadful viper in my almanac of French Fauna to Fear.  I remember sitting up late one summer’s night, reading by lamplight near a window. There was a constant tapping at the glass and I looked up to see a frelon outside the size of a bullet, banging itself against our fragile farmhouse window, determined to get inside to kill le lecteur à table. It was like a scene from a horror story by Edgar Allen Poe. Reader, I was so perturbed that I took up my book in a cold sweat and retired at once to my bed.
Miles Davis lived for a while in Paris and he, too, must have heard tales of this intimidating insect, because he wrote a number called ‘Le Frelon Brun’ for his Filles de Kilimanjaro album. Whenever I give it a spin, I am transported back in time to that vengeful nocturnal kamikaze. The house defences held that evening, but sometimes they do get in – and it usually provokes a scene of panic and pandemonium. If I reach for the plastic fly-swatter, The Daughter is given to scream at me – not because she wants me to spare the life of the marauder, but because she fears that her father will miss his target and be stung unto death.
In fact, in recent times, I’ve learned that the common frelon is not aggressive. Unlike the wasp, it will not set out to sting you. However, when it has over-indulged itself at the vine, at the time of year when the juice of the grape is turning to alcohol, it is known to do reckless and headstrong things. So we take no chances in this house. Under the influence of my wife, we have renounced violence against intruders. Instead, we turn off all interior lights, turn on the outside light and open a door.
The trouble is, as I say, we are now faced with squadrons of frelons asiatiques, gorging themselves on whatever property they find on the leaves of the common willow. I can only assume it’s the equivalent of coca leaves for native South American Indians. They’re an unknown quantity at the best of times, but pepped up with vegetable amphetamines, who knows what they’re capable of?
For this reason, over the next few days I’m going to be sitting outside on a director’s chair with binoculars and Jonathon Franzen’s wonderful new novel Freedom. I’ll be lifting my eyes from the page to track their flight path to the wood. Apparently, they travel in a straight line, which makes the task a little easier. They nest, I’m told, in constructions that resemble ovoid paper lanterns, high up in a tree.
Either I call in an expert, who will then remove the nest at a fee commensurate with the considerable human risk involved. Or I go down to my neighbour’s house and ask if I can borrow the WW2 flame-thrower he salvaged from the Eastern Front. I appreciate that the trees are suffering enough from this current apocalyptic drought, but I’m honestly prepared to singe a few tops if it means eradicating the colony of frelons. Good for willows; good for bees.  
In fact, I can already see the film. Sampo! ‘He… was just a little-known writer, who took up arms against a brutal foe to defend the departmental bee population – and in the process he won fame, glory and a Legion of Honour.’