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, March 29, 2015

24–28th March: Pulling Gardens

Sometime during the week, I went dutifully to the mairie to fill in the form that gave me permission to burn all the brambles I've been dutifully uprooting over the last couple of weeks. The road winds down the Côte de Mathieu, as it's called, via a series of hairpin bends. At the sharpest of the bends, I caught sight of a poster on a tree. It advertised the French national garden-pulling championships.

Driving back up from the mairie with my signed authorisation, I wanted to find out more, but had to content myself with a glimpse in the rear-view mirror. I couldn't read where or when, but there was a photograph of a horse in profile. So garden-pulling must have something to do with horses.

I remember wincing when I first saw a poster to advertise a ball-trap. A TV drama – called, I think, Ball-Trap on the Côte d'Amour – cleared up the mystery. It was a drama based around a group of people on a camping holiday in Brittany who were tangentially involved with a clay-pigeon shoot.

Just recently, I've noticed when walking our reluctant dog that the three stocky horses are back in the triangle of scrub land where the road to the farm joins the road that runs along the crest. I'm guessing that they must be here to eat as much grass and hay as they can manage to build up their strength for the garden-pulling championships. They are mighty creatures with legs like tree trunks and great barrel chests, but several hands less high than a British shire horse. Daphne cowered when all three came trotting towards us to see whether I'd got any carrots for them. I had to explain that I was saving them for a Gujerati-style carrot salad.

So then, it seems likely that the gardens are pulled by these shire – or we should properly say departmental – horses, but this doesn't address the degree of difficulty involved. Pulling a garden must be the equine equivalent of a triple salchow with double pike and twist. Or that fearsome wall that all those posh show jumpers in hard hats or peaked army caps would try to negotiate in the jump-off against the clock. (It's symptomatic of a very misspent youth that I should have wasted precious time watching something contested by double-barrelled people, in which I wasn't the least bit interested. Maybe, like the hurdles, it was something to be negotiated in order to get to the juicier bits of Sportsnight With or Without Coleman.)

Presumably, the type of garden has to be standardised in terms of dimensions and shrubs, paths, number of sheds and other outhouses and all those kinds of details. It would be very unfair if departmental horse A only had to pull an English-style manicured garden with just a few neat flowerbeds if departmental horse B had to pull a rambling chaotic affair like ours, with a bank and willow bushes and fruit trees and woodpiles and so on.

In fact, there are so many unanswered questions. How do you detach the garden from the house, for example? And, if you manage to do this, how then do you attach – by rope or by chain? – the full perimeter of the garden to the horse? Is it a race, with horses lined up side by side, each pulling its garden frantically towards a finishing line? Or is it a matter of each horse – plus horticultural load – going through its paces to earn points? And what about the judging? Is it done by one individual or by a panel of arbiters? Personally, I'd favour a panel.

I missed a golden opportunity to find out more about garden-pulling at the Fête de Bret on Saturday night. Bret was celebrating his 51st birthday, but I turned up later than usual, having been seduced by the idea of a candlelit dinner at home to see out Earth Hour. It was amazing how quickly an hour without music and electric light passed. We enjoyed some stimulating conversation over a very leisurely meal cooked by The Daughter. After clearing up more leisurely than usual, I took off for Bret's soon after 9:30.

Ensconced behind his laptop to score a soundtrack to his party, my friend and host greeted me with a new hairstyle to mark the occasion. Normally, he just creates some facial hair fantasy, but this time he had shaved the entire left side of his head. The music always makes conversation a little challenging at my time of life when your hearing's not what it used to be. But I had a good chat with Kate about dual languages (apparently, the tongue in which you instinctively count represents a bilingual person's stronger language); and with Anna about the dilemmas of putting your child through a very psycho-rigide educational system; and with Natasja about shamanism; and with Steve and Jessica about their recent short trip to Lisbon.

But I completely forgot to ask French friends there if they could cast light on garden-pulling. And once the big and little hands were pointing to 12, knowing that I would lose an hour during the night, I simply had to get back to the comfort of my bed. This always presents a dilemma at parties here. Do you sneak off or do you say your proper goodbyes and risk tarrying an extra half hour? My exit was a half-assed compromise. And I was punished for it when I couldn't drive my car off the muddy verge. I had to go cap in hand and fetch my American friend, Steve, who knows all about these things. He and his mate Steve managed to liberate the Berlingo without too much difficulty. The secret, apparently, is to use second gear and to make sure that the tyres are pointing straight ahead and not at the angle I had left them.

I did find time to ask Bret about his hair. How would his clients react to having someone who looked like Arthur Brown (of the Crazy World) try to sort out their computer problems? Fire! It takes you to burn... Actually, he'll probably shave it all off to encourage a strong new growth. Which is probably how the roots of all those brambles I hacked off at the base will react.

There's a point... I wonder whether there's time before the championships begin to contact the committee to propose a new team event. Link up three or four of the mighty departmental horses, say, and attach them to the stubs of all our brambles, then get them to pull them away from here for good. Forever. A significant degree of difficulty, but a potential to score heavily with the judges.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

20th March: Total Eclipse of the Sun

In the end, I had to sacrifice the Ryan Air flight I'd booked from Brive, Vallée de la Dordogne, to Smorgasbord on the Island of Svalbard. It didn't feel right to leave the girls to look after Daphne – or Da Phoney, as our rapping neighbour, MC Sol R Klipz, calls our growing hound – while I went off to gaze at the heavens through rose-tinted glasses. (Daphne's growing apace, thanks for asking. She's out of her Clarks Startrites now and will be wanting a pair of kinky boots soon.)
The service I missed

The solar eclipse was a non-event in this neck of the woods. It was one of those overcast days when the cloud cover tinges the land with a sickly pallor. We didn't even notice any appreciable darkening when the moon covered the surface of the sun sometime between 9 and 10 o'clock. We hadn't got our act together, anyway. Last time around, in August 1999, probably because the Daughter was just a nipper and we were still seriously responsible parents, we were equipped with three home-made pinhole cameras and dedicated to the task of ensuring that our little girl didn't try to look directly at the sun.

In those days, when the internet was still comparatively in its infancy, there was little question of watching it retrospectively courtesy of You Tube or whatever. So you had to be there to witness it live. With Health & Safety paranoia so rampant now, rather than make their own Blue Peter cameras from an old box of breakfast cereal, many school children I'm told had to watch Friday's eclipse streamed onto a big screen in the classroom.

Mind you, re-reading my journal of the time, it transpires that our pinhole cameras were about as much use as a tin of sardines. Fortunately, the young baba-cool couple who moved into the house on the other side of the road that bisected our village had some friends from Avignon to stay with them. They had come equipped, and lent us some spare pairs of custom-made cardboard glasses through which we were able to view the sun as a tiny crescent.

I wasn't there either
Up in the north, the sun was more of a dramatic black orb with a fiery perimeter. So, for we villagers in the Corrèze, it was all a bit of an anti-climax. What I remember most about the day was the sudden stillness and chill and the way our locality was shrouded for a few minutes in an eerie kind of post-apocalyptic grey light. I couldn't help but think it would be like this after they dropped the Big One on Bordeaux or Clermont-Ferrand.

The best part of it was packaged by the media. We watched the lunchtime French news (because it would be six or more years before we would succumb to a satellite) on our telly and witnessed the excitement of the crowds gathered on the beach at Fécamp to follow the passage of the moon over the sun. Was their experience underscored, as it was for TV viewers, by the portentous music of Richard Strauss or someone like that? By the end of the broadcast, we understood why friends from Sheffield had made the long journey to Cornwall with their tent and special glasses.

After such an event, the rest of the day was bound to be underwhelming. We had spent nearly four years in France and were still finding our expatriate feet. Bringing up a young child in such an unfamiliar and challenging environment created certain strains and we were probably both going through some sort of mid-life crisis. While Debs was still coming to grips with the business of setting herself up as a backstreet aromatherapist, I was still trying to forge a career as a writer. The rejection letters kept arriving by snail-mail (as it wasn't even known yet at that time) and a joint venture with a director friend had just been blown out of the water by the discovery that the Americans had already made a film about the same kind of subject matter. Born To Be Mild, which I thought was a damn fine title – about a group of middle-aged middle-class bikers going through their own variegated mid-life crises – could have been a contender, but now patently wouldn't be. Shame. The American film, I gathered, was about as subtle as a slap on the face with a biker's gauntlet.

Our beautiful ginger cat, Dexter, hadn't yet been poisoned, so I was able to sit on the sofa with him on my lap after lunch, while I took my turn to survey the kid so that her mother could sneak upstairs to get on with some much-needed paperwork. We couldn't make much noise, because it was the first summer in which we rented out the little apartment that we'd created downstairs in the cave – which was more of a cave than a cellar when we first moved into our farmhouse. We had a French couple staying there that week, who were only too ready to suggest improvements.

While keeping a watchful eye on our five-year old as she played on our chestnut parquet, I was probably feeling flat after the departure of old friends from the homeland and maybe mulling over the details of what would we come to know as our stillborn Aromadonkey project. We'd been to Christine and JP's house the previous evening to sketch an outline. JP, a funny little man with a piping voice and a pencil-thin moustache, whose vocal chords must have suffered a mishap somewhere in his past, kept donkeys and had created an internet page to advertise treks with said adorable creatures. Debs had a vague idea of using our new apartment below for short residential courses on reflexology and aromatherapy. What if... What if the trekkers walked their donkeys over to our house on an appointed day for a soothing massage at the end of their hike? And what if her students were to book a walk with a donkey for a bit of R&R half way through the course?

I think the accumulated tiredness from a week of sharing our house with friends while trying to get on with daily life, compounded by the effort of trying to speak and understand French – particularly French as spoken by someone who sounded like he'd just taken in a lungful of helium – meant that we were ready to say yes to anything. It sounded kind of plausible at the time, though, even if hindsight would reveal all the flaws that made it abortive. Just one of many lessons we were to learn in the initial phase of our life in a foreign land.

It's already 15 years since that last total eclipse of the sun. God knows how long before the next one. 1999 seems like such a long time ago now. Friday's eclipse was less exciting than the one that preceded the Millenium Bug: another non-event – like Born To Be Mild and Aromadonkey. In some ways, now that all that ingenuous naivety has been flushed away by experience, life is less exciting. But we're settled and on a more even keel and our child has become an interesting and stimulating young woman and we know who our friends are. And there's much to be said for that. So I'll probably get over the disappointment of not going to Svalbard for this latest celestial phenomenon.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

10th – 14th March: Service with a Smile

There was a memorable moment in my pre-history – a kind of rite of passage from childhood to adolescent – when my brother and I quite liderally smashed his copy of 'Bits and Pieces' by the Dave Clark 5 into little smithereens of vinyl. It wasn't easy to do. Not like a 78 rpm record. If you dropped one of those on a hard surface, they would smash like glass. Breaking up a vinyl 7-inch single took a wanton act of destruction. It was fun at the time. We revelled in the gesture almost as a piece of performance art.   

This week, I ate my lunch with bits and pieces of a documentary about the Dave Clark Five. I couldn't interest The Daughter in it. Unlike the Beatles and the Stones, she'd never heard of the DC5. I'd never really given them much thought for decades and considered the 'Tottenham Sound' a brief phenomenon involving a couple of hit singles and a dopy teen-film. Yes, Mike Smith on keyboards had a seriously good soulful voice, but my abiding image of them was one of Dave Clark himself beating hell out of his drum kit with a total lack of subtlety and a cheesy smile on his face.

My lunchtime education enlightened me. The likes of Bruce Springsteen and Steve van Zandt taught me just how huge the group were in the US. They appeared more times on the Ed Sullivan Show than any other musical act. They made umpteen albums in a short space of time and sold something like a 100million records worldwide. What's more, that dopy teen-film, Catch Us If You Can, was directed by John Boorman, who would go on to make Deliverance and Point Blank.

Smiling Dave had a shrewd business mind. He owned all the masters to their records in an era when artists would sign any old contract proposed by the record moguls. During their time in the sun, they were the hardest working band in show business, but always took time-off during their tours for rest and recreation. And they quit – in 1970 – while they were still ahead. Dave Clark had the good taste subsequently to buy up the rights to the pop-tastic Ready, Steady, Go! – but the poor taste to furnish his Mayfair flat with a tiger-skin rug and to produce a West End blockbuster called Time – the Musical. Despite the smile, the film made me suspect him of being a tad humourless.

Anyway, I wasn't looking for Dave Clark discs when I popped into Cash Converters during the week with my girl. We were out on the town principally to try and locate the French equivalent of a Job Centre. Tilley now knows why it's my favourite shop in Brive. They're just so... so damn nice. I was embarrassed to take back a CD that I'd bought for 50 cents, but it was a rarity by Robin Trower, Procol Harum's brilliant ex-guitarist, and so scratched that not a single track was audible. Cash Converters advertise a special machine that repairs discs otherwise beyond redemption.

I didn't actually see the machine. It's housed in a back room and I like to imagine that it's like a prop from Metropolis or Brazil. Full of dials and plugs and little glass vials emanating puffs of steam. But it only took five minutes, so I suspect it's something rather more mundane. A charming male assistant – who always likes to air a little schoolboy English with me – brought me the rejuvenated disc. Where once it looked like something found in a scrapheap, now it was miraculously shiny and apparently resuscitated. Yet he apologised (yes, we're talking about a French concern here and he apologised) because he felt that The Machine had failed to bring back Robin 'Lazarus' Trower from the dead.

He and his colleague insisted that I take it home and try it, but they would reimburse me my 50cents. Still embarrassed about taking back a 50-cent disc and because I would be happy if even one track worked now, I demurred. I explained that I get my kicks on route 66 by making compilation discs. No, that wasn't the point. We were talking customer service here. Yes, that once alien concept in this land of the indifferent shrug. By this point, I was positively reeling. In the end, I agreed that they could knock 50 cents off my next purchase if they really insisted. They did.

I went to find my daughter in among the DVD slush pile. Time to go home. Wait a minute! Wasn't that the tango-tastic Gotan Project live in concert for a mere two bucks? Yes, it was. I took it to the desk and proffered my pristine two-euro coin. Monsieur Converter rendered me €1,50 in change. No arguments. They were still talking customer service. My girl Tilley couldn't believe her eyes. God, dad, they're so nice. They must love you. I smiled the smile of a former training officer. These guys have been trained.

I took my DVD with good grace and a feel-good factor from such service with a smile. For their part, it reinforced my customer loyalty and a wish to spread the word. And what's more, let me tell you this, that Robin Trower CD now plays all the way through and I can hear some of the cleanest, crispest guitar playing this side of Jeff Beck.

And at this point, I assume the voice of the Pathé News commentator from one of those rousing gung-ho cinema newsreels. So it was smiles all round... and smiles again on Friday night, despite the rain, for the second ceilidh in Tim and Gilly's barn. 50 good-time Charlies – and Charlenes – got together to learn the steps called out by Miss Melody. Yes, that's her with one of those fancy-Dan clip-on microphones. And there's husband Matt, fiddling his way dexterously through a repertoire of jigs and reels with Steve on keyboards and Dmitri on guitar. But who's this hapless fellow who doesn't seem to know his left foot from his right? [Jovial guffaws] Oh dear oh dear...

Actually, we were a little fewer in number...

That alas was me. It didn't dampen my enjoyment, although The Daughter and I sat out the last dance because the manoeuvres looked far too complex. I consulted my wife the next day. How is it that I can move tidily enough to the beat if I dance alone, but get twisted up in knots when in a line or with a partner? Debs thinks I'm borderline Asperger's. And there was me thinking I was simply anally retentive. I think she meant that, corporeally speaking, I was vertically adroit but laterally challenged. I kind of know what she means, but don't ask me to explain in any depth or detail. Something to do with the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy and the way we programme information.

Never mind, eh? The Kid and I had a ball and we got back the right side of midnight to find the wife tucked up in her bed and Daphne in her basket and not for once on the sofa. Enough to make you feel thump, thump! glad all over/Yes I'm – thump, thump! – glad all over... Wait a minute. That old EMI single in its original sleeve. That would be worth something now...

Sunday, March 8, 2015

2nd – 7th March: An Education

Dunking brambles, dunking brambles/Splash! – in the coffee...

Oh no, it's bagles that Slim Gaillard sung about. A much more pleasurable activity, dunking bagles, than wrestling with brambles. Especially the rampant kind of brambles that rip your flesh and render useless even the thickest gloves. With the beautiful weather of the latter part of the week, I resumed my 20-year struggle with brambles. Like ants and cockroaches, they are one of nature's hardiest survivors.

I've been wrestling with them for so long now that I've almost forgotten the reason why. Something to do with the territorial status quo. It's like one of those interminable and impenetrable wars during the Dark Ages. What's it all about, Daphne? At least it gave me a chance to do something useful while surveying the newcomer. She who demands attention.

Getting to grips with nature also affords a close-up on its seasonal process. Trudging in from my labours, I noticed that the climbing rose is covered in budding leaves. Gradually and almost imperceptibly, the times they are a-changing. Winter is slowly giving way to spring, always a source of rejoicing.

Apart from the occasional bursts of industry – I was up on the roof in the sunshine, for example, with kitchen roll and blue spray, cleaning the accumulated grime off the solar panels – most of the week has been given to the continuing education of Daphne Sampson. I've been encouraging her to do her business out of doors by watering the growing grass myself. She's learning fast; just the occasional overnight accident now.

Friday evening, however, everything went to pot. First, there was an extended power struggle involving the sofas, whose throws we removed to reveal them in their glory for Daphne's first social event. We're trying to teach her that she can't sit on the sofas unless we happen to be sitting with her. Understandably, it's a hard concept to grasp. But before our friends, the Jacksons, arrived with Hattie, their French bulldog, a long and intransigent battle of wits took place. Every time we removed the pup from a sofa to put her in her basket, we found her sitting on another one as soon as our backs were turned.

Once the Jacksons arrived, pandemonium broke out. Hattie is a squat and plump-ish dog who leads her life on short legs close to the ground. Her squashed face gives her a winning expression, but she suffers from her breed's genetic breathlessness whenever she exerts herself. Daphne was initially intimidated by her huffing, bustling elder, but soon emerged from under a chair to spar with her guest. Such was the excitement that puddles started appearing with alarming regularity. All of her recent learning went straight out of the French windows for the evening.

She also discovered her bark. (Or yap, at this stage.) Trying to conduct a conversation with such a commotion going on is not easy. I felt particularly for Myrtle, our not inconsiderable cat, who was upstairs sitting on my records: her refuge of choice. The Daughter and I took turns to go up and reassure her that everything was really all right, that the disturbance was temporary. It's hard for her at the moment. Her sister hasn't returned since taking off on Evening 1. Then we had to take away her food at night, because Daphne has discovered how to get upstairs to polish it off. And now, to put the old tin lid on it, here was her otherwise peaceful house full of rowdy dogs.  

Over dinner, the Jacksons asked us about the origins of our Terrierdor. We've discovered during the week that Daphne has a real aptitude for rooting out snails, which she brings back in via the cat-flap in order to practise her shell control on the terracotta tiled floor. The sound of the ensuing scuttling reverberates around the house. So we've concluded that the mother was a Labrador and the father a Gascon Snail Hound (a very rare breed, once thought to be extinct). Our plan now is to fine-tune this instinctive skill by giving her a taste for truffles.

That way, she can earn her keep. The weekly bill for her board and lodging has gone up exponentially with the discovery that the bog-standard puppy-dawg food just gives her diarrhoea. So we've had to invest in a bag of so-called scientifically formulated croquettes. I am sceptical, but have to say that her little pinky-grey furless tummy is getting more rotund with each increasingly solid no. 2. She bellyful.

Although we were worn out by our Friday evening with the Jacksons, the good thing about having a canine guest was that Daphne was worn out all the next day. If there's anything better than a youngster at play, it's a youngster asleep. You can get your life back, briefly. With no rugby internationals to deflect my motivation, I was able to get back outside in the balmy sunshine and clean out the mile-long stretch of copper-coloured aluminium guttering at the back of the house, which hasn't seen a gloved hand in about a decade. It wasn't too bad, considering, although typically the boggiest stretch was out of reach of my ladder. My clever idea of trying to dislodge the debris with chimney-sweeping baguettes proved remarkably ineffectual.

This weekend, our young learner will receive another house guest. They can play outside in the sunshine. With luck, the meeting will wear Daphne out for at least another 24 hours. The good wife plans to plant the Alfred Lord Sampson memorial rose donated by the Thompsons, his former god-parents. And this particular serf can get back into his suit of armour, so to speak, and go off to war once more against the vicious brambles. In the centuries to come, they will write about the struggle and maybe speculate what it was all about. This life of ours, it's quite an education.