Monthly Archive for August, 2010

Being deaf

I discussed a chunk of tree trunk with a clansman this morning. Poplar, I believe, and he was in the process of sanding it down before staining and aging to utilise as an antique chimney lintel in a new house he is building a village or two away. He was involved in doing up this one ten years ago & his work upstairs is being dismantled and remodelled. I think he aims for the French market which I’ve only really seen when I was looking at houses before I bought this. They seemed to vary between bland and shudder.

My lack of language skill may equate to being rather deaf. I get the gist of what’s being said but the subtleties often pass me by and I have to interpret body language. And that’s a broad brush.. And when I reply I tend to become hung up on whether I’ve just said sera or serait and which is right in the first place.

The builder is doing great things and is coming up with interesting variations and suggestions. We sit on the terrace at lunchtime, look at the view and discuss the absurdities of the world. He is very laid back, to the extent of unthinkingly describing himself as English today, even though he was born and brought up in Dublin and announces it whenever he opens his mouth. He finds the concept of nationality bizarre and irrelevant and it proved difficult to argue.


I have a working shower upstairs. In such mundane steps does life improve. I shall no longer have to scuttle across the living room and up the stairs, starkers, in the morning to avoid the infinitesimal chance that someone could have their nose pressed against the window which I leave with its shutters open to encourage light. Since this house is intrinsically dark, introducing light has become a mild obsession. It is better since I’ve painted lots of sombre wooden beams and ceilings white & I still intend to put in a light tube above the landing which should make quite a difference.

I’ve discovered that a drawback of hiring a builder is that you can always think of something else worth doing. Now I’m considering plastering the unsatisfactory and very French cream rendering which has been used on the ground floor. It has the texture of sandpaper. Brush against it as you walk past and it deposits itself on your person and you leave half your skin behind.

The blackberries are in full production which makes the dog’s lunchtime walk slow progress. They’re larger than back in Scotland and nobody seems interested in them bar me. Or in the damsons, pears, peaches, figs and other things interesting but unidentifiable in every hedgerow. It makes 5-a-day very easy to achieve. The best walk passes three sets of penned farm dogs within a couple of hundred yards whose only interest in life is waiting for a pedestrian and then going ape. I should think it’s a very rare day that they have a chance to bellow at anyone other than me. The fluffy dog has learned to ignore them but he still lowers his tail and looks unsettled as we go by. Today we managed to pass two sets without alerting them but the third picked us up and triggered off the others. All were waiting for us on the return trip and made up for their earlier lapse of concentration.


Today’s beautiful word is libellule which means a dragonfly. It comes from the Latin libella which means flat since the insect sits with its wings thus. It seemed one of those words parachuted into the language from nowhere, so I checked it out. While I was at it, I checked out robinet, a tap, which has worried me for years. ‘Diminutive form of robin ‘sheep’ (because early taps were often in the shape of a sheep’s-head). So now you know.

I shall bring back from Scotland the late 18th century portrait of an ancestor which I came across and bought 15 years ago. I asked an art dealer friend in Edinburgh to flog it but he has failed. He says ‘It’s a very good painting, but the sitter looks as if he’s just found a turd on his dining room table.’ I’ll hang him here and spend a couple of years trying to make him laugh.

I’ll also pack a kilt since the Clan Gathering is in a couple of weeks. Normally I don’t bother with such flummery but, having lived in shorts & crocs for the last couple of months, I have brown knees and the chance to show them off is too good to miss. In Victorian times such a hue carried status, proving that the wearer was an authentic Highlander who obviously wore a kilt every day.


I find the best way to make new words stick in my brain is through some form of association. For instance a sparrow hawk is un épervier and I remembered it by the ‘perv’ in the middle and imagined the hawk as a kinky kind of bird. A lovely word for kestrel is une crécerelle. I was nearly down to imagining the bird collecting chanterelle mushrooms, but it became much sticker in my wits when I replaced its head with Ronnie Kray’s. You can’t do this for the words of an entire language but I am hopeful that the association can be dropped once the word is properly embedded.

I managed a couple of hours off road with the dog this morning by the Garonne. It’s purpose-pathed for pottering and yet only one ‘Bonjour’ was required for a single jogger. Chasing red squirrels was the dog’s main interest. They seemed very dark in colour. They change to a darker winter coat in the autumn, but August is surely a little early. Oh, of course. It means it’ll be a hard winter. ‘When le squirrel is dark, winter will bark.’

One of the real surprises of France – this region anyway – is how few people there seem to be. This morning I could have expected to encounter 50 on a similar promenade in the UK. Coming back I met a flock of turkeys wandering on the road. I stopped the car, rousted out the old dear who owned them and we spent ten minutes chasing them back home. Even though we were within 50 yards of a junction of the D3, one of the main-ish drags in the Department, not a car came past on it.


This a pic of the bloke, Alexander Robertson of Struan, I’m writing up at the moment and it’s beginning to take shape. Since I’m a Robertson myself, he’s probably my 8th cousin 12 times removed but I don’t feel any kinship with him. He was too odd.

Just up the road from here is Cahors. In 1716 it was the home of Alexander’s nephew and heir Robert. He was 19 and had participated in the Rising of 1715 when supporters of the exiled Stuart kings tried to oust the Hanoverians. They failed and Robert fled into exile with his uncle. He had no money, probably spoke no French, shared lodgings with his friend Lachlan MacLean, was bored witless and had nothing more useful to do than drink. Leaving his lodgings one evening he ‘jostled’ Lachlan. Quarrelling, they ‘went out into the fields’, had a duel and Robert was killed. He was buried on the spot. His uncle wrote a poetic epitaph of him, which includes

‘Sweet lovely shade repose in peace,   Tho’ laid in this unhallowed place;    Thy spotless dust, wherever found,   Makes holy the profanest ground.’

Some day I’ll go up there to see if there’s any record of the duel and his burying place. It’ll probably be under a car park by now.

Today’s a good 13 degrees cooler than yesterday, only 27 and windy; two new bathrooms are connected up and things should start being re-instated next week. I’m off to the UK for a fortnight at the end of next week, but the builder will linger and water plants.


It’s been the hottest day of the summer so far, above 40 degrees with a stiff breeze blowing. I went to collect a new shower in the afternoon & for my French lesson etc. in the morning. On the way to the supermarket I managed a circuit of the lake early enough to beat the real heat and discussed carp with an elderly man who was proudly watching his grandson haul a fish of some 15lbs out of the lake. It didn’t look much more exciting than pulling out a log.

With all the doors and windows shut it remains 25 indoors, but venture out and it’s like having your face within a few inches of a blow heater. The soil becomes deep-heated in such circumstances and the first part of a plant to suffer is its flowers. I’ve just watered but many blossoms have withered and dropped off during the day. I’ve only once before come across similar conditions and that was at Wadi Halfa in the Sudan where there wasn’t a cool indoors to which you could escape.

A clan member came to call and inspect the building work which continues its satisfactory progression. His phone rang while he was here and he explained he was ‘chez l’Anglais’. ‘Ecossais, you clown,’ I spat at him. ‘Oh, pardon, chez l’Ecossais.’ Whilst on a beach holiday in Brittany very many years ago I was approached by a small French person who gabbled something in foreign and I explained I couldn’t understand because I was Anglais. When I told of this incident to the rest of the family, they were mortified. How could I possibly think of myself as English? As a result I can’t and bridle when the error is made.

Number plates

Car number plates here show the department from which the vehicle originates. Here it’s 82; our upmarket neighbours in the Gers are 32. From last year the rules changed and it is now possible to add the department number of one’s choice. Driving  a Paris-registered car – 75 – in the boondocks is said to be an invitation to have one’s tyres slashed, so Parisians tend to choose something else. The best is either 2A (Corse-du-Sud) or 2B (Haute-Corse). This implies that the car owner is a very hard man indeed and anyone who interferes with the vehicle is likely to face retribution at the hands of the Corsican mafia.

The dog chases lizards on the terrace. They make a dive for the Virginia creeper which has crawled a foot out from the railing. Once they are there, they are safe since he has learned the wisdom of not thrusting his muzzle into such cover for fear of being bitten or stung by something invisible. Instead he dabs ineffectually with his paw at the spot the creature disappeared and then follows them carefully as they rustle through the leaves. He has yet to catch one.

Hole in the Ground

In the centre of a French village in which I stayed for a week or two some 20 years ago was a cross between a flagpole and a telegraph pole stuck in the midst of the green. It had a hand-painted sign as a crossbar near the top. ‘Honneur à nos éluis.’ A fair translation seemed to be ‘Honour our elected representatives.’ Can you imagine such an exhortation being on display in Britain?

I went down this morning to discuss the newly-dug hole on the other side of my hedge with the maire. He is monitoring the situation closely but he cannot do anything if someone merely digs himself a hole on private property. He was interested in the hours that the JCB worked over the weekend, perhaps hoping to nail the naughty grandson on grounds of noise nuisance. He thought the hole might be intended as an inspection pit. But, unless any building restarts, the tanks can’t roll in. I shook hands with both the maire and his secretary on arriving, and managed to call him ‘Monsieur le Maire‘ twice – showing such respect is said to be most important.

As soon as I left the mairie I was nobbled by a senior clansman. ‘What did he say?’ ‘That he had no power to do anything at the moment, but watch this space…’ The clansman is sure the building work will recommence. The hole and its associated trench must be for foundations.

I wondered what I would do faced with a similar situation in the UK. Phone up the Council, I suppose, and hope I got on to the right department, hope that whoever answered the call bothered to take down the details properly and pass it on to the right person or send me back the appropriate form to fill in. A couple of weeks and a further couple of badgering calls, later an answer might have been forthcoming. The process here took 10 minutes.


Oh dear! The large and inexplicable hole in the ground dug by a JCB next door over the weekend by the sorcerer’s grandchild is an unapproved naughty. The clan have already complained to the maire about it since the entire site is supposed to be returned to the scrubby field that it was before he decided to develop it. I am supposed to go down tomorrow morning to add my voice to the chorus. It’ll be interesting to see how local officialdom copes with one anarchic soul who ignores its demands. As I wandered past with the dog this afternoon, I noticed that the sorcerer’s family have the largest and shiniest black marble tomb in the burial ground next to the church. The clan don’t have one at all.

A few years ago when I checked, I don’t think there was a single adult living round the 9 mile-long Loch Rannoch who was actually born there. All were incomers. Here it’s not like that. Most of those here were born here and their parents before them. Although only about 40 miles away, Toulouse is dragon country and substantial numbers of the locals have never ventured that far, let alone to Paris. I heard of one old boy who responded with bafflement when asked the location of a village less than a dozen miles from his own. In the UK people seem to keep one eye on what’s going on in the capital and quite often go there. Not here. Nationwide networking may go on amongst the moneyed aristocracy but everyone else seems to have a very local view of life. Even the owner of the chateau will be just another of les gens du coin – the boys in the hood.


I handed over my wine-soaked pooter to a geek this morning. It’s been barely satisfactory as a back-up machine since it sometimes endlessly repeats a random letter until I hit it or give it a severe dressing down. The geek reckons he can replace the keyboard with one bought on ebay and the machine will be as good as new.

This afternoon I sat on the terrace and read a highly recommended book ‘Suite Francaise’ by Irene Nemirovsky. I  share the terrace with innumerable insects but they leave me alone, as do I them. At one point I looked directly upwards to find the source of a particularly loud buzz and the 20-or-so feet above me was like an aerial spaghetti junction, criss-crossed by flying things.

There’s a particular wasp that fossicks all over the place here. Sometimes it sits and basks in the sun, not wasp behaviour that I’ve seen. It is much the same to look at as an ordinary wasp except that it has long yellow back legs which it lowers to use as stablisers when it slows down. I suspect it’s polistes gallicus, as illustrated. One of these creatures was on the terrace railing a yard from my nose doing nothing more than grooming a foreleg. A small hover fly approached it. I believe wasps eat such things, so it may have been a young and very stupid fly. Or perhaps the flies that realise wasps eat them are the ones that are eaten by wasps, so never have a chance to pass on the bad news to their offspring. The fly came within six inches of the wasp’s head. It stopped what it was doing and stared back. The fly drifted to within three inches of the head of the motionless wasp. Without moving its legs, the wasp gave a tiny jerk forward, the fly skittered away and the wasp got back to nibbling its toe.