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, June 23, 2013

A Pair O' Teeth

I’m writing under pressure. All week long and several times already today, the power has fluctuated, despite all the expensive equipment that EDF installed about a year ago to assure its supply to isolated rural enclaves like this one. It hasn’t made a blind bit of difference. And every time the power cuts off, even momentarily, the computer shuts down. Completely. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve adjusted the digital clock on the cooker. I know now which combination of buttons to hold down without having to find and consult the instructions.

Yes, it’s getting like Lagos at the moment. NEPA, the great drummer, Tony Allen, called one of his albums. It’s a Nigerian acronym for never expect power always. Of course it’s not as bad as it must be in that teeming hellish megalopolis, but it’s wearing enough to make you appreciate a stable supply. On Wednesday evening I was racing against time to edit a weighty document for my brother-in-law, knowing that at any minute the computer was likely to shut down without warning – and stay shut. I made it, just, only to find that the pouring rain and the distant rumble of thunder had cut the internet connection instead. So I had to put the file on a USB key, take it to my neighbours’ house and send it via their computer. Only 15 short years ago, I might have turned up with a floppy disk that wasn’t floppy.

So after such uncommon stress, I’m rather looking forward to a pair o’ teeth this evening, or a pair-o, as it’s known in the trade. As you may or may not know, I am the ‘guardian’ of a nearby chateau. I guard it roughly once a week with my fierce security dog, Alf, not so much to ward off intruders, but just to check that nothing untoward has happened since our last visit. Those offering a pair o’ teeth are the most recent co-proprietors of the co-propriety: a charming couple from Brittany, who take a touching pride in owning an apartment in a gen-u-ine chateau, even if it’s a 19th century version rather than one of the stunning medieval numbers that you see dotted around the countryside here, either nestling among trees on the edge of a promontory or parked grandiosely by the river.
Just one of many

We have a friend, in fact, who guards one of the more grandiose riverside properties. It’s a great gig: the chateau is owned by the creator of the greatest American TV drama ever to centre around a family of Mafiosi based in New Jersey with theme music by the Alabama 3. He rarely puts in an appearance, so the guardienne and her partner have the run of the place all year long.

But that’s beside the point, other than the fact that we guardians have somehow managed to avoid exchanging pairs of teeth since we’ve known each other. Maybe it’s because neither of us is French. Because this is a social device that works best either between French people or among an international group that includes one or more French people. The British tend to invite each other for ‘drinks’, which can be intimidating for hosts like us with a meagre drinks cabinet. It might be Art Deco, but the contents bear little resemblance to the kind of fully equipped bar run by some compatriots.

One of the nice things about a pair o’ teeth is that it doesn’t demand mulitple choice. Late last autumn, for example, our new neighbours – not the ones to whom I go with a USB key in stormy weather – invited us to drink a pair-o, which comprised a bottle of champagne accompanied by some moreish ‘canopies’. Very nice, too. What’s more, the social device fulfilled its function admirably. They don’t generally go on for too long – round about the two-hour mark tends to be the maximum. Just enough time to sound each other out and gauge whether the chitter-chatter would stretch for a full dinner date. We decided not – and they probably came to the same conclusion. Nice enough people, but few interests in common.

Canopies a-go go
Pairs of teeth, though, as the term suggests, generally come in twos. Reciprocation is the name of the tradition. We haven’t yet honoured our neighbours with an invitation, leaving it early last November that we’d get together some sunny evening when we could sit outside and soak up the sounds of nature. We’re still waiting for some sun. If the rain stops some time in August, we can get the neighbours over, ply them with a limited amount of classy alcohol and some canopies of our own devising, chalk off the obligation and that will be that. Thereafter, we can wave cheerily or exchange the time of day should our paths cross, secure in the knowledge that formal social niceties have been met.

This evening, we’ll pick up our other neighbours (the ones to whom I go with a USB key…) and take them with us to the chateau. Olivier is the gardener there, but they haven’t yet met his wife, whereas Debs and I have had the honour of eating Breton crab at their dinner table. After sampling reciprocal British fare here, perhaps they decided it would be safer to revert to the shorter, sharper social soirée. I’m quite glad that there’ll be extra company; there’ll be less onus on us to ‘perform’. My wife has the gift of the gab, so I can normally sit back and let her air her impressive French, but our host has got it in his head that I’m a bit of a wag because I once impersonated the poshest co-proprietor speaking French with a British plum in his mouth. I feel the pressure to come up with a new stand-up routine in a tongue that doesn’t come naturally to me, so end up going home feeling exhausted.

I suspect that they’ve invited all four of us because they’re drumming up allies for the ongoing war of words and sour looks. They’re the only French residents in the chateau and certain others have taken exception to the fact that they let out their apartment during last summer, their first summer since buying the place, to holidaymakers to help pay for the (considerable) charges. Cold shoulders and legal letters have ensued.

Our neighbours will no doubt be supplied with the details. Which means that I’ll be able to sit back and observe. This is my favourite kind of pair of teeth, when I’m not being ‘interviewed’. When I don’t feel that I’ve been asked there for a splash of colour. And what brought you to France, Mr. Sampson? You can understand it; I would be just as inquisitive if the roles were reversed. It’s just that sometimes I feel like a performing seal…
The only other bad thing I can think of about a pair o’ teeth is that it’s customary to bring with us a peace offering, some little and rather useless objet d’art perhaps. I can usually rely on my wife to come up with something suitable, but she was too busy all day Saturday. I’m going to have to sort something out myself before it’s time to go. So I’ll shut down the computer before the weather and the unreliable power supply beats me to it.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bladder, Bowel and Back-Pack

I rather wish he hadn’t, but our young Australian houseguest reminded me at dinner last night that the longest day is fast approaching. He comes from near Adelaide, where night falls comparatively early, even in the height of the summer. As part of his grand tour of Europe, he has spent a couple of days on Skye, where the sun barely sets.

June is racing by in a frenzy of activity. I’m ticking off landmarks with depressing rapidity. Last week, old friends from London flew into our nearby white-elephant airport and we watched Rafael Nadal stroll through another men’s final at Roland Garros. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was watching a profile of two young great white hopes, due to play each other in their first French Open: Nadal v Gasquet. We all know what happened to the boy from the Balearics with the winning smile and the humungous biceps. And some will know what happened to the mercurial Gasquet, who never quite got his act together – despite his imperious backhand.

The clay-court shenanigans are over for another year. Meanwhile, nearer to home, our magnificent front-of-house rose, which still stubbornly refuses to reach the first-floor balcony, is in full bloom. It was The Daughter’s hope that she would be back home for the summer to see it in its pomp, but already it’s heavy with flower and bowed from the onslaught of all this unseasonable rain. Despite all the banana skins I have laid by its stem and despite all the stones I have spread to stop Myrtle peeing in its vicinity, the leaves are beginning once more to turn from a succulent green to a black-spotted yellow.

All is not lost, though. The climbing rose that we planted out back a mere three years ago is invading the side terrace. Every time I open the door, its perfume pervades the air, alive with the activity of bees that have thus far managed to survive the poisons of Big Aggro-Chemical. With luck and a fair headwind, the kid should be back in time to catch its grace and majesty.
Attack of the 50ft climbing rose

Her first academic year, the year of torture, is over. For all the desperate telephone calls and the familiar congenital plaints of I am not worthy, nor gifted enough, she waltzed through her ‘jury’ and came out top of her class. So she has committed herself to textile design and booked another two years, which means that her father will have to roll up his sleeves and commit himself to Work with a serious capital W. She’s enjoying some time off for good behaviour at present in the form of a stay oop north with her grandma. She stopped off to see her friend Alice, who’s finishing her first year at Leeds University. Tilley had more fun in two days in that dour Yorkshire city than she did in a whole year of gay Paree. I just seem to get on so much more easily with English people, she told me apologetically on the phone.

So, very soon it will be Wimbledon. They’re already in training for grass at the Queen’s Club. Before that: cometh my father’s 86th birthday. He survived his operation thanks to the miracles of modern-day keyhole surgery. When I went to see him the following day at Southampton General, he was sitting up in bed looking chipper and explaining the procedure to my brother-in-law. I can’t even attempt to explain how they send their cameras and surgical equipment up through an artery and then fiddle, cut and stitch – or whatever it is they do – any more than I can get my head around the concept of storing music and photographs on a chip the size of a sliver. Suffice to say that he told me before I left for home that he felt fine – apart from a bruised bladder and a blocked bowel.

Subsequently, his wound – tiny enough – has started to weep. It’s nothing serious, but it means that one of my already hard-pressed sisters has to take him regularly to the local health centre for a change of dressing. Which means leaving my mother alone while he’s gone. She did her fair share of weeping while I was serving my time at Punishment Park. It’s bizarre how dementia befuddles your thoughts. At times, I found her wandering lost and confused on the first-floor landing, wondering perhaps where her ‘brother’ was and not knowing her eldest son from Adam. At other times, we would sit and have the kind of easy, intimate, natural conversations that I’ve never before been able to have with her. Up until those surprising four days of close proximity, I’d never quite managed to equate the woman I once described in a moment of frustration and rage as a psychological terrorist with the charming, entertaining and humorous woman that both my wife and my best friend have described to me. It’s as if the turmoil in her head prevents her continuing the uneasy role of ‘mother’ and she has reverted to her core being.

In moments of terrible lucidity, she would look into my eyes and ask me, Am I going mad? or They’re not going to put me in the loony bin, are they? Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. Yet I found myself skirting the issue in the manner of a seasoned politician and dwelling on the facts of short-term memory loss. But you know that she knows. Several times she told me sincerely that she wanted to die and, after nearly 85 years on earth as a card-carrying timorous worry-wart, you can understand why she must feel worn out by the strain of it all. And if they – or we – put her in the loony bin, then she surely will die. My father told me on his hospital bed that he missed her. Realistically, though, he is ill equipped to cope with someone so unwittingly demanding. Inevitably, the family talk is not happy-talk. It’s all about carers and sheltered accommodation and mobilising resources to keep someone alive who would really much rather pop her clogs.

I’m back at home now and for the time being I can simulate my filial duty by Skype. The perils, irony and sadness of old age aren’t something that our young Australian back-packer needs to worry about. He’s flush with the energy and optimism of youth, and looking forward to getting back to his family and fiancé in South Australia after all the weeks of his Grand Tour of Europe. He’s due to marry his sweetheart named Tegan in October and is talking already of two children and playing with them in a garden while he’s still young enough.

Cade by rose
Cade is a devotee of Grand Designs, who’s bought the book, the t-shirt and the DVD. He’s watched our programme, he tells me, about 30 times and he has vague plans of building a home for his family-to-be in straw. So he contacted Debs by e-mail and asked cheekily if he could come and see us while flitting around Europe. We like cheeky individuals in this house, particularly with dollops of youthful charm. How can you refuse such chutzpah? Debs proposed a deal of dinner, bed and breakfast and a starter-pack tutorial for some nominal charge – and then departed for England. Dinah Washington would surely have been mad about the boy and I know that I’m even now far too fond of him to raise the matter of filthy lucre.

For one so young, he’s sorted his life out with enviable clarity. He’s already raised the money to buy two houses to let in the environs of Adelaide and already learned that time is more precious than money. On the back balcony over a protracted breakfast this morning, he sketched his plans to pay off the loans before term and start building the modest family home of his dreams with the profit.

I’ll take him down to the station, so he can catch his train to Paris and thence, early tomorrow morning (charmingly), to Luxembourg. I’m tickled pink because I’ve never met anyone in my life before who actually wanted to visit Luxembourg. I’ve made him promise to e-mail me his impressions of the principality.
In return, I’ll give him a signed copy of my book that was remaindered before it brought me my fortune, and forgive him the indiscretion of reminding me that the 21st June is just around the corner.