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, February 23, 2015

16 – 21st February: High Society

One social event in a week here is rare enough; two is aberrant, but three is charting new territory. The week was nothing short of dizzy.

It started, as weeks tend to, on a Monday. The three of us went to Brive to meet up with our ceramicist of choice, Ingrid Squirrell, who bought our old house in the Corrèze. She's here for a couple of weeks: to check on the house and get the oven fired up to do some potting. She got here to find that the gas boiler wasn't working and there was no water in the house, so she's been freezing despite the glorious winter sunshine. Freezing in the company of friends who had rented out their house near Argentat to some Brits, over here for a fortnight to ski in the mountains of the Cantal. Her friend, Sue, is a potter, too. Ingrid had left her clay in water to keep it malleable, but the water was so cold that the process of working it almost froze their fingers off.

We were to meet the three of them for a pizza at the Napoli followed by a film at the Rex. We went early enough to stock up on whole foods at Vital Form before they closed at seven. The place calls itself a supermarket, but the prices are more in keeping with a boutique. We knew how expensive whole foods were in France when we moved over here permanently and would bring stuff in bulk from Infinity Foods in Brighton or Lembas in Sheffield. Which was fine until the dispiriting day when we had to jettison 5kg of mite-infested sesame seeds. Now we're part of a small private co-operative that orders these foodstuffs in bulk.

Even so, we go to Vital Form sufficiently often for Debs to keep an in-store reward card. It's a big deal. They stamp your card when you spend over €15 and a fully stamped card entitles the bearer to a mouth-watering 2% off their next purchase. We spent nearly €70 on Monday evening and my wife valiantly argued that her card should be stamped three or four times, but this was far too complicated for the counter staff. What one should do, of course, is to go round three or four times for amounts of €15 or just over. But therein madness lies. Personally, I value my sanity at a little more than a 2% discount.

At the cinema, we were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't buy our tickets any earlier than half an hour in advance of the 9 o'clock showing. Forget it, Jake. It's France... Being nominally vegetarians in France, as are two of the three friends we met outside the restaurant, we don't eat out much. Pizzas, like omelettes, have a limited appeal and, on Monday evening, I found my pizza a little too doughy and salty. The green salad was drowned in a dressing with far too much vinegar, so even though it's rather nice from time to time to eat in the company of one's fellow humans, it wasn't a memorable culinary experience.

Besides, we learnt from Ingrid that a nice man from our old village – an active man who kept himself fit enough in his retirement to enjoy equestrian holidays in far-off places like Rajasthan and Patagonia – has been struck down by some kind of cancer in his back, which has confined him to a wheelchair. And we heard from Ingrid's friends about a 'shed-tax'. A legacy, apparently, of Sir Cosy's presidency, it's a one-off tax on sheds, car ports and any other kind of independent outhouse that's calculated, allegedly, at around €700 per square metre. If true, it puts the kibosh on our proposed straw-bale wood shelter. Forget it, Jake. It's France. Being France, it could well be true. Nothing like a new tax to keep the civil servants in business, while keeping individual ambition in check. It'll do wonders for the DIY trade, too.

Never mind, eh? A Most Violent Year was a most entertaining film. Set in New York in 1981, just before zero tolerance, the film was partly shot in Detroit to give the urban scenes a convincing air of dilapidation. The subway carriage totally covered in rabid graffiti brought back memories of travelling from JFK to the centre of Manhattan on my first visit to New York at around this time. Uncomfortable memories of the fear I felt, clutching my bag to my chest as I scanned the carriage for potential muggers. In those days, New York had the kind of reputation for crime that we now associate with places like Johannesburg. 

Come Friday evening and we were able to dress up in our glad rags once more, this time for the annual Cabaret du Coeur at Curemonte. Now in its 11th year following the tsunami of December, 2004, in aid of which it was originally conceived, this is something mounted – roughly speaking – by the same small private whole food co-operative I spoke of. Not so small these days, actually. We must be more than a hundred strong. Certainly, the little salle de fètes seemed even more packed than it usually is. Some years I take part (often in the capacity of an MC), others I don't – depending on factors such as motivation, inspiration and commitment to rehearsals. January's familial disruptions gave me the excuse I needed to sit back in the audience and enjoy the hard work and artistic endeavour of others.

In some ways, it was the best yet. It was shorter and tighter, and having a dedicated stage manager made the business of getting one act off and the next one on a slicker affair and less reminiscent of a parade of enthusiastic amateurs. Our Dutch friend, Dmitri, glowed with the pride of having obtained a whole row of cinema seats from somewhere, I think, in St. Céré, for a sketch that seemed inspired – but probably wasn't – by Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. He showed up again on banjo in a nice version of 'Cotton-Eyed Joe', made famous by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

His wife, Margot, was part of a hilarious chorus line based on something spotted originally online. Seven women side by side by Sondheim in shades and dressed in black bar two-tone leggings: one black leg, one white. So, by lining up with adjacent white legs and black legs and choreographing the kicks, you achieve an effect of two white or two black legs raised off the ground at the same time. Rather like the comedian Harry Worth's old routine of raising both arms and legs off the ground at the same time using the angle of a shop window – if you can remember that far back. Anyway, take it from me, it was clever, deceptively simple and very funny.

The three Steves – the Rockin' Royales – finished things off with nice versions of 'Fly Me to the Moon' and 'Every Day I Have the Blues', and we were able to slip away into the wet night and leave everyone else to the tidying and washing up. I've contributed in previous years, so the guilt wasn't too burdensome. It meant, too, that we were tucked up in bed before midnight. 

Which was just as well, because we were off out the next night. The press were gathered outside to report on the egregious event for the local paper. Looking tired and shell-shocked, the Sampson family slipped wearily out of their home for a meal with four of their oldest friends in France. Sometime after midnight, their car returned. Bearing a hand-picked overnight log, man of the house and femme de foyer, Mark, told us that they'd had a cracking evening. 'We talked of those early days in a foreign land, when we would spend time socialising with people whom hindsight would reveal as glaringly unsuitable. The past seems like a different country now.'

Oh, and I forgot to tell the reporters that we spent at least half an hour analysing the French word for undertaker. While the unofficial word is a croque-mort (or dead-biter), the official word is entrepreneur. Literally, someone who undertakes a task – which is presumably the same derivation as the English word. In high society, one talks of such esoteric matters.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

9 – 14th February: Up on the Roof

Shame about the inevitable rain on Saturday, great sheets of it, because it was an extraordinarily beautiful week. One of those cold, crisp and luminous weeks that make you appreciate the rare joys of winter. When it's as dry as that, it's not difficult to keep warm. The cold doesn't penetrate your bones.

I let the fire go out overnight on Monday for the first time in about a fortnight. I'd viewed the overnight log that I put on with suspicion. Sure enough, the next morning, there was no life in it whatsoever and the stove metal was cold to the touch. So I seized the opportunity to sweep the flue, from below and above. Up on the roof, working the hedgehog and rods down the still-shiny chrome steel of the chimney, with the landscape beneath me bathed in the first intense sunlight of the day, I felt a little like one of the old Viscounts of Turenne must have felt. Up in his now abandoned tower that dominates the northern horizon, surveying the same undulating basin that in days of yore constituted the old viscomté

It was about this time of year, with the same glorious winter weather, that I spent several weeks sublimating my fear of heights, helping the couvreur put the roof on this house. A methodical man in a beret called Michel. A quiet, sober man with a distinct air of sadness. During our time on the roof together, I discovered that the sadness derived from child deprivation. He was a member of an organisation that called itself SOS Papa and he'd spent a chunk of the previous decade fighting his former wife for the right to see more of his children. Over lunch one day, he showed me some newspaper cuttings that described the legal battles that led his appearance at the European Court of Human Rights (or some such august body).

I hope he won his struggle for equal viewing rights, because I remember particularly the way his face lit up with love and pride when he brought his young son and daughter one day to the construction site to meet me and say hello and see where their dad was working. He was a changed man and I saw nothing on the faces of the children to suggest anything but affection for their mild-mannered father.

While the girls have been poring over pictures of deserving dogs that need a good home, I have been much preoccupied this last week with roofs. I saw quite a bit of my latest roofer of choice. He's a funny little taciturn man called Mario – though, ridiculously, we still call each other by the formal Monsieur. He's taciturn and a mumbler, which makes intelligible communications problematic. Nevertheless, over recent years, we've developed a kind of understanding and a mutually beneficial professional relationship. Mario does jobs for the co-proprietors at the chateau I look after, and in return he does me a price for any private roofing jobs I need doing. These days he even gives me his version of a sheepish smile when we shake hands. 

Now that the Tenant of Wildfell Hall has quit the apartment above my wife's clinic, I've been able to engage Mario to fix a hole in the roof where the rain gets in. To stop my mind from wandering while he was outside addressing the fissures in the mortar, I went off into town to buy some posh tea for the girls at the Café Bogota. On my return, I caught sight of him on the roof at the back of the house, standing back to regard his handiwork. We waved sheepishly at each other.

It didn't make me queasy, because the roof above the tenant's sitting room is a flat one. At the chateau, however, Mario does a walk of death each time he goes out to inspect the latest problem with the wafer-thin guttering. It renders me almost physically sick. This week, the problem lay at the back of the building, so he walked all the way around the cornice of the chateau. I help him out via one of the Velux windows in the middle of the top three flats, then retreat to pace around the parquet floor, trying not to imagine a cry of distress followed by a sickening thud as a human body hits solid ground below.

This time, I found the courage from deep within to wander downstairs and out onto the back lawn to check that he had reached his destination without incident. He was already up there at the angle of the cornice and when he saw me looking anxiously up at him, he pretended to topple forward. His idea of a joke. It didn't amuse me. 

I left him to it with instructions to lock up and hide the key. Back home, though, I had to calculate roughly how long it would take to do the necessary before I could safely phone him on the mobile. I have this disaster scenario whereby I phone him and, distracted momentarily by his ringtone, Mario loses concentration for a split second and topples forward for real. 

'Bonjour Monsieur,' I called eventually. 'You're not up on the roof, are you?'
'No no. It's all done.'
'Ah good. It went off all right then?'

So all was quiet at the Big House and I was able to go back to retrieve the key and check that everything was locked up securely. From a Velux in the adjoining flat I could see a shiny pristine length of zinc guttering laid in the part of the cornice where the old gutter had perished. Mario had lived to walk the walk of death another day and, thanks to his remarkable sang-froid, he had managed to fix two holes in two different roofs to stop the leaks before the rain came on Saturday.

I like to think that I choose my roofers, as we must choose our next dog, with care.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

3rd – 7th February: Whiplashed by Winter

All week long, a frisky wind blew in from what seemed like the Frozen North to give a taste of Siberia. In such a wind, the tarps on the woodpiles billowed like sails in a mid-Atlantic storm. Any more than a week of it might drive a sane man mad. Of course, it was nothing compared to what's going on around the eastern seaboard of the US, or Siberia for that matter, but it was a timely reminder that you still have to negotiate February to get to March.

The wood situation was getting critical, which meant the reappearance of the feared chainsaw. The fact that it's only an electric chainsaw from Lidl rather spells out my limited ambitions in the woodsman category. Nevertheless, I always approach the task with caution, even barely suppressed terror.

The day chosen for the task was the coldest and windiest day of the week. It was also the day before my wife's birthday, so there was even more incentive than usual to avoid hacking off a limb. Suffering as she is from a damaged knee after an assault by an old lady on the Eurostar platform at the Gare du Nord in Paris, she was counting on an able-bodied minder to drive her to Brive and back. What a twist of fate that this should befall at the end of her self-imposed exile in the frozen north of England to look after her mother following a knee operation. She's shocked and badly bruised, but not we trust damaged for life. It certainly hasn't stopped her putting in the hours, putting her clients back together again.   

The wood in question comes in the shape of relèves, as they're called: the edges of the tree trunks that are transformed at the local sawmill into railway sleepers for the SNCF. They're bundled up in fagots, the kind that they used to place around martyrs in medieval times for burnings at the stake. (Yes, I've been transfixed, as millions have been, by BBC's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall – with a smouldering, transfixing performance by Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.)

I'm not sufficiently courageous to approach the slicing of the faggots with the same kind of gusto as my friend Bret. He plants his left foot on the pile and then cuts down with grim determination as far as the chainsaw will go, thus sawing through ten or more planks at a time. I like the economy of his approach, but shy away from the risk of kick-back or simply getting the saw stuck. Still, I managed a modest safety-first approximation and I've now got enough planks chopped up and stacked under cover for the month of February. With wood in the bank, I can rest easy again.

The perfect Clarnico Mint, back in 2006

Such a wind usually presages rain – and plenty of it. So when it died down a little towards the end of the week, it came as no surprise to see some snow. It was blowing up an incipient blizzard when I left for the cinema in Vayrac on Thursday evening to see Whiplash. Debs and Tilley were due to come too, but the wife's knees were playing up after a hard day at the coal face and The Daughter's working on a commission to create a costume. So I drove off alone into the dark and inclement night.

The usual crowd were there for version originale films. 'Bunch' is maybe a more appropriate word given the size of the auditorium and the number of unoccupied seats. Anyway, we were there to see a film about a young man with ambitions to be a great jazz drummer, the new Buddy Rich perhaps, and his battles with a teacher determined to push his charges to the limits of their ability and motivation. Apart from a sequence involving a car crash and blood all over the kit – which seemed more appropriate to a soap like Hollyoaks – it was a gripping film about a subject that would never normally see the light of cinematic day, and one that clearly deserved its Sundance Festival acclaim.
A little gentle persuasion

Quite apart from the brilliant music throughout, it also raised some interesting questions about a subject that's dear to my heart. The notion of talent and why some people fulfil it while others don't. Just how far should one go in pushing someone? The teacher, played by a ferocious J.K. Simmons, is in many respects a monster. Yet, there is something sympathetic in his make-up, if only because he genuinely wants his pupils to succeed. And not just to succeed, but to be great – rather than mere also-rans. As he believes, two of the most damaging words in the English language are 'good' and 'job'. In other words, we shouldn't be satisfied with mediocrity.

I was talking to a friend on Saturday morning about the film and we drifted onto the subject of our offspring. He's feeling a little nervous about his son's ambitions. For all his academic brilliance, his son seems to have rejected the kind of society that his parents are accustomed to. He wants to be a writer – in French rather than English – and wants to give it 100% for a couple of years. Then, if nothing happens, he can try something else.  

As a 70% man, a dilettante by any other name, I fully approve of the idea. Writers in English are two-a-penny, but if he makes it in French, the Prix Goncourt, Légion d'Honneur and national acclaim could be his. Blessed or cursed by too many interests, I was a 70% man whenever it was that I decided that a writer's life was probably maybe the life for me and, nearly half a century down the line, I'm still a 70% man. So it sounds like he doesn't need a spot of J.K. Simmons-style motivation.

I, too, feel a little nervous about my offspring's ambitions. Her talent's not in doubt, but I wonder sometimes whether she's got the 'mental game'. So she, on the other hand, might benefit from a spot of J.K. Simmons-style motivation. The trouble is, she's a sensitive soul. If you push someone too much or too far, you could end up inflicting permanent damage. To succeed at the kind of level that the Simmons character was talking about, you have to be very driven and almost unnaturally single-minded. Someone like Charlie Parker burnt himself out in the process, but the young hero, the apprentice Buddy Rich, reasons to his family that he'd rather shine brightly for fewer than 40 years and leave a legacy of astounding work for generations to come, than be forgotten after living a comfortable, average sort of life until he was 90.

I know which path father and daughter would opt for. But who knows, maybe it's possible to have your cake and eat it too. The megalomaniacal teacher wouldn't have thought so, but then there would have been no premise for the drama if he had. Interestingly, the writer and director of the film, Damien Chazelle, started off as a prize-winning drummer, 100% driven to succeed. Now he's found a new prize-winning career by using the experience as his creative subject matter. Now that's what I call talent. Should go far.

After the film, the snow had dispersed. Turning into our track, I caught sight of a badger darting through the trees, ears flattened against the elements and dedicated to its chosen nocturnal pursuit. The following morning, I was ready to take my wife down to the station to catch the train to Brive, but she decided that her knees were now sufficiently better after an evening's massage to attempt to drive. She did it, too. She made it there and back without incident. She's nothing if not driven, that one.