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 27, 2015

December: Spring hopes eternal

So there it was, Merry Christmas; everybody having fun. But not the polar bears. The warmest December on record will not help their chances of survival. And not my mother-in-law.

Up there in Cumbria, the rain has raineth every day. She lives on the edge of the Pennine Fells. Her nearby market town of Appleby-in-Westmoreland has been flooded to within an inch of its life. Despite the visit of a concerned Prince of Wales, she wonders whether her little red-stone town will ever recover from these inundations. And just when they thought that the rain might have eased up, down it came again with such force over Christmas that she couldn't even 'nip' to the garage and back for a few potatoes.

Meanwhile, any hint of rain has been studiously passing us by here in deepest France. The local farmers are still taking water from the Dordogne for their winter crops. But what are the winter crops? During our traditional Boxing Day walk with the Jackson family and friends, my American friend Steve pointed out the bushes blooming with those lovely springtime blossom-flowers the colour of raspberry sorbet.

Maybe the unnatural weather accounts for the flu that laid me low at the beginning of the month. It hasn't been cold enough to kill off all the bugs and germs and the residual flies that are still clustering in the angle of the mezzanine ceiling. My octogenarian father swears by the flu jabs he has at the beginning of every winter, but we don't do vaccinations in this household. My immune system normally keeps me healthy, but this year – for the first time in ages – I spent four consecutive days in bed and have been coughing ever since. It's not right. I am not a number, I'm a healthy man!

At least the enforced lay-off gave me a chance to read, as opposed to merely dipping my toes into books. In my sick bed, I polished off a hefty biography of the extraordinary Mitford sisters – who drove their long-suffering straight-laced parents to distraction and back – and Bill Bryson's brief but fascinating book about Shakespeare. But I'm still looking at the spine of Anthony Beevor's intimidating history of the Spanish Civil War. Looking but not touching. But when, Lord, when?

Once on my feet again, there were the regional elections to contend with. There were posters everywhere in Martel, but being an outsider and not understanding the political system of my adopted country, the faces and parties they boosted meant absolutely nothing to me. Deprived of the vote here and deprived of the vote back home – and therefore the right to have my say about the great 'Brexit' debate – all I could do was hope that those given the right to vote would exercise it with due care and diligence.

Being a student of history, I have the privilege of being able to play in advance – in certain situations – the hindsight card. Inevitably, given the atrocities in Paris the month before, voters did what voters will always do and cast their votes in protest for the extremists. Sure enough, the Front National swept to the fore across the regional board. But the impenetrable French political system being what it is, the second round gives voters the chance to organise and cast their votes strategically. This kept the fascists out. For now. But for how much longer, Lord, for how much longer?

Ah well, there's always music. The news desks didn't report the event in November, because they were far too busy with the appalling goings-on in Paris, but it was also the month when I splashed out on a decent new record deck. So December saw me re-discovering my old records and learning that the Prophets of Analogue are right. Nice clear digital sound is not analogous to the warm embrace of analogue sound. Listening to a well produced record album on a good sound system is, as my dear wife so acutely suggested, like listening in three dimensions rather than two.

Which is why mid month, with time to kill before I picked up The Daughter from the airport on her return from a sojourn in Sheffield, the city of her birth, I spent three happy hours or so browsing through the extraordinary record collection of a tiny shop in the centre of Limoges. The couple who run it want to retire after a lifetime's dealing in vinyl. Rather than knock 50% off their prices, though, they cling on to the notion of value, like co-captains on a slowly sinking vessel. My guide and I both relieved them of a few over-priced items, but – judging by the lack of clients all morning – it will be many, many years before they clear the stock at current prices and head for pastures new.

With Tilley the Kid back in the fold, we could start concentrating on Christmas. Despite her perennial Yuletide enthusiasm, though, we were hopelessly late this year. Our cards didn't arrive from the UK till the middle of the week before the Big Day. Like a Dickensian scribe, I knuckled down to the job of writing out newsy messages and addressing envelopes. They were signed, sealed and posted the next morning and – for all the talk of last posting days back home – they mainly reached their destinations in the St. Nick of time. However... our friends in the Alps received a card destined for Sheffield and our friends in Sheffield received a card destined for the Alps. That's Christmas for you.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, our leaders were busy reaching an historic deal on the climate, which will save the world and ensure that no more species are extinguished. Why not put the current climatic confusion down to El Nino and get on with the business of eating, drinking and being merry, safe in the knowledge that once more a collective of caped crusaders has nudged us back from the brink of catastrophe?

And that's just what we did. But a gentle word of warning: 11am on the 23rd is not a suitable hour for a trip to your local Lidl if you want to buy mini blinis and a pack of their finest Scottish smoked salmon. Somehow I filtered out the sound of a plague of humanoid locusts winging their way to the supermarket while I was languishing over a demi-tasse of coffee. Still, I did manage to pick up a mini chocolate Panettone for my wife's stocking and some mixed nuts for our daughter's. Next year, I shall be under starter's orders rather earlier.

And then it all came and went – as it always seems to do. I started early on Christmas Eve with a trip down to the prefecture of Cahors to register with a government agency as an auto-entrepreneur in order to pay some more social charges for an element of my work that was not accepted last year by the government agency to which I pay my social charges as a writer. The young woman who filled in my details was very charming and surprisingly helpful, so I spared her a diatribe on the hidebound and mystifying complexities of the French administration. Besides, it was Christmas and she was pregnant.

Back home in time for a mid-morning coffee and seasonal pain au chocolat, I joined in the preparations for our annual Christmas Eve soirée with a circle of local chums. Despite a resolution to delegate more this year and provide less in the way of canapés, there was still enough to do to occupy the three of us right up to zero hour itself. And then the house was full of noise and activity for a few hours before people petered away into the night and we could get down to the business of tidying up, wrapping presents, filling pillow cases that serve now as more capacious stockings, and watching the last recorded half hour of the Master Chef final – which my namesake won with his remarkable sang froid and Kandinsky-like artistry on a plate.

Post-high society, we could enjoy a quiet guilt-free family Christmas. Just the three of us plus cats and dog, who managed to single out her present from under the tree and drag it away while we were cooing over a new calendar of 1930s railway posters. Since a new rope to tug was hiding 'neath the paper, one could hardly discipline her for such un-orderly impatience.

We set a new record by staying in our pyjamas, till after midday, before dressing for the serious business of preparing lunch. Pea soup, nut roast with all the trimmings and our daughter's uncommonly delicious chocolate tart. And since there was nothing as usual on the telly, as a post-prandial treat we watched Joseph Losey's magnificently uncomfortable The Servant, with Dirk Bogarde and Sarah Miles never finer.

Thus disappeared Christmas in a flash for another year, with not a squabble, not a full-blown family argument in sight. Small is often beautiful. December is fizzling out and too soon the New Year will be upon us with another round of resolutions to ramp up the guilt during the year to come. Mind you, with my feet tucked up in new fleece-lined slippers, I feel almost equal to anything that life can throw at me. And they'll come in handy if and when this precocious spring gives way to winter, come the dark days of JanuFeb.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

October/November: Protracted autumn

The cold has arrived at last and our unnaturally mild protracted autumn has succumbed appropriately to winter. The cold means that the flies have stopped clustering in the apex of the mezzanine ceiling and my ears are no longer assaulted by the sound of a squadron of Stukas circling a civilian target. Ofttimes the innocent civilian was I, sitting here at my desk, contemplating a blank screen or tapping out rhythms on the keyboard –to be struck every now and then by a dying fly that would spin crazily like a break-dancer until welcome death intervened.

So now the wood burner is burning, as it should be, after a long period of unseasonal redundancy. The 20 degree plus temperatures we experienced earlier in the month confirmed that all is not well with the world. And so it came to pass.

October came and went in a blur of late-blooming work. After many fallow months, three concurrent e-learning projects converged in a level of activity that blurred my computer screen. A good job, therefore, that I came back from my trip to England with new pairs of glasses from Specsavers. My failing eyes just can't afford to wait for the kind of far-off appointments in which French opthalmos specialise.

Typical of Britain's modern multi-cultural society, my optician was a Greco-Belgian who spoke perfect English. She told me that she'd met another Sampson on Crete and that my surname suggested Viking origins. I never knew that; I always simply figured that I was a descendant of some son of Sam or Samp, so it's rather nice to picture my distant ancestor at the prow of a Viking long ship slicing through the North Sea en route for the land of the Angles. Hand on sword, perhaps, and ready to leap onto the shore for some recreational rape and pillage. Our family has come a long way since.

As have opticians. Modern machines have made it all a lot quicker business than it was when I had my first eye test as a boy in London. I recall it as a disquieting scene from a film like Brazil, with a white-coated man shining a light in my eyes and making me read from wall charts through lenses that seemed to make the letters increasingly blurred. The modern eye test is a 15-minute job and my glasses were ready three days later.

I chose a suitably studious frame for reading (because my wife has always loved Arthur Miller) with a second pair for the computer. They are my first-ever vari-focal lenses, which allow me to look at the screen through one zone and look down at my notes or whatever through another. They say it takes about a month to adjust to the sensation. I'm still evidently going through the period of adjustment, because I keep looking through a zone that seems to turn rectangles into parallelograms, thereby inducing slight sensations of nausea.

Still, I'm very pleased with the frames themselves, which lend me an air of a rather less youthful, less animated Jurgen Klopp, the new Liverpool manager. I don't now have to take them off in shame when someone catches me on Skype. The disquieting level of magnification, however, underlines just how much my eyesight has deteriorated since I got my first Specsaver specs about seven years ago. The first few applications made my eyeballs bulge as if on cartoon stalks. Entropy, entropy, all is entropy. The body is falling apart.

Fortunately, there's nothing yet too wrong with my distance vision. Not quite what it used to be, but then things aren't generally. But good enough to worry about the well-being of distant New Forest ponies on the golf course near Lyndhurst where I went with my brother on the Saturday of the rugby World Cup final. As if golf weren't a difficult enough game without having to worry about hitting a pony square on its rump. Or putting on a green after an equine troop has trudged all over the playing surface.

My brother, who must have been a horse in a previous incarnation, reassured me that it wouldn't hurt even if I did manage to hit one. The equivalent maybe of an acorn falling on one's head (which could be quite painful given the density of an acorn allied to the speed of its descent). In any case, I needn't have worried. It was one of those occasions when I couldn't even hit the ball. Half way through the course, I worked out that I was forgetting to keep my eye on the ball and therefore lifting my head before I'd followed through. After that, I made some pleasing connections and felt a little less like topping myself.

My brother dropped me off in the centre of Southampton where I picked up my new glasses and we met up again at our father's flat in Romsey to watch together the last quarter of what was reputedly the best of all rugby finals. The All Blacks duly ran out comfortable winners and the Australians were surprisingly gracious in defeat. England was left to scratch its collective head and wonder how to harness all those resources and all that latent talent. (Get a coach from the Antipodes for a kick-off.)

Having dropped off The Daughter with friends in Sheffield, where she's currently looking for work or 'a position', The Good Wife of La Poujade Basse joined me at my father's to load the miniature Peugeot with all the clobber I'd bought in Romsey's multitude of charity shops and to head for home. The sea was like a mill pond and we ran into thick fog the following morning. All the way to Orléans. But as soon as we'd crossed the Loire, the sun broke through to light up the golden autumnal countryside.  

And all was well with the world for a little while. We were reunited with our volatile Terrierdor and Daphne in turn was reunited with her two feline wards, who seemed to have doubled in size during a week away. The sun shone frequently, the temperature soared and the flies clustered noisily. And then Friday the 13th happened to remind us that all is definitely not well with this world of ours.

As with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it all happened in and around the onzième arrondissement, where our daughter was stationed for two years of scholarly endeavour. Le Petit Cambodge is the same little restaurant just off the Canal St. Martin where we went one balmy evening in September 2001 with Marion, the girlfriend of our late friend, Olivier, who would visit his rural retreat in the Corrèze periodically for a spot of fly-fishing and other such bucolic pastimes. Marion put us up for the night in her tiny apartment under the roof of a typical turn-of-the-20th-century town house. The next day, we were due to fly to Phoenix Arizona to visit Debs' older sister, Lou.

It was soon after 9/11 and we were all feeling a little uneasy about flying in a machine that could be commandeered by fanatics. But we had a lovely time that evening, commemorated by a drawing our daughter made on her paper place-mat. Le poisson qui suit toujours, she called it. She gave it to Marion to give to Olivier and, being an artist, Olivier scanned it into his computer, added colour and turned it into a work of art. The fish that always follows you is now framed and hanging on the wall of my wife's treatment room. Olivier, alas, died a decade or so ago of a rare heart condition and we lost touch with Marion, but the fish will ever follow us and remind us of a happier moment in Le Petit Cambodge.

By rights, the awful events should have plunged us directly into darkest, deepest winter. But the unnaturally mild weather endured for a little longer: long enough to enable Bret and me to clad our side wall – the wall that takes all the weather that the elements can throw at it, the wall that resisted my last two ill-fated lime-washes – with vertical planks of Douglas fir.

It will take some getting used to, but at least we can rest easy in our blissfully comfortable bed at night. Which wasn't the case a week or so ago. My wife, who sleeps with one ear constantly on the qui vivre, woke me to ask whether I could hear something. Someone, she thought, who was trying to get into our house. Bravely (and probably semi-conscious) I volunteered to get up and take a look. Daphne was still in her basket and seemingly unperturbed. I heard nothing untoward, so I climbed back into bed and went straight back to sleep.

Still convinced that she could hear something, Debs got up and watched the last episode of Homeland we'd recorded the night before. Surely not the best choice of viewing when you're feeling a little paranoid. Eventually, she got back to sleep. The following morning, I got up (as I do), but heard a cat mewling hoarsely. I checked the spare room and our daughter's curiously tidy bedroom, but nothing. Then together we worked out where it was coming from. Otis, who is fascinated by the rise and fall of mechanical shutters, had got himself wedged between the shutter and the French window of our reading area. Poor creature had spent the night trying desperately to get into the house.

He is still fascinated by the rise and fall of shutters, but we – not he – have learnt to be more careful now when they come down at 5:30 sharp to lock in the residual warmth of the day. They don't go back up till gone eight the next morning, so Otis had better think on't. Winter's here now and will be with us till at least February of next year. This war of attrition and intermittent atrocities, though, is liable to last a lot longer than that. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

September: Summer's Embers

We lit the first fire recently, in early October. It was a damp, miserable weekend, so there was every excuse, but that was it. Once lit, there's no turning back. Despite The Daughter's imprecations, we resist for as long as possible, because the first fire symbolically marks the end of summer.

A difficult one we had of it this year, what with the drought and the protracted heat wave, but once the serious heat had died down around mid August, we settled into a spell of the kind of customary weather we associate now with the tail-end of a French summer: long warm days bookended by a slight autumnal chill.

The Brother, as Flann O'Brien would have referred to him, went back to Belfast with our younger sister at the end of August for the first time in about 40 years. They certainly didn't go for the weather. When I spoke to him on Skype about it, he waxed lyrical and passionate about the old place. Yes, it had changed of course, and he barely recognised the back entry between our house and the parallel avenue where we used to play bin-ball and race our bikes in hazardous time-trials, but the people were still the friendliest people on earth. They had both tried – and failed – to find someone, anyone, who wasn't nice. Even the guy taking the tickets at the Titanic museum had been utterly delightful. He told me that he could easily imagine going back to live there again. Despite the weather.

Talking to him and hearing him enthuse about the kind of society we had taken for granted, forgetting all the bullets and bombs, made me come over all misty-eyed and nostalgic. It's not that we haven't encountered friendliness and friendship during 20 years in France, but it has often been hard work to get through to people. The sheer ingenuousness of Northern Irish folk is a rare commodity. It's as if everyone walks around with a sunny disposition and a Rory McIlroy bounce in their step.

I watched on telly a recording of Van Morrison's 70th birthday concert on a stage set up in the middle of Cyprus Avenue. The camera kept pulling back to pan over the immediate neighbourhood, a tree-lined part of Belfast on the east side of town, and then over the giant crane of Harland & Woolf's shipyard and beyond to the blue remembered hills that encompass the city. Everyone looked happy and even Van the Man, the old curmudgeon, was seen to smile. Once or twice.

We missed out on our customary dose of live music courtesy of the July festivals this year, but right at the tail-end of August, on two successive evenings, we caught two magical events that you would be much more likely to encounter in rural France than in urban Ulster. A small association dedicated to forging cultural links with Mali put on concerts of Malian music in two neighbouring village churches.

The first one, in the village of Lissac on the edge of the Lac de Causse not too far from the south side of Brive, featured a charming slender dusky-hued chanteuse from down Bamako way. She called herself Pam and her c.v. includes gigs as backing vocalist to the likes of Salif Keita. She promised us an evening of jazz, but apart from an affecting version of 'Cry Me a River', she revealed herself as a fine singer of anything but jazz. It didn't matter a jot. She enjoyed herself, the pick-up local band enjoyed themselves and the small but enthusiastic audience packed into the vaulted church had a collective ball.

Pam turned up at Estivals the next night in one of those extraordinary colourful headscarves worn in West African parts. She was invited on-stage to sing on a couple of numbers by the World Kora Trio, a biggish name on the world music circuit, who surely had no right to be appearing in a medieval church in the middle of almost nowhere (were it not for the nearby Brive Vallée de la Dordogne white-elephant airport). A Malian kora player, a French percussionist and an American cellist, who introduced each number in an accomplished French while the kora player re-tuned his exotic instrument.

The only wearisome note on such a memorable evening was the reappearance of a local choir. They were charming and very competent, but they ran through exactly the same repertoire of French, African and rock songs, including a version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which was actually much more tolerable than the pompous original.

At the end of the evening, everyone was invited for a bouffe laid on by the association on trestle tables set up outside the church. Only in France! I would love to have stayed on and chatted to the band, but it was late and the following morning the Good Wife and I were getting up early to drive down to Toulouse to catch a plane to Madge Orca.

I'd never been to the (in)famous Balearic isle before, but Debs' school friend from her early days in Germany now lives on the island. It's a mere hop over the Pyrenees from Toulouse. On the kind of clear day when airplanes appear from down below as silver javelins in the sky, we were able to see every crevice, every lake and every contour of the mountain range.

Katrin lives on the eastern side of the island, which necessitates a drive across the parched interior. There are mountains, not quite as impressive as those we had flown over, on the northern side of the island and we visited some picturesque creeks, but generally I was disappointed by what I found. It's an island generally loved by the Germans and our own tame German friends here had recommended it warmly, but I couldn't quite understand why.

We stayed in Katrin's hacienda-style house, typical of a simple indigenous architecture befitting a landscape divided by stone walls and dotted with olive and almond groves and those splendid cacti that bear less-than-splendid fruit. She has a well within her enclosed garden, which allows her to water copiously her impressive array of dwarf citrus trees, gnarled mature olive trees and a spreading carob under whose black hanging pods we sat at a big stone table to take most of our meals.

It also allows her to keep her grass unnaturally lush. It was strange thick knotted grass, like no grass I have ever felt with my hands or laid on with a book, like the artificial grass that I imagine they must use for dry ski slopes and other sporting pursuits. Katrin's brother, crippled by MS and confined to a wheelchair, lives nearby, right opposite Sir Harry Secombe's old holiday home overlooking the Mediterranean, and his lawn was even thicker, like a tightly woven carpet, and it all seemed as unreal as a set for Thunderbirds!

Since it hadn't rained on the island to any significant degree since Easter, the lush private lawns we saw on our walks with the ball-playing dog to the beach and back seemed worryingly wrong. In fact, apparently, the island is surprisingly damp. Certainly in winter, when Katrin annually has to fight off eruptions of mildew. The humid heat, though less than what we had known here during June and July, probably around the low 30s, was utterly enervating. At night we slept and sweated underneath a quietly whirring ceiling fan. It was all we could manage to spend most of our days sitting in the shade of the carob, reading our books. And what a luxury that continues to be. Instead of the customary ten minutes at the end of the day before the book crashes to the floor to remind you to turn off your bedside lamp, I was able to devour in a few sittings Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, his fascinating book about the development and spread of the English language.

Walking back early one afternoon from a creek where Katrin had taken us to go swimming (or, in my case, dipping my toes while the girls and Sacha the dog made for the horizon), the Good Wife of La Poujade Basse came over all unnecessary. She clung to my arm for support, overcome by the heat and the brilliance of the sun. And yet, the island's population is doubled, even trebled, for maybe half the year by legions of tourists who seem to want to peg out on plastic recliners in the concrete compounds of hotels which offer the kind of all-in deals that are ruining the local economy. They soak up the sun till they're red of face and bulging of midriff.

It was a fine, relaxing holiday, but I was glad to get back to Toulouse and pick up the car. On the way home, however, Debs started complaining of an excruciating pain in her colon. She went back to work for a day and then took the unprecedented step of cancelling clients. When friends from Sheffield came to stay, she arose from her sick bed to greet them with an exuberant hug – and promptly burst into tears. It turned out, we later learnt, that she had somehow contracted both pneumonia and an E.coli bacterium.

Our local doctor, a homeopath by trade, was seriously concerned. He arranged for blood and urine tests and I was despatched to the local Pharmacie to get what I think was called a USB jar, something anyway in which to collect a sample for an examen urinaire. She didn't let on straight away to her solicitous husband and her anxious daughter, but the readings were off the scale. The equivalent degree of radioactivity would have disabled a Geiger counter.

Stoically, she refused antibiotics in favour of a Rip van Winkle's worth of sleep, essential oils, a single homeopathic remedy and bottles of Vichy water. Within a matter of a few days, she was significantly on the mend and the test readings were back to a level usually associated with human life. The panic was over, but only then did I discover that the mysterious malady was in fact pneumonia, the dread disease that my mother taught me to fear as a child. Wrap up warm of you'll catch pneumonia... (And then you'll die, was the implication.) I guess medicine has moved on apace since I were a lad.

Thus went the end of another summer. A little more dramatic and varied than late summers of yore. Malian music, a Balearic holiday, death-defying disease and visits to and from the homeland. Not to mention an eclipse of a 'blood-moon', which we were roused from our slumbers to witness through our bathroom window by Daphne's barking. Normally she's quiet at night and tucked up tight in her basket, but clearly rare celestial phenomena derange her blithe canine soul.

And then the mornings and the evenings became colder and the leaves on the trees began to yellow and we lit the first fire in our France Turbo. I get the impression these days that I am measuring out my life in scoops of croquettes for the animals. Time to order another 10 kilo sack. And will there be time to order another before Christmas, after which we'll be snuggling into the deep mid-winter? But in a few more sacks' time, the spring will be with us if we're very fortunate and the two kittens will have grown into neutered males, content we hope to stick close to the house instead of wandering off into pastures new where untold dangers await. Life! It's a cycle, eh?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August: Catch a Falling Star

Last night all six of us – husband, wife, daughter, dog and two kittens – sat out on the back balcony staring at the heavens. August is the month in which you can catch a shooting star or two, if you've got time on your hands and your wits about you.

Something like this

We stationed ourselves out there just as day was turning to night, right at the end of another hot day. For once, there was a bit more time than usual. The welcome weekend deluge meant that the watering wasn't quite so extensive. Already the meadows of the plain below look a tad greener. It's probably due to a vigorous growth of weeds, but the landscape no longer resembles the Serengeti like it did, say, two weeks ago.

Two weeks in another town... It's already almost that long ago that I took the Megabus to London to spend some time with my octogenarian father in his new apartment. The skies were largely overcast in Romsey, Hants and the temperature was neutral, so it was a blissful change to wear another layer over my T-shirts. The week away fortified my system and prepared me for more of the same on my return.

In this part of France, the night sky is almost as clear as it is anywhere in the land – except perhaps the Pyrenees, where they've positioned one of the most powerful telescopes known to astronomers (or so I believe). There is little or no light pollution here and when you're lying flat as we were and staring heavenwards, it's easy to imagine that you're in some space pod, off to explore new galaxies and to boldly go where no man – or woman, or dog, or kitten – has gone before...

The feeling of being sucked up into an intergalactic vortex was intensified by the remarkably appropriate music chosen for the voyage of the Star Ship Samponz by The Daughter: Volume 3 of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. And my God, those female Balkan voices are indeed mysterious and elemental and ethereal. Everything in fact that a star-child could wish for.
They clearly don't know the answers either

All this astral travelling got us onto the subject of stars and galaxy. Could I explain the difference between a star and a planet? Not convincingly. Could I explain what a galaxy was? Well, kind of... Could I explain the difference between a meteorite and a shooting star? No, but I knew a man who could. In the absence of my polymathematical friend, Winston, I referred my fellow spectators to the Bill Bryson book that I brought back to France with me, just one of many trophies from my safari around the numerous charity shops of Romsey, Hants. A Short History of Nearly Everything would surely have all the answers, explained what's more in layman's terms of less than seven syllables. Good old Bill Bryson.

Actually, I found that particular book at the Saturday fête organised by the care home where my mother, RIP, passed her final year. Ten pence I think they asked for it. I also found one of those racing-green-coloured coffee cups and saucers for a pound to replace the cup that The Daughter smashed recently. No sooner had I got it back home unscathed than she managed to smash the saucer. Good old Supaglue.

Anyway, it's hopefully just a passing phase. My father had just come round to the idea that we couldn't go that afternoon because of the absence of taxis in Romsey, Hants – there was some big bash going on in the New Forest, which had claimed all available transport for hire – when my brother turned up on the off-chance, as he does every blue moon. He took us there and we watched our old dad in his element, glad-handing the nursing staff and dispensing his customary charm and bonhomie. We call him Mr. Wonderful. Me, I watched a demonstration of canine tricks, as a number of besotted owners put their pooches through their paces. My brother found it all a bit distasteful, but then he's not a dog owner.

We were out there on the balcony, I suppose, for less than an hour and in that time we counted between us seven shooting stars. Blink and they're gone. The tally surpassed our first attempt one memorably pellucid August night way back when we lived among the hill people. The Daughter was just a tot then and Alfred Lord Sampson had not yet come to protect us from hot-air balloons. That night the stars put on a show for free, but I don't remember counting more than five falling stars. The old lady across the road was no doubt peering at us from behind half-closed shutters and wondering what those odd anglais were up to now.

We are not overlooked now, which is a blessing. Nevertheless, the campers from Paris are out in force just down below. Our keen-eared daughter caught the sound of some awful French version of '(Reach Out), I'll BeThere', which offended her notion of good taste and no doubt interfered with the purity of the Balkan voices. She suggested turning ours up, but I was loathe to get into some amplified strife with the neighbours, particularly as they're only temporary.

Our discerning daughter came with us on Saturday night to see the first music concert of this summer. The Mauritanian singer-songwriter, Daby Touré, who has recorded on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, was appearing – incongruously – at a restaurant a mere 15 minutes from here. Beside the river Dordogne and beneath the floodlit village of Montvalent, which looked like a painted backdrop for a Victorian melodrama. As usual, the publicity was last minute and we didn't hear about it till a thoughtful friend sent me a photo of the poster she took on her phone.

It was free to diners and a mere €3,50 to folk like us who came for the music alone. A major artist for a price like that; it didn't make any sense. But he was playing with a personal friend, who played a violin-shaped bass guitar not unlike Paul McCartney's, so I guess he was doing it as a personal favour. The audience was a right motley crew that included one of the women on the cash desks at Intermarché whose name, I now know, is Valérie. But Daby played his heart out until the end, when the heavens opened and a blocked gutter created a puddle on the floor that crept steadily nearer to his equipment.

Before we left, the girls persuaded me to go up and thank him. Which I did. Daby beamed and so did I. His star is probably still rising rather than falling, but one forgets that even people in the public eye can find positive feedback as pleasant to receive as it is to give. We drove home very slowly, partly because of the strength of the downpour and partly to avoid all the frogs.

My sister and her extended family arrive this weekend. There are no concerts scheduled, but the four small boys are going to love the animals and we adults might find some more quiet time to sit out again on the balcony and gape at the firmament. It's recommended.