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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

March: Crossing bridges

It's blossom 'n' birdsong time once more. The hunters have packed up their rifles and spring is in the air. The lawn, such as it is, has had its first cut. But word has come there none on our request for citizenship.

My ever optimistic wife believes that it will come before May because the current government recognises in our family three potential voters for their party in the forthcoming elections. I don't believe it will come. We might have had an avis favorable from the prefecture, but I think the minister is sitting on our dossiers under instructions from the Man at the Top.

'Mais, Monsieur Président, there is a favourable opinion. They won't be a drain on the state. They might even contribute to the nation's well-being.'

'Je m'en fous, Monsieur le Ministère. The bastards are British. This Brexit mess is their fault.'

'To be fair, Monsieur Président, I think you'll find that they were denied the right to vote in the referendum.'

'The bastards are British, I say. They'll receive no presidential favours from me. Sit on their dossiers until I tell you otherwise.'

And so, I feel sure, the minister sits, while the president fumes as his time in the sun runs out. Next incumbent could well be Madame Le Pen. She may indeed admire Great Britain for showing the French nation how to wriggle out of the European Union, but I doubt whether she or her minister will be inclined to offer Brexpatriates any favours. Besides, would we want to stay under a government of the far right?

More to the point perhaps, if the current minister sits on those dossiers until his or her time is up, knowing the way that the administrative machine works (or doesn't work) here, when it's time for the next one to occupy the seat, in all probability we will be told to start all over again. Having been through the whole protracted and expensive process once, I for one am not inclined to go through it all again.

In any case, the Jews of Nazi Germany were presumably legal citizens back in the 1930s. What a dreadful dilemma that must have been, particularly at this time of year – when seasonal beauty seduces you into believing that all is well with the world. Even if the writing on the wall is there for all to see, it takes an act of single-minded courage to abandon all your worldly goods and head for some foreign land and a very uncertain future. Far easier to kid yourself that you can't make out the writing clearly enough and opt to stay in the hope that things will sort themselves out in the long run.

Anyway, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it in the time-honoured British tradition of bridge-crossing. Let's just cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we Nigel? Presumably, that's what they did for the last 20 years or so of the British Raj. Until the time came when action could not be put off any longer.

Aha! you say. You must have just finished re-watching The Jewel In The Crown. How right you are. Granada's brilliant adaptation of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. It has been many years since either of us saw it for the first time and we'd forgotten much of it – although the bloody climax on a train came back with surprising clarity. I'd forgotten the superb production values, the stunning scenery in the foothills of the Himalayas, the excellent performances of Peggy Ashcroft and Tim Piggott-Smith (as the loathsome Ronald Merrick) in particular, the awfulness of the expatriate community with its exclusive clubs and the kind of blind belief in its own inviolable right to rule others. Even here, even now, you hear echoes of this attitude in the type who, rather than learn Johnny Foreigner's damnably tricky language, simply raises his voice to make himself understood.

It's over now, let it go. I shall return it to the safe-keeping of my father when I see him next month. We can claim our lives back. My wife had also forgotten just what a hunk Charles Dance was in the series that made him a minor star. So I'd better get down to some semi-serious body-building in an attempt at least to outline some appealingly rippling muscles and bulging biceps – not just to please my partner, but also in preparation for the coming season of mowing, strimming, weeding, uprooting, cutting back and generally trying to keep on top of riotous nature.

The trouble is, any kind of physical labour leaves me aching all over and too stiff afterwards even to take off my socks unaided. You are getting old Father Sampons, you shall wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled. Spending too long at the computer, in fact. Get up offa that thang and get outside and get in training for longer days and warmer times. Mens sana in corpore, and all that. Even the most seasoned bridge-crosser needs exercise and fresh air.

The birds are singing. There's no excuse.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

February: Life, Death and the Cultural Divide

My friend Bret dropped by this morning to help me with a problem that was preventing access to the internet. While I was waiting, I wrote an episode of my monthly journal. When he got here, he shut down Word without saving my work, so now I've got to start all over again. Friends, eh? Who'd have 'em?

So where was I? Total recall is an impossibility at my time of life, so I must make the best of a bad job. I think I started by telling how this month I've come to the conclusion that, barring unforeseen circumstances, I'm probably not going to die of either skin cancer or asbestosis. Not just yet, anyway.

That may sound like the ravings of a diehard hypochondriac, but I've learnt to keep an eye on what's happening on my face. I treat every new mole, mark, stain or simple liver-spot with suspicion. Back in the early 80s I went to Ibiza late one sunny September. It was one of those trips to get away from things for a while. To let things blow over.

I stayed in Ibiza's main town in what I suppose was a kind of prototype Air B&B. I rented an airless, window-less room off a sunny courtyard from an old man with brown leather skin. On probably the first hot afternoon, I pegged my youthful body out on the beach without even a smear of sun cream and suffered severe sunburn as a result. It's something, of course, that you would never do now – not unless you were really, really stupid.

The old man gave me a tube of some soothing emollient and mimed how to slap it on my glowing face and shoulders. He couldn't speak a word of English and I couldn't speak a word of Spanish, but I've lived long enough thus far to be very grateful to that old hombre. It was not a happy holiday, even though I made friends with a screamingly funny English ac-tor, a screaming queen who probably with hindsight fancied my youthful pants off. He was more fun than the rather severe young German girl I tried to chat up one night in a bar.

So anyway... when a new mark appeared above my left eyebrow sometime last year, I eventually summoned up the courage to go and see our local doctor. He referred me to a dermatologue or skin specialist in Brive. Just to be on the safe side.

The cabinet of this particular Dr. Caligari was at the end of a corridor in a residential block above what used to be a bank. Since there was no evident receptionist, I sat down with the other attendees in the doctor's waiting room, feeling the opposite of intrepid. Eventually, a man in a white medical jacket appeared and called out a name that bore some resemblance to my own.

I sat down at his desk and handed him on demand my Carte Vitale. This was not going to be a bundle of laughs. Eventually he got up and examined my most obvious mole. I diverted his gaze to the extrusion above my eyebrow. He lit it up with a palm-sized torch and pronounced it benign. I would live another day.

Perhaps his relief was as marked as mine because, after I'd written out my cheque for €46, Dr. Caligari opened up a bit. We chatted about my origins and his trips to Ireland and Scotland. When it came to scenery, I ingratiated myself, France had all you would ever need. He agreed, but as he showed me the door, he revealed that France had one serious thing wrong with it: the absurdity of its government. I wasn't sure whether he meant the political system or the current incumbents.

So that was one worry off my list. Only the persistent cough to fret about now. It's been hanging on for weeks and I haven't been able to shake it off. Perhaps, I figured, it was a lingering remnant of a common cold. Or perhaps it was the onset of asbestosis. In our previous house in the Corrèze, I struggled to remove an old flue wedged inside the chimney that we needed for our wood-burning cuisinière. It was only when I managed to remove it – finally, triumphantly, like a dentist holding aloft a stubborn molar – that I realised it might have been made of fibrous asbestos.

For a few short but tight-chested years in my early 20s, I suffered from periodic asthma attacks and I've recognised the same kind of irritability in my trachea. But then one night I realised that if it were asbestos, surely I would be coughing both day and night. As it is, it's a daytime phenomenon. The Good Wife, whose work is based around a premise that just about every physical complaint or illness has a psychological root, reckons that this cough is symptomatic of my reluctance to face my daily to-do list.

It's not that I'm a lazy bastard. I'm quite an industrious human worker bee. It's just that I spend so much time alone here in the hive that I'm subject to protracted bouts of self-doubt and loss of bearings. So much so that I thought it might help re-orientate me to write a series of brief theatrical pieces for the annual cabaret, which our local association puts on to entertain the populace and raise money for a good cause.

I even managed to persuade my busy spouse to come out of her theatrical retirement for the role of Madame Picamole, a woman of a certain age in search of a new partner from a refuge for abandoned men. It's a satire on the way we humans treat animals and the humour is accordingly dark and discomforting. We made the mistake of casting a French woman for the role of the official at the refuge.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Per se. The woman in question is a sweetie. She's well travelled and even likes Absolutely Fabulous. But the experience soon shone a spotlight on the extraordinary gulf between our two cultures. First, she insisted on certain changes to words that weren't words commonly voiced in French. Me, I love to play with words in either language and put them together in phrases that sound faintly absurd. So such literal translation felt like a dilution of both the humour and my own enjoyment.

Then, it became clear in rehearsals, she could not or would not bring herself to speak any lines that were simply too uncomfortable. And so she took to improvising her own lines and missing the cues on which poor Madame Picamole was counting. We tried it on stage last Sunday and it was quickly apparent that it was, in the immortal word of Ted, our friendly Sheffield builder, 'abortionate'.

On the way home in the car, we agreed to pull it. Put it down to experience. The steep learning curve of life. If I felt relieved, I also immediately started fretting about coming over as the precious petulant child who takes his ball away and won't let the others play the game.

Wracked by guilt or wracked by coughs. Which is worse? I can't honestly say. I do know that guilt is not necessarily life-threatening, even if it's often the root cause of suicide. As for the cough, I've almost completely decided that it too won't carry me off prematurely. It's all part of life's rich tapestry and despite all the problems that can befall us, I'm still very glad to be alive this transitional month of February.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

About This Time Eight Years Ago

How quickly time passes and how quickly things change. Eight years seems like a fairly long time, seen from both before and after. In the American sense of an 80% decade, eight years represents two presidential terms.

About this time, in January 2009, President Obama – the first black US president, itself a cause for celebration – was inaugurated. Four years of hope lay ahead of us. If we were lucky, we could make that eight. Coming after the catastrophic double-term of an ignoramus and a dunderhead, distinguished from his not-quite-so-inept father by a middle initial, the sense of promise was akin to that wonderful moment when the Iron Lady walked away from no.10, tight-lipped as she clutched her ubiquitous black handbag.

Back in 2009, we were acquainted with an American couple from the Bay Area in California, who had made a temporary home for themselves in Martel. Their son went to the same local primary school where our daughter served time. They invited us to an inauguration party in the house they had just finished renovating.

Since I'd been working all day with my friend Bret – doing some judicious coppicing in the woods and hauling out the branches for stacking and drying – I took him along for the ride. The girls were still in Brive. In those days, Tilley the Kid would hang around in the kitchen of the cabinet after school, waiting for her mum to figuratively finish off her last client, clean up and head for home. It would have been her first year at Arsonval, the big educational factory just behind the shopping centre now re-vamped as Les Passages.

Bret and I found the house near where it was supposed to be, in the same narrow street as the charming old boulangerie that has subsequently closed. The day room or whatever it is that Americans call the sitting room was up some dark wooden stairs on the first floor. It was a hive of expectant noise. Our hosts, Dan and Patricia, had laid out some canapés on a central table and hung a white sheet on an internal wall onto which they were projecting the images from what was probably CNN News.

Everyone in the room was drinking a cocktail christened an Obamatini for the occasion: gin and blue Curacao, I believe. Holding my glass tight enough to crush it as I fought off surging emotion in the name of manly decorum, I watched with everyone else there the new president's inaugural address. It was an incredibly measured and polished bit of oratory, almost up there with Martin Luther King in some respects. I know these things are written, edited, polished and rehearsed to within an inch of their lives, but you surely have to mean the words in order to sound so utterly convincing. The word 'responsibility' cropped up enough times to make you hope that this man's considerable intellectual energies would be channelled in a positive direction.

Even the most diehard cynic would probably agree that it was a magnificent speech. Everyone watching it must have felt that they were witnessing something quite historic. And when it was over, everyone cheered and applauded and raised their glasses of Obamatini to wish each other a 'happy new era'. Being tired out from my labours, afterwards I chatted mainly with the American contingent so I could stick to my mother tongue, and we speculated what that era might amount to.

On the way home, I realised that I was driving with a little less prudence than I would normally have done. It must have been the sole Obamatini I'd allowed myself. We got back about 8.15 and Bret went off to whatever temporary home he was living in at that time. I ate the dinner I'd prepared earlier with the girls and described what it was they'd missed earlier. After all the logging in our wood that Tuesday, I slept like a log all night.

My customary Wednesday morning found me waiting in the car for E. Leclerc to open. Parked under a street light so I could read whatever book I was half way through. Maybe without reading glasses. It was dark and wet and miserable. I'd dropped The Kid off at her school and made arrangements to pick her up at lunchtime. She left me in no doubt at all that I was neither to be seen nor heard. She'd rather come and find me than my coming to find her and thereby running the risk of being spotted by an inquisitive school friend. C'est ton père, Tilley...?

Between the shopping and the pre-arranged rendezvous, I went to the cabinet to try to unblock the loo. It was cheap and you get what you pay for. A narrow evacuation linked to an extraordinary cast iron waste-water junction in the cellar, compounded and compacted by paper-happy clients, constituted a recipe for disaster. Having tried and failed with a length of fence wire, I put the mop down the pan and used it as a kind of suction pump. It did the trick. I heard the blockage disappear into the main drain under the street. I felt so thrilled with myself that I bought a new music magazine. World Sound probably doesn't even exist eight years down the line.

Nor does the slightly tricky adolescent version of my daughter. She's a young lady now, who loves her parents so much that she doesn't mind who sees her socialising with them. She's a happy student enjoying a more liberal education system in a motherland that she's still just getting to know. So that's all good, to quote the deliciously glib catchphrase of W1A's harassed hero.

There's not much else good, though. Those contrasting photographs of the Washington inauguration crowds do not lie. How did we get from there to here in eight short years? What happened? Syria, a slow-burning financial crisis, a few hundred more terrorist outrages, a few thousand more elephants slaughtered for their tusks, a few million more acres of Indonesian rainforest burnt to the ground in the name of palm oil for colas, biscuits, breakfast cereals and choco-nut spreads?

But does that explain how and why we've gone from a cultured, educated man at the top, a family man with moral values, to an ignorant bile-fuelled cheating billionaire who wants to turn the clock back 50 years or so? It's the end of an ear. Left wing, right wing; swings and roundabouts; thrusts and counterthrusts; booms and busts; progressives and reactionaries. Just when you think you've taken a step forward, you spring back two. And doesn't it always seem to go that you never know what you've got till it's gone? In the name of my daughter and her contemporaries, as we naughty tittering boys used to sing in the morning assembly at school, Wise up, oh men of God!