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, June 24, 2012

The Feast of Music

It was many, many moons ago when I first found out about the Fête de la Musique. We were in France together for the first time, pre-child, cruising the Dordogne and Lot valleys in Deborah’s old bottle-green ex-German border patrol Beetle and prospecting vaguely for houses with a fosse septique that cost no more than ₤15,000. 

Wandering around Argentat, coveting the impossibly old houses with their fish-scale slate roofs, we wondered why Ella Fitzgerald was singing the Cole Porter songbook via a network of loudspeakers. It was the 21st June – that awful longest day after which the evenings start to diminish in a headlong rush towards winter – and Ella’s mood-indigo voice was helping to dispel my customary melancholia. What a nice place. How sweet and thoughtful of the municipal council to serenade the summer visitors in such a way. 

Some time later, of course, we discovered that something similar was going on in just about every township in France. The Fête de la Musique is a laudable idea: an evening devoted to the celebration of music to mark the official beginning (of the end) of summer. It’s a time for semi-pros and enthusiastic amateurs to get out into the streets and show the world what they’re capable of. Sometimes it’s not very much, but at least they’re given the opportunity and a ready audience.

The last time we went en famille to Brive for the fête, the heavens opened and all the outdoor events were cancelled at the last minute. Crowds of people wandered the streets like refugees in search of a haven. You could almost smell the disappointment in the air. We treated ourselves to an ice cream and then made our way home. Thereafter, we’ve tended to go somewhere nearer to home. 

This year, in spite of the rain forecast for the evening, I decided to give Brive a try once more. The girls couldn’t come with me, because they were too darned tired, what with the baccalaureate and the demands of clients. So I phoned da boyz and made my own arrangements. Just Dan and Moke and I. Three men in a car and then three men in a town, footloose and fancy-free, at liberty to cruise the streets in search of a good concert. 
Rain never seemed remotely likely. The evening was balmy, the ‘Brivists’ were out in force and there was something musical going on everywhere you turned: big serious stages in the shopping plaza and outside the refurbished theatre, smaller stages by the Crédit Agricole and outside the Hôtel de Ville, and smaller concerts in cafés and squares and just about anywhere that people could congregate. It must have cost a packet and no doubt it was our exorbitant taxe foncière that was paying for it all – but I resisted the temptation to rant about the profligate use of public funds, because there wasn’t a hint of trouble anywhere and everything seemed so… so nice. 

Brive is normally moribund once the shops shut and the workers go home. On this night, however, all the terraces and verandas of every bar and every restaurant were packed to the seams. It was a true café society: a template for a civilised urban community. No sooner had we settled down to eat a pasta supper at my daughter’s takeaway of choice, to the accompaniment of some acceptable blues played by two aging long-haired guys on acoustic guitars, than we bumped into more friends out on the prowl. Everyone was abroad. We stayed long enough to hear their rendition of J.J. Cale’s ‘Cocaine’ before wandering off to check out the main stage in the plaza. A four-piece rock band fronted by a pair of British ex-pats kept trying to whip up applause at the end of each lacklustre number – which didn’t strike us as quite the done thing. We bought ourselves a lager at the beer tent and then sauntered off to the big stage outside the theatre, where frustratingly we caught the tail end of a set by a very competent Afro-reggae band.  
On the way to the town hall, we passed a small crowd gathered around a young woman belting out ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ over a backing track. Dan, I think, was ready to linger, but I explained that it was one of those songs – like Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ – that simply don’t agree with me. All that emotional overdrive and all those fatiguing crescendos wear me out. He said that he was disappointed in me and we moved on.

Outside the Hôtel de Ville, we caught the tail end of a rousing orchestral concert. A man in black conducted his musicians in black with enough gusto and joy to suggest that this concert marked the culmination of at least six months of hard work. It was lovely to witness such unity of purpose for such common good. I wanted to shake his hand, but why single out one when there were thirty or more equally deserving ones to clasp? 

Night was falling by now and next up was a reggae band round by the back of the bank. The lights on the stage made it look as if it had been raining. This time we were there for the beginning of the set and able to secure pole position right by the stage. I studied the drummer, transfixed by the ease with which he kept time. The reggae ‘riddim’ with its disconcerting emphasis on the third beat of four always seems to me one of the most difficult to play. It wasn’t fair. Even in my wildest of dreams, I’d never manage it – and yet he made it look so easy. As if coordinating your hands weren’t hard enough, there are also two feet to think about: one to beat the bass drum, the other to work the hi-hat. The combination must do your brain in. No wonder the great Sly Dunbar now wears glasses.

Finally, we ended up at a swish new reconditioned restaurant near The Daughter’s school. Moke’s brother-in-law’s band was well into its second set when we sat down and ordered a coffee. I don’t normally drink coffee after midday, let alone round midnight. The consequences could be disastrous, but this was an annual fête and I was living dangerously. The trio – known to friends and family as The Three Steves until the three guys named Steve change their name, as mooted, to the Stevareenos – were going through their customary repertoire of R&B from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. The diners were finishing off their meals by now, but the waiters were still busy attending to hangers-on and late arrivals like us. Even after midnight passed, I still had sufficient wits about me to tell a Telecaster from a Stratocaster. It’s reassuring to realise that, even at my great age, I can still stay up late. After their set, the three Steves came to join us for a chat before packing up their gear. And still we stayed, determined to squeeze the last drop of sociability from the feast of music.

On the way back to the car, we serpentined around a crowd gathered outside an optician’s to watch a band playing a passable version of ‘Message In A Bottle’. I recognised the drummer as the white-haired guy who works at the music library. We chat most Wednesday mornings when I’m waiting to pick up Tilley from school. I knew he loved music, but hadn’t realised that he played it, too. But then, I guess, why would I? The Fête de la Musique happens but once a year. More is the pity.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Dark Side of the Mushroom

Only the other morning I was out on the bike with our dog. (Alf was on foot.) It was a damp chilly morning and, after climbing the track up to Monsieur Delpy’s sheep shed – which sets my heart a-racing and keeps me in condition – we turned off into the wood. There we came across three white vans parked all in a row.

Immediately I start speculating on the nefarious business they might be party to. Something, no doubt, that threatened the integrity of the oak wood, which provides a refuge from humanity for all the unseen creatures within. Pretty soon my racing mind has deposited me right bang in the middle of a grim scenario similar to that which the last lost tribes of the Amazon are now enduring in the face of gold miners and rapacious loggers. But then Alf went racing off, barking at some distant figure. It turned out to be a surly man in green Wellingtons. Mushrooms! Of course. An early hour, damp in the air… Nothing more sinister than the national obsession with fungi. Maybe he looked upon us as unfair competition. A mobile man and his sniffer-dog.

57 varieties
I should have known. Most days recently I’ve spotted a car parked at the side of the road and heard the slow, deliberate footsteps of someone tracking mushrooms among the trees. The intermittent warmth of this wet spring has brought the season forward by a few weeks. On Tuesday morning, as if by magic, our femme de ménage gleefully produced from her basket a great big plastic bag full of convoluted yellow girolles. I gasped like a good audience should do. For us? Pour vous. Her husband and 13-year old daughter had found a ton of them somewhere just across the frontier in the Corrèze.

The conversation turned to fungal mythology. Did I know, for example, that in the Haute Corrèze you’re liable to get your tyres slashed if you should stop off to look for mushrooms and your number plates indicate that you hail from outside the department? In fact, I did. One of my wife’s earliest clients was a woman who dealt in mushrooms with her husband. They ran the equivalent of a local stock exchange. Debs started her career as an aromatherapist in France by doing home visits. Madame P. was not the easiest client to massage, because she would constantly answer the telephone to give or receive the latest price of a bushel of cèpes or a panier of girolles or a fistful of trompettes de mort.

She also clued us in about the local etiquette. Roadside tyre-slashing was only one of a number of more or less extreme territorial acts. We lived on the edge of parts where natives duelled on banjos and didn’t doubt for one minute that interlopers might well have been disfigured, tortured and/or murdered before being dumped in some tributary of the upper Dordogne.  

Monsieur and Madame P. were a sweet couple. They would never have gone in for such shenanigans. Madame always brought something plastic for our young daughter when she started coming to the house for her periodic massage. Monsieur would visit his aunt across the road and then wander over bow-leggedly in outsize gumboots to pick up his revitalised wife. They used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning or whenever dawn was about to break to fill their bags with nature’s bounty. It was all tax-free and their earnings in a good season were enough to keep them going for the rest of the year. 

Although happy to divulge that the best-ever year for mushrooms had been the year following Chernobyl, they never hinted at where they went at 5 o’clock in the morning. They presumably mistook us for people who gave a fig. People prepared to lie in wait at some God-forsaken hour and track them down to their happy hunting ground. Much as the three of us love a nice girolle or boletus edibilis cooked in butter and cream and garnished with chopped parsley, the knowledge of their propagation by wind-born radioactivity rather deadens the appetite.

Besides, my track record is lousy. I once had an extended lesson from a bumptious Parisian holidaymaker, who was known dismissively in the village as le Parisien. Clod, as we called him, had the face of a Notre Dame gargoyle and the persistence of a tele-salesman. In those far off days, I simply didn’t have enough command of the language to say no to someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer. So one morning I donned my trusty pair of steel-toed Wellies, a legacy of a summer job on a building site in a part of central Wales where the inhabitants also duel on banjos, and I followed Clod the Gargoyle into a nearby chestnut wood. For two or three hours I stomped around in slow motion with my gaze fixed resolutely on the ground while Clod assailed my ears with his words of wisdom. At the end of such purgatory, I took one slug-nibbled cèpe home to my wife and daughter. Neither was impressed.

Ever since then, I have been happier to accept the occasional gift or to pick less valued but more easily spotted coulemelles in meadows. At least it gives you some kind of sense of achievement. I tried to explain this to the farmer who sold us the land here when I encountered him on Friday morning soon after setting off on my customary round-with-the-hound. His was the car this time parked on the side of the road and I recognised the figure prowling in the wood opposite ours. He’s not a very nice man: his sinister house is ornamented with the heads of animals he has hunted down, and he keeps his dog in a concrete pound that’s rarely cleaned. I’m still intending one dark night to don a balaclava, take some wire-cutters and liberate the poor creature.

I pretended not to notice him, but he said hello to me and, being a nice polite Englishman, I stopped pedalling and hung around just long enough to be bitten to bits by the mosquitoes that are currently out in force. There would certainly be mushrooms in our part of the wood, he suggested. The farmer didn’t really understand my lack of enthusiasm and turned the subject, as he often does, to one of his many plots of land for sale. He labours under the extraordinary misconception that everyone English looking to build a house over here will, simply because they are English, pass through our front door. 

I bade him adieu and continued on my merry way, now scratching frantically at bites on my legs. On the way back, the car was still parked by the side of the road. Maybe the man had crossed into our part of the wood now. He likes to think that he still has a seigneurial right to the land that he sold us ten years ago. Had I but thought to come out equipped with a good sharp Opinel in my back pocket, I could have plunged it deep into his tyres. That would have larned him once and for good. The thing is, though, and I know it’s heretical of me, but I just don’t care that much about champignons.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Paying Friendship

I promised to publish a photograph once I had assembled my bargain ‘bin-hiders’. Here they are: eight pretty ones all in a row, standing empty in the pouring rain, waiting to accommodate our logs (once I get my rear end in gear). Despite what the nice man from Brico Depot said to the contrary, I found instructions inside and assembled them with my own fair hands and without too many problems. No tears before bedtime on this occasion, no ‘strong language’ to turn the air blue.

However, I should point out that they were finished off – as many of the tasks in and around this house have been – by my unique Ukrano-Canadian (or Ukradian) friend, Bret. He is the one who looks after the important little details, such as: raising them off the ground on palettes to ensure that the bases don’t rot too quickly; ensuring that the level is approximately equal so that the doors don’t stick; securing a black plastic cover that will actually keep the rain out and the wood dry.

My tale of our femme de ménage and her wedding weekend prompted much discussion about life’s indispensable people. Well, every home should have a Bret. In fact, house-sitting is just one of the occupations by means of which he assembles a living as an auto-entrepreneur. I can add ‘friendship’ to the long list of gainful activities. Of all the friends who have played a prominent part in my life on earth, Bret is effectively the only one I have paid to be my friend. 

Perhaps I should explain. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m such a sad and desperate character that I have to fork out for friendship. It’s simply that we both lead such busy and fragmentary lives that the only time we get to spend together is when I need someone to do something that I’m not capable of doing on my own. It started with a computer in our old house, soon after Bret arrived in France from some bitterly cold north-western part of Canada. I met him at a party, where he introduced himself as a writer. I gravitate towards people who are a little eccentric. Bret seemed seriously eccentric, so I wasn’t quite sure. Nevertheless, I learned – in between descriptions of wild ideas for novels – that he was a computer technician. Since I was having problems with my Mk2 computer and since he needed some work, reader I hired him.

He came and he sorted out the problem and others besides with such bewildering savoir faire and charged such a reasonable fee for going an extra mile or more and we had such fun while he was doing it that, ever since, if ever there’s a problem with something technical that runs on binary code, we just have to get on the phone and say ‘Bret’ in a certain helpless tone of voice. He will drop what he’s doing and come over with a metal case full of intricate tools and cables. If he can’t cure it on the spot, he will spirit it away to the workshop where he sits tinkering away like some modern-day Caractacus Potts, surrounded by old screens and ailing printers, determined that nothing will be scrapped without a rigorous examination.

Pretty soon my debit column had runneth over. In order to restore some credits, I put my worst boiler suit on and went over to the house he lived in at the time to help out with some pointing. Proud as punch, I took my collection of trowels with me. It wasn’t long, though, before I discovered that I had nothing of any practical use to teach him. When it comes to things physical, I am destined to labour for significant others. Bret’s father had been a builder and he had learned the ropes at his old man’s side. Before he went into computers, he and his brother had gone into business together and done all manner of work that might be categorised as ‘building’, including getting winched down in one of those perilous cradles to clean and paint high-rise buildings. 

So I figured that his practical experience of construction might be a useful adjunct to all the knowledge I had garnered from books about building with straw bales. The Dude, as he became known, perhaps in recognition of his ever-changing flamboyant configurations of facial hair, perhaps simply because of his madcap sense of fun, came to work with me on the latter part of our grand design. It was at this point that it dawned on me just how capable he was and what a good friend he had become. By this time, most of the errors had been made – mainly as a result of my own naivety in assuming that amateurs shouldn’t need to check on the work of professionals, because they, the latter, know exactly what they are doing. (And it’s true. They do. They know exactly when to cut a corner in the name of expediency. They know just when to use a cheaper, more perishable material in the interest of economy.)

At least the second part of the build was comme il faut. To alleviate my stress, Bret would take problems home with him and return the next morning with a solution in his bag. It was only when he cried off for a fortnight due to a build-up of his own stress that problems arose – largely due to cowboy Bob Ze Buildair’s cavalier approach to taping and jointing.

Since then, it seems to me that I have spent my time earning money to employ my friend either to put right problems created by poor workmanship or to carry out home improvements. Your back balcony slopes towards rather than away from the house? No problem, call the computer man. You need those rain butts installed – and those posh new shutters? Who you gonna call? Why, the Dude of course. 

Much as I would dread the thought of having to undertake something myself that tolerates no margin for error, I have such faith in his capability that I can relax and carry out (polite) instructions and relax and have a laugh. It’s during such times that you remember what it was like to be a kid and realise what you miss as a ‘sensible adult’ when you lose that capacity to giggle. So, to spend your hard-earned money on a friend who does a great job and makes you laugh at the same time seems more like redistribution of wealth than paying a bill. 

At school, you see your chums every day. It’s a source of sadness that, other than the occasional social event, I barely get to see the Ukradian in between jobs. It’s not every auto-entrepreneur who founds his own religion, but my seriously eccentric friend is the high priest of Bretism, which teaches us to be good to others and have fun while you’re at it. At Christmas I found on our front doorstep a little badly wrapped package, which contained a reconditioned charger for my ancient mobile phone to replace the one I’d lost. He hadn’t had time to stop, because there were too many calling cards to leave around the area. 

When the rain stops, I fully intend to move next winter’s wood down the drive in a wheelbarrow and stack it in the new cache-poubelles. It’s something I can do myself. I don’t need to pay a jobbing friend to help me. But guess who helped me cut it all up in the first place?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cleaning: A Love Story

Reluctantly and with considerable embarrassment, I confess unto thee (a-hem) that we employ (cough, cough)… a femme de ménage. For those of you watching in black and white, I’m talking about a cleaning lady. Or, in these more enlightened times, a cleaning woman.

'Can I do you now, sir?'
Now I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I’m some rich, indolent bar steward who simply hires a skivvy to do his dirty work without ever sullying his own hands. I’ll have you know that I cleaned a holiday home for three seasons, so I know only too well what a thankless and tiring job it is.

I blame the wife. I told her that I’d be happy to do the cleaning myself, but she pointed out – tactfully, to be fair, and without hurting my feelings – that men don’t quite have the same feeleeng (as the French might say) for household dirt. That is, they create a lot of it without ever quite being able to remedy it. And so I conceded to my wife’s wish. After all, she works unnaturally hard to earn our crust and she likes her home to be rendered spick and span at least one day a week. It’s not much to ask.

When I close my eyes and try very hard, I can just about remember back to my earliest days in a nice middle-class north London suburb. My young parents aspired to be as nice and middle class as my father’s parents, who used to employ a woman called Topsy to do for them. And so they in turn employed a woman called Mrs. Burnham to do for them. All I can remember about her was her voice. She spoke rather like the woman played by Joyce Carey, who operated the station tearoom in David Lean’s Brief Encounter. You know, all hemphasised haitches and other misguided hairs and graces: So I said to him, I said, if you think that I’m just some kind of hun-paid servant, Sunny Jim, you’ve got quite hanother thing coming to you…

One of the last things I aspired to be was a nice middle-class suburbanite, which was one of the reasons, I suppose, why we moved off radar to the rural heart of France. Nevertheless, CC – as I shall call her, even though the likelihood of her reading this is about as slim as the leaders of Europe resolving the economic crisis at one of their summits – came to us not long after we occupied this house. She came strongly recommended by friends who rented their house during the summer months to UK holidaymakers and who therefore needed someone reliable. She’s been with us ever since. It’s quite possible that we couldn’t live without her now.

Needless to say, we completely cocked up the chèque de service business. Not realising that the administrators add onto the amount that you pay your employee the charges that are supposed to cover holidays and sickness, we – or should I say ‘I’? – wrote out the cheque for the basic rate plus charges. Which is why we had to cut her hours from three to two per week in order to claw back our munificence. CC’s been back on three hours for quite some time, which suits everyone concerned. She turns up promptly every Friday morning and blitzes the house like the proverbial White Tornado. The one drawback is that it’s extremely difficult to get any work done. She can talk for France and, like tornadoes the world over, she generates a lot of noise.

The reason I mention all this is that yesterday she got married. It’s a heart-warming romantic tale of late-flowering love and happiness. When she first started doing for us, CC was a single mother. She had a lovely young daughter, who survived a serious illness, and little else besides. Her life was difficult. Her first marriage ended in tears, as they tend to do when you choose to marry a selfish git. Fortunately, she’s so good at her job that the bouche à l’oreille worked in her favour and it wasn’t long before she was able to turn down work and even to choose her patrons. Nevertheless, she’s a worry-wart who wears her heart on her sleeve, and it didn’t take a shrink to figure out that she wasn’t as happy as she deserved to be. 

Then one evening, she met a man at a dinner party. His initials are C.C., too, so I shall refer to him as CC2. A roly-poly man with florid cheeks from working out of doors at a garden centre, CC2 was also a refugee from a toxic relationship. Soon CC started turning up on Friday mornings with a spring in her (rather heavy) step and a sparkle in her eye. Over coffee one morning, she confessed that l-o-v-e love was in the air. It wasn’t long before CC2 moved in with our indispensable femme de ménage and proved himself a far better father to the little girl than the real-life version. Everything, as they say, was hunky-dory – or nearly.

The one fly in the ointment was CC2’s work, which was wearing him down and further undermining his already fragile self-confidence. Over coffee on Fridays, CC would agonise about his prospects. Rather than continue to suffer the indignities that his twisted boss seemed to delight in heaping upon him, shouldn’t he leave and set up on his own? But then again, leaving secure employment in the current economic climate… 

She agonised to such a degree that she kept herself awake at night and made herself ill. Trying to carry on cleaning to keep all her clients satisfied while in an advanced state of stress, she did her back in and physically ground to a halt. The Good Wife of These Parts packed a massage couch into the back of her diminutive car and stopped off a couple of evenings on the way back from work. She helped her see the light at the end of the tunnel and got CC back on her feet again. Ever since, I’ve had the impression that she would turn summersaults through a bramble patch for us. When I got into trouble with a bewildering document that I shouldn’t have signed, CC took control and made some calls and sorted it all out for us.  

Meanwhile, CC2 made the great leap into the unknown and pretty soon the grapevine worked equally well for him, too. Now he has almost too many clients to cope with and they have no more financial worries. The daughter loves him and her school reports make her mother proud. A year or so ago, they found a very handsome stone house with a big walled garden to rent at a reasonable price – with the prospect, one day, of being able to buy it from the mairie. They have a cat and an abundant kitchen garden and a flock of prolific chickens that live in a coop built by CC2 now that he has rediscovered his self-belief and developed do-it-yourself skills.

So love conquered all and now they are officially married. My friend Dan took the photographs. CC fell for his very English charm when he joined us on a couple of occasions for coffee. We’ve all been invited to the party later today and even though I’ll probably feel a little awkward as part of a small but conspicuous group of anglais, I’m proud to be invited and proud to be considered as a friend. It certainly helps to blur that awkward line between employer and employee, patron and femme de ménage.