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, August 26, 2012

Everything Must Go

It’s symptomatic that our British neighbours are selling up after 20 years. That we shall now have French neighbours on either side of us seems somewhat appropriate.
‘Symptomatic’ because, over the course of the last five years or so – really, since our fragile and corrupt financial world imploded and since sterling took a nose-dive against a ‘basket of currencies’ – the influx of ex-pats from the U.K. seems to have been stemmed and even reversed. Just about everywhere, estate agents have the renovated properties of Brits on their books.  
In the case of our departing neighbours, it was clearly not a financial issue. If you can imagine the trailer for the film of the Oscar-nominated drama: He was a retired chartered accountant who did quite well, thank you, in the City. She was a well-heeled heiress from solid Middle England stock. For 20 years, they lived half the year in England and half the year in France. But then one day… they found themselves grandparents. France seemed like a long way away from family life and their large garden was increasingly becoming a burden. There was nothing else for it, but to put their beautiful house on the market…
They’ve been here even longer than we have. Strangely, too, they made the same initial mistake – of buying in an apparent rural idyll where (it became increasingly clear) they shouldn’t really have settled. Like us, they moved further west and discovered a more cosmopolitan coin where they felt immediately at home. Nevertheless, they’ve somehow managed to avoid learning the language. Derek makes a valiant effort, but his phone message, for example, sounds like something that a man from the BBC Home Service might have recorded in wartime for our valiant French allies.
Their beautiful house-and-garden have always been high maintenance and, during the eight years or so that we have been neighbours – rarely actually seeing each other, but reassured by one another’s presence – they have spent less and less time here. So when Derek came round (in his charming thoroughbred fashion) to announce their decision to move back, we feigned surprise even though we’d long seen the writing on the wall.

After a little more than a year on the market, they’ve sold the house for near enough the asking price to another retired couple – from Lille, oop north. For the last month or so, they’ve taken time off from their grand-parental duties to come back and pack up. All through the recent tropical heat wave, they’ve been beavering away with boxes. Ever fastidious, Derek prepared a list of surplus items for sale, complete with French translations and precise dimensions. A kind of upper-middle-class yard sale.
Last week, I dropped round to check out their sole remaining rug – in the hope of finding something to replace the blue rug from Ikea in our sitting room, which has been systematically shredded by the dog’s claws. I found Derek ferrying stuff, reluctantly, from his immaculate cave to his trailer. He’d just misplaced his glasses, so I offered to help him look for them – only to be distracted by the contents of his trailer. I found an old wine box that I thought might come in useful for all those loose CDs that have lost their moorings and need to be re-shelved as and when.
Then his wife arrived and took me into the house to look at the sole remaining rug. I didn’t think that the colour scheme would quite go with ours, so I had to say ‘no’. Out of sheer curiosity, however, I checked out the two matching pine wardrobes and chests of drawers that represented great value and figured that, if I could just rationalise our recently re-organised our cave, perhaps with the help of our daughter, who’s currently living her own phoney war before the great adventure of higher education starts, then they might come in very useful. Thought bubble: I could store my work clothes, while Debs would have somewhere to hang the seasonal rejects from her everyday wardrobe.
She led me into the little maison des invités, the Wendy house that became our godsend for the winter months when we were constructing our new house here, and pretty soon I had said yes to a double duvet. Not that we really need a double duvet, but it looked far too good to chuck out and you never know when it might come in handy.
By the time we stepped outside again, Derek had found two unopened tins of some Cuprinol product for sealing wooden decking. Since I’d been looking at the startling prices of similar products in Brico Depot only the day before, I bit his hand off when he asked me whether I could use them. And what about that spray thing you bought for putting it on? his wife reminded him. So that, too, found its way into the pile of stuff I was amassing, like a lucky contestant in some game show, outside the door of their cave.
And then Derek invited me inside his holy of holies – and that’s when all the trouble started. I justified the badminton set, because it’s something that we had talked about for some time. As for the chapiteau… that sort of mini-marquee construction favoured by the rural French for al fresco bouffes: well, we’ve sometimes discussed the great notion of setting up a sound system on the front balcony for outdoor dance parties. It’s only really the possibility of rain that has held us back. And if the ants and badminton haven’t massacred our lawn completely, well we could always get hold of some old carpets and use them as a dance floor inside our new canvas disco inferno. So yes please, you never know when it might come in handy.
And this 12-volt battery charger? I don’t know if it still works, but it’s still in its box. Well, if it did work… you never know when it might come in handy. After all, I’ve already left the Berlingo’s headlights on at least three times since moving here. And on the floor of the cave was a whole array of old screw-top jars, containing carefully graded screws and nails and other handy nick-nacks. I’m coming down with screws and nails and assorted nick-nacks, but it seemed wrong to let Derek take them to the tip after all that hard work of grading and categorising.
And so it came to pass that I spurned a rug only to have to go back and fetch the car so I could bring back another consignment of stuff that may or may never get used. It’s the curse of the squirrel. May it never befall thee. My challenge now, should I choose to accept it, is to be sufficiently inspired by those assorted screw-top jars to organise my life and all its detritus more in the spirit of our departing British neighbours. They will be sadly missed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Woodpiles Of Savoy

You may know by now that I have this thing about woodpiles. The more geometric they are, the greater my fascination. It’s as if the meticulous nature of the construction provides a glimpse into the private life of the constructor. It has to be a man – and a fairly anally-retentive one at that. 
Some of the finest woodpiles I have thus far located in France are to be found in Savoie. I’ve been spotting woodpiles in the erstwhile Duchy for well over a decade – ever since our stays with friends from London in Philip’s in a little village called La Chapelle Blanche. There was indeed a lovely white chapel in the village and, right opposite Philip’s maternal grandmother’s house, an extraordinary mural of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. This masterpiece of kitsch was the work of the householder, an Italian by origin. Over time, it had become a local landmark. Philip and I once shared a flat above an Italian deli in Brighton when we were students together and the Snow White mural always got us reminiscing about the fixtures and fittings of our former lodging. The kinetic orange wallpaper of my bedroom once drove away a visiting friend, because he was susceptible to migraines. We paid our monthly rent to the Godmother, as we called her: a tiny bespectacled woman who seemed to totter under the weight of her bleached blonde beehive, which pre-dated Marge Simpson’s barnet by several years.  

It’s apt that such magnificent woodpiles are to be found in such a spectacular region of France. The grandmother’s house, for instance, was perched on a steep grassy slope dotted about with fecund apricot trees high above a tributary of the river Rhone. At night, served by Philip’s maiden aunt who would come down from Paris with the keys to the linen cupboard and wait resentfully upon all who stayed in the house that she co-owned with her sister, we would eat dinner on the terrace and watch the sun set over the Massif de Chambery. You could climb up to the top of the mountain-ette on which the village sat for a view across the snow-capped peaks to Mont Blanc itself. It was Himalaya City.
Whether it was his aunt who ground them down with her martyrdom to the cause of other people’s enjoyment, I don’t know, but Philip and his family gradually stopped going to La Chapelle Blanche. Or maybe they simply continued to go there unannounced, because the Sampson family failed to pull its collective weight. The result was that the region we’d fallen in love with went unvisited until last summer, when other old friends invited us to their summer retreat.
Claude’s grandmother bequeathed him the wine grower’s store, or cellier, where she spent much of the war hiding out from the Germans with little more than a sink and a wood stove to keep her going. Over roughly two decades, Claude and Jacqui have been rendering it little by little rather more habitable for privileged citoyens of the 21st century. The cottage nestles at the foot of a dauntingly steep drive, hidden away by the undergrowth from tourists and occupying armies. It overlooks the Rhone valley just north of the Lac de Bourget, the biggest natural lake in France. From the nearby village, you look across to a ring of mountains on the horizon, which suggested to Balzac the chipped rim of a bowl containing the cool, clear water of the lake. It’s a view worthy of the woodpile just by the typical walled cemetery. I envy its owner in the same way as I envy my brother-in-law’s desk. Even the Welsh version of the humble adjective ‘tidy’ wouldn’t do it justice. If I had a stock of wood like that – with enough logs for at least six harsh winters, all cut uniformly, graded clearly according to drying-time and stacked under solid cover with the perfection of a mathematical equation – I think I could stop worrying about hyperinflation and all those other predicted disasters to come. 
Maybe I shouldn’t reveal this, but… at the opposite end of the lake to the ever-popular spa town of Aix-les-Bains, you can bathe in the most awe-inspiring swimming pond imaginable, largely untroubled by the kind of maddening crowds you find in most other tourist hotspots at this time of year. No wonder that we jumped at the opportunity to go there for the second August in succession and renew our love affair with an area that didn’t become properly French until after its ‘incorporation’ following the Treaty of Turin in 1860 (and a plebiscite that was reputedly as skewed as a Zimbabwean presidential election).
There’s only one problem about Savoie – it’s seven hours there and seven hours back. That’s a long time for three humans and a dog and all their clobber (packed with the economy of Savoyard firewood) in my wife’s 107. It’s a modern miniature car, so it’s got a better economy rate and a better stereo than the Berlingo, and – although rarely used – it comes with climatisation (not for us, you understand, but for the comfort of a panting dog). To the eternal credit of the group that adopted such a socially responsible name, we all surely know by now that Dogs Die In Hot Cars.
And so it came to pass that, blissfully far from the world of e-mails and wi-fi, I failed to despatch my customary missive. We spent five days with friends in near perfect harmony, pursuing the kind of Edwardian aristocratic rhythms depicted in The Go Between. a leisurely breakfast followed by a leisurely swim in the limpid water of the lake, followed by a protracted lunch, a drowsy read and a blissful, leisurely siesta before a protracted dinner. So utterly carefree did my good wife and I feel that, one morning, while everyone else was still asleep, we took the dog out for a walk around the local vines… in pyjama bottoms. The humans, that is, not the dog. And did we give a fig – even when passed by the very occasional car? Even when the thought crossed our minds that they might wonder whether we wore pyjama bottoms in bed? We did not.
After dinner, while the women folk sipped port and smoked cigars underneath the wisteria, Claude and I were even able to watch the final evenings of Olympic derring-do from London on the telly that he brought with him from home. I can tell you now that the French coverage was no less partisan than the BBC’s.
Five days is a perfect length of time for a holiday with even the very best of friends. You can leave before any nagging and niggling dampens relations, secure in the knowledge that you won’t have blotted your copybook. It was a long, hot journey back from the Duchy of Savoy in a tiny tightly packed car. Apart from the dismal stretch between Lyon and St. Etienne, you speed past stunning scenery on under-employed motorways. Maybe I wasn’t looking properly, or maybe I had been spoiled by what I’d seen in Savoie, but – strange to relate – I didn’t spot a single woodpile.
Not until the old familiar rather haphazard pile that lines our track. It’s still always good to get home.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Beach Volleyball

I feel that I’ve let my fellow cynics down. I took a kind of unspoken personal vow to give the current Olympics a cold shoulder or two. All those millions of pounds; all those teeming crowds; all that patriotic hysteria. It wasn’t for me.

But then I kept re-running that scene from Bus Stop – when the ingenuous cowboy wanders into the truck stop and hears Marilyn Monroe’s ‘chantoose’ sing ‘That old black may-agic has got me in its spay-ell’. Sport is my old black may-agic and it’s often impossible to resist its spay-ell. I’m a sucker for human endeavour. Maybe it goes back to that talk we had at school from Chay Blythe, the man who rowed across the Atlantic. Maybe it goes back even further – to my kid sister’s and my attempt to dig a hole from London to Australia. Deeper, longer, higher, faster… As one of our rowing ‘champeens’ said: ‘This was our masterpiece. This was what we’ve been working four years to create.’ Roughly speaking. This week I’ve realised that it is for me, after all.  

‘Round and round I go…’ It was the cycling that sucked me in. I was doing fine up to that point. I’d resisted all the initial ballyhoo. Then, on Wednesday morning, I did my back in while lifting a manhole cover to read some meters underneath at the chateau I superintend. I managed to climb back into the Berlingo and make my way very gingerly back home. Fortunately, my wife (have you met my wife, the healer?) has taken a couple of weeks off work and she was on hand to pick up the pieces.

Close encounters of the cycling kind
While under her intensive care, I have been immobilised and forbidden to do anything that might be construed as ‘useful’. So what can a man do, but stretch out in front of the telly to watch our British cyclists being marvellous and inspiring? The mere sight of the four-man pursuit team in their science-fiction helmets cycling in perfect unison, those lycra-covered legs pumping up and down like synchronised pistons, with the leader periodically peeling off to disappear up the track and then down again to slot in behind the three automata in front, well… I’m lost for words, Gaby. All those medals and all those new world records. It’s enough to make you feel proud to be British – especially once we leap-frogged over the French in the medals table. 

It’s crazy. I mean, who really should give a monkey’s in the light of what’s happening in Syria, in the light of imminent global meltdown? It’s bread and circuses to keep us happy and off the streets. And it works. I even caught myself feeling ambivalent about the velodrome. It cost an obscene amount to build a stadium that will probably see very little use once they’ve extinguished that nouveau Art Nouveau-ish Olympic flame – and I’ll bet all that Siberian pine they used for the track didn’t come from properly managed forests. But maybe the expenditure was justified in terms of a monument to the men and women in lycra who conquered the world and put the Great back in Britain. Oh pu-lease! Did I think that? Do me a favour and hit the red button.

Incidentally, does anyone possess – and use – this fabled red button? I’ve got a red button on my zapper, but it turns the telly on and off – and no one’s allowed to use it, because it puts the set on standby and, as everyone should know by now, if we turned off our electronic devices properly rather than leaving them on standby, we’d obviate the need for 24 (or is it 25?) new coal-fired power stations. My daughter came back from her big adventure in London on Thursday evening to speak (among other things) of beach volleyball in Horseguards Parade. I suspect that if I had a red button to press, I’d find such daft sports on offer. Things like synchronised dressage and all those other idiotic pursuits that often seem to be the province of toffs. 

Even if the women’s beach volleyball teams do wear deliciously skimpy bikinis, it’s intrinsically quite as daft as the ‘sport’ or ‘discipline’ of etching was in the 1948 London Olympics. The current Olympiad is light years removed from the cinder tracks and ideological amateurism of 1948. In those distant days of ripping yarns, the ‘just-to-compete’ Olympic ethos prevailed – which is probably why we Brits, who always did amateurism so well, won about two medals. So you can’t really compare the two games, but what troubles the sports fan in me about the current shindig are the side effects of our new ultra-professional approach to sport. I’ve found it pitiful to witness our Olympians apologising to the track- or pool-side microphone for ‘only a’ bronze or silver rather than gold. They’ve let the nation down etc.It’s only one small step from there to the samurai’s self-disembowelment. One has to hope that common sense will prevail. Personally, I found our un-fancied female judo warrior’s silver more inspiring than Sir Chris Hoy’s umpteenth gold.  

This weekend the track and field events start in earnest. This is where I give up any last hope of disdainful distance. History – and the notion of the pantheon – renders me imbecilic. With lolling tongue and vacant stare, I find myself re-running all those great Olympic moments that took up long-term residence inside my grey matter: Lyn the Leap and Mary Rand at Tokyo; Tommy Smith and his fellow black-gloved protesters at Mexico; Bob Beamon defying gravity and almost clearing the sandpit; David Hemery and his nose steaming along the home straight to win the 400 meter hurdles; Sally Gunnell and the tragic Lilian Board; Don Thompson and his knotted handkerchief walking that crazy long-distance walker’s walk to glory; Sebco and Steve Ovett battling it out over the 800 and 1500 metres; Ed Moses, the coolest athlete ever to hurdle the earth; Michael Johnson, who could run at the speed of light while leaning backwards; Norn Iron’s very own delightful Mary Peters; plucky, pugnacious Brendan Foster and Lasse Viren, the elegant Finn; Kip Keino, Abebe Bikila, and Haile Gebrselassie (not be confused with the Lion of Judah); Peter Snell and John Walker, the men in black; Ron Clarke, the greatest Olympic loser of all times… And so it goes on, like a parade of shimmering ghosts. 

Thanks to my wife’s ministrations, I am almost able-bodied again (in a new world record time) and ready once more to go about my daily business of simulating usefulness. Nevertheless, I shall be plonked unashamedly in front of the TV this evening, cheering on Mo Farah in the 10,000 and Sheffield’s very own and very endearing Jessica Ennis, who went to school with old friends’ assorted daughters. The heptathlon is a gruelling event that demands an incredible range of sporting excellence. If she wins, I’m not yet quite ready to leap up and down and wave my arms in the air like I just don’t care, but I’ll be cheering for all I’m worth and there in Olympic spirit with all those delirious ticket holders in that magnificent, probable white elephant of a stadium.