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, December 18, 2017

December: Conspiracies

I've never been a great one for conspiracy theories. Apart, that is, from the Kennedy Brothers, and probably Martin Luther King. Oh and maybe Anne Boleyn's fall from grace. And Caesar's infamous removal, of course. And Catesby & Co. Rasputin's murder? Hitler's attempted assassination, too. Perhaps the partition of India and no doubt of Iraq, Palestine and Ireland. Oh, and there's Brexit now. And Russia's role in Trumpton.

Put like that, there have been quite a lot of conspiracies that prompt a theory. Up until now, though, I hadn't given much credence to the various 9/11 theories that have been bandied about in the cyber world for over a decade. But then I had two meetings this month with strange men that continue to make me think.

The first was with a stranger on a plane. I'd turned up at Limoges airport in ridiculously good time lest some unforeseen jam on the A20 delay me. (Apart from the two months of high summer, it's more of a vehicular vein rather than an artery). While queuing up to check in, I watched with barely disguised contempt as some aging Brit flirted with the uniformed wench behind the desk. His was the aye-aye darlin' nudge-nudge school of charm. Rather like the publican in East Enders played by a minor comedian who used to bellow Rick-ie! at his stepson or whatever relation he was. I made a mental note to avoid him like the plague.

I managed to do so until we were on board the airplane. There was an air of inevitability about the unoccupied seat beside him near the back. He was busy dispensing bonhomie to the hostess when I realised with a sinking heart that my allocated place was indeed right next to him. No sooner had I parked my backside, strapped up and opened my book than he started talking to me. Sometimes I resist. Sometimes I realise it's futile. This was one of the latter occasions.

His name was Stan or Len or something monosyllabic. His accent seemed to spell Essex and I soon discovered that he'd lived in France for long enough to learn the language well enough to get by. The accent, I guessed, would leave something to be desired, but hey – who am I to cast nasturtiums? He'd been in publishing and had sold up just before it became the thing of a pre-digital past. One of those astute self-taught businessmen of the Alan Sugar genus, perhaps, who have an instinct for the main chance.

I gave up any attempt to read my book. Voluntarily. The conversation became increasingly fascinating, instructive even, and I realised that if I could swallow my prejudices, there was a lot to learn. Swallow I did. The conversation turned from our partners to our offspring to the big scheme of things and our general sense of well being. I don't know how we got from there to 9/11, but we managed it seamlessly. And he told me all about his... if not obsession, then pet theory: that the collapse of the twin towers defied all laws of physics. I'd read something similar many years ago and kind of shelved it as the work of people without better things to do with their lives.

But the way Stan or Len described it to me made all those horribly vivid images come alive once more – but as if seen this time from a different angle. Through a prism darkly. What about the motivation, though? The details he offered boiled down once again to filthy lucre. Isn't it incredible what people will do just to have so much more of the stuff than can make you happy? But surely no one would sacrifice all those office workers who either stayed to be incinerated or leapt from floors so high that one has to hope that they passed out before impact with the concrete below. Surely? He shrugged as if to suggest, Make your own mind up on that one, Sunny Jim

One thing about this type of conversation is that it makes the journey go much quicker than usual. In no time, we were in the Disunited Kingdom once more. I thanked him for the entertainment and a potentially useful bit of avuncular advice he gave me, bade him a happy stay and focused on getting now from B to C.

And after that I thought little more of what he'd suggested, until a visit from an off-grid guy around these parts I refer to as a 'maverick American'. He must spend many hours holed up wherever he is hidden, delving into the darkest corners of the world via his laptop. He let slip something about his pet theory. On falling for the bait, it turned out to be the self-same theory that Stan or Len had described up in the clouds. So much of a pet theory, in fact, that his e-mail signature contains a cartoon of high financiers and politicians gathered around a detonator linked by fuse to the twin towers. Primed to plunge the handle.

He, too, outlined some of the details that defied even the most basic laws of physics. I was never one for science at school, but I could see that what he said made sense. But surely, I suggested, no one would be so evil as to sacrifice hundreds of his fellow countrymen. Oh no? he replied. Take a look at history, my friend. He has a point. Never mind the usual premier-division suspects. What about Napoleon and that long march into Russia? And Robert Mugabe for that matter? While we're at, let's not be vague, let's blame Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Although in his case, personal gain probably didn't come into it. More the crass stupidity born of innate privilege.

Oscar Wilde, in his usual memorable way, had some pertinent bon mots to say on the subject of my disbelief. So memorable that I've forgotten the precise details, but something about our propensity to believe the impossible, but to deny the improbable. Thanks to Oscar and the revelations of strangers, I'm now delving more into the improbable – and do I not like what I find!?

But hey! Christmas is almost upon us once more. It's that merry and joyful time of year when you can drink enough and eat enough and watch enough telly to anaesthetise your cerebellum. What a lovely word that is – to describe something essentially grey and spongy that resembles a giant sodden walnut. I'm going to give my walnut a rest for a few days and focus my thoughts on Father Christmas' customary struggle to wriggle down all those chimneys with a sack of presents. He never seems to get his red suit or his white beard sooty. Have you noticed that?

Maybe it's a conspiracy.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

November: Lounging Lizards and Bonding Ties

Well I woke up this morning, and I found a lizard in my bed.../Said I woke up this morning, people, and I found, that's right, a doggone lizard in my bed/Thinking how it got there's sho' nuff breaking up my head... 

It was only a little lizard. One of those dark green rapiettes that used to scuttle into and out of every joint in the stone walls of our old farmhouse. People say that cats like to eat them to stay slim. Our current killer, Otis, occasionally finds one to mutilate, but they're a rare sight now. They were plentiful during our tenure in the Corrèze, but these days – like every other species on earth except for human beans, rats, flies, ants and cockroaches – their numbers have declined to the point where they are now classified as endangered. It won't stop Otis, just as the tragedy of elephant poaching won't stop the Trump family from shooting some more as trophies.

Anyway, it was a shock. It's the last thing you expect to find when you pull back the duvet to air the bed of a morning. By the time I'd found an old card and a tumbler for removal purposes, the rapiette had scuttled under the bed. Was it one of the cats that brought it in? Did it come in of its own volition to find a nice warm spot for a bit of hibernation? Who knows what goes on in the mind of a lizard. Underneath a winter-weight duvet would certainly be a cosy niche for the season.

For the season is upon us once more. I always try to remember the 5th November. Catesby & Co. The plot to blow up parliament in the name of the perennial religious wars. Sounds familiar. Even the punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering the plotters, obscene as it might have been, is probably no more brutal than what goes on in many a dark nefarious corner of the globe. 

This year our British friends, Tim and Gilly, marked the occasion. They held what I thought was going to be an intimate little bonfire party. Being punctual souls, we arrived at seven on the dot, having followed a procession of two or three other cars bound for the same venue. All were driven by Parisians with second homes and an eye on the clock. I was introduced to one woman whose name was Daphne. I told her that our dog shared her name and I don't know whether she was too pleased. It's a lovely name, I hastened to add. And it is. So redolent of the British Raj and the jolly awfulness of those times.

Unlike the Parisians, the 'Meyssac Crowd', as they are known in these parts, kept themselves to themselves. I've given up trying to make the effort to communicate. Parisians are easier on the frontal lobe: generally speaking  they're more widely travelled, more educated, more cultured and less concerned with apparence. As we all gathered around a bonfire that raged as bright and as fierce as a cliff-top beacon in Napoleonic times, the French contingent must have wondered about this strange tradition of ours. Burning some poor Guy in a conflagration is not a nice thing to do. A long, long time ago, I mingled with the crowds at Lewes on the 5th to watch crazy men run about with barrels of burning pitch strapped to their backs. Never again.

After a few desultory sparklers, we got back to the serious business of eating, drinking and dancing. The Meyssac Crowd stayed in the sitting room by the open fire, only to emerge like excited teenagers to shake their booties in time to Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'. Why, I wondered later, do people still get moved by the spirit of Gloria Gaynor and Hot Chocolate? Nothing much has changed in that respect since the first party we were invited to at the same venue almost 20 years ago. Which on one level is quite reassuring, but on another is a little mystifying. 

The Good Wife of La Poujade Basse came over all emotional while talking to our host about the passage of time – and in particular the remembrance of little children past. I think it was the first occasion that our daughter met their daughter. They were tiny tots at the time and now, still bosom friends, they've both blossomed into beautiful young women. Proper warms the cockles of a parent's heart it does to witness the vicissitudes of your progeny's friendships. The bonds that tie. Or is it the ties that bond? Or rather, bind?

We met another nice Parisian at another occasion on another significant date. The 11th November, Armistice Day. Waiting for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was all very well and all very neat, but it's heartbreaking to think of all those needless deaths when the end was in sight. None more poignant than that of Wilfred Owen, who might have gone on to become the greatest poet in the English language had it not been for a stray bullet during some futile face-saving mission.

This Parisian is an élu, or elected one. Part of the mayor's team. It's one of my first perks of French citizenship that I was invited to hob-nob with the top table on the 11th day. The mayor invited us as citoyens d'honneur. The commune's honoured new citizens. We waited in the wings with a motley crowd in the car park in front of the mairie on a suitably sombre, even dismal morning. There were a few problems with the sound system before we got underway. The mayor gave a little address, then handed the mic over to a minion who read out each name on the war memorial followed by the collective chant of mort pour la France. It was surprisingly moving. Maybe it was the effect of the incantation and remembering individuals who once lived here in the same commune rather than the faceless slaughtered multitudes.

After this, there was a recorded version of the Last Post followed by the familiar roll of drums that ushers in the Marseillaise. Surely our chance to shine. We had run through the words again on the drive down. But no! It was the instrumental version. The crowd were mute. Debs reckoned it was because we were the only ones present who can actually sing it.

Then the mayor called us up to the microphone and introduced us with a surprisingly generous and surprisingly brief speech. Neither of us was aware that he really knew anything about us. Fortunately I had prepared a little address for such an eventuality. I sketched the family history and how we came to be in this neck of the Lot. Our search in my wife's bottle-green Beetle for a house with a septic tank et cetera. I resisted any mention of cuisine, but did suggest – ha ha ha! – that we could bring le feeshancheeps as a cultural offering in return for the indigenous love of nature and the land. Or térroir, to use a term often employed in viniculture (of which there's not much in the immediate vicinity).

My little address to the multitudes went down rather well. A round of applause chuffed me to the core. My French can't have been too bad. Afterwards, we trooped inside the mairie and his worship's team passed around the appetisers, which were mainly pâté-laden bits of unappetising bread. For maybe the first time in my tenure here, and maybe fortified by my new official standing, I felt able to turn them down on the grounds that ours was a vegetarian family. The servers looked a trifle surprised, but didn't direct us to the naughty-step. Food for thought, I considered. It would do them good to know – and even reflect. Who knows, in another decade's time, they might hand around pieces of bread bedecked with tapinade. Green or black, I'm happy with either. 

Now, the end of the month is nigh. We've had about two days of genuine cold. Not even a snap-ette, really. The leaves are the colour of copper and the temperature's unseasonably high. In another few weeks, 't'will be Christmas – and already local villages have decked their main streets with electronic decorations. Couldn't they at least wait till December? Everything is topsy-turvy and up the Suwannee River. Pity those poor lizards, who will be emerging from their duvets, believing that that a false spring has sprung.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

October: Citizen Markon

Yes, it's wood-chopping time again – and do I not like chopping wood! Unlike a poor departed friend, who derived great pleasure from the act of cutting wood. He would meet up once a year with a bunch of friends to go cutting wood at a rural retreat owned jointly or by one of the chums somewhere in the deepest Pyrenees. There I imagine they had a whale of a time impersonating lumber jacks, drinking fine wine, burning last year's logs in the chilly evenings and generally acting le clown.

Poor man. I thought of him when I got dressed up in my thickest, most protective tatty clothes one Sunday morning in this merry sunny month of October, with my trusty electric chainsaw from Lidl at the ready, to tackle head-on a pile of lumber for the winter. Last time he came to stay here, he asked me for my bow-saw and I watched him cutting his way through a stack of wood with the same degree of happiness as I had displayed when he watched me sifting through 2nd hand CDs in a Parisian shop. His worried wife thought such behaviour was symptomatic of the early signs of Alzheimer's. No, we assured her, He's just got a lot on his mind. It's no doubt the stress of work. And we didn't add that our friend had always displayed certain odd traits during the 20 years or so that we'd known him.

He was a lovely man. Just a little... well, odd. And our prognosis was quite wrong. The last time we saw him was down south in the Var to celebrate his 60th birthday. It was poignantly clear to all who had gathered for the occasion that the illness was rapidly taking him over. Not that long after he went into a home. Mercifully he died quite soon after.

Our birthdays were close together. This year I woke up on my birthday to find that I was half French. Mark had become (under certain conditions) Marc. They always get it wrong anyway, even when I stress that it's Mark with a 'k' not Marc with a 'c'. So if you can't beat 'em...
I signed up the day before. At a special ceremony in a village hall down near the departmental capitol of Cahors. The Good Wife went with me on a limpid autumnal day that revealed the Lot valley as one of the most beautiful places on earth. She still hasn't received her official invitation, which is worrying. Are they carrying out some special investigation up there in Paris? Have they sniffed out a scandal? Are her finances rotten to the core? Is the minister having second thoughts? The woman on the other end of the telephone at Departmental HQ told me not to worry. We're trying not to. But it did detract from the celebration, the fact that my fellow traveller went with me as unofficial photographer rather than honorary equal partner.

There were, I'd guess, around 40 of us there to receive our documents and be photographed with the Prefect – who wore what looked like a naval uniform for the occasion. We reckoned he was around 40 himself, which made him surely rather too young to be a retired rear Admiral. On looking through my various official booklets, though, it turns out that prefects wear this strange ceremonial outfit for special occasions such as this one.

After the preliminaries, we were called up one by one to shake the charming Admiral's hand and receive our pack of documents and booklets, then stand side-by-side between the French and the European flags to be photographed. It was like prize day for grown-ups. In my nephew's hand-me-down Ted Baker suit, I felt quite overdressed. Few among us had made much of an effort. Most of the prize winners appeared to be North Africans. There were a few West Africans, one or two from Vietnam and other former French colonies way out east and a smattering of Brits. Reporters were on hand to ask us whether our applications had been prompted by Brex-eat. We could put our hands on our hearts and disavow them of such a notion. The first of the post-Brexiteers will be getting theirs sometime next year, we calculated. If I had half an eye for the main chance, I'd have set up as a consultant by now to coach latecomers through the process at some inflated daily rate.

All the way there, the erstwhile actress formerly known as Harri Hall coached me through the Marseillaise. She drilled me like the lines-learner she once was. By the time we reached our destination, we were both fluent. First verse only of course. It's no easy to task to sing let alone learn the anthem. It doesn't scan easily: some of the words hardly seem to fit the music. You have to elongate the syllables as if they are Italian rather than French. OK perhaps for a native speaker, but we British are generally no linguists. The idea that Premiership footballers sang it as a gesture of support after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity seems somewhat fanciful. Mind you, how many Premiership footballers are Brits these days?

When the time came to give vent to my newly acquired skill, my wife had ducked out to check on Daphne in the car. Thus she missed her chance to shine. Allons en-fants de la patri-e, le jour de gloire est arr-i-vée! I sang out with enough gusto for the two of us. Although we were given the words, I couldn't have read them anyway without my glasses. So I relied on my memory, which didn't let me down on this occasion. For several days after, that preposterous tune rang around inside my head. I'm only just rid of it.

After the song, a little light refreshment was in order. Sure enough, being France, they laid on a little goûté for us. Nothing too elaborate, but quite tasty and sufficient to set us up for the drive back home in the glorious late-afternoon autumnal sunshine. Behind the wheel, I was aglow with a sense of pride and triumph. I suppose it's hardly a tale of One Against Adversity, but there have been some very 'challenging' moments during these last 22 years.
The Indian summer seems to be over now. It couldn't last. I still can't see the road for the trees, but the sumac's aflame and the leaves are on the turn. Inside, the flies are massing on the mezzanine ceiling above my head, as they do at this time each year. When they get bored, they congregate on the round windows and I let them out. When I work late and there's a spotlight on my keyboard, they dive-bomb me like dying Stuka pilots and crash-land on my desk. It's really unpleasant. If, as this recent German study has revealed, flying insects are dying out at an apocalyptic rate, flies must be immune to all the poisons we spray on our fields.

Life goes on, though. For now. Three out of four of our 'wood cupboards' are full to bursting with the logs I cut to size and stacked. We're getting ready for winter. This'll be my first winter as a Franco-Englishman. Citizen Markon, El Prezidente himself, a man currently without a beret and a new passport. But they're coming (or maybe not the beret). For now, one could say I'm an emblematic man: someone who can sing the Marseillaise with the pride of an authorised adoptee.

Allez! It's feeding time for les animaux. Excusez-moi, mes braves.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

September: Dicing with Death

The other day, I was driving back from Brive in the 107 Noddy car. I took the lower road that runs past the gipsy encampment because the back road was blocked by the work on Quatre Routes' flood-drains. I suspect I was on automatic pilot and maybe my mind was a little elsewhere, as is too often the case these days. I turned off the road to cross the adjacent level-crossing. Of course there was music playing, but not too loudly to compromise road safety. One of the speakers is knackered anyway, and I've pinched it with a clothes peg to stop the cone distorting horribly. Suddenly, I realised that the crossing's lights were flashing and the bells were ringing. It was too late to brake and the barriers were coming down. I pushed down hard on the accelerator and just made it to safety. But only just. Had I been driving a more 'muscular', masculine car, with a higher axle and roof, my momentum could have been arrested by the barrier. And then...

I think it's Maggie O'Farrell who has just brought out a memoir based on ten close encounters with death. Ten's a lot for someone younger than I am. Apart from the time as a drunken teenager when I stepped out onto the ledge of a top-floor window at a party and held on to the gutter just above my head, most of my close-shaves have involved cars. Run over when stepping onto a road in Verona. Taking a bend too fast on a main road in the rain and sliding across the adjacent lane. Failure to spot a Stop! sign. My crimes are legion. On this last occasion, I could have argued extenuating circumstances. It shook me up, though, and made me think. No wonder I'm so aware of the risks every time one gets into a car.

A long road trip one we had of it this month, from home to the port of Toulon on the Côte d'Azur. It took us an hour to crawl through Toulon and reach the port, where we were to catch the ferry to Ajaccio for our first visit to Corsica. It didn't exactly warm me to the city, even if we got there safely in the end. I hadn't realised how central is the rugby stadium, where the erstwhile behemoths of French rugby play. I believe there's a commemorative statue to their adopted son, Jonny Wilkinson. I didn't see it.

Everyone has been telling us how beautiful the isle of Corsica is. My mate Eddie Palmieri, the legendary salsero, told me that his family came originally from Corsica via Puerto Rico (God rest it's battered landscape). My Dutch friend up the road, who spent several years there, also warned me about the roads. It takes hours to get from A to B because you wind up one mountain and then down the next. So what's a few hairpin bends between friends?

The ferry was enormous. Driving past the side of the boat as we embarked, it seemed about as high as a municipal tower block. Swarthy men in fluorescent yellow overalls directed the traffic inside the cavernous hold. They barked out their commands in a strange kind of Franco-Italian. We surmised that they were probably Sardinians, given that this is another of the ferry company's destinations. Anyway, we didn't hang about.

The yellow ferrymen looked likely candidates for road-rage once behind the wheel of a car. We didn't yet know it when we disembarked at Ajaccio early the next morning, but road-rage would become a keynote of our Corsican holiday. Before first light, the backdrop of mountains hung like a menacing stage set over the town. While the surface of the main road south seemed better than expected – my Dutch friend shattered a shock absorber in an island pothole a few years back – we were soon driving up a mountain via a tortuous series of bends. It's no more than about 60 kilometres to Propriano, but it took well over an hour to get up and down one mountain and then up and down the next.

Propriano itself is nothing much to write home about. It's a port with a main drag and some faceless chain-stores on the periphery. But my God, what a backdrop! Mountains, as far as the eye can see. Real mountains, not County Down's 'Mountains' of Mourne, that sweep down to the bluest sea I've yet set eyes on. 

So far, so good. But the longer we stayed, and the better we got to know the place, the more we could confirm two things: that Corsica is undoubtedly the most beautiful island in the Med and possibly the most beautiful one in the northern hemisphere; and that you take your life in your hands on its roads. One lapse of concentration and you're over the edge. But more to the point, the local drivers are maniacs determined to dish out death to foreigners.

After 22 years now in France, we've become almost inured to tail-gaiting. It's still irritating and often downright menacing, but it happens so often that it has lost its capacity to shock. In Corsica, though, tail-gating is undiluted bullying. They roar up behind you and almost then attempt to push you off the road. I found myself pulling into lay-bys willy-nilly. Letting someone have his way was one less chance of a head-on collision – because they will overtake with so little thought of safety that one wonders whether the concept of danger has ever even entered their tiny minds.

One hot day (and it's hot, and dry; before it rained on the Saturday, they'd had no rain since April), we drove to the airport in Figari to pick up our friend from London. On the way back to base-camp half way up our mountain, we took a look at Bonifaccio – and found it to be a little like Rocamadour-by-Sea. That's to say, pretty damn stunning but crawling with tourists. Like ourselves, I hasten to add. On the way home, we were rattling along a straight stretch beside the sea, when suddenly a white BMW shot past us and the two cars in front, then ducked back in just before driving head-on into an oncoming lorry. I was at the controls on this stretch, so I had to leave it to the other three to throw up their hands in horror. We then watched open-mouthed as the driver did a 360-degree turn and sped back in the opposite direction. We were just recovering from the shock when a black Audi overtook us at the speed of a Looney Tunes cartoon car and vanished into the horizon.

What gives with these people? Do they simply not value their own nor anyone else's life? I figured that we must have witnessed some sick and obscure game of chicken – like riding the roof of a train or leaping across alleyways from the top of one apartment block to another (which, according to my comic of the time, The Victor, was something that Tony Curtis did in his hoodlum youth). I secretly hoped to find the car upturned on some rocks in a bend of the road further on, or maybe down a cliff, Hollywood-retribution style. Some kind of poetic justice or divine intervention, anyway, designed to hurt the transgressor and spare the innocent. But life rarely works like that.

That was the worst we saw. Nevertheless, I didn't take any chances after such an exhibition of highway madness. We pulled over, as I said, and treated every blind bend with extreme caution. One thing, though, that we continued to note was that every incident of aggression involved, naturally enough, a male behind the wheel and, on most occasions, said male was driving a white car, usually a BMW or an Audi. Drug money? Mafia connections? Inbreeding? Who knows. One day, I shall do some more research – preferably online – and posit a hypothesis for academic discussion.

Until then, I shall try to hang on to dear life by avoiding white-van-man and white German cars. Despite the roads, we shall go back to Corsica en famille to explore more of the island's astonishing beauty. George Clooney, apparently, has toured the island with a friend on a motorbike. I for one shall not be following suit. Four wheels, bad; two wheels, even worse.