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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

25-26th October: Untimely ripped

Alarmed by my mobile phone, we rose at five instead of six this morning. My wife wasn't best pleased, because she'd had one of her 'blips' around three. After an hour, and a game of telephone Scrabble, she'd managed to drift back to sleep – only to be untimely ripped from her slumber. The animals, however, looked upon their premature breakfast as an unexpected bonus.
Great record!

At least it gave me an opportunity to think about my to-do list for the week ahead. How come there are always elements to carry over from one week to the next? I know I'm not a natural completer-finisher, but it remains one of life's quandaries – like Single Sock Syndrome. I try to put my friend Marek's sound advice into practice and keep the list short enough to trigger action rather than depression, but the brought-forward items always render it unwieldy. Like Jack's magic beanstalk, it grows, it grows.

There were several items to add following Bret's visit on Saturday afternoon. He knows me well enough now to roll me one of his cigarettes to accompany our customary catch-up. Then, ever solicitous and ever caring about hapless friends like me, he unzipped his laptop to give me a quick 15-minute tour of Facebook and Linked In. Now I appreciate the importance of updating my profile, adding contacts, joining groups, marking anniversaries, adding comments and so on. It seems to me like a full-time job, but he assured me that he spends no more than two hours a week. Another proper to-do...

Bret was off to a kind of residual Fête des Mecs, this one chez Christophe, the farmer who sold us the bales for this house. It was a last-minute affair, without the usual organisation that goes into these dos he sponsors. With too many friends crying off, a rump of revellers were going to see in the changing of the clocks. My excuse was dinner that evening with our doctor and his wife. 

I'm always a little ill at ease before they come. Perhaps because they're both high-brow and rather religious and my French, I feel, has to be at its crackling best. It was the second time they've dined here at Camp Street and their enthusiasm is so genuine and so infectious that it made a nonsense of my trepidation. Thierry, our doctor, is a delightful man with a boyish giggle. Physically, were it not for the fact of his white skin, he could pass at 20 paces for Barack Obama. Benedict, his wife, despite her greying hair and deeply unfashionable courtly clothes, has the air of a little girl, trapped in an inappropriate era. Together, they come over like a pair of middle-aged young lovers. We got onto the subject of films over dinner and they asked us to draw them up a list of our favourites that they may not have seen. Being a man, there's nothing I enjoy more than a good list.

Later that night, the clocks went back. There's always an initial element of suspense about what this will mean in practice. When will first light dawn? At what time will the shutters come down to seal in the evening? It meant a leisurely morning, fortified by the security of knowing that you've still got an hour in hand. We didn't have to play our joker till after lunch. 

It was a leisurely afternoon, too, with an entire American football match to watch on Channel 4. The Atlanta Falcons v the Detroit Lions live from Wembley stadium. Being perennial underdogs, I always have a soft spot for the Lions, even though their defeat would be good for my team, the Green Bay Packers. The uninitiated always moan about all the ad-breaks that break up the action, but they gave me a chance to pepper my self-indulgence with useful things: like updating my Linked In profile and generally making inroads into my to-do list. As it happened, the Lions won by a single point with the last kick of the game.

Watching the battle of the gridiron unfold made me think of My Man in Manhattan, probably busy doing something similar in his basement apartment on the corner of Columbus Avenue. He sent me not one but two marvellous e-mails this weekend. The first, a bit of graphic data showing the correlation between eating cheese and the number of deaths from getting tangled in bed sheets. It's things like this, he suggested, that make America 'the greatest nation in the world'.

In the second, he revealed that he has met Van Morrison twice in his life. The first time at a classmate's house somewhere near the first of our two Edwardian family homes in Belfast. The little portly ginger man wandered into the kitchen, apparently, looking for his sister. On the second occasion, an older and rather more portly songster in Cuban heels stepped in front of my friend while he was riffling through the bins of a New York bookstore. He answered Winston's cheery Belfast greeting of ''bout ye, Van' with some gruff apology. Yer man from Orangefield had some minder with him, so Winston didn't pursue the conversation.

Talking of musicians, I read with a certain sadness that Jack Bruce died during the weekend. Off they shuffle, one by one, my contemporaries... I was never a fan of Cream; I never carried about a copy of Disraeli Gears at school, for example. Nevertheless, they were symbols of an exciting age when re-conditioned American blues ruled the airwaves and I always kept a watchful eye on Jack's post-Cream career. Back then, I suppose I would have considered 71 or whatever it was a great age. 

The last weekend in October (already!) concluded with Martin Scorsese's first family film, Hugo. The idea of the director of Taxi Driver and Casino making a movie for all the family seems paradoxical. At what point would the baddies break the young hero's hand in a vice, for example? But no. It didn't happen. The film worked in an Amélie kind of way as a charming homage to the pioneers of cinema.

Alf has his frisky chum, Holly, here to stay for a couple of days. Another hound of uncertain pedigree, she has already helped to revitalise our old dog. The cats have got a little more accustomed to her muzzle now. Even Myrtle, who was traumatised by her predecessor, Ella. Myrtle who subsequently adopted a credo of yellow dog good; black dog bad. The dogs are in their respective baskets right now, sleeping off this morning's indecently early breakfast crepuscular walk.

Friday, October 24, 2014

20-23rd October: Ranting and raving

We had to laugh when I came back from our letter box up the track with a little slip of paper on which our existing post woman introduced us to our new factrice. She's moving on, it would seem, to another round. You can't stay too long in one place or you risk over-familiarity with the clients. On the slip of paper, she made it very clear that we would be buying our calendar this Christmas from her and her alone, not her replacement.

She's a very nice woman, always personable, always a smile, but it's clear that she has little sense of just how privileged a post person is in this day and age of zero-hours contracts. My wife and I are delighted to buy calendars from the pompiers, because the fire people are brave and voluntary. But both of us object to the custom that someone with a job for life and a nice index-linked pension at the end of it should supplement his or her income come Christmas time with some tax-free gratuities. There's just a sense of menace about it all. If you don't buy my poxy calendar for a few dollars more than it's worth, you'll find your correspondence next year dumped in a ditch.

My little bird of paradise

Our 'frank discussion' triggered a rant from The Daughter. She went back to Paris late on Tuesday afternoon and, apart from the protracted showers and the gloomy looks when asked if she wouldn't mind walking the dog, I'm certainly going to miss her company. She can be very funny, particularly when she's in mid-rant (often about her peers and contemporary culture). I can't remember exactly why, but she was ranting this time about the baccalaureate's idiosyncratic marking system. Everything's marked out of 20 and then multiplied by a coefficient assigned to a certain subject. Why is it, for example, that philosophy – a subject studied only during your last year of school – should have the highest co-efficient?

Why indeed? She's right; it's madness. Is it, I suggested, because the French like to see themselves still as a nation of philosophers? Apart from Sartre and Camus, who are more three parts novelists to one part philosophers, the last truly global French philosophers – one might argue – were les philosophes of the Enlightenment, which happened more than 200 years ago. By that reckoning, why not encourage final-year students to study impressionist art, slap a dirty great co-efficient on it and wait for French art once more to rule the cultural world? I should just mention that this rant had nothing to do with our girl's underwhelming four-hour philosophy exam result, which demoted her from a mention très bien to a mere mention bien. Maddening.

Now that the girl's back in her metropolitan digs, the Good Wife of La Poujade Basse and I were able to watch Lincoln on DVD the other night. It probably qualifies as a 'quinoia' choice in our daughter's book. This is a category she invented after sitting through – and thoroughly enjoying – Le Havre, a marvellous film by the wacky Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki. 'It's like eating quinoia,' she suggested afterwards. 'You don't particularly fancy it at the time, but once you've eaten it, you feel really clean and healthy, like it's done you a lot of good.'

Lincoln did us both a power of good. It's beautifully staged and feels utterly authentic, but what sucks you in is the sheer brilliance of the acting. Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones (who can never do any wrong, because my wife would have married him if I hadn't got there first) and, above all, Daniel Day Lewis. His performance, un-showy and compassionate, was mesmerising. If there's a better leading male out there, I've not yet seen him.

Earlier in the week, my wife brought back the sad news from her cabinet, that one of her most delightful clients had finally lost his long and wretched battle with cancer. Every time that he and his wife came to see her, they insisted on bringing half a dozen or more eggs: not from their own chickens, but purchased from the old man next door. Sometimes, if they happened to be in Brive, they would drop off some reinforcements in the waiting room. A truly charming couple, they both re-married late in life and experienced 20 years or so of marital bliss. I wonder how his widow will manage without him – and I wonder how we will manage without the richest eggs in Christendom.

Sad news is often balanced by good. Skimming through the home page of The Grauniad the other morning, I was delighted to read that Wilko Johnson's apparently terminal pancreatic cancer is in remission. During his farewell tour, it seems that a surgeon contacted him to suggest that he visit his hospital in Cambridge. An operation removed a tumour weighing three kilos. Imagine! That's more than your average bag of potatoes. So Wilko's still with us, which is wonderful, because he's one of the most entertaining human beings on the planet. Dr. Feelgood worked a miracle.

This beautiful autumnal weather is still holding. But our heat pump whirred into life the other night for the first time since about April. Gloves are now de rigeur for my matutinal dog-walks. My shorts are hung and I'm back in longs and I have even at moments shod my feet in slippers. What with the clocks going back on Sunday, there's only one thing to deduce: we're slipping irredeemably and inexorably into winter. My God, Holmes, you're a genius!