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.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August: In Search of the Lost Sofa

I have been much perturbed this month by the fact that I managed to lose a sofa. It was a Knopparp, too. When, at the suggestion of the local gendarmerie, I went along to the municipal Lost Property office, the woman at the desk laughed when I told her that I had come in search of a missing sofa. She explained by way of tacit apology that people usually come into her domain to enquire about a missing wallet or a misplaced bag. I assured her that I quite understood. Her ridicule was less excoriating than the kind of self-punishment I have been meting out most of the month. I can take it, like a man: on the cheek or on les fesses.

With all that has been going on in the world this merry month, I really shouldn't be getting quite so upset about a lost item of furniture. In the long run of things, the renewed terrorist attacks, the fires in Corsica and the south of France, the Trump-tastic diplomacy in Korea and the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation, the assassination of another environmental hero in Tanzania and the sheer awfulness of the 21st century all add up to something much graver. It's an interesting facet of the human condition that we frequently expend far more mental energy on little aspects of our little lives than we do on the big issues that really matter. I keep finding myself, for example, re-living in my head the sorry sequence of events that led to the disappearance as if doing so could magically bring my missing sofa back to life.

To be fair to myself, said sofa was still in its flat-pack. Had it been a fully-formed sofa, then I might really have cause to wonder whether I am already succumbing to Alzheimer's Disease. It's kind of understandable that a busy person might just prop a heavy carton against a wall in a public street while trying rapidly to empty a car full of Ikean effects – and then go off and forget all about it. Once I realised, several days later, just what I must have done, I posted a Perdu – Canapé! (note the ironic exclamation mark) notice and my subsequent enquiries revealed that the mystery package had been seen for several days until the day came when it was seen no longer. I can only hope that some impecunious person took it away and that the sofa has brought a little joy and comfort into his or her life. Since it didn't cost a great deal of money, I have my doubts though about its solidity and durability.

Such is life and one has to get over its little disappointments. The visit of old friends from Sheffield helped. The weather wasn't great for tourists. In marked contrast to last year's aridity, August has been neither too hot nor too dry, which suits me – and the vegetation – down to the ground. Nevertheless, we sat and/or ate outside whenever the opportunity was there.

I had one particularly interesting al fresco conversation with Nigel, which exposed our differences and probably explained why we've been friends for so long. Like my dear wife, he's an incurable optimist. He exudes so much positivity that it can be exhausting to try and keep up with him. Together, he and the Good Wife could move mountains. Like Fitzcarraldo, they could certainly at least have come up with a way of moving a boat over a mountain. Both believe in the transcendent power of love to right all wrongs and put everything back on an even keel. Whereas, I explained, the wildfires in Corsica, say, offer me a compelling example of why evil will ultimately prevail. Many of these fires have been started by an individual who, for one reason or another, wants to create mayhem. All the collective good in the world won't bring back the beauty that has been scarred or re-build the houses that have been destroyed or breathe life back into all the creatures whose existence has been snuffed out by scorching flames. So surely one person's evil is much more potent than a hundred people's good. Think Hitler, think Stalin.

In the end we decided that it was much more fruitful to go and play golf. It's a game about which we both agree, only Nigel practises it a whole lot more than I do. Consequently, he's a whole lot better than I am. Being much more competitive, too, he came up with an elaborate handicap system that would create a more level playing field. Since we were playing on the hilly course at Puy d'Arnac created by an enthusiast with the money he made from the swimming pool trade, it seemed irrelevant – particularly as winning the match really didn't interest me. It might be maddening to my playing partners, but when I play golf, I'm competing against my own incompetence. If I can play even a handful of shots that feel sweetly struck, then my happiness will overcome the frustration of customary ineptitude. And if a handicap system meant that technically I beat someone who hit the ball properly just about every time, then victory would seem Pyrrhic and just plain wrong.

It's a lovely little course and the patron's enthusiasm is delightful to behold. He bombed around the place on his motor mower, shearing the greens as if for our sole benefit, so our putts would roll that much more quickly. It's only nine holes, so you become quite familiar with its quirks in going round twice to make up the customary eighteen. One hole is effectively spliced in two by a runway for light aircraft and I played the shot of the day by driving onto the tarmac and watching the ball bounce along it until it disappeared over the horizon. The joy, the untrammelled joy!

Being a professional coach in the wonderful world of business, Nigel has a coach's eye. He spotted all kinds of little things that would help my game. One thing, however, I discovered for myself – and not for the first time – is that it helps a whole lot if you keep your eye on the ball. I thought I'd learnt this invaluable lesson last time I played with my brother in the county of Hampshire, but apparently not. Try it sometime. It works a treat. Such knowledge has renewed my appetite and I'm determined now to dust off my discarded second-hand clubs at least a few more times this coming autumn.

Our friends went off after breakfast one Sunday to a wedding in distant Brittany. They were hoping for at least one swim in the sea as they drove up our drive, GB sticker resplendent on their rear. There have been noticeably fewer on the road this summer. The pound has sunk to near parity with the euro, which makes my British credit card painful to use. So the droves of Brits seem to have kept themselves far hence. Indeed, the number of visitors to UK shores has risen in direct ratio to the fall of the value of sterling.

There were plenty of perennial Brits in the local cinema the other night, though. Two whole rows of us, in fact. Chattering away in English, which makes for uncomfortable seating – particularly as the film in question was Dunkirk, with all its concomitant Anglo-French issues. It was De Gaulle and the Free French who won the war, wasn't it? The British did (literally) desert the sinking ship in 1940, didn't they? I'm sure I heard murmurs of discontent within the auditorium and I turned around to shush my loudest compatriot in best exaggerated pantomime fashion.

Fully prepared by a very unfavourable review to dislike the film, I found it a remarkable cinematic experience. Certainly not enjoyable in the way that I enjoyed Christopher Nolan's earlier films, Memento and Insomnia – it was way too harrowing for enjoyment – but impressive for sure. The scenes from the cockpit of a Spitfire, looking down at the carnage on the sea as seen in different chunks of the film in different timescales from inside a small boat or from the jetty or the beach where the soldiers waited for rescue, were especially memorable. Quel cinematography! I could have done without some of the musical bombast and a few of the jingoistic notes towards the end, but it gave a vivid impression of what this kind-of-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat must have been like. The so-called lack of character development didn't worry me, because it was much more about the collective endeavour rather than any individual heroism that needed a 'back story'.

While I came out of our local cinema feeling like I'd been through a tumble dryer in search of a missing sofa, neither The Good Wife nor The Kid surprisingly found it particularly harrowing. The skies were too blue, there was too much pomp and circumstance and it was generally too handsomely staged for them. We must have been watching different films. Well, each to his or her own. They don't agree about good and evil either. Nor do they find golf such a beautiful but frustrating game. Life is, as I think Talk Talk suggested in one of their songs, decidedly what you make it.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July: Take Three Girls... Two Books and One Doctor

At the Saturday morning market, I bumped into the local antiquarian. As camp as a bottle of chicory essence, he speaks with a tiny voice that you have to struggle to hear. Normally he comments about the amount of time that has passed since we first shook hands way back before the Great Recession and chides me because I still haven't dropped into his shop to look at his wares. This time, he muttered something about another summer, another influx of tourists, another crowded market. 'It's so boring,' he suggested: a nice new variation on the so Breetish refrain. I replied that I found it somewhat reassuring to know that certain things don't change.

But I get what he means. The stifling heat of summer only makes me listless and aimless. I stare at a blank electronic page on the computer screen, scan our book shelves, regard the bedraggled garden choked with weeds and just come to the conclusion that I can't be bothered. It's so boring. The relentless, repetitive march of time can be so dispiriting.

Conversely, that familiarity can be a reassuring anchor when things around you are changing at a seemingly breakneck speed. And it's never so apparent as when you're a parent. The Kid is with us now for what my instinctive wife reckons will probably be her last summer at home with the Aging Ps. We met up in Romsey, Hants. for my father's 90th birthday celebrations: one of those periodic excuses for a family conclave. Despite the occasional simmering tension, everything went off as (long) planned with no outbreak of hostilities. I even had to put the old fellow to bed after the Friday night meal for the first time in my life. It's a strange business, removing your parent's socks. I was transported back to the days (of never reputedly having it so good) when he would help me undress and tuck me up in my bed. Now I'm the adult and he's reverted to the egocentric child. Will the circle be unbroken?

The three of us travelled back to deepest, hottest France, taking this time some of the old byways that we hadn't driven down for years, not since the completion of the various motorways that now speed us home. I had a rendezvous near Selles-sur-Cher, to visit a producer of the area's celebrated goats' cheese. The indignity of being the last car off the ferry, the post-Brexit queue for passport checks, the aberrant bottleneck outside Dreux and the deviation for a meeting that failed to transpire all added up to at least three hours on the journey time and a reminder of just how epic the long haul south used to be in the old pioneering days.

No sooner settled in her old familiar bedroom, than our grown-up girl was driving to the local airport to pick up two friends from college. It wasn't quite the boyfriend moment, more an underlining of sorts that our girl now has very much a life of her own. Significantly, too, it was the first time since she left school that she's ever brought anyone home with her. From what I can gather, she hasn't even kept in touch with any of her colleagues from a miserable two years in Paris. So it was rather nice to hear the three of them sitting outside at night on the back balcony, chatting and laughing together. Rather reassuring, too, to know that she felt comfortable enough to bring back friends to meet the parents. During my student days, the idea would have been preposterous. There was no one I would have wanted to subject to the primitive discomforts of our dysfunctional domestic life.

For a week, the house resounded with the happy noise of three female housemates. I like girls, but they don't come cheap. When you factor in all the extra food and the hot water required for daily beautification, it emphasises the sheer cost of bringing up a big(-ish) family. I would have had to go out and get myself a real job. No way could we have lavished so much on our daughter's education, not with two others to subsidise. Little wonder, now that I come to think about it, that my mother attempted to divert me from higher education. She even arranged for me to talk to a colleague at the gas board. Fortunately, he was someone who hadn't read her script. He recognised me as a brow-beaten teenager and counselled me not even to consider passing up such an opportunity.

A full house carries certain compensations. Like delegating dog-walking duties to three girls only too happy to oblige. And sneaking off to bed for a read unnoticed at an earlier hour than usual. Perhaps also symptomatic of my aimless response to heat, I can't seem to settle on any particular title at present. The narrow space between wall and edge of bed is currently a litter of books, magazines and old newspapers. I'm dividing most of my precious reading time mainly between two quite incompatible tomes: a fascinating biography of Edith Sitwell and Bass Culture, a seriously entertaining history of Jamaican music. Much as I'm interested in the literary and artistic figures loosely associated with the Bloomsbury set, I'm beginning to realise that about the only thing I can get truly excited about these days is music.

Well, actually... there's always Wimbledon. This year like every year we gather for the highlights programme – now fronted by the awful Clare Balding, whose high-heel shoes and Crimplenesque jacket do her no favours at all – or catch part of some titanic struggle in real time. The fifth set between Nadal and the previously anonymous Luxembourgeois, Gilles Müller this July was one of the most gripping conclusions to a match that I've ever seen. It occurred to me how often over this era such gladiatorial combats have featured the charming Majorcan. No one I've ever seen in my years as an armchair tennis player has displayed such an insatiable will to win. People talk of the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe, but it dims in comparison to that of Federer and Nadal, the sporting equivalents of Hector and Achilles. We may never see their likes again...

Our two auxiliary girls went home just before Wimbledon and without giving me any real clues about the kind of music that they and their contemporaries were currently listening to. Being polite, well-brought-up young gels, they made us a nice meal on their last evening, which we washed down with a posh wine that they could probably ill afford. It was a pleasure; you can come again any time.

Now that they're gone, I've got no excuse for not knuckling down to the task at hand. The trouble is, there are so many that I know not where to focus my energies. I'd just sat down to make a start the other day, when the phone rang. I answer any unidentifiable callers now with the utmost caution. An 06 number means a mobile phone and probably less chance of being some concerted scam or hassle. It was our local family doctor. A problem of translation. Would I s'il vous plaît come over to the surgery to listen to a message he'd received from an English patient?

Poor man. Such is his dedication to his job that he will spend an hour or more with a client. Frequently, he works well past his surgery hours and often misses a meal in the name of duty. This is a man who listens so keenly to what you have to tell him that you can see the cogs whirring behind his eyeballs. I compare and contrast to our family doctor in Brighton. A nodding man who would start scribbling on a prescription pad as soon you'd opened your mouth. Good for the occasional sick note, but nothing more.

I listened to our doctor's messagerie on his mobile phone, straining to catch the words that were distorted by a poor connection. It was impossible to discern the name of the medication about which the client was concerned. I heard just enough to tell our doctor that he was American. The English have a bad enough reputation  here without Americans and Australians being lumped into the equation. Our doctor apologised for his schoolboy English and suggested that he should find the time to study the language. But he has no time and why on earth should he? For one thing, English is not yet an official Esperanto. For another, I fervently believe, if someone chooses to live in a foreign country, then it behoves them to learn the language. And if they can't, then they have to accept the consequences.  

How thoughtless and selfish to put such a conscientious man into such an invidious situation. Knowing him as I do, I can imagine how awful he'd feel if something serious were to happen to his patient as a result of a lack of mutual comprehension. What was the man thinking of? Or, more probably, not thinking of?

Our doctor told me that he can read English better than he can either speak or understand it orally. He asked me if I could recommend any novels that might help him with his education. I suggested that perhaps the purest English I'd ever read was to be savoured in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Or something by either Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian, or Joseph Conrad, a Pole. Lovers of literature through the ages will be thankful that neither of them deemed it unnecessary to learn the language of their adopted countries.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

June: High Society

We were in England last year, so we had the perfect excuse. Besides, the event was cancelled at the last minute due to a local tragedy: the death of a communard's teenage son, hit by an overtaking car as he turned right on his moped onto the main road. No one would have been in the mood for a communal jamboree.

It's one of those events that fills you with ambivalence. I was kind-of looking forward to it, but not sure why. Maybe it's my insular, solitary life and the periodic need for society. Maybe I envisaged some kind of Impressionist scene of people pick-nicking among wild flowers in the grass as the sun set over the horizon. Anyway, having found semi-legitimate excuses over the last three years for not meeting my fellows from the upper echelons of the borough, I felt compelled finally to accept the invitation. Politically, it seemed correct.

The upper echelons. It feels like Sugar Hill here sometimes. From our lofty position, we can look down on the lower part of the commune, just as the more well-heeled negroes (as they were known in polite circles at the time of the fascinating Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s) could lord it over the brethren of lower Harlem. That was Harlem BG then – before gentrification. More an accident of purchase than an accident of birth in our case. Seduced by a view, we never even considered the disadvantages of being down in the valley: thick mist till midday sometimes, restricted sunshine and the possibility of flooding.

The lower part of the commune is circumscribed by steep outcrops of limestone rock and built around a railway station that once was quite an important railway junction – with one branch line heading for Aurillac and all points east, and the other heading south towards Rodez, which might – rather fancifully – be termed a gateway to the Midi. Both are now under threat of closure, a fate that befell a third branch line that carried trains to the main Paris-Toulouse line across a mighty 19th century red-brick viaduct on the outskirts of Souillac. Now abandoned to its fate, it's still floodlit at night.

Our local station is quaint and quintessentially French, but the surrounding houses are a random mix of old and new and the sum is no better than its parts. The man down the road in the grandiose wooden house, who climbed the social ladder last year from down below to the rarefied air up here, tells me that a model of the station as it used to be is on display every Wednesday in a room somewhere at la gare. As a once-and-former owner of a train set, I'd like to go and see it, but the road to hell – as we all know – is paved with good intentions.

The premise of my impressionistic picnic on the grass was a low body-count. An exclusive few of us made even fewer by the lack of a spouse, who sensibly cried off after a heavy day at the coal face, massaging sweaty bodies and listening to people's woes. So when I turned up with my neighbour, whose partner was too ill to attend, it was a shock to see all the parked cars. A multitude was busy assembling in a big metal hangar, where Jean-Louis normally stores his light airplane – and, I discovered, an old Renault 4, an old motorbike and one of those rural equivalents of a beach-buggy. Back in the '60s, it might have been full of young Frenchmen in stripy shirts given to singing in harmony jaunty songs about agricultural pursuits. Let's go turfing now, everybody's turfing now...

Jean-Louis and his wife Martine are sufficiently community-spirited to host this annual gathering each year. They're a nice couple; backbones of local society. We hired Jean-Louis to dig our foundations and install our septic tank, and Martine, in her capacity of a peripatetic nurse, administered to my stricken wife when she broke her shoulder one ill-fated Christmas. Their son was elected to the communal council, which he served (briefly) as an IT specialist. Their daughter has probably just had a child, as she's of the appropriate child-bearing age. I also met and chatted to their charming donkey, Nesquick, who keeps down the grass on which I had imagined we would have spread our blankets and shared our hampers.

At least we got there before everyone else arrived, which made the task of kissing or hand-shaking or of not knowing which form of greeting was appropriate a little easier. Late-comers had many more to go round, which is a lot of names to remember. However, I got the impression that most people there knew everyone else, whereas I gave up early on trying to distinguish my Jean-Claudes from my Jean-Lucs. The two main clans in these parts have probably sired a significant slice of those present and I didn't do my credibility any good when I addressed the mayor by the name of the other clan. No wonder he ignored me.

What gets into me in such situations? I've addressed him by his correct clan-name on countless occasions. I think it's some kind of short-circuit between right and left brain due to the demands of a foreign language. There are times when I can conduct myself reasonably efficiently even on the telephone, and times – especially when my confidence dips – when I'm given to imbecility. The next day, for example, I asked the woman from whom I buy our vegetables whether Gérard, the stocky man who actually dug our foundations in Jean-Louis' JCB, was her son-in-law. No, husband! I meant husband! It was effectively like telling a middle-aged woman that she looked 65. What must they think of me? There I was, doing my utmost to reflect a favourable light on the expat community, and I probably came over as a moron. It's a lot easier sometimes to converse with donkeys.

Certainly, my little problem was exacerbated by hunger. The French in such social circumstances must think that they're Spaniards. They stand around drinking aperitifs and nibbling nibbles until dusk has fallen. Then and only then do they settle down to the bouffe. Having so little to contribute to the customary conversations only intensifies my hunger. I kept looking longingly at the three long refectory-style tables set up in the hangar, hoping to spot an equally ravenous soul bold enough to sit down and start noshing. Finally, the respected couple who used to work as cabin crew for Air France seized the initiative. Where one sheep leads, the others quickly follow.

I shared my tuck with my Dutch neighbours down the road. This wasn't entirely selfless. I knew their kids wouldn't eat much of the fancy pasta salad I'd made, which meant more for us grown-ups. And I happen to know that Madame is a superb baker of cakes and other desserts. She'd made a plaited apple and currant tart for the occasion. It looked like something you might find in a boutique bakery in Vienna. It was even better than that and I had two helpings to prove that the earnest representative of the expat community was nothing less than a greedy sod.

My Dutch friends and I chatted with Jean-Louis and Martine from the table behind us. It was nice. Martine placed an affectionate hand on my shoulder at one point, which suggested that I wasn't such an imbecile after all. When a young couple arrived to show off their newborn baby, I took it as my cue to leave. I'd brought my temporary partner with me on the understanding that I didn't want to stay any later than 11pm. That would suit her fine, she'd assured me. But when push comes to shove, leaving such a do is never the easiest thing. It's a fine line between prudence and rudeness.

I bade the other guests a collective rather than individual au revoir, then stood hovering on the threshold like the Lemon-drop Kid, waiting for my neighbour to extricate herself from the web of social niceties. Come on, come on. I bid a fond farewell to Nesquick and slipped him a heel of baguette that I'd smuggled out to curry favour. It strengthened my resolve to adopt a donkey or two as soon as we can work out the practicalities of building a shelter.

Making conversation at the market the next day, I learnt that my vegetable merchant had nattered on till well after midnight. Yes it was a very nice affair and a shame that I'd had to leave early because I was so tired. Soon after such sycophancy, I made my monumental faux pas about the over-age son-in-law and exited stage right, pursued by a toxic cloud of embarrassment.

Now, when I sit on the back balcony drinking my morning coffee and/or surveying the landscape, I imagine Jean-Louis in the cockpit of every passing light aircraft, looking down on me looking down on the tiny people below and the miniature tractors baling hay. He will have seen the new building site up above the nearby hamlet. For a week or more, I've heard the sound of a digger cutting laboriously into the bedrock. It looks like they'll be building a mansion up there. I've walked up that way in the past. The view is even better and you can see for miles and miles. From up there, our own house looks quite small and insignificant.