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.

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.

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.