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.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Thank You Letters


Inevitably, once you become an adult – once you assume the responsibility of filling the stockings, because you know that, if you don’t, no one else will  – Christmas loses some of its magic. From a certain age onwards, you have to experience it vicariously via the smiling faces of (your) children.

However, there are compensations. One of them is: you no longer have to write ‘thank you letters’. As an adult, a telephone call (or these days an e-mail) will generally suffice. Today is Boxing Day. It’s the day when all your Christmas presents go back into their boxes. And it’s the day when all those smiling children (‘I’ll soon wipe that grin off your face, Sunshine’) have to sit down and write down a list of all the people to whom they have to write thank you letters. And if you’re a very, very good child, Boxing Day is also the day when you sit down and actually write some of those projected letters.  

Children get far more presents than adults do, so the writing of these letters is a task that is requiring-to-be not-underestimated (as my old Latin master, Dezzy Spence, might have put it). This year, conscious of the annual battle of wills between both parents and a stubborn daughter, skilled in the ways of The Procrastinator (or Procrastinatrix?), which generally stretches for a good fortnight after Christmas Day, we suggested to our daughter that she might consider the tactic of writing one letter per day. Boxing Day is nearing its close and I haven’t seen any sign of that first missive. 

Being a goody-two-shoes, I used to write my thank you letters in one great outpouring of literary creativity. Like Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps, on a drunken binge, I would sit down at our ‘morning room’ (or would ‘mourning room’ have been a more appropriate label?) table and rattle off eight, nine, ten, or however many it took – at a single sitting. Everyone from the grandparents to any obscure relative thoughtful enough to send us a cheque or a ten-bob note.  

I am not inhuman, however. I have never even suggested that The Daughter should repeat such epistolary endurance feats. What’s more, I’ve passed on all the tricks of the trade and even given her a template for production-line success: start with a short paragraph expressing thanks for whatever gift it was that Dear Uncle This and Auntie That bestowed upon you (and if it was money, suggest how you might spend said money); state your heartfelt wish that they have passed a good Christmas and sketch how it was that you passed your own; talk about some of the other presents you received this year (without making them feel guilty that their own present might not measure up to the others); and end by wishing them a Happy New Year and reiterating your undying gratitude for their gracious gift (in the unspoken hope that they will repeat the gesture next Christmas)..

Easy-peasy. However, all my aides, all my prompting, cajoling, threats and sarcasm, never seem to have any effect. We always end up going the distance. Usually, some time around the final evening before the return to school, our daughter’s intransigence finally buckles in the face of relentless parental pressure. The crazy thing is that, once she starts, she’ll polish them off in a matter of a couple of days. I wonder sometimes whether it’s the ‘common courtesy’ angle that wears her down, or whether it’s the ultimate threat: that people won’t bother sending her anything next year. No matter. It works. Eventually.  

Just to show you that I may be an adult now, but I haven’t forgotten my roots, I’m going to finish with a thank you letter of my own. I like to get them out of the way, you see. That way they’re not hanging over my head for the rest of the holidays like the sword of Damocles.

Dear Reader,
Thank you very much for reading my blogs in this Year of Our Lord, 2011.
I hope you had a nice Christmas this year. We certainly did. Our little ‘soirée’ on Christmas Eve went very well. Myrtle the cat sat on our bed all evening among a pile of guests’ coats that got bigger and bigger. Alfie, our dog, stayed in the room with her most of the time, which is strange because normally he likes gatherings of people. Friends’ children played with Tilley’s Playmobil in the spare room and didn’t break anything precious. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and they left early enough for us to tidy up and watch Son of Rambow, which was brilliant.
On Christmas Day, we had Brussels sprouts with our nut roast thanks to Bio-Woman at the local market. We all watched Spartacus in the evening. Kirk Douglas has the deepest dimple ever seen on celluloid. It was brilliant. My best friend phoned from New York just before it was time for bed and now I know he’s still in the Land of the Living.
This Christmas I got a brilliant book on Art Nouveau from my wife and daughter, an immense History of Europe from my wife, some brilliant Black & Decker work gloves from my mother-in-law that have got little rubber nipples all over them, which means that you can grip things like logs, so I can use them for fetching wood for the fire (among other things), a double boxed set of Cotton Club recordings by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and others of their kidney, which I bought for 90 cents in Cash Converter and which I wrapped up for myself, pretending that my parents had bought it for me, and I got lots and lots and lots of chocolate.
Well, I’d better go. Thanks again for reading my blogs and I hope you’ll continue to read them in 2012. I hope you have a brilliant New Year and let’s hope that 2012 won’t be quite so disastrous for the environment, for humanity and for the animal kingdom as 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 etc. were.
Yours truly,
Mark

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Un-extended Family Christmas


That’s it, then. The first page of the Christmas Radio Times has been consulted. The tree from Intermarché has been stuffed into the old chimney pot we brought with us from Sheffield and expertly decorated by the women folk. All along the route from here to Brive, Father Christmases are busy clambering over illuminated houses. The weather is getting colder and Phil Spector’s Christmas Album has been dusted off for another year. Yes, the Yuletide season is upon us once again. So bring us a figgy pudding!

Yesterday afternoon I went to my first Christmas drinks party: an intimate affair in nearby Turenne, l’un des plus beaux villages de France, in a Wendy house that has been converted tastefully into a small-but-perfectly-formed gîte. Plenty of mulled wine, mince pies and festive conversation. Everyone there, including us, will be here for the Christmas weekend.  

It’s at Christmas that the expat can be particular susceptible to homesickness. During the ‘farmhouse years’, when we knew precious few compatriots and The Daughter was but an infant, we were both conscious of our fellow villagers, all gathering together with their extended families to enjoy the customary 36 courses on Christmas Eve. We felt excluded and… yes, not a little lonely. We both hankered after an extended family Christmas back home. So once, or maybe twice, we made the epic journey north. The A20 hadn’t quite been finished in those days, the globe had not yet warmed quite so alarmingly, and – because the ferry companies ramped up their prices to target hapless home-goers like us – the cost was alarming. 

Once in England, we soon realised the folly of our ways. At the best of times, traffic in the UK is hellish; at Christmas it’s positively apocalyptic. You rush hither and thither, visiting friends and relatives, living out of a suitcase and spending much of the time, when most self-respecting folk are tucked up warm and snug within the bosom of their family, driving up and down motorways in weather that’s fit for neither man nor beast. And when we got back, neither refreshed nor relaxed after our exhausting trip, we returned to a glacial house that would demand at least four days’ worth of wood before an equitable temperature was restored.   

Now, whenever I feel the slightest bit nostalgic for family Christmases past, I remind myself of one year in particular. It started badly with an argument between parents, with my mother accusing my father of being too merry at too early an hour. Things escalated as the grandparents rushed in to defend their particular offspring and we ‘kids’ chipped in with our two-penny worth. While the battle raged, there was a knock at the front door. I opened it and my giggling younger brother fell over the threshold, drunk as a waiter who has spent his tips on seasonal alcohol. Later, at the meal table, my mother gave a memorably maudlin peroration that concluded with a toast to ‘the fam’ly! Hic. My wonnerfll fam’ly’. Yes, our wonderful extended family – just a couple of years before both of my sisters were divorced, to be followed soon after by their older brother. 

Myrtle's dreaming of a white Christmas...
And so, for the last decade, we have stayed put. Just the three of us, with no obligations to anyone else, we can please ourselves. Our circle of friends now serves as a kind of extended family. On Christmas Eve, in the tradition of old friends from Sheffield, we invite people over to partake of pink fizz and selected nibbles – and kick them out before 10pm (unless my attempts to get people dancing on our terracotta dance-floor have borne fruit), so there’s time to take in a good film, fill our three stockings with inconsequential gifts and leave a little glass of port and a Clementine on the dining table for the old fellow with the white beard… Now I think of it, isn’t it rather strange that our dog doesn’t wake us with his apoplectic barking: a strange man in a red suit in our sitting room, with a team of reindeer stamping their hooves on the gravel outside? I guess it’s just another miraculous aspect of Christmas.

Nowadays, too, thanks to the miracle of 21st century technology, we can beam by satellite the post-prandial speech of our gracious British Majesty into our outmoded television set on the mezzanine level of our French home. We can even behold our parents and other assorted loved-ones as we speak to them on Christmas morning via Skype.

This year, despite the aversion of wife and daughter to such Yuletide delicacies, I have a Christmas pud of my very own to look forward to. I’ve just bought myself a carton of pre-package crème anglaise to accompany the heaviest dessert known to humanity. There’s a week to go and everything’s almost ready for our umpteenth small-but-unflustered family Christmas in France. 

Bring me that figgy pudding, then, and bring it right NOW! Personally, I’m not going till I’ve had one – and I’d advise all my fellow expats to do the same.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Making Steps


It’s a well-known fact that every French countryman is handy. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up in Mark’s Little Book of French Facts. Every French man who lives in the countryside is a keen bricoleur by disposition. He likes nothing better than to repair, modify or construct bits of his house and/or garden with the sort of useful stuff you find in Mr. Bricolage or the lorries that park in the marketplaces of small French towns to service the queues of men in berets and blue boiler suits, all clutching the prospectus that arrives in the post about a week or so beforehand. If you’re married to such a useful individual, you need never worry about what to buy him for Christmas. You buy him a tool or a gadget from Mr. Bricolage or a travelling lorry. 

It’s another well-known fact that British men who come here from some urban outpost of the United Kingdom are often not at all handy. I would number myself among this cadre of useless individuals. However, in the face of exemplary indigenous usefulness, one learns to mend one’s ways. I was talking about this learning process with a friend of mine the other day. He’s a graphic artist by trade and therefore, ostensibly, as ill equipped as I am for a practical life. He has only been here a few years, but he has made great strides and is now, I’m ashamed to admit it, much more useful than I am.  

Specifically, we were laughing about chainsaws. I know that chainsaws are generally no laughing matter – witness the celluloid devastation caused by masked men with chainsaws from Texas. In fact, I stopped on a couple of occasions recently during my dog-round to chat with a near neighbour. He speaks with cleft palette and is notoriously difficult to understand. On the first occasion, he showed me a new foreshortened chainsaw that he’d bought for one-handed tasks. On the second occasion, he showed me his heavily bandaged hand, which he’d lacerated while working with his new chainsaw. But Dan and I were laughing, because we both own chainsaws yet would never have dreamed of buying such lethal implements if we’d stayed put in the U.K. Manly tools like this are de rigeur in rural France. Dan has a proper chainsaw that runs on Sans Plomb 95. Mine is an electric chainsaw from Lidl. I used to have a bright yellow petrol-powered model from E. Leclerc, but I could never start the bloody thing. My Lidl chainsaw fires up every time you press the red button and it carries a three-year guarantee.

We both also own strimmers. The Australians call these whipper-snappers, or something equally strange. Mine is actually better than Dan’s because it’s got a Honda motor, but débroussailleuses (I trust that’s spelled correctly, as you don’t find words like that in the dictionary) are also something that neither of us would have dreamed of owning in the U.K. Within the first year of arriving in France, I realised that everyone in the village had one – and had one for a reason. It’s one thing mowing a manicured English back garden with a push-me-pull-you mower, but it’s another matter trying to tame terrain with such an implement. So I bought myself a strimmer from E. Leclerc and the Honda motor – touche bois – has never since let me down.

With tools like these, you learn quite quickly to be A Man. Of course, you make some howling mistakes along the way, but that’s what the learning process is all about, isn’t it? The upshot of the matter is that I’m now a lot handier than I was when I arrived in this country. I’m not quite Top of the Form material, but I now see myself as somewhere maybe half way along the Useless/Useful continuum. Believe me, that’s a big improvement.

With every notch you move along the continuum, your confidence grows. One of the great things about living with no close neighbours is that you can get on with your little projects without fear of someone looking over your shoulder, someone given to ostentatious tut-tutting and suggestions that you don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this. Here, there’s no one to know whether you’ve done a betise until it collapses. My wife and daughter, bless them, are unstinting in their encouragement, but probably couldn’t distinguish cowboy workmanship from the dog’s gonads if it jumped up and bit them.

Anyway, what I’m leading up to is the revelation that I made some garden steps on Friday afternoon. The mere idea that, a dozen or so years ago say, I would have filled an idle hour by making a set of steps out of wood off-cuts (donated by departing neighbours) to facilitate progress from the terrace to the compost bin, well it’s quite inconceivable. But there you are. It just goes to show that you are to a degree a product of your environment.

Ever since this triumph of construction, I’ve been taking every opportunity to go up and down my steps, partly I suppose to confound lingering doubts that I can Do It Myself. Miraculous to relate, they feel quite solid underfoot. Nor have I slipped yet on the way down. Lo! And the Lord looked down upon my creation and pronounced it good. 

On a recent trip back to England for a three-hour meeting (for pity’s sake) to kick off a new work project, I ‘overnighted’ with some old friends in Sheffield. After breakfast the next morning, mein host proudly showed me the greenhouse he’d built as a lean-to on the side of their house. I was almost aghast with admiration, having failed to appreciate that he was as useful as he clearly is. My steps aren’t quite in the same league, but I’m now so buoyed by my success that I’m already planning to make steps down both sides of the house. Who knows where it all might lead. Perhaps right down to the bottom of the field. Good grief, you might even find me one day when the lorry comes to Martel, queuing up with native bricoleurs in a beret and a blue boiler suit.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Talking Trash


I suppose it’s symptomatic of The Great Recession that one of the newest shops in the ‘main drag’ on the western edges of Brive is Cash Converter: a glorified pawn shop, where you can bring your wares – however acquired – and convert them into some paltry euros. If the shop had a legend or a strap line (an honest rather than a specious one, that is) it would probably be ‘Yo’ trash ain’t nothin’ but cash’.

Most of the stuff looks tawdry or dodgy, to put it mildly. But if you hunt long and hard enough, you can find some gen-u-ine bargains, which probably explains why it seems to be doing such a roaring trade, now as we approach Christmas at a time when people’s money generally is ‘too tight to mention’. I went in out of idle curiosity really, because the last thing I need – being an insatiable hoarder – is more stuff. 

However… there on the shelves, looking a little scratched and slightly dented, was a top-of-the-line JVC CD player, saying ‘take me, take me’. At €11,90 and with a smoothly functioning mechanism, I had to do just that. My reserve CD player, after all, is a DVD player from Lidl, which can move upstairs to the office to supplement the spare cassette player. So I duly tucked that under my armpit.

I had just enough time before hurrying off to pick up The Daughter from school to rifle through the CD bins. Sadly, it’s one of my favourite occupations in life. My pulse quickens and my temple throbs in anticipation of finding some overlooked gold in among the fool’s variety. My best friend has unearthed most of his impressive collection of Blue Note jazz LPs by never knowingly passing by a New York thrift store and by taking the time to sort through all the rubbish in the everlasting hope… His example has inspired me over the decades and only he would truly recognise my addiction. 

Fight the flower!
Inevitably – in among all the Claude Francois and Jonny Halliday discs – there were temptations to a man. Things like a Slim Gaillard compilation and a Celia Cruz collection for 50c apiece and a live double Caetano Veloso in-concert recording for a fraction under €3 went straight into the basket. But I approached a French collection of American hip-hop with much more trepidation. At its most intelligent and creative, hip-hop can be wonderful; at its most base and bombastic, it can be crude, dispiriting and plain offensive. Since it cost a mere 90 cents for a double album’s worth, I decided to ‘risk it for a biscuit’ (as we used to say at school). Thanks to computer technology, I can conserve anything I really like for a future compilation and then pass on the original to a deserving cause. Why, you might ask, don’t I just download the good stuff for such a purpose? Well, firstly I never know what might constitute ‘good stuff’ until I’ve heard it, and secondly I hate downloading. It’s too easy; it takes the fun out of the chase. 

I took my stuff home and waited till I was on my own before I aired the hip-hop, because there would surely be things to which I wouldn’t want to submit my ‘ladeez’. There were indeed some gems: predictably the De La Soul and Gang Starr tracks and unexpectedly tracks by the likes of Missy Elliot and Tupac (or 2pac, as it says on the tin). Inevitably, though, there were plenty of tracks that were misogynistic and quite horrible. Nasty posturing bully-boys ‘talkin’ tray-ash’. I had to press the ‘skip’ button of my new JVC CD player. 

The following evening, I caught an episode of Top of the Pops from 1976, hosted by Noel Edmonds, the man with the trim little beard and the smooth-as-peanut-butter patter. Among the acts were The Manhattans, a black vocal group that dated back to the golden age of Doo-Wop. I think they were performing ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’; but I didn’t take note. It would have been easy to mock the sappy lyrics and the Temptations-style choreography, but it was utterly charming and I couldn’t help comparing it with the macho trash that I’d skipped through earlier in the day and wondering how, in 35 short years, we had evolved (or regressed) from this to that. 

Where did it all go wrong? How come – and I generalise of course – that we have substituted sex and ‘bitches’ for ‘lerve’ and ‘ladeez’? It seems to me that if you listened to an exclusive diet of hip-hop and rap, you’d get the idea that male/female relationships are all about gratifying the top dog. Maybe it was ever thus; maybe it was simply better disguised for public consumption. But I doubt it. There’s a lot less room these days for sensitivity and compassion. With the impact of The Great Recession still truly to bite, there’s going to be even less room, I fear, in the time to come.