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Posts from the ‘Rural France’ Category

Marcolès Monday (Coup de Cœur – Part Seven): Anyone Who Had A Heart

Surprise! Surprise! It’s Monday and I am keeping the promise I made a couple of weeks ago to devote each start of the week day to bringing you stories of our quite possibly never ending renovation project in le Cantal deep in la vraie France profonde. Until I moved to the US to spend the whole of 2016 this had been an occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..

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Actually, it’s no surprise because I do always keep my promises and I never ever say anything I don’t mean. Voilà! This tiny billet-doux is simply an introduction to the continued saga. For the rest of the week I will post a previous installment a day, bringing us neatly to next Monday when I can pick up the reins and relight the fire which I know must be burning with heated anticipation in your bellies at the thought of this cornucopia of delight even before the Christmas fun frolics and fantastic festival of over-indulgence really starts. Just call me a truly big-hearted girl as I scatter my glitter freely and seemingly without restraint.

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Rules of engagement …. this is NOT a renovation blog. Although I have renovated several old properties including an Art Deco flat in south west London, a 17th Century cottage with Georgian facade in Oxfordshire, a 19th century village shop, a Victorian farmhouse in South West Ireland and, my personal triumph, a 1950 ex-council house which I sold to a couple who were disappointed that I had replaced the windows, so convinced were they that they were buying a vintage farm cottage. Trust me the original metal cased local authority standard issue frames were not pretty and, have further faith, the Georgian-bar, double glazed lovelies were not only elegant but equally importantly stopped the rampant leakage of heat from every aperture. There is a crucial link between all those projects and the jobs I later undertook when running my own business helping others maximise the potential of their property for sale. I have worked always with budgets ranging from microscopic to frankly non-existent. So non-existent, in fact, were the finances of most of my clients that I failed to follow through on collecting my own fees. I felt their pain you see, when the sale of their home was prompted, as it so often is, by one of the fabled real estate ‘Three D’s’ – Divorce, Death, Debt. They smiled, I starved … it’s a theme in my life.

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The same funding method applies to our place in Southern France. It is a labour of love and sweat and pain and tears and virtually no money and so far we have been at it for more than three years. Apart from a pot of gold which is basically … well basically just a pot. Peer closely into this vessel and you will see cobwebs, dust, possibly even fossilized spiders and other unidentified creatures and once bobbish bits, but you will spy not so much as a farthing in hard cash and no flexible plastic friend either. Apart from this entirely useless and not even decorative receptacle, there is the issue of HB² – this is ‘The Husband with Two Brains. My husband for the avoidance of doubt. He and his brains are mostly to be found flitting all over the planet doing oversized brain things with astrophysics and radio-astronomy but he’s a rare sighting in France. Those who have experienced trying to undertake a project that then reveals itself to be an increasingly major spiraling upwards to a breathtakingly vast project, from afar with no budget to pay others, will surely sympathise. Of course, I am in France and originally and until this year the apartment we rented was 2 hours North of the house. Now I live in Grenoble and I am more like 6 or 7 hours East. That and the fact that there are things that I am simply not physcially strong enough to sensibly tackle. I’m always looking for sneaky tricks to make myself a littler slenderer but squished by falling masonory is a little extreme, I rather feel. It means that I only do the things I can do and presently I visit about once every 5 weeks. There is a reason for the cadence. If you are good and behave very very (and indeed very) well, I might be persuaded to share the logic.

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So here’s the nub. I’m not here to advise or pose as an expert. What I do is tell stories and the Marcolès stories are intended above all things to be entertaining. As you read the stories, you need to bear in mind that I am writing retrospectively … that we agreed to buy La Maison Carrée (The Square House) in 2013 but didn’t take ownership for a year and it was a further 9 months before we got the keys; that the house is considered the jewel of a very tiny and perfectly formed medieval ‘city’ due to its being the oldest building in town and that we consider ourselves custodians of it for our lifetime.. By the way, technically for reasons I may explain in a post it is a City not a Village despite having a head-count of less than 500 inhabitants. For us the town and their sensibilities are paramount. Is it fay to feel that we were meant to have this house? Crucially considering that we bought it even though it sits literally plumb centre of the cité when our natural habitat, given our collective inner hermit would be an uninhabited island or at the very least the middle of entirely no-where, high up in the elements where you feel nature and have no choice but to go with her …. I jest. Sort of. No really, I’m joking. I think. Actually, face facts, I am decidedly not joking.

I SO enjoy your comments and take gently delivered and kindly meant advice well and to heart so please do join in and spritz the commentary with your own wisdom and experience but don’t expect me to be the very brilliant Gill at Côte et Campagne who IS an expert and is renovating on a tiny to nonexistent budget and who, with the stoic, good-natured support of her partner Trev has achieved nothing short of a miracle of a rescue of a small village house. Gill is an artist by training and it shows, Trev has taught himself to be a true artisan with all things wood. Take a look …. they humble me. They also renovate and repurpose furniture and other things …. I dream of the day when I am ready to go into a buying spree of frenzied proportions in their shop. Be still my frantically beating heart.

And on that note … overcome with my own ability to create such gleaming lustre as I sprinkle my fairy dust and strive to make the world a shinier place, I will leave you to prepare yourselves for my bounteous gift of 6 episodes in 6 days of ‘Coup de Couer’ – the story of a couple driven by love, insanity and absolute and mostly unswerving certainty that it truly and really WILL be beautiful. Eventually.

A demain mes amies ….

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PS: The title is a Cilla Black Song ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ …. the aforementioned Gill will understand why I picked Cilla. Apart from the reason that must be hers to share, she (Gill, not the late and hugely lamented Cilla) and I share a notion that houses have spirits, souls if you will, and sometimes those pesky buildings are reluctant to cooperate – in fact sometimes they can be downright unhelpful and even entirely resistant to the tender efforts of well-meaning rescuers. Thoroughly stubborn and suspicious …. these are not love-affairs for the light-hearted, in fact sometimes one feels that the house would rather lie and decay into the ground than accept the attentions of it’s enthusiastically amorous new owners …. here’s Cilla at her finest as your bonus:

Anyone Who Hard A Heart

Anyone who ever loved, could look at me
And know that I love you
Anyone who ever dreamed, could look at me
And know I dream of you
Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
What am I to do

Every time you go away, I always say
This time it’s goodbye, dear
Loving you the way I do
I take you back, without you I’d die dear
Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
What am I to do

Knowing I love you so
Anyone who had a heart
Would take me in his arms and love me, too
You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me,
Like you hurt me and be so untrue
Anyone who had a heart would love me too
Anyone who had a heart would surely
Take me in his arms and always love me
Why won’t y

DionneWarwick

I want to be alone

Of all the surprises blithely thrown in my path in le Cantal, one of the most profound is le Monastère Orthodoxe Znaménié.  The mountains and plateau Cézallier are France at her deepest and most hidden.  These days entirely agricultural, lightly peppered with tiny villages and  the odd slumbering ghost town clinging vainly to a long forgotten once-upon-a-past prosperity, the hills sweep rather than peak up to around 1400 metres (around 4,600 feet).  Not the highest and not the  alpiest, pretty, school-child picturey of mountains, they are nevertheless uncompromising and can quickly turn from humble to harsh.  Open to the elements, the snows stick around many a year into May.  Fog and mist swirl and swathe often and disorientate rapidly.  And it boasts some of the stormiest and most petulant weather  in Western Europe with a positively rude statistic for lightning.  It takes a particular sort of personality to thrive in the elements that are randomly chucked about here.

Into this landscape in 1988 wandered a murmur of Nuns desperately seeking solitude and a place that nurtured their meditational, peaceful lifestyle.  They set about converting a barn into a Monastery.  Yes, I too would say convent but they insist it is a Monastery and I have never knowingly tangled with a Nun and shan’t change that habit now.  Monastery then.  They spent 6 years converting the barn into their vision.  With their own hands and with the help of benificent neighbours.  Most of the work, I am assured by the locals was done by the nuns and to be frank it takes my breath away.  They based their vision on the Monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece.  I have seen those gleaming immense edifices from a bobbing boat on an azure sea.  I am a woman and am not allowed to set foot on the Athos Peninsular.  Neither, despite their pious status, would these nuns.  Men who are not of the specific cloth worn by the Russian or Greek Orthodox Churches have to request a formal invitation and it typically takes many years presumably in the vague hope that the aforementioned non-sacred men will get bored and go about their secular business and not further bother the mysterious monkdoms.  I have been fascinated and a little obsessed with the notion of what actually goes on there for years.  Ever since I visited the trident shaped headlands on my big fat Greek holidays several years ago.  As a result my delight at finding a tiny replica on my doorstep was practically fizz-banging like my own private lightning storm.  What I learned about these women (whom I literally stumbled upon one fine Spring day about two years ago) was that they do everything that they can, themselves.  That they ask for the most minimal of help.  That they grow most of what they eat themselves which is by no means easy at 1200 metres altitude, that they keep bees and that they sell small amounts of bee products, jams and other produce to raise the necessary cash to pay for the things they absolutely can’t do themselves.  A fellow from whom we considered buying a house, widowed and wanting to move away from the place he had shared with his true love, told me that the dentist in the local town treats the nuns free of charge and that the state of their teeth is quite deplorable.  They don’t run to colgate and dental floss on their tiny budget.  Solitary they are.  Solitary and selfish to the extent that they have dropped out of society in order to spend their days in contemplation, meditation and prayer.  But harmless.  Not effecting anyone bady.  If you would like to visit, you can on certain days.  Free of charge.

Here in Grenoble there is a problem with homelessness (les sans abris).  It is a problem replicated across France and beyond, certainly to my own country of birth.  It is a cause close to my heart.  I have been within the most uncomfortably close sight of my own prospective homelessness with three small children and a baby in my life.  I believe it is a fundemental human right to know where you are going to lay your head at night and that the place should not be under a cardboard quilt and the cold blanket of starlight. In this city we have an excellent charitable network that tries to ensure the right help is delivered to the people who need it.  I have put my name on the list to volunteer to help but so far I have not been needed.  There are many willing supporters who go out with food, blankets, clothing and a compassionate ear.  The aim is to get all those suffering on the streets into accommodation.  We have an extremely liberal mayor.  It is high on his agenda.

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Enter the dragon.  The dragon in this case has foul breath and speaks with forked tongue.  Les faux abris, I have taken to calling them.  The network of drop-outs (often not French but rather from other countries in Europe) who congregate, doss around and beg.  You can recognise them from the signature can of beer and dogs and glossy mobile phone.    Because dogs make people more willing to give money.   The dogs are passed around one motley hive to another, the beers are clutched proprietorially and not shared with anyone. This causes my highly charged social conscience and, I would argue, innate sence of decency to short-circuit.  I want to help everyone.  I want everyone to have a home.  But these people do.  They are, of course squatters.  Twenty year old me would have said ‘so what?’ but fifty-something year old me is peturbed.  You see, unlike the nuns high up in the unforgiving landscape of Cantal, unlike the genuine fallen on hard times not of their own making homeless, these people have chosen to drop out and scavenge.  And it urks me greatly.  I see people abused when they walk past and refuse to put money in the cups thrust unrelentingly and indeed agressively in their faces.  I see people dropping money to avoid being threatened.  I see the dogs that are the bait for their hook left to lie  alone on traffic islands in the hope that someone will take pity and give money to feed them.  Puppies included.

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Recently, I staggered onto the tram laden with heavy shopping from the supermarket.  Behind me teetered a lady of extremely advanced years.  I would suggest certainly north of her mid 80s and possibly more.  Wearing a shabby tailored coat that  she had visibly worn these past many decades, carrying a once decent now decaying vinyl handbag and with her shoes reminiscent of those my mother wore when I was a child long ago and far away, her hair neatly pinned and a slick of vivid geranium lipstick setting off her freshly powdered cheeks, she was clearly chary of  walking past the vast Mastive held on a chain by a youngish woman wearing the uniform of her tribe.  A tribe that perports to be anachistic and yet is recognisable by it’s hermogenous clothing.  The outcasts are infact their own incasts.  With her, a man brandishing his upmarket handheld device.  It was the arrogance and smugness that made me want to smack them both in the teeth.  The old lady, complete with stick I should add, was ignored.  They did not offer to give up the seat that the young woman was fatly occupying, they did not move out of the way, they did not offer to help her to an empty seat which meant traversing the impressively muscular dog who I am sure was beautifully mannered but was overwhelming in his bulk and would surely present an alarming prospect to a tiny trim person slowly desiccating with age.  She was stoic.  Uncomplaining.  As are, I have noticed all the elderly who are passively bullied by those that prefer not to offer a seat to one whose need is greater.  I found her a seat and she thanked me in a whisper.  I did not need thanks.  It was a simple act of decency.

Later that same day, I met the same disparate group on a different tram.  I pondered why a young woman should need such a large dog.  Indeed when one is living the simple life in a city why one would want to be encumbered by a canine at all.  The answer did not need to blow in the wind, the answer was screaming in my ears.  She peddles stuff, nasty chemical mind bending stuff …. I’m beedy eyed and not, as my children will vouch from bitter experience, naïve to the goings on that they as youngsters thought their generation had copyright on.  Of course, we ourselves invented it all a generation before, it having been invented by our parents generation, and so on ad tedium backwards.

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And this is my conundrum.  I am all for people living as they choose to.  I am no preacher but I do exhort freedom as a fundemental of human rights and choice must surely be at the root of that tree.   I’m a bit of a hermit, I may well be on the strange end of odd in many ways, but I am innocuous.  I like to help where I can but if I want to opt out completely then I will do so and not get in anyone’s way.  The Nuns high up in the Cézallier are all but self-sufficient and what little money they need they earn by their own toil.  The real homeless, in this city, not in all as I am painfully mindful, are helped.  Their stories will penetrate all but the most frigid of hearts.  Many are addicts.  Addiction is not and never should be considered a crime.  Helping people into that dark place IS and always should be.

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PS:  The quote is of course Greta Garbo.  She said it in ‘Grand Hotel’ and the line came to define her.  In fact, much later, she would protest that she had never said it outside of the movie and that what she had actually said was ‘I want to be let alone’ … splitting hairs one might observe but I can sympathise with the irritation at being eternally defined by one tiny soundbite.  And I can empathise with the need to be alone, the desire for me-time and the idea of being a recluse.  Nonetheless, I will not be taking Holy Orders in pursuit of that particular happiness.

Here is Greta as your bonus.  The young and extraordinarily talented woman providing the soundtrack to the montage fell prey to addiction ….

Long Time Passing

Some time ago, when we were fledgling lovers, existing in the protective bubble reserved for the newly amorous,  Two Brains brought me to a place called Vassieux-en-Vercors.  The drive up from Grenoble is littered with sombre reminders of a time, only decades ago when the spectacular landscape played backdrop for the most merciless realities of a world at war – we stopped at various places, never idly.  Here it is impossible to forget how cruel and cold humanity can be.   Here no bubble is sufficient to protect you from nauseating emotions wrought from the darkest, starkest of realites.

Vassieux sits on the Drôme side of le Vercors.  The Vercors is nicknamed ‘the flat iron’ for a reason … it is a high plateau with higher peaks frilling it, thrilling visitors  and chilling those that know the secrets that it keeps.  Mountains tend to do that.  They look, are, so magnificent but they are unyielding, unforgiving places by default without being privy and council to the Résistance called le maquis in a brutal global war.  Huge harsh lumps they are – they don’t actually ask for delicate humans to impinge on them but sometimes flimsy mortals have no choice.

The war, that war of 1939-45 invited such necessity.  Men whose country was overtaken by a callous regime they did not invite nor condone, who wanted it freed and reverted to the values it held dear, who did not want the uneasy treaty of Vichy but rather actual and total freedom, those men, those women for can we just agree that men and women are equally people, those people formed the Résistance.  And the ones who under that same treaty were told they had to go and do work in Germany.  STO it was called (Service de Travail Obligatoire … I don’t honestly think you need my translation) – those young men, they said non and they joined the Résistance.

What happened in 1944 was disgraceful.  Not simply by dint of the deeds of the enemy (German in this case) but actually and tragically because of the behavior of the high fallutin’ tootin’ allied commanders.  Another time.  Really another time I will feel fully equipped to tell the story.  In the meantime all you need take to heart is that this village, and all the others barborously besieged, is a defenseless duck sitting pretty on a flat plane.  That it can’t have been difficult to overpower it, however hard les maquis tried to fend  off the merciless assault is painfully, graphically clear.  And there are references to the places they fought  and fell all around and not just here, throughout this great monolith known as le Vercors.  Villages burned,  Villagers slain. Men rounded up and annihilated standing proud against cold walls in the place they called home because it was.  Their home.    It is not pretty.  Not at all.  It is tough beyond the bounds of that pathetically soft word.  And then you visit the Nécropole and you  walk, sapped of strength, sorrow wrenching bile from your throat among the bare little crosses, pure white standing proud in pristine gravel and you pathetically collapse as though a razor has slashed your heart because you are facing a family – a grandmother, her two daughters and all the children of one of them including a baby lying side by side, their lives extinguished mercilessly.   Every single one of them.   See it, feel it and tell me, tell me not to weep.

My husband  had the immense privilige of spending time some years ago, with Robert Favier (known as Mattres) who was created Chevalier de Légion d’Honneur having been a high ranking leader in the Maquis.  Monsieur Favier,  died in 2010 aged 96.  HB2 also met Joseph la Picirella who founded the original museum in Vassieux.  He made it because he could and because no-one should forget what happened.  Really no-one should.  He also died in 2010 aged 85, he was little more than a boy, therefore, when he joined the Maquis.  His museum is still there where he built it, just behind the church.  The French Government built another museum, the official museum, which sits perched 400 metres above the village and is of deliberately austere design.

To walk the walk I walked, in the footsteps of those braver than brave maquis was humbling.  A privilege beyond privilege.  And here are some photos.  Because my words are meagre and poor.  I will leave you to imagine it for yourself or simply to enjoy the beauty of the place.  The choice is yours.  Mine is not to tell people what to do, simply to bring you to a place that savages my senses and of which, when I am confident that my thoughts and facts are accurate and well-founded, I will write in greater depth.

PS:  When you have digested the place, when you have taken it all in your sturdy stride, you might answer me a simple question.  What did we learn?  Because from where I am standing, sitting, lying down on a bed of flowers, nothing has changed.   When will we learn to leave well alone?  When will greed release it’s toxic grip on humanity?  When?  Can I have it now please?   Because little girls picking flowers should NOT be perpetuating a scenario that ends in their husbands pushing up daisies for the sake of yet another bloody war.  When will we ever learn?

I’ll be your dog!

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.

Half Baked In Paradise

We walk.  The Bean and me and HB2, when he is here makes three.  There are 340 marked PR (petit randonnees) across le Cantal and I have set myself the ideal of walking all of them.  In keeping with the rest of France these are marked walks, mostly circular and varying in length and difficulty.  The simple colour coding system tells you if it is easy (blue), longer and more difficult (yellow) or very long and varying in difficulty (green).  One weekend recently we decided to drive to the far north east of the departement (a drive of about 1.5 hours) and do a nice long green walk.  The duration was estimated as 4.75 hours for the 14.5 km.  We packed a picnic of cheese and bread and tomatos and set off.  The day was glorious – sunny, hot and with a fair scattering of the fluffiest white clouds dancing…

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Only those who attempt the absurd

The first time I saw this place, I was on honeymoon three years ago (or thereabouts).  The place my husband had chosen for this special moment is owned by the most delightful of men.

A self-proclaimed Royalist, he is married to a psychiatrist who practices her head shrinking in Marseilles some 5 hours south-east of his bijou chateau in Aurillac.  They speak every day, and lovingly, by phone and sometimes he goes to see her and sometimes she comes to see him.  At the time we had no concept that the next 2 ½ years would see us in the same tub.  The mere notion would have seemed absurd.

 A man of short stature and with magnificent, almost Dali-esque, waxed moustachios he is quite clearly Hercules Poirot’s long-lost, should be discovered twin, separated at birth.  He is positively a mine of information, a historian and a trawler of knowledge with that sponge-like ability to soak up every last teeny drop.  Rather like a human hoover, he vacuums up all the   specks of material in his path, then assimilates them, files them according to relevance in the boggling laberynth that is a mind and brings them forth at the precise moment of crowning relevance.  And with quiet aplomb.   Like nurturing a perfect fruit to pluck and present it at it’s precise moment of optimum ripeness.  His great joy, therefore, apart from providing an impeccable interlude for his guests, cooking delicious local recipes from local ingredients and sharing, free of charge the contents of his not insignificant cellar, is to impart tips and advice and to guide his guests to even greater enjoyment of what is  already a perfect break.  Never to debate or undermine, he coaxes your holiday spirit out of hiding, assesses it with the expert eye of the head of a great household assessing the crystal and silver and porcelain laid for a banquet and only then makes suggestions which are as carefully and thoughtfully shared as a glorious vintage from a gleaming decanter and your breath baits as you wait for the treasure to be revealed.  For treasure it will surely be.  He is quite one of the finest  souls I have ever encountered in a lifetime studded with fine souls.   The most absurd thing, or perhaps the most sensible, is that he does not advertise his wares at all on the interweb … like the wild mushrooms he served to us in a perfectly executed sauce, you have to know where to seek him and sometimes I wonder if we dreamed him into being in our collective-romantic.

On our second morning he suggested we visit Rocamadour.  It is just over the border in the Lot departement.  Although it attracts tourists like a swarm of bees to a pollen filled flower-garden I would recommend anyone in the faintest locale to go.  It quite literally is built onto the rock and cleaves and clings to it with majestic defiance.   That it is medieval and that they managed to believe and then achieve this is beyond my puny imagination ….

Since that entrancing start to our married life, I have been back to Rocamadour just once with my eldest daughter on a blistering hot July day when even the rocks seemed to be clammy with salt perspiration rather than the usual cooling dampness of vast stones.  I took this picture that day and it seems to fit the weekly photo challenge this week titled ‘Look Up’ and as ever you will find all the other laudable entries here.

The staircase screams to me of Escher and so I snipped him for my title:

‘Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.  I think it’s in my basement – I’ll go upstairs and check’ – M.C Escher

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PS:  Last year we revisited the chateau we had stayed in for those first enchanted days of our marriage, armed with a book.  It was a copy of my late and always lamented father-in-laws opus‘The French Cheese Book’ because our host had lit up at the unimagined absurdity of an Englishman taking the time to journey throughout France discovering  well in excess of 700 cheeses, but more than that to have spoken to multitudes of makers,  farmers,  dairy owners, researched the history of the terroirs, their people and their production and produced a work of such magnitude about FRENCH cheese one of which,  by the way is a delectable little chêvre disc made in Rocamadour.  These two men come in many ways of a common mold and it seemed entirely reasonable to give him a copy of the book, inscribed with our thanks for making the first days of our married journey so magical.  He regarded it with the exact same reverence with which I look upon him.

Two Lymes and a Lemon

In the words of Cyril Raymond to Celia Johnson at the end of ‘Brief Encounter’  ‘you’ve been a long, long way away’ – I won’t flatter myself with his next line ‘thank you for coming back to me’ but I have been a long way away and I’m very much afraid that I HAVE come back to you ….

It’s been a bit of a saga so here is a précis before I dive back into stories of house hunts and refurbishments and hikes (though one does figure here) and generally half-baked meanderings.

Here goes:

  1. June 17th The Two Brained one is diagnosed with Lyme Disease after breaking out in purple patches all over his normally unblemished body.
  2. June 19th He whisks me by circuitous route, lest I guess the ultimate destination, to France.  Grenoble to be precise.  You may remember I have a particular affection for Grenoble
  3. June 21st To the courthouse …. I’m not in the dock and neither is he but I do have another installment for my book ‘The Lying Cheating Lives of Others’ and there will be more of that in later blog posts – a road yet to be trodden but one that I think y’all might enjoy
  4. June 22nd – home to our little nest in Northern Cantal for our Wedding Anniversary.  There is nothing nicer than to be in the village we were married in three years ago drinking a toast ‘à la notre’ in jolly nice French champagne
  5. June 23rd – up early and on the road to Marcolès to find out what progress on the house.   There is progress but it would be wrong of me to spoil the surprise so I will leave you in suspenders til the next installment
  6. June 25th – back to Lyon to drop off car and take a flight.  HB² is confident that a) I love surprises so will not look at my ticket b) I can’t actually see it without my glasses and c) I’m so excited that I will miss the only announcement for our flight.  Therefore I board a plane not knowing where I am bound
  7. June 26th – I wake up in Edinburgh, a city I know quite well, where my grandmother was married in 1918 and where I hounded my elder brother when he was doing his PhD because I could and mainly because he had a ready supply of male friends for the 18 year old me to make cow-eyes at.
  8. June 27th – I pick up a call from my vet who is boarding The Bean.  The words ‘there is nothing to worry about, but ….’ instantly make me worried.  A lot worried.  Because it turns out that The Small But Feisty one has also got Lyme.  Be still my pounding heart.  At least she is in the right place and they say she is responding well to treatment.
  9. June 29th – We decide to walk up Arthur’s Seat.  This is an extinct volcano within the city.  My aforementioned and extremely long-suffering brother lived in a very pretty district at it’s foot and we walked up often.  Actually he used to run it.  At his wedding his best man’s speech began ‘I first suspected that my flatmate might be mad when he asked the way to Arthur’s Seat for a run on a bitterly cold, wet and windy day…. I showed him and some time later I realised it wasn’t a case of might be mad,  he clearly was mad as he set off down the lane in a storm with a rucksack full of boulders on his back’.  He is still that same animal.  In those days there were a few walkers some with dogs and that was about it.  Today it teems with tourists making their way up, taking selfies and mostly wearing entirely unsuitable footwear (flip flops, fashion sandals, even the odd pair of heels) for what is a moderate hike up hill-paths rather than pavements.  We took the road less travelled and benefited from stunning views unencumbered by the masses.  The German girls hogging the peak did move over when I utilised my famed loud and I don’t care who knows it, voice and we duly stood for a moment or two before setting off down again.  All was well and I was lost in thought (mostly quite bitchy thoughts about the unsuitable nature of other people’s footwear) until almost at the bottom, not on a remotely steep bit, I slipped on shail and heard an audible crack.  The crack was nothing to my blood-curdling bellows and the air took on a blue hue as I cursed my way thorugh the early moments of what is actually a severe high ankle sprain coupled with 90% tear to the anterior calf muscle.  I must thank the lovely man from Canada who stopped to help The Brains wrestle me to my feet, the equally lovely café who served delectable lime and coconut cake (I was in shock – I needed sugar) and the wonderful nurse in Minor Injuries at the Western General Hospital.  Later as I limped into a taxi my husband asked how I felt about the last bit of his surprise – did I think I could manage it.  Could I?  I would walk through the fires of a spewing live volcano to do what he had in mind.
  10. June 30th – Two trains to Liverpool for lunch with youngest daughter and two more to Oxford to stay two nights with my mother who had one last surprise – my younger brother flown in from Bahrain to spend an evening with his big sister.   In  life, the real luxuries are the little things.  The thoughtfulness of my husband, the opportunity to see some of my family.  Secrets and lies can be quite beautiful – four of the most precious people in my world kept them and there is no sin in that.
  11. July 2nd – we collect the delighted but subdued tiny dog from her Boarding Vet.  She has anti-biotics and is making some progress.  Lyme Disease is a nasty nasty thing – sometimes, it isn’t easy being Bean.

So there you have it Two Lymes and a Lemon.  Here are some nice pictures from the Scottish leg of my odyssey and afterwards I will treat you to a PS:

The promised and entirely necessary PS:  Yesterday, I visited my lovely Cambridge doctor for a formal verdict on my leg.  He sympathised with Two Brains having to live with with a caged and beligerent tigress with cabin fever and asked how he is doing (he is a specialist in infectious diseases so had been asked for his opinion when The Brains presented with what appeared to be Lyme).  He commented that it was remarkable that HB² had been running the morning of his diagnosis  with Lyme.  I explained that our daughters and others are convinced he is, in fact, one of The  Men in Black.  The doctor seemed spookily content to agree ….

And for those unfamiliar with the achingly heartrending last scene of ‘Brief Encounter’ – here it is:

In dulci jubilo

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.

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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.

Coup de Cœur – Part Six: Do you see what I see?

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.

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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. 

Vendre dit vendredit: Part Three – The merit of all things consists in their difficulty

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ….

Of human bondage

The strapline to this blog is ‘a rootless writer takes root’.  I have moved house a lot in my adult life, it is true.  25 times in 28 years.  Not any sort of plan just circumstance conspiring.  Another day.  The story will reveal itself when it is ready.  That’s how it works – no planning just a perculation that results in a story being ready for the telling.

And this story is prêt à porter … instantly packaged and ready to take off the shelf.  In our search for our forever house, we have looked at many.  And there are almost as many stories.  But this one.  This one refuses to wait.

The house, a Manor built in the early 19th century with a bit over a half hectare of land (not really enough for us but the house looked so pretty that we were enticed) is not far from here and enjoys the most stunning views across to the Monts du Cantal and the Massif de Sancy.  It has a rudely large barn and a lovely orangery.  It also has a pigonniere.  Pigonniere (dove houses) are always described as ‘jolie’ here and I have no idea why.  The house belongs to an elderly man (now in his 90s) and his daughter who lives abroad.  This is normal under French law.  When his wife died he will have inherited 2/3 and his daughter 1/3.  If there were 2 children the house would be divided into 4, 3 into 5, 4 into 6 and so on – 2 parts for the surviving spouse and  the children get 1 part each.  It is a simple equation and in theory protects the living parent for the rest of their days ensuring they always have a home.  This particular old fellow is in nursing care (we know not, and it is irrelevant, where) and the daughter wants to sell.  All reasonable.  And the house is lovely.  Very, very tired but lovely.  A huge main room, a panelled dining room and the oddest kitchen with a vaulted, but quite low, ceiling and no windows giving the air of cooking in a submarine.   Despite finding various stuffed birds and animals stashed in a walk-in cupboard the size of a small bedroom, I was already planning the alterations to make it our home.  Upstairs many bedrooms – small, as is the norm in these kinds of houses, and a variety of particularly eccentric bathrooms.  This is France.  Taking the many littles and turning them into fewer biggers and a bit of judicious plumbing – hey presto bongo – a very acceptable upstairs.  Up again to a cavenous attic – big enough to accommodate a small commune.  There lay a dead Coal Tit, its small body swollen as a precursor to dessiccation, wings outstretched and its tiny head held proudly stiff as though stoically resisting the inevitable.  I have a life-long fear of dead birds – the result of Jane, our au pair telling me there was something magical waiting for me if I walked the length of a hosepipe which stretched from the drawing room windows round the entire house to the kitchen window, at the age of 4.  I was always inquisitive and gullible.  Still am.  Anyhow, the something magical was actually a dead blackbird, his startled eye shining accusingly at me and his beak so yellow that I found it difficult to eat an egg yolk for several weeks to come lest I find it crunchily lurking there.  But I did not let this poor departed bird put me off.  We were really rather warm to the house.

We remained warm as we descended to the cellar through a tiny door, down treachorous steps to find what appeared to be The Bismarck skulking there.  Closer examination revealed this rusted monster to be a boiler.  How on earth they got it down there I do not know. The cellars are large, I grant you but the access would challenge a Hobbit. I can only  deduce that it was a case of building the boat in the basement but it is clear that it will be far more difficult to remove.  As one surely must.  I should tell you that the cobwebs in this house are lustrous.  The Bismarck has not sailed for some time.

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Outside I wondered idly why the lawns had been ploughed to provide not one but 4 large potagers (vegetable plots) growing all manner of good things but when we walked into the palatial barn, the triple- decker hutches housing high rise bunnies began to give a clue.  And the three sheep in their little field eyeing us with a mixture of fascination and fear.  And the back yard with its pretty old stone dove-cot and its large population of hens, turkeys, ducks and guinea foul plus plentiful pretty, and no doubt, tasty pigeons.  The wall of freezers gave another clue.  A clue to a small-holding that seemed to be at odds with the lovely fountain, stone sculptures and other accoutrements of manorial life.  It was like walking into a French version of ‘The Good Life’*  – Tom and Barbara having annexed Margo and Jerry when their backs were turned.   As we walked back towards the orangery, I noticed a car draw in and park next to the gate house (part of the purchase).  A woman snuck out and dove deftly into the door of the cottage.  This acted as a cue for the agent to casually  tell us that the dependance was inhabited.  We looked in the orangery and I gleefully imagined not just working in there but also the fact that my sculling boat would rack easily in such a large space.  In passing, I asked the Two Brained one what the agent had said … I thought I had misheard.  My French improves but his is far better than me after nearly 35 years living here part and full time.  I hadn’t.  The gate house is inhabited.  And on further questioning, not by transient tennants.

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The (I must say at this point, very nice and very professional) immobiier asked if we wanted to see the gate house.  He couched his question with the clear intent of assuring us  that we didn’t.  We did.  It’s a whole house not a bike shed and represents a rather significant part of the deal.  We had naively imagined that we could produce a passive income from this little house as a periodic rental either for holidays or for locals, the rental market being quite buoyant in our area.  And certainly that when family and friends came to stay that it would provide independent living quarters which can be a blessing for all concerned.  We asked him who the people were.  And he told us (rather too quickly and smoothly) that they were the retainers for the old man.  Living free of charge in return for looking after the house and grounds.  For the past 40 years.  We entered their little home and everything changed.  This little huddle of humanity – an elderly couple, their daughter and her child were terrified.  They were silently pleading with us not just to like the house but mostly to like them.  I have seldom felt so helpless – all of a sudden I am faced with a family whose future could depend on my kindness because I have the wherewithal to buy this place.  They were clearly upset that their dogs were letting the side down by barking.   I made a fuss of the animals and told them not to worry.  That I love dogs.  The Bean was barking from the car which reassured them that I did not speak with a forked tongue but rather that I really do love canines.  Even if I utter with a curious foreign accent and knit my words together clumsily.  I dutifully looked around this humble, humble place – a poky main room, a tiny snug, a bathroom with a leaking roof and upstairs three squished bedrooms, each conjoined.  All tidied and polished for me to see.  The old man showed me a mirror he had stuck to the wall in the bathroom to improve it – one of those frameless affairs with double sided tape on their back.  It was oval.  The old lady took pains to tell me that they look after the house very well.  There is no heating in the house.  Just a wood stove.  It is simple to the point of being primitive and it is clear that they support themselves by selling a rabbit or a chicken here, some leeks and a pumpkin there.  All under the wire – we had noted that the sheep were not ear-tagged as is compulsary in all EU countries, not just in France.  But it was the fear in their eyes. The burning desire to make a good impression on us.  Us?  Who the hell are we?  Unwitting people who might take their destiny in our hands.  They have the knowledge that the house sale will almost certainly mean the end of their everything.  Tick tock goes the clock.  The agent was happy to tell us that we could get rid of them with six months notice.  I thanked them for being so kind as to let me see their home.  Their home.  I told them it was lovely, I made more fuss of the dogs and I walked away barely able to see let alone speak.  But speak we did.  Briefly to the agent.  And we left.  Neither of us spoke, though, much on the way home.  Neither of us spoke much over lunch, or supper.  Later we went to bed and it turned out neither of us slept much either, if at all.

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We turned over and over and over again with possibilities to make it work.  Could we let them stay and let them have a bit of the land to keep producing an income?  Not really – the land is not enough for us to do what we want (we being in the lofty position of being able to choose to do something we want to do) let alone sustaining a small family as well with no other income.  And they would  need all of it to provide a living.  That is clearly demonstrated now.  Could we find them somewhere else to live?  Well probably, but it would be a flat in the town and they would have no income and they have been used to the life of small-holders.  And where would we put our sheep – theirs are filling the little field – three is as many as that little patch would take.  Could we keep them on as our retainers?  Hardly – we are really not people who see ourselves as feudal lairds even assuming we could sustain them as well as  ourselves on retirement income which in the cold light of day, we can’t.  My brain became tireder and tireder as it tried to work a solution.   I felt about as useful as the little blown body of the Tit in the attic.  Simultaneously the might of the combined brains of my husband were doing the same and getting just as far.  Between us we managed the square root of nothing at all.  And all the while I kept seeing their frightened faces.  I can still see them.  Beyond anxiety.  Backs against the wall, desperate in their naivety to please the potential buyer because surely then the status quo will be retained.

We will not be buying the house but someone will.  Someone who will, in all likelyhood, exercise the right to kick them out.  And the old man who started this whole sad story with his good intentions will wither away none the wiser.  Forty years ago did he think of the possibiity that he would be an addled old man dependent on care that can’t be found in the idyll that he created as his maison secondaire?  Of course not.  It seemed like a really good idea to allow a young man and his wife to come and take care of everything in return for a house.  Forty years later, he exists somewhere, tended to by nurses, never imagining that the pair that kept things tickety-boo in his Cantal retreat are facing hell at the end of their lives.  Samuel Johnson is often misquoted as saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Misquote or not, in this case it fits.  Horribly it fits.

On the whole I would rather have lived the life I have lived, as disrupted as it has been, than the life they lived in their innocent content, assuming it was forever whilst all the while the clock was tick, tick, ticking away to the inevitable moment when the bomb goes off and in their twilight, they are evicted because they have no human rights at all.  I may have been rootless but at least I have had some control over where I floated.  These people are about to have their roots ripped out of the ground and they have no more defence than a dandelion in a border of roses.

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PS:  The title is a shameless steal from Somerset Maugham and is chosen simply as a question of the words fitting my text rather than any similarity to the context of his great novel.

*For non-British readers, ‘The Good Life’ was called ‘Good Neighbors’ in the USA.