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.