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, July 29, 2012

Walls, Sheep And Festivals

Friday morning’s promenade en vélo took me up and round and down past the two goat sheds in the nearby hamlet. Their doors were slid back to give the poor creatures inside some respite from the week’s accumulated heat. The bleached white inmates had all gathered at the threshold to gaze at the novelties of the outside world. My impulse is to dismount and to walk up for a quick chat, but doing that can create a mini stampede within and I couldn’t bear to be responsible for some crushed goats. I can see the headlines now in Le Dépêche. A French version of Chatty cyclist causes fatal crush…

I freewheeled down past the Dutchman’s wood-stack to the road where Poodle Man, as he has become known, was just finishing off his retaining wall. Wittily I’ve dubbed it the Great Wall of China, because one likes to banter with the locals. Poodle Man’s real name is Charles, I have recently discovered. He is married to Poodle Woman, whose ancient deaf poodle has now trotted off to that big toilettage in the sky. In the past, she has complained of her husband’s lack of sociability, but I have always found him ready to pass the time of day. 

Charles has been working on his muraille for many months. He’s 75 now, but has the lean physique of a teenager. He likes to keep busy and I wonder what he will do now that his great wall is finished. Every day during its construction he has been getting up at six to mix his barrow full of mortar and fix in place the limestone slabs he scavenges the evening before. It’s as well that he’s finished now, because he’s just done himself a mischief. He recognises that a septuagenarian shouldn’t be lifting heavy stones, but the man is driven.  

As a fellow sport-lover, he asked me whether I would be watching the Olympic opening ceremony that evening. No, I wouldn’t – and nor would he. It wasn’t sport and the cost of the spectacle was ludicrous. London did Paris a favour by beating it to the bankruptcy tape; Montreal’s still paying for the ’76 Olympics; Athens can never pay for its games; and so forth. We ranted like a pair of grumpy old men; ‘gave it large’, in the words of my friend, the tree surgeon.

Any sense of social responsibility here?
Somehow we segued from overpaid footballers to communally minded sheep. Take the cost of the fauchage teams with all their expensive orange-painted equipment, which periodically pass by to sheer the roadsides. In the old days, he told me, farmers’ wives would walk behind their flock of sheep, up and then back down the road, knitting away at their latest creation while their bêtes tamed the vegetation. Isn’t that a lovely notion? Proper made my day, it did, to imagine such a leisurely but efficient and – more to the point, as a hard-pressed ratepayer – inexpensive form of highway maintenance. These days, you hardly ever see either sheep or farmers’ wives. They’re always shut up inside like those poor benighted goats.

Knowing that she’s recently finished her bac, Charles enquired about The Daughter. I explained that she was in London – and certainly would not be watching the Olympics. Not my sport-negative offspring. In fact, she and her best friend – who is, rather delightfully, the daughter of my wife’s best friend – are at the WOMAD festival in Wiltshire this weekend. They went off together on the special coach from London, Victoria with tent, sleeping bags, basic provisions and a camping stove that apparently doesn’t work. We parents are rather hoping that they will be bold enough to ask someone if they can borrow theirs. Perhaps a pair of nice, well-brought-up boys who aren’t slaves to their sex drives. 

It’s Tilley’s first festival. She’s never let on that she’s at all interested in world music. I suspect she’s tagging along for the adventure. I sent her a text to suggest that she and Alice should make sure that they see Ska Cubano, Femi Kuti and Keb’ Mo’. They’ll probably and quite rightly ignore a curmudgeon’s advice and stumble upon their own entertainment. 

I sho’ ‘nuff envy her. Not so much the festival itself: I’m getting a bit too old and impatient for all that hanging around and standing about on two feet. These days I tend to go along to the annual African music festival in Cajarc and the jazz festival at Souillac, but only for an evening at a time. No, I envy her more for the sheer excitement and novelty of it all. 

I remember, for example, the thrill of steaming along the M4 with my friend James in his old white Renault 4, bound for the agricultural show ground at Reading. Ah! the sense of anticipation as we joined the throng from the car park to the stage; as we later ate our sandwiches while waiting in our few square feet of trampled grass for John McLaughlin’s latest permutation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to appear on stage. It’s funny that someone as obsessed with music as I am should remember all that much more vividly than the music itself. I suspect that it will be much the same for my girl. 

Well, in talking to Dan, Dan the graphics man and a couple of others whose opinions I value, it seems that, in studiously avoiding the opening ceremony, I missed something rather good: more humorous than bombastic and quite far from an attempt to out-Bejing the Chinese. Maybe I shouldn’t be so pleasantly surprised. After all, London’s had its time in the sun and even its reputation as a global financial capital is now tarnished by scandal, so what else have we to hold up to the world but our good old quirky British sense of humour? We will always at least be so Breeteesh. Nevertheless, the idea of spending 25 million or so to project simply this at a time when so many good causes are being systematically starved of funds seems quite obscene.

Before riding off into the sunrise and leaving Charles to finish off his wall in peace, my interlocutor came up with an idea that seems very sensible. Why not write off Athens’s Olympic debts and at the same time spare other ambitious capitals around the world endless financial servitude by holding each Olympic games in their place of origin? In the process, it would give a quadrennial fillip to the Greek economy. You know it makes sense. (Far too simple and sensible, though, for our political masters.)

Of course, in returning to the days of the original Olympian spirit and an era when tricoteuses would direct their sheep to trim the roadsides, the athletes would have to strip down to bare essentials and perform their feats in the nip. It would certainly help to revive my flagging interest in women’s track and field. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tour de This-Part-Of-France

Earlier in the week, my friend Paul called to ask us to look after Hamlette, their venerable Golden Retriever and Alf’s object of increasingly improbable sexual desire. I figured that they were going off somewhere in their camping van. But you’ll miss the Tour de France, I protested – knowing what a cycling fool Paul is. He’s never happier than when he’s on two wheels, dressed up in lycra and ‘shuffering and shmiling’, as Fela Kuti would have it. 

Therein lay the rub. The family Foulkes were de-camping a few kilometres down the road to book their premium spot by the Lac de Causse, where the riders would go whizzing past on Friday afternoon. So we took charge of Hamlette on Thursday morning. Over coffee, Paul told me all about Bradley Wiggins’s preparations for the annual epic. The man with the matchstick legs and the JPR Williams sideburns apparently spent his winter apart from the family he loves, cycling up and down some volcano to improve his climbing ability. Q: Are they not human, these cyclists? A: One wonders sometimes. 

One wonders, too, whether the riders ever get attacked by mad French farm dogs. On Tuesday morning, an unhinged collie attacked me as I cycled through the village of Bonnard. Alf saw him off courageously with a show of fangs and gums, but not before the beast bit my leg. Following my wife’s prescription, I bathed my leg in water and six drops of lavender essential oil. My leg’s fine now, thanks for asking. My jaw didn’t lock and there’s no sign of rabies, but you can still see two tooth marks on my shin. Typically, I didn’t phone the owners to rant and fume. Well… the old man’s ill and I didn’t fancy talking to his wife, who personifies the worst of peasant womanhood: rendered bitter and vicious by a lifetime’s servitude in a pinafore. Maybe even more to the point, I didn’t want to feel doubly disappointed by humanity should they conform to the stereotype and fail to apologise. 

But let me not detract from the excitement of Stage 18 of the 2012 Tour. I’ve been watching the live coverage on ITV4. Not exactly watching, but kind of working with the commentary on in the background. It’s a recipe for distraction and evening frustration when I look back on what I have achieved during my working day. But the thing is – and it’s really only something that sports’ fans understand – I have been witnessing history in the making. If the Wigginator makes it to the Champs Elysée today with the yellow jersey still on his back, arguably it will be the finest ever achievement by a British sportsperson. Even the boy’s own heroes of The Victor and The Wizard never achieved as much. Bradley Wiggins is Wilson; he is the Tough of the Track. One must watch.

There have been warnings all around here of deviations for weeks. Deborah left for work at her usual unholy hour, so she had no difficulty penetrating the fortifications of Brive. She had warned all her clients and the Dunkirk spirit prevailed. One woman borrowed her daughter’s scooter; others (gasp!) hoofed it to her cabinet. On arrival in Brive, the barriers were already going up. Later in the day she heard the cheers, but by the time she popped outside for a deco, the Tour’s human army of assistants had already snatched up the barriers for re-employment in pastures new.

That’s the trouble with the Tour de France. It’s so darn ephemeral. That’s why I elected to stay and watch it on the box. During our Corrézian life, we’d all three of us gone to see a stage up in the Monédière hills. We got there early, parked with the hordes in a field earmarked for the occasion and hung around. Since our daughter was very young at the time, the hanging around also involved frequent shoulder-rides. The caravan passed by with much ballyhoo, showering the hungry crowd with plastic publicity material. We caught a calculator, which Tilley used for several years. Then the riders flashed by and triggered much waving and cheering. And then it was time for home. At least they go around the circuit a few times in Formula One.  

Wiggins and Cavendish by Dan Courtice
The TV coverage is excellent. The commentators even pronounce the names of the villages correctly. The helicopter shots of the Lot’s topography and chateaux made me glow with pride. Tilley joined me to work ‘n’ watch while she made an origami chicken for Compassion in World Farming’s anti-battery campaign. At half-past Cressenssac, not far from the Lac de Causse where my friend Dan, Dan, the graphics man took this splendid action photo, I was called away to meet and greet a slightly eccentric bunch of holidaymakers from Louth, Lincs. Ah! That’s where Robert Wyatt lives, I remarked. They had encountered the great man out and about in his wheelchair. Did I happen to know how their local celebrity had ended up in a wheelchair? They were decidedly not the type of people to get drunk and fall out of a first-floor window like the ex-drummer of The Soft Machine. 

By the time I got back, they were already interviewing Mark Cavendish as the race winner. The Manx Express, or whatever his monicker is, seems like a charmingly ingenuous figure for a world champion. The proof of the pudding was in the eating. Over supper, we watched the pelloton claw back the breakaway group and tried to spot friends among the Union-Jack wavers. The climax in the streets of Brive was one of the most exciting finishes I’ve ever witnessed. By the time Mark Cavendish exploded past the leaders to pinch it at the death, I was up out of my chair and jumping around like a punk at a Clash concert. The girls laughed. They don’t quite get sport.

Once the excitement died down, I went with dog biscuit, chew and lead to fetch Hamlette from the ruined house down below us. She had wandered down earlier to see the campers and either taken a shine to them or hadn’t found the energy for the ascent. There she was, stretched out under their dining table. I had to coax her out with the comestibles.

Hamlette’s gone back home again now. All being well, Bradley Wiggins should ride into Paris and mount the podium in triumph this very afternoon. But then there’s also the closing session of the British Open from Royal Lytham. I shall arise and go now and don my toughest gardening gloves in order to attack with secateurs that shameful patch of brambles by our drive. By appeasing Gradgrind, the Protestant god of Work Ethic, maybe I can savour it all guilt-free. It ain’t just sport, you see, it’s history in the making. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

During my first trip to New York, in the days when I would have been classified as a ‘young man’, I watched a fair bit of telly in the hotel room I stayed in at a special bargain-basement student rate. It was a nice hotel near the Empire State building and I didn’t feel the need to barricade myself in, as I’d done the first night in a dive near Times Square. I was fascinated by the news and the weather forecasts and the ‘messages’ from sponsors and everything that they revealed about the light and the dark sides of American culture. Up until that time I had never realised, for example, that ‘ring around the collar’ was a social affliction quite as grave as bad breath.

I remember being temporarily bemused by an item about ‘entreppanners’. Who were these strange characters, blessed apparently with so much laudable get-up-and-go? Eventually, it dawned on me. Entrepreneurs: a subject I discussed last Friday night mit meinem Amerikanische freund, Steve, from North Carolina. One of the dictionary’s definitions of an entrepreneur is ‘one who undertakes a business or enterprise, with chance of profit or loss’. By that definition, Steve must be a quintessential entrepreneur.

Ever since he and his wife arrived in France about as long ago as we did, both Steve and Jessica have lived by their wits, courting every ‘chance of profit or loss’. As underpaid glass blowers together, they would de-camp from their house every summer so they could rent it out to British holidaymakers. They have bought and done up ruins. Jessica became an estate agent, while Steve turned to plumbing for a while. Now he imports old guitars and classic cars that he locates primarily on the internet and ships to France in containers. In short, the very models of modern expatriate entrepreneurs, prepared to hustle to survive and just to do whatever it takes.  
Although the French presumably invented the word and the idea, they appear to be as bemused by the whole notion as I was momentarily in New York. The mere fact that until recently there was a taxe professionelle to penalise anyone with the gumption to set up their own business underlines the fact that the idea of going out on a commercial limb is fairly alien to a society that mollycoddles its functionaries. Yes, of course, there are plenty of artisans and bakers and restaurateurs and cleaners and so forth, but there’s a sense that these are all well-worn paths, almost social services in themselves. Natives who indulge in the kind of multifarious and more imaginative self-employment activities that seem to be second nature to ex-pats are probably associated with marginals who wear dreadlocks and harem pants. 

The De Soto alas is sold
There are degrees of entrepreneurship, of course. After 15 years in England as a civil servant, a profession libérale doesn’t come nearly as easily to me as it does, say, to my wife. She was working in the back office of a bookie’s at 16 or 17 to subsidise her A-levels at the local Tech, then touring Scandinavia and Italy as part of an acting troupe before metamorphosing into a therapist. As we both gasped in wonder in Steve’s barn at the latest collection of vehicles awaiting collectors, I marvelled at the sheer logistics of the undertaking: to locate and transport a first-generation Chevrolet Camaro and a Ford Mustang, and a Chrysler De Soto to die for, so immaculate that it looked like it had just driven in off the set of Sunset Boulevard, and a huge Harley Davidson, which scared a wuss like me just to sit astride it, let alone daring to fire up the beast.

Even assuming that you had the idea of doing something similar, where on earth would you start? First you have to find them at a price good enough to allow a decent profit margin. Then you have to ship them here, deal with the American and the French authorities, bring them four hours or more inland, find someone prepared to buy each one, negotiate the sale, complete the necessary paperwork and so on. That’s not even to mention the marketing and publicity needed to attract potential collectors. 

Anyway, he does it and presumably makes enough of a living to carry on doing it. We talked over dinner of just what it involves as an expatriate and the degree of lateral thinking necessary to find your niche in the French market. Yet why was it, someone asked, that French entrepreneurs seem so anomalous? The spirit must be there somewhere. After all, London is now the sixth largest French city or something, in terms of natives who have settled there. Most of them, it seems, profess to be there for the duration, often because they love the sense of freedom they have found. 

Is it simply that? A matter of freedom – or rather the lack of it. Is it that the indigenous entrepreneurial spirit has been quashed by the prevalent fear of competition, by the professional taxes, stigmas and other assorted disincentives, and by a rigid nanny state that maps out the correct way of doing things in the little black book issued to every French man and woman at birth, Comment Etre Francais?

We didn’t come to any proper conclusion, but agreed that it was probably true and certainly peculiar that the French don’t seem to do entrepreneurship. With the rain pouring down, the conversation turned inevitably to the weather and this disappointing summer, which is at least a notch above what they are experiencing in the UK. Steve and his friend Steve speculated whether their gig would be rained off the next night. The Three Steves were due to be playing on the terrace of a restaurant in Brive – because when Steve’s not being www.jacksonsdreammachines.com, he’s doubling up on guitar and double bass in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

It’s all in the day of the life of an expatriate entreppanner. There’s nothing particularly noble about it. It’s just a fact of life. Earning a crust in a foreign land isn’t easy. You have to use your imagination – and act upon it. Me, I would do most anything legal and harmless to stay on here. Although if it came down to telesales or cleaning car windscreens at busy intersections, then I think I would probably sell up and go back home.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summa Cum Laude

Of all the stupid things to do – and Lord knows, I’ve done more than my fair share – dropping my mobile phone down the loo must be a serious contender for the Golden Biscuit. 

And how, Mr. Sampson, did you possibly manage to do that?

Well, your Honour, it was like this. On Friday morning, my daughter had to go in early with her mother in order to pick up the results of her baccalaureate. A whole nation, it seemed, was holding its breath. Articles had appeared in newspapers; speculation was rife. Children – or young adults, I should say, your Honour – were worrying whether they would get that new Renault they had been promised, or be beaten soundly and sent to bed.  

My daughter had promised to text me as soon as she knew, so I was wandering around the house like ‘Nervous’ O’Toole, clutching my old beaten-up Sagem (which was handed down by my wife first to my daughter and then to me), because I’d been told that you shouldn’t carry them around in your pocket or you might get testicular cancer, and I needed to faire pipi you see, and… well, it’s kind of difficult to do two things at once and…

Yes! Thank you. That’s quite enough. We’re all capable of using our imagination, I believe. So your telephone fell into the… loo, as you refer to it. And then presumably you retrieved it?

I did your Honour. I fished it out pronto. But I had that awful feeling that the game was up. It’s not, you understand, that I’m conjoined to my mobile phone. I’ve only really started using it, fairly reluctantly, in the last year or so, but I’ve grown rather fond of that unlovely Sagem and I take a pride in its lack of features. So I did whatever I could to save it: drying it with a towel, blow-drying the insides with my daughter’s hairdryer, cradling it in my hands, laying it out in the sun. At one point, it gave an awful lowing sound, like the death-throe of some bovine animal, and an unnatural blue light lit up the keypad, and after that everything went lifeless. I’ve tried countless times to revive it, because I’ve heard from friends that mobile phones can start working again several days after a trauma, rising Lazarus-like from the dead one might say, but increasingly I came to feel that my Sagem was an ex-phone.

I see. So we’ve established, I think, that mobile phones – even of a certain age – are unlikely to survive a dunk in the lavatory. In that case, how, pray, did you find out about your daughter’s results?

Well, I had to phone my wife. But she was, it appeared, in the middle of a session with a client. So I had to leave a message and wait. And wait. So I couldn’t possibly get on with anything, could I?  

That’s a matter of opinion. Please confine yourself to answering the question.  
I am. I’m just getting there. Believe me, I honestly couldn’t get on with any work. So I was left to pace around the house until the phone rang. Back and forth, back and forth, occasionally stopping to tug the dog’s rope or sweep up some of his fur-balls. And then the phone rang – or peeped I should say, because there’s a problem with the cheap phone that I bought from Lidl. 

We are not here to praise or ‘diss’ (I think they say now) your supermarket of choice, Mr. Sampson. Kindly keep to the point.

I’m sorry, your Honour. I was just trying to build up a little tension. Anyway, I recognised the phone’s dysfunctional peep, and I fumbled with the receiver in my efforts to pick it up before the messagerie clicks in, because there’s barely enough time to say ‘Jack Robinson’ before it does so, and I still haven’t worked out how to give us more time to get to the phone…

Yes, yes, yes. That’s all quite irrelevant. Who was on the other end of the phone? Was it your wife or was it your daughter? 

I can’t remember. They both phoned within minutes of each other. The upshot of the matter is that the kid got her bac. She got a mention bien, which I think equates roughly to an A overall. But it’s all very complicated and confusing. Her final average mark was 15.52 out of 20, so she was 0.48 points away from a mention très bien. I think. It’s all got something to do with multiplication by coefficients. She scored a full house for her art, and because the coefficient is 2, she scored either 20 points or 40 points, since you multiply the coefficient by either 10 or 20. I’m not sure. However, she incinerated her philosophy and scored only 8 out of 20. Because the French are a philosophical race and because it therefore carries a coefficient of 7, you multiply the marks below the pass mark of 10 to obtain a score of minus 14 – which put a spanner in the works and caused her to slip under the threshold of A plus-itude. Which would have been, I suppose, the equivalent of the American ‘summa cum laude’.  

Mr. Sampson, what are you talking about? It all sounds quite ludicrous. I’m more concerned to know whether she was pleased.

Oh yes. Pleased and relieved. At one point, she’d even worried about failure. But I’d been prepared to bet what’s left of our life savings on her getting the result she obtained. But I didn’t, which is a shame, or we’d be quids-in (assuming that we could have found a PMU in France, prepared to offer attractive odds on such an outcome). So, yes, she was chuffed. But just a teensy bit disappointed, because she sets herself such high standards.

And you? The proud parent? You’ll be buying her that Renault, I shouldn’t wonder.

No. I never promised her a rose garden, so to speak. I couldn’t afford one anyway. My daughter has no great ambition to drive currently. And I don’t believe in bribing our children to achieve. School’s quite hard enough. 

Laudable, I’m sure. And what of the mobile phone?

Well, it seems to be resolutely dead. But kind friends of mine have given me their old phones, now that they’ve both got iPhones.

So, all’s well that ends well?

Hmm. The trouble is, they’re Orange phones. So they won’t take my SIM card. So I have to beg Orange to be charitable and unlock whichever phone I choose, so I can use it.

I see. So what are you in that case, Mr. Sampson?

A nit-wit, your Honour. A big old imbecilic Hector. I should be taken away from here to a place of punishment and soundly thrashed.

You said it, not I.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Camping Shmamping

One of the worst things about being land-locked, unsurprisingly I suppose, is the lack of sea. My wife feels its absence more keenly than I do, because she loves to swim. So every now and then she needs to take off to fill her lungs with ozone at the seaside. Poor soul, she works so hard, so who am I to deny her the pleasure – even though I know exactly what ‘taking off’ entails? 

In our case, because we don’t have an apartment by the sea and because we can’t really afford the luxury of a hotel, it involves camping. Some people in life are serious campers, to whom all the bother comes quite easily. We are amateurs, which means that you have to brainstorm and then transcribe copious lists of all the paraphernalia that goes with a tent. Every sleeping bag demands a foam mat; every gas stove involves a bottle; every gas bottle necessitates sufficient propane to set alight and a tube that hasn’t perished from excessive storage; meals cooked on the stove involve a clever little crockery set from Decathlon, a decanted bottle of sunflower oil, a teeny jar of salt, a clutch of onions, a block of Feta cheese and so on and so forth. On top of it all, we always think how nice it would be to take the dog with us, because he, too, surely gets as excited by the mere sight of the sea as our daughter must (and we adults still do). So that little lunacy involves a whole sub-list that includes lead and towel and health passport to prove that Alf is not rabid.  

And so we took off as early on Wednesday morning as we could manage. My job was to bark out regular time checks to motivate the girls and to pack the boot of the Berlingo. Being the man of the household, it is my self-appointed role in life to pack a car boot with the kind of precision and economy that I bring to the task of filling the dishwasher. My wife and daughter neither understand the compulsion nor appreciate the self-satisfaction I derive from meeting a challenge. Without actually demanding summersaults on the driveway, I insist that they admire the result. They humour me.

We chose our destination with care. A dab hand with the internet, Debs identified a campsite on the Vendée coast that sounded fantastic. The nearest thing, apparently, to camping on the beach itself. But it’s a long, long drive to the Vendée and, even though the weather forecasts keep contradicting themselves in the attempt to second-guess this volatile summer, the predicted temperatures were a tad marginal. She found another site on the Atlantic coast not far from Bordeaux that looked nice. It was an area called the Grand Crohot and, looking at it on the map, you could imagine that the little yellow road led to a place among the pine forests that has been barely explored by campers and bathers alike. It would be a little warmer, too.

We got there in roughly four hours. Thus far, so good. However… while no one was willing to admit it at this stage, it was soon clear that the website with its eccentric English translation had lied to us. It was, as the French succinctly put it, moche: right next to what amounted to a main road leading to a car park that accommodated 1500 cars and surrounded by a fetching wire fence that spelled ‘compound’ rather than ‘welcoming family-style campsite’. Nevertheless, we were all tired and the temperature was rising alarmingly. With heavy hearts we pitched our miraculous modern tent. Kazam! Three seconds and it’s up. (Um, er… Three hours and we’re still trying to figure out how to pack it up again. But we would worry about that when the time came.)  

Moreover, we discovered – once my wondrous boot had been emptied of its clobber – that thumping franco-rap was emanating from the overspill camp site on the other side of the busy road and that something, high up in the spindly swaying pines that periodically dropped king-size cones like aerial bombs, was producing an appalling screeching sound. Since the screech appeared to be regular and probably mechanical, I surmised that it was some kind of bird-scaring device. Birds like humans presumably find it hard to tolerate the amplified sound, approximately, of fingernails on a blackboard.  

After a troubled siesta, we felt that we could no longer resist the call of the crashing waves. Too soon, too soon! I heard the helmsman cry. At four in the afternoon, there are still 1500 cars in the car park. There are still multitudes on the beach. The sun is still high in the sky, heating up the sand and beating down on exposed flesh. I watched my dog and daughter both jump about like cats on a hot tin roof during a trek to the blissful water’s edge that seemed as interminable as that epic scene of the sheik on camel-back in Lawrence of Arabia, slowly, slowly materialising from the shimmering horizon.  
Later that evening, when the temperature dropped from 38 degrees Celsius to a more reasonable 32 or so, the wife and I rustled up a pasta dinner on the wallpapering table I had cleverly thought to bring in order to create a kitchenette. Still panting pitifully, Alf sheltered on the leeward side of the car, while The Daughter read her book in the tent. By now, we were too hot to be civil. ‘Disaster’ hung above plot number 78 like an unutterable idea. We had nowhere to plug in our portable fridge and five euros’ worth of best Parmesan from Lidl was threatening to turn liquid unless we ate it all at once. The meal was surprisingly good. 

Later still that evening, we drove to a nearby town, so the girls could walk the dog while I watched a bit of football in a bar with a Pelforth blonde. With Spain and Portugal locked in a stalemate and me wondering whether I should or could drink another beer, my daughter came to find me. She whispered urgently that Alfie had fallen into something noxious. Apparently, he had plunged into black bog by the water’s edge that looked like it might have been tar. It wasn’t. But the pair of them had to pull him out and then try to wash all the stinking black liquid off him. Later we learned that it could have been a bog full of rotting algae, which is not uncommon around the Cap Ferret peninsular. 

That night, we tied him with a rope to the car’s bumper while the three of us bedded down like sardines inside the sweltering tent. Tilley woke me up in the middle of the night to announce that it was now raining, so Alf would have to join us. The temperature had dropped at last. But with a great lump of canine flesh at my feet, I had to contort myself into all kinds of twisted misshapes in order to wriggle half-into my sleeping bag. It was only when he decided to lie down in the hint of space between my daughter’s sleeping bag and my own, that I was able to fully extend my legs and get some unbroken sleep. 

The next morning, the sky was overcast and there was sufficient chill to warrant a fleece. We walked to the beach where a huge tractor was tilling the sand in readiness for the forthcoming human multitude. Apart from the odd litter-picker, there were only three of us and a cavorting Labrador-able on that great expanse of sand, along with a man and his scatty Pomeranian that ran about infectiously like an ethnic handbag on legs. It made us think that perhaps the sea is something you appreciate most out of season.

After breakfast, we voiced the unmentionable. Would it be terribly wrong of us to pack up and drive back to the comfort of our own home? No it would not, we decided unanimously. As boot monitor, I would get the opportunity to rise to my next great challenge two days ahead of schedule. Buoyed by the prospect of going home, we were packed up and ready to go in a trice. Just a matter of packing up the tent. We tried to decipher the diagram on the inside of the cover, and we scratched our heads, and we tried several permutations, but could we make that final figure-of-eight twist that threatened to snap the whole contraption? Could we heck as like. As per, I was reduced to asking for help. A nice young man was camping with his wife or girlfriend next to us n what looked like a smaller version of our tent. He took over with reassuring confidence – but then he too started scratching his head. Finally, together, we came up with something resembling the requisite fold, enabling us to stuff the thing into its cover. I laid it ceremoniously on top of my egregiously packed boot. We could go home! Let’s take ‘em to Missouri, Matt. Yeeee-haaaaa!
Homeward bound, with our daughter professing encouragingly that, despite everything, she’d really, honestly had an enjoyable time, my dear sea-starved wife announced that she was through with camping. She’d got the maritime urge quite out of her system. I nodded sagely and supportively, but just happened to mention that the campsite on the Vendée coast did look rather tempting. The nearest thing, apparently, to camping on the beach itself. A website doesn’t lie, does it?