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, November 24, 2014

17-23rd November: Local lines

I was talking to Dirty Dave at my friend Adrian's 50th birthday party on Saturday night. Dave's a big gentle bear of a man, with a nose ring, a beard of W.G. Grace proportions and a pair of those ear rivets that turn your lobes into flaps of parchment. I was asking him about the house he co-owns in the wilds of the Massif Central, not too far from the town of Le Puy en Velay, with its religious icons on top of its extraordinary volcanic plugs.

We were sitting next to the wood-burning fire, which really wasn't necessary given the unnaturally mild weather of the weekend. I assumed that Dave had a good wood burning stove for his outpost of civilisation. 'Well there is,' he told me, 'but it only brings the temperature up to about two or three degrees. Which is OK,' he hastened to add. 'When it's minus 25 outside, you step inside and it feels almost warm in comparison'.

Five months of snow. Minus 25. It's not something that I could cope with. Dave doesn't live there, but he visits from time to time to make sure that everything's all right and maybe to check what life must be like for the Inuit people. 'I tell you, I've never experienced total silence until I stayed there for a few days. And I mean total silence. Not a sound. Not even a bird in a tree. They've got more sense than to hang around there in winter. How many of us can say that we've experienced total silence in our life?'

Not many. Certainly not at Adrian's party, where his band were 'giving it large' in his living room. There were moments when I yearned for some distant corner of the Massif Central. There's something about the place that has long fascinated me. All that wild beauty, all that windswept solitude. There's life there, Jim, but not as we know it.

A river and a railway line run beneath it
Not that long ago, I wrote about an epic two-part journey I took from Clermont-Ferrand to Beziers down the A75 that follows La Méridienne (as the motorway is popularly known), the line of longitude that cuts the Massif roughly in half. It was a journey of discovery that opened my eyes to the untamed beauty of the region. For several months, I've been trying to persuade the editor of France Magazine to commission a follow-up journey, but this time by train. She finally relented.

Having tried in vain to plot a route using SNCF's dreadful website, I went down to the station at Saint-Denis-lès-Martel – or près-Martel, as it's known only to the railway, for some strange reason. The little station is an architectural classic. It has featured in a couple of period dramas and has probably appeared in miniature on many a French child's train set in a time before the white heat of technology irrevocably changed our world.  

There's always someone different behind the safety glass at the guichet. This time there was a bloke with an alarming facial twitch, which made me glad of the glass between us. I kept wanting to take evasive action, sure that the poor guy was about to nut me. It was a little like a localised version of Jack Douglas's exaggerated whole-body twitch, if anyone out there still remembers the big northern comic who appeared in many a Carry On film, often sporting a trademark flat cap and rimless glasses.

Our conversation didn't start very propitiously. I asked him if they had a timetable for the whole Midi Pyrénées region and he looked at me as if I'd asked to buy a book of first-edition stamps. So I checked, sarcastically, that this was indeed the Midi Pyrénées region and therefore not unreasonable to think that one of its stations should carry aforesaid timetable. It turned out that he thought I'd enquired about the Mediterranean region. Dear God, is my French accent so bad? Anyway, no, he didn't have a timetable that he could let me have. Only for one branch line which wasn't on my likely itinerary.

With another sudden disarming leer, he asked if there was any other way he could help. I outlined my planned article of a journey across the wilderness and back purely by local trains. This prompted dark mutterings of catta-stroff, which I strained to comprehend. The catastrophe in question appears to be a five-year plan of some malevolent Docteur Beeching to close down all these lovely little latitudinal lines in favour of the longitudinal lines of the network's showpiece, the TGV. Grand Vitesse, the bywords of the modern era. You can travel fast but very, very expensively between the country's cities and principal towns, but soon you won't be able to join up the little dots in a leisurely and just-about-affordable manner. I learnt that they have already cut the speed limit from 80 to 60kph along our local line between Saint-Denis and Bretenoux (and thence to Aurillac in the Cantal by way of the scenic gorges of the river Cère), because it costs too much to maintain it. The bell is already tolling with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

Even the Train de Cévennes, the special tourist line which follows the spectacular gorges of the river Alier, is under threat. He phoned the nearest station for me to check that I will be able to ride on it next May. I nodded sympathetically and made all the right noises, but – had I the necessary vocabulary and clear head – I was just itching to toss in a few heartfelt beefs about the SNCF and its ranks of pampered public servants with their outmoded privileges and inflated pension rights. You know Monsieur, if you had been a little more realistic about the age we live in, and a little more prepared to compromise, instead of stamping your feet and calling all those wildcat strikes that alienate the public you are meant to serve, you might have been able to engineer a deal that could have saved these local lines.
Eiffel's fabulous Viaduc du Garabit

I left him to his disgruntlement, heavy with the knowledge that my projected journey next spring might be the last opportunity available and with a sinking feeling that I was going to have to work out the itinerary myself – via the SNCF website. As usual, I felt a customary sense of ambivalence. There's something both maddening and admirable about this defiant resistance to anything that seems to smack of globalisation. When you hear, as I did last week, that a new snack bar in St. Céré is calling itself Le Snatch – no doubt in some misguided attempt to appear hip, trendy and global (solicitors since 1995) – you understand why the guardians of the French language in their official Parisian salon try to preserve its purity.

The trouble is, it all smacks of King Canute. Surely there has to be a more intelligent way to hold back the waves. If there is, our politicians will probably find a way to shelve it. Were it not for my fear of five months of snow and sub-Arctic domestic temperatures, Dirty Dave's house in the middle of nowhere might sound rather more attractive than it did on Saturday night. There's something quite appealing about the notion of total silence.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

10-15th November: Work makes free

What happened to the week? It just whooshed by in a haze of activity. I blame work. Specifically, the first paid work for months. Real work. Close proof-reading and editing of 20 or so documents, written in the most impersonal, convoluted technical language imaginable. It conspired to do my head in, question my own grammatical certainties and occupy me night and day, night and day.

Work, the final frontier. When it's there, I resent the time it swallows up. When it's not, I worry that I will never work again. Buried in the countryside here, I'm out of sight and out of mind. But I'm one of life's fortunate individuals: I have an industrious wife who does regular real work. So it's not that I really need the work, it's just that work somehow confirms your existence. It means that I can contribute.

One of my favourite writers, Joseph Conrad, always maintained that work – in all its weary, mundane permutations – kept us from staring too deeply into the heart of darkness at the very core of our being. Therein madness lies. And it's true in a sense; the entire week I was so busy that there wasn't time to worry about the state of the planet, answer e-mails and sign on-line petitions. No time to ponder our daughter's future or our dog's decline. No time to fret about all that lapsed correspondence and mounting paper work. No time to worry about wintering the garden. No time for writing or self-doubt. Barely time to cook, in fact.  

The good thing about all that is that you can wallow in the relief that comes with the end of toil. Normally my weeks segue into weekends. For the first time in ages, however, I felt the Thank-God-It's-Friday effect. So much so that the Good Wife and I went out. To a bar, what's more (a thing which of course I don't often do, as Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band narrated in his rich and fruity voice). And not just any bar, but the recently opened Bar Au Coin de la Rue: a nicely re-furbished stone building near the market place in the centre of Martel, our un-thriving local metropolis.

We went to see our Amerikanische Freund Steve's band in concert. Normally there's three Steves, but on Friday night there was no room for Steve the drummer. His kit would have drowned out all attempted conversation in such a small venue. So it was just Steve on double bass and Steve on guitar, playing, very competently, their usual repertoire of old R&B, soul and rock 'n' roll numbers. They were already well into their first set when we walked past the smokers outside, pushed open the door and stepped diffidently inside.

It was a hotbed of activity. I wouldn't have believed it possible had I not witnessed it with my own eyes. So there is life in Martel after dark and after the summer season. I recognised a few local faces. There was the nice cashier from Intermarché, whose new glasses I admired a few months ago. There was the Australian woman who walks her three dogs around town. Her little black poodle barked excitedly every time the audience burst into applause, wagging its little coiffed tail endearingly.
Assembling flat-packs for kicks

And our friend, Dave, was there with a group of pals and the girlfriend we hadn't yet met. He's one of the soldier boys I described in Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, who helped out on our build. Once a soldier, always a soldier. When he's not off seeking thrills and exhilaration by, for example, paragliding in Katmandu, he works here to pay his charges and keep his head just above the water. He's planning to go paragliding over or off Mont Blanc, but is currently helping American Steve with his latest renovation project.

I didn't get a chance to ask his Isabelle what she thinks about all these death-defying adventures. They met via an internet dating service and they clearly dote on each other. I wondered how they managed with the language barrier. Dave told me that when he speaks French, Isabelle tends to reply in English – and vice versa. It seems to work. Dave proposed to her outside the cathedral in Limoges and a wedding is in the offing. We're both delighted. I love a nice wedding, me. It hasn't always been easy for him over here and he's a diamond geezer, who belies all macho military stereotypes.

As a result of our construction project, Dave decided to use straw bales for the interior walls of his barn down river. He knows how long renovations can take, particularly when you have to work on others' to finance your own. In between the band's two sets, I chatted to a couple of his friends. They've just started to emerge from their own renovation project. They decided to dedicate themselves to it body and soul for as long as it would take, rather than letting it drag on for years. It took them two years and almost, apparently, killed them. She's had two operations on her hand for repetitive strain injury resulting from too much re-pointing, which is wicked work. They moved here from the Yorkshire Dales, because they were being overrun by day-trippers and she couldn't ride horses safely any more.

Debs had to work on Saturday morning, so we sneaked off half way through the band's second set – after a particularly fine version of Ray Charles' 'Unchain My Heart', which got a couple of women at the bar dancing and the black poodle barking more deliriously than ever. It was nice. And it's heart-warming to realise that there are people in our town who want to listen to live music. What's more, the cashier from Intermarché kissed me on both cheeks, which pleased me as much as our local mechanic calling me by my first name. He probably pronounces it with a 'c' instead of a 'k', but it doesn't matter. These are positive signs of local acceptance. It's good to belong.

Another good thing about work is that you earn your time-off without fear of guilt. The following day, we treated ourselves to a On The Road by the Brazilian director, Walter Sallis. It went on for hours and didn't matter a jot. As an ex-student of American literature, it shames me to confess that Jack Kerouac's famous novel is one of only a few books that I've never been able to finish. The novel was so vividly brought to life that I feel now that there's no pressing need to go back to the book. The portrayal of Dean Moriarty was beautifully realised. Now there was a man who chose not to let work stand in the way of living life to the full. Life, though, in his case, was brief and intense.

If this rain doesn't stop, I won't be able to get out into the garden with my neighbour's pickaxe to dig up the baby trees that sprouted this summer from their unidentified parent. We want to transplant them to unchartered corners of the garden. But it looks like we might have to settle instead for another film. Ah well, it sure beats work.

Monday, November 10, 2014

6-9th November: (In)appropriate dressing gowns

My wife is one of these modern women who check their smart phones before swaddling themselves in a duvet last thing at night. There was a text or an e-mail from her best friend in London. She wrote to say that she had spent the day lazing around in her dressing gown, because it was one of those Sundays in the metropolis.

Funnily enough... it was one of those Sundays in the heart of the country, too. Outside it was like a damp but colourful sponge. The last soggy leaves were still clinging on regardless. All three of us decided to stay in our dressing gowns through breakfast – of American pancakes, maple syrup and copious coffee – and beyond. The Daughter, unsurprisingly, and her mother, rather more surprisingly, made it right through to bedtime. Debs hasn't achieved that feat for ten years, not since the treacherous winter of 2004-5 when she broke her shoulder.

I cracked soon after lunch. This annoyed my daughter, who believes that I can't relax. 'Oh daaaad, lighten up,' she moans at regular intervals. It's true that I generally like to be doing things and I'm not inclined to lounge in bed, but she doesn't reckon on the hours I spend watching films, when I can truly lose myself. The fact of the matter was, though, that I had to get dressed to fetch some more wood for the fire. While it's acceptable to venture forth in your dressing gown before nine, it certainly doesn't do after two. What if someone were to see me? What if it were a man with a chainsaw? How could I ever hold my head up around these parts again?

Once out of your dressing gown, there's no point at all in getting back into it later on, even though it would have been entirely appropriate for the film we chose to accompany our evening stir-fry. Shooting Fish, with the lovely Kate Beckinsale, was charming, sweet, rather funny and ultimately I suppose fairly forgettable. It was like a kind of minor Ealing comedy for more cynical times. It will go back in the shelves and probably stay there forever and ever, amen.

I didn't dare suggest that we watch the first two episodes of the epic Great War documentary series that I remember from my childhood. Narrated with much portent by Sir Michael Redgrave. Come to think of it, what were my parents thinking of, encouraging a young boy – already given to take his responsibilities as oldest of four siblings seriously – to watch something quite so disturbing as that epic of carnage and suffering? I suppose I would have seen those haunting images soon enough in some other context, but that series had a profound impact. Apart from my mother's fairly frequent references to Belsen, it was my first real brush with the reality of war. Back then, I might have watched some of those 26 or however many episodes it was in a dressing gown, but I suspect I was attired more suitably for something of such moment.

Saturday night's all right for fighting, but I prefer to dine with friends. Me and the missus put on our best clobber for a visit to The Mill, as it has become known. We met up with our friends (and Alf the dog's surrogate godparents), Thompson & Thompson, in a car park on the edge of Martel. Headlights in the fog. It could have been a scene from a spy drama by John Le Carré. The truth was more mundane. Our generous friends proposed that we go in one car. They've got a new generation Peugeot, with one of those all-dancing digital dashboards that looks like a mixing desk in a modern-day recording studio.

During the ever perilous descent down the rocky track that leads to the magical water mill at the edge of the river Ouysse, the half-pumpkin from them to us bounced around in the boot of the car like the head of Alfredo Garcia. There's always a sense of being protagonists in a film when we go to visit Fi and Giles. The steep-sided valley reminds me of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang's mythical hideout, and I'm convinced that one day I'm going to spot the letters AS carved in a tree somewhere down that vertiginous track. Arne Saknussemm, whose initials led the party of Professor Lidenbrock down the volcanic passageway in Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Nick and I recalled with affection the crass cartoon version that we watched on telly as kids in the 60s.

It was another in a whole series of memorable evenings that goes back about a dozen years now. Their little boy, the spitting image of his dad, is ten already and he was preparing for his birthday party the following day. No chance of Sunday dressing gowns, then, in that particular household. One more year of primary school and their personable child will be going to collège. Like our Tilley, he'll almost certainly go through the whole standard education system. Like her, too, I discovered interestingly, he considers himself very much British and he has similar ambitions of finishing his education somewhere in the UK.

Fi started adult life as a talented tennis player, then went into films before coming to France, finding the mill – and a lifetime's project – and getting married et cetera. It's a strange phenomenon, talent. She mighta bin a contender, had she chosen that path. I also watched a profile of Jimmy White, the snooker player, during the weekend: perhaps the most naturally talented sportsman I have ever seen. It came as no surprise to learn that Jimmy never had a moment's coaching in his life. Nor was it much surprise that his kids seem to love him as much as his adoring public did and do. Unlike Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, there isn't a mean bone in his rather overweight body.

Moreover, Jimmy admitted that the fact that he never won the world championship was entirely his own fault. He has a reckless, self-destructive side to his personality that often got the better of him. Quite apart from the gambling and the drugs, he would wander about between sessions during all the finals he appeared in at The Crucible, knocking back halves of lager here and halves of lager there. You just can't do that kind of thing in modern sport. It's like smoking footballers: part of a long-lost era of flat caps and rattles.

Although he insisted that he didn't regret what he did, touchingly he still believes that he can win the world championship that he should have done by talent and by right. I have this silly fantasy that maybe next time he'll keep it all together and meet Ronnie O'Sullivan in the final. The two most talented players of all time together at last! And, aaah... without making it at all obvious, Ronnie the Rocket will ease up in the final frame at 17 all to let Jimmy the Whirlwind fulfil his dream.

In your dressing gown, mate!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

30th October – 4th November: Moderate Your Allure

The day before leaving for our sojourn in the High Alps, I received my first ever suicide text. It was a woman we'd known in the Corrèze, an outsider like ourselves, whose large family moved from Lille to a nearby village. Their youngest daughter was our daughter's best friend during the first few years of école primaire, so we got to know them rather better than we might have chosen.

Poor soul went off the rails just before the family gave up on their great adventure in France Profonde. For the last year or so of seeing her on a semi-regular basis, she was on so much medication that she was confined to their big house on a hill, wherein she would wander about like a Stepford wife. Mind you, her five children included an Arian-looking boy who could have been a Hitler youth in another era and a wild-eyed curly-haired child destined to end up as either a modern-day Einstein or a troubled schizophrenic. Stir into the mix a husband who was a little bit... odd, and you understand what might have happened to her.

The first time I met her husband, he fixed me with a stare as we shook hands in their house. Je te regarde, he told me. I'm looking at you. Errrr, yes? How are you supposed to answer to that kind of greeting? I learnt that he was someone who fancied himself as an amateur therapist. He believed that he had the power to enlève le feu (as, indeed, people can in these parts). In other words, someone who could place his hands on a person's burns or raging acne or some such malady and 'remove the fire'. It seemed that he had looked at me and mistaken me for someone whose customary winter pallor is life-threatening. No need to look at me in that tone of disquiet, mate; I'm quite OK, thanks.

Anyway, the day before the day before leaving – a day of making lists to ease the stress of last-minute preparations – the unhinged woman phoned me on my mobile, only to breathe heavily and utter my name despairingly. I cut her short to answer the other phone. So when the text arrived the next morning, I interpreted her brief words as a kind of explanation: a combination of medication and alcohol did it. My wife, however, clearly knows her conditional tense. She pointed out that the word 'devrait' put quite another slant on it. A combination of medication and alcohol should do it.

We agreed that the best course of action was probably to ignore it. Sure enough, when I foolishly answered the phone later that same day, it was her. Still with us, she wanted to read me the last page of some epic work on which she is currently engaged. So I sat back and listened. And lo! It was surprisingly good – given that I couldn't translate every word. 'Surprising' being the operative word, since I wasn't expecting poetry and certainly not a relentless rhyme scheme that made her sound like MC Solar. Without actually suggesting a career in rap, the encouragement I offered may at least keep her away from the pill bottles for a few weeks.

It's a long, long drive to the Hautes Alpes: up across the Vulcans, down past Clermont Ferrand, over the Plaine de Limagnes, up and over the Parc Naturel Régional du Livradois (or 'Little Canada', as it's known by the cognoscenti), over the Monts du Lyonnais by way of the new A89 extension, under Lyon, down to Grenoble and then up, up, up the epic road to Briançon, the highest town in Europe, via the intimidating Col du Lautaret. It was an exceptionally beautiful autumnal day befitting such exceptionally beautifully scenery. The final stretch puts the 's' in sublime. But it costs a packet in tolls and it takes an epoch to get there.

We've done it just about every year since landing in France almost 20 years ago. A best friend from college days lives there – hemmed in for five months by perma-snow – with her newly retired French husband. Cursed or blessed with a creative drive, she's a talented artist who has wrestled with familiar self-doubt for as long as I've had the pleasure to know her. She showed us over the beautiful Alpine village house they have done up for parties of skiers, walkers and nature lovers, which has become her unofficial art gallery.

Talking of which, we went to see some art in Turin on the Saturday. It's a half hour drive across the Italian frontier to the little town of Oulx, where you catch an inexpensive train to the capital of Piedmont. (Of course, I twigged for the first time, foot of the mountain.) Only after arriving at the station much too early for the train, did we realise that it was the Italian equivalent of All Saints' Day. A public holiday; not just in France. A Sunday timetable in other words.

Three Senoras in Torino

The wide Haussmann-esque boulevards with their characteristic pavement arcades were unnaturally deserted. After an affordable and authentic lunch, we headed for the GAM (or the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, if you prefer the full mouthful). Apart from a Modigliani and a fine Otto Dix, the collection was a bit thin and unsatisfying – like American coffee. Perhaps in an attempt to give it some substance, it was displayed in rather specious themes (such as 'Infinity' and 'Velocity'), which demanded a host of pretentious explanatory texts that didn't fool any of us. Despite the exhibition of Cecily Brown's huge and dazzling abstract-figurative painting, I would have preferred to spend my time and money at the Museum of Italian Cinema, mooning over posters of Monica Vitti, La Lollo and the like in the extraordinary sky-scraping synagogue known as The Mole.

With evening falling, the previously deserted streets teemed with throngs of Torinotti, or whatever you call natives of the city. We ducked into a little bar near the station for some of the indigenous aperitivo: snacks approximating Spanish tapas to accompany your drink. I had my first Campari soda for about 40 years and wondered why I used to be so fond of the drink.
Still life with rampant house plant

With the first snow of the season threatened on Monday night, I came over all noyvuss and unnezzizzary. Would we get over the pass next day? Would we ever see our house again? What would happen to the cats and our dog in our protracted absence? As it happened, a high wind blew through the Alps and there was a dusting of snow on the highest peaks. Reminded, however, by the motorway signs to 'moderate our allure', we made it home in spite of the relentless rain. We got back to find that the trees had turned in our absence and winter was coming on strong. It was time to light the first symbolic fire of the season.

And time to think about where I would hang the beautiful still life that my friend gave me for my recent significant birthday. The trouble is, the house is fast turning into a Galleria Domestica d'Arte Amicorum e Familiae. We're running out of suitable wall space.