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Sounds like a whisper ….

When I was at school I learned French. In fact I began learning at the age of 8 in Mrs Noble’s class. Mrs Noble liked me, having despised my older brother (the loathing was mutual). Given that I generally hated my brother (also mutual and absolutely compulsory at the ages we were), I loved Mrs Noble, which might have been why she liked me. Life is like that. We tend to like those that love us. Unless they are insane stalkers.  But that really is another story.

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I adored the sounds of the words and I enjoyed learning. At secondary school I was, to be fair, generally mediocre at the grammar and indeed only actually began to make friends with conjugating after moving here in September last year. But I perfected my accent and frankly I was waiting for the call to star in the remake of 80s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo. I listened to Jane Birkin breathing her way through Je t’aime  and wanted to BE her.

Adulthood and a cheese business that took me back and forth to Paris to the gastronomic chaos that is Rungis Market.  Ad hoc travels to Provence, Normandy, The Auvergne in search of the perfect morceau to bear triumphantly back to Berkshire in the overstuffed boot of our car and present to our customers who would sigh in ecstasy and run home to devour their new best friend with gusto and self-congratulatory glee that they had found this ‘maaaarvlus little place’ which sold all things French-Cheese without their having to bother at all with la manche.

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During all this time, I listened French. I loved the sound. Compare the way that airport is said in English – two clipped syllables uttered in a reasoned monotone – with the same word in French. L’aeroport. The aer has the lightness of a soufflé and that for me is French. That for me defines what I adore about the language. Of course regionally and even more microscopically the way words are pronounced, the way sentences are constructed, varies. Standard French, the same as BBC English is not the standard at all. My radio station of choice when out in my car and indeed in my home, now that I have discovered the joys of listening on-line to the wireless, is RBA 104.4 Bort les Orgues. The main reason for my slavish devotion is the woman I know as ‘Over Enunciating Announcer Lady’. She is bliss. When she does her petits annonces I am captivated by her emphasis. ‘PerDU, un beagLE tricoloooooR a Bort les OrgUH’ or even more deliciously the moment when behind the wheel shortly before Christmas I heard her utter ‘Soob Millie Mettre aRAY ….. a Champs sur TarentaiNUH’ and realized it was a shout out for The Husband with Two Brains’ presentation on trous noirs and his observatory in Hawaii. Her fabulous iteration gilds my days and she has unwittingly helped my French from stuttering to fluttering over the last six months.

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That moment driving to Lyon in April when I realized the strange sensation I was experiencing was seeing Spring burst forth to greet me with its bumptious greens and yellows and pinks and whites and mauves in great swathes before my eyes is replicated in my sudden ability to assimilate and respond to a barrage of French with relative ease. But even in areas with harsher tones the words have elegance to me. Somehow Tortue sounds so much more evocative than Tortoise particularly if you can perfect that mysterious swallowed ‘r’ that the French absorb by osmosis in order to bewitch dull English girls like me later in life.

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I have lived in Italy and speak decent Italian, I learned Russian for six years at school but for me French is candied grace and refinement. If it were a scent it would be captured in a bottle made of a glass so fragile that you would think it was a bubble. Even in Cantal where we live. THAT Cantal recently described as le trou (the hole) by a friend in Grenoble … repeat after me. – Non, il est pas le trou! It isn’t. Fact. But that is not what we are talking about here and despite being innately discursive I am determined to stay en piste for this moment. No. Say Grenoble. Gren. Oble. Now say it with a French accent (it is after all French). Can you hear the chicly swallowed G? The way the ble whispers away at the end? That’s French. I speak it comme une vache espagnole but I hear it fluently. And it is music in my ears.

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PS: My title is taken from a song by the brilliant Tracy Chapman. She was Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – something else the French do rather well ….

It should be noted that this piece was originally written for a writing competition … it didn’t make the cut but I rather felt it worthy of a place here nonetheless …. you are free to agree or disagree or remain Swiss and neutral.  And the photographs of mountains?  For me learning the language is like walking in the mountains: sometimes the climbs seem endless and the struggle never ending, you feel you won’t ever reach the top, you feel the task impossible but when you turn the corner on the path and take stock of how far you have climbed and breath the air and survey that vista, the effort evaporates.  And  aside from that, I simply love them.

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I’m not a football fan, though if pushed I own to supporting The Arsenal (the fault of Granny – she lived within hearing distance of Highbury when first married and made it conditional of watching Grandstand that The Gunners were your team) …

But it’s pretty unavoidable this Coupe de Monde thing and I must confess that I support France (and not because England didn’t cut le moutarde

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– that was inevitable and when the collective English eventually realise that unless a manager is allowed real time to develop his team of players who actually never see one another let alone play together because their high fallutin-tootin teams won’t release them from the gilded contracts to bond properly with their internation team-mates, there will never be that glorious collective ‘YES’ as they bring back international silverware). No I’m not a mealy mouthed ex-pat – I love the French Game (Arsenal – remember has a French manager) and I live here and for me it falls into the politeness bag.

So in a few moments I will be turning up my TV and yelling ‘allez les bleus’ … Let’s turn those Germans to dust mes braves

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PS:  In Paris a week ago outside the very ritzy Jardin de Luxembourg, we found these boys … never underestimate the power of a world class tournament to bring sport to the masses #lovefootie

 

Somewhere That’s Green

The title is a song from Little Shop of Horrors, a stage musical, then a film about a girl in a florist in downtown New York who dreams of a simple life in a Tract House of her own … don’t we all?  In this world we mostly feel that having a place of our own (even if its mortgaged to the hilt) is in some way a security for us, for ours and for their futures.  We feel safer if we own the place than if we rent it.  At the moment H2B and I rent.  We couldn’t honestly ask for more.  Our appartment is in a house, built in the second half of the 19th Century with an important staircase, an even more important front door and high ceilings, the park is green space without the effort of gardening, we have a tiny balcony and our young neighbours are unobtrusive (mostly).  The fêtes and celebrations at the Salle de Fête are fun to watch.  A little noise is a small price to pay for an atmosphere of vibrancy and fun when a birthday, a wedding or a Saints day is celebrated.   We also, in honesty, have the best of both worlds – we have a house in the US which at some stage we will sell and actually we own a small property south of Aurillac of which more later since it has been an epic saga to get to the point we are at.  It is a story all of its own – in fact it has felt like the Odyssey.

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But we do want to own a family house here.  Two Brains will retire and we will live out our lives here.  We want a little land so that we can raise sheep that we milk and make cheese from.  Ideally we would like a south facing slope for vines and certainly I will make compotes and other fruity delights from whatever any trees care to give us.  And clafoutis (I love that word and can’t resist a tenuous opportunity to include it just because I can) and other delights too.  And a potager.  I would like a couple of horses but that will depend on how much land we have – a wish list is just that for the wishing.

For our own reasons we are now in the throws of searching.  And it is an interesting experience.  Remember in a previous blog a lovely elderly fellow in Montboudif (birthplace of Pompidouwappydoo-ooooo) told me not to use Immobiiers because they are all crooks?  He has a point.  Actually I was in the business in the UK and was always at pains to let people know that I was NOT an Estate Agent.  Sadly the reputation of real estate agents the world over is pretty much akin to being a blood relation of Atilla the Hun.  However, we were not prepared for the bizarre fact that if you find a property on the internet here (and it is the way the vast majority of  people search for houses in the modern world), that you will not be able to locate it because the agent will disguise its location for fear that you will strike a deal privately behind his back.  We were equally not prepared for the fact that agents will claim rights to a property that they have simply plagiarised on the net without ever having seen it let alone been through its door.  So we could go to a notaire (the advice of a random Dutch fellow and his wife in our village one Sunday outside the bakery) but to be frank the three D’s (death, debt and divorce) which throw the properties the way of a notaire equally throw up other problems – in France  inheritance laws are complex and a town can sit with a decaying house for years in its centre whilst a notaire goes the legal route of tracking down its heirs.  Even when done, often you find that having fallen in love with a place the notaire must go through a rich and complex dance to ensure that all interested parties are satisfied that you can indeed buy the place.  And once sold to you – all your money transferred you can still wait for months whilst the previous owners (who didn’t actually know they owned the house) empty it of its contents.  Or not.  The strongest of hearts can fail when years of wrangling to even pass go are involved.

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My own advice is to make friends with Maires and Mairies.  They will pretty much always know what is for sale in their commune and will also know who you should talk to, who has a place nearby that might be for sale.  And further than that remember you are in a different country and just because things are done in a different way, it does not make it wrong.  ‘Go with it’ as a wonderful Irish friend long ago advised me (in the context of rearing children) – ‘it’ll be the ride of your life’.  Overall it is about people – people know stuff and people who have lived their lives and whose forebears lived theirs over generations in the same place can be your greatest allies or your worst nightmares.  We met a fellow, English, this time last year.  He had stepped into the hotel we were staying in to take breakfast.  He clearly wanted company because he lept on my English voice and then sounded off for seemingly hours.  He and his partner had bought:  ‘… a big house.  You must know the one – it’s the the biggest in …’  He told us he was struggling with French workmen (but his French was tenuous) and that their new big house would be a triumph.  Not least because it was so cheap to buy.   He also told us that his partner speaks no French and has no intention of learning – she prefers not to understand what people are saying.  We have thought about them on and off since.  Have talked about the idiocy of approaching a new life with no intention of adapting and respecting.  We walked on the plateau above their village at the weekend.  The house is un-touched.  Shutters shut, it looks as though it hasn’t been visited in months.  Presumably work has ceased.  Learn the language, make friends, ask for help.  If you don’t, you will surely fail.

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PS:  In my own chosen area it is true that whole hamlets are dying.  I walk (with The Bean mostly, sometimes with a friend, a relly or my husband) and I see beautiful places simply shut up and left in the hope that someone will happen by.  I hope to begin to educate the owners that without effort they won’t sell, without encouraging a new generation of buyers the places will simply decay and die.  Wish me luck – I am armed only with fervour and enthusiasm and a real belief that this is an area that people would love to raise there own families in …. given that we looked at a house recently in a commune that has fallen to 180 headcount of which 70% are over 70 years old and were told they would greet us (aged 61 and 53 repectively) with open arms as perceived youngsters, I have a little work to do.

Jean Baptiste and The Wicker Man

A little over a week and a bit ago we woke to the villagers building a bonfire in our front garden.  You might recall that our front garden is a public park so we get all manner of things happening, mostly attuned to the Salle de Fete also found in the garden.  Luckily HB² had already been appraised by Martine at the Patisserie that we would be hosting the Fete de St Jean which we had naively thought had something to do with Joan of Arc, since the centre piece was a fire.  WRONG!  Not that Joan, THAT John.  The one that baptised anyone he could persuade to be dunked and a good few babies who had no choice along the way.  He was beheaded.

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As far as I know he wasn’t burnt but clearly here a baptism by fire is the way to celebrate this particular Saint.  A BBQ, a bonfire and some beer and the villagers (old, young, very young, very old) were happy til gone 01:00.  We joined in and felt content that no-one noticed … we are foreign but we prefer to be just part of the furniture – any latent diva was not satisfied that night … the audience was gloriously oblivious to us and intent on seeing if the Birch (about 30′ of young tree) would fall – I have yet to find out if this is a good or bad thing but the gathering were certainly intent on its demise or resistance.  When we had skulked our fill,  we slunk home the odd tens of yards and watched the fire from our balcony.  Well done St Jean – it was fun, it wasn’t a re-run  of The Wicker Man and no-one had their head presented on a plate. Which personally I always thought ostentatious and vulgar.