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, May 19, 2013

Pleasing The Punters

We’re due to go to a rockabilly festival this weekend in the little town of Alassac, north of Brive, where we bought some bathroom fittings for our first house in France many moons ago and had our first run-in with a shop assistant over the vexed issue of customer service.

It’s not so much a festival, in the Isle of Wight sense of the word, more an early animation d’été: a summer spectacle designed by an enterprising commune to pull in a few tourists. Only a little one – in the vanguard of the big ones that turn July and August into a festive blow-out. Neither of us are great fans of rockabilly, which treads the dangerous demilitarised zone between rock ‘n’ roll and country & western (with all them good old boys in pick-up trucks and their big-haired cow-eyed gals singing about affairs of the heart). However, our friends, the Three Steves, are playing there and they play a good mix of rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues.

I forget what they call themselves – something like the Head Honchos or Rancho Notorious, or… something actually not very like that at all. So we think of them as three guys named Steve: American Steve, who slaps a mean double bass and tries out the beautiful vintage guitars he imports from the States; Steve Jay, a professional musician imported from Malvern, who lays down a rock-solid beat on drums and plays keyboards when called upon at parties and more intimate gigs; and Steve Michaels, who plays a beautiful Fender Stratocaster and shares my penchant for such lesser known R&B minstrels of the 1950s as Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris and Bull Moose Jackson (who famously sung about his big ten-inch… record of the blues).

Rockabilly and music of that kidney seems to be quite popular in these parts. There’s an annual C&W festival at Gramat, the capital of the limestone causse, which probably attracts the folk who drive tractors and distil their own eau de vie from pears or plums. Rockabilly gives couples the opportunity to dance le rock, which is a watered-down, rather polite and strangely charming version of Lindy-hopping. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the 90%-proof version – you can catch a Hollywood-friendly genre in the film, Hellzapoppin’! – but it was one of the wonders of the mid-20th century world. Couples, mainly black and quite lithe, would throw each other over their backs and through their legs and cavort like human dodgems ostensibly without permanent damage. In le rock, Monsieur et Madame hold each other at arms’ length and proceed to do a fairly gentle push-and-pull roughly in time to the music. It’s all very civilised. 

Anyway, the appalling weather has hung a big question mark over the weekend. It was the talk of the town at the market on Saturday morning. A mere ten degrees, the egg-man pointed out. Old man Thomas suggested that Friday’s brief respite from the rain represented our summer and it will soon be winter again. They say it’s due to the melting polar ice cap. I prefer to think of it as Mother Nature’s vain attempt to try to correct the imbalance and top up the water table before the apocalypse really kicks in.

Whatever. It certainly won’t please the punters. We have now entered the time of the season when pleasing the punters becomes paramount. The first of the season arrived at a house very near to this cinema this weekend. As always, it was a last-minute booking, which means that everyone stops doing what they’re doing in order to mount a tireless clean-up operation. When the news broke, I was trying to get my head around an incredibly opaque and turgid official document in order to extract the salient points and dress them up in the kind of transparent, engaging and exciting fashion that every modern e-learner demands of their on-line training. Already battling against a tight deadline, I had to drop everything to mobilise the staff (notoriously hard to get these days, as you know). On Friday I was helping the cleaner inside the house with the beds and the windows. The next day I was helping the pool man pull back the winter cover in the unlikely event of any sunshine warm enough to entice the punters into the water. And re-cleaning the windows with a product from Intermarché that doesn’t smear the glass. Blimey missus, you should see what I should see when I’m cleaning windees!

Later in the day, I returned to the house with my best obsequious face on to meet and greet the first of the punters. I showed them what’s what and pointed out all the special features laid on by the thoughtful owners for their delectation – the set of boules, the library of free DVDs from Sunday newspapers, the better-than-usual range of discarded books, the array of parasols, the solar-powered twinkling lights around the pool to turn each evening into a romantic adventure, the travel cot for parking babies under the shade of the spreading oak trees while the adults play ping-pong, the welcome pack (which has become a little less welcoming this year due to the stealthy creep of inflation and the rigours of the Great Recession) and so on. All in a patent attempt to compensate for the lack of the one special feature that every punter wants and every owner cannot guarantee: good weather.

Over the last few years, I have become so accustomed to bending over backwards that I might have embarked on a new career as The Amazing Rubber Man if the stress of it all and the fear of appliances breaking down and the concomitant bad marks and/or unfavourable comments in the visitors’ book didn’t keep my body quite so rigid.

They asked me if the pool were heated. I touched my forelock and genuflected in the manner of a messenger delivering the news unto Caesar that his armies had been routed by the Visigoths. But maybe the owners will consider it for the future… Expectations seem to have risen in line with the innovations of the digital age. Once, a DVD player would have been a big deal. Then the telly had to be linked to a satellite system. Now a lack of wi-fi in every room triggers a teenage glower. Soon there’ll be a groundswell of opinion to suggest that heating the obligatory pool should be standard. 

It doesn’t have to be thus. My friends Stuart and Gabrielle have done quite nicely, thank you, with their Brittany Country Gite linked to their permaculture lifestyle in the Breton countryside. Holidaymakers can hug the woolly black Ouessant sheep or pet the personable pigs instead of lazing by a pool. 
They're black, cuddly and adorable!
You can generally tell what people want by their car. The current punters drive an Audi. I’ve got nothing intrinsically against Audis, and they’re nice polite middle-class people from Middle England. But Audis, BMWs and the like make me nervous. These Audinistae have got a sweet little 15-month old daughter who’s into everything, so it’s not going to be a relaxing holiday if the weather keeps them inside all week long. I didn’t suggest the rockabilly festival, but maybe I could help the situation by lending them my impenetrable document. A few sentences of all that bureaucratic guff would lull the child to sleep and give the parents some time to enjoy a few discarded novels.

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