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.