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, November 25, 2012

A Tale Of Two Hats

Last weekend I experienced one of those awful moments of panic, when you can almost feel your bowels turn themselves inside out. It happened on the Paris Metro. 

My wife and I had travelled up on the 9 o’clock train from Brive en provenance de Toulouse. Leaving nothing to chance, we got to the station at least half an hour before the train was due – only to find that the train was 40 minutes late. This is fairly exceptional here. Brits accustomed to the vagaries of British Rail and its privatised successors wax lyrical about the punctuality of French trains, forgetting that they run only about a third of the number that they do back in the U.K. Given the enormous subsidies that SNCF receives, one has to say that if they can’t run a few trains on time, what hope is there for the country? (Not much – particularly in the face of the cowardly criminals who stole the copper cable that delayed the train.)

We’d come up for a long weekend to stay with The Daughter in her new digs, give her whatever practical support we were able to, visit the big Edward Hopper retrospective at the Grand Palais, and meet up with friends from Sheffield to celebrate a 60th birthday in a swanky restaurant on the rive gauche.  

So I was feeling pretty buoyant and walking along the platform with a spring in my step until… that heart-stopping moment when you realise that you’ve left something important behind and it’s too late to do anything about it. Not my credit card or my life’s savings or a manuscript of unrepeatable brilliance, but my hat. I left it in the luggage rack when I retrieved my coat and our bags.

Oh that’s a relief, you might say, but it was a particularly nice hat. I’ve always had a soft spot for hats and have often sported a titfer during my life, even though I admit that there have been times when I’ve probably looked a dick as a result. But, almost out of a sense of duty, I’ve felt the need to make a stand for the common hat. If I don’t do it, then who will? Really, I should have been born in a time when hats were de rigeur. Ideally, I would have been a Bopper, jamming with the other cats after hours at Minton’s Playhouse. Every one of us in a fine felt hat and double-breasted suit. 
Long, tall Dexter
I’d had this particular hat for over 20 years. I bought it in the sportswear department of the Co-operative Stores in London Road, Brighton. It was a tan-coloured cotton golf hat – the type that Sam Snead might have worn in the days before Arnie Palmer went bare-headed – but I could wear it as the kind of pork-pie hat that Dexter Gordon sports on the cover of Dexter Blows Hot And Cool. Fashions have changed in golf, so I knew that I would never see its like again. Alas, poor hat, I knew thee well.  

Tilley’s landlady persuaded me to go straight back to the Gare d’Austerlitz and fill out a déposition. Lost property is not what it used to be. These days the service has been outsourced to a company that charges you €9 minimum to re-unite owner and missing object. The woman at the Acceuil looked in the next room, where anything found on a train sits until the end of the day before being taken off to the out-sourcers, but no… My hat was probably travelling back to Toulouse at that very moment. I filled in the form in the hope that it might be found by a responsible member of the community, who didn’t want to wear someone else’s dirty hat in a misguided attempt to look like Dexter Gordon blowing hot and cool. 

'The Thin Man'
Strange how it goes, though. The next day was Saturday and there was a big bi-monthly vide grenier in the nearby Boulevard Richard Lenoir, where the Canal Saint-Martin flows underneath the wide central reservation. It was my kind of attic sale: dozens of stallholders charging sensible prices in an effort to sell rather than continue to hoard their bric-a-brac. I found a DVD boxed set of rugby world cup highlights for a buck, a semi-rare LP for three, a little je ne sais quoi for our neighbours to thank them for feeding our cats and… a hat! A light-grey felt hat sufficiently malleable to shape into a pork-pie like the ones that Wardell Gray used to wear (before he was found dead, dumped in the desert near Las Vegas). I offered the woman a crisp ten-euro note instead of the €12 on the ticket. She agreed, but pointed out that it was a Lanvin. It might have been a Johnny Stompanato for all I know about hat manufacturers, so I smiled and gave her my best Gallic shrug. 

When I returned to our daughter’s new quarters, an elegant fin de siècle third-floor apartment miniaturised by her landlady’s clutter, Tilley was so excited by the fact that I’d come back with a Lanvin hat that you would have thought I’d won the Lottery. She pogoed on the parquet and clapped her hands like a performing sea lion. Clearly, the boy had done good. The landlady was so impressed that she went out to the Boulevard Richard Lenoir and, a woman after my own heart, came back later with more clutter for the apartment. 

And so my new hat was to serve me well over the course of our long weekend. On Sunday morning, Debs and I queued in the persistent drizzle for two and a half hours for the Edward Hopper exhibition. My hat kept my head dry. Tilley and her landlady came to join us just before we reached the head of the queue. The exhibition was worth the wait and the price of admission. And I was elated to find the famous self-portrait, in which Hopper depicted himself wearing a particularly fine brown trilby. 

That evening, I wore my hat to the swanky restaurant on the left bank. Only, I surrendered it at the door, so our friends from Sheffield who were already à table couldn’t admire it. Which meant that I wasn’t able to announce, It’s a Lanvin, you know. Never mind, we had a nice meal and a lovely time in the company of eight friends from our old stamping ground. Debs wanted to walk across the river afterwards and catch a bus back to République, but we didn’t know where it left from, so we all ended up walking to the same Metro station, where we sat on opposite platforms, waiting to travel in opposite directions. She and I did a little dance for the others, because we’re not afraid of making a spectacle of ourselves, and I doffed my hat to acknowledge the applause.

On the Monday evening train back to Brive, I checked the luggage racks in case I found an old hat lurking in the shadows. I didn’t. I sat with my new hat on my knees all the way to the end of the line, for fear of failure to learn from experience. It now sits atop a standard lamp in my ‘office’ on the mezzanine. I like my new hat, but I miss my old one from the London Road Co-op. It will take me a while longer to get over the loss.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Back In The Backwoods

My Belgian friend, Kim, phoned late on Friday evening to ask me what I was doing the next morning. Would I like to meet up with him at Les Voyageurs in Beaulieu for a cup of coffee? He’d welcome my opinion about a place he’d recently seen. 

Beaulieu’s a 25-minute drive up river from here, but I’m a sucker when it comes to a request from a friend for my ‘valued opinion’. Besides, on a wet Saturday morning with my wife away at the coalface in Brive, there are times when – to paraphrase David Byrne – you ‘just want to be with the boys’.

By the time I found a parking space for a car full of shopping, the heavy morning rain had stopped. Kim was there outside the café with John-from-Leeds and a French guy whom I recognised from the local association to which we belong. I joined them for a coffee, croissant and one of my tri-monthly ‘rollies’. I lit and re-lit it with a pocket flame-thrower that John had found in a Bar Tabac, It would serve, he joked, for ‘crèmes chuffin’ brulées’. 

I’m substituting here a euphemism I picked up in Sheffield for a rather more common Anglo-Saxon adjective. There was an all-female dance or comedy troupe in the Steel City that went by the splendid name of The Chuffinells. John’s a lovely guy in his early 60s, who wears his long greying hair in a pony-tail. He’s lived in France so long now that he punctuates both his English and his quirky but serviceable French with the Anglo-Saxon adjective. It’s almost like a nervous tic. 

While the wafer-thin waitress, with a perma-grin and a back-combed hairstyle that reminded me of Siouxsee Sioux in her pomp, served us more coffee, John talked enthusiastically of wanting to build an earthship in the vicinity if he could find a suitable plot of land and a mayor with an open mind. ‘C’est le chuffin’ avenir, tu sais? Pas une maison en pierre qui coûte une chuffin’ fortune à chauffer…’ I couldn’t agree more and told him how we had been inspired by the earthships of Taos, New Mexico. Re-cycled materials, passive solar heating, re-circulating wastewater… it has to be the chuffin’ future.

We drove off in a convoy of two cars, over the river and up into the hills. Kim explained his idea to me: to buy, under the umbrella of the association, this ruined house he’d seen, do it up with volunteer help, install someone who needed a place to live as a kind of caretaker, use the space for social and educational activities and, in the process perhaps, show people that there is a different way of doing things. It sounded like a nice project.

The Correze at its magnificent best
As we climbed further up the valley side and deeper into the chestnut backwoods, however, my heart grew a little heavier. There were magnificent views, sure enough, but the altitude spelled harsher winters and we were straying into the kind of territory where folk rock on their porches and trade licks on their banjos and interfere with liberal idealists and foreigners. I’d been there, done that and relegated the T-shirt to my bag of rags.

The hamlet was little more than a handful of houses on either side of the road. It didn’t strike me as the kind of hamlet that would welcome new blood and fresh ideas. We parked on the muddy verges and Kim showed us first of all the bread oven that was part of the ensemble. The price, he explained, for house, barn, bread oven and around 4,000 square meters of land was around €65,000. The inheritors of the property would take 45. Thierry, one of the other guys who had joined us by now, suggested that this was ‘correct’.

Ruin for renovation
Kim led us into the main house. The old boy who’d lived here all his life had died at 89 around the beginning of the year. Yet, when I stepped inside, it looked as if the house had been abandoned a decade ago. In the morning room, there was a big fireplace, an old telly on top of an old fridge, some sort of cooker and a table. In the bedroom, a man’s clothes were scattered inside an open chest of drawers, and rusty springs protruded through a mattress that was shedding its innards. It was shocking to envisage the kind of squalid and impoverished existence that the old man must have led.  

Kim explained that he’d calculated around €10,000 euros for the materials needed to turn the place around. I reckoned at least €20,000 and then some, based on the Law of Renovation: that it will cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think. John’s verdict was rather more uncompromising. ‘Je te jure, c’est un chuffin’ trou Africain’. An African hole; a money pit. 10,000 just for the stuff that was hidden. ‘I’ve done it too many chuffin’ times, and I want no chuffin’ part of it. And you know what’ll happen? Everyone will be chuffin’ fired up with enthusiasm at first and we’ll get it cleaned out and have a chuffin’ party and then that enthusiasm will die away. People’ll find some chuffin’ excuse for not coming out here when you need them. It’ll take you five chuffin’ years and when you finish, if you chuffin’ finish, you’ll have a compro-mise. Buy a chuffin’ plot of land and build something that will really chuffin’ enthuse and inspire people. You can specify what you want, build it around your re-cycled doors and chuffin’ windows and you’ll end up with something that’s fit for chuffin’ purpose, takes a fraction of the chuffin’ time and costs less.’

When we looked over the barn, the solution was simpler still. ‘Pull the chuffer down before it chuffin’ falls on top of you!’ A couple of good old boys in hunters’ khaki from across the road wandered past at this point and regarded us quizzically. We muttered our respective bonjours and Thierry suggested wryly: ‘Ils sont pas finis’. The unfinished, half-cooked articles.  

Good neighbours
God knows what they thought of the motley dozen that we were by now. Most of us had seen enough to reach a verdict. We were fond enough of Kim not to spare him what we believed to be the truth, even though our candour visibly wounded him. Winding back down to Beaulieu, we passed another good old boy in full hunting regalia, cradling a pump-action shotgun by the side of the road. He, too, looked more than a tad unfinished. I glared back at him through the passenger window of Thierry’s car. 

He dropped John and me near the mairie. We chatted for a while, mainly about the misadventures of a mutual friend. In searching for a pen in my bag, I found a letter that I should have posted a week ago to pay my retirement tax (by any other name). John promised to drop it into the central post box for me.

It was lunchtime and the place was deserted. As I drove off, heading for the familiarity of home and the prospect of a late and hasty lunch, I felt that, nine years down the line, I’d just about shed the baggage from nearly a decade spent in backwoods not too dissimilar from those I’d just seen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

'Blow Winds And Crack...'

Two things have weighed rather heavily on the family this All Saints’ week. Like a Formula One pit-stop team, my wife and I have been servicing our daughter full-time: keeping her fed and watered and supported so that she finds the stamina to tackle all the projects she brought home from Paris. 

It has been quite an eye-opener to discover what is expected of a first-year student in this country. Apart from the occasional family film and the few hours she took off on her 18th birthday, the pressure – which truly doesn’t come from her contrarian parents – has been relentless. Some of her friends who are studying more academic subjects weren’t even granted a week off, so she counts herself lucky. Deborah, apparently, heard someone complaining that the youngsters of today aren’t as serious and as hard working as they were in her day. Well, in my day by comparison, we were a bunch of wastrels.

The other heavyweight thing – when we’ve been granted a few moments off from the pit-stop for reflection – has been Hurricane Sandy and, in particular, the devastation it has wreaked in the New York area. It’s a sad fact of human nature (or my nature!) that our hearts may go out to victims of natural disasters in, say, the Dominican Republic, but it isn’t generally until we see images of the more familiar places that we discover true empathy. 

There’s probably nowhere on earth that is more collectively familiar, even to those who have never been there, than New York. Even as a young kid, for example, the Empire State Building became such a byword for everything modern that it assumed mystical proportions in my imagination. As a music lover, the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina was hard to swallow, but I had never been there. So the image of a family, say, floating on a makeshift raft through the streets of the Crescent City didn’t strike such a familiar chord as pictures of the seawater pouring into a subway station. 

'Dark cloud on the horizon...'
To compound our interest, my nephew and my oldest friend were in New York when the wind blew in from the Caribbean. My nephew’s a big cheese in the contentious world of wind farms, so he was staying in a midtown hotel, out of harm’s way. My friend lives in a basement apartment not far from the west side of Central Park. I pictured the floodwater carrying off all the books he keeps in piles on the floor like literary tower blocks and sweeping away his extraordinary record collection, but apparently the tide didn’t reach that far up Manhattan. I haven’t heard from him, but that’s not unusual, so I have to assume that he survived Sandy as he survived 9/11.

We’re so lucky that hurricanes hardly ever happen in Hertford, Hereford, Hampshire and here in France. That said, I’ve experienced two in the comparatively short time I’ve been in partnership with my wife. In 1987, the year our relationship went three-dimensional, to borrow a friend’s delicious phrase, we were living in a basement bed-sit in Brighton. I was away in Bournemouth at the time, helping to run a course in a big hotel that overlooked the promenade.  

No cause for alarm
I had a bedroom on the angle of the hotel. There were two windows: one seemed to look west-ish and the other east-ish. I’d gone to bed early to read my book and await a call from the self-same friend, who was over in the U.K. at the time. This might have been one reason why I never thought to get out of there when the wind began to blow. Or maybe it was simply because I turn into an ostrich at such moments. I remember clearly the sound of smashing slates and masonry as the wind gathered force. It blew right through my bedroom and the bed shook as if there was a malevolent poltergeist in the room. Perhaps I was frozen with terror, but it never occurred to me to get up and go down into the foyer.

The next day, of course, the extent of the wreckage was visible everywhere. There was no public transport and no apparent way of getting back to Brighton. Fortunately, I negotiated a lift with someone who was driving that way. The phone lines were down, so there was no way of getting a message to my beloved. We drove through the New Forest, past countless uprooted trees and others probably teetering on the brink. We got to Brighton without incident and as we drove along the Hove seafront, I gazed at one of the beautiful Regency houses of Brunswick Terrace with a gaping wound where the stucco façade had been peeled back by the force of the wind. 

I found my gal shaken and stirred but safe and sound and very relieved to see me. The wind had swept down the road where we lived and blown over all the trees of the little churchyard at the end, so that the church itself was hidden by the vegetation. That evening, we went to the jazz club together on the seafront to see James Moody, the American tenor saxophonist, play acoustically and memorably by candlelight.  

12 years later, thanks to the miracle of reproduction, there were three of us and we were in France. The millennium was but a year away and everyone was already talking about computer bugs. We’d been to a party in the middle of nowhere and stayed overnight in a wooden shack to which mein host would retire to write. On the way back home to the Corrèze, I remember the ominous slate-grey sky and an unnatural, disquieting stillness. As far as I knew, there had been no Michel Poisson on national television to reassure the population that all was well. Nothing untoward was brewing up offshore.

This kind of thing
The wind started buffeting the house early in the evening. Tilley was in bed in her bedroom next to ours underneath the roof. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary wind, so we brought her downstairs and the three of us huddled around our sole heating source, a fairly primitive wood-burning stove that blew hot air into a living space too large for its capacity. We could hear things being blown around outside and knew when the wind was gusting because it felt as if the glass door of the fire was about to shatter. Once the ouragan started ripping the sheets of corrugated iron off the nearby barn roofs and tossing them around like tin cans, it got really scary. We heard banging at one point and surmised that someone had climbed onto his roof with a hammer and nails in a futile and inadvisable attempt to secure his tin roof. Probably Pierre, goaded no doubt by his abominable bovine wife.   

In the aftermath of that imperfect storm, our electricity was cut off for a good fortnight. Fortunately, Debs always keeps a good stock of Ikea night-lights and we were able to burn wood, even if we couldn’t blow out the hot air. A dog turned up during the blackout. We called him Geoffrey and lodged him in our barn, since he didn’t seem happy venturing into the house. He wandered off again in the spring on discovering that a domesticated role wasn’t for him. 

There are chestnut woods everywhere and huge plantations of pine trees in that part of the Corrèze. Reminders of the hurricane were all around us for the rest of our time in that department: swathes of pine trees snapped in half like balsa wood by the wind; the huge elm trees that lined a part of the road we would take when visiting the Lot flattened and gone forever.  

Heaven knows how long it will take and how much borrowed money it will cost to get the eastern U.S. seaboard back in operation. The awful thing is, given a seemingly annual hurricane season in the Caribbean, it may not be long before the next one arrives. Hurricanes happen here, but still rarely enough to warrant the label ‘freakish’. So ‘blow winds and crack ye hurricanoes’ if ye must, but never again please near these parts.