Monthly Archive for October, 2011

Begging a crust

I feel a bit like PG Wodehouse in 1940. The economies of Europe crash and burn; the latest bailout, some €4000 for each inhabitant of the Eurozone, has begun to fall apart already. The only solution for excess debt seems to be more debt and hyperinflation will be the only way to get rid of it. The politicians squabble about how much and how fast to cut, but without growth it’s a debate that’s irrelevant. France has got away quite lightly so far but not for very much longer. Here in the sticks, La France profonde, many wages depend on the state and there are plenty of folk skipping around who retired at 60 and receive a state pension of about 50% of average earnings rather than the UK’s 30% or less. But the shit is about to start hitting the fan. However the sun still shines. Tomorrow is All Saints Day, one of the innumerable public holidays, and this community seems almost immune to the troubles. Costs rise, of course, but I have Scots thrift – meanness – bred into my bones and I will likely be one of the last to start roaming the countryside begging a crust. And drinkable wine remains a couple of euros a bottle.


I was invited out to lunch today. We were able to be outside in the sunshine for a drink before sitting down to eat. Is it still lunch when one makes one’s exit at 8pm? And I was the first of the company to leave, mainly because the dog was hassling me for his supper.
Does one wait until all the leaves have fallen before clearing them up? It seems a poor use of time and effort to collect the dead from the Virginia creeper when the mulberry has still a full head of green. I shall spend a day in a few weeks perched on top of the tree turning it back into a neatly pollarded thing for the winter. It is astounding how many 2 inch-thick branches it sprouts over the summer but I have invested in a ladder since last year and have sharpened my loppers sufficiently to allow me to shave with them, so all I will need is a large truck to remove the debris. The recent rain which doesn’t amount to very much has softened the lawn sufficiently to uproot the odd dandelion which survived my last blitz in the spring.


I had a friend, an apprentice Catholic priest, who lived alone. I went round to see him at noon and was entranced to find him cooking his lunch – calves’ brains in brandy and cream. My life runs differently. After a modicum of wine, it seemed time to consider my supper. I found a tin of out-of-date baked beans. That, stirred with an egg, chopped bacon and pepper was quite delicious after 4 mins in the microwave. And the washing up was a fork.
Early in the day I went to another sale of the kit of an expat who is moving back to the UK. I bought a large can of nasty chemical to spray on my roof beams to destroy woodworm which is a job for this winter sometime and a torch. This says it throws out 1m candlepower but it’s a suspiciously round number and I have my doubts. I always come away from such places feeling inadequate. Everyone else seems to have vast quantities of shiny tools, most of which throb, buzz or hum when buttons are pressed or cords pulled. I do most things with my Swiss army knife.


I hosted the weekly dog walk a couple of days ago. A perfect blue day, a bit below 20 degrees, the conditions couldn’t have been more clement. There’s only one decent walk that leaves from her – down to the field a kilometre below the village, along the headland and then a weave through the lanes back. There were nigh on 20 walkers and half that number of dogs and they tend to intimidate the very occasional car that passes rather than the other way round. Some are better disciplined than others – animals, that is. This house does not have 20 coffee cups but some chose beer or wine. I had passed word in the village that a clutch of expats would be promenading locally. The natives find the idea of walking a dog mad enough, let alone doing it en masse and I didn’t want an invasion of pompiers bearing straitjackets.


I have sawn the eagle off its 2 foot-high plinth and it now sits on top of a bookcase, looking hungrily down at a stuffed red-legged partridge which was sharing its box. I also have a teal but this may be temporary since I have received a heavy hint from a friend that it would make an excellent present come Christmas. Talking to the eagle’s vendor I heard, not for the first time, that doing up houses here does not add much value to them. In the UK one hopes – or hoped – to make a profit on improvements once one came to sell. Here this does not seem to be so. The French tend to look purely at floor area and base their offers upon that and these days incoming Brits are uncommon although the Dutch and Belgians still turn up. I’ve been here now for 18 months and I cannot think of anyone who has come to live in this area from the UK since. Most arrived when the Euro was at 1.40 to the £ or more. If such people can sell, they can make a tidy profit because of currency fluctuations – if they can avoid French CGT – but property is not such a bargain to British buyers at €1.13 to the £.


An expat house down the road is changing hands, sold by Brits and bought by Belgians as a holiday house. Some of the contents are of no interest to the new owners and are being sold, so I wandered down for a look. The vendors came from a hotel in the Highlands, and there was a certain familiar feel to some of the kit. Stags stared at distant mountains; grouse skimmed across heather. On one wall was the stuffed head of a stag, shot on Arran in 1923. And a mangy stuffed golden eagle. For this I have left a bid.
A couple of years ago, I met a clan chief in his full fig. Such God-like beings are entitled to wear three eagle feathers in their bonnets whereas a mere Highland gentleman may only sport one. This chief’s feathers weren’t eagle and I asked him why. He blushed with shame. On his way to strut his stuff at a US Highland games, his feathers were confiscated by customs on the grounds that they had been torn from the arse of a protected species. And new ones are very hard to come by these days. He had replaced them with turkey feathers. So if the manky bird for which I have bid ends up with me and crumbles into a pile of bones, kapok and plumage under the assault of time and nasty little bugs, it has a default use. I shall rescue the fancy feathers and present them round members of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs.


I took the dog to do its duty round the village this afternoon. Although a stiff autan wind was blowing, there’s still a bite to the sun. The leaves on the old plane trees at the bottom of the village have turned although most are still green. They’ve already pollarded the mulberries. I inspected my neighbour’s new shed, sprouted from ground to virtual completion in a couple of weeks, which should house a dozen or more cars from his growing collection. He’s the man in charge of the neighbourhood contracts on heating oil, chimney sweeps and boiler servicing. I discovered the latter, my main interest at the moment is scheduled, to take place in a fortnight and I shouldn’t have any problems beforehand. My French is now on the cusp of being good enough to indulge in manly badinage so, along with his shed-building expert, we did a bit of that.


I have been told I have inherited a long-case clock, which is very nice since it’s a good clock, the best part of 300 years old. It’s been around. It began life in London, spent a couple of centuries in Ireland before emigrating to Africa and its next resting place should be France. However there are a couple of snags. Firstly it is tall. There are only a couple of places in this house where it will fit and in one of those it must lose the dome at the top of its hood. It has been suggested that I excavate the floor by a couple of inches to make room but this seems a bit extreme. The second snag is that it’s still in Nairobi. At least I think so. I have been spectator to some 30 emails flashing across that city between various packing and shipping organisations and the trustee in charge. It’s a brain-achingly expensive business to send it. I did a bit of online fossicking and discovered it was worthwhile, but not by much. It looks as though it may come by air but there has been a delay since Kenya had run out of plywood with which to build the coffin in which it will be travel. A couple of weeks ago I heard that some had been found and that it was ready for dispatch. Since then there has been silence. It may turn up on my doorstep tomorrow, it may be tossing about on the briny, or it may still be in Africa. When it comes, it comes. And if it doesn’t…it all seemed a bit mythical anyway and I won’t have to adjust to its tinging and ticking.


I did the Garonne walk again – not much of interest but increasing numbers of coots – but for the first time for months I wore socks and shoes rather than crocs. Winter is icumen in. For me, the difference about winter here and in Scotland is that I don’t have that vague feeling of depression brought on by the knowledge that it will be dark, cold, uncomfortable and grotty driving for the next four of five months. Here can be dank, misty and cold but it is a temporary phenomenon. The default weather, like today, is a blue sky even if the thermometer may struggle to hit 20 after a chilly start.
But socks are a pain. All mine are M&S long, mostly black, a few blue or grey and all of them covered in bobbles. They form an irritating addition to the drying line after a wash. The shoes were a surprising pleasure to wear since they don’t pick up pebbles and other detritus that require emptying every few hundred yards. But I did pour a liqueur glassful of sand out of my shoes after clambering up the great dune the other day. It was almost as fine as flour which explains how the wind could whip it into such an enormous heap.


Frost has been on the ground early in the morning the past few days. This marks the season when, every so often, I go and peer at the controls of the CH and hot water system which squats in a dark cave in the centre of the house. They employ something called fuzzy logic which is said to make them idiot proof. Alas! This is not true. The system is German, the instructions are in technician’s French and there is no English translation on the web. I have had my neighbours look at the thing and a British expert on industrial boiler controls but none have been able to tell me quite how to do what I want it to do. At the moment it operates on manual. It runs the hot water by itself and I do the room heating by fiddling about with the radiator valves. I tried again yesterday to make it do this automatically but, after I pressed a few buttons in hope rather than expectation, a red light with a lightning symbol alongside began winking at me. I’ve spent an hour or two trying again to make sense of the instructions but, after a another arpeggio on the buttons, the red light still blinks. I slammed the door of its cave quite forcefully and hope that it still works on manual.