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, May 27, 2012

Zen and the Art of Log-Piling

Many moons ago, when we first moved to the Corrèze with baby daughter and retired cat, a kind man with a funny piping voice and a name like Peugeot caught me struggling with a winter’s worth of wood one fine autumnal day. He watched with wry amusement as I tried to steady the volatile logs before chipping in with the Gallic equivalent of, ‘No, you don’t want to do it like that; you want to do it like this’. He taught me how to log-pile, yodelehehee!
This was the same kindly soul who lent me, a virtual stranger, his white van in order to drive to upstate Ussel and collect a flue for our chimney. I brought it back home, coiled up on the van’s roof rack like some monstrous metallic python. Monsieur Peugeot had a hell of a job to install that unwieldy flue. It was an easier matter to teach a callow city dweller from a foreign land the basics of creating a solid free-standing log pile. At the time, I little appreciated just how fundamental a lesson that was. I have piled logs now for 16 winters, but can’t describe myself as an expert. Shamefully I confess it: I am but a functional log-piler. 

Well stacked
One of my most consistent distractions, as I’ve driven around the high ways and byways of the Lot and the Corrèze, is the spotting of immaculate log-piles. Some people look out for open-top sports cars, some for manicured gardens, and I look out for perfect stacks of firewood. So far, the finest example I have ever seen is but a ten-minute drive from here, en route for my friends the Thompsons. The logs have been piled from floor to roof under an agricultural shelter near the house. They look as if they have been mathematically matched and then interlocked with such finesse that the effect is that of some colossal patisserie. The logs that have been removed for burning have created an impression of slices in the outsized confection. 

I look upon that person’s (or persons’) toil and marvel. However, I don’t beat myself up for my failure to emulate it back home. Because I think of the sheer time involved in splicing, stacking and adjusting those logs and it fills me with horror. ‘Pray, father, what did you do with your life?’ ‘Well, child, I created the neatest log-pile in the Lot, and perhaps the whole of France.’ I see. It’s a variation on the theme of ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’. 

If anything, though, my log-piles have got worse since moving to the Lot. In the Corrèze, Debs and I used to create serried ranks of stacked logs in the shelter of our barn. So every time you passed through those big ruined doors to fetch the day’s quota of firewood, every time you walked between the shoulder-high ranks of hewn oak, you got the impression that you were inspecting the troops. At ease. Yes, very smart…  

What’s spoilt the effect here is the absence of roof. I have created some rather inelegant substitutes. The most effective have been the sheets of tin I bought when I was obsessing about termites during the construction of this house. I realised that they weren’t fit for purpose, but they have since served us well as covers for drying logs. They don’t look too good, though. 

A couple of winters ago, after seeing something in a ‘prospectus’ for one of those travelling lorries that park up in the local square and open their doors to queues of home handymen, I built myself a series of labour-saving shelters with vertical wooden supports secured to bases made of old pallets. The supports meant that I no longer had to worry about constructing the log-pillars on either side that stop the pile from slip-sliding away. Crafty, I’m sure you’d agree. The black plastic covers, however, stapled to and stretched between the tops of the supports are never taught enough to stop the rainwater collecting in puddles. And as soon as the plastic tears, the collected water leaks down onto the logs. They look even worse than the tin covers.

As it happened, last Wednesday – after depositing The Daughter at school – I drove to the new-ish Brico Depot on the edge of Brive. France being France, the arrival of the pile-‘em-high builder’s merchant hasn’t triggered a price war with its competitors. The likes of Obry and Mr. Bricolage will just carry on regardless until one or both goes bust. As I have no particular loyalty to any one of them, I go now to the cheaper depot, particularly as it lays on coffee and biscuits for customers between 7 and 10pm. It’s not the best, but it’s a nice gesture all the same.

There on the forecourt were some wooden cache-poubelles (or dustbin hiders) seemingly reduced from about €70 to a mere five. Shurely shome mishtake. They had to mean reduced by €5, didn’t they? So I asked the nearest available member of staff. ‘Yes, cinq euros. You can pay more if you want.’ Aha! A man with a sense of humour, I thought. I could do business with his ilk. Big enough to hide something like one of those communal bins, and complete with gate and roof, I figured they would be an ideal means of creating an orderly and labour-saving log-pile.  

Reader, I bought four. And I have to say that the humorous assistant was helpfulness itself. Not fooled for one minute by my accent, he even threw in a few phrases of English for good measure. I got the feeling that dealing with a slightly curious anglais had made his day. He certainly made mine. You get so used to the indifference, even the occasional outright rudeness, of shop assistants in big stores like these that it warms your cockles to come across someone who clearly wants genuinely to assist.

No instructions came with my new bin-hiders. The humorous assistant assured me that they are a piece of cake to assemble. They always say that. I rarely find it’s true, but maybe that’s just me. If they prove to be and if they help me pile our logs comme il faut, I do hereby solemnly promise to post a photo of the result. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Da Boyds

Let’s face it – we haven’t had much of a spring, have we? Sunshine-wise, spring has barely sprung. And yet there is something wonderful about all this rain. Unquestionably, we need it. Only the other day it seems, I was sitting in my favourite old-style coffee house in Brive, sipping a café coursé and glancing at pictures in Le Montagne of parched reservoirs in the Corrèze, which could have been pictures of the Gobi Desert. 

All this rain has also resulted in a riot of nature. Fecundity is all around – and it’s far too much for one man and his strimmer. The grass at the back of the house sways like a field of corn every time a new torrential downpour sweeps in off the northern horizon. The wood at the front of the house that separates us from the road has become a dense, impenetrable jungle chock full of joyful bird life. Ah, da boyds, da boyds (as Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante might have intoned)! They are particularly wonderful at present.

All my British life, I was a Johnny Town Mouse. Since living in the French countryside, I have learned to revel in the bird life here. As a city dweller, I always liked birds, but I rather took them for granted without stopping to fully appreciate just how they can help to raise the spirits. Birds meant mainly sparrows, blackbirds and, when I was a teenage school kid in Belfast, waiting for the bus in the city centre after our weekly trip across town for ‘games’, the starlings that used to roost spectacularly around the grandiose city hall. Birds were nice feathered creatures blessed with wings to keep them out of trouble and largely out of my hair.

The thing about birds was: although I liked them well enough in their own environment, I couldn’t stand it when they intruded on mine. Their panic at finding themselves trapped in a confined space transferred itself to me. I remember once, while working during my year-off after school at the stately home of an eccentric English aristocrat, I was sitting beavering away at my temporary job as his assistant archivist, the family’s papers spread out across a vast mahogany table, when a tiny wren hopped into the room. In the mere anticipation of it starting to flap frantically around the room, I dived under the table and cried out for assistance. Eventually the Philippino butler wandered in and released the bird. I emerged from beneath the table, clutching the pencil I pretended to have dropped.

These days, I’m a bit more grown up about birds. I hang balls of fat from the eaves of the terrace and lurk in the kitchen to watch the little mésanges jabbing at the grease as they cling on to the green nylon netting. They make a right mess of the tiled surface below, but it’s well worth it. Right now, they don’t seem to need the dietary supplement. With all this springtime abundance, they’re presumably tucking into more natural treats. The fatty balls are spurned, so to speak.  

It’s not that I’ve turned into a bird-watcher in my dotage. I watched a five-minute interview with Vic Reeves on the BBC website the other day and he confessed to being a bird fancier. But his version of bird watching is to wait for them to come to him and then tell them what they’re called in Latin. That’s more my particular model. I don’t watch Bill Oddity’s programme and I couldn’t be doing with the business of disguising myself as a bush and scanning the horizon for hours on end through a pair of binoculars. Only the idea of fishing seems more uninteresting. I haven’t the patience for it. 

I’m happy enough just to hear them in the background. What with the constant subliminal sizzle of crickets, and the buzzards wheeling away on top of their hot air currents, it’s the calls and responses of birds in the wood that gives you the impression that you’re living somewhere really exotic. There’s one bird in particular that transforms the woods into some kind of equatorial jungle. Not that I’m familiar with jungles. My experience is entirely indirect, via films like Werner Herzog’s remarkable Aguirre, Wrath of God – the lasting impression of which, apart from the crazed Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of the crazed conquistador, was the amazing soundtrack provided by thousands of unseen exotic birds.

It’s still a thrill to hear the cuckoo at this time of year, despite knowledge of its beastliness to fellow birds, but when I hear the sound of the hoopoe in our woods, my spirits are truly borne aloft. All activity stops for the duration. I’m not sure of the spelling, but the French call this brilliant bird an oop (or, for that matter, an upe), which is a decent onomatopoeic rendition of its call. Vic Reeves can manage a splendid impression of his favourite bird, the curlew, but I can’t yet respond convincingly to the hoopoe’s call. So they tend to hide themselves among the thick foliage. My friend Dan was working at his computer a few weeks ago when a pair of them landed on the windowsill just the other side of his AppleMac. I was very jealous. Hoopoes love ants (among other things) and, since our ‘lawn’ is a lunar landscape of flying-ants’ nests, I’m tempted to go out there with the semaphore flags and guide them down as those sailors guide the fighter planes back to the deck of the aircraft carrier. To have a lawn full of long-billed hoopoes hoovering up ants, while a bevy of rescued hedgehogs root about for slugs would be, in the words of David Bowie, ‘really quite para-dise’.

For the moment, I have to content myself with vicarious sightings. Early one recent morning, a text message vibrated across the table from where I was writing my journal. My daughter, you might say, tweeted me to say that she and her mum had just seen two hoopoes on the way to Brive. My joy was unconfined. To think that I had brought up my child to marvel at such a site and to know her father sufficiently well to send him such a message… 

It’s due to stop raining later this week. Everyone has been moaning about the weather around here. I’ve done a bit of that myself when I’ve forgotten what a shame it is to let it dilute ones appreciation of this wonderful time of year. Spring will soon be over and summer will be here before we know it. Soon the vegetation will be less precocious and less lush, and the daily chorus of birds will be less vociferous. It will be 12 whole months before the merry month of May arrives once more – so I’d better get practising the call of the hoopoe.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Taxing Times

‘You mark my words, there’ll be blood on the streets within a year,’ a politically moderate woman of Antillean origin told me at the start of the week, just after the presidential election. She spends her days immersed in the news on her computer and I think she was suggesting that our new president won’t be sufficiently severe with France’s North African population to keep them in check and prevent wholesale blood-letting.

It was a text early on Monday morning that informed me of Monsieur Hollande’s victory. My friend must have stayed up much later than I did, awaiting the result of the second round. ‘Congratulations. You wanted a socialist…’ Well, no. I didn’t actually. I like to think of myself as a political pragmatist rather than dogmatist. It wasn’t the fact that our François is a socialist that appealed to me; rather that he appears to be a man with principles and without pretensions. I like the fact that he would bed down for overnight stays in the room above his office in Tulle; that he would sit among the regulars in his local bar, drinking his coffee and eating his croissant; that he would nip around Paris on his three-wheeled scooter. Of course, all that must change now that he is Le Président de la République.

I like the fact, too, that he values education. However, living in the neighbouring department, I also know that – as Député de la Corrèze – yer man was responsible for issuing every child over 11 with a brand new iPad. I understand the logic: that every child should start from exactly the same place on a level playing field. But the expense of such a gesture! The Corrèze is or was the most indebted department in France, so it doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of this indebted nation. It suggests a lifelong resident of Cloud Cuckoo Land, who hasn’t figured out that all men and women may be born equal, but some will always be more equal than others.

Much will be revealed during and after his first meeting with the fearsome Frau Merkel. Our new, bespectacled leader is going along – or so I believe – to renegotiate the terms of some recent financial deal. To a layman like me, it is hard to grasp what exactly they get up to during these tête-à-têtes. Surely a debt is a debt. But maybe he’s going to try out the Greek model of negotiation, which seems to be something like, ‘Unless you lend us more money, we won’t re-pay what you’ve lent us already’.   

Who knows? All I’m sure of is that it’s Muggins here – and all my fellow Mugginses, who try to tread a fairly straight and narrow path through life – who will pay for it all. Earlier this week, I spent almost an entire day collecting together all the bits of paper and assorted information to pass to my wife’s overpaid expert comptable so that she can fill in the daunting document that is our annual tax return. This will be one way of paying for it. Another will be our ever-increasing burden of indirect taxation. And another will be the inflationary tinkering of bankers and politicians with the money supply.

Really, though, I ought to be able to fill in the document myself after all this time here, but somehow French paperwork still manages to make me ‘break out… in a cold sweat!’ My innate fear of authority is three or four times as intense in France as it is in the U.K. It’s something to do with the sensation of being a figure from a Kafka novel in an environment that he can’t fathom out. It’s as if the French Administration is one huge Castle full of functionaries busy scurrying about down a labyrinth of corridors like ants in a nest. I don’t know what they do in those corridors – probably not work as you or I know it. They appear to be engaged in feeding a voracious Trésor Public. But all I really know for sure as an outsider is that it’s mystifying and kind of scary. 

My irrational fear of all things official here has certainly been fuelled by two visits I’ve had to make to the Hôtel des Impôts in the sub-prefecture of Gourdon. Is it just me or does anyone else find that a sinister term, the Hôtel des Impôts? It smacks of Gestapo Headquarters. Certainly during both visits – called in by official letter because of irregularities in our dossier – I’ve felt like someone called in to Gestapo HQ on suspicion of resistant leanings. No one smiles at you, as you wait there for your interrogator, clutching your envelope of assorted documents that, you hope, will prove your innocence.

During the first visit, some female bull terrier put the fear of God in me. I couldn’t quite make out what she was on about, but I remember driving back home thinking that all was completely lost. I would be extradited, our house would be seized and the family would be reduced to seeking shelter at the Marshalsea, or wherever it was that Dickens placed his penurious characters to await the intervention of some obscure kindly benefactor. I didn’t sleep well for a fortnight and I dreaded every trip up our drive to the green metal letterbox. In the end it was nothing worse than a demand for a couple of hundred more euros on the grounds that we – or the overpaid accountant – had claimed a crédit impôt for our new, efficient wood-burning stove in the wrong fiscal year. Or something like that; I still don’t understand.

The second visit was a mere two or three years later. We had been selected, totally at random (we were asked to understand) for a check on our dossier. Since something else was perplexing them, we were invited to attend another interrogation at the Hôtel des Impôts. Because the first one had been so traumatic, I went along this time with my wife for support. We saw another official, who seemed rather more reasonable than the previous harridan. My dear chatty ingenuous wife gave away a little more information than she needed to. Because we converted her ante-room at work from a kitchen into something other than a kitchen (if I understand it correctly), we received a further demand for an extra few hundred euros. I’m still not sure what it was all about, but it sure smacks of victimisation, of ‘let’s see if we can squeeze some more out of these people who don’t know how to work the system’. 

Ah well. It was only money. We could ill afford it at the time, but it was better than extradition and incarceration. Nevertheless, it makes me very nervous about the information I forward to the accountant. Which is why it took all day. My nerves and our coffers won’t stand a third visit to the Hôtel des Impôts

In another few weeks, we’ll receive our demand, the Avis d’Imposition. I never know how much it’s going to be and I certainly don’t know how they calculate the figure involved. We just pay up like the good little citizens we are. It’s the same with the national debt. We have little way of knowing whether the figure that we’re supposed to owe is really what we owe. Either we get the tent out and go and join the protesters, or we pay up. So if yer man François does manage to re-negotiate the terms in our favour, all well and good – but I can’t help but think that it’s going to take some uncommonly creative accounting.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Election Day Detours

Today, a wet Sunday, is Election Day in France. Seconds out, Round Two. Since I don’t have the right to vote, even though I pay my taxes and social contributions here, I’ve found other ways to occupy my time.

After a leisurely breakfast – during which I finished reading the novel that I’ve been stuck with for longer than I would have wished (pride demanding that I finish it, since I found the hardback copy in a Glasgow Poundland and don’t want to admit to myself that I should have left it on the shelves) – I drove up into the Corrèze to pick up The Daughter from another of her occasional overnight parties. This one took place in a holiday village of prefabricated chalets on the edge of the Lac de Miel. 

As I walked Alf in the drizzle around the lake’s perimeter, I came over a tad nostalgic for the days we spent as a pioneering expats in the wilds of this largely unspoilt department. I used to walk the hound around a similar lake when we were both younger and nimbler. The morning when I saw a heron skimming low across the water through the mist that appeared to steam off the surface of the lake is one of the abiding images that have marked out my time in this foreign country.

The Corrèze, the ‘green country’ as it is dubbed (because it tends to rain), is full of lakes like ‘our lake’, as we christened it imperialistically, and the Lac de Miel. The Étang de Taysse, not that far from our old house, was another of these big holiday complexes that featured identikit mobile homes, each one a temporary Shangri-La with its porch and plastic shutters. The municipal fathers of Lille bought the lake so that its citizens could come here and enjoy the bucolic pleasures of France profonde.   

We got to know one of the groundsmen there, who had given up his job designing urban traffic systems in Lille to move here with his wife and five children and tend to the lake and its surroundings with a team, he suggested, of red-neck peckerwoods. One winter, he and his colleagues had the job of cleaning out the étang, which involved – ‘quite lidder-ally’ – pulling out a giant plug and draining the water away. I’d never heard of such an operation before and, perhaps suspecting the kind of tall tale that my uncle Bill used to tell us as kids (that, for example, he once photographed Dusty Springfield for some pop magazine and discovered her face was covered in spots), I drove over to check. And lo! It was true. Where once was a shimmering silver lake was nothing but a big empty basin of boggy land.

I well remember the day I met him. His mousey wife and mother of five, who had struck up an acquaintanceship with my wife at the gates of the école maternelle, invited us over for lunch. As we shook hands, he fixed me with eyes that might be described unkindly as ‘piggy’ and said, ‘Je te regarde’. I’m looking at you. Well, um… yes, I suppose you are, I thought, looking around me in panic for help and/or elucidation. He didn’t appear to be a Travis Bickle-type, ready to pull a gun on his reflection in the mirror (‘You lookin’ at me?), so I didn’t feel threatened. Just utterly bewildered. How do you reply?

Debs came to my rescue. Apparently, he believed that he had the gift of healing the sick via the touch of His Hand. It transpired that he was looking at me as someone sickly and possibly at death’s door and clearly in need of his intervention. I seem to have this unfortunate effect on people – maybe because I’m as thin as a rake and look like I’ve been a P.O.W. for longer than is good for ones health. Once as a youth, in The Gramophone Shop in Belfast, the woman behind the counter asked my friend Spike if his friend (me) was all right. (Nothing that a hearty meal wouldn’t fix, Mrs.) 

Eventually, the Healer got tired of working with peckerwoods and his wife went a bit dotty. They moved back to Lille, where he’s busy designing urban traffic systems once more.  

The Corrèze, the pays vert, is also the territory – and here we come back round in a circuitous pincer movement to the nominal subject of today’s epistle, Election Day in France – of François Hollande, currently going 13 rounds in the ring with his diminutive opponent in the true-blue corner, le petit Nicolas. If I remember correctly, I once met the candidate from the red corner, not far from ‘our lake’.
‘Met’ is probably a little strong, since it was more of a passing political handshake. Our friend Régine, one of these extraordinary people with a seemingly endless supply of creative energy, ran the bar at nearby Espagnac, where our teeny daughter was once schooled. She animated that entire neck of the woods like some self-anointed sovereign. Apart from all the themed dinners, concerts, jours de fête and God knows what else she dreamed up, she organised an annual promenade creative, which gave an opportunity for artists, craftspeople and other whacky individuals like my good wife, who were struggling to sell their wares and make some kind of living, to – as the French might have it – ‘expose themselves’.
On this particular day, Debs had a stall just opposite our cadaverous artist friend, Olivier, from Paris (who taught fly-fishing whenever he was in residence in the Corrèze). She would talk to passers-by about aromatherapy and reflexology, and give demonstrations of her therapeutic craft to anyone prepared to shed a sock and a shoe. On this particular day, Régine invited her friend, François, the Deputy of the Corrèze. Give the man his due, he came and he saw and he pressed flesh and even exchanged a few words before his minders whisked him off.  

I wasn’t won over. I found him somewhat grey. However, if I had the vote, it would certainly go to the man who stared at tired daughter, wet dog and me from posters dotted along the route home. It’s not because I necessarily think that his policies are what France needs, but because I think he’s fundamentally unpretentious and, mirabile dictu, honest. Besides, I like his stance on addressing sexual discrimination in French political life and taxing the super-rich at a higher rate than ordinary mortals. And, out of pure self-interest, he would confer the right to vote on expatriates. 

Under le petit Nicolas, France seems to have become a meaner, more depressed and repressed and selfish place. We could all do with more generosity of spirit in these troubled times.