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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November: Heading South

We often find ourselves crossing the Massif Central at this time of year en route for the gentler climes of the Midi. Probably pure coincidence, and certainly nothing to do with migration, since we're committed to a genuine winter hereabouts, but maybe something to do with the end of autumn and the last chance to get away before hibernation. Given recent global events, it seemed particularly appropriate to flee and forget about things for a few days.

Two years ago, the Good Wife and I set off on the second part of what seemed like a Jules Verne-style adventure to drive and document La Méridienne: the amazing autoroute that roughly bisects the Massif on its way south from Clermont Ferrand to Beziers. It crosses some of the wildest, most dramatic countryside in the land, and, thanks to President Giscard d'Estaing's instinct for immortality (and apart from the toll over the Millau viaduct), you get to see it all for free.

Getting there is the only drag. We followed exactly the same route as we did two years ago – in roughly the same weather conditions: wild, windy and wet. Up to Gramat and across the causse to Figeac, and then down to and alongside the river Lot to the anomalous mining town of Decazeville, and then on through the Aveyron to Rodez and beyond.

Whereas our custom is to traverse all its roundabouts and leave Rodez perched on its hill, this time we decided to stop there and visit the new museum dedicated to one of its few famous offspring: the artist, Pierre Soulages. If there's any place in this beautiful part of the world less welcoming than Rodez, it's Rodez in the rain. Rather like Tulle, the capital of the Corrèze, but without its discreet charm, Rodez is heavy, sombre and more than a little oppressive. Not unlike the canvases of Pierre Soulages, in fact: an artist now in his 90s, whose palette is mainly black and the sickly brown of walnut stain.

Actually, we didn't get to visit the collection until the return leg. By the time we'd driven round and around trying to find a way into the tantalising car park, it was 11.30. No, a ticket to the museum would not entitle us to free parking, and no, the museum would not be open between 12 and 2pm. Screw that for a game of soldiers, we decided. Good old French public hospitality. So we followed up a look at the monumental cathedral with an exceptionally good snack lunch in the new Michel Bras-serie, the famous three-star Michelin chef who has almost achieved the impossible: by making vegetarian cuisine respectable in the land of the force-fed goose.

When, finally, two years ago we joined the A75 at Sévérac-le-Château, the wind was strong enough almost to rip the door from the car on stopping to visit Les Messieurs at the service station. This time around the weather wasn't quite so dramatic, but still angry enough to transform the sublime scenery of moorland, rocky peaks and deep river gorges into a lost world, uninhabited save for a few wandering wild-eyed characters clad in tattered sack cloth.

Nothing, not even a glimpse of the lights at the top of the nine pillars of Norman Foster's architectural masterpiece, winking in the distant gloom from the top of the 900m Col d'Engayresque, prepares you for the viaduct that bestrides the valley of the Tarn high above the town of Millau. When first we came this way, one November almost 20 years ago, it was maybe not even a sketch in an architect's notepad. We missed the customary bottleneck linking the two disconnected branches of the motorway, because we hit Millau in the middle of the night on our return from a trip to Provence to meet a famous aromatherapist who would, my wife hoped, reveal the mysteries of setting up a practice in France. She didn't, and Debs ended up doing it all the hard way.

When I saw it first – three years ago, on coming south for the 60th birthday of our friend's late husband, who would die tragically of premature Alzheimer's – we got out at the adjacent visitors' centre to take it all in and shoot countless photos. I'd read all about it – and heard of its splendour from my wife, who'd been this way solo the year before that party – but seeing it in the flesh was akin to the thrill I felt of gazing on the Grand Canyon.

As we drove across the platform – under which, at its highest point, you could fit the Eiffel Tower – we speculated about the good citizens of Millau below. Do they, we wondered, wake up each morning and give thanks to the mighty edifice visible from every street corner? If not, they should. Not only has it taken away all that traffic, noise and pollution, but it has also become a landmark that puts an otherwise nondescript town firmly on the map. Here stands proof that mankind doesn't have to despoil the natural world in its relentless drive to modernise.

On the other side of the viaduct lies yet more wild terrain. Depending on the weather, the Causse du Larzac could be either the backdrop for one of those cheap Republic westerns of the 1950s or, as it was last Thursday, a kind of windswept lunar landscape fit for neither man nor beast – apart, that is, from the sheep that roam among the rocks nibbling at the scrub vegetation that presumably adds the fort to the Roque of the indigenous cheese.

Two years back, we stopped for a look at La Couvertoirade, a kind of miniaturised Carcassonne, founded and fortified by the Knights Templar. And just as it did two years ago, on emerging from the tunnel that leads motorists off the Lazarc plateau and into the Midi, the sun broke through to light up the vertiginous plunge down through the mountains towards the river valley far below and thence the Languedocian plain abutting the Med.

It's a different world down there. Even if we could afford it, I'm not sure it would suit. There's the sea of course – if you can ever penetrate the urban sprawl to get there – and the milder climate. But a denser population brings heavier traffic. And although here's little danger of sudden frosts and no need to bring in the oleanders, a Mistral blew on the Saturday and the wind-chill factor was significant. I can do without wind in any form.

That evening our friend took us to Avignon for a trip to the Utopia cinema to see a film called Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen's character raises his six children in the dense forest of Washington State. Circumstances inevitably lead to a clash between his set of values and the 'normal' values of an overfed, processed, de-sensitised and wasteful society. It's very good: sometimes funny, sometimes sad and always poignant. And always eerily relevant in the light of current affairs.

On the return leg, we drove back along the coast towards Montpelier and some angry black clouds hanging very symbolically above the overlooking mountains. Sure enough, the weather deteriorated as we emerged at the top end of the connecting tunnel – and became increasingly spiteful the nearer we got to home. Across the Larzac plateau, my wife entertained me by reading excerpts on her phone from The Guardian's commentary on the fifth day of a gripping test between England and India – in which no less than four Anglo-Asian cricketers contrived to underline the benefits of a multi-cultural society.

But then we graduated from the comfortable world of sport to a deeply uncomfortable litany of the incoming president's stated policies: evict the immigrants, build a wall, frack the land for all it's worth, wriggle out of the Paris Treaty, punish women for having abortions... How could a sentient electorate have voted for someone even less qualified than Ronald Reagan to run the world's most powerful country? As if we aren't in enough of a mess without creating even more. No wonder I'm pessimistic about mankind's ability, for all its technological acumen, to clear it all up. A British architect and a team of French engineers and navvies can put up one of the greatest bridges ever conceived, but when it comes to putting our heads together globally to clean up the oceans or save the African elephant...

It's what remains of the environment and its wildlife that I fear for the most once the Trump troll gets to park his big butt behind the desk in the Oval Room. The idea's more depressing than Rodez in the rain. My wife turned off her phone and we soothed our souls with some unchallenging bossa nova. They say (as always) that it's going to be a hard winter. Leonard Cohen has already succumbed. One thing's for sure: it's going to be a struggle for survival and it won't be the meek who inherit the earth.

(Black and white photographs by my chumly Dan Courtice of Penn Graphics)

Monday, October 17, 2016

October: Life-threatening Muesli

I spotted something on a French website about the link between muesli and death. Or something like that. I didn't check out the link, because it would lead me to more environmental gloom and life's too short anyway to investigate every headline. But there's a thought at the back of my mind now, as the Good Wife and I tuck into our morning muesli, that we could be killing ourselves softly with oats and raisins.

This last weekend, we should have been nibbling away at our life expectancy in the Alps. But, after the joys of an Indian summer, Lady Weather intervened. The forecast was peppered with orange alerts and we decided that the prospect of an eight-hour journey across the Massif Central and up and over the Col du Lautaret without snow tyres and with a restless Terrierdor in the back seat was too daunting.

The big col still holds terrors. It's 40 years now since my brother, his girlfriend and I spent the night in a cramped Renault saloon, parked in a village square and watching lightning flashing around the mountains that hemmed us in, because the daunting pass was closed for the night. A landslide or maintenance work on one of the open-sided tunnels that protect you from falling snow and rocks and avalanches.

We were on the way to see my dear friend from the halcyon days of Exeter University, who was working at the time as a chalet girl at the Montgenèvre ski resort. Jacqui and her French husband, Claude, now live in the shadow of the Col du Montgenèvre, in the spectacular valley of a fast-moving stream that feeds the fast-moving Durance that flows on its way south through the old fortress town of Briançon, reputedly the highest in France (that's altitude rather than the mental state of its 11,000 or so inhabitants).

Some 20 or so years later, we did a similar trip, but this time with a tiny tot in the back seat of our hand-me-down car. Tilley the Kid had just started at école maternelle, if I haven't mistaken the chronology of our life in France, and like Monday's child she had just learnt to tie her bootlace. She sat in the back of the car for the entire epic journey, happily singing to herself as she tied and untied and then re-tied the laces of her tiny booties. No need for an expensive bone-shaped rawhide for our two-legged passenger.

At that time, we were desperate for contact with some kind of recognisable civilisation, having bedded down among the hill people of the Corrèze, who practised an alien culture based around mushrooms and accordion music and winter-evening concours de belotte. For desperate people, though, we plotted the most unimaginably long and tedious route to drive there: across the real Massif Central, not the picturesque version traversed these days by the A89. It was the bleak, windswept Massif of Etre et Avoir, that marvellous documentary film about the children and their teacher and the primeval farming community that clings onto a disappearing way of life.

Across the Massif and down the other side by one of the more tortuous roads built with tar macadam, over the Rhône at Valence and then east and upwards, ever upwards into the mighty Hautes Alpes. It was only after we drove through our friends' departmental prefecture of Gap, giddy by now with the excitement of being only an hour or so from our destination, that the child behind us started to whimper and fret as children her age are given to do.

It may have been the trip when we took only clothes suitable for a balmy June, only to wake up a day or so later and see that it was snowing outside the house that Claude and Jacq built. Summer snow is unwelcome, but it's easy enough to cope with given an extra layer or two. Winter snow is something else again. Therein lie the deepest terrors of the formidable col.

Some years later, we had emulated our friends and built our own house, among the more cosmopolitan people of the Lot. Barely an accordion in sight. By then, we had traced and re-traced a route from these parts to the mountain home of our friends that involved motorways just about all the way to Grenoble and only then the scary and relentless ascent with oxygen masks to the high country. We had even done it once by train, but it took so long that I nearly grew my first sideboards. Tulle to Clermont-Ferrand to Roanne to Lyon to Grenoble to Briançon. You lose count of the ch-ch-ch-changes.

Winter snow, indeed. At one time, worn down by the rain that keeps the Corrèze so green, we even contemplated moving to be near to our friends. I was seduced by a big sign on the outskirts of Briançon boasting something like 300 days of sunshine each and every year. Just imagine. Yes, but just imagine having to adapt to five or six months of snow every year. My sensible wife disavowed me of such a notion.

So we keep on making the journey instead. One year, in deep mid winter, maybe the year we went to spend Christmas or New Year with them, we mistimed our approach. We were better equipped by now, with a set of chains in the boot of the Berlingo, but hadn't reckoned on the degree of difficulty of a tempest of snow in the middle of a pitch-black night. When we pulled over to put the chains on, I recalled the words of the busy garagiste who had sold them to me. Oui, ils sont faciles à mettre.

Easy to put on in a blizzard, chains are not. Particularly in the hands of cack-handed incompetents. While one of us shed the feeble light of a torch on the mystery of how to strap self-twisting interlocking chain-metal around a round rubber tyre, the other cursed and cried and generally acted like a petulant teenager asked to help weed the garden. Eventually, the Good Wife did what she does best: she exercised her charm. She asked someone behind us in the lay-by for help. It is ever thus in this family. The same thing happened in a campsite on the Atlantic coast, the first time we had to pack up one of those new-generation tents that simply spring up like dandelions.

It often works, but you have to live with the shame. After that trip, we had a number of practice sessions in our house that involved chains and a spare tyre. Although we both became quite proficient, we realised that there's a world of difference when you're trying to sheath a tyre that's attached to a car by an axle – particularly with lifeless fingers when it's cold and dark outside. These days, I believe, some kind of sockette has replaced the old metal chain. I'm not even sure that I could cope with a sockette on the pass.

Now I think about it, it was about this time of year that we made a foolhardy decision (all right, the original idea was mine) to drive across France and Italy to Vienna and thence to Budapest, to see a friend who was soon to pack up and head back for Sheffield. On the way home, we drove back across the north Italian plain through the night to avoid the lorries that had so blighted the outward journey. Having failed to find any kind of pensione that would afford us a few hours' sleep, we pressed on... and on and on. Past Milan, through Turin. With eyelids propped open and almost weeping with fatigue, we crossed the Franco-Italian frontier – just as the first snow of the season began to fall. We wound our way watchfully down the hairpin bends of the Col du Montgenèvre and reached our staging post just as Claude was getting up to make the coffee.

One good thing, however, about the layer of perma-snow with which they live for half a year is that the authorities are geared up for it. The snow ploughs are out in force everywhere. By the time it came to leaving for home, we followed one all the way down the Col du Lautaret to a sensible altitude.

So this year we missed out on our customary visit. But we had a rather delightful mini-break in the familiar confines of our own home. We were able to enjoy our deleterious breakfast. My friend Jacqui has lived so long in France now that she tends to indulge in a typical French breakfast: Claude's coffee accompanied by baguette with butter and jam. It's fine for a few days, but I find it stresses my delicate gut. I prefer to follow a coarser, wholemeal route to an early grave.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September: 'Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee, Oh Mr. Lee'

My friend Bret delivered the bombshell when I was in the supermarket, wondering whether to buy crisps for the girls, to sustain them on their long journey the next day. I'd had to come to Brive to look for another cat flap, after Daphne had broken her second this year by thrusting her head through the Perspex door to bark with too much enthusiasm at unseen predators outside.

He asked me first whether I'd seen his orbital sander. I had, but it was in our cave and I wouldn't be back home till lunchtime. And had I heard the news about our mutual friend, Dave? I hadn't, I replied as sotto voce as possible, because I don't like talking on a mobile phone in public places lest someone mistake me for a plonker.

Dave, our friend, was dead. What??! I held onto the trolley and stopped my deliberations about snacks. How could he be dead; we'd both seen him not five or six weeks before at a party? Apparently, Bret told me, it was a para-gliding accident or something. At that party, our friend had in fact even asked me whether I'd like to come along sometime. I told him that I didn't think it was really my thing.

Mr. Lee, as I called him – in honour of that deliciously daft song of 1957 about a 5th grade teacher by the Bobbettes – was a quite delightful man. I don't think he ever got the reference when I would greet him by singing the repetitive chorus, but he always humoured me with his trademark bonhomie.

We were in the middle of constructing this house when he first breezed into my life in a bottle-green Jeep or Land Rover or some vehicle appropriate for someone who'd recently left the army. He arrived with his ex-army buddy and a Dutch acquaintance, who'd told them about a house of straw and brought them along for a look-see.

Dave and Steve had a scheme to start a business over here and always appeared in tandem. We called them 'the Army Boys' – with a nod to the 'soldier boys of Pippin Fort' from the children's programme, Camberwick Green – because they still bantered together like a pair of affectionate former comrades-in-arms. Typically of Dave, he volunteered their services here in return for some publicity that might help their nascent business.

One such publicity stunt we dreamed up together was the painting of the big beams that support the slanting roof of the mezzanine. Dave offered to bring his harness and hang from the highest point with pot and paintbrush in his hands while the camera recorded his gravity-defying manoeuvres. Surely it would have made great television, but the director for some reason didn't seem that keen.

With hindsight now, I realise that his whole life must have been defined by a dare-devil's taste for adventure. I suppose the army would demand nothing less. Coming to a foreign country to start a building business without a word of French and, initially at least, more enthusiasm and bravado than practical know-how took guts. With an ever-present glint in his eye and a clipped Brummie accent that suggested many a bollocking from sergeant majors, he would crack us all up with his early cack-handed attempts to speak the lingo.

He and Steve were there for the final frantic day of building and filming, doing anything useful that they could apply their talents to, like assembling an Ikea kitchen in a new world-record time. It was a time when my stress-level gauge was well into the red and I could feel the steam seeking release through every orifice. Dave was genuinely surprised to hear me confess this. He told me that he'd never worked with anyone who exuded such calm.

Not too long after, Steve and his wife went back to the UK for various reasons. The Army Boys disbanded and Dave became Mr. Lee to me. He knuckled down to the business of conquering French, mastering the multifarious building skills required of a successful sole-trader and, when he found any spare time, doing up his big barn near Beaulieu. It was a source of personal pride that he chose to build his internal walls of straw.

Being an army veteran, his politics were probably some way from mine. It wouldn't have mattered had I known for sure. At my 50th birthday party, I noticed how he jumped a track by Linton Kwesi Johnson: probably one of LKJ's dub-poems about police brutality in Brixton. I made a mental note that maybe Dave care for anything disrespectful about guardians of the law. But maybe he simply couldn't stand reggae. In any case, we both knew enough to steer clear of the subject in conversation. Instead, I learnt about things like his liking for fast cars and his seemingly eternal quest for the love of his life.

I remember when he lost one such love. They say that a dog's character generally reflects that of its master or mistress. It was a testimony to Mr. Lee's genial character that Rosie his Rottweiler was as sweet and gentle as you could imagine. Something of a contradiction in terms to anyone, like myself, who looks upon the breed as one of the most fearsome on earth. Dave was devastated by the loss of his constant companion and would still talk wistfully in later years of how Rosie might have been saved by a more competent vet.

By the time he came to help out with the refurbishment of The Good Wife's clinic, his skills had developed apace. His fame spread as his competence grew and we saw less of him. Others presumably learnt what good company he was to have around and profited from his pragmatic but conscientious approach to his trade.

I hadn't seen him for some time when our paths crossed one evening in a bar in Martel. We'd both come to see our friends the three Steves playing that night as two. Mr. Lee was very much on form and introduced us to the love of his life. He'd found her in Limoges: a public servant named Isabelle with the kind of quirky sense of humour that complemented his own. They were clearly devoted to each other and it was charming to witness how they conversed with a mixture of stilted French and classroom English.

During the night of the party, Mr. Lee spoke to me with almost poetic passion about the thrill of para-gliding. A previous accident had disabled him for several months while Isabelle nursed him back into shape. He told me that he, an ex-soldier, had cried in hospital because the pain was so excruciating. Nevertheless, he was back in the sky at the earliest opportunity. I guess some people crave adventure, while others like myself shy away from anything that puts life or limb in danger.

That same night, I asked him whether we could expect a wedding at some time in the near future. We could, Mark, yes we could. There's nothing I like more in life than a good wedding and I was angling for an invitation. It would have been lovely to see them both wed. But a horribly hot and parched September has just got worse. Our friend has gone in a flash and all I can think of is his betrothed, alone with her grief like a character in a novel by Henry James. That and the words of a particularly dark and ominous song by John Cale from Helen of Troy: 'The last thing they expected to see was sudden death'.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

August: The Dry Life

It's dry and arid here on the highlands above the plain. We haven't had any rain to speak of for what seems like months. The rain butts are all empty now and great cracks have appeared in what was once a perimeter lawn. I have not yet had a nightmare about either falling down one such fissure or the house disappearing into the nether regions below the foundations, but who knows? Everything now, in the words of a Sean O'Casey character, is in such a state of 'chassis'.

None of which yet renders this area California or Ethiopia – although I'm sure I spied a herd of wildebeest wandering pitifully over what was once the meadowlands below in search of a pool of water – but it does make for depressing viewing. The garden is barely hanging on and the Good Wife and I have abandoned our short-lived schedule of half an hour's weeding before it gets too hot on days when she and I are both at home. You can't pull weeds out of reinforced concrete by the roots.

Fanatical watering is contrary to all our greenest principles, so we've had to make hard decisions about which plants to help along the way and which to abandon to their fate. Besides, I still haven't got around to rigging up a drop-by-drop irrigation system, because it requires another project involving my indispensable friend, Bret, who's busy administering to others this summer. It's no good watering with a hose, in any case (I read), because the water evaporates in the heat before it can properly soak the ground. Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Watering is so unutterably boring.

Nothing much is growing, anyway. The courgettes have withered on the vine and anything bigger than a cherry tomato is as dry as... well, our perimeter lawn. The old guy in the nearby hamlet whom I call Poodle Man (because he's married to Poodle Woman, who walks or rather waddles her latest poodle, named like his predecessor after a cocktail nut) tells me that the lack of fruit and vegetables is due to the abnormally mild winter, which failed to kill off any lingering maladies. Without the water from the Dordogne, he reckons, the local petits producteurs (who are not all physically small, I should point out) would have nothing to sell at market.

Of course, it were all very different when he were a lad. And for once I well believe it. After all, he and his friends used to cycle to school at Vayrac, which is ten minutes away by car, a journey that entailed freewheeling down the Côte de Mathieu early in the morning and, more to the point, climbing back up it at the end of each afternoon, at the end of a long hard day at school. My point is that he probably doesn't look back through rose-tinted glasses. His nostalgia must be seasoned with a healthy pinch of stark reality.

Back in the old days, it tended to rain at night. The heat would build up at the end of the day and there would be a storm. Indeed, I remember that very phenomenon from our early pioneering days in the old village. But now there's no rain during July and August – and last year not until early December – added to which, a frequent pesky wind further dries things out. Where is this wind coming from? Poodle Man asked rhetorically. I shrugged Gallically. Perhaps the wastelands of the Russian Steppes. He suggested, quite convincingly, that we're now getting a Toulousian climate. Everything's shifting northwards. But we knew that anyway. I had to get on. I needed my breakfast and the two dogs wanted to get back to their ball-launching.

With two dogs to walk most mornings and evenings, I must be perceived as a serious semi-retired malingerer now. One dog is more business-like; two suggests that you have nothing better to do with your time. I've rather enjoyed these last six weeks or so with a brace of hounds. Sacha's maîtresse is back now from her long sojourn in Colorado and on Friday she's driving away whence she came with her sweet and docile sheepdog in the back. I will be sad to see him go.

And how will Daphne react? Oh, that's odd. One minute he was here and the next he's gone. Oh well, back to life as I tend to know it... She'll rule the roost once more and maybe stop showing off and acting at times like a hooligan. But it has been genuinely interesting and heart-warming to observe them building up a working relationship. When I walk them by bicycle in the mornings, Sacha trots along a little insecurely somewhere near the back wheel, while Daphne goes trail-blazing on ahead. But they come together every now and again for a casual sniff or a more concerted kind of olfactory conference and, without wishing to sound too anthropomorphic, they seem to co-exist as friends. A twosome. And it's kind of nice.

I've even worked out a modus operandi for the ball launching. Sending Daphne far off into the field towards next door's building site (to leap like an NFL receiver and pluck the ball out of the air), I get Sacha scampering off in the opposite direction, sniffing blindly as he races hither and thither in search of my short-ball. By the time that Daphne has delivered and gone tearing off after another aerial bomb, Sacha's back and there's just enough time to prise the slimy ball out of his jaws (helped if necessary by a tap of the plastic launcher on his muzzle to reinforce my words of command) and send him off again on another wild goose chase. Only when they arrive at the same time does my synchronised launching degenerate into chaos. At which juncture, I tend to lose both patience and temper and stalk off with both balls, followed by a pair of panting and ever-hopeful dogs.

Life will be easier with one. We reached the same conclusion about children – and so, generally, it has proved (and it's even easier with said single child away working during the drought in a vegetarian restaurant near the wonderful Pech Merle caves). Two dogs are more of a tie. You can't easily palm them off on a friend if you need to go away for a few days, even if this lodger's as well behaved as our full-time resident is capricious.

At least, I thought he was – until this very morning. Yesterday, even before Poodle Man delayed my breakfast with his personal take on climate change, I'd bumped into the (young) farmer's (young) wife. She was out walking the pedigree spaniel they acquired about a year ago for their teenage daughter. She clasped the dog to her bosom because she was on heat (the dog, that is) and Sacha was sniffing around her (the dog's) parts. I assured her (the farmer's wife) that Sacha had been 'fixed up', so there was nothing to fear. She (Mrs. Farmer) teaches history and geography at the local collège. Since she knows that I am a serious student of history, we talk darkly about whatever little bit of history happens to be repeating. Yesterday she told me about Putin's overtures to the Turkish crypto-dictator and we reminisced gaily about the Crimean War.

Anyway, Sacha's returning maîtresse happened to reveal over dinner that her dog has not been fixed up after all. He is simply very docile. This does not, it seems, preclude the call of the wild. Sacha went off this morning and I had to get on my bicycle and ride, with Daphne this time at my side. I found him down at the hamlet, sniffing around the sheep shed. Presumably the pedigree dog's heat had rubbed off on her master, who tends the sheep shed. These dogs, remember, can sniff out a bone dropped into the middle of Lake Baikal.

I had to raise my voice in order to bid him follow. Half way up the hill back to the dog's meadow, I realised that Sacha was no longer following. So, the paragon of virtue was canine after all. Turning round, Daphne and I sped back to the hamlet and this time I had to get very stern with the recalcitrant beast. Obviously the absence of sex can turn a dog – as it can a man – into a very different creature. I had to sort of corral him back home with my front wheel as Sacha might an errant sheep, given gainful employment.

Dogs, eh? Who'd have 'em? Well, I would for one. In return for food, exercise and affection, they give me entertainment and companionship. Perhaps even psychological insights. This much I have learnt over the last few weeks: one's company, two's more company, but three's verging on the obsessive. Whatever, I like dogs much more than I do a summer drought.