Those of you familiar with my nonsense will know that I refer to my spouse as The Husband with Two Brains or HB². But he has another moniker, one that arose when he wasn’t even in the same country as the protagonist, let alone the same room.
Some while ago, probably 6 months after I moved to France, I was taking coffee with Raymond (adopt French accent, for he is indeed a proud Frenchman). Raymond came into world of HB² quite by chance some 20 years ago. A knock on his office door, a frantic colleague needing help with someone he suspected to be a Frenchman who had appeared uninvited in the lab. Under gentle interrogation it transpired that Raymond had spent all his savings on a single air fare to New York in pursuit of an Astronomy Professor that he particularly admired. He being, at the time, a student and general helper at the Astronomy faculty in Nice. Picked up by the Police wandering aimlessly, he somehow persuaded them to put him on the Amtrak to Boston from where he found his way to Harvard and there the story brought him into my husband’s orbit. Struck by his tenacity, his extraordinary affinity with the night-sky, which is akin to the ancient astronomers who first mapped and tried to understand the world beyond our globe, and touched by his desire to learn, my husband took him in and found him work in his lab. Eighteen months later he returned to France to complete a degree having finally accepted that to be taken seriously in the world of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Cosmology and all the attendent highbrow orbits he fancied dabbling in, he must have a degree. Since that time, Raymond remains devoted to Two Brains and I would suggest with some reason.
Back to the café where I had enjoyed a coffee and a chat with the same Raymond and asked his advice. I was concerned about my husband at the time for reasons I now fail to remember – living lives separated by 3,000 miles nurtures anxiety, or at least that has been my experience. As we stood to say our au revoirs, Raymond clasped me by the shoulders and, as he faire les emphatic bises (the air-kiss-kiss we do in France but with supplementary vigour to impart fortitude), declared that my husband is really un cochon rouge – a red pig. I queried this with a smile intended to make me the fool and a gentle ‘quoi?’ and he repeated ‘il est un petit cochon rouge’ – so in fact not just any red pig , but a small red pig. My husband stands almost 6′ and though of light and lean frame is not one to ever be described as little, particularly in France where most men are of, let’s say more concise hauteur. Including Raymond. To be doubly belt and braces sure that I understood him Raymond then announced in English ‘he is a red pig, a small red pig’.
Later that evening on the phone to The Brains I asked him, having Googled colloquial, slang and vernacular French all afternoon in vain. I enquired in a roundabout Winnie the Pooh sort of casual way what calling someone un cochon rouge or indeed un petit cochon rougemight mean. The answer came back ‘red pig or little red pig’. So not helpful at all. Accordingly spurred by what had now become an obsessive need to understand, I made a full confession, including sharing my troubled mind over he who owns both brains and was subjected to a stunned and complete silence. The identical stunned silence it turned out that Raymond employed a few weeks later when asked what he had meant by calling The Brains a red pig. He claimed he had said ‘un petit cochon rose’ and meant that my husband is more sensitive than he lets on. Less macho, less girder-built. I can firmly report that he did NOT. No sir. Not. At. All. I heard him entirely distinctly and he called my husband a little RED pig. Of course it has stuck. It begged to and would have been dreadfully rude to ignore it.
Therefore, when staying in Boothbay Harbor, Maine as recommended by my blogging friend ‘The Weird Guy with a Dog’ whom I wholeheartedly urge you to check out, and confronted with this wingèd porcine outside a pretty store selling eccentric ironwork, I was minded to abduct it but made do with a photograph for now. I perfectly intend to own it when we have a house to put it on – after all who can resist such a wondrous hog, seemingly dancing in the air, gleeful cheeks a-puffing, perky ears a-flapping and that tail uplifted with such blithe abandon. Nothing at all like my husband but portraying perfectly the joie de vivre I suspect we all aspire to and with the added advantage of telling you which way the wind blows. It is a rapturous porker, a piggy I will dream of until I return to make it my very own. I was inclined to share this story by the Weekly Photo Challenge prompt this week ‘Rare’ – if it piques your interest, you can see a sensational selection of entries here.
PS: The quote is Martin Luther, Priest, Scolar, questioner and reformer ‘A faithful and good servant is a real godsend; but truly ‘t is a rare bird in the land’. Raymond has been a good and faithful servant to The Brains these more than twenty years and as you will discover when I write more of him is surely one of the rarest of birds you will encounter in a lifetime. Actually Luther was uncommonly fond of his rare birds giving the accolade to wise princes and even more to upright ones. That would probably apply today though to politicians rather than princes, I would suggest.
On a beautiful day nearly two years ago, The Brains, The Bean and I set off for a walk that starts in the wonderfully named St Poncy (if you are English this will make you smile – my American is not good enough to know if Ponce means the same in your vernacular). Along the way three became four and this is the piece I wrote at the time – I hope you will enjoy it.
My home is in France. I will reside in the USA until mid-October. My heart breaks for this place. Of course my heart breaks for France. It’s my status quo. That my heart is breaking is hardly surprising. Here, numerous lives wasted by guns. In France, just about to lift it’s highest possible security alert after the abominable attacks last year, 84 literally mown down and numerous others injured many left in a life-threatening condition which you can seamlessly translate to ‘if they live they will have a steep slope to climb if they are ever to live a full life again’ in Nice on 14 July. A bloodbath on 14 July in France, by the way, is akin to a massacre on 4 July in the USA..
And then there are those others. The copious blood spilled in numerous locations which cannot have escaped your attention, lives exterminated, bagsfull maimed in other places. None of it is justifiable to a reasonable person let alone a pacifist. None of it is right to a rationalist let alone an idealist. All of it bids to erode my inate and possibly foolish optimism. But I will not let awful un-lawful acts rule my life. I will strive to find a way through.
How so? How on earth? First I must comment that what happened in Nice is in all likelihood not a terrorist attack. You can play with the semantics, of course and you can tell me that most nutters root back to religion, politics or any combination therein that feeds their sick souls but I don’t count that. An organisation has taken the most half-hearted responsibility for the 19-tonne truck deliberately barrelling down le Promenade des Anglais just when it was bound to be full of revellers gathered for le Fête Nationale. They were clearly going to. Fear bolsters up their macho resolve, so to claim responsibility is almost inevitable. Some sort of tenous connection makes us all feel even more scared. When I was growing up in England it was the IRA – any mention had us quivering in our boots, soiling our knickers and feeling very very insecure. The world moves on. Though I must say that I fear that the IRA never really went away. And the recent British Brexit vote that narrowly resolved to leave the EU (or UE if you are French) will add fuel to that nicely weakening fire. So claims are made and responsibility often falsely attributed and we all quake and shake and wonder if we can really really go out of our front door safely and if our babies and their babies and their babies not even thought of are ever EVER going to be safe.
I put two notions to you.
The first is this. We have become an increasingly tiny planet. By this I do not mean that the world has physically shrunk from a big fat fully inflated and energetic basketball to a teeny weeny, possibly depressed ping-pong ball but rather that we know what goes on in every crevice and we feel a part of it where once we did not. Media and especially social media shout and scream at us even when we sleep – buzzing and bleeping and flashing that something is happening. I remember Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds’ – I remember those puppets being woken by the bleep-bleep of a catastrophe. And they went out and resolved it. Solved it. Made it all right again. Kept us safe. Now we all bleep and buzz and ring and weep. It is not healthy. We cannot absorb it all. Leeloo in the 1990s sci-fi film, ‘The Fifth Element’ starring Bruce Willis, of all people, could not absorb it without breaking down with the sheer emotion of it, and she was manufactured to be the savior of humankind – it’s too bluddy much for one person, one creation, to take in:
The second notion is born of my idealistic nature. I think that if we can, and do spread love and decency and kindness and tolerance eventually (not in my short life-time), eventually the world will see sense. I will leave the notion of spilling blood to others. But I will give you this thought. This weekend I had a situation that should have ruined my relationship with my husband. This weekend I was told I was hated by his son, by one of his son’s closest friends. This weekend I could easily have told my husband I wanted to terminate our relationship because of his closest kin, his spawn. But I didn’t. I squawked and I cried and I shouted and I threatened but I stayed. Out of love, I stayed. I am imperfect. If I can reach into my vat of love, we all can. I say this because I am absolutely unperfect. Blemished and scarred and not at all pure. So it stands to reason in this tiny brain of mine that we CAN all tolerate if we firstly want to and secondly put a little thought into the process. Here’s the thing, we can all be decent just because we want to be decent. It is absolutely in all our hands and minds and hearts to want to change and to stop being selfishly driven by our own needs and to accept that we are all particular and that none of us is a better particular, a more worthy particular than any other.
The picture is in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge ‘Detail’ – my title is a bastardisation of the known (‘The devil is in the detail’) and the less known but proper (‘le bon dieu est dans le détails – ‘The Good of God is in the details‘). With my mish-mush belief system I can take from both and manipulate you as all good terrorists do. What I will bring to you is the detail of harmony, peace and tolerance – not things that just magically happen but things that require work. My picture illustrates this through the idea of a diversity of lichens co-existing on a rock.
If this is my rock then let it be known that every religion,whatever colour, LGBT, men, women, straight and yet to be determined, able bodied, disabled, are welcome, Don’t rock me and I won’t rock you. Fact.
PS: I find it interesting that ‘The Devil is in the detail’, most notably attributed to 20th Century German Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the accepted venacular over the original le bon dieu est dans les détails which is attributed to Gustav Flaubert (author of my beloved Madame Bovary) who died twenty years before the turn of that century. God-Devil. Good-Bad … personally I think we are better placed attempting to be good ourselves rather than bathing in books and falling back on them when their language will surely fail us so long after they were supposedly penned.
I could have called this post ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’ which, if you are British you will know instantly is an old saying from the North of England that means ‘where there’s sh*t, there’s money’. But given that many of my readers are not British and on account of the much more important fact that I wanted to give you all a bonus at the end for being SO patient with me as I clawed my way back from the arrid desert of a dastardly writer’s block, I have opted for the title above.
The image was taken in April when we were back in our beloved Cantal for a few days and took the opportunity for a longish hike which promised a waterfall.
Alert as ever, my bat-like hearing was teased by a low humming which rose steadily to a gutteral grumble and finally a spluttering roar as rounding a corner on the craggy track we were ambling along, I was confronted by this. A tractor with a tank on the back spraying cow dung on the field. Muck spreading in fact. Actually, I should say that our olfactory glands were alert to the identity of the machine long before we spied him.
I will forgive you for wondering what on earth this has to do with the weekly photo challenge this week titled Jublilant. Even for me, this might seem a stretch. But bear with, do. In France the farmers always look positivily euphoric when they get the opportunity to splash some dung about. They sit in the cabs of their tractors with beatific smiles seemingly wafted to an odorous corner of paradise. I have no explanation for this. Perhaps you can help me out? But I do promise you I have studied the phenomena and it is a truism. The grumpy growers I have seen in England scowling from their cockpit, nose invisibly pegged, mouth set in an inpenetrable line, eyes stony and unyielding are a world away from these merry manure slingers and even though my nose may be wrinkling decorously at the fetid stench they are generating, they always upgrade my mood as they lift a paw casually from the steering wheel, like John Wayne riding one handed across the range, and bestow upon their mildly stunned audience a raptuous and infectious grin.
PS: I promised you a bonus and a bonus you shall have. And an explanation. When I saw the title I closed my eyes and imagined myself for a moment on Christmas Eve, the wireless turned on as I potter through the preparations for the big feast the following day listening to The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge sing carols and hoping this will be one of them.
If you are of my vintage, you will remember that Mike Oldfield produced a thoroughly exhuberent instrumental version. Here are Pans People, dream date of every boy of my age and every girls aspiration joyously dancing on BBC Top of The Pops in 1975.
You might have a favourite, I love both and I particularly love that In Dulci Jublilo means ‘in sweet rejoicing’ which is exactly what I am doing since I purged my clogged creative channel.
As I kiss au revoir to The Bean who is flying back to Boston with Two Brains whilst I fly to the UK to spend time with family and friends, it seemed only polite to re-post an early blog from her. Rest assured she is working hard on her transatlantic flying blog. After all when you are a jet-setting Bean it is your duty to share your wisdom with the masses ….
This place, this place, this place. However hard I try, I do miss this place. Snapped last summer during le canicule (the heatwave), this is my corner of France parched, thirsty – gasping for water but still flaunting green trees. And there’s a tower beckoning Rapunzels and Ladies of Shalott from far and wide. Or in my case just girls that never grew out of romantic ideas that a tower in a fanciful mind will make all those whimsical dreams come true. And give roots.
My offering for Claudette’s Emotography Challenge (free-form simplicity – just a simple ask that you offer a photograph along with the notion of the emotion it was prompted by or that it provokes in you) screams homesick to me.
Hence the necessary PS that my title is the teeniest stolen snippet of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues
These cows are blended cows. Not cows that have been put in a blender – that would be grisly and hopefully illegal. These are half and halfs and the palest are known as jaunes (yellows). The ancient cow of Cantal is the Salers. They were originally black and you still find blacks amongst them. They are celebrated and fêted and look as though they have migrated from Spain to avoid being Matador fodder. The more familiar Salers these days is a ruddy red – deep auburn and hardy. And pronged with splendid Harley Davidson handlebar horns. They are emblematic of their place. Their rich creamy milk goes to make the many cheeses for which the region is renowned – most commonly Salers itself, the ubiquitous Cantal, St Nectaire and Bleu d’Auvergne. Their meat is prized in the region and in Paris too – in fact if you visit the Cinquieme Arrondissment you will find that in addition to being the Latin quarter it is also a veritable hive of restaurants specialising in produce from Cantal including wonderful dishes based on Salers beef and veal. These cows are bovine A-listers in our locale. But some farmers, breed them with the great white Charolais, themselves beef royalty the world over. This breeding produces the yellows. They too are prized – their meat is sublime and the price is good. It is called progress by some, meanwhile the purists frown. I stand neutral. I’m not a farmer, not a native of Cantal and have no right whatsoever to judge. I just love cows. I find them to be rather harmonious creatures. So they seem appropriate sitting in their stunning landscape under a rudely blue sky on December 28th last year as my illustration of Harmony the word named as prompt this week for the Weekly Photo Challenge. I think you will agree that the panarama too is pretty easy on the eye – the grassy Plateau de Limon looking across to the Cèzallier mountains beyond and in between the snail like crater of one of the numerous volcanoes that gave the region it’s personality all those aeons ago.
But wait! There is one thing – if you look at the foreground you will see diggings. Not the minings of moles but mole rat shovellings … these pesky rodents have multiplied alarmingly in Cantal in the very recent past and they have become a tremendous nuisance. The question is can we live harmoniously with these critters or should steps be taken to eradicate them? I’ll leave you to ponder the damage they do to this wholly agricultural territory versus their right to peaceful occupation.
PS: The title is from The Sneetches by Dr Seuss, a story of creatures identical in every way to one another except for the stars on the bellies of the entitled ones … the moral is elementary – after all what hope have we of saving the planet if we can’t co-exist with our own without dwelling on what they have or have not upon thars!
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
The previous owner of the house was a photographer of some talent. He could make the silkiest purse out of a lady pigs ear, of this I am certain. When we looked at his wonderful images on the numerous websites that carried Maison Carrée to her adoring public eager to stay for a few days and sample the delights of his culinary skill as well as the comfortable and welcoming interior she offered, we never once worried about wall coverings. Downstairs was pristine white and upstairs had some sort of nice neutrally wallpaper. When we arrived to view what turned out to be the Wreck of the Hesperus, one of the stand-out moments was the realisation of what that nice neutrally wallpaper actually was. Not wallpaper in fact. Not fabric. Nothing so outré for our Monsieur. Nay, nay and thrice I say nay … he’d gone a whole new road – a positive Route Nationale, a Motorway, an Interstate Highway. I can imagine the sprightly conversation he had with himself inside his head:
‘What shall I cover the upstairs walls with?’
‘How about floor, old chap ..?’
‘You genius! Floor! Of course – floor is the way forward for these walls. And shall we perchance wallpaper the floor?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Obviously not. That is an absurd notion’.
And so it was. Laminate clip together floor. But not just any laminate clip-together floor. Oh no! This was laminate clip-together bargain basement, below economy starter range floor. The floor that the salesman guides you too first before pointing out that absolutely anything at all that you choose from here will be better, even spending tuppence halfpenny more and thus securing himself an extra portion of fries on the commission he earns. That sort of laminate clip-together floor. And it had been slathered all over the walls. Look closely at the top picture …. do you see what I see?
Having done as bidden by the kind M. Terminateur so that his crew could busy themselves ridding our roof of those pesky vrillettes we occupied ourselves as best we could, whenever we could (remember it’s a four hour round trip from North West to South West tip of le Cantal on winding backroads descending and scaling deep gorges and negotiating tight épingles (épingles de cheveux being hairpins) and though I am presently living in the land of mahusive distances and ludicrously cheap fuel, I honestly think it’s a stretch for a daily commute that you aren’t getting paid for. I was polishing the staircase for entertainment one day when there was a thunderous crack followed by a thud, and a whisper later, a riotous crash. I dropped my bottle of special wood oil and rushed up the stairs (killing the chances of the oil drying to a gratifying sheen in the process) to find HB² looking frankly irritatingly smug. He had taken a crowbar and jemmied a generous sliver of the offending floor from the wall and underneath looked rather interesting.
He proceeded to slice his way through both the front bedrooms and the back one – the one with it’s cleverly placed shower delivering to a spontaneous auditorium at the back of the house for the ladies of the village, should he decide to give of his famed full frontal peep show once more. I’m considering selling tickets if we get desperate enough that we need extra funds. By lunchtime the walls were fully delaminated and revealing the secrets of their pre-veneered days. My nerves were in shreds because this stuff was razor sharp and entirely rigid. Two Brains clearly should have been wearing a helmet but instead favoured an interesting series of movements that echoed accurately St Vitus Dance to avoid being brained or scalped by the merest slither of a second. We had a car full of laminate to take to the lovely man at the déchètterie with the enviable view. After two p.m. Obviously. This is rural France and everything stops for lunch. For two hours. It took multiple trips in Franck our trusty unalluring but reasonably priced car and a deep and meaningful conversation to ascertain whether this vile material computes as wood. It doesn’t. It is to be viewed in the same way as a carnivore regards nut cutlets. It simply is not meat. Nor indeed wood.
Do you see what I see ….? It’s Franck skulking sneakily waiting for his next load of laminated booty
Meanwhile back at the ranch The Brains was eulogising over what had been uncovered. Previously we had paid scant attention to the one unplastered wall on the stairwell merely having a cursory discussion over whether we should give it too a smooth finish. But in that deluge of lethal laminate everything changed. It was akin to the moment in Carl Sagan’s Contact when Jodie Foster sees the universe with fresh eyes from a beach somewhere out ‘there’ that she has landed on after being lunged through space at a squillion miles an hour. In the comedy shower-closet bedroom are exposed the same glorious planks, cut by someone with an eye for rigidly even lines that rivals my mother’s. By way of explanation – my mother is a wonderful letter writer but has always shunned the slip of lined paper popped under the page to guide the pen evenly approach and consequently, although she commences elegantly (even now in her mid-eighties) she rapidly starts to wander at an angle so that by the time she reaches the bottom of the page she is writing at a 45° slope. It’s a foible that no-one ever mentions, but all notice. These walls were clearly made by a kindred charpentiere. They are of tongue-in-groove construction, about 9″-10″ wide and slender. They slot together very well sporting the odd large flat headed nail to complete the perfectly rustic and rather naïve effect.
And still the excitement continued. The layout of the house, and we had assumed the original layout, was a small landing with doors at right angles to one another. One into a bedroom with a square double doorframe through to a further room and the other into Peeping Tom’s Joy – the room with the freestanding shower in front of the window. But taking the cladding off the walls had revealed a door from PTJ into the back bedroom. This poses new questions about how we lay out the upstairs. Our thought process is fluid and a teeny bit erratic so this revalation just adds a zesty new spritz to the operation.
On the other side of the wall were further, piquant delights – loose hessian overlaid with several layers of historic wallpaper. A couple of florals, a groovy grey linear embossed which immediately took me back to the dull horrors of my childhood and my favourite, a sort of squarial pattern each square containing a picture – a flowerhead here, a windmill there, there again a boat, and even the makings of a medieval town. I wonder about the person lying in bed looking at the pictures – I wonder if they had ever travelled from Marcolès and whether they dreamed of getting on that boat and searching for treasures in far-off lands. In fact we know that a very tall Russian lady lived in the house for decades last century – maybe she was put in a boat to cross the sea or maybe her journey escaping White Russia as a small child was overland. Either way it must have been arduous, gruelling and not a little frightening.
I am reminded of another house long ago and far away in England. The girls and I lived in the grounds of the, by then closed, only Jewish Public School in the country (US readers Public School obscurely means Private School in England). Carmel College. There was a house called ‘Wall House’ which was perfectly invisible except for a front door with a letter box. In it lived a very very grand Russian lady of advancing years who wore astonishing velvet and brocade ensembles which cascaded to her ankles and conjured up vivid reminders of an age so bygone that I never knew it. She invited me to take tea. I was seated on a glamorous and very upright silk upholstered chair. She called out in Russian and clapped her jewelled hands smartly whereupon and instantly in the corner of the room a shabby bundle of cloth shifted revealing a remarkably decrepit and faintly moth-eaten man. He bowed and moved into the kitchen from whence he returned after a pause during which she and I continued a rather formal and resolutely non-probing conversation, bearing a silver tray complete with very ornate fine porcelain teapot and guilded and delicately painted teacups with their dainty matching plates on which were slices of terrifically inebriated fruit cake. He served us sombrely and then went back to his corner, disappearing like the Psammead into his quicksand of sheets. I suppose he had been with her all his life. The world is full of surprises and some of them are quite uncomfortable.
Anyhow, there was a statuesque Russian lady for many years in Marcolès. Hold that thought. Particularly the height. Because the other curiosity hidden behind the disgusting veneer is a series of oval holes. You might remember there is one that casts down on the stairwell from the privy giving it an air of anything but privacy. But there are more. Some have been boarded over and some stuffed with newspaper. But why? They are reminiscent of those holes you stick your head through on an English Pier and have your photo taken as a pin-up girl in an eye popping bikini or a muscle-bound man in striped bathers. The odd thing is the height of them. If you wanted to stick your head through them you would have to be a VERY lanky lady indeed. I imagine they were crude internal portholes to let some light into the middle of the house but I rather like the image of a Frenchman on stilts, complete with compulsary moustache peering through various cut-out holes just for laughs.
PS: When I arrived back after taking the very last load of the offending clip-together laminate flooring to the dump (and we have kept a plank as a grim reminder of the way it was) the elderly couple opposite were arriving back from a toddle out. They meandered across the street and asked me how it was going. Oh, really good I regailed them. We’re progressing well with the clear out of all the dreadful things – can you imagine, he had cheap laminate flooring on the walls. Lunacy – he was clearly mad. They nodded in that slightly absent way that polite people have and took their leave. As they opened their front door, I swear I could see laminate flooring on …. the walls. Just another oh bugger moment and a further reminder to self to keep thy big mouth shut.
The bonus is entirely to indulge my mother and the child-me that she raised – she used to play Johnny Mathis to us on the gramaphone in the drawing room on rainy days amongst so many other 45s of Unicorns and Doctor Kildaire, Nellie the Elephant and Dusty Springfield and Ferry Cross the Mersey and Doris Day, as we puzzled our puzzles, stuck our fuzzy felt and honed the skills required for taking tea with grand ancient Russian ladies by making our own tea party for the teddy bears. Those halcyon days when I didn’t question her lack of ability to keep a straight line when writing her comments on my report cards or the milk order because she was just simply ‘My Mummy’ ….
If you enjoyed this you might like to catch up on previous installments by typing Coup de Coeur into the search box in the side bar. The more the merrier at this party – so much more fun that way.
An occasionally regular series charting a seemingly endless search for the perfect maison familiale. You can catch up on previous installments by typing Vendre dit into the search box if you are so inclined.
I have to take a deep breath and cast my musty mind back more than three years for this part three. And there are, appropriately three parts as it turns out.
The Mairie, Champs sur Tarentaine-Marchal
It was the beginning of Winter and we had flown from London for a fleeting visit to this place that had welded itself to our collective heart. We had much to do. We were to be interviewed by the Mayor of Champs sur Tarentaine to see if he would agree to marry us. He did. So we then booked lunch at the very nice restaurant just outside the village. It was a lovely lunch, followed by an in depth discussion of the arrangements for our Wedding Feast. To take place in the garden (under the pretty, rustic awnings if it was too cool or too sunny) and to consist of a wonderful array of food (mostly what Madame dictated since our English notions of Wedding Fayre where frightfully outré) with delicious wines aplenty and beautifully decorated tables. We sat and chatted with our very good friends and discussed the invitations which she insisted on designing for us and he explained the etiquette of the vin d’honneur mariage at the Mairie immediately following the ceremony. All was glowing rosily in our world. And fired up with our joie de vivre and the sure knowledge that we were entirely unassailable in our love-bubble we rang an immobilier in Aurillac and asked if we might see a house he had on his books. He was called Eric.
We arrived at Eric’s office and Eric was no-where to be seen. We took our seats and I glanced at my mobile. A hysterical note from a daughter indicated that I needed to send her money. I did this instantly and seemlessly on my iPhone and congratulated myself on my epic grasp of modern technology. Whilst cursing the downside of raising children on ones own which is that when they are in need there is only one point on their compass. We waited some more and eventually Eric surfaced. During the wait, his glossy assistant had gleaned that we wanted somewhere with a decent patch of land but that it would be a maison secondaire so needed to be reasonably practical until we collectively retired. She had punched this information emphatically into her computer and not for the first time in my life, I marvelled at how it can possibly be that some women are able to maintain a perfect manicure and type whilst I need never bother with polish unless chipped and distressed become nail haute couture. We christened Eric, Eric the Fish on account of the Monty Python sketch in which Michael Palin wants to buy a licence for his pet fish, Eric and the shop-keeper is also called Eric. He’s an halibut. Eric lives with a dog called Eric and a cat called Eric. And so it goes on. Anyway Eric the Fish bid us follow him out of town to view the house.
Now it should be noted that our friend Eric (not Eric the Fish) is a motor cycle cop. In fact he is known as Eric Motard. That means Eric the bike-cop. Eric had assessed the house we were going to see with a single sentence – ‘I know that place … I often have a speed trap almost outside it’. Eric is a hero. Later, at our wedding all my daughter’s will fall in love with him and announce he is a French Bruce Willis. Eric keeps tropical fish.
We sped out of town behind Eric the Fish. Two Brains was tangibly agitated behind the wheel, convinced that we were going to meet Eric Motard and his speed gun at any moment. Imagine the embarrassment. Our Gendarme friend Philippe (you may recall that all our friends are called Philippe. Except Eric) had the ultimate embarassment when he was stopped for speeding in his own village. Twice. At the time he was the station sergeant. On a particularly nasty bend we spied the house and beyond it a layby into which Eric the Fish shimmy-ed adroitly somehow avoiding a speeding truck bearing down the road in the other direction. We creeped and peeped, took a deep breath and our lives in our hands and turned across the road to a white-faced halt next to the immobilier. He waved nonchalantly at the house and said there is a garage underneath but it would be madness to park in it given that this is a route nationale and known for it’s accidents. He didn’t seem to think this fact might in any way put us off. We walked down the road, backs glued to the bank and staring death in the face. We dutifully entered the house which was clearly a maison secondaire for a family with teenaged or young adult children who took advantage of the skiing just up the road at le Lioran. The basement garage was full of snow boards and skis and it was all very sportif. The house itself was an interesting patchwork of purples, puces, violent ocres and magentas interspersed with the occasional and presumably strategic accent piece in lime green or scarlet. Not to my personal taste but châcun a son gout. It has to be said that the views out over the valley were beyond magnificent notwithstanding the road between house and view. But we explained to Eric le poisson that really we couldn’t live on such a fast highway, even if it was not our fixed abode. That we have five young adult children and the idea of letting them stay, go into town for a night out and negotiate the road in high spirits was unbearable and that as nice as the elevated garden was you would need to have your mountain goat Boy Scout or Girl Guide badge to get up and down those steps in the dark. He suggested we follow him back to his office to discuss. We should have sneaked off into the yonder the other way but being polite and English we did as bidden.
He said he had two houses that were just the ticket. No pictures of either because they were new on the market but we would be foolish to let the opportunity slip. We went and had lunch in the town. Aurillac is the prefecture or capitol of Cantal and very lovely …. small with only 28,000 population but beautifully formed and very artsy with strong bias to music and in particular, jazz . We chose a restaurant quite badly and managed to attract an extraordinarily surly waitress who told us the menu du jour was finished and then proceeded to serve it up to several tables who came in after us but what she did deign to serve us was very nice if twice the price. It happens.
Back at Chez le Fish promptly at 2:15 we set off and I could not begin to tell you where we went. It seemed to take an age but eventually we arrived in a tiny hamlet. We entered a small, rather dark house midst an explanation that it came with about a hectare of land on which the owner kept a couple of goats a cow and some poultry. And possibly a horse and donkey. How you can have any misunderstanding over the latter, I silently pondered as we walked straight into the main piece to be greeted nervously by a stooped very elderly man standing pointedly poking a weak and clearly freshly laid fire. ‘I did as you said’ he said to The Fish and to us ‘The fire makes the house much nicer. That’s what he told me’. The Fish (who it should be noted looked rather uncomfortable and had some sort of coughing siezure as this nugget was being imparted) had clearly told him that if he lit the fire all of a sudden the house would take on fresh and beguiling personality and we would be possessed of a passion to buy it. I’m surprised he hadn’t told the poor soul to bake a fresh loaf and grind some coffee beans as well. It was a sorry little place. Jaded and neglected like it’s sweet old owner. He told me he was a widower. His wife had died a little while ago and he had continued as best he could (I don’t know how old he was but I would guess either side of eighty) but now all he wanted to do was move to Toulouse where his son and daughter were. They were too busy to come and see him but if he could sell, he could move near them and then he would be happy. I walked quietly round the house and said his wife had pretty things. She did. Very few but they were pretty. He said he missed her still but it was time to move because he now struggled to cope and it was a long way for his daughter and son to come and see him. And they were busy. He told me this over and over as though by referencing them enough times he might magic them up. If we’d had the money we would have bought the house then and there and driven him to Toulouse and found him a place where he could be warm and cosy. Near to other elderly people and people that might deign to talk to him. I was not convinced his daughter and son would have time to spend time with him even if he was next door but maybe I surmise unjustly. I felt hollow when we left because I knew we could not and would not buy it and I wished I hadn’t put him to the trouble of lighting his fire fruitlessly. As I’m very afraid it will always be.
The Fish then escorted us to his other gem. The most bizarre house I had ever been inside though now I know it is not at all out of the ordinary. Being a beady eyed bird, I spotted instantly that this was a décès (deceased estate) the clue being in the assertively placed post-it notes in sundry lurid colours on all the furniture and fittings presumably being code for the various beneficiary’s spoils. The house was positively cavernous. It was reached by a path that a toddler could traverse in two steps. In other words it fronted directly onto the road – it was in a small and rather disconcertingly quiet village. It had a sort of brooding silence. We imagined that the garden which was about an acre must all be to the rear. It felt rather Kafkaesque inside. Arrow straight corridors with several doors either side all opening onto seemingly identical rooms. Square, wallpapered by a latterday lunatic and gloomy. Obscurely it had two kitchens one on either side of the corridor. Both completely kitted out identically to include twin past-their-sell-by and quite possibly extremely dangerous old cooker, huge chipped enamel sinks with rusting taps, ancient cupboards (not lovely antique cupboards you understand, more hoary unsalvagable cupboards) bow fronted vintage refrigerators each big enough to store a body and formica topped metal table and chairs. This mysterious arrangement was not explained and we were too polite to ask … We were not, however, too polite to ask to see the garden. ‘Certainly’ said The Fish. ‘Hop in your car and follow me’. ‘No. The garden. We just wanted to see the garden.’ ‘Yes – it’s about a kilometre down the road.’ This was our first experience of a phenomena which is commonplace in France … terrain non attenant where you have land but it doesn’t join your house. Sometimes it’s in several different locations but none of them ajoin, let alone surround, your house. I had visions of lovely leisurely lunches on a long table under the trees and wondered at the sheer logistics of planning such a meal in your two kitchens. In fairness, the reception rooms though sombre would wake up and smile with some care and there was a sweet little parlour that would make a cosy office and there was running water though it was unclear whether hot water was a consideration. But no cellar which is odd in such a once grandiose place. And to take coffee in the garden would require a thermos flask and to take a glass of wine would require a cool-bag. Or alternatively a footman in full livery, obviously, to push his trolley down the road and convince the invisible neighbours that the English really are all mad dogs.
PS: When we returned to the restaurant that was catering for our wedding party less than a month before our big day Madame had never seen us before in her life and had no record nor recollection of taking the booking AND unfortunately was now catering for a bit of a do – another do taking the entire restaurant and garden and couldn’t possibly fit us in. That she also lost the Mayor’s dinner booking for himself and several other frightfully important local dignitaries did nothing to salve the sore. But that is another story ….
By the way, the title is Aramis to Athos and d’Artagnan in Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ because this is a story of three and I have always rather agreed with him.
And another thing: When I am writing stories of houses for sale I think it a matter of decency not to feature photos of the actual places. Therefore, the pictures illustrating each story are just that – illustrative. All taken by me, of course. However, as it happens one of the buildings featured in Aurillac is for sale … it’s an ancient presbeterie and has a beautiful courtyard garden probably best suited to conversion as flats. In case you were interested in a bit of light property development in le Cantal ….
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
And so it came to pass that we had an almost cleaned out interior. One little thing kept bugging me, though. As hard as I tried, the floorboards in the grenier just refused to be clean. I swept them, mopped them, swept them some more and mopped them again and again but everytime I thought I had banished their dusty film so it came back. The thing is this. Sometimes even I can be a teeny bit unobservant. The me, who prides herself on having the most point perfect eye for detail can fail to see what is slapping me in the face with a leather glove and blinding me with with an eye-achingly bright light like a Gestapo Officer up close and far too personal. On the other hand it took The Myopic Brains moments to notice when he arrived on one of his famed flying visits from wherever on the planet he was saving stardust. ‘See those holes, darling? The holes in the charpente which you have so eloquently been likening to the ‘Bottled Spider’ image that Antony Sher conjured when playing Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. Those holes, my love – they are worm holes.’ This was an epic ‘oh bugger’ moment for us both. Up to that point we had been convinced that the house had no major issues and that it was simply a matter of stripping back and restoring and that the most taxing issue would be where to place the bathrooms.
Woodworm is a serious issue in any culture. I have yet to recover from my mother breaking the news to me at 23 that she had burned my doll’s house (a 1920s treasure that was home to my imagination during the decades of growing up and which I had assumed would house my dreams forever). It took me years to forgive her so perhaps those that are devotees of the idea of Karma are now looking sagely (and, perchance a little self-righteously) at me and quietly explaining that she, karma, is a bitch and will always eventually, and probably when you are least expecting it, bite you in the bum. In France the major issue is Capricorne or Longihorne as some will confusingly call it. Like turmites they will strip a house systematically and thoroughly and are impossible to get rid of. If you are infested with Capricornes there is no choice but to have all the woodwork replaced and even then, like all good terminators there is a good chance that they’ll be back. They are lethal. My husband is a Capricorn.
We called in to see the mayor. He pulled his phone from his pocket, twirled it idly in his fingers like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’, performed some sort of sleight of hand scroll of the screen with the finesse of a seasoned poker player and found us two numbers. Writing them extra carefully and clearly he looked at us with the heaviest and gravest of expressions and wished us heartfelt good luck and godspeed in our quest to get a verdict. His last words echoed in our agitated minds … ‘l hope for your sakes it is not capricorne for these would indeed be a severe catastrophe’.
Bug Man Number One was more local being only 30 km away rather than the 180 km trek that Bug Man Number Two would have to make and by good fortune he was able to rendez-vous at the house in two days time. We barely slept for those two days …. I convinced myself that if I had had the sense to recognise what the issue was a little earlier with my mop now propped in the corner eyeing me mornfully, all would have been well but since I was wearing the dunce hat and sitting on the naughty chair I had condemned the house and it would probably have to be burned like my dolls house. And the village would hate me because it is their emblem, their symbol. In fact any entente cordiale between Britain and France (tenuous at the best of times, let’s face it) would crumble and there would be friendly and then unfriendly fire. Probably a war. There was little doubt in my mind that I had brought about The Apocolypse. And it was all my fault. And The Bean. She’d been there all the time and she hadn’t done anything to help. If in doubt, blame the dog. So I did. But it didn’t help. My guilt was my straight jacket. I couldn’t eat nor sleep and consequently when we arrived for the meeting on a freezing cold February morning I had all the aesthetic appeal of mouldy baguette slowly decaying in a murky puddle. In truth distinctly less appeal than that. And a stomach that was growling and gurgling like a Grizzly Bear that has indulged in a barrel of rotten apples because although I was not hungry, it was.
The man in question let’s call him M. le Terminateur had the air of an unsuccessful travelling purveyor of quackery in the wildwest. Wire-rimmed spectacles, slightly stooped and with a long face that was, well … long. Slightly melancholy. And he carried a bag – bigger and baggier than a briefcase out of which he produced an archaic looking probe. He advanced up the two flights of stairs brandishing the prod before him, his expression the epitome of ideal had he been an undertaker – sombre, dignified, subdued. He spied the offending beam instantly and with no clues from Two Brains who was seemingly glued to his side, and poked it with aplomb. He then peered solomnly at the beam and turned to walk back downstairs. The twittering fool that was me almost fell backwards down the stairs in my haste to get out of his hallowed way. I managed to effect a perfect study of a grovelling buffoon as I silently implored him to give us good news. We gathered before him, we mottly three, The Bean, having grasped the severity of the situation, showed solidarity by prancing on her hind legs and adopting her most appealing expression. He delved again into the inky depths of his cavenous bag bringing out a piece of paper and a pencil. On it he wrote one word and then handed the pencil to my husband to write down our details which he already had but just to be certain, you understand, so that he could send us an estimate. It was only after he had left as stealthily as he had arrived (and after a total of less than 10 minutes in our house) that I dared to gibber at my husband to let me see the paper. The word written was Vrillette. I had no idea what it meant but I knew it didn’t spell Capricorne. I knew for now, my beloved is the only Capricorn of note in my life. And the weight of my guilt felt less tortuous. For now. I am a mother so I am, of course, hard-wired to guilt but nothing so extreme as the fear of having to torch the jewel of the village need trouble me for the moment.
Of course that was not the end of the story. When the estimate came through it was with an instruction that all the floor boards must be lifted leaving only a few to walk on. The men would come and inject the charpente and spray the poutres (beams) only when the space was prepared. We spent a total of 3 days working tirelessly together to get the rest of the do-it-yourself insulation out … I’d done my best but it was not good enough – the whole area had to be dust free. We wrenched up floor boards, saving what we could and ditching the worst and relaid them in a rather fetching patchwork but without nails which are themselves beautiful – long, crude, simple and mostly unsalvagable – to hold them. We brushed and we hoovered using the little lightweight upright vacuum cleaner that my mother had given me the year before. She is a little eccentric it must be said, and when I mentioned that I had left my wonderful hospital-quality, state of-the-art, all singing and frankly nifty dancing model with a friend in England and it felt a little churlish to ask for it back, she revealed that she had 4 hoovers. All brand new. None used because she also has a cleaning lady who has her own hoover. I chose a sweet little bagless number and drove back to France triumphant with her nestled in the boot of the car. This diminutive lightweight beauty has become one of my best friends. I feel very attached to her – she makes life so much more bearable not having to sweep all the time. A girl can only take so much Cinderella chimera after all. You will understand, therefore that my marriage nearly ended when it appeared that the brave little beast had died in action due to the sheer mass of dirt she was being expected to inhale. HB² had no comprehension that he had murdered my precious. Anthropomorphising household equipment is not in his remit. Fortunately both for him and for our marriage she had simply had a perfectly understandable hot flush but my grief did prompt him to go out and buy a cheap, cheerful and above all mighty macho and potent sucker-upper. My Little Engine That Could is back in the civilised confines of our appartment leaving Wild Bill to rule the wilds of Marcolès. And rule he did – spotless, dirtless and dustless in no time at all. We were ready for the coming of the bug-men.
We waited and waited. We waited some more. And then we waited. It is an often commented on fact that in France, if you aren’t actually breathing down the neck of the workman of choice they will repeatedly find other things to occupy them. These can be other money earning jobs or just propping up the bar and putting the commune to rights with their cronies depending on opportunity and how they are feeling that day. You do have to be prepared to get a little stern. Actually in our case, we have not experienced this tendency but it appeared that we were breaking our duck with this fellow. So we got stern (or to be accurate, HB² got stern and I supported him with dignity on the side-lines) and eventually the news came through that phase one was complete. I should explain that we leave a key with my heart-throb, M. le Maire so that our absence is not an issue if there is a need to access the house. Since vrillettes are all but invisible to the naked eye, I will just have to take M. le Terminateur’s good word that the operation had been a success. But we do now sport plastic tubes that look a little like rawl plugs all over the charpente. They are ugly and I dislike them and we will try and find a way to disguise them but I am not so churlish as to be ungrateful for the fact that they have saved the roof. That is good fortune indeed.
Whilst the coy little waiting game was being played out I continued to clear through the remaining cupboards. Nothing could have prepared me for finding a gun. I’m very scared of guns. I think that is a sensible approach. My good sense told me not to touch it – I became convinced that it was loaded and might simply go off at any moment. So there it stayed and I avoided going into the room it was in until The Brains returned some weeks later. He assured me that Wyatt Earp himself, Doc Holliday indeed and least of all Marshall Will Kane could do no damage with it because, darling, it is a toy. Which you will see from the photograph is obvious. I fear the delirium that our predecessor suffered from may be contagious.
PS: The title could only be stolen from Spike Milligan:
Today I saw a little worm
wriggling on his belly.
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
and see what’s on the telly
PPS: If you want to catch up on the previous instalments, simply type Coup de Coeur into the search box on the top of the right hand column and it will find them for you. Clever stuff so clearly not made by me!