Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lucky me

Pretty little thing, ain't she? And quite well trained. Nice and light on the back of a bike too. Doesn't complain too much and she's relatively cheap to run. Yup, I'm a very lucky chappie.  


Friday, January 29, 2010

Nothing's ever simple

Must have been about this time last year. Round at Christian's. Watching the rugby. Dressed in my kilt. France versus Scotland. Said something stupid. Me and my big mouth. Probably had one scotch too many. Suggested to Christian that it'd be a wizard wheeze to fly to Edinburgh next year and watch Scotland against France. Didn't really mean it. Couldn't really afford it. And, next day, I'd forgotten all about it. But, alas, unbeknown to me, Christian hadn't. He didn't mention anything to me but he must have mentioned something to partner Isabelle. Probably last October. That was when Isabelle cornered me in the market and asked if I was planning to go to Edinburgh to watch the match. Suddenly realised Christian hadn't forgotten my stupid suggestion. Wanted to say "no way, far too much trouble and expense," but it came out as "maybe". Things snowballed from there. Tried to put Christian off by saying he didn't have a passport so he couldn't go. "Don't need one" he said, "I've checked with the local council and some mates - I can travel with my French identity card." Drat.

So, last October, a good three months ahead of the match, I set about getting the trip arranged. Bought a couple of seventy quid tickets through the Scottish Rugby Union site. Then booked a couple of Limoges/Edinburgh flights. Only I didn't. They were fully booked already. So I booked Limoges/Stansted, Stansted/Edinburgh returns instead. Then spent ages trying to find hotel rooms. No chance. Rugby week-end. All fully booked. The only rooms available were in the posh hotels. A couple of hundred quid a night, at least. Out of desperation I plumped for a shared room in a scruffy b&b at the edge of town. Wasn't happy about sharing, or the remote location. So kept searching. Eventually found a central hotel with two rooms for just fifty quid a night each. Result! Booked 'em for three nights and cancelled the b&b. At last, we were all set. Had only taken about a fortnight to arrange, sitting at the laptop morning, noon and night.

We're due to fly next Friday the fifth of Feb. So, last week, I set about checking us in online. All was going well 'til the printer ran out of black ink and refused to print out the boarding passes. Rats. Jumped in the car and headed for the computer shop at Aubusson. Parked in the car park and noticed the temperature gauge was going haywire. Lifted the bonnet and checked the water system. Nothing wrong there. Then noticed the hose joining the crankcase breather with the airbox had split. Don't know how that can affect engine temperature but presumably it does. Decided to let it cool down while I visited the computer shop. Left the dogs in the car. Arrived at the shop. Shut. Then noticed a new computery shop just up the street. Entered. Huge queue. Only one person serving. Only he wasn't serving. Seemed to be glued to the phone. Waited about twenty minutes. Had a quick look at the printer inks behind the counter. Every brand except the required Epson range. Gave up waiting and sauntered off for bread and a 2010 calendar. Bought bread but could only find two calendars; one with cats (hate cats) and t'other with flowery gardens (hmm...). The calendar search continues. Returned to the computer shop. Queue hadn't moved, man still on phone. Went back to the car. Slowly drove it to a garage. Two mechanics confirmed the hose was holed (well done Clousseau lads) but didn't have a replacement. Said it should be okay to drive home. So I did. Arrived home and searched the internet for a new hose. None available anywhere. Globally. Signed up to three mk2 Golf GTi internet clubs. Left messages saying 'crankase breather pipe wanted'. Couple of replies said 'no chance - make your own out of similar hoses or tape up the old one'. Brilliant. So that car's out of action. Shall have to drive t'other one to Limoges airport for the trip. Needs oil change and two new tyres. Drat.

Next day (yesterday), I chipped the Citroen dogwagon out of a block of ice and drove it to the Aubusson garage. Fitted two tyres and changed the oil and filter. Was about to head for the computer shop at Ussel (40 miles away) when I thought I'd give the Aubusson computer shop another go, just in case. Amazingly, there wasn't a queue. And even more amazingly, they had the very Epson printer inks I required. Bought a four colour set and headed for home. Unfortunately didn't get around to printing out the boarding passes due to a combination of log getting-in, aiding the plumber man who was connecting up the new water meter, dogwalking, going through a new illustration brief, cooking, downing medicinal scotches and assuming the horizontal on the telly couch. However, I did manage to finally load the new inks and print out the required boarding passes this morning. Also remembered to phone the kennels to book the mutts in for next Friday to Wednesday. So, that's it. We're all set. Come next Friday, all being well, I'll be flying to Edinburgh with a neighbour who drinks like a fish, chops down trees with his bare hands, eats wild boar for breakfast washed down with a bottle of the dreaded Ricard, is built like a bull, fights and punches like a Glaswegian on a Friday night, looks like Bluto out of Popeye, doesn't speak any English, who's never been abroad, who's never flown and who swears blind he doesn't need a passport. Should be interesting. Especially as I gather the UK's on red alert against terrorists and there's snow forecast.

Then I have to go over again a couple of weeks later for my niece's wedding. But that's another story.

 

Up the workers

Nothing much happens round these parts, especially in winter. But it's been a bit different lately. Back in November, our quiet little hamlet was invaded by teams of workmen with trucks and diggers whose task was to dig up the through lane and our back lane and lay a new underground electrical supply system for the entire village, together with an outdoor meter for every house. Then, just before Christmas, another team turned up with different lorries and diggers to rip out the old water supply pipes and install new ones, together with new outdoor water meters. Job done, they all disappeared a couple of weeks ago and the hamlet returned to its old peaceful ways. However, although we'd been connected up to the new electrical system, we hadn't yet been connected to the new water meters. And the old street lamps were still in use, the wiring cables for the new ones dormant and jutting out of the road, topped with red and white warning ribbons fluttering in the breeze.

The teams arrived again last week. Firstly the electricians and then the waterboys. The electricians began by putting up new mock Victorian street lights. Then they took down all the overhead wires and, finally, the ugly old cement poles. At night the hamlet has been transformed. It's like the Blackpool illuminations. We now have a streetlamp round the back so it's no longer pitch black by the woodpile and shed. And the old lamp by the entrance to the drive which only occasionally worked has now been removed and replaced by a new one halfway along the church wall. This means I'll now have to find some other post to connect up the washing line. Might have to cement in an iron pole. And at the bottom of the garden there's another bright lamp. Casts a window shadow on the bedroom wall. Personally, I preferred the old lighting system. Maybe I'll get used to this new one given time. Then yesterday the waterboys came a'knocking. Ripped out the old meter and connected up the new one. So I think that's it - one tiny little hamlet in the middle of nowhere now boasts flashy new electrical and water systems. All very impressive. And anyone who says French workers are a lazy bunch of skivers is talking rubbish - the waterboys started work yesterday at eight and finally knocked off at eight, in the dark, and in a snowstorm. Up the workers! (Click on photos to enlarge.)




Sunday, January 24, 2010

Barn

I know it's cheating but I've nicked half a dozen or so (eight actually!) postings from my old blog and added them here just to remind myself of half-forgotten times and events that are almost interesting or amusing - even second time around. The first of which concerns the on-going saga of our barn purchase - a saga that probably confirms I'm bonkers. However, I have no regrets about ignoring every bit of advice written in the French property magazines and forging ahead with the purchase regardless, despite the consequences. It's been (and still is) a roller-coaster ride. Some may call it a nightmare, but to me it's a dream.



(Nicked from old blog - April '07)

As I've said before, things happen slowly around here. Especially where the doing-up of houses is concerned. One of the reasons may be that there aren't enough registered 'artisans' to handle the increasing demand for renovations, largely brought about, I presume, by the rapid exodus of Brits deserting the sinking ship. You're lucky if you only have a two year gap in-between a builder turning up for an estimate and then turning up for work. For this reason, I consider myself fortunate that Monsieur Chaulet only took six months before putting wheels in motion to resurface the lane to our Beaulieu barn.

He phoned a couple of weeks ago to say he'd arranged a meeting at the Serilhac Mairie in order to be granted local authority approval of our plans. This took place at 9.30am last Saturday.

As I'd be meeting the Mayoress for the first time, I wanted to arrive bang on time. This meant setting off at 7am. So, just to play safe, I rose from my pit at 4am. Three hours to get ready would be bags of time I thought. Well, I thought wrong. Don't know how it happened but we (les mutts et moi) eventually hit the road at 7.30. Arrived at 9.38, gave the dogs a two minute 'wee' run, shoved 'em back in the car, ran up the Mairie steps, knocked on the office door and breathlessly entered clutching my file of official papers.

As it was a Saturday, I was only expecting the Mayoress and Mr. Chaulet to be there, so I was quite surprised when five heads turned in my direction as I burst through the door. I recognised Mr. Chaulet of course, and Laurent Cougneux (the very pleasant farmer who'd sold us the barn - didn't know he'd be there) and I rightly presumed the lady behind the desk to be the Mayoress, with the other man and lady being government officials of some sort. I stuttered apologies for being late and for being useless at French (quite a handicap in this situation as nobody spoke English - apart from Laurent who's about as fluent in English as I am in French) and then, following much hand-shaking and bonjouring, I joined the discussions. Well, not strictly true. To be more exact, I sat back and listened while a bunch of strangers nattered away in alien mumbeau-jumbeau.

About five minutes later, another couple entered and joined the fray. Turned out they were our husband and wife farming neighbours who were there to confirm exactly where the public part of the lane ended and their private part began. This involved the dragging out of various dusty old maps which were then spread out on a huge table, followed by much finger-pointing, tapping and vocal gobbledeegook. Peering over their shoulders from time to time, I noticed that, strangely, fields aren't marked out as on proper maps. Instead they're defined by a series of haphazard numbered boxes or 'pockets' which seem to bear no relation to reality. Consequently, our field is defined by about half a dozen separate jig-saw shapes, each of which has probably been registered at the Mairie for centuries.

Meanwhile, a couple of other animated conversations were taking place in another part of the office: Laurent appeared to be deep in conversation with the Mayoress while Mr. Chaulet was busily chatting to one of the officials. To be honest, I hadn't a clue what was going on. None of it seemed to be my concern. So I started having a closer look at one of the photos on the wall. Seemed familiar. Suddenly realised it was the old house we now owned, next to the barn, before the roof caved in and it slowly degenerated into its current state of disrepair. Fascinating. So the old roof was reeds, not slates. Which would, of course, explain the mysterious absence of roofing slates on the floor. And why the old beams (now sadly collapsed) seem so weather-beaten.

Suddenly, everyone stopped nattering. The Mayoress had dragged out another old map and was now calling for attention. Apparently she'd just noticed that the barn, house and field were listed as 'agricultural'. So, while there would be no objection to lane resurfacing going ahead, it may be a completely wasted exercise if I/we, as non farmers, wished to make ANY changes to the buildings or land. Quite simply, we couldn't. Only people registered as farmers are able to submit plans for ANYTHING to do with this property. So, while Laurent was right in thinking that it'd be little more than a mere formality to be granted a CU (permission to convert the barn) or to 'do up' the old house, he may not have been fully aware, or even thought of, this potential stumbling block.

So, as it stood, we'd spent a king's ransom for half a field, a pile of old stones and a dilapidated cowshed. Brilliant. The Mayoress, bless her, sympathised with our predicament. To lessen the blow, she then pointed out a number of other properties that were previously 'agricultural' but are now 'domestic'. So change is possible. But what with an impending general election and growing governmental disapproval of the seismic shift away from local agriculture as farmers cash-in on the property boom, I'm wary of being over-optimistic.

Anyway, all seems to hinge on a conversation between the Mayoress and a mysterious Madame LaPorte (whoever she may be), which is due to take place sometime this week.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about farming goat's cheese.

Oh yeah. Pull the udder one.

(Part 2 - June '07)

Had a thoroughly deflating meeting at the Serilhac Mairie a few weeks back where the powers that be informed that the barn, the dilapidated house and the land were all listed as 'agricultural' and therefore any permissions for proposed renovation works could only be granted to persons registered as farmers or keepers of livestock.

Although I have a beat-up Barbour, a pair of leaky wellies, occasionally chew on a blade of grass and once got up before sunrise, I'd have a tough time passing off as a farmer. And it's unlikely that a bad tempered Westie and a killer Patterdale constitute livestock. So it looked like that was the end of the matter.

However, the meeting ended with a slight glimmer of hope when a sympathetic official pointed out that a local agricultural property had recently been granted a 'certificat d'urbanisme' and re-listed as 'domestic'. So a precedent had been set. Maybe our barn could also be an exception to the rule. But I wasn't counting on it. Everything now depended on the whim of the local mayoress who hadn't been at the meeting...

Had a phone call the other day from Monsieur Chaulet, the chap who's quoted for doing the proposed resurfacing work to the lane that wends up to the barn. Was half expecting him to say that the mayoress had officially rejected our plans. Instead, he said that 'everyone' had to meet up at the lane at 2pm on Thursday 14 June and we'd all walk up to the barn for a general inspection and discussion in order to reach a final decision.

So I turned up at 2pm on the dot. And spent a very pleasant half hour listening to birds, watching my terriers frolicking in the woods and supping tea from a Thermos. At 2.30 I drove to the mairie to check where everyone was, only to be informed that I was a day early. Brilliant. I presume someone had changed the date without telling moi. Then drove the 75 miles back home.

Drove back again yesterday, minus dogs, and parked halfway up the lane in the usual rendez-vous spot. The 2.30pm deadline came and went. Nobody turned up. Then the rain came and didn't went. Still nobody. Maybe we were supposed to meet at the mairie. So I slithered the car back down the muddy lane and bumped into a whole gaggle of cars and various very damp local bureaucrats at the bottom, plus Mr. Chaulet and Laurent. Seeing that I'd managed to drive up the lane, which now closely resembled a red river, they all hopped in their cars and headed uphill with me bringing up the rear (after turning round in a narrow mudbath).

At the first staging point I caught up with the patrol. Everyone had stopped, cars were abandoned and a thin line of very wet Froggies was making its way on foot. Amazing how ill-prepared for inclement weather some of these chaps and lassies appeared. Anyway, dressed in Barbour coat, hat and stout commando dogwalking boots, I again brought up the rear, sploshing through puddles in boots as others hopped from mudbank to mudbank in summery shoes.

A quarter of an hour later we reached the gate to the barn field where my fellow walkers, most of them shirt-sleeved and peering through rain-splattered specs, were beginning to resemble a bunch of drowned rats. To say they appeared not to be in the best of spirits would be an understatement. There then followed a somewhat animated discussion with much arm-waving and finger-pointing, none of which I understood. Could have been discussing whose bright idea it was to meet up here instead of in the warm and dry mairie. Or maybe they were trying to decide whether there was enough money in the council kitty to purchase half a dozen umbrellas. Who knows. Anyway, after about five minutes someone made the bright suggestion that we seek partial shelter under some trees instead of standing in the open as the rain continued to pour. The discussion continued.

Then we headed back downhill. Every so often one of the drenched shirtsleeved speccies would stand at one side of the lane and march across to the other shouting out "un, deux, trois et demi". Then "un, deux, trois". Complete nutters. Eventually I twigged that they were measuring the width of the lane. This apparently seemed to have gained some significance. Then the main speccie slipped into a ditch at the side of the lane and re-emerged with sodden shoes and a ripped shirt. Something told me that he wasn't entirely in favour of granting a smug (and very dry) Barbour-wearing Brit permission to ruin his beloved French landscape with vulgar renovation works.

Back at the cars the discussion continued. More arm-waving. More gesticulating. More references to the "anglais". At which point I'd had enough and barked "excusez-moi, je ne suis pas anglais, je suis ecossais!" This seemed to break the ice and it suddenly dawned on them that I might not be a dumb zombie after all. With the wind in my sails I then dredged up as much basic French as I could muster and started rabbiting on about the need to sympathetically renovate those few original French buildings that still remain or else they'd fall into disrepair and eventualy become piles of rubble. Neglect and, dare I say it, governmental red tape was responsible for many of the ruins I've seen on my travels through France over the last couple of decades. All I want to do is renovate a barn and live here as a resident, not as a holiday visitor. Grr...

This outburst momentarily hushed the crowd. Maybe they hadn't understood a word I'd said. No surprise there then. I hadn't understood a word either. Then, following a brief bout of further banter and arm-waving, the mayoress announced her final decision on the matter.

The lane resurfacing could go ahead but it had to be of a more solid construction (and therefore more expensive) than originally planned. We'd be responsible for costs of resurfacing but, once laid, the council would be responsible for costs of upkeep.

Permission would be granted for the renovation of the dilapidated house. If possible, it should be rebuilt as original but with a tiled roof instead of the original grass roof. Plans have to be approved before building works proceed. Any decision regarding the granting of a 'certificat d'urbanisme' for the barn can only be considered after the little house has been renovated.

And with that, the bureaucrats, who I felt had slightly warmed to my ringing tones of conservation, shook my hand and then dribbled off to squelch into their cars and head back downhill, presumably for the sanctuary of the mairie.

Soon as they left, the sun came out and Laurent, Mr. Chaulet and I then headed for Laurent's farm where I had a coffee and the Frogs had Ricard. Both the Frogs seemed quite concerned that I might be hugely disappointed in not getting permission to renovate the barn. Well, yes, it's a bit more than a shame but at least we now had a go-ahead. Look on the bright side. We're no farmers, we don't have livestock and yet here we are with permission to do up a little farmhouse in gloriously secluded farmland with a strong possibility of eventually being granted permission to convert a barn with one of the finest views in France.

Shame we ain't got the dosh though.

Better get my easel out.

Conchon the Fangman

(Nicked from old blog - Feb. '07)

I've always thought of Tuesdays as being a wee bit nothingy. But not any more thanks to Conchon the Fangman. Suddenly it's the worst day of the week, the day of dread, because 10.30am every Tuesday is now firmly etched in my addled brain as dental appointment time.

Couple of weeks back, I managed to weedle out of a dreaded Tuesday appointment thanks to divine intervention. Basically, it snowed. And snowed. So the road became blocked by drifts and fallen trees. Which meant I couldn't get into town. So I made a new appointment for Tuesday last week. Er, without realising that that was the day I had to drive Georgie back to Limoges airport after a long week-end's stay. So I cancelled again and re-arranged for this Tuesday. A case of third time lucky. Or unlucky, rather.

I duly reported for duty on Tuesday at 10.30 on the dot, reeking of eucalyptus mints that I'd found in a little old tin in the dark recesses of the kitchen drawer, with an 'eat by' date of February '04 (live dangerously eh); like a lamb to slaughter. Conchon, bless him, made some opening remark which I didn't really understand. Come to think of it, neither of us ever understands a word the other is saying. I think he was on about the snow-blocked road of a fortnight ago. But he could have just been asking if I'd had any ill effects with the tooth he'd removed at my last visit. In which case my response about chainsawing fallen trees would have totally confused him. Ah well.

Couple of minutes later, with white-knuckled hands gripping the armrests of the dentist's chair, sweat dripping from a furrowed brow and body tensed like rigor mortis, I began making weird gurgling noises. Concerned that he was causing me unnecessary pain, Conchon stopped work immediately. At which point, I drew his attention to a couple of fat pigeons I'd spotted in a tree outside the window. "Cigeons!" I'd gurgled excitedly (impossible to pronounce a 'p' with a gobful of dental stuff); a remark to which Conchon responded with some incomprehensible comment, followed by a look that showed he's convinced I'm bonkers. Panic over, he returned to fiddling with the remnants of the tooth that recently lost its cap.

Bit later, he suddenly downed tools, issued me with an appointment card for same time next Tuesday, and escorted me down the corridor to the door. As a parting shot, I drew my thumb across my neck and made some comment about "noir" in an attempt to explain that they were actually ring-necked doves, not pigeons. However, he may have thought I was threatening to send a big black man round to slit his throat. Luckily, his parting shot didn't confirm this. Instead, I think he made some remark about the doves being a permanent feature in his garden. Mind you, it could have been something along the lines of "Yes I know they're ring-necked doves. I told you this a couple of minutes ago. You're stark raving bonkers. Barking mad. Goodbye." Damned confusing.

Next stop, haircut.

For someone with a barnet that closely resembles sparce vegetation in a barren desert, having a haircut is on a par with visiting the dentist: bloody scary. To make matters worse, the only barber in town is a women's salon that claims to be unisex. Which probably explains why most of the rednecks round here go for a drastic 'number three' executed by the wife, girlfriend, or trusted mate. As I don't have a wife, the girlfriend's in England and I don't trust anyone, my haircut options are somewhat limited. So I had little choice but to enter the chamber of horrors.

Big mistake.

Soon as I entered, three lady customers frowned and three lady hair artistes raised eyebrows, clearly indicating that this girlie poodle parlour was no place for a proper bloke. Almost turned and made a run for it but too late; Madame was on me in a flash. In the hope that I'd be asked to leave immediately, I apologetically asked if I could make an appointment for later in the week as they seemed to be rather busy. "No problem. I'll do you in a minute. Wait over there."

A delightful young nubile then pointed to a door. Assuming it to be the waiting room, I entered. And promptly found myself in a small dark cupboard, headbutting coathangers. As I reversed out to the sound of snuffled giggles from the cutting floor, Madame spotted my embarrassing predicament and wafted across the salon in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, hung my jacket in the cupboard, sat me down with my back to a sink, slung a black sheet over my head and ordered Miss Nubile to give me a shampoo which I didn't really want. Thought about terminating the operation but Madame didn't seem to be the type to take 'no' for an answer.

Few minutes later, with dripping hair and sudsy ears, I was plonked in another chair where I confronted a short, fat, balding bloke in a big mirror. As I waited for Madame to finish off her latest hairy masterpiece, I spotted a magazine. Unfortunately, it was a women's mag. A French women's mag. Not exactement my tasse de the, but anything was better than staring at that ugly git in the mirror. Flicked through it and then twiddled my thumbs. Then started absent mindedly tongueing the Fangman's latest bit of dentistry. The previously jagged edge of that half tooth stump now seemed much more rounded. And a bit higher. Maybe he's building it up. Which may explain why he's booked me in for next week. Or maybe he's spotted another cavity. Checked with tongue for any more holes. Nah. Seems okay. Ring-necked doves, eh. Croo, crroooo, crrrroooo. Crrrrrroooooo. Felt quite soporiphic. Momentarily nodded off.

Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I automatically gripped the chair arms and opened my mouth in readiness for Conchon's latest attack. Which probably quite surprised Madame. Politely ignoring the strange behaviour of her latest victim, Madame then asked if I had any preference regarding coiffure design. Given that her options in this respect were somewhat limited by having very little to play with, I simply asked for a 'normal'. However, as neither of us had the foggiest idea of what constituted 'normal', I ended up with something probably best described as 'short'. But never mind. At least I'd had my money's worth.

Scratching an itchy neck, a short-arsed braveheart who looked suspiciously like an escaped convict was then seen running up the street from the hairdresser's in a last-ditch bid for freedom.

Shadows

(Nicked from old blog - Sept. '05)

It's 6.30am and dark outside. I'm sat at my desk, facing the wall, replying to emails and stuff on my laptop. The room is lit by a single bulb dangling from a cobwebby ceiling beam. There's no lampshade so the occasional shadow gets cast on the wall as the odd moth flutters around the bulb.

Slowly it dawns on me that there's a rather different shadow being cast. I look up and glance at the wall. There's a shadow at eye level going from right to left, about once every second. Rather a big one. This ain't no moth. So I turn around and squint at the light bulb. Yup, sure enough, it ain't no moth. So what is it? Maybe it's a big dragonfly. Or a hornet. No, can't be a hornet because it's not buzzing. This thing's circulating silently. And rather quickly. And it's not circling the light bulb, it's circling the room.

Aaaarrrrgh! Two of the blighters!

Crikey!!! They're bats!!!!!

Curiously, my immediate reaction was to pull the dressing gown over my head and rush out of the room, crouching down and at speed, Groucho Marx style. I then closed the door, only it wouldn't close because we still haven't fitted door locks. So I stood there like an idiot, holding the door shut, wondering what to do. When I let go of the door, it just swung open. Was a bat now climbing up my back? I frantically lept around like a demented whirling dervish in order to check. The door swung open again. Checked to see that the two bats were still present and correct. Affirmative. Boy, they must be getting dizzy. Jammed a bit of wood under the door to keep it shut.

Then what?

Now, this is embarrassing...

I went back to bed as though nothing had happened, hoping the bats would get out the same way they got in; whichever way that was - complete mystery to me. And inadvertently woke Georgie.

"You okay?" she asked, checking the bedside clock (6.45am, still dark).
"Fine thanks... apart from a couple of bats in the other room."
"Well, open the window and let 'em out."
"Er... hmm... yes... well..."

Sensing my reluctance to enter the war zone once more, Georgie made a suggestion. She, being the fearless bat fighter that she apparently is (amazing how one discovers new things about one's partner, even after twenty-odd years), would go and open the window to let out the bats, while I made the tea.

So now I'm back at my computer and she's sitting in bed with tea and biscuits.

Situation normal.

A thousand words

(Nicked from old blog - Sept. '05)

A few days back we had to stop the car in a country lane while a herd of sheep slowly meandered up the road. They were on their way from one field to another, lit pink by the early evening sun and accompnied by an old sheepdog and a farmer giving his young daughter a piggy-back ride on his broad shoulders.

After they'd passed, I said to Georgie that it would have made a great photo. But so transfixed were we by this idyllic scene that it never occured to us to dig the camera out of the rucksack. Had we done so, by the time we'd found it, switched it on, worked out which knobs to press and exited the car in order to get a good angle without our two over-excited terriers escaping at the same time, the show would have long been over. Anyway, Georgie said that, in this instance, taking a photo would perhaps have been intrusive. And I'm inclined to agree. Far better to be left with a pleasant memory instead of a shaky photo of two barking mad terriers causing absolute carnage. Not to mention a severe bruising and a legal prosecution from an irate farmer.

A missed photo opportunity, maybe.

And there was another one yesterday...

Once again I was in my car but, this time, waiting at a road junction to turn left onto the main road. Across the road was an old garage with a couple of old petrol pumps, some rusty old signs and a stack of old tyres. In the shade of the forecourt, two old ladies, aged about seventy-five and fifty, sat on an old wooden bench; the older lady leaning back against the wall with her hands in the pockets of her untypically grubby but typically French flowery housecoat while the bespectacled younger one sat with her hands behind her knees, swinging her legs to and fro, wearing a black skirt and moth-eaten black cardigan. They seemed to be watching the passing traffic, as though waiting for someone. Between them, an old black dog dozed on the ground.

It would have made a great photo but I'd left my camera at home. I considered going back to get it in the hope that the old ladies would still be there when I returned. But a photo wouldn't have told the full story...

The two old ladies are a mother and daughter team. The old lady runs the business while her daughter helps out with the petrol pumps. Behind the scenes, her son does the spannerwork in the garage.

The mother's a sprightly thing, still in possession of all her marbles and always ready for a quick bit of banter. Only the other day, when she was filling my car, I mentioned that summer might be over. She immediately responded with the startling news that half a metre of snow had just fallen in the Pyrennees. Nothing gets past this lass. She knows everything. Even told me exactly how much lead replacement additive to put into my Land Rover. Took me about another five minutes to work out that her figures were correct. She's a bright spark all right.

But her daughter isn't. Unfortunately, she's slightly retarded. Lovely character though. Very happy and helpful. And knows the petrol forecourt business inside-out. Been doing it for years. Probably all her adult life. Just like her mother.

Anyway, so there they were, sat on their bench, idly passing the time of day, occasionally conversing, watching the cars pass by, ever-ready to be of service to whoever popped in for petrol, all the time cursing the new supermarket opposite with its brand new petrol station that was probably going to put them out of business.

As I emerged from the supermarket car park, they gave me a wave. Would I stop for petrol? Sorry girls. Not this time. Unbeknown to them, and without thinking, I'd just filled up at the supermarket pumps. Seeing the two old ladies, I immediately felt guilty. They need all the custom they can get. Don't know if their petrol's more expensive. Don't really care. It's important to me that they stay in business. These supermarkets may be convenient but they're killing the small traders.

In France, as in the rest of the world, the supermarkets on the edge of town are doing a roaring trade. Meanwhile, in town centres, the shops are closing. Which leads to inner city decay. And whose fault's that? Is it really the fault of supermarkets? Or is it my fault for not thinking and not being bothered to go slightly out of my way to support local shops and a local petrol station as they struggle to survive in competition with the 'big boys'? I think the answer's obvious.

No, a photo wouldn't have told the full story.

And they say a picture's worth a thousand words.

Well, not always.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Speccy

(Nicked from old blog - Aug. '05)

The golden sunsets are slowly moving back down the valley.
The warm evening breezes are blowing cooler.
The days are getting shorter.
Summer's almost over.



Soon the swallows will cease their singing as they swoop for insects in the setting sun. And the telegraph wires, where they line up like musical notes, chirping and chattering, will be bare. The hamlet's dusty streets will no longer echo with the laughter and screams of a dozen or more crazy kids, aged from four to fourteen, summer holidaying in rural bliss.

When 'les enfants terribles' first arrived, way back in mid-July, I remember resenting their noisy intrusion to the peace and quiet of our sleepy hillside hideaway. But, as summer wore on, I gradually warmed to their merry little ways and they've now become the life and soul of the village. Sadly, I know I'll miss 'em when they're gone.

I'll miss the young 'uns little bicycles and grazed knees. Their mischievous posting of pegs and pebbles in our postbox. Their cheery waves and shouts as you leave on a shopping trip. And the same on your return. The daring raids of Alain's vegetable patch by speccy four-year-old Christophe and his partners in crime, Fabio and Thierry, all from the backstreets of Paris, to plunder almost ripe tomatoes and onions, not for themselves but to throw into the pen of Alain's very surprised hunting dogs... until Colette, Alain's wife, caught them.

But, above all, I'll miss their frequent visits to our open house; their shy requests for water, their joy at being given cola, sirop or jus d'orange instead, their incessant burbling, their readiness to cuddle a very confused Jock or Sprocket despite warning growls and bared fangs, their constant seeking of one's undivided attention and their wonderfully natural curiosity which inevitably leads to an uninvited exploration of our whole house where they excitedly rummage from room to room, constantly squealing and remarking about its old age, dilapidated state, abundance of dusty spiders' webs and peeling plaster. Damned cheek.

I'll miss too the older kids' brave attempts at speaking English, their requests for info about British swear words and slang for wobbly female chests plus other sexual terminology, their easy understanding of my awful French, their quiet anticipation of being invited to sip from my evening gin and tonic or scotch and dry and, perhaps most impressive of all, their ability to disappear just before they begin to outstay their welcome.

In contrast to their British counterparts, our 'enfants terribles' are refreshingly polite and respectful, and they're naturally gifted with social skills from saying "hello" upwards.

At first, we used to be greeted with a distant, but cheery, "bonjour". Now, the lads shake our hands and the lassies insist on reciprocal kissing of both cheeks. It's the French way. Back in England, Georgie and I'd be arrested for such outlandish snogging behaviour, or, at the very least, branded as as child molesters by overly-protective parents or minders. And the kids would be warned not to visit us again. Ever. But out here, it's so much more relaxed.

For example, only the other day, wee speccy Christophe followed me up the high lane on a morning dogwalk, scything down imaginary musketeers with his stick. At the gateway to Christian's top field, I turned around and gave him a look that said "that's far enough, sunshine". A hundred yards further on, he was still following in my footsteps, his stick now a shotgun. And when we reached Didier's maize field by the old stone cross, well out of sight of the distant village, he was right by my side, muttering away as he conducted the French National Orchestra.

"Bloody hell Speccy, I'm well bleedin' lumbered now, ain't I?" I asked of my four-eyed dogwalking chum. "Pardon?" he asked innocently, not having a clue what I was on about. I rephrased my question. "Le ciel est tres bleu et la soleil est tres chaud, n'est ce pas?" "Oui," he responded while attempting to swipe Jock's arse with his confounded stick.

Then we reached the end of the lane where I usually turn left into the pine forest. I saw him look back, suddenly aware that he was well out of bounds. "Allez!" I encouraged, neither wishing us to turn back so soon, nor wanting him to wander back on his own. "Suivez-moi."

As we sauntered down the forest track, enjoying the cool pine air, I pointed out the angled shafts of sunlight stabbing through the trees, with bugs dancing in the air like twinkling stars. "Voyez la soleil," I said, exploring the depths of my French vocabulary in order to make conversation about the wonders of nature. Then I noticed he'd stopped to pick up a fir cone, like it was the first one he'd seen. And I suddenly remembered that I was with a four-year-old kid, who lives in a seventh-floor flat, in a scruffy Paris suburb, whose mother works nights as a nurse and whose father grafts all-hours as a building site stonemason, who was seeing out the summer with his sister at their grandparents' in order to give mum and dad a well-deserved break before being re-united in mid-August. Of course he'd never seen a fir cone before! Probably never been in a forest before. All this nature stuff was new to him.

So, on our way back, I pointed to some blackberries that were just ripening and picked a big juicy one. I offered it to the city urchin. He seemed a little wary. So I ate it. Then he reached out to pick one for himself. "Non," I said as he grasped a red one. "Les grands noirs seulement," I advised. Thus a young back-street Parisienne was introduced to the joys of blackberrying. Sadly though, too late for the raspberry and wild-strawberry season. Maybe next year, Speccy.

We then ambled back down the dusty track to our sleepy village where my speccy little chum disappeared off for lunch on his squeaky little bike with a gap-toothed grin and a quick wave of a purple hand. And I don't think his grandparents, Alain and Colette, were unduly alarmed by his absence. There weren't any police awaiting our return either, even though I'm sure someone in the village would have seen wee Christophe walking off into the distance with a man. Nothing to worry about there. He's with l'ecossais. The one that stops Christian fighting when he's had a few. He's okay. He's one of us.

Aye, the hamlet will certainly be a much quieter place without the kids and swallows. And we'll soon be back to normal with young Hadrien being the only bairn in the village. It's a frightening thought.

Ah well, au revoir Speccy and all your noisy mates. Maybe see ya next summer.

Think of me when you're picking those berries.

Diamonds

(Nicked from old blog - Jan. '06)

Last night was one of those magical nights that only comes along once in a blue moon.

The dogs and I left the house at about 10.30 for our late evening stroll. Crisp and clear. Looked like a full moon. We headed round the back and up the lane towards the fields. So bright we had shadows.

Turning right into Christian's field, I let the dogs off their leads. As usual, they ran off, ecstatic to be free again in the open air. But, unusually, this time I could see them. Running and rolling on the frosty grass. Crunching with every leap and bound. Chasing like crazy. Then they'd run back. Jock impishly nipping my leg. Sprocket leaping at my arm. And off they'd go again.

At the top of the field I turned around to look at the view. I could see for miles. Distant hills dark blue against an ice blue night sky. Village lights dotted, orange against indigo. And above, a big clear sky with a huge white moon. Not many stars though. Too bright to see them. Just made out 'The Plough' standing on end. Twinkling, sparkling.

Along the ridge there's a short copse track. Leads through some trees to the next field. On the right there's thick blue frost. Shaded by the trees from the daylight sun. Moonlight reflected in icy leaves and grass. Sparkling. Like diamonds. So I stop and look in wonder. A slight movement of the head and the winter vista dances and sparkles. Lunar lights. Magic moon.

We circuit the field and double back along the same track. With the moon behind us, we follow our sharp shadows, back towards the diamonds. But they've gone. No, they're back again when I turn and face the moon. Sparkling crystals.

Stopping at the top field, I again take in the view. Amazing. Quiet. Calm. A vapour trail slowly moves east to west. Then we turn right and head downhill towards Didier's maize field, following our shadows. Behind me and Jock, in the bright distance, Sprocket stays back, silhouetted against the low silver sky, digging up a molehill. Then another. Jock runs off to inspect. But soon comes back, crunching over frosty leaves.

At the bottom of the field, there's a six foot drop down a bank to the lane. Normally, at night, I can't see a thing and just grope my way down. But now I can clearly see my two rock steps jutting from the bank, even though they're in shadow. Then right for twenty yards to pat the old stone cross by the gate of Didier's field. It's a habit. But tonight the cross is sparkling. Crystals of granite in moonlight. Like diamonds.

Then we about-turn and head for home, along the lane, with the moon, field and bank to our left and the valley to our right. There's a small distant hamlet across the valley with a barking dog and two orange lights against a range of cool blues. Ahead, the lane has shadows, like zebra stripes, cast from the row of trees above the bank. There's frost on the gravel. Crunching. The moon flashes as trees drift past. Then the lane opens. No more shadows. Just a silver blue track, crunching us home.

Cold blue turns to warm orange as we turn the bend and a sodium streetlight shows our way. But tonight we don't need it. Ahead, there's a blue church tower against a silver sky. And to the right is our house with its dilapidated roof. But tonight it's sparkling with moonlight and frost. Beneath a diamond sky.

Once in a blue moon.

Saturday night in Gioux

(Nicked from old blog - July '05)

Staring at reflection on laptop screen. Not a pretty sight. Blinding hangover. Throbbing head. Makes an Essex chav's well ICE'd-up booming Subaru seem like a two minutes' silence in a deserted graveyard on Remembrance Day.

What a night.

Started off harmlessly enough. A round of Ricards at Christian and Isabelles' with son Hadrien and neighbour Didier. Isabelle doesn't touch Ricard. Hates the stuff. Had a Coke instead. Sat on sunlit patio. Piled into battered Renault and headed west. Stopped on way for an old brown dog. Wandering in road. Hadrien rang number on collar. Then shoved mutt in boot. Detoured to grateful owner. Hit road again. Arrived at hilltop village. Bathed in evening sun. Not sure what to expect. Loadsa cars. And huntsmen. With hunting dogs. And horns.

Joined the crowd ambling into Gioux village. Dominated by newly renovated church. People playing petanque in its shadow. And beyond. Must be at least a dozen games going on. Cannonballs whizzing in all directions. Careful where you step. Could mean a smashed skull. "Ooh, pardonnez-moi. C'etait un accident. Je suis desole!" "Ah, pas de probleme..."

Crap French music blaring from tinny Tannoys above parked caravan decked out with bunting. Competes with hunting horns. Coupla drinks tents on village green. Maybe two hundred people. Recognise a few faces. The insurance man; chatted about my new third-hand Citroen. Joel Breuil the builder; told me to sign his estimate p.d.q. so building plans could be o.k.'d next month. And the pretty hairdresser; held my tum in despite her scalping me only last week.




Joined a queue for a drink behind the massive Christian. Given a large Ricard. No question. Then somebody else gave me another. And another. Staggered off for a look round the village. Clutching a plastic cup. More crap music from hidden Tannoys on sloping streets. Laughing kids running. Burly guys pissing behind the church. Can't bring myself to do it. Go behind hedge instead. Two sweaty men in hunting gear run past, dragging a sack of wet straw with a rope. Minutes later a pack of hunting dogs bark past at speed. Watch them lining up for supper on the village green. There's a huge pile of meat and bread. But a hunting boy with a whip keeps the dogs at bay. Tempers become frayed. Fangs flare. Growls and snarls above hunting horn fanfares. Two big dogs start fighting. Then others join in. Huntsmen rush in and drag them off by scruffs of necks. Bloodstains on hunting britches. A whistle signals a rush for food. A canine scrum. Dogs rush off in all directions with lumps of meat. One stops in my shadow, chewing a meaty bone. Blood dripping from a badly gashed cheek.

Then it's our turn. People slowly amble towards the meal marquee, lit by the orange embers of a setting sun. Hardy souls hold their positions at the drinks tents. Christian and I included. Ricard rounds continue. A dozen or more at a time. There's shouting, singing, backslapping. Christian's eventually dragged off to eat by starving Isabelle and Hadrien. But he stops at the other drinks tent on the way. More Ricards. More bonhomie. Half an hour later we're sat at a table chewing meat with wine. Then we're back outside again. There's a firework display. Topple over backwards as I watch a rocket whoosh up into the dark night sky. It explodes in a ball of silver stars. Flat on my back, I make a mental note to never drink another Ricard. Someone hands me another.

Suddenly there's a scuffle. Christian's grappling with some poor bloke while Isabelle attempts to pull her big man back. Must be some history there. I throw myself in to tear them apart. "Ah, anglais..." slurs my giant chum, eyes blurred by countless Ricards. "Arrete, Christian... s'il vous, er sorry, tu, plait." He smiles and it's over. Then we're back at the bar. And the other guy melts into the night. Later, there's another contretemps. Two young bucks are throwing punches and bottles in the disco tent (what disco tent?). So Christian wades in again, shouldering chaps out of the way. With me behind him trying to look tough, new skinhead crop to the fore. But the fracas ends when Christian's giant shadow darkens the disco floor. Trouble, what trouble? We turn around and head back to the bar. Then more drinking. Can't remember much else.

At around midnight (midnight?! I've since been told it was about 4am!), Isabelle rounds us up to drive us home. I'm dumped outside a strange house in the dead of night. "Where am I?" "Home!" The car's red lights disappear down the hill. I fumble in the dark trying to find a big old key. And an unfamiliar lock in a creaky old door. Eventually it opens and I grope for the light. Jock and Sprocket greet me with wagging tails and crossed legs. "What the hell time do you call this?"

We go outside and have a wee. Then bark at the moon.

Another Saturday night in rural France.

Buying a French house

(Nicked from old blog - Aug. '05)

In my experience there are four stages in moving to France. If you're considering such a move, you may find some of the following useful...

1) The 'Looking' stage - where one inspects an endless succession of tumbledown shacks, usually described by estate agents (many of whom don't speak English and, of course, you probably don't speak French - well, I don't; I have an old school report to prove it) as having 'enormous potential' (confirmation that it's a tumbledown shack) or 'glorious views' (confirmation that the place has a view, but not necessarily through a window as it may not have any - could be through a hole in the roof, or, more alarmingly, the hole that was the roof). On average, this stage lasts about a decade, during which time you'll probably see prices quadruple (at least) and where your initial budget may allow you to inspect various chateaux, you'll end up looking at rickety barns instead.



2) The 'This'll do' stage - the stage at which you plump to purchase the first house that comes along which vaguely suits your diminishing requirements. It's a purchase that's likely to be made more out of desperation rather than genuine desire. After all, by now, it's probably dawned on you just how much of your 'maison' budget has been spent on channel crossings, hotels, air fares, hire cars and French property mags and how little time you have left to be physically capable of doing things like renovating, or gardening (not the pottering around type, but the 'getting a ten-ton mechanical digger in and clearing the jungle' type). Fast running out of time and money, the lightning speed with which you arrive at this stage is often brought about by the discovery of an old shoebox in the attic, full of old French estate agent details of the houses you first looked at years ago, followed by the customary cry of "Giddy Nora! Look at the price of this one! Why the bloody hell didn't we buy it?" Which, in turn, is usually followed by the smug riposte "Because you said it didn't have a swimming pool (or helicopter landing strip, or two-car garage, or guest wing, or room to fit a snooker table, etc.). Here's a nice French shed we can just about afford, dear..."

3) The 'Phew!' stage - when you finally sit down with a baguette, cheese and a glass of wine outside your new French home. Mission accomplished! Unfortunately however, your glass of wine is likely to be the first of however many it takes to achieve total physical paralysis; a state which you will inevitably be seeking following the months of absolute hell that you've just endured in arranging your move from England, not to mention the sudden realisation that your whole 'new lifestyle' thing could be one enormously huge mistake. Worse still, it's a state from which you may never recover. Well, maybe momentarily before a hazy recollection of your recent trauma and foolishness results in further alcoholic oblivion. And when that memory's finally been obliterated, there's the doing up of the house to consider - a daunting prospect that immediately leads to further self-inflicted paralysis. Chances are, you'll be sat (sorry, lying) outside your gaff for months. Years, even. Totally numb. Maybe best stay in the UK and get comatosed there. And it's a whole lot cheaper, too.

4) The 'Doing-up' stage - this can last years or minutes, depending on a wide variety of factors, such as one's level of sobriety following Stage 3. Other factors include one's budget (if any), one's degree of imagination (if any), one's propensity for enduring all kinds of domestic hardships and inconveniences as long as the kettle works, the degree of earache one is prepared to endure from one's partner and, of course, one's own level of DIY competence, to name but a few. For someone such as I who thinks of home improvements in terms of occasionally doing the dishes or lighting the fire, DIY is a 'no-go' area. Well, to be honest, I've been there once or twice, but with disastrous results. For example, when we first moved in, I thought I'd fit a new loo seat; as one does. After much swearing and slinging of spanners and pliers around in a very confined space, the job was eventually completed. And, after her test run, my extremely lightweight partner, Georgie, gave a glowing report. However, when I tried it, being somewhat heavier (an understatement if ever there was one), the seat wobbled. Not much, but enough to cause slight concern. One slip could be fatal. The thought of spinning through 180 degrees and landing with my head down the pan, not to mention the sight that would confront anyone who leapt to my rescue, just doesn't bear thinking about. DIY!? Forget it. Get a man in instead.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Wood

Been getting through the two woodpiles at an alarming rate recently. The 'short woods' woodpile is in the shed and consists of logs that are one-third of a metre long that fit the little upstairs (telly watching) stove. The other pile is stacked against the outside wall of the shed and is made up of half-metre lengths that fit the big kitchen stove. Seems like only yesterday that Georgie and I stacked these two piles in the glorious sunshine of a September day. Amazing how time flies, even though it drags a bit in winter.

Managed to corner young Hadrien on Sunday afternoon and told him of my dwindling wood supply. Having little better to do, he suggested we connect up Christian's (his dad) trailer, grab a chainsaw and set off for Christian's massive woodpile up in nearby field. The woodpile there is made up of one-metre logs stacked in a row about thirty metres long and two metres high. Provides Christian with a bit of much-needed income. A 'cord' (about the size of four mini van fulls) of wood costs about 150 euros (140ish quid). Reckoned I needed a quarter of a 'cord' of 'thirds' and same again of 'halves', making (if my maths is correct) a total of half a cord.

Hadrien set to work cutting the first batch of logs in half while my task was to load them into the trailer. If you've never stood next to an 18-year-old in full cry with a massive chainsaw, my only advice is this: don't. The boy's a maniac. Gloves? No. Goggles? No. Headgear? No. Ear plugs? No. Common sense? None. Due care and attention? You're joking. Needless to say, I stood well clear until the flurry of activity was over. Only then did I slowly start to load the trailer, with, of course, the boy-devil's assistance. Being the wuss that I am, I made a point of wearing my wood-handling gloves. Told Hadrien he should do the same but he pooh-poohed the idea (the wearing of nancy-boy gloves is obviously frowned upon out here in redneck country). Interestingly, later that evening, Isabelle had a bit of a tough time removing a splinter from one of Hadrien's fingers so neighbour Colette was summoned with her scalpel and tweezer set. I observed the fifteen minute operation with due smugness, his screams just about covering the continued ringing in my ears from that confounded chainsaw.

Logs loaded, I slowly drove back to the house and spent about an hour unloading and stacking the half metre lengths stash. Then returned to the field where Hadrien had finished cutting the third of a metre lengths, miraculously without cutting himself off from one of his gangly limbs. Loaded up. Bit of a problem getting out of the field. Evening dew, wheelspin. So the juvenile brain donor had to push car plus trailer plus logs while I steered and shouted encouragement. Eventually we made it, thanks largely to my superb throttle control and excellent choice of line (Hadrien would, no doubt, claim otherwise). As we exited the field, with light rapidly fading, Isabelle turned up in her Audi, followed us back to my place and gave us a hand unloading. Almost pitch black by the time we finished.

As you may have noticed, Christian wasn't around. Out all day on another chasse (hunt). Still hadn't returned by 9pm (presumably drinking with lads so he's in the doghouse) when I left Isabelle's after enjoying an aperitif and being entertained by Hadrien's blood-curdling screams. Went back home and slung a few more logs on the fires. Sod's law - Monday dawned warm and sunny. Snow all gone. Maybe I won't be needing that new stash of wood after all. Hah! Some hopes! If I remember correctly, it snowed at Easter a couple of years ago. More than likely have to repeat Sunday's exercise in about eight weeks' time. Ooh, fun and games.

Georgie working hard on the woodpile while I look on last September...



Shrinking woodpile, snowy apple tree, Sunday's pink dawn...




(Still can't figure out how to load pics in horizontal rows.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Coloured snow

With all this snow the landscape's been bereft of colour for quite some time. So I've been fiddling with a few photos in this here computery system thingy and hey presto - colour! 'Course, it's all a bit late now because the snow's started melting (I have a very wet loo and shower room floor to prove it - must be something to do with the higher ground level at the side of the house ever since the council workers installed our new external water supply piping) and the colour's gradually returning. Well, a bit. Anyway..., snow. In glorious colour... (Am trying to figure out how to load photos in horizontal rows instead of a single vertical one. This new site takes a bit of getting used to.)







Monday, January 11, 2010

Redneck country

So there I was, Saturday night, just about to get stuck into a freshly cooked spag Bol that I'd spent an hour preparing, when the phone rang. Hadrien. Eighteen year old son of neighbours Christian and Isabelle.
"Come round immediately for aperitifs. Christian's brothers are here."
"But I've just cooked a spaghetti Bolognese."
"Eat it tomorrow. Come on round toot sweet."

Buggerie bolleaux. By this time I'd already had my daily medicinal dose of two large scotch and drys which was quite enough for one evening. And now I faced the prospect of a quite a few more. Plus liberal doses of wine with a meal that I'd no doubt be invited to stay for. Dammit. Didn't want to go but that's not the way it works round here. If you're summoned, you go. And that's it.

Took spag Bol off the hot plate, put a fresh log in each of the stoves, swapped slippers for stout shoes, donned fleece and top coat, stuck bobble hat on head and set off into the cold, snowy night. Arrived at neighbour's. Warmly welcomed. Joined the gang in front of the telly. Large scotch and dry immediately shoved in my hand. On screen, one of Christian's DVD Christmas presents was being viewed. Small herds of wild boar and deer darted every which way, chased by gun-toting hunters and killer hounds. Close-up of a woman aiming a rifle. Bang. One dead deer. Nods of approval from Christian and the lads. Leafy twig placed in deer's mouth. Another swabbed over its teeth and then placed in rifle-woman's pocket. Presumably some kind of hunting tradition. Maybe her first kill. Scene cut to wild boar chase. I cut to the kitchen to have a smoke and a quick watch of the news and weather - there's a little telly on top of the fridge.

Hunting's big in France. Especially round here. There's a 'chasse' on most week-ends during the hunting season. Step outside the front door on a Saturday or Sunday and you can normally hear a distant horn, or pack of barking dogs, or the crack of a rifle. For week-end dogwalks, I tend not to venture far. And always away from the action. Sprocket could easily be mistaken for a sanglier (wild boar) from a distance. Especially by a short-sighted hunter who's had a few too many Ricards at lunchtime. Or a pack of eagle-eyed hunting dogs lusting after blood. Jock recently almost got ripped apart by a couple of hunting dogs that were off their leads by a parked car up by the old granite cross. Wasn't even a hunt on. Just an inattentive owner. An off-duty cop. Those dogs are killers. According to Christian, a good young 'un with a top bloodline costs about three grand. That's how highly they're prized. And how highly they rate hunting.

As a typical animal-loving Brit, I dislike hunting. It's how I was brought up. The sight of a toffee-nosed bunch of upper class prats in red jackets sipping glasses of mulled wine aboard horses then charging off shouting "tally ho!" as they chase defenceless foxes to be inhumanely ripped apart by dozens of terriers, frankly, sickens me. However, I don't have a problem with farmers shooting foxes that endanger sheep or chickens. There is a difference. One's a bit of a lark, the other isn't.

Out here, hunting's necessary. Wild boar and deer can ruin crops. So they're shot. Yes, there's a certain amount of tradition involved in the hunt but it's not the same 'upper class' activity that exists back in Blighty. Anyone can join in. In a way, hunting is the 'glue' that holds local communities together. Although I've been invited a few times to go on a hunt, I've always politely declined. However, I have visited a few of the local hunt 'shows'. Basically, they're excuses for mega piss-ups and nosh-ups, usually ending with a disco and a punch-up. And if there is a punch-up, Christian's often at the centre of it. Ooh, he's a lad. A big lad too. Get a few Ricards in him at one of these do's and stand well clear. At my first introduction to the local hunt 'do' at nearby Gioux (I'm a poet, don'cha know it) he took a swing at the local farmer/mayor. Isabelle had a bit of a problem separating them so I rugby tackled Christian and floored him. Wouldn't have done it had I been sober. Farmer ran off. Discovered afterwards that there was a bit of a tribal feud over land. Christian's from the next village so he's a 'foreigner'. Rubbish, but that's the way things are round here in redneck country.

Visit any local house and you'll find mounted boar and deer heads hanging on walls. And framed photos of hunting teams and 'kills' on mantlepeices. And, quite often, hunting dogs in kennels out back. Christian has three. Did have four but 'Wendy' recently died. Actually, she wasn't a hunting dog but a big, black, soppy thing that, unlike the hunters, was allowed to live indoors. She liked her home comforts and was the matriarch of the hamlet. She ruled. Used to invite herself in and help herself to whatever leftovers were left in Jock and Sprockets' bowls. Quite worried me 'cos I thought Jock'n'Sprock would rip her to bits. Instead they attempted to mount her (waste of time - she being so tall) but were swiftly put in their place with a matronly growl. Neighbour Alain has hunters too. Or did have. He now just has one, the others died of old age. The elderly hunter that remains lives in a rickety old kennel to the left of our front garden in the shadow of the church wall. Poor thing's blind. Tough as old boots though. Has to be to survive these winters. I nip out and give him odd bits of grub when it's really bad. He recognises me now. Eats anything - chicken bones included. Wolfs 'em down. Although he's blind, he has incredible hearing. He can even hear the front door opening. And he always cocks an ear to Jock and Sprocket barking. The weird thing is that at seven bells every evening, he starts howling. Regular as clockwork. Not six bells or eight, just seven.





Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, round at Isabelle's. So, had a couple of large scotches then sat down to supper with the gang. Saturday night so gallons of wine with meal. Eventually staggered off back home in a blizzard just before midnight. Walked dogs up the granite cross in a vain attempt to sober up. Woke up Sunday morning with hangover. Let out dogs, stoked stoves (had to re-light kitchen one), wheelbarrowed more logs indoors from woodpile (snow in slippers), got dogs back in and went back to bed. Got up well after mid-day. Georgie rang and asked about my hangover. Asked how she knew. Said I'd rung last night (news to me). Told her about Christian and brothers watching hunting DVDs. She imagined them sitting round the telly, a'whoopin' and hollerin', and thought it was funny. Said I should write a blog about it. Which is what I've just done.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Chilly





Bitterly cold. Snowed all night. Still snowing now. Must be about a foot and a half deep. Or 45.7 cms in modern lingo. Stepped outside at sparrow's fart ce matin in dressing gown and slippers to let the dogs out for their morning constitutional. Clipped Sprocket onto his apple tree rope while Jock ploughed on somewhere round the back. Couple of minutes later heard a scratch on the door. Let the blighters back in and they headed straight for the kitchen stove. Spotted a couple of their calling cards in the snow. Nipped out with shovel and plastic bag. Hopped back indoors with snowy feet. Made cuppa. Broke up some stale bread and stuck it on the window sill. Birds appeared from nowhere. Robins first, then sparrows and finches. Blackbirds birds hung back in the apple tree, too timid to fly to the window. A few magpies and rooks lined up at the bottom of the garden. Broke up some more bread and slung it outside the front door. Might save a few lives. Dunno how they survive these winters.

Must admit that these chilly winters came as a bit of a shock in my first year here. The only heating was a tiny little fire in the rusty old kitchen oven. Fire compartment was about the size of a very small shoebox. Had to cut up damp logs with a blunt axe. Any heat generated was immediately lost to icy draughts blowing through broken windows and the gap under the front door. Looking back, I'm amazed I didn't pack up and return to Blighty. However, I do remember my determination to escape a country that I'd completely lost respect for played a major part in my decision to fart in the face of adversity, grit teeth and soldier on. I regarded it all as a test of my conviction.

Little did I realise it at the time but so too did most of my neighbours. Being a hardy breed of rednecks, they regard outsiders with suspicion. Especially 'les anglais'. For good reason. Their arrival usually signals an unwelcome rise in property prices so local youngsters can't afford to buy. What's more, most 'anglais' just visit for summer, without getting involved with the local community. Then they bugger off back home in winter. This, of course, can lead to winter ghost towns where shops shut down, sometimes never to open again. The arrival of 'les anglais' can be the beginning of the end. So, little wonder we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms when we first arrived. However, having passed that first winter test of conviction, I've been accepted by the hamlet community as one of their own. And so too, of course, has Georgie. For my/our second winter, local neighbours Christian and Isabelle got us properly prepared by lining us up with a couple of good, second-hand, wood-burning stoves and a plentiful supply of wood. Been fine ever since. Even the local farmer/mayor, who was noticeably chilly when we first arrived, now stops for a handshake and quick chat when we bump into him on dogwalks or shopping trips.

Talking of dogwalks, better give the mutts a run. Trouble is, that snow's even deeper now. Not sure Jock's up to it. Short legs y'know. Still, it has to be done. Then get some more wood in, feed the dogs, stoke up the stoves, watch the footy results (damn, there aren't any - matches snowed off), pour large scotch and prepare a Saturday night spag Bol. And I'd better feed those birds again. Ooh, it's all go.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sound advice

If it's too small to read, click on image to enlarge.

Currying favour with the neighbours

Cheating slightly here. Nicked a recent posting from my old blog. 'Cos it makes me laugh. Apologies if you've read it before. I've added a bit since though...

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I've only had three or four cookery lessons in my entire life. The first was at scout camp when 'Skip' the scoutmaster taught us how to prepare 'twists'. These were lengths of flour and water doughsticks which we twisted around any old twigs that happened to be laying around and then dangled over the camp fire until they vaguely resembled bread. Needless to say, none of our efforts ended up bread-like. Or even remotely edible. Most of them either caught fire and were added to the burning cinders while the rest just turned black on the outside while stubbornly remaining soft and runny on the inside, eventually joining the others in the flames.

The second was when Mum attempted to teach me how to cook bacon. Being Scottish, she had this weird idea that a perfect bacon slice had to be fried until it shrunk to about half its original size, thereby taking on the consistency of granite and exploding into a hundred little pieces when pierced with a fork. Same with sausages. Her other cookery lesson, given just before I was sent off to college, was an instruction on how to open a tin. What I was supposed to do with the contents remained a mystery for years.

Next, a college chum wrote specific instructions on how to roast a chicken leg and boil some spuds. The following day he asked how I'd done. I told him the spuds were fine but the chicken leg hadn't entirely turned out as anticipated due to the cellophane wrapping and expanded polystyrene base melting into the chicken skin whilst in the oven. However, once I'd ripped off the outer mess, the inner meat had turned out surprisingly well, so it hadn't been a wasted exercise despite his slapping of forehead in disbelief.

Another time, Georgie gave me a practical demonstration of how to make a stew. Unfortunately my powers of concentration aren't what they used to be (oh yes they are: zero) and it all sounded so complicated that I have little recollection of what she said or did. But I do remember something about cutting the meat into cubes, rolling them in flour and then quickly frying in a pan to seal in the flavour before starting. Everything else was just a blur.

Armed with such a limited amount of cookery know-how, it's a miracle I've managed to feed myself over recent years. Out of desperation, I've frequently attempted to pick up cookery hints from neighbour Isabelle but, alas, without success - probably due to a combination of not understanding French and a lack of concentration during speedy demonstrations because of Christian's enthusiasm with alcoholic beverages.

Anyway..., being that time of year when a darned good stew goes down a treat, I recently attempted one of Georgie's afforementioned specials. Bought pork chunks, spuds, onions, leeks, garlic (not on Georgie's menu but definitely on mine), sprouts and carrots but completely forgot Oxo cubes (or French equivalent) and then got stuck in. Chopped big meat chunks into more manageable sizes (scissored fatty bits off for dogs), rolled in flour and quickly fried in pan. Then poured large scotch. Chopped spuds, carrots, onions, garlic and leeks into slices (being a proper bloke I couldn't be arsed with peeling the spuds or carrots) and put into two pots with water (had far too much for just one pot despite not including sprouts) which I placed on stove and then added meat chunks.

After repairing fingers with Elastoplast, I poured another scotch while pots bubbled. Stirred occasionally. Watched a bit of telly. Eventually the stuff was ready. Then had phone call from Isabelle. Come round to supper immediately. But I've just cooked a stew - tell you what, I'll bring a pot down and you can see just what a master chef I've become. Staggered down there with a potful. Isabelle took one look and described it as "soupe". No it isn't madame, this is proper Scottish broth. Long story but Christian said it tasted absolutely marvellous and had a second helping, Hadrien took one look and gave it a miss while Isabelle politely declined and stuck to noshing her own stuff.

So..., that was my first attempt at cooking for my neighbours. I then suggested doing them one of my chicken curry specials next. But they didn't seem too keen (the French aren't into curries... yet.)

A few days later Isabelle rang and invited me round to supper again. Quite by chance I happened to be knocking up a chicken curry with red and green peppers. Told her I'd bring it down so they could give it a try - a suggestion that was met with little, if any, enthusiasm. We kicked off with a pate starter, followed by pressure-cooked lamb slices cut off the bone with mayonnaise, and then Isabelle politely served my curry. I obviously had some and Christian decided to risk possible death by having some too, but Isabelle and Hadrien didn't. Then, surprise, surprise, Christian announced it was splendid and scoffed another helping. So Isabelle and Hadrien tentatively tried a bit each, despite concerns about suffering instant rear-end squirts, and they both said it was delicious. Thumbs up all round.

So there you go. Curry comes to the French outback. Might try 'em with one of my special spag Bols next. Might even open a restaurant. Yup, I've sure come a long way since that burnt 'twist' at scout camp.



Sunrise, sunset, snow

Rubbish weather. Grey and misty with snow. And freezing cold. Saw the sun yesterday for the first time in what seemed like ages. It rose pink above the church, drew a low arc across the southern sky during the short day, occasionally hiding behind passing clouds, then set beyond the south-western hills during the afternoon dogwalk. Hasn't reappeared today though. We're back to grey. And it's still freezing cold. Roll on spring and summer.





A few paintings

Dabbled in painting as a pre-Dip student at Folkestone Art School back in '64. Gouache paintings, not oils (couldn't afford 'em). Then gave it up and went off to study graphic design (big mistake) at Bath, Canterbury and the RCA. Didn't pick up a paintbrush again until last year when I tried my hand at painting in oils (still can't afford 'em). Although my efforts are rubbish, I rather enjoy it. Think I'm slowly getting the hang of this oil painting lark but I could be wrong. Have loaded up pics (earliest first and most recent last) just to see if any progress has been made. Hmm, obviously not much! Blossom pic (halfway down list) isn't finished 'cos the blossom disappeared before the work was completed. Hope to finish it this spring. And the last painting isn't finished either. Not happy with the foreground shadows (too heavy) so am working on it indoors from memory and a photo. This is the only time I've not worked from 'real life', or whatever it's called. Much prefer working in the great outdoors. But it's a bit too chilly at the moment.