Monthly Archive for July, 2014

Honking

I’ve spent a few days playing grandfather in Norfolk, not a part of the world I know and a bit of a pig of a place to get to. And once you’re there, at least the place I was staying, there was no telephone and no internet connection, which, for someone who is appallingly reliant on wifi, is extremely alarming. Will the wider world be able to survive without my contribution? It seems to have done OK.

Grandchildren rolled around in large transparent plastic balls on the lake at Holkham in front of the hideous stately home. The pet rabbits dug themselves out of the enclosure where they were enjoying their holidays, creating panic until I won lots of brownie points by finding them and whispering them into my arms. The weather was more akin to what it should be in southern France than it seems to have been in southern France. All the same, wild horses wouldn’t get me to move back to the UK. Too many people, too many loudly honking bourgeois and too damned expensive.

Snarl

My fourth of the annual village chasse lunches took place on Sat. It’s always a carnivore’s delight and the amount of whisky that is dispensed beforehand ensures that it’s never dull. It’s a 5 course affair, beginning with hors d’oeuvres, then fish – whelks and prawns. Next comes a slug of some sorbet floating in a lethal quantity of eau de vie, before we eat yards of deer sausages along with cassoulet. Then comes the boar, the cheese and the ice cream. For the last two years the boar was fit only for a dog with a good, young set of teeth but this year they imported an expert sanglier roaster – due to cook a dozen such animals over the season – who had the corpse turning on its spit, being dribbled with garlic, herbs and its own fat for some seven hours When done right, the taste and texture is sublime and this was done right. I had been introduced to the boar in the back of a chasse van a few months earlier, covered in blood and in full tusky snarl. I admired it, the odd hole in its side and considered turning vegetarian – but managed to resist.

I have just been trying to modify an airline ticket and have given up for the time being. It’s so much more convenient to do such things on line, but this leads to a Catch-22. Because people try to avoid call centres at all costs, it means that the number of staff employed in them can be reduced, which leads to longer delays when you have to use them.

The weather has been very iffy over the past fortnight, but it’s French iffy and I can tolerate it. When the sky turns grey in Scotland at this time of year, the temp will be 15. Here it stays at 24.

Shadows

Everyone whinges when it’s not hot, and then they whinge again when it is. At the moment the countryside, serenaded by swifts and cicadas, lies stunned beneath the sun. Sunflowers are the most popular crop this year and are at their best. The horrible industrial plastic-wrapped plantings of melons are mercifully hidden from our view by the fall of the land. The largest grower locally has planted 350 hectares this year and one sees his workers toiling in the height of the day like slaves on the cotton plantations. I suppose the poor sods who try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats would give their all for one of his jobs.

Cato’s favourite hobby is being a guard dog, a bit loud and boring sometimes, but I’m told that’s what keeps the burglars at bay. Poonkie likes to chase butterflies, or rather the shadows of butterflies. She will see one coming and look down for the shadow and go for it. If the insect settles on a flower she will wait until it takes off before resuming the chase.

Quasimodo

‘They’ve been working on the hole in the road.’ This was exciting news. Half the carriageway of road towards the motorway subsided into the adjacent field leaving a jagged hole some six feet deep. It has been like that for more than two years and demands a neat shimmy round the chicane caused by the cones, which can be done without losing speed if nobody is coming in the opposite direction. The work took the form of replacing the cones with a jazzy plastic barrier.

But throughout the village we’ve just had a new skim of tarmac and gravillon laid which has ironed out the potholes and crumbles that had begun to build up. And the gendarmes had to be called once more. The grandson had parked his car in the middle of the square and refused to move it to let the tar be put down. It was a bit rich since he was the cause of much of the unevenness, particularly where he’d cut a trench across the square and his infill had subsided. The maire refuses to be broken by his intransigence. He doggedly applies the law, but both he and the authorities are aware that more than one screw is loose in the man. What can one do? He is not violent, and it’s cheaper if he lives in his own house rather than being placed in an institution. Like many round here he has inherited houses and land, so he’s not short of money. It may be that he is soon squashed since he has recently pulled out a large mound of rubble from the inside of his house and I suspect the place will fall down about his ears.

I tolled the bells for a funeral yesterday. It wasn’t Quasimodo style, but demanded the knowledge of which three buttons should be pressed and in what order on the computer when the deceased’s procession entered the village. Granny familias had been in an institution for six months but she had a good turn out, plenty of eye-piping and a fine clutch of glamorous young descendants in short skirts.

Insult

A financial institution has asked me to go through the tedious rigmarole of proving my identity. They would accept as responsible certifiers an officer of the court, an embassy staff member or a notary public. This was far too inconvenient or would have cost me money, so I phoned their call centre and asked if a maire and his stamp would suffice. Supervisors were consulted but I still could elicit no more than and hum and a haw. So I have old them that is what they are going to get and, should they reject it, I shall make them the centre of an international incident for insulting the honour of France.

Most of the weather here comes from the west and one can see it hurdling the ridge about 3 miles away before creeping across the valley. A remarkable bank of hail marched grandly towards us this week, obliterating landmarks and trees as it hissed across the fields of sunflowers. I was pleased to say it skirted us, just dropping a few gargantuan raindrops from its edge.

In Scotland I came across a 26 year-old with bowel cancer. He’s travelling to Bordeaux for his treatment. I heard a lot about the NHS when we were in Scotland, mainly how much better it was than in England but I know more than one expat who decided to stay here on the grounds that the French system works better than the NHS.

Knife

There’s an awful bugger-it moment when you empty your pockets before you go through airport security and find a Swiss army knife that is clearly designed to slit the pilot’s throat. I buried the thing deep in my little suitcase and it went through the scanner only to be pulled out the other side. The security man hauled me up. ‘Have you any liquids?’ I found that easy to deny and he rifled the contents without laying his hand on the knife. He then put it through the scanner again, said ‘Sorry to delay you,’ and I went on my way rejoicing. I had another little knife attached to the car keys but he missed that as well.

On our way down from the north of Scotland, we dropped by the battlefield of Culloden. I have long maintained it was the most profitable battle in Scots history with every casualty having yielded at least £2m to the economy and certainly the hordes of visitors are still piling up the £s. They have a room with screens on each wall that put you in the midst of the battle looking into the faces of terrified redcoats waiting to receive the charge and Highlanders being blown to pieces by cannon fire. I had five forebears in the battle, two were killed. I found myself choking back the tears. If I’d been on the beach when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed from France in 1745, I’d’ve cheerfully slit his throat. A complete arsehole.

Apart from the lawn becoming a hayfield in our absence, the most striking thing was the utter silence. Nothing but the distant coo of collared doves. The village has been busy since we went, with the grandson bringing his lorry into the square contrary to the maire’s edict. Now he’s in the shit. The gendarmes were here, and were here again this morning taking down the number plates of his collection of wrecked cars that he has been ordered to remove. He has been officially told to reduce the height of the wall of his attempted garage so the village has a chance of becoming un des Plus Beaux Villages de France. Well, perhaps it’ll never make that, but it’ll be better than it was.

Bruce

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If you’re lucky enough to hit the far north of Scotland when the weather is good, there can be no more beautiful place in Europe. The traffic is as light as rural France but the most interesting roads are single-track switchbacks on which you’re lucky to average 20 mph and that’s before you meet someone coming the other way. But go round a corner and there’s the sight of another mountain, or a clutch of islands in a sun bright sea, or a ruined castle reflected in a millpond loch.

At Bannockburn the stall I was on was visited by both Robert the Bruce – very dashing – and Alec Salmond. The consensus was that the latter was not as fat as he appears on TV. He was hot from the Armed Services day just down the road, which was buzzed by the Red Arrows. They stopped the traffic on the motorway but their finest manoeuvres kept disappearing into the rain clouds.