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, December 28, 2014

25 – 28th December: Mild Christmas exercise

The great thing about Christmas is that you can indulge your inner lazy self without any sense of guilt. Since it comes right at the end of the year, there's a built-in element of finality and reward. If you can't slob out at the end of a hard day's year, then when can you?

However... There is an inherent danger in this approach. Laziness can easily become a habit, and bad habits can quickly bring you down. That's why the Good Wife and I are on orange alert. Stand by for action! as the stentorian voice would announce at the beginning of Stingray. Indeed, anything could happen in the next half hour. Our old hometown of Sheffield has been brought to a standstill, and snow and/or seriously cold weather is expected here at any time.

In other words, one can't lounge in bed reading a pictorial history of The Beatles forever. One wouldn't want to become like Charlie's grandparents in the Roald Dahl tale. A golden ticket doesn't come to those who lie and wait, but to those who go out and seek it. So even during the Christmas break, the phone alarm has sounded soon after six. One of us then springs nimbly into action. Actually, it's currently a matter of necessity. We were slightly too late on Boxing Day and our poor indisposed dog was waiting frantically by the door, having leaked a series of puddles throughout the sitting room. Under-floor heating is a great luxury and bare feet on warm terracotta tiles can be thrilling, but slippers are de rigeur at present.

Yesterday afternoon, in spite of the elements, we defied the temptation to watch another one of our new films and went out with our beleaguered dog instead. But you cannot walk either very far or very briskly in his company. So Debs and I have been warding off seasonal atrophy with some early-morning exercise. We haven't yet invested in the kind of gymnastic equipment with which a 'young' retired couple in our last village furnished a room in their pristine modern house that hid behind a perimeter hedge of leylandii. Nor do we indulge in calisthenics with someone like Eileen Fowler, who used to help housewives keep fit when I were a lad in the early 60s and who was last seen exhorting the oldies on the sands of Clacton or Walton-on-the-Naze.

No, I've taken up yoga in recent months in an effort to bend the bar that is my body, while my sporty wife is back on the pilates (which she describes as a kind of turbo-charged yoga). So, having sprung into action to liberate the hound, we've taken to warding off Christmas indolence by exercising in parallel. That may sound sad, but it has been an interesting study in two antithetical operating systems. Whereas my wife is a natural, a perfect synchronisation of mind and body (befitting someone who studied drama and dance at college), I have never been able to get oops outside ma head, I said oops outside ma head. Whereas, by some miracle, I can move like a tiger on vaseline in time to my favourite music, if ever I try to follow prescribed steps, my body gets tangled up in blue (bruises and/or language).

In the context of our parallel exercising, let me try to give you an example. I watched with admiration as my wife executed some apparently complicated manoeuvre. It was easy, she assured me. Just a matter of letting your body follow its natural course. So she tried to teach it to me. Now bend your knees! No, bend them. Bennnd them! By the time that my brain has processed a command and passed it tardily on to my body, I'm already lagging behind what's happening further down the line. Which is very frustrating for pupil and teacher. After a couple of sessions of trying to share each other's exercises, we've come to a tacit understanding that we just get on with our own things.

It seems to be working. Our daughter has officially declared her mother's derrière as 'tight' this Christmas. And her father's recalcitrant body is slowly – and at times a little painfully – beginning to bend. If I bend my knees, for example, I can actually touch my toes now. All bodes well for a rather more flexible old age than I might once have envisaged.

In a book that I bought for my daughter as what my paternal grandmother used to label a 'tree present' (in other words, more substantial than a stocking filler, but less so than the cadeau principal), What Every Woman Should Know: Lifestyle lessons from the 1930s, there is a Daily Mail (naturally) article that urges women to sweep and dust their way to beauty. The very tasks of which women complain (namely housework) can, apparently, 'if done rhythmically and with the correct poise of the body, maintain just that slimness and grace which every woman desires'.

Certain men, too. Blessed with a super-fast metabolism, the slimness is not a problem. To acquire poise and grace, though, it's clear that I should up my housework quota. I'll make that a resolution for 2015. Nevertheless, my favourite forms of exercise remain visual and aural. I usually buy myself a clutch of new CDs in anticipation of a cheque from my father. And this year, our daughter bought her parents some films on DVD that we've managed to miss recently. We've already devoured August: Osage County – with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts on brilliant form and the tirades of a dysfunctional family reminding us of what Christmas could sometimes be all about – and Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks splendid as the skipper of an enormous modern-day container ship kidnapped by Somalian pirates in the Red Sea. Both underlined how lucky we are to live in France.

Tonight the fourth series of Homeland concludes. My trusty spouse, however, will be recording it, since I shall be going out for some American football. Before anyone writes in to protest that a fragile aging man should not be disporting himself on a gridiron field, I should explain that I shall be watching the Green Bay Packers play their divisional rivals, the Detroit Lions, in the final game of the regular season. On TV. In the company of my friends, John and Heidi Laabs, lifetime Packers fans from Madison, Wisconsin in the frozen north of the U.S., and another Amerikanische freund, Jack, and his French wife, Martine.

Don't go thinking, though, that this will be a case of flagrant couch-potatodom. There's a lot riding on this game. If the Packers win it, they get home-field advantage for the play-offs, which is not insignificant given that Lambeau Field often turns into an icy tundra at this time of year. So I'll be chewing on my fingers and perspiring profusely under my Packers sweatshirt for three hours or so. Now that's what I call exercise!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

15–22nd December: Spending Frenzy

Thank heavens for the comparative sanity of rural France. Give or take the odd over-dressed maison aux illuminations de Blackpool, the French generally seem to have a more clear-headed attitude when it comes to Christmas. Except when it comes to food, of course.

It's a relief to be home. I was in grave danger of being swept away in the tsunami of spending. Today's Grauniad home page tell us that Visa expects Britons (who will never, never be slaves to anything other than Big Retail) to add an extra £1.3 billion to their credit card accounts in a frenzy of last-minute shopping for Christmas. The horror, the horror! The waste, the waste. If all that money spent on fragrant cosmetics, Bristol Cream Sherry, socks and other potentially superfluous gifts could be channelled into something more worthwhile, just think...

Not that I am blameless. Au contraire, mes braves. Last year's worthy endangered wildlife adoptions were met with resounding silence from the UK branch of the family, so this year I felt I had to buy more conventional gifts lest the names of the French Connection were turned to mud. So The Kid and I took some time off from family duties to visit Southampton city centre one afternoon last week.

We started off in Ikea and did the usual trick of amassing a substantial bill with insubstantial trifles that we probably didn't need anyway. Then Tilley talked me into lunch in the West Quay shopping complex, where we were unable to avert our eyes from the spectacle of overweight Britons augmenting their paunches with chips and other starch-enriched food. We split up afterwards, so I could buy stocking fillers from Poundland, spices and pickles from the Asian Food Emporium and sensible presents from Waterstone and the HMV shop, while my daughter conducted her own top-secret business. Everywhere was teeming and overheated and I was dressed for more continental winter weather. By the time we missed our agreed rendezvous – because I was inside rather than outside the HMV shop – we were both about ready to expire or to kill. Fortunately, we forwent an East Enders-style slanging match in favour of some deep breathing laced with a healthy dash of philosophy.

It wasn't that we were over there to shop, but given that Britain is so geared up for it and that Brive offers such a limited choice, it made sense to join in the communal madness. No, we were there to relieve my sisters by helping my father merge into his new flat. And once it was a little more straight, then there was time off at the weekend to attend my nephew's wedding.

I'm relieved to report that it wasn't the kind of fairy-princess affair that cripples domestic economies. It was simple, elegant and thoroughly enjoyable. My nephew's sombre suit was enlivened by the ornate waistcoat from Liberty's that my father wore on his wedding day. His bride wore a pair of Uggs underneath her wedding dress, which she kept on right to the very end of the evening party to derive maximum benefit from an outfit that will undoubtedly be worn only once. My great nephews were all kitted out in clothes that were bought on the cheap from eBay. The table decorations for the afternoon 'wedding breakfast' were all hand-made by the radiant – and, it would seem, thoroughly practical – bride, and the speeches were concise, heartfelt and suitably lacking in pretension. So the whole affair will be nominated for the 2014 Queen's Award for Dignity and Modesty in the Face of Prevalent Ostentation.

While breaking my fast, I chatted to the young woman to my knife-side. She was born in Chile, but moved with her parents to Sweden about 30 years ago, where she lives on the edge of the conifer woods not too far from Stockholm. She met her boyfriend, the bride's brother, bizarrely by playing Xbox games on the computer (if I've reported the term correctly). They teamed up on a search-and-destroy mission and developed such a rapport on their virtual walky-talkies that they have now teamed up in the parallel real world. I can only imagine that it must be like a Territorial Army exercise without having to leave the comfort of your own computer.

I have always had a touching faith that the sensible Scandinavian countries might yet lead us through a last-minute escape tunnel into a kind of promised car-less land of moderate weather and sylvan fields where humans, animals and a better class of insects live together in blissful harmony. It seems that I am misguided. She told me a familiar tale of burgeoning political extremism, unseasonably warm winters and, just to put the old tin lid on it, a similar kind of US-aping commercial apocalypse in the lead-up to Christmas.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness...? I kissed my demented mother goodbye and hoped that she continued to recover from her latest bout of care-home pneumonia. I hugged my father, the World's Laziest Man, and expressed the wish that he might learn to be a little more self-reliant in his new (tidier and less cluttered) residence. I packed the Berlingo with a trunk full of my mother's unpublished manuscripts, a box full of unwanted paperbacks (mainly given to my mother by her oldest child), bags of reciprocal presents and all those spices and stocking fillers from Southampton city centre, and set off for home. A beautifully packed boot is not quite so fine if you forget your daughter's winter overcoat and your own phone and camera chargers.

Never mind. We got back in one piece. It's a long, long way from Le Havre to La Poujade Basse, but French roads are mercifully emptier than all those British roads choked with last-minute shoppers. We ran into a bouchon through Limoges, but by then the grey sky of northern France had turned miraculously into the radiant blue of a proper cold continental winter's day. We were still back early enough to enjoy my wife's aubergine pie and an evening of decking the halls with decorations in preparation for our own brand of traditional family Christmas. The financial wound has been cauterised and the bleeding staunched before permanent damage was incurred.

I shall raise a glass at lunchtime on the 25th to the ghost of Cockers past. I learnt on my return that Joe has died at the age of 70. Not only was he a son of Sheffield, but he was blessed with a seriously good set of pipes. I remember clearly the site of that dishevelled man in a tie-die T-shirt on Top of The Pops, arms flailing epileptically as he delivered his almost unrecognisable version of 'With A Little Help From My Friends'. I rushed out to buy the single – on the Regal Zonophone label if I'm not mistaken. Even though his taste became a little questionable over the years, I wish I still had that record in my collection.

So Happy Christmas one and all – including the late lamented Joseph Cocker, should he be up there in some kind of Afterlife, backed by the Grease Band and writhing in apparent agony.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

10–13th December: On The Road Again

Maybe there's something lacking in my psychological make-up, but I just can't get excited about the thought of travel. The Daughter arrived home on Friday evening, full of the joys of winter and bubbling with enthusiasm about our coming road trip, as she calls it.

Without wishing either to curb her youthful enthusiasm or to come over as a curmudgeon, I let it slip that I didn't relish the drive of 700km or however far it is from here to Le Havre. Not to mention the interminable crossing to Portsmouth and all the uncertainties of cross-Channel transport at a time of year when we're subject to this new concept of weather bombs. Are they delivered by meteorological drones, one wonders?

Plus the fact that we're taking my old shake-rattle-and-rolling Berlingo rather than my wife's tiny but very comfortable Peugeot, because I need the capacious boot to bring back some more stuff. My father has just moved into a new two-bedroom flat. Being the fabled World's Laziest Man, my sisters have spent the last couple of weeks sorting through the parental house, unearthing surprises – some welcome, most unwelcome (including the now legendary plastic bag full of dubious underwear and labelled by my mother, Pants loose-fitting) – and bagging up enough rubbish in the car port to simulate the great refuse collection strike of 19wheneveritwas.

So there's an old trunk to bring back, in which my maternal grandfather used to pack all his stuff for the coming term at school. Inside it there are all my mother's manuscripts, hammered out on an old Olivetti portable typewriter and copied onto carbon paper but never sent out to publishers. And there's a nice rug apparently and a box of my mother's paperbacks, which alas she won't be needing now that she's well and truly away gallivanting with the fairies. There should also be room for a Radio Times, some Christmas puddings and crumpets as gifts for the French fraternity and some much-needed Patak pickles – oh, and anything small but useful that Tilley and I might find in the Southampton branch of Ikea.

The worst thing about going away is the to-do list of last-minute tasks. After gluing the driver's-side sidelight with some silicone to stop it popping out of its socket – as it first did on the hellish windswept Costa del Sol about four years ago now – there's an aide memoir to prepare for my long-suffering wife, who is staying behind to be with our doddery dog. This note will be about the burning characteristics of the various different types of wood for the fire, just in case she isn't already aware that the shorter, stubbier round oak logs are the best overnighters. That will be one less job for the morning if the right logs continue to do their job.

Oh, and I mustn't forget to take the Christmas cards for friends in England. They'd have probably had more chance of getting to their destination in time if I'd posted them in Martel early last week, but never mind. In some of the notes scribbled inside, I've mentioned that we want to come over before too long for an infusion of culture in London/Brighton/Sheffield.

Not that we're totally devoid of culture here in the winter, but it's not laid on; you have to make your own. On Wednesday evening, for example, we dined with our tall German friends, Achim and Martina, in their monumental house. The Château Plagne has been restored and appointed throughout with unerring good taste and offers the necessary big volumes to accommodate our lofty friends and their frequent guests. (Is it a thriving economy that makes the Germans so strapping?) In their tasteful château, they run residential courses throughout the spring and summer and work 18 hours a day, so you can never rely on them to turn up at parties and the like.

But every now and then they will lay on some refined cultural event for their friends here. An exhibition or a concert perhaps. One of the highlights of this summer was an intimate jazz concert in their vaulted cave, which featured the two musicians who were running the course that week: Jutta Glaser, a bubbly singer, and Christian Eckert, a rather fine jazz guitarist who studied in the US with the great Jim Hall.

Achim used to be a professional chef in their days back home in Heidelberg. He told us proudly that he didn't cook the same meal twice throughout the long working months this year – which strikes me as tantamount to lunacy. In the winter, they take it easy and Achim cooks normal food. But not on Wednesday evening.

In their voluminous kitchen/dining room, in front of a gently glowing wood fire, we were treated to something from Master Chef. We felt like the food critics at the table, relishing and discussing every exquisite dish set before us. I could hear in my head that awful dreary female voice: Achim's starter is a trio of ravioli stuffed with Madagascan prawns and coloured with the ink of cuttlefish, garnished with gnocchi mushrooms cooked in a creamy sauce... It won't be long before he'll be buying sous-vide equipment to add to his armoury and coming up with food froth, spittle and gas even.

Although he failed to swipe the main dish with a streak of concentrated puréed whatever, it was quite simply the best meal I've ever eaten in France. The trouble is, it's difficult to know how to reciprocate. Mark and Deborah have cooked a curry of mixed winter vegetables... Well, I'm loving the taste of the pan-fried aubergines, Mark, but frankly the presentation. Not to put too fine a point on it, son, it's a disgrace!

Moreover, their generosity knows no bounds. It's not many places where you turn up to eat a meal fit for catering royalty – and then go back with a going-home present. A silk scarf for Debs and a pair of wooden pens for moi, to mark my recent birthday, and the kind of notebook that turns the physical act of writing a journal into a sensory delight.

After such bounty, what return? Maybe The Kid and I can find room in the Berlingo for something suitable from the homeland for our beneficent German friends. A tin of Sainsbury's mince pies? Or a year's supply of Marmite? Could do better, son...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must prepare that aide memoir. What shall I call it: 10 Awesome Tips for Prioritising Your Wood Pile? That trips nicely off the tongue.

Monday, December 8, 2014

6–7th December: Arrivals and Departures

It's official. The table-tennis season is over. This weekend, in a biting wind, my wife and I folded our blue table and put it under wraps for another winter. It has joined the wood under tarps to protect it from the elements to come. Debs finds that the tail-end of our track looks like a building site. We have discussed the situation and conceived of a little straw-bale shelter with a single-pitch roof to echo the parent roof above my head. It will require drawings and a déclaration des travaux for a start-off, but we can say that the project has now officially gone into pre-production.
While on the subject of productions, we've watched half of a film about the making of King Kong. That's the Peter Jackson version with Naomi Watts as the maiden in the hand of the oversized gorilla. I've never had much yearning to watch the film itself, satisfied as I am with the clunky original, but I picked up a double production journal on DVD in Cash Converters for a derisory 50 cents, thinking it might shed some interesting light on the film-making process.

I was not wrong. Not only has it cast Peter Jackson himself in a very positive light, given a valuable lesson on how to mimic the extraordinary New Zealand accent (with its transformation of, say, yes into yiss and film into furlm), but it has also underlined the mind-boggling attention to detail involved in creating the modern blockbuster. You realise the significance of those endless credits that roll past at the end of a film. Just how many people did it take to create Skull Island out of polystyrene, or 1930s Manhattan in plywood, or a jungle using models and computer technology? The film industry is just that: a veritable industry.

We've reached December 2004 and the point at which the whole teeming multitude of cast and crew breaks for Christmas. We're not there yet this year, but it's coming on fast and strong. Arriving soon on platform 5, en provenance de Toulouse, the Yuletide shebang. Calling at all stations for Paris. All aboard! We had intended to celebrate Christmas on the other side of the Channel for the first time in years, but hadn't reckoned on the decrepitude of our poor dog. The Daughter is desperate for an extended family Christmas, but I've experienced a few in my time that have gone dangerously wrong. So it shall be another child's Christmas in the Lot this year.

If Alf makes it that far, it will be his approximate 14th birthday, which just about makes him a centenarian in human terms. On Saturday morning I wasn't sure whether the old boy would still be here when I got back from Martel market. All day long, he would wander outside, then come back in for a minute or two, limp to his water bowl and then back out again. I watched him through a window, sniffing the air and wandering aimlessly like a trembling and bewildered soul. He seemed to prefer to curl up outside in the cold than inside by the fire. It seemed to me that he had sensed his imminent departure for the Promised Park and couldn't equate this with his role as guardian of the family home. They say that animals have out-of-body experiences towards the end, as if they are able to send their souls off on voyages of discovery to report back on the afterlife.

This lasted all day long and I couldn't settle any more than he could. I am prepared for his death, so long as it's a natural one when his time has come, preferably of course in his sleep. But when it seems that he is perturbed, even suffering, you wonder whether you should be making that phone call to the local vet. As it happened, his mistress did some 'surrogate tapping' for him after she'd finished her day's travails. I know from personal experience that EFT can work wonders, but am still sceptical about this surrogate notion. Nevertheless, Alf settled almost immediately and went to sleep for the evening. Indoors.

So there was no need to cancel our Moke Memorial Dinner on Saturday evening. Our friend Moke is going back to the UK after approximately seven years in France. I've lost count already. He bought a renovation project in a beautiful spot overlooking the hills around the red-stone town of Meyssac. He bought it, though, just before the bottom fell out of the French property market. Over the years, he has laboured – sometimes it seems like Sisyphus, with one finished job only leading to another, bigger one – to turn the house into something suitably saleable to meet the demands of the current market. Now, finally, he's done it. A couple from Paris will benefit from his handiwork and an attention to detail worthy of a Peter Jackson film. 

So the house is sold and the debts repaid. It has been hard, relentless work. But the seven or so years over here have represented such a rich and rewarding experience – particularly at a social level, with countless new friends among the local and international community – that he is already talking of buying a pied à terre that will allow him to divide his future time between London and the Corrèze.

We had hoped to meet up with him again late on Sunday afternoon when Debs and I decided to take in the annual Christmas market in Meyssac. Moke, however, was too busy finishing off some finishing touches before the sale goes through early next week. So it was just the two of us who wandered through the thronging alleyways of this delightful market town. The whole place was aglow with fairy lights and we were particularly taken with the use of old lampshades all the way down one of the busiest thoroughfares. It's probably a little late in the day to start a collection for our own festivities. 

The commercants oversaw their wares in little temporary wooden huts, which now seem de rigeur for municipal Yuletide markets. Despite the crowd, I wondered just how many people were opening their wallets to support their local craftspeople. I felt their pain as people perused and then passed on by. I suspect that most spare cash was spent on waffles, candy floss and rides on the little merry-go-round in the square. 

It was all very nicely done and the locals had clearly done their bit to guarantee a good time for one and all. Some of them had even dressed up in medieval garb to take part in tableaux vivants depicting scenes from local life long, long ago – when Christmas was a religious rather than a commercial holiday. It was cold, though, and it worried me that they were outside and not moving – like our poor dog. One wouldn't want the arrival of colds and flu to coincide with the coming holiday and the end of 2014 AD.