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, April 29, 2012

Party Animals


Last night saw another of my loopy friend Bret’s periodic Fêtes des Mecs. We boys of the ‘hood get together to party hearty, which usually involves ‘just hanging’ and doing a range of boyish things and being very, very silly. I usually go along, you understand, only to see some chums and observe the shenanigans. A man of my mature years has to behave with decorum. 

Last night, however, the theme was the Wild West. I haven’t strapped on a gun-belt now for almost half a century, so I was in a state of high excitement all week. As a small boy, I was obsessed with cowboys and Indians and barely a non-school day went by when I wasn’t wearing a hat and holster or playing with my Britain’s Limited Swappets. They were the loves of my early life, because you could interchange heads, hats, torsos, legs, gun belts, ‘kerchiefs and create your own custom-built miniature plastic cowboys. 

I went to Brive on Thursday afternoon to cruise the Troc-shops in the hope of finding the kind of Western paraphernalia that I’ve been missing for a few decades. I had this idea that some kid might have deposited his Winchester repeating rifle and/or Colt 45 for a modest prize. It was a vain hope: this is France, after all, and not the Panhandle of Texas. In the end, I dropped into an emporium that specialises in cheap Chinese tat, I found me a hat, a plastic pistol and a belt that might serve, and all for just over a fiver. 

The Fête de Mecs is a moveable feast these days. What started as Bret’s brainchild and solo venture has now been co-opted by committee. But it’s a committee that works. As Bret suggested – dressed up as Bretina last night, the big-hearted broad and bar room floozy – it’s a case of democracy in action. The chaps get together several weeks before the event to decide venue and theme, to design games and publicity materials and to build props.

'Howdy, stranger.'
Last night’s affair took place at a Dutch friend’s place about a 20-minute drive from here. His wife had gone away for the night to see a relative and had taken their three sausage dogs with them, presumably lest the hounds get caught up in the crossfire of a shoot-out. I arrived as the mysterious man in black, with black hat, black jeans, black shirt (‘sweet Gene Vincent…’) and black Long Rider coat that I bought years ago at Camden Market. It served me for appearances as Nosferatu at a friend’s firework party in Sheffield and as Keith Richards at Bret’s 40th birthday party soon after moving to the Lot. Since then it has hung from a hook in our cave, waiting for just such an event as last night.

It has long been a dream of mine that one day I might push open a pair of swing doors and stride into a joint where the piano player would stop tinkling the ivories and everyone would fall silent. Beautifully as Dmitri’s barn had been converted into a barroom for the occasion, there were no swing doors. Moreover, this stranger in black was clutching a bottle of wine and a big bowl of rice salad I’d made earlier. It somehow detracted from my impact. Lee, the organic farmer, was serving behind the bar in squashed top hat and dirty apron. Moke, the furniture-maker, was dressed as the escaped convict featured in the Wanted posters all over the walls and wearing manacles made from bits of guttering and painted plastic chain. Dmitri, the graphic artist, was a sneering sheriff with a waistcoat and a twin-holster gun-belt that I coveted immediately. Nonno, the serial party-goer, was a Mexican in a serious poncho. And there were a few other hangers-on, who looked like the kind of men that would sell dud rifles to the Injuns. While we waited for Bret – who was in a bedroom upstairs, discovering the tribulations that women go through when putting on make-up – we threw firecrackers, staged shoot-outs and simulated agonisng death. 

There’s always an admission price – or frais d’entrée – to pay at these parties. Hell to pay, I call it, because it means drinking some dubious hooch of Bret’s devising. Over time, a merciful choice of grades has crept into it. Lee the barman, who understands that my capacity is strictly limited, advised the fire-water as the least ruinous option. You can’t sip with caution, but have to knock it back in one, as the taste is too foul to describe. I banged the empty glass down on the bar, but couldn’t fulfil another dream by sliding said glass along a great length of bar surface to the bartender, busy polishing his glasses with a dirty tea towel, because the bar was stunted and the surface hadn’t been polished to a suitable shine. 

Each guest last night received a starter-pack of five dollar bills with which to speculate in the games in the hope of accumulating enough cash to buy one of the handsome plastic prizes on display behind the bar. I won the kitty at the first game by throwing the only horseshoe that stayed on the pole, but I’m sure the sneering, crooked sheriff kept his share of the prize-money. Moke won the second game, which was to lasso with old electrical cable the cactus that someone had made with an off-cut of chipboard. Meanwhile, some badass had the bright idea of robbing the bar of its evening takings.

A third game involved binding three hombres together so that they were facing different directions. The three-man crab then had three minutes to make their way up the steps onto the terrace and down the other side and across the lawn to a shelter where they picked up as many water-filled balloons as they could manage to carry over to the finishing post – without spilling the nitro-glycerine (represented by a plastic ball in a sawn-off polystyrene cup, which the middle one of the human triad had to hold by his teeth). Complicated – but they did it.
The final game involved crumpling up dollar bills and lobbing them across the bar room floor and into Bretina’s cleavage. I recognised that things were beginning their customary slide into post-midnight disarray and took my leave, which involved the very un-cowboy-like and very adopted-French-like business of shaking hands or even (gulp) double-kissing each and every person in the room. Dmitri had been firing up the family hot tub all evening and, much as I liked the notion of sitting in warm water under the stars, I just couldn’t be fagged with the effort of shedding my clobber unless it was to crawl into the marital bed. Besides, it was now pouring down with rain – and I sure-as-hell’s-flames mean pouring down. Nevertheless, as I left the shelter of the leaky barn, I spotted a single naked figure sprinting across the lawn towards the big wooden bathtub. Ya-hoooooooo!
These affairs normally go on into the wee small hours and involve floors and sleeping bags. Personally speaking, there’s no substitute for waking up in the comfort of my own bed. Soon after doing just that this morning, I shaved off my Clint-like stubble, cultivated over four days or more, not with a cutthroat, but with my disposable Bic razor.  

It feels good to be smooth-skinned again. Normal service has been resumed. It feels good, although perhaps – in the light of my Saturday night’s entertainment – a trifle mundane.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Back Home

Dear Mrs. Wynburn, I am sorry that Mark was unable to write his blog last weekend, but he was back home in the UK, celebrating his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. I hope that he will be back in action soon. Yours sincerely, Stella Sampson (Mrs.).

My mum used to write similar notes to my gym teacher at primary school in Belfast, so I wouldn’t have to swim in the outdoor pool. I appreciated it at the time, because the water looked about as uninviting as the mid Atlantic in January. Had she not pandered to my distaste, however, my backbone might have toughened up at an earlier age – and I might even have learnt to swim properly. Our gym teacher, who had the gruff voice of a chain-smoker, employed an interesting education technique: she would lasso you around your middle and kind of tow you along through the icy water. I suppose it was one step up from ‘sink or swim’.

Anyway, now I’m the adult and my parents have reverted to childhood. Both are in their mid 80s and becoming increasingly dependent on their four children. Typically, my sisters bear the brunt of the burden: I live many miles away across the Channel, and my brother – a busy plumber who lives in a flat where the water from the sink drains into an old plastic rubbish bin dubbed ‘The Ganges’ – rarely finds the time to drive the 40 miles or so to my parents’ Southampton home. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.

I do my bit whenever I go back home, but it’s little substitute for my sisters’ almost daily drop-in visits. My mum is getting more than a little forgetful these days and it seems that, every time I go home, I have to try to decipher the French national character for her and to pinpoint the main cultural differences between England and France. It does at least make you think about things that you tend to take for granted.

My dad and I can watch Final Score together and moan about what’s gone wrong with Arsenal, the team that he has supported since he was a little boy. With my limited knowledge of computers, I can also make myself useful by trying to fix glitches in his laptop, on which he orders groceries from Asda and talks to me on Skype. This time, for example, I installed about 50 Windows updates that he must have managed to park somewhere in cyberspace.

Cut the cake!

We gathered on Sunday last to celebrate their Diamond Jubilee. Given that my dad’s culinary repertoire is not wide and cooking for more than four would set his dodgy heart a-fluttering, and given that my mother is one of the worst cooks on earth, God love her, my sisters offered to do the cooking. They also brought with them glasses, plates and cutlery on the basis that home hygiene is suspect. The official line was that my parents wouldn’t have to worry about mess or washing up after we’d gone. They do, in fact, own a dishwasher – it came with the house – but have never used it for anything other than storing rags and shoe-polishing paraphernalia. They prefer to wash up with lukewarm water and ineffectual detergent.    

We all clubbed together to buy them the type of present my mother couldn’t file away in her ‘bottom drawer’. (My wife and I gave up trying to come up with practical, thoughtful presents for her after witnessing her converting the winter-weight tights we’d bought her one Christmas into ‘pop-socks’. The French would call it perhaps a ‘re-looking’. It was about as cack-handed as Mickey Rourke’s adventures with Botox.) The younger of my two sisters has an Italian partner and he has been working relentlessly on my father to persuade him that their telly needed updating. So we bought them a 26” Sony FST with stand that would just fit into its allotted space. My dad was very moved, but my mother – with three glasses of pink champagne inside her – was later heard berating the Italian partner, on the grounds that she liked the old telly and found the new one too bright, too loud, too big, too black and too vulgar. As my brother observed, ‘Good to know that the present was a success, then’. By the next day, though, she had tempered her views and the audio-visual re-looking was a fait accompli.

The following evening, I helped the older of my two sisters celebrate 30 years of marriage with her husband. It was a rather more muted affair involving dinner in their local pub, which underlined just how expensive it is now to eat out in the UK. Or the south of England, anyway. I sat opposite my younger sister, who told me all about her new hobby of researching family trees on the internet. My paternal grandfather’s grandfather, it seems, was a detective in Victorian London. I wondered about teaming up with Andrew Lloyd Webber to write a fabulously successful musical about the man. My sister promised to delve deeper.

After all this socialising, it was a relief to return to the peace and quiet of rural France. Getting back to my sanctuary meant travelling with Ryan (unf)Air. After all my diatribes about Mr. O’Leary’s airline, I found myself meekly checking that my one bag could sit inside one of their intimidating metal ‘guides’. At least the weight of my shame and hypocrisy didn’t tip things over the 10kg allowance. I had remembered not to wear boots for the trip across – so didn’t have to bear the indignity of removing my footwear – but forgot that a jar of aubergine pickle counts as a liquid. With a righteous scowl, I suggested to the customs man that he give it to someone who liked Indian cuisine. His reply that it would be thrown away didn’t improve my mood.

Since the running dogs didn’t confiscate my two packets of crumpets and my one packet of creamed coconut, I gave thanks for small mercies. Later, I gave bigger thanks when we landed safely in Limoges. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which triggered that irritating recorded clarion call, so the airline can crow about its winning percentage of on-time flights. Alas, on queuing up to show our passports, the French officers were nowhere to be seen. We waited patiently, as good Brits do, for 10 minutes before a pair of lugubrious uniformed men showed up for duty. Welcome to France.

My brother and I collect specious strap lines (along the lines of Rotherham – another way of doing things) and it struck me that it’s maybe time for someone to come up with a one-line equivalent of the famous Gallic shrug. How about, for example, France – where we do not give a monkey’s?

Ah, it’s good to be back home again.

Monday, April 9, 2012

On Location

At the end of last week, my friend Tim the photographer and I went off on the road to ‘do a piece’ (as they say in the trade) for France Magazine on Najac in the Aveyron. It’s one of 10 villages in the department classified as plus beaux villages de France. The Aveyron itself is still referred to as one of France’s ‘best kept secrets’ and should be designated as l’un des plus beaux départements de France.

It’s only roughly two hours due south of here by deserted roads. Two hours nearer the Midi, two hours nearer the true south. It’s a different country down there. The scenery is not dissimilar, but in other respects it’s not at all like good old insular and inward-looking France Profonde where we live. 

It’s only two hours and yet I hadn’t set foot in the Aveyron for about 12 years. We were living in our old stone farmhouse and I was in the middle of painting a spare room on the first floor a fetching shade of orange, so my wife could have a place to ply her trade as an aromatherapist for the first time since our move from the U.K.

For my 40-something birthday, Debs presented me with a card on which she’d drawn a map to a house in the middle of nowhere. It was run by an English couple by the name of Wolf. Our daughter, who was about three or four at the time, referred to Mrs. Wolf – who cooked us a fine vegetarian meal on our first evening, which was memorable for being something other than an omelette – as Mrs. She-Wolf. Clearly, we’d been reading her far too many bedtime stories. We used their house as a base to explore the gorges of the river Aveyron and such wonderful places as Najac, St. Antonin de Noble Val and the stunning Cordes-sur-Ciel. It was a brief but re-vitalising break and yet we’ve contrived never to return. I guess France is such a big country and there are so many glories to behold.

Tim and I arrived soon after midday, so naturally enough the place was shut up and deserted. We found a pizzeria that was open and I realised with a start of recognition that I’d eaten there before. Just as the Madeleine triggered Proust’s remembrance of things past, so that pizzeria brought everything back for me. Strange, how memory works. The village had seemed reasonably familiar when we arrived. I knew that I’d been there before. But sitting down to eat in the pizzeria, suddenly weather, conversations, sights and sounds came pouring back in, as if a valve had been opened. We’d had an excellent pizza then and I had a damn fine pizza on Thursday. Cooked in a wood-burning oven, it was as cheap as chips and featured enough mozzarella to re-sole a workman’s boot.

After lunch, I’d arranged to meet someone outside the fortress that dominates every picture-postcard view of the village, which spreads along the spine of a promontory high above an incised meander of the Aveyron. Our guide was late and I started to fret immediately. No doubt I had got my wires crossed and noted down the rendezvous for the wrong day. We phoned our contact in the Tourist Office to ask for help. 12 years or so ago, we didn’t have a single mobile telephone in our family. Now all three of us have one. Sometimes they can be very useful.

The guide arrived and – this is where things started to become exceptional – she admitted that she had forgotten our date. She apologised profusely. But… but… that doesn’t happen in France. Well, it did and she gave us a fascinating tour of the ruined but impregnable fortress with its two-and-a-half-metre-thick walls and its elaborate network of defence mechanisms. Najac was right at the point where the King of France’s territories abutted those of the Duke of Aquitaine on one side and the Count of Toulouse on the other. Medieval France was certainly not designed for early retirement and coach trips. 

We met our contact from the local Tourist Office just outside the main gates after the tour. She was about half the age I had imagined from my telephone conversations with her: a complexion that suggested 25 and a demeanour, a dedication to duty and a body of knowledge that added up to 50. A quite delightful character, she guided us all around the nooks and crannies of the village, introducing us to a host of warm and welcoming individuals in whom she thought I’d be interested. In the boulangerie, for example, a woman who reminded me slightly of the American actress Lee Remick (circa The Omen, perhaps) told us all about the local tradition of baking giant fouaces (a kind of brioche) on some Saint’s Day, before heaping offerings from the shop upon us to take home to our families for Easter.
By the end of the afternoon, both Tim and I were exhausted from the effort (even now, after 16 years) of concentrating hard on a foreign language. We stayed at a local hotel, courtesy this time of the Regional Tourist Board, where everyone was equally friendly and equally welcoming. Dinner was fine, but surely it’s time that French hostelries grew out of this tiresome obsession with nouvelle cuisine. I had some fillets of river trout, which were lovely, but they came with one potato, one spoonful of frustratingly good ratatouille and a langoustine climbing out of a miniature glass Le Parfait jar. On closer inspection, I discovered that it had just emerged from a bed of rice.

That evening we watched the first of three documentary films that Paul-Henri Meurnier has made about Najac, its characters and its deliciously slow pace of life. Ici Najac: à vous la terre featured a slothful stationmaster – who would be sent packing further down the line to Cordes by his SNCF overlords, un-amused to witness such lack of industry – and a fire-breathing socialist woman of 104, who did that thing with her toothless mouth that Les Dawson used to do. 

The following morning, I did my final interview of the trip with a delightful man by the name of Najac – who makes hand-carved knives, including the best-selling Le Najac. I would like to own a Najac by Najac from Najac, but didn’t want one enough to pay €100 or so for it. Hand-crafted to last, though, and not (as he proclaims on his poster) ‘made in Asia by children’.
I got back home by early afternoon, elated and rejuvenated by my trip. The village is beautiful, but so are countless others here. It was more the people and the welcome we were given. Is there more Latin blood in the national corps down there, that much nearer the Midi? We were treated like VIPs, which is great for the ego of course. More importantly, though, I found an entire convivial community where everyone appeared content with their lot. It was enough to restore my faith in humanity. It was, too, a timely reminder to get out more and do more road trips and meet more nice people. I don’t want to turn into an irascible misanthrope. Someone with no teeth, perhaps, who does that thing with his mouth that Les Dawson used to.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Wot We Done At Earth Hour

Every year we try to celebrate the World Wide Fund For Nature’s ‘Earth Hour’. Celebrate is probably not the best word to use – respect, maybe, or observe. Because only a nihilist would want to celebrate a symbolic gesture designed to underline how close to the edge we have come in the last 30 years or so. 

It is only a symbolic gesture, so I can’t get very excited about it. No matter how many millions all over the world turn off their lights during the hour in question, we’re always going to be in a small minority. I can’t imagine, for example, the da Silva family, holed up in some shack in a Rio de Janeiro favela, would have enthusiastically cut off their intermittent electricity supply for an hour so that… what, exactly? So that the Powers That Be will be sufficiently moved to decree that enough is enough? Mankind will be responsible, will be good.

Even though I was raised on a diet of The Lone Ranger and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I do not alas believe that good will ultimately overcome evil. History teaches me otherwise. My belief system is debilitated by a conviction that, whatever we do and however we strive to redress the balance, the forces of darkness will have their evil way. It looks pretty bad to me at present. And where are the goodies, who can lead us to salvation? Where are Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King jr. when we need them most? Oh yes, assassinated by the baddies.

But – as Alan Shearer punctuates every pronouncement he makes on Match of the Day – I still believe that it is a far, far better thing to do something, no matter how futile, rather than nothing at all. And so on Saturday evening, the 31st March 2012, the Sampson family observed Earth Hour.

And it was rather nice this year. One of the best things about the global gesture is that it makes you appreciate just how dependent we are on electricity for entertainment. Much more so now than when I were a lad, what with com-pewters and them big, big tellies. So it’s a bit of a challenge to dream up some old-fashioned form of entertainment for an entire hour.

We cheated slightly. By a clever use of synchronisation, we had a late but welcome candlelit dinner. All those night-lights (or should I say nite-lites?) from Ikea came into their own. Our table was festooned with little glowing flames, like a whole colony of lightning bugs. Well, perhaps that’s a little fanciful, but the effect was lovely. My wife (‘Have I told you about my wife…?) served us up with a delicious plate of spaghetti enlivened by a sauce of her own invention, sprinkled with shards of parmesan from Lidl and supplemented by a salad of tender shoots, grown by Bio Woman from Martel market, washed, spun, chopped and dressed by my good self. 

Afterwards, the three of us – still at table, still lit by flickering candles – played three games of Chinese Chequers. Dismiss this simple traditional board game at your peril. Our daughter explained some exciting new variations on the standard leaping manoeuvre that a friend had taught her: variations which opened up whole new worlds of pattern-making. It was fun, even without the background music that provides the soundtrack for our lives here.

The hour went so quickly that, before we knew it, it was ten minutes past the moment when everyone puts their power back on and creates such a surge in demand that we are plunged back into darkness. But that didn’t happen because we Sampsons were a little late. There was plenty of time before we needed to turn on the telly for a 90-minute Arena documentary on the extraordinary life of Dr. Jonathon Miller.

So Earth Evening went out on a high with a fascinating profile of this modern-day Renaissance Man. I knew that he can heal people and make them laugh, I knew that he presents TV documentaries, writes books and directs plays and operas, but I didn’t know – curse him – that he also creates rather good original art. The extraordinary thing is that, as he nears the end of his rich and diverse life, he still regrets sometimes that he didn’t stick to being a doctor.
It’s a terrible thing to live with regrets. I try not to do it myself, but it isn’t always easy. It’s one of the reasons why we choose to observe Earth Hour. No matter how toothless the gesture proves, I would forever regret it if we did nothing to try to halt the inevitable. And I think now that I might also regret it if I didn’t find time regularly to play Chinese Chequers with my wife and daughter.