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, March 31, 2013

Eggs Over Easter

I’ve always loved Easter. Part of this affection derives from its unpredictability. Unless you stay alert, it can sneak up and surprise you. There’s none of the relentless build-up to Christmas that keeps your eyes fixed on a firm date. Faced with an unmarked calendar, would you know from one year to the next whether to plump for March or April?

In France, they might well kiss on Main Street, but they certainly don’t feel comfortable about Easter. When we mention to French friends that we will be celebrating Easter this year as every year, their looks suggest that we’ve just come out as born-again Christians. It’s as if the religious origins of the holiday are still too potent. They must be resolutely denied if the country is to keep on its secular Republican course.

As a kid, of course, Easter coincided with two weeks off school. My maternal grandparents would send us a box full of chocolate eggs from the mainland, in case you couldn’t buy them in a far-flung corner of the British Isles like Northern Ireland. One Easter, I remember rootling through the straw or whatever packaging it was they had used to pack out the box to find a Corgi car for each of us four grandchildren. The surprise was all the better because you don’t expect that kind of thing at Easter.

And so there’s no denying Paques. Ever since we’ve lived here, we’ve marked the occasion in the face of local indifference. For many years, until The Daughter grew too old to oblige, it has usually meant an Easter egg hunt involving friends with young children. Come rain or come shine – and usually, because Easter comes at an unpredictable time of year when spring is struggling to slip out of winter’s grip, it has meant rain or cold or both.  

This year is our first year without our sentimental child’s moral support. Fortunately, a friend of hers from schooldays in Brive has gone to Paris to spend the weekend with her. Otherwise, she would have been inconsolable. We would have to celebrate Easter Sunday without her youthful input.

As a student, Debs used to invite friends round for hand-painted boiled eggs and toasted ‘soldiers’. Maybe this is why we opted for an extended ‘jazz brunch’: with scrambled eggs royale on toast (cooked very, very slowly in the way suggested on the Guardian home page, enhanced with chopped smoked salmon), more toast, more smoked salmon, mounds of croissants, multifarious fruit juices and lashings of strong coffee, set against a soundtrack of Duke Ellington, Kenny Burrell and the Bill Charlap Trio’s interpretation of West Side Story. Yes, everything’s great in America and not too bad in the northern Lot either. In the sunshine, you can forget that the whole world’s locked in a state of chassis.

It was an international brunch with six Brits, two tall Germans, an anglicised French woman (who understood that our celebration carried no threat to the Republic) and an American friend, who brought his beautiful Hasselblad camera and captured portraits of couples on our back balcony. Because our German friends always arrive late, there was time to warn the others not to mention Lidl. We even poured the fruit juice out of sight lest they spot a telltale trademark. Being both German and fiercely principled, they could be scandalised to discover that the comestibles had come largely from their least-favourite supermarket. And because they always do everything with such style in their big manorial house, I would have felt as chastened as a child caught dipping his finger into the sugar bowl should a casual remark have given the game away. Komm, Achim, wir mussen nach Hausen gehen. Oh, Shame and scandal in the fam-i-ly.

But it never came to pass. Achim and Martina also revere Easter and even like to mark Good Friday, as we do in the UK. It’s too easy to overlook it in France, because work goes on like any other day. My wife likes to rib me every year that I fail to furnish her with hot-cross buns. This year being no exception, I made instead traditional Good Friday curries, which we ate in front of an episode of Breaking Bad that hooked us once and for all on a drama centred on cancer and crystal meth. It proved that our stomachs are not yet too weak for such adult themes.

The crystal meth theme continued into Easter Saturday, because we watched Winter’s Bone, a film that focused on a meth-cooking community of largely terrifying rednecks. It suggested to both of us that Missouri could be as bad a tourist destination as the Congo. Even though Tilley likes Jennifer Lawrence, we took a parental position: she doesn’t need to know yet at her time of life just what a scary place the world can be outside the Lot. Delete the sucker!

It was a brutal way to conclude an Easter Saturday remarkable for its gregariousness. First, a lunchtime party to celebrate a friend’s 65th birthday. There I met a man from Norn Iron, who used to work for the Health & Safety Executive. He remembers carrying out official visits at the factory where my father worked (or, knowing my father as I do, ‘shirked’). His daughter boarded at the school where I learnt to decline amo, amas, amat and repeat French phrases (without an American accent) in what I imagine must have been one of the first language labs in the province. Ou se trouve la boulangerie? La boulangerie est en face de l’église.

Few things animate me quite like the sound of a friendly Ulster accent. John is well over 60, but still maintains the foul mouth of a teenage schoolboy. There is something so sweet and musical about the way an Irishman swears; I could listen for hours without feeling either threatened or the slightest bit shocked.

Debs joined me after her busy Saturday morning schedule of repairing damaged psyches, and we went on to Bilhac, where Bret and Laurence had lit their bread oven, so friends could bring’n’bake their bread and pizzas and apple tarts. While Laurence surveyed the wondrous flames deep within the domed oven, our crazy host entertained us by shaving his hair with my old Wahl hair-clippers. Open-mouthed, we watched him cut a great swathe right through the middle of his locks in the way that the men from ERDF fell any undergrowth that threatens their power lines. It’ll grow again, he reassured us.

Bret cuts a swathe through his hair
And now Easter’s almost over for another year. There is at least a Bank Holiday Monday to look forward to. Our jazz brunch was a great success and I think it’s likely to become a tradition. Next year, I’d like everyone to go away with a chocolate egg. For those of you who want to try it at home, it would work equally well with flamenco or bossa nova. Just don’t mention Lidl.

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