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, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving in France

Me and the wife, we often say that we’d never have met the heterogeneous (well, perhaps we don’t use that particular word in conversation) mix of people that we’ve met over the last 16 years or so if we’d stayed put in our nice comfortable suburb on the west side of Sheffield. It has been positively life-enhancing to fraternise with so many races in one small-ish locality.

And so it came to pass that I spent last Thursday evening in the company of some American friends, who come over here periodically from Madison, Wisconsin with their red setter, Elliot, who travels in a special doggie-cage in the hold of the airplane. Being from Wisconsin, they are serious fans of my favourite American football team, the Green Bay Packers. It’s a publicly owned franchise, but the waiting list for tickets is so long and the price of a seat so high that John and Heidi watch their games on telly. It just so happened that their Sky Sports package was showing the Packers’ Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions. So I was cordially invited – along with another, mutual American friend and his French wife – to come and watch the game and eat some food. 

I turned up for the occasion, decked out in my antiquated Packers T-shirt, which dates back to the first time (following their glory years in the ‘60s) they reached the Superbowl, back in the ‘90s – when we lived with nothing but the standard, awful three French TV channels and I had to ask a French neighbour to record the game for me on Canal Plus. John and his friend Jack’s French wife were also suitably arrayed in Packer paraphernalia.

I arrived early for the pre-match chat at their traditional stone-built house, which they let out during the holiday season. It’s extraordinary: there are people in the area who come over here regularly from places like America, South Africa and even – for God’s sake – Australia. The expense of it all! Not just the epic journeys, but the cost of maintaining their holiday property and swelling the coffers of the local Trésor Public. John and Heidi are in the middle of having their roof completely re-done at some no doubt inordinate cost. They must really love it here. I wonder what Elliot thinks of it all. I hate flying at the best of times, but to be stowed away in the hold with all the baggage. Thankfully, red setters are fairly mad dogs anyway. He seemed untroubled enough, wandering about with his squishy toy clamped inside his jaw. 

As soon as the other guests arrived, the pre-match chat went for a Burton. No matter how much I rail against the more inane aspects of its culture that the US exports to the rest of the world, I just love all that inane chat and all those statistical analyses. I’ve been hooked on the game ever since I saw the legendary Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers throw a ‘bomb’ to one of his wide receivers when I tuned in idly to a match in my hotel room during my first trip to New York at the end of the 1970s. Pre-match chat, however, has to be sacrificed to social niceties.

Do fries go with that shake?
It wasn’t quite the traditional Thanksgiving depicted by Norman Rockwell: a table full of happy folk smiling in anticipation as mother puts down an enormous roast turkey, ready for carving. Instead, we ate traditional pre-match ‘tailgate’ food. We started at half time, with the Packers leading by seven fragile points, with a bowl of beer-and-Cheddar-cheese chowder. Hmmm. A soup of Wisconsin’s two most famous products – Packers fans are known affectionately as cheese-heads for the Styrofoam wedges of cheese that they wear on their heads at the games, and we all know by now that beer is ‘what made Milwaukee famous [and] made a fool out of me’ – seemed an improbable recipe. But it was rather tasty. 

Then Heidi prepared shredded pork burgers with a pear, endive and blue cheese salad (which, I’ll wager, doesn’t come from a Wisconsin recipe book) for everyone, as we settled down for the second half. I have been a faux vegetarian all my married life, which is to say that I am strict at home, but will lapse from time to time if tempted at some social engagement. It’s not that the idea of eating meat revolts me; I was reared after all as a carnivore. But I like to know that the meat has come from a happy enough home rather than some intensive factory. Being a polite well-reared Englishman, I didn’t actually enquire about the poor pig that made the ultimate sacrifice. I just gamely chomped into the enormous bun. I am a slender man, known for a prodigious appetite, but I physically couldn’t manage more than half of this gargantuan burger. Not if I were to eat some salad. It’s a lot easier to eat piles of vegetables than piles of meat. Now I understand why Americans generally are so overweight.

During the second half of the match, the Packers’ ‘offense’ woke up and performed with the kind of élan that they have been demonstrating all season. So there was much noisy cheering and high-fives, which didn’t seem to perturb Elliot, who continued to wander about seeking attention, with his squishy toy still clamped between his jawbones. 

With victory safely secured, we rounded off our tailgate meal back at the table for a bowl of apple crumble and ice cream. The general talk turned to roofs and septic tanks, but John and I managed a brief discussion on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ phenomenal ‘numbers’ for the season. There are times, not that often in truth, when the company of men hits the spots that no other company can reach.

And so it came to pass that I was able to leave for home at a still sensible hour, having experienced for the first time an American Thanksgiving. Kind of, anyway. As a souvenir, I took back with me some old football mags that John lent me, along with my paper Packers plate and my paper Packers napkin. I went to bed in my Packers T-shirt and fell asleep half way through a list of ‘all-time’ Top 10 quarterbacks. Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino… zzzzzzzz

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Calendar Time

They’ve started early this year. Sensing some canine activity downstairs while I was up working at my desk, I looked out of the window. Sure enough a car had pulled up – an event in itself, here in the heart of the heart of the country. Then, zut alors, two big strong uniformed men got out of the car. My heart sank. Gendarmes! You can’t pretend that you’re not at home with the gendarmes, just in case something dire has happened or you’ve committed some crime of which you’re not yet aware. 

Then, as I opened the front door and let our ferocious dog out to greet the strangers, I realised the error of my ways. It was a pair of sapeurs-pompiers in dark blue military-style uniform. It was a case of both phew! and uh-oh! A pair of pompiers can mean only one thing: calendars. Let the season commence.

Thanks, but no thanks.
Logically enough, we first encountered calendar time during the lead-up to our first Christmas in France, way back in the last century. I think it was our factrice who presented us with our first calendar. Being naïve newcomers from the Big (British) City, we thanked her very much for her kind gift and sent her on her way. It was only after further visits – from the pompiers, the bin men, the League of Catholic Gentlemen, the Belotte Association of the Corrèze and the like – that we twigged. Dineros. Money money money. 

That’s the trouble with calendar time. Like everything else in France, demands for money come in clusters. The calendar season comes at the tail end of the most financially exhausting time of year, when one avis de stealth tax follows another, and just before all the insurance demands kick you when you’re down. So you’re not feeling as generous as you might otherwise be. And, frankly, just how many calendars does a household need? 

At first we acted by playing dead whenever there was a knock at the door around the end of November/beginning of December. Me under the kitchen table, perhaps, while Debs would swaddle the infant daughter close to her maternal bosom somewhere behind the sofa, lest she let out a tell-tale ‘da!’ or some such childish sound to give the game away. Once we heard footsteps descending the steps, then we could breathe again. 

However, as we gathered more knowledge of the French system, we learned not to be quite so blanket in our dismissal of people bearing calendars. We learned to prioritise. For example, neither of us had realised that firemen and women in France are mainly volunteers. Soon after moving into our new home, we had a chimney fire, which was scary in the extreme. Even though the local chapter of sapeurs-pompiers got lost on the way here and arrived 25 minutes after I’d called the emergency number, I witnessed what a great job they do. So, if they come a-visiting when either of us is in, we pay far too much for a fairly tawdry collection of photographs of the squadron in uniform.

We also learned that facteurs and factrices retire on a nice fat index-linked pension from La Poste after not too many years of driving around in their yellow vans à la Postman Patrice, putting tax demands in people’s green metal letter boxes. In comparison to coal mining, chicken-packing, sweat-shop labour and the like, some might call it a cushy number. So this has determined what we give our post(wo)man for their correspondingly measly calendar. Just enough to encourage him or her to keep popping our tax demands into our letterbox rather than dumping them down a ravine. Some might protest, of course, that this sounds like a great option. I say unto them that the authorities don’t let non-receipt prevent them from charging their 10% surcharge for late payments.

As for the other hawkers of calendars who knock on our door at this time of year, we have learned to say – politely – ‘sur votre vélo’. It’s difficult, because one knock on the door sounds like any other. So if I find someone like Hervé from the local chapter of the League of Catholic Gentlemen on my doorstep, I’ve found that sending him nicely on his way without buying his ‘calendrical’ wares is good practice for dealing with incessant telesales calls.

The irony is that the most useful calendars here come free – in the form of the wall planners that you can pick up (if you’re in the right place at the right time) from La Poste or your friendly local insurance office. The irony is compounded by the fact that every year, as a Christmas present, my sister sends us a calendar for our kitchen wall. 2011 has been the year of Audrey Hepburn and 2010 was Gustav Klimt. Beyond that, my memory starts to fail me. But I don’t remember a single year when we’ve actually used one of the calendars for which we’ve paid through the nose. They hang around for a couple of months after Christmas until we’re fed up with photographs of men and women in uniform – before finding their way into the recycle bin.

Still, in the case of the pompiers at least, it’s money in a good cause.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Miniature French Giant

A couple of years before we moved to France, me and the Missus had the great good fortune to see Michel Petrucciani perform at the Brecon Jazz Festival. I’d read about the prodigious jazz pianist and the genetic brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta) that meant he would never grow more than three foot tall, but nothing prepared us for his appearance. 

If memory serves me correctly, it was his bass player, Michael Bowie, who carried him on stage, holding in his arms this weird-looking infant-adult with outsize head and glasses, as his charge clung to his neck like a koala bear.  We watched Bowie put him down and Petrucciani climb up onto his piano stool and adjust the pedal extensions that Steinway had made for him. He shuffled around on his seat to make himself comfortable, wished us ‘good evening’ and, for the next 90 minutes or so, he and his rhythm section played one of the most incredible sets I have ever witnessed. As chance would have it, the BBC recorded highlights for its short-lived Jazz from Brecon series, so we still have our video recording as a testimony to that evening in mid Wales.

On Friday evening, the two of us went to our local art et essai cinema to see Michael Radford’s captivating documentary on the French musical giant, who died in 1999 at the age of 36. Despite my efforts to drum up interest, the audience numbered the customary dozen or so, dotted around the cavernous steeply raked auditorium. The absentees missed a real treat.

In the years between Brecon and Vayrac, I’ve listened to just about everything Petrucciani ever recorded – including an astonishing solo concert recorded by Radio 3 from the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – but I knew little about the man himself. Despite the temporary distraction of my initial guilt for dragging along a couple of Germans who couldn’t speak French (when I realised that, of course, there would be interviews with French as well as American people, and of course their words wouldn’t be sub-titled), Radford’s film was as riveting as the concert in Brecon.

Petrucciani sensed at a fairly early age that he wouldn’t be long for this world, and he crammed much more into his 36 intense years than most of us manage in a lifetime. His philosophy was ‘to have a really good time and never to let anything stop him from doing what he wanted to do. Encouraged by a musical Italian father, he started off playing drums, but then saw some TV footage of Duke Ellington and realised that he had to be a pianist.

He set about learning the instrument with the same intensity as he learned English when he travelled to America as a teenager. Within six months of settling in Monterrey – where his virtuosity and energy prompted the reclusive tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd to perform in concert again – he could speak perfect vernacular American-English with little trace of a French accent.

In California he met and married the first of his three or four (I lost count) wives. This was quite a shocking and revealing aspect of the film: first the fact that so many women would fall in love with someone half their size, and then that Petrucciani – in his desire to keep changing and to keep renewing himself and thereby to keep experiencing as much as he possibly could – was able simply to walk away from the woman he loved (at the time) and to take up with the next person he took a shine to. But this is often what you find with artistic geniuses. On one hand, their creativity and their charisma makes them enormously attractive; on the other, their ruthless dedication to the artistic calling means that their muse is more important than anything or anyone else.  

When he moved to New York, he found himself living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, mixing with some of the jazz greats he had previously only revered from afar – and not surprisingly he went haywire: playing constantly, sleeping too little, consuming too many drugs and generally doing everything to excess. Eventually he went back to Europe, leaving his second wife behind and taking up almost immediately with wife no. 3. When she found herself expecting a child, they were faced with the dilemma of whether to risk passing on his hereditary illness to a child. Petrucciani’s reasoning was that he wouldn’t have missed the chance of life for anything, so they went ahead. Sure enough, their son was born with the same brittle bones. 

One of the most poignant elements of the film was the footage of his son, a young man who was, apart from his beard, the spitting image of his father. He talked of living in a world of giants and the pressure that his sense of being so different put on him to try to do something equally extraordinary with his life. Somehow you sensed that he probably won’t and that everything could, as a consequence, end in tears.

Another poignant aspect was the revelation of just what brittle bones means. Michel Petrucciani played the piano with such physical intensity that sometimes he would break a clavicle or some other bone in performance. When you listen to his long, sweeping, almost breathless improvisations, there is a sense of his driving himself through the pain barrier. Music must have been both a spiritual and physical balm.

After his years in Europe, where he recorded mainly for the Dreyfus label and with the likes of Stéphane Grappelli and where in 1994 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, he moved back to New York. But his lifestyle soon caught up with him and he died in the middle of a fearsome east coast winter after another night on the town. He was two years older than Charlie Parker before him, another burnt out case, another wayward musical genius, who lived the jazz life and pursued the muse with similar ferocity, who also kissed the girls and made them cry along the way. Like Jim Morrison, Michel Petrucciani is buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise cemetery. I think he had a better time in his life than the tormented ex-singer of The Doors did.

As I strapped on my safety belt and started up the Peugeot 107 after the film, I felt chastened by the little man’s remarkable legacy of 36 short years on this earth, but also heartened to recognise that there are certain advantages in living an ordinary life.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An Edukayshun

Having been through the entire French educational system – from école maternelle to lycée – The Daughter seems resolved to finish her studies in the UK. Therein lies the reason for a recent frenetic trip to the mother country. Three of us squashed inside a Peugeot 107, no bigger than a Dinky toy, travelling almost the length of Britain not once but twice.

It’s a long, long way from Southampton to Edinburgh and back again. Having ‘done’ the open days at the Glasgow and Edinburgh schools of art and been suitably impressed by the facilities and the teaching staff (who appear to have taken a vow to redress the sins of the ‘History Man’ generation of teaching staff, the self-important toads who looked upon students as either irritants or opportunities for an inappropriate relationship), we negotiated some of the busiest arterial roads of our island. It was the clichéd ‘white-knuckle ride’. By some fortuitous stroke of timing, we somehow kept avoiding the Friday evening queues about which the road signs regularly alerted us. Only stopping every two hours to swap drivers and/or avail ourselves of the sanitary facilities, we reached my sister’s on the edge of Southampton ‘round midnight. My neck and shoulders had fused. 
The contrast three days later with the journey south from Dieppe couldn’t have been more marked. On a French motorway like the A20, you simply point the car in the right direction, switch to automatic pilot and just check your mirrors from time to time to verify that there’s still no one behind you. Zounds! You can almost get away with playing solitaire on the dashboard. It’s one of the remaining pleasures of living in France. 
Given the journey involved in getting to Scotland and back, we might be forgiven for trying to persuade our girl to apply for a French fac like any other sensible member of the expat community. But she is determined to go anywhere other than France for the final part(s) of her education.
The Model Pupil
That might seem rather strange. Expat parents often compare the French system favourably to the British one: pupils work hard, they learn to read and spell and develop nice neat loopy handwriting, there’s more discipline in the classroom, they seem to achieve better academic results and the final qualification still has some market value. Like many aspects of French society, there is a suspicion that rigidity and standardisation are valued more highly than creativity and individualism. But then, maybe a system that produces socio-clones rather than sociopaths is better for everyone. 

When you talk to our daughter about her experiences here, however, you realise why she wants to go elsewhere for what should be the most creative period of her education. Way back in école maternelle, when she was busy absorbing a new language and practising the precise boucles required for tying her shoe laces, every afternoon after lunch she would be made to lie down and nap even though she never felt the need for an afternoon sleep because she always went to bed at a sensible hour. 

From école primaire onwards, she grew accustomed to hours of devoirs, regular tests and learning long poems to recite in front of her classmates. The idea behind this last requirement, we gathered, is to develop the power of recall – presumably so you are better able to regurgitate at exam stage what you’ve stuffed in during revision. Again, you could argue that this is very practical. If it’s all right for previous generations, then it should be all right for our daughter’s generation, but as a parent you see how many precious hours of childhood are wasted in the pursuit of total recall. It can’t endear you to the process of learning and surely only suggests that there is one acceptable way of doing things and one way only. 

During this time and later when she graduated to collège, her experience of the education system here was also coloured by the difficulty of being a vegetarian among carnivores. If it wasn’t difficult enough being the only foreigner in her class, she was then expected to assert her rights as the only non-meat eater. No wonder she shied away from confrontation and ate without protest the buttered pasta or the French beans that she was given.

Things have been better since she went to lycée. For one thing, she can eat lunch with her mother. Resisting the pressure to follow a bac scientifique, to which many of the undecided succumb, has opened up a whole new exciting world of history of arts, with school trips to places like Venice and Paris. She appreciates the links to local museums and galleries and the fact that she gets free admission to Brive’s art-house cinema. Nevertheless, it’s all still very academically orientated and there’s still very much a right and a wrong way of doing things.
In my day, for example, we were taught the value of an introduction, a main body and a conclusion, but it appears that even the introduction has to be broken down into distinct elements. Whenever I suggest that teachers surely are more interested in her views rather than a digest of critical thought, I’m told that I simply don’t understand the way it is. Only the other evening, she was in floods of tears because she couldn’t come to grips with the required structure of her first Philosophy essay. I’ve heard of children here who have jumped out of top-floor windows or found other ways to express their inability to cope with the pressures of the educational system. Thankfully I managed to persuade our girl that there are more important things in life than Philosophy essays.

Once, I had a long conversation with a student from Limoges University on the train to Paris. What she told me suggested that higher education here is more of the same. Courses, she said, are generally over-subscribed and the authorities try to prune numbers by means of difficult exams at the end of the first year. I know it always rains in Limoges, but she didn’t seem to be having a whole lot of fun during the one time in your life when you get treated as an adult, but don’t have to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood.
The Daughter wants to learn, but she also wants to have a little fun. She is leaning towards Edinburgh now. 

Provided that she gets in and the tuition fees don’t soar to English levels, she should be happy as an art student in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I only hope that she won’t come to the same conclusion that two other daughters of expat friends came to after enduring a solitary difficult year at an English university: that British students’ principal idea of having fun is to get (as they used to say in Sheffield) ‘bladdered’.